Notes on Himalayan Swiftlets

It’s been almost 3 years since my last post! With the new social media culture, it has gotten more and more difficult to sit down and write something in length. I guess it’s about time I should do something with this blog to keep it alive and up to date. I decided that I would start with some notes on the “Himalayan Swiftlets” that I’ve photographed recently at several locations.


A classic look of Himalayan Swiftlet; note uniform dark underparts


Aerodramus swiftlets are definitely one of the most challenging groups of birds for identification. Most of the times, they can’t even be identified with certainty. In Thailand, there are 3 species of swiftlets within this genus; Germain’s Swiftlet (A. germani), Black-nest Swiftlet (A. maximus) and Himalayan Swiftlet (A. brevirostris). Traditionally, they could be identified based on habitat and distribution range with germani being found along coastal areas both on the eastern and western coasts, maximus being found only along the western coasts and brevirostris in non-coastal habitats mainly in northern and western parts of the country. However, with the booming of “swiftlet condos” built to harvest swiftlet nests, a very valuable product for the Chinese market, it seems that we can’t identify these birds based on habitat and distribution range anymore. Germain’s Swiftlet, a species which produces pure white nest, has already spread throughout the country with many swiftlet condos being built to attract it even in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province, and several places in the north-east, while the extent of range-expansion in Black-nest Swiftlet, a species which also produces edible nest but require some processing to filter the feathers out, is still largely unknown. Himalayan Swiftlet is the only species in Thailand which doesn’t produce edible nest and probably isn’t affected by the business in terms of range expansion. However, the confusing part is that there are 2 populations of Himalayan Swiftlets in Thailand; the resident rogersi and wintering brevirostris and probably innominatus.


Note dark unifrom underparts


From my observations in northern Thailand, the area where Germain’s Swiftlet has only known to colonise quite recently (within the last 10 years), I noticed that there are some differences in plumage colouration between Himalayan and Germain’s Swiftlet. On mountains higher than 1,500 m above sea level, a habitat where Germain’s Swiftlet is still not known to occur, I’ve noticed that all the swiftlets showed rather uniform dark greyish-brown plumage with not much contrast between upperparts and underparts unlike in Germain’s where the underparts are generally paler. Of course, this should be judged from similar angles and lighting conditions.


While rump patch is mentioned to be one of the main characteristics for identification, I find both Himalayan and Germain’s to have a wide range of variation from very pale to almost concolorous with the back. Lighting and angle can also greatly alter the paleness of rump patch too.


Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’; note very long and slender wings and long tail


Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’


Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’


Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’

Lastly, I’ve also noticed some variations among the structure of Himalayan Swiftlets seen and photographed in northern Thailand. Some birds seem to have very long and slender wings and longish tail making them look almost like Asian Palm Swifts. I think these birds are probably the wintering nominate brevirostris which is described to have longer wings than the resident rogersi. I usually see these long-winged birds at lower elevation and cultivated area mixing with other species including those that look like Germain’s Swiftlet, Asian Palm and House Swifts.


Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’; note shorter wings and tail


Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’


Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’


Possibly subspecies ‘innominatus’; note concolourous upperparts with no apparent rump patch

The Acrocephalus Issue

When talking about Little Brown Jobs (those small brownish birds that are difficult to identify), most birders in Thailand would immediately think of Phylloscopus warblers simply because there are so many of them. But for me, I’d say there are birds that are even more frightening to identify, the Acrocephalus warblers!


Oriental Reed Warbler is the commonest and most widespread reed warbler in Thailand.


Mostly seen foraging along scrubs and grassy area near water.



Frequents perching on open branches to dry itself in the morning. Note whitish tips to the tail feathers.


Can be quite showy and perches on grass tops for a look out or to sing


Note long and pointed primary projections


Often shows hint of greyish streaking on breast (more prominent in spring)

There are 8 species of Acrocephalus warblers, generally called “reed warblers”, in Thailand. They can be divided into 2 main groups, the large and the small sized reed warblers. Only 2 species are considered as large reed warblers; the Oriental Reed Warbler and the Clamorous Reed Warbler. These two are approximately 20 cm in length or about the size of a bulbul. The latter is an extremely rare vagrant OR a highly overlooked species in Thailand with very few accepted records, while the former is the commonest and most widespread reed warbler in the country. The identification of these two species is extremely challenging (definitely more challenging than what seems on the guide books!).


Clamorous Reed Warbler is a rare vagrant or seriously overlooked species in Thailand.


It resembles Oriental Reed Warbler in almost every aspect except for the slightly slimmer bill and shorter primary projections.


Supercilium is often weaker than in Oriental and most individuals lack whitish tail tips (though can appear in some odd birds)


At a glance, the Clamorous Reed Warbler looks slimmer (and sometimes longer)-billed and shorter-winged than Oriental Reed Warbler


Note short primary projections and the lack of whitish tail tips

I find the most reliable characteristics which are useful for field identification between Oriental and Clamorous Reed Warbler include bill shape and the length of primary projections. Clamorous often strikes as being a large reed warbler with very slender and pointed bill, whereas Oriental has a noticeably thicker and stronger bill. Primary projections are also shorter and less pointed in Clamorous than in Oriental. Most Clamorous Reed Warblers also lack the whitish tips to tail feathers even in fresh plumage, but some odd birds can have this characteristic similar to Oriental, so it’s probably not as reliable as the former two characteristics.


Among the small-sized reed warblers, Black-browed Reed Warbler is the commonest species.


It’s about the same size and at times can resemble a Phylloscopus warbler like Dusky Warbler or Radde’s Warbler.


Most of the time, the black eyebrows are thick and obvious enough to separate it from other similar species.


But sometimes the black eyebrow can appear faint and thin.


Often shows dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter


Worn individual can appear very pale sandy-brown

So what about the other 6 species of reed warblers in Thailand? They are all small-sized, approximately about the same size as a sparrow, or just a little larger than most Phylloscopus warblers. The commonest and most widespread species among these small-sized reed warblers is the Black-browed Reed Warbler.

With a prominent black eyebrow over the pale supercilium, you might think that it’s always straightforward to identify this species. Most of the time, it is indeed, but every once in a while, you come across odd individuals that look like it might not be a Black-browed Reed Warbler.


Manchurian Reed Warbler is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. I photographed this bird in my local patch in Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai on 18 September 2004. It is still by far the only record of this species in the north.


Structurally, it looks longer-billed and longer-tailed than Black-browed Reed Warbler


Plumage is often warm rufous-brown throughout winter. Note different structure compared to Black-browed.



Very prominent supercilium which gets narrower behind the eye and thin black eyebrow


Lack dark tip to lower mandible during winter

The species that is mostly confused with Black-browed Reed Warbler is the globally threatened Manchurian Reed Warbler (or White-browed Reed Warbler by BirdLife). It is a  range-restricted breeder in China that winters in South-East Asia. In Thailand, it is known to be a passage migrant in northern and central parts of the country and spend the winter along the eastern coast of southern Thailand. Recently, it was found to be wintering in Malaysia and Cambodia as well.

When compared to Black-browed, the Manchurian Reed Warbler generally has a different structure by having longer tail and longer bill. The lower mandible also lacks dark tip during winter unlike in Black-browed. The dark bill tip will only develop in spring and summer. Overall plumage is also warmer and more rufous-tinged similar to Paddyfield Warbler, which was once treated as conspecific. The black eyebrow is often faint and thin with the pale supercilium being narrower at rear unlike in Black-browed Reed Warbler which gets broader behind the eye.

Note: Beware that some Black-browed Reed Warblers can also show faint/thin black eyebrows too. More photos and identification notes on Manchurian/Black-browed Reed Warblers can be read from Dave Bakewell’s post here.


Paddyfield Warbler is a rare winter visitor to small areas of northern Thailand.


This adult bird was ringed at Nam Kham Nature Reserve in February 2014 and was found to be a regular visitor at the Rubythroat Hide in the winter of 2015/2016.



Structurally resembles Black-browed Reed Warbler. Bill is rather short and shows prominent dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter.


Plumage is often warm rufescent-brown with rather short primary projection

Things get even more confusing with the small-sized reed warblers that lack black eyebrows. Let’s start with the Paddyfield Warbler, a bird that is widespread across Europe and Asia but is a rare winter visitor to Thailand. Once it was treated as the same species as the Manchurian Reed Warbler and it was no surprise. They actually share many similarities like warm rufescent-brown plumage and very similar wing formula and length of primary projections. Most Paddyfield Warblers show hints of dark eyebrow over the pale supercilium too, but never as pronounced as in Manchurian/Black-browed Reed Warblers. However, unlike in Manchurian Reed Warbler, the Paddyfield Warbler always shows dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter. The bill is also shorter and more pointy at tip than in Manchurian. In Thailand, it can only be found at several locations in northern part of the country including Nam Kham Nature Reserve in Chiang Rai where these photos were taken.


Blunt-winged Warbler is one of the trickiest birds to see and to identify.


It’s one the small-sized reed warblers that lack any trace of the dark eyebrow.


I probably wouldn’t be able to identify this bird without this lucky, even though blurry, flight shot that shows the wing formula.



Note how P1 is obviously longer than primary covert


Generally, it’s a long-tailed reed warbler with short supercilium.

The most challenging group of all reed warblers, and probably all Little Brown Jobs in Thailand, is the small-sized Acrocephalus warbler without dark eyebrows. There are 3 species in this group for Thailand; the Blunt-winged Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Large-billed Reed Warbler. All three species share some very similar characteristics including the lack of dark eyebrow, longish bill and rather weak supercilium making them look quite plain-faced.

The commonest and most widespread species among the three is the Blunt-winged Warbler. It winters in wetlands throughout northern and central Thailand. Despite its abundance, it’s never easy to find one because of its extremely secretive behaviour. Even if you finally manage to see one, the bigger question is how to identify it! It’s almost impossible to identify these small-sized and plain-faced reed warblers without seeing the wing formulae.


Left: Blyth’s Reed Warbler; Right: Blunt-winged Warbler


Note the short and blunt primary projections as suggested by the name in Blunt-winged Warbler (left) compared to Blyth’s Reed Warbler (right).


The long P1 which extends beyond primary coverts is another main ID feature for Blunt-winged Warbler.


Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a rare winter visitor in Thailand. Note the much shorter P1 which doesn’t extend beyond primary coverts and longer and more pointed primary projections than in Blunt-winged Warbler.


Primary projections are longer and more pointed than in Blunt-winged Warbler.


Blyth’s Reed Wabler (left) tends to have colder and often more grey-tinged plumage than in Blunt-winged Warbler (right). The supercilium is also more obscured in Blyth’s Reed Warbler.


Blunt-winged Warbler in profile; note rather warm brown plumage and short but distinct supercilium.


Blyth’s Reed Warbler in profile; note cold greyish-brown plumage and less prominent supercilium


When seen in the field, Blyth’s Reed Warbler often has a long-billed and short-tailed impression.

The Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a rare winter visitor that has only been recorded several times at 2 different locations in Thailand; i.e. Nam Kham Nature Reserve in Chiang Rai and Bung Boraphet in Nakhon Sawan. Compared to the Blunt-winged Warbler, it generally has colder and more greyish-tinged plumage with much longer primary projections and slightly shorter tail. Its P1 is also shorter and doesn’t markedly extend beyond primary coverts unlike in Blunt-winged Warbler. It also usually prefers dryer habitats like shrubs and forest edge near wetlands, while Blunt-winged Warbler is a strictly wetland species that can be found only in reed beds.

Finally, the most challenging identification among all reed warblers is between the Blyth’s and Large-billed Reed Warbler. The Large-billed Reed Warbler is an extremely rare and little known species which has only been recently rediscovered in 2006 by Philip Round at Laem Phak Bia in Phetchaburi and followed by another record from Nam Kham Nature Reserve in 2008. It has also been recorded several times at Bung Boraphet afterwards. Generally, it has longer bill and warmer tone to the plumage than in Blyth’s Reed Warbler, but these two species can overlap in almost every morphological aspect. There was even a bird caught at Nam Kham Nature Reserve that couldn’t be identified even in hand, and DNA test was required. In the end, it turned out to be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Because of all the difficulties, I’m not going to touch on how to identify these two in the field and I’ll leave this post with a photo of a Large-billed Reed Warbler from Nam Kham Nature Reserve instead.


The second record of Large-billed Reed Warbler in Thailand from Nam Kham Nature Reserve. Photo by Woraphot Bunkhwamdi.

Bang Pu: 20 December 2015

Last Sunday, I was invited to join a small talk called “Gull 102” at Bang Pu, Samut Prakan province. The talk was intended to introduce birders into gulls identification. I gave a talk on gulls in Japan where many species overlap with Thailand. After the talk, we went out to test our identification skills immediately in the field. Bang Pu is no doubt, one of the best places to watch gulls in Thailand. Hundreds of Brown-headed Gulls can be seen around Saphan Sookta bridge where visitors regularly feed them. Odd species can occasionally be found in the mix including rarities and several country’s first records.


The tide was extremely low when we arrived.


Brown-headed Gull is the commonest species of gulls in Thailand, particularly at Bang Pu.


First-winter Brown-headed Gull


While Black-headed Gull is a rather scarce winter migrant. I found several birds mixing in the flock. This one is an adult.


It didn’t took us long to finally pick out a rarity, a first-winter Slender-billed Gull!


It shares similar upperwing pattern with Black-headed Gull but with less black markings on the tip in first-winter plumage.



It was interesting to see that the bird was highly aggressive despite its smaller size.


Apart from the abundant Brown-headed Gull, we managed to spot several immature and adult Black-headed Gulls and at least 2 first-winter Slender-billed Gulls. The Slender-billed Gull is a rare but regular winter visitor in Thailand and Bang Pu is one of the best places to see it. One of the birds was joining a noisy group of Brown-headed Gulls begging for food just around the start of the bridge.


Another first-winter Black-headed Gull; note slender bill and more delicate built


An adult Black-headed Gull being chased by a first-winter Brown-headed Gull; note differences in size and upperwing pattern


Then someone spotted something interesting! Can you see what’s in the flock?


It’s a second-year large white-headed gull with very pale appearance. It soon flew in to join the hungry flock close to the bridge.

The evening ended amazingly with a second-year large white-headed gull showing up just before sunset. It was first seen wading through the low tide in the distance then flew in to join the flocks closer to the bridge. Overall, it has very pale appearance making it blend well into the flock of Brown-headed Gulls.


We concluded that it’s clearly a second-year Mongolian Gull (Larus (cachinnans/vegae) mongolicus)



It also enjoyed the easy food provided by tourists.



Upperwing shots show that it has almost completed the post-juvenile moult on the coverts, as well as the very pale and apparent ‘windows’.



Mongolian Gull is known for its pale and whitish appearance and very apparent ‘windows’. This shot also shows the contrast between the old juvenile feathers and the new second generation of feathers on the coverts.


It was also quite aggressive and vocal. Its call was surprisingly thin and not as loud as Heuglin’s or Vega Gulls that I’ve heard. The call was also recorded in this video clip.

After watching the large gull up close, we were confident that it was a second-year Mongolian Gull, another rarity in Thailand. Since the taxonomy of these large white-headed gulls is still not fully settled, the Mongolian Gull is sometimes considered as a subspecies of either Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans) or Vega Gull (Larus vegae) or even a full species of its own, Larus mongolicus. It differs from the more regular Heuglin’s Gull (Larus heuglini) by strikingly paler and more whitish appearance. Even in this second-winter plumage, the difference is very apparent. Apart from the overall plumage, mongolicus also has very striking ‘windows’ on the inner primaries unlike heuglini, and even more apparent than in vegae. The black tail band is also narrower, even though it is hard to tell in this case since its tail feathers are moulting. I was really glad to see this bird since it’s an addition to my life list. We stayed and watched and photographed it until there was not enough light before happily said goodbyes and went on home.

Turnix suscitator ‘blakistoni’?

Yesterday morning saw me visiting my local patch, Cho Lae since very early morning. I intended to look for snipes and other migrants which might show up around the open, recently ploughed plots close to the road which had been attracting some interesting birds. However, I found only 1 “Swintail” snipe which flew out quickly and didn’t come back after I tried to approach and no new nor interesting migrant. I did, however, find a nice pair of Barred Buttonquails feeding in the open ground along with Spotted and Zebra Doves. The pair was generous enough to let me approach with my car slowly until I was only about 10 metres away from them.


First view of the Barred Buttonquails pair feeding with a Spotted Dove


Then I could get some really nice close up views. Here’s the female.


Female shows large black patch on throat and breast.


Male lacks the large black patch but has slightly more rufous-tinged upperparts.

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The female showing the back side. Note bluish-grey legs which have no hind toe.


I photographed the pair as they moved along the open ground and disappeared into thick dry grass, then I realised that there was another female Barred Buttonquail calling from the other side of the road. Then, funnily, I spotted a lone male came running hopelessly across the vast area of open ground looking for the calling female. It took me quite a while to finally spot the calling female. Turned out it was standing pretty close to the car.


The second female Barred Buttonquail; possibly ssp. blakistoni



Note the more rufous upperparts, particularly on the hind neck.


The neck is inflated when calling, a very interesting behaviour to watch.


Another shot showing the back side which is noticeably more rufous than other female Barred Buttonquails I’ve seen in Thailand.

After checking photos that I took of the second female bird, I was curious to see how the upperparts seem to be noticeably more rufous than the first female, particularly on the hind neck. The first female, similar to any other female Barred Buttonquails that I’ve photographed in northern Thailand (subspecies T. s. thai), showed greyish-brown hind neck and colder brown upperparts than the second female.

According to Craig Robson’s guide to birds of Thailand and South-East Asia, the subspecies T. s. blakistoni, which has been recorded in NW Thailand and found in northern Indochina, has more rufous-chestnut above and buffier below in both sexes than the subspecies thai which is the most widespread subspecies in Thailand. It looks very much like the second female belongs to this taxon.


The ‘blakistoni’ Barred Buttonquail while calling


It even stopped and posed for a while before continuing to walk further along the corn field. Note the pale buffish wing coverts contrasting greatly to the dark flight feathers and darker, more rufous scapulars and mantle.


Showing the plain underwing coverts. Not sure if the underparts are more buffish as described by Robson.


Again, showing a nice profile view


Right: most likely subspecies blakistoni; left: subspecies thai. Note the more rufous-chestnut hind neck and upperparts in blakistoni and colder greyish-brown in thai.

I checked images of female Barred Buttonquails photographed in Thailand that I have collected and found that nearly none of them show the same shade of rufous-brown upperparts as in the second female that I saw, except for one (probably immature) odd-looking female from Chiang Rai. This individual from Chiang Rai also shows very buffish underparts including the breast, similar to what Robson describes.


Most likely another ‘blakistoni’ Barred Buttonquail from Chiang Rai. Black markings on the throat suggest female-type, probably an immature. No idea why it has much more black markings on the head and upperparts than usual though. Photo by Wattana Choaree.

While I was watching the second female walking further away into the corn field, it suddenly stopped and began to fluff its feathers up and spread the wings to make itself look bigger. Out of the blue, an immature Long-tailed Shrike dropped in to catch the buttonquail. Luckily, the buttonquail was slightly faster and flushed quickly before the shrike could grab it. I was stunned by the scene as I never thought a shrike would be brave enough to prey on buttonquails which are roughly about the same size or even larger than the shrike itself.


Fluffing up to make itself look bigger before the shrike dropped in!


The foolishly brave immature Long-tailed Shrike (ssp. tricolor) that tried to catch buttonquails. Note pale juvenal feathers on the crown and dark scales on mantle.


Another stunned male Barred Buttonquail which was flushed by the shrike.


A closer look of the immature Long-tailed Shrike

The shrike didn’t just stop there. It then flew to the other side of the fields where the first pair of buttonquails was staying. It perched briefly on a look-out branch then swooped down quickly on the grassy area where a pair of Barred Buttonquails immediately flushed up and fled in different directions. Another lone male buttonquail also flushed and landed shortly on the open ground nearby. It looked completely stunned and seemed undecided whether to run for cover or try its best to stay still. Finally, it slowly crept into the grass and stay under the shades until the shrike decided to move further away. It was such an exciting and very interesting scene to witness!

The Firethroat Tetralogy (4): 22 April 2015

It’s been a long while since the last post for this series, so here’s the final post. After my last 4 attempts to visit the male Firethroat at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, little did I know that I’d be heading for the fifth one! After coming back from my trip to Nam Kham on 12 April, photos of the bird kept coming up daily on the internet showing continuous moulting progress. By 19 April, the bird seemed to have fully completed its moult into its first breeding plumage (or first-summer). Without conscious, I had already booked another flight to the north!


Huge flock of Asian Openbills roosting at Nam Kham Nature Reserve


Just about 10 years ago, there was completely no Asian Openbill in northern Thailand.


A view from the Cettia Hide where the male Firethroat showed up


Waiting for the bird to show up in the middle open area

By the morning of 22 April, I found myself arriving at Nam Kham Nature Reserve as early as 6AM. It was a very quiet and peaceful morning. There was no one to be seen but hundreds, maybe thousands of Asian Openbills were roosting on large bare trees all around the reserve. They noisily flushed with their heavy wing beats as I walked in along the narrow path through the tall reed bed leading to the Cettia hide where the male Firethroat had been staying.

I waited and waited inside the dark hide, listening to songs of birds which were starting to become more lively. There was, however, no song of the Firethroat to be heard! I began to feel very frustrated since the bird was very actively singing on my last visit. It’d be a huge waste of time and money, if the bird doesn’t show up. The bird still didn’t show up at 7:30AM when I checked for the time. I continued to wait and wait. Then around 8AM, I spotted something glowing and moving in the dark reeds in front of the hide. There it was, my only target of the trip! Needless to say how relieved I was as I watched the bird with its fiery throat and breast hopping out into the open as it often did to look for food.


One of the first views I had of male Firethroat as it hopped out from the dark reed bed into the open ground in front of the hide.


As usual, it came hopping really close to the hide.



It’s certainly one of the best looking birds in the world!

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At times, it’d come so close to the hide that it almost filled the frame completely.

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I like how this shot actually shows the vegetation in the habitat where the bird was found.

After the first round, it disappeared for about 10 minutes then showed up again in the same manner. It kept coming back and forth like this for every 10 minutes or so until around 10AM when it began to show up less frequently. It would either show up by hopping out from the dark reed bed or flying in from behind the hide. The after arriving at the hide, it would hop around the open area with a small waterhole in front of the hide. At times, it would come really close to the hide and wouldn’t mind the shutter sound at all.


Showing the white patch at tail base, a characteristic found in Firethroat and Blackthroat

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The white neck patch can be very prominent when the bird stretches its neck.


Standing up straight when curious

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First-summer bird still retains the brownish juvenile wing feathers. Adult male would have the same shade of bluish-grey wing as the back and crown.

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The orange throat and breast was almost glowing in the dark habitat where it lived.

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No need to say how happy and satisfied I was while sitting alone in the hide watching and photographing this rare beauty for hours. Then around 10:30AM, two other birders arrived. It was getting brighter and also hotter and the bird began to disappear for a longer period. But then it came back and gave us a few more shows until I left around noon for lunch.


Finally, it began to sing its unique melodious song.

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Also perching on low branches around the hide


Hard to find a bird to beat its colour!


It was more actively singing from 10:30-12:00 before I left.

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Light became very strong around noon making the photos highly contrasted.

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Showing the back side

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A kind of damselfly seen perching close to the Firethroat

Pardon me if this post contains way too many photos of the same bird, but I really couldn’t resist taking loads of photos of this wonderful bird. No one knows when will it show up in Thailand (and in full breeding plumage like this) again, so it’s better to take as many photos as I could!

After leaving the nature reserve for lunch, I drove back to Chiang Mai and took a flight back to Bangkok. On the following day, another group of birders went up to look for the bird but turned out that the bird had already left! It didn’t show up at all from 6AM to 6PM. The means I was one of the last persons to see the bird before it left. I felt super lucky for a moment but then also felt sorry for the poor guys. I really hope it would come back again to Nam Kham in the upcoming winter.


To finish this post, here’s a really nice image showing the same bird from the very first day it was discovered (7 December 2014) until the last day before it left (22 April 2015). The original image was uploaded by the official Nam Kham Nature Reserve facebook page. It’s amazing to see such transformation and certainly another reason to feel astonished by nature’s wonders.

Khao Yai: 15 September 2015

I made a short visit to Khao Yai National Park with my family on September 15. We first drove up to Khao Kheow check point since very early morning hoping to find some pheasants along the way but we saw exactly zero bird. It was a very dark overcast morning but birds were better than I expected around the check point. The reason was pretty obvious, the surrounding trees were full of moths that were attracted by lights from the check point.


The first bird to show up at the check point was this male Blyth’s Shrike-babbler which was calling from a pine tree not far from where I parked. Not sure which subspecies it was but it seemed to have darker grey throat and underparts than the one I’m familiar with in the north-west.


Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike was among the friendliest birds up here. Here’s a female perching almost at eye-level.


Here she caught a nice-looking moth for breakfast.


A rather friendly pair of Red-headed Trogons was attracted by the moths around the check point too. Here’s the stunning male.


The subspecies found here as described in literature is ‘klossi’. Not really sure how it differs from any other subspecies but I noticed that it has very restricted white breast band.


The female was even more confiding! Also note how the red on underparts seems to less saturated than in the male.



You can’t really hide with such colour!

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Pin-striped Tit-babblers were also numerous. It’s one of the common birds which I haven’t got any decent photos.

The star of the morning was a rather friendly pair of Red-headed Trogons which came around the check point looking for moths just like many other small birds. At times, they would come perch really close and at eye-level but were always easily flushed, so it wasn’t too easy to photograph them. Other birds that came around the check point included Black-throated Laughingthrush, Hill Blue Flycatcher, White-bellied Erpornis, Pin-striped Tit-babbler, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Common Green Magpie, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike.

I also spotted Kloss’s Leaf Warbler twice joining a fast-moving mixed species flock but couldn’t manage to take any photo of it. In case you wonder what it looks like, visit this blog entry. I also found a few interesting migrants including this season’s first Yellow-browed Warbler, 2 Dark-sided Flycatchers and several Pacific Swifts. My dad also found a single Tiger Shrike.


We came across this male Red Junglefowl was standing motionlessly on the roadside while leaving Khao Kheow. It was on its way moulting out of the eclipse plumage.


Interestingly, we found a small flock of 4 Grey-headed Lapwings! I never expect to find this species up here in Khao Yai before.


There was only 1 adult (middle) with 3 other immatures.


The adult showed traces of black breast patch which was lacking in the immatures.

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Unlike most lapwings/plovers, Grey-headed Lapwing has short but clearly visible hind toe!

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It also deploys the walk-stop-look-snatch technique used so frequently among most lapwings and plovers.

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Regularly checking for danger from above

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Immature Grey-headed Lapwing is a neat bird with clean brownish-grey plumage. Note how it lacks the adult’s black breast patch.

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The last view of the flock before they all disappeared.

But the biggest surprise of the day was a flock of 4 Grey-headed Lapwings foraging on the open lawn near a helicopter landing pad next to Nong Khing reservoir. At first glance, I thought they were Red-wattled Lapwings which are so abundant in the area but then I noticed the yellow bill and plain greyish head. Normally, I wouldn’t expect to see this species up here in Khao Yai but anything can happen during the migration period. One of the birds was an adult with traces of black breast band, while others were immature. Surprisingly, they were very cooperative and allowed me to approach at a very close range even for a 300mm lens unlike any other Grey-headed Lapwings I’ve seen.


Black-winged Kite sitting and looking out for prey on a distant tree


One of the many Red-wattled Lapwings. They all showed variable amount of white on the chin, probably a sign of non-breeding plumage?


Female Sambar Deer at Kong Kaew Campsite


Male Sambar Deer happily feeding in the drizzling rain



Long-tailed Shrike subspecies ‘longicaudatus’

We birded until around 11am when it began to rain and didn’t stop at all, so we decided to leave around 1:30pm. Before driving back to Bangkok, we stopped by at Pak Pli briefly and managed to find a single male Asian Golden Weaver and a nice ‘longicaudatus’ Long-tailed Shrike sitting alone in the rain.

Pak Pli: 23 May 2015

I’ve heard of Pak Pli fields in Nakhon Nayok for so long, but haven’t got the chance to visit the place until 23 May 2015. The area holds one of the biggest roost for Black Kites in Thailand including both the migratory lineatus and the nationally endangered govinda races. The place also serves as winter ground for the scarce Rosy Pipit and Thailand’s first Greater Short-toed Lark was also recorded here in 2013.


One of the abundant Oriental Skylarks performing its song flight over the colourful grassland


Asian Golden Weavers were nesting along the small irrigation canal. Here’s a brightly coloured male.



Female lacks the bright golden plumage, but is still a pretty smart bird.

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Male Cinnamon Bittern trying to blend into the surroundings.


Another pair of Cinnamon Bitterns; male on top and female bottom


Soaring male Red Turtle Dove


Bronze-winged Jacanas were quite common along the roadside canals, but proved to be difficult to get good shots of.


I left Bangkok very early in the morning and arrived at the area around 7AM. It was a very birdy morning. Songbirds were singing from literally every direction, particularly the larks. Oriental Skylark was the most abundant species, followed by Indochinese Bush Lark and Horsfield’s Bush Lark being the least abundant. The road leading into the field was aligned by a small irrigation canal which was filled with Asian Golden Weavers‘ nests. They could be photographed extremely easily just from the car.


A pair of Bronze-winged Jacanas; note how small the male (bottom) is compared to the larger female


White-breasted Waterhen was also seen foraging along the canal.


A pair of Lesser Whistling Ducks


Adult Black Kite race M. m. govinda, a rare resident in Thailand


Note the lack of large whitish patch on base of primaries and yellow cere and feet


Another adult govinda Black Kite perching on a Eucalyptus tree.


A flying over Oriental Darter

The dirt road that goes around a large area of grassland, rice fields and Eucalyptus plantation is also aligned by small canals with lush Lepironia grass. Many birds were seen along the canals including many Bronze-winged Jacanas, White-breasted Waterhens, Plain Prinias, Zitting Cisticolas, Javan Pond Herons, Lesser Whislting Ducks and Cinnamon Bitterns.

Several Black Kites were seen perching and patrolling over the fields. They were all M. m. govinda which is a resident and nationally endangered bird in Thailand. Pak Pli is most likely the largest stronghold of this declining taxon. In winter, they come to roost altogether along with the migratory M. m. lineatus of which some authors split as Black-eared Kite. According to the Thai Raptor Group, 1,998 lineatus and 101 govinda Black Kites were counted at this roost on 22 November 2014.


Striated Grassbird was one of the commonest birds and one of the most vocal.


Striated Grassbird proudly performing its loud melodious song in flight



It’s much harder to spot them while foraging through thick grass.


I was glad to come across a lone Long-tailed Shrike race longicaudatus, another endangered bird of the central plains.


Paddyfield Pipit with nesting materials


The least abundant lark in the area, Horsfield’s Bush Lark


Great (or White-vented) Mynas like to follow buffalo herds and prey on insects that are disturbed by the animals.



Little Cormorants were seen easily along the road.


I was really surprised to come across this male Watercock moulting into breeding plumage standing in the open completely unaware of my presence.

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It stood motionlessly for a while, probably undecided about what to do nest, before slowly walked further into the open field and across the road into a small canal on the other side.


Then it behaved like a normal Watercock i.e. always hiding in thick vegetation.

At one point, I felt like there should Watercocks since the habitat looked so good for this species which is one of my favourite birds. Suddenly, I actually came across an unbelievably showy male Watercock standing motionlessly on the open ditch next to the road. It didn’t flush as the car approached but stood still for a moment before walking into a canal on the other side. I have no idea why it was behaving like that since it is normally an extremely shy bird. But as it went into the canal, it began to act more like a normal Watercock and didn’t show up again.


Many Oriental Skylarks were feeding in the newly ploughed fields.

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Most of the birds were in worn plumage.



When birds were quiet, Asian Golden Weavers were always there for me.



Female at the active nest


Oriental Pratincoles were also abundant but difficult to approach.


Juvenile following and begging for food from its parent

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But it was sad to see rows of mist nets over a large fish pond. Many birds were trapped in the nets and they weren’t even fish eaters; for example, this poor Oriental Pratincole.


On the other hand, this fish-eating Whiskered Tern seemed to be well aware of the nets and successfully avoided them. There were some 6-7 of these terns flying around over the pond. They’re probably over-summering in Thailand.


Striated Grassbird singing against the drizzling rain


Intermediate Egret against the many coloured grassland


One of several Oriental Skylarks that decided to forage on the road



There were many lotuses in the canals. Here’s the sweet coloured Sacred Lotus.

Failed Mision

On 26 August 2015, I decided to go and twitch for the Blue-breasted Quail, a very scarce bird that recently showed up in Suphan Buri. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough. The bird didn’t show up at all at the stake out from dawn to dusk. At least, I’ve got photos of some nice birds that I haven’t photographed before.


The first male Rain Quail calling from open dirt track


When seen from behind, the plumage blends well with dry grass.


Black-winged Kite hovering with flock of Feral Pigeons in the background



Another calling male Rain Quail showing the unmistakable black breast patch


The area was largely corn and sugar cane plantation with Kraseo Reservoir in the east. It was actually quite birdy in the morning. Before sunrise, many Large-tailed Nightjars were seen along the way into the plantation. Rain Quails were literally calling from every direction. The first male that I saw was even standing and calling from an open dirt track in the middle of corn plantation.


This was the most cooperative male Rain Quail that I’ve seen.


I really like its black and white facial pattern.



It has a loud unmistakable call consisting of 2 hight pitched notes.



Various calling position of the male Rain Quail

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The same male while foraging in roadside vegetation

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Showing the cryptic pattern on the back


Despite occasionally coming out to call in the open, it can disappear very quickly into the grass where its upperparts pattern blends in very well with the surroundings.

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Probably an immature male showing scattered black markings on the breast

There were more than 10 Rain Quails in just a small area where I parked my car. One of the males were more cooperative than the others. It showed up very well and even called in the open for few minutes. I didn’t take any video of the bird since I was photographing it hand-held, but you can see how it’s like when calling in this video taken at Huai Mai Teng Reservoir, Ratchaburi. Seems like this species strongly prefers grasslands near large water bodies.


Habitats where Rain Quails and other birds were found.


One of several Yellow-eyed Babblers

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Showing the backside


Other birds that were also seen including a noisy flock of Yellow-eyed Babblers, lots of Red Avadavats, Paddyfield Pipits, 2 Black-winged Kites, Golden-headed and Zitting Cisticolas, Plain and Yellow-bellied Prinias, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and a Long-tailed Shrike (subspecies ‘longicaudatus‘).

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The subspecies ‘longicaudatus’ of Long-tailed Shrike is an endemic to the central plains of Thailand. It is recently going through a serious decline due to an unconfirmed cause, most likely habitat loss. In the past, it can be found throughout Bangkok but has now become nearly extinct. Every record of this subspecies is now being collected, so I was very glad to see one in this area.


Female Rain Quail visiting the stake out intended for the Blue-breasted Quails

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It was trying its best to ‘stay low’. Instead of walking with its head up, it was always squatting tightly close to the ground.

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There was almost no bird coming to the stake out except for one female Rain Quail which showed up for several minutes at noon before, as the name suggests, heavy rain arrived. It reminded me of why I like the name “Rain Quail” a lot. It implies so much about this bird. In places where this remarkable species is found, they start to appear as soon as the monsoon season starts. Under the overcast weather, their unmistakable calls can be heard throughout the day like insects. Females can be more tricky to see and photograph because they don’t come out to call in the open. At least, I got to photograph both sexes nicely so it wasn’t a completely waste of a trip.


Before leaving the area, I found a flock of Oriental Pratincoles coming to roost in new corn plantation. Most of them were first-winter birds and some adults in non-breeding plumage.



Pratincoles and the dog!

Kloss’s Leaf Warbler at Khao Yai

It’s been more than 2 months since my last blog post. I’ve been very busy with many things but should be able to dedicate more time to this blog soon. Anyway, this morning Wichyanan Limparungpatthanakij, Ingkayut Sa-ar and I went up to Khao Kheow checkpoint, the highest accessible point in Khao Yai National park to seek one of the least known resident Phylloscopus warblers in Thailand, the Kloss’s Leaf Warbler (P.ogilviegranti), of which Ingkayut recently found just around the checkpoint.


Habitat looked similar to hill evergreen forest that I’m familiar with in northern Thailand.


View from the view point; a couple of Great Hornbills were heard but not seen

We arrived at the checkpoint around 7AM. The weather was brilliant. The forest seemed lush against bright blue sky and warm morning light… but it was strangely SILENT. We almost didn’t hear or see any bird along the way up to the checkpoint. As we arrived, a Barred Cuckoo Dove was heard cooing deep in the forest along with a Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

After a while, we spotted a mixed species flock which seemed interesting and might contain our main target, the leaf warbler, but turned out it didn’t. We wandered fruitlessly around the checkpoint for about half an hour. Finally, Ingkayut and I heard a Phylloscopus leaf warbler singing from roadside forest. We tried but couldn’t locate the bird. It took us another long while to finally hear, probably, a different bird.


Kloss’s Leaf Warbler (most likely subspecies P. ogilviegranti intensior)

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Check out the undertail pattern! I’ve never seen such pattern before. Looks intermediate between Davison’s and Blyth’s Leaf Warbler.


Note faint yellowish wash on underparts


Tail pattern when spread

We had to use playback in order to see the bird, otherwise it wouldn’t come out to visibility. Interestingly, the bird didn’t respond so much to the song of P. ogilviegranti that we had but responded more to the song of P. davisoni. We also got some recordings of the song while the bird was singing up close. However, songs of both species sound identical to our ears but we might see some differences when analysed in sonograms.


Like other birds around the checkpoint, the Kloss’s Leaf Warbler also enjoyed the high concentration of moths and other insects that were attracted by nightlights from the checkpoint.

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It was very actively singing.


There are about 27 species of Phylloscopus warblers in Thailand. Only 5 of them are resident! 3 out of 5 are found in northern Thailand, i.e.Ashy-throated Warbler, Davison’s Leaf Warbler and Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, while Kloss’s Leaf Warbler is a very range-restricted species of north-east and south-east. The last one is Mountain Leaf Warbler which can only be found on high mountains in the southernmost part of the country.

Among these resident Phylloscopus warblers, Kloss’s is the least known taxon. Khao Yai is by far the most accessible location to see this species, even though it’s proved to be scarce. Another place where Kloss’s Leaf Warbler is known to occur and even said to be common is Khao Soi Dao which is way more difficult to access. Because of this, we felt blessed to have observe the bird so well and obtained some photos and voice recordings.


Adult Dark-sided Flycatcher (ssp. sibirica), the second record for this autumn passage



Another shot showing the distinctive undertail pattern


The bird liked to hang upside down searching for insects under branches and twigs but didn’t show any nuthatch-like behaviour as exhibited so strongly in Claudia’s/Hartert’s group.


Showing faint yellowish centre to belly, a bit more pronounced than in Davison’s

After seeing the bird and checking the photos that I took, several identification features can be summarised as follow;

  • very distinctive undertail pattern; sort of intermediate between Davison’s and Blyth’s
  • habitually more similar to Davison’s than Claudia’s/Hartert’s as it mostly sticks smaller branches and twigs rather than staying close to major trunks; also didn’t show any nuthatch-like behaviour
  • relatively more yellow on centre of belly than Davison’s; otherwise, other than undertail pattern, very marginally different
From left to right: Davison’s, Kloss’s, Blyth’s, Claudia’s and Hartert’s

From left to right: Davison’s, Kloss’s, Blyth’s, Claudia’s and Hartert’s

But the easiest way to identify is to see the undertail pattern! Finally, I have a complete collection of undertail view for each member of this complex in Thailand. Ranging from the one with most white on undertail (Davison’s on the far left) to the one with least white (Hartert’s on the far right), the image above should give you some idea of where to look when encountered with these birds.

The Firethroat Tetralogy (3): 12 April 2015

After my third visit to see the male Firethroat at Nam Kham on 4-5 April, people continued to visit the bird daily and witnessed the rapid change of the plumage. The fiery feathers on throat and breast seemed to develop very quickly each day, as well as the solid black face and breast sides. I just couldn’t help planning another trip to catch up with its new look. Finally, the date was set for my 4th trip to Chiang Saen!

On 12 April, my friends and I left Chiang Mai around 3:30am. We arrived in Chiang Rai around 6am and were welcomed with extremely heavy rain. It was raining so hard that I became worried that the bird might have left. Luckily, as we entered into Chiang Saen area, the rain had reduced into drizzle. It was 7:30am when we reached Nam Kham and was joined by Woraphot Bunkhwamdi who first recognized the bird in December. He said he just saw the bird singing loudly from the trail, so we were relieved that the bird hasn’t gone away.


Our first view of the bird, hopping out into the rain and singing



It was very actively singing and it looked really smart! Only some white shafts left on the throat.



You can see how wet the day was!

I was the one who went into the hide despite the drizzling rain. It was still quite dark and extremely wet. I even had to wear boots to get through the trail. Not to mention, there were tiny leeches along the way. As I went in, the bird was already singing next to the hide but didn’t come out from the bush. I waited for about 30 minutes listening to its song and the sound of the rain, then finally it slowly hopped out from the dark and stood next to the waterhole as usual. This time it was very actively singing and looking smarter than ever!

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This seemed to be its favourite perch for singing.

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The light was terrible and I had to push ISO higher than what I normally use. Lucky that this bird was unusually confiding even on the first day it was discovered making photography more bearable. Compared to my last visit, the bird came out more often and stayed around longer probably because the Siberian Rubythroat was already long gone. My friends came into the hide about an hour later and we all enjoyed its thrilling look completely different from what we saw in January and March.

Short video clip of the bird while singing its sweet warbling song in the rain


Dim light and the rain couldn’t stop the bird from singing from open perch!

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You can see how close it was!

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Among natural habitat with Khagra reeds (Phragmites karka), key plant species of Nam Kham wetlands

Rain kept falling throughout the morning while we were staying inside the hide watching the Firethroat. It began to get heavier around 9:30am and my friends decided to leave the hide and stayed inside the building at the entrance instead. I continued to stay at the hide until almost noon and was joined by Nick Diamond, a UK birder whom I’ve met once at Nam Kham last year. We both enjoyed a prolonged view of the bird after flying in from behind the hide and dropping right in the middle of the open ground as it often did. Before leaving, we saw it flying up to perch on reed top to sing then flew out.

Singing its sweet song in the middle of the rain

Funny moment when it seemed to be pecking for leftover meal worms or some other sort of food

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The rain finally stopped as we left around noon with big smile on our faces. It’s amazing to see how drastically it has transformed in such a short period of time. It looked stunning compared to when we first saw it. Just like the last visit, I didn’t think that I’d be coming to Nam Kham again since it seemed to me that the bird could migrate back to its breeding ground anytime. It had almost completed its moult and was very actively singing, so this could be my last time seeing it, but amazingly, I was wrong. Next post will put an end to this long series of photos and notes from my visits to Nam Kham for this male Firethroat and the last visit was also the most memorable one.