Field Journal: Finding Ghosts

by AMNH on

From the Field posts

Editor's note: Recent news about the collection of a moustached kingfisher, a species of bird that while rarely studied is not rare, has elicited a range of comments, including concerns about the need for physical specimens and the role they play in modern conservation and scientific research. For a response to these questions, including an explanation of how the moustached kingfisher population size was measured, please see Dr. Filardi’s detailed response in Audubon magazine.

Chris Filardi is director of Pacific Programs at the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. This month, he’s blogging from the remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where he is surveying endemic biodiversity and working with local partners to create a protected area. 

After several days of work, it is clear we are on the shores of an island in the sky. Species we encounter here are of two worlds—one that descends to the humid, coastal plain, and another that rises into the cool, cloud-raked mountains of Tetena-Haiaja. Just as the white sands of an island beach divide land and sea, the ascending Chupukama ridge marks the transition from a world of known lowland organisms to a sky island filled with scientific mystery. 

Mountain range covered in greenery with clouds settled above.
This rugged terrain hosts a huge variety of organisms, many of which are unknown to science.
© M. Janda

Below we can hear and see familiar cockatoos, large fruit-eating crows, and other lowland species like mynas. But here, endemic mountain whistler birds sing all around, large honeyeaters sip nectar from red tree blossoms, and the din of moss forest frogs rises with each setting sun. In our intimate meanderings around Chupukama, sights and sounds that were foreign to us and to the scientific world just days ago are now as familiar and recognizable as the voice of an old friend.

Still, some species defy the familiar. There are the poorly known, reclusive animals that even when observed never fully shake the legend and mystery surrounding them. We search for them in earnest but they are seemingly beyond detection except by proxy and story. They are ghosts, until they reveal themselves in a thrilling moment of clarity and then they are gone again. Maybe for another day, maybe a year, maybe a century.

In the western Pacific, first among these ghost species is the moustached kingfisher (currently classified as Actenoides bougainvillei excelsus), a bird I have sought for nearly 20 years. Described by a single female specimen in the 1920s, two more females brought to collectors by local hunters in the early 1950s, and only glimpsed in the wild once. Scientists have never observed a male. Its voice and habits are poorly known. Given its history of eluding detection, realistic hopes of finding the bird were slim.

Close-up on the colorful, striped head of a moustached kingfisher bird.
The moustached kingfisher has only been seen once in the wild by scientists.
© R. Moyle

Until on our third morning we heard an unmistakable “ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew” of a bird that could only be a large forest kingfisher. We paused, waited for what seemed like eternity, and then heard another cry from the mossy forest. It had to be the bird.

Within moments our eyes caught movement: a large shadow of wings and a thick body abruptly stopped in a tangle. Our recordist Frank Lambert saw the bird first and called me over. There in plain sight pumping its tail, crest alert, in full colors, was the moustached kingfisher. And then, like a ghost, it was gone.

But only for the moment. Over the next several days, we continued to hear birds calling sporadically in taller moss forests of the ridge, but had a difficult time finding them. We set fine “mist” nets out in the forest with the hope of capturing an individual, and after a cloud-raked morning of dripping rains and cold winds, we captured a male bird, identifiable by its magnificent all-blue back (females have greenish backs). When I came upon the netted bird in the cool shadowy light of the forest I gasped aloud, “Oh my god, the kingfisher.” One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.

A male moustached kingfisher bird with a colorful, striped head.
These are the first-ever photos of a male moustached kingfisher.
© S. Galokale

We now have the first photos ever taken of the bird, as well as the first definitive recordings of its unmistakable call. But this find is more than a scientific discovery. For countless generations, the people of Guadalcanal have lived with and known these remarkable and elusive birds. Uluna-Sutahuri people call the bird Mbarikuku, and the older Uluna members of our team all had stories of encounters with it from their youth.

This ghost-like, poorly known bird of legend for us was all along part of a familiar sense of place here on Guadalcanal. In the end, we did not only find the bird, but also encountered its world still thriving. It's a world trapped among competing histories that vie to define its future, a future that remains largely in the hands of a people who had a name for Mbarikuku all along.