Archive for December, 2010

Green Peafowl: Thailand’s most spectacular bird

Sunday, December 26, 2010 posted by Bruce 9:48 PM

WILD SPECIES REPORT

Beautiful avian fauna thriving in a few protected areas

Green peafowl taking-off in Huai Kha Khaeng

It is a dark misty cold morning along Huai Kha Khaeng, an important waterway in central-western Thailand. The month is November at the beginning of the winter season and the temperature is hovering around 10 degrees Celsius. I’m sitting in my boat-blind with a silent electric trolling motor waiting for the sun to come up, and I’m after wild water buffalo and green peafowl hoping for some good photographs of these two rare species.

At dawn, a green peafowl calls out from its roost reverberating through the valley. The resounding braying can be heard repeatedly many kilometers away. It is nature at its finest that has gone on for thousands of years. I motor the boat closer and find a flock of peafowl pecking the ground by the river and looking for anything edible.

Green peafowl flock by Huai Kha Khaeng in late afternoon

As light begins to fill the river valley, I move in closer to the peafowl on a large sandbank. A male takes-off and lands close to the flock immediately opening up its tail in a shimmering fan display. The females and younger birds are busy pecking the ground.

During the breeding season, the male peafowl’s iridescent tail called a train, are long and graceful. He struts along the riverbank showing off to the females hoping to impress the flock. Several other males are nearby also flaunting their tail spreads to incite the other gender.

Green peafowl male by the Huai Kha Khaeng in early morning

The blue and yellow facial skin, plus the emerald green and metallic blue of its feathers with cinnamon colored wing primaries contrasting with brownish-black secondaries is a sight to see, especially during the soft early morning light and again in the evening glow at sunset. They are the most spectacular of all Thai birds thriving fairly well in this wildlife sanctuary, a World Heritage Site. The species can also be found in a few other protected areas around Thailand.

Green peafowl male by the river in Huai Kha Khaeng

Birds evolved from dinosaurs: there is no doubt about that. The evolution of birds probably began about 150 million years ago. The earliest known bird was Archaeopteryx, which was the size of a modern crow and lived in the Late Jurassic. Fossil evidence found in Germany indicated it had feathers arranged over its body and its wings; and though not as agile as a modern bird, could probably fly well. It also had a dinosaur’s jaws with teeth, claws on its hands, and a long reptilian tail.

Throughout the succeeding Cretaceous period all kinds of dinosaur-bird hybrid animals existed, but their exact relationships to one another are not really known. In the 1980s and 1990s fossils of these animals began to be discovered in South America, Spain, and particularly in China. However, there have been no discoveries of these bird-like creatures in Thailand, but more than 15 species of dinosaur have been uncovered here.

Green peafowl male flaunting its tail spread

Green peafowl probably evolved from red jungle fowl, the ancestor of all wild and domestic fowl. Jungle fowl is believed to have come to being some 800,000 years ago. It is not exactly sure when peafowl came about but it is thought to be sometime around 500,000 years ago.

Red jungle fowl in Huai Kha Khaeng – western species

Red jungle fowl in Khao Ang Rue Nai – eastern species

King Rama V wrote about seeing green peafowl at Muang Sing in Sai Yok district of Kanchanburi province during a Royal visit there. Rock paintings discovered in Lampang province in the North about 3,500 to 5,000 years old show a peafowl with long tail-feathers on a cliff-face. These majestic birds have been featured in many stories and legends throughout the history of the Kingdom.

Rock painting showing green peafowl 3,500-5,000 years old in Lampang

The green peafowl, also called Javan peafowl, Pavo muticus is a large galliform bird found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It is the closest relative to the Indian peafowl or blue peafowl Pavo cristatus, which is mostly found on the Indian subcontinent. Peafowl are smaller than the American turkey.

In the past, the distribution and habitat of the green peafowl was widely scattered, from eastern and northeast India, northern and southern Myanmar, and southern China extending through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Peninsular Malaysia and the island of Java. These ranges have been drastically reduced through habitat destruction and hunting.

Green peafowl male and flock at Huai Hong Krai Royal Project in Chiang Mai

According to J.H. Riley with the Smithsonian Institute who published ‘Birds from Siam and the Malay Peninsula’ in 1938 reported green peafowl could be found in most forested areas and alluvial rivers in Thailand. There are two sub-species: the Pavo muticus muticus south of the Isthmus of Kra, and P. m. imperator to the north. Unfortunately, they have vanished from the Northeast and the South, and from Malaysia. The Burmese P. m. spicifer is a more drably colored bird.

One person who has researched green peafowl in depth is Professor Wina Meckvichai with the Department of Biology at the Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. She has studied populations and behavior of the peafowl, and other gallopheasants like red jungle fowl in the country.

Young male peafowl by Huai Mae Dee in Huai Kha Khaeng

Presently, there are about 2,000 wild green peafowl left in the country and most are in the western forest complex mainly in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, and Sri Nakarin National Park. They may also be found in other protected areas in the west but these would be small isolated populations.

Peafowl can also be found in the Northern provinces of Nan, Phayao and Chiang Mai. A few may survive in the Salaween Wildlife Sanctuary along the river and border with Burma, but there are not many reports whether the species exists west of here.

Juvenile peafowl late in the afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng

The overall population of peafowl in the north is decreasing due to human disturbance but is slightly increasing in the west. However, at Huai Hong Krai Royal Project at Doi Saket district in Chiang Mai province, peafowl are also on the increase due to special protection provided by the project.

About 25 years ago, I saw a male green peafowl with long tail feathers during the breeding season in Sai Yok National Park, Kanchanaburi province by a tributary of the ‘Noi’ River deep in the interior. However, they have not been seen or heard here for years now.

Female peafowl in Huai Kha Kha Khaeng

Hunters have poached the birds for their meat and tail feathers, and wiped them out in many areas throughout the country due to increased access into the protected areas by local villagers and ethnic tribes people. Encroachment on forestlands has also been heavily responsible for the disappearance of this beautiful bird.

During most of the year, when the males have no visible trains, both male and female green peafowl are quite similar in appearance, and are difficult to distinguish between the two. Both sexes have tall pointed crests, and are long-legged, heavy-winged and long-tailed in silhouette. The long train formed by elongated upper tail coverts, spread in an enormous fan during display. These molt and drop out in April and May during the hot season.

Huai Mae Dee – green peafowl habitat in Huai Kha Khaeng

The peafowl’s peculiar flight has been described, as a true flapping flight with little gliding that is usually associated with other Galliform birds. With a wingspan of 1.2 meters across, peafowl are capable of sustained flight.

 

According to ‘A guide to the Birds in Thailand’ by the late Dr Boonsong Lekagul and the eminent ornithologist Philip D. Round, peafowl are found in several different habitats including mixed deciduous woodland, secondary growth and clearings usually close to shallow streams or rivers with exposed sand bars, plus foothills and plains, but occasionally higher plateau areas. At the time of publication in 1991, peafowl were considered a rare resident much reduced by human persecution. Peafowl adapted to a changed habitat in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai flooded by the Sri Nakarin Dam and reservoir in the west.

Green peafowl spend most of their time on or near the ground in tall grasses or sedges. They forage for food in open areas and along riverbanks. Family units roost in trees about 10-15 meters off the ground. The Green Peafowl is a forest bird that nests on the ground laying three to six eggs.

Their diet consists of fruits, invertebrates, reptiles and other small animals. Adult birds hunt for ticks, termites, flower petals, bud leaves and berries, and are also known to take poisonous snakes from time to time. Frogs and other aquatic small animals probably make up the bulk of the diet of growing birds.

Although rare compared with historic numbers, improved survey methodology and increased effort has led to an increase in the reporting rate and thus the population estimate has been revised upwards to reflect this improved knowledge. Nevertheless this remains a coarse estimate and it warrants refinement.

Continue research into its range, status, habitat requirements and interactions with people to inform management within the protected areas should be carried out. Peafowl require strict enforcement of regulations relating to hunting and pesticide used within the parks supporting populations in Indochina. A total ban should be encouraged on the international trade in live birds and tail feathers in all range countries.

Because of its attractive appearance, the green peafowl faces the threat of hunting or as pets. Its feathers are considered to be valuable art objects and are also popularly used in household crafts and decorations. It is listed on Appendix II of CITES, and before 2009, it was evaluated as ‘vulnerable’. The bird is now listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The world population has declined rapidly and the species no longer occurs in many areas of its past distribution.

As with all other wild birds and animals living in the protected areas, the green peafowl in Thailand is in a serious predicament. More and more people forage in the forest and along with this, poaching is a never-ending saga. Protection and enforcement is the number one priority for the government but recent protection budget cuts have been tabled which in the event go through, will seriously affect all wildlife and their ecosystems.

It is also said that many temporary rangers will be lose their job if these budget cuts go through, and to compensate them, a scheme has also been tabled where the rangers join forces in their respective villages, put in a bid to look after the forest similar to the community forest program, and then wait for the wheels of doing business here. This is the beginning of the end.

Corruption will certainly come into play and these jobless rangers who already know the forest, will slip into areas they know well and, poach and gather. There will be no unity within the ranks to properly maintain a good protection program. With big money, continued and expanding wildlife trading, and other dark political forces at work, plus an ever-expanding human population, it will be a rough road ahead.

It is unfortunate but the future of the green peafowl is in the balance, and if management, funding, protection and enforcement are not increased and improved, these spectacular birds will slowly and eventually go the way of the dodo in New Zealand and the carrier pigeon in the United States. The government of Thailand should do much more in taking care of the Kingdom’s great wild heritage.

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Thailand’s Miniature World – Part Two

Friday, December 10, 2010 posted by Bruce 1:00 PM

Photographing Mother Nature’s little creatures

Close-up and macro photography: Additional photographs

After more than 15 years of taking wildlife close-ups and macro shots, the following photographs are a collection assembled for this post. Some are from my old film archives and others are recent digital captures. It is hoped these images will instill upon others the positive aspect of photographing nature; whether its the little critters all the way up to the majestic elephant.

However, the message is the same: wildlife photographs are a way of expressing the need to protect and save Mother Nature’s wonderful creations through exposure, education and conservation awareness at all levels of society. The more people learn about the Kingdom’s natural heritage, the better its chances of survival into the future!

Birdwing butterfly in Lampang province

Orb spider at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Changeable lizard in Chiang Mai province

Blue crested lizard in Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary

Oakleaf butterfly in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

Lantern bug in Chiang Mai province

Short-horned grasshopper in Chiang Mai

Bombay locust in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

Foilage spider in Lamphun province

Skipper butterfly in Chiang Mai province

Lime butterfly in Thap Lan National Park

Bird-eating spider in Phu Khieo

Carpenter ants in Thung Yai

Common rose and blue tiger butterflies in Thung Yai

Cruiser butterfly in Sai Yok

Damselfly in Salak Phra

Dragonfly in Thung Yai

Dragonfly in Suphan Buri province

Hawk moths mating in Huai Kha Khaeng

Rhinoceros beetle in Salak Phra

Green-bellied pit viper in Kaeng Krachan

Wild hibiscus flower in Huai Kha Khaeng

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Thailand’s Miniature World – Part One

Monday, December 6, 2010 posted by Bruce 10:51 AM

Photographing Mother Nature’s little creatures

Close-up and macro photography: Intricate elements and gear

Yellow-bellied pit viper and carpenter ant in Kaeng Krachan

It is the rainy season and the day is cloudy like most during this time of the year. The rains have stopped temporarily, and the sun peeks through the clouds. Insects, spiders and other creatures such as reptiles and amphibians are extremely active in the forest when precipitation is at its highest.

While walking down a streambed in Kaeng Krachan National Park, southwest Thailand, a yellow-bellied pit viper found on a tree branch is perfect for some serious close-up photography. However, pit vipers can be deadly and extremely quick to strike.

Yellow-bellied pit viper slithering up a tree branch

I keep my distance as the serpent hangs motionless in a coiled position ready to sink its fangs into any victim. I quickly set-up my tripod and my favorite close-up rig at the time, a Minolta D7 digital camera and 200mm f 2.8 lens with a 1.4 tele-converter for an overall length of 280mm.

The most appealing feature of this lens is it can be used further away from the subject than a shorter lens, while flattening the perspective by bringing the foreground and background together. When a wide aperture is used, it will isolate the subject against a blurred background. The 280mm was also handy in the field.

Green-bellied pit viper on forest leaf litter in Kaeng Krachan

I was able to photograph the dangerous reptile from a safe distance. It was a two-day walk to the road and if bitten, I might not make it to the nearest hospital in time. Vipers are not aggressive unless provoked.

While photographing the snake, a one-inch long carpenter ant moved into the frame while I snapped a series of images. It was surely exciting, and two species in one photograph is always a neat experience. In the forest nearby, a green-bellied pit viper in fallen leaves hunting for prey is found. Pit vipers are very common in Kaeng Krachan.

Giant tree frog in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

Along this same stream a day later, we bumped into a rare green tree frog, the largest of this genus. It stayed in place long enough for some good shots but eventually jumped away. A couple days later, I also photographed a river toad further down stream.

River toad in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

While setting-up camera-traps at a mineral lick just off this same stream, a king cobra showed up. Now that was a heart stopper as the big snake rose up. I softly told everyone to stay absolutely still. It then lowered itself and slid back the way it had come. Everyone in the team had the jitters. I had absolutely no time to get any photos and was relieved the ‘king’ was gone. We decided to name this place the ‘King Cobra’ mineral lick.

King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

However, I once photographed a king cobra near the headwaters of the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan, and managed a few off-hand close-up shots with my Minolta before it disappeared into the forest in a split-second. Some photographs are just not worth the risk but this happened so quickly that I snapped away oblivious to the danger. The undisputed ‘king of the forest’ is definitely not a recommended subject for close-up photography.

King cobra just before disappearing into the forest

When I began shooting wildlife with a camera, close-up or sometimes called ‘macro photography’ grabbed my attention. It seemed like the perfect solution to spend time when the large mammals and birds were scarce or while around camp. I reckoned Thailand’s miniature wild world was just as important as the big flora and fauna. Now, it is one of my favorite pass times. Sometimes, chasing the little creatures is not that easy and many variables come into play.

Forest crested lizard in Kaeng Krachan

My first macro lens was a Nikon 60mm that was great for flowers and stationary subjects but not very good for lively butterflies and such. I quickly up-graded to a Nikon 80-200 f 2.8 zoom with a close-up lens attachment which screws on the front of the lens. I also used extension tubes between the camera and lens. This allowed closer focusing throughout the entire zoom range. I photographed many small bugs, spiders, and other subjects of interest including flowers and natural abstracts using this combo.

Tortoise beetle in Kaeng Krachan

Since my early beginnings, I have purchased many cameras and lenses over the years. For close-ups and macro shots, I now carry my trusty Nikon D700 camera (full-frame sensor) and two lenses: a fixed Nikon 105mm f 2.8 VR (vibration reduction) and an older fixed Nikon Micro 200mm f 4. I also use a Nikon D5000 camera (1.5X sensor) with a Sigma 70-300mm Macro lens (effectively a 105-450mm) for more reach, and because it is much lighter than the D700 camera in some situations.

Champange mushrooms in Kaeng Krachan

My favorite lens now is the Nikon 200mm that I find perfect for just about everything and the focal length yields a good working distance. It allows close work on distant subjects that are skittish like butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Bees, hornets and wasps are best photographed from a distance for obvious reasons, as are snakes that are poisonous mentioned earlier. If the subject is stationary like beetles, dew-laden insects and spiders, flowers and abstracts, I prefer the Nikon 105mm lens.

Little map butterflies mating in Kaeng Krachan

Whenever I travel and stop by the highway for a rest or nature’s call, or when at base camp in the forest, I always have my camera and close-up lenses with me. You never know when you might bump into a good photo opportunity. This rig is also set-up with a bracket and an off-camera flash with a sync cable that is needed for certain situations. I shoot this off-hand and the flash allows stop-action and sharp images.

Thairus butterfly in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

The difference between close-up and macro photography needs to be clarified to get an understanding of the two terms. ‘Close-up’ photography is usually applied to any situation where the subject is around one-tenth of life size or greater on the image sensor or film frame. The pit viper at the beginning is classified as a close-up.

Shield-backed bug in Lamphun province

Macro’ photography on the other hand, is when the subject is reproduced at a magnification of life size (1:1 ratio) or greater with an appropriate camera and lens. Up to four or five times (4:1 – 5:1 ratio) is possible with modern SLR (film) and DSLR (digital) cameras and some lenses, or a combination of lenses and accessories can capture very small subjects.

Stag beetle in Doi Inthanon National Park

Anything smaller than that is possible by using a camera attached to a microscope and is classified as ‘micro’ photography. For example: a photograph of an ant’s eye, a pinhead or smaller. However, this technique is beyond the scope of this story.

Scarab beetle at the top of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain

To better understand reproduction ratios, the following is a simple formula to get an indication of magnification: If a 25mm-long subject is focused so that it fits on a 25mm sensor, the reproduction ratio is 1:1 or 1x; that is, it is reproduced on the sensor at life-size. If a 50mm-long subject is focused so that it fits on a 25mm sensor, then it is reproduced at half-life size, or a ratio of 1:2 or ½x. And finally, if a 12.5mm subject is focused on a 25mm sensor, then it will be reproduced as a magnification of twice life-size, or a ratio of 2:1, or 2x, and so on. A bit technical but it gives an understanding of magnification in close-up and macro photography.

Carpenter bee landing on a perch in Sai Yok National Park

Depth of field, lighting and shutter speed is the three most important elements of close-up/macro photography. Depth of field is the zone in front and behind the point of focus that is sharp. Controlling depth of field is one of the most crucial rudiments in photography and can be checked by using a depth-of-field preview button available on some SLR and DSLR cameras. The use of the lens aperture (f-stop) and the amount of light using the ISO setting to determine shutter speed at the time the photograph is taken is important for sharp and properly exposed images.

Carpenter bee on its favorite perch in Sai Yok

There are many books and magazine stories on the subject of close-up/macro photography available from some bookstores, and these should be sought out to get a better idea what techniques and equipment is needed. Considered the ‘bible’ by many of this form of photography is a book entitled ‘Closeups in Nature’ by John Shaw, and even though this tome was written during the film era, it still teaches all the basics needed to get great shots of the small critters and their environment, and the equipment needed.

Carpenter bee in Tak province

Cameras may include some of the newer digital compact ‘point-and-shoot’ types that have close-up capabilities, and are probably the most reasonable option for beginners. The next step-up is the bridge cameras or SLR-style digital compacts. With the right accessories, close-up and macro photography is possible while the cost is still below the standard single-lens-reflex cameras that can be expensive at the pro-level.

Wood-boring beetle in Sai Yok

But the number one choice for serious amateurs and professional photographers who shoot the miniature world use a SLR or DSLR mentioned previously. There are many models and it all boils down to budget, plus the will to get the best images as the number one priority on the purchase of a camera body. Weight and bulk is also a factor. Most of the newer digital cameras are offering 12 megapixels or more.

Coppery-bordered ground beetle in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

If you are a beginner, there are many brands and models to choose from. It is best to check them out at your local camera store and make a choice based on your own criteria. Talk to fellow photographers for advice and read as much as possible to get an idea what you need.

Wasp spider in Thung Yai

If you are shooting a SLR-type camera, the lens and technique is very important for crisp images. Brand names lenses are expensive whereas aftermarket ones can work just as well. Again, shopping for close-up/macro equipment is a matter of choice.

Wasp spider in Chiang Mai province

Lenses for this field exist almost exclusively as fixed focal length. On image quality, they are superior to a standard zoom lens. A high-quality close-up or macro lens can be a companion for life. The focal length you choose depends solely on the type of images you want. The Nikon 105 AF-S VR previously mentioned stands out in its class, because it is the first lens to offer an image stabilizer in the macro range. Other manufactures also offer high-tech bells and whistles, and its up to the photographer to choose.

Tunnel spider in Sai Yok

Extension tubes and some tele-converters that fit between the camera and lens can increase subject size. These can be found easily in most camera shops. Another option that I like is to install a close-up lens in the filter threads of a prime lens. These are not very expensive and add very little weight. However, they are not that readily available but a few specialty firms offer them through the Internet. I use a Nikon 6T close-up lens that is no longer manufactured for both my 105mm and 200mm that have a 62mm filter size.

Tunnel spider in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

Another way to get into the macro range with a standard lens, say like a 50mm, is to install a reversing ring. Another option is to stack lenses such as a manual 200mm with a 50mm reversed using a stacking ring and this can really get down into the 2:1 to 3:1 life sizes.

Jumping spider in Khao Ang Rue Nai

Other options are a bellows unit with a lens installed either normally or reversed. Depending on the extension and type of lens used, bellows devices allow for magnification ratios up to 6:1. But this is better suited for a studio set-up.

Robber fly with prey in Khao Ang Rue Nai

A sturdy tripod and ball head is very important along with an electronic shutter release for sharp images. But they are not always practical where a tripod leg can knock foliage and disturb the subject that will fly or jump away. A monopod will control up and down movement and is easier to set in place but should be used in conjunction with a diffused flash. It is my favorite set-up when I go afield looking for miniature subjects.

Robber fly with prey in Tak province

Natural light is the best choice for close-up/macro photography but not always possible and hence, a flash comes into play. Most flashes today have TTL (through the lens) metering that allows precise flash output. Many new cameras have a pop-up flash that can also be used as long as it can be adjusted for output, and are all right for most applications but should be used with some sort of diffuser like tissue paper in several layers taped over the flash lens to avoid harsh light.

Skipper butterfly in Chiang Mai province

An off-camera flash with a slip-on diffuser plus a bracket and sync cord is tops for close-up photography. It can be adjusted for distance to subject, shot off-hand, and is quick to use. A ring flash is another option for shadow-less lighting and off-hand work.

Lemon pansi on a wild cat scat in Thung Yai

As we pass the first decade of the 21st Century, more and more people are taking up photography as a hobby or profession. The camera and lens manufacturers are constantly bringing out newer and better makes and models, and it is confusing at times.

Water drops on a plant in Eastern Thailand

However, it is an excellent pass time and the world of close-up and macro photography is only limited by one’s own imagination. Get out with camera in hand, even if it is your own back yard, and give it a try. It could become a passion and one that I am thoroughly hooked on. I hope to capture as much wildlife on digital as possible, so that others can also appreciate the wonderful world of nature in miniature.

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