The first known breeding area of one of the world's rarest birds has been found in the remote and rugged Pamir Mountains in war-torn Afghanistan, a New York-based conservation group said Monday.
A researcher with the Wildlife Conservation Society stumbled upon the small, olive-brown large-billed reed warbler in 2008 and taped its distinctive song — a recording experts now say is probably the first ever. He and colleagues later caught and released 20 of the birds, the largest number ever recorded, the group says.
At the time, however, Robert Timmins, who conducting a survey of aviary communities along the Wakhan and Pamir rivers, thought he was observing a more common warbler species, The Associated Press reports.
Lars Svensson, a Swedish expert on the family of reed warblers and familiar with their songs, was the first to suggest that Timmins' tape was likely the first recording of the large-billed reed warbler.
"Practically nothing is known about this species, so this discovery of the breeding area represents a flood of new information on the large-billed reed warbler," said Colin Poole, executive director of group's Asia Program. "This new knowledge of the bird also indicates that the Wakhan Corridor still holds biological secrets and is critically important for future conservation efforts in Afghanistan."
Researchers returned to the site of Timmins' first survey in 2009, armed with mist nets used to catch birds for examination. The research team broadcast the recording of the song, which brought in large-billed reed warblers from all directions, allowing the team to catch 20 of them for examination and to collect feathers for DNA, News & Observer reports.
The finding is a bit of rare good news from a troubled country, and one that the researchers say must be safeguarded against habitat loss by "develop[ing] alternative fuel resources for local inhabitants" to replace wood cut from the riverside scrub "and the improvement of the existing cultivated lands" to provide an alternative to clearing riparian bushland for growing crops and grazing livestock.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the first specimen of large-billed reed warbler was discovered in India in 1867; the next was not spotted until 2006, in Thailand, leading the organization BirdLife International to dub the small, olive-brown animal "the world's least known bird species," Treehugger reports.