Saturday, May 14, 2011

The rarest bird I've ever seen

Sometimes you just get lucky. That’s how I saw the long-billed tailorbird. As indistinct as it looks, I remember the exact moment the long-billed tailorbird became visible in a tangle of vines just a few meters above my head. I remember only catching its face briefly, but seeing its body much more clearly. There wasn’t much to see more than a small greyish upper-body, paler underside, and legs. It worked along the vines, disappearing for a few moments and then reappearing briefly. And then it was gone.

Water rushes over rocks in this stream in Amani Nature Reserve,
providing a great soundtrack to a search for birds.

The long-billed tailorbird is only found on two places on planet earth, in and around the Amani rainforest in the East Usambaras and in an area in Northern Mozambique; the two populations are separated by 1000 km. Birdlife International lists this species as critically endangered with only up to 249 mature adult birds in the wild. Birdlife’s justification for this status, in addition to its small population and range, reads that, “Given that much of its habitat is being altered rapidly and is becoming increasingly fragmented, the species is likely to be undergoing a continuing decline, at least in some parts of its global range.” This is one of those birds you probably won’t hear about as it is not spectacular looking, but you may see its name grace a recently-extinct list in years to come.

Forests all over the world are being cut. The drive to the Amani rain forest
goes past several sawmills. Here the clearing goes right up to the
edge of the Amani Nature Reserve. 

Michele and I happened to be lucky enough to witness this bird for a few reasons. We were in its habitat, birding the Amani Nature Reserve in the East Usambara Mountains of coastal Tanzania. Hiking through this forest on trails, sometimes in the rain, did not provide easy views of birds. As with many of the birds we saw at Amani, this bird was our guide’s find entirely, who is the other main reason we saw this bird. Our guide, Martin, actually does research on the very bird, Artisronis moreaui. We were birding on this guy’s home turf.

Look, it's a bird! Our guide, Martin, on the right, was a very sharp birder.
This was not the moment of the tailorbird, but taken shortly before.

We were ascending the peak of a mountain (really low as far as mountains go: the peak was 1050 meters above sea level while Mt Kilimanjaro is 5,985 meters above sea level) and trying not to slip in the mud when all of the sudden, Martin says, “I hear it. He’s here.” Our guide was a pretty chill guy, but here he started to appear excited. At this point it really hadn’t dawned on me that I was about to see the rarest bird I have ever seen. As the bird calls again, I ask, “What are we hearing?” Martin replies, “The long-billed tailorbird.”

To capture a picture of this bird would have required a lot more time,
audio recordings, and a serious camera (not my point-and-shoot).
I am
relying heavily on my three field guides and the picture on Birdlife
International to draw this bird, but I did draw it free hand and tried to make
it my own (not simply copying the posture and impression that others did,
although this is not the posture as I saw it- it was much more horizontal
creeping along the vines). I am just getting into drawing and painting,
mainly because it is helping  focus on the details and topography of birds.
This is just my third piece- the real challenge will be drawing birds
in the field, not based on still images.

The bird is in the tangles on a tree to our right, then directly in front of us, above us and above the path. It was then that we saw it. Again, this is not a spectacular looking bird. As far as personality goes, it really didn’t stand out in my mind as great either. It was there gleaning insects, I suppose, and then it was gone. But what is crazy about this bird, is that out of the 2000+ species in Africa, there is only one other bird in its genus (the Eastern Arc Mountains endemic African tailorbird, which we saw numerous times in the West Usambaras) (Remember, genus is the level of classification above species, Domain-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species). The bird is thought to be more closely related to Asian tailorbirds than anything else in Africa. And again, with an estimated 50-249 mature individual birds in a very restricted range, this bird is very rare. Most people who have seen it get it with playback, which involves first recording the bird and then replaying its sounds to elicit a response and perhaps a clear showing. We did not use playback, which is a good way to miss a bird usually, but because of our particular location at that moment, the bird’s particular location at the moment, and the expertise of our guide, our paths collided.

Jared and Michele at the top of the 1050 meter mountain, post-tailorbird.
In the back is rainforest, with a clearing on the right (tea cultivation).
Photo by Martin, our guide.

We saw some great rare and endemic birds while traveling around Tanzania. There were dozens of other birds I was more excited to see beforehand, but this one surprised me. It was a gift of luck, a flash of feathers, and a glimpse of the great biodiversity filling the pockets of the planet.  And up to this point in my life, it is the rarest bird I have ever seen.

Works Cited

  • BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Artisornis moreaui. Downloaded from on 14/05/2011.
  • Fanshawe, J. and Stevenson, T. Birds of East Africa. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Pearson, D.J., Turner, A.T. and Zimmerman, D.A. Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania. Christopher Helm: London, 1999.
  • Ryan, P. and Sinclair, I. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.

No comments:

Post a Comment