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News and Information on Birding Sites Throughout Thailand and the Andaman

Any birdwatcher will agree that the two most essential pieces of equipment any aspiring birder must possess are a pair of binoculars and a field identification guide. Birding without a field guide is like driving in an unknown region without a map or GPS. Field guides offer a wealth of information at our fingertips, allowing us to identify the birds we are looking at within minutes.

While it is possible to make a trip without an identification guide, few birders will be able to fully enjoy the experience, especially if they are birding in a new country full of unfamiliar sounds and species.

Thailand is home to hundreds of bird species. There are currently 1,017 species recorded in Thailand (as of January, 2013) and while some are globetrotters which can be found all throughout the world (like the Eurasian Hoopoe for example) most are specialties restricted to this region of the world. So unless you are an ornithological genius, you’d probably do well to obtain a regional identification guide for personal use.

Our first field guide review analyzes the book which started it all in Thailand. It was the first standard bird identification guide written in English and sold millions of copies throughout the world. It helped spawn an interest in birdwatching among the Thai people and encouraged countless thousands of foreigners to visit the kingdom. It was the foremost field guide on the market for over a decade and rightfully earned its name as the “Bible of the Thai Birdwatcher”.

May I present “A Guide to Birds of Thailand” by Dr. Boonsong Lekagul and Mr. Phillip D. Round. (1991)

About the Book

The book was the brainchild of Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, Thailand’s foremost conversationalist and co-author of many marvelous literary works such as the highly-acclaimed Mammals of Thailand (Jeffrey McNeely, Boonsong Lekagul, 1977).

A former hunting enthusiast, Dr. Boonsong claimed to have fallen in love with nature through the scope of his hunting rifle. It wasn’t long before he gave up his ambition for hunting and turned his attention towards the conservation of Thailand’s rapidly declining forests and wildlife.

As a member of Thailand’s elite upper class, Dr. Boonsong used his connections within the government to lobby for the conservation of wildlife and the establishment of national parks. His efforts paid off, resulting in the National Park Act of 1961 and the declaration of Khao Yai as Thailand’s first National Park in the same year.

An avid birdwatcher himself, Dr. Boonsong started the Bangkok Bird Club in 1962. The name was later changed to the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST).

Prior to this edition, two other field guides of the same title were published by the famed doctor. The first book, illustrated and written solely by Dr. Boonsong, was published in 1968. It was tremendous achievement, despite the fact that almost all of the pictures were printed in grayscale making it difficult to use in the field. The second edition, coauthored by Mr. Edward Cronin Jr., was published in 1974 and featured 827 species in full color plates. All illustrations in the book were also hand-drawn by Dr. Boonsong himself, with Mr. Edward Cronin Jr. providing the text.

The third edition was the final English version of the title and by far the most complete. The text was written by Mr. Phillip Round, a professor at Mahidol University and widely regarded as the foremost expert on avian fauna in the country. The book details 915 species, all of which are illustrated in full color illustrations by two excellent wildlife artists, Mr. Kamol Komolphalin and Mr. Mongkol Wongkalasin. Both artists are Thai and well-known within the birdwatching community.

This identification book filled the need for a regional field guide and was a step towards Dr. Boonsong’s dream of producing a Thai-language field guide for the local people. Sadly, Dr. Boonsong would never see his project through to competition as he passed away after a prolonged illness in February, 1992.

In 2007, in celebration of what would have been his centennial year, the Lekagul family finally fulfilled Dr. Boonsong’s dream of publishing the first-ever Thai edition of this field guide. The book was updated with new text but featured the same artwork as found the 1991 English edition.

A review of the book will be posted in the future.

A Guide to Birds of Thailand was well received throughout the world and enjoyed a long period of popularity among the birding community. Sadly, despite its success and the huge demand on the market for an updated version, it was the last English edition of the series to be printed. In the years following the death of Dr. Boonsong, a number of legal battles over the copyrights to the artwork and texts forced some key members to withdraw their support to the project, effectively eliminating any chances of an updated edition of the guide being produced in the future.

The book has been out of print for a number of years. A number of shops still have a small stock available on hand, with the largest selection being sold online, mostly by collectors or second-hand book owners.

The Upsides

– Following the original layout of Dr. Boonsong’s previous field guides, the book has a spread of all the main bird families on the first page. This “Quick Reference” has proven to be an ingenious idea and works far better than an index, enabling birders to quickly find the information they seek without too much hassle. In the field, this concept is extremely practical and one which I hope future regional field guides will implement as well.

– The first 35 pages are packed with information regarding birding in the country. This wealth of knowledge is invaluable in preparing birders in regards to what to expect when looking for birds in Thailand. It was a welcome source of input for me when I first took up birdwatching back in 1999 and went in line with Dr. Boonsong’s goal of inspiring Thai people to take up birdwatching as a hobby.

– The book is well-constructed. The hard case binding was built to take a beating and performs well in the field. I bought my first copy in 1999 and have had it rebound twice. The glossy pages repel dust, dirt and small amounts of water and are thick enough to where they don’t tear easily, traits which any field guide should have.

– Having a field guide which offers locality maps is a major plus. Like the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”, I find looking at a distribution map so much easier than reading it in a paragraph or text box. It makes the guide very easy to use and is a practical concept which is very appreciated by birders.

– This is the only guide on the market which offers information on the status of the bird in the country. Knowing if a bird is uncommon, locally common or rare may seem trivial to some, but to others (myself included) it plays a very important part in the identification of a species. Having this bit of information also helps to ascertain which birds I should include in a report and which birds to leave out.

– Color plates are not just nice to have; they are essential to any field guide. Some of the other guides available at the time lacked color plates on all illustrations, giving this book a bigger edge on the market.

– Small lines point to important identification aspects on the illustrations; this is a very helpful feature and one which helps me to remember what to look for when attempting to identify a certain species.

The Downsides

– The illustrations were very good for most of the species. In fact, some of them I find to be superior to those done by professional wildlife artists in other more modern field guides. However, some of them could be improved; for example, the illustration of the Wrinkled Hornbill looks nothing like the bird in real life.

Other birders complain that there aren’t enough illustrations for some species in the book. Some subspecies (which have now been split into separate species) are not illustrated while some, like the raptor plates, are poorly represented.

– The lack of an update to this excellent work is by far the biggest downside. The market is ripe for an upgrade and there just aren’t enough books in print to meet the demand nowadays. This book was a local product, written, illustrated, produced and printed in Thailand by people in the country, and this factor is a reason why it is so loved by birders throughout the world.

In a Nutshell

A Guide to Birds of Thailand is a remarkable book and one which will not be retired for a long time. Despite recent upgrades to other titles on the market, I still find myself turning back to this book for information. It’s extremely outdated and in desperate need of an upgrade that will never come, but the illustrations and detailed information on each species is something I will always appreciate in the field.

Whenever I find myself saddled with questions when flipping though my copy of Robson’s 2000 Field Guide to Birds of Thailand, I always turn to my old Guide to Birds of Thailand as a cross reference. It has served me well and will continue to remain in my birding backpack as an essential part of my  birding gear for years to come.

Useful Links

Look for A Guide to the Birds of Thailand on Amazon (Lekagul and Round, 1990)
Look for Bird Guide of Thailand on Amazon (Lekagul and Cronin, 1974)
Nick Upton’s Review of A Guide to the Birds of Thailand on thaibirding.com

Categories: Gear Reviews

2 Responses so far.

  1. tublis says:

    I would like to buy the guide to birds of Thailand

  2. Ike says:

    That will be tough! I’d suggest looking on Amazon, or write a note to the BCST office in Bangkok and see if they know where you can find one selling locally.
    Another spot is the bookmarket at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. I can guarantee you will find one there but the price may be a little steep.
    -Happy hunting!

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