Bird Spotted Just Twice in 139 Years Found Breeding in Northeastern Afghanistan (UPDATED)


Large-billed reed warbler (Acrocephalus orinus) in hand, Zebak, Afghanistan, 14 June 2009. Photo credit: WCS-Afghanistan.

The remote and rugged Pamir Mountains surrounding the Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan are among the planet's highest peaks. Known as the "Roof of the World," the region supports a small population of nomadic herders -- and, as it turns out, the first known breeding area of a small bird previously spotted just twice in nearly a century and a half.According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the first specimen of large-billed reed warbler was discovered in India in 1867; the next was not spotted until 2006, in Thailand, leading the organization BirdLife International to dub the small, olive-brown animal "the world's least known bird species."

Breeding Population of Large-Billed Reed Warblers Discovered
WCS researcher Robert Timmins first heard and taped the song of the large-billed reed warbler, which he initially assumed to be a different bird, during a 2008 survey of avian communities along the Wakhan and Pamir Rivers. Further examination of bird skins and songs indicated that he might just have a real find on his hands.

In June 2009, the WCS sent researchers back to the site, "this time with mist nets used to catch birds for examination":

The research team broadcast the recording of the song, a technique used to bring curious birds of the same species into view for observation and examination. The recording brought in large-billed reed warblers from all directions, allowing the team to catch almost 20 of them for examination and to collect feathers for DNA. Later lab work comparing museum specimens with measurements, field images, and DNA confirmed the exciting finding: the first-known breeding population of large-billed reed warblers.

Timmins and his fellow researchers published their findings in the most recent edition of BirdingASIA, the twice-yearly bulletin of the Oriental Bird Club, a U.K.-based charity focused on conservation in tropical and subtropical southeastern Asia, India, and associated islands.

An 'Oasis' for Bird Species in Afghanistan
The discovery, the researchers wrote, changed perception of the bird "from a cryptic, essentially unknown species to one of a long-distant migrant, albeit still enigmatic, with a postulated range stretching from south-western Central Asia to northern South-East Asia." They found its breeding ground, a partially cultivated river area, to be "an oasis for more than 50 species of resident and migratory birds," as well as habitat for mammals including the common otter, cape hare, stone marten, and grey wolf.

The finding is a bit of rare good news from a troubled country, and one that the researchers say must be safeguarded against habitat loss by "develop[ing] alternative fuel resources for local inhabitants" to replace wood cut from the riverside scrub "and the improvement of the existing cultivated lands" to provide an alternative to clearing riparian bushland for growing crops and grazing livestock.

"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."

UPDATE: On Feb. 28, Afghanistan's National Environment Protection Agency added the large-billed reed warbler to its recently created list of protected species. Fourteen other species were also added to the list for a total of 48. "It is not true that our country is full of only bad stories," Mustafa Zahir, the environmental agency's director-general, told the Associated Press. "This bird, after so many years, has been discovered here. Everyone thought it was extinct."

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Tags: Animals | Birds | Conservation | Developing Nations