The Black-browed Babbler, an enigma that has been missing and has perplexed scientists for more than 170 years, is found in Indonesia
By Devin Murphy on March 13, 2021
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in 2020, Panji Gusti Akbar an ornithologist with Birdpacker in Indonesia, saw research projects he had been working on suddenly come to a halt. To keep himself, as well as others healthy and safe, he spent much of his time at home instead of outside studying and watching birds.
“It was a miserable year for me,” says Gusti Akbar thinking back on the months of lost research. He cancelled two planned fieldtrips and had finished assisting with research projects focusing on Critically Endangered Bali Mynas and Gray-backed Mynas.
He instead pivoted to focusing on work he could do from home and helped publish an Indonesian bird Atlas. Any thoughts of new or original research were far from his mind.
A message in a WhatsApp group with fellow birders changed the trajectory of Gusti Akbar’s year. Some photos of a small gray, black and brown songbird popped up on his phone. The photos were accompanied by a question: did anyone recognize the species?
Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, two local men, had accidentally caught the bird when they were in the forest in southern Kalimantan, Borneo. It was small with black, gray and brown plumage and deep reddish-brown eyes. They released the bird back to the forest unharmed, but the fleeting feathered visitor had piqued their interest. Neither recognized the species, nor had ever seen it before, which was unusual since they spend so much time in the forest. Luckily, they had taken photos of the bird before it flew off to wherever it had come from.
They sent the photos to BW Galeatus, a local bird-watching group. Teguh Willy Nugroho, a ranger in Sebangau National Park and founding member of the group saw the photos and suspected that the bird in them may be the Black-browed Babbler, a species that ornithologists and birdwatchers alike had been desperately seeking for more than 100 years.
The Black-browed Babbler is maybe the rarest of rare species. The only documented sighting of the bird was when it was discovered by western science—and that was sometime between 1843 and 1848. No one had seen the bird since and ornithologists don’t know anything about the species aside from what it looks like, thanks to the one and only specimen that was collected by Carl A.LM. Schwaner on an expedition to Indonesia in the 1840s. But after Schwaner collected the specimen, the Black-browed babbler vanished.
The babbler came close to staying a mystery much longer due to a mix-up. For about 50 years after Schwaner returned from Indonesia with specimens he had collected, the Black-browed Babbler was labeled has having been collected on Java. Some sleuthing and a close examination of Schwaner’s travel log in 1895 revealed that the bird could not have been from Java as scientists thought. Schwaner had not collected any specimens from the island, but according to his travel log he had visited and collected a bird from Borneo that fit the Black-browed babbler’s description. It was the first clue for scientists about where to look for the black-and-gray-hued passerine.
The second clue didn’t come until the message in the WhatsApp group chat in 2020. Gusti Akbar studied the photo. He had never seen the bird perched in in a man’s hand, which for an avid birder was a clue itself. He rushed and grabbed a field guide published in 2016 and flipped through the pages until he landed on the description of the Black-browed babbler.
The field guide showed a map of Borneo with a question mark. The description was brief, saying that the Black-browed babbler was known from a single specimen and was “one of the great enigmas of Indonesian ornithology.” The photo and the description in the field guide were a match—and there are no other birds that closely fit the babbler’s description.
Gusti Akbar let out a joyful scream. In less than two hours, in the middle of a global pandemic, two local men and a dedicated group of birdwatchers and ornithologists had cracked the mystery of the Black-browed babbler.
“The very first thing I did…was kneel down and said a prayer of thanks,” remembers Gutsi Akbar.
He then messaged the group back, simply writing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I think we just found the Black-browed babbler.”
The next step was to confirm and publish their rediscovery. Gusti Akbar asked Nugroho and Ding Li Yong, an ornithologist with BirdLife International, to co-author a paper detailing the rediscovery and outlining the evidence proving the bird in the photos was the babbler.
That process was complicated once again by the pandemic. Gusti Akbar couldn’t travel to southern Kalimantan to look for the bird and gather more evidence himself, so he and his co-authors asked Suranto and Rizky Fauzan if they could answer some questions and help collect more observational data if they saw the bird again.
The chances that Gusti Akbar and his colleagues might be able to work with local government agencies in the near future to find the Black-browed babbler in the wild seemed to be a real possibility after Suranto and Rizky Fauzan caught a second fleeting glimpse of the species. They weren’t able to capture any photos of the bird which flew off into the forest, but they had more sightings than anyone else in history.
The euphoria of the Black-browed babbler rediscovery was accompanied by a gnawing anxiety for Gusti Akbar.
“I am very anxious because we have zero information about the bird,” he explains. “I’m worried about the welfare of the bird and the habitat. Are they safe up there? All this unknown makes me anxious, but also makes me excited.”
After he’s been vaccinated for COVID-19, obtains permits, and the support of local government agencies, Gusti Akbar is planning to travel to Kalimantan to collect field data. He plans to answer many of the lingering questions that are summarized by a big question mark over a map in his field guide.
“It will be the first time that I will collect data in the field that will be new to science,” he says, which is a dream come true.
He is planning on surveying the Black-browed babbler’s behavior, ecology and population. The species has been listed as “Data Deficient” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for decades. New data may help the international authority on Endangered species determine if it should be up listed.
When Gusti Akbar first started birdwatching in high school, he says it opened his eyes to his surroundings. He began noticing birds and nature all around him, even in major cities like Jakarta.
“I didn’t know that it would be that addicting,” he says.
He dreamed of one day finding a rare or new species of bird, but never thought that it would be the Black-browed Babbler. He, like many other birders, had actually hoped to find the Java Lapwingand elusive, but slightly less mysterious bird.
“Every birder that I meet, they are just so excited to find it,” laughs Gusti Akbar.
The Black-browed Babbler is not the only missing bird species that ornithologists are hoping will resurface. There are more than 150 species of lost birds around the world. Global Wildlife Conservation, American Bird Conservancy, eBird and BirdLife International are working together to launch future expeditions to find them. The Black-browed Babbler has proven there is still hope, even for species that have not been seen for close to 200 years.
Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.