Science

Moustached Kingfisher Photographed for First Time

After evading scientists for decades, the adorable “ghost bird” of the Solomon Islands is finally ready for its close up.

The Moustached Kingfisher is an elusive bird—the cartoonish species had not been seen in the wild for decades, and until earlier this month, it had never been photographed. But two weeks ago a group of researchers led by individuals from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) happened upon one while surveying endemic wildlife in the mossy jungles of Guadalcanal, the biggest isle in the Solomon Island chain, and snapped some winning photos of the bright blue bird.

AMNH biologist Chris Filardi and his team were traipsing through the dense forest when they heard what they thought was the call of a large kingfisher. Moments later, one of the surveyors spotted something moving in a nearby thicket: A blue-and-gold bird flourished its crest for a moment, before vanishing in a blur of color, Filardi wrote in his blog. "A methodical tail pumping behavior that caught my eye," helped him recognize it as a male Moustached Kingfisher—a bird he'd sought for more than 20 years. 

There have been very few sightings of Moustached Kingfishers to date, and none of them have been male. Prior to this discovery, the only real sources of information on the species were three female specimens spotted in the 1920s and 1950s. That doesn’t mean the birds are particularly uncommon—they just prefer a very specific, and hidden, habitat. Moustached Kingfishers tend to roost in tall patches of closed-canopy forest and nest in holes in the ground. Their anonymity may also come from the fact that very few ornithologists have explored Guadalcanal over the last century. The stately birds tend to be crepuscular—only active at dusk and dawn—making them even harder to spot and giving them their ghost-like reputation.

“Initially it was a surreal, childlike sense of a mythical beast come to life, Filardi says. 

In the days following the sighting, Filardi and his team eavesdropped on several more kingfisher calls. They were finally able to catch one in a mist net—“a gorgeous, strong, and raucous” male, Filardi says. The researchers got to work right away photographing and filming the bird’s behavior. Ultimately, with the blessing of the local community, the team euthanized the bird so they could bring the specimen back with them for further study, in hopes of answering questions about lineage and evolution of this cryptic species.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the bird was euthanized and the specimen collected. Paul Sweet, collection manager for the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the researchers on the team, told Audubon that they assessed the state of the population and the state of the habitat, and concluded it was substantial and healthy enough that taking the specimen—the only male ever observed by science—would not affect the population’s success. Filardi also wrote an op-ed explaining his decision. 

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