Chasing the rainbow

Rainbow Pitta. Photo: Chris Gooddie.
Rainbow Pitta. Photo: Chris Gooddie.
Rainbow Pittas
Two Rainbow Pittas square up to settle a territorial dispute. Photo: Chris Gooddie.

Pittas are among the most beautiful birds in the world, as reflected in their colloquial name of ‘jewel-thrush’. They live in the rain forests of South-East Asia, Australia and Africa, and are a highly secretive, terrestrial family.

British birder Chris Gooddie attempted the arduous task of trying to see all the world’s species of pitta in a single year, in 2009.

There are 32 generally accepted species of pitta known to science, and no one has ever attempted to see them all in a year. Only two or three birders have so far managed to see all 32 species during a lifetime, and Chris resigned from his full-time job as a sales director to attempt this remarkable feat.

The birds are elusive, and finding them requires experience, detailed knowledge and good field skills. A few species, such as Gurney’s Pitta, are on the verge of extinction. Chris had already run the London Marathon twice to raise funds to protect the forests in which Gurney’s Pitta survives.

His journey began on 2 February 2009 in southern Thailand, and during the following 12 months he travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, Sabah, Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, northern Australia, Sri Lanka, Manus Island, The Solomon Islands, Uganda and Zambia.

We join him later in the year in Australia’s Northern Territory, searching for the colourfully metallic endemic Rainbow Pitta.

Howard Springs eternal

Australia is the smallest continent, a mere 3.3 million sq miles, give or take. I’d visited the continent a number of times in the past, and had found both Australian pitta species without too much difficulty. Nonetheless, since I had vowed to find all of the world’s pittas in a calendar year, I would have to return.

The plan was relatively simple in outline: head to Darwin, pop in to Howard Springs south-east of the town and catch up with Rainbow Pitta, before hooking up with fellow Brit Andy Mears. We’d then hop over to Cairns on the east coast and whistle up a Noisy Pitta.

I landed at Darwin in the middle of the night, and once on the main Stuart Highway, I headed south, turned left in Zuccoli onto Howard Springs Road, and parked at the far end. It was not yet 4 am, and the park gates were closed. I was owed a few days’ sleep, but gratefully accepted the chance to rest my eyes for a few minutes.

I woke with a start at 6.45 am. It was already light, and someone had opened the gates and departed again without me stirring. I was furious with myself. I had only allowed a single day to find the pitta, and I had just blown the precious hour immediately after dawn. Cursing my stupidity I gunned the engine, desperate not to waste any more time.

Termite mounds in Katherine
Australia’s Northern Territory offers a huge range of habitats, from the wilderness of Kakadu (top) to the termite mounds of Katherine (above). Photo: Chris Gooddie.
I suspected my slumbering oversight was unlikely to prove critical. Rainbow Pitta is atypically easy to track down, and is without doubt the most flirtatious of an unremittingly conservative family. Of all the pitta sisters, she’s the one most likely to put out on a first date. Daddy Giant Pitta may keep his counsel and stare sternly on from the sidelines, but all the while his wayward daughter will be flashing her rainbow knickers at anyone who glances in her direction. She’s such a looker that one is obliged to forgive the lack of decorum.

I walked towards the trailhead, and 10 m before I reached it, a pitta called. Another call rang out, and I crept furtively towards the trail, much to the surprise of the forest warden who was tidying the picnic area. “Looking for pittas?” he yelled, several million decibels louder than necessary. I nodded in confirmation, and he waved his arm wildly in the direction of the gum forest. “Over there I reckon, mate, shouldn’t be a drama!” I smiled politely and nodded again, inwardly cursing my new friend and several bellowing generations of his family before him.

Frankly, though, I could have started along the trail with a brass band in full swing behind me and the pittas would still have hopped out. Within two minutes I had located the calling bird above me, and species number 27 was safely racked up. I grinned smugly, and then completed the one-mile trail at a leisurely pace, seeing six more. Two of them even squared up to one another, standing upright in the open on the trail, settling a boundary dispute.

It is a beautiful bird: velvety black head and underparts, lime-green back, red belly patch, accessorised with a jaunty chestnut skull-cap and an ocean blue wing-patch. Simple blocks of colour combined to stunning effect.

I drove south. A shotgun pellet-peppered sign welcomed me to ‘Pine Creek. Population 390’. A wrecked pick-up rusted slowly in the heat. It was early afternoon, and the town was indoors, sheltering from the murderous sun. I pulled over and stretched my legs, relieved to escape the confines of my rental car. Within minutes I could feel the sun’s rays ripping through the thin ozone, nipping at my neck. I lay down in the shade of a gum tree and settled in for a snooze, while I waited for Andy.

The toot of a horn woke me, and a West Country accent rippled through the still air. “Chris, how are you mate?” It was Andy, and after five exhausting weeks traipsing across Indonesia, I was delighted to see his familiar cheery face beaming down at me from the window of his camper van. We adjourned for a beer, and traded stories. Andy had just made it around the Kakadu, the Northern Territory’s most famous wilderness.

I must confess I hadn’t selected Pine Creek as our rendezvous point based on the breadth of its cultural events – I wanted to return to catch up with a bird I had missed last time round, a bird routinely referred to in our household as “Hooded bloody Parrot”.

Checking for parrots

I had brought my other half out to Australia three years earlier, and we had stayed at Pine Creek’s salubrious caravan park, an establishment that rejoiced in the name of Digger’s Rest. I had completely missed the parrots, which are relatively common around town so long as you coincide with their schedule. They feed on the flowering trees that line the town’s avenues in the early morning, before spending the day in the wilds of the outback, returning to roost just before dark.

Red Goshawk
One of Australia’s rarest raptors, the author found Red Goshawk during a lunchtime visit to the bird’s nest-site. Photo: Chris Gooddie.
Andy and I whiled away the afternoon with parrot-checking duties, but after five hours I was starting to get a distinct sense of déjà vu. I should have kept faith, though – with barely 30 minutes of daylight remaining, we picked up a pair way in the distance, and our attention was immediately drawn to their curiously weak flight profile as they laboured their way erratically towards us. They landed in a tree just yards from where we stood, and there at last was the bird I’d dipped on my last visit. The male in particular was stunning, pastel blue below with a neat black cap and a broad patch of bright gold in the wing.

I abandoned the usual birding protocol and whooped my approval, causing the owner of the yard in which we were standing to emerge from his property to investigate what was clearly the biggest party Pine Creek had ever witnessed. I set up my telescope and invited him to feast his eyes on this rare bird. He sucked his teeth. “Oh, yeah, hoodies. We get ’em in the garden most evenings.” My parade was not to be rained on, however, and we retired to the pub for a man-sized steak and a great local bottle of wine. Alfresco dining in an outback town under the stars, and all for the price of a kebab and a pint in London.

We headed south the next day, bound for the town of Katherine and the lonely Central Arnhem road beyond. Here, tinder-dry bush stretches as far as the eye can see, and in a 100 miles, we passed a single settlement, the Aboriginal owners hiding from the glare of the sun in their pointillist-style, traditionally decorated houses.

A real hot-spot

The heat is so intense in Australia’s desert interior that the middle of the day is a write-off. In order to see any birds you need to be out in the field at first light, taking advantage of the optimal conditions until around 11 am, then find somewhere cool to enjoy a long, slow lunch, before striking out again at 3 pm.

Adhering to this regime, we searched for mile after dusty mile until we found our target birds, a pair of bizarre Northern Shrike-Tits (often classed as a subspecies of Crested Shrike-Tit), their striped, big-bird heads stuck improbably onto little-bird bodies. Along the way we found other birds of the dry interior: diminutive Diamond Doves, solitary Little Woodswallows, and a gang of 12 (naturally) Apostlebirds.

Gouldian Finch

Endemic to Australia and classified as Endangered, this quartet of Gouldian Finches were photographed drinking at Northern Territory’s Fergusson River. Photo: Chris Gooddie.

Our long, slow lunch was enlivened by a visit to the nest-site of one of Australia’s rarest birds of prey, our first-ever Red Goshawk, sun-soaked and soporific in the heat of the day.

Our last morning found us in position at the Fergusson River before first light. We spent a productive few hours watching birds coming in to the watering holes: delicately painted Gouldian Finches, more Hooded Parrots, Striated Pardalotes and White-gaped Honeyeaters. So long as we kept still and silent in the shade of the wattle trees on the bank of the watercourse, the birds would come close; a magical experience.

How far had these birds flown to find water? Did the same birds visit every morning? Were the birds in each successive knot of Double-barred and Masked Finches members of the same family or unrelated to one another, brought together only by their common need for hydration? We pondered such unknowables as we hoovered up the miles en route back to the coast, giving a wide berth to the enormous multi-trailer road trains that thundered down the route from Darwin to Alice Springs.

In town we whiled away our final hours failing to find either the famous Rufous Owls in the Botanical Gardens, or any Oriental Plovers at Nightcliff. We settled for studying a procession of canoodling couples, determined dog-walkers and reckless roller-bladers, before continuing our trek eastward.

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