The Acrocephalus Issue

When talking about Little Brown Jobs (those small brownish birds that are difficult to identify), most birders in Thailand would immediately think of Phylloscopus warblers simply because there are so many of them. But for me, I’d say there are birds that are even more frightening to identify, the Acrocephalus warblers!


Oriental Reed Warbler is the commonest and most widespread reed warbler in Thailand.


Mostly seen foraging along scrubs and grassy area near water.



Frequents perching on open branches to dry itself in the morning. Note whitish tips to the tail feathers.


Can be quite showy and perches on grass tops for a look out or to sing


Note long and pointed primary projections


Often shows hint of greyish streaking on breast (more prominent in spring)

There are 8 species of Acrocephalus warblers, generally called “reed warblers”, in Thailand. They can be divided into 2 main groups, the large and the small sized reed warblers. Only 2 species are considered as large reed warblers; the Oriental Reed Warbler and the Clamorous Reed Warbler. These two are approximately 20 cm in length or about the size of a bulbul. The latter is an extremely rare vagrant OR a highly overlooked species in Thailand with very few accepted records, while the former is the commonest and most widespread reed warbler in the country. The identification of these two species is extremely challenging (definitely more challenging than what seems on the guide books!).


Clamorous Reed Warbler is a rare vagrant or seriously overlooked species in Thailand.


It resembles Oriental Reed Warbler in almost every aspect except for the slightly slimmer bill and shorter primary projections.


Supercilium is often weaker than in Oriental and most individuals lack whitish tail tips (though can appear in some odd birds)


At a glance, the Clamorous Reed Warbler looks slimmer (and sometimes longer)-billed and shorter-winged than Oriental Reed Warbler


Note short primary projections and the lack of whitish tail tips

I find the most reliable characteristics which are useful for field identification between Oriental and Clamorous Reed Warbler include bill shape and the length of primary projections. Clamorous often strikes as being a large reed warbler with very slender and pointed bill, whereas Oriental has a noticeably thicker and stronger bill. Primary projections are also shorter and less pointed in Clamorous than in Oriental. Most Clamorous Reed Warblers also lack the whitish tips to tail feathers even in fresh plumage, but some odd birds can have this characteristic similar to Oriental, so it’s probably not as reliable as the former two characteristics.


Among the small-sized reed warblers, Black-browed Reed Warbler is the commonest species.


It’s about the same size and at times can resemble a Phylloscopus warbler like Dusky Warbler or Radde’s Warbler.


Most of the time, the black eyebrows are thick and obvious enough to separate it from other similar species.


But sometimes the black eyebrow can appear faint and thin.


Often shows dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter


Worn individual can appear very pale sandy-brown

So what about the other 6 species of reed warblers in Thailand? They are all small-sized, approximately about the same size as a sparrow, or just a little larger than most Phylloscopus warblers. The commonest and most widespread species among these small-sized reed warblers is the Black-browed Reed Warbler.

With a prominent black eyebrow over the pale supercilium, you might think that it’s always straightforward to identify this species. Most of the time, it is indeed, but every once in a while, you come across odd individuals that look like it might not be a Black-browed Reed Warbler.


Manchurian Reed Warbler is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. I photographed this bird in my local patch in Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai on 18 September 2004. It is still by far the only record of this species in the north.


Structurally, it looks longer-billed and longer-tailed than Black-browed Reed Warbler


Plumage is often warm rufous-brown throughout winter. Note different structure compared to Black-browed.



Very prominent supercilium which gets narrower behind the eye and thin black eyebrow


Lack dark tip to lower mandible during winter

The species that is mostly confused with Black-browed Reed Warbler is the globally threatened Manchurian Reed Warbler (or White-browed Reed Warbler by BirdLife). It is a  range-restricted breeder in China that winters in South-East Asia. In Thailand, it is known to be a passage migrant in northern and central parts of the country and spend the winter along the eastern coast of southern Thailand. Recently, it was found to be wintering in Malaysia and Cambodia as well.

When compared to Black-browed, the Manchurian Reed Warbler generally has a different structure by having longer tail and longer bill. The lower mandible also lacks dark tip during winter unlike in Black-browed. The dark bill tip will only develop in spring and summer. Overall plumage is also warmer and more rufous-tinged similar to Paddyfield Warbler, which was once treated as conspecific. The black eyebrow is often faint and thin with the pale supercilium being narrower at rear unlike in Black-browed Reed Warbler which gets broader behind the eye.

Note: Beware that some Black-browed Reed Warblers can also show faint/thin black eyebrows too. More photos and identification notes on Manchurian/Black-browed Reed Warblers can be read from Dave Bakewell’s post here.


Paddyfield Warbler is a rare winter visitor to small areas of northern Thailand.


This adult bird was ringed at Nam Kham Nature Reserve in February 2014 and was found to be a regular visitor at the Rubythroat Hide in the winter of 2015/2016.



Structurally resembles Black-browed Reed Warbler. Bill is rather short and shows prominent dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter.


Plumage is often warm rufescent-brown with rather short primary projection

Things get even more confusing with the small-sized reed warblers that lack black eyebrows. Let’s start with the Paddyfield Warbler, a bird that is widespread across Europe and Asia but is a rare winter visitor to Thailand. Once it was treated as the same species as the Manchurian Reed Warbler and it was no surprise. They actually share many similarities like warm rufescent-brown plumage and very similar wing formula and length of primary projections. Most Paddyfield Warblers show hints of dark eyebrow over the pale supercilium too, but never as pronounced as in Manchurian/Black-browed Reed Warblers. However, unlike in Manchurian Reed Warbler, the Paddyfield Warbler always shows dark tip to lower mandible throughout winter. The bill is also shorter and more pointy at tip than in Manchurian. In Thailand, it can only be found at several locations in northern part of the country including Nam Kham Nature Reserve in Chiang Rai where these photos were taken.


Blunt-winged Warbler is one of the trickiest birds to see and to identify.


It’s one the small-sized reed warblers that lack any trace of the dark eyebrow.


I probably wouldn’t be able to identify this bird without this lucky, even though blurry, flight shot that shows the wing formula.



Note how P1 is obviously longer than primary covert


Generally, it’s a long-tailed reed warbler with short supercilium.

The most challenging group of all reed warblers, and probably all Little Brown Jobs in Thailand, is the small-sized Acrocephalus warbler without dark eyebrows. There are 3 species in this group for Thailand; the Blunt-winged Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Large-billed Reed Warbler. All three species share some very similar characteristics including the lack of dark eyebrow, longish bill and rather weak supercilium making them look quite plain-faced.

The commonest and most widespread species among the three is the Blunt-winged Warbler. It winters in wetlands throughout northern and central Thailand. Despite its abundance, it’s never easy to find one because of its extremely secretive behaviour. Even if you finally manage to see one, the bigger question is how to identify it! It’s almost impossible to identify these small-sized and plain-faced reed warblers without seeing the wing formulae.


Left: Blyth’s Reed Warbler; Right: Blunt-winged Warbler


Note the short and blunt primary projections as suggested by the name in Blunt-winged Warbler (left) compared to Blyth’s Reed Warbler (right).


The long P1 which extends beyond primary coverts is another main ID feature for Blunt-winged Warbler.


Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a rare winter visitor in Thailand. Note the much shorter P1 which doesn’t extend beyond primary coverts and longer and more pointed primary projections than in Blunt-winged Warbler.


Primary projections are longer and more pointed than in Blunt-winged Warbler.


Blyth’s Reed Wabler (left) tends to have colder and often more grey-tinged plumage than in Blunt-winged Warbler (right). The supercilium is also more obscured in Blyth’s Reed Warbler.


Blunt-winged Warbler in profile; note rather warm brown plumage and short but distinct supercilium.


Blyth’s Reed Warbler in profile; note cold greyish-brown plumage and less prominent supercilium


When seen in the field, Blyth’s Reed Warbler often has a long-billed and short-tailed impression.

The Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a rare winter visitor that has only been recorded several times at 2 different locations in Thailand; i.e. Nam Kham Nature Reserve in Chiang Rai and Bung Boraphet in Nakhon Sawan. Compared to the Blunt-winged Warbler, it generally has colder and more greyish-tinged plumage with much longer primary projections and slightly shorter tail. Its P1 is also shorter and doesn’t markedly extend beyond primary coverts unlike in Blunt-winged Warbler. It also usually prefers dryer habitats like shrubs and forest edge near wetlands, while Blunt-winged Warbler is a strictly wetland species that can be found only in reed beds.

Finally, the most challenging identification among all reed warblers is between the Blyth’s and Large-billed Reed Warbler. The Large-billed Reed Warbler is an extremely rare and little known species which has only been recently rediscovered in 2006 by Philip Round at Laem Phak Bia in Phetchaburi and followed by another record from Nam Kham Nature Reserve in 2008. It has also been recorded several times at Bung Boraphet afterwards. Generally, it has longer bill and warmer tone to the plumage than in Blyth’s Reed Warbler, but these two species can overlap in almost every morphological aspect. There was even a bird caught at Nam Kham Nature Reserve that couldn’t be identified even in hand, and DNA test was required. In the end, it turned out to be a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Because of all the difficulties, I’m not going to touch on how to identify these two in the field and I’ll leave this post with a photo of a Large-billed Reed Warbler from Nam Kham Nature Reserve instead.


The second record of Large-billed Reed Warbler in Thailand from Nam Kham Nature Reserve. Photo by Woraphot Bunkhwamdi.

The Firethroat Tetralogy (4): 22 April 2015

It’s been a long while since the last post for this series, so here’s the final post. After my last 4 attempts to visit the male Firethroat at Nam Kham Nature Reserve, little did I know that I’d be heading for the fifth one! After coming back from my trip to Nam Kham on 12 April, photos of the bird kept coming up daily on the internet showing continuous moulting progress. By 19 April, the bird seemed to have fully completed its moult into its first breeding plumage (or first-summer). Without conscious, I had already booked another flight to the north!


Huge flock of Asian Openbills roosting at Nam Kham Nature Reserve


Just about 10 years ago, there was completely no Asian Openbill in northern Thailand.


A view from the Cettia Hide where the male Firethroat showed up


Waiting for the bird to show up in the middle open area

By the morning of 22 April, I found myself arriving at Nam Kham Nature Reserve as early as 6AM. It was a very quiet and peaceful morning. There was no one to be seen but hundreds, maybe thousands of Asian Openbills were roosting on large bare trees all around the reserve. They noisily flushed with their heavy wing beats as I walked in along the narrow path through the tall reed bed leading to the Cettia hide where the male Firethroat had been staying.

I waited and waited inside the dark hide, listening to songs of birds which were starting to become more lively. There was, however, no song of the Firethroat to be heard! I began to feel very frustrated since the bird was very actively singing on my last visit. It’d be a huge waste of time and money, if the bird doesn’t show up. The bird still didn’t show up at 7:30AM when I checked for the time. I continued to wait and wait. Then around 8AM, I spotted something glowing and moving in the dark reeds in front of the hide. There it was, my only target of the trip! Needless to say how relieved I was as I watched the bird with its fiery throat and breast hopping out into the open as it often did to look for food.


One of the first views I had of male Firethroat as it hopped out from the dark reed bed into the open ground in front of the hide.


As usual, it came hopping really close to the hide.



It’s certainly one of the best looking birds in the world!

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At times, it’d come so close to the hide that it almost filled the frame completely.

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I like how this shot actually shows the vegetation in the habitat where the bird was found.

After the first round, it disappeared for about 10 minutes then showed up again in the same manner. It kept coming back and forth like this for every 10 minutes or so until around 10AM when it began to show up less frequently. It would either show up by hopping out from the dark reed bed or flying in from behind the hide. The after arriving at the hide, it would hop around the open area with a small waterhole in front of the hide. At times, it would come really close to the hide and wouldn’t mind the shutter sound at all.


Showing the white patch at tail base, a characteristic found in Firethroat and Blackthroat

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The white neck patch can be very prominent when the bird stretches its neck.


Standing up straight when curious

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First-summer bird still retains the brownish juvenile wing feathers. Adult male would have the same shade of bluish-grey wing as the back and crown.

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The orange throat and breast was almost glowing in the dark habitat where it lived.

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No need to say how happy and satisfied I was while sitting alone in the hide watching and photographing this rare beauty for hours. Then around 10:30AM, two other birders arrived. It was getting brighter and also hotter and the bird began to disappear for a longer period. But then it came back and gave us a few more shows until I left around noon for lunch.


Finally, it began to sing its unique melodious song.

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Also perching on low branches around the hide


Hard to find a bird to beat its colour!


It was more actively singing from 10:30-12:00 before I left.

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Light became very strong around noon making the photos highly contrasted.

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Showing the back side

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A kind of damselfly seen perching close to the Firethroat

Pardon me if this post contains way too many photos of the same bird, but I really couldn’t resist taking loads of photos of this wonderful bird. No one knows when will it show up in Thailand (and in full breeding plumage like this) again, so it’s better to take as many photos as I could!

After leaving the nature reserve for lunch, I drove back to Chiang Mai and took a flight back to Bangkok. On the following day, another group of birders went up to look for the bird but turned out that the bird had already left! It didn’t show up at all from 6AM to 6PM. The means I was one of the last persons to see the bird before it left. I felt super lucky for a moment but then also felt sorry for the poor guys. I really hope it would come back again to Nam Kham in the upcoming winter.


To finish this post, here’s a really nice image showing the same bird from the very first day it was discovered (7 December 2014) until the last day before it left (22 April 2015). The original image was uploaded by the official Nam Kham Nature Reserve facebook page. It’s amazing to see such transformation and certainly another reason to feel astonished by nature’s wonders.

The Firethroat Tetralogy (3): 12 April 2015

After my third visit to see the male Firethroat at Nam Kham on 4-5 April, people continued to visit the bird daily and witnessed the rapid change of the plumage. The fiery feathers on throat and breast seemed to develop very quickly each day, as well as the solid black face and breast sides. I just couldn’t help planning another trip to catch up with its new look. Finally, the date was set for my 4th trip to Chiang Saen!

On 12 April, my friends and I left Chiang Mai around 3:30am. We arrived in Chiang Rai around 6am and were welcomed with extremely heavy rain. It was raining so hard that I became worried that the bird might have left. Luckily, as we entered into Chiang Saen area, the rain had reduced into drizzle. It was 7:30am when we reached Nam Kham and was joined by Woraphot Bunkhwamdi who first recognized the bird in December. He said he just saw the bird singing loudly from the trail, so we were relieved that the bird hasn’t gone away.


Our first view of the bird, hopping out into the rain and singing



It was very actively singing and it looked really smart! Only some white shafts left on the throat.



You can see how wet the day was!

I was the one who went into the hide despite the drizzling rain. It was still quite dark and extremely wet. I even had to wear boots to get through the trail. Not to mention, there were tiny leeches along the way. As I went in, the bird was already singing next to the hide but didn’t come out from the bush. I waited for about 30 minutes listening to its song and the sound of the rain, then finally it slowly hopped out from the dark and stood next to the waterhole as usual. This time it was very actively singing and looking smarter than ever!

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This seemed to be its favourite perch for singing.

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The light was terrible and I had to push ISO higher than what I normally use. Lucky that this bird was unusually confiding even on the first day it was discovered making photography more bearable. Compared to my last visit, the bird came out more often and stayed around longer probably because the Siberian Rubythroat was already long gone. My friends came into the hide about an hour later and we all enjoyed its thrilling look completely different from what we saw in January and March.

Short video clip of the bird while singing its sweet warbling song in the rain


Dim light and the rain couldn’t stop the bird from singing from open perch!

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You can see how close it was!

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Among natural habitat with Khagra reeds (Phragmites karka), key plant species of Nam Kham wetlands

Rain kept falling throughout the morning while we were staying inside the hide watching the Firethroat. It began to get heavier around 9:30am and my friends decided to leave the hide and stayed inside the building at the entrance instead. I continued to stay at the hide until almost noon and was joined by Nick Diamond, a UK birder whom I’ve met once at Nam Kham last year. We both enjoyed a prolonged view of the bird after flying in from behind the hide and dropping right in the middle of the open ground as it often did. Before leaving, we saw it flying up to perch on reed top to sing then flew out.

Singing its sweet song in the middle of the rain

Funny moment when it seemed to be pecking for leftover meal worms or some other sort of food

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The rain finally stopped as we left around noon with big smile on our faces. It’s amazing to see how drastically it has transformed in such a short period of time. It looked stunning compared to when we first saw it. Just like the last visit, I didn’t think that I’d be coming to Nam Kham again since it seemed to me that the bird could migrate back to its breeding ground anytime. It had almost completed its moult and was very actively singing, so this could be my last time seeing it, but amazingly, I was wrong. Next post will put an end to this long series of photos and notes from my visits to Nam Kham for this male Firethroat and the last visit was also the most memorable one.

The Firethroat Tetralogy (2): 4-5 April 2015

After the successful visit to Nam Kham Nature Reserve on 4-5 March to photograph the first-winter male Firethroat, I didn’t think I would revisit the place to see the bird for the second time. However, on 27 March, Phil Round posted a couple of photos of the bird showing some signs of breeding feathers on the breast!

After that, birders continued to visit Nam Kham day by day posting photos of the bird showing its moulting progress. I was all hyped up and tried my best to find the time to visit the bird again. Finally, I could revisit Nam Kham on 4-5 April with my mum who recently started birding.

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We arrived at the hide around 11am and waited for the bird for about an hour when it finally hopped out from the dark undergrowth behind the waterhole and stayed around for few minutes before disappearing into the bush. It didn’t come out again for the next hour so we decided to leave for lunch instead. It looked totally different from when I last saw it just a month ago. The breast was fully on fire!

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The male Siberian Rubythroat was still showing as well and probably a bit too well. It came around to check the waterhole area more frequently than on my last visit. I guess meal worms were regularly put out making the rubythroat become more dominant in the area. It was also very actively singing both while perching in the middle storey and while standing on the ground.

What’s interesting was that on the next day, we didn’t see or hear the male rubythroat at all. Seems like it decided to migrate back to its breeding ground on the same day that we were watching it. It was quite a strange feeling to me to have watched it and then knowing that it has taken on its long journey on the very next day.

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On the following morning, we visited Nam Kham around 9am after some birding around Chiang Saen Lake. As we entered the hide, we were joined by two more birders who had never visited the place before. We chatted a bit and waited in silence for the Firethroat to come out. It was strangely quiet without the presence of the male Siberian Rubythroat. After a while, the Firethroat finally came out from behind the waterhole as usual. This time it decided to stay around in the open area in front of the hide for almost 5 minutes.

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Showing the white tail patch


The bird seemed to visit the hide more often during late morning. It showed up several times afterwards and stayed around longer than it did on the day before. It would either come out from behind the waterhole or fly in from behind the hide where it might be foraging along the track which leads to the hide. It also occasionally visit the waterhole to bathe but we were not lucky enough to see it bathing. At one point it was already sitting in the water but then decided to jump out instead. People told me that it would only begin to bathe when there were not too many people and not too noisy. We left the hide before 11am feeling satisfied with the result. Again, I thought that I wouldn’t have to visit the place again but as usual, I was wrong.

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.


Male Siberian Rubythroat staying in the same area as the Firethroat

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First-winter male Firethroat


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.