Mangrove forests are dense, thickly wooded places where sunlight filters through the matted canopy in tricky patterns. This, together with the inaccessibility of the habitat, conspires to make bird-watching very challenging. Mangroves are tidal wetlands. They stand in shallow, murky, usually saline water that ebbs and flows with the tide. As the water retreats periodically, it leaves behind thick, muddy ooze that resembles quicksand in consistency and disposition. This is when most of the wildlife comes out to play. Fiddler crabs, lobsters, mudskippers and endemic birds are all best seen at this time. You can even listen for the ‘clicking’ of the shrimp. But then again, forget about getting in there, for mangrove trees have sharp, spiky stilt roots that can spear clean through your foot should you step on one.
In July 2014, I happened to visit Pranburi Forest Park near the city of Hua Hin. Most mangrove wetlands around the Gulf of Thailand have been drained and cleared for saltpans but Pranburi has escaped the axe because the Queen of Thailand took a fancy to it. Not only is it protected by law but made accessible, too. A robust wooden walkway runs for more than a kilometre around the park in a circuit that takes you from low, wooded mangrove shrubbery to tall trees that tower over your head and shut out the sun. The trees in this patch are packed densely and their stilt roots are about six feet off the ground. All around, interpretative signboards have been placed to describe the flora and fauna. Unfortunately, they are all in Thai, but it’s heartening to see that in a country where indiscriminate hunting has exterminated most of its biodiversity, there remains some scope for conservation.
The media tour group that I was part of was taken to Pranburi Forest Park for a bizarre “conservation” exercise, detailed in our itineraries by the intriguing legend: ‘Freeing the Crabs.’ When we got there, I was shown to baskets of mud crabs whose pincers had been bound by lengths of plastic wire. We were instructed to pick up the crabs gently and carefully snip off the binding wire using a pair of metal wire-cutters, after which we were to release them from buckets down a chute back into the mangrove forest. I found the whole thing quite revolting, and not least because I cannot handle crabs. I’ve handled creepier things.
Here’s the deal. First off, these were crabs that had been caught for the pot. In a forest reserve! So, that was condoned, all right. Then, having been found to be not fully grown — their pincers didn’t have enough meat on them — they were not needed immediately. Ergo, the charade of releasing them back so that they could be caught again when they were ready to be served up.
I eat plenty of crab myself but I wasn’t going to be part of this inane exercise dubbed as a “conservation” measure. So, I wandered off from the group and took a walk, exploring the fascinating forest along the boardwalk.
It was here that I met the Golden-bellied Gerygone (Gerygone sulphurea).
The mangrove forest became thicker and denser towards the centre. The boardwalk had been constructed with great care, allowing trees in its path to grow right through the boards. The tide was low, and there was hardly any water beneath the bridge. We were close to the sea though we couldn’t hear it from here. It was a warm, muggy day and sweat trickled down the back of my shirt. As I went deeper, the trees grew taller. They towered high over my head and sheltered me from the blazing sun.
Birdwing butterflies and small birds flitted about in the dense foliage but they were mostly too difficult to identify. I had seen some of them over the previous days of my stay in Thailand, so I could recognise them in passing. There were flowerpeckers and sunbirds and the odd magpie-robin, mostly. There was one quick-moving, restless little bird that piqued my interest, though. It was about the size of a warbler and dull olive-grey on its back with a bright sulphur-yellow throat and belly. It had a small (but not short) bill that was metallic steel-grey. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t a sunbird or a flowerpecker. I followed it around the confusing latticework of the canopy and tried to take a few photographs, most of which turned out blurry and out of focus. I managed a single record shot that was clear enough to identify the bird (the picture at the top of this post). Back at the hotel, I was able to identify it as the Golden-bellied Gerygone.
Though a common bird in Southeast Asia — its range extends from tropical and subtropical mangrove forests and lowland forests in Thailand to Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — the Golden-bellied Gerygone is also a most remarkable one. And there’s a reason for that. Most Gerygones, the family of birds known as peep-warblers that includes about 20 species, are confined to the New World and are distributed in Australia and New Guinea. Only one species, the Golden-bellied Gerygone, extends north or west of the Wallace Line (the imaginary line named after Alfred Russell Wallace to separate the ecozones of Asia and Australasia after the last Ice Age and the resulting faunal distribution on either side). The word Gerygone is derived from the Greek for ‘born of sound’ and nearly all of the birds have pleasant tinkling songs and some of them are known to be excellent mimics of other birds found in the area.
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It was the song, incidentally, that set this bird apart from the sunbirds and flowerpeckers in the mangrove woodland of Pranburi. A plaintive, soulful tinkle-warble that poured liquidly into the air. Not the trilling song of a flowerpecker or the merry descant chittering of the sunbird, but more like the fully formed, heavily annotated song of a Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher or a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher that appears to leave the bird and stand alone in the air as a presence, an entity in itself.
All the while singing its heart out, the Golden-Bellied Gerygone flitted among the leaves as does a warbler or white-eye, gleaning insects and other prey too tiny for my befuddled eye to discern. And then, it melted away into the dappled patchwork of verdure and sunlight until all that remained of its presence was a song, half-heard and half-remembered.
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