Phu Khiaew Wildlife Reserve is on the north-western edge of Isaan (north-east Thailand), which, in general, is a densely populated area more famous for its hospitality and cooking than for its (wild) birds. It’s a big area, though, and has some wild places like the more famous Nam Nao, which is just north of Phu Khiaew, and Khao Yai, which just creeps into the southwestern corner of Isaan.
Phu Khiaew means “green hill”; “Phu” is also the Laotian word for hill, and I’ve heard that the Isaan language is essentially the same as Laotian. The reserve is unusual in Thailand in that it contains good, tall forest with a number of small lakes. The headquarters area of the park is at about 800m altitude, a similar altitude to the headquarters of Khao Yai, and I would have expected it to contain similar birds. The make up is surprisingly different, though – the wet hill forest seems to have a much higher proportion of montane birds than Khao Yai, and the area also contains a lot of dry dipterocarp and pine forest. Around the HQ, one forest type transitions into another for no reason that was apparent to me, maybe just reflecting changes in the soil.
The main headquarters area of Phu Khiaw is accessible from the northern end of the park, the furthest side from Bangkok. If driving, follow signs for Chulaphon Reservoir, about 50km west of the town of Chumpae. Phu Khiaew WR is well signposted once you approach the reservoir. As you approach the reserve, the road climbs to the top of a ridge (with Nam Nao NP on your right) and there is a left turn at an overlook with food stalls to enter the Reserve proper; the first checkpoint is also here. From here, the access road is quite long (maybe 30km?) to the Headquarters. The forest looks nice, but I saw very little apart from Sambar Deer and Common Palm Civet at night. The drive is about 7 hours from Bangkok.
Alternatively, you can take a bus to Chumpae (8 hours bus ride from Bangkok, with direct VIP buses leaving from the Northern Bus Terminal). If you can find someone that speaks Thai, you can call the park to see if a ranger will pick you up, or take a taxi to the reserve (maybe 700 Baht).
The headquarters area of Phu Khiaew includes an office/visitors centre, a restaurant (used mostly by the rangers and researchers) and a number of bungalows that can be rented. You will have to come to the office building to arrange a guide if you’d like to hike to Mon Lake (see below). There is a relief map of the park, and a number of photos of local birds and mammals on the walls. The headquarters is in an area of dipterocarp/pine woodland, and birds like Eurasian Jay and Blue Magpie are easily seen in this area, as well as tame Sambar and Hog Deer, the latter presumably captive bred and (partially) reintroduced.
The rangers have made a small pool near headquarters that I have heard attracts large numbers of Mountain Imperial and Thick-billed Pigeons, partridges and trogons in the dry season. All of my visits were in the wet season so I never went there, but I’m sure the rangers could easily show it to you.
There are a few medium-sized lakes around the Headquarters area where I saw Darter, Osprey and Common Kingfisher. White-winged Duck is apparently seen once in a while on these lakes (especially a small lake near some bungalows where the rangers live), but a more reliable site is Mon Lake.
Mon Lake is about 5km hike from Headquarters. You will need to arrange permission and get a guide from headquarters to go there. 2.500 Baht should be plenty to pay a ranger for a two-day trip (if you camp), and if another ranger comes maybe tip them an extra 500 Baht. They will bring their own food and hammocks; you will have to organize your own.
Just to give directions, anyway: The headquarters office building is across the road from a soccer pitch, with some of the rangers’ housing on the opposite site. If you stand on the road with the HQ behind you and the soccer pitch in front of you, turn right and walk down the road, downhill. After a few hundred metres, you come to a large lake on your right, and a couple of small artificial pools on your left. A track leaves the road to the left just before you come to the second small pool on your left. This track leads to Mon Lake.
The trail to Mon Lake is a wide jeep track. It is a flat, easy hike through lovely tall forest. Interestingly, as you start along the track, the vegetation changes suddenly from dry dipterocarp/pine forest to lush hill forest. I imagine the forest along this trail has the full complement of montane birds. Common birds (judging sometimes by voice) include Bar-backed Partridge, Oriental Bay Owl, Mountain Scops-Owl, both trogons, White-necked and Black-throated Laughingthrushes. I heard many White-handed Gibbon and saw a few troupes of Phayre’s Langur. The rangers showed me many signs of Gaur and Dhole, and there was the usual evidence of Elephant. The reserve is also supposed to have many species of large cat including Tiger and Clouded Leopard.
Apart from the tropical forest surrounds, Mon Lake looks much like a temperate zone lake. The water is clear, and the main part of the lake has a modest border of rushes (rather than a tangled mass of water lilies). The waterbirds present on the lake changed every time I visited – Darter in July, Moorhen, Common Kingfisher and a lone Lesser Whistling-Duck in October and November, and Black-capped Kingfisher in October.
The jeep track travels along one side of the lake on an embankment (I suppose the lake must be dammed). Standing on the embankment, the lake at first sight appears quite small and open, without many places for, say, a White-winged Duck to hide. At the far end, however, channels lead around to the left and right. If you walk to the far end of the embankment, the jeep track peters out soon after the far edge of the lake. However, a small trail leads to the right to a small, scenic campground, and then continuing further around the edge of the lake. It is indistinct in places but easy to follow, since you are walking in fairly open forest right along the edge of the lake. You can follow the trail around the corner, along the edge of the “left channel”. This now looks more tropical, with small mazes of water through big banks of grass and weed. A few dead logs stick out into the water and by walking along them you can get a good view of the water. I saw the White-winged Duck from here on the evening of November 4th. I guess it was there during the other visits, just hiding in the weeds the whole time.
The forest around the lake also isn’t bad, with lots of Common Hill Mynas in the tall dead trees at dawn and dusk, Blue Pitta heard near the lake, and Hainan Blue Flycatcher in a mixed flock. Another highlight during the November visit was a flowering Sapria himalayana (a small, red Rafflesia with white spots). I meant to take a photo, but it started pouring with rain that night. It took us by surprise, since it was a bit late in the year, flooded the tent and the food, and cut short the trip.
Phu Khiaew doesn’t feature on the itinerary of many western birdwatchers but it is the favourite park of some of my Thai friends. If you have time to visit this part of the country, Phu Khiaew has many of the same birds as Nam Nao, but also has lakes, large areas of wet hill forest, and a wilderness feel.
Species below were seen on three visits to Phu Khiaew on 23-24 July, 15-16 October and 4-5 November 2005.
Darter – 4 seen during the July visit, including 2 on Mon Lake and 2 on lakes near Headquarters.
Chinese Pond-Heron – 2 on Mon Lake (November visit).
Lesser Whistling-Duck – 1 seen on Mon Lake during the visits in October and November, hanging out in the same area as the White-winged Duck.
White-winged Duck – 1 on Mon Lake (evening of 3 November 2005).
Osprey – 1 on the lake at the junction of the jeep track and the paved road through Headquarters (November visit).
Crested Serpent-Eagle – 3 seen, 2 heard.
Japanese Sparrowhawk – 1 seen soaring over the Headquarters area (15 October 2005).
Chinese Francolin – 1 heard in a village near the park entrance (July).
Bar-backed Partridge – Commonly heard on jeep track to Mon Lake
Scaly-breasted Partridge – 2 heard on jeep track to Mon Lake (November).
Red Junglefowl – Commonly heard in all areas of the park; 1 seen in November.
NB: I found a feather of Silver Pheasant on the jeep track. The rangers told me they see Siamese Fireback regularly along the roads. Pheasants are generally difficult to see in the wet season.
White-breasted Waterhen – 2 seen in small pools along the jeep track (October) and 1 seen on Mon Lake (November).
Common Moorhen – 3 on Mon Lake in October, and 8 (including some juveniles) on Mon Lake in November.
Spotted Dove – Abundant around Headquarters.
Barred Cuckoo-Dove – 5 heard near Mon Lake (July and October).
Emerald Dove – A few heard along the jeep track and Mon Lake (July).
Thick-billed Pigeon – 1 seen and several green-pigeons heard in a fruiting fig (small orange fruits) about half way along the jeep track (November).
Mountain Imperial-Pigeon – Commonly seen and heard around Mon Lake and along the jeep track.
Vernal Hanging-Parrot – Frequently heard.
Green-billed Malkoha – 3 seen.
Greater Coucal – A few in the tall grass around the edge of Mon Lake.
Oriental Bay-Owl – 3 started calling about 9pm near the campsite at Mon Lake (November visit). Got quite close to one but it was too far off the trail.
Mountain Scops-Owl – Heard around Mon Lake on all three visits. Got close to one during the October visit. This species is common in Thailand but I have found it difficult to see. Having seen this subsequently in Khao Yai, here are some tips: It is quite hard to tell exactly where a bird is calling from, for at least three reasons. First, a bird often varies the volume of its calls (normally starting off with a few softer calls when landing on a new perch). Second, the call can seem to come from a completely different place when the owl turns its head. Third, it is quite flighty and normally doesn’t stay in the same place for a long time – so when the call appears to come from a different place, it could be the owl turning its head, or else just flying a short distance to a new perch. Aside from the issue of the call, it is just difficult to pick up because it is small and tends to perch fairly low (head- to lower-canopy-height), often in tangles of branches or vines. If you shine the torch on one and it isn’t looking directly at you, it would be very easy to miss. If you shine the torch on one directly and it is actually looking at you, there will be some eyeshine.
During the October visit, the ranger walking some way in front of me on the jeep track said he flushed a large owl (I could hear birds mobbing it), which he identified as a Brown Wood-Owl.
Collared Owlet – Often heard around Mon Lake and the jeep track.
Asian Barred Owlet – 2 heard (October visit).
Indochinese Swiftlet – Several in July.
Needletail sp. – About 40 swooping around Mon Lake in the late afternoon/evening (October visit). I identified these at the time as Brown-backed, despite their obviously pale mantles, based on their white loral spots (which rules out Silver-backed). However, I must have had my brain switched off, because I didn’t look at their throats. In retrospect, I think this was probably a flock of White-throated Needletail.
Red-headed Trogon –2 seen and 1 heard along jeep track to Mon Lake.
Orange-breasted Trogon – 2 heard along jeep track to Mon Lake. This is the altitude zone of overlap between the two trogons.
Common Kingfisher – Total of 8 counted on Mon Lakes and the lakes around Headquarters during the October and November visits.
Banded Kingfisher – 2 heard along jeep track to Mon Lake (November visit).
White-throated Kingfisher – 1 seen on a lake near HQ (October visit).
Black-capped Kingfisher – 1 on Mon Lake in October (probably a passage migrant).
Blue-bearded Bee-eater – Commonly heard along trail to Mon Lake.
Chestnut-headed Bee-eater – About 10 appeared in the tall trees around Mon Lake after a rain shower (November visit)
Indian Roller – 1 seen (October visit).
Oriental Pied-Hornbill – 3 seen and frequently heard along jeep track to Mon Lake.
Great Hornbill – 1 heard near Mon Lake (July visit).
Brown Hornbill – A group heard in a fruiting tree with small black fruit (July) and a distant bird heard (November), along the jeep track to Mon Lake. The rangers say this bird is quite common.
Great Barbet – 2 heard near Mon Lake (November visit).
Moustached Barbet – 1 seen, 3 heard (November visit). Many barbets heard in July and October were making the wet-season calls, which I can’t identify.
Speckled Piculet – 1 seen on the jeep track to Mon Lake (November).
Gray-capped Woodpecker – 1 seen around the Headquarters area (July).
probable Rufous Woodpecker – A pair glimsed on jeep track to Mon Lake (July).
Lesser Yellownape – 2 seen
Greater Flameback – 2 seen; I guess flamebacks heard frequently along jeep track were probably this species (given the habitat).
Bay Woodpecker – Frequently heard along jeep track to Mon Lake.
Black-and-buff Woodpecker – 1 seen at Headquarters area (July).
Great Slaty Woodpecker – 1 seen along jeep track to Mon Lake (July).
Long-tailed Broadbill – A few heard along the jeep track to Mon Lake (July).
Silver-breasted Broadbill – 3 seen (October) and frequently heard.
Blue Pitta – 2 heard near Mon Lake (October).
Red-rumped/Striated Swallow – Several seen around the Headquarters (July and October); I guess the ones in July, at least, must have been Striated Swallow. Many swallows at Mon Lake might have been Barn Swallow, but I never got a good look at them.
Gray Wagtail – 1 seen around Headquarters (July). NB: both Gray and Forest Wagtails normally return to Thailand well before the end of the rainy season.
Indochinese Cuckoo-shrike – 1 seen around Headquarters (July visit).
Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike – 5 seen along jeep track (October and November).
Rosy Minivet – At least one seen on the jeep track (November).
Ashy Minivet – At least five seen. Several others could have been this species or Brown-rumped.
Scarlet Minivet – 6 seen.
Black-headed Bulbul – 6 seen. It seems to be more common here than most places.
Black-crested Bulbul – 9 seen, 1 heard.
Red-whiskered Bulbul – 26 seen.
Sooty-headed Bulbul – 3 seen around Headquarters.
Puff-throated Bulbul – 6 seen, 2 heard.
Gray-eyed Bulbul – 1 seen (November), frequently heard.
Golden-fronted Leafbird – 2 seen near Headquarters (November).
Common Iora – 2 around Headquarters (July).
Orange-headed Thrush – 1 seen along the jeep track to Mon Lake (July).
Common Tailorbird – 2 seen along the jeep track (November).
Dark-necked Tailorbird – 2 seen, 3 heard along the jeep track.
Yellow-browed Warbler – 2 seen (November), commonly heard (October and November).
other Phylloscopus sp. – One in July seems a bit early for migrating warblers but a bit low for White-tailed. Two in November were either White-tailed or Blyth’s Leaf-Warbler.
Golden-spectacled Warbler – 3 seen (November).
Red-breasted Flycatcher – 5 seen (October and November).
Hainan Blue-Flycatcher – 2 males and 1 female along the jeep track, and at Mon Lake (November visit). One of the males was taped in with a recording I made of an unidentified flycatcher at Khao Yai, where I have heard this species is rare.
Hill Blue-Flycatcher – 1 female (fairly sure, but ID from above on song).
Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher – 8 seen, 3 heard.
White-rumped Shama – 3 seen and 2 heard at Mon Lake and along the jeep track.
Siberian Stonechat – 3 seen in tall grass at the edge of Mon Lake (October and November).
Black-naped Monarch – 7 seen, 2 heard.
White-necked Laughingthrush – Commonly seen and heard. Mae Wong is the only other NP in Thailand I’ve been where this is common.
Black-throated Laughingthrush – 2 seen in a vine tangle (November) and frequently heard.
Puff-throated Babbler – 4 heard along the access road to Headquarters.
White-browed Scimitar-Babbler – 1 seen, many heard.
Striped Tit-Babbler – About 10 seen and many heard, both on the jeep track and around HQ.
Brown-cheeked Fulvetta – 2 seen along the jeep track to Mon Lake (July).
White-bellied Yuhina – 3 seen, many heard along the jeep track.
Sultan Tit – 6 seen along the jeep track (November).
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch – 1 seen along the jeep track (July).
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird – 1 seen.
Black-throated Sunbird – 1 male seen near Mon Lake (November visit).
Black-naped Oriole – Commonly seen and heard (October and November).
Asian Fairy-bluebird – 3 seen, frequently heard.
Brown Shrike – 1 seen hear Headquarters (November visit).
Gray-backed Shrike – 1 seen near Headquarters (October visit).
Large Woodshrike – 2 seen near Headquarters (July).
Ashy Drongo – About 40 seen (October and November visits).
Bronzed Drongo – About 20 seen.
Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo – 2 seen along the jeep track to Mon Lake (October visit).
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – 4 seen.
Ashy Woodswallow – Common, often perched at the top of dead snags emerging from the lakes.
Eurasian Jay – 4 seen around Headquarters (October visit).
Blue Magpie – 6 seen around Headquarters.
Green Magpie – Frequently heard along jeep track.
Gray Treepie (probable/very likely) – I’m almost certain 2 birds I saw near Mon Lake in November were this species, although there were quite a few branches in the way.
Common Hill Myna – Common around Mon Lake; about 40 seen in the July visit.
Common Myna – In villages outside the park.
Chestnut-tailed Starling – 1 seen in a tall tree next to Mon Lake (October) was probably a passage migrant.
White-rumped Munia – A group of about 8 seen at the edge of Mon Lake (October visit).
Variable Squirrel – Common around HQ.
Black Giant Squirrel – A few along the jeep track.
Phayre’s Langur – A few troupes along the jeep track. This species is rare most other places in Thailand.
White-handed Gibbon – A few heard around Mon Lake.
Hog Deer – Common (presumably reintroduced) around Headquarters.
Sambar Deer – Common and extremely tame around Headquarters and a few seen along the jeep track.
Red Muntjac – Frequent around Headquarters.
Common Palm Civet – One seen driving along the access road.