Rare Pitta thriving in Mt Banahaw

Alain Pascua

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The rare Whiskered Pitta thrives in Mt Banahaw.

MANILA, Philippines – Cris Ceriban, a caretaker at the Bangkong Kahoy Valley Resort, Dolores, Quezon, recently stumbled upon a bird’s nest while inspecting the community water source in Mt. Banahaw.

He thought it was just a nest of a Plain Bushen, a Philippine endemic waterbird, until he described his find to a visiting wild bird photographer, who immediately went to the location to confirm his suspicion of a possible nest of a pitta or montane bird.

True enough, the nest belongs to the rarest pitta in the country, the Whiskered Pitta.

The discovery of the nesting Whiskered Pitta, the most sought-after Philippine endemic pitta, in Mt. Banahaw is a result of the nest reporting/bonus program initiated by wild bird photographer Ramon Quisumbing, who gives monetary incentives to whoever discovers and protects bird nests in Bangkong Kahoy Valley Resort in Dolores, Quezon.

Before the program, common folks did not give importance to birds and their nests; more often than not, they ate bird eggs with the belief that these gave them energy.

Today, the conservation initiative is in full swing.

On this recent discovery, Quisumbing said, “This is the 3rd first-time recording of a nest at Bangkong Kahoy Valley/Mt. Banahaw in 2 months. The first 2 were the confusus race of the Besra and the Lemon-Throated Leaf-Warbler. Now, it’s the Whiskered Pitta! Bangkong Kahoy Valley is fast becoming a true bird haven!”

That the Whiskered Pittas are thriving is significant because the species is considered vulnerable and threatened, according to the International Union of Conservation Networks (IUCN). Known also as Koch’s Pitta, the Whiskered Pitta is usually seen in areas such as Cordillera Central, Sierra Madre and Bicol. The Igorots call the bird Kong Kong. Tourists may go to Camp Sawa at the Penablanca Protected Landscape in Cagayan: a 10-hour drive, 12-hour hike and overnight camp. And you still have to pray for luck to see it.

When fellow wild bird photographer Neon Rosell II posted the photos of the nesting Whiskered Pitta in Mt. Banahaw at 1,095 meters above sea level, and published the first ever documentation of its nest, Rey Sta AnaRocky Sison and this author, all belonging to the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, went to Bangkong Kahoy to follow his trail and see for themselves the biggest yet rarest of the Philippine pittas.

After 2.5 hours of hiking difficult trails of different terrains (some are dangerous with eroding soils, slippery rocks and poisonous plants) they only had two encounters with the rare beauty: one lasting less than 20 seconds, the other only about 5 seconds.

There are about 32 different pittas in the whole world, and two of these are found only in the Philippines – the Azure-breasted or Steere’s Pitta and the Whiskered Pitta, the rarest in the country. It is the pinkish-tan malar stripe or “whiskers” that give Whiskered Pitta its name, although the field marks are the large size and the scarlet belly and undertail coverts.

Three other pittas are also found in the country – the resident Hooded Pitta, the Red-Bellied Pitta and the migrant Blue-Winged Pitta.

Mads Bajarias, an avid birdwatcher and founding member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, said that the Whiskered Pitta is a bird that holds so much cache because of its elusive, secretive nature. He added that Tim Fisher, co-author of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, estimated in 2007 that, despite the bird’s large size (9 inches), less than 200 birders have ever laid eyes on the beautiful forest jewel.

This makes it attractive to birdwatchers who want to test their skills and patience. He said that to be able to see the elusive Whiskered Pitta is comparable to catching sight of the rare Philippine Eagle in Mindanao.

With the discovery, British Ornitologist Desmond Allen said that “Bangkong Kahoy will be needing to build a 5-storey hotel soon for the birders.” – Rappler.com

(Alain Pascua is the vice president of Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines and Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.)

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