This bird was not seen for 170 years. Then he appeared in an Indonesian forest.


What could be the most missing bird in Asia has just come out of hiding. For the first time in 170 years, researchers reported last week that a black-browed babble had been found in Indonesia. The discovery of the dull black, gray and brown bird solves what an authoritative birding guide describes as “one of the great enigmas of Indonesian ornithology.”

“When we got confirmation of the identification, I said a little prayer and bowed in celebration,” said Panji Gusti Akbar, ornithologist and lead author of the paper describing the new species. “I felt emotion, disbelief and a lot of happiness.”

Ornithologists first described black-browed babblers around 1850 after the collection of the only known specimen of the species. The specimen was initially mislabeled as coming from the island of Java rather than Borneo, hampering early attempts to locate more black-browed babblers. But even after ornithologists cleared up the geographic confusion, no one managed to find the bird. It hasn’t helped that few bird watchers and ornithologists have traditionally ventured to the Indonesian side of Borneo.

In 2016, that began to change with the founding of BW Galeatus, a birdwatching group in Indonesian Borneo. Members of BW Galeatus have reached out to local people to teach them about the diversity of birds in their provinces. Two of those local men, Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, were curious about the identity of a black and brown bird that they sometimes saw fluttering during their trips to the forest in South Kalimantan, one of Indonesia’s provinces in Borneo. Last October, Mr. Suranto and Mr. Fauzan managed to capture one of the birds and send text photos to BW Galeatus member Joko Said Trisiyanto.

“I was confused when we got the photos, because it looked a bit like Horsfield’s chatter, but it really didn’t fit,” Trisiyanto said. The photos most closely matched the illustration of a black-browed charlatan, a bird listed in the Trisiyanto guidebook as possibly extinct.

Perplexed, Mr. Trisiyanto passed the images to Mr. Akbar. He was surprised.

“I started pacing my house, trying to contain my excitement,” he said.

Mr. Akbar sent the photos to other experts, including Ding Li Yong, a conservationist at BirdLife International in Singapore and the regional liaison for the Oriental Bird Club, a British-based bird group. At first, Dr. Yong thought that someone was playing a prank, that he was looking at a retouched image, perhaps of an anthill from Ecuador.

“It took me a while to sink in,” Dr. Yong said. Once he realized that the photos were legitimate, he said: “He had a tear in his eye.”

“This is a huge problem for Indonesian ornithology, as shocking as rediscovering the passenger pigeon or the Carolina parakeet,” Dr. Yong said, naming two extinct bird species. “But this is closer to home, a bird from the part of the world where I live.”

After the identity of the bird was confirmed, Mr. Trisiyanto persuaded Mr. Suranto and Mr. Fauzan to release the captured animal back to the forest. He and Akbar hope to use the discovery of the black-browed charlatan to generate greater local interest in nature and bring tourist dollars to the region. They also plan to train Mr. Suranto and Mr. Fauzan as birding guides.

“Bird watchers from all over the world have already started contacting me about the possibility of visiting and seeing this bird,” said Mr. Akbar, who is a member of Birdpacker, an East Java-based bird watching and guide group.

As soon as the Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted, he and his colleagues plan to mount an expedition to study the black-browed charlatan. “Basically, we don’t have any knowledge about this bird,” said Akbar.

However, they are already filling in some blanks. For example, the 170-year-old type specimen has bright yellow glass eyes and legs that have faded to pale brown. However, based on photos of the live bird, researchers now know that the species has deep scarlet eyes and gray legs.

“We are now seeing this bird alive for the first time in all its natural splendor,” Dr. Yong said. “Borneo is an island of surprises, and there is still much to discover and learn.”

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