Indian Pitta Found in the Margalla Hills

Dear Readers of the Islamabad Birding Blog. It’s Islbirder here who knows nothing of Facebook (I leave that to Swabi Birder) but I do know RMK has attracted a lot of new birder/photographers through the Facebook Group.

I spent three wonderful years in Pakistan birding with RMK and many mornings during the heat of sweltering summers we would be at Trail 5 of the Margalla Hills before daybreak listening for the plaintive whistle of a very shy and incredibly rare summer visitor to Pakistan. In all those many days of trying I never did find the beautiful Indian Pitta. The Pakistan range of this species, historically, has only ever been the Margalla Hills National Park.

It is frustratingly elusive within its breeding territory and much easier to see where it winters in Sri Lanka. Indian Pitta was first recorded in Pakistan in June 1978 when a pair was found breeding at Daman-i-Koh, at the foot of the Margalla Hills. Subsequent investigation by the eminent ornithologist, the late Tom Roberts, discovered a few pairs in the moister ravines of the Margalla Hills National Park above Islamabad. The birds arrived in late May and left again during October.

The male has a very distinctive whistle and they call during the very early morning and late afternoon. Roberts estimated, at their peak, there were 18 to 20 pairs of Indian Pitta breeding in the Margallas. I recall many mornings in the darkness during my time in Pakistan hiding amongst the bushes alongside Trail 5, imitating the whistle of a male Indian Pitta and inadvertently frightening people as they walked along the path. My really poor Urdu “Mira decca perinder” just didn’t seem to reassure any of them!

The last convincing records of India Pitta in the Margalla Hills area and, indeed, in Pakistan, were as far back as 1983. I dreamt many times of finding one but failed. However, Islamabad resident Irshad Sheikh has achieved the unbelievable and found an Indian Pitta. As I sit here writing this back in England I am so envious of Irshad’s success but I congratulate him. Not only for finding an Indian Pitta but also obtaining photographs.

I am so very proud of RMK for the work he has done in creating an interest in Pakistan’s wildlife that is shared by so many people because of him. So, to the birder/photographers of Islamabad get out there in the heat of summer, as there will be other birding jewels to be found. Below is Irshad’s exciting account of finding and photographing the first reliable Indian Pitta record for 34 years.

Eid Mubarak

I am Irshad Sheikh; by profession I am a Photojournalist in Associated Press of Pakistan Corporation (APPC) Headquarters in Islamabad since 2004. During my job I captured thousands of photograph: disasters, landscapes, sports and other press related events. However, I love to capture birds also and it always felt good to catch a good shot. One day, I was exploring birds on Facebook when I came across the Birds of Islamabad Group almost two years ago and I was surprised to see the variety of birds in Margalla Hills and most of the birds were photographed by my great bro Zahran Cr and Riaz Javed Siddiqui and later I found the pioneer name in birding Riaz Khan Sir. I then decided to post my bird photos in this group and I’m still posting.

One beautiful morning I prepared my gear and decided to go for the birding at Trail 5 in the Margalla Hills National Park. I arrived around 5.30 am on 18 June 2017. Although the weather was not good at the time, so I decided to keep walking along the track. Later on the weather improved.  I used to sit in the lap of a tree and I put on my camouflage and waited for the birds without knowing that this would be my Golden Day.

There were lot of birds singing, whistling and fluttering around me. That day I did not carry my tripod because of fasting to keep myself lighter. My mistake because all of a sudden a bird flew over me and land on branch of a tree in front of me. Firstly I ignored the bird because it seemed it was a White-throated Kingfisher.  Then I heard a lovely whistle sound and after few seconds I realised that this was something else. I very carefully lifted my camera, as the bird appeared very wary of me even though I was camouflaged. After a few seconds I succeeded in raising my camera to my eye-level and waited for the shot. Through my viewfinder I realised that this was a new bird and very beautiful in colour. I released my camera shutter and took some shots. Due to the lack of light I reset my exposure setting for handheld shots.

The bird was gone and I prayed to God please, please, please God, send him back! I felt movement in the thick bushes and the bird was there and I was glad to know about this. Waiting, waiting and waiting but after 30 minutes he showed up and I took some good shots and after listening to the shutter sound the bird again vanished. After some minutes I feel that the bird was circling around me at a careful distance. He knew about my camouflage suit. However, I kept my eyes on bird and then it landed behind the bushes and I moved on and took some shots of this shy bird. Then he suddenly showed me up within 15 feet and I took some more shots and then the bird was gone again. I hope to see him again in the Margalla Hills. Irshad Sheikh

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