The Firethroat Tetralogy (1): 4-5 March 2015

Last Christmas, my friend Woraphot Bunkhwamdi made a big headline for birders in Thailand; he found what was then assumed to be a first-winter male Firethroat (Calliope pectardens) at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, Chiang Rai. Since there’s a big gap of knowledge about female and immature East Asian robins like Blackthroat, Firethroat and Rufous-headed Robin, we were not 100% sure about its identity, but experts including Phil Round and Andy Pierce who have ringed Firethroats in Bangladesh commented that it was most likely a Firethroat due to its buffish underparts including undertail coverts. If it really is a Firethroat, it would be the first record for Thailand.

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However, as the news broke out, it was later revealed that the bird was actually first seen and photographed by Suwanna Mookachonpan on 7 December 2014 but thought to be an odd Siberian Blue Robin despite the obvious white patch on tail base and dark coloured legs. Woraphot then caught and ringed the bird. Measurements seemed to fit well with Firethroat even though the differences are minimal between Firethroat and Blackthroat.

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Even though Firethroat is not considered to be as globally threatened as its close relative, Blackthroat which is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, it is considered to be Near Threatened due to habitat loss in its breeding ground in south China and is deemed to be very rare elsewhere. In south-east Asia, it was recorded from north Myanmar while majority of the population spend winter in Bangladesh and north-east India.

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Male Siberian Rubythroat staying in the same area as the Firethroat

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First-winter male Firethroat

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I made my first visit to Nam Kham to twitch for this rarity on the very first day of 2015. The bird was reported to be coming to an open area in front of the “Cettia Hide” located among the dense reed bed every morning. I arrived at the place just a little after 7am and went into the hide. About an hour and half as passed and there was no sign of the bird, I then left to join a group of birders who hired a boat to go around Chiang Saen Lake looking for ducks instead.

On the next morning, I arrived at Nam Kham around 6am and it was still completely dark. I went into the hide before the first ray of sunlight broke out. At 6.45, there it was, a darkish robin flew in from behind and dropped right in the middle of the open area in front of the hide! It was still very dark and I could barely fire a shot. The bird hopped around the open area for about a minute then flew out. It later came back again after a while. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to be slightly shy and would come around just a few metres from the hide but it was too dark for my camera to get a good shot.

My friends who were waiting outside the hide told me that it was also seen hopping along the open trail near the hide, so I came out and waited outside instead. At one point, the bird came perching just a few metres from where I was sitting but it was deep inside the bush so I could barely see it, but it was giving its loud alarming whistles before flying across the open trail and back to the hide. That was all for my first encounter with the Firethroat; without a single acceptable shot.

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I then returned to Nam Kham Nature Reserve again on 4-5 March 2015 hoping to get better views of the bird, and of course, to get some photos of it. Since the area also holds a male Siberian Rubythroat, a bird which often dominates the area once you start giving out meal worms, Dr. Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, the owner of Nam Kham Nature Reserve, kindly asked birders not to use meal worms at the hide fearing that the rubythroat would chase the Firethroat away. That was the case for the male White-tailed Rubythroat, another rarity and an icon of the nature reserve, which was found at the very same hide. People started to put out meal worms hoping to attract it, instead, it turned out that the Siberian Rubythroat became dominant over the area and chased away any bird that came close, not only the White-tailed Rubythroat.

We didn’t want the same thing to happen again, so the use of meal worms was kindly prohibited. However, we couldn’t control everyone. Meal worms seemed to have been used from time to time making both the Firethroat and rubythroat become more showy and visit the hide much more often than on my first visit. Good thing about it was that the amount and frequency of meal worms being put out were not too much and not too often, so the rubythroat didn’t really dominate the area like it did when meal worms were not controlled. Needless to say, I got much better photos of the Firethroat than on my last visit.

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Instead of coming to the hide even before sunrise like it did during the New Year, the Firethroat first made its appearance around 10am when the light was good enough to get some nice shots. It also stayed around longer and went back and forth several times before disappearing around noon. The Siberian Rubythroat was also seen coming to the hide frequently but didn’t seem to be very dominant. At one point, it was nearly chased by the Firethroat. That was interesting since the Firethroat is actually slightly smaller.

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On 5 March, I visited the hide around 2pm since there was pretty much nowhere else to go under the killing sun. Interestingly, the temperature inside the hide was quite cool. I lied around on the cool ground inside the hide for a while and was disturbed by the appearance of the Firethroat which came out to sunbathe! It sat still under the sun with its body feathers all fluffed up and wings and tail all spread. The moment was just magical. It sunbathed for over 5 minutes before disappearing into the bush.

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Another interesting behaviour of the Firethroat that I observed during my second visit was that it already started singing. Occasionally, it would perch on low branches and started to sing its subtle warbling song softly. I believe it would sing more loudly once it goes back to the breeding ground. It’s amazing to see how birds, particularly robins and chats, adjust the loudness of its voice while singing. I’ve also observed Daurian Redstarts singing softly during winter and much louder in spring.

Overall, it was a very successful visit and I was pleased to get these shots of the Firethroat. At that time, I thought I wouldn’t have to come back to Nam Kham again since I was pretty much satisfied with the results, but I did go back, and not just once but thrice! More to be explained in the next  3 posts.

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