We raced west through paddies, impressive irrigation systems, dust-laden villages and farmland until we started to climb towards the Kaeng Krachan National Park on 13-1-13, arriving in the area late afternoon to bird around the park HQ and lake, where Pacific Swifts zoomed overhead and Collared Starlings tootled away in the trees.
Staying down the road at the wonderful Baan Maka for a few nights was a mighty smart move by Trops, not only because of the excellent standard and setting, plus the patient hospitality of manager Tom (what, they want more beer????), but also because the gardens where pretty good for birding in their own right.
Crested Goshawk, Brown and Taiga Flys, Coppersmith Barbets etc all over the place.
Regular birds in Thailand, but great for Farangs to watch.
Huge Great Eared Nightjars sailed about like Hen Harriers over our chalets at dusk and the Chang bell tolled.
Next day we were out before dawn and gave the gardens a thorough going over - Little Spiderhunter, Pale Legged Leaf Warbler, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Green Billed Malkohas - goodies upon goodies galore before brekky, really nice birding around the scrub and manicured gardens.
Breakfast next to a tree trunk laden with rotten bananas etc brought in loadsa bulbuls, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Red Junglefowl as we munched down another Thai fry-up (how these guys manage to do cold fried eggs, but keep the yolks runny is one of the world's great culinary mysteries....).
A check around the National Park entrance in 96 degree heat gave us Grey Faced Buzzard, Arctic Warbler, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Chinese Francolin and Richard's Pipits, but our main goal in the afternoon was to stake out the poachers' "blinds" outside the park itself.
These are hides with small watering holes set up in the jungle by poachers in the past, but now folk are realising they can be as profitable if you let birders sit in 'em and photograph rather than eliminate the wildlife that comes into drink.
The oppressive heat of the afternoon is the best time to visit.
Tom at Baan Maka had kindly sorted out access to one of these sites and we stayed there all afternoon for a small fee...
Thrilling seeing what wandered out of the dark woods in the steamy, silent gloom.
Tiny Mousedeer like the one above looked more than good enough to eat (I was quite hungry), and were soon joined by Black Naped Monarchs, Stripe Throated Bulbuls, Lesser and Greater Necklaced Laughing Thrushes, Racquet Tailed Treepies, Brown Cheeked Fulvetta, Bar Backed Partridge, Scaly Breasted Partridge, Tickell's Blue and Blue Throated Flycatchers, Large Scimitar Babbler etc etc.
Perhaps best of all was a first winter Siberian Blue Robin which crept through the leaf llitter in the background, refusing to come to the water like the rest of the birdies, but some species have just got to keep their cool.
Bit dark for digiscoping, but I gave it a crack anyway, ending up with a few fuzzy shots of some great birds - Black Naped Monarch, Greater Necklaced Laughing Thrush, Lesser Necklaced Laughing Thrush, Stripe Throated Bulbul and Racquet Tailed Treepie are the critters below.
The "blue type" female flycatchers were especially confusing and hard to get good plumage detail on once they'd jumped in the water for a wash.
This is a female Tickell's Blue (I think).
Next morning we headed up to the National Park for the day, passing two Large Tailed Nightjars on the dust track to our digs before dawn and hitting Kaeng Krachan at 0615, and with Neill at the wheel we powered up dusty tracks past steaming piles of elephant poop towards the summit in the misty morning light.
Organised as ever, we realised we were going to run out of petrol before we got to the top and pulled over after about 28 clicks to bird the jungle-covered slopes, where moody forest elephants, monkeys and even tigers lurked, doubtless waiting to grab an unwary or fuel challenged birder.
The stench of last night's Chang orgy was more than enough to keep 'em away, that and the "greased panther" jungle field skills we have honed over the years (crash, bang, burp, curse etc).
Even though we make more noise than the average family group of hungry forest elephants we did manage to see a few birds - gorgeous Sulphur Bellied Warblers like yellow and black humbugs; Paradise Flycatchers; Asian Fairy Bluebirds; Common Flamebacks and Hill Blue Flycatchers as the day began to heat up.
We even came across a party of Little Cuckoo Doves.
With the Fortuner running on fumes, Neill coasted it back down the narrow, steep dirt track, which made for an entertaining drive as all the rest of the traffic was still on the way up.
Then as we neared the lower campsite we got lucky.
We'd pulled over to check the well-documented area around three fords where the river cuts across the dirt track when an American bird tour convoy pulled up, led by the ever-helpful Brit birder Nick Upton and Kevin Karlson (the latter of Cape May fame - small world)
All part of life's rich tapestry, especially as we realised Nick was taking the tour to the secret White Fronted Scops Owl stake-out we'd written off.
Online gen says you have to be in the park at dusk, probably staying at the beer-free campsite and being trampled by angry elephants to be in with a chance of seeing this hard to connect with species.
Now I don't mind elephant hassle, or even camping, but a beer-free night would be pushing a chap's endurance to the limit and beyond.
Poor Nick realised we weren't going to go away, so after his American clients had their fill of the owls, he kindly showed us the little gems in the branches along a gloomy trail.
Many thanks Mr Upton - cracking owls, if slightly creepy feet.
Putting the exact location of these birds online would probably be the kharmic equivalent of doing a poo in Buddha's slippers, so if you want to see 'em, Nick's the man to contact.
With our spiritual good deed deposit account almost completely cleaned out, we coasted down the track past Black Giant Squirrels and a host of other treeshrews and jungle-loving critters, most annoying being the very common, tiny and extremely irritating Burmese Striped Squirrel.
It occurs all over the place and "sings" like a bird - if I had a Chang for the number of times this mammal had me looking for a non-existent warbler, I'd have more Chang than would be good for me.
At least the White Handed Gibbons thought it was funny.
Plenty of phylloscs high in the trees as we headed down the mountainside - Yellow Broweds everywhere, with Two Barred Greenish and others way too far up in the canopy to pin down.
The tracks around the campsite gave us more lovely flycatchers - Verditers, Hainan Blues, Dark Sided and Browns, while dazzling butterfllies clustered at stream sides, presumably licking up minerals from the dust.
A Kalij Pheasant scampered across the track as we pulled out of the national park and headed to Baan Songnak, where Bazzo and I would spend our last night in the KK area in a Hobbit House too small even for a short*rse like me.
This wasn't a problem though, as the waterhole there held a stunning full male Siberian Blue Robin, Striped Tit Babbler, Blue Throated Blue Fly and Black Crested Bulbul.
All lovely stuff, if too gloomy in the jungle dusk to digiscope.
The track back from there to Baan Maka held Indochinese Bushlark (singing silhouette below), Common Iora, confusing Treeswifts, super-abundant Spotted Dove and loadsa drongos.
16-1-13 was our last full day at Kaeng Krachan, and fully fuelled up we got to the summit before daybreak for a superb morning's birding above the clouds, around the upper campsite.
Massive Great Hornbills, their wings makingan unmistakable "whooshing" sound as they moved overhead vied with East Asian Porcupines for entertainment value before the sun hit the summit at 0720 and birds started coming from all directions.
Streaked Spiderhunter, huge Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Grey Treepie, Great Cuckooshrike, Asian House Martin and hordes of barbets....wonderful birding.
Flocks of Eye-browed Thrush swept through the trees as the temperature started to rise, and in the crisp mountain air wonderful Brown-backed Needletails redefined the art of flight.
Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Blue Rock Thrush, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Wreathed Hornbill - all top drawer stuff.
Commoner birds like the crazy-tailed Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo and beautiful Scarlet Minivet sat still long enough to be digiscoped.
Stunning butterflies fed at my feet as the birds zipped by.
Always wish I had more time to look at 'em and the dragonflies when birding in the tropics - but it's hard enough keeping the bird gen in your head, let alone having to fill the small space between my ears with invertebrate info.
The barbets up at the top were especially good, with fine views of Great Barbet (my fave - what a bill, what a flier!), Blue Throated, Blue Eared and later Green Eared in the canopy.
Neill managed views of a Moustached, which, like all the barbet sp, was calling incessantly, but playing hard to get in the foliage.
A few fly-through Long Tailed Broadbills were nice, but I never managed to see one of these beauties perched up.
Ignored the "up-down" traffic regulations again, we headed down the mountain at 1145 and stopped off at Km27, where we hit a fantastic feeding flock holding a dizzying variety of birds from Ruby Cheeked Sunbird and Speckled Piculet to Silver Breasted Broadbill and Red Billed Scimitar Babbler.
This area is a stake-out for Ratchet-Tailed Treepie, and we managed two or three of 'em as they moved through the mid-storey of the jungle.
KK is the only place in Thailand you can catch up with this species apparently.
Very flighty and nervous, which wasn't surprising given the arrival of an amazing Crested Serpent Eagle which scattered everything.
Crimson Sunbird, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Hairy Drongos (what a racket) all made for a wonderful afternoon before we headed down and out of Kaeng Krachan for the last time, passing Emerald Doves, Dollarbird and Shikras at the roadside.
Left the park for 1700 and returned to Baan Maka to settle the ridiculously small bill and enjoy another superb meal and lashings of Chang.
We stayed at a lot of wonderful places in Thailand, but Tom and the team at Baan Maka were outstanding in the service they provided us.
Lovely people - many thanks!
Next day we hit the road east for Khao Yai.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...
Kaeng Krachan list
Yellow Browed Warbler, Sooty Headed Bulbul, Pacific Swift, Germain's Swiftlet, Taiga Flycatcher, Dark Sided Flycatcher, Black Collared Starling, Pied Fantail, Chestnut Headed Bee-Eater, White Rumped Schama, Crested Goshawk, Asian Brown Flycatcher, White Breasted Kingfisher, Himalayan Swiftlet, Coppersmith Barbet, Great Eared Nightjar, Little Spiderhunter, Ashy Woodswallow, Pale Legged Leaf Warbler, Gtr Racket Tailed Drongo, Yellow Bellied Warbler, Barn Swallow, Palm Swift, Chinese Pond Heron, Black Drongo, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Streak Eared Bulbul, Red Rumped Swallow, Hoopoe, Olive Backed Sunbird, Green Billed Malkoha, White Tailed Warbler, Black Naped Oriole, Golden Fronted Leafbird, Common Tailorbird, Black Browed Reed Warbler, Buff Vented Bulbul, Asian House Martin, Spangled Drongo, Black Hooded Oriole, Besra, Scarlet Backed Flowerpecker, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black Crowned Night Heron, Ashy Minivet ,Striped Tit Babbler, Black Headed Bulbul, Common Iora, Indian Roller, Lineated Barbet, Red Junglefowl, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Crested Treeswift, Grey Rumped Treeswift, Grey Faced Buzzard, Arctic Warbler, Richard's Pipit, Chinese Francolin, Black Crested Bulbul, Puff Throated Babbler, White Breasted Waterhen, Lesser Necklaced Laughing Thrush, Greater Necklaced Laughing Thrush, Stripe Throated Bulbul, Racket Tailed Treepie, Bar Backed Partridge, Brown Cheeked Fulvetta, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, Siberian Blue Robin, Large Scimitar Babbler, Scaly Breasted Partridge, Blue Throated Blue Flycatcher, Large Tailed Nightjar, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Sulphur Bellied Warbler, Crow Billed Drongo, Black Naped Monarch, Little Cuckoo Dove, Common Flameback, Blue Eared Barbet, Ochraecous Bulbul, Raffles' Malkoha, Hill Blue Flycatcher, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White Fronted Scops Owl, Two Barred Greenish Warbler, Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher, Brown Headed Sunbird, Kalij Pheasant, Shikra, Indochinese Bushlark, Spotted Dove, Abbott's Babbler, Streaked Spiderhunter, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Ashy Drongo, Great Cuckooshrike, Black Naped oriole, Grey Treepie, Great Hornbill, Asian House Martin, Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo, Eye-browed Thrush, Indochinese Cuckooshrike, Brown Shrike, Brown Backed Needletail, Blue Rock Thrush, Himalayan Swiftlet, Greater Flameback, Verditer, Blue Throated Barbet, Pale Capped Pigeon, Long Tailed Broadbill, Great Barbet, Blue Whistling Thrush, Asian Emerald Cuckoo, Scarlet Minivet, Blue Winged Leafbird, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Flavescent Bulbul, Thick Billed Pigeon, Wreathed Hornbill, Ashy Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Oriental White-eye, Silver Breasted Broadbill, Crested Serpent Eagle, Ruby Cheeked Sunbird, Speckled Piculet, Red Billed Scimitar Babbler, Bar Winged Flycatcher Shrike, Pale Legged Leaf Warbler, Ratchet Tailed Treepie, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Crimson Sunbird, Emerald Dove, Greater Green Leafbird, Bronzed Drongo, Green Eared Barbet, Blue Tailed Bee-Eater, Dollarbird, Dusky Warbler.