This was a short weekend trip from Bangkok (involving overnight bus rides in both directions) to visit a national park near the southern point of the Lao border. We managed to find both of the park’s bird specialties: Short-tailed Parrotbill and Rufous-throated Fulvetta.
Getting there: A little bit complicated because of the absence of any road signs to the park! There is an overnight bus from Bangkok to Dan Sai (leaving from the northern Mo Chit bus terminal), although there appear only to be a few every day. The one I took left at 10pm on Friday evening and the end station was Phu Rua in Loei province, north of the Phu Khiao/Nam Nao area. The bus arrived about 5am to some exceptionally chilly weather (by Thai standards) – cold enough to see your breath. We ate rice porridge in the market sitting next to a display of gutted rats. Both long-tailed and short-tailed varieties were available for a “Cane and Drain” mixed grill (although we were confidently informed that the long-tailed variety were “rattan rats”, maybe something like Indochinese Forest Rat). You often see stalls selling barbequed Noo Na (bandicoot-rats?) in Thailand – “Na” is a rice field, the same word as in “Na Haew” and the names of many other villages in this area.
If you are driving, Dan Sai is a short detour off the road (Route 203) to Loei, about an hour before you get there. The town of Na Haew, which Thai people usually use to refer to this birding site, is about 32km west of Dan Sai (Route 2113). To be honest, the signposts are not very good, you might do better to ask. A few kilometers after you pass through Na Haew, there is a junction, the road continues straight to a temporary border crossing to Laos, but you should turn left (Route 1268) towards Baan Na Por (a village about 3km after the park entrance). It is about 15km from this junction to the park entrance (19km from Na Haew), and 7km before the park entrance you pass through three villages close together. People in Dan Sai should know Baan Na Por or the name of the park (“Phu Suan Sai”). After turning into the park, it is a few more kilometers to the headquarters area. We arranged a taxi, which cost 800 Baht from Dan Sai to the park.
The roads are excellent around Na Haew, we were told this was the outcome of a Government “hearts and minds” policy during the days of the communist insurgency that was active in this area in the 1970s.
Accommodation: The park management seems to be setting this park up as some kind of resort, and it is a lovely, quiet park. There are a range of quite nice bungalows available (some with their own bathrooms (900 Baht/night) and some with shared (300 Baht/night), but all clean with hot water showers and western toilets). There is a good Thai restaurant and a small shop selling chips, coke, toilet paper, and various cooking ingredients (like eggs). You can also camp. The park HQ and accommodation is right next to Phu Suan Sai hill, after which the park is named (which means “Sandstone Hill” in Lao/Isaan language).
The rangers and park management staff were all very friendly, and seem to be making a very professional effort to attract more visitors to this relatively new park (established about 10 years ago, from what I was told). Aside from birdwatching, there are some decent walking trails and waterfalls, including an “international waterfall” that flows from Thailand into Laos about 14km from park HQ. You can find more information on the park attractions on the official web site (as of 22 Dec 08):
Birdwatching: The two specialties are present year round, but the best time to visit is between November to March. Probably the best plan is just to walk the road continuing up from HQ (facing with the restaurant and accommodation on your right and the visitor centre on your left). According to our park guide, the parrotbill is most often seen creeping around in dense clumps of bamboo, sometimes in mixed flocks. Apparently more than 50% of visitors see it, although the birds are small and active and can be difficult to see well. We continued along the road down a steep hill and some way further to a bridge. There is a village further along this road.
A few hundred metres past the cafeteria, there is a dirt track past the Superintendent’s House, which is signposted as a birdwatching trail. This loop is perhaps 2 km and continues up to an open ridgetop area (that used to be an army camp during the insurgency) then down steeply to a gully, rejoining the tarmac road a short way before the bridge. We saw a couple of very tame Rufous-throated Fulvetta feeding on the ground along the side of the trail about a hundred metres after the Superintendent’s House (but beware confusion with Puff-throated Babbler, which also occurs and has similar habits).
So you can do a loop, going one way along the trail and coming back along the road (or vice versa). The elevation here is apparently 900-1000m, and there are a mix of montane and lowland birds.
You can hire a ranger to guide you for 200 Baht a day (pay to park HQ). Ours, called Samit, was very hard-working, friendly and also knew the good spots and many of the calls. I’d recommend tipping him the same again to the official price.
Crested Goshawk – 4 sightings, possible just one pair
Spotted Dove – 2
Thick-billed Pigeon – group of about 8 in a fruiting tree
Mountain Imperial-Pigeon – one heard
Collared Scops-Owl – one heard
Asian Palm-Swift – about 10
Blue-bearded Bee-eater – 3
Great Barbet – 2 and many heard
Blue-throated Barbet – 3 and many heard
White-browed Piculet – 1
Rusty-naped Pitta – one heard
Red-rumped Swallow – about 15
Olive-backed Pipit – about 15
Gray Wagtail – 1
Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike – 4
Stripe-throated Bulbul – 1
Flavescent Bulbul – about 10
Puff-throated Bulbul – about 10
Gray-eyed Bulbul – about 5
Orange-bellied Leafbird – 2
Common Tailorbird – 3
Yellow-browed Warbler – about 10 and many heard
Blyth’s Leaf-Warbler –3
Gray-crowned Warbler – 10
Yellow-bellied Warbler – 8
Taiga Flycatcher – about 8
Verditer Flycatcher – 1
Tickell’s Blue-Flycatcher – 3 (based on the altitude, I wonder if I misidentified Blue-throated, but I couldn’t see a blue throat and they seemed to have a sharply defined orange breast)
Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher – 2 and a few heard
White-rumped Shama – 1
White-tailed Robin – 1 male
Slaty-backed Forktail - 1
White-crowned Forktail –1
White-throated Fantail – 2
Buff-breasted Babbler – 4
Puff-throated Babbler – 2
Large Scimitar-Babbler - 2
Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler – 1
Gray-throated Babbler – 4
Striped Tit-Babbler – about 8
White-browed Shrike-Babbler – 2
White-hooded Babbler – 3 (in a nice flock with both species of scimitar-babbler, Green Magpie and Greater RT Drongo, by the stagnant pond at the foot of the steep hill down the main road)
Rufous-throated Fulvetta – 2
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta – about 15
Gray-cheeked Fulvetta – 2
Short-tailed Parrotbill – 2. These were on their own, not in a mixed flock. Walking along the main road with the cafeteria on your right, these were in bamboo just a few hundred metres past headquarters. Apparently they can be found in dense growth of bamboo anywhere down this road, sometimes in the bamboo right around the cabins at headquarters, but perhaps the most regular site is spot where the birdwatching trail rejoins the main road (hard to find if you are only walking along the road).
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch – 2
Black-throated Sunbird – about 8
Little Spiderhunter – 1
Streaked Spiderhunter –1
Japanese White-eye – about 20
Ashy Drongo – about 5
Bronzed Drongo – 3
Hair-crested Drongo – 4
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – 1
Green Magpie – 1
Large-billed Crow – 4
Northern Treeshrew – 1
Variable Squirrel – 3
Based on a short visit, this park (like many in northern Thailand) does not appear to be a happening place for wild mammals, but maybe things will recover given time.