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BirdingASIA 9 (2008): 9193

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NOTEBOOK

Nesting records of Eastern Grass Owl Tyto (capensis) longimembris in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand
CHAIYAN KASORNDORKBUA, AKALAK KUNSORN & CHAIWAT WONGCHAI Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembrishere treated as specifically distinct from T. capensiswas not listed on the Thai avifauna checklist until July 2006 when a photograph of a single bird in flight provided firm evidence of its occurrence (Wongchai 2007). Little is known about this tytonid owl species within Asia compared with closely related taxa found in Africa and Australia. The first evidence for breeding in Thailand was found on 13 May 2007 when three recently fledged juveniles were seen a few km north of Chiang Saen township in Chiang Rai, north-west Thailand (Round 2007). On the morning of 24 January 2008, two Eastern Grass Owl nests were found in an approximately 2 km2 swamp grassland, locally called Nong Lom, which is located in Mae Jan district, Chiang Rai. This is part of the Chiang Saen Basin Important Bird Area (BCST 2004). The grassland is part of a large (approximately 110 km2 ) wetland (2011N 9958E) used year round by the local community for traditional fishing and livestock grazing. The predominant grass species in the area which held the nests are southern cutgrass Leersia hexandra and cogongrass Imperata cylindrica. The wetland also holds the largest roosting site of four species of Circus harriers in Thailand; the
Plate 1. Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris Nest 1 in swamp grassland, Chiang Rai, Thailand, 24 January 2008.

birds are mainly Eastern Marsh Circus spilonotus and Pied Harriers C. melanoleucos, with a very few Hen C. cyaneus and Western Marsh Harriers C. aeruginosus. Approximately 200 birds in all use the roost (Round 2005, Thai Raptor Group 2006, 2008). While the site was being searched for harrier pellets, an Eastern Grass Owl was flushed from a nest located on a dense patch of thick grasses, about 150 cm high, floating on the surface of the swamp. The water was approximately 3050 cm deep in this place at the time. The swamp rarely dries out, but the water level is at its lowest in winter when the nests were found. The water level rises during the wet season from June/July onwards, and the area is only accessible by boat at that time. Two nestlings, estimated to be about two weeks old and covered in plain brown downy feathers, were in the nest. One of the two was notably larger. This nest, designated as Nest 1 (Plate 1) was a tunnellike construction measuring about 130 90 50 cm high with several chambers and a side entrance. The nest material comprised only dry grass stems. A second nest, designated Nest 2 was found approximately 400 m from Nest 1 on the same day, in similar habitat, although the depth of the
Plate 2. Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris nestlings at Nest 2, Chiang Rai, Thailand, 24 January 2008.

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Nesting records of Eastern Grass Owl Tyto (capensis) longimembris in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand

underlying water was somewhat less. The harrier roost site lay between the two nests, approximately 200 m distant from each. Two adult birds were flushed and the nest contained a brood of four nestlings (Plate 2), all of which were larger than those in Nest 1 and estimated to be about 3 weeks old, with developing pin feathers on wings and tail. Again the difference in size of the nestlings was remarkable. The structure of Nest 2 was similar to Nest 1 and measured 117 75 44 cm high. An accumulation of elongated pellets was found in an isolated tunnel connected to the other chambers occupied by the nestlings. A total of 36 owl pellets were collected from the two nests. These averaged 4.09 0.82 cm in length, 2.56 0.40 cm in width, 2.06 0.32 cm in depth and 4.62 1.64 gm in dry weight. The pellets mainly consisted of the remains of murid rodents including hair, skulls and bones. When the nests were examined, the nestlings gave a constant-pitch hissing sound of about one minute duration. After being flushed, the adults flew a short distance and dropped into the grass just a few metres away. No calls were heard from the adult owls at any time. When the site was revisited on 26 January 2008, it was found that Nest 2 had been destroyed by fire, presumably set by villagers, and all four nestlings had perished. Nest 1 was not affected by the burning and both nestlings had survived. An adult bird (Plate 3) attending Nest 1 was caught by hand and its biometrics were recorded. It was then ringed and released at the site. It made no sound while in the hand. The owl had a pure white face with dark brown crown and upperwing
Plate 3. Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris adult caught at Nest 1. Note a remix moult of outer primaries. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 26 January 2008.

coverts, black wing-tip and dark-barred goldenbrown upperwing and uppertail. Its breast was light brown, contrasting with the snowy-white belly that was sparsely adorned with rhomboid-shaped dark brown spots. The ringed owl was identified as a male according to the plumage characteristics described for T. longimembris (Rasmussen & Anderton 2005). Examination of its wing and tail revealed that the bird was in active moult of outer primaries and most rectrices. In flight, the Eastern Grass Owl looks superficially similar to the Barn Owl T. alba. Apart from its darker, more contrasting plumage (especially the colour intensity on crown and upperwing-coverts) Eastern Grass Owl has notably longer legs that project beyond the tail-tip when the bird is in flight (Plate 4). The tarsus length of the captured bird was 96.6 mm, compared with the 73.7 mm tarsus of a Barn Owl found at a village adjacent to the site. A tarsus length of 100 mm was recorded for an Eastern Grass Owl collected in Nagaland, India (Choudhury 2005). Seasonal burning could be a major threat to breeding success of the Eastern Grass Owl at the site, as well as other grassland-nesting birds and the roosting harriers. In an effort to avoid future losses of nests due to fire, the local administrative body which oversees the area was asked to seek cooperation from local villagers to postpone seasonal burnings until April when it is expected that the nestlings would be fledged. Considering the unique nature and scarcity of the open swamp grassland, it seems prudent to regard the Grass Owl population in Thailand as small and locally restricted, even though the species is secretive and
Plate 4. Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris adult. Note long legs projecting beyond tail tip. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 26 January 2008.

CHAIYAN KASORNDORKBUA

CHAIWAT WONGCHAI

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easily overlooked because of its largely nocturnal habits. Eastern Grass Owls have been reported at three sites in the Chiang Saen basin (Round 2007). Since the population size and breeding biology of the species in the area are unknown, further continuous long-term research and monitoring would be appropriate. Acknowledgements Our thanks go to Chultawat Bhowattanadilok and Chatuporn Sawasdee for assistance in the field. We are grateful to Craig Robson and Philip D. Round for their helpful comments. References
Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (2004) Directory of Important Bird Areas in the Kingdom of Thailandkey sites for conservation. Bangkok: Bird Conservation Society of Thailand and BirdLife International. Choudhury, A. (2005) Significant records of birds in Nagaland, north-east India. Forktail 21:187190. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds.(1999) Handbook of the birds of the world, 5: Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions. Rasmussen, P. C. & Anderton, J. C. (2005) Birds of South Asia: the Ripley guide. Washington, D.C. and Barcelona: Smithsonian Institution and Lynx Edicions. Round, P. D. (2005) Recent reports in Bird Conservation Society of Thailand Bulletin 23(1).

Round, P. D. (2007) Recent reports in Bird Conservation Society of Thailand Bulletin 24(3). Thai Raptor Group (2006) Circus Harrier Census 2006. Raptor Count. http:// thairaptorgroup.com/TRG/modules.php?name=raptorcount. Thai Raptor Group (2008) Online raptor report 20062008. www.thairaptorgroup.com. (In Thai). Wongchai, C. (2007) Special report: first record of Grass Owl in Thailand. Bird Conservation Society of Thailand Bulletin 24(3): 1617. (In Thai).

Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua, corresponding author, Thai Raptor Group, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kasetsart University, Bangkok, 10900 Thailand Email: fvetchk@ku.ac.th Akalak Kunsorn, P.O. Box 39 Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park, Fang district, Chiang Mai, 50110 Thailand Email: akunsorn@gmail.com Chaiwat Wongchai, Biodiversity Center, Chiangrai Rajabhat University, Pahoyothin Road, Moeng district, Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand Email: benzchaiwat@gmail.com

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