At the end of the regular Thailand tour we said our goodbyes to just one of the participants and hello to one newby. I think the high retention rate had something to do with the high proportion of repeat clients. They knew what to expect from Rockjumper and wanted it all.
We flew to Krabi and transferred to Khao Nor Chuchi. Down at sea level and closer to the equator it was noticeably warmer and perhaps more humid. Over the next few days we would be exploring lowland rainforest, mangroves, tidal flats and taking a trip to the Similan Islands.
The southern extension would add a considerable number of species to our list especially some highly desirable nocturnal birds but Khao Nor Chuchi is famous for a bird that we would not be seeing, Gurney’s Pitta.
The Pitta’s are a group of birds found in Africa, Asia and Australasia. They are passerines, a group that is often loosely referred to as perching birds or songbirds but the Pittas are suboscines, that is they lack the syrinx which is the avian equivalent of the larynx, and aren’t great singers. They tend to be colourful and shy. We had already ticked off Eared Pitta, Blue Pitta and Rusty-naped Pitta. We had stopped for a few minutes on the drive that day to find the Mangrove Pitta and we would go on to find the Malayan Banded Pitta.
Gurney’s Pitta was brought to the scientific world’s attention in the standard way, it was shot, by William Ruxton Davison in 1875 in Burma. It was, perhaps, quite rare even then, by the middle of the 20th century it was considered quite possibly extinct, it had been completely off the radar since 1936. It made its reappearance in a Bangkok pet shop. Rumours reached the US, word was sent to an ornitholigist, Philip D. Round, who then visited pet shops until he found a pair and discovered that they had been trapped at Khao Nor Chuchi. Round and a colleague headed for the area where a few days later they found a pair in the wild. That colleague was Uthai Treesucon, one of our guides on this tour.
The definitive reference is Round, P. D. and U. Treesucon. 1986. The rediscovery of Gurney’s Pitta. Forktail 2: 53–66.
The Thai government declared a reserve to protect its new star species, but the boundaries did not include the most important habitat nor was policing adequate to prevent illegal land clearance for rubber and palm oil plantations. The population of Gurney’s Pitta dwindled and was extinguished by about 2014. The forest persists on ridges and steep slopes but is fragmentary on the flats which has become a mosaic of plantations. Uthai’s long experience of this place has been marked by loss, not only of the Pitta but numerous other birds that require larger expanses of forest.
On the other side of the hill in Myanmar (formerly Burma) there is still a population of Gurney’s Pitta, the area where they are found is currently off limits to tourists because of its military importance. Is their future secure? I doubt it.