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Birds, Words and Watchers

from Smith Sutibut, Bangkok Post

Although historical records show that human beings had made sketches of birds - paintings on cave walls or incisions carved on bones or stones - as early as the Stone Age, a systematic avian study only began in the 18th century. John James Audubon, for example, only published his illustrated Birds of America in 1827. Ornithological study in Thailand began much later than that. Although some specimens were collected by Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk, a British consular official based in Bangkok, during his trip to northern Thailand in 1859 (Sir Schomburgk also published an essay entitled "Cursory Notes on Some of the Birds of Siam" in an ornithological periodical, The Ibis, in 1864), it was not until 1968 when the first Bird Guide of Thailand, written by the late conservation pioneer Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, was published.
The checklist, considered a rare book now, catalogued 828 types of birds, accompanied by illustrations drawn by Dr. Boonsong himself. Six years later, Dr. Boonsong revised the book with help from Edward W. Cronin, Jr. The second edition added 21 more birds to the list, bringing the total up to 849 species. In 1991, the country's latest and best-known field guide for bird watching, A Guide to the Birds of Thailand, was published. Written by Dr. Boonsong and British ornithologist Philip D. Round, the book accumulated as many as 915 species of birds that can be seen in Thailand. It is fully equipped with descriptions of the birds' identification, habitat, status and distribution maps. The color illustrations, hand-drawn by Kamol Komolphalin and Mongkol Wongkalasin, are said to be the best ever produced by South- east Asian wildlife artists. Research for A Guide to the Birds of Thailand was completed in 1989. However, two years before it went into publication, three more species were spotted, namely the Pied Avocet, Malaysian Blue Flycatcher and Brambling. Unfortunately, they arrived too late to be featured in the book. The editorial team could squeeze only a brief, one-paragraph discussion in Appendix 1 at the end of the book. With the late additions, the total number of birds in Thailand was brought up to 9 1 5 species. Meanwhile, in Appendix 2 the author also listed several more resident and migrant birds which may possibly be seen in Thailand, such as those found in Myanmar, Indochina Malaysia or Singapore.
The information from this comprehensive guide has drawn more and more people into bird watching. In the process, the knowledge about Thai birds has broadened rapidly. After 1991, many species in Appendix 2, which were considered possible but unlikely to be spotted, have indeed been sighted, including the Red- billed Tropicbird, Indian Pond-heron, Mallard, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, and Black-billed Magpie.
Philip D Round, the co-author of A Guide to the Birds of Thailand, commented: "Initially, reports about new birds were made almost solely by foreign bird watchers, partly because they are more experienced and inclined to find information about the birds. Also, these Westerners are more familiar with some of the birds which may have migrated from the North or Europe but are rarely seen in Thailand."
Recently, he added, more Thais have taken up bird watching and have spotted a number of new species, too.
"The number of bird photographers is also higher. Pictures and video footage are excellent tools for a confirmation of sightings and identification of the new species," Mr. Round, who has been in Thailand for almost 20 years, said. More than two thirds of the newly-found species are winter visitors - the usual con- tenders for new additions thanks to their mobile habit of yearly southward migration. These are irregular guests, though. Some were spotted only once, while others come by every year.
Some of the so-called new birds had actually been around for a while but were not declared new species because of a lack of supporting evidence. Some, like the Indian Pond-heron, was simply overlooked because it looked just like the commonly seen Javan Pond-heron. The same is true for the much-talked-about Crested Myna. At a glance, this recently found bird shows a lot of similarities with the White-vented Myna, which it often congregates with. The difference is that the Crested Myna has a shorter crest, clustered around its upper mandible, while the White-vented myna has a long, upright one. The Crested Myna's eyes are also more yellow, and its bill is considerably paler.
The most striking distinction between the two species is the fact that the Crested Myna's undertail coverts have black and white bars while those of the White-vented myna are all white.
One Crested Myna was seen at Bang Pu beach, Samut Prakan, in early winter last year. The bird normally resides in southern China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and in the eastern part of Laos. Its presence here might be a result of a migratory stray or a southward expansion of its habitat. Many questions abound concerning the new bird and a lot more data is needed. Of all the new visiting birds, the Chaffinch was an astonishing find. The bird was first spotted at Nong Bongkhai, Chiang Rai province in 1996. Although the finch is easily seen in Europe and has a range of habitats down to India, the fact that it came as far as Thailand stirred excitement among bird watchers. The sighting at Nong Bongkhai, however, was the only one. Since then, no Chaffinch has ever been seen again.
Although it was noted in the latest Guide to the Birds of Thailand that it was unlikely that more than a few, if any, new resident species remained to be found, the Hala-Bala wildlife sanctuary on the border of Yala and Narathiwat provinces have some surprises in store. There, such birds as the Fire-tufted barbet, Black- browed barbet and Short-toed coucal were seen for the first time in the country.
The Hala-Bala sanctuary is a large piece of evergreen forest extending across the border down to Malaysia. Although academics expected that birds typical of the Sundaic fauna Tight be found there, no report was made until 1997. Before then, the peninsula was considered a "red" area besieged by communist insurgency and the forest was left largely unsurveyed. The Hala-Bala forest was designated a wild- life sanctuary after the armed struggle calmed down. People who visited this piece of forest agreed that it is hardly matched in terms of the richness of flora and fauna. Even birds that are rarely seen anywhere or believed to be extinct, such as the Wrinkled Hornbill, still exist there. Mr. Round called the sighting of the Ratchet- tailed treepie in Kaeng Krachan national park an unexpected incident."
"For a bird that is found only in the north of Vietnam and the cast of Laos to appear in the middle of Kaeng Krachan national park in western Thailand is totally beyond anticipation," he said.
The improbability perhaps explained why many ornithologists were skeptical when the first sighting was reported. "One possible explanation about the bird's presence is that thousands of years ago, the area from Thailand to Vietnam was covered by a continuous piece of forest. Later, it was cut down, leaving islands of forest here and there. And Kaeng Krachan forest may be the only habitat fertile enough for the bird to survive," Mr. Round explained.
At present, the Ratchet-tailed treepie is seen frequently on the Phanoen Thung mountain top. Photographs also show that the bird nests and lays eggs here. No question, therefore, is raised about adding it to the list of new birds in Thailand. Perhaps, the only puzzle left for ornithologists to solve is whether the Ratchet-tailed treepie is restricted to Kaeng Krachan national park.
The list of new birds also includes those that are upgraded from being subspecies into new species, 11 of them in total. In reverse, there was one bird that got demoted. New information revealed that the Saunders' tern is not a species in itself but a subspecies of the little tern. Mr. Round explained the taxonomic in-and- cuts as follows:
"There has been an increase in research about birds, both in Thailand and internationally. Relying on appearances as a means to identify the bird is no longer sufficient. Technological advancement has enabled us to use the DNA to find genetic links between different families of birds," he said.
The DNA analysis can determine whether certain birds, which were formerly judged by their appearances as subspecies, are distinct enough genetically to be promoted into new species. Even so, the classification of birds is far from problem-free.
A dispute surrounding the Herring Gull is a case in point. This large-sized visitor is often found foraging among a company of commonly seen Brown- headed gulls.
The Herring Gull, however, is easily distinguished by its larger size and mottled brown upper parts. A few years ago, ornithologists proposed that the Herring Gull found in the oriental region be divided into four species, namely, the original Herring Gull, Heuglin's Gull, Vega Gull and Yellow- legged Gull.
The classification is made more complicated by the fact that the birds in the Herring Gull group are rarely seen in Thailand.
Moreover, most of those spotted are still dressed in the first winter plumage which look so similar identification is nearly impossible. Luckily, photographers have captured on film different kinds of birds in this group. Although no official state-merit has been issued yet, it is believed at least two species of the bird can be found in Thailand.
According to the latest update made this month, there is a total of 961 species of birds in Thailand, 36 of them were found after the publication of the Guide to the Birds of Thailand - quite a lot for an area of a little over 500,000 square kilometers. Certainly, the number will not stop there.
Bird watching is gaining more popularity every day. The Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, for example, has received reports about bird sightings from every corner of the country. The Internet is also buzzling with discussions about worthy bird watching sites and information about unusual birds that happen to pass by.
According to Mr. Round, several more species of birds are expected to occur in Thailand. He cited as an example the White-tailed bushchat, which is found in grass patches by the river in Myanmar.
Everytime a new bird is found, people get all excited. Often, it brings more new faces into bird watching. What we often forget, however, is there is no gain without loss.
While a few new birds are added into the Thai list, a great many of them are heading out of it, towards extinction. If we fail to preserve the forest which is a habitat for birds, we are sure to lose far more species than to find new ones. How sad it is to look at a picture of the White-eyed River-Martin or the graceful Sarus Crane and to find that their status is extinct.

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