12/12/2009
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A Christmas to remember...now that's magic!

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A few years ago, when I lived in Cape May, I was invited to spend Christmas in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. At the Christmas Day party each of the 24 family members and guests brought a different dish, or bottle, to the occasion. There were presents and party games, and music around the fire all afternoon, while outside thick snow made the mountains a beautiful study in white. I spent the Christmas to New Year period in an old wooden shack in the woods, where there was fresh snowfall every day, tobogganing, snowballs and snowmen. I was taken to a cave in a deep ravine with hundreds of icy stalactites clinging to the frozen roof. The whole area was sparsely populated and silence reigned in the woods. Birds were few: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, a flock of Juncos, and a couple of American Tree Sparrows were all I remember. There was the occasional, evocative sound of distant Snow Geese.

In short, it was your classic Winter Wonderland white Christmas.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco, United States (Photo: Derek Moore)

But it was not My Most Memorable Christmas by any means (note the lack of birds). For that distinction I choose my first Christmas away from home, to Thailand in 1988: about as far a cry away from the image the word 'Christmas' conjures up in our collective northern minds as you can get.

I've said on these pages before that when I joined the Civil Service in 1987 the uppermost consideration on my mind was the word flexitime. In each monthly period we were allowed to accumulate a day and a half extra holiday by working overtime, thus preserving our annual leave (for important last-minute things like twitching). By overlapping two 'flexiperiods' and taking into account the normal public service holidays and weekends, I was able to take a month's holiday in Thailand and only spend 13 days of my precious annual. I was 21; and despite the protests of colleagues (and family) it meant not a jot that I would miss out on such well-established traditions as soaking myself in booze while wearing a silly hat during the enforced frivolity of an office Christmas party. Nor was I concerned that I wouldn't be getting any presents! All I cared about was birds, birds, birds...

I'd spent a year swatting up on the colour plates in Ben King's Birds of South-East Asia — a trifle obsessively perhaps, at times. For several weeks I'd spent the evening with the book open in one corner of the room, while I sat twenty yards away, in an opposite corner, scanning the colour plates with binoculars and trying to imagine how each bird would look in the field. I say 'the colour plates in Ben King's book' because the very first bird I saw when I stepped out into the rich, humid air at Bangkok airport I did not recognize! The picture of Common Mynah, you see, is in black and white, and not on one of the plates at all, but inserted discreetly somewhere amongst the text. I was completely unaware of the species' existence and it only turned out to be one of the country's most common and widespread birds!

Common Myna
Common Myna, Bahrain (Photo: Adrian Drummond-Hill)

But the work did pay off. Forty-eight hours after our arrival (23rd December, in fact) my companions - Pete Morris (now a Birdquest tour leader) and Alan Lewis - and I had arrived at our first port of call: Khao Yai, one of the most well-known of all of Thailand's extensive network of National Parks.

We tended to bird separately, we three. As befits blokes who have gone on to accumulate 'World Lists' in excess of 6,000 species, whereas I've just recently limped past 2,000, Alan and Pete were all-action, all-dynamic 'Robobirders' who would quickly identify a bird and move on to the next. I soon realized I couldn't keep up. My more contemplative approach led me to want to spend as much time taking in my surroundings and enjoying each bird thoroughly, while they blazed off along the trail. Within five minutes of our arrival at Khao Yai they were gone, blurting out something about Brown Flycatcher and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo along the way. I stopped to enjoy 10 minutes of the former, didn't see the latter, and then I was on my own.

Brown Flycatcher
Brown Flycatcher, Thailand (Photo: Jack Hill)

I remember that once inside the forest it was an excruciating hour before I saw a single bird. Tropical forest birding, I was in the process of learning, can frequently be like that. At last I got on to a small reddish-brown bird with a prominent eye, and an even more prominent bill. It was skulking in the undergrowth, tossing leaves aside with an audible swish. Instantly, I had the most remarkable sensation of a rush of colour plates full of birds, whizzing through my mind's eye like the fruit on a one-armed bandit. A whole twelve months' worth of study condensed into a long second, stopping abruptly...at Abbot's Babbler, the correct answer. Jackpot. At that moment I knew I had truly arrived.

Over the next 36 hours, while Pete and Alan burned up the forest I sloped around on my own, steadily accumulating a satisfying list of birds. As many BirdGuides readers may know, the beauty of Thailand as a first-time overseas birding destination for us Brits is that it combines many exotic southeast Asian species alongside a good number of wintering Siberian migrants, birds we consider to be mouth-watering rarities here in the West. In the latter category I saw several Arctic, Radde's, Two-barred Greenish and Thick-billed Warblers (plus Eye-browed Thrush); while in the former: various hornbills, babblers, barbets and laughingthrushes.

Eyebrowed Thrush
Eyebrowed Thrush, China (Photo: Mike Parker)

Of course, one of the primary bird families that jump out of any field guide to birds of southeast Asia is the pittas, and talking to friends who have been and seen only adds to the desire to see one for yourself. Blue Pitta is the bird to see at Khao Yai —  Eared Pitta is present but pretty rare — and I was pleased to be the second of our group to find my own, Alan having dipped on the one Pete found first. My initial view was distant and brief, no more than ten seconds at most, but my heart beat thunderously in my chest when I first saw it, and my arms and legs trembled with that oh-so-rare excitement during the period of observation. Once I'd lost it through the forest I took a moment to catch my breath, steady myself against a tree, and let out an exultant 'Hurrah' of approval. Or words to that effect. More please...

Christmas Day. I don't think there was a moment on this day when I wasn't aware of the date and what, for me, was quite a momentous occasion: my first Christmas Day away from home. I woke in my sleeping bag in the forest to find memories of Christmas past swimming into mind: my brother and I as 10-year-olds opening our presents on The Big Day; my grandmother getting out the Christmas decorations: the reindeers, the Santas, the angel chimes, the awfully embarrassing Christmassy things I made in school aged six and seven that were still being recycled ten years later; Christmas dinner, Christmas crackers, Christmas pud, Christmas telly...all the memories of Christmas merged into one. How magic it all used to seem back then. Even the morning after the night before I found it wasn't Santa and Rudolph who came down the chimney and left us presents and drank the sherry and ate the Christmas cake, I still remember thinking Christmas Day was magic and it was very important to try and keep it that way.

So why had I become such a grumpy Ebenezer in the interim years of my late teens? How come in my early twenties I could so casually turn my back on all things festive? Well it was too late to turn back now; the best I could do was make the most of today and see if the Christmas spirits could produce some magic for me even this far away from home. Back when I believed in Christmas, the magic all seem so real. If only I could recapture some of that belief for just this one day? And so I determined to make the most of every minute on this particular Christmas Day. And to keep myself open to the possibility of something magical happening. And to remember as much detail of the day for as long as I possibly could. And that is why, almost twenty years later, I am able to recall the special highlights of what I saw on that day with no reference to a notebook at all. And only the minimum of 'artistic licence', I promise you!

I can't remember whether or not I wished Pete and Alan 'Happy Christmas' but if I did they probably just grunted in reply as they sped off through the trees. There was no breakfast. It was our third day in Khao Yai and already something of a routine was becoming established: as I say, we were birding separately, but if previous form were to go by we would probably all end up at the Park restaurant for lunch, probably eating a pineapple or a bit of fried rice at most. No turkey or ham or Brussels sprouts here, I'm afraid.

Brown Shrike
Brown Shrike, Thailand (Photo: Richard Crossen)

My morning began with the usual Brown Flycatcher and Brown Shrike by the entrance gates to the forest. I spent a few minutes taking another look at each. Two Yellow-browed Warblers calling persistently above me eventually persuaded me to look up and I saw a Red-breasted Flycatcher flit out into the clearing. A couple of slightly comical-looking Oriental Pied Hornbills loped gently across the paddock with a steady, flapping flight.

Oriental Pied Hornbill
Oriental Pied Hornbill, Thailand (Photo: Howard Broughton)

My one main target species for this Christmas morning was a bird I'd expected to encounter much earlier. Along with the pittas, the forktails stood out for me as another outstanding southeast Asian family when I first browsed the Field Guide. Somewhat wagtail-like in appearance, the Forktails are a small, sharply marked family of just seven distinctly different patterned species. They frequent fast-running rivers, particularly at elevation, and the one I expected to see at Khao Yai was the Slaty-backed Forktail. The previous day I'd spent an hour tracking down a bird in dense ravines with a sharp call that seemed to fit the bill...only to pin it down and find it was a Grey Wagtail! When I concentrated on the more open stretch of river within the forest this morning it took just ten minutes to find a pair of remarkably handsome, showy, black-and-white (and grey) Slaty-backed Forktails. Another 'Hurrah' moment, and one deserving of an extension...a half-hour sit and study, and a paying of homage to a much-looked-forward-to bird.

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There were other good birds in the forest this morning, though few I hadn't seen already. I'll leave the details out to concentrate on the events of the afternoon.

I returned to the HQ just before midday feeling suitably pleased with my morning's birding. An old Thai guy was already sat in one corner of the restaurant with half a bottle of whisky in front of him. He beckoned me over. He'd done this on the two previous days when all three of us had been sitting together and we'd politely declined his company. On my own, I decided to accept. It was Christmas after all...though in Thailand, a largely Buddhist country, you'd never know it.

My toast to the Christmas spirits was brief and perfunctory. The whisky was quite awful and, besides, the old boy had tipped it into a big glass of ice, one of the main things we'd been warned to avoid if we wanted to preserve our health. Christmas lunch, I remember this well — because it tickled me to tell the folks in the office back home — was cow pat (or chicken fried rice, to give khao pat its proper English translation). Chances were it would be the same again for dinner that night. No crackers, no silly hats, no awful jokes, no Christmas pud to follow.

Pete and Alan were back from their forays not long after me. Alan had interesting news. It had taken him until the third morning to finally see his Blue Pitta, yet the one he'd discovered had atoned for the delay. He described it as having appeared in a small but discernible 'arena' deep in the forest, about two miles in from the main road. He'd seen Pete in the forest; Pete had gone back there with him an hour or so later, and within five minutes the pitta had come in and sat in the same spot. What's more, said Alan, this same arena had yielded several other much-sought-after birds in the hour he'd spent there. The pitta had remained in view for three quarters of that hour, and had been joined at one point by a Siberian Blue Robin, a White-rumped Shama, and a pair of Puff-throated Babblers — the last a skulking forest crippler which I still hadn't encountered myself.

Siberian Blue Robin
Siberian Blue Robin, Thailand (Photo: Paul Pearson)

It took me about two hours to get to the spot Alan had indicated. In the days before GPS it was quite a feat to find the same place twice in a forest that, to all intents and purposes, looked much the same for miles at a stretch: trees and dense undergrowth as far as the eye could see. I suspected I might be nearing the spot when I came across my first two Puff-throated Babblers feeding unobtrusively on the path right in front of me. Like anything else I'd seen so far with the word 'babbler' in its name, these birds were cripplers. Though not potential Western Pally vagrants — like, say, the Thick-billed Warblers or the Sibe Blue Robins — there was still something semi-familiar (something a bit Dunnock-like) that made it seem they wouldn't look quite so out of place on a Scottish offshore island or hiding beneath Pittosporum on the Scillies. I'd noticed already that anything that was on the ground raking through the leaf-litter — such as our Blackbirds would be doing back home — was alright with me; and these birds were doing just that. Small and neat with chestnut caps, nice white throats, and blurred streaking on the underparts, the two shuffled along in front of me until I noticed they had guided me to the vague, almost completely concealed turn off the path that Alan had described.

Puff-throated Babbler
Puff-throated Babbler, Thailand (Photo: Howard Broughton)

I took up a position in the forest out of sight behind a huge old tree trunk, but I hardly need have bothered. As I looked out I saw, already in place, this fantastic female Blue Pitta sitting motionless, barely ten yards in front of me. In fact I saw the pitta even before I'd seen the flat, slightly hollowed out area Alan had been talking about. Contained within the hollow, as he'd mentioned, was a thick old log about three feet long. The pitta was sitting at one end of the log when I first saw it. At the other end of the log was the female Siberian Blue Robin, equally motionless, equally crippling. Like my one previous pitta sighting, views of Blue Robin so far had been somewhat flitting. The idea of a couple of birds sat on a log on Christmas Day was not lost on me. And then suddenly there was this stunning flash of red, black and white...and there was my first White-rumped Shama sat right in the middle of the log, directly between the pitta and the robin!

White-rumped Shama
White-rumped Shama, Thailand (Photo: Howard Broughton)

This last bird disappeared quite quickly, returning twice more at 15-minute intervals. But the pitta and the robin hung on indefinitely, remaining in sight constantly for a period of one hour, allowing me the unexpected luxury of being the one to have to make the decision to move off myself. I'm sure they knew I was there. After five minutes of careful viewing from behind my tree I felt it was time to emerge and test the limits with the two birds. I needed a more comfortable position if I was going to study them for longer.

Every now and again, when I'm out searching for birds, I like to stop moving around and spend time lingering next to a particular bird, or in this case two. It's a kind of meditation, if you like. In fact, years later, when I was travelling the Himalayas and studied a bit about meditation, I realized that this birding thing we do is just the kind of thing that was described by ancient 'seers' to achieve an enlightened state of being. Here I now sat with my back to the tree for an hour, propping my elbows on my knees, the better to steady my binoculars as I moved back and forth from robin to pitta, from pitta to robin. While it's true both birds were females of their species, this hardly detracted from the occasion one iota. In fact, in the case of the Blue Robin, the female's scaled underparts and brown upperparts almost led to the sense of belief that I could be watching this bird at Minsmere, or on Fair Isle, say. With the Blue Pitta, the female may lack the brilliant blue mantle of the male, but its tail is the same colour — a dazzling ultramarine — and the overall pattern of the thick black eye-stripe bordered by rich buff and culminating in a fiery orange nape were similar to the male. The underparts were heavily barred black-brown on a buff background.

These two birds sitting together seemed to epitomize the principal attraction that brought me to Thailand — that combination of a rainforest exotic with a Western Palaearctic mega rarity that had strayed sufficiently westwards on at least one occasion to suggest, tantalizingly, it might just do it again. That brief moment of illumination I'd had with the Abbot's Babbler — that this is what I'd been looking forward to for twelve months — was spread out and turned into something much more protracted.

By now, I have to say, I was feeling pretty scruffy. Five days' heavy birding in Thailand without a shower or a change of clothes was not Christmas at home with a new jumper from granny and a dozen pairs of nice, clean, fresh socks from brother. Nevertheless, the chafing thighs, the beginnings of trench foot, the mysterious itch developing under my armpits (which I later found out was a tick) were, almost perversely, masochistically, an enhancement to the scene of this state of 'oneness' I'd entered into with these excellent birds. 'Jungle medals' I called them. Discomfort, I find, is not essential to an enjoyment of birding, but it does add spice to the memory.

On approximately my third turn to view the pitta I moved on from studying its feathers and reached a rictal bristle level of intimacy: I watched the robin blink, then disgorge a tiny food pellet, and all seemed well with the world. I'd no real idea what time it was because I didn't have a watch. But it seemed like time to move on. All the more reason to resist and hang on another five minutes therefore. A magical moment like this, with two renowned skulkers out in full view, was one not likely to be repeated too often. I still felt a teensy touch of guilt as I upped and walked away, glancing back over my shoulder from time to time until both birds were completely out of sight.

I met Pete and Alan on my way back to camp. They were coming for another look at the 'arena'. They'd just seen an Orange-headed Ground Thrush by a small stream crossing the trail and I was hungry for a look at that. How quickly as birders — particularly in an overseas environment — we are prone to asking: "Right, what's next?"...

I ended up seeing not one, but two Orange-headed Ground Thrushes, skulking silently at the edge of the forest trail. What cripplers! Using the word 'crippler' in a birding context is perhaps a bit like using the words 'world class' in a sporting context — a bit over-used — but I'm sorry, it happened to me over and over again this afternoon. In this illuminated mental state I was in, suddenly to see this bright orange thrush with a beautiful blue-grey back emerge from the dark of the forest was a wonder to behold. And for it to hang around for 15 minutes, allowing me to approach it as closely as I liked, was just fantastic. Like the pittas and the babblers — again, like our Blackbirds back home — my first Orange-headed Ground Thrush was carefully working its way through the thick carpet of leaf litter on the floor of this outstanding forest. I don't think I'd noticed until now all the different plays of light existing within the trees. Sometimes the bird would hop into a dense, black ravine where the sunlight was completely excluded, only for it to re-emerge, beautifully backlit, in a sun-dappled area of fresh green. Again, just me and the bird. And the enchanting sound of trickling water.

Between my two separate views of Orange-headed Ground Thrush came an unexpected bonus — a bird I was able to grip Pete and Alan off with when I met them at dusk, an hour later. In fact, if I remember rightly, I think it took Alan two years and two more separate trips before he finally caught up with Banded Kingfisher somewhere in Malaysia. It wasn't often I got one up on him and I enjoyed this all the more for having done so! Up until this moment I'd always seen Kingfishers darting about somewhere out in the open. This was my first what you'd call 'forest kingfisher'. There was — as alluded to in the previous paragraph — a thin trickle of water running through this section of the forest that might barely be called a stream. I suspect my Banded Kingfisher sighting might have had something to do with that, but I can't be sure. My experience of it was watching it sitting motionless (except for a deliberate, slow raising and lowering of the tail) midway up a large tree, though as I was on a bit of a rise in the path myself, I was practically at eye-level with it.

Banded Kingfisher
Banded Kingfisher, Thailand (Photo: Howard Broughton)

Once again, that marvellous recognition that the bird knows quite well I'm there watching it, yet it's quite happy to sit awhile and show off. It was another female — which was fine — because instead of the male's shiny blue upperparts, it had a rich, orangey, tiger-striped mantle, with the bars (or bands) extending slightly to the underparts. It had a large reddish bill and this long, but thin, heavily barred tail which it moved in that seemingly involuntary way of a number of species, almost as though it doesn't belong to the thing sitting otherwise perfectly still. Another 15 minutes of uninterrupted wonder to add to the thrill of the day.

And that was it, as I hauled my glowing, exhausted body back to camp for dusk and some more Christmas cowpat. And if you can believe me when I tell you that I've constructed three quarters of this piece from memory, then my Christmas gifts from 1988 have lasted much longer than your average Terry's chocolate orange, have they not, and they didn't even require the needless expense of Christmas wrapping paper. You can dismiss it as coincidence if you like, that such genuinely memorable events occurred on Christmas afternoon, but it seems to me that the difference between magic and the mundane is sometimes only a thin line that depends on which label we ourselves choose to attach to our experiences. Since that day I've had some good and some not-so-good Christmases, but I've certainly never had one better.

Written by: Graham Gordon