Lost and found: twitchers delight at sweet song of the black-browed babbler

For more than 170 years, and despite its name, scientists and birdwatchers heard no babbling, chirping, tweeting or any other sounds from the black-browed babbler. The bird was long assumed to be extinct, until an accidental discovery by two local men, Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, in the forests of Borneo’s South Kalimantan province.

“I was out looking for forest products at the limestone hill just behind my home,” recalls Suranto. “I often look for birds and leftover wood to sell. We caught one of these birds on 5 October 2020. I’d seen it for a while, but I was never able to know its species.”

Scientists estimate that there are more than eight million different forms of life on Earth – but one million of those are thought to be threatened with extinction and many more have died out over the course of history.

Some plants and animals are lost and never seen again. But some reappear years later, often thanks to the efforts of scientists and conservationists working in the field.

This series celebrates those rare moments of hope when life clings on against the odds – and highlights the crucial work being done to preserve the planet's extraordinary biodiversity.

The bird turned out to be a black-browed babbler (Malacocincla perspicillata), a small bird with black, grey and brown feathers and reddish eyes. The bird was only known from a specimen collected in the 1840s and mislabelled for about 50 years as having been found on the island of Java, rather than Borneo.

Neither Suranto nor Fauzan recognised the species, so they decided to share photos of the bird with the birdwatching community.

Morning mist over the forest in South Kalimantan, Borneo.
The forest in South Kalimantan where the black-browed babbler was discovered.
Photograph: EyeEm/Alamy

Panji Gusti Akbar, an ornithologist and member of Indonesia’s Birdpacker birdwatching group, helped identify the bird. “The pictures went around the birding community for a while, until I saw it in the WhatsApp group for my birding club, which sparked my interest,” he says.

“I did research using field guides and asked some experts about the bird’s ID, all of which pointed to the black-browed babbler. It took me a while to accept it, since it was a very, very bold claim to report a species that has been missing for more than 100 years. But I saw no other alternative.”

It has very unique, loud, and melodious vocalisation, often sounded in a duet

Panji Gusti Akbar

The news, says Suranto, made him excited but also afraid “since it could be a very rare species and I didn’t want to hurt it. I immediately released the bird once I knew the value of its discovery.

“The finding made me realise there’s something special about the place where I was born and grew up, and that people actually appreciate what I found,” Suranto adds. “I now sometimes work as a guide for people who want to see or photograph this bird, which is an occupation I never knew existed. Now, I understand the value of this bird in the wild, which is way more than if I kept it in a cage or sold it at the bird market.”

Since the discovery, Akbar and other ornithologists have had the chance to study the bird in the wild, and have witnessed a pair of babblers in thick shrubbery. “Other than missing it for 172 years, we also found it interesting to see how it is associated with limestone hills as its main habitat,” Akbar says. “It displays an interesting habit of moving in and out of the limestone caves and crevices, clambering about in the rugged environment to hunt insects and other invertebrates. It has a unique, loud and melodious vocalisation, often sounded in a duet – an interesting behaviour within its family, which may shed some new clues about its taxonomic relation with other members.”

The babbler has proved to be a big draw. “Since Indonesia relaxed its [Covid-19] travel restriction, many birders from overseas flocked to South Kalimantan to be one of the first people to see the bird,” says Akbar. “I always recommend they hire Suranto and his brother as guides. This not only helps them to get new income that is more sustainable, but also helps the local community to understand the importance of this bird in the wild.”

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The bird is listed as data deficient on the IUCN’s red list, but Akbar and his team are writing a report on its distribution and possible population.

“We hope our upcoming publication will help authorities to determine the threatened status of this species,” he says, “and eventually to recommend its inclusion in Indonesia’s protected species list.”

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