Large-billed Reed-warbler, Acrocephalus orinus: the world's most mysterious bird.
Image: Philip Round/The Wetland Trust.
More elusive than even the Ivory-billed woodpecker, a large-billed reed-warbler has been rediscovered at a wastewater treatment plant outside of Bangkok, Thailand, Birdlife International announced today. The bird has eluded birders and ornithologists for more than 130 years.
Because the bird had not been seen since its discovery in 1867 in the Sutlej Valley of India, little is known about the mysterious large-billed reed-warbler. In fact, scientists had debated whether it represents a true species or was an aberrant individual of a more common species.
''Although reed-warblers are generally drab and look very similar, one of the birds I caught that morning struck me as very odd, something about it didn't quite add up,'' said Philip Round, an ornithologist at Bangkok's Mahidol University, who captured one of the birds on March 27, 2006. He said he noticed the bird's unusually long beak and short wings.
''Then, it dawned on me. I was probably holding a large-billed reed-warbler,'' he said. ''I was dumbstruck. I knew it was essential to get cast-iron proof of its identity. I took many photographs, and carefully collected two feathers for DNA analysis, so as not to harm the bird."
To confirm his discovery, Round sent photographs and DNA samples from the bird to Staffan Bensch of Sweden's Lund University, who had previously examined the Indian specimen. Bensch confirmed it represented a valid species.
Six months later, a second specimen of the large-billed reed-warbler was discovered at the Natural History Museum at Tring, England, in a drawer of Blyth's reed-warblers, Acrocephalus dumetorum, that were collected in India during the 19th century. This individual specimen was captured in 1869 in India's Uttar Pradesh. Bensch has since confirmed its identification using DNA.
''Finding one large-billed reed-warbler after 139 years was remarkable. Finding a second right under ornithologists' noses is nothing short of a miracle,'' BirdLife International's Stuart Butchart said.
Butchart and other bird experts said the two discoveries have raised the prospect that additional large-billed reed-warblers may be found in Myanmar, Bangladesh or in other parts of Thailand.
''Almost nothing is known about this mysterious bird,'' Butchart pointed out. ''The Indian specimen has short, round wings and we speculated it is resident or a short-distance migrant, so its appearance in Thailand is very surprising,'' he said. ''A priority now is to find out where the large-billed reed-warbler's main population lives, whether it is threatened, and if so, how these threats can be addressed.''
Lesson for the Ivory Bill chasers - A bird in the hand is worth two in the audio recordings.