Tuesday, 17 December 2013

In search of the invisible nuthatch: Part III

By Tim Harris

Neil, Gerard and I were back on the high pine ridge near Doi Lang where we had been the previous evening. This was the highest of the ridges we had visited – we were at close to 2,000 metres - and also the most northerly. Just as on the previous evening the light was glorious, with wonderful views over Burma to the north-west and northern Thailand to the south-east, and the temperature was perfect. The previous evening there had been a constant stream of Cook’s Swifts and Himalayan Swiftlets taking advantage of the updraft along the ridge. Now they were gone. 

In fact, apart from the yaffle of a Bay Woodpecker, more than a little reminiscent of Green Woodpecker, there was no indication that there were any birds here at all. Birding at this altitude in Thailand can often be like this, with the ground feeders going about their business unseen and the canopy feeders joining mixed-species parties whose trajectory may or may not cross one’s own. After pretty much three solid days searching for Giant Nuthatch, and this ridge as bereft of trunk-climbers as it had been the previous day, I’m sure we were all having serious doubts about whether we would connect. I certainly was. More worryingly, with a bird so limited in numbers, did this mean a further reversal in its fortunes?

Our strategy was simple. Park on the roadside, walk a few hundred metres, then drive on a little way and do the same again. I think it was the fourth of these stops, and I was about to go back to collect the vehicle, when an excited Scouse shout up ahead alerted us to a some bird activity – a near-miracle in itself. Gerard had picked up the birds, which were coming our way. They materialised in a pine to our left: a strangely manic flitting from branch to trunk, trunk to branch and into the next tree. At first it was hard to get the bins on to one bird before it had been replaced by another, but there was a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, at least one Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and two, or possibly three, of our main target. Pale underparts with no buff wash; a broad black head-band; a large bill; and chestnut-and-white undertail coverts. Then the birds calmed down a little and all three of us had good views: Giant Nuthatch. Neil managed to get some excellent photos, one of which accompanies this blog.

 Giant Nuthatch (by Neil Bowman)

Our relief was palpable. We’d put in an enormous amount of work and got our just rewards, I felt, but for how much longer will anyone be able to enjoy this species, when its habitat is still being destroyed in some areas and its numbers are seemingly in free-fall?

A purple patch

We continued along the ridge, eventually coming to the feeding station adjacent to a small army camp not far from the highest point on the road. The soldiers here are happy for bird photographers to put out food. They probably appreciate the company of other people, unsurprising given the remoteness of their domicile and the fact that they are stationed there for weeks at a time. A group of Thai photographers enjoyed a succession of Dark-backed Sibias, Spectacled Barwings, Silver-eared Laughing-thrushes and Scarlet-faced Liocichlas. While Gerard wandered off in search of Picidae, and Neil took up a position by the feeding station, I decided to work the track in the other direction.

Then began a wonderful 30 minutes. A blue-and-orange chat appeared on a horizontal branch in front of me, then frustratingly disappeared, its identity a complete mystery. When it reappeared in the middle of the track, I managed to get a few record shots. Embarrassingly, considering it had shown so well, I still didn’t know what it was. The bird vanished again, giving me a chance to have a quick self-conscious fumble through the field guide. A male Blue-fronted Redstart, apparently, described as “scarce” in Thailand. Hmmm, that was very good. Then some White-headed Bulbuls appeared on the snags of a dead tree, a succession of Orange-bellied Leafbirds appeared, I had nice views of a Grey Treepie’s vent, a Himalayan Bluetail appeared right by the track, followed a few minutes later by a Chestnut-crowned Warbler.

 Blue-fronted Redstart

Himalayan Bluetail

 Meanwhile, Neil was photographing his own amazing birds at the feeding station and Gerard – sadly – was still drawing a blank with the woodpeckers. For me, the excitement ended as suddenly as it had started and the next couple of hours were very quiet as, once again, cloud began to envelope the mountain. All three of us joined the search for Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, apparently known from this part of the track but definitely not prepared to give itself up. We eventually had to accept defeat with this species; it must be spread very thinly, even at Doi Lang. For Neil and I, the nuthatch more than compensated, though for Gerard I suspect that was not the case.

Spectacled Barwing

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