What on Earth could prompt an apparently sane man to give up a well-paid career and a comfortable lifestyle in the U.K. to spend an entire year crawling around in leech-infested gullies and on soaking, muddy jungle floors dodging snakes, sun bears, tigers and myriad insect hazards, not to mention run the very real risks of getting lost, sustaining serious personal injury and becoming frustrated to the point of madness? Pittas could of course – the jewel-thrushes! And so it was that in one of those moments that we all have, where we find ourselves in the middle of the daily grind thinking “Why am I doing this?” (and then immediately resolving to do more interesting things with our lives but never actually getting around to doing them) that Chris Gooddie came up with his madcap plan to see, in a single year, all thirty-two species of pitta that the planet has to offer.
If you've ever waited patiently for a rare bird to appear, nerves jangling, fingernails bitten in fretful expectation, then multiply those feelings many times over and you begin to have an inkling of what searching for a pitta can be like. Attempting to see every pitta species on the planet – in a year – is therefore a surefire helter-skelter ride through the emotions, an epic journey taking in a wide array of people, places, cultures and experiences. From Australia to Zambia, Kaziranga to Kibale, The Jewel Hunter is the story of Chris Gooddie's adventure.
The cover of The Jewel Hunter, a scene of the leaf-strewn forest floor in the half-light, empty save for a single electric-blue feather, hints at the elusive nature of pittas. After a glossary of birding terms comes the main body of the book comprising twenty chapters detailing trips to different parts of Asia, Africa and Australasia, written in chronological order. As you might expect, a good portion of the text deals with the hunt for the pittas and Chris describes the forest scenes and the battles of attrition with the pittas superbly. There are numerous tales of the anguish and elation that searching for pittas can engender in a birder, but it is much more than just a tale of pitta hunting; it's an insight into wonderful places, interesting people and an exploration of what makes birders and people in general tick. Chris has an entertaining writing style and there is a very liberal sprinkling of humour throughout the book. At times – quite a lot of times actually – it is downright hilarious. Dotted throughout the book are numerous historical asides, an unhealthy devotion to Man. City, several lists expounding on topics as varied as “Bornean trail-talk subjects” (can a whole bowl of green sago be eaten without vomiting? Answer: Yes, just!), “Birders' tapas dishes” (Hello Kitty Lonely God potato twists topping the list) and all the amusing minutiae an observant traveller notices. Typos were as hard to find as a Giant Pitta.
The final section of the book contains Chris' photographs of the pittas. Now, seeing many species of pitta can be trying enough in itself, so photographing them must have been doubly hard and he did well to capture twenty-six in pixellated form. Chris' photos won't be winning any awards but they are an accurate and evocative portrayal of his encounters and more than depict the jewel-like nature of the birds in their dark forest settings. And what wouldn't many birders give for views like those Chris captured of a Superb Pitta! Whether or not Chris succeeded in his quest, you can enjoy finding out from the book, along with how to make a perfect cup of tea, the unique nature of the road safety signs of Assam, and how he came to be wearing knee-length Man. Utd shorts on Manus.
Pitta afficionados will be familiar with most of the species and locations and the logistics necessary to see them and will greatly enjoy being taken back vividly to those places and experiences. After reading this book any budding pitta 'hunters' will surely be inspired to buy that plane ticket (and leech socks) and get out into the jungle. If pittas haven't captured your imagination yet, you'll enjoy discovering just what they can do to an otherwise rational and sensible human being. I recommend the book heartily and I can honestly say that it's been a long time since I've enjoyed a bird book as much as I have enjoyed The Jewel Hunter. And just when I thought I'd settled down...
(A percentage of the sales from the book goes to BirdLife International)
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