Watching Wildlife from the Star Flyer in Asia

By Andy Lovering

21st January 2016

Nicobar Pigeon

It’s 6AM on a balmy November morning and I am stood on the teak sun deck of the Star Flyer, watching a deep red sunrise over the Andaman Sea. The ship left Phuket harbour last night and, this morning, the air is warm with enough breeze to eliminate humidity, yet fill the sails.

Early mornings are always the best time of day for birdwatching and today is no exception. Looking from port to starboard, hundreds of Bridled Terns are perched on the many floating branches, occasionally taking to the air on short fishing forays.

Overhead, the pirates are waiting; Frigate birds hang bat-like aloft, waiting for their chance to harry a passing Tern and steal this morning's catch. Lesser Frigate birds are the most numerous in these waters, but careful observation picks out a few, much rarer, Christmas Frigate birds; the white belly of the males being diagnostic.

An afternoon beach stop at Ko Adang in the Butang Archipelago and many passengers are enjoying the watersports facilities set up on the white coral sand beach. Whilst holidaymakers sunbathe, many birds of prey are slowly migrating southwards, using these islands as landmarks. Grey-faced Buzzards mix with the larger, Crested Honey Buzzards as they use thermals from the islands to rise high and glide over the next section of open sea.

There is a small lagoon behind the beach and here I find a pair of Indian Rollers, flashing their iridescent blue flight feathers, and also a small flock of Blue-tailed Bee Eaters, each hawking for dragonflies over the brackish water.

Sailing to Penang brings Brahminy Kites, their rufous wings contrasting with their white head and breast. Once common on the mainland, the coastline and islands of the Thai-Malay Peninsula is now the best area in which to find them. As Star Flyer glides gracefully through the glass-like water, I see a huge White-bellied Sea Eagle swoop down and grasp a Sea Snake from the water and head for the nearest island.

There is still an area of rainforest remaining on Penang and butterflies abound here. If lucky, you can sport a White-handed (or Lar’s) Gibbon swinging through the trees, it’s whooping calls resounding eerily across the forest canopy. Gibbons are elusive, but can also be found on Langkawi, plus, they have been reintroduced, on a handful of small islets in Phang Nga Bay.

We set sail, via Ko Lipe, to the myriad limestone outcrops of Phang Nga Bay, spotting Dollarbirds, Pacific Reef Egrets, more Brahminy Kites and Sea Eagles. Dolphins ride Star Flyer’s bow waves and, when we stop for snorkelling at the idyllic beach on Ko Hong, they join us; their curiosity and playfulness as great as ours.

Our last call is in the Similan Islands, where azure waters give way to the whitest of beaches, fringed by Evergreen forest. Along an inland nature trail, spectacular butterflies float by and, birdwatching, I spot Common Koel, Cinnamon Bittern and my ‘bird of the week’, the metallic blue, and very rare, Nicobar Pigeon. Found only on the Nicobar Islands and a few of the more remote Thai islands, this colourful bird is truly endangered. A holiday in Asia aboard Star Flyer brings some stunning scenery, yet, unnoticed by many, there is a host of wonderful wildlife all around.

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