A Bangkok Morning Concert, March 2000

Peter Ericsson, Thailand; garden@ksc.th.com

"Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day,
Oh what a beautiful feeling, everything's going God's way"

These words from the familiar song I feel are very applicable to the sounds I encounter on a daily basis around our house here in the northern outskirts of Bangkok in the middle of March. As is the case everywhere else in this buzzing city full of people and noise, the sounds of roaring engines, be they motorcyles, cars, buses or airplanes are ever present in their quest to overpower one another.

Incredibly enough so are also the natural sounds and wonders of God's little creatures. One just need to listen and tune in!

It all started this morning at 4 a.m. Pied Fantail Flycatcher is starting its song way too early. Who changed its body clock? Whatever the reason may be, this active little creature with its ever fanning tail took charge of my day. The song is very distinct and easily recognized. A musical tune that I so far haven't been able to imitate despite its constancy.

The real morning chorus didn't start until a bit later around 6 o'clock when Mr and Mrs Koel, true to their nature, started sounding off. This is one of the bigger birds around the house. I have often enjoyed seeing a pair of Common Koels dashing from tree to tree in search for food. Even though male Koel from a distance perhaps could resemble a Large-billed Crow, its slender body and aerodynamic flight tells us that this is a more delicate piece of equipment and worthy of our respect. The name Koel is a give-away of one of the bird's sounds as it has a loud ko-el, ko-el call, stressing the second syllable. As is the case of other true cuckoos, this bird is also an intruder of others' property and I have seen with my own eyes little (in comparison) Black-collared Starling frantically working to keep up with feeding an unproportionally big fledgling.

Joining in in the symphony is the master himself; Magpie Robin. Thankfully enough this beautiful songster hasn't been swallowed up by the pet trade as of yet and can most readily be seen and heard throughout the year. It has a melodius variety of tunes along with a harsh one-tonal warning sound. It often perches from tree tops or the rooftop of surrounding buildings letting the world know who the master is. As the name implies the bird does look a bit like a Magpie when it comes to color and plumage. It hops like a Magpie but will take off quickly as one approaches a little bit too close. Size-wise it is much smaller and has the habit of keeping its tail sharply cocked. When dusk has set in, it has a peculiar habit of sounding off its alarm call while hopping around the mango trees in our garden. It also has a long one-tonal call that stays with us all day long.

Here is a favorite of mine. Common Iora. Brightly yellow underparts, olive-green upper parts and two white wing bars are the colors of this smaller sized bird. Mostly occupying the upper branches feeding on insects in the leaf foliage it is not an easy bird to view with the naked eye. It loves to sing though, and my favorite tune is the birds soft ringing sound like a gentle alarmclock going off. Otherwise it more commonly gives its combination of two drawn-out whistles, the second one being slightly lower in tone then the first. I had the joy of hand raising one of these lovely creatures as one was found on the ground and evidently would have ended up in our house cat's stomach unless rescued by well meaning hands. It had an incredible appetite for worms that the local pet shop happily sold for a penny. It also let us enjoy its musical vocabulary before it was time to return it to the wild.

Then the hoot, hoot, hooting sounds of the Greater Coucal comes rolling across the marsh next to our house. This big bird is an excellent survivor. Its size is a real give-away for the common practice of slingshot shooting still going on around Thailand. Still this bird is commonly found in the whole country. Its chestnut colored wings on a large black body along with a clumsy flight tells us who is moving about.

One welcomed if even sad sounding friend is the Plaintive Cuckoo. Hard to see but well worth the effort as the mature bird is rather colorful with its belly being rufous, eye bright red, head and throat grey and rest of body brown. Its song is unmistakable. Either 3-4 monotonous tones followed by rapidly descending notes or a hurried 3-note ascending sequence repeated over again. I have yet to see its young one in a nest even though juvenile birds frequently come around. It often sits on the top of larger weed grasses in the marsh singing away.

More and more birds are joining in the chorus. Next is the Zebra Dove or Peaceful Dove. This popular cage bird is known for its song best described as a hollow soft and high-pitched trill with a distinctive rhythm to it. It likes to feed on our playground along with Spotted Dove. Both these species will fly up and entertain from the surrounding coconut or mango trees. Spotted Dove is much larger in size and has a softer call, coo-croo-croo. It also regularly has young ones in our garden, and even the younger children can point out the two different birds by name.

Next is the loud 'tack' from a Great Reed-Warbler, our first migrant to be heard for the day. Several warblers pass through during winter but rarely make themselves known by sound.

Then the metallic trrrrr from the Asian Brown-Flycatcher penetrates the air. One of our first visitors. In typical flycatcher manners it perches on a branch and makes sorties snatching insects in the air. Small and on the thin size but with an obtrusive eyering as a give-away trademark.

The Red-throated Flycatcher with its lower and shorter trr is another visitor. This bird likes to come down lower and is easier to see for little eyes. It likes to flick its tail and even fly down to the ground to feed on insects from the grass. Before it leaves in the spring the throat changes color to orange/red and along with its beautifully balanced shaped body it becomes as a precious jewel in our garden.

Then an explosive tic,tic,tic from the fast flying Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker sets in. This very small bird was the main spark that trigged my interest in our flying friends. Splendid bright red crown and nape stretching as a wide red band across its back with white under parts and remainder parts black. It feeds in the canopy and is a bit hard to see well. From time to time an individual will find our windows on the second floor appealing and will try to attack it with its beak. Probably interested in the prospect of a potential mate being reflected by its own image in the glass.

How many birds is that in our chorus? Wow, 12 already! Who ever said birds are hard to find in Thailand? Yes, I agree, they are not as conspicuous as garden birds in the west but nevertheless lots of them all around us.

The ever-present churring sounds from Ear-streaked Bulbul are next. Probably the most uninteresting bird in the Bulbul family. Dull and ungainly appearance. Loosely thrown together cup-shaped nest, but always having young ones. (I guess its desire to multiply is its strength). We have a rather vain individual in our garden who loves to come down to the side mirrors of our car and admire itself, leaving its gooey spill for me to wipe off.

Another Bulbul this morning is Yellow-vented Bulbul. With its more musical sounds and distinct white supercilium, contrasting with black lores and yellow rump, it makes it a more interesting bird. It seldom stays around for very long but is regular. It does respond to some delicious ripe bananas hung up for bird feed. It prefers habitat near to well-watered areas and thus is not found too far from the coast.

Slowly rising into a demonic roaring noise of chuckles is coming from inside the reed beds. It's a White-breasted Waterhen is sounding off. It feeds on aquatic creatures in the marsh and will quickly hide when being approached. Best is to use one of the little holes in our wall to peek through. This can give very close sights, and the bird will calmly keep on feeding with its tail raised. Its cinnamon colored underparts, red on bill, along with green legs and white breast makes it attractive in the binoculars.

The intense and monotonous one-tonal call of the Common ailorbird reaches my ears. It penetrates all other sounds around as it calls for attention. This little warbler is a resident bird here and often comes down to the lower bushes in search for food. It can be approached to a very close distance as it actively moves about the tree branches. As it names indicates it is an expert tailor, and the nest is intricately woven into a cone shape.

'Tonk, tonk, tonk' echoes from a treetop. It's our friend the Coppersmith Barbet who comes to say 'hello'. Very small and often in the canopy of our Pink-trumpet Tree it is hard to see all the splendor of this bird. At closer range or through the binocs the deep colors of red, green, yellow and black are revealed thus letting us have a taste of one of the more colorful garden birds around. This small barbet successfully inhabits all of Thailand or anywhere there is a wooded area. It usually doesn't stay for long but regularly passes by. A temple or park area may be a good place to look for this bird without being disappointed. I have actually observed a parent bird feeding its young with regular flights in and out of its nesting hole in a tree right nest to a busy bus stop totally unbeknownst to all the people standing by. Barbets in general seem to overcome their fear of exposure during the nesting season as a true parent the bird is willing to risk danger in order to feed and care for its young.

From the marsh another sound sets in. It is the buzzing jirt-jirt-jirt from another warbler, the Plain Prinia. Yes, it is a plain looking bird but the sound blends nicely in to our symphony.

Then the diagnostic explosive rink-tink-tink of Lanceolated Warbler is being heard. Very hard to see but commonly heard during winter.

Then our two versions of sunbirds join in. Olive-backed Sunbird with its one-tone 'sweet' with rising inflection and Brown-throated Sunbird with its persistent and ongoing chiff-chiff-chiff. The latter has a bit of a misleading name. I would rather call it "Purple-shouldered Sunbird" as in the right light the iridescent purple is almost breathtaking. I could hardly believe such a thing existed when I first saw it. Definitely on par with some of the New World hummingbirds. It pierces a hole in the stalk of a flower and sticks its long tongue in to suck out the nectar. It also performs the art of hovering in the air reaching down to the nectar the conventional way even if not performing the hovering display as long as a hummingbird would. Olive-backed has raised young ones in our garden a few times, and the purse-shaped nest hangs on a thin twig swaying in the wind. A marvel of construction as it keeps its inhabitants safe and sound.

A bit later but daily Common Myna descend on our lawn in search for bugs and worms. Noisy but non-descriptive sounds easily recognized. The same goes for White-vented Myna that has a little more humble appearance than Common who likes to walk around with head held high and a fierce countenance.

Eurasian Tree-Sparrow wants its share of the orchestra, and its chirps are pretty continual throughout much of the day. Ever-present.

As is the case most days, there are always one or two more uncommon sounds joining in. Today it is the bubbling call from the Lineated Barbet. This beautiful bird does not come by very often even though it is common a bit further out of Bangkok. Easy to recognize by its big size and big bill. Closely related to woodpeckers they say.

Then the harsh 'kyak' causes me to lift my eyes upward. Sparkling blue wings are in the sunlight as the Indian Roller is flying by. It prefers more open areas but is readily seen in the outskirts of Bangkok.

Added to the scenario is a Chinese Pond-Heron taking off with a croaking sound from the marsh. Not a very vocal bird but definitely very common.

Then as an added surprise comes the loud laughter of the handsome Black-naped Kingfisher loudly proclaiming its existence. It doesn't usually stay around here but can be seen from time to time. Too much construction work going on for its likening.

So as you can tell from the descriptions above there are quite a number of participants in the concert performed around our house. Added to that there are of course a number of birds who are seen but remain on the more quiet side such as Barn Swallow, Asian Palm-Swift, Cormorant, Openbills, Arctic Warbler, Common Moorhen, Black-shouldered Kite etc.

Someone wisely said: "So much of what we see depends on what we are looking at!" To that I would like to add: "And so much of what we hear depends on what we are listening to!"

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser; ugeiser@xnet.com; May 30, 2000