Almost every African birder looks at the painting of African Pitta in their field guide and dreams about seeing one. The colors are unbelievable –luminous turquoise and unimaginably bright red mixed with relatively subtle yellow, green and black. But until recently, hardly anyone had actually laid eyes on this bird: even top regional listers could not find one. The dazzling appearance of this bird, combined with its legendary elusiveness, turned this species into the Holy Grail of African birding.
Thanks to the fact that Mozambique recently became safe for birders to visit (since the civil war ended), literally hundreds of South African birders now make the late November/early December pilgrimage to the Zambezi Delta in search of this dazzling species. Many photos of this bird are now available, but nothing approaches the visual experience of actually lifting your binoculars to a real one!
It was four years ago that a couple of us decided to embark on the 2-day drive from Johannesburg to central Mozambique to try and find this species for ourselves. Armed with a sketch map (see the figure) drawn by a friend who had beaten us to this bird, and rumours that “the thing is ventriloquial, don’t be fooled if it sounds like its calling from the ground, look above eye level in the trees if you hear its call,” we set off excitedly. To get to these Pitta breeding grounds, one can fly into the sprawling East African port of Beira and drive the short distance to where the pittas are. That is, of course, the sensible way! Or, you can be like us and do it the hard way by driving all the way from Jo’burg. There are three border posts near South Africa’s Kruger National Park that allow access to Mozambique. But, we actually drove through Zimbabwe – the most direct route, on the best roads – to the Pitta site from South Africa. En route, we got a little distracted and spent more time than planned in the idyllic Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, actually spending several days birding there. Despite the bad political regime in Zimbabwe, this country is a remarkably safe and friendly birding destination, with staggering bird diversity.
We eventually left Zimbabwe’s mountains and crossed the border onto the steaming coastal plain which is Mozambique’s main geographic feature. Passing Mount Gorongosa, an isolated massif rising majestically from the flat surroundings, its forested slopes inhabited by some tantalizing bird species, we resisted the temptation to stop (we were already running late because of our lack of discipline earlier when we lingered in Zimbabwe!) and earnestly pressed on to the Pitta breeding grounds. Eventually, we arrived in the delta area of one of Africa’s greatest rivers, the mighty Zambezi, hundreds of miles downstream from where it plummets down a deep gorge formed by a fault line, Victoria Falls. The forests here near sea level along the Zambezi Delta are one of the best sites for African Pitta, along with a rich variety of other birds, many of them also elusive and localized – including the likes of East Coast Akalat, Slender Greenbul, White-chested Alethe, Mangrove Kingfisher and many others. It’s as good as it gets as far as African birding goes.
We were exceptionally lucky, and the very afternoon that we drove down one of the 4×4 tracks through the forest, I noticed two robin-sized birds on the dark forest floor, only a few yards away. I was unable to see any color, but they looked the right shape. Trembling, I raised my binoculars and was dazzled by the luminous colors: the birds in real life were far more spectacular than I could have imagined. I can honestly say that this is my single most rewarding and unforgettable birding experience I have ever had!
Birders tend never to be satisfied, and sadly I am no exception. Less than a year later, I put my sights on Africa’s only other Pitta species, which is even more enigmatic and elusive than African Pitta! Green-breasted Pitta, a Central and West African bird, had only been seen by the luckiest of the lucky, again, until recently! In Uganda, however, stakeouts were discovered quite recently by local birding guides!
Now, birders are able to visit Africa’s richest site for primates, Kibale Forest, and search for Green-breasted Pitta at dawn as a prelude to Chimpanzee trekking – combining unforgettable birding and mammal experiences. When I first saw Green-breasted Pitta, I was again unusually fortunate. The birds failed to display and call the morning we had available to look for them. But, we walked slowly through the forest, and like finding a needle in a haystack, we found a pair of these remarkable birds tossing leaves on the forest floor!
Neither of these Pitta species are easy to find, even if you visit the now-known stakeouts. Time of year and time of day are of paramount importance, but even if you get the timing right, the birds can be unpredictable and downright tough. I recommend linking up with a birding tour company with a proven track record of finding these species (if the company finds the Pittas, they likely do well with the easier species too!). But even on a birding tour with top guides, there are no guarantees. To me, that is what makes birding rewarding: trying for tough birds that you have no guarantees of actually seeing. If it was too easy, then there would be no challenge and birding would get boring.
Usually, both the African Pitta species are located by the males’ calls during their comical displays to attract females (I was unbelievably lucky to see mine foraging on the forest floor, not calling).
Watch this incredible video of Africa’s most sought after bird: