Well described as one of Africa’s ‘most wanted birds’, the African Pitta is a spectacular, vividly coloured bird. It occurs in deciduous thickets in the Zambezi River Valley in Zambia and Zimbabwe as well as along certain parts of the Luangwa River in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and in northern Mozambique. It arrives to breed in these parts in November, returning to its non-breeding grounds in the DRC, Uganda and Kenya in March or April.
Finding the Pitta is not easy as many birders have found. It requires advance knowledge of the right habitat, great patience while sitting in gloom of the thickets and knowledge of the call. The bird forages for invertebrates in the leaf litter, hopping between suitable patches and it is often the iridescent blue wing patches that draws one’s attention to it.
By far the best way to locate this species is the call – a loud ‘pleep’ often given from a horizontal branch. It may give a short jump in the air and then drop back with the wings outspread. It is also important to bear in mind that it usually only calls in the early part of the season, i.e. November and December. Once it starts breeding it becomes silent and then you will need to be with an experienced local birding guide to hopefully find the pitta.
Here is the typical call which we made while living in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
African Pitta call
So where should one go to find this elusive bird? Our first pitta safari took enthusiasts to Chizarira National Park in Zimbabwe in the mid-90s and was repeated several times over a few years. On one trip we were accompanied by the legendary bird illustrator and publisher Kenneth Newman. On seeing the pitta for the first time he stated, with a satisfied grin on his face “it looks just like the bird I painted”. Until then his artwork was of specimens in various museums.
We later moved our trips to the Zambezi Valley and this remains one of the prime destinations for seeing this amazing bird where Birding Safaris Victoria Falls now operate. Another site is Bilimungwe Bush Camp in South Luangwa National Park where the bird is usually seen on the edge of the camp. The Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia is another place where the bird is to be found.