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Thailand’s largest wetland and non-hunting area

Agriculture, villages, housing estates and roads have completely encircled the lake imploding inwards. This pressure is growing as the population increases, with many taking all they can from the lake without thought for the long-term survival of the wild occupants. Approximately 30,000 people live around the margins of the lake. The principal activities in surrounding areas are rice cultivation (one crop of wet-season rice per year), cattle grazing and pig farming. Small areas of corn, beans, cotton and groundnuts are grown in the upland areas around the basin.

Asian golden weaver making a nest

Poaching and encroachment has always been a problem that actually is on the rise. The most dreadful practice of fishing with electricity has been going on for sometime now. About 40 boats from three to four villagers ply to the center of the lake everyday and go about their illegal business right under the noses of those responsible for protection of the lake. It is reported these people are paying protection money for the right to fish in this way. Illegal trap lines and gill nets are also used. These fishing practices should be stopped as soon as possible if there is going to be any future for Beung Boraphet.

Early morning at the non-hunting Area

Over-visitation is another problem when the lake begins to fill during the rainy season. The lake is an important tourist attraction and many people visit it, either to stay at the NHA headquarters or to take boat rides on the lake. A proportion of these visitors hire local boatmen. The main problem is litter thrown in the lake by these people. Education is the best way to cope with this serious predicament.

Cotton pygmy goose – two males and a female

For quite sometime now, local government officials have been in the planning stages of building a hotel and resort golf course on the western shore of the lake. Some earth moving has taken place and this is very detrimental to the already fragile ecosystem plus the demand for water would increase. As it stands, there is very little water in the lake during this serious drought affecting the country at the moment. The levels have reached an all-time low and have created serious problems for the birds in the breeding area. There are only about 20 nesting pheasant-tailed jacana in the non-hunting area that is way down from a decade ago.

Pheasant-tailed jacana and reflection

The FD is responsible for the lake and allows fishing that is abused by some people. The lake is also littered with thousands of discarded nets, trap-lines and bamboo fish-traps strewn all over the place. New ones are continually added on a daily basis with old ones discarded in place.

Fisherman and boat hauling new fish traps

This should be a top priority for both the FD and DNP, plus the local people and government municipality should work together in a massive cleanup. It can only benefit the long-term survival of this unique ecosystem. However, pollution and insecticide runoff from all the farms surrounding the lake has probably already damaged the water quality.

Grey heron – winter visitor

It will be a tough battle but it is hoped that steps will be implemented by those responsible. Time and money can go a long way into helping the future of this place. The lives of so many birds and other creatures are at stake as modernization wrecks havoc on the Kingdom’s natural heritage. Swift and determined action is the only alternative.

Water lillies at the breeding area

The future of dams in Thailand

As we progress into the 21st Century, it has become apparent the construction of large-scale dams is back on the drawing boards. The Kingdom’s natural heritage evolved over millions of years into some amazing forests and watersheds. These ecosystems give life to the nation for without water, life cannot be sustained.

Greater adjutant in Beung Boraphet

Thailand does not need anymore large-scale dams under the ‘Thai Kem Kang’ banner that will destroy natural forests, especially the Kaeng Sua Ten dam projected to inundate 20,000 rai of the last great teak forest in Mae Yom National Park in the north. In October last year, the government announced the construction of Huai Samong dam (now under reconsideration) that will flood thousands of rai between Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks, both World Heritage Sites putting their status in jeopardy. Other projects on the table are a dam in Mae Wong National Park, Kampangphet province and another in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, Chaiyaphum province. None of these projects can be justified if they destroy forests.

Purple swamphen in Beung Boraphet

To get a better prospective of the serious situation facing the country, drive around and look at the dried-up reservoirs, and then ask yourself, do we need another dam? The main problem is the lack of rain (global warming and forest destruction). Most hydro-dams and reservoirs are in serious trouble if rain does not come soon. The solution; money to be used on construction of these dams should go to rain-making programs under His Majesty the King’s initiative plus reforestation projects, small check-dams that do not destroy large swaths of forest, and alternate green power sources like solar and wind.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand what is going down between politicians and the proponents of dam projects. It is truly disheartening how these influential people carry on with absolutely no respect for Thailand’s wild heritage.

And worst of all, corruption cannot be broken or even dented when these mega-schemes come into play. The immediate prospect is bleak as politicians attempt to wreck havoc on the nation’s natural resources. When will it ever stop? We need to preserve and protect the last remaining forests for the future, or the consequences could be dire.

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Thailand’s largest wetland and non-hunting area

It is 3am at home in Bangkok and the alarm is ringing off the hook so to speak. I drag myself out of bed, wash-up a bit and get a quick cup of coffee for the road ahead. All my equipment was pre-loaded the night before in my Ford 4X4 pickup, and departure is an hour later. It usually takes about three hours drive time to Bueng Boraphet Non-hunting Area (NHA) in the Central Plains.

Pheasant-tailed jacana in Bueng Boraphet

One day old pheasant-tailed jacana

As Thailand’s largest freshwater lake, it is one of the best sites for conservation of water and migratory birds in the Kingdom. It is also a great place for wildlife photography and bird watching. However, the tide of humanity is strangling Bueng Boraphet (bueng in Thai means swamp, and Boraphet named after one of the streams). Extreme steps need to be taken quickly to protect this amazing wetland from further human destruction.

Glossy ibis foraging for food among the water lillies

Arriving shortly after 7am, a motorized boat piloted by my good old-time friend Phanom Klowjunterc is readied for a trip onto the lake. A steel flat-bottomed vessel is perfect for a long 600mm lens and tripod assembly to catch the early morning action as birds lift off from the water’s surface. During the dry season when the water level is low, he uses a fiberglass craft with a long-tailed motor for power. Many species of birds include the pheasant-tailed jacana, Bueng Boraphet’s flagship species is living and breeding in the lake among the water lilies and lotus flowers. It is a very tranquil place first thing in the morning.

Cotton pigmy goose lifting off

Phanom has been around Bueng Boraphet for more than three decades and I have known him for 15 of those years. He is a ranger at the protected area and knows just about everything there is to know about the lake and its inhabitants. He is especially vigilant during the breeding season, and then again in the migratory period that begins in October when large flocks of birds arrive to stay or carry on to other destinations. In March to May, some bird species stop off at the lake on their way back home. I actually began my career as a wildlife photographer here, and Phanom has always been extremely helpful in finding birds for me to photograph.

Purple heron in flight

The lake covers an area of about 100 square kilometers, and is 18 kilometers long by 6 kilometers wide (132,765 rai) situated on the east bank of the Nan River, close to its confluence with the Ping River. More than a century ago, it was a natural wetland with many wild creatures living in the interior including rhino, wild water buffalo, fresh water Siamese crocodile, Schomburgk’s and hog deer, tiger and leopard, plus elephants and other remarkable creatures living in absolute harmony. Storks and pelicans, and other large water birds survived in great numbers. Marsh creatures slipped and slithered through the thick vegetation of the swamp. It was natural evolution at its very best.

Spot-billed pelican landing

However, in the 1930s’ the Fisheries Department (FD) under the Agricultural Ministry constructed a dam and embankments in some areas around the north and west margins of the proposed lake, together with spillways and lock gates to regulate water levels. The western shore is fringed by a railway line and lies close to the town of Nakhon Sawan. The freshwater swamp was turned into a man-made lake in order to develop a lacustrine fishery, and it was drained for one month in 1959 and then again in 1972, each time being allowed to refill. The lake is fed by overspill from the Nan River and several streams including Klong Tatako and the Boraphet stream that ramify throughout the basin. Runoff from the lake runs into the Chao Phraya River.

Openbill stork in flight

When the migratory season is in full swing, migrants and visitors arrive at the wetland to enjoy the safety provided by the NHA managed by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). Beung Boraphet is the most important known site for wintering ducks in Thailand, with a yearly maximum of at least 16,000 lesser whistling duck and 30,000 garganey. A total of twelve species of duck have been recorded here. Other birds such as spot-billed pelican, oriental darter, purple heron, little egret, intermediate egret, great egret, cattle egret, glossy and black-headed ibis, purple swamphen and kingfisher among many others live here.

Black-necked grebe migrant visitor

On the positive side of things, some species of large waterbird populations have increased and are breeding here. About 10 years ago, several glossy and black-headed ibis showed up at the site and now there are 300 and 70-80 respectively. There are some 30,000 Asian openbill storks together with 300 painted storks by the lake. One or two very rare milky storks mix with the painted storks.Some 80-100 spot-billed pelicans, 120 purple heron, and 30 Oriental darter have been recorded. There are four species of egret breeding on two islands, ‘Kho wat’ and ‘Kho samit’ with more than a thousand little commorant and hundreds of black-crowned night-heron.

Lesser whistling ducks

Research has been carried out by the staff of the Beung Boraphet Wildlife Resaerch Station located at the NHA for many years now.  Biodiversity on birds, flyway banding and migratory bird-count headed by Krairat Eiamampai, chief of the station working under Kalyanee Boonkird, Director of Wildlife Research at DNP in Bangkok. Their work is on going and is essential for the long-term ecology of the bird populations and the aquatic ecosystem. Also, the Nakhon Sawan Bird Club make regular visits to the lake and carry out small-scale banding of passerine birds in lakeshore vegetation

Siberian Rubythroat – winter visitor

One of the saddest things about this place is the saga of a passerine bird that is now probably extinct. In 1968, the White-eyed River Martin Pseudochelidon sirintarae was discovered by the late Thai ornithologist Kitti Thonglongya, who obtained nine specimens netted by professional bird-hunters as part of a migratory bird survey at a nighttime roost. This large swallow, whose scientific name commemorates Princess Sirindhorn Thepratanasuda, was found wintering at the lake, but its breeding grounds are unknown. The bird was again seen in 1972, 1977 and 1980, and one unconfirmed sighting in 1986. It is classified as critically endangered, which is the highest risk category assigned by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) for wild species. It is most likely now extinct, as this unique avian fauna has not been seen since the last sightings.

Beung Boraphet breeding area

There has been a drastic decline in the Beung Boraphet swallow population from the hundreds of thousands reported around 1970 to maximum counts of 8,000 made in the winter of 1980-1981, although it is not certain if this represents a real decline or a shift in response to persecution. Other potential causes for the species’ decline include the disturbance of riverine sand bars, the construction of dams that flood the area upstream and alter the downstream hydrology, deforestation, and increasing conversion of its habitat to agriculture. Very few swallows now roost in the Beung Boraphet reedbeds, preferring sugarcane plantations away from the lake.

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Nature Photography

Friday, February 26, 2010 posted by Bruce 11:21 AM

Capturing Thailand’s magnificent wildlife on camera

White-bellied sea eagle in Lam Son National Park

Thailand’s breathtaking wildlife and forests has evolved over millions of years into some of the most beautiful and interesting in the world. Photographing these ecosystems and rare animals such as the tiger, leopard, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo, elephant, Siamese crocodile and tapir, plus a multitude of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects in their natural habitats is a daunting task to say the least. A multitude of different aspects contribute to the difficult and sometimes dangerous pastime of wildlife photography.

Male green peafowl in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary

Probably the most prominent is the ever-increasing human population growth and social ills like poaching and encroachment in the protected areas. This alone has taken its toll and the country’s wild flora and fauna, from under the sea to the highest mountains, are in serious jeopardy with a slim chance of recovery to the magnificent ecosystems of the past. Present low densities of wildlife depleted over years of intrusion into the forests before any form of protection was implemented is probably the number one reason why so many areas are wiped out and now completely devoid of wild animals.

Pied kingfishers landing on a tree branch in Phetchaburi province

Before World War Two, 75 percent of the nation was still covered in pristine forests. Barely 30 percent survives today and many of these are seriously degraded. Even in 1962 when Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s first protected area was established, many forests still retained their excellent biodiversity with abundant wildlife and plant species but that quickly changed. Continuing human pressure on the natural resources, and the Asian traditional medicine and black market wildlife trade are directly responsible for a disappearing natural world. Climate change and deforestation has also had a serious affect. Subsequently, wildlife has now become scarce and extremely elusive, and difficult to photograph. With no subjects, it can be a tough assignment to capture wild creatures that were once quite common in their natural habitats. However, not all is lost and the present generation should take a positive interest in preserving what remains of the Kingdom’s natural treasures before it is too late.

Yellow-cheeked tit with a moth in Doi Inthanon National Park

Nature photography is one of the best ways to record and promote wildlife conservation awareness. Wildlife photographs create a mental image that can improve one’s love and understanding of the wonderful world of nature. Many people in the cities have a misconception that Thailand’s wildlife and forests has disappeared into the depths of extinction. This is unfortunate and the populace need constant education and re-education plus media projection to uplift their knowledge that many species and habitats do in fact, still survive.

Spider in early morning sunlight in Chiang Mai province

Knowing where to go with the right equipment is just part of the process. Many other aspects are also important and I hope to pass on some of my experiences to our readers that have a desire to try their hand at nature photography. More and more people have taken-up the game and it has now become quite a popular pastime among the younger generation. Men and women of all ages are now seen with cameras chasing down butterflies to elephants, which is inspiring.

Butterfly in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

Fortunately, some protected areas still remain fairly intact with good densities of flora and fauna. Prey species are abundant and carnivores thrive. These havens for wildlife include time honored Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, Thailand’s top nature reserve and World Heritage Site. Due to its size (6,427 square kilometers) and biodiversity, this site is absolutely the best Asian wildlife habitat left in the Kingdom.

Sunset in Laem Phak Bia, Phetchaburi province

Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks further south along the western border with Burma still retain very good ecosystems with a good abundance of creatures including the mighty tiger just waiting to be photographed. Other protected areas worth visiting include: Khao Yai, Thap Lan, Pang Sida, Nam Nao national parks, and Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary in the northeast; Khao Ang Rue Nai and Khao Soi Dow wildlife sanctuaries in the east; Sai Yok, Erawan, Sri Nakarin, Khao Sam Roi Yot national parks, and Umphang and Salak Phra wildlife sanctuaries in the west; Khao Sok, Sri Phangnga national parks, and Khlong Saeng and Khlong Nakha wildlife sanctuaries in the south to mention just a few. There are 14 major forest complexes throughout the Kingdom with over 260 protected areas to choose from.

Asian wild dog by the Phetchaburi River

Thailand’s coastline along the Gulf of Siam extends for 1,840 kilometers, and the Andaman Sea for 1, 037 kilometers, and has hundreds of offshore islands that have birds and mammals but because they are surrounded by water, access by local fisherman has taken its toll. The islands of Tarutao in Satun province and Phi Phi in Krabi are in national parks, and are great photographic havens. Underwater photographing in some places is still excellent.

Pig-tailed macaque in Khao Yai National Park

Worth mentioning are Hala Bala and Budo wildlife sanctuaries and several national parks in the Deep South. However, due to on-going extremist instability in the southern region, it is not recommended to visit these areas until peace returns. This of course is unfortunate as some of these forests are very rich in plant and animal life. When it was quiet, some Thai photographers did record the amazing wildlife here, especially the hornbills.

Burmese striped Squirrel in Kaeng Krachan

Finally, in the north there are a multitude of important mountain forests like Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand’s highest peak. Others include: Doi Lang, Huai Nam Dang national parks, and Doi Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary in Chiang Mai province plus Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area in Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai province. All are great birding sites. In the Central Plains, Bueng Boraphet Non-hunting Area is good for migratory and water birds.

Common crane at Nong Bong Kai Non-hunting Area

Entry into the national parks and non-hunting areas is quite straightforward where permission is obtained at the gate or from the Department of National Parks (DNP) in Bangkok. However, due to the importance of protecting wildlife sanctuaries as natural biospheres, entry is strictly limited and must be obtained from the Wildlife Conservation Division at DNP.

Sunset at Chiang Saen Lake, Chiang Rai province

Wildlife photography is a difficult hobby or profession to become proficient. Years of trial and error, lost shots, bad exposure, out of focus, no wildlife subjects, equipment failure, expense and many other intricate problems make things difficult for the nature photographer. Travel plans and permission to enter the protected areas is a hurdle that must be crossed before any photographs can be taken. But where there is a will, there is a way and the difficult can be overcome.

Goral kid in Doi Inthanon National Park

Being at the right place at the right time with the right equipment using good technique is the secret to capturing wildlife on film and digital. Patience is one of the most important attributes and knowledge of the subject is also very significant. The most important aspect however, is respect for Mother Nature and all her wonderful creatures. No photograph is worth endangering any animal or plant and this should be everyone’s number one priority while in the wilderness.

Kiew Mae Pan cliff in Doi Inthanon

Cameras and lenses in the professional range are expensive but lower-end equipment can also provide very satisfactory results with the right combination, and at a much lower cost. Modern technology like the Digital Single Lens Reflex (D-SLR) is now the ultimate and both Nikon and Canon remain the most popular brands for variety from beginner to professional with cameras, lenses, flash and other equipment.

Banded kingfisher in Khao Yai National Park

Other camera manufacturers such as Sony (Minolta lens mount), Fuji, Pentax, Olympus, Sigma and Leica also offer very good equipment. Aftermarket lenses from Sigma, Tamron and Tokina cost less than the top name brands but also produce very good photographs. Camera brand and model depends on one’s budget, entry level and determination to photograph nature. Second hand camera equipment in good working condition is just another way to lower cost.

Muntjac buck posing in Khao Yai

Birds and mammals usually require a long lens from 300mm to 600mm, but if flowers and insects are the subject, a macro lens in 50mm to 200mm with close focusing capability is the ticket. If panorama landscapes and view shots are on the menu, a wide-angle in 10mm to 28mm lens is perfect in a zoom or fixed configuration.

Bird-eating spider in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

The lens is the most important piece of equipment in wildlife photography. The bigger the glass the better the photo quality as it allows more light to pass through, hence a superior picture. Probably the best lens for all round work on mammals and birds is a 400mm f/2.8 from both Nikon and Canon. The front element is 140 mm (5.5 inches) across. They are expensive and quite heavy when a professional body is attached. But where picture quality counts, there is no better lens then this one for wildlife photographers.

Hog deer buck on the run in Phu Khieo

Photographic technique is still very important but the 400mm f/2.8 due to its large aperture and lens really shine in low-light situations that often occur in the forests of Thailand. Other long-range telephoto lenses are the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4. Another very good lens is the 300mm f/2.8 with a 1.4 tele-converter for 420mm with a slight drop in f-stop and cost.

Sambar yearling back lit in Phu Khieo

However, all the above lens and camera combinations are heavy and require the use of a tripod and shutter release for tack sharp photos. Zoom lenses in the 70-200mm f/2.8 or the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 range also make a good choice for the beginner, casual to serious amateur, or the professional. They are other older manual fixed lenses that work well with a modern D-SLR.

Oriental darter in Phu Khieo

Old-time film (negative and slide transparency) in 35mm and 120mm is still a viable format for wildlife photographers. I know a few people who refuse to jump over to the digital age and they are quite happy shooting film. But most photographers I know now use modern digital cameras due to many reasons, primarily instant feedback of the image and data allowing one to capture great photographs without any delay or chemical processing. Everything is now done on a computer including exposure and retouching to printing one’s images. Digital has made life much easier for the wildlife, bird or nature photographer.

Lesser whistling ducks in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

While in the field during the day, I usually set my camera to Aperture Priority (Auto) at 200-400 ISO and 5.6f-stop for most photographs. I also set my camera with –7 (minus compensation) but will adjust accordingly depending on the situation. An important fact with the modern D-SLR when using a long telephoto lens is the ISO can be adjusted to gain shutter speed equivalent to the length of the lens. As an example: when using a 400mm lens, shutter speed should be at least 400 and above with an appropriate aperture. If the speed is lower, the chances of a blurred image are greater.However, it is possible to get acceptable images at a slower speed with the right technique.

Bull elephant at a waterhole in Khao Ang Rue Nai

In the very early morning or late afternoon, I usually bump the ISO up to 800-1000 and open the aperture to its widest. However, digital noise or grain will be a problem for some cameras at this ISO setting. Experiment in different light conditions and find out what works best for your camera and lens combination. I recently photographed a tiger in very dark conditions in late afternoon with my 400mm set at 2.8f-stop and the ISO at 800. The shutter speed was about 250 but by using a heavy tripod and shutter release cable, I got some amazing images of the big cat as he walked through the mineral lick.

Siamese Fireback pheasant in Khao Ang Rue Nai

Macro or close-up photography is probably the easiest to get started in. Equipment cost is lower and subject matter from insects to flowers is everywhere. It does however take proper technique to get sharp images with good depth of field and lighting. A tripod is very important but when one is impractical, handholding the camera and using a flash can produce excellent images. It can become addictive and I really enjoy shooting the little creatures. I normally keep one of my cameras and macro lens ready, especially when traveling in a protected area.

Phu Khieo enscarpment panorama comprising of four photographs

Landscape photography is challenging and again, equipment cost is lower. A tripod and shutter release is also a must for sharp photos, and a spirit level for a flat horizon. It is now possible to stitch several photographs together in the computer and make a panorama or sweeping wide image. When shooting panoramas, set the camera on manual and take a quick series of shots to keep the exposure consistent. Make sure the tripod head is level and swing from left to right while capturing the scene. Another photographic aspect is abstract in nature. The subject matter is unlimited and only limited by one’s imagination.

Wild water buffalo bull in Huai Kha Khaeng

Proper exposure is critical to shooting excellent images. The camera’s light meter working together with the lens aperture and the shutter determine the finale exposure. However, there are times when the camera needs help to get the best exposure, so you must learn to do that too. Shoot in the RAW file format if possible when using a D-SLR for the best quality image during computer post-processing. Read books and learn about photographic techniques, and how to use computer programs like Photoshop and Lightroom to out-put your nature images.

Great hornbill flying off a fruit tree in Kaeng Krachan

The use of a photo-blind is very important for some species of mammal and bird as most have a circle of fear or certain distance, and they will flee instantly when they see or are disturbed by humans. The blind must be completely sealed off so animals cannot see clear through as any movement in the hide will destroy your chances of getting the shot. One must be absolutely quiet and maintain noise to an absolute minimum.

Indochinese tiger camera-trapped in Kaeng Krachan

Human scent is another problem for wildlife photographers after the large mammals. I usually use gaur or buffalo droppings, when available, and place a plastic bag full of the stuff in front of the blind to cover my scent. It truly works and I have photographed many large animals like elephant, gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo this way. The use of a photo-blind is important as is self-control and patience, which comes with practice and a desire to get a photograph of nature’s creatures.

Rainbow over the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

Wildlife encounters are usually brief and one must always be ready with camera in hand ready to shoot on a moments’ notice. No two days are alike in the natural world and opportunities must be taken then and there if one is to be a successful wildlife photographer. Finally, share your photographs with as many people as possible. It is the least one can do in order to spread a message that Mother Nature is truly worth saving for the future.

Indochinese tiger in Huai Kha Khaeng

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