Even some of Earth's most endangered birds aren't as mysterious as the moustached kingfisher. Native to a "sky island" in the South Pacific, it was unknown to science until a lone female was spotted in the 1920s. Two more females were caught in the 1950s, but that was it. No photos, and no recorded sightings of any male.
That has finally changed, though, thanks to a team of researchers who recently explored remote forests in the Solomon Islands. Not only did they see a male moustached kingfisher, but they captured dazzling photos of him, like this:
The team was led by Chris Filardi, a bird expert at the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, who heralded the find in a blog post this week. He has spent 20 years searching for the elusive moustached kingfisher, which he describes as a "ghost" species that defies discovery.
"There are the poorly known, reclusive animals that even when observed never fully shake the legend and mystery surrounding them," he writes. "We search for them in earnest but they are seemingly beyond detection except by proxy and story. They are ghosts, until they reveal themselves in a thrilling moment of clarity and then they are gone again. Maybe for another day, maybe a year, maybe a century."
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The search took Filardi's team into the Tetena-Haiaja mountains of Guadalcanal, known as a sky island because the high-elevation forests are so ecologically distinct from lowland areas around them. Their first hint of success was a "ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew" call from the trees, followed by another, then a flash of movement. Before they knew it, they were face-to-face with a forest spirit.
"There in plain sight pumping its tail, crest alert, in full colors, was the moustached kingfisher," Filardi writes. "And then, like a ghost, it was gone."
Seeing the bird in person was already historic, breaking the species' decades-long streak of avoiding formal detection. Yet the researchers kept looking, encouraged by more kingfisher calls as they pressed on. After days of struggling to track the birds, they tried setting up mist nets — a tool often used by scientists to capture and release birds. And one cloudy morning, their diligence paid off.
"When I came upon the netted bird in the cool shadowy light of the forest I gasped aloud, 'Oh my god, the kingfisher,'" Filardi writes. "One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life."
Moustached kingfishers are just part of the rich biodiversity found on Guadalcanal. (Photo: Graham Crumb/Flickr)
It's a testament to the wildness of Guadalcanal's forests that such a colorful bird could stay out of sight for so long. In addition to its striking blue and golden feathers, the kingfisher's round eyes and big orange beak help create an endearing, cartoonish appearance that has drawn comparisons to a stuffed toy.
But while the bird has eluded most scientists and explorers, it's not quite as mysterious to the local Uluna-Sutahuri people. They call it "Mbarikuku," Filardi writes, and some older residents of the island remember seeing it as children.
Still, it's a big deal to finally have photos of this legendary species. Remaining hidden from humans might seem preferable for such a rare bird, considering our track record of preserving wildlife, but these images could actually help it.
The moustached kingfisher is already listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with a declining population between 250 and 1,000. The birds are threatened by invasive cats and rats, the IUCN notes, whose appetites for eggs have obliterated many island birds around the world. And while its habitat is still largely intact, logging on Guadalcanal may pose a risk.
Deforestation is rampant in many of the planet's unique ecosystems, but it rarely inspires much international outcry unless it threatens a broadly popular animal like pandas or orangutans. By finally coming out of the shadows (even if it didn't mean to), this male moustached kingfisher might have given its species a better chance of living on as a figurative ghost — and not becoming a literal one.