The Harriers’ Mecca

On the evening of 29th and 30th March, I paid visits to the amazing harriers roost at Nong Lom, Chiang Rai. I’ve visited the site several times before but have only observed the harriers from afar. This time, I set up a hide at one of their resting areas where they gather at dusk before flying into the roost which is located deep in the heart of the wetland. It was quite hard to believe that there would be any harrier coming to this area because it was located right next to the house of a local farmer!

In order to make sure that I’d be able to get some photos of the harriers, I had to be there at the site at least one hour before 6 pm, which was the time that they normally showed up. The site is a large open ground covered with Tropical Carpet Grass and surrounded by wetlands and tall scrubs. I chose to set up a hide in front of the scrubs right next to where I was told that the harriers would come and perch. After putting up the hide, I had to cover it with branches and leaves to camouflage as much as I could because these birds are very shy and sensitive to movements and unfamiliar objects.

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This was how the site looked like. The open area on the right was where the harriers came and rested. I chose to set up the hide among the scrubs, so it could better camouflage. Beyond the end of the open ground is the reed bed where the harriers roost.

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The first few harriers showed up exactly around 6 pm. They’d come flying in from various directions and perch on the far end of the open ground away from where I was hiding. The majority would come around 6:30 pm and the time between 6:30-7:00 pm would be the peak for photography as 20-30 harriers would come and perch all over the open ground!

Almost all of them were Pied Harriers, mainly juveniles and adult males. Several Eastern Marsh Harriers also joined in as well. Watching from the hide is not the best way to observe the species though, since the views are mostly blocked. When observing from afar, Hen Harrier and Western Marsh Harrier can also be seen occasionally as well.

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Female Pied Harrier

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It was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by so many harriers at once and at extremely close range. The time before the harriers started to arrive was extremely silent and dark. Then out of the blue, these majestic birds just showed up and came perching all around me. They would stay on the ground, mainly just standing and looking at each other, or preen a little bit then fly back into the roost altogether when it got completely dark.

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Male and female Pied Harrier

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Juvenile male Pied Harrier

The peak number of harriers recorded at this roost was over 400, making it surely the largest harrier roost in Thailand and probably South-East Asia. As mentioned earlier, most of them are Pied Harriers followed by Eastern Marsh Harriers. The interesting thing is that adult male Pied Harriers are very numerous unlike other parts of Thailand southward, where most records are either juvenile or female.

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Second year male Eastern Marsh Harrier

Almost all of the juvenile harriers seen during my visit were in their transitional plumage; from juvenile to adult. The above second year male Eastern Marsh Harrier got me extremely confused as I first thought it was an adult female Pied Harrier at first glance, but then its striking black cap and black feathers on the upperwing coverts which are characteristics of male bird struck me. It took me a while to realise that it’s actually a male Eastern Marsh Harrier moulting out of juvenile plumage.

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Second year male Pied Harrier(?); note black feathers on face and neck sides

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Second year male Pied Harrier

It was very interesting to see juvenile birds in various stage of moult. Most of them were pretty straightforward for identification as they showed signs of adult feathers which could be used to indicate both species and sex, but some were also very tricky.

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Juvenile Pied Harrier

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It might seem easy to photograph these birds, but in fact, it was quite difficult. The actual lighting was extremely dark and I had to manually focus from the live view mode. Otherwise it was terribly difficult for the camera to automatically focus at the birds.

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Probably third year female Eastern Marsh Harrier

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A very dark juvenile Pied Harrier (left) with the female Eastern Marsh Harrier (right)

The comparison shot above showing a juvenile Pied Harrier and a female Eastern Marsh Harrier clearly depicts how the 2 species differ in size and structure. Pied Harrier seems to be slimmer, more delicately built and slightly smaller.

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A dark juvenile Pied Harrier

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Adult male Pied Harrier UNCROPPED! FYI, I used a 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter.

The harriers came perching closer and closer to the hide as it got darker. Finally, when it was so dark that I had to push the ISO up to 3200 which is the highest for my camera (Canon 550D), I could fill the whole frame with a single bird. Unfortunately, the quality of the photos taken with ISO3200 is so bad that I just can’t do anything much with them apart from being the record shots for my memory.

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