Guwahati: Six birdwatchers trekked to a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh to climb the Mugaphi peak in search of the rare and elusive Grey-bellied Wren Babbler.
To their delight, they found a bird species new to science – the Lisu Wren Babbler.
The expedition team included birdwatchers from Bengaluru, Chennai, and Thiruvananthapuram in South India along with their two guides from Arunachal Pradesh. The trek began with a steep climb to a ridge at an elevation of 2,000-2,400 meters. The expedition took place in March.
The findings have been published by Indian BIRDS, a peer-reviewed journal of South Asian ornithology.
The Grey-bellied Wren Babbler is mostly found in Myanmar, with some birds occurring in China and Thailand. There has been only one previous report of the Grey-bellied Wren Babbler from India, when two specimens were collected from these same mountains back in 1988. One of the specimens is now in the Smithsonian Museum in the United States. The bird was identified as a Grey-bellied Wren Babbler by ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen when she included the species in her book published in 2005.
The birding team had to reach Vijaynagar, a village of the Lisu community, to begin their climb. The village is about 82 km from Miao, and the team had to drive through mountain roads and cross the Namdapha national park to get there. From Vijaynagar, it was a two-day climb in the Himalayas to reach the altitudes where the Grey-bellied Wren Babbler was believed to occur.
However, the team was in for a surprise: although they saw the bird that was believed to be Grey-bellied Wren Babbler, the bird did not sing like one!
“All the birds we found had a sweet song that was similar to the songs of the Naga Wren Babbler; and quite unlike the trilling song of the Grey-bellied Wren Babbler,” says Praveen J, one of the members of the expedition.
The primary song of the Mugaphi bird is sweet, comprising four to seven notes, variable in syntax but consistent in frequency and similar in basic notes. The birds from Mugaphi differed from Grey-bellied Wren-Babbler in both morphology and acoustics. Two key morphological differences visible in the team’s images and videos were (1) a whitish belly (vs grey belly) and (2) a lack of scaling on the belly (vs prominent dark scaling).
Despite the continuous rain, the team managed to take some pictures, videos, and recordings of the bird’s songs. They returned and analyzed the skins of other Wren Babblers in museums and photographs from other sites. They tried to match the sounds with existing recordings of Grey-bellied Wren Babbler, and also obtained photographs of the single specimen in the Smithsonian Museum.
“As the name indicates, the ground colour of the belly of Grey-bellied Wren Babbler is grey. However, all the photos we got showed birds with whitish bellies. Surprisingly, the single Smithsonian specimen from these mountains also had a whitish belly,” says Dipu Karuthedathu, another member of the expedition.
When all the information was put together, the team realized that they had probably documented a new variety for science – at least a new subspecies but more likely a new species. The plumage and songs did not match any known species. Establishing and naming a species or subspecies scientifically requires genetic material from these birds to be compared against other Wren Babbler species.
However, the team has already given an English name for the bird after the Lisu community. Lisus are the local community that resides in Vijoynagar, various parts of Namdapha and Miao, apart from Myanmar, Yunnan and Thailand. They hope that this will bring much attention among the local community in Vijoynagar and Gandhigram to conserve habitat.
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“I believe the Lisu Wren Babbler may be present in more sites in this mountain range. We need to explore and find more accessible populations closer to Namdapha,” says Yolisa Yobin, who has been organising birding expeditions in Namdapha for the past five years.
Though these higher altitude habitats don’t face any imminent threat, the restricted nature of the Lisu Wren Babbler’s range would require closer monitoring.
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