Monday, 24 February 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Nechisar Nightjar

What bird family can claim the most obscure species? Well, Nightjar family would get my vote.
The family certainly contains several of the most enigmatic ‘lost’ species, the members of what I like to call the ‘Club of Five’. Of these the Jamaican Pauraque Siphonorhis americana is most likely extinct; Vaurie’s Nightjar Caprimulgus centralasicus is only known from one specimen from China and could be an aberrant juvenile Eurasian Nightjar; the Cayenne Nightjar Caprimuglus maculosus is known from one specimen and some probable sightings from French Guiana and Prigogine’s (or Itombwe) Nightjar Caprimulgus prigoginei known from one specimen from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and linked to some mystery sound recordings from the DRC, Cameroon and Gabon. However my personal favourite and the subject of this post is the Nechisar Nightjar Caprimuglus solala of Ethiopia. The one confirmed specimen, a road kill, was collected in 1990 and only the left wing was salvaged (the species name, ‘solala’ means ‘lone wing’). The species is probably restricted to the Nechisar plain in south-central Ethiopia. It is assumed to prefer grassland on black, volcanic soil. As a result Birdlife International has chosen to class it as Vulnerable, despite the lack of field sightings, as much of the area is under threat from over grazing and burning. As one might expect from an incomplete specimen, the validity of the species has been called into question in the past. However the wing patterning doesn’t resemble any African species, with the most distinctive feature being that the white wing patch is located near the carpal joint.

For the past 20 years many surveys have been carried out in the Nechisar National Park and surrounding areas to no avail. That is until 2009 when a team came as close as anyone has to seeing a live bird. Vernon Head, Gerry Nicholls, Ian Sinclair and Dennis Weir travelled to the park to specifically find the Nightjar. They managed to glimpse a probable on their first night and came within inches of catching one not long after when one skimmed past Ian’s net, however proof, photographic or otherwise, eluded them. A detailed write up of the trip and encounter is apparently in the works.
It seems that the species is still extant and it must only be a matter of time before photographs or specimens appear and the Nechisar Nightjar can leave the company of the Club of Five. However it is a race against time as Nechisar National Park is still waiting for official gazettement and while there area is not as threatened as others in the country, Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing populations in Africa and pressures on the bird life there will only get more intense.

[image © Roger Stafford]

Read another account of the possible rediscovery here. Includes a video of the unlucky incident.
A summary of lost, obscure and poorly known species in Africa.
Birdlife International fact sheet:

-William Jones
William originally hails from the birder's paradise that is Shropshire. However he is currently living in Uppsala, Sweden where he is studying the effects of malaria on Pied and Collared Flycatchers as part of a Master's Programme in Ecology and Conservation. When not in the lab he can usually be found trying to track down Sweden's Owls, Woodpeckers and Gamebirds with limited success.

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