Southeast Asia's birding bubble

When an avid birdwatcher turned his passion into a profession, migrations have become his annual routine

Normally at this time of year, Puwish Lenvaree would station himself in the forests of West Papua, an Indonesian province on New Guinea Island. Over the past three years, he routinely spent much of the latter half of each year on New Guinea and nearby islands such as Waigeo and Halmahera mainly because it's the mating season for birds-of-paradise, which occurs only in that part of the world.

Thailand is home to 1,076 species of birds, which can be found in various habitats, from high mountains covered with lush forest to the open seashore and anything in between. Even in a big city like Bangkok, many kinds of feathered friends can be found. At Vachirabenjatas Park (Suan Rot Fai) near Chatuchak Market, for example, 70 species or so have been recorded. Across the Kingdom, protected areas such as Kaeng Krachan and Khao Yai national parks are well-known destinations among both Thai and international birders.
The two photos of broadbills and the one of the banded kingfisher were taken in Kaeng Krachan, Phetchaburi. The picture of the spoon-billed sandpiper, a winter visitor that is on the wish list of many birdwatchers, was also shot in the same province but in a coastal area. The pair of sarus cranes standing tall over the purple swamphen were photographed in the northeastern province of Buri Ram. The sarus crane was a successful case of reintroduction. After decades of extinction from Thailand, the majestic species now thrives around Huai Chorakhe Mak Reservoir less than 20km southwest of downtown Buri Ram. (Photos by Puwish Lenvaree)

A birder for over a decade, Puwish left his former job as a computer system technician and established himself in international avitourism. He is now well known among advanced birdwatchers who have seen and photographed most of the species available in Thailand and wish to add some of the world's most fascinating birds to their life list, the cumulative number of species that each birder has personally recorded. Puwish, whose own life list includes 1,500 or so species, can help make their dream come true.

The pandemic aside, what exactly do you do for a living?

I'm a tour leader for birdwatching groups. I create the itinerary, arrange the transportation, accommodation, meals and lead my clients to the exact spots where they have the best chance to see the birds they are after.

Who are your clients? And what are the destinations you take them to?

My clients are mainly serious birdwatchers from Thailand and China. There are Westerners too when I organise trips in Thailand.

Normally, in January and February, I bring groups to northern Thailand and China. In March and April, it's time to go to the southern part of Thailand. One of the destinations is Phangnga where the beautiful banded pitta and the great argus can be spotted.

In May, I often bring foreign birdwatchers to Kaeng Krachan National Park. It's the time many birds build nests. Certain species, like the broadbills, are easier to find during this period.

To many people, birdwatching may seem like a leisurely activity. But for serious birders like Puwish Lenvaree and his friends, seeking to add more species to their already comprehensive lists, it’s a passion that requires utmost effort. Long-haul travel and extreme conditions cannot stop them. In the group picture taken with villagers in West Papua, Indonesia, Puwish is second left on the back row.

And what's your whereabouts in June?

From June on, it's the low season for bird tourism in Thailand because the nesting season is over and highly sought-after species are not as easy to find. I then shift to Malaysia. By the end of July, I'd move to Sumatra and further to Papua where I stay until October, standing by for pre-booked groups, before moving again to Borneo for a few weeks. I usually come back to Thailand in November because the cool season is the period to enjoy watching migratory species in many parts of the country.

Are foreigners interested in migratory birds?

Sure. For many Europeans, one of the must-sees is the spoon-billed sandpiper. The species, which migrates from northern Russia, is highly threatened. They usually land in Laem Phak Bia and nearby areas along the shoreline of Phetchaburi.

Laem Phak Bia is not a secret location. Why would a foreign birder need a guide?

The spoon-billed sandpiper comes in a very small numbers, never more than a single digit. Besides, they like to mingle with other birds of similar colour and therefore are not easy to identify from a distance. You might not see the bird even if it's among those in front of you. It helps to have somebody to locate the target.

Vietnam is one of the countries Puwish frequents. His favourite destinations are Dalat and Cát Tiên. The latter is a national park located between Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City. Despite its proximity, these areas boast some species that cannot be found in Thailand, such as the collared laughingthrush and the blackheaded sibia. The first is endemic. Some species, like the grey-bellied tesia, also appear in Thailand but are easier to find in Vietnam.

Has it ever occurred that the birds your clients want to see do not show up?

So far, not yet. Apart from my experience and bird-luring techniques, I also have the help of the local people. They keep track of the birds and tell me where I should go to see them.

Normally, how many people are there on each trip you organise?

No more than eight people. We need to keep each group small and quiet. Otherwise, the birds will be scared by our presence. Most of my clients are experienced birdwatchers and photographers. They know how to behave.

Have you conducted any excursion after the lockdown?

A few. The latest was to Buri Ram where I got a nice photo of a pair of sarus cranes. My clients on that trip were foreigners who got stranded in Thailand.

Located in West Papua — one of the two Indonesian provinces on New Guinea Island — about 1.3 hours offroad drive from the airport in Manokwari, which is the nearest town, the Arfak Mountains are on the bucket list of hardcore birdwatchers around the world. The mountains, as well as some other rugged locations in this far eastern part of Indonesia, are known for many kinds of birds-of-paradise. The male of each species is not only adorned with beautiful plumage but also blessed with an astonishing dancing skill that they must master to draw the attention of the opposite sex. The males that provide impressive shows get to mate with several females. Each species has its own unique mating dance. Some perform on the ground, while others on tree branches high up in the forest canopy. One of the most spectacular of such dances is that of the western parotia, which can change the colour of its eyes from blue to yellow. If you wish to get a better picture of such fascinating courtship choreography, just look up YouTube for “birds-of-paradise” or any species featured in the accompanying photographs.

No doubt, the Arfak Mountains have much more to offer than birds-of-paradise. Other interesting species include endemic jewel-babblers. Puwish said he found the chestnut-backed jewel-babbler, the one with white throat, loudly arguing with a western parotia at the latter’s courtship ground. The jewel-babbler was trying to steal the snake slough that the bird-of-paradise used to entice potential mates. The would-be thief probably wanted to use the slough as a lining for its new nest. No less amazing despite its plain appearance is the Vogelkop bowerbird. The male of the species not only has a large repertoire of songs but also the ability to build an immense bower which he meticulously decorates with brightly coloured objects he has collected from the forest and nearby villages. The structure, which looks like a primitive hut, is meant to lure the females. And, of course, his chance of mating depends very much on his architectural skill.

Waigeo is one of the larger islands of the Raja Ampat archipelago not far off the northwestern tip of New Guinea. It is a major destination for hardcore nature lovers. For birdwatchers, the island offers an ornithological extravaganza which includes the red bird-of-paradise, Wilson’s bird-of-paradise, the frilled monarch, the Papuan pitta, the yellow-billed kingfisher, the eclectus parrot and many more.

In general, birders also enjoy other things that Mother Nature has created. In this far eastern part of Indonesia, they can also observe and photograph mammals that cannot be found in other parts of the globe such as the tiny spectral tarsier, the Celebes crested macaque and the Waigeo spotted cuscus. The last is a marsupial, so each female has a pouch for its babies.

The seas in remote parts of Indonesia are full of beautiful islands and marine life. Naturally, fishing villages can be found here and there. Local markets offer many kinds of fish. According to Puwish, the seafood there is very fresh but because of the way the locals cook it, the resulting dishes may not be tasty enough by the Thai standard.

Halmahera is the main island of the Moluccas (also known as the Maluku Islands). The archipelago lies between Sulawesi to the west and New Guinea to the east. The birdlife of Halmahera, according to Puwish, is also bewildering. Species that are the highlights include the clever ivory-breasted pitta, the North Moluccan pitta, the blue-and-white kingfisher, and the standardwing bird-ofparadise. Puwish said that to photograph the ivory-breasted pitta, the cameramen must hide in a blind that covers all sides to make sure the highly curious bird cannot see them from any direction, including from above. Even a camera lens cannot protrude from the blind.

China is huge, and it has several birding destinations in different regions, each with a variety of birdlife. While pheasants are what many foreign visitors look for, China has many other kinds of captivating birds. These photos show a few examples. The one depicting a male Chinese monal standing in the snow was taken in Sichuan, one of the provinces Puwish likes to bring Thai birdwatchers. On the day he took the shot there were also several Chinese cameramen braving the cold to photograph the monal. The species is a lot harder to spot in the wild during other times of year.

Puwish Lenvaree can be contacted via his personal Facebook account.