Birds of Koh Tao

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Birds of Koh Tao

To most travellers Koh Tao is mainly known for diving and all the things you could see under water. But did you know that if you look up in the air, you’ll get to see a big variety of birds as well?! We asked staff member & hobby ornithologist Ian to give us a brief introduction on what types of birds you could see on your morning (or afternoon) walk across the island!

Fly Like An Eagle

Koh Tao is undoubtedly famous for the amount of fantastic dive sites we have along with the abundance of marine wildlife that inhabits those sites. From whale sharks to nudibranchs we are sometimes very spoiled for what we see on any given day in the water.

There is, however, other wildlife here – sadly being overlooked by the majority of visitors. I have to admit during my previous visits to Koh Tao I was pretty oblivious myself. I am referring to the bird population, which, while you may see the occasional flock of swifts and spot a sea eagle hunting over the shallows, is more prolific than it may at first appear.

The white bellied sea eagle (or is it a brahminy kite?) population here is often the one most remarked on. These huge raptors can often be seen circling over many places on the island. Typically pale, almost white, in colour with dark grey on the feather extremities, they are fairly easy to spot. Using their wings only sparingly for propulsion they prefer to use the warm air updraft, generated predominantly in the afternoons, for a lazy glide around over shallow water where the fish below are their usual prey. With a grace that defies their size they plummet towards the ocean flaring out at the last possible moment to snatch their meal using talons longer than most people’s fingers. It is truly-awe inspiring to realise what evolution can do to hone the perfect airborne fisherman.

I referred earlier to brahminy kite which are often mistaken for sea eagles as they hunt in much the same way and often patrol the same patches of water around the island while on the look-out for dinner. These beautiful birds are smaller, have more rounded tail plumage and their colouration is typically a light brown with a white chest and head with darker brown on the wing tips as opposed to the much paler plumage of the sea eagle. Also a graceful and adept hunter with a sudden stoop to the water to collect its prey.


There are several other smaller raptors I have spotted around the island but you have to be truly keen-eyed to see them as most are hidden away in the thick jungle canopy or so well camouflaged that you strain to spot them unless they’re on the move. Besras and shikras are out there to be found for the truly patient and eagle-eyed (pun intended) among you.

Until now I’ve only mentioned the raptor family. To really appreciate just how many other species of bird inhabit Koh Tao you really need to take to the jungle trails and creep your way through the undergrowth with as little noise as possible. If our winged friends hear you coming you can bet you’ll never spot them. If you are quiet (and patient!) enough you will be surprised at the variety of avians around you. You can find:

  • Hoopoes – They are more often heard than seen. It sounded like a troop of howler monkeys waking up first thing in the morning in my old apartment
  • Tailor birds – If you can spot this little fella on the way to Sai Nuan beech you have fantastic eye sight!
  • Asian palm swifts & Indian rollers – These are also hiding in the canopy. The swifts do make a spectacular emergence around sunset where they can be commonly be seen effortlessly fliting back and forth over the beeches in Mae Haad and Sairee catching their insect supper on the wing. The Indian rollers can be found a little more easily as they seem to be getting bolder and have been spotted around several locations on the island.

With that in mind you don’t always have to go softly, softly to spot some of our other resident birds. Quite the contrary the most common bird here is the myna bird. This cheeky chappie has no fear, it seems, and can often be spotted patrolling near restaurants in the hope of someone dropping a morsel that they can rush in and snatch up. I have seen these guys brazenly land on a table next to me giving me a look as if to say: “Are you going to finish that?” Truly showing that birds are smarter than we think they have adapted their habits to scavenge off the big ‘monkeys’ that wander around dropping tasty treats.


Among other easy sightings are the Chinese pond herons and egrets found around most of the bays and inlets of Koh Tao. You can observed them while they are waiting patiently on a stationary long tail, staring into the water, picking out the perfect snack from the school of fish basking in the shallows below. They don’t just hunt fish though as my good friend once pointed out after capturing some beautiful video footage of a heron snatching a dragonfly from a tree top perch.


Other anglers are out there and one of my favorites is the white throated king fisher. Sometimes spotted out on the rocks or perching on an over-hanging branch these expert fisherman have a distinctive body and bill shape making them uniquely suited to dive rapidly into water, snatch a fish then dart pack up to their perch. If you are lucky enough you can see they also have a unique way of preparing their food. First they smash their hapless meal against a rock to stun (or kill) it only to then toss it into the air and catch & swallow in one gulp! Another example of evolution at work to exploit a niche for hunting.


Of course, there are many other winged visitors to Koh Tao. Some are seasonal migrators and others may just be taking refuge from a storm out in the gulf of Thailand. This is only a brief guide to some of the more commonly spotted birds and it is far from exhaustive! I’m sure that there are better bird spotters out there that can happily add a few more to those I’ve listed above! A particularly good way of tracking down some of the more rare birds we have is to check out the Birds of Koh Tao Facebook group where you will find all sorts of information about what can (hopefully) be spotted and where.

While our little slice of paradise is renowned for is beautiful waters brimming with aquatic wonder, maybe next time you’re on a lazy day off or just exploring the trails around the island, it’s worth casting your eyes skyward. There are avian wonders everywhere for those that want to find them!

Image credits: John Conolly

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