Khao Nor Chuchi is known by birders all around the world as the home of the critically-endangered Gurneys Pitta. The bird ranks as the most sought-after bird in the kingdom and helps make KNCC one of the most popular birding destinations in the south.
The history of Khao Nor Chuchi is a depressing tale, filled with pain and turmoil. What was once a healthy, vibrant rainforest less than 70 years ago has been reduced to tiny patches of forest surrounded by a sea of rubber and oil palm plantation. These remaining patches of forests are supposed to be under the protection of the Royal Forestry Department but are to this very day under threat from encroachment, logging, and hunting and are facing a slow and needlessly painful demise.
KNCC was a stronghold for the communist insurgency back in the late 1970’s. After the threat of communism abated, the land was cleared to make way for coffee, rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite the logging ban of 1989, land is still to this day being cleared by plantation owners, especially in areas which lie adjacent to the protected forest.
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This satelite image shows the remaining forests bordering the Paen Din Samer Plateau. The checkered squares are patches of plantation which have replaced the lowland forest.
Back in the late 1980’s, Mr. Phillip Round and Mr. Uthai Treesucon devoted a fair amount of time into documenting the site under the Khao Nor Chuchi Lowland Forest Project, sponsored by DANCED (Danish Cooperation for Environment and Development) . Their painstaking work resulted in the formation of a trail network which allowed access into the rich interior of the forest. Sadly, much of the hard work was wasted as the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) failed to provide the proper maintenance to insure that the trails and sign posts stayed in good shape.
Needless to say, the only trails which are legible today are the ones used by the locals who enter the protected forest to take fruits, rattan or bamboo to use for commercial gain, or to hunt small mammals and birds which can be used to feed a family for dinner. Persecution of wildlife and poaching has led to the extripation of Great Argus, Great Hornbill, Large Green Pigeon and other larger and more conspicuous birds. More recent additions to the list of the deceased include Bat Hawk, Malaysian Rail Babbler and Malaysian Honeyguide. All the large mammals were hunted out between 1975 – 1985, although there are a few species left in the remote corners of the region. Smaller mammals are still commonly encountered but with the household slingshot providing a recreational pastime for the idle youth, it is only a matter of time before all the squirrels and other rodents get routed out as well.
Despite the downsides, KNCC is still overflowing with fabulous bird species. The site is home to over 320 species of birds, putting it just below megasites such as Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary and Krung Ching Waterfall. Much of the forest and plantation southeast of KNCC along the Paen Din Samer Plateau has not yet been fully surveyed and has the potential to add more species to the already burgeoning list.
KNCC is offered protection under the Royal Forestry Act and has been granted status as a wildlife sanctuary.
Every birder who goes to KNCC usually has one target in mind: to twtich the highly endangered Gurney’s Pitta. While I cannot disagree with that proposition, I’d still like to point out that the forests of KNCC are still extremely rich in bird life, much of which is easily overlooked in the craze to find Gurneys. After all, there are over 320 species recorded from this wildlife sanctuary, making it an extremely rich birding location for the south.
I’d strongly recommend that one spends at least two days at this site, in order to make the trip worthwhile and increase their chances of seeing more species.
The beauty of birding in KNCC is that one can find good birds at all times of the day. The early morning is best spent along the trails, after which one can take a walk over to the Crystal Pond (know to locals as Sa Morakot) for a cool, refreshing dip and continue birding around the pool during the heat of the day when the birds come down to drink or bathe. In fact, the pool is one of the easiest places to find Green Broadbill, a cute little bird which is easily lost among the foliage.
A peek into what this site has to offer is more than mouth-watering to any tropical birding enthusiast: eight species of owl, two species of frogmouth, four species of trogon, ten species of kingfisher, six varieties of hornbill, five species of broadbill and five species of pitta, including Giant and the famed Gurneys, two exceeding hard-to-find species. Other interesting species include the Large Wren Babbler, Pin-tailed Parrotfinch, White bellied Munia, White headed Munia and Black Magpie.
While the Gurney’s Pitta ranks as the most-wanted pitta on the list, many birders are equally happy to encounter the Banded Pitta, rightfully crowned King of the Forest. The wet season is often a miserable time for birding in KNCC, but during this time the Hooded and Blue winged Pitta are very common and can easily be lured in with the aid of a playback. Birders inquiring about the Giant Pitta should lay their hopes to rest; while some birders have claimed to have heard the bird calling from deep within the forest, the fact of the matter is that this bird has not been seen for many years and is most likely tottering on the brink of extinction.
If there is any family of birds KNCC is known for (other than the pittas) it would have to be babblers. While most are not colorful or attractive, they are excellent songsters and are surprisingly vocal for being such skulking creatures. Chestnut winged Babbler, Abbot’s Babbler, Short tailed Babbler and Pin striped Tit-Babbler are among the most commonly encountered species, found along forest edges, roadsides and even in plantations. The forest trails are home to Scaly Crowned Babbler, Black capped Babbler, Chestnut rumped Babbler, Grey headed Babbler and Ferruginous Babbler, although it will take a lot of patience to find all these species in a single outing.
Many seasoned birdwatchers take pride in seeking out these elusive and shy specimen, and some find the task equally daunting to that of staking out the Gurney’s Pitta.
Barbets are another popular family of birds which are more often heard than seen. Golden Whiskered Barbet, Red throated Barbet and Blue eared Barbet are the commonly encountered species while the Red Crowned Barbet, a highly endangered and rare specimen, has been found nesting around the forest pools near the crystal pond.
Raptors are also a well-liked feature of KNCC, with a number of forest species present. Jerdon’s Baza, Blyth’s Hawk Eagle and Wallace’s Hawk Eagle are among the specials encountered, along with Rufous bellied Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and Changeable Hawk Eagle. In the winter and migrating months, Japanese Sparrowhawk, Black Baza, Chinese Sparrowhawk and Crested honey Buzzard are also encountered. Many of these raptors are best seen around mid-morning, after birds have warmed up and are ready to catch the rising currents.
After a long day of birding, many birdwatchers love to spend their evenings probing the plantations and forests in search of the treasures the darkness brings. KNCC is a goldmine for owls, with Brown Wood Owl, Spotted Wood Owl, Bay Owl, Sunda Scops Owl, Collared Scops Owl and Brown Hawk-Owl present in the area. White fronted Scops Owl was once known from these parts but has since disapeared, most likely never to be seen again.
Both Javan and Gould’s Frogmouths are also present in the area, with the Javan being found in the lowlands and the Gould’s preferring the forests further up the road towards the plateau. Nightjars are also fairly common, with Large tailed Nightjar, Great eared Nightjar and Grey Nightjar representing the family here.
However, I would like to remind birders that despite the rich bird population here, birding in KNCC can be, at best, an extremely frustrating experience. Many birders complain that KNCC is one of the hardest birding sites in Thailand and rightfully so. With decades of persecution, its easy to see why the birds are so skulking. In addition, the thick foliage can be very problematic when trying to glimpse birds in the treetops and quite often you’ll find that positioning yourself in the right place can be the difference between seeing or missing the bird. -Stand a few steps or even a few inches in the wrong direction and you could be missing out on a lifer for the day.
Birders will find that being familiar with bird calls will greatly increase the chances of finding species, as opposed to relying on movement in canopy. Many birders rely on playback to find their quarry, but I would caution against overuse of this method as it not only puts stress on the bird but can cause them to become unresponsive or worse yet, abandon their territory. With that being said, it is forbidden to use the playback call of Hooded or Gurney’s Pitta when attempting to lure in a Gurney’s.
There are a number of trails which weave through the area. Many birders tend to dive straight into the trails and often emerge hours later, sweaty, exhausted and tired and worst yet, having seen few species of interest. The forest trails are very dense and compact, making it difficult to spot the aboreal or upper canopy feeders.
I have found that birding along the local roads is an easier alternative as many of these roads also cut through patches of forest and birds have no choice but to cross these roads to get from one section of forest to another. The open areas make it easier to spot birds and it tends to be easier on the feet as well.
However, anyone serious out to see Gurney’s Pitta knows that the only way to find this bird is to walk the trails, so I would recommend an equal amount of time be devoted to both options.
There is a wide network of trails which criss-cross throughout the area and navigating through the maze can be a problem, even with the aid of a map. The trails in KNCC are in poor condition and it is very easy to get lost. If in doubt, I’d suggest you try to go back out the same way you came in, otherwise you may find yourself wandering through the forest for quite a few hours!
B – Trail: This trail has earned a reputation as being the second-best place to spot the Gurney’s Pitta ever since the pittas went silent on U-Trail. However, this trail is good for more than just the Gurneys; Banded Pitta, Black Magpie, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher and Ferruginous Babbler are also found in the area. Some birders have even heard the mystic Giant Pitta calling from this area.
Deep down the trail is a good place to find the rare Rufous collared Kingfisher as well.
B-Trail is one of the longest trails in KNCC and crosses a number of streams. Many of the crossings are perilous due to the dilapitated condition of the wooden bridges so be very cautious and remember that the nearest hospital is a good 45-minute drive from this location!
H-Trail: A wide road used by locals, this trail forks out to the right just before the steep incline on the road to Paen Din Samer. This trail is wide with large trees on the edges and is a good place to find all sorts of goodies such as Green Broadbill, Black capped Babbler, Chestnut winged Babbler, Hooded Pitta, Golden whiskered Barbet and Yellow vented Flowerpecker. The trail goes on for quite a distance, is fairly easy on the feet and can be enjoyed at all times of the day.
U-Trail: The notorious home of the Gurney’s Pitta, U-trail passes through a few patches of peat swamp forest and damp gulleys which are popular hangouts for the Gurney’s. However, over the past few years, a number of clueless nature photographers have set up shop along this trail and played the call of the pitta for days on end, hoping to lure the bird in for a photo session. No doubt this trail will continue to be silent as ever in the years to come.
U-trail is still plenty rich with other stocking stuffers, such as Banded Kingfisher, Short tailed Babbler, Scaly crowned Babbler, Blue winged Pitta, Orange breasted Trogon, Crested Jay and Ochraceous Bulbul.
M and N Trails: These trails are more or less access roads used by locals to transport small quantities of local produce through the plantations and forest. There are numerous small patches of forest interspersed throughout the plantations and many good species of birds can be found along the roads with little difficulty. Black and Yellow Broadbill, Grey headed Flycatcher, Moustached Babbler, Crested Jay, Maroon Woodpecker and Crimson Breasted Flowerpecker are a few birds which have been recorded around here.
Sa Morakot and the Crystal Pool (A-Trail): The road to the pool is rich with birds as well, provided birders enter before the place gets bombed out with locals thronging to the watering hole. Yellow bellied Bulbul, Chestnut breasted Malkoha, Chinese Blue Flycatcher, Blue winged Pitta, Abbott’s Babbler and Golden bellied Gerygone are present along with other good birds.
The elevated walkways (D-Trail) weave around the marshy pools and are a good place to look out for raptors taking to flight.
The Crystal Pool at the end of the track seems to attract a fair number of barbets with Red throated and Brown Barbet being the most commonly encountered.
Access road to Paen Din Samer: This road can get pretty busy with large 10-wheel trucks bulldozing down the dirt track spraying dust in every direction. It gets worse in the rainy season when the entire road turns into a river of mud. However, this section of road has proven to be a goldmine for the patient birder, producing sightings of Large Wren Babbler, Banded Broadbill, Dusky Broadbill, Thick billed Spiderhunter, Long billed Spiderhunter, White chested Babbler, Rufous Piculet and Emerald Dove.
Birders who have made it as far as the temporary community of Paen Din Samer have encountered White crowned and Busy Crested Hornbill in trees along the roadside.
A paper copy of a map of the trails can be obtained at the Morakot Resort.
Accommodations and Fees
Most birders prefer to stay at the Morakot Resort when visiting KNCC. The place breathes birding and the staff there are very generous with birding information, including recent sightings and local bird calls and names. They keep a guestbook which contains birding logs from previous visitors. The staff can also arrange a guide for birders who need assistance in the field or those who desperately need to twitch the Gurney’s Pitta off their list.
There are a number of small cottages available for rent and it is recommended to book in advance, especially from February – May when the pitta season is in full swing. The staff can arrange tents with bedding as well for those who are in dire need of a place to stay and are content to sleep in a tent.
The staff also can arrange packed meals for those who intend to spend their entire day cooped up in a hide or wandering through the maze of trails within the wildlife sanctuary.
The Wildlife Sanctuary office is located a few kilometers before the Morakot Resort and does not collect any fees for visitors entering the trails. The DNP does operate a booth at the entrance to the Crystal Pool and will collect a fee of 200 baht for foriegners who wish to visit the pool. Those who want to see the pools or walk down B-trail must therefore get in before the DNP staff arrive at 7 AM if they don’t want to pay the fee.
People who are serious about finding Gurney’s should contact Mr. Yothin Meekaeo, the local authority on Gurney’s and long-time resident of Klong Thom. Mr. Yothin is the local authority on birds in KNCC with decades of experience in the field. Mr. Yothin is an exceptionally gifted guide with a very keen sense of hearing and is perhaps the only guide who can guarantee a sighting of the Gurney’s Pitta during the pitta season.
Mr. Yothin offers full and half day birding tours into KNCC, as well as night tours for those interested in spotting owls and frogmouths.
Directions to Khao Nor Chuchi
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Getting to KNCC is a relatively simple endeavor. From Krabi Municipality, head southwest on Highway 4 towards Trang. Once you reach the town of Klong Thom, turn left and follow the signs which lead to Sa Morakot. All signs are labled in Thai and English and are clearly marked.
The drive takes about 90 minutes from Krabi airport and roughly two hours from Krabi Municipality, if driving within the legal limits.
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This map marks the entrance to some of the trails at KNCC. The Morakot Resort is located a few hundred meters after the southward-facing T-junction, before the entrance to Sa Morakot.
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The same map, this one showing the satelite image of the site. The small patch of blue surrounded by white above the top markers is the Crystal Pool (Sa Morakot) where the D and A-trails are located. Clicking on the blue markers will explain the names of each of the trails.
For those who want in-depth information and complete checklists, I’d recommend you purchase the booklet “Birds of Khao Nor Chuchi”, published by BCST and available at their Bangkok office. The booklet is co-authored by Dr. Phil Round and Mr. Uthai Treesucon, both of whom spent hundreds of hours documenting the site in the late 1980’s while working on the Khao Nor Chuchi Lowland Forest Project. To go the BCST homepage, please click here.
Pros: Only place in the world to find Gurney’s Pitta; still very rich with birdlife and home to over 320 species, some of which are very hard to find elsewhere in the region; free entry and easy access to most trails; safe environment for birdwatching with no leeches or dangerous animals.
Cons: Very difficult to find the Gurney’s Pitta without the help of Mr. Yothin; perhaps the most difficult site for birdwatching in southern Thailand; forest encroachment and hunting still a problem with little enforcement of the law; DNP charges 200 baht for access to A, B and D trails; Crystal Pool overcrowded on most days; local politics and rivalry among guides making the site a sore issue among local birdwatchers.
Rating: – Excellent –
The question here is not whether or not KNCC is worth a visit, but whether or not the birder is up to the challenge. Birders visiting KNCC should not come in expecting to reap themselves a book full of lifers. Compared to other national parks where one may chalk up 40+ species in a morning, KNCC will offer less but what you get will be well worth the time spent.
This page was last updated in October, 2012.