Gurning Gurney’s

Sunday 07 April-Wednesday 10 April 2002

Back in the pre-digital era for this post, so apologies for the quality of the images, which are scanned from prints.

In early 2002 we were still living in the UK and I had the luxury of a full 6 weeks of paid vacation time, something I was never to experience again, especially after moving to Canada. Anyhow, we used to take full advantage of this by fitting in a couple of holidays in a year. Later in the same year we would be off to Egypt, but first it was the turn of Thailand, a two week, self-driving, tour of good birding spots in the southern part of the peninsula. It was a long flight from Heathrow to Bangkok, followed by a short hop to the holiday island of Phuket. This is somewhere we had no intention of stopping long, but it was a convenient airport for our mainland sites.

We took a taxi to the car hire depot, where we had pre-booked a car, and here we came into contact with our first Thai ‘ladyboy’. He was very nice, very friendly and helpful, but did look incongruous in the plain hire car uniform with lots of jewellery and make up. In fairly short order he had fixed us up with a sort of jeep, a bit like a mini-moke, I suppose. Not really knowing any better, we took it.

I think that people on Phuket don’t hire cars for serious driving (probably just for heading between beach and bar, mainly)  because we were given a vehicle with a serious prophensity for steering into the kerb-no good whatever for the sort of miles we’d be doing. Perhaps it was copying the sort of movement it saw from its other drivers? It took only 5 minutes on the road for us to take it back to the office and upgrade to a nice, safe (and steerable) Honda.

the car

In our new safe vehicle, it was now time to negotiate our way off Phuket (phew) and on to the mainland, driving round the end of the beautiful Phang Na bay to Krabi and Ao Naang beach. We had booked a couple of nights in a cabin at Wanna’s Place before we were to head south east into the forests of the Khao Pra Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary, better known to birders as Khao Nor Chuchi or KNC.

After a couple of days around Krabi (we would return there later, and so will I!), we set off for KNC along some windy roads, although it was surprisingly simple to find. Mainly, I think, because there are not many roads in the area so it’s difficult to get lost. Many birders visiting the area stay at the Morakot  resort, a little grouping of cabins, fairly basic but very clean, clustered around a spring. It was cheap and cheerful, and we booked in for three days stay.

our cabin
Our Cabin at the Morakot Resort
bungalow inside
Basic, but clean and comfortable.

Although the surrounding rainforest has lots of interesting and beautiful bird species, the main draw for birders is one very rare bird, the Gurney’s Pitta. This bird, back in 2002, was considered to be one of the rarest birds in the world and it was thought that KNC was really the only place it still bred. Since then, small strongholds have been found elsewhere, mainly in Myanmar, but KNC remains the best place to experience this species. It has been downgraded from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’, but it remains a rare and special bird.

The sanctuary at KNC has a number of marked trails and we were eager to get out there and explore. As is usual with rainforests, it was hot, sweaty and hard to see anything in the foliage. I looked particularly fetching in my rainforest get up:

san leech socks
I still have that hat (it’s been all over the world with me) and those binoculars (now relegated to a spare pair, but still working well). We also still have the very attractive leech socks, too! The rainforests of South-east Asia are full of leeches, and they are known to make their way up trouser legs. The answer was these canvas socks that tied just below the knee, like old-fashioned gaiters. We had a pair each and felt a little silly wearing them at first. They were hot and a bit uncomfortable so, after the first time out, Mark decided to leave them off whereas I kept mine on. We headed out on the trails again, and the heavens opened.

‘It never rains, but it pours’, that was certainly the case at KNC on that afternoon. We were soaked in seconds (my poor hat was never quite the same again), the path became a stream, followed by a raging torrent, as we made our slow way back, trying not to slip. We eventually made it back to our cabin and were able to slip off the sodden clothing-we then understood the value of the leech socks. I was leech-free, Mark had somehow collected three!

Over the years I have often had to minister to my husband when he has picked up wildlife from various parts of the globe (occasionally he has had to reciprocate but not as often!). We had been told that a dab of Tiger Balm ointment, placed on the back of the leech, would make it curl up and drop off. We had come prepared, I administered the ointment and it worked like a charm. It was probably a bit uncomfortable for the leeches, but it was difficult to feel sorry for them when Mark’s legs were running with blood. I believe he collected them up into a plastic vial and I think the chambermaid got rid of them later, although Mark was upset to have lost his new pets (Flopsy, Mopsy and Bobtail, perhaps). He did eventually stop bleeding, before he ruined a clean pair of pants. I think we still have that jar of Tiger Balm too, well, you never know when you might have to de-leech someone in a hurry!

Mark says its a shame I didn’t take a picture of his legs with the blood. It was a film camera in those days, so I certainly wasn’t going to waste a frame of precious film on his legs! The world has been saved from a fate worse than death, again.

Rainforest Trail at KNC. This is what we were up against when looking for Gurney’s Pitta!

Morakot Resort had a small dining area, outdoors under a canopy. The food was good, although a bit heavy on the vegetables for Mark’s liking.

One evening we, and a few other birders, were sitting here finishing supper, when something black scuttled across the tiled floor. It was a scorpion, a few inches long, and with its tail raised quite menacingly over its back. The reaction of the people around was quite revealing. The birders, to a man (they were nearly all men), went looking for it, all wanting a good view and pictures, if possible. The local staff went wild, chasing it with brooms. It was pandemonium for a short while until the staff members chased it off into the bushes, much to the disappointment of the birders. It seems that this was a rather dangerous scorpion so I, for one, was quite happy to see it go.

We spent three days in and around KNC trying for Gurney’s Pitta. Unfortunately the best local guide, who we had hoped to bump into, was away, leading a tour elsewhere in the country. The undergrowth was thick, and these birds are undergrowth skulkers. We got up very early each morning to hit the trails at first light, so as to be in position at the best-known sites for when the birds might be most active, no luck. We had good views of Malaysian Banded Pitta (which we tried, briefly, to make into Gurney’s but they really are not that similar), and many other birds but no luck with the prize.

spirit house
The ‘Spirit House’ by the dining area at Morakot. Perhaps we should have asked the spirits for a look at Gurney’s Pitta?!

On our last morning, we decided to get up extra early to give it one last go. As we left the cabin we found a Buffy Fish-owl behind it-this had to be a good omen! Well, it was, to some extent. Back at our Gurney’s stakeout, there were two calling birds (yes!) and we could even hear their feet rustling the undergrowth, but we never did see one. We met a couple of birders from Finland further up the track, who had lured them out with tapes and so got a view, but it wasn’t something we were comfortable doing to a species that was so very endangered and, at the time, thought to be only present at this location. Mostly satisfied, we headed back to the resort in time to check out, for our journey back to Krabi.

So, what does a Pitta look like?


This is a pitta from Thailand, a Mangrove Pitta to be precise, found at our next location, Krabi. Now imagine that the crown is blue, there is yellow on the upper breast, black on the centre breast and black-barred yellow on the sides of the breast, the back and wings are chestnutty-brown and the tail is turquoise-tinged blue. Easy!

Camera: Film.


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