Camera, and Song, Catch Rare Bird

Times Staff Writer

Armed only with a song, two naturalists flushed what may be the world’s rarest bird from the steep slopes of the Himalayas, a species never before seen alive in the wild.

The sighting of the secretive stub-tailed creature, known as the rusty-throated wren-babbler or Spelaeornis badeigularis, was disclosed Saturday by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The sighting was confirmed by photographs and videotape.

Benjamin F. King, a museum ornithologist, and Julian P. Donahue, a retired curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, identified the bird during a November expedition into the Mishmi Hills of northeastern India at an altitude of about 8,000 feet. Westerners are rarely allowed into this densely forested part of India.


They lured the wren-babbler into the open by playing a tape recording of bird calls, Donahue said.

“It was flying low along the ground and behind bushes and in the brush. We could hear it. And we could see glimpses of it.... It took an hour of chasing this very elusive, secretive bird before we could see enough to convince ourselves,” Donahue said.

The only previous evidence of the species had been a dead bird found in 1947 during an expedition into the region led by S. Dillon Ripley, who would later head the Smithsonian Institution.

The wren-babbler is about 4 inches long and is distinguished by a triangular rust-colored patch on its throat. Much of its plumage is a checkerboard of brown and white. Its sole scientific distinction is its rarity.

To “see this thing alive in the wild is pretty monumental,” Donahue said. “It doesn’t impress most of my friends because they are not bird watchers.”