TRAVEL | In search of birding’s Holy Grail

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With only a few days to go before my flight to Beira, the excitement was palpable. It was almost time to search for the Holy Grail of African birding – the African pitta. I was heading to Mungari Camp in Coutada 11 (a 45-minute flight from Beira, Mozambique) to photograph birds in the Zambezi Delta area, which lies between Mwanza to the south and the Zambezi River to the north, and includes four hunting concessions (Coutadas 10, 11, 12 and 14).

The Coutada WhatsApp group, set up by our tour leader, John Robinson from Robinson Birding, had been reporting African pitta regularly, as well as a plethora of other exciting bird species. The ‘Coutada 3’ – the whitechested alethe, the east coast akalat and the African pitta – make the mouths of even the most experienced birders start to drool, and were the birds being seen by the groups who went before me. From a birding perspective, seeing these special species in a five night trip would be the equivalent of seeing aardvark, pangolin and black-footed cat in the same time period.

Somewhat unbelievable!

But what if the pitta stopped calling and we were unable to locate it? Or what if our birding was rained out? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has contemplated these questions before embarking on a challenging quest. This exquisite species, with its electric blue wing panels and bright red belly, is arguably the most sought-after species in southern Africa. Despite its bright plumage, it can be incredibly difficult to locate, with many visiting birders returning empty-handed. The bird also prefers deciduous, lowland riparian forest as its breeding ground, which makes photographing the species challenging, as this environment is dense and dark.

Fortunately, having been to the Coutadas before, I was too pre-occupied and excited about our lowland forest camp, the wealth of bird- and wildlife possibilities and the guaranteed adventure that lay ahead, to think too much about failure. I had injections to get (meningitis, yellow fever, typhoid, rabies and the like) and malaria tablets to buy, I had long-sleeved shirts and gaters to source to keep the tstetse flies at bay, I had motion sickness medication to purchase as I seriously dislike small planes (for the trip from Beira to camp), I had bird calls to learn, and – most importantly – I had to charge all eight of the batteries for my Canon cameras!

Paradise found

Finally, the fateful day arrived, and within four hours of leaving Johannesburg, I had landed in the heart of the Zambezi Delta. John, the perfect host and gentleman, was waiting for me at the airfield and provided his usual warm welcome, as well as an update on all the bird species he felt we should target, and when. Alethe and akalat had both been seen within the camp gardens as well as green-backed woodpecker, red-throated twinspot, African broadbill, tiny greenbul, chestnutfronted helmetshrike and Narina trogon. Not bad for one’s garden list! Both the woodpeckers and trogons were breeding in camp, which made photographing these species a dream.

Most importantly, however, pitta had been seen in the morning and was only 2km from camp! Without a second to lose, we set out to look for it, but rain set in and we were forced to turn around. The area receives around 1,600 to 1,800mm of rain in the wet season, so this was not unexpected. In fact, the first rains are the reason the pitta starts to call, as they signal the start of the breeding season and the time to find a mate. After reuniting with old friends, Malcolm and Gail Gemmel, in the evening, I had one of the more restless nights of my birding career. I imagined, smelled, heard and slept pitta! Would tomorrow be the day we would find it and realise Malcolm’s 30 year-long dream of locating one?

A dream realised
We were up and out of camp at 5am and near the pitta spot within 10 minutes. We were moving slowly along a small path that weaved its way through perfect pitta habitat, when we heard ‘Wheet!’. It was still there, and it was making its unmistakable call. The next few minutes were a blur, as we quickened our pace to reach its location. ‘Wheet!’ again, and this time, even closer! I could hear John’s calm voice saying, “Slow down, Richard,” but my adrenaline made me speed up! ‘Wheet!’

Seconds later, our entire group was mesmerised by what can only be experienced, as words alone will struggle to describe the spectacle of an African pitta displaying. A simultaneous hop, wing flap and ‘Wheet!’, with flashes of electric blue, red, cream and green filling your viewfinder, as you experience one of Africa’s truly iconic moments. The words of an ’80s Eurythmics song started ringing in my head: “Sweet dreams are made of these, I’ve travelled the world and the seven seas, everybody’s lookin’ for something…” And we had just found it!

With our main target under our belts on day one, we spent the next few days getting further views of African pitta and wrapping up on all the area’s specials, including fantastic views of both the alethe and akalat. The camp has access to pristine lowland forest, miombo and floodplain habitat, so the variety of species is excellent and photographic opportunities abound.