A Great Number of Great Hornbills
I'm constantly amazed at the abundance of hornbills at Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand. I just got back from another trip there and the hornbill sightings were better than ever.
One late afternoon as we paddled slowly back toward the floating bungalows where we spend the evenings, we saw seven Bushy-crested hornbills fly into a nearby tree. One of the nice things about most species of hornbill here is that they make a lot of noise just before taking flight. Bush-crested hornbills are about the most gregarious species here. It's rare to see a solitary bird. On this afternoon, in the glassy calm stillness of the setting sun, this gang made their position known brashly. We turned away from our gazing at monkeys to see where they were. They ended up flying very close to us. What a treat, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.
Great Hornbills, easily discernable by their bulky yellow bill and a yellow slash in the middle of their wings, also tend to travel in small groups in this area. On this evening, we witnessed fifteen hornbills in flight at the same time! It looked like something out of a Jurassic Park movie. The air was full of their 'whooshing' wing beats and their singular 'gok' calls or their repeated 'ger-ok, ger-ok, ger-ok' bark.
We had seen many Great Hornbills on this trip. Of course, neither of us had a camera this time. I figured it out… if you really want to see birds close-up, forget to bring your camera. We were close enough on a couple occasions to tell the male from the female. The male has red eyes and the female white.
One couple of Great Hornbills sat high in a palm tree eating the berries. We sat there for a long time just watching them eat. They would pick a berry with the end of their bills, then throw their head back to get it into their throats. Occasionally, a berry would fall out and bounce through the brush to the ground… a snack missed.
The weather was so perfect that we opted to paddle all the way back to the dam on our last day. It was a 15 nautical mile journey that we allowed several hours to make. We were blessed with a stiff tailwind. About half way, on a small island covered with bamboo and a few nice emergent trees, we spotted some more hornbills. I quickly grabbed my binoculars which I keep in a dry bag under some bungy cords on my foredeck. "Oh wow!", I screamed. The island had a bunch of Southern Pied hornbills. I'd never sent them here before. I've only seen them in saltwater environments on some of the more remote islands in Phang Nga Bay and further south. This was a treat. One particular bird didn't seem to mind us being there at all. He was pecking at some bamboo in plain view.
Many people have commented on how well I spot wildlife. I always tell them that it's not difficult; it's a matter of practice and knowing how to look and what to look for. For example, to find Dusky langurs, big black monkeys with long white tails, you need to look for something about a meter long, white, and vertical. There aren't many things in the jungle here that fit that description besides langur tails. Whenever I get a bit bigheaded about my abilities, a Thai will show me up. On this trip, I had passed right under a sleeping Reticulate python coiled up in a tree. Our Thai guide asked me later if I had seen it. I couldn't believe I missed it. I went back and there it was plain as day. My head shrunk back to normal… or maybe a bit smaller.
The final hornbill of the trip was in the limestone cliff area of the reservoir. This particular hornbill sighting was the result of me seeing something yellow in a tree that was otherwise completely green. Shortly after I spotted it, it took to flight. This Great Hornbill was traveling solo for some reason.
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Phang Nga Bay - Having the Place to Ourselves
It's truly marvelous how we can visit a bay that is often swarming with massive numbers of tourists and not encounter them. We have structured our trips that way. It's not that we dislike tourist groups; it's easier to relax and enjoy this special area when it is silent. This might not go on forever, but for now, we can enjoy in solitude the beauty of one of the most beautiful bays in the world.
We visited Phang Nga Bay several times last month. On the first trip we saw a huge monitor lizard being attacked by a troop of Crab-eating Macaque monkeys. This lizard was certainly large enough to eat a monkey. The monkeys probably thought so too, so they wanted it off of their beach. At the same time, the sky was full of Black Kites, medium-sized raptors. Two pairs of Pacific Reef Egrets stood on a nearby rock. In other words, we were surrounded by life.phang nga bay
As we paddled to where the monkeys were, we could see the branches of a huge ficus (fig) tree moving. There they were. When we paddled closer, they moved out of sight.
Our guests in the bay this month included Jean Kim and her friend Andy. They loved the bay right away. Their normal daily life is high speed, high stress, and always on the go. They earned this! Jean came on the first trip of the month, then returned a week later with Andy, who had just arrived in Phuket.
Kimberly, a Canadian school teacher living and working in Hong Kong also joined us in the bay. She was very eager to get into a kayak. She'd done a good bit of paddling in Canada, but a kayak was new to her. All three of them picked up good technique quickly. They were all intelligent folks who knew how to listen. It was a real pleasure for us to only have to tell and show them a couple times before they 'got it'. Strokes like a sculling draw stroke, a figure eight stroke used to move a kayak sideways, wasn't a challenge to any of them. This is normally a stroke people get after some time. Not these guys; they understood the mechanics behind the stroke right away.
I like to teach kayaking technique by relating it to basic laws of physics. The law of "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" helps me to explain many strokes. After all, moving a boat through water requires force. That equates in kayaking to moving the paddle one way to make the kayak go another way.
Charlie, our good friend and my long-time paddling student, also joined this trip. He's always fun to have along. He lives in Manhattan, USA and comes to Thailand for as long as he can every year.
On a typical trip to Phang Nga Bay, we depart by escort boat from a pier used by few tourists. When we say we try to stay away from other tourists, we mean at all times. Anyway, Big Tree Bay is usually one of the first places we visit. It's a nice place to visit at any water level. When the water is high, we can beach the boats and swim or just sit in the water.
There are interesting plants to be seen here, including several species of orchid. We usually lose Roy when there are orchids are around. He's in the process of building a website dedicated to appreciating the wild orchids of Thailand. He has a new digital camera and is off to a good start with his wild orchid photo gallery. It'll be something special when he's finished.
From Big Tree Bay (our name, not the map's), we make a short crossing to two nearby islands. One features a splendid cove that has a lovely beach. We stop there when we have enough water. These islands always have Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea Eagles soaring overhead. Brown-winged Kingfishers are common too. They're a bit territorial, so we generally see them in the same area. It's a bit strange; they're bright orange, yet they're not all that easy to see. They can sit on a branch without moving at all. Once we advance a bit too close, they bolt out of the tree. In flight their striking color is obvious.
There's a small lagoon on the back side of the larger island that we can paddle into when the water is high enough. It has a few mangrove trees (mostly rhizophoraceae family). On one dead tree, and a living one next to it, are small clusters of orchids, probably Dendrobium Nathanielis. These are the only orchids we have seen growing on mangrove trees.
Each night we return to the bungalows on our long beach. We never tire of looking east to the stunning view of several steep islands. The place has good quality island bungalows. They have fans, showers, and proper beds. We don't mind the lack of hot water or round the clock electric service. It's the restaurant and the staff that we truly appreciate. Khun Suthep manages the place. He's a great guy with a strong desire to make sure everyone is happy. He is good at his job.
On an average night, we'll eat a mildly spicy cashew salad for starters. Main courses usually include a curry, something fried in garlic and pepper, a veggie dish, and either a big fried fish or some shrimp. Andy, Jean, and Kimberly certainly appreciated the scrumptious cultural treat.
The next day we headed up to a couple of larger islands. We spent the day paddling easily, appreciating the silence and solitude. We stopped now and then on small beaches. There's still a lot of wildlife on these islands. Our guests had the same feeling as us, that all of this belonged to us, ours to absorb and enjoy. This can only come when we don't have to share it with noisy tour groups. Just us, the birds, monkeys, lizards, orchids, and the occasional entirely tolerable fishing boat.
On the last day of the first trip in July we paddled into a big lagoon that is accessed by passing under an overhanging rock, almost a cave but not quite. On that day, we saw a small fishing boat just inside the lagoon. At first, I thought, "hmm, this might not be too good." A longtail motor makes a lot of noise in a small area with rock walls all around. I was wrong. He didn't even have a motor. He was rowing! He still made a lot of 'noise' though. This man had a beautiful voice. He was singing a traditional Thai song, and the sound filled the rocky lagoon with a haunting sweetness.
It was entirely different from watching some singer on TV or in a club. He certainly had our attention for as long as he sang. We drifted slowly in this timeless place, enriched by the man we had thought would disturb "our" silence!
On the second trip in the bay with Andy, Kimberly and Charlie joining us, Roy and I wondered if our singing boatman would be in the lagoon again. He wasn't. We still enjoyed the ordinary eternal solitude of the place. Our bringer of sweetness was just coming to the lagoon when we paddled out. We slowed our paddling so the others could appreciate his gift. Here is a person who has more talent than most entertainers, and who seems content to entertain himself as he moves slowly along, laying his fish traps.
July is supposed to be dead low season. It wasn't for us. We had a great month… meaning we spent more time on the water than on the computer! The weather was very agreeable most of the time too. We always tell people that low season is a good time to be here. The hotels and bungalows are cheaper and there are a lot less people around. That's always a bonus when you're a nature lover. So come on over. It might rain a bit, but there's still plenty to see and do when you've got a kayak.
Roy adds: In and among the profusion of outdoor gear in American outfitter shops are some jewels that fit our needs very well. When it rains, the air is cooler than the water. That means it is good to have a shirt that wicks away the dampness from the body. While in the US in May, I found The Answer. I picked up Polartec shirts by Bomber Gear and could not be happier with the result. Bring on the rain!
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