05 April 2024

Pitta patter in the leaf litter

01 December 2023 - Murara Pitta Camp; Day 6

I don't think any of us needed the alarm to wake up in the dark this morning, but we certainly all had a sense of anticipation, trepidation and excitement when we gathered for coffee. At 5:30, Mike K, Rory, Glynn and I joined Siraj and Adam on their Cruiser to head down into the valley. 

Just outside the camp gate, we stopped for a pair of Collared Palm Thrush in the only Lala Palm around - my camera was still on last night's Nightjar settings - rookie mistake, but I then made sure it was correctly set for anything else we may encounter on route down into the valley

Collared Palm Thrush (Cichladusa arquata)

On the hour drive, I contemplated about the mystique that surrounds this elusive and enigmatic species. The African Pitta is an afrotropical species and an intra African migrant between Equatorial Africa and South-eastern Africa. 

The African Pitta was first described by French Ornithologist Louis Pierre Veillot in 1816 and given the name Pitta Angolensis, hence the original name of Angola Pitta. There are 3 sub-species and it is Pitta a. longipennis that occurs in Zimbabwe and Mozambique as a wet season breeder during a small window in the summer. This sub-species spends the austral winter in western Uganda and coastal Kenya and arrives in Southern Africa from late October and departs again in February.

It has a fast and direct flight and forages singly in leaf litter where it moves around in quick hops. Despite its extraordinary vibrant plumage and iridescent blue spots on the wing coverts, they can be extremely cryptic, secretive and frustrating to see, even once you have heard its distinctive call, as they are masters at keeping something between themselves and their observers.

The lower Zambezi Valley is a vast wild wilderness and once you are under the canopy of the Riparian Forest on the river bank, you could find yourself sharing a Pitta thicket with Lion, Leopard, Ele or Buffalo, so your senses are certainly highlighted whilst walking in the bush with your armed guide.

There is a short window of opportunity, before the rains start, to see this holy grail of birds. This is one of those few species that captivates all birders when they first see them after paging through their field guides. For us, we only had 2-days, so that already creates a lot of pressure, considering that it was still so dry as not much rain had fallen yet. I was brought back out of my dream state when we stopped at the first site. 

We exited the Cruiser and now the excitement and tension was palpable - walking quietly, slowly and in single file toward the site, we heard some Ele's nearby, so tension increased another notch. We got to the site/thicket, found a safe place to sit and waited and listened. After 45-minutes, not a peep, other than a Crowned Hornbill giving us the beady eye. Anxiety starts to niggle as we get back on the Cruiser and drive a little further to the 2nd site. 

Crowned Hornbill (Lophoceros alboterminatus)

Same routine, hearts pounding and single file through the bush under the canopy until we find the requisite 'Pitta' thicket. We find our places and sit quietly, this time we have partial success and hear two birds calling and our expectations rise slightly, but after an hour and all our bums have pins and needles, we have to admit defeat, these birds are not going to show themselves.

Now, with only one site left to check, pressure on the guides and nervousness and trepidation from us 4 birders. Another short drive and single file to the known site. Again, we find our places and sit back down on our numb bum's, quiet as church mice, although our pulses feel like they are pounding like drums. We hear the distinctive, but distant call. A little bit of playback, with our hearts in our mouth and suddenly a flash of blue, as a bird flies across the clearing, landing behind a dense thicket - it's here we all whisper, pulses going up another notch. Will it reveal itself, at least a little? 

It does finally, but so much vegetation between it and us

First glimpse of our African Pitta (Pitta angolensis)

We wait anxiously with baited breasts, sorry breathes and see a subtle movement and we all get another partial glimpse. No sudden movements as all cameras are slowly raised and ready - focusing acquisition is really tough, as true to form there is a lot of foliage between this magnificent Pitta and us. 

I set my focus point to the finest setting, to ensure I can focus between the smallest gap and manage to get this image as it hops into a small clearing

Siraj whispers to us that the Pitta will circle us and over the next hour, we all get glimpses through the vegetation of this iconic, bucket list bird.

It makes another pass around us and for a brief moment sits in the open through a small gap and I get my money shot for this encounter. I love how those iridescent blue spots on the wing coverts just glow in the gloom of the under story

Finally, it tires of us and exits stage right by flying up and perching briefly on a branch above us and bids us adios - Aagh, I have a small branch obstructing what would have been a clear image, but so satisfying nevertheless

After it departs, there was a collective sigh from all of us - I think we had all been holding our breath, but an experience that will be forever etched in our minds and memories. There is a reason the Pitta is iconic, considering the short window of opportunity, the adventure of getting to the wild wilderness where it is found and still with no guarantees of actually seeing it. A lot of factors have to align, but they did for us this morning with the effort of our two excellent guides - High fives all round and the numbness in our bums now long forgotten. 

But, the birding wasnt over yet - walking, no skipping, back to the Cruiser we heard African Broadbill and after some time, managed to track it down and enjoy its display flight while calling. We had it in dry foliage

African Broadbill (Smithornis capensis)

and then above us in the green canopy. There was not enough light to capture the display flight, but with video it would have been possible

Whilst at the Pitta site, we did also have Livingstone's Flycatcher and Red-throated Twinspot. We walked the dry river bed on the way back to the Cruiser, having distant views of Lilian's Lovebird

Lilian's Lovebird (Agapornis lilianae)

It was in the river bed, that 4 grown men really celebrated our Pitta sighting with our rendition of a 'Pitta' display dance..

From L to R - Glynn, Rory, Mike K and I - grown men celebrating

This was certainly one of the best birding mornings ever, for all of us! Elated we headed back to camp to discover that Richard, Shirley, Billy and Gayleen had no luck at all, so it was mixed emotions for the group and it felt wrong for us to celebrate when they had dipped - but there is still tomorrow and a little bit more added pressure on the guides. We had a hearty brunch and whilst working I kept an eye on the nearby bird bath and photographed a few birds in between mails and meetings - Ashy Flycatcher

Ashy Flycatcher (Muscicapa caerulescens)

Cinnamon-breasted Bunting

Cinnamon-breasted Bunting (Emberiza tahapisi)

Golden-breasted Bunting

Golden-breasted Bunting (Emberiza flaviventris)

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove

Emerald-spotted Wood Dove (Turtur chalcospilos)

Scarlet-chested Sunbird sipping some water

Female Scarlet-chested Sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis)

Yellow-bellied Greenbul

Yellow-bellied Greenbul (Chlorocichla flaviventris)

And this hectic Wasp

Wasp sp.

Late afternoon, we departed on our sundown drive sans Glynn who was going to photograph camp birds. This time Mike K, Rory and I were with Derek, as the other group commandeered Siraj and Adam. We stopped on a ridge outside camp for calling Shelley's Francolin - they were distant and obscured by grass, but we all got fair views

Shelley's Francolin (Scleroptila shelleyi)

Near the village, a Long-tailed Paradise Whydah in transitional plumage - not the Broad-tailed we were all hoping for which were still in winter plumage.

Long-tailed Paradise Whydah (Vidua paradisaea)

Derek pointed out this cool Orchard during the drive

Orchard sp.

We stopped at a crossing to the dry river bed and found Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

We then had a long drive through the dry river bed trying to find Western-banded Snake-Eagle, without success - but we did hear one calling, so that was quite frustrating. But, we did have many Southern Carmine Bee-eaters foraging in the river bed

Southern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicoides)

The sun was starting to dip, so we started heading toward a large Baobab, stopping for a pair of Amur's

Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis)

At the Baobab, we waited until the sun had set and that is when the Mottled Spinetail's started dropping lower in the sky as they prepared to come in and roost for the night in the Baobab. Tough conditions in fading light against a grey sky

Mottled Spinetail (Telacanthura ussheri)

We then proceeded to our sundowner spot on a high bank over the dry riverbed and really enjoyed a few cold ones after what had been an incredible days birding..but it was not over just yet...

We started our drive back to camp in the dark and with the spotlights found our last target for the day - a pair of Three-banded Courser's that were tolerant of us getting out of the Cruiser and laying flat to get these cracking images

Three-banded Courser (Rhinoptilus cinctus)

What a day!

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