Monday, 14 February 2011

Homeward bound

This magnificent White-bellied Sea Eagle gave fantastic views over the boat as we drifted into the mangroves ...
... performing several circuits before undertaking a final fly-past back towards its favoured lookout perch.
Time for one last morning in the field before our late afternoon flight from Krabi to Bangkok, and then the final non-stop flight back home to London. We headed out by boat into the mangroves with one main target in mind, Mangrove Pitta - potentially our fifth pitta species of the trip - and several ancillary hopes.

Not to be outdone, a Brahminy Kite gets in on the raptor action.
Good news and bad on the pitta front. A calling bird finally showed well to two of us, including me, but flew into dense cover before the others could get onto it. After much peering into a thick tangle of mangroves with no further success, we cut our losses and departed to bird elsewhere, seeing Black-and-red Broadbill, Dollarbird, Common Flameback, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Black-hooded Oriole, Chinese Egret, Great Knot, several raptors including the tiny but impressive Black-thighed Falconet, and numerous other species along the way.

The mangroves at Krabi provide excellent close-up birding from the boat, but Mangrove Pitta is not guaranteed.
Among the other species seen was the only Black-hooded Oriole of the trip.
In the afternoon, there was time for one last quick stop on the way to the airport - and bingo! Yotin did a great job of calling in a more obliging Mangrove Pitta at Ao Phang Nga National Park, and after sufficient views of this to satisfy everyone, plus Ashy Tailorbird, several Pacific Swallows and an overflying Oriental Honey-buzzard, we were off to the airport. Finally, the birding had to come to an end.

A good day for swifts and hirundines included excellent looks at Pacific Swallow.

The verdict? Overall, a fantastic trip. My own prime targets had been the two headline birds, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Gurney's Pitta, and I could not have asked for more. We spent just the right amount of time with each, ample enough for careful observation and prolonged photography, and those memories will last a very long time. Banded Pitta was up there with them, but there were so many other highlights too, and the combined skills of Mark Andrews and Yotin Meekaeo added hugely to the experience.

WildWings has run the tour enough times to be able to squeeze the best out of the itinerary, and with a combined group total which must have been some way over 250 species, it certainly exceeded expectations. I look forward to returning some day, maybe next time to the north.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The last supper

Comical-looking Black-and-yellow Broadbills performed well along the entrance road at Krung Ching today.

"That lizard does not look at all happy." As I pondered Dave's penchant for understatement, the unfortunate reptile began its final journey at great height above the ground. Perhaps its life flashed before it in those closing moments as it made landfall in the nest of a Wallace's Hawk-Eagle, where the sitting bird eagerly accepted the terrified gift from its arriving mate, soon despatching it.

We were watching this drama of the animal kingdom unfold from a concealed vantage point at the top of a short but steep trail in Krung Ching National Park. Wallace's was one of three hawk-eagles to make our site list (the others being Mountain and Blyth's) in what was certainly the most impressive phase of forest birding on this excellent tour.

Rufous-collared (above) and Banded Kingfishers both showed well along the waterfall trail.
Kingfishers were a key target. I managed to locate the only Banded Kingfisher of the trip, a beautifully marked bird, high up in the trees after Yotin heard it calling, but we did better with more prolonged views of the impressive Rufous-collared Kingfisher. Scarlet-rumped Trogons also brightened up the glades, while White-rumped Sharmas sang like Nightingales and Red-throated Barbets 'tonked' away rhythmically in the background.

Black-throated Babbler was a lifer for almost everyone in the group.
It was bulbuls that dominated the birding as we set out, with Scaly-breasted, Black-headed, Red-eyed, Grey-bellied, Ochraceous, Buff-vented and Grey-cheeked all noted at or soon after the main entrance. On the return journey babblers took over, a noisy party of Black-throateds perhaps being the highlight, but Moustached, Chestnut-winged and Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler were all noted too.

Other notable species before the long late afternoon drive back to Krabi included Drongo Cuckoo, Brown Barbet, Black-and-yellow Broadbill, Lesser Cuckooshrike, Whiskered Treeswift, White-bellied Yuhina, Eastern Crowned Warbler, Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Spiderhunter, Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker and a heard-only Rufous-winged Philentoma which refused to emerge from cover.

Tonight was our last on the ground before heading for home. To mark the end of a great day and a fantastic trip, at dinner I decided to celebrate with a cocktail and was seduced by something called a Slippery Nipple on the drinks list. When it arrived it looked disappointingly sludge-brown, like a sample from a sewage farm, and tasted just as vile. Note to self: grow up! But I got off lightly compared to Dave, for whom the waitress, off her own bat, suggested procuring a ladyboy. Great amusement all round, except on Dave's part, before we retreated to the safety of the hotel.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Banded on the run

Despite the pulse-quickening high of yesterday's Gurney's Pitta, half of us had unfinished business at Khao Nor Chuchi - we simply had to see Banded Pitta before moving on, even though we only had a morning to complete the mission. It was probably going to be tick and run, but Steve wanted this even more than the Gurney's, and would any of us get another chance? It's easy to appreciate why this species is so sought-after; just take a look at the back cover of The Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World to appreciate male Banded Pitta in all its flame-hued, bar-shouldered, black-banded glory.

Is male Banded Pitta even better looking than Gurney's? The jury is out.
So after another 5.30am wake-up and pre-dawn breakfast we were back in the forest. And this time, those of us with cameras went in first. In a partial re-run of yesterday's pitta session, we didn't have to wait long to clap eyes on the incredible beast that is a male Banded Pitta. However, unlike our co-operative Gurney's, this bird rarely stayed put for long, absconding for some time and giving us only three or four good looks in as many hours.

This male Siberian Blue Robin kept us company at times when the Banded Pitta went AWOL.
Passing the time between these amazing encounters was not all hardship, however, despite the heat. Winner of my personal runner-up prize for bird of the morning was a male Siberian Blue Robin which hopped into view, albeit rather more briefly than the female which lingered on the forest floor in front of us.

After finally succeeding with the pitta, it was time for lunch and then the long drive to Krung Ching National Park. This site proved more birdy than Khao Nor Chuchi, and though we didn't arrive until late afternoon we still managed to rack up numerous interesting species, including a day-roosting Grey Nightjar, Grey-and-buff Woodpecker, Maroon Woodpecker, Black-bellied Malkoha, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Banded Broadbill and Black Hornbill. We stayed on after dark for nightbirds, scoring better looks at Javan Frogmouth but only hearing Collared Scops Owl.

While I like moths, I prefer to eat my fruit before they do - this one is busy leeching the juice out of these bananas.
After what had proved a long but bird-filled day, we retired willingly to our accommodation, a half-built lodge near the national park which should make a perfect base once it is completed. A late dinner was shared with a colourful but as yet unidentified moth which was attracted to bananas on the table. I'll have to remember to try that one for the next moth-trapping session at home.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Hunting the jewel-thrush

Having achieved the first main target bird of the trip, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, it was time for the second. Last night we arrived in Krabi, 400 miles south of Bangkok, and were met by our guide Yotin Meekaeo before transferring to our accommodation close to Khao Nor Chuchi.

For those with any knowledge of pittas, KNC is synonymous with one species: Gurney's Pitta. Believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in a Bangkok bird market in 1986 and traced to this lowland forest remnant by Phil Round, the site has become a Mecca for birders on the Asian circuit ever since. Now, my turn had come, and on the flight south I got in the mood for seeing this amazing bird by reading the first chapter of The Jewel Hunter, in which Chris Gooddie begins his year-long quest to see all of the world's pittas at KNC.

Having breakfasted while it was still dark, we headed off to the forest and arrived before the sun had fully emerged. We were six in number, which was at least three too many for the viewing arrangements Yotin had in mind, so we split into two groups. By mutual consent the non-photographers went first, while those of us toting lenses figured that once they had had their fill, we'd take our time with the birds. It was a good plan on paper, especially for the first group - when they finally emerged a couple of hours later, they'd seen not only Gurney's Pitta, but also Banded and Blue-winged! Would they still be there for us?

For such a dazzlingly beautiful bird, Gurney's Pitta can be surprisingly elusive in the shadows of the forest.
By the time we got into the hide, the temperature had risen, optics and lenses had steamed up, and we were bursting with anticipation. But sure enough, there in the shadowy, bamboo-obscured leaf litter hopped one of the brightest, most alluring and bewitching birds I have ever seen: Gurney's Pitta. In a moment I had fulfilled an ambition, and it was an incredible experience to be so close to such a rare and enigmatic species.

Orange-headed Thrush could be a show-stealer in its own right were it not for the jewel-like company it keeps.
It would be almost churlish to express any disappointment with the encounter, but it was strictly a one-pitta affair - suffice to say that the Banded had made off, as had the Blue-winged. Nonetheless, in between sessions with the Gurney's, we also had Orange-headed Thrush, Abbott's Babbler and Little Spiderhunter to enjoy. A tiny species list for the morning, perhaps, but one of my all-time top birding experiences for sure.

No less captivating than the thrush, despite its diminutive size, was this male Orange-breasted Flowerpecker.
After a lunch break back at our lodgings, we headed out to KNC again in the afternoon. In the scorching heat and humidity bird activity was low, and it was impossible to anywhere near match the excitement of the morning's outing. Rufous Piculet, Puff-backed Bulbul and Black-and-yellow Bulbul all tried hard, and in the evening we did well with Javan Frogmouth and a heard-only Oriental Bay Owl. But even collectively, they were no match for the Gurney's. I wonder whether we'll get lucky with pittas again tomorrow.

Pitta-finder general Yotin Meekaeo in action at Khao Nor Chuchi.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Bangkok and on

Scored at the second attempt: Plain-backed Sparrow, endemic to this region of Asia.
With our stay at Cha-Am coming to an end, there was time for one last stop at Pak Thale before heading on to Bangkok for the flight south to Krabi. First, a second attempt in suitable roadside habitat en route saw us succeed in finding Plain-backed Sparrow, a South-East Asian endemic with a limited distribution from Burma to southern Vietnam.

Migrant Burmese workers transport salt the traditional way at Pak Thale.
At Pak Thale, we again located Spoon-billed Sandpipers fairly quickly on arrival, and eventually Mark Andrews and I had four birds in view at the same time - though it was suspected that at least six were present in total.

Three Spoon-billed Sandpipers, flanked by Red-necked Stint (left) and Curlew Sandpiper (right).
Unfortunately, the 'Spooners' were typically on view as we looked into the sun. I spent some time carefully moving position to get the light behind me, and got almost halfway there - when the above imag was taken - before someone else walked up a little too quickly and flushed the birds. They didn't return within half an hour so, with time running out before we had to leave for the airport, I set off to check another salt pan for waders. And there, almost the first bird I put the bins on, was another 'Spooner' (again looking directly into the light, but I hope this video is worth it):

Finally we had to leave the wonderful Pak Thale for the last time, but I couldn't resist one last wader shot, this time properly lit:

Spotted Redshank winters in good numbers at Pak Thale.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Forest and frontier

The huge and impressive Great Hornbill was one of four members of its family logged today in the forest.
After a couple of days of very successful shorebirding on the Gulf of Thailand coast, it was time to head west to Kaeng Krachan National Park for a change of pace and some forest birding. When Thais create national parks they do the job properly - this one is the size of Wales, and in a day we couldn't begin to appreciate the scale of it.

An Orange-breasted Trogon adds a dash of lemon-curd colour to a shady forest glade.
With the alarm going off at 3.30am we left in plenty of time to arrive before dawn, even taking in a hitch-hiker briefly along the way - a stunned Barn Owl which glanced against the van in the dark, but which we released seemingly unharmed a short while later. We entered the park as the first shafts of light began to illuminate the night sky, revealing Great Eared Nightjars hawking high over the canopy and, in the shady margins of a drinking pool, a Common Palm Civet running for cover.

A number of Palearctic migrants during the trip included great views of Dusky Warbler.
One of my personal highlights of the day was walking up a Blue Pitta from the leaf litter of a damp roadside ditch, but highlights come in all shapes and sizes, from Sultan Tit and Asian Barred Owlet to Greater Flameback and the always impressive hornbills (today represented by Great, Wreathed, Rusty-cheeked and Oriental Pied). Mammals were equally eyecatching, from territorial White-handed Gibbons to the mighty Gaur, a beast you would not want to aggravate without good reason and a quick means of escape.

Creature of the night: a Large-tailed Nightjar at dusk in Kaeng Krachan NP.
Also noteworthy was the fact that we almost came within a stone's throw of the Burmese border. The forest knows no bounds here, extending in a huge swathe across what is to the natural world an entirely artificial boundary. Rumour has it that species such as Gurney's Pitta are umpteen times more numerous on the other side, where forest still covers 49 per cent of the country, but for now I'm happy not to give my tourist dollar to the military junta in Rangoon. I'll take a chance of connecting with this global mega in the south of Thailand, where we fly tomorrow.

A fitting end to a day's birding in Thailand: Brown-headed Gulls fly to roost across a setting sun.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Red-hot plovers

Male White-faced Plover Charadrius dealbatus - a distinctive and 'revived' species.
Even in the 21st century, we continue to find that there is so much more to discover about birds. Or in some cases, rediscover. It was more than 140 years ago, in 1870, that the famous Robert Swinhoe described a species of plover from Asia that was distinct from Kentish Plover. For a variety of reasons, the full recognition of this species became lost over time, and only in the last 18 years has this little-known shorebird re-emerged on the scene.

The English name White-faced Plover is appropriate for obvious reasons, and already in widespread use. Larger than Kentish, it also has an obviously longer, heavier bill, as well as reduced dark markings and a whiter face.
Clearly paler than Kentish Plover, and also larger and more aggressive, this subtly distinctive bird has been sighted in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam since the 1990s, yet was not recognised as any known taxon. Even the relatively recent (2005) Helm field guide Waders of Europe, Asia and North America fails to illustrate it. If it had, the plate might have depicted something between Kentish Plover and Piping Plover. For Charadrius (alexandrinus) dealbatus is clearly not a Kentish Plover, and since Kennerly et al unravelled its convoluted history three years ago (Forktail 24: 63-79), interest in its identification and status has increased. It is destined to be formally recognised once again as a full species.

Small sand crabs appear to be an important food, at least on the species' wintering grounds in Thailand.
Here during my short stay in the Gulf of Thailand, I was lucky enough to get prolonged views of White-faced Plover, as it has become known. On an undisturbed sand spit near the shorebird hot-spot of Pak Thale, we watched a female rather distantly, and then had longer looks at a very showy male. At times it was in company with a male Kentish Plover, as well as Malaysian and Lesser Sand Plovers, and the differences from Kentish were quite striking.

Male Malaysian Plover was one of three other plover species keeping the White-faced company.
As well as 'bossing' the Kentish when the two were close, the White-faced would also make striking rapid diagonal runs across the sand, these bursts of speed often ending in the successful catching and consumption of a small sand crab. As Mark Andrews pointed out, this can be a successful way of picking one up on a beach with numerous shorebirds in attendance. Hopefully these images of White-faced Plover will help convey its distinctive jizz and appearance.

A good selection of terns on an offshore sandbar included Great and Lesser Crested, Common, Caspian and Little.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Thai crackers

Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the first of the trip's main target birds, showed brilliantly this morning.
This post comes to you from the Gulf of Thailand coast, somewhere south of Bangkok where salt pans, mangroves and thousands upon thousands of waders have been providing a scintillating day's birding. Three of us (Adrew, Steve and I) flew out yesterday to join three others (Roy, Neil and Dave) on the WildWings Spoon-billed Pitta Tour in Thailand. I have history with Spoon-billed Sandpiper - or rather I don't, as I dipped it in Hong Kong in 1991. Since then it has become one of the most Critically Endangered bird species in the world. Some estimates put the global population at as low as 400, so it feels very much like a 'last chance to see' kind of experience. I hope it isn't.

That spatulate bill has other uses as well as feeding ... the 'Spooner' seen here with a Kentish Plover.

Front-heavy and with a gleaming white forehead, 'Spooners' are distinctive even in flight.
As these photos show, under the expert leadership of Mark Andrews we had no problem in locating a Spoon-billed Sand at Pak Thali, and in fact even notched up a second one for good measure. I've processed these crops in a hurry and uploaded them on a small-screen machine; if they don't look great, the originals will be better

It's been a good opportunity to look at species which rarely reach Britain, such as Pacific Golden Plover.
I haven't finished writing up my notes yet today and have lost count of the number of wader species seen so far, but as well as hundreds (thousands?) of Red-necked Stints, Marsh Sandpipers and more, we've also notched up the likes of Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Pacific Golden Plover, Pintail Snipe and Long-toed Stint. Tomorrow we'll be looking for the recently described White-faced Plover, among other species. Check back soon for more news and images.

Plenty of other good birds to look at apart from waders, including Ruddy-breasted Crake ...
... and Slaty-breasted Rail, which popped up while we were watching the crake!

Friday, 4 February 2011

It's back!

The Rainham Slaty-backed Gull (above right) with Great Black-backed and argenteus Herring Gulls.
In case you missed it, yesterday's amazing news was that Steve Arlow and Simon Buckell rediscovered the Slaty-backed Gull at Pitsea tip, Essex - 14 miles east along the Thames Estuary from where I first found it at Rainham landfill, and exactly three weeks later. It sounds like a frantic encounter, but a great bit of work - and also further photographic documentation of this much-discussed gull.

If you compare Steve's latest images on his website with those here on my blog (also earlier posts), and photos by others, critical details of the bird's plumage, and especially the wing-tip pattern, can be seen to be the same. What is interesting is that these new clearer images show that the wing-tips are asymmetrically marked, with eg a small white spot on the inner web of P9 on the left wing which is not present on the right, and other minor differences. How common is this in large gulls? Does it suggest that the bird may not yet have developed a fully adult wing-tip pattern?

In the three weeks since the gull was first seen, it has also 'cleaned up' a little, especially around the head and bill. This would be expected in the passage of time towards spring, but as well as losing a little of the head streaking, the small dark markings on the bill have reduced, the bill is brighter towards the tip, and the legs are also a brighter, clearer pink. Even the eye now looks subtly more yellow, though this could partly be related to the brighter conditions in which it was photographed. Taken together, though, perhaps these characters suggest the bird is a near-adult rather than an adult, and help explain some of the points of concern about its appearance ...

Doubtless it will be looked for again today, but note that there is no public access whatsoever to Pitsea tip. To quote Steve on BirdForum: "The only options for looking for this bird are as [follows]: Wat Tyler Country Park main scrape viewable from hide, Bowers Gifford Marshes (most large gulls are going here as only a short flight from the tip) but is not accessible due to work being undertaken by the RSPB, and Vange Wick which can be either scanned distantly from Wat Tyler or by taking a very long walk out from the A127, many thousands of birds gather here though. The tip itself is strictly out of bounds and they are hot on access at the security gate."

Good luck to those who try. In the meantime, on today's to-do list is finalising the story on the bird for the next issue of Birdwatch, which goes to press this evening. It will include previously unseen images (including the best I managed to get of the bird) and further discussion of the ID.


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