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Malee’s & the Mountain – Chiang Dao, Thailand (Nov 2011)

Striated Swallow

Leaving Bangkok via the unholy luxury of an internal flight (trains being out of the question, with the lines underwater) provided first-hand evidence of the devastating extent of the floods; from the northern suburbs and for many miles northwards, entire communities and their lands were submerged beneath a shimmering blue sheet – another close encounter with meteorological chaos on the trip, and another timely reminder of our privilege.

Grey-crowned Warbler

Barely an hour later and we’d arrived in Thailand’s historical capitol Chiang Mai – a magical introduction, with the nightime streets and canals festooned with intricate, illuminated sculptures (our visit coinciding with both Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals).

After a memorable few days enjoying a city with numerous beautiful shrines, plenty of cultural interest and a (comparatively) relaxed undercurrent, we journeyed north via tuk-tuk, public bus (much fun and great views) and then Songthaew to the idyllic rural retreat of Malee’s, near Chiang Dao.

male Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher

The far north-west of Thailand hosts a mouth-watering array of species that effectively ‘spill’ over the borders to the north and west, with many residents and winter visitors found nowhere else in the country; hence our often-delayed and much-anticipated time here was unlikely to disappoint.

Malee’s – our base for the next part of the trip – is tucked away in a lush valley between two forested ranges that dominate the skyline, and is established as an ideal stop-off for birders and other naturalists, with access to several mountains – and their avian specialities – close by, and excellent birding opportunities within a couple of kilometres (not least within and around the garden surrounding the accommodation).

the foothills of Doi Chiang Dao

Our plan, based on the above, was to stay two or three days – one day set aside for a specific excursion to the nearby mountain of Doi Chiang Dao for higher altitude species (and more besides), and a day or two within the immediate vicinity picking up whatever was possible within walking distance. As implied by our staying six nights (and only then departing through necessity), it was hard to leave; an almost inexhaustible supply of birding thrills was augmented by the wonderfully peaceful and relaxing environs and good company (human and otherwise).

male Grey Bushchat

But the reasons for staying at Malee’s weren’t just to kick back and let the birds come to us (although to be honest that would’ve done just fine), but also because of the ideal location, way up in the north-west near the Myanmar border. Being within striking distance of Doi Chiang Dao gave us the opportunity to try for a range of species we’d otherwise have no chance of, and also to enjoy a relatively unspoilt montane environment full of flora and fauna.

the view from the restaurant, our favoured birding spot…..

Our driver and his 4×4 arrived around 5 a.m., and under a brightly moonlit sky we were on our way. Reaching the base of the mountain in the dark was a breeze, but then the drive (or, rather, scramble) up the unpaved, winding and precipitous track up the mountain was like a blacked-out, two-hour long fairground ride. We may not have shared any common language, but our driver was the consumate pro in very testing circumstances (and our personalised sign language saw us through with ease).

As we reached the higher section of the track, dawn began to spill meekly over the mountain, revealing a beautiful array of mixed woodland and high-elevation sub-tropical forest habitats. With first light came the first birds, and a quick succession of lifers – including Blue-throated Barbet, Slender-billed Orioles (a common bird throughout the day) and the main target species for many visiting birders, a Giant Nuthatch.

Grey-headed Parrotbill

Making our way to the very end of the track (occupied by a small electricity substation, a toilet block and a clearing in the woodland), several stops en route produced a very-low flying Mountain Hawk Eagle just above our heads, the first of the day’s Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Ashy, Black, Lesser Racket-tailed and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and the first indications of just how common Yellow-browed Warblers were on the mountain.

Arriving at the substation, our driver kicked back with the friendly occupants of the isolated dwelling, and we set off on what’s known as the summit trail. In retrospect, a timing mistake, but it all worked out in the end….

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

But first, we had to negotiate the ‘path’ – actually a narrow trail cut into a sharp gradient, with a potentially unpleasant drop on the left-hand side; no doubt fairly easily navigated (albeit with care) when the path is clear, but nigh-on impossible if the towering, thick grass is left uncut, as it was for our visit.

With this being our only opportunity, we battled through it anyway, picking up various bites, a couple of leeches, a particularly troublesome tick (deep in the armpit and discovered later), and an instant to-the-skin soaking from the heavy dew. (The camera survived just fine, but only due to the arms-above-the-head carrying technique.)

Blue-bearded Bee-eater

A demoralising half-hour or more steadily brightened in more ways than one, as the trail opened out into scattered pine forest with patches of bamboo and mixed scrub, the sun finally hit our drenched frames, the panorama stretched dramatically over the mountain tops, and birds began to entertain us from all sides.

Giant Nuthatch

Among the countless highlights over the next hour or so – at least three more Giant Nuthatches (closer and more accommodating this time), a White-tailed Leaf Warbler, several (superb) Grey Bushchats, a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, a group of inquisitive Grey-headed Parrotbills, a pair of Short-billed Minivets, a Lesser Yellownape, and a Bianchi’s Warbler, satisfyingly nailed on call (unlike most other Seicercus warblers during the period…).

For the remaining time on the mountain, we decided to slowly make our way back down, concentrating most efforts on the highest few hundred metres or so – regular stops for bird waves and wanders into the woodland and scrub provided plenty more highlights, even in the heat of the day.

Silver Pheasant

Of these, some of the more memorable species included several Blyth’s Leaf Warblers, a Maroon Oriole, Flavescent Bulbuls, a couple of Rufescent Prinias, a White-throated Fantail, Pin-tailed & Wedge-tailed Green Pigeons, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, and plenty of Phylloscopus warblers (in addition to the aforementioned White-tailed and Blyth’s Leafs):

Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-broweds were unavoidable (at least eighty through the day, perhaps many more), Eastern Crowned and Greenish numbered perhaps ten each overall, a single Arctic was picked out in a mixed species flock, and there were others that went unidentified (although I did manage record shots of several, which’ll provide something to do during the bleak mid-winter in East London…).

Unedited versions of this post originally appeared on Northern Rustic in December 2011

all words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012

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