Thailand is home to 35 species of woodpecker (more than any other country apart from neighbouring Myanmar) and – incredibly – we had five of them in view, at one time, as we looked out at the forested slope from our vantage point on the roadside in Khao Yai National Park. A pair of Greater Flameback were engaged in a courtship display, as one, then the other, braced itself against a tree trunk, fanned open its wings, then let out a shrill rattle. Lower down in the same tree was a male Laced Woodpecker, named for the delicate tracery of fine scallops on its belly. Lower still, and deep in the shadows, a Rufous Woodpecker was licking up ants pouring out of their arboreal mud nest. Its bright yellow-ochre crest contrasting sharply with a cinnamon crown, a large and elegant Greater Yellownape flew across a gap in front of us, landing at the base of a large Fishtail Palm and knocking into the dry leaf sheaths with its chisel bill. So, that was four species, what was the fifth?
Two small, black-and-white woodpeckers were moving up and down a tangle of dry stems in the crown of a Teak tree, hanging upside down at times as they tapped away in search of grubs, termites, caterpillars or other insect prey. No larger than a canary, and one of the smallest members of its family, this was the Heart-spotted Woodpecker – a tiny but agile and charismatic bird. Undeniably cute, this little woodpecker goes about in pairs, exploring smaller twigs and leaf clusters for insect prey. Its name comes from the perfect heart-shaped pattern on its tertial feathers and some of the wing coverts. The female, distinguished from the male by her white forecrown, made a squeaky chirrick call as she flew towards her mate, and sidled up to him before the pair peered down at us.
I was at Khao Yai with Kamol Komolphalin – renowned Thai watercolour artist – and we explored the forests for woodpeckers, hornbills, pittas, broadbills, minivets and other birds to observe and sketch. Covering some 2,000 square kilometres, Khao Yai is Thailand’s third largest national park, protecting tropical rainforest in hilly terrain between 400 and 1,300 metres above sea level (by way of comparison, Khao Yai is somewhat larger than Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, or about four times the size of Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa). Over 320 bird species (including 12 woodpeckers) occur in Khao Yai which also supports healthy populations of Asian Elephant, White-handed Gibbon and Sambar Deer. The reserve is about three hours drive east of Bangkok, with several accommodation options within the reserve, and just outside.
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, September 2006.