Crouched in the undergrowth of a mosquito and leech-filled tropical forest I waited quietly, and patiently, for yet another view of the Gurney’s Pitta. I knew his ritual: every 35-55 minutes he came on a feeding cycle through this area. I never knew when he was going to appear and there was no way to know where exactly the pitta would appear. But sure enough, he would always come. And always silently. And unexpected.
Over the years, I have seen many birds, but the Pittas have always remained the absolute Holy Grail of birding for me. As a child I could not page through my bird book without poring over the images of the beautiful Angola Pitta (African Pitta, Pitta angolensis). As a young ringer and ornithologist, I had soft spot for the local forest robin-chats (Natal Robin, Chorister Robin, Bearded Robin, Starred Robin) and forest floor thrushes (Orange Ground Thrush, Spotted Ground Thrush, Olive Thrush). And in many ways, these forest thrushes and robin-chats are much like little orange pittas, in their own little way. At least I think so.
Whilst in Thailand this last July, I desperately wanted to see a pitta. And I finally did – a quick glimpse of a Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis) just outside of Khao Sok National Park, quite enough to set my little heart on fire. Later in the day, fighting through tropical downpours and swarms of leeches, we picked up a Chestnut-naped Forktail (Enicurus ruficapillus) and then, a hopping shape under the boardwalk ahead. Stop! no sign of anything. 5 minutes go by, feel like a lifetime. we slowly creep forward. nothing. there it is! but what is it? wish I could get a clear view. guide, birding partner, and I all craning for views. nothing. there it is! gone. glimpse. gone. red cap? red under belly? no, it can’t be a Garnet Pitta (Pitta granatina). The light must be playing with us.
Eventually, the Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida) came out to show off his glory. Gorgeous. And my first ever pittas on a two-pitta day! Crazy.
A few days later, we got to Khao Nor Chu Chi Wildlife Sanctuary to search for Gurney’s Pittas. And, I swear, within less than five minutes in the park, we saw the unmistakable shape of a pitta hopping up ahead. I had heard from many that Khao Nor Chu Chi (aka Khao Pra Bang Khram) was like pitta heaven, but I really had not expected this. Awesome.
It turns out that first pitta was “just” a Hooded Pitta:
Returning to the same spot an hour later, I had the luck to find the Hooded Pitta again. So, I spent some time marvelling in its beauty. Twenty minutes as a highlight of my birding life. That is, until another bird came and almost landed on top of the Hooded Pitta. Much much larger. And yellow! A Hooded Pitta and a male Gurney’s Pitta 15cm from each other!!!
Now I did think about exploring the rest of Khao Nor Chu Chi and I did spend some time on other trails, but it occurred to me that I now knew of a spot where I had at least two pitta species and it was reliable. and that is exactly why I wanted to go there. So I spent 2.5 days sitting in the undergrowth trying not to swat mosquitos, make any noise, shuffle about or look at any other birds. Because as soon as my attention got distracted, I took the chance of missing the pittas.
The thing is, the Gurney’s Pitta male that I was hanging out with was incredibly stealthy. He would scratch about in the undergrowth without making even the slightest sound and no matter how I disguised myself, how still I sat or where I was, he never ever appeared withing about 35m (100ft). It seems he was very very well aware of what was happening in his feeding territory and would quietly do his feeding rounds, appearing every 35-55minutes, but always knowing exactly where I was. The less conspicuous I was, the more he trusted me, and I ended up with a few passable video clips of the Gurney’s Pitta (and some terrible photos).
In total, I probably spent a good few hours with the Gurney’s Pitta. Stunning. Moving. Wonderful. Awesome. Burned in my mind. The funny thing is, on every day I have ever seen pittas (sample size 4 😉 I have seen two species! Now that is a trend I would like to keep up.