Sunday, March 8, 2020

Birding Doi Lang

Nut and I made a trip to Doi Lang on the Thailand Myanmar border last week with guide Arjin Sookkaseam ("Guide A")to see and photograph birds. Doi Lang ("doi" is Thai for peak or mountain), is a spectacular and wild place. We drove to the town of Fang, about 150 miles north of Chiang Mai, and spent the night in a hotel there in preparation for an early morning start. Doi Lang is inside Thailand's huge Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park and you might assume that means easy access. But you'd be assuming wrong. The road leading to the Doi Lang area is riddled with potholes, severely broken or missing pavement, and deep ruts. High ground clearance is a must and 4WD handy to have. Arjin didn't use the 4WD but would have if the road had been even slightly wet. It's completely closed during the rainy season. Plus, because it is on the Myanmar border there are army camps and checkpoints along the way. It's safe to say Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) aren't on the best of terms. For every Thai Army Camp there's a Myanmar Army Camp facing it just over the border.

Khun Arjin has been guiding bird lovers into these mountains for 15 years and knows the avian population very well. He could identify birds in far away treetops that I could barely see. He has some favorite spots where the birds are easy to photograph and we spent the bulk of our time at those places. The area near one of those military checkpoints was particularly productive because there's food available (N20.13235° E99.15930°) much of the time. Here's a Google Maps link to those coordinates.

In general, my photos turned out pretty well and I'm quite happy with them. I shot most of them using a monopod to help steady the camera and lens. Others were handheld because I shot quickly from the roadside when Arjin pulled over for a possible photo opp. The remarkable Vibration Control on the Tamron lens made this possible. Some of my best photos from the trip follow.

The tiny sunbird below (~3 in. long) isn't a great shot in terms of clarity and I wasn't going to use it but decided to include it for completeness. This was shot handheld from a distance of about 30-40 feet. (Note that these images have been compressed to fit into the blog format. To see them properly, click on the image to open it in a separate window and then click it again to fully expand it.)

Black-throated Sunbird (Aethopyga saturata) (male)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400 @400, f/9, 1/80, ISO 200
The image below is the nicest one of perhaps 50 I shot of these colorful babblers. I use the high-speed continuous shutter on my Canon EOS R which creates about 7 images per second. After I get all the images onto my computer I sift through them looking for the best shots to work up in Photoshop for presentation. These birds were perhaps 15 feet away from the camera so the depth of field, the area of sharp focus, at 400mm and f/6.3, is only about 2 inches front to back, so getting both birds' eyes this sharp in one photo is to some extent a matter of luck.
Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers (Pomatorhinus ferruginosus)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO 1000
Another bird that showed up at practically the same time in this spot was a tiny Himalayan Bluetail, a variety of Old World flycatcher sometimes called an Orange-flanked Bush-robin. This is the female Bluetail so she's not as dramatic in appearance as the babblers or her more colorful male counterpart but the species' namesake blue tail is easy to see.

Himalayan Bluetail (Tarsiger rufilatus) (female)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO 1000
Our next stop was right up close to a Thai military checkpoint. Some very colorful birds appeared almost as soon as Arjin set out some ripe papaya for them. Liocichlas are related to the Laughingthrushes, one of my favorite SE Asia birds.

Scarlet-faced Liocichla (Liocichla ripponi)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/8, 1/80, ISO 1250
Scarlet-faced Liocichla (Liocichla ripponi)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/10, 1/80, ISO 1000
Here's a Silver-eared Laughingthrush, a male, that simply would not get into a pose I liked. But he's a handsome subject nonetheless.

Silver-eared Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron melanostigma)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/8, 1/80, ISO 1250
We drove to the height of land for a view of the Myanmar mountains while looking for more birds to photograph. Nothing of interest appeared so we decided to have lunch. Arjin carries camp chairs and a small table in his pickup which he deployed for our lunch break. He uses the tags #JungleCoffee and #GuideA on his Facebook page and now he showed us what the jungle coffee tag was all about. He pulled a large carry bag from the truck and proceeded to grind some fresh coffee beans while water was heating on a backpacking stove. He set up a flask with ceramic filter holder and paper filter, put the ground coffee in it and slowly poured the hot water over it. Presto, hot coffee to have with the fried rice wrapped in banana leaves we had bought at the market earlier. One benefit of banana leaves is that after finishing your meal, you can simply toss the packaging into the woods. They're fully biodegradable.

Lunch with Nut and Arjin — Doi Lang, Thailand

After lunch, we turned around and retraced our route. The access road is actually a large loop that starts and ends in the valley near Mae Ai but there is a military roadblock midway that you cannot pass. On the other side of that roadblock is another prime birding area, Doi San Ju, that I will have to wait to explore until my next trip to the region.

We again stopped near the checkpoint where I got the Scarlet-faced Liocichla. After a short wait, I got several rapid-fire shots of a  Blue Whistling Thrush, who made only one brief appearance, and all of them appeared too dark on the LCD screen of my camera. Because I shoot everything in camera RAW, I was able to tease out some of the color detail in the photo below. Also, this image was quite noisy and showed a lot of graininess. I ran it through a very versatile Photoshop plug-in called Topaz DeNoiseAI to eliminate that noise. In fact, since I got Topaz every image I shoot in low light or with an ISO greater than about 400 gets pre-processed with this remarkable software.
Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/10, 1/80, ISO 1600
Next, a small brown bird showed up. It turned out to be a female Large Niltava who arrived just before her far more beautiful mate. I love the way her small sky-blue neck stripe complements the male's much bolder markings.
Large Niltava (Niltava grandis) (female)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/8, 1/80, ISO 400
Large Niltava (Niltava grandis) (male)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/8, 1/80, ISO 2000
Here's a Dark-backed Sibia who also visited the papaya for a snack.
Dark-backed Sibia (Heterophasia melanoleuca)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/8, 1/80, ISO 800

I have a few images that are adequate to use in indentifying the birds in question but not good enough to show anybody.  A huge Imperial Pigeon and a couple of small flycatchers will make it onto my Life List but that's about it. Oh, and there's this one, a variety of white-eye, the Oriental or Indian White-eye.
Indian White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus)
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/9, 1/80, ISO 200
Last but not least is the lovely little bird, also a member of the White-eye family, shown below. But first, the story. We were driving slowly along, dropping from the highlands into the lower reaches of the park when Arjin suddenly braked and killed the motor. He pointed excitedly to the trees where there were some small, actually tiny, birds feeding on some sort of berry. I had a lot of trouble getting the autofocus to resolve on such a small bird in front of such a busy background, especially considering all the directives coming at me from Nut and Arjin, who were using binoculars, but I finally managed to shoot a few images all the time cursing mightily. Arjin asked, what's the trouble? I told him about the autofocus and he asked if he could try. After fiddling for a bit, he said, oh yes, I see now. But soon after that, the bird moved to a better spot and Arjin shot a dozen or so images that, judging from the camera-back LCD, might or might not be any good. Ditto for mine. We got back in the truck and headed for town. The trip was over.

It turns out, we both got good images of the Whiskered Yuhina. At first glance, I took him for a small bulbul because of the little top-knot on his head.
Whiskered Yuhina (Yuhina flavicollis) with his lunch — Arjin's photo
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/7.1, 1/60, ISO 250
Whiskered Yuhina (Yuhina flavicollis) calling to me — my photo
Canon EOS R, Tamron 100-400mm @400, f/7.1, 1/60, ISO 160
Arjin's photo is clearer but mine turned out surprisingly well and is perhaps more interesting. I love them both. He's a real cutie and a fitting last image for a memorable first birding tour.

If you want to engage Arjin to guide you, his Facebook page and FB Messenger is the best way to contact him to set up your trip. Birding season is pretty much over now that the weather is heating up for summer and Arjin is going to, or is already at, his home in Korat until next spring. I was lucky to get him on such short notice. Tourism is way down this year because of the coronavirus scare and I mark it up to that. He's a very nice guy and definitely knows a lot about birds and photography. He shoots with Nikon equipment and has a 500mm f/4 lens that is best carried in a pickup LOL.

His basic rate is 7,000 baht per day ($220 USD) for one or two people.  I'm not sure how many he can take in a single outing but 3 or more people pay 3,000 baht each. He does all the driving and supplies the coffee. You're responsible for your own lunch, drinks and lodging. We stayed at a small hotel in Fang, the Khunyuw Hotel (N19.91531° E99.21057°) that offers simple but clean rooms with excellent beds and comfy mattresses, something that's often hard to find in Thailand. We paid 550 baht ($16 USD) for the night. A simple breakfast is also provided.

Arjin Sookkaseam, Guide A, is on Facebook at
His phone number is 66 (0) 86 249 5772

Equipment and software:
Canon EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera
Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD with Canon EF-RF adapter
Adobe Photoshop CC 2020 and Adobe Camera Raw
Topaz DeNoiseAI to remove noise