Observing the nesting of the Mangrove Pitta

posted in: Nesting | 9

In June 2008, Foo Sai Khoon shared with members of Nature Pixels his image of the nesting of the Mangrove Pitta (Pitta megarhyncha).

“As the image was captured at a nesting site, I apologise in advance that I am unable to divulge its location except that the image was taken in Pulau Ubin in 2006.

“Mangrove Pittas are mainly restricted to Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. Globally threatened (due to destruction of mangroves, their living habitat), they are secretive, live in solitude or in pairs and move quietly among the mangroves. They remain an elusive bird… The other two species of pittas that can be found in Singapore are migratory. They are the Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis) and Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida).

“Through an informer (a nature loving friend), I was able to observe various stages of Mangreove Pitta nesting process from nest building to incubation of eggs to arrival of the chicks. As Mangrove Pittas are extremely skittish subjects and to avoid the situation where they abandon the nest, I visited the site on weekly basis (weekdays usually). The monsoon rain had also not make things easier. Sometimes, I arrived only to… leave because of the rain, low light situation and risk of fallen trees. Not forgetting those times when I got bitten by ants and even encountering a viper at close proximity.

“For those who may be interested on the technical side of things, observations were done through binoculars or telephoto lenses. Photography was done through a portable hide placed behind some vegetation where a stretch of mangroves run between the vegetation and the nest. All images were captured with telephoto lenses. Due to poor lighting in that area, flash was used but in moderation. In other words on each trip, the number of images captured was also done in moderation. No branches or vegetation was cut or removed. I used nylon cable ties to organise branches that may otherwise block the view of my lenses. These nylon cable ties were removed when I left the site so that the nest continued to be concealed the way it was. No attempts were made to go near the nest as my telephoto lenses provided me the reach.

“Unfortunately, despite all the precautions and efforts, this was the furthest stage I could go to document this species. I received a call from my nature loving friend one day that only one of the two chicks remained in the nest and it was dying. Ants were crawling all over nest and some where biting it. We had no choice but to send it to Jurong Bird Park (JBP). However, it was also through this experience that I learn that if circumstances permit, injured birds should not be sent to JBP…”

Image by Foo Sai Khoon.

This post is a cooperative effort between www.naturepixels.org and BESG to bring the study of bird behaviour through photography to a wider audience.

9 Responses


    Well done Foo Sai Khoon for your good practice to observe those elusive birds.
    You can appreciate why these birds are simply hypersensitive to human observation.
    Sometime Chick predators are also observing what human observers are doing without us knowing it. eg. monkeys, raptors.

    Daisy O’Neill

  2. Subaraj

    While the nest predation here may have taken place anyway and Sai Khoon did try to minimise disturbance while photographing the nesting progress, there is something to address here nonetheless.

    The Mangrove Pitta is a Locally Endangered species that is highly habitat (good mangrove) dependent. As a resident, it disappeared on the main island in the 1970s but continued to survive in the good mangrove of Tekong and Ubin. Numbers are very low, with only a few pairs on Tekong and about 7 birds on Ubin. There have been no confirmed breeding records within Singapore, in decades.

    So while the record of this rarity nesting is invaluable, should we take the risk of documenting the nesting cycle of such rare or vulnerable species? To obtain a couple of record shots upon discovery of the nesting is fine but to regularly return (even once a week) to document the stages of nesting does increase risks, no matter how careful we are.

    As certain species like the Mangrove Pitta are highly at risk locally and breeding is low or non-existant, perhaps we should have an ethics ruling here of not carrying out documentation of any nesting uncovered (apart from the initial record shots) to allow these species to increase their numbers with the highly level of protection afforded to them and their habitats nowadays.

    Then, if the population increases, it will give us the opportunity to learn more about them without contributing to their decline, inadvertantly. Besides, the nesting of this pitta could be carried out in Malaysia, where there are healthier populations.

    Just an opinion…..but one that is religiously exercised in other countries where such nesting areas are completely cordoned off from human access, during the breeding season.

  3. Foo Sai Khoon

    Thanks for the comments Daisy, anonymous and Subaraj.

    I understand fully where you are coming from.

    Not addressing this to anyone in particular. My take is we all wish for nature subjects to flourish. But this is an uphill task especially in a land scarce country like Singapore where places nature subjects chose to exist continue to be taken up for urban development (Senoko, Changi Cove and soon Ponggol just to name a few). We all know that the people who could create massive destruction to nature subjects, their habitat and ecosystem are decision makers, not nature lovers, birders or photographers. Nature lovers, birders and photographers do not have the capabilities to create such an impact.

    We could choose to turn a blind eye and hope that nature subjects could some how flourish by themselves with no disturbance from nature lovers. But on the flip side of the coin, how much time do we really have to leave them that way? Someone may just pen that area for urban development before we knew it. How are we to protect things we do not understand or to generate support from general public on nature conservation if they cannot see what their votes are protecting?

    A picture speaks a thousand words. My purpose in taking photographs of nature subjects beside to generate interest in nature subjects and create nature awareness among the general public, I hope some of them could one day add to the natural history of Singapore. Photography aside, I have done my share of guiding as a volunteer to children, public, corporate clients, friends and colleagues under my bank’s name in places like Sungei Buloh Wetland Research, Pulau Semakau, Chek Jawa and HSBC Tree-top walk. I have been on Earth Watch expedition to Vietnam. Currently, I am involved in Climate Change Study Project and Project Semakau that will run over 3 years. The bottom line is I care about nature as much as anyone does and I have only good intentions for them.

    Knowledge is one thing I hope could readily be available in the internet to those who sought them out. BESG blog is a good example where people interested in birds get to see bird images and understand why they do the way they did. I also hope research materials from Malaysia, Singapore or any countries could be made available in the internet as well. These are for people who wish to understand the particular species of nature subjects they are interested in. I have a tough time obtaining materials on Mangrove Pitta. I wondered if they have ever been photographed before. That is why I set it as a personal project to document the pitta so as to contribute to a better understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, the outcome was not what I have hoped for. Other than contributing the images to Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, I decided to share the image with all bird lovers two years later (as the sightings were in 2006).

    For Subaraj, I am glad to inform that there is a least one addition to the Mangrove Pitta population in Pulau Ubin. I saw another juvenile Mangrove Pitta in the same year. The image is available in this thread.


  4. YC

    I see the problem from another perspective. The conflict between ornithologists, birdwatchers and bird photographers. First came the ornithologists, birding with a gun. Then the birdwatchers arrived, armed with the binoculars. Finally the camera toting bird photographers… I hope to post my views on these three groups and the love-hate relationship one group has on the other in a future post. Anyone with any views, please send them via BESG’s forum or even Pigeon Hole.

    While Subaraj may be idealistic, Sai Khoon is being realistic. I am all for documenting as far as we do not unnecessarily disturb the wildlife. For long, we have been looking at birds without studying them. Then came the photographers and they are doing a excellent job that birders so far failed to do.

  5. Subaraj

    Just to make things clear. I am not against documenting birds and their behaviour in the field, whether with camera or field research. Since we started BESG, there has been a wealth of information that has been obtained by so many and bird photographers have contributed a large bulk of it.

    My concern is where do we draw the line. I appreciate Sai Khoon’s view that habitats keep disappearing in Singapore and Yeow Chin’s view that I am an idealist. However, a few of us have spent many years studying in the field, providing relevant data to the officials and battling to keep what little we have.

    As such, in places that are protected in some form, including the mangrove at Ubin, by NParks, we should allow the habitat and the eco-system a chance to recover and thrive under this protection. Do keep documenting whatever you can as the photos are invaluable in demonstrating our natural treasures. However, we also need to contribute toward allowing these protected places and their delicate denizens a chance to flourish. We need to be sensitive about how far we are willing to go to document wildlife, if there is any risk involved. The welfare of the wildlife should always come first!

    I would like to hope that we can ensure that the 7% promised by the government for preservation will include some of our remaining biodiversity treasure troves such as the central nature reserves and parts of Pulau Ubin. I would not like to think that we have reached a stage where we are documenting history, thinking that it will all eventually disappear!

    If that makes me an Idealist, then so be it!

  6. Kerry

    Sai khoon, Loved your pics, I just got a shot of a hooded pitta in my yard. In any case, could you please expand on why one should exercise care when taking injured birds to JBP? Last year, I raised a baby pink neck pidgeon that fell into my yard. (much time and great expenses) Eventually we were going on holiday and I had to take her in to the park. She was in perfect condition and starting to fly around the house. Now you have me worried….

  7. Sai Khoon

    Kerry, I love your yard already. 🙂

    It’s nothing personal really. To me, the spirit of saving birds (or any living creatures) is to nurse them to health and then set them free so that they could move on with life, find a mate, start a family (reproduce) etc etc. Nursing them to health and keep them as exhibits or for bird shows is a “no no” to me.

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