Monday 4 April 1988

THAILAND 1988 (Gurney's trip)

Introduction.  Gurney’s Pitta stood out as an amazing looking bird from the time I first saw a copy of Boonsong Lekagul’s Bird Guide of Thailand in 1977.  Unfortunately it hadn’t been reported since the 1950s and was feared extinct so the prospect of my ever seeing one was extremely remote.  It wasn’t on my radar when I visited southern Thailand in 1978 or 1981, and we didn't go down south in 1982, but things changed in 1986 when it was rediscovered by Phil Hurrell.

plate 63 from Boonsong Lekagul and Edward Cronin Jr.'s Bird Guide of Thailand marked my first real awareness of pittas.  I saw Blue on my first trip to Thailand, Eared (and Blue) on my second and Fulvous (and Blue) on my third.  There was a very real prospect of seeing Gurney's, perhaps the most spectacular of all.

In March 1988 I flew to Bangkok with Richard Bosanquet, Andrew Moon and Tim Toohig.  I had been to Thailand with Andrew (and Steve Whitehouse and Peter Walton) in 1978 and Andrew and Richard had been once since then.  It was primarily a two-week trip to try for Gurney’s Pitta which had been rediscovered near Krabi two years earlier.  As is often the case a few more sites were added in at the planning stage with the temptation to add even more resisted.  We wanted to see Phil Round in Bangkok to get the latest information but he was going to be away for our first four days.  We took this as an opportunity to visit Nam Nao, one of my favourite places in Thailand and as good as anywhere to see Silver Pheasant which I had missed in sometimes painful circumstances on my three previous visits to the country.

March 20th.  We arrived at Bangkok and hired a car.  Andrew did most of the driving and we quickly found our way to Rangsit, a wetland area we had found by accident in 1978 after misreading directions to Chang Rak dam!  It was too hot for birds to be active or, after an English winter, for us to be out in the sun.  Few birds were evident but we did see Bronze-winged Jacana and Black-browed Reed Warbler before starting the long drive north.  We saw Asian Open-billed Storks and Oriental Pratincoles from the car before it got dark and continued driving through the night, reaching Nam Nao in the early hours and sleeping on picnic tables there.

March 21st and 22nd.  We spent two days birding at Nam Nao, me mainly in the ravines looking for Silver Pheasant.  I had failed to see them on my two previous visits to Nam Nao (or anywhere else).  Over two days in 1981 Frank Lambert and I were the only two out of five of us not to see them in the ravines while I fared no better in 1982 being the only one of four to be unsuccessful.  I failed again on our first day and with the others being successful was beginning to feel I was destined never to see one when, on our final afternoon, I saw two males walking along and then out of the far end of one of the ravines.  Brilliant.  While looking for the pheasants I had seen Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Red-headed Trogon, White-browed and Speckled Piculets, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Silver-breasted and Long-tailed Broadbills, Siberian Blue Robin, White-rumped Shama, Slaty-backed and White-crowned Forktails, Orange-headed and Dark-sided Thrushes, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, White-hooded Shrike-Babbler, Blunt-winged, Thick-billed, Eastern Crowned, Pale-legged and Radde’s Warblers, Hainan Blue Flycatcher and Green Magpie.  Not bad for a couple of days although no pittas was disappointing as the ravines had been very good on previous visits.  Too soon it was time to leave and start driving back south.

Eye-browed Wren Babbler at Nam Nao
they were not happy with my presence
I soon realised why
March 23rd.  We found out way to Wot Tampraprotisat in the early hours.  Limestone Wren-Babblers, the reason for our visit, were soon seen and we continued on to Bangkok and our meeting with Phil Round at the University.  Phil gave us helpful information on Gurney’s Pitta and where to find the researcher who was surveying them.  We had agreed to help for four days doing whatever was wanted.  We thanked Phil and continued driving south, being very pleased to get clear of Bangkok.  We continued through the night to Khao Sam Roi Yot, a convenient place to break the journey.

March 24th.  We spent the morning at Khao Sam Roi Yot seeing a good selection of waders without anything special.  Highlights were 2 Spot-billed Pelicans, 3 Malaysian Plovers, 4 each of Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, 2 Black-naped Terns, some Chinese Pond Herons in full summer plumage and a smart Forest Wagtail.  We continued south to Krabi arriving in the evening and staying in a cheap hotel.

Tim, Richard and Andrew checking the tideline at Khao Sam Roi yot

Broad-billed Sandpiper at Khao Sam Roi Yot

Wood Sandpiper

Long-toed Stint

Marsh Sandpiper

Pacific Golden Plover

Red-necked Stints

Spot-billed Pelicans

Common Iora
March 25th to 28th.  We left Krabi as it was getting light and after a couple of false starts found our way to Ban Bang Tieo.  Some recent heavy rain made the dirt road there rather slippery but Andrew made light work of it.  On arrival we introduced ourselves and were put up in a large airy hut, sleeping on mats on the floor and were provided with reasonable food.  There was even a crystal clear natural swimming pool nearby, not usually my thing but even I ventured in one very hot afternoon.  During one meal we discovered we shared the hut with a large snake that chose to drop from the rafters onto the floor near us.  We almost ran for it until we realised the locals were not the slightest bit concerned, it was almost a pet!.  Our first day was spent getting our bearings and sussing out where best to look for Gurney’s Pitta although we did see Red-crowned Barbet, Green Broadbill and Siberian Blue Robin while doing so.  I was up early on our first full day and heading for what I thought likely to be the most promising area for Gurney’s.  Andrew came with me but then decided to keep going down the road as the forest trail looked rather dark.  It was, but I slowly wandered down it and at 07:15, in the area I was heading for, a pitta flew up and landed back on about 4m up in a tree ahead of me.  It proceeded to call, a ‘lillip’ a few times then started to display by sticking its wings right out and quivering them which made a whirring sound.  It closed its wings and repeated the procedure every five seconds.  I tried recording the whirring, which was almost grouse like, but my microphone wasn’t sensitive enough.  The bird then dropped to the ground and was temporarily lost.  I had seen Gurney’s, displaying, but only back views.  One then started calling and I crept forward finally seeing its head and underparts as it stood still and called for 3-4 minutes.  Then another bird called, I later thought this was the original one, and a short conflict occurred with them chasing each other around.  What I thought was the original bird was then seen well on the ground calling for at least 5 minutes.  The other called from a distance and the nearer bird bounded off at great speed, stopping only once in its hot pursuit.  Richard had joined me towards the end of the performance and I left the area at 08:10 with one bird still calling in the distance.  The trip had been a success and Richard and I spent the rest of that day and the next two ‘surveying’ other areas where Gurney’s had been seen the previous year or that might be suitable for them.  This consisted of walking around semi-cleared/cultivated areas quietly playing tapes in remnant forest/second-growth patches hoping for a response.  We got none and would rather have been in the better looking area where we had seen Gurney’s, even though we had seen them very well, much better than I had hoped for.  Andrew and Tim were struggling to find them however and we didn’t want to get in their way.  We had also promised to help once we had seen the birds, not that I felt we were contributing much.  We were returning in the car on our third day of ‘surveying’, having been a bit further afield, when we came across Andrew walking down the road.  Seeing us coming he laid down on the road looking very dejected, almost inviting us to run him over.  We feared he had failed again but we soon realised that was not the case when he suddenly jumped up punching the air. Fortunately Tim saw Gurney’s on our last morning and we could all talk about how good they were.  During 'surveying' I found a female Narcissus Flycatcher which we saw a couple of times.  Other good birds were Raffle’s and Black-bellied Malkohas, Diard’s Trogon, Wreathed Hornbill, Black & Yellow Broadbill (and more Greens), Large-footed Wren-Babbler, Spotted Babbler and Sultan Tit.  Andrew saw a Schrenk’s Bittern and we had a frustrating long-range encounter with a frogmouth spotlighting its eyes along the far side of a clearing on evening.  Despite my early success with Gurney’s and our being very well looked after I didn’t particularly enjoy the Ban Bang Tieo area and was not sorry to move on after our visit.  We said our goodbyes, settled our very reasonable bill and drove back to Krabi where we arranged a boat for an early morning visit to the mangroves.

Ban Bang Tieo

the pool

our accommodation

resident lizard, less scary than the resident snake!

Andrew, Tim, me and Richard at Ban Bang Tieo. RB's decision to resist the temptation of appearing in shorts has stood the test of time while the rest of us suffer 1980s embarrassment!

the better looking forest was inaccessible and usually higher

lower down was a patchwork of small mainly secondary strips and increasingly cleared areas

a rather confiding female Narcissus Flycatcher


Martin Woodcock's excellent plate in Frank Lambert's Pittas, Broadbills and Asities.  Published in 1996, well after our visit, it remains one of my favourite books.  I must remember to ask Frank to sign it for me sometime.  This plate depicts three of the best - Bar-bellied, Gurney's and Blue-headed.

Another good book, published in 1998
March 29th.  Our boat trip into the Krabi mangroves was a bit disappointing.  We saw Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfisher, 7 no less, but not the hoped for Mangrove Pitta or Masked Finfoot.  We then got a scheduled ‘tourist’ speed boat to Phi Phi Dan, one of the limestone islands some way off the coast that was particularly popular with backpackers.  The journey was quite bumpy as we sped along in our long thin motorboat.  Plastic sides were fastened to stop us getting soaked but they also meant we could not see anything. Once there we found some unmemorable but quite expensive, accommodation just up from the beach and then started negotiating with local boatmen to take us to Ko Ma, a small uninhabited island a couple of miles away.  Ko Ma was hard to land on being predominantly rocky, and once landed it was hard to walk around as much of it appeared to be scree.  We were looking for pigeons and saw several Pied Imperials but I only got a poor flight view of a Nicobar, not helped by almost losing my footing at the critical moment.  It could also be a migrant trap and we saw a superb Black-backed Kingfisher and 2 Forest Wagtails, a Crow-billed Drongo and glimpsed a Ruddy Kingfisher.  We returned to Phi Phi Dan via the nearby Ko Bida No where at least 200 frigatebirds were cruising around.  Virtually all appeared to be Lessers but we saw one or two Christmas Islands, my third new bird of the day!

Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfisher, at least its bill is obvious!

leaving Krabi

Pacific Reef Heron


Kho Bida No

March 30th.  We had a quick look around Phi Phi Dan but found it impossible to reach any decent habitat in the time we had available before catching the express motorboat back to Krabi.  There we quickly found our original boatman and returned to the mangroves.  The tide was much lower which may have been to our advantage as we had good views of two Masked Finfoots swimming in a creek and then walking into the mangroves.  Masked Finfoot was something Colin Winyard, Steve Gantlett and I had spent some time looking for at Taman Negara six years before.  Then we had had some fun on an abandoned raft, perhaps too much, but the dip had hurt and I was very pleased to put it to rights.  We again saw several Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfishers but frustratingly I had another poor view of a Ruddy Kingfisher.  We finished the day visiting some sandbars off the coast where waders were gathered although saw nothing out of the ordinary with Terek Sandpipers the best. 

Phi Phi Dan

Brahminy Kite

Phi Phi Dan

leaving Kho Phi Phi

returning to Krabi

Masked Finfoot in a creek

a bizarrely impressive bird in the water

it was even more so on land!

March 31st.  We were up early and drove south to Kantang where we wanted to hire a boat to take us to Ko Libong, a mangrove covered island not that far off-shore with a good wader roost nearby.  We wanted to stay overnight and were uncertain where to safely leave our car.  The local police station was close to the jetty and we were given permission to use their car park.  We found a boat we could charter for our visit, bought some supplies and set off for Ko Libong.  We found the island particularly unwelcoming but were given somewhere to sleep, rather grudgingly we thought.  Mangrove Pitta beckoned and we headed for the nearest mangroves.  Before long one was responding rather distantly to playback.  It got closer but only gave glimpses so we moved into the mangroves a bit.  I switched off the recorder, or so I thought, I had actually switched it from playback to record.  While doing this the pitta flew giving a poor flight view before landing out of sight for me, although in view for the others.  The recording has me wading through the mangroves saying ‘there it is but as usual I can’t see it’ or words to that effect.  Fortunately I soon had good views, describing it as standing upright like a penguin with an amazing bill.  Brilliant.  The rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax although I saw another Mangrove Pitta, not so well, and heard a third.  Other birds included super views of Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfisher, Large-tailed Nightjar, Arctic Warbler and a selection of commoner waders.  Our accommodation was  rather sparse and it was very hot but I had seen all of my main target birds so I was very happy.

mangroves at Ko Libong

Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfisher, a real stunner

April 1st.  We were taken out to and left on Hat Toop, a small sandbar/island off Ko Libong, where we settled down to wait for the rising tide to push feeding waders off the mudflats.  Highlights in the roost were 2 Crab Plovers, 25 Great Knot and at least 2 Nordmann’s Greenshank.  We returned to Ko Libong and settled up with the wardens there.  They were a most sullen bunch and were partially successful in over-charging us.  We left with bad grace on all sides and me, clearly suffering from the heat, wishing them ten years of drought and pestilence.  We heard Mangrove Pitta before leaving but were keen to be on our way and did not spend long looking for it.  Our visit had been successful rather than enjoyable.  Once back at Kantang we paid off our boatmen, they had been great, and collected our car from the police station.  We started the long drive back north seeing Black Baza from the car, getting as far as Chumphon before it got dark and continuing on to Khao Sam Roi Yot.

April 2nd.  Khao Sam Roi Yot was quiet, two Eastern Marsh Harriers and a Malaysan Plover the best, and we were soon continuing north seeing Jerdon’s Starling from the car.  We drove to Samut Sakon, an area of saltpans south of Bangkok which were good for waders.  Phil Round had told us that Asiatic Dowitchers had been gathering on the mudflats nearby and we hoped they might still be around and not have headed further north on migration.  Although the tide and afternoon sun were not helpful for viewing we did manage to pick out 29, albeit pretty poor views.  The saltpans were full of waders, no viewing issues there, and I managed 27 wader species for the day.  Unhappy with our dowitcher views as it was a new bird for us all we decided to stay nearby and try again in the morning.  At least then the sun should not be such a problem then.

Pin-tailed Snipe

Long-toed Stint

Oriental Pratincole

with very peachy wash on the underparts

Spotted Owlet

another Spotted Owlet
April 3rd.  The Asiatic Dowitchers were still distant at Sanut Sakon but the sun was no longer a problem and I counted 162 on the mudflats we had first looked at and 147 a short way further up the coast.  We drove back into Bangkok, had a quick look at Lumpini Park and finished at Rangsit before flying home.  On our final day we saw Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Pied Harrier, Baillon’s Crake, Bronze-winged Jacana, Coppersmith Barbet and a ringed Radde’s Warbler.

Asiatic Dowitchers and a sandplover at Samut Sakon

April 4th.  A refueling stop in Oman added a few species of which 15 Sooty and 10 fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gulls were the most notable.

It has been a rather hectic but successful visit with Andrew doing some epic drives.  The trip cost me about £650 and I saw 11 new birds.  It was definitely quality rather than quantity as they were Silver Pheasant, Limestone Wren-Babbler, Many-coloured Barbet Gurney’s Pitta, Narcissus Flycatcher, Masked Finfoot, Brown-winged Stork-billed Kingfisher, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Christmas Island Frigatebird, Mangrove Pitta and Asiatic Dowitcher.  Thanks to Phil Round for information and Richard Bosanquet, Andrew Moon and Tim Toohig for excellent companionship.  

[blogged March 2015]