Monday, 30 December 2013

Obscure bird of the week: Obi Woodcock

If I ever win the lottery, I know what I'm doing. The dream bins, the uni-fund, grandma's Greek villa, it can all wait. I'm getting a one way flight to Jakarta, then hopping on an eagle emblazoned Gurada Indonesia plane to the small island of Ternate. Why? Not for the wealth of endemic cuscuses - eerily cute cat/monkey/ET hybrids. Not for the Syzygium aromatics tree, the flower buds of which were once the only source of cloves in the world. Not even for the planet's largest bee species; the formidable Megachile pluto, a black, jawed leviathan, an insect larger than a wren and with a penchant for nesting within active termite colonies.

No, my pilgrimage to Ternate is for a boat service. The only boat service, in fact, for the island of Obi.

About 50km at its widest point (the UK’s is just under 500km), it's a forested, mountainous tropical island the same size as the urban area of Rennes in France, but a population of 170,000 fewer; a mix of ethnicities living on seafood and money made from logging and gold mining. I'm not here to take in the climate (warm and wet with two monsoon seasons), the culture (not much unless you like fishing or cutting down trees) or the culinary delights (I don't even like lobster). No, I've made this 12,600km trip for a dumpy brown bird with nocturnal habits and no character. 

I feel like I’m not selling this well.

The bird in question is the Obi Woodcock Scolopax rochussenii (also known as the Moluccan Woodcock) and it’s a forest-dwelling, orangey-ochre, swivel-eyed mystery. First recorded by Heinrich Bernstein, who collected a single specimen from Obi in 1862 (he then died of illness in New Guinea in 1865, leaving the bird undescribed until 1866 when his specimen arrived in the Netherlands), it had been seen in life only twice by western scientists until 2012. Up until then, a mere 7 additional individuals were recorded in the 150 years since that first male woodcock succumbed to the Dutch scientist’s gun. Even expeditions as recent as 1989, 1992 and 2010 yielded no visible avian fruit, although its voice was recorded for the first time in 2010; a squeaky tit-like witter performed whilst roding.

The events of 2012, however, are a huge milestone for ornithology; a big red pin on the Obi Woodcock timescale. Between July and August, a team from the Royal Geographic Society visited Obi to fully assess this black hole of a wader and its habits. Surveying 21 sites whilst camping in the hot humid montane forests for a month is a feat in itself, but the team managed to record the bird (by sight or sound) on 51 occasions! The first ever pictures of the species were also obtained, the most exciting grainy brown smudges I have ever laid my woodcock-popping eyes on. Amazing! 

The first photographs of an Obi Woodcock -ever!
©John C. Mittermeier
Whilst the information gained from this expedition gives little information about the birds habits compared to that available for other more accessible and more intensively studied species, it was ground-breaking for the global knowledge of this bird. For example, the long-assumed fact that it was a bird of purely montane forest was dispelled when the team flushed a woodcock along a coastal river. Later it was discovered that the birds actually occurred at higher densities in lowland areas than in highland ones.

I guess it’s the unknown element of the bird that attracts me to it so much. I relish the thought at being the first person to see some of its terrestrial habits, to be able to add something new to the vast world of ornithology. The age of exploration is largely over, how many more times will be able to feel like pioneers in a field?
I want to find out how it feeds? What on? What are its predators (not humans, it seems that Obi-ites prefer lobster to woodcock)? Is it threatened (with the scale of mining and logging on the island, probably)?

Even just sitting on the damp forest floor, the Moluccan night sky stretched above me, with the twittering score of roding Obi Woodcocks mingled with the insect and frog chorus would do it for me, as I’d feel the smug privilege that only a handful of people had experienced this too.

Harmless game of "Where's Woodcock? - Moluccan version"
Read (and watch!) more about the RGS findings in Obi here and here

-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig and being distracted by bugs.

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