Bird-Watching Near Chiang Mai
Journalist and bird nerd Adam H. Graham climbs to the peak of Thailand’s Doi Inthanon in search of rare birds.
On a hairpin curve halfway up lush and misty Doi Inthanon—Thailand’s tallest mountain, some 60 kilometres (37 miles) southwest of Chiang Mai—I emerge from the thick, dewy woods with a pair of binoculars around my neck as a bus rounds the bend past me. My local guide, Somchart, is across the road scouting out a dense thicket of brush in search of the Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler, one of 382 avifauna species found here. It’s cold up here, about 38˚F (3˚C), much cooler than I anticipated for a steamy September visit to Thailand. I’m swaddled in a chartreuse fleece blanket I found in Somchart’s Range Rover and sporting a black baseball cap, with white gym socks around my hands in lieu of gloves. My pasty white legs poke through baggy khaki shorts and round out my cartoon field biologist look. I hear laughter erupt from the passing bus. It’s OK. I’m used to it.
A Real Bird Nerd
I have a confession to make. I’m a closet birder. A real bird nerd. While most travellers to Thailand lounge on beaches, glide through Krabi’s gin-clear waters, party in Phuket and shop Chiang Mai’s chic boutiques, I’ve come to trek through its deciduous dipterocarp forests to catch a glimpse of a few endemics. My bird nerdness runs deep. I’ve been attending Audubon Society Christmas Counts since I was in college in Vermont in the early 1990s. I regularly spend more than $300 on binoculars; I own hundreds of bird books; and I’ve downloaded dozens of bird apps. I may be a relatively young birder, but being a journalist has made me a very well travelled one. Young birders like me frequently get dismissed for mistaken sightings, so I’ve come to relish the looks on the faces of older birders when I “casually” mention the various bustards and bulbuls I’ve encountered over the years. It won’t come as a surprise to any birders that many folks find birds peculiar. And the only things more peculiar are we enthusiasts who love them.
Sometimes I totally understand why. I must have looked like a real idiot to that passing bus. And perhaps I am one. I woke up at 3:00 am to hike through tiger habitat up a mossy, mile-high tropical mountain, considered the “Gateway to the Himalayan Ranges.” It never occurred to me it might get cold. This is, after all, where visitors from Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore come to see snow. I should have known. It’s southern Asia’s highest summit and often home to the southernmost snow. The mist thickens like roux into dense fog as we corkscrew up the windy roads. Somchart says that we’re lucky the weather is cooperating. “Sometimes we have to turn back,” he says with a trademark Thai smile, his eyes scanning the grey horizon. “But don’t worry, beautiful birds are everywhere.”
Bird-watching: An Exercise in “Colour Nomading”
Foggy and ghostly as it is up here, flashes of colourful birds dart across the horizon every few hundred metres. For me, birdwatching is an exercise in “colour nomading.” The electric Saturn indigo of the Indian Roller and arresting cerulean of the Blue Magpie—both of which we spot at the park’s A-frame gate—offer shades of azure unlike any I’ve ever seen, a hundred times more luminous than the neon signs of Tokyo and a deeper, richer cobalt than any body of water.
We continue our way up the mountain, eventually reaching clusters of thatched-roof villages and tidy farms that gently curve over the hills. This is a slice of rural Thailand not typically seen, closer in spirit to Burma than Bangkok. In addition to the fauna and thousands of species of fragrant flora that surround us, this mountain is also home to the indigenous Hmong and Karen hill tribes. Both cultures have a profound appreciation for the birds here, which can be seen in their silver and textile work and which play a central role in their folk tales and mythologies.
The Calls of the Wild
I found and hired Somchart through a Thai bird tour agency called Thailand Bird Watching. I emailed proprietor Tony Eagle Eye himself, and we volleyed back and forth about prices until we agreed on a fair amount. There are many bird tour operations in the area, and I contacted several of them, but something about Tony’s seemed honest and good-natured. I had a hunch that it was the best. How right I was. Somchart was prompt, courteous and, more important, really into the birds. When hiring a bird guide, it’s important to get one who can ID the birds by their calls, and Somchart didn’t miss a tweet, calling out bulbuls and bushchats as we heard them.
Before we started, Somchart gave me a shortlist of what we might see, which included, of course, the Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler and the Green-tailed Sunbird, the double raison d’être of Doi Inthanon bird excursions. A few hours in, we still hadn’t seen either. We did, however, see Slaty-backed Forktails, Red-headed Trogon, Brown-throated Treecreeper, Crested Serpent Eagle, River Chat, and a beautiful stout and khaki White-crested Laughing Thrush, which has the lavender-tinged white bouffant of your grandma but the mysterious black eye mask of Zorro. Its lovable call is a melodic, bubbly R2-D2-like flute, which makes it a well- known garden species in the area. But sadly, like many other species, this rufescent-brown Old World babbler is endangered due to people who cage it as a pet and to continued habitat loss. To many here, its call is the very sound of freedom.
Somchart and I carried on, plying up the steep road to Doi Inthanon National Park, where decaying boardwalk planks make up the Ang Ka Nature Trail, which snakes through a mossy cloud-forest swamp filled with wild and mysterious creatures, such as the rare pink peacock orchid, the crocodile salamander and blue stained fungus, also known as green elf cup. It’s also home to 10 species of rhododendron and a trio of ferns once thought to be extinct. In short, this landscape is downright primordial. Bird nerd or not, you’d be hard-pressed to be unmoved by its otherworldly quality. Doi Inthanon’s tuneful and colourful birds left a deep impression that I hadn’t anticipated. These birds aren’t just feathered show ponies; they represent the harmony of the land and the eternal vigilance that harmony requires.
The trek was coming to an end and I still hadn’t seen the two stars of the mountain. They were playing hard to get. Finally we caught sight of the Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler flitting in the moss. It’s a common bird in every sense—frequently seen, bearing a plumage of heather grey and slight yellow, and generally nondescript, some might even say generic. The Green-tailed Sunbird, however, is quite the opposite. Like the Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler, it’s entirely confined to Doi Inthanon’s summit. So I couldn’t possibly go back down the mountain without seeing it. “I’m sorry,” said Somchart, on the verge of defeat. “Sometimes they only come out in the sun.”
And just then, as if on a cue from some great bird nerd in the sky, a crack in the cloud rolled open to clear blue sky, and shafts of intense Thai light shot down on a dew-covered bush dripping with yellow trumpet flowers. A faint green glimmer at first, it stirred like a furtive mouse. Then suddenly the glimmer morphed into a shimmering ruby, sapphire and emerald bauble darting in and out of the bush like a bumblebee, seemingly adorned in a glitzy costume bought in Vegas. The Green-tailed Sunbird was extraordinary, to say the least. It’s one of those birds that even non-birders love. And it was worth both the trek and the wait. Total bird-nerd nirvana. And bragging rights to boot.