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170 Years On, Black-Browed Babbler Rediscovered in Borneo

Black-Browed Babbler
170 Years On, Black-Browed Babbler Rediscovered in Borneo

Researchers have reported that a black-browed babbler was found in Indonesia last week, resurfacing after 170 years of absence from ornithological records.

This bird species is perhaps Asia’s longest-missing bird. Its muted black, grey, and chestnut-brown features are described as “one of the great enigmas of Indonesian ornithology” by an authoritative bird guide.

“When we actually got confirmation of the identification, I said a little prayer and bowed down to celebrate because I felt excitement and disbelief,” said Panji Gusti Akbar, an ornithologist.

In around 1850, ornithologists described the black-browed babbler has been the one and only known specimen of the species, mistakenly said to have originated from Java, not Borneo.

Despite ornithologists’ and a few birders’ attempts to search for more of this bird in Borneo, ultimately the search had been futile. The founding of BW Galeatus, a bird-watching group in Indonesian Borneo, in 2016 consulted with Borneo locals to learn about the avian diversity in the island.

Two locals, Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, then searched for this bird, exploring into the South Kalimantan forests. Both men managed to catch one of the birds and text photos to fellow BW Galeatus member Joko Said Trisiyanto last October.

“I was confused when we got the pictures because it looked a bit like the Horsfield’s babbler, but it didn’t really fit,” said Trisiyanto.

In fact, the photos looked similar to an illustration of a black-browed babbler which was stated as possibly extinct according to Trisiyanto’s guidebook. He proceeded to pass the images on to Akbar, a member of a bird-watching and guiding group based in East Java called Birdpacker.

Akbar sent them to other experts, including Ding Li Yong, a conservationist at BirdLife International in Singapore, and the regional liaison for the Oriental Bird Club, a Britain-based bird group.

“It took me a while to get to grips with this thing. When I finally realised these were legit photos and not photoshopped, I had a tear in my eye,” Dr Yong said. “This is a really big deal for Indonesian ornithology.”

After the bird’s identity was confirmed, Trisiyanto persuaded the two local men who took the photos to release the captured animal back into the forest. With the discovery of the black-browed babbler, greater local interest in nature and a boost to local tourism are both anticipated.

“Bird-watchers from all over the world have already started contacting me about the possibility of visiting and seeing this bird,” said Akbar.

The current lack of knowledge about the bird has encouraged Akbar and his colleagues to plan an expedition into the forests once COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.

There is a difference between the recent bird discovery and the animal last encountered 170 years ago. The new black-browed blabber has deep scarlet eyes and grey legs, different from the specimen dated 170 years ago.

Borneo is an island of surprises, and there’s a lot to still be discovered and learned,” said Dr. Yong.

Photo credits

Also Read Cruising on a Borneo River

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