Saturday, September 3

4 pittas & a 1 thrush

a couple of weeks ago, wbcper from northern quezon city alain reported red-bellied pittas at the la mesa eco park.  within the week, several birders and photographers descended on the park, and despite the bad weather, confirmed the sighting.

adri and i, being the unwilling twitchers we are, waited two whole weekends before we decided at the last minute to check it out. la mesa eco park is less than half an hour from my house.  this small, but well-forested public park is part of the la mesa reservoir which supplies most of metro manila's water. although it can get crowded on weekends, it is still a good place for introductory forest birding. because of it's proximity, i didn't bring my usual belt-bag full of supplies, just a small tote for my bins, my wallet and insect repellent.

at 630am, there were already a few joggers at the park, and we were greeted by calls of black-naped orioles and pied fantails. we stopped by a bridge where we heard and saw a white-breasted waterhen at the water's edge.  while adri was taking photographs, i spotted tere and alex hurriedly walking on the concrete path.

a white-breasted waterhen feeding by the side of the lagoon greeted our entry into the park

"have you seen it?" they asked, and i assumed they were talking about the pitta.  "not yet, let's go!" and we walked towards the dirt path where the others had seen the colorful ground bird.

in just a few minutes of walking around and scanning the ground for movement, we heard a familiar mournful call. "alex, was that you?" tere and i asked almost simultaneously, used to alex's pranks.  "no! that wasn't me!"

"whuuuuuuuuuuuuup whoooooooo!"

"there it is!"  adri motioned towards a mound of earth just outside the path.  sure enough, standing proudly, its blue breast and scarlet belly conspicuous in the dark understory.

red-bellied pitta!!!

unfortunately our ooooh and aaaah moment was short-lived as noisy teenagers came up the path. the pitta did what pittas always do... it nonchalantly walked away and disappeared into the underbrush.

alex grumbled like a grumpy grandfather, frightening the kids into a subdued silence.  but, the pitta was gone.

we decided to stand our ground and wait, and the pitta... well, the pitta decided to play hide-and-seek with us. little movements here, little flashes of red there.  how frustratingly pitta-like.

adri and tere then spotted a rustle to our right.  "what was that?"  "was that a frog?" "it was brown and sort of hopped."  adri patiently adjusted his bins on the dark shadows, while alex and i looked up, down, all around, from where we stood.


and a bird flew, not five feet away from us and landed a few more feet away across the path.


and the bird was gone, flying back across the path to our left.

"you said it was a frog!" "well, it hopped!"  alex and tere argued in hurried whispers. this time, it was the thrush playing hide-and-seek.

now the ashy ground thrush is probably one of the ultimate nemesis birds.  we had spent countless hours over the years scouring mt. makiling for this shy and uncommon endemic.  i finally spotted it at mt. banahaw near bangkong kahoy, adri had recently seen it while guiding in makiling, and it was a would-be lifer for alex and tere.

a surprise find: the uncommon and hard to find ashy ground thrush

we decided to follow the trail and eventually circle back to the same spot.  mangrove blue-flycatchers sang cheerfully, pied fantails jumped noisily from tree to tree, munias zipped by carrying nesting material, a white-eared brown dove and a common emerald dove flew silently across our path.  all around us the tailorbirds were calling out their repetitive pump-needing-oiling calls, and now and again we would spot one clambering through the vines and tangles.  a pair of philippine pygmy woodpeckers crept up and down thin branches, while black-naped orioles, collared kingfishers, crows and yellow-vented bulbuls flew by on occasion.  lowland white-eyes buzzed about the canopy. butterflies were coming alive as the morning temperatures rose.  

an immature mangrove blue flycatcher and some adults filled the air with cheerful song

and finally we were back at the pitta crossing.  we had another futile attempt at better views of the ashy ground thrush, which promptly walked back into the undergrowth and disappeared. again. 

while we were talking about how nice and birdy it was, and how the red bellied pitta and the ashy ground thrush had often (well in the case of the thrush, ALWAYS - except for adri) eluded us in makiling, what should appear in the middle of the path in front of us but the red bellied pitta!

pitta crossing: see that little red spot?  that's the red-bellied pitta as seen through my point-and-shoot!

"there it is!" "there it is!"  as we admired the bird through our bins, and as adri was talking photographs, another red-bellied pitta ran across the path just in front of the first one.  "did you see that?!?" "another one ran across," not taking our eyes off the red-bellied one still on the path. i suppose we were whispering but with the adrenalin in our voices we might as well have been shouting. 

"ghost" pitta - while we were watching one pitta, another crossed the path right in front of  it!

to add to our excitement, a dark-headed turquoise bird with white wing patches flew across the path, a few inches from the ground, right in front of the pitta.

"that was a hooded pitta!" we all exclaimed almost simultaneously.  

i did a little joyful dance. it was already much more than i expected.  after all, i was less than an hour from my house! and i didn't have to wake up at 4 (or even 5) in the morning!

after a while, we decided it was time to go.  a few groups on a company team building activity had arrived at our stake-out and it was getting noisy.  as we walked back to the park entrance, we noticed a little movement on the side of the path, quite close to us again.

"immature red-bellied pitta!" i said excitedly, "there! there!"

"are you sure?" "why is it all brown?"

"yes, i've seen that before!  back in 2005 in boso-boso!"

the immature bird scampered away, the color of the earth, so when it stopped, it looked like the ground had swallowed it up.  it's instinct was probably to freeze, and a very good strategy that was!  although just a few meters from us, it was so difficult to spot!  finally, we all figured out where it was standing, looking like a little mound of mud on dried leaves on the ground.  if it were not for an occasional stretching movement and the pale gape of its beak, we would have probably thought it had gone.

the immature red-bellied pitta blended perfectly into the background making it difficult to spot

yahoo!!! the adult pair probably had their nest nearby, and this young fledgling was still being cared for.  it was a wonderful thought to end a productive birding morning. four pittas and an ashy ground-thrush in the city.

(now if only we could do something about those cats...)