Creatures of the Night …

Day time birding in Khao Nor Chuchi was fairly good but it was the night birds that quickened the pulse.

One way or another birds had provided the locals with a small income for a long time. Initially it was by trapping for the cage bird trade, still quite big in Thailand, and when that became unfashionable money could be made taking the punters to see Gurney’s Pitta. That no longer pays but there is still a wealth of local knowledge that can be put to good use. The compulsive twitcher wants to come back from their trip with the biggest possible list and owls are among the hardest birds to find. They tend to use day time roosts repeatedly so if you know where they are you’re in business.

It meant that we were in the forest from before dawn to well after dark. One evening our targets were well beyond the reach of our minibuses so we transferred to a couple of 4WDs, one a nice new Prado, the other a ute. There were 12 paying passengers, two guides plus the local talent who would show us the birds. The Prado seated five, the ute seated two, the remaining nine traveled some very rough terrain in or almost in the tray. There are people who imagine that bird watching is dull.

In the space of a couple of nights we had good views of Brown Wood Owl and Blyth’s Frogmouth. The highlight for me was an encounter with a Colugo. Something collided with a tree close by. Playing the spotlight on the source of the noise revealed a mammal climbing the trunk. It would move both fore feet then both hind feet, it was quite quick but not particularly graceful because its progress was hindered by folds of membrane that were too large to fit completely  beneath it …

The commentator calls them little but they can weigh up to 1.3 kg. The ability to glide has emerged independently in several distinct groups of mammals, the Colugos are the most accomplished of them and also the most closely related to ourselves. They are in the Euarchonta as are the primates.

As well as night birds by night we also saw a couple at their daytime roost, the Spotted Wood Owl and Barred Eagle Owl. They are both very shy and will bolt readily. We were conducted singly and with great stealth to see them half obscured in dense foliage. When everybody had taken a look the guides gave a sigh of relief and we all relaxed. At that point a youngster that had clearly not read the manual presented itself for a photo …

Barred Eagle-Owl

Peninsular Thailand …

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.