Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not usually one to celebrate my birthday. However, I do always hope for a good bird on this day if I am in the field. Over my years at Tropical Birding, I have been in the field frequently on this date, but frequently, through some dark twist of fate, I have rarely had much luck. I remember well being with Nick Leseberg in Papua New Guinea for my fortieth birthday, a landmark that deserved at least a beer as some kind of commemoration, but were stunned to find the normally well-stocked lodge was completely out of SP lager, or any other alcohol.
When I am on tour, I sleep very little, as I sit up thinking through the plans for the next day, and going over the avian targets in my mind. The night before this day, this was especially true, for we had a very special target bird in mind for our next day in Danum Valley. Not only is the BLUE-banded Pitta a rare, elusive and shy forest bird, it is one that is only found in Borneo, one that I have openly stated as one of the top two birds I have seen in the World, and what’s more the group knew this, and so some in the group had this chalked on their most wanted birds of the trip. Therefore, there was a little pressure riding on this year’s birthday plans! This species is also confined to the more hilly parts of lowland rainforest. What this meant was, the best site we had for it, was right at the top of the nearest hill. While a walk of just 4km or so sounds pretty trivial, this feels like much, much more in the energy-sapping heat and motivation-draining humidity of lowland Borneo, one of the most humid areas of the planet. My sleepless night was filled with thoughts of the hike up there, and how the group would take to it, or more likely, NOT take to it, and then, once the hill had been conquered, there was the small matter of finding the bird itself. A disaster in the making played around in my mind, all night long. The pitta occurs on steep, inaccessible slopes that are mostly carpeted in a layer of dense forest. This makes finding it already difficult, and then there is its call. Like most birds of the Bornean rainforest, it would be very hard to track them down without an intimate knowledge of their personal calls, and the strategic use of playback. What makes this species all the trickier is the nature of its call. Its call sounds near identical to another cohabiting pitta species – Black-crowned Pitta – which we had already seen well. So it is important to hear it well, to avoid the confusion (and potential disappointment), of finding out later you were chasing the wrong pitta! Furthermore, what makes this species particularly difficult to see, is that its signature whistle is given at very low volume, and is very ventriloquial. What this means is, the call leads many to frequently believe the bird is considerably farther away than it actually is.
The latest news on the bird was a mixture of good, and bad. The species had recently undergone a three-month hiatus of not being seen nor heard by anyone at this site; then, a month earlier, the reason for this seemed to have become clear, when a nest was found, indicating that they were busy breeding, and so not vocal. However, not a sole had been up that trail since, so it was hard to know whether our timing would be good –that they will have finished breeding and be ready to announce their existence vocally all over again, or bad - that they would still be breeding and continuing their period of self-induced silence.
The local guide Azmil and I had a “strategy meeting” the evening before; with the long, arduous hike needed, we would need to keep our eyes focused on the “pitta prize”, and not get needlessly distracted by too many other birds on the way up. This could cost us valuable, and probably necessary, time required to search for the pitta. This, however, is more easily said than done, as we would be walking up the trail right after dawn, when birdsong and activity is at its daily zenith. We did concede we would take at least a little time out however, to try for a couple of other key target birds on the way up.
We set out from the lodge after the usual hearty breakfast supplied by the exemplary Borneo Rainforest Lodge. As we were just passing the final lodge cabin, a large dark shape in the near trees revealed itself to be a roosting Barred Eagle-Owl! This was a good start. We continued on, and were soon engulfed by the rainforest as we entered it in earnest, crossing two swing bridges, and then began our climb. As we hiked up, we paralleled a shallow creek, which led us to sightings of two particularly striking terrestrial songbirds – both White-crowned and Chestnut-naped Forktails showing well along one stretch of the river. In this same area we stopped for our first major target of the day – Rufous-collared Kingfisher, which very quickly responded to my tape, by darting in and landing in a near tree, where we could admire it for some time, and note the body speckling that identified it as a female. At the very same spot came another very good bird, and a very scarce one – a pair of White-necked Babblers, which came in close before moving back on uphill, as we did too. So far, so good, it was already building up to something of a classic day. However, I knew well, that not only the hardest part of the climb remained, but also the hardest species to find, lie ahead of us. I also thought to myself that the Blue-banded Pitta, and how it treated us, could change the entire complexion of the day…we continued up the hill.
Finally, after much sweat and effort, we reached the so-called Fairy Falls, a pretty, in forest waterfall; and the home of the pitta. However, after a while there we were well aware that no sound of our chosen bird reached our ears. I decided the best plan might be for me to play the call at various points along the trail uphill from the spot we’d stopped at, and left the group within the capable hands of the local guide. 30 minutes or so later I returned to the group, who’d thought they heard me playing the tape 10 minutes earlier, but were shocked when I told them it could not have been me after all, as I had been well out of earshot at the time. Therefore, they had heard the pitta itself! The excitement was palpable among the group when this realization hit them. Quickly, we tried the call again, but were only met with stony silence. We moved a little up the trail and tried it again, and this time the low mournful whistle of a Blue-banded Pitta reached our ears. Azmil and I knew the trickery of the species well, and assured the group the bird was close, in spite of the muted sound of the call – this is its classic deception. We bobbed our heads this way and that, and remarkably my eyes landed on a bright red spot in the understory, so I hurriedly lifted my binoculars to my face, which confirmed my wildest hopes; the red spot was indeed a Blue-banded Pitta tucked deep into the understory. The angle and position of the bird meant that it was hidden from all but the one who could stand in the very position I was in. This led to some very nervous moments, as no one else could see it. The only solution to this was to quickly erect the ‘scope, and prey the bird stayed put long enough for the line of participants to all get the bird! Thankfully, the bird obliged, and soon enough a groundswell of relief ran through the group, followed by celebration, once the bird dropped off its perch and melted back into the forest! As some were hoping for better photos, we played the call one more time to see if the bird would return, although this time it landed on an open perch, where it seemed to be very self-aware of its own boldness, and so soon dropped down onto the forest floor, and was never seen or heard again. It was a fantastic sighting, as we got to watch it for nearly ten minutes on its first perch, and we all had the bird in the bag by 9am, most unexpected indeed!
After returning to the lodge for lunch, and a Tiger Beer for celebration, we hit the trails close to the lodge again in the afternoon. The use of radios amongst the lodge guides can be at once a boon and a burden. On hearing of a mother and baby orangutan near to the lodge, we retreated back towards there on hearing the news. However, as we walked back, the radio crackled into life again – a Bornean Crested Fireback – a species that had oddly eluded until then, was walking around the staff quarters. We continued our trajectory as we were heading the right way for both, but would have to soon make a choice; left for the fireback, or right for the orangutan. Our steady pace towards the lodge was interrupted when we met another guide who informed us that he’d only minutes before watched a male Blue-headed Pitta hopping along the trail! This was too much to resist, we played the call, and this excitable male BLUE-headed Pitta came hopping right up to us, crossed the trail a couple of times, and even flew up and perched on an open rainforest vine, to ensure we all got cracking looks at what must be one of Borneo’s best looking birds.
Returning to our original quest, we continued on, and then the loud deep hoots of a Helmeted Hornbill reached our ears, and unlike usual, these were not frustratingly distant, but seemingly close to the road, just a short walk away. This was quickly confirmed over the radio-a pair was perched by the roadside. We quickened our pace in that direction, and away from the orangutan. The hornbills soon fell silent, and the radio again informed us of what we feared, they had taken off from their perch. However, just minutes later came the call that they had alighted in a large fruiting tree by the staff quarters, the same staff quarters hosting the patrolling group of firebacks. Our pace could not quicken any further, as we were already at full speed. Moments later we were on the road and racing towards the staff area. We arrived and quickly surveyed the tall trees for any sign of 2 very large hornbills in the treetops, but came up empty-handed. A change of angle though resolved the matter, and we got to see them feeding in the canopy for a short time, before they lifted off and disappeared into an impenetrable canopy of another tree. The fireback had gone from the area, but the hornbills were more than enough compensation. AND, on the way back to the lodge, we stumbled into a female Bornean Orangutan clambering from one tree to another, making quite a disturbance as it did so.
That night, some local rangers set out in search of another critter for us, the odd Western Tarsier, a mammal that I had put in a special request for. Some of the group were not aware of its existence, and asked me what it looks like, my simple answer was it is a real life gremlin! By the end of a long day, we all assembled for dinner, where we stocked our plates a little higher than was probably healthy – an all too regular result with such a good buffet on offer. Just as we all returned to our table, with not a mouthful of food yet taken, our local guide reappeared, with the news that the ranger had not only found the tarsier, but was waiting with it for us to join him! Dinner was quickly abandoned by all, we quickly donned forest footwear again and set off into the rainforest, only stopping once we had arrived – rather hot and sweaty again by that time – at the spot where a man lie on the forest floor with his torch trained on a cute, gremlin-like creature clasped to the side of a tree!
This, by all rights, should have been the final act of the day, but this group were nothing if not tenacious, and greedy for more, like me! After dinner, we set out into the rainforest again, this time to try and find the Gould’s Frogmouth seen by the few the night before, for the remainder of the group. As we re-met with our local guide, he played another trump card, when he showed us a roosting male Bornean Crested Fireback, which had chosen to sleep in a large tree just a short walk from our cabins. After that, we headed off into the forest, where the frogmouth gave us a hard time, but with some effort was tracked down sitting quietly in the forest canopy. That really was the final curtain, and we returned to the lodge after an exhausting, but absolutely thrilling day of birds and other animals. Birthday BLUES indeed.
(Thanks to Chris Sloan for his photos from this day)