Recent nesting site discovery of the Blue-Winged Pitta (Pitta Moluccensis) in Ulu Paip, Kedah, puts it to be the third known location of breeding pittas in Malaysia – the other being, Langkawi Island and Taman Negara.
A 40 year old, relative to the fruit plantation owner remarked those colourful birds 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 birds left to breed as nature would have it while their focus were purely on fruit harvests (left).
My 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.
I was soon to discover that pittas loved a game of’ ‘hide and seek’. The game is over if one gets spotted first. That meant the bird would be leading me on, perched and teased only to fly off to another branch. When my approach got too close to be comfortable, the bird would disappear for good leaving the exasperated pursuer in despair.
I had to drum up ‘Sun Tzu’s strategy and be prepared if I were to have any opportunity to be closed enough to take some documentary shots, without stressing the Blue-Winged Pittas.
Adorned with camouflaged drapes, the vehicle was sent into hiding and I took to my feet with my new companion, DG Scope and approached stealthily from the rear towards a prospective pitta site.
There was an aura of total quiet as I led the way with my scope. We plodded along the narrow tarmac, running parallel to the orchard of durians while I looked through my 8×42 binoculars for any blue-white flying object.
I felt a pair of eyes was quietly watching me and it was coming….coming from a rambutan fruit tree.
A Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) decided to fly across the road and perched on the same tree.
It was as though to say, “Hi birder count me in too!”
Suddenly, silence was broken by a loud, continuous squawking of a bird.
“I cannot recognize that bird call.” I said to myself hugging on to my five kilos something DG Scope.
My ears followed the distressed signal chased by my binoculars which finally caught up with an image of a startled blue-winged, red bellied, no tail bird having a ‘stand- off’ with the drongo.
The drongo has blown the bird’s cover. It’s the pitta!
I froze in surprise while the bird continued screeching unceasingly. It was almost like a whole minute before the defeated drongo took to a 100 metre flight deep into the orchard, leaving the screaming Pitta behind who forgot my presence.
As though harassment wasn’t sufficiently satisfied, the pitta suddenly flew out and headed towards the same tree as the drongo. At a distance, I could see the silhouette of a Pitta confronting and scolding the intruder perching on the same branch.
I had to be quick if I am to get this interesting shot. Before any focus on the bird could be had, the Pitta went into a semi-concealed position.
‘Where is the bird now?’ I questioned my scope still trying to look for that bird through my x50 eye piece.
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. I reviewed my position of strategy and decided I would remain hidden and stand behind the tree to watch any change of pitta’s position.
Unfortunately, no full views were to be had for a scope shot as the bird had gone into total concealed position.
The drongo, my missing piece of jig-saw puzzle, 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.
Well, it is one of those days. You win some, you lose some.
Heading out of the durian orchard rather reluctantly with recharged birding luck, another Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis) suddenly flew into view. It flew into a fruit tree branch previously perched by the intruding Greater racket-tailed Drongo.
I was soon to find out why…
I hastily headed for a low canopy tree and took cover. I held my breath and froze in between. Binoculars 8×42 were used at an approximate distance of 35 feet away. These were the following observations.
The pitta did some series of ‘hop and skip’ on the spot while perching under the tree canopy and shunting occasionally in different directions.
The turning of it’s head from right to left with a visual field of 180 degrees and vice versa was done repeatedly while checking consistently for intruders. This behavior appeared to be the main feature of this species in breeding mode.
There were moments when the pitta paused and remained still as if to listen. The elusive Pitta has an acute sense of hearing and indeed the ability to detect intruders a great distance away. The game is over if the intruder is first sighted by the bird that in turn, sends the intruder on a wild goose chase.
However, having said that, the orchard owner did comment the birds were more relaxed when he or regular fruit pickers were around. The sound of motorbikes and passing cars were also not much of an acute deterrent.
The orchard owner has been keeping watch dogs for years since taken ownership of the property. They were no deterrent to these breeding pittas.
The Blue-winged Pitta hopped fly from one tree branch to another. In taking extra precaution, the bird flew and perched on a concrete post further away. It repeated the usual breeding behavior before a quick dash flight over the fence and disappeared into low undergrowth.
This observation became my very first of a breeding Pitta, unaware it was flying into a nest that was discovered two weeks later. These birds are known to be usually ground nesters (right top).
Parental behavior was observed a week after four chicks hatched. They were observed under camouflaged drapes no less than 30 feet away at half-hour intervals on 3 occasions: morning, afternoon and evening over different days. Only one opportunity attempt was made to take a couple of hand held documentary, no flash shots in the morning when parent flew off after chick feeding (right bottom).
Parenting behavior of pittas is an observation that arouses human compassion. The amount of stress the parents took on, the hard work of sourcing food and feeding four chicks every 10-12 minutes continuously, the team work of sharing, caring for their young and protecting against intruders, call for an immeasurable respect for this avian family.
As ground nesters, the chicks are more prone to predators like stray animals, reptiles, insects and tendency to succumb to human destructive and predative habits. As such, more surveillance is required of such species specially designed to be natural, excellent practitioners of vigilance and decoy (left top).
Earthworms were the main diet for one week old chicks and abundantly available in the fertile fruit orchards (left middle). It was also observed that initial trips to source earthworms were made further away from the nesting site. Towards the end of fledging period, the exhausted parents, having lost considerable weight, were seen with pickings from near (left bottom).
It was also observed that while a parent was foraging, the other vigilant parent was never far away from the nest and used the fruit tree canopy for sentry duties. Any bird or stranger that approached too close fro comfort, a series of alarm calls, ‘skyeew’ would ring out to ward off intruders and to warn his mate to caution it’s approach.
Birders or photographers finding themselves under such situation would at best concede defeat and back-off, or to leave the place altogether out of the bird’s sight to allow feeding to resume. Otherwise, it was noted the parent with beakful of worms, would fly off in opposite direction to the nesting site to wait it out patiently. It will only to return on a ‘2 step’ approach when all clear.
If not, chicks would be left to starve to death. Such is the sensitivity of this intelligent species in practicing decoy from predation of their nests.
Having witnessed the extreme fragility and harsh environment upon which Blue-winged Pittas choose to breed, in my personal opinion, this is one species that the best and kindest thing for humans when nestlings are found if seen before, is to keep our distance and to leave parental birds to get on with their business of fledging their chicks and let nature takes it’s own course.
It is unfortunate I am not able to provide the first initial week’s documentary account and post fledgling behavior of the adults. I decided to abandon observations under difficult circumstance of an increasing crown that descended upon the orchard.
The birds’ welfare had to come first.
This article is made possible with kind approval from the orchard owner, first initiated when the first pitta’s discovery was made.
SUBMITTED BY DAISY O’NEILL (Avian Writer), PENANG, MALAYSIA