We were very lucky with our sighting of the Mangrove Pitta. As soon as our boat docked at the jetty in Dangamal, Amar, the boatman, jumped off the boat and asked us to hurry. Bijaya had called him to say that two Pittas had been sighted very close to the jetty. We hurried after Amar and saw Bijaya with a couple of people with the cameras and large lenses typical of wildlife photographers. One of them pointed out the bird. It was sitting in a bush, facing us, as you see in the featured photo.
It turned, hopped down to the ground, and offered many different views to the camera. You can see examples of these views in the rest of this post. The two photographers, Bijaya, Amar, The Family and I watched the bird foraging on the floor of the jungle. Several large groups of crocodile watchers passed by. Some stopped to examine us, and left when they found nothing of interest to them.
The origin of the colourful plumage of the Pitta has been a matter for speculation for long. It builds an open nest on the ground. Darwin and Wallace sparred for many years over the selective reasoning behind coloured birds with open ground nests. The argument was about the visibility of these nests to predators. Today we understand that their argument was important but premature, because the vision of birds and their major predators are not like human vision. Human eyes became red sensitive fairly late in evolution. Avian vision switched to ultraviolet sensitivity in many independent events (but not in the Pittas).
The Mangrove Pitta is called the Queen of Bhitarkanika on tourism posters. Humans seem to find its brilliant colours very attractive. It is the species on the cover of Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp’s field guide. Do Pittas also see the brilliant plumage that we are attracted by? I have seen no argument or study that clinches the issue one way or the other. However, it seems to me reasonable to assume that if the plumage was not under selective pressure in some way, it would change more easily over time, and one would be able to see races of Pittas with different colours. On the contrary, many species of Pittas have similar colouration.
We didn’t see a Pitta again, although we heard their distinctive call several times. Inside the forest it was hard to imagine that these lovely birds are on the decline. IUCN classes this as near-threatened due to habitat loss. Bhitarkanika National Park, with its protected mangrove forest, plays an important role in the conservation of this species.