Redux: Science Meets Bird, Bird Meets Science

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This week, news of the rediscovery of the Jackson’s climbing salamander in Guatemala has me thinking about all the species that lie just out of sight. Here’s one I first wrote about in 2013.

Late last year, during a reporting trip in Cambodia, I shared a car for a couple of days with Simon Mahood, a British ornithologist who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Phnom Penh. Mahood, a devoted birdwatcher since childhood, was full of stories about the rare birds and remote places of Southeast Asia. But there was one story he kept to himself.

On the floodplains around Phnom Penh, within sight of the new skyscrapers in the city center, Mahood and his colleagues had seen a bird they couldn’t identify. They knew it was a tailorbird, a wrenlike bird that stitches a cradle for its nests out of leaves and spider silk. But this bird didn’t look or sound quite like the tailorbirds they were familiar with. Maybe it was just an odd individual, they thought. Over several weeks and several early-morning trips, they saw another of the unusual birds, and then another.

Eventually, they counted 14 birds in four different locations. “If we’d been birdwatching at the top of a mountain or on some sort of remote island, a place where no birdwatchers had ever been, we might have caught on earlier, and thought, ‘Maybe we’ve found a new species,'” Mahood told me earlier this week. “But we were birdwatching on the edge of Phnom Penh. We weren’t expecting to see anything new.”

And yet they did. Mahood and his colleagues have just published the first formal description of Orthotomus chaktomuk, the Cambodian tailorbird. It’s one of two bird species found only in Cambodia (the other is the delightfully named Cambodian laughingthrush) and it turns out to be quite common in the dense, muggy riverside scrublands around the capitol. Thousands, maybe even millions of people had seen it. They just hadn’t noticed it.

Scientists discover one or two new bird species every year, but they generally don’t happen upon them within the limits of a major city. The tiny Cambodian tailorbird is an extraordinary find.

“I still struggle to believe it sometimes,” says Mahood. During the exhaustive process of officially confirming, describing, and naming a new species, Mahood kept revisiting the tailorbird sites on weekend mornings, reassuring himself that yes, the bird was there, and yes, it sure did look like a new species. “Doubts crept in,” he says. “I kept thinking, ‘Have I dreamed all this? Have I made a horrific mistake?'”

Earlier this week, accompanied by a few local journalists, Mahood once again took his call recordings to the sites. The Cambodian tailorbirds — perhaps in a fit of press shyness — took their time responding, leaving Mahood waiting anxiously in the summer heat. Then, sure enough, they sang back.

Photo by Ashish John, used with permission. Hear Cambodian tailorbird calls and see videos here

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