We’d been in the rainforest since daybreak and were all completely soaked from head to toe. My wife Tracey and daughter Julia Lily (at the time 9 years old) had been the most valiant of birding companions, as we’d seen practically nothing at all on the slippery forest trails all morning. We were in southern Thailand, south-east of Krabi, exploring Khao Nor Chuchi – a small remnant patch of lowland forest that is home to one of the world’s rarest, most-endangered and most-beautiful birds.
Until its rediscovery at Khao Nor Chuchi in 1976 by Philip Round and Uthai Treesucon, Gurney’s Pitta had not been seen for over 70 years and was widely regarded as extinct. Most of the remaining forest (even then surrounded by a sea of rubber and oil-palm plantations) was urgently set aside as a protected area, but the initial population of around 40 pairs has subsequently declined to just 12 or less. With such tiny numbers, the species is teetering on the brink of oblivion in Thailand – its only home.
Scratched from the ripping thorns of rattan palms, bloodied by leeches and splattered with mud, we had all but given up as we reached an impassable gulley on the so-called ‘U Trail’ and turned back towards the little Morakot Resort. We’d been told that it was a hopeless cause to find a Gurney’s Pitta without a guide, particularly at this time of year when breeding was over and pittas were not calling to defend their territories. At 12h30 and literally within just a few metres of the trail end, I noticed a small path leading off towards another gulley. “Looks interesting”, I thought. Julia was right behind me as I turned a bend and came face-to-face with a male Gurney’s Pitta! It looked up, turned and hopped behind the buttress of a giant tree; Tracey caught up and we then saw it emerge before it bounced away into the undergrowth. The briefest of encounters, but the three of us were mesmerized and totally exhilarated. The hardship had been worthwhile and the reward sugar sweet.
Seeing Gurney’s Pitta doesn’t have to be this difficult. Booking the services of local guide Yotin Meekaew between the months of January and April will guarantee a close encounter from one of his observation hides. And while this marginal band of pittas clings onto its fragile existence (thanks largely to visiting birders who come from far-and-wide and provide income to the local community) a more substantial population of these rare birds has recently been discovered in southern Myanmar (Burma) although the forests there are not accessible to visitors and are currently unprotected.
For more information on this jewel of a bird visit the BirdLife website: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=4003
Khao Nor Chuchi, Thailand, September 2009.