It was unusually hot as our boat made its way on the creek at Bhitarkarnika National Park, Odisha. The mangroves created a wall of vegetation on either side of the water, their leaves rustling in the hot afternoon breeze. A few curlews — shorebirds with long, slender bills — foraged in the tidal flats, flying away as our boat approached. Saltwater crocodiles slid smoothly into the water, annoyed at us breaking their afternoon siesta. Too hot to be on the lookout for birds, most of my friends were dozing inside the ferry or on the roof. But just as we reached the jetty, someone spotted a brilliant blue hopping through the short pneumatophores, roots of mangroves that stick out like spikes. Training our binoculars, we spotted it — the mangrove pitta, unfazed by the afternoon heat, foraging with enthusiasm in the mud it calls home.
The mangrove pitta is perhaps one of India’s most beautiful, yet underappreciated birds. It has a deep green back, a deep yellow front, and one of the most brilliant blues imaginable. The vent is bright red. Its scientific name — Pitta megarhyncha — comes from rhynchos meaning beak, and mega meaning big. Surviving on a chief diet of crustaceans, insects, and molluscs, the mangrove pitta has a two-note ‘wheew-wheew’ call that resonates through the dense mangrove patches when one is fortunate enough to hear it.
The mangrove pitta is found in several parts of Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. In India, restricted to mangrove patches, it is found in the Sundarbans in West Bengal, Bhitarkanika National Park in Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh. Interestingly, until 2007, it wasn’t officially documented from Indian habitats. Dr Gopi GV and Dr Bivash Pandav documented the bird in Bhitarkanika in a publication in 2007, as a fairly common breeding resident. Senior ornithologists such as Salim Ali and Ripley, Grimmetts, Rassmussen and Anderton and Kazmierczak had only ever reported the bird from Bangladesh, and that too in scattered places. The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan by Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley says “an eminently migratory pitta, chiefly extralimital. Only a single record in our area — East Pakistan, Barisal (1925)”. Sujan Chatterjee in an article in the journal Indian Birds mentioned the first photographic record of this species, when he led a birding tour in the Indian Sundarbans. Subsequently, the bird has been regularly reported from several parts of the area.
Mangroves are important not just for their immense biodiversity values, but also because they sustain local livelihoods and sequester carbon much more than a terrestrial forest. Additionally, mangroves are important barriers to storms and protect areas further inland. However, mangroves are being destroyed or largely converted to aquaculture, for commercial farming or fishing. The effects of climate change and increasing tidal activity are having an unprecedented impact on such fragile ecosystems. These impacts can have further consequences for birds such as the mangrove pitta, which has been listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN Red List. To this end, birds like the mangrove pitta can serve as important flagship species to conserve such vast and unique landscapes. Additionally, the bird, restricted to only the Sundarbans, Bhitarkanika and parts of Andhra Pradesh, can also be an effective model of local ecotourism efforts that not only help channel funds for the conservation of the species, but also help in increasing livelihood opportunities in these areas. Needless to say, basic ecological studies on the pitta are greatly lacking. Studies on their population and behaviour are needed to gain a deeper understanding of the bird, as well as help in its conservation.
On a subsequent day, we saw the bird, unfazed by our presence again. This time, much closer. It was hopping amidst tiny puddles that had formed between the mangrove roots. As we watched the bird — a dazzling speck in the dying light of the day amidst the browns of the mangroves, it felt as though there could be hope. Perhaps this little bird would guide the way to an optimistic opportunity for its survival as well as the survival of the habitat it represents.