International Bird of Mystery

January 15, 2010

WCS conservationists working in a remote valley in Afghanistan find the breeding grounds for the "world's least known bird."

First spotted in India in 1867, the large-billed reed warbler didn’t appear again until 2006—this time, in Thailand. A year later, Birdlife International dubbed this tiny, greenish brown songbird, “the world’s least known bird species.”

Now thanks to Wildlife Conservation Society researchers, the world has learned a lot more about this elusive animal. The team, working in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor of northeastern Afghanistan, has found the bird on its breeding grounds.

“Practically nothing is known about this species, so this discovery of the breeding area represents a flood of new information on the large-billed reed warbler,” said Colin Poole, executive director of WCS’s Asia program. “This new knowledge of the bird also indicates that the Wakhan Corridor still holds biological secrets and is critically important for future conservation efforts in Afghanistan.”

The warbler may have kept its low profile among bird communities along the Wakhan and Pamir rivers if not for WCS’s Robert Timmins, who caught the bird’s distinctive song on tape in 2008. Timmins at first assumed he was observing and listening to Blyth’s reed warblers. But after examining bird skins at a natural history museum in London, Timmins knew the birds he had heard and saw were of a different species. 

The next summer in June 2009, WCS researchers returned to where Timmins’ had conducted his surveys. Playing the birdsongs he had recorded, they lured the mysterious birds into mist nets to examine them. The birds flew in from all directions. In the end, the team caught almost 20 of the winged wonders. They collected feathers to analyze the species’ DNA and compared the birds’ physical characteristics and measurements with those of museum specimens. These warblers of the Wakhan and the long-billed reed warbler were a match.

With its identity solved, its birdsong recorded, and its breeding grounds pinpointed, WCS conservationists have positioned themselves to learn even more about the species and about the habitat it needs to survive.


For more information, read the press release: WCS Finds "World's Least Known Bird" Breeding in Lost Valley of Afghanistan.
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