Apparition pitta on a “trapeze”

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A scheduled Saturday night of owling turned unforgettable for a birding trio. Dressed for the occasion, it was meant to be a night out, putting our new toys-a night vision aid and my ‘third eye’- headlights to a test.

We were just about to call it a night after having seen the owls as hoped. We decided to retrace our steps once more to the known site of the Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha) in a hope to chalk up our owling list.

I believe 30th July 06 is to be one and only life time opportunity to bear witness to this account- sighting a juvenile Mangrove Pitta at 12 midnight. It did not occur to us that this species that eludes so many birders in the day time could be possibly seen at night and in deep slumber on a unique, opened perch.

We crept in single file along the short boardwalk into total darkness, under tree canopy of mixed banyan trees and nipah palms (left).

Instinctively, my flashlight went searching for the floor coverings. Subconsciously, I was thinking wishfully and whispering aloud.

“It would be a miracle to see a Pitta at this time of the night!”

One buddy chuckled in disbelief but knew I was not looking for owls but for an elusive hope of sighting a pitta- a chance in a million to ever see one on that night.

That nice, quiet feeling of unexplained euphoria rose to the challenge and continued to hang over me as I led the way in darkness with my searching flashlight.

Suddenly…., I saw a white object hanging in mid-air. Approaching cautiously, there were numerous banyan vines hanging down from tree canopies. Some were twisted while one was dangling across another. The white object appeared to be levitating from this dangling vine in the dark!

‘It’s a pitta! Shh…..” Excitedly, I whispered to one of them who passed the message to buddy photographer cum bodyguard for the night.

We approached just in time to see this white object raised its head that snuggled, in an under-winged position to reveal his identity as the juvenile Mangrove Pitta. This was a fifth week old, juvenile showing its pinkish belly.

We stood on the boardwalk and stared silently at the juvenile in disbelief. We were stunned by the snoozing bird that was just perching on the vine like a trapeze artist. I cautiously waved my flashlight at the bird to observe for any response from the bird.

Bird remained motionless. A total of 20 shots or so were discharged from between the Nikon D200 and D2H. My Coolpix Nikon P4, a toy by comparison delivered 3 blurred underexposed shots. One turned out to be like an apparition Pitta on a ‘trapeze’ (right).

Stalking a pitta in the day time was difficult and sweaty enough. Having a pitta perched and posed in front for as long as the bird wanted to be observed was unimaginable. Photographing one at 12 midnight had to be a miracle. It happened!

There were moments when the juvenile yawned, scratched, opened and shut eyes. At other times, the bird remained quiet.

During those couple of moments when the Pitta yawned and scratched, it showed a crescent nictitating membrane emerging from the inner corner of the eye and this was caught on camera (left).

Yawning action was seen with Pittas’eyes opened. Did the bird not see us? We were less than 10 feet away!

Doesn’t the bird see at night? Was it blinded by our flashlights? These were questions that puzzled us. We decided to put another observation to the test.

From communication with initial hand signals to whispers that got louder and louder, we proceeded to speaking in normal tone and deliberated openly on the subject of ‘nictitating membrane.’

It was hard to believe that our presence and discussion went on until 1am and the bird was still perching on the same vine unperturbed by neither our voice nor our presence.

The conclusion to this juvenile pitta’s behaviour could be, pittas do not see nor hear well in the dark as opposed to extreme acute sight and hearing in the day.

The innocent, 5 week-old juvenile chick had not been exposed to human predatory presence nor acquired survival skills yet. Besides, the tide was high that night and the ground underneath the boardwalk was flooded. No escape for the juvenile but to play, ‘stand and look dead’.

We left thanking the juvenile the way it was first sighted.

For us trio, we each went home with a great feeling that we had struck the national lottery. We took that euphoric feeling to bed.

The juvenile Mangrove Pitta probably thought not, cared not and went back to zzz…

We slept not.

Courtesy documentary image from Michael Ng with thanks.
Submitted by: DAISY O’NEILL (Avian Writer), PENANG, MALAYSIA.

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