“I am sure at some stage of one’s life would have heard complimentary expressions like, ‘He/she can really talk a bird down a tree.”
“It is really an in-born, natural art of successful, somewhat borderline deceitful, convincing salesmanship – a gift of the gap so to speak, excelling to have the skillful capabilities of even the ability to sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo… and… doing it with a big smile.
“Well, I am many notches behind that kind of gift, but no hesitation to keep discovering myself, finding my own niche and capabilities that had provided positive results and a deep sense of satisfaction.
“A successful whistling encounter with a Garnet Pitta (Pitta granatina) is surely one of them (left).
“Before sharing this joy incident with readers, I would like to share an opportunity of advocacy to new birders/photographers in setting the record straight that the welfare of birds always takes precedence amongst any techniques used to bring birds into sight.
“Now, how about talking a ground dwelling bird up a tree, doing it naturally without the use of any playback recording devices or the use of edible/non- edible baits?
“Is it possible?
“Here is the little secret.
“While the successful salesman possesses the gift of the gap, birders/photographers/digiscopists would do well to arm oneself the gift of whistling for and with birds AND doing it sparingly with discretion where situation allows.
“To enjoy the presence and bonding of birds and getting to know them better is what all is about and a bonus – a journey of self discovery that it comes with a fragile and true partner – the practice of habitat conservation.
“To personally recall some birding/photography milestones, I believe this natural technique, before reaching out so quick for the tape recorders, should have been first taught and encouraged by our mentors and/or incorporated in all basic birding classes had one the opportunity to attend.
“The correct or incorrect usage of playback tape recordings of bird calls to lure birds out had seen to be a habit picked up in social birding circuits and in peer groups with gismos must also have.
“By early/mid 2005, the usage had spread and was already in vogue amongst trendy Singaporean and Malaysian birders/photographers. Unfortunately, it soon became a convenient bad habit like being deprived of a cell-phone one cannot do without.
“Today, even bird poachers and amateur bird guides have a ready tape recorder at hand to coo about.
“I believe and would like to believe such kill joy, malpractices in the hands of less desirable laypersons, birders and bird-photographers inclusive that knowingly or unknowingly caused unnecessary stress to breeding birds is now showing a plateau phrase.
“From verbal reports of diminishing bird sightings and its overly, inappropriate usage and unfavorable results, birders, photographers, bird guides are now admitting quietly if not honestly, this technique has been long abused and had gone on overdrive and off the cliff.
“‘Don’t work anymore like it used to’ lamented a bird guide spoken to.
“Playback bird recordings are notably used by amateur/semi and professional bird guides through out many countries. It is an added pacifier and bonus to clients’ birding luck, they who had traveled far and had paid exorbitant fees to see targeted birds.
“I personally would agree to discreet playback recordings of birds be only reserved for use in the field of scientific work and at most, skilled licensed professional bird guides who are in active contribution and services in nature conservation practices literally, scientifically or otherwise.
“So let’s get back to good old nature, doing things the natural way. Give ourselves a chance to relearn if one has erred in the past and discover if oneself a natural. (I was once asked, what would be the difference between whistling and using the tape recorder. My curt reply was if they own a pet and want their attention, would they choose to call/whistle or use the tape recorder on them?)
“Let’s set good examples to guide the next generation of new birders/photographers onto the conservative path in bird watching and bird photography for a little chance left to see those wonderful birds before they all disappear.
” Here is a suggestion for new practitioners. Practice whistling in the privacy of your homes with tunes most familiar with. Begin the warm up practice with the musical scale like musicians do. Get confident with it and then progress to learning some easy bird calls/favourite birds from your recording devices or at websites of bird calls.
“Be sure to get it right before confidently putting into practice in the field. It is a one to one experience with the bird. Several whistlers blowing at the same time is not only annoying but sends birds to flee.
“Be ready to visualise and join me on a mission flight trip to the Sarawakian primary forests to meet Mexico – the Garnet Pitta and mates found only south of the border of North Borneo (Sabah).
“The mission objective was to determine whether this ground dwelling bird species shows any sex plumage differentiation in comparison to its splitted Sabahan cousin endemic – the Black-headed Pitta (Pitta ussheri) (Article posted earlier HERE).
“To invite Mexico out, Avian Writer is going to need the support of readers and to stay in the game of Hide-N-Seek, enjoy the experience of a ‘one to one’ personal rapport and short bonding moments when bird starts to talk back.
“Having made survey trips in the past and determined best time opportunity when these birds begin to be more vocal during their breeding season, I showed up at the appropriate period and set off for the trails – a selected location where no less than three Garnet Pittas reside.
“Dawn was best. Sometimes when luck held good, it was made easier to just head for the direction of where a bird was already waiting and calling – ‘Phoo……………….’.period (sudden cut off).
“It is never a dull moment when one hears a pitta whistling. It is a good start to a lover’s call that sends ones heart beating and galloping double speed inside ones chest.
“At other times, a temporary curtain hide was used with me waiting behind some bushes or a large tree trunk. I had my Digiscope set up directed towards the anticipated highway where the ground dwellers frequently used. (Unfortunately, short visiting bird-photographers don’t have this time luxury or make time to observe bird’s behavior first before pressing the shutter and thus, lose the big picture hidden in the human eye.)
“In this particular situation with Mexico, where the jungle lay silent with trees and thick undergrowths on either side, grounds littered with damp, decayed foliages and fallen rot timbers, I initiated a whistle for a response to determine bird’s presence.
“‘Phoo……….’ Period. (Whistle the 3rd note |do-ray-me| on the musical scale.)
“Sparingly, the whistles were repeated several times slowly. Each time, a pause for about a minute or just under was made to listen for a response.
“A soft similar reply finally came that sounded quite a distance away. Pittas have excellent hearing capacities and are accurate sound locaters. A few more repeated whistles to guide the ground dweller towards my direction was in order.
“Mexico’s whistling replies became louder and louder. Further attempts were made to imitate as accurate as possible – bearing in mind that while I was assessing its mood to approach, the whistler was also assessing the direction and authenticity of a mate’ call.
“How to assess if it was going to be a make or break situation?
“Pending on the terrain, I stopped whistling when a pitta’s call got heard like 15-20 metres away. At this crucial moment, the bird would decide if it was to further pursue or lose interest and fly away.
“In the case of Mexico, after I went silent, the bird showed its interest to regain contact by issuing a crystal clear, contact whistle call.
“It was as if to say, ‘Halloo… where are you?”
“I paused momentary and oozed a soothing lover’s reply message of I am here… with a ‘Phooo…………..’
“Everything went silent after that. Those moments had me froze and I waited and waited in my hideout wondering what was to show up next.
“Mexico decided to seek me out on the quiet. Stealthily, the hopping 15 cm gem crept up towards my direction and approached from my rear. Its hidden presence in the thick undergrowth was betrayed by rustlings of dried foliage.
Mexico blew another whistle declaring its presence. The bird had me goofed. Now I am really getting nervously sweaty for the whistling call was just under 6 metres away.
“I replied with a softer similarity, squatting behind my tree trunk hideout. We spent a few more rounds blowing love whistles to each other. Each time, I blew mine softer to mislead that I was further away.
“The jewel of the forest had already my position locked in to its precision call-locating radar and was determined.
“It worked and the next thing, I had Mexico flew into the open to investigate and the bird landed about 3 metres directly above my head!
“An insurance shot was taken with my stand-by point and shoot camera (left).
“The bird was showing what I had come to see- the frontal breast demarcation line that separates the black and red plumage. It showed a straight line beautifully (below left).
“Was it a male or female or both sexes have straight frontal demarcation line?
“I blew another soft whistle to study more of its sound-locating behavior. Mexico was observed intently turning its head right and left like a searching antenna. As the bird somehow showed the lack of capacity or neglect to look down, it gave me a bit more space and time to retreat quietly to an adequate distance of five metres to Digiscope some flash free documentary shots. (above right).
“What brought the encounter to a quick finale was a whistling call of another Garnet Pitta in the gully. The call sent Mexico to take flight onto another tree branch further away.
“Mexico was a bit confused for choice. While the soft whistling call of a mate came from the opposite direction was alluring, Mexico had not forgotten my calls. The bird turned around to allow this partial last shot (left).
“I immediately stopped my whistling, came out of hiding and switched to a matchmaker’s role, ushering Mexico to trail a true lover’s call.
“As the gully was dense with undergrowths, there was no opportunity to pursue further observations of the assuming breeding pair for a closer comparison.
“It only means… I am not done yet but to await with respect and patience, the primary forests to yield another portion at an appropriate time.”
Avian Writer Daisy O’Neill
Copyright article and copy images:
Courtesy of Daisy O’Neill Bird Conservation Fund
23rd June 2012