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News and Information on Birding Sites Throughout Thailand and the Andaman

Thailand’s rapid modernization throughout the last half of the 20th century transformed it from a third-world nation into one of the most developed nations in Southeast Asia. However, the transition came at a steep price: since 1940 over 75% of the nations’ forests have been decimated, one species of fish and one mammal have gone extinct and another 77 are featured on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered.

Of the 77 species featured, 11 are birds. A number of resident birds on the list, like the Giant Ibis, have already been declared Extinct in the Wild (EW) by the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand. Some, like the Spoon billed Sandpiper, are wintering migrants which needless to say, may be making their last pilgrimage to the sunny shores of Siam. The most famous of them all is a bird which has recently been upgraded to Endangered from Critically Endangered, although sadly, experts believe the bird’s status will surely be downgraded again within the next ten years. (I’ll give you a clue: it’s a pitta)

– Curious to find out who else made the list? –Then let’s get started.

12. Helmeted Hornbill

Local Status: Uncommon to Rare; Resident
Global Population Estimate: Unknown; rapidly decreasing
Local Population Estimate: Unknown
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Poaching, loss of habitat

The Helmeted Hornbill is the most bizarre hornbill in the world. Its featherless, elongated neck and long central tail streamers give the bird the appearance of a pterodactyl in flight, a sight which would make any patron of the prehistoric pucker with pride. The courtship rituals of the bird are also peculiar, with males engaging in aerial head butting, a ritual shared by no other bird species and utilized only by buffalo and deer during breeding season. For this reason, the casque of the bird is unlike other hornbills in that it is constructed out of solid ivory.

It is for this reason that the bird is being driven to extinction.

Chinese and Japanese artists have carved the casque of this bird for centuries and a recent rise in demand for this artform has driven poachers to massacre these birds by the thousands. The raw ivory nets over $6000 a kilogram and completed works of art can go for double the price.

The birds are rapidly disappearing from forests in Indonesia and Borneo and once stocks in the region are exhausted, experts believe the poachers will turn their eyes to the diminishing populations in Malaysia and Southern Thailand.

In Thailand the hornbills can still be encountered in pristine, unadulterated forests such as Klong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary and Hala Bala in the deep south. Helmeted Hornbills are still fairly easy to find in Thailand and the experience of seeing one in its natural environment is nothing short of exhilarating.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Good

11. Gurney’s Pitta

Local Status: Possibly Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: 15000 +
Local Population Estimate: Less than five
IUCN Red List: Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat

The Gurney’s Pitta is a bird which seems to defy all expert opinion. Let’s hope it can continue to prove us wrong.

Gurney’s Pitta was thought to be endemic to Thailand. Discovered near the end of the 19th century, the bird vanished around the middle of the 20th century and was considered by some to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the late 80’s by Phillip Round and Utai Treesucorn. Despite repeated calls by naturalists and conservationists to allocate suitable lowland habitat for the security of the bird’s future, their pleas fell on deaf ears and the remaining population went into decline. By 2015 the bird was rumored to be Extinct in the Wild.

Thankfully, that’s only half of the story.

A thriving population was discovered in southern Burma during a survey in 2009, with some estimates claiming as many as 20,000 breeding individuals. However, this Jewel of the Forest may not be dancing the nae-nae for too long as its habitat is threatened by government-initiated plans to convert the area into a sea of palm and rubber plantations. Once this plan is enacted, the Gurney’s Pitta will surely be doomed to extinction.

Recently there has been discussion within the Department of National Parks (DNP) to request the Burmese government for captive breeding specimens for release into the wild in Thailand, but many conservationists fear that unless a progress in made in rehabilitating the lowland forest of Khao Nor Chuchi, the plan will predictably end in disaster.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Very Low to impossible

10. White rumped Vulture

Local Status: Possibly Extinct in the Wild; Resident and Winter Visitor
Global Population Estimate: 14000 +
Local Population Estimate: Unknown
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: poisoning by diclofenac, lack of local food sources

The White rumped Vulture was once the most numerous raptor in the world, with a global population estimated at over 80 million individuals. However, the introduction of the veterinary drug Diclofenac into Asia in the 90’s laid waste to nearly 99% of the White rumped Vulture population. The drug, used in cattle, was discontinued in the Indian Subcontinent in 2006 but continues to be a threat to the remaining populations of vultures and large eagles throughout the world.

Despite the substantial number of breeding individuals remaining throughout the world, White rumped Vultures are in decline and the numbers are decreasing by 20-40% with each passing year.

While White rumped Vultures were once common throughout the Thailand, especially in the 60’s and 70’s, the Ministry of Public Health campaigned for local districts and municipalities to clean up their constituencies, including the removal and disposal of livestock carcasses from fields as part of the drive towards modernization. With their food sources eliminated, all vultures in Thailand were simply extirpated from the country.

The last known resident colony on record was located near Pattani a number of decades ago. A local slaughterhouse which disposed of offal and waste at the back of the plant provided a vital lifeline for species. After the factory shut down the birds moved on and have not been seen in the region since.

There are breeding colonies in both Cambodia and Burma and archived records have shown the species do wander into Thailand on occasion, especially in the central region.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Low

9. Red headed Vulture

Local Status: Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: – 10000
Local Population Estimate: Extinct
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: poisoning by diclofenac, poisoning by local poachers

The Red Headed Vulture should not have gone extinct in Thailand. Unlike other vultures which cover thousands of kilometers in search of carrion, the Red headed Vulture inhabits riverine valley and lowland forests and rarely ventures into the open plains.

This mid-sized vulture was once found throughout the country but was quickly extirpated due to intensive logging operations. Its final sanctuary was at Huay Kha Kaeng where a small colony lived undisturbed in their perfect habitat. All seemed well – that is, until the poachers showed up.

The irony of this tale is that the poachers weren’t after the vultures. –In fact they couldn’t have cared less for those ugly, trash-eating birds. They were after someone more valuable: tigers.

The poachers laid out poisoned meat for the tigers in the hopes of killing them naturally and thus avoiding suspicion from the authorities. We are not sure how that plan worked out, but we do know that this action indirectly led to the massacre of the last remaining population of Red necked Vultures in Thailand. None have been seen in the country for a number of decades now.

But the DNP is not giving up that easily.

Talks are underway to request specimens from Cambodia for breeding and release into the wild, most likely at their former haven, Huay Kha Kaeng. Whether or not this will be successful or ethical is another topic and one we will not discuss in this post.

Small colonies of vultures exist in Cambodia and Burma. The largest population of these birds are found in the Indian Subcontinent.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Very Low

8. Christmas Island Frigatebird

Local Status: Rare but Annual Visitor; Migrant
Global Population Estimate: – 5000
Local Population Estimate: – 50 (per year)
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Restricted breeding range, slow reproductive habits

The Christmas Frigatebird is one of three frigates which ply the coastal waters of southern Thailand. Despite being a rare and endangered bird, it is the second most plentiful frigate in the country, with Lesser Frigatebird being the most widespread and Great Frigatebird being the rarest.

Unlike other frigates which are cosmopolitan in nature, the Christmas Frigatebird is endemic to the Christmas Islands of the South Indian Ocean. The size of the population, as well as its restricted breeding range and the fact that it only breeds once every two years have led scientists to list it as Critically Endangered.

The Christmas Frigatebird is most commonly encountered in the Andaman Sea where the birds can be found associating with other frigates. Most birders who want it head over to the rocky outcrop of Koh Bida, south of Phi Phi Island. The resident colony of Lesser Frigatebird usually plays host to a few Christmas Frigatebird and it is not uncommon to encounter all three species in a single outing.

Longtail boats can be chartered from Phi Phi Island for those wishing to see this bird.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Good

7. Slender billed Vulture

Local Status: Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: – 1000
Local Population Estimate: Extinct
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of habitat and food, poisoning by diclofenac

The Slender billed Vulture is the third vulture to make the list. Like the others, it was once a resident of the kingdom before being extirpated. There are many factors which caused the birds to be extirpated, with reasons such as loss of habitat and food sources, persecution as well as the introduction of the drug diclofenac.

Diclofenac is a major player in the decline of this species, wiping out 98% of this bird’s global population in the last few decades.

The only known colony of Slender billed Vultures left in Southeast Asia is found in northern Cambodia. The total population amounts to no more than 100 individuals. Ornithologists believe the reason this colony has survived so far is due to the ban on sales of diclofenac in Cambodia.

Slender billed Vultures can sometimes roam over vast distances in search of carrion. With Cambodia being a neighbor of Thailand, there is a chance that one or two birds may wander into the country from time to time. However, past data has shown that the chances of this happening are very low. Still, this has not kept many birders from hoping for a miracle.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Very Low

6. Spoon billed Sandpiper

Local Status: Rare but Annual Visitor; Migrant
Global Population Estimate: – 1000
Local Population Estimate: – 10 (per year)
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat, hunting

The Spoon billed Sandpiper is arguably the most sought-after bird for birdwatchers visiting Thailand (a title it once shared with the Gurney’s Pitta) and one which experts predict may go extinct in as little as 10 years.

A champion long-distance migrant, the bird spends its summers nesting in the Kamchatka peninsula and wintering in Southeast Asia. Each year the birds fly nearly 10,000 miles round trip from their wintering sites to their breeding grounds and back. Loss of habitat along its migration route and the practice of mist-netting shorebirds for food in rural areas throughout Southeast Asia continues to impact the already fragile global population.

A number of birds show up in Thailand every year, usually at Kok Kham in Samut Sakorn or Pak Talae in Petchaburi. While only one or two birds are most often encountered, the number has risen as high as six in some years. In 2012 one juvenile canceled the migration and spent the entire summer at Pak Talae.

Most birders in search of this bird head over to Pak Talae where the BCST has marked a certain area which the birds tend to frequent. The Spoon billed Sandpiper loves company and is often found in flocks of Red necked Stints. Find the stints and you may get lucky and find yourself a spoonie!

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Good

5. White shouldered Ibis 

Local Status: Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: -500
Local Population Estimate: Extinct
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat

The White Shouldered Ibis is one of four species of ibis on the Thai bird list. It is also one of the largest, second only to the Giant Ibis. Once a resident in the central plains of Thailand, the bird was extirpated during the country’s modernization drive which saw nearly all of the nation’s wetlands converted into farmland or other development. Historically the bird once bred in the country and was even hunted for meat by locals.

The White Shouldered Ibis is found only in Southeast Asia and the bulk of its population resides in Cambodia. Despite annual nesting records, the species’ population is in decline.

Since the bird is not migratory by nature there is little reason to believe the bird will ever be found in Thailand. Likewise, the Department of National Parks does not have a breed-and-release program implemented for this species.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Impossible

4. Baer’s Pochard

Local Status: Rare Visitor; Migrant
Global Population Estimate: – 400
Local Population Estimate: – 5 (per year)
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat, hunting

The Baer’s Pochard is a diving duck which resides in Siberia and northern China, migrating to Southeast Asia in the winter. Like other wintering ducks in Thailand, it is usually seen at Chiang Saen Lake in Chiang Rai or in Beung Boraphet in central Thailand.

Being that it is a duck, it suffers from increased hunting pressure at both its nesting and wintering sites. Nests are also raided by locals who then raise the ducks on commercial farms and the meat is then sold on the market. Loss of habitat also plays an important role in the demise of the bird, with many of its former haunts suffering from pollution or commercialization.

With these factors taken into consideration, the Baer’s Pochard will most likely be extinct within the next ten years.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Low

3. Giant Ibis

Local Status: Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: – 300
Local Population Estimate: Extinct
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat, Hunting

The Giant Ibis is truly the giant of its family. Standing at a little over a meter in height and weighing nearly 10 pounds, the bird is not easily overlooked, especially since it tends to frequent open forests, marshes and wetlands. Once a resident of central Thailand, the bird was extirpated due to habitat loss and hunting and is now teetering on the brink of extinction.

The Giant Ibis is now endemic to Cambodia along its northernmost border with Laos and Vietnam. Fewer than 100 breeding pairs remain and their numbers are in slow decline.

The Giant Ibis has been named the National Bird of Cambodia and the government as enacted a number of laws and programs to prevent the bird from going extinct.

Since the bird is not migratory by nature there is no reason to believe the bird will ever be found in Thailand. Likewise, the Department of National Parks does not have a breed-and-release program implemented for this species.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Impossible

2. Chinese Crested Tern

Local Status: Rare Visitor; Migrant
Global Population Estimate: – 50
Local Population Estimate: 0
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat, hunting

The Chinese Crested Tern is a surprise addition to the Thai bird lists. As a migratory tern, it shares its nesting and wintering sites between Taiwan and the Philippines, with its range covering most of the South China Sea. There are some who believe that the 1980 record may have been erroneously submitted by a birder who had it mistaken for a Lesser Crested Tern.

The Chinese Crested Tern is among the rarest birds in the world with a breeding population of less than 20 pairs. The birds breed on rocky islets offshore and are powerless against humans who raid their nests for eggs. In recent years, private and government agencies and pooled resources to prevent the bird from going extinct by protecting the last known breeding sites and hand-rearing chicks to ensure a higher survivability rate. While the programs have been very successful, the status of the bird is still Critically Endangered and it will likely be a few decades before its status can be upgraded.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Very Low to Impossible

1. White Eyed River Martin

Local Status: Possibly Extinct in the Wild; Former Resident
Global Population Estimate: – 10
Local Population Estimate: Unknown
IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered
Main Threats: Loss of Habitat

Take this into consideration: Discovered in 1968 at Beung Borapet. Last sighted in 1977 at Beung Borapet. No reliable records for the past four decades. Talk about cold-hard facts.

Described by the legendary Kitti Thonglongya in 1968, the bird was one of two animals which the late ornithologist discovered before his untimely death in 1973. The bird was trapped with thousands of Barn Swallows at a roost in reedbeds at Beung Borapet, central Thailand’s largest freshwater lake.

Six specimens were captured on the morning of the discovery and in the decade that followed, no more than 100 specimens were captured or documented. The largest collection of birds in captivity was collected under the order of the then-director of the Beung Boraphet Fisheries Department who obtained over two dozen birds for breeding purposes. As expected, the birds did not adapt to life in captivity and all birds died within a month.

The White Eyed River Martin is Thailand’s only endemic bird and named in honor of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirinthorn.

The White Eyed River Martin is virtually unknown to science. Is it a resident or migrant? Does it really nest in burrows? What does its diet consist of? Does it vocalize and if so, what does it sound like? Is it a crepuscular or nocturnal bird?

Most likely we will never be able to answer these questions as the Princess Bird has most likely departed from the physical and crossed over into the realm of myths and legends.

Probability of seeing the bird in the wild in Thailand: Impossible

Categories: Conservation, Featured

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