Khao Nor Chuchi, near Krabi in southern Thailand has become something of a tropical birders’ mecca over the last decade – especially for those that are obsessed with pittas as, with 5 pitta species on the cards, Khao Nor Chuchi is bound to get your birder heart racing. Just the thought of Banded Pitta, Hooded Pitta, Blue-winged Pitta and Giant Pitta get me grinning, but the real gem that steals the show has got to be Gurney’s Pitta (Pitta gurneyi) – the species that has made the park and region famous amongst birders.
Just 25 years ago, Gurney’s Pitta was feared to be extinct, with the only real hope being the occasional reports of Gurney’s Pittas showing up in the hands of reclusive (illegal) bird dealers in Bangkok. Evidently, after four years trying to gather more information, Phil Round got a tip-off through Nigel Collar of one particular dealer in Bangkok that might know more. Martin Williams quotes Phil Round as saying:
“I had worked out long before that probably no living ornithologist had seen Gurney’s Pitta in the field. It was first recorded in Burma about 112 years ago, but most records this century were from peninsula Thailand, and it was apparently quite common. Like the other 11 species of pittas in Thailand, it is a forest bird, and deforestation is the reason for its decline. But while some pittas could still be found on the peninsula, in hill forest, there were no records of Gurney’s Pitta since a bird was collected in 1952. So I decided it might be a lowland species. Lowland forest has been cleared in many areas, but visits we’d made to surviving fragments showed they can hold good numbers of birds which are otherwise rarely found in Thailand. I checked satellite photos, to look for lowland forest, and identified four possible sites, one of which was Khao Pra Bang Khran.” (www.drmartinwilliams.com)
there is no way to stay completely calm when seeing a Gurney’s Pitta. I have no idea how excited those first guys must have been
Reading Philip Round and Uthai Treesucon’s paper on The Rediscovery of the Gurney’s Pitta in June 1996, it is clear that the authors tried really hard to write the paper with every bit the formality and objectiveness expected of an academic paper. They tried. But my Magnum PI / CSI Miami – tainted brain can just sense the turmoil, mystery and ultimate elation they encounter and experience.
A subsequent survey of southern Thailand by Adam Gretton et al. over three years found the Gurney’s Pitta at four sites, with 24-34 pairs in/around Khao Nor Chuchi, 3-6 pairs at a second site, and 2 pairs each at the further sites. The three other sites were considered doomed in the short term, and this indeed seems to have been the case.
Hooded and Gurney’s Pittas in Khao Nor Chuchi
25 years after the rediscovery of the Gurney’s Pitta in Khao Nor Chuchi, the state of the population in Thailand seems to be more critical than ever, with a Birdlife International blog post to mark the occasion quoting Maliwan Sopha, Director of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST / Birdlife partner) as saying:
“The quarter-century reprieve for this bird has been squandered because successive Thai governments have allowed rubber and oil-palm plantations to expand at the expense of remaining forest. This has destroyed most Gurney’s Pitta habitat, causing the population to crash from an estimated 50 pairs throughout southern Thailand to as few as five pairs today, at a single site.”
This news has really moved me as, on visiting Khao Nor Chuchi last year, I was struck by the beauty and power of the place – wonderful lowland tropical forest offering exceptional birding and the chance to see a whole bunch of pittas! Oh, and then there are the gorgeous Emerald Pools for hanging out in during the heat of the day.
But it was also clear that the reserve was not very well protected at all. Logging was very evident – eating away at the borders, and I found numerous shotgun rounds scattered through the forest.
Does anyone have any idea how we – as birders – could do anything to contribute to preserving this last patch of vital forest?