Our new header is a set of pictures of the pittas we had such a great time observing in Borneo. I changed the old one because we didn’t see any Crimson Sunbirds on this trip (although we did see its relative, the equally lovely Temminck’s Sunbird) and I thought using some of our target taxa would be better. Here are some little anecdotes about each bird in the header and what interesting things we discovered by observing them.
On the far left is a Black-and-crimson Pitta (Pitta ussheri), which as I mentioned in a previous post was the most common pitta near where we stayed. This is the species that we caught when Justin tackled it against the net, the one that we radio tagged, and the one that Julian found roosting in a fluffy red ball when radio tracking it one morning. One of the most interesting things we learned about ussheri during the expedition is that they often make an odd little noise that we’d never seen described before: a clapping noise when they fly to change perches while singing in their territories. We were able to get excellent audio recordings of this unusual sound, and although we don’t know much about it yet, we think it sounds like a non-vocal sound, as if the bird is thumping its wings somehow as it flies.
To the right of Black-and-crimson Pitta is the Blue-headed Pitta (Pitta baudii) When we first found this bird we didn’t think we’d be able to observe it much because it seemed so shy and elusive, but it became much easier later on, probably because we got better at finding it and because it became used to our presence. As time went by, we realized that this lovely male was on his territory with a mate, and we saw them together a few times. We kept our eyes out for evidence of nesting, but our questions about their reproductive state were answered when Justin got a video of the female foraging with a nearly-full-grown juvenile male. Hopefully when CEFO returns to the park we’ll be able to find them as they start breeding!
Next in line is the Blue-banded Pitta (Pitta arquata), which was discovered by McKenna and Clare on the east side of the ridge all of these pittas live on. We were intrigued by the fact that three of our pittas, ussheri, baudii, and arquata, seemed to live in basically the same place, the eastern slope of the Tallest Tree ridge, and we wondered if they ever interacted with each other. That’s still a question for the future, but we noticed as the weeks went on that the arquata went from being seen mostly on the east side of the slope to exclusively on the west side. Was that just a coincidence? Did we scare arquata to the other side of the slope when we used playback to try to catch it? Was it kicked out of the east side by the last bird in the header, the Bornean Banded Pitta, the fourth pitta species to move onto that area?
On the far right, the Bornean Banded Pitta (Pitta schwaneri) was the largest pitta we found and he seemed to show up out of nowhere about three weeks into the trip. We had heard more than eight Banded Pittas when Julian, Jack, Sophie, Brian and I hiked up to Mount Lucia, but that was up at an 800-1000m elevation, where we expected to find these birds. Imagine our surprise when a pair seemed to suddenly appear on the east side of the Tallest Tree Ridge, down at about 250 m elevation! While schwaneri have certainly been known to live down that low, they do prefer higher elevation, and one of the sources we used to study our target taxa prior to arriving in Borneo mentioned that it was “Never found in the same habitat as [Blue-headed Pitta] and vice versa.” Clearly this wasn’t true in our case, because the schwaneri pair were now living in exactly the same place as the baudii pair. Justin was even lucky enough to witness an interaction between the two species: he saw the female baudii hop down into a gully, and all of a sudden there was a commotion as if two birds were fighting. When it was over, both a schwaneri and the baudii hopped away! When Brian and I first discovered the bird on the slope, we had been playing back for baudii, and later on Jack realized that both baudii and schwaneri responded aggressively to each others’ calls! We wished we could have stayed in Borneo longer to observe the outcome of this situation, but it does provide some interesting questions to think about for the future.
All four of these pittas are endemic to Borneo and all of them are relatively poorly known. It was amazing to be able to watch them all living on the same ridge, under some of the tallest tropical trees in the world, and in the future whether we decide to focus our studies on the pittas or spend more time with our other target taxa, I’m sure we’ll keep an eye on these beautiful and captivating birds – they’re impossible to ignore!