Sunday 6 February 2011

Pak Thale, Bangkok

I have wanted to visit Pak Thale (pronounced Talley) ever since I first heard of it last Monday. As Friday dawns, here I am, nothing if not self-indulgent.

There is no specific website for Pak Thale that I could find, but may I recommend Nick Upton’s if you ever consider a visit. Essentially, it is an extensive area of evaporation ponds for salt extraction. The whereabouts of the birds depends on the varying water levels in the pans, but they are all at different stages of the flooding and evaporation process so there is always one that will be just right. It is a large area and personal transport is essential if you want to explore the full potential and make a trip down to the sand spit at Laem Pak Bia (and you will).

My target bird was of course, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper with perhaps a Malaysian Plover to make a nice brace of lifers, but I hit a snag straight away. The hotel cars ran to Thai Baht 8,000 for a return trip of about 120kms each way. On the face of it, TB 4,000 (£80 or US $130 at current exchange rate) seemed a bargain for a street taxi, but had mentioned that buses pass through nearby Phetchaburi and on enquiry, they cost £2.40/US $5. Seldom do decisions come more easily. From Phetchaburi, I hired Mr Sopon and his incredible motorbike taxi to get me 14kms to the coast and the salt pans.

The ride to Pak Thale, a small village on the north-western coast of the Gulf of Thailand, took us through a rural and agricultural region with reed-filled ditches and irrigation ponds on both sides of the road. A Cinnamon Bittern crossed ahead of us, Indian Rollers hawked from the snags and a Greater Coucal looked up at us from a ditch as we whizzed by.

Lesser Sand Plover and Kentish Plover

When we arrived in the village, a helpful local rode ahead of us to put us in a good place to find birds. A sign with a Spoon-billed Sandpiper gave me confidence that he was taking us to the right place, but on arrival, although there were plenty of birds, it did not tally with the map from Nick Upton’s site which pinpoints a spoonie hot-spot, so we trawled the area looking for a landmark and noticed a big salt collection truck which showed that vehicle access could be gained deep into the salt fields (Google Earth ref; 13 08'45"N 100 03' 47"E). As we pulled up, the Burmese workers loading salt onto the truck pointed out a chap with a scope looking very intently at something. I walked over and signalled my presence with a gentle “pish.” He beckoned me over and pointed to a loose flock of feeding Red-necked Stints. They all looked pretty similar from sideways on.

 One of them fed with a shovelling motion rather than a picking action and when it turned towards me, it revealed the spatulate bill that characterises the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Better still, there were two of them. The other birder was Mark Andrews, a guide with Wildwings the nature tour company, who was out on an exploratory trip. He told me that there were another 4 in the adjacent pan, but a Merlin came through and put the birds up before we could find them again. Happy with his 6, and encouraged by the highest count of the year so far, Mark moved on to continue his preparation, but not before priming me for the Great Knot roost along the road.

Without wishing to turn this post into a love-in advert for the spoonies were within 150meters of Nick’s prediction. Considering the area covered by salt pans and ponds and the number of birds that would need to be scanned, having the target zone narrowed down to a manageable size was a huge help. I stayed for a while, hoping to find them for myself and succeeded in finding two separate birds among the Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Kentish Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank and Common Greenshank. Perhaps the two close acquaintances from earlier had split up, but I worked hard to find them again over a wide expanse of shallow water amongst a lot of birds, so I shall count 4 as my tally.

It was a strangely bittersweet moment, seeing such an iconic and endearing bird, but at the same time realising just how tiny they are and how vulnerable they will be when they embark on their journey north, having to overfly so many traditional staging points which have been lost to development. I am very grateful to Mark for pointing out the first two. Knowing that they were there gave me the confidence to persevere in finding the other two. There were a lot of salt pans and a lot of birds.

When the birds flew again from some perceived threat, I left Pak Thale and went looking for the Great Knot roost. The road runs north and south along the gulf coast. All the way, salt pans and birds, lots of them. Although I had wanted to stop and have a look at some of the birds in the rural lands on the way to Pak Thale in the morning, I prioritised my arrival to coincide with high tide at 09.00. Retrospectively, this was not  highly important as the birds had plenty of feeding opportunities in the pans and did not seem to be reliant on the state of the tide.
The Great Knot were not where Mark had predicted and we searched through each group of roosting birds before finding them close to the Environmental Research Project.
I hadn’t anticipated that the roost would be quite so big with more than a thousand birds the majority of which were the knot. There were plenty of the small plovers and larger Grey Plovers too, but I was on the lookout for Noordman’s Greenshank who seem to favour Great Knot as their roosting companions. The flock was thick and a long way off the road, but the salt workers didn’t mind me picking my way along the thin pond divides to try to get a better look. A few Kentish Plovers in the foreground flew up to tell me that I was quite close enough thank you.

From here, I scoped the flock until I noticed a slightly up-turned bill in a gap between some Grey Plovers. Even with the scope, it was difficult to see. The photo is super-zoomed, enhanced and cropped, but in the middle you should see the short upper-legged Noordman’s Greenshank. Look to the right and you will see a second. Seventeen had been counted earlier when the flock was further up the road.

Time as ever was getting away from me. Mr Sopon pillioned me around the Environmental Research Project for the briefest of tours. The birds were very approachable as long as we stayed on the motorbike, and birders in cars were able to get a very close looks at Red-wattled Plover, Pacific Golden Plovers and Chinese Pond Herons. It is possible that a few of the pond herons may have been the Javan species which is a very common resident immediately to the north of here, but which are indistinguishable in their non-breeding colours. We couldn’t stop for long as I had arranged to go out to the sand spit at Laem Pak Bia on a boat at 14.00 and I didn’t want to miss it.

There are plenty of boats that will take birders out to the sand spit with its gull and wader roosts, but I had met Mr Daeng (?) earlier in the day, been recommended to him by the Wildwings guide, Mark and had made the arrangement. Mark was already there having some lunch in the restaurant, but wasn’t going out to the spit. Mr Daeng himself was already booked up with a large group and his friend who was to operate my boat had let him down. He asked if I would mind sharing with another punter who was due in a few minutes.
How lucky am I? His other client turned out to be Nick Upton, author of the effusely recommended and full-time bird guide. Of course I wouldn’t mind sharing. Nick was very familiar with the inhabitants of the spit, and was making a special visit to show a client the Malaysian Plover and the recently re-discovered White-faced Plover.

Great Knot

For various reasons, we were unable to land on the part of the spit required to get a good look at the 2 target birds, but Nick was well acquainted with the habits of the White-faced Plover and soon had it in his scope, on the far beach beyond another large flock of Great knots and assorted waders. It was very distant and disappeared over the ridge before I could see it. I thought that my chance had gone until I noticed the little bird reappear by some rocks and Nick confirmed it as the White-faced Plover.

The story of the plover is slightly odd. Recently, many people have been reporting them from widely spread locations in South-east Asia and questioning their status. The bird has turned out to be a “lost” plover described by Robert Swinhoe in 1870. Swinhoe omitted to assign a type specimen and collections have been confusing them with the South-east Asia form of the Kentish Plover ever since. It has now been recognised as the White-faced Plover and allocated Aegialites [Charadrius] dealbatus. For more and for some pictures, visit; where else?

It was far too distant for pictures and so was the hunched chick-like silhouette of a Malaysian Plover that Nick found shortly afterwards. Our stay on the spit was all too short. A large flock of Great Knot were restless and kept taking flight passing behind our boat and settling again for a short while before getting up again for another fly-past. There were plenty of other birds too including Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Sanderlings and a Pacific Reef-egret.

On the return boat-ride through the mangroves, Nick’s client had his eye in, spotting 8 Collared Kingfishers and a Black-capped Kingfisher. I was beginning to think that I would have to get a new red crayon when a Chinese Egret gave a perfect fly-by.

I took a little break with Mr Sopon before we headed back to Petchaburi to catch the minibus home. I took the opportunity to check the gulls that I had been looking at all day and found them to be Brown-headed Gulls. Superficially similar to Black-headed Gulls, their useful field mark of much more black on the primaries proved useful, closer up, the light-eye and redder bill made distinction easy. It’s not often I say that about a gull. Even less often do I get to tick 6 new birds in one day. It would have been worth 8 grand of anybody’s money. If you don't have £160 to lavish on a day out at the salt pans, or would prefer to save some money back to donate to a worthwhile cause, cheaper options are discussed below.
I was worried that the minibus from Bangkok to Phetchaburi (approx 120kms) would be similar to the African Matatu taxis. With a similar policy, it only runs once it is full, but the vehicle was in excellent condition (as were all the other minibuses at the station and on the road) and the driver seemed competent. It was a reasonably comfortable 2 hour ride. The minibus station is at the bottom of the steps at the Victory Monument Metro Station and the cost was 120 Baht (@50=£1). The Metro trains start from 06.00 and I had to wait 20 minutes for the minibus to fill up.

Ask the driver to stop short of Phetchaburi at a convenient place to get a motorbike taxi for Pak Thale. Mr Sopon was happy to take 800 Baht for pillioning me around for 8 hours and then dropping me back to the minibus station in Phetchaburi. Take the minibus from the originating station. It does not leave with empty seats often and it does not advertise its destination, so you will wait a long time if you try to catch it further down-route.

Very little English was spoken. Ask the concierge at your hotel to write out some useful phrases in Thai. A useful one would have been “please stay with me all day” as Mr Sopon was confused as to what I required of him.

Hiring a car would be very possible and a reasonable if not half-so-exciting alternative. The road to Phetchaburi is a very good highway and the back roads to Pak Thale were fairly easy to navigate, just keep heading east. has maps and the names of places in Thai script. These were very useful. The Google Earth reference point for Pak Thale refers to the parking area and hot-spot for Spoon-billed Sandpipers on Nick’s map.

Mr Daeng (?), the boat driver is good at finding the plovers on the sand spit at Laem Pak Bia. His restaurant/boat ramp is at the end of the road on the south side of the channel (Google Earth ref; 13 02' 27.50"N 100 05' 20"E). Many of the boat drivers will leave you to your own devices once on the spit. This is not so bad when the appropriate part of the spit is accessible. It was not today and I would have been unlikely to find the plovers without some assistance.

Bird species; 62

Little Grebe 6, Little Cormorant 60, Grey Heron 3, Great Egret 6, Intermediate Egret 4, Little Egret 40, Chinese Egret 3, Pacific Reef Egret 1, Cattle Egret 4, Chinese Pond Heron 200, Striated Heron 1, Cinnamon Bittern 1, Painted Stork 5, Black-shouldered Kite 1, Shikra 1, Black-winged Stilt 100, Red-wattled Lapwing 20, Pacific Golden Plover 5, Grey Plover 65, Kentish Plover 85, Malaysian Plover 1, White-faced Plover 1, Lesser Sand Plover 160, Greater Sand Plover 50, Black-tailed Godwit 60, Eastern Curlew 150, Spotted Redshank 30, Marsh Sandpiper 40, Common Greenshank 17, Noordman’s Greenshank 3, Wood Sandpiper 3, Common Sandpiper 2, Great Knot 1000, Sanderling 20, Red-necked Stint 200, Curlew Sandpiper 300, Spoon-billed Sandpiper 4, Brown-headed Gull 600, Caspian Tern 4, Great Crested Tern 30, Common Tern 200, Whiskered Tern 3, Little Tern 25, Spotted Dove 40, Zebra Dove 3, Greater Coucal 1, House Swift 30, White-breasted Kingfisher 3, Collared Kingfisher 8, Black-capped Kingfisher 2, Blue-throated Bee-eater 2, Indian Roller 2, Dollarbird 1, Pacific Swallow 60, Yellow Wagtail 1, Streak-eared Bulbul 6, Oriental Magpie Robin 3, Brown Shrike 4, Black Drongo 25, Large-billed Crow 10, White-vented Myna 25, Common Myna 25, Asian Pied Starling 10.

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