This story develops around a secretive and shy bird. In fact, this is the most withdrawn and most silent of the four that we can see in Bangladesh. We call it Blue-naped pitta. However, other than the breath-taking turquoise blue on collar, its countenance is otherwise dull. The blue hue is not easy to notice either. The images, I presume, are producing the same murmuring in you all in resonance.
But, this exceptionally wary pitta bird, in our brief encounter, taught me a great lesson on patience. The encounter helped me in jotting down my thoughts in this difficult time. I believe it will do the same for you.
Let's delve into the story!
Lured by a breakthrough
Blue-naped pitta is not any backyard bird. Not many have good photos of it; so far none from Bangladesh. It was the first week of March when watchers of the Chittagong Bird Club (CBC) had accomplished the impossible—taking crystal-clear glossy photos of the bird. Before this, my experience with the pitta, as it was with many others, was limited to sensing straw-coloured flashes from trail walks. So, hearing upon the news and watching the bewildering images, I decided to sally out for Chittagong University on a Thursday evening. It was March 11, 2020, exactly a week before life stops for an RNA virus.
Destination: Dump yard
After overnight bus journey, I headed out for the university campus. Only respite was the warm and affable company of the CBC members. It was a group of six citizen scientists who were with me on that day for the same purpose. Their stories on revealing gems from nooks of Chattogram city were perfect on the brief car-ride to the spot from the bus-stop. And, the spot was a dump station. Literally.
Chipped between two hillocks, the garbage lot was 50-yard long flattened area. "The bird was reportedly spotted on one side continuously for a week." We were told by three members of the Chittagong University Bird Club (CUBC). They joined us upon our arrival. We all took our hides behind trees of the opposite limit.
My initial worry regarding the bird's preference for hazardous plastic-filled habitat soon faded away. The stench, broken glass parts and thick layers of polythene heralded omen for a long exam of endurance. In the morning light, we saw two flashes of what pushed me for a 250 km journey.
Omens got stronger. Our wait started.
Prelude on pitta
Let's not ponder about our wait there. There was not much other than some common birds. We all had had to stand still. Those who brought tripods had comforts in their stance. I relied upon my side-straps. I thought it would be handy and quick.
Let's imagine a group of 10 people biding time in nail-biting suspense. While they were in wait, now is the perfect time to have a short brief on pitta.
There are about 42 species of pitta in their own family called Pittidae. Almost all are tropical, with stubby tail and small in demeanour–at most, the biggest gets 25 cm in length. Pittas are mostly bright-coloured, either a flash of ruby or emerald in the dense shrubbery. Attachment to ground is common. Pittas can pick peri-urban scrubs to forest floors to mangroves.
There are three more pittas in Bangladesh: Mangrove pitta, Indian pitta, and hooded pitta. The latter three are migratory. They visit our eastern forests in summer. Territorial shrills of most pitta make them easier to spot. But, ours is not the case, rather a silent type you may call. Had it not been for COVID 19, many of us would have already ventured out for them.
The fifth one: A spectre
Let's get back to the party. They were still standing still. It was about 1200 hours. Half of us decided to call it a day. The foul and the heat admixed a ghastly situation. Watching spirits cannot be abnormal.
But, the fifth pitta of Bangladesh is no myth. The blue pitta is a super-rarity. There is only a record from the 2000s from northeastern forests. Our green-based common pittas and blue-naped pitta's least love for blue make blue pitta a stunner. Blue pitta is a forest species. Rediscovering this forest gems only requires more vigilance from bird-watchers. Prepare yourself, do homework for the expedition in corona-time.
The moment arrived
It was 1600 hours in the evening. Only four of us were sustaining at the spot. The sun gradually leaned on our back after a good baking. I was glued to my viewfinder; Ahsan Uddin Chowdhury, a CBC member, was on same act. Two CUBC enthusiasts, Harij Uddin and Nazmul Hossain, were keeping their keen eye on the scrub jungle. The light was fading and the scrub was only becoming shadier. We started noticing the bird, shadowy feather balls hopping around. We were cranking up ISO meter on camera. The birds were still at distance.
A jungle cat came into help. Not noticing our presence, it was on usual stroll. The cat soon fled as it spotted us. But, the birds, a total of three we counted later, got almost completely frozen. With the sun on our back, we came out of our hid, made the best use of the scenario. Without disturbing the birds, we got what we came for. AUC got some superb clip of the bird activity.
The backbreaking patience of straight eight hours was rewarding.
When you will finish reading, Bangladesh is exactly at 33 days in lockdown. COVID 19 is setting peace ablaze. It is becoming harder to concentrate in anything, let alone a story. But, you, I am considering you a nature-lover, don't give up on your patience.
Although situation can be bleak, hanging on hope is blissful. Right?
The nominate species
Indian pitta is first bird in the family Pittidae to reach the science spotlight. It was a 1713 science illustration from an Indian artist that ended up in Europe. Eventually, in 1766, Carl Linnaeus described it in his book Systema naturae and named Pitta brachyura meaning small bird with a short tail. If you ever look at popular field guides on the subcontinental birds, there will be an Indian pitta on calling posture.
Pitta, Erythropitta and Hydrornis
The Pittidae is now separate into three major groupings. The original genus Pitta is split into two more: Eryrhropitta containing about 15 superbly red-based species and Hydrornis comprising 13 species with faint to bright blue, turquoise or cerulean tone. Pitta contains the rest, mostly in usual green. Sexes are similar except for more cryptic Hydrornis.
No pitta has gone extinct so far, thanks for their secretive life style. However, deforestation and pet trade has taken many on the brink. Gurney's pitta is one such; known from the Malay Peninsula with less than 4000 known individuals. Once thought extinct in 1952, the bird is rediscovered in 1986. Still, it holds a name in the list of world's rarest birds.