Pitta Party

The Northern Territory of Australia is vast swath of land, home to very few people. It spans more than half a million square miles, almost twice the area of Texas. And it’s home to fewer people than Madison, Wisconsin. About one-quarter of the population are indigenous aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. The northern part of the territory is classified as tropical savanna, while the interior “red centre” is mostly hot and very dry desert. Neil and I were planning to spend the first few days around Darwin, picking up few costal specialties, and then work our way south through world-famous Kakadu National Park and down into the real Outback, as far as Pine Creek or Katherine.

Our first morning in the NT, we arrived at Buffalo Creek just before dawn. The Buffalo Creek management area is 20 minutes north of Darwin. It protects valuable wildlife habitat along the banks of lower Buffalo Creek where it empties into the Timor Sea. This area can experience dramatic tidal changes of up to five or six vertical meters (nearly 20 feet!) in the span of about six hours, so we had consult a tide table to make sure that our birding area would not be underwater. Fortunately this week the difference between high and low tides was a more manageable three meters (about 10 feet), and sunrise corresponded roughly with low tide. We would have to keep an eye on the time and the tides, though. I’d heard that they wait for no man, and we didn’t want to swim back to the car.

Also, swimming back to the car would be a terribly bad idea. The area’s saltwater crocodiles are extremely dangerous, and have been known to kill and eat humans.

The very long boat ramp provided some dramatic evidence of just how much the tides could change. We found the start of a trail, and began working our way into the forest. It was tough going through the dense mangroves, and several times we had to ford small creeks or navigate around them.

Muddy silt and dripping mangrove leaves reminded us that this entire area was underwater a few hours ago.

The cool morning air was alive with birdsong. We quickly picked up a couple dozen species, quite a number of which were new for our trip including Arafura Fantail, Mangrove Gerygone, Red-headed Myzomela, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, and Varied and Red-collared Lorikeets. Chestnut Rail, a shy specialty of the area, eluded us.

After more than an hour in the forest, we returned to the beach area and noticed a large flock of birds along the waterline. We had to trek across an expanse of sand to get close enough to identify them, but soon we were looking at a giant mixed flock of shorebirds and seabirds.

During the next half an hour we sorted through six species of terns, including Little, Lesser Crested, and Whiskered, and 13 species of shorebirds including Lesser and Greater Sand-Plover, Great Knot, Red-capped Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Far Eastern Curlew. Nothing escaped Neil’s sharp-eyed seabird scanner, and he was picking out a couple of offshore Brown Boobies while I perused the seashells washed up on the beach.

Returning to the car, we realized that had notched almost 50 species, 16 of which were brand new for our trip. There is something magical about birding a totally new geographical location. A fresh, unknown experience is always just around the corner. At this point the sun was rising higher in the sky, the tide was inbound, and we had other places to check out before the oppressive heat of the afternoon descended.

The forest trail along nearby Lee Point had been recently subjected to a controlled burn (a not uncommon practice in the Top End), but we still managed to find a couple species of cuckooshrikes and a spectacular Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove. On the way back to the car, Neil was distracted by yet more shorebirds, which we were curiously unable to identify down to species.

Our next stop was the East Point Reserve. By this time the sun was high in the sky, and temperatures had reached the mid 30s C (mid-90s F). The Monsoon Forest Walk was supposed to be good for Rainbow Pitta, a bird that both Neil and I were very keen to see. Monsoon forest is a dry tropical forest biome which experiences a long, hot dry season and then heavy rains. We were in the middle of the “cooler” dry season, but it wasn’t feeling so cool right now. Before setting out, we refreshed ourselves on the Pitta’s distinctive call: a loud, multi-syllabic squawk that is often transliterated as “I WALK to WORK!” Entering the forest, we found ourselves surrounded by a still quietude, punctuated only by our footsteps crunching through the dead leaves. We hiked all of the primary trails, covering a mile and a half in one hot, sweaty hour. We had seen only a handful of birds total, although two of them (Green-backed Gerygone and White-gaped Honeyeater) were new for our trip. The White-gaped Honeyeater completed our set of white-embellished honeyeaters, as we had previously ticked the White-eared, White-cheeked, White-throated, White-plumed, and White-naped. I’m not impressed with Australian ornithologists when it comes to their creativity in naming honeyeaters.

A couple of times I thought I heard a Pitta-like “WALK” calling in the distance, but decided that it was either wishful thinking or auditory hallucinations brought on by the fact that my water bottle was empty and my body temperature was rising. I thought heard it again… up ahead, something was calling. Rounding the next bend in the trail, I paused to listen. Instead of hearing another bird call, I heard the faint rustle of a small creature walking or hopping through the dried leaves. Neil caught up, and that’s when we spied the Pitta.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

It was spectacular. More colorful and vibrant that I had even imagined. I held my breath, certain that it would instantly vanish back into the forest. But it didn’t. The Pitta was not in any hurry to go anywhere. It sauntered around on the ground, up into a low bush, and then back to the ground.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

We watched it for a good 15 minutes before it eventually slipped back into the forest. Despite the fact that we had hardly moved, I felt out of breath. Realizing that I had been alternately holding my breath and breathing very slowly and shallowly, I took a moment to take some deep breathes and give some high fives. We finished our walk, and then headed out for a well-deserved lunch and some cold drinks. In the late afternoon we checked out East Point, and then returned to Buffalo Creek where we picked up Broad-billed Flycatcher and a fly-by Torresian Imperial-Pigeon. Nothing could match our encounter with the Pitta, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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