Lesser Frigate Bird and colourful reefs, Phi Phi Islands, January 2020: Trip Summary

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

Dates: 21st to 24th January 2020

One magical morning looking from Phi Phi Don, looking towards Phi Leh


A brief holiday in the Phi Phi Islands (off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea) with some incidental birding (inevitably!) and snorkelling, has proven worthy enough for a short note with good birds like Lesser Frigatebird, Pied Imperial Pigeon, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Dollarbird, Scarlet-backed and Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers and Crimson Sunbird among a handful of others, entertaining. Much of this birdlife was easy to see in the well wooded surroundings of the resort (U Rip) we stayed in (a little more effort walking quieter trails could have produced a lot more I would imagine – some even suggest the possibility of Nicobar Pigeon), however the Lesser Frigatebird (an ‘attractive’ target for vagrant birders to these islands) required a special effort  – a longtail boat excursion (boats available for hire easily in the touristy areas of the islands/the main pier and costed about the same as half day rentals to Phi Leh) to Koh Bida (about 30-45 mins from main pier on Phi Phi Don), for about an hour before and until sunset. The birds, initially distant, but distinctly frigatebirds of some sort, later flying overhead to enable good views through binoculars (at least as good as possible from an unmoored little boat, swaying on a restless open sea). I could also make out some distant terns (ID?), as well as Striated Heron, Pacific Reef Egret, Brahminy Kite and White-bellied Sea Eagle in and around the sheer, sparsely vegetated, limestone cliffs of Koh Bida.

Lesser Frigatebird a potentially ‘attractive’ target for birders visiting Phi Phi

The (largely) black male Lesser Frigatebird

Female Lesser Frigatebirds have a bit more white

While these scenic islands of limestone cliffs towering from aquamarine waters, fringed with white, sandy beaches, a culture of great nightlife, friendly locals, good food and plenty to drink (and a plethora of massages to relieve any resultant hangovers) attracts more beach bums and party animals than self-respecting birders, if any nature enthusiast bothers to their heads underwater, they would have to be impressed with the diversity of marine life, the quality of the reefs, even in the shallows in the protected waters around Phi Leh. For someone like yours truly, for whom all prior experience gawking at tropical reefs was limited to diving/snorkelling forays around the Havelock Islands of the Andamans, the vivid quality of the reefs around Phi Leh were a revelation (while the fish life is still good at Havelock, much of the shallower reefs, unfortunately, are bleached). A couple of sessions of relaxed snorkelling left me pining for more of the spectacularly diverse, psychedelically colourful reef and its denizens. Among them were Black-tipped Reef Shark, Banded Sea Krait, shoals of delightful Yellow-backed and Yellow-tailed Fusilliers, Needlefish? (often hanging around close to the surface, disconcertingly bold, along with equally brave, but not as intimidating Sergeant Major), various butterflyfish, parrotfish and batfish, Moorish Idol, Pufferfish sp, , Moray Eel, Clown and Skunk Anemone Fish, Surgeonfish sp., and a whole variety of smaller reef fish among a number of sessile (or seemingly) organisms (sea anemone, starfish, sea cucumber, giant clams, sea urchins and various corals among them). The water was refreshingly cool close to the surface, and almost cold, when I managed to push my rather large (and hence less than ideally (but more!) buoyant for the activity) body a little deeper. Maya Bay (better known as the filming site for the movie “Beach” and hence very touristy on the flip side) with a large swimming area with a healthy gradient of depth, Viking Cave (where it was easy to see young Black-tipped Reef Shark, but had quite a small swimming area and shallow reef – one has to master some rather dexterous, almost comical moves to avoid contacting the coral with your hands, feet and other parts of the body, which may or may not bulge inconveniently) and Loh Samai Bay (a relatively quiet site with good quality coral), were especially enjoyable to dip the head underwater. Although included in half day Longtail Boat (easily available on Phi Phi Don) hire package, do avoid Monkey Beach (unless you want to get up-close and personal, and pose for photographs with Long-tailed Macaque, vying for the best spots with boatloads of fellow tourists) and the very pretty, but way too touristy, azure blue, sandy bottomed (hence not productive for diverse marine life), Pileh Bay. While I did not visit, the waters off Long Beach on Phi Phi Don, is reputedly good for adult Black-tipped Reef Shark.

The lovely Pileh Lagoon is not especially interesting for marine life though

Some useful tips … 

As a keen nature enthusiast, I have a couple of pointers for visitors of our ilk to Phi Phi

– If satisfying natural history interests is your primary focus, don’t come here. There are tons of locations in the Asia Pacific region with at least as much biodiversity and likely in vastly aesthetically pleasanter natural settings (these islands are way crowded for that). However, if you get there anyway, you will likely appreciate the beautiful scenery, the spectacular marine life and (adequately) interesting birdlife.

– Try to find accommodations that are away from the crowded markets close to the main pier and located within, adjacent to or with access to woodland nearby. There is enough birdlife (and if you look hard enough, I am sure, smaller creatures), in these woodlands, even if you are just casually birding, lounging in your wet swimming trunks, sipping on a cold one, from your hotel room’s balcony (like I did!). The U Rip Resort, where we stayed, ticked these boxes quite well.

– If you, like me, are Thai (language) challenged, your overall experience is bound to improve if you brush-up your non-verbal communication skills before visiting.  Thais in general seem to know just enough English (not entirely sure about other languages) for one to get by with basic communication in the said tongue (for example a conversation which involves you asking for Tea, not in cheek, however), but if you have unusual requests (like a typically geeky naturalist would), such as wanting to visit Koh Bida for Lesser Frigatebird, you might benefit with enhanced non-verbal communication skills to make the best of your visit (there are too many nuances to this activity for an average human being to get it, even without language getting in the way!)


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