Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pitta-sweet Symphony - KNC, Oct 2011


more Turin Shroud than mere artist's impression*

Being in Krabi province, South-west Thailand and with time to kill, there was one particular birding excursion that just had to be made. Gurney's Pittas are something of an ornithological holy grail, and until fairly recently were thought to be extinct - until one was discovered in a cage in a Bangkok market, and tracked back to an area of isolated rain forest amid the biodiversity ghettos of peninsula Thailand's endless palm and rubber plantations.


To cut a long and essentially depressing story short, there is only one known accessible site, Khao Nor Chu Chi (KNC), at which to stand a chance of catching up with this beautiful and enigmatic species - despite questionable odds, it was within striking distance, and I just had to give it a shot.


Yellow-rumped Flycatcher

So after a couple of days in Krabi, we gambled on a window of good weather (a generally losing hand at that point) and booked our transport, accommodation and guide for KNC, and prayed intensely to both weather and birding gods.


Said accommodation was a small one-room villa at Morakot, a little place by the national park entrance, run by two very lovely and helpful women (aka The Morakot Ladies) and consisting of a handful of the aforementioned very basic (but comfortable) rooms, and an open-air covered restaurant frequented mainly by various geckos and exotic moths.


Our guide was Yotin, well-known to world birders as the man who can, and an absolute necessity if we stood a snowball's chance of connecting. After some to-ing and fro-ing, we secured his services for a morning session, and kept 'em crossed in the meantime.

Arriving early afternoon of the 3rd, we'd a few hours of daylight before retiring in preparation for the early morning stake-out, and so we ventured into the park and along a forest track to the Emerald Pool - a blissfully warm, clear and relaxing natural waterbody that had us stripping off within seconds (it is our honeymoon, after all) and found us preoccupied for a good couple of hours.


A little birding around Morakot produced a few bits and pieces before dinner at the restaurant, where - alongside a slightly mouldy but very welcome selection of Oriental Bird Club journals and European bird reports - we noticed several cotton shoulder bags* adorned with charmingly unique illustrations of a certain local celebrity....


Birds of Thailand illustration (left) vs. a unique original - I think we have a clear winner

After making enquiries, our hosts told us proudly that they were their very first attempts at home-made souvenirs; Amity made instantly for our brass, but my superstition overruled - the gods may consider it a gesture of over-confidence, and we'd buy one only if we see one.


To contextualise: there are no guarantees of connecting with Gurney's - despite the formidable skills of our justifiably lauded guide - and many come away without the glittering prize, often having traveled thousands of miles for the privilege. And due to our schedule elsewhere on the planet, our chances were reduced further still, by circumstances and timing....


Even in the peak dry / breeding season, when chances of success are increased immeasurably - when the pittas are at their most active, vocal, predictable and preoccupied, and can be pinned down to favoured spots viewed from temporary hides and screens - you don't get your money back if your numbers don't come up. Hence, our only absolute given was the need to remain philosophical throughout.


Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker

The following morning saw us parking up a few kilometres into the national park and hitting a particular trail through the undergrowth - a path that leads into an area of thick, lush remnant rainforest via some interesting battles with vegetation and a jump over a creek - in the hope of locating an unpaired male which Yotin had found frequenting the area recently.

To cut another long story short - after maybe 45 minutes of intense, patient, cough-and-you're-f***ed stalking, and a few half-views of him running through the undergrowth and seemingly getting the better of us - there he was, shining gold, electric blue and the rest, innocently turning over the leaf-litter and allowing us all good views before slinking off into the half-light for good.


Note author blissfully pinned beneath inflow torrent - the cheapest Thai massage possible

Bingo. We could die that little bit happier, and perhaps more importantly, we could be the first to purchase a certain shopping bag from our basecamp, free of the burden of missed opportunity.


A further hour or so passed before there was indeed divine intervention, in the form of one of the most intense and torrential tropical storms we've yet encountered; the forest turned into a dark, unforgiving assault course, the jumpable creek became a fast-flowing river to wade through, and the path became a gushing torrent. Actually pretty fun in an adrenalin-fuelling sense, but the curtain fell abruptly on any notion of more birding.


Birder's Wives October 2011 issue cover shoot (special preview)

Still, before the heavens opened we'd scored a modestly impressive range of forest / local specialities, including Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, Ochraceous, Black-headed, Yellow-bellied & Grey-cheeked Bulbuls, Green Broadbill, Green Iora, Blue-winged Pitta, and Abbott's, Moustached and Black-capped Babblers.

With the rains having set in, we took the decision to move on and head back to our base in Krabi, by lunchtime - meaning our successful Pitta'n run had taken us less than 24 hours, only a few of which were spent in active service.



NB - for rather lovely photos and film of a popular male Gurney's at KNC, head over here to Dominic's blog; but bear in mind that a) he had the good sense to visit during peak time, when the pittas are known to happily perform Les Miserables in its entirety for lazy world listers, and b), who needs photos when you've got the bag?