28/09/2015
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'Ghost' kingfisher rediscovered in Pacific - then killed as specimen

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One of the first-ever photographs of the striking and elusive Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher, and the first time that the male has been described. Photo: Rob Moyle.
One of the first-ever photographs of the striking and elusive Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher, and the first time that the male has been described. Photo: Rob Moyle.
A male Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher has been photographed for the first-time ever on the Solomon Islands – the species had not seen since the 1950s.

Scientists in the remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, have been on the island surveying the endemic biodiversity and working with local partners to create a protected area.

Chris Filardi, director of the project, wrote on his blog: "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.

"In the western Pacific, first among these 'ghost species' is Moustached Kingfisher, 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."

The kingfisher has been known to the people of Guadalcanal for many generations and the Uluna-Sutahuri people who live in the forests call the bird 'Mbarikuku'; all older members of the team recruited locally had stories of encounters with it.


Described from two female specimens brought to collectors in the 1920s, a male Guadalacanal Moustached Kingfisher has never been observed until now. Photo credit: Sammy Qalokale.


On the third morning the team heard the distinctive call of a large forest kingfisher. Soon, they were able to see the bird in silhouette, then quickly in plain sight, pumping its tail with its crest raised. Over the several days following, they continued to hear the kingfishers calling in the local tall highland moss forests.

Eventually, mist nets were set out in the forest and a male bird was captured, with an all-blue back. Filardi said: "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."


The remote highlands of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where a team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, the University of the South Pacific and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund are surveying endemic biodiversity and working with local partners to create a protected area – and where a healthy population of the kingfisher appears to still exist. Photo credit: Patrick Pikacha.


BirdLife International lists this spectacular species as "Endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population which is suspected to be declining, at least in part of its range. However, further research may reveal it to be more common."

The team now had the first images of the species and the first recordings of its call. It is hoped that the green-backed females will also be photographed. Not only that, but the bird and its habitat are reportedly still thriving on the island. The male – the plumage of which was previously undescribed  – was taken as a specimen for further study at the American Museum of Natural History. This latter move seems to be standard in such circumstances among American museums and research institutions, but must be seen as ever-more controversial in the era of digital photography and DNA sampling.
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