Working for birds in Africa

The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 11:55 -- abc_admin
Vernon R. L. Head, 2014. Auckland Park: Jacana Media. 244 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-4314-1092-7.

What birder can resist a book with the title The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World? This surely must be a ripping yarn of birding adventure and spectacular discovery. Before opening this small hardback volume, I tried to guess which species is its subject. Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis? Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris? There are many potential candidates. In this book, however, it is Nechisar Nightjar Caprimulgus solala, an African nightbird known only from a single wing that was collected from a road kill in a remote part of southern Ethiopia more than 20 years ago. It has never been seen alive, despite a number of searches for it.

This book is the story of four friends on a mission to rediscover this mysterious bird. The scene is set by the author who describes his childhood passion for nightjars and goes on to relate various travels in search of nocturnal species such as the unique Oilbird Steatornis caripensis of northern South America. Eventually, our ornithological musketeers arrive in Ethiopia and set off on a dusty two-day journey south to the Nechisar Plain, an area far from the usual tourist routes. If they had failed to find their target, I doubt that this book would have been written, so I have probably not spoilt anyone’s enjoyment of this tale by announcing that the expedition was successful - up to a point.

Sadly, the rediscovery at its heart, the brief sighting of an alleged Nechisar Nightjar, is far from convincing. Six seconds is not very long to see any bird, let alone a nightbird in artificial light - and a bird never knowingly seen alive before. A return visit the following night resulted in a further brief view and the adventurers even tried to capture the bird with a homemade net. An amateurish video of this attempt was posted on the internet not long after the expedition, confirming that their views of the bird were very poor. There were no conclusive photos, no detailed description, nothing to convince that it was this species, other than the fact it was large. But size is notoriously difficult to estimate at night and birds frequently look larger in the dark. We are not told how other species were eliminated.

The story is well told, but at times I found the writing contrived with rather too many metaphors. This is purple prose at its most purple. There are frequent dalliances into a fanciful and flowery language that can be somewhat distracting. I also found the sycophantic reverence of their team leader, Ian Sinclair, a trifle annoying, especially the dubious claim that he is the most famous birdwatcher in Africa.

The author repeatedly turns to the issue of which is the rarest bird in the world, examining a number of potential candidates and putting forward the case for it to be Nechisar Nightjar. The sad truth is that we simply don’t know. Until Nechisar Nightjar is unequivocally rediscovered and studied, we have no idea of its true status. It may not even be a resident of the Nechisar Plain - the owner of the single wing that currently resides in the Natural History Museum in Tring could have been a migrant or even a vagrant. To date, no formal announcement or refereed scientific paper has been published about this ‘rediscovery’ of Nechisar Nightjar. If this book is intended to document the continued existence of this species, then it falls sadly short. But as birding adventure in one of the remotest parts of Africa, it is compelling.

Neil Roberts

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