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Archive for April, 2016

The Gurney’s Pitta: Thailand’s flagship species

Saturday, April 23, 2016 posted by Bruce 4:35 PM

THE GURNEY’S PITTA – A bird no more…!

Now officially extinct in Thailand

Gurney's Pitta in Khao Phra Bang Khram, Krabi province, Thailand

A male Gurney’s Pitta photographed by me way back in early 2001 in Southern Thailand…!

In October 2001, I did a story entitled ‘On the verge of extinction’ for the Bangkok Post’s ‘Nature Section’ about an amazing bird that had been rediscovered in 1986 by my close friend and associate Phillip D. Round, Thailand’s eminent ornithologist after almost three decades of no sightings. Prior to that, it was thought to be extinct in the Kingdom. The bird was listed as a flagship species for conservation and put on Thailand’s 15 reserved species list.

The Gurney’s pitta (Pitta gurneyi) is a medium-sized passerine bird that completely disappeared from all lowland evergreen forest south of Prachuap Khirikhan province where natural forest was destroyed primarily to grow palm oil and rubber trees except for one little patch in Krabi province. This site is known as Khao Nor Chuchi or Khao Pra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary – the only known place in Thailand where this rare pitta still survived. The area definitely needed extreme management to save this creature from extinction.

In historic times, the range of the Gurney’s pitta was along the coast and inland areas on both sides of the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of Trang and Krabi on the western side, and Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani, Chumphon up to Prachuap Khirikhan on the east. It also survived in southern Burma where this beautiful bird was first discovered way back in 1875 by a wildlife specimen collector working for Allan Octavian Hume, a prominent ornithologist. The exotic bird was named rather prosaically after Hume’s friend, J.H. Gurney, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
Lowland rainforests up to 200 meters above sea level are home to an unsurpassed diversity of flora and fauna including the Gurney’s. Due to excessive human settlement and agriculture, this unique bird has diminished to the point of no return here in Thailand.

Gurney's Pitta in Khao Phra-Bang Kram Wildlife Sanctuuary, Southern Thailand

A male Gurney’s Pitta in photographed in Khao Phra-Bang Kram Wildlife Sanctuuary – 2011…!

However, over in Burma, there are purported to survive after quite a few surveys since early 2003 when Jonathan Eames with BirdLife International and other associates found the bird at four different sites. Jonathan returned in 2004 and found more locations with the bird but political instability and very restrictive government regulations threaten to keep researchers away, while landmines and bandits further discourage access.

My first encounter with a Gurney’s was back in 2001 when I made an effort to capture this bird on film. I managed to get one shot…the following is that account. “Dark morning stillness in thick lowland rainforest is broken by muffled footsteps as two humans move slowly down the trail. We carry heavy camera equipment to a photographic blind erected deep in the jungle the previous evening. Condensation is heavy as I set up in the hide. My friend and guide, Douglas Judell departs quickly and noisily – the intent being to convey the message that both of us have left the area.

As animals of the night retreat, I wait for the first signs of dawn. My goal is to photograph this elusive pitta known to frequent this small patch of forest. Morning light awakens the jungle and the sounds of dripping moisture begin to be replaced by the noise of birds and insects starting their day. Hidden in the blind, I remain vigilant for the slightest movement on the forest floor. About 8am, light from the sun filters through the canopy in patches.

Emerald Pool in Khao Phra Bang Khram

The Emerald Pool in Khao Phra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the Gurney’s Pitta in Krabi province…!

A sudden movement shows a hooded pitta, another species common here, hopping about looking for earthworms. This striking blue, green and red bird with a dark brown crown moves closer to the blind seemingly oblivious to the looming structure. Snapping only a few shots for fear of alarming the other denizens of this forest, I continue to sit quietly hoping the ‘forest spirits’ will answer my wish.

A passing morning rain shower is short and as if on cue, a blue, black, yellow and white bird suddenly appears in front of the blind about five meters away as the rain stops. Perhaps sensing danger, it quickly hops into the darkness of the forest but a minute later returns just long enough for only one shot of this rare bird. I quickly forgot about the wet grubby conditions and the long road trip of more than 700 kilometers from Bangkok to this place. I was elated to say the least.”

When I did the story in 2001, there were about 11 pairs and some individuals left in the sanctuary. The decline was evident and it became a worry for the Department of National Parks (DNP). Drastic measures were needed but they never came. When Khao Pra-Bang Khram was up-graded in 1987 by the Royal Forest Department (RFD) from a non-hunting area to a wildlife sanctuary, most of the forest where the bird was actually found unfortunately was not included in the protected area. It is a wonder how things sometimes come to pass.

This then became a pitched battle between conservationists, local villagers and the DNP. Forests were being cleared for palm and rubber and there was nothing the department or NGOs’ could do in certain areas because this land was outside the sanctuary and was the property of the locals. Forest destruction was severe and it put a terrible strain on the ecosystem.

Another very negative aspect is the visitation by hundreds of tourists almost daily at the Emerald Pond not far from the core area. This place use to be peaceful and beautiful, and a decade ago there were just a few noodle stands and trinket shops at the front. Now this has expanded 100 percent and has become a big business catering to the visitors. Buses and vans are parked everywhere. There are very few birds around the pond now and trash is a serious problem.

The Gurney’s pitta is now officially extinct in southern Thailand’s lowland rain forests..! In 2004, I published ‘Thailand’s Natural Heritage’ and I predicted then that the species would eventually disappear. Now that this beautiful creature is gone from the natural world, it is a sad day for nature conservation in the Kingdom of Thailand.

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Eight tigers in two-weeks…!

Thursday, April 21, 2016 posted by Bruce 10:00 PM

A month long safari to the Indian sub-continent

Collarwali, the ‘Queen of Pench’ passing in front of my jeep; she has had 22 cubs and 6 litters and is one of my favorite tigers in India…!

India is a spectacular wildlife paradise showcasing the magnificent Bengal tiger. There is about two thousand thriving on the sub-continent and it’s the largest population remaining on the planet. These big cats still thrive very well in many protected areas and even outside some parks and sanctuaries, and at times are quite easy to see. However, they can also be very elusive and it really depends on one’s luck.

I arrived in New Delhi on March 20th at noon from Bangkok, Thailand, which takes about three and half hours flying time. Air India is a great airline and allows 40 kilograms of check-in baggage on business class which I needed as I had two DSLR camera traps, two sensors and four flashes, plus other assorted photographic equipment like my tripod, boots and clothes, etc. My two bags were very close to that limit and I hate paying overweight…!

I stayed in Delhi for one night and then caught the train the next afternoon going north to Ramganga city arriving in the evening and staying at the Tiger Camp Lodge on the way to Corbett Tiger Reserve and National Park. I slept well after the four-hour train-ride that is hectic going through Old Delhi train station fighting thousands of people to get on board. It is a madhouse…!


Female tiger in Vanghat Private reserve

The Vanghat female tiger camera trapped with a Nikon D3000 trail cam…!

The next morning, my first stop was Vanghat Wildlife Reserve and Lodge (private land) situated on the Ramganga River which is reported to have tiger, leopard, crocodile and other creatures common to the Corbett Landscape in the lower-Himalayan Mountains. The owner, Mr. Sumanthn Ghosh is an avid nature lover and was eager to see what was roaming his forest and hills. Little did he or I know that a female tiger was around and tripped my Nikon D3000 camera trap on the night of March 28th up on a ridgeline. She turned out to be prime female living in her patch.


Female tiger with a spotted deer kill in Corbett NP

‘Parwali’ female tiger in Corbet Tiger Reserve with a spotted deer (chital) fawn…! 

The next morning, I went into Corbett National Park to visit the grasslands at Dhikala Lodge run by the government where many tigers roam looking for prey. On the second morning, we bumped into a female that was hunting across the Ramganga River. Timing was perfect and she stepped on to the road with a spotted deer fawn in her mouth. It certainly was a once-in-a lifetime shot for me and I was pleased to say the least. Over the next few days, I saw her a few more times here and there. At that moment, Parwali (her name) is the most photographed tiger in Corbett and I feel lucky to have captured her with prey; behavior is tough with tigers..!


Panna tiger cub 1

Panna’s larger female cub of T-1 on my first afternoon safari…!

From Corbett, it was back to Delhi on the train followed by anther train ride going further south but this time it was an overnighter. At my age, sleeping on a train is almost impossible and it was a long night. The next morning, we arrived at Khajuraho station and a driver was there to pick me up and drive to the Ken River Lodge owned by Mr. Shyamendra Singh on the Ken River not far from the main gate into Panna Tiger Reserve.

Panna tiger cub 2

Panna’s smaller cub of T-1 on my last afternoon at a secluded waterhole by the road…!

That afternoon, Mr. Shukra, a very experienced guide and I entered the park at 3pm and in the late afternoon, saw a female cub from T-1 at a waterhole taking a drink. (Panna lost all their tigers in 2008 and she was the first reintroduced tiger). On my last safari, I bumped into T-1’s other smaller cub. Now that was some seriously good luck.


Collerwali yawning after a late morning slumber not far from the Pench River…!

Then after a long 8-hour taxi ride, I ended up in Pench Tiger Reserve southwest of Panna, and met up with my good friend Omeer (Omi) Choudhary, a guide, driver and naturalist for the Tuli Tiger Corridor Lodge. Over the next couple of days, he put me in front of Collerwali, the ‘Queen of Pench’ and the most famous tigress with 22-recorded cubs and 6 litters. I also saw two of her latest cubs, a male and female. And then Omi put me in the right place near closing time to catch Mr Big known as ‘Raiyakassa’ as he walked up from a mud bath. It was hot and he was cooling off.

Collarwali’s male cub watching the jeeps with the queen resting behind him…!

Collarwali’s female cub resting on a rock during a late morning safari…!

Raiyakassa, the male tiger and Collarwali’s mate just up from a mud-hole…!

That was it — eight tigers in two weeks. I guess I was lucky but I did pray to ‘Jim Corbett’s spirit plus the spirit of the Banyon Tree; Sitti Mama. She knew what I wanted and provided me with some amazing tiger shots… Overall, a successful trip and one that will be etched in memory for as long as I live…!!

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A trip to Chambal River in Agra, India

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 posted by Bruce 8:25 AM

Gharial crocodiles and the Sarus crane were the main objective…!

This was to be my last safari on this month long trip to India. The site is situated in Agra, east of Delhi where the famous Taj Mahal is located.

Gharial crocodile by the Chambal River

A female gharial regulating her body temperature early in the morning by the Chambal River in Agra…!

The Chambal River has some very interesting creatures and the main ones I was after were the gharial (thin-jawed fish eating crocodile) and the Sarus crane (the world’s tallest bird). Time was limited and I was lucky to photographed both species in one day.

Gharial crocodile by the Chambal River

Another female gharial and its tell-tale thin jaw for catching fish; they are an amazing crocodilian…!

I stayed at the Chambal Safari Hotel some 70 kilometers past the city of Agra. We left at 5am and arrived at the boat landing where a speed boat was waiting near dawn that was another 22 kilometers from the lodge.

Gharial crocodile by the Chambal River

And yet another female gharial before slipping into the Chambal River…! No males were photographed…!

Within no time at all, we bumped into gharial and I got several but they were all female. The males would slip into the river as soon as they spotted us.

Sarus cranes at Chambal River, Agra

A breeding pair of Sarus cranes feeding and dancing on Chambal; these wonderful birds mate for life…!

But I was happy to get some decent photographs and as the sun rose into the sky, it became dreadfully hot and light was very harsh so we returned to the hotel for lunch.

Sarus cranes at Chambal River, Agra

The Sarus crane is the tallest bird in the world and they are thriving very well in India at several locations….!

Other species captured were the mugger crocodile and Indian blue peafowl in full display mode. Many water birds are also found here.

Indian peafowl male in Chambal

A Indian peafowl male in full display. These birds thrive by the river and are absolutely beautiful…!

Back again at 3:30pm and we motored up the river once again. Shortly thereafter, two Sarus cranes were spotted feeding along a sandy bank. I was delighted and surprised to see how close we got to the tall birds.

Mugger crocodile by the Chambal River

A mugger or marsh crocodile basking in the morning sun. This reptile is estimated to be about 3 meters long…!

I will return in mid-March 2017 when the weather is much cooler and the crocs are a lot easier to see when they need to bask for long periods in the sun regulating their body temperature due to the very cold river. All in all, it was a quick but very satisfying trip to the Chambal River. Enjoy…!

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A goral and a muntjac on the D3000 in India

Monday, April 18, 2016 posted by Bruce 8:39 PM

Two even-toed ungulates caught by my DSLR travel cam…!

Another two species captured on my Nikon D3000 travel cam was a goral (goat-antelope) and a muntjac male (barking deer). Even though these two even-toed ungulates are not as glamorous as the tiger, they are still an indication of the prey base found in Vanghat Wildlife Reserve (private land) in the Corbett Landscape. Hopefully sometime next year, I will be able to return to this place but earlier (about Feb.when it’s cooler). It was boiling hot this year and a bit of a fire hazard (many areas are now being razed by fire) and certainly if I had waited any longer, my camera may have been burnt to crisp)…!

Goral in Vanghat Wildlife Reserve

Goral (goat-antelopes) are found in Northern India in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains…!

Muntjac in Vanghat Wildlife Reserve

A muntjac male (barking deer) are found all over India and a main food source for the big cats…!

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Awhile back, I published a post on ‘my travel cam DSLRs’ on this forum and got some nice mongoose pics from that set last year. I have just wrapped up another trip to Northern India where I set one of my D3000s on a trail in a place called Vanghat resort and private wildlife reserve not far from Corbett Tiger Reserve in the State of Uttarakhand. After only two nights, a female tiger walked past the cam and tripped the sensor several times…this is the best shot from the series…Lady luck doing her magic once again…!!

Female tiger in Vanghat Private reserve

Nikon D3000 with a 24mm manual lens – 2 SB-28s set at 1/4 power..!

Settings: ƒ8; 1/250 sec; ISO 400.

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Pench Tiger Reserve: A fantastic trip with a close friend…!

Sunday, April 10, 2016 posted by Bruce 8:30 PM

An amazing forest in India’s Madhya Pradesh with some truly beautiful tigers…!

Collarwali on her way to the Pench River for an early morning drink…!

Being at the right place and right time always works. I arrived at the Tulie Tiger Corridor Resort close to Pench Tiger Reserve in the late evening of April 2nd and was greeted by my very good friend and naturalist, Omeer (Omi) Choudhary. As it was late and I was totally bushed from a long haul (airline flight from Ahmedabad in Gujarat visiting the Blackbuck-Velavadar National Park, and then a grueling 3-hour taxi ride from Nagpur), it was straight to bed for an early start the next morning.

Collarwali the next morning yawning after a long sleep…!

Up at five and after quick coffee and gate formalities, we entered the park at 6am and drove to the other side of the park (one hour drive) where the famous female tiger ‘Collarwali’ of Pench and her two cubs were being seen. That morning, I got a glimpse of ‘stripes in the grass’ and that was that. In the afternoon, one of her cubs was lying in the dense bush and I was able to get some good shots.

One of Collarwali cubs resting in the afternoon…!

The next morning however as we were sitting in the jeep waiting on some action, ‘Collarwali’ step out in front of us and walked down to the Pench River. It was great to see her again in lovely morning light. She is one of my favorite tigers in India…!

Collarwali’s other cub with mother in the back…!

The next morning and final day of my safari, I paid respects to the ‘Spirit of the Banyan Tree’ with a coconut and some joss sticks at the gate. After a 40-minute drive (short-cut), we found ‘Collarwali’ sleeping with a cub on a big rock and I got both of them together but at distance.

Raiyakassa, the dominant male tiger walking past the jeep all muddied up from a snooze in the big pond…!

In the afternoon very near closing time, we bumped into a leopard (rare for Pench) and I got a few shots. Then, as we were motoring back to the lodge just before the deadline of 6:30pm, we bumped into the dominant male (Collarwali’s mate Raiyakassa) walking towards us from the big pond. He was half covered in mud but still a magnificent creature and I was able to get a bunch of great images as he walked very close to our jeep. It was that good old ‘right time and right place’ and the ‘Spirit of the Banyan Tree’. What a fitting end to my second trip to Pench and I would like to thank Omi for his wonderful spirit and friendship…I will miss him..!

Raiyakassa caught head on…he is truly a beautiful male tiger and father of many of Collarwali’s cubs (22 cubs-6 litters)…!

As most people know now, Pench recently lost the Baghin Nala female and two of her cubs to poisoning on March 28th. This is very unfortunate for the park, Forest Department and people who love to see tigers. Fortunately, the other two cubs were saved and shifted to Kanha as they surely would have died too. It could take sometime for another big cat to fill this void and the danger will still be there of future poisonings.

On a good note, some of the poachers involved in this case have been apprehended and the others are being sought after. This incident plus others (27 tigers killed by poisoning and other circumstances in India since the Jan. 1st) is a growing trend and the ruthless Chinese tiger bone medicine devils are behind this. Somehow it must be stopped now or more tigers will be lost to this mindless draconian practice…!!

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