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“World’s least known bird” found in Afghanistan mountains

The breeding area of the large-billed reed warbler—described in 2007 by Birdlife International as “the world’s least known bird species”—has been found in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan, the Wildlife Conservation Society said today. “Using a combination of astute field observations, museum specimens, DNA sequencing, and the...

The breeding area of the large-billed reed warbler—described in 2007 by Birdlife International as “the world’s least known bird species”—has been found in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan, the Wildlife Conservation Society said today.

“Using a combination of astute field observations, museum specimens, DNA sequencing, and the first known audio recording of the species, researchers verified the discovery by capturing and releasing almost 20 birds earlier this year, the largest number ever recorded,” the New York-based conservation organization said in a news statement.

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Photo courtesy of WCS-Afghanistan

“The recent discovery of large-billed reed warblers [Acrocephalus orinus] in Afghanistan represents a watershed moment in the study of this bird,” WCS added. “The first specimen was discovered in India in 1867, with more than a century elapsing before a second discovery of a single bird in Thailand in 2006.”

“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.”

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Photo courtesy of WCS-Afghanistan

The find serves as a case study in the detective work needed to confirm ornithological discoveries, WCS said.

“The story begins in 2008, when Timmins was conducting a survey of bird communities along the Wakhan and Pamir Rivers. He immediately heard a distinctive song coming from a small, olive-brown bird with a long bill. Timmins taped the bird’s song. He later heard and observed more birds of the same species.

“Initially, Timmins assumed these birds to be Blyth’s reed warblers, but a visit to a Natural History Museum in Tring, United Kingdom to examine bird skins resulted in a surprise: the observed birds were another species. Lars Svensson–an expert on the family of reed warblers and familiar with their songs–then realized that Timmins’ tape was probably the first recording of the large-billed reed warbler.

“The following summer (June 2009), WCS researchers returned to the site of Timmins’ first survey, 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.”

A preliminary paper on the finding appears in the most recent edition of BirdingASIA, which is published by The Oriental Bird Club, a UK-registered volunteer-run charity that aims to promote an interest in the birds of Asia and promote their conservation.. The authors include: Robert Timmins, Naqeebullah Mostafawi, Ali Madad Rajabi, Hafizullah Noori, Stephane Ostrowski and Colin Poole, of the Wildlife Conservation Society; Urban Olsson of Göteborg University, Sweden; and Lars Svensson.

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