Review of the Rockjumper Thailand Tour …

The tour ran from February 19, 2017 until March 7. The southern extension kicked off the next day and finished on the 13th.

The leaders were Uthai Treesucon and Keith Valentine and they were excellent.

Uthai Treesucon
Keith Valentine

The itinerary and accommodation were well chosen, transport was handled well. The food was good.

A group size of twelve could present problems but Rockjumper briefs participants on etiquette and on this occasion things ran very smoothly. How the organisation might have handled a crisis was never put to the test.

It is a hardcore birding tour, if your spouse is not a keen birder it would be tough for them. There is no associates program, days are long, the focus is intense. And for the birder very productive. The final tally for the tour was over 500 species, I saw 471 different birds and some good mammals. If you carry a camera you will bring back some very nice photos but it’s not the tour for the dedicated bird photographer the tempo is quite different from their requirements. One of the group has put a very large collection of their photos up <HERE>. If you’re preparing for a trip you could test your diagnostic skills on them.

So to mark Rockjumper’s report card … A+. I’ve already booked another tour. The next one is to Bhutan. What about the participants?

Most were repeat Rockjumper clients which says something about the company. The guys were gentlemen bird watchers, always polite, tolerant and cooperative. The girls on the other hand … I don’t know how many times I found myself examining the backs of their head through my binoculars. No, I exaggerate the group was remarkably congenial. There were tales of other trips and a lot of good humour. We were occasionally entertained by the sayings of Polly’s Mum one of which was …

If you’re looking for sympathy you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis …

which is well worth remembering.

It is axiomatic that …

  1. There is an arsehole in every group and
  2. They are totally unconscious of the fact.

So it follows that if you can’t identify the arsehole it must be you.

I therefore tender my apologies to the fine men and women that I traveled with. I enjoyed it.

 

 

 

Thick head …

Tigers to the left, Possums to the right. The distance between Bali and Lombok is just 25 km but Asia’s woodpeckers, barbets and trogons are on one side, Australasia’s honeyeaters and cockatoos on the other. Huxley’s modification to the line tidies up a few problems, an excellent example being the genus Pachycephala, a literal translation – thick heads, more flatteringly known these days as the Whistlers. There are 32 species (following the Handbook of Birds of the World in this instance) and all of them are found to the east of Huxley’s version of Wallace’s Line.

When an Australians go birding in Asia they are confronted with not just with new species but whole new families. It can get confusing.

I’d been in Thailand for three weeks. New species were raining down the whole time. It was possible that I was missing the derisive laughter of the Kookaburra or my wife, or maybe the scent of eucalyptus. We were birding in the mangroves when I saw it, a little Aussie expat. It warmed the cockles of my heart springs …

Mangrove Whistler

I’ve seen Golden Whistler and Rufous Whistler in my own back yard and six other species in Australia. Some Whistlers have made it way out into the Pacific to the islands of New Caledonia, Tonga and Samoa but only one species straddles the mere 25 km that separate Lombok and Bali, the Mangrove Whistler. And it didn’t stop there, it can be found all the way up the Malayan Peninsula and then along the Asian coast from Vietnam to India.

Mangrove Whistler

It was then that I knew it was time to come home.

 

Sri Phang Nga …

Our last patch of lowland forest, Sri Phang Nga National Park spans 246 square kilometres along a range of hills parallel to the Andaman Sea coast. It is just part of a larger forest which is big enough to sustain Great Hornbill, White-handed Gibbon and Dusky Langur. The forest is on a grand scale but access is limited , it is worth an extended visit but be prepared to cover the same ground repeatedly, although the nature of tropical birding is such that your encounters will be varied because of the high diversity of species and low density of most individuals.

Let me whet your appetite …

Abbott’s Babbler
White-rumped Shama
Malayan Banded Pitta

Streams in the park hold a diverse range of fish, tossing in a little food can bring a spectacular response.

Similan …

This is Thap Lamu, not far from Khao Lak, where we caught the ferry. As you can see the sun is already up so we are somewhat behind our regular schedule but we do have an hour’s head start on the tourists …

Similan  means Nine Islands in Yawi, which is the native tongue of the area. There are 11 of them. But then one of Victoria’s tourist destinations is called the Twelve Apostles …

The trip out takes about a 90 minute on the faster boats. The target birds were Pied Imperial and Nicobar Pigeons, they can take a while to find, I’m told. We found them very quickly. An unexpected Black Bittern also put in an appearance. Squirrels and Flying Foxes were present to represent the mammals.

Nicobar Pigeon

The islands are absolutely gorgeous, sea, sky, rocks, beaches, Sea Eagles cruising by. Like the tour guide says, Paradise.

 

The tour guide doesn’t mention that paradise is a victim of its own success. By 11 o’clock it was an absolute zoo. We were the animals and the cage was getting pretty crowded and still the boats were disgorging more. We bailed at midday.

If you are tempted to go either stay on the island and make the most of the early mornings (making sure you are self sufficient so far as food goes) or stay on a boat. The diving and snorkeling look very tempting.

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.