In 1997, a group of ornithologists spotted a little flycatcher flitting through the forested lowlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The flycatcher looked different from the other regional birds, but the researchers assumed it must be the Gray Streaked Flycatcher. They marked it in their notes and moved on.
Two years later, ornithologist Ben King came back to the 1997 finding and realized the bird couldn't be a Gray Streaked Flycatcher. He published his suspicions in 1999 but did not pursue the matter. A decade went by before a team from Princeton University and Michigan State University decided to solve the mystery—and learned the flycatcher is an entirely new species.
"It's very difficult to encounter an undescribed bird species because approximately 98 percent of all bird species have already been described," says J. Berton C. Harris, lead author of the study that identified the bird.
He and his team flew to Sulawesi to collect samples of the mystery bird. Analysis showed that the little flycatcher was in fact a different species, now named the Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher (or Musciapa sodhii for the ornithologists out there).
"There is little ornithological research done in Sulawesi and it is difficult to secure collecting permits, hence the delay in description," Harris says.
Permits to collect samples aside, identification processes can be lengthy. When scientists suspect they have discovered an undocumented species, they have to closely analyze the structure, plumage and voice of their discovery. They also need to perform a genetic analysis. This often dissuades scientists from taking on this type of project, says Pamela Rasmussen, who was part of the team that spent four years identifying the Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher.
"It took us two field work seasons and over a week of camping in a cacao plantation with remnant forest trees before we even saw one, so it is a scarce and very inconspicuous species," Rasmussen says.
The Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher has short wings, a hooked beak, a short tail, and a streaked throat. The throat patterns are the main differentiator from other flycatchers that can be found in the region. The genetic analysis revealed that the Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher was actually more closely related to the Asian Brown Flycatcher, found in Thailand, than the Gray Streaked Flycatcher for which it was originally mistaken.
Listen to it here:
Sound: Pamela C. Rasmussen / Bert Harris / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US. Image credit: Martin Lindop.