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The hills have eyes – Khao Dinsor, Thailand (Oct & Nov 2011)

This article originally appeared on the Hawk Mountain website here in 2012; unabridged journals from this part of the trip are published on Northern Rustic here. 

Crested Serpent Eagle

Our planning ahead for upcoming stages of the trip remained necessarily adaptable, and nowhere was this more valuable than in Thailand and Malaysia. Making the decision to head south from Bangkok first turned out to be a very good call, as the now infamous flooding worsened by the day in the northern half of the country – while we weathered nothing but decreasing monsoon downpours, steadily replaced by sunshine and blue skies.

Beyond there, and while kicking back in Malaysia, it became evident that Bangkok – after weeks of emergency protection measures, often at the direct and tragic expense of communities beyond the city limits – was itself under serious threat of flooding. Hence, a domino effect on our schedule and a total overhaul required.

Looking roughly north 

We monitored the situation further north as best we could; not easy when the Thai media contradicted itself on a daily (and often more regular) basis regarding the potential and actual extent and severity of the flood, leaving its citizens as confused as more distant observers. We’d made various plans to spend time at reserves and national parks outside and (mostly) north of Bangkok during the latter part of October and early November, but as the days passed the plans went from possible, to unlikely, to snowball in hell.

Far be it from us to mope, with our scheduling problems – confined to missing out on several special places and their birds – unmentionable alongside the tragedies playing out amidst the floods. With our time in Malaysia drawing to a close, it was back to the drawing board, and how best to utilise our remaining three weeks or so back over the border to the north.

(slightly older) Crested Serpent Eagle

Word from our Bangkok-based-but-recently-self-evacuated friends Neil and Eunice took care of any immediate decision-making troubles. They’d decamped to a small seaside village on the East (Gulf) coast, had found an extremely cheap and comfortable guest house a couple of minutes from the beach, and were planning on spending the next few days experiencing the epic raptor migration atop the nearby peak of Khao Dinsor; would we care to join them?

A question that required asking just the once, and we’d soon made plans to reach the nearby town of Chumpon within 48 hours – involving a flight from Penang to Phuket, overnight in Phuket town, and then a marathon 12-hour bus journey north-east the following day.

With Neil, Bob and the Thai big guns

A little context: Khao Dinsor is a peak overshadowing the Thai Gulf shore, offering stunning panoramic views in all directions (Myanmar to the west, rolling, lush ranges to the north and south, the ocean to east), but uniquely well-positioned to watch the squadrons of southbound migrating birds of prey as they follow flightlines learnt and honed over countless generations.

Black Bazas – the undisputed stars of the show

‘Discovered’ as a raptor hotspot – and already rivalling the most famous equivalents on the planet – only recently, Khao Dinsor is a very much a work-in-progress, with plenty still to find out and study; thanks to a small but dedicated band of ornithologists, birders and raptor devotees however, its reputation is growing fast, with plans to build an interpretation centre (and hopefully also a vulture rehabilitation facility) at the foot of the trail in the pipeline.

The possibilities here are exciting, and a combination of field research alongside pro-active outreach within local communities promises much for the future. The peak period is between mid-September and early November, so we’d arrived just time before the season’s window began to close; the peak for some species had already passed of course, but as we were to find out, there was plenty still to come.

Chinese Sparrowhawk

We ended up staying at our serene little guesthouse for five days, four of which were spent lapping up the ever-changing drama on the hill; up early, a few km drive to the small car park part-way up the slope (via breakfast at our favoured beachside cafe), followed by a blood-pumping hike through first sub-jungle and woodland and then mixed scrub, made somewhat easier by a rough concrete trail.

Then, a choice between several vantage points, all with purpose-built open-plan wooden shelters (essential for avoiding the worst of both spontaneous drenchings and sunstroke). We invariably chose the one nearest the top, which allowed enviable views of the birds at all levels – from far below us, to eye-level, to way overhead, and all points inbetween.

Brown-backed Needletail
Our chosen spot had become the ad-hoc domain of Bob (DeCandido), lead observer, affable New Yorker and source of perpetual effervesence and enviable expertees. Bob was in the home straight of an unbroken ten-week stint on the peak counting everything that happened to fly past, having not only kept a grip on his sanity but with enough to spare to keep us both entertained and educated. (Thanks Bob, it was a great pleasure.)
Other regular visiting bipeds included Marti and Matti, the quietly hardcore (and often hilarious) Scandinavians who usually chose the shelterless, exposed summit for masochistic but invaluable observations, and the various Thai birders, who were both great company and invariably very sharp. In retrospect, it would’ve been great fun even without the birds….

looking just west of north from our chosen vantage point

..which were breathtaking, in both variety and volume. Over the course of our four sessions on the hill, I was lucky enough to enjoy tens of thousands of raptors of no less than eighteen species, plus various other migrants gunning south around us; an amazing haul, and an unrivalled spectacle (with apologies to Falsterbo, Eilat et al).

Of those, perhaps – no, unarguably – the most impressive were Black Bazas. We’d arrived just after the peak movements, but it barely seemed like it from our perspective – witnessing clusters of birds, often in flocks several hundred strong, appearing over the peaks to the north, out of the clouds above us or out of the trees below us was unforgettable.

A flock of Bazas appears over the main peak (click on the image to enlarge)

Black Bazas accounted for the vast majority of individuals counted, but other numerous species included Shikras (hundreds per session) and Japanese Sparrowhawks (double figures per session); species recorded regularly in smaller numbers, meanwhile, included Crested Serpent Eagles, Chinese Sparrowhawks, Jerdon’s Bazas, Grey-faced Buzzards, Eastern Marsh Harriers and Oriental Honey-buzzards.

Greater Spotted Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine, Black Kite, Rufous-winged Buzzard, Booted Eagle, ‘Common’ (Eurasian) Kestrel, Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea Eagle – all recorded on one or more occasion(s) – accounted for the remainder; relentlessly killer birding, underpinned by an always entertaining collective mood.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater

A uniquely wonderful place which gave us unforgettable experiences with migrating raptors, with the additional attractions of great company, great weather (but for the last morning’s dark deluges, and it was still good birding), a valuable purpose, and a feeling of something very positive evolving from modest beginnings.

Mark James Pearson

Words and pictures – copyright Mark James Pearson 2012



























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