Back at Doi Inthanon (after eight years!)

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March 21st 2014
Published: March 26th 2014
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First stop on my way back to the anonymity of being a non-travelling nobody was Doi Inthanon National Park in northern Thailand. My primary reason for deciding to go up there was that Phayre's langur was on the species list for the park according to various internet sources. When I got there I was told “no” so I guess it is found there but not in the areas around the roads and trails.

I had been to Doi Inthanon once before, waaaay back in 2006 on my first trip through Asia. At that time I had been under the impression that the park was not very do-able by backpacking (which, I had found out for this trip, is completely inaccurate!) so I had teamed up with an ex-pat Belgian birder named Gilbert who I had met at Doi Chiang Dao – who ended up pissing me right off before the visit was over, but that's a whole other story – and we hired a car to do it with him being the driver.

This visit I had discovered that one can get a songthaew (like a truck-taxi) from the town of Chom Thong 30km away, although you need to charter it because this isn't a set route and hence you pay a lot of money, and then once in the park you can get up and down the sole road by hitching. From Bangkok I emailed Mr. Daeng who runs a bird cafe and guesthouse in the park, asking if I could get a room there and what was the best way to get there and if there were Phayre's langurs there. He said they had single rooms for 500 Baht (about NZ$18) and that they go to market in Chom Thong once a week and if I could be there on that day – which happened to be tomorrow – then they could give me a free lift. Excellent. I got a very stinky overnight bus from Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai, arriving at 6am, and went straight to the Chang Puak bus station where I got a songthaew to Chom Thong two hours away for 40 Baht. Once in Chom Thong I rang Mr. Daeng's cell phone and talked to his daughter Goong. They had some things to do so they would be about two or three hours I was told. This was fine by me because it meant I could go to one of the little restaurants around the bus station and get some breakfast. However I guess they were in that part of town and so decided to swing by straight away because they came by to find me right then, while I was in the restaurant and right when, by a remarkable coincidence, another 6ft birder with a beard, wearing a cap and with two bags (as per my description of myself in the email) was standing by the side of the road wondering where to get a songthaew to Mr. Daeng's! I came back from eating and sat by the road, waiting. I was surprised to see house sparrows hopping about on the sidewalk – tree sparrows are the species of choice for most of Thailand and so these were the first house sparrows I had seen in the country. Meanwhile, after they had finished shopping and were almost ready to head back to Doi Inthanon, Goong happened to mention the Phayre's langurs to the person they had picked up and when he expressed confusion over the question she showed him my email and they realised they had picked up a random birder by mistake. So they came back and picked me up as well.

The other birder was called Tjeerd, on his first trip to Asia from Holland, and so because we were both travelling solo we teamed up for Doi Inthanon (two pairs of eyes are better than one) and then continued on afterwards to Doi Chiang Dao. Getting around Doi Inthanon turned out to be dead easy. There's one road from the entry all the way to the summit, with just one or two roads leading off that to a couple of villages, and the birding spots are scattered along the main road. All you do is flag down a passing vehicle and get dropped off at whichever point you want – all the vehicles going uphill past Mr. Daeng's are going to either Mae Pan (off one of the side roads) or to the summit, and all vehicles going downhill are going to at least the village or market just by Mr. Daeng's. Rarely did we have to wait more than five minutes for rides and almost anybody with room would stop. Usually the ride was in the back of a ute – on one memorable and cold occasion sitting on a huge pile of melting ice for 18km.

I didn't do much on the first afternoon because I hadn't had much sleep on the bus from Bangkok, but the next morning Tjeerd and I headed early up to the summit where there is a boardwalk trail through marshy moss-festooned cloud forest. It is a bit chilly up there but not too bad, and because we were the only people on the boardwalk birds were in plenty. There were the common species I had seen last visit, including chestnut-crowned laughing thrushes, chestnut-tailed minlas, rufous-winged fulvettas and dark-backed sibias, as well as others which last time I had missed like green-tailed sunbirds and spectacled barwings. I think we were lucky though in having the boardwalk to ourselves because we saw the more skulky birds quite easily as well. A dark-sided thrush with its silly long bill spent an age bathing and preening in full view, while a shy Eurasian woodcock snuck past in the foreground. A rufous-throated partridge sauntered casually past under the boardwalk, and there were pigmy wren-babblers everywhere, so small that they look like tailless shrews foraging through the leaf litter. Once more visitors started arriving the skulky birds all disappeared.

Later we tried the jeep track at km37.5 – reclaimed by the forest and so now just a rough foot-track rather than anything resembling a jeep track – but it was fairly quiet so we thought we would return there first thing tomorrow morning. In the afternoon we walked to the Siribhum Waterfall in the village by Mr. Daeng's because Tjeerd had never seen water redstarts and both white-capped and plumbeous were supposed to occur there. However there were no redstarts to be seen, and not much of anything else either.

The next morning we were back at the start of the 37.5km jeep track. There's a checkpoint right beside the start of the trail and it is a good spot to see birds at dawn when they come to catch moths attracted by the lights. There was a blue whistling thrush here which was smaller with a black bill instead of yellow like the others I had been seeing recently (it is a migrant subspecies). High up in one of the trees was a chestnut-bellied nuthatch. On the side of the road a small clearing had been made where photographers put down mealworms to attract birds. Someone had been past recently, even before we got there, and put something out; probably something involving lots of caffeine because there were loads of ultra-hyperactive grey-cheeked fulvettas bouncing all round. While I was looking at those, a short-tailed gymnure suddenly appeared on the log in the clearing. Gymnures are insectivorous mammals, related to hedgehogs but looking like large mice (except the ones which are huge and look like mutant monster rats from the moon!). The pointy nose gives them away though, and the teeny weeny tail of this particular species is also distinctly different from a mouse's long wiggly tail. This was my first ever gymnure so I was pretty excited, no doubt to Tjeerd's mystification!

Inside the forest on the jeep track it was again very quiet – actually even quieter than it had been the day before! The main bird we were looking for was the cochoa. There are two species at Doi Inthanon, the purple cochoa and the green cochoa. Everybody wants to see cochoas, including me, but I have no idea why! I mean, they are nice birds but so are all the other birds. But everyone just goes really out of their way to try and add the cochoas to their bird lists. I had seen the Javan cochoa in 2009 and missed the Sumatran cochoa that same year. On my 2006 visit to Doi Inthanon I hadn't seen either purple or green cochoas, so I was hoping to see one or both. (Again, I don't know why! It's just the way it is I guess). There were only a few birds here and there as we walked along the trail, best of them being an eye-browed wren-babbler – larger than the pigmy wren-babbler but still very small. There were so few birds about that we contemplated giving up on the trail and heading elsewhere, but we decided to persevere. Just as well too, because just another couple of hundred metres further on Tjeerd spotted a bird flying between some branches in a fig tree and when we got our binoculars on it it proved to be a cochoa! I actually thought it was a purple cochoa at first because it looked too dull to be a green but once we saw it better we could see the wing markings. It was a green cochoa after all, but I think due to its position in the canopy it wasn't showing up the green very well which was disappointing. Still, it was a green cochoa and I'm not complaining about that! It sat on its branch, we watched it, it sat on its branch, we watched it.... after a while Tjeerd said “its a rather boring bird isn't it?” and indeed it was.

There's a second jeep track at Doi Inthanon, at km34.5, so we headed down there next. Both the jeep tracks are good for both species of cochoas and we hoped the lower one might have more bird activity on this morning. Um, it didn't. But I did find some trapdoor spider burrows in a roadside bank. In the afternoon we again tried some waterfalls for water redstarts, at one having some success with finding plumbeous water redstarts but still no white-capped water redstarts.

On the last day we spent the morning in separate areas. Tjeerd went to the km34.5 jeep track where he saw two green cochoas really well, in the sun, all glowing green, but I'm not jealous at all. Honest. I went instead to the Kiew Mae Pan trail. This is the only trail in the park which you have to pay to go on and you are also required to have a guide. The entry fee for the whole park is 200 Baht (about NZ$7), the entry fee for the Kiew Mae Pan trail is another 200 Baht. However this is also where it is possible to see Chinese gorals and I wasn't going to pass that up for $7!! Mr. Daeng had told me the very best time to try and see them was in the morning, about 8am, when they come out to feed. I'm not sure why there is a separate fee for this trail but perhaps it is to protect the goral habitat from too much disturbance. The species is very rare in Thailand, I think now found in only three areas in the whole country. The trail is in very good condition and easy to follow (I had thought maybe the guide was because the trail was going to be really rough!). The first part is through mountain forest, the same sort as up at the summit, but I didn't stop for birds (I didn't even see any in the forest), and soon we were out in the subalpine meadows. We stopped at a viewing platform where there was a sign saying “Goral Habitat”. That's a good sign. I scanned the surrounding hills and cliffs through my binoculars. Nothing. I kept scanning, going over the same areas. Suddenly three gorals, a family group, appeared in the long grass on the nearest slope. They were at that range where you can see them easily through binoculars but are just far enough away that you can't get good photos. The male stood at attention watching me watching him, while the female and kid pottered about. After about five minutes they bounded off and disappeared. They were the only ones I saw, so I think that while the site is fairly reliable you also need some luck in being there at just the right time. I gather that usually they are up on the cliffs as well, not as close as the ones I saw.

With gorals successfully in the bag, I hitched up to the summit. There were a lot of people up there, it being late morning already, but I still managed to see a dark-sided thrush and a woodcock. I spent about an hour trying to get a good photo of the woodcock. He was in a fairly open marshy area, foraging in amongst the grasses and reeds, but whenever anybody went past he would creep into the plants and freeze for ten or fifteen minutes. I would wait, eventually he would start foraging again, and then just as he was coming into the open where I would have been able to get a photo, another noisy lot of people would come thundering past and he would vanish again. Eventually I succeeded though.

In the afternoon Tjeerd and I went all the way down the road to km13 where there was a site for black-headed woodpecker and collared falconet. The forest here is really dry deciduous forest. All the trees were skeletal and the ground was carpeted in dead leaves. We saw a shikra (a type of hawk) perched in a tree right by the parking area. Walking up the road which leads through the forest we sort of saw a pair of black-headed woodpeckers, but in no way good enough for me to count. Basically I saw a bird flying, land on a tree, a flash of yellow and black, and that was it. Very disappointing. But coming back down Tjeerd spotted a falconet perched on the very tippy-top of a tree and that bird we got to watch properly. Falconets are, as the name would suggest, very small falcons, only about the size of sparrows. Neat birds.

And that was it for Doi Inthanon. Nothing overly exciting happened to me, I just went birding and saw some nice animals. The next morning we left for Doi Chiang Dao.


27th March 2014

Is it really 8 years?!
Hi Israel have been avidly following your amazing blogs from the latest Asia trip and feeling incredibly jealous. Can't believe you are back at Chiang Dao - look forward to hearing about it and the wildlife you see this time around. When are you coming to the UK to do some birding?! - it's about time we paid back your amazing hospitality. Jenny, Gareth and baby Josh (arrived 4 weeks ago!!!)
27th March 2014

hi! Yes, eight years, well near enough (2006 to 2014). Time flies like an eagle. Malee recognised me from the last visit to Doi Chiang Dao. I saw the Hume's pheasant and giant nuthatch this trip too (but that will be told in the next blog!). Congratulations on the baby. I was just saying to Tjeerd yesterday that I should really go to the UK and Europe because there are lots of nice birds and mammals there to see.

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