“A routine birding visit to one of my regular haunts in Central mainland Penang, Peninsular Malaysia had me stitched on-to commence a nest monitoring pair of Blue-winged Pittas (Pitta moluccensis).
“A bird flew passed with beakful of breakfast earthworms, foraged from a burnt compost heap on 24th May, 2013.
“Whooh… was that a signal prompt or sheer carelessness of parenting bird that chose to cross a birder’s path at wrong time, wrong place, thus gave away a hidden nest secret?
“Express food sorties were further observed to be at average twenty minutes interval from main collection centre – palm groves. Depository was heading one direction – into a secondary forest.
“It was time to pay a survey visit to whereabouts of the depository and evaluate conditions of forest within. To avoid detection, I took that opportunity, entered quietly and hid in the forest in between food flights, to await return of the caterer.
“Mosquitoes that infested forest floor were swamping and females were zapping me with their proboscis. They kept me restless as I squatted behind bushy undergrowth of creepers in sweltering humidity and heat. Despite wearing usual camouflaged attire that also soaked up sweat, I had to take in all discomforts and added agony of my rear turned pin cushion to their target practices.
“There were also undergrowth of vegetation, thorny leaves and vines, tree roots, ground creepers and leeches to contend with.
“Clueless to direction of pittas’ approach, one eventually flew in from my 3’O’clock side and took to a surveillance perch, on a horizontal tree branch.
“I turned slowly only to have a startled, breeding pitta with beakful of vermin, staring hard at me. I got found out so quickly!
“The bird raised its siren sounding calls like, ‘Pheow… Pheow!’ in short burst intervals without dropping the vermin. Several photo shots were executed and alarm calls of 39sec. recorded on video. The bird then took flight a distant further away and across the forest to await my exit.
“A closer look of this image shows a tensed bird with wings fully tucked in and with a more spindled bodyline. My suspicion had this bird to be the likely female (below left).
“In order not to further prolong feeding schedules, I clocked out of the forest at 0950hs. Some homework was required to plan and evaluate situations, monitoring techniques and time management in order to begin a discreet nest monitoring process until fledging stage.
“To make it worthwhile, I must be prepared to document observations and findings, to justify the responsibility of taking up this arduous task. No good monitoring and stressing nesting birds unnecessary, nor treating them merely as objects to photograph with no intention to contribute scientifically in report/papers electronically or otherwise. At best is to leave breeding birds alone.
Having made my decision, I returned next morning, prepared with stool, camouflage drapes and pegs and waited at my hideout.
“A male was photographed at 0946hs. Despite my remaining still, he appeared to have an inbuilt, uncanny, sharp sense of intuition and reared his camouflaged back to conceal his presence and his ‘breakfast tray’ of vermin from me. A pretext shuffling of feathers to appear bigger was also executed (above left; below).
“A 0949hs. image showed same bird with wing diagnostic of a more relaxed male; with bodice appearing dumpier and roundish as compared with his spindled body, female mate (below).
“The male prowess of a decoy specialist was further put into action as he flew landed onto forest floor. Sensing my presence behind camouflaged drape, breakfast of earthworms went a hopping with him to mislead me to a different direction….
“I became fully aware; it was going to be tough observing this breeding pair of Blue-winged. They were adamant not to reveal whereabouts their brood in the presence of any potential predators who/what they may be.
“I wished I could tell them, I came with all good intentions as an endearing friend and observing visitor and not top predator.
“I stand firm on principle that welfare of parenting birds and nestlings must have first priority in giving them all chances possible to fledge their young with least disruption possible.
“I made a pledge to the breeding pair. Should I be found out and bird squawked alarm calls, I would leave forest straightaway – take a coffee break or a walk and let parenting birds proceed with their feeding routine. If no squawks heard, I get to stay as observer.
“I soon found myself taking several, mini coffee breaks. I ended my intermittent observations at 1140hs with a female Pitta trying to hide from my presence (below left).
“No observation made on 26th May 2013 in view of an all day, heavy rainfall. Looking positively, rains would have likely kept predators away from nestlings and nest if well built, would have withstood the relentless, torrential rains.
“A predawn 27th May 2013 visit was made to determine first foraging flight of the day. I sat in vehicle and waited. A parent bird flew out from forest at slightest morning light -0655hs. Approximately ten minutes later, returned with early breakfast of earthworms. A positive indication nestling survived the storm.
“At 0726hs, the male was photographed with breakfast. I was again under his all time surveillance. He perched briefly, and then took off on a decoy flight (above right).
“It was a game of Wait-N-Seek. I was unwilling to drag on time at the expense of hungry nestlings. In keeping to my treaty with the breeding pair, with no luck in the morning session, I withdrew my observation at 0905hs.
“Having drummed up a new strategy, I returned to site same evening. Changing my location hideout frequently, to outwit the birds when they least suspected my presence appeared to have worked better.
“The parenting pair was still busy with evening feeds when I left forest at 1834hs. Male (above left) and female (above right).
“While remaining vigilant, ensuring no eyes were looking, they were making quick dashes and disappearing into a bush area.
“I was closing in on the nesting site but simply unable to locate the nest. The surrounding dark, forest floor within was all leaf littered, brown, sloped and holed. It was not easy to visually spot a Pitta’s nest without parenting bird flying towards hungry nestlings. Four days into the sighting and nest still not found.
“Pitta birds do have allies capable of turning double agents like the Greater Racket-tailed Drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus).
“I returned morning 28th May 2013 to an awaiting Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus) I spooked the day before. The nightjar took flight, landed and perched on a vine. God sent perhaps to deliver a clue or an allay betrayal (below left)?
“As I patrolled the area, a parenting pitta bird flew in and perched on horizontal branch 3.5metres above ground. Equally surprised, I froze with angry bird just 3metres away with beakful of vermin. Bird strutted, stared back, set off alarm calls but refused to fly away. Like a down casted, scolded puppy with tail between legs, I took to a quick exit!
“I made my next opportunity move by relocating my drape hide. Soon, another pitta bird showed and perched on same branch. Sensing my presence flew off a little distance away with feeds. ‘Got to be somewhere around here but where?’
“Then the unmistaken murmurings of chirping sounds caught my attention. They were coming from behind me! I stood and scanned my binoculars (8×32), and… finally located the nest just 5metres away, adjacent to where nightjar perched day before.
“A couple of handheld maximum, zoomed shots were executed at 0746hs. with my digital camera, held 5metres away. Fearing the wrath of Pitta birds, I inched no closer (above right).
“Exasperated, I left the site immediately to think of my next observation strategy from a SAFE DISTANCE. It was a tall order that warranted maturity and mental discipline to undertake this breeding phase of the pittas single handed.
“Do join me in Part 8 to read the documentation highlights on my ‘Monitoring approach to Parenting Blue-winged Pittas’ in Central Mainland Penang, P. Malaysia.”
Avian Writer Daisy O’Neill
13th October 2013
Copyright article and all copy images – Courtesy of Daisy O’Neill Bird Conservation Fund