Gurney’s Pitta at Khao Pra Bang Khram Park in southern Thailand

GoldkehlpittaI wake up in the middle of the night to the heavy pounding of rain falling on the tin roof. It takes a good 1 hour before I can go back to sleep. Then I remember: the reason to come to Khao Pra Bang Khram Park (formerly Khao Nor Chu Chi) is the chance to discover the very rare Gurney’s Pitta (Pitta gurneyi).

“If you have seen Angola Pitta you can close your books” That was the statement of my experienced guide in Malawi in 2006. I saw the Angola Pitta (Pitta angolensis) and, to my shame, I have to admit that with this sighting the appetite for Pittas tends to increase not to diminish. There was no question of closing the books. So now the Gurney’s Pitta. Otherwise this bird occurs only in a few lowland rainforests in Myanmar and Thailand. After the dipping the previous day – we had to keep ourselves harmless with the Banded Pitta (Pitta guajana) – we took the second attempt this morning. So the early morning was reserved for this rare Pitta species.

I am at breakfast before 6:00 am. For breakfast, I really hit it again. No experiments. There are pancakes and fried eggs. Strong coffee adds to a real breakfast. As promised and like yesterday morning, Yotin, my guide, is standing in front of the open dining room of my small guesthouse, the Morakot Resort, at exactly 6.30 am. With his pick-up, a heavy 4X4 truck. It really seems to clear up now. The thick rain clouds of the night are still there. But there could be a nice day once the clouds have cleared. First, Yotin shows me the blooming tree with the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma) as well as Little Spiderhunter (Arachnothera longirostra) and Gray-breasted Spiderhunter (Arachnothera modesta). A real spider hunter gathering. Unfortunately they are not close enough to take a photo. The Gray-breasted Spiderhunter calls so well that Yotin has to record him on his voice recorder. We are on our way soon. This time it doesn’t go tot he outskirts of the park but directly to the gate of the Khao Pra Bang Khram Park. Here Yotin points out the calls of Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) and Abbott’s Babbler (Malacocincla abbotti). So we only walk briefly on the main path and then turn left after about 300m on the so-called path B to a waterfall. Quickly after we are over a wooden bridge. The area looks more and more like an enchanted jungle. Yotin leaves me alone then at a crossroad. He and his colleague still have to “finish” the pitta. It has clouded quite a bit again. I sit on a impressive root of a giant tree on a steep slope and look into the forest. I am only at 7 ° north latitude and allegedly 15m above sea level (asl). The forest looks good. But it’s also incredibly humid and warm. Unfortunately there is nothing to see, absolutely nothing. Then Yotin’s buddy picks me up after half an hour. We walk along a narrow path and finally land again in front of a hide. A tiny stream flows through the area directly below the tent used as the hide. A lane was cut about 3 meters to a knoll made of bamboo. Gurney’s Pitta is said to come from there. At least that’s the way the bird is intended to do. Yotin reminds me a few times to just be quiet, but he had to clear his throat again and again and no Pitta just pass by. So after a while Yotin leaves the hide. I sit and wait for quite a while. In the end I stayed in the tent for about 2.5 hours, staring through the narrow slits again and again and just see nothing, absolutely nothing. It takes another hour until I redeem myself. I’m really fed up. Yotin and his buddy had tried to drive the Pitta toward the open area in front of the hide. In vain. So Yotin drives me back to the resort around 12:00, where I treat myself to a chicken in coconut milk and a pineapple shake.

Yotin is at the door at 2:20 pm. He has found Gurney’s Pitta after all. I quickly get dressed and we drive back to the place where we had been looking for Gurney’s Pitta yesterday – but in vain. Yesterday I was able to photograph the Orange-headed Thrush (Zoothera citrina) instead very nicely in the bamboo undergrowth. The tented hide is back in the same place. And: Hey, Gurney’s Pitta is already there!

Gurney’s Pitta pats – as if it were the most natural thing in the world – right in front of the hide in the aisle. Wow, I’m blown away and hardly get around assembling my monopod. Then I hold on to it. The first thing I notice is the red ring around the left leg. That takes away the wilderness character from the pictures a bit. But these rare birds are probably all ringed to learn more about their distribution and way of life. Outherwise, as a photographer you have to find a completely “new individual”. Then I notice that there are astonishingly many white grains – looks like bamboo seeds – on the ground. Did the guys feed the Gurney’s Pitta here? I confront Yotin later with this thesis. No, definitely not. Gurney’s Pitta feeds on termites here. The earthworm eaten that I later photograph also fits into the prey scheme. Alright So, I’m happy even if the perspective is not as good as that of the Banded Pitta (Pitta guajana) from yesterday. Still, the images are impressive. On the way back I find Yotin, who had left me in the meantime and is already on the lookout for other birds.

The park, the Khao Pra Bang Khram Park, is a wildlife sanctuary, an animal protection reserve. Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary, also known as Khao Nor Chu Chi (KNC), covers 183 square kilometers of a lowland forest not far from Krabi, a buzzling tourist destination in southern Thailand. Until recently, Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary was the only known place to see Gurney’s Pitta. Some time ago, however, some other areas in southern Myanmar (Burma) became known, but KNC remains the most reliable place for this species, as well as many other lowland specialties. To a certain extend, the disadvantage of Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary is the Cristal Pool, which is heavily frequented by both foreigners and Thai tourists.  But the wildlife sanctuary is still a very popular destination for bird watchers because more than 300 species of birds can be observed here.

A special feature of the KNC is its well-developed and extensive network of paths on which the birds can be approached. Bird watching in this area can, however, need a patient observer. Sometimes nothing is going on at all. This can be very frustrating. But that is the case in tropical rainforests around the world. According to local people, bird activity should be comparatively high in June. In addition, Gurney’s Pitta should be “easy” to see in this season.

The way to the KNC Park is almost always via Krabi. Krabi is a very popular tourist destination so getting there is not a problem. The most convenient way of getting there is by flight. Krabi has a small airport about 10 kilometers from the city and there are daily flights from Bangkok. From Krabi to KNC, it’s not particularly difficult either. Take the main road south towards Trang and turn off at Khlong Thom. Then the Crystal / Emerald Pools are already signposted. The headquarters of the Wildlife Sanctuary can be seen after approximately 6 kilometers on the right. A few hundred meters later the Morakot Resort appears on the left.

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