In search of the great hornbill, novice 'twitcher' Julie Miller finds a whole lot more comes starkly into focus.
A khaki-clad man is bolting towards us, frantically pointing into the sky. "It's coming, it's coming!" he yells, like Tattoo from Fantasy Island greeting the plane. We look to the heavens, but hear it first: the rhythmic whoosh whoosh of wind beneath wings, then stealth-bomber silence as it glides into view.
Our group of nine gives a collective gasp as a magnificent bird skids into landing on a gnarly branch just 20 metres from where we stand. Our guide, Amorn Liukeeratiyutkul - chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand - is beside himself with excitement; for what we are witnessing, at unbelievably close range, is the holy grail of birdwatchers in this part of the world: the great hornbill.
Although not the rarest creature in the dense jungle of Kaeng Krachan National Park in south-west Thailand, the great hornbill is certainly one of the most impressive. Black, yellow and white with a two-metre wingspan, its most prominent feature is a bright yellow casque, an armour-like protrusion dominating a pterodactyl-like skull. We watch, spellbound, as the bold bird puts on an Oscar-winning performance, tearing at loose bark with its rapier beak before dangling upside down, its dramatic helmet silhouetted against an azure sky.
"You're very lucky," Amorn whispers, eyes glued to the rim of his binoculars. "In 25 years, I've never seen one so close." This rare Kodak moment is certainly a birdwatching coup, particularly for a bunch of novice "twitchers", as birdwatchers are often called. But under Amorn's patient guidance and encyclopaedic knowledge, we've progressed in three days from amateurs fumbling to focus our binoculars, to genuine enthusiasts scouring the treeline with confidence, even recognising species by sight and sound.
Organised by an ecology-minded Thai tour company called Friends of Nature, our three-day birdwatching excursion has led us south of Bangkok to Phetchaburi province, a readily accessible region offering a wealth of wildlife-viewing opportunities despite its dense population and proximity to the city.
We all gather, as excited as if we've spotted a tiger.
In the rice fields of the Khao Yoi district we pause to examine the tools of the birding trade: binoculars and spotting scopes. Through Amorn's high-powered Swarovski scope - worth more than $3000 - intricate details, indistinguishable to the naked eye, are brought into sharp focus: a black-capped kingfisher perched on a wire, iridescent blue feathers shining in the sun; a brown shrike, a humble sparrow-like bird that impales its prey on thorns; and a majestic great egret, pecking at tadpoles in a flooded rice paddy. Each sighting is verified against the local ornithology bible, A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand; while Amorn marks off his personal list of sightings, an impressive 800 species from 1112 permanent feathered residents or seasonal visitors to Thailand.
Climbing into a safari-style truck owned by local birders, we delve deeper into farmland to view raptors hunting for rats in the fields. For our mostly Australian-based group, the sight of eagles, kites and hawks soaring on thermals is nothing unusual; but the enthusiasm of our local guides for these migratory species is contagious, each sighting accompanied by shouts of joy and furious camera clicking. And birds aside, there's plenty to appreciate in these quiet backwaters: farmers ploughing paddies, tractors awash with mud; women piling hay into towering stacks; and an ochre-clad monk wandering along a deserted road, knapsack slung over his shoulder. It's a peaceful snapshot of rural Thailand rarely seen by foreign tourists, and I feel blessed to be experiencing it.
An early start the following morning leads us to one of Thailand's more unusual landscapes - the salt pans of Samut Sakhon, near the royal resort town of Hua Hin. This flat, desolate coastal region is where most of Thailand's salt is produced, "farmed" in large squares of brine, raked over and left to dry in the tropical sun.
These fields, resembling ice rinks as the salt crystalises, are also the domain of one of the world's rarest, most endangered birds - the spoon-billed sandpiper. It seems this migratory bird from Siberia is quite the twitching prize - turning off the main road into a private salt farm, we suddenly find ourselves in the presence of dozens of other birdwatchers, armed to the hilt with scopes and long-lensed cameras.
There's a buzz in the air as Amorn discusses the lay of the land with his fellow birders; the elusive wader has indeed been sighted that morning. Whipping out his scope, Amorn focuses towards where the bird was last spotted; and within 20 seconds, he has it in sharp focus.
He pulls back, chuffed, to allow his new recruits to share the moment: we all gather around, as excited as if we've spotted a tiger.
I squint into the scope; there, centre lens, is an unassuming white bird with brown-flecked wings, distinguished by a spatulate bill waving side to side like a metal detector in search of shrimp. This little critter is one of just 400 left in the world; there are fears that the species will be extinct within 10 years as its Siberian breeding grounds are lost to development.
Birds, it seems, are creatures of the morning and once again we are woken before dawn for our final excursion to Kaeng Krachan, Thailand's largest national park, two hours' drive from Hua Hin. This huge stretch of high-elevation forest made headlines recently after the mutilated corpses of four wild elephants were found within park boundaries; indeed, the park is one of Thailand's richest biospheres, home to an estimated 200 (minus four) pachyderms as well as other endangered species including sun bears, leopards, gaur (a wild bison) and even, reportedly, tigers.
Human presence, however, is minimal; there is only one single-lane road, with traffic restricted and a two-hour window of opportunity to travel each way.
We arrive at the eastern gates at 5.30am; from there, we transfer into an open jeep for a bumpy, breezy ride to the top of Panoen Thung, the park's second highest peak at 1207 metres.
En route we see plenty of evidence of wild elephants along the roadside but, unfortunately, no actual sightings. Feathered friends - including the flashy great hornbill - are in abundance, however, as are barking deer, dusky langurs and white-handed gibbons, singing in the distance or brachiating through the canopy for a closer look at their strange bipedal visitors.
From this silent mountain top, Thailand's pristine wilderness is spread wide right there before us, secretive and ethereal under a pashmina of mist.
I raise my binoculars to scour the vastness then change tack as a pretty little bird with gold-tipped wings - a flavescent bulbul, Amorn tells me - hops onto a pole in the foreground. This, to me, is the real appeal of birdwatching - the detail within the epic, the opportunity to bring the intricacy of nature into focus.
Five other places to go birdwatching in Thailand
1 Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary (Khao Nor Chu Chi), Krabi — this is one of the only places in the world where the extremely rare and shy Gurney's pitta is found.
2 Kampang Sean, Bangkok — on the outskirts of Bangkok, this ancient wooded site is popular with city birdwatchers.
3 Khao Yai National Park, Nakhon Ratchasima — Thailand's second largest national park, this World Heritage forest is a treasure trove of birdlife including hornbills, long-tailed broadbill and Siamese fireback pheasants.
4 Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Mai — high density of bird species make this one of the best locations to see a large number of birds in a short time.
5 Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, near Hua Hin — about 300 recorded species can be found in this coastal marine park, with waterbirds the main attraction.
Thai Airways International flies from Sydney to Bangkok twice daily. 1300 651 960, thaiairways.com.au.
i Tara Resort & Spa is a new boutique hotel in Phetchaburi province, near the salt pans of Samut Sakhon. itararesort.com.
The closest resort to Kaeng Krachan National Park is Petchvarin Resort & Spa. www.petchvarinresort.com.
The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.