Saturday, August 28, 2010

24th August 2010: Kubah National Park, Sarawak

I set out this morning with fresh resolve to overcome the 'pitta problem'! I decided I would use the car as a hide today, and drove up to the watchpoint near the summit, and then worked my way gradually downhill.

Fairly early in the morning I located one pitta calling well above the Waterfall Trail entrance, in the valley below the road. I spent about an hour calling it, but the undergrowth by the road was very dense, and the bird didn’t seem to be coming any closer, so I gave up.

This female Black-and-Yellow Broadbill was one of the first birds I came across.

I went back to yesterday’s spot above the Waterfall Trail entrance. I parked and sat in the car by the side of the road and put the MP3 player on the other side of the road. A bird started calling from below the road and came in very close indeed, but in about 3 hours I never caught a glimpse of it. Again, the bird seemed to have an almost telepathic ability to detect my every move. It would stop calling any time I made the smallest movement. Eventually it moved away and I gave up again.

By this time a sense of inevitability was beginning to set in! It was easy enough to get the birds to respond by playing the call, but, even when they moved closer, it seemed almost impossible to tell where they were calling from, and as soon as I moved my head, or batted away a mosquito, the bird would stop calling! These birds were starting to get inside my head! How difficult can it be – seeing a brilliant red bird in a green forest? I must be blind! Or maybe the bird has mystical chameleon-like properties that enable it to blend into the background!

A drongo challenge! The default resident drongo is Greater Racket-tailed. Even in juvenile plumage or when the tail 'rackets' are missing, the species is usually quite distinctive in West Malaysia, as there is a vestigial crest and the tail is not strongly forked. But this bird appeared to lack any crest and to have a deeply forked tail. Other possibilities which sprang to mind were Crow-billed (a migrant) and Bronzed. Bronzed can easily be eliminated by the heaviness of the bill, but not Crow-billed. August would be exceptionally early for one, but you can hardly build a strong case for or against solely on the date! In this case, aging the bird was helpful. The matt, non-glossiness of the head, most of the mantle and underparts show that this was a juvenile. Juvenile Crow-billed are strongly spotted with white below, which means that this must, after all, have been a Greater Racket-tailed. In referring to Myers, I found that the endemic Bornean race, 'brachyphorus', has a short crest - shorter than the races which occur in the Peninsula, and T S Wong's pictures on OBI confirm this.

A pair of duetting/courting (?) Chestnut-winged Babblers.

Rufous-crowned Babblers are, together with Brown Fulvettas, one of the most visible birds in the Park.

They're superficially similar to Scaly-crowned Babbler (which is also common here).

Here's a Scaly-crowned from my visit two years ago. Rufous-crowned are significantly larger and larger-billed. Other ways in which they differ are:

1. Rufous-crowned has a streaked throat and breast, Scaly-crowned lacks streaks
2. Rufous-crowned is greyish-brown around the face and breast, Scaly-crowned is much browner
3. Scaly-crowned has pink legs and bill base; Rufous-crowned has blue-grey legs and lower mandible
4. Scaly-crowned has prominent black fringes to the rufous crown feathers; Rufous-crowned has none, or only vestigial fringing

Ditching the 'car hide' plan, after a midday snooze I walked back to the same spot where I had parked the car in the morning, and this time went down the slope about 15 metres till I had a reasonable view to my right. I sat down on a small knoll. The view to the right was clear, but below me was very dense. After a while the pitta started calling in response to the MP3, but distantly. After a couple of hours, the bird seemed to be very close, but I was again having trouble knowing exactly which direction I should be looking.

By now I was getting desperate! I had spent over 10 hours looking for this bird on this trip (let alone the fruitless hours on the previous trip) and yet I seemed to be no closer to actually seeing it. I prayed, asking God to direct my eyes to the right place, and let me see the bird. Although I do pray about most things, I wasn’t too sure whether I could pray for God to show me a bird! After all, He isn’t a magic genie in a bottle, to answer to my every whim and wish! Still, I was desperate.

Suddenly the bird called a few times rather softly very close and then stopped calling. My eyes focused at the base of a small tree directly below me, on the lip of the knoll. I saw some movement of leaves and raised my camera. Suddenly I realized that there was an out of focus red blob in my viewfinder! Focusing, I found that I was looking at the pitta, about 10 metres away!

My first view, taken at 1730! The bird moved unhurriedly, peering toward me from time to time, and it appeared to be foraging. It wasn’t calling, and I noticed that it weaved its body from side to side as it stood. It frequently appeared to wipe its bill on the ground.

In response to the call from the MP3 it would stand very erect and fluff its feathers out, but did not call. After a few minutes, I heard the sound of wingbeats from behind me and simultaneously the pitta took flight and was lost to view.

The bird started calling again, and after a few minutes, hopped up onto a low vine a couple of metres above the ground and continued calling.

It stayed in this spot for a few minutes, before flying to another branch closer - about 12 metres away. After a few moments it flew down to my left into a clump of wild ginger. I could see it perched low in the clump in silhouette, but could not twist my body round to look at it properly. It made its way slowly uphill to my left. Eventually it hopped into view directly above me – about 6-8 metres away, but it was aware of my presence, so did not linger. I managed to get a couple of blurred photos as it hopped onto a log and then it disappeared down into some dense undergrowth.

I stopped the recording for a few minutes and then started it again. This prompted the bird to fly up onto a vine about 3m up. It remained there calling for a while, and wiping its bill on the branch.

From there it flew to another branch, before eventually flying out of sight below the knoll.

I stopped the tape, but the bird continued calling, and reappeared to my left again, having done a complete circle around me. It continued calling, perched a few feet off the ground in some dense undergrowth. By now the light was very dim, so I watched the bird through binoculars. It eventually flew low across the valley below me and landed out of sight, where it continued to call. By now it was about 1845, so I left, with the bird still calling.

I had watched the bird for over an hour and had taken photos and even a short video, and as I walked back to the hostel I felt as if my feet were not even touching the ground!

Viewing my photos on the computer that evening, I was well pleased, but did notice that I hadn’t managed to get even a single ‘clean’ shot of the bird – in every one part of the bird was obscured behind some undergrowth. So, I made plans to try to repeat the exercise tomorrow! Was I being greedy?...


yen said...

no, you should be greedy, a chance like this must not be missed. looking forward seeing more great photos.

Hawkeyes a.k.a Kiah said...


Excellent field report and photograph of the Pitta.