ITANAGAR, 9 Dec: Six birdwatchers from south India documented a different kind of the grey-bellied wren babbler, which they named the Lisu wren babbler, from Mugaphi peak in Changlang district.
The expedition team consisted of birdwatchers from Bengaluru, Chennai, and Thiruvananthapuram, and two local guides.
In March this year, they set out to climb the Mugaphi peak in search of the rare and elusive grey-bellied wren babbler, but they ended up finding something more interesting. Their findings were published by Indian Birds, a peer-reviewed journal of South Asian ornithology.
The grey-bellied wren babbler is mostly found in Myanmar, with some birds occurring in adjoining China and Thailand. There has been only one previous report of the grey-bellied wren babbler from India, when two specimens were collected from these same mountains back in 1988.
One of the specimens is now in the Smithsonian Museum in the United States. It was identified as a grey-bellied wren babbler by ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen when she included this species in her book published in 2005.
The birding team had to first reach Vijaynagar – about 82 kms from Miao – driving through treacherous mountain roads and crossing the famous Namdapha National Park. From Vijaynagar, it’s a two-day climb to reach the altitudes where the grey-bellied wren babblers were believed to occur. However, the team was in for a pleasant surprise. Though they did see what they believed to be the grey-bellied wren babbler, the bird did not sing like one.
“All the birds we found had a sweet song that was similar to the songs of the Naga wren babbler and quite unlike the trilling song of the grey-bellied wren babbler,” said Praveen J, one of the members of the expedition.
“Though it was continuously pouring, the team managed to take some pictures, videos and recorded its songs. They came back and analysed the skins of other wren babblers in many museums, as well as photographs from other sites. They tried to match their sounds with existing recordings of grey-bellied wren babbler. They also got the photographs of the single specimen in the Smithsonian Museum,” he said.
“As the name indicates, the ground colour of the belly of the grey-bellied wren babbler is grey. However, all the photos we got showed birds with a whitish belly. Surprisingly, the single Smithsonian specimen from these mountains also had a whitish belly,” said Dipu Karuthedathu, another member of the expedition.
When all this information was put together, they realised that they probably documented a new variety for science – at least a new subspecies, but more likely a new species.
“The plumage, in conjunction with the songs, does not match with any known species. Establishing and naming a species or subspecies scientifically requires genetic material from these birds to be compared against other wren babbler species. However, the team has already given an English name for the bird after the Lisu community. They hope that this will bring in much attention among the local community in Vijaynagar and Gandhigram to conserve this mountainous habitat,” Praveen said.
“I believe the Lisu wren babbler may be present in more sites in this mountain range. We need to explore and find more accessible populations closer to Namdapha,” said Yolisa Yobin, who has been organising birding expeditions in Namdapha for the past five years.