Saturday, November 10, 2007

I'm back - at least for a short while

Taking a jungle breather - photo by John Moore

Siamese Fireback - Photo by David Sewell

I couldn’t miss this opportunity, it was an invitation to visit a conservation area called Phu Khieo (Green Mountain), an eight hour drive from Chiang Mai in the direction of Khon Kaen . It is not open to the public and therefore amazingly well protected and 440 species of birds have been documented there. It is an area of 1,500 square kilometres (a million rai, sounds more impressive) consisting of pristine forest, grassland and lakes. Its main claim to fame, bird-wise, must be the Oriental Darter and the White-winged Duck.

Unfortunately we didn’t see them, it was a comedy of errors, we were told that they had been seen at one particular lake the day before. We ‘camped out’ in the evening, on that lake at the time they were expected but they didn’t turn up, only to be told, on our return, that they had been seen on another lake. We checked all the lakes over the 4 days we were there but as I said we failed to be in the right place at the right time. In all that large space the only visitors were John (my entomologist friend), myself and khun Chart the person who got us the invitation. It was quiet, magnificently quiet, the only sounds were the birds and the ear-shattering call of the odd barking deer. Ah – a correction, one set of hooligans did raise a ruckus and they were the Gibbons. Their howling song could be heard ringing out at all times of the day but mostly in the morning when they were busy notifying their most distant relatives that they had survived yet another night. But this was one of the sounds that really reminded one where one was and that was in a South East Asian jungle. On the subject of ‘sounds’ it is quite amazing how the birds of the same species have a different ‘accent’in different parts of the country. One good example we came across was the Puff-throated Babbler, we heard its 3 note call ,‘we miss you’, but the last note went up whereas in Chiang Mai the last note goes down. We had the same problem recognising a White-browed Scimitar-Babbler – we’d never heard one call that it produced but the park superintendent put us right.

We documented 111 species during our visit and amongst them was a White-rumped Falcon, Great Hornbills, Oriental Pied Hornbills, Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, Siamese Firebacks and others too numerous to mention. One Fireback, a male, was interesting in that it showed no fear of us. We were driving along a jungle track (some tracks were quite horrendous) and just ahead of us the Fireback male crossed the track with 5 subservient females dragging their feet behind him. We hastily disembarked hoping to catch a tail-end view as they skulked off into the undergrowth. But no, the male bird wasn’t going to stand any interference from us. He stood there trumpeting, clucking and squeaking, thrashing his wings at us and generally showing his displeasure at our close proximity to his harem (approximately 5 metres away), we eventually left him at it as we drove off with excellent recordings of his displeasure. Hill Mynas were all over the place, in flocks and the odd solitary one, making themselves known with their piercing whistles. Both the Bar-backed Partridges and the Scaly-breasted Partridges were duetting every morning and it got quite frustrating trying to record one group while the other group kept butting in but we eventually got what we wanted. Other good recordings were made of the Black-throated Laughingthrush, probably one of the best songsters I know, the Red-billed Scimitar Babbler and the Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo. A Blue-bearded Bee-eater was seen digging out a hole in a sandy bank – a little out of season for breeding, they usually breed between March and August, maybe it was getting in some practice for next year? A solitary Purple Heron was seen and it was a sight to behold as it stood at full stretch in the setting sun at the edge of a lake with a background of forested hills.

As for the local fauna there were signs of elephants (large droppings), Gaur (a very large ox-like animal) tracks seen at a watering hole, The Dhole (red dog) was also there in quite good numbers so we were told. One Ranger who was a dab hand at photography had some great pictures of the aforementioned animals, down to a pack of Dholes feeding on a Hog Deer carcase – no tigers were seen but they are there, probably in the less accessible areas. He also had a photo of a crocodile. Sambar Deer, Barking Deer and Hog Deer were seen in fairly large numbers even into the HQ area. In fact one night we were searching about in the back of our truck with our torches when we were gently nudged aside by some furry monster which turned out to be a female Sambar looking for John’s honey cake. It took quite some heaving to dissuade her from stealing John’s midnight snacks! But, as their presence radiated out from the HQ area so did their attitude towards us, they reverted to being ‘wild’ animals. On separate days and on separate lakes we saw 2 large Monitor Lizards swimming far out in the middle, they were certainly more than a metre long. We also disturbed a Pig-tailed Macacque as it was drinking at the edge of a lake and it hurriedly loped back across the track into the thickly wooded jungle grunting its annoyance at being disturbed. The only roads were in the immediate vicinity of the HQ area and after that it was negotiable or sometimes unnegotiable tracks, and only with 4 wheel drive. All in all it was a fantastic trip even if my legs suffered for it, it was all worth while.


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