Beung Boraphet – Part One: Bird sanctuary in the Central Plains

Friday, June 25, 2010posted by Bruce 10:11 AM

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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