Notes on Himalayan Swiftlets

It’s been almost 3 years since my last post! With the new social media culture, it has gotten more and more difficult to sit down and write something in length. I guess it’s about time I should do something with this blog to keep it alive and up to date. I decided that I would start with some notes on the “Himalayan Swiftlets” that I’ve photographed recently at several locations.

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A classic look of Himalayan Swiftlet; note uniform dark underparts

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Aerodramus swiftlets are definitely one of the most challenging groups of birds for identification. Most of the times, they can’t even be identified with certainty. In Thailand, there are 3 species of swiftlets within this genus; Germain’s Swiftlet (A. germani), Black-nest Swiftlet (A. maximus) and Himalayan Swiftlet (A. brevirostris). Traditionally, they could be identified based on habitat and distribution range with germani being found along coastal areas both on the eastern and western coasts, maximus being found only along the western coasts and brevirostris in non-coastal habitats mainly in northern and western parts of the country. However, with the booming of “swiftlet condos” built to harvest swiftlet nests, a very valuable product for the Chinese market, it seems that we can’t identify these birds based on habitat and distribution range anymore. Germain’s Swiftlet, a species which produces pure white nest, has already spread throughout the country with many swiftlet condos being built to attract it even in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province, and several places in the north-east, while the extent of range-expansion in Black-nest Swiftlet, a species which also produces edible nest but require some processing to filter the feathers out, is still largely unknown. Himalayan Swiftlet is the only species in Thailand which doesn’t produce edible nest and probably isn’t affected by the business in terms of range expansion. However, the confusing part is that there are 2 populations of Himalayan Swiftlets in Thailand; the resident rogersi and wintering brevirostris and probably innominatus.

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Note dark unifrom underparts

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From my observations in northern Thailand, the area where Germain’s Swiftlet has only known to colonise quite recently (within the last 10 years), I noticed that there are some differences in plumage colouration between Himalayan and Germain’s Swiftlet. On mountains higher than 1,500 m above sea level, a habitat where Germain’s Swiftlet is still not known to occur, I’ve noticed that all the swiftlets showed rather uniform dark greyish-brown plumage with not much contrast between upperparts and underparts unlike in Germain’s where the underparts are generally paler. Of course, this should be judged from similar angles and lighting conditions.

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While rump patch is mentioned to be one of the main characteristics for identification, I find both Himalayan and Germain’s to have a wide range of variation from very pale to almost concolorous with the back. Lighting and angle can also greatly alter the paleness of rump patch too.

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Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’; note very long and slender wings and long tail

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Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’

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Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’

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Possibly subspecies ‘brevirostris’

Lastly, I’ve also noticed some variations among the structure of Himalayan Swiftlets seen and photographed in northern Thailand. Some birds seem to have very long and slender wings and longish tail making them look almost like Asian Palm Swifts. I think these birds are probably the wintering nominate brevirostris which is described to have longer wings than the resident rogersi. I usually see these long-winged birds at lower elevation and cultivated area mixing with other species including those that look like Germain’s Swiftlet, Asian Palm and House Swifts.

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Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’; note shorter wings and tail

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Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’

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Possibly subspecies ‘rogersi’

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Possibly subspecies ‘innominatus’; note concolourous upperparts with no apparent rump patch

Doi Ang Khang: 21 October 2014

So here’s a throwback post about my trip with Yann Muzika throughout northern Thailand in autumn. After a successful visit to Doi Inthanon, we had one full day at Doi Ang Khang, one of my favourite birding destinations. We reached the foothill of Ban Arunothai just a little after sunrise. Our first target was the Indochinese near-endemic Rufous-winged Buzzard which we spotted several individuals easily just along the road.

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One of the few pairs of Rufous-winged Buzzards we spotted

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There was a flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings in the same area as well.

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Some of them showed faint rufous wash on underparts suggesting that they might be the scarcer migratory race ‘S. m. malabaricus’.

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Male Burmese Nuthatch

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Female Burmese Nuthatch

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As we were watching the buzzards, I spotted a pair of nuthatches foraging on a bare tree close to the road. I immediately followed the birds and was glad to see that they were Burmese Nuthatches, a species of deciduous forest. I once saw a pair of nuthatches around Ban Arunothai many years back but thought that they were the much rarer Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches. Some birders were doubtful about that record since Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch is a bird of hill evergreen forest, so it’s great to finally find them again and settle the identification.

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The same male Burmese Shrike was still staying in the exact same area.

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Long-tailed Shrike (ssp. tricolor)

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A colourful male Grey-chinned Minivet

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And the more confiding female

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I was really happy to find this immature Grey-headed Parakeet, a bird which seems to be decreasing in recent years.

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Male Stripe-breasted Woodpecker

We made brief stops along the way up to Doi Ang Khang and saw many interesting species. At one point we came across a nice bird-wave consisting of Grey-headed Parrotbills, Grey Treepies, Grey-chinned and Scarlet Minivets, Blyth’s Shrike-babblers, Martens’s Warblers, female Pale Blue Flycatcher and a female Rufous-bellied Niltava which was the first record for the season. We also found an immature Grey-headed Parakeet sitting quietly nearby. Other notable species included a family group of 2 males and 1 female Stripe-breasted Woodpeckers, Blue-bearded Bee-eater and a calling Giant Nuthatch which we failed to locate.

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Himalayan Swiftlet showing striking long tail

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Showing the pale rump patch which seems to be very variable

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Note longish wings and tail

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Cook’s Swift

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Note how narrow the rump patch is compared to other taxa of the ‘Fork-tailed Swift’ complex

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Of course, there were lots of swifts. I tried to photograph them as much as I could. I was particularly interested in the Himalayan Swiftlets which were less abundant than the larger Cook’s Swift.

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The skulking Aberrant Bush Warbler

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I’ve never seen one so exposed like this in Thailand.

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One of the two Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers found at about 1,500 m above sea level.

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Immature Thick-billed Flowerpecker

We spent some more time around the Chinese cemetery near the large landfill before reaching Ban Luang. There were many small birds flitting around in the garden. I could pick out a few Claudia’s Leaf Warblers, Yellow-browed Warblers, Davison’s Leaf Warblers, a calling immature Thick-billed Flowerpecker and a pair of Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers, which was really unusual. I’ve never seen this species at Doi Ang Khang before and the altitude also exceeds the range mentioned by guide books. I also found an unusually showy Aberrant Bush Warbler (ssp. intricata) which is another confusing taxon. Some authors treat it as a subspecies of Sunda Bush Warbler while some maintain it as an Aberrant Bush Warbler.

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A funny looking immature Ruddy-breasted Crake

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Female Common Kestrel

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Adult Peregrine Falcon (ssp. calidus)

We drove down to Fang in the afternoon and went to look for roosting Amur Falcons which were seen during this time last year but failed to located any. We did find a pair of Common Kestrel and an adult Peregrine Falcon though. Other birds seen in the evening included a pair of Ruddy-breasted Crake, one looking funny in transitional plumage from immature to adult, another flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings with probable ssp. L, several Richard’s Pipits and at least 1 Bluethroat in the rice fields.

Sub-Pelagic Trip

On October 18, I had a chance to go out on a boat trip to Phi Phi Island, one of the most popular tourist spots in Thailand. My biggest hope wasn’t for the white sandy beaches or the deep blue water which the island is famous for, but I was hoping to see and photograph frigatebirds which are somehow particularly common in that area.

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Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult male Lesser Frigatebird

And I wasn’t disappointed. Lesser Frigatebird was indeed quite common. On my way from Phuket to Phi Phi Island, I saw at least 3 adult males and 2 females. While on the way back, I saw 6 males and 2 females. This species is by far the least uncommon frigatebird in Thailand. Most records of stray birds in the Gulf of Thailand and Mekong River are of this species.

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Adult female Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult female Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult female Lesser Frigatebird

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Adult female Lesser Frigatebird

I was surprised to see that there were more male birds than females. I remember the last time I visited Phuket, I saw more female and juvenile-type frigatebirds more often, but that was in spring. Maybe there’s a seasonal change of male/female/juvenile proportion.

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Adult male Christmas Frigatebird

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Adult male Christmas Frigatebird scratching its head

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Adult male Christmas Frigatebird

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Adult male Christmas Frigatebird

But the best thing about the trip was to see adult male Christmas Frigatebirds, a bird now labelled as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. In total, I saw at least 4 adult males throughout the trip. There was also 1 juvenile frigatebird which I’m not confident enough to identify.

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Unidentified juvenile frigatebird

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Bridled Terns were quite abundant but didn’t come close to the ferry. All of them were in the less attractive non-breeding plumage.

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I also had a surprising lifer from Phi Phi Island which was the Pied Imperial Pigeon. A flock of more than 50 birds were coming to a distant fruiting fig tree.

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A pair of adult White-bellied Sea Eagles

On October 17, I also had a chance to visit Thai Muang district in Phang Nga province which is just about 1.5 hour drive from Phuket. The place is well known for the uncommon Spotted Wood Owl which is regularly seen in one of the parks close to the beach. A birding friend of mine from Phuketwas kind enough to take me there.

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Adult Eastern Yellow Wagtail (ssp. tschutschensis) in breeding plumage seen at Phuket Mining Museum

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My first view of the Spotted Wood Owl at Thai Muang

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Many Large-billed Crows came to mob the owls.

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The owls were quite confiding and allowed me to get really close.

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As soon as we arrived at the park, it started raining so badly. We had to stay in the car for about half an hour waiting for the rain to stop. When it finally did, we quickly scanned the park but saw no sign of the bird. After a while, a group of young children came and asked if we were looking for the wood owl. They spread out, ran and jumped from here and there looking for the bird and finally, a pair of Spotted Wood Owls flushed from one tree and moved to another. Needless to say it was a lifer for me and I was really happy to see and even photograph them.

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I’m impressed by the length of wings and tail on this one. It gives an impression that it might be a Black-nest Swiftlet but the tail doesn’t look particularly squarish.

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Can’t say much about this one. Note how the rump patch is not particularly pale.

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Another shot showing the rump

I also took loads of Aerodramus swiftlet photos which were abundant throughout the trip. Most of which I can’t say for sure which species they were. According to the guide books, there are 2 species of Aerodramus swiftlets here, Germain’s and Black-nest Swiftlet.

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Again, another bird with very strikingly long and slender wings but also with a very rounded tail.

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This one has overall shortish structure. I’m pretty sure that this is a Germain’s Swiftlet.

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Apart from the shortish tail, this one also shows a very pale rump patch. Another Germain’s Swiftlet, I’d say.

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Probable Germain’s Swiftlet

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Probable Germain’s Swiftlet

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Another Germain’s Swiftlet showing striking pale rump

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Probable Germain’s Swiftlet

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Probable Germain’s Swiftlet

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This individual has a striking squarish tail.

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet; note longer wings and tail

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet; note long squarish tail

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet

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Probable Black-nest Swiftlet

I’m not saying that these swiftlets are correctly identified and I don’t think anyone can be 100% sure about that, but these are my best guesses according to literature and personal experience. If anyone can give me comments on the identification of Aerodramus swiftlets in the field (and outside the nesting colony, of course), I’d be more than happy to hear!

Doi Ang Khang: 12 October 2014

I made a solo journey to Doi Ang Khang on 12 October to check for winter migrants which should have already mostly arrived. I reached the foothill of Doi Ang Khang, around Ban Arunothai, just before sunrise. The place was as scenic and serene as ever.

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The road to Ban Arunothai just before sunrise

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The peaceful atmosphere around Doi Ang Khang foothill

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Adult Crested Serpent Eagle (ssp. burmanicus)

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Silhouette of a lone Rufous-winged Buzzard

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They also like to perch together in a loose group.

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Another view of a different Rufous-winged Buzzard

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Either a juvenile or adult Changeable Hawk Eagle (ssp. limnaetus) in pale morph

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Surprisingly, the morning was particularly good for raptors. I encountered 3 species of raptors just by the roadside. The first one was an adult Crested Serpent Eagle sitting on a dead tree top before sunrise. The second was the locally scarce Rufous-winged Buzzard which I found in total 7 birds in just one morning. The last species was the Changeable Hawk Eagle, which was found calling very loudly from the roadside. I’m not quite sure whether it was a juvenile or adult in pale morph. This was only the second time I found this species in this area.

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More landscape shots along the way to Ban Arunothai

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A very blurry record shot of an adult Grey-backed Shrike, first for the season!

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There were lots of Striated Swallows with a few Red-rumped Swallows in the mix at Ban Sin Chai.

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A confiding Long-tailed Shrike (ssp. tricolor)

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An unusually tame male Burmese Shrike

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The crown seems to be very dark slate-grey, almost looking concolorous with facial mask from some angles.

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It was quite a birdy morning. I came across 2 Grey-backed Shrikes (1 adult and 1 juvenile) which was the first sighting for this season, and a very confiding male Burmese Shrike which has a striking dark crown. I’m still curious about which subspecies this one actually is. Read more about my speculation in this post.

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It’s a rare occasion to see Striated Swallows perching against forest background!

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The resident subspecies stanfordi’ has bold streaks on underparts, particularly this individual.

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Adult Red-rumped Swallow (ssp. japonica) is noticeably smaller with much thinner streaks.

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Juvenile Red-rumped Swallow has even thinner and fainter streaking on the underparts with dull blackish crown and upperparts.

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Showing the pale reddish rump

There were many Striated Swallows perching here and there. I also picked out a few Red-rumped Swallows in the mix too. Most of them were juveniles with at least 1 adult. When perching side by side, Red-rumped Swallows are noticeably smaller, being almost about the same size as Barn Swallow.

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One of the many Black Bulbuls (ssp. concolor)

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Female Ashy Minivet found mixing with a flock of Grey-chinned Minivets

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The brightly coloured male Grey-chinned Minivet (ssp. rubrolimbatus)

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Greenish Warbler was abundant!

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Note the slightly greyer crown contrasting to the more olive mantle similar to Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler

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But beware of the lighting condition. The same bird can appear to be totally different.

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A relatively grey-crowned Yellow-browed Warbler

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Hume’s Leaf Warbler (ssp. mandellii); note dark bill, legs and feet, greyish crown contrasting to mantle and smaller median covert bar. The ID was confirmed again by call.

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Note the white fringes on tertials

I came across a nice mixed flock of birds along the road including many Grey-chinned Minivets, 2 female Ashy Minivets, lots of Black, Mountain, Flavescent and Grey-eyed Bulbuls, Crested Finchbills and a nice pair of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters. There were also lots of Phylloscopus warblers everywhere. Most of them were the common Yellow-browed and Greenish Warblers but with some Claudia’s Leaf Warblers and a rather confiding Hume’s Leaf Warbler too!

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I’m happy to get this photo showing the typical jizz for the Himalayan Swiftlet. Notice how long the wings are. The tail also looks longer than Germain’s Swiftlet.

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Rump patch can be quite variable though. This one shows a darkish rump patch looking almost concolourous with the back and uppertail coverts.

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Most birds showed a quite contrasting pale rump patch but not as pale as in Germain’s Swiftlet.

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But beware of the lighting condition. I think this bird has the same shade of rump patch as the previous one but strong light makes it look paler and more contrasting.

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It’s interesting to see that many birds were moulting their tail feathers making the tail comes in various funny shapes.

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A fork-tailed swift? No.

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Never thought that it could resemble an Apus swift!

There were lots of swifts everywhere. I tried to focus mainly on taking photos of the Aerodramus swiftlets which should all be Himalayan Swiftlets. They all show quite a consistent jizz which is being noticeably larger with longer wings and tail than Germain’s Swiftlet of central and southern Thailand.

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Cook’s Swift has a very dark blackish plumage and narrow rump patch.

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The tail is deeply forked hence the former named Fork-tailed Swift.

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In good light, you can see the bold white scales on the underparts clearly.

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Some birds looked a bit plainer because of the feather wear.

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Another species of swift that was regularly seen was the huge Cook’s Swift. It is a recently split species from what used to be called Fork-tailed Swift which has now split into 4 different species. Cook’s Swift is a very dark one, looking very plain blackish from above with the narrowest white rump patch. Dave Bakewell has a nice blog post on the identification of Cook’s and Pacific Swift which is a widespread winter migrant in SE Asia here.

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A colourful male Fire-breasted Flowerpecker

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Not sure about the sex and subspecies of this White Wagtail. The black breast patch looks good for breeding male leucopsis but it has grey back, so it might be a female breeding instead? The black rump and uppertail coverts rule out baicalensis.

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It was interesting to see a flock of migrating Black Drongos flying overhead. This should be the subspecies D. m. cathoecus which is described to be the wintering race.

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A very confiding juvenile Grey-backed Shrike

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One of the two Buff-throated Warblers

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Adult Mountain Hawk Eagle

Other interesting birds seen during the afternoon included a nice pair of Buff-throated Warblers which was the first sighting of the season and a huge adult Mountain Hawk Eagle which glided by at eye level. A beautiful male Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird also came to feed on flowering tree and gave a nice close up view too, but the highlight of the day came during the late afternoon just when I was driving back home, a nice 30+ flock of Grey-headed Parrotbills just by the roadside! The birds gave exceptional views while moving along the roadside before disappearing into the dense forest.

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Despite its large size, Grey-headed Parrotbill is probably the trickiest one to see and photograph well.

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First time for me getting 2 birds in one frame.

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They were also quite curious!

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