In quest of rare birds

Elusive birds in the montane ecosystem and the rainforests of the Philippines, Indonesian islands, Sri Lanka and Ghana are a feast for the eyes.

Published : May 23, 2018 12:30 IST

The whiskered pitta in the Bangkong valley in the Philippines.

The whiskered pitta in the Bangkong valley in the Philippines.

ROARING tropical storms and rolling earthquakes are a constant in the Philippines. These natural disasters and the 20-odd active land volcanoes in the archipelago make birding a formidable activity there.

Sabu Kinattukara, a young birder and wildlife photographer from Kochi, Kerala, had first-hand experience of the tropical winds and a cyclonic storm as he waited, although feverish, behind a hide in the Bangkong Kahoy Valley to have a glimpse of the most elusive and longed-for bird, the whiskered pitta ( Erythropitta kochi ). Also known as Koch’s pitta or Pitta kochi , the bird derives its name from Gottlieb Van Koch (1849-1914), a German taxidermist.

The plump, small, ground-dwelling bird is considered the jewel of the northern Luzon island’s montane forests of Sierra Madre and Cordillera central ranges. The pitta is not an exotic bird if exotic stands for brilliant plumes and cocky behaviour. The bird presents a picture of solemnity. If spotted, one can be sure it will not become restless and dart into the forest undergrowth.

As Sabu waited for the storm to pass, there was a sudden lull in the weather. He sensed a movement in front of him. A bird drenched in rain came into view. A soft wind blew and turned what seemed like a ball of fluff into feathers of bright blue and red. As Sabu saw the whiskered pitta, his joy knew no bounds.

Species belonging to the Pittidae family are distributed across the central Himalaya, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Sabah (Malaysia) and Thailand have the most number of pitta species; the Philippines has five, two of them endemic (the whiskered pitta and the Steere’s, or azure-breasted, pitta). Of the 32 pitta species, three are found in Australia, two in Africa and one in the Solomon Islands. The pittas are identified by interesting names: the fairy pitta, the noisy pitta, the superb pitta, the giant pitta, the garnet pitta, the mangrove pitta, the blue-rumped pitta, the hooded pitta, the red-bellied pitta, the Malayan banded pitta, and so on. The superb pitta ( Pitta superba ) is endemic to Papua New Guinea. Salim Ali, India’s legendary ornithologist, identified six pitta species in India. The Indian pitta ( Pitta brachyuran) , which birders refer to as the 6 o’clock bird for its distinctive call made only at dawn and dusk, has multi-hued colours like the other members of the species.

Rey Sta Ana, president of the Philippines Wild Bird Photographers Association, said in an email to this writer: “Whiskered pittas and the Philippines eagle [ Pithecophaga jefferyi] are the most sought after birds in the Philippines.”

There are 640 bird species in the Philippines, of which 217 are endemic. The Philippines Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act has provisions against killing and destroying wildlife species. Yet, birds are hunted in the country. Nature protection organisations have launched campaigns to create public awareness about wildlife and habitat loss. The whiskered pitta figures in the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s (IUCN) Red List as a near-threatened species. The Philippines eagle, or the great Philippine monkey eagle, is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN’s 2017 Red List assessment. The Filipino government started the Philippine Raptors Conservation Programmein 1990 to help conserve the Philippines eagle and other raptors. Sabu visited a rescue camp where an injured Philippine eagle was being nursed back to health.

Sabu has a reason to be drawn to the whiskered pitta. When he started developing an interest in birding, he heard about Phoebe Snetsinger, the American birder whose passion to see all the 10,000-odd species of birds found on earth took her all around the globe in a period of three decades. Her checklist of 8,000-odd species is a world record. She visited 320 zoogeographical areas and bird sanctuaries. In her book, Birding on Borrowed Time , she wrote: “[the] whiskered pitta is prime for every birder who reaches [the] Philippines. Though the birder may have major other targets, undoubtedly it includes [the] whiskered pitta.”

Sabu went to the Philippines in July 2016 after a marathon trek in the mysterious forests of Papua New Guinea.

Sabu’s guide took him to Bangkong Valley. “The angelic whiskered pitta will charm your heart,” the guide told him. The temptation to see and photograph the bird was irresistible, Sabu said. But when they reached the valley, the weather had turned bad: howling wind and cyclonic rain coupled with lightning dashed his hopes. It was traumatic, Sabu said, as he had a high fever and was shivering. He wanted to go back, but the guide did not budge. Finally, when they were about to wind up, the bird showed up. Sabu said he was able to take many pictures of the pitta, but more than anything else, it had a soothing effect on him and gave him energy for the three-hour trek back.

He said: “From Manila to the valley it is a three-hour drive. From the valley it is a three-hour rigorous trek. The guide helped me climb the mountain. I had severe body ache. It was really difficult to go through the impenetrable and treacherous path. I was drenched. But the sighting of the pitta was worth the effort.”

Sitting behind the hide, Sabu recalled the experience of Phoebe Snetsinger. During her visit to the Philippines in 1991, she located and photographed the whiskered pitta in the Bangkong Valley. The first day of her trip was disappointing, but the next day she heard the bird’s call in a ravine. Soon after, there was another close by.

Phoebe Snetsinger wrote in her book: “Adrenalin surged. We scanned and located the bird through a binocular. It was on a slanting tree trunk around 200 metres in height and singing.” She was mesmerised by the intense glowing red of the bird’s underparts and its pale pink whiskers.

Mark Cocker, a renowned British birder and author of Birds and People , says: “Pittas rank among the most sought after creatures of the planet.” In his 592-page book, he describes how people’s lives are entwined with birds from ancient times to the present.

The renowned British birder Chris Gooddie launched a pitta quest in 2009. In a one-year period, he visited all the countries where the pitta is found and photographed the various species. His celebrated work, Jewel Hunter , deals with his travels and adventures. About his visit to Bangkong Valley, he said in an email to this writer: “It was a very tough five days, very wet. I had to trek and had steep climbs in Mount Hamut in Luzon,” to see the whiskered pitta.

He said that locating the pitta, especially the whiskered pitta, required precise field skills, experience and use of technology. The birder has to move silently and blend into the forest. This is essential to spot the shy and elusive bird. Gooddie started his quest in February 2009 in Thailand and completed it in Malaysia: he spotted all the 32 pitta species. He spent nearly 30,000 pounds on his pitta quest, covering approximately 2,01,168 kilometres, by land, sea and air. “When you are finally granted an audience with the whiskered pitta, it is a huge endorphin rush,” he said.

Two other English birders who are said to have seen all the pittas are Andy Meers and Mike Edgecombe, but their mission took them many years. The other pitta species Sabu could locate and photograph are the ivory-breasted pitta ( Pitta maxima ) and the Sultan’s Sahul pitta ( Pitta rufiventris ) in the lush forests of Halmahera island in Indonesia. He saw the bar-bellied pitta ( Hydronis ellioti ) in Vietnam. Halmahera island is immortalised in the annals of natural history by the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who spent several years in the Spice Islands (as they were known then), studying their flora and fauna and the zoogeographic division. It was in a remote village on Halmahera island that, in 1858, Wallace came up with the theory of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”.

The bower bird of West Papua Seemingly oceanic is the Arfak mountain range in West Papua, an Indonesian province east of the Wallace Line. Though not fully explored, it is an exquisite birding area. The trek through cloud-hugged forests was a blissful experience, Sabu said. The Arfak mountains have now become a birding hotspot. The mountains are endowed with a unique range of birds, including the birds of paradise, which dominate the avian list in Papua New Guinea.

A trip to the Arfak mountain range can be tedious. One has to fly from Jakarta to Sulawesi, an octopus-shaped island in the Indonesian archipelago. A small aircraft then ferries tourists to Manokwari, the capital of West Papua. From there, after eight hours in a jeep on a steep and narrow path and two hours of vigorous trekking through the rainforests, one is rewarded with an awesome sight—the peculiar bower bird. Sabu found the Vogelkop bower bird ( Amblyornis inornata) , one of the several species of the bower bird found in Papua New Guinea and Australia . These birds build bowers (nests or enclosures) using dry grasses, roots and wood splinters and decorate the entrance to the nest with flowers, fruits, shells of beetles and other objects. The nest is a dome-shaped framework of dry grasses, without pillars. There are different types of bowers, some are ornamental, some just plain.

The male Vogelkop bower bird builds its nest in November-December to lure the female. After the male completes the bower, a female bird inspects it meticulously for hours. The male waits outside, to know the result of his effort. If it is satisfied, the female will choose the male as its mate.

Richard O. Prum, professor of ornithology in Yale University, United States, has done extensive studies on the bower bird. In his book The Evaluation of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us (Penguin, New York) , he says: “No description can really prepare you for the extraordinary architecture of the aesthetic structures created by male bower birds to use as their courting arenas. Few creatures on earth lead a life that is thoroughly shaped by aesthetics as these birds and their bowers are their masterpieces created with as much care, attention and discernment as any artwork.”

Going into the depth of the bower bird’s behaviour and the decorations in front of the nest, he says that “the collection of these ornamental objects and materials is the result of male aesthetic preferences that have co-evolved with female mating preferences. To please the females, the males have evolved a whole new class of their own. In the process they have made themselves into animal artists who vie for the attention of their aesthetic patrons.”

Prum says that the birds curate strange objects and materials and spread them in front of the bowers.

The satin bower bird ( Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) decorates the entrance to its bower with a plethora of royal blue objects.

Sabu waited behind a hide to capture the bower building activity of the Vogelkop. The bird may take more than a week to complete a bower. He could not wait that long to see the completion of the bower. However, he was able to see one bower bird near its bower.

Another prized find in West Papua was the rare white-striped forest rail ( Rallicula leucospila ). It is one of the most difficult birds to photograph since it confines itself to the impenetrable parts of jungles. After nearly four hours of wait, Sabu asked the guide: “Any hope?” The guide replied with a laugh: “Sir, it is an elusive bird. Anyway, let us try [to spot it].” After an hour or so, the bird appeared from among the bushes. But at the slightest disturbance, it flew away.

The diabolic nightjar Sabu had a memorable experience in the Lore Lindu National Park in Sulawesi island. It was here that he photographed the Satanic nightjar (Eurostopodus diabolicus) , a dark brown, grotesque bird that opens its mouth wide on sensing danger. It is locally viewed as a demonic entity. The local people have superstitions attached to the sighting of the bird and believe that it can tear out the eyes of a sleeping child. The bird, measuring 27 centimetres in length, including its tail, is bigger in size than a common crow. It blends with the rocky terrain, so a keen eye is needed to spot it. Alarmed by the disturbance caused by the presence of Sabu and his guide, the bird opened its blood-red mouth wide but did not show any signs of taking flight. Not much is known about its breeding biology or ecology. The IUCN Red List treats it as vulnerable.

Sri Lanka’s scops owl In Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabu could photograph the chicks of the Serendib scops owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) . The species was last seen in 1938 and rediscovered in 2002. Sabu’s guide, on seeing the picture of the bird in his handbook, identified it and took Sabu to its nest among bamboo clusters. The mother bird was not there and the fledglings seemed to be asleep. Sabu could not see the colourful green-billed coucal ( Centropus chlororhynchos) in its dense habitat but heard its distinctive call. He was, however, able to photograph another beautiful bird, the Sri Lankan blue magpie ( Urocissa ornate ) endemic to Sri Lanka. The Sinharaja sanctuary is a unique biodiversity reserve and is recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The birds of Ghana Sabu considers his birding experience in Africa, especially in Ghana, unique. He trekked into inaccessible evergreen forests in search of a bizarre bird called the yellow-headed picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus) or the white-necked picathartes. Sabu said he was inspired by David Attenborough’s short film on the bird. It is a relic bird seen from the times of the dinosaurs, says Kwame Boafo, a wildlife scientist and researcher working with the Ghana Wildlife Society. Rocky terrain surrounded by dense evergreen forest is the ideal habitat of the bird. Its airy hops are captivating. With tall and slender legs, the largely silent bird shows considerable agility. There is not much information available about its population size, but its habitat is rather fragmented as the forests in Ghana are degraded.

A three-hour trek from Bankro village, about nine hours’ drive from the capital city, Accra, takes one to the bird’s habitat. The guide selected a hide. After two hours, a lone bird hopped on to a nearby boulder and later perched itself on a tree. Sabu said the bird seemed to be in a contemplative mood. By the time the bird appeared, it was sundown. After some time, it darted into its nest built with mud.

Michael Mills, who has travelled widely in Africa, told this author in an email: “The yellow-headed picathartes comprise the most desirable and enigmatic bird family of the African region. They inhabit low-land forests. Along with them, the red-headed [species] is also seen. There are breeding colonies in Ghana and Cameroon. Nowadays it seems that the bird has built up a good relation with the birders who visit the spot.”

Kwame Boafo said there was no record of sighting the bird for about 40 years. However, in 2003 a single bird was sighted by a museum collector from the United States.

The bird has prominent yellow and white plumage and what seems like an aviator’s cap on its head. The bird’s range includes Ghana and Sierra Lione. It is legally protected by the Ghana government, which has made hunting of the bird a punishable offence. Yet the villagers hunt. The bird is threatened by predators and logging operators.

Sabu said the villagers sold cooked snail and rodents and even mongoose-like animals on the roadside. In the Mole National Park in Ghana, Sabu spotted the Egyptian plover ( Pluvianus aegyptius) , also called the crocodile bird as it loves to bask in the sun with the crocodile. The black necklace-like mark around its neck distinguishes the bird, and it can be seen in the rocky areas of the park. The bird gets into the gaping mouth of the crocodile and picks food particles from its teeth. This cleaning symbiosis was first mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories (“…the crocodile, when he leaves the water and comes out upon the land, is in the habit of lying with his mouth wide open… at such times the trochilus goes into his mouth and devours the leeches.”) The African emerald cuckoo is endemic to African countries. Sabu found the bird in the Ankasa Forest Reserve in Ghana near a papaya tree.

A new-found passion Sabu’s passion is to trek to unexplored birding areas and seldom photographed bird spots. “I have been rewarded by nature for I could see different plumages, from the drab to the dazzling,” he said. He has trekked to mountain peaks, on rocky terrain and in the rainforests, deserts and grasslands. He has crossed swamps and cruised to far-flung islands. Walking through the loose volcanic soil in Sulawesi, he said, was a back-breaking exercise. He has braved landslides, torrential rains and freezing winter in his quest for birds.

It is only five years since Sabu, who is a businessman, took to birding. Five years ago, when he took the picture of a bird in the Vagamon grassland in Kottayam district of Kerala, his friends asked him to identify the bird. He could not. He immediately went to a bookstall and purchased Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds . That was his initiation into birding. He started reading and took more interest in birding. It was at that time that a friend told him about Phoebe Snetsinger and her travels around the globe. He went to Thattekkad bird sanctuary in Ernakulam district and photographed the Indian pitta. After that he travelled to the Himalayan region, Sikkim, Bhutan, Andaman and other places. He later birded in Africa, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Papua New Guinea. In June, he will be leading a six-member team to Papua New Guinea to see the birds of paradise.

Recently, he showed this writer the picture of the shoebill, or whale-headed stork. The bird is found in Sudan, Zambia and Congo. Its bill is long and shaped like a clog or wooden shoe. A nocturnal bird, it frequents waterlogged areas and hunts in moonlight. In September, he plans to visit some African countries to spot the bird.

Systematic and well-planned birding is touching new heights, especially in the West in view of fascinating ornithological discoveries and research.

Peter Kaestner, global birder and former American diplomat, says in the preface to Birding on Borrowed Time : “In addition to the new species, many birds known only from historical records are being rediscovered. The most exciting was the diminutive kinglet calyptura, a beautiful species that remains unrecorded just outside of Rio de Janeiro for over 100 years before it was dramatically rediscovered in 1996.”

Any birder would be moved by the words of Charles Darwin: “Birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals excepting, of course, man.”

G. Shaheed is the Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubumi in Kochi.

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