Thailand’s bird-life, when you stop to look, is abundant – especially on Koh Samui. Thanks to a variety of environments from sea-level to Koh Samui’s highest point at 635 metres, and plenty of migrating visitors, it’s a great destination for bird-watchers. We’ve spent many happy hours noticing the variety (and colour!) of Thailand’s birds and are getting better at recognising the regulars.
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Bird-watching in Thailand: Tips, gear and what we’ve seen
Koh Samui birds we’ve seen
Current count: 25 birds
Asian fairy bluebird
Asian palm swift
These beauties appear at dusk in the dozens, presumably hunting mosquitoes. They’re fast and silent… they’re swift! Fun fact? They nest under palm leaves, gluing them together with saliva.
A medium-size raptor that eats lizards and dragonflies, amongst other things.
Black bellied malkoha bird
Not our own sighting, but one kindly reported from a blog reader, Harry. He saw it from his hotel room near Lamai – proving that, in the tropics, nature gladly comes to you.
The myna birds disappear quickly when this big baddie shows up. Fascinating to watch it soar, but haven’t yet seen it swoop.
In Thailand’s heat, why not let someone else do all the work?
Chinese pond heron
Common tailor bird
As featured in Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
A seriously ugly bird with scary eyes and an exceptionally menacing
call cackle. Still, they hunt for big insects and even snakes – so they’re welcome to stay!
Greater racket-tailed drongo
Great racket-tailed drongo: hiding in plain sight at The Jungle Club, Koh Samui.
Never have we seen something with our own eyeballs in nature that we still suspect to be Photoshopped.
For a long time we thought this was an Asian fairy bluebird (it’s blue!). Turns out that the latter looks mean and scary, and this guy is pretty and sweet.
As it flew past, “Wow, that crow has a big beak”. Turns out, its name suits it.
About as common as pigeons anywhere else in the world, but mynas are interesting for their intelligence & their life-long pairing. They’ve been hanging out on the top of the sala lately. (Until the brahminy kite shows up…).
Olive backed sunbird
The coolest bird we’ve ever seen outside of a zoo! Must consider spray-painting the common sparrow – all birds should be this bright. We first noticed this little guy when he flew into the kitchen!
Oriental honey buzzard
Pacific reef egret
Could it look more like a velociraptor if it tried? We think this one is pretty scary-looking, though it was great to watch him catch his breakfast while we enjoyed ours (who needs TV!). This is a stock photo, but pacific reef egrets are easily spotted from a happy hour perch at Tango Luxe on Plai Laem beach.
Pied imperial pigeon
A much more regal looking counterpart to the pigeons we know at home!
Widely seen as caged birds, used in bird-singing competitions
White-bellied sea eagle
We’ve spotted this terror on a number of occasions, soaring around the bay at Bophut Beach. Absolutely massive.
Birds of Koh Samui: Top 4 FAQs
1. Where to see birds on Koh Samui/in Thailand?
Our tips for bird-watching in Thailand include a few location suggestions, but our amateur skills depend on our Thailand bird-watching books and a decent supply of gin and tonics. Three top choices for seeing a variety of birds on Koh Samui:
- Tongsai Bay is a great hotel choice, as they have a running list of on-property bird sightings – over 60 different birds.
- The Jungle Club is, no surprise, high in the jungle hills with lots of ‘upper level’ birds to call it home.
- Melati Beach Resort has acres of gardens, with waterfalls, hibiscus and more to provide an ideal home for many of Thailand’s small, flower-loving birds.
2. What are the best bird books for Thailand?
1. Birds of Thailand by Craig Robson – Amazon’s offerings are strictly second-hand but it’s truly the definitive bird-guide for Thailand. We highly recommend even a dog-eared version!
2. A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia by Morten Strange – A great companion to the former. As the title implies, the book relies on photos rather than illustrations, in many cases making identification much easier.
3. A Photographic Field Guide To Birds Of South-East Asia – A slightly newer book with a wider geographic range. This guide is second-most popular with our bird-watching readers, though we haven’t used it ourselves.
3. What birds and wildlife will you see in Thailand?
We’re guessing we’ve barely scratched the surface of Koh Samui (and Thailand’s) bird-life, but it’s amazing what you see when you start paying attention. Or, in the case of one of our readers, what you nearly drive into: Koh Samui has massive monitor lizards, not to mention lots of dogs and cats in need of your spare change!
4. What else is there to see and do?
As massive animal lovers (and fairly committed ‘eco’ travellers), we do our best to steer you to ethical animal spots, with gorgeous gardens. And the odd passionfruit mojito. Find out what to expect and exactly where to find your favourite places, foods and island activities.
Whether you’ll explore Koh Samui with or without binoculars, use The Koh Samui Guide to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
Bird-watching on Koh Samui: Tips + FAQs
Greater racket-tailed drongo at The Jungle Club, Koh Samui
Another post inspired by a customer of The Koh Samui Guide Rafael wrote a few months ago:
“The guide is proving an interesting and informative read. The only thing missing was where the good bird viewing spots were (LOL). A bit specialised I know. Now if only we can get our heads around a few Thai phrases we’ll be right”. [Update – The Koh Samui Guide now includes bird-watching tips].
Right indeed! Never ones to let a hole remain unfilled, we’ve summed our best suggestions for bird-watching on Koh Samui. With the recent announcement that Koh Samui is going green – why not join those scanning the sky for something interesting? Here’s our take on how to use your time on Samui to do some (fairly lazy) bird-watching.
Tip #1. Don’t try too hard
Our scientific bird-watching method is usually “sit somewhere pretty, order a round of beers, and wait”. No matter where you sit, whether at sea level for the waders, slightly uphill to get a good view of birds of prey, or into thicker jungle landscapes for some brightly coloured beauties, Koh Samui will reward your attention. As a quick starter-pack, we’ve had great success seeing new-to-us birds at:
- Zazen Boutique Resort (a white-bellied sea eagle flying across the bay)
- Tango Luxe Beach Villa (very busy egrets at sunset)
- The Jungle Club (tops in our book for recently affording a greater racket-tailed drongo sighting)
Tip #2. Book into nature
To bird-watch lazily, still in your PJs, consider booking into a hotel or a rental house that embraces nature. Compared to our list of birds seen in Thailand (currently a well-earned 24), The Tongsai Bay counts sixty resident bird species. Yea, we’ve been trumped. Tongsai Bay turns 31 years old in 2018, and throughout its existence, it’s remained a considerate neighbour and host to native wildlife. If you’re happiest when bird-watching, their large property (kept totally free of pesticides) makes it an encouraging first choice for your Koh Samui accommodation.
Tip #3. If you like small, flitty birds
(A phrase that will surely attract the wrong kind of visitors – sorry guys, try Pattaya), visit a variety of Koh Samui’s gardens – where tropical flowers attract tiny birds with beaks in crazy shapes.
Tip #4. Get to the beach
The biggest bird we’ve seen in Thailand, a white-bellied sea eagle, was spotted while eating lunch on Bophut beach – so nothing too taxing, so far all of our birdlife has come to us (or – more accurately – flown away from us).
Tip #5. Take a full day
We should also mention that Ang Thong Marine Park has its own ecosystem and a variety of native wildlife, yet another reason for a great day trip.
Tip #6. Sip some (birds’ nest) soup
Also, the Five Islands on Koh Samui’s southwest corner is home to a large nesting swift population, whose nests are harvested for the Chinese ‘birds’ nest soup’ particularly popular in Hong Kong. Tours in longtail boats are available around the islands.
Tip #7. Get competitive
Visit a bird-singing competition on Koh Samui to see red-whiskered bulbuls compete for (their owners’) glory.
Tip #8. Get golfing
The restaurant at Santiburi Country Club sits way up high, amongst thick coconut groves. You should expect to see lots of birdlife busy at sunset. While the course earns high praise from golfers, ‘regular people’ are welcome to visit for lunch or drinks and enjoy the view.
What to bring with you?
- Books: Birds of Thailand + Birds of Southeast Asia
- Waterproof binoculars: Nikon 10×25 Binoculars
- A good lens: Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8 L IS II USM Lens
- UV filter: Hoya 77mm UV filter
Why is Koh Samui great for bird watching?
Favour the weird ones or delight in sheer quantity? There’s a great variety available both year-round and during seasonal migration. Koh Samui’s topography means a rewarding variety of birdlife in a relatively small space (the island is about 88 square miles/228.7 square km). As well, building codes on the island are unique amongst other Thai tourist destinations. No building can legally be taller than its surrounding coconut trees, so you can always look up and expect to see something. (Actually, dead coconut trees are a great place to start).
The Koh Samui Guide will get you to quiet corners of the island and handily fill the rest of your vacation itinerary
Having hopefully addressed this slightly niche interest – what about the rest of your holiday? The Koh Samui Guide will get you to quiet corners of the island and handily fill the rest of your vacation itinerary – whether you want mainstream, normal, beach stuff or slightly more off-the-wall pursuits. Enjoy!
Thailand Birdcages: Bird-singing, Bulbuls and Big Bucks
More than likely, you’re seeing a songbird en route to a singing competition. Bird-singing is a traditional past-time through many parts of Southeast Asia, and remains especially popular with generations aged ‘Baby Boomer plus’. For no particular reason, it tends to draw mostly male competitors and spectators.
Koh Samui songbird competitions
On Koh Samui, songbird competitions are held twice a week and the annual championship is a very big deal, drawing 400 competitors. Elsewhere in the region, a prized songbird sold in Singapore for US$68,000 and winning birds’ cages would keep the likes of Mariah Carey happy: crystal, pearl and ivory bowls and accessories fill the interior.
Keep your eyes open for cage-sized scooter cargo and, more than likely, you’ll soon see a type of bird called the red-whiskered bulbul headed to its next contest. This is an easy (and cheeky) addition to your list of birds seen in Thailand. In the wild, they’re a protected species, so it’s much easier to let one drive right past you.
Bulbuls’ singing, while considered very beautiful, is purely territorial and occurs when placed close to other cages. In the competitions, different categories exist for all volumes from loud-voiced birds (Class A), to the quieter Class C.
How to attend a bird-singing competition
Note that bird-singing competitions are not tourist events but occasions that matter very much to those involved. If you’d like to visit, be on your best ‘culturally aware’ behaviour and be sure to dress appropriately. Enjoy!