New songbird species discovered in Arunachal Pradesh

In a remarkable discovery, six birdwatchers trekked to a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh to discover a potentially new species of Wren Babbler which they have named Lisu Wren Babbler.
New songbird species discovered in Arunachal Pradesh


ITANAGAR: In a remarkable discovery, six birdwatchers trekked to a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh to discover a potentially new species of Wren Babbler which they have named Lisu Wren Babbler.

The expedition team consisted of bird-watchers from Bengaluru, Chennai, and Thiruvananthapuram in South India along with their two guides from Arunachal Pradesh.

In March this year, they set out to climb the Mugaphi peak in north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh in search of the rare and elusive Grey-bellied Wren Babbler. But they returned with something more exciting - documenting something new to science.

Their findings were published by Indian BIRDS, a peer-reviewed journal of south Asian ornithology.

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 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 the ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen when she included this species in her book published in 2005.

The birding team has to first reach Vijoynagar, a village of the Lisu community that lies about 82 km from Miao, in the Changlang district, driving through the treacherous mountain roads and crossing the famous Namdapha National Park.

From Vijoynagar, it is a two-day climb in the Himalayas to reach the altitudes where the Grey-bellied Wren Babblers were believed to occur.

However, the team was in for a nasty-pleasant surprise though they did see the birds that were believed to be 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," says Praveen J, one of the members of the expedition.

Though it was continuously pouring, the team managed to take some pictures, and 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 photographs of the single specimen from the Smithsonian Museum.

"As the name indicates, the ground colour of the belly of Grey-bellied Wren Babbler is grey. However, all the photos we got showed birds with whitish belly. Surprisingly, the single Smithsonian specimen from these mountains also had a whitish belly." says Dipu Karuthedathu, another member of the expedition.

When all this information was put together, they realised that they have 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 much attention among the local community in Vijoynagar and Gandhigram to conserve this mountainous habitat.

"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," says Yolisa Yobin, who has been organising birding expeditions in Namdapha for the past five years.

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