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Fire-tailed Sunbirds Aethopyga ignicauda in north-west Thailand and notes on their identification

By Philip D. Round & Akalak Kunsorn
Note: This article was originally published in Birding Asia 11 (2009) the bulletin of the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and was kindly submitted by Philip D. Round.

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We report recent occurrences of Fire-tailed Sunbirds Aethopyga ignicauda on the mountain of Doi Lang, Mae Ai District, Chiang Mai Province, north-west Thailand, and comment on some identification features of this species.

Between 18–19 December 2007, we trapped four Fire-tailed Sunbirds, apparently two males and two females, at an elevation of 2,000 m on Doi Lang (20º06’N 99º08’E), the north-east ridge of the mountain of Doi Pha Hom Pok, in mist-nets set in roadside herbage on an exposed, open, scrubcovered ridge that runs north to south. The birds were ringed with metal bands (internal diameter 2.0 mm) supplied by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation, Thailand (Table 1).
Table 1: Biometric and moult data of four Fire-tailed Sunbirds Aethopyga ignicauda compared with Gould’s Sunbirds A. gouldiae.

Plate 1: Presumed female Fire-tailed Sunbird, Doi Lang,
Thailand, 18 December 2007.

Plate 2: Presumed female Fire-tailed Sunbird, Doi Lang,
Thailand, 18 December 2007.
The birds were apparently visiting the pink flower-spikes of Buddleja macrostachya Benth. (Buddlejaceae) during cloudy weather, as fewer sunbirds were present on the two following days, in sunny conditions. Gould’s Sunbirds A. gouldiae were also present.

Fire-tailed Sunbirds were seen subsequently and intermittently at the same site up to 17 February 2008 by many observers, and some were photographed. There were possibly as many as seven individuals present in total that winter, as three unringed birds were reported between 8–10 February 2008 (Dr Kaset Sutasha in litt.).

Remarkably, two of the four ringed Fire-tailed Sunbirds (both females) were retrapped at the same site one year later, on 24 December 2008, by the authors, Worapoj Boonkhwamdee, J. N. Dymond, Andrew J. Pierce and Prateep Rojanadilok (Head of Doi Chiang Dao Wildlife Research Station, Chiang Mai). On the second occasion these were the only Fire-tailed Sunbirds caught among 42 Gould’s Sunbirds and two Black-throated Sunbirds A. saturata. Although the species is possibly a regular visitor to the site, it would appear to be genuinely scarce.

The only previous Thai record of Fire-tailed Sunbird was an unsexed immature specimen collected by Ben King at 2,040 m on the same mountain (Doi Pha Hom Pok) on 11 November 1965. This paucity of records is perhaps surprising given the frequent coverage by birdwatchers of the Chiang Mai mountains. Fire-tailed Sunbird may therefore be genuinely scarce in NW Thailand, where there is very little terrain above 2,000 m, much of which is difficult to access.

Fire-tailed Sunbird breeds along the Himalayas from Himachal Pradesh eastwards to Bhutan, Assam, north and west Myanmar, and northwards to Tibet and Yunnan, chiefly in conifer forest, at elevations of 3,000–4,800 m (Cheng 1987, Robson 2000, Cheke et al. 2001, Rasmussen and Anderton 2005). Although usually said to be a resident or altitudinal migrant, descending to 610–2,900 m in winter (Cheke et al. 2001), it is by far the commonest sunbird on migration in Yunnan, with more than 16,000 Fire-tailed Sunbirds seen migrating north along a 2,500 m ridge on Gaoligongshan during ten days in early April 1996 compared with only 974 Gould’s Sunbirds during the same period (J. Hornskov in litt.).

Sunbirds are fast-moving and difficult to identify. Female sunbirds are also inadequately described and depicted in most existing guides. In Robson (2000) neither text nor illustrations are fully revealing as to how the combination of characters—either yellow rump-patch and/or tail spots—are distributed among females of the similar Green-tailed A. nipalensis, Gould’s and Black-throated Sunbirds. This could easily lead to female or early immature Fire-tailed being overlooked.

Female and early immature Fire-tailed Sunbirds possess only an indistinctly defined, slightly yellower rump, and no more than a suggestion of pale tail feather tipping. They are more easily defined by the field characters they lack rather than those they possess. All four birds trapped in 2007 showed dull brownish-red edges to the rectrices and an illdefined, slightly paler, yellowish area on the rump. All were in active wing moult. Two birds, with an orange-red spot on the centre of the breast, were presumed to be first-winter males, and one of them had a few red feathers on the uppertail-coverts.

Possibly the best distinctive feature of a female or immature Fire-tailed Sunbird is its longer bill compared with Gould’s Sunbird (bill to skull 22.0– 24.3 mm in four Fire-tailed measured, compared with mean 18.6 ±0.98 mm, range 16.7–22.1 mm, n = 36, both sexes combined, for Gould’s Sunbird; see Table 1). J. Hornskov (pers. comm.) has also commented that Fire-tailed Sunbird is readily distinguishable from Gould’s Sunbird by its Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea like call (not heard by the authors).
We thank Ms. Wangworn Sankamethawee for her identification of the Buddleja and Jesper Hornskov for permission to quote his unpublished observations. We thank Ms. Kalayanee Boonkerd and Ms Duangrat Pothieng, Wildlife Research Section, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation, for making rings available.
Cheke, R. A., Mann, C. F. & Allen, R. (2001) Sunbirds: a guide to the sunbirds, flowerpeckers, spiderhunters and sugarbirds of the world. London: Christopher Helm.

Cheng Tso-Hsin (1987) A synopsis of the avifauna of China. Beijing: Science Press.

Ginn, H. B. & Melville, D. S. (1983) Moult in birds. British Trust for Ornithology Guide Number Nineteen. Tring: British Trust for Ornithology.

King, B. (2007) Some 1960s additions to the list of Thailand’s birds. Nat. Hist. Bull. Siam Soc. 55 (1): 105–119.

Rasmussen, P. C. & Anderton, J. C. (2005) Birds of South Asia: the Ripley guide. Washington, D.C. and Barcelona: Smithsonian Institution and Lynx Edicions.

Robson, C. (2000) A field guide to the birds of Southeast Asia. London: New Holland.
Kindly submitted by:

Philip D. Round, Assistant Professor and Regional Representative, The Wetland Trust, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, Rama 6 Road, Bangkok 10400, Thailand Email:

Akalak Kunsorn, c/o Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park, P. O. Box 39, Tambol Pong Nam Ron, Fang, Chiang Mai 50110, Thailand Email:
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