Quality Time at Doi Inthanon


The highest point in Thailand is Doi Inthanon (“Inthanon Mountain”), located in the Thanon Thong Chai Range in north central Thailand. At 8,415 feet, it’s not all that tall, but it rises out of a 2,000 foot high plateau, so the vertical rise is impressive. The mountain is one of a series of granitic plutons oriented north-south. WC presumes the plutons are associated with subducted ocean bottom shoved under Indochina as India moved north. As the subducted ocean bottom was pressed under the Indochinese Peninsula’s crust, it melted and, mixed with the native rock, rose in plumes extensive enough to make their way up through the crust but not extensive enough to trigger major volcanism. It’s very similar to the mechanism that created the Idaho Batholith, but on a smaller scale.

There’s a paved road to the top, and the site is a very popular national park. In addition to the undisturbed jungle, there are important Buddhist shrines, astronomy facilities and royal gardens around the summit. But for a birder, the best feature of the summit is a karst, a hollowed limestone basin, that in modern times is a swampy wetland. There’s a lovely boardwalk, the Ang Ka Luang Nature Trail, that circles the 4-5 acre wetland. The Asian rain forest vegetation is spectacular, and supports a wide variety of birds.In the early morning, before the Bangkok crowds arrive, it is quiet, ethereal and a sheer delight to bird. This was the site where we found the Pygmy Cupwing. Here are some of the other species that WC was able to photograph.

Doi Inthanon Sunbird Male, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

The stars of the show are the sunbirds, the closest the Old World comes to hummingbirds. Colorful, noisy and frequently fearless, they are beautiful. At one point, in a flower tree, we had at least 15 sunbirds swarming about. This species was recently split from Gould’s Sunbird.

Rufous-throated Partridge, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

Cryptic, quiet and unusually difficult to find, the Rufous-throated Partridge works the wetland bottoms. Our guide, Lisle Gwynn, used a tool WC hadn’t seen before, an infrared viewer. The dense brush limits the functionality of the infrared viewer, but it’s unlikely we would have found this bird at all without it.

Gould’s Sunbird female, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

The female sunbirds are drabber than their flashier mates, but still subtly beautiful. WC admits to being smitten with sunbirds, an entire family of birds he had never seen before.

Silver-eared Laughingthrush, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

Another new family of birds, the Laughingthrushes, were in the middle canopy at the wetland. This might have been the easiest bird to see of the day, between its loud calls and its bold markings.

Green-billed Malkoha, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

Some of the birds are strange, like this Green-billed Malkoha. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, but some of them haven’t evolved very far.

Racquet-tailed Drongo, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

The drongos are a diverse family of birds, with the same basic body shape in a confusing number of variations. The Racquet-tailed has a pair of long tail feathers, nearly the length of its body, although this one seems to have lost his starboard-side feather.

Possibly a Blythe’s Leaf-warbler, Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand

In the New World, the most confusing genus of birds is the Emperizids, the “Emps.” They all look pretty much alike, and can best be distinguished by behavior and song. In the Old World, that dubious distinction goes to the Leaf-warblers. There’s actually a Leaf-warbler that breeds in Alaska, the Arctic Warbler, but fortunately there’s only that one species. In Thailand, there are about a dozen. WC’s guide and his advisors tell WC this is either a Blythe’s, Davison’s or Claudia’s Leaf-warbler, but none are willing to give a definitive answer without hearing it sing. They have cautiously opined that if they had to guess, and only a guess mind you, it might, possibly be a Blythe’s, but they can’t be sure.

A wholly remarkable spot, not just for the geology and bird but for the unique flora as well. One of the highlights of the trip. Serious kudos to the Thailand National Park Service for that excellent board walk trail around the circumference (made from forfeited teak, in fact).