Photospot: Whiskered Pitta
by Pete Morris, from OBC Bulletin 25, June 1997.
Four species of Pitta breed in the Philippines, two of which are endemic to the Archipelago. The attractive Azure-breasted Pitta, Pitta steerii, is found on the southern islands of Mindanao, Bohol, Samar and Leyte whereas the Whiskered Pitta P. kochi (which is also known as Koch's Pitta) is endemic to the northern island of Luzon.
The Whiskered Pitta primarily inhabits montane evergreen forest and seems to favour montane oak forest especially where there is dense undergrowth and steep ravines. Until the last decade there had been very few observations of Whiskered Pitta. However, extensive surveys in Isabella and Cagayan provinces in the northern Sierra Madre mountains in the early 1990s by a team of Danish ornithologists discovered large populations of Whiskered Pittas and contributed much of what is known today about the ecology of this species.
They found the pitta to be commonest in forest between 900 and 1400 metres where it preferred to forage for its invertebrate prey in damp soil and, in particular, in areas that had been recently disturbed by foraging wild pigs. Even for a pitta, a group renowned for their retiring nature, this species is generally extremely shy and secretive. They are largely terrestrial, seldom venturing more than a metre or two from the forest floor to call.
If it were not for the loud and distinctive territorial call the species would often go unrecorded. Indeed, at Mount Polis, a mountain in the Cordillera Central range which has been visited by many birders over the last decade the pitta has largely gone unnoticed until this year when up to five were heard in a small area in one morning. The call usually consists of 5-9 'woo' notes given in a series which descends in pitch and accelerates and is quite unlike other pittas being more reminiscent of a pigeon.
The plumage of the species is very close to the sympatric Red-bellied Pitta, P. erythrogaster, and the two must be separated with care. Whiskered Pitta is significantly larger (weighing twice as much as Red-bellied), lacks the blue collar and blue on the lower mantle and rump of the nominate race of Red-bellied with which it is sympatric and importantly shows dark ear coverts and a prominent pale whisker.
The superb photograph of an adult bird was taken by Billy Simpson and captures the true splendour of this species in an unusually fearless moment. It were taken at the Angat Watershed, an area of degraded forest north of Manila where forest still remains because the important watershed provides Manila with drinking water. As far as I am aware this was the first record of the species from this well watched site and at an altitude of approximately 300 metres is one of the lowest altitudinal records and perhaps suggests that the species may undergo local dispersive or altitudinal movements.
Although Whiskered Pitta was listed in Birds to Watch as vulnerable, recent records demonstrate that a healthy population exists in the remaining montane forest on Luzon and as it appears to adapt well to degraded forest the future for this delightful species looks somewhat rosier than that of many of the other threatened endemics of the Philippines.
Collar, N.J., Crosby, M.J. and Slatersfield, A.J. (1994) Bird to Watch 2: the world list of threatened birds. BirdLife International (BirdLife Conservation Series no. 4), Cambrigde, U.K.
Lambert, F. and Woodcock, M. (1996) Pittas, Broadbills and Asities. Pica Press, Sussex, U.K