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Khao Nor Chuchi - In Search of the Gurney's Pitta

Story and photos by Dave Williams

There is one small patch of lowland jungle left in Southern Thailand. This area offers twitchers the chance to see the very rare Gurney's Pitta (Pitta gurneyi). For many decades, this bird was thought to be extinct. Dr. Philip D Round rediscovered the Gurney's Pitta in 1986. Shortly thereafter, this bit of jungle, known as Khao Nor Chuchi, was declared a non-hunting area. It is also known as the Khao Prabang Kham. It is one of the most important birdwatching sites in southern Thailand.

319 species of birds have been recorded in Khao Nor Chuchi with an additional eight unconfirmed species sightings.

Joining me was my birding guru, Andrew Colthorpe. We stayed at Morakot Resort, the most popular place to stay when visiting Khao Nor Chuchi. The resort has several nice bungalows. The surrounding grounds offer some birding opportunities.

Khao Nor Chuchi: Morakot ResortThe morning before we arrived, a flock of hornbills was sighted flying across the jungle on the other side of the dirt road. We saw Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers and a host of bulbuls. Blue-winged Pittas could be heard around the pond behind the bungalows.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is running an on-going survey of the remaining Gurney's Pittas. We had chatted with Andrew, the lucky chap who is doing Gurney's Pitta counting for the RSPB. He is staying at the Morakot Resort for a couple month while he and his Thai assistant do the survey. He let us in on where the pittas have been spotted recently.

On our first outing, Andy and I set out in the afternoon down the dirt road that leads from the bungalows to the Thung Tieo Nature Trail Network within Khao Nor Chuchi. Just our luck, someone was parked at the head of the trail we wanted to visit... no use going if someone is down there already. We headed down another known Gurney's Pitta trail.

Green-billed MalkohaWe heard a Hooded Pitta, but didn't get to see it. A Red-billed Malkoha landed in a tree right over our heads. It stayed there for quite a while. We heard an Indian Cuckoo too, but couldn't spot it. We did get a brief glimpse of it at one point though. A female Orange-bellied Flowerpecker was spotted on a flowering tree. Then, the very colorful male showed up.

Just before sunset, we heard the hooded Pitta again. We slipped silently down the trail. My senses grew sharp in anticipation. Andy and I crouched down, our ears locked on the Hooded Pitta's call. Suddenly, the brightly-colored male came into view. What an awesome sight. I've been hearing them for years, but this was my first actual sighting. It was a glorious full frontal male view. It was a pure delight seeing it's bright green body with a red vent.

We walked back to the bungalows, our stomachs growling for some Thai food. Khun Patcharee and her husband Khun Kamol, one of the most talented Thai bird artists and co-artist of Lekagul and Round's "A Guide to the Birds of Thailand", was supposed to show up this evening. Patcharee and Kamol run Nature Trails, a well-respected, Bangkok-based bird watching tour company.

The next morning, at sunrise of course, we set off in search of the Gurney's. We stalked along the "B" trail as that's where they've been spotted most recently. Well, we didn't see one. We did see a Green Iora. And, at one point, a Black-capped Babbler walked the jungle floor a mere three meters from my feet. Further down the trail, we spotted a Scaly-crowned Babbler, a Purple-naped Sunbird, some Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers, a Yellow-vented Flowerpecker and a Yellow-bellied Bulbul.

Khao Nor Chuchi crystal poolAfter lunch, Andy and I went to the area where the jungle floor is interlaced with flowing spring water. The foliage is different in this area. Ferns and orchids are commonplace.

One of the feature attractions here is a stunning spring. The water color is truly inspiring. It's like something out of a fairytale. I lived in Ao Nang (Krabi) from '94 to '96. I used to come here a lot back then. Nothing much has changed fortunately, though the locals do keep encroaching on the outer edges of the conservation area. This pool is still the way it has always been.

Along the trail, we ran into a old buddy of mine, Khun Yothin. We chatted about the old days. It was nice seeing him again. It had been perhaps seven years since we last saw each other.

Yothin had a wild array of gadgets around his waist. He had a mini-disk recorder, a homemade amplifier, a very expensive microphone and a set of two speakers. Yothin is the local expert in this area. He runs private birding tours and has a superb record of Gurney's sightings. He also knows the whereabouts of other very uncommon birds such as the Rufous-collared Kingfisher. His reputation for knowing nearly everything there is to know about the birds of southern Thailand is well-deserved.

Further on, we spotted more bulbuls, including Ochraceous Bulbuls, Black-headed Bulbuls, Hairy-backed Bulbuls and a couple of Red-eyed Bulbuls. A Chestnut-breasted Malkoha graced us with his presence too, as did a Green-billed Malkoha.

Suddenly, we heard a trogon. Standing beside a huge ficus to break up our body shapes, we waited. A gorgeous male Diard's Trogon landed in a tree very close to us. Our binoculars went up. This was a male and his bright red breast was spectacular. I never thought I'd see one of these guys. That certainly made my day.

I will return to see the Gurney's Pitta. They are rare, but if you are patient and persistent, you will see one. It took Andy seven visits before seeing one. Many folks have gotten lucky and seen one on their first trip. Perhaps my second trip will be the one.