FLYWAYS AND BYWAYS

Birdwatching in Thailand’s Golden Triangle and Upper Mekong River Basin
Story by Antony J. Lynam PhD

Birdwatchers spend billions of dollars on bird tours, chasing reports of rare and unusual birds. According to the US Bureau of Commerce and US Fish and Wildlife Service, in the late 1990s Americans alone spent over US$23 billion annually.

With Thailand being home to 62 important birding sites and 960 species of birds (roughly 10 per cent of the world’s total) for at least for part of the year, the Thai kingdom is a hot spot for globe-trotting birdwatchers.

The total number of species found in Thailand far surpasses that found in the United States, Australia, Southern Africa or West Europe, individually. In terms of total area, Thailand is only a fraction of the size of these places, so why the diversity?

The kingdom spans the 14 degrees of latitude (from 6 to 20 degrees north of the equator), and has elevations of up to 2,565 metres above sea level, giving rise to diverse habitats. These include lush tropical rainforest and rugged karst forests in the south, mountains clothed in mixed evergreen and deciduous forests stretching to the Tenasserim border to the west, and cool montane evergreen and dry deciduous dipterocarp forests in the north.

Thailand is also a tropical rest stop for birds that make long distance migrations between their breeding grounds in North Asia and feeding zones in Australia.

Forests are essential habitats for most resident birds — those which live and breed within Thailand – and some migrants, notably birds of prey. But freshwater habitats such as lakes, pools, marshes, rivers and irrigated areas are absolutely critical as feeding and breeding grounds to an entirely different group of birds. Among the most important of these wetlands are places that support globally threatened or vulnerable species, or support twenty-thousand or more waterbirds at a time, at least for some part of the year.

Thailand is committed to protecting these rare places under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention). Almost a third of the country’s important bird areas fit this description. Eight are designated Ramsar sites.

Chiang Saen Lake and Surrounding Areas
Lying near the northernmost point of the Kingdom, where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar (Burma), the Nong Bong Kai Non-hunting Area is a Ramsar Site protecting Chiang Saen Lake, one of several semi-natural swamps that support impressive birdlife.

The nearby Yonok Wetlands, protected by a local conservation group, is a major roosting area for Pied and Eastern Marsh Harriers. Hundreds of the big boldly-coloured birds can be seen there.

However, well-known ornithologist Philip Round indicates that some of the most important habitats for birds lie elsewhere – such as at the edges of the lakes and next to rice paddies. Grasslands may reveal grassbirds, bushchats and stonechats. Quiet roads leading out of Chiang Saen towards Chiang Khong or Mae Sai are both access points to the lakes and likely places along which to see grassland birds.

During the winter months of November to January, the Mekong River is used as a flyway by ducks, gulls, terns and migratory waders as they move south from Laos, Myanmar, China and beyond. Habitats in and beside the Mekong River such as large sandbars and sandbanks are breeding places.

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