"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Almost never-seen bird resurfaces in Afghanistan

Jan. 25, 2010
Courtesy University of Gothenberg
and World Science staff

A bird spe­cies with just a hand­ful of doc­u­mented hu­man sight­ings in its past has re­sur­faced in re­mote Af­ghan­i­stan, its ap­par­ent breed­ing site, re­search­ers say.

The large-billed reed war­bler, or Acro­cephalus or­i­nus, was dis­cov­ered in 1867 but has turned up rarely since then.

The large-billed reed war­bler, or Ac­ro­ce­pha­lus or­i­nus, was dis­cov­ered in 1867 but has turned up rarely since then. (Cour­tesy WCS Af­ghan­is­tan)

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 2008, U.S. or­nith­ol­o­gist Rob­ert J Tim­mins was com­mis­sioned by the Amer­i­can aid group US­AID to cat­a­logue bird spe­cies in the Ba­dak­shan prov­ince in north­east­ern Af­ghan­i­stan. He recorded a mys­te­ri­ous bird­call from a spe­cies no one rec­og­nized.

The re­cord­ing found its way to Swed­ish or­nith­ol­o­gist Lars Svens­son who, from Tim­mins’ de­scrip­tion, be­gan to sus­pect what kind of bird was at hand.

Svens­son and Ur­ban Ols­son at the Univers­ity of Goth­en­burg, Swe­den, had found in a pre­vi­ous study that about a doz­en stuffed birds in mu­se­ums around the world had been wrongly clas­si­fied. They weren’t of the com­mon spe­cies of reed war­bler the cu­ra­tors had as­sumed, but rath­er the far rar­er large-billed reed war­bler—seen on just three doc­u­mented oc­ca­sions since 1867.

Mountains in the the Ba­dak­shan prov­ince in north­east­ern Af­ghan­i­stan (Cour­tesy WCS Af­ghan­is­tan)

Ols­son and col­leagues had pin­pointed North­east­ern Af­ghan­i­stan as an ar­ea where the Large-billed Reed War­bler probably bred in the 1930s. When both Swedes heard the re­cord­ing of the mys­te­ri­ous bird­song they real­ised they were on the trail of an or­nith­olog­i­cal sensa­t­ion.

In June 2009, the Af­ghan or­nith­ol­o­gists Naqee­bul­lah Mostafawi, Ali Madad Ra­jabi and Hafizul­lah Noori from the Wild­life Con­serva­t­ion So­ci­e­ty Af­ghan­i­stan man­aged to trav­el to the Badak­shan re­gion, de­spite the war and on­go­ing clan con­flicts. 

They used nets to cap­ture 15 in­di­vid­u­als of the mys­te­ri­ous bird. They sent pho­tographs and feath­er sam­ples to Svens­son and Ols­son, who used DNA to con­firm that af­ter 142 years, the breed­ing site of per­haps the world’s least known bird had been found.

News of the find was pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Bird­ing Asia and has aroused huge in­ter­est in or­nith­olog­i­cal cir­cles. The Large-billed Reed War­bler is not hunt­ed, but is re­garded as be­ing un­der acute threat since its breed­ing sites are be­ing de­for­ested by the lo­cal popula­t­ion in their hunt for fu­el. “That’s why it’s vi­tal that we pro­tect both the spe­cies and its hab­i­tat now,” said Ols­son.

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A bird species with just a handful of documented sightings by humans has resurfaced in remote Afghanistan, where it was found breeding, researchers say. The large-billed reed warbler, or Acrocephalus orinus, was discovered in 1867 but has turned up rarely since then. During the summer of 2008, U.S. ornithologist Robert J Timmins was commissioned by the American aid group USAID to catalogue bird species in the Badakshan province in northeastern Afghanistan. He recorded a mysterious birdcall from a species no one recognized. The recording found its way to Swedish ornithologist Lars Svensson who, from Timmins’ description, began to suspect what kind of bird was at hand. Svensson and Urban Olsson at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, had found in a previous study that about a dozen stuffed birds in museums around the world had been wrongly classified. They weren’t of the common species of reed warbler the curators had assumed, but rather the far rarer large-billed reed warbler—seen on just three documented occasions since 1867. Olsson and colleagues had pinpointed Northeastern Afghanistan as an area where the Large-billed Reed Warbler probably bred in the 1930s. When both Swedes heard the recording of the mysterious birdsong they realised that they were on the trail of an ornithological sensation. In June 2009, the Afghan ornithologists Naqeebullah Mostafawi, Ali Madad Rajabi and Hafizullah Noori from the Wildlife Conservation Society Afghanistan managed to travel to the Badakshan region, despite the war and ongoing clan conflicts. They used nets to capture 15 individuals of the mysterious bird. They sent photographs and feather samples to Svensson and Olsson, who used DNA to confirm that after 142 years, the breeding site of perhaps the world’s least known bird had been found. News of the find was published this week in the journal Birding Asia and has aroused huge interest in ornithological circles. The Large-billed Reed Warbler is not hunted, but is regarded as being under acute threat since its breeding sites are being deforested by the local population in their hunt for fuel. “That’s why it’s vital that we protect both the species and its habitat now,” said Olsson.