The Sleepy Jungle - A week camping at Nam Nao National Park (12/12-19/12/2016) by Bernard Lundie
I am a Scottish naturalist, who since childhood has explored all strata of my country’s wildlife. Throughout university I had the pleasure of working with bird colonies in Iceland and have engaged in other forays in Europe. 2016 however was to be the year I fulfilled every wildlife lover’s dream of exploring the tropics. After a tough summer working in catering I decided it was neigh time to expand my horizons to the orient.
After a few days in Bangkok enjoying the company of Lumpini Park’s monstrous monitors I bussed it from Lom Sak to Nam Nao national park, where I spent six nights.
I chose to visit Nam Nao as from what I read about it, it seemed like the sort of place I would like to be. The national park (specifically what was in range as a non-driver based at the campsite) seemed to offer a variety of habitats, a large diversity of birds and a reasonable chance of encountering some exciting mammals.
After a small mix up I arrived late at night. I was given a lift in and we spotted a Sambar calmly stroll in front of the pickup -a promising start. A Thai family camping next to me kindly helped this fatigued traveller pitch a tent and gave him something to eat. They provided me with much kindness and good company for the next few days. I fell asleep to a cacophony of frogs and insects, eagerly awaiting my first day in the jungle. As I was forewarned, nights are chilly at this altitude, so campers bare that in mind.
My first port of call was to get a camera trap set up. After a painful amount of miscommunication with the rangers, a man who was in some senior position judging by his smart attire took me for the first time, out of the electric fence surrounding camp and into the forest.
I wasn’t sure how far we were going to go and I had myself hyped for a long trek. However we had reached a suitable spot within five minutes. He showed me some subtle signs that I would have missed; now dry mud from a large animal painting the leaves of understorey plants as well as berries knocked from a tree.
We walked down to a little stream and crossing it was a well-trodden mammal trail. Hoof prints were evident in the mud as was a fresh pile of elephant dung.
“Chang” was a word I associated with beer from friends’ stories of Thailand. To me it symbolised a looming threat.
Nam Nao is the haunt of wild elephants. Being from a country where there are virtually no dangerous animals, this was an exhilarating but frightening prospect. I did drink a few changs and having noticed the elephants on the can, reconciled the two definitions.
The ranger gestured I climb a tree so that the chang don’t destroy my camera. So I fixed it facing the trail at a height I was willing to climb. I doubt it was out with the grasp of Elaphus maximus , but I felt it would have been somewhat less obvious to them.
With that sorted I set a daily routine to make the most of the short days. Head to jungle, come back for lunch (sometimes) head out again and come back before sundown for some rustic but tasty food at the little restaurant.
My first full day in the jungle proved to be exciting but with a pang of the reality. Firstly, construction work was going on most days .It was audible even a good few kilometres away on the trails. The road was also often in earshot. I live in a national park and I understand that developing an infrastructure in a responsible manner is essential; I needed both the road and the facilities to enjoy my trip so I can’t condemn them too much. I have read of development threatening other Thai parks so I hope Nam Nao develops responsibly. Neither of these things seriously affected my enjoyment and I shan’t dwell on them further.
Nam Nao has a series of short overlapping trails going through a variety of habitats. Where deciduous and evergreen stands begun and end, I wasn’t sure. Most trees were only beginning to shed leaves as opposed to looking bare. Epiphytes were evident but not profuse. The forest had some tall but mostly thin trees. However there was the odd giant with huge buttress roots for support as well as cycads dotted here and there. Thick stands of bamboo created a mysterious environment of striped light. A small area of pines with an understorey of grass provided an open and airy atmosphere, where you could find solace from the heavy jungle air. It seems to me that pines, wherever they occurred were something of a boasted curiosity in Thailand. To this European it was the one of the few habitats that had any semblance of familiarity.
My preconceived idea of tropical forests was based on accounts of various friends of mine who had worked in the neotropics; a place dripping with moisture and bursting with life, particularly parasites.
Nam Nao, at the time of my visit, proved to be a different sort of jungle. It was quite dry, and although repellents and nets were welcome, the mosquitoes and flies were less relentless than Scottish midgies and clegs. I have no doubt the wet season could prove different.
New species were not leaping out at me on every corner as I thought they would have. However the more I looked the more I saw. It was a place where secrets had to be unlocked with the key of patience. My silent solitary travel was occasionally broken by “What’s that?” or simply “Wow”.
One day brought huge golden ants meandering over a fallen log, ground squirrels gathering mouthfuls of food and huge butterflies swooping like birds. The next unveiled freshwater crabs hiding in the low river, golden orb weavers patiently waiting overhead and long tailed lizards weaving through the dry grass.
Accompanied by books of Thailand’s birds, mammals and reptiles I set about the task of identifying my new neighbours.
Birding in this new environment was incredibly frustrating. My neck ached from spending so long staring into the canopy. The birds moved fast and in mixed species groups. When one bird moved out of view, its closest companion was another species entirely, as was the next bird behind. This combination of poor visibility, mixed species flocks and my lack of knowledge on Asian bird taxa proved against me. However that was part of the fun. I focused on easily identifiable groups given the above conditions. I had some archetypal tropical birds on my wish list and eventually the forest did provide. Pied hornbill, vernal hanging parrot, red headed trogon, scarlet minivet and olive backed sunbird satisfied my urge for flagrant feathers. The less colourful slaty backed forktail however was one of my favourites. The bold monochrome plumage and riparian haunts gave me the impression of a rich man’s wagtail.
I’ve tended domestic fowl many times and to see the humble chicken in its native habitat has been a long time goal. Soon I spied four red jungle fowl cocks just behind HQ. Their plumage was stunning .From my vantage point I watched them nervously scratch the earth and squabble with each other.
Mammals as always were even harder to find. Squirrels were most obvious, particularly the pied variable squirrels. They proved to be the most unobservant wild mammal I’ve ever seen. I got some very detailed views of them feeding and even spotted one having a nap in the crux of a tree only a few feet above my head! When they eventually did notice my presence, their guttural alarm call was my cue to move on.
Big mammals, the type that get the blood going, were much more present than I imagined. Sambar and Muntjac tracks were common. I found the old track of a Gaur and I came across scat and footprints of mid-sized carnivores, no doubt snacking on careless squirrels.
Some days I really wanted to get “ticks”. Some days I just wanted to relax and enjoy the forest as a whole. I’ve found a balance of the two increasingly important the older I get.
The very spacious campsite itself would be a brilliant place to get more positive IDs on birds. However I prioritised on hitting the trails. As the weekend came, so did a huge influx of guests, all Thai. It was great to see local people enjoying their countries nature. By and large they seemed content to relax at the campsite leaving me to enjoy the forest alone.
One species synonymous with Nam Nao campsite is the white crested laughing thrush. This charming species seemed to delight the Thai campers. Perhaps they can relate this highly social bird to their own cultures emphasis on family bonds.
A night time wander revealed the eye shine and outline of possibly a civet and I scared what sounded like Muntjac behind one of the bungalows. Darkness saw an army of frogs descend on the toilet blocks to comically leap all over the place. Most nights though, I was content to dream of strange creatures.
For the first few days, the threat of elephants played at the back of my mind. I had read online of many close encounters birders had had with them on these same trails. My apprehension of them grew the closer I got to Nam Nao .One person at the bus station even went as far to say that me going was an overly dangerous prospect! Road signs, then park signs and finally seeing their blatant trails…..Giant oval footprints, huge heaps of dung, tree trunk scratching posts and bamboo snapped like it was merely a twig. It made me thankful for the electric wire perimeter of the camp. As time passed and despite the wealth of evidence, I began to feel silly at fearing or even believing there were elephants at all! Particularly in the pine forests, so like home, the prospect of an elephant lumbering into view felt fanciful. Once I heard a distant trumpet that filled me with instant fear and awe. The sceptic in me was later unsure if it wasn’t a vehicle related noise. In the end I did not even glimpse an elephant. I feel equally saddened and relieved that I never did. But it was a privilege to share the paths with these icons of the wild.
As I lie in my tent on my final night, I naturally reflect on my first encounter with the jungle .I think of how different this place would be in the wet season. I ponder how is wilderness defined? It would be easy to feel jaded. There is a fridge full of coke five minutes away, stars are swamped by artificial light and the chorus of frogs competes with that of the latest in Thai pop. This isn’t the wild I think to myself. But just beyond that electric wire, behemoths stir and unknown predators prowl. They might disagree.
Species List Birds
• Vernal hanging parrot
• Red headed trogon
• Mountain imperial pigeon
• Red jungle fowl
• Scarlet minivet
• Black headed oriole
• Greater ratchet tailed drongo
• White bellied woodpecker
• Common flameback
• Bronzed drongo
• Grey headed canary flycatcher
• Sooty headed bulbul (red vent)
• Puff throated bulbul
• Black headed bulbul
• Mountain tailor bird(?)
• Olive backed sunbird
• White crested laughing thrush
• White browed scimitar babbled
• Chinese pond heron
• Pied hornbill
• Slaty backed forktail
• White throated fantail
• Bar winged flycatcher shrike
Unidentified leafbird, wader, swift and whiteye amongst others
• Pied variable squirrel
• Indochinese ground squirrel
• Grey bellied squirrel
• Sambar deer
• Long tailed grass lizard
• Common striped skink
Various others lizards unidentified