Scientists have a documented siting of the rare black-naped pheasant-pigeon (Otidiphaps insularis) for the first time in 140 years. The enigmatic birds are native to the rainforests that cover the steep slopes of Fergusson Island, a 1,300-square-kilometre mountainous island off PNG mainland’s eastern most tip.
The bird species was thought to be extinct for more than a century. But in 2019, researchers caught wind of locals on the island seeing a ground-dwelling bird they call “auwo”. The 2019 survey team of Indigenous Papua New Guinean and US researchers couldn’t catch a glimpse of the bird. The team did report in their findings, published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, however, that they found an active nest.
But this year’s survey was successful in capturing footage of the long-lost animal.
Before the images of the bird were retrieved, the black-naped pheasant-pigeon was only known to science from two specimens collected in 1882. The large ground bird is closely related to the white-, green-, and grey-naped pheasant-pigeons of nearby islands.
The black-naped pheasant-pigeon was only in 2014 designated a separate species. Previously, it was considered a subspecies of pheasant-pigeon (Otidiphaps nobilis).
“It wasn’t until after we returned to the US that we realized that the species hadn’t been observed since 1882,” co-leader of the expedition Dr Jordan Boersma, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, told Live Science.
After delays caused by COVID-19, Boersma and his team were able to organise a second expedition in September 2022, with the financial and organisational assistance of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and the American Bird Conservancy.
Nearly a month into the expedition, the researchers finally found someone, local hunter Augustin Gregory, who had seen the bird more recently than the 1990s and could send them in the right direction.
“The game-changer in terms of finding it was really some leads we got from some local people there – particularly this one man,” John Mittermeier, expedition co-lead, said in an interview on CBC radio in Canada. “A huge component of this story is the incredible local knowledge.”
“At that point, the bird kind of felt like a mythical creature because we’d been chasing it so long,” Boersma says.
Boersma and his team trekked through the dense, rugged terrain of the steep, densely-forested slopes of the island. “It takes a long time to cover a little bit of ground,” Boersma says. Finally reaching the island’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilkerran, the expedition members set up a series of camera traps.
Not more than two days before their scheduled leave from the island, the researchers’ patient wait was over as the shadowy bird wandered into the view of one of their cameras.
Although now “rediscovered”, the black-naped pheasant-pigeon is already considered critically endangered. Logging is set to resume in the area where the bird was captured on camera.
The Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) program writes on its website that deforestation for logging and transformation of land into agricultural property mean the population is likely in decline. Logging on the eastern part of the island resumed in 2012.
But the scientists and local residents alike are hopeful that they can save the species and the forest it calls home by drawing attention to its discovery.
“We still know practically nothing about the species,” adds Boersma. “So, it’s important that we start to learn things about its ecology, which is why we’re planning a return trip. For now, all we really know is that it still exists.”