Stalking in tandem: The elusive pitta 1
Recent nesting site discovery of the Blue-Winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis) in Ulu Paip, Kedah, Malaysia puts it as the third known location of breeding pittas in Malaysia – the other two being Langkawi Island and Taman Negara.
A 40 year old, relative to the fruit plantation owner, said that the Blue-winged Pittas have been around since her childhood days! There had been previous nesting sites in different orchards but the families had in the past dismissed them as mere colourful birds left to breed as nature would have it while their focus was purely on fruit harvests.
An accidental discovery of a breeding pair of Blue-winged Pittas was made on 28th May 2006 by a birder while on routine reconnaissance to explore new birding territories. A small monitoring team initiated by members of the Malaysian Nature Society Penang Branch made numerous, progressive trips in pursuit of a chance of documenting a pitta nesting.An eventful day was the 3rd June. It was a day made to capture and to reminiscence this historical moment with birder-photographer partner, Tse Chien, with whom I am delighted to share and prove that ethical birding and good photography do go hand in hand with those who love birds.
Our first encounter with breeding adults was a beginner lesson taught by the birds. They are fast, alert, intelligent, highly cautious and great practitioners of decoy. We were soon to discover that pittas love the game of 'hide and seek’. The game is over if we get spotted first. That meant, the bird would be leading us on, perched and teased only to fly off to another branch when our approach was too close to be comfortable and when it had enough, would disappear for good leaving the exasperated pursuer in despair.
We drummed up Sun Tzu’s strategy and prepared well for a photo shoot just for the Blue-Winged Pittas. Adorned with camouflaged drapes, we hid our vehicle at a restaurant car park. We took to our feet and approached stealthily from the rear towards a prospective pitta site.
There was an aura of total quiet as I led the way. We plodded along the narrow tarmac, running parallel to the orchards of durians while I looked through my 8x42 binoculars for any blue-white flying object. I felt a pair of eyes was quietly watching us and it was coming… coming from a fruit tree.
A Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradisus) then decided to fly across the road and perched on the same tree. It was as though to say, “Hi birders, count me in too!”
Suddenly, silence was broken by a loud, continuous squawking of a bird.
“I cannot recognise that bird call” I whispered to my birding partner who was tailing me with his tripod and 8kg something of camera contraptions.
My ears followed the distressed signal chased by my binoculars which captured the image of a startled blue-winged, red bellied, no tail bird having a ‘stand- off’ with the Drongo.
The Drongo has blown the pitta’s cover. It’s the pitta! We froze in surprise while the bird continued screeching unceasingly. It was almost like a whole minute before the drongo took to a 100 metre flight into the orchard, leaving the screaming pitta behind and forgetting our presence.
As though harassment wasn’t sufficient, the pitta suddenly flew out and headed towards the same tree as the drongo. At a distance, we could see the silhouette of a pitta confronting and scolding the intruder perching on the same branch.
“Quick, quick, take that shot!” I said.
Excited, Chien did not have time to focus on the bird which went into a semi-concealed position. "Where is the bird now?" he asked.
I raised my binoculars to the direction of the scream and saw only a flash of red belly and something brown behind a vertical obstructed branch. We reviewed our position and decided I would remain hidden, standing behind the tree to prompt and watch of any change of pitta’s position. While Chien, having disengaged his tripod, maneuvered stealthily forward and towards the left to chance a clear view shot.Kneeling like a Xian Terracotta archer, Chien took aim and all I could hear then was clik! clik! and a few more clicks! The images of the elusive Blue Winged Pitta were finally captured in his Nikon D200 horned in by his lens. Chien recalled, dribbling in sweat and hailed that intense moment of bird-photography as simply, 'par-excellence.'
The Drongo-missing jig-saw puzzle to our gambit finally got the message and flew out of sight. The pitta continued to wallow screams for another one minute or so despite the ‘Black Knight’ having flown. The pitta waited a final half-minute more and finally disappeared, thus rewarding us a few more opportunity shots.
To me, not only was it a privilege to find ourselves compatible as birding partners, we also enjoyed encountering a unique contest of behavior of a Blue-Winged Pitta in breeding mode. It was also the image imprint in my memory bank that said and stayed. My partner has the makings of a true maturing professional bird-photographer and GOT style.
This photo shoot was taken under all natural conditions with no flash photography, to add stress to the bird and done with approved permission from the orchard owner in good birding partnership. Our actions fulfilled the international criteria within the Code of Good Ethical Birding Practice for which I advocate to those who aspire to become mature birders and share the love of birds.
Submitted by: DAISY O’NEILL, PENANG, MALAYSIA.