Thursday, 1 June 2017

A tale of two pittas

One of the worst things you can wake up to on a birding day is the sound of thunder and rain. Any prior plan I had for an excursion to a remoter birding site was drowned out by this torrential downpour. It was also impossible to go to back sleep now. The body, mind and soul was in birding mode. Nothing much left to do but to sulk in silent with a cuppa in hand and hope for the Almighty to be merciful. Two hours later, the slightest rays of the morning sun were finally able to pierce through the gloom. That was all I needed. A slight delay but I could still salvage what is left of the day. The weather was not promising when I arrive at the extensive and pristine mangrove belt in central Kedah. However, the territorial calls of the Mangrove Pittas deep inside their swampy domain immediately had a bewitching effect on me and I trod onto the soft muddy terrain without the slightest hesitance.

This is not the first I got down and dirty for this elusive but alluring species. I remember going off the beaten track back during my teenage years to observe two Mangrove Pittas having a territorial dispute among the lush vegetation of the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam disregarding the fact I was almost shin-high in mud and water. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my birding life. Back to the present, the rain clouds may have now engulfed the sky again but it was no longer relevant. Among the vegetation in middle level of the forest, I could just make out the shape of the Mangrove Pitta. The sight of a pitta, even when almost completely obstructed, is a sight to behold.

With a little effort and patience I soon found myself ogling at an adult Mangrove Pitta foraging and resting in full view. The predawn rain has made the conditions here rather uneasy for me to settle down comfortably but it did not stop me from enjoying another memorable performance.

Just like my last visit, it was confiding and friendly. I lost myself in the encounter. My muddied clothes and equipment did not matter. Loads of impossible work-related deadlines to meet in the weeks to come did not matter. All that mattered was having this close and intimate encounter with a feathered jewel of the coastal swamp lands.

Normal folks usually assume I have to be patient to be a birder. Well, they are not completely wrong. Patience does play a role. However, I prefer to hunt for my ‘quarry’ rather than the sit-and-wait approach. In order to be mobile I rarely use a tripod for bird photography and on a few rare occasions, has deprived me of certain pleasures during birding. Without the aid of a tripod, shooting a video is usually a lost cause. Not trying at all, especially when your confiding subject happens to be a pitta, would be a sin. This clip turned out better the rest but do excuse the camera shake. The weight of my gear and the adrenaline flow was just too much.

Very few things could have distracted me from the Mangrove Pitta but an unfamiliar call that sounded very much like the rare and elusive Racket-tailed Treepie most certainly could. I turned around with just enough time to get my bins on a flock of 3 birds flying across the mangrove and into a scrubland habitat next to a Malay village. This species is restricted here in Malaysia to suitable habitats in the north-western parts of the peninsular. This was my third ever record and I am still waiting for the day to come when the encounter would last at least a minute. With the spell of the pitta over me broken, I began to take notice of the other birds present. Nothing unexpected was recorded during this time’s visit and the resident Abbott’s Babblers were showy indeed. They were a little sluggish today probably due to the weather and that worked to my advantage. My gear would not have been able to cope with any fast movements – especially in this kind of lighting.

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers are relatively prominent in this locality as well. A pair came to welcome me just like last week. But this time, it was the male bird that overshadowed the female with his memorable performance.

The Oriental Magpie-Robin, despite being heavily trapped for the bird trade, is still common in suitable habitats throughout the country. A coastal swamp forest nearby human settlements like this is ideal for this famed songster and like all divas, this female was quite adamant to have her photo taken.

From one swamp forest to another, my next destination was none other than Air Hitam Dalam. Afternoons are usually quiet times in any forest and it is no different here. The swarming of winged termites will usually bring the birds in and it did. But just not up to expectations. A hundred strong Germain’s Swiftlets having a mid-air feeding frenzy can only hold your attention for so long. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, on the other hand, provided some opportunities to capture its images.

One thing did surprise me at the feeding frenzy and it was the presence of a Crested Serpent-Eagle. It could have been a coincidence or the presence of so many birds has caught its attention. I am quite sure it is not the minute termites. This is a big raptor and it will take a whole lot of termites to satisfy its appetite.

The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest kingfisher in this neck of the woods and only on a slow day would I be able to shower it with some attention. Today is one of those days. A lone bird resting on an exposed perch in relatively good light caught my attention as I was birding along the riverside trail. Somewhat lacking in colours but not in character, it kept me occupied for quite a period of time.

I noticed the Blue-winged Pittas flying about upon my arrival here and I thought to myself it would be fantastic if I could photograph two species of pittas on a single day. To see one species is already a blessing. To see and shoot two species here around Penang will certainly give me something to brag about. Initially, I failed to locate the pitta but sometimes in life, you just got to have a little faith. As I was about to call it a day, the Blue-winged Pitta suddenly alighted close to where I was seated packing up my gear. It was unexpected as the pitta kept itself well hidden from me thus far in my visit. Anyway, I sprang into action immediately and managed to capture its images. Bragging rights obtained...

Initially, I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph the pitta on a natural perch but then I thought the pitta chose to alight here on its own free will. And if it is good enough for the bird, it is most certainly good enough for this birder. This encounter with the Blue-winged Pitta and the earlier one with the Mangrove Pitta reinforces the grip birds have on my life. To blog about your every birding excursion is no easy task no matter how passionate one may be about the subject. I do sometimes struggle especially when the excursion was a mediocre affair. However if the excursion had been exceptionally good like let us say two pitta species in a single day, the words come easily and I can even wrap up an entire post at one go.

So, here are the star birds of the day side by side showing the subtle differences between the two species. These two may be the commoner of the pittas found here in Peninsular Malaysia but they are still just as intriguing. And this time, they turned what was heading to be a disastrous day of birding into one that will be cherished for a long time to come.  

Here are the checklists for the birds recorded during this trip.


kezonline said...

Wonderful post again wai Mun. This time concentrating on those Pitta's. Great pics as usual. You say sometimes you struggle to put a blog together from a mediocre excursion. But far from it, you just tell it as it is and it comes out so interesting for those of us from afar that do not have mangroves, swamp forests and all sorts of tropical hideouts these birds live in. So your blogs are REALLY interesting, even on a bad day for you haha! Keep up the good work. Rgds Keiron U.K (and part time Penangite)

kezonline said...

P.S. I really like your checklists of location and bird species at the end of some of your recent posts. Great idea!!

Choy Wai Mun said...

Keiron, your words of encouragement is much appreciated. Thank you. The checklist is just my small way to promote and create awareness for eBird Malaysia.