Sunbirds Aethopyga ignicauda in north-west Thailand and
notes on their identification
By Philip D.
Round & Akalak Kunsorn
This article was originally published in Birding Asia 11 (2009) the
bulletin of the Oriental
Bird Club (OBC) and was kindly submitted by Philip
support the OBC's conservation work by visiting
the OBC website and becoming a member.
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.
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).
1: Biometric and moult data of four Fire-tailed Sunbirds
Aethopyga ignicauda compared with Gould’s Sunbirds
1: Presumed female Fire-tailed Sunbird, Doi Lang,
Thailand, 18 December 2007.
2: Presumed female Fire-tailed Sunbird, Doi Lang,
Thailand, 18 December 2007.
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
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.).
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
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.
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.).
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.
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.
(1987) A synopsis of the avifauna of China. Beijing: Science
Ginn, H. B.
& Melville, D. S. (1983) Moult in birds. British Trust for
Ornithology Guide Number Nineteen. Tring: British Trust for
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.
Round, Assistant Professor and Regional Representative, The Wetland
Trust, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Mahidol University,
Rama 6 Road, Bangkok 10400, Thailand Email: email@example.com
Kunsorn, c/o Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park, P. O. Box 39, Tambol
Pong Nam Ron, Fang, Chiang Mai 50110, Thailand Email: firstname.lastname@example.org