Less than two weeks ago Chris Filardi held a ghost in his hands and knew that a nearly 20-year quest had finally been realized.
The “ghost” was actually something quite alive—a magnificent blue, white and orange bird called the Guadalcanal moustached kingfisher (Actenoides bougainvillei excelsus). So named for the streaks of colored feathers leading from its beak to the side of the head, the moustached kingfisher had only been recorded by scientists twice before, a single female in the 1920s and two more females in 1953. No males had ever been seen, and no live specimens had ever been photographed, leading it to be called a “ghost” or lost species.
Filardi—director of Pacific programs for the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation—had spent 19 years dreaming of rediscovering the species, which only lives in the mountains of Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific. He and his teammates not only accomplished that, they found a forest full of the rare birds.
“That sense of discovery of a species was instantly replaced for me with this sense of arrival,” Filardi told me the day he returned to his office in New York City. “It’s a symbol of this forest that is still thriving while a lot of the lowland habitats beneath us have changed dramatically.”
Filardi and his team were on Guadalcanal as part of a program to survey the island’s biodiversity and help local partners to create a new protected area among its untouched forests. “It’s exceptional,” he says of the mountainous “sky forests” that they explored more than 1,300 meters above sea level, where the rain fell each day not as drops but misted around them, like they were sitting inside of a cloud. He described the forests as bamboo thickets “alternated with protected parts of the ridgeline, where there are these taller, mossy forests of incredible hardwood trees.”
It was within those protected clumps of mossy trees that the team encountered the elusive birds. “And not just one,” Filardi says. “We were in the realm of the kingfisher. There were multiple pairs or groups of these birds, up and down the ridgeline. We were basically in them whenever we hit this more structured habitat along the ridge.” He observed them singing—“they’re unbelievably vocal”—and feeding on the wide range of invertebrates that could be found all over the ground.
Although the birds eluded scientific observation for decades, Filardi does not think they are actually rare. “There appear to be thousands of pairs of this bird,” he says, estimating that they are not currently endangered.
The emphasis, of course, lays on “currently.” International mining companies are seeking their fortunes on the Solomon Islands, and on Guadalcanal in particular, often leaving environmental destruction in their wake. Logging to the east and west of the mountain range could also pose a problem for to the sky forests and its denizens, as could climate change.
Other threats are less direct, if not as bad. “Changes in lowland environments can have a huge impact on these montane areas,” Filardi says. “So much of the complexion of these high-elevation habitats results from the interaction between lowland forests, their breathing and releasing water that gets captured by mountain forests. As you remove lowland forests and turn it into grassland or roads, urban areas and all that, you can actually affect these hydrologic cycles that are affecting mosses and that cloud ‘weep’ that characterizes the climate and microhabitats in these areas.” That could make the forests less hospitable for all of the species that depend on them.
Filardi says the lowland areas of Guadalcanal have already been transformed, not only by development but also by all manner of invasive species ranging from cats and rats to snails and plants. “They have really transformed the lowland areas in ways that make some of them almost unrecognizable relative to 200 or 300 years ago,” he says.
That stands in stark contrast to where they found the kingfisher. “Once we saw the bird, I really had a sense that we were in a place that was still wholly as it had been. That was really, really powerful. We still have the potential to steward this big sky island and preserve all of its richness,” he says.
Filardi adds that he hopes the moustached kingfisher’s rediscovery sheds a light on conservation and socioeconomic conditions in the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations, which face similar struggles. The effort to establish new protected zones on Guadalcanal in partnership with the government and the Uluna–Sutahuri tribe—which considers the sky forests to be sacred land—could help, but he acknowledges that there are challenges. “These are developing countries,” he says. “Foreign revenue is a huge issue. Just basic human welfare issues are massively challenging in a place like the Solomon Islands. I think with more international support and focus we can get these kinds of initiatives moving and done.”
Will the now-iconic Guadalcanal moustached kingfisher help garner some of that international support? With the amount of media attention the rediscovery had already generated around the world, it seems like there may be more than a ghost of a chance.
Photos © R. Moyle and S. Galokale. Used with permission