On May 25, 2006, Begun Liocichla was inducted as a new species of bird hitherto unknown to the human race. Bugun was first twigged by Ramana Athreya, a Pune-based radio astronomer. He first spotted it in 1995 and thereafter a decade later in 2006. India now boasts of 1,226 bird species from the earlier 1,225 count that stood still since 1948. Quite sadly, its population stands at a paltry 14 members of which only three are breeding pairs.
The story unfolded in the nondescript wildlife Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Overnight, it got shot into limelight with ornithologists from round the world making a beeline for this forest tract of 218 sq km falling midway on the Tezpur-Bomdilla-Tawang road in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. The altitude of the sanctuary ranges from 500m to 3,250m. All encomium falls upon Ramana Athreya a graduate from IIT Kanpur(1989), a radio astronomer of repute with the National Centre for Astrophysics at Pune.
Bugun Liocichla, Liocichla bugunorum is a passerine bird that belongs to the Old World babbler (Asian babbler) family. The cuddly, spanking new bird has an esoteric m?lange of colours ? flaming orange, yellow, shades of red, black, brown, olive, grey, white, flesh pink; an admix to brand it ? a ? rara avis?, meaning a rarity of an exceptional occurrence. Bugun Liocichla is a small babbler (22cm) with olive-grey plumage donning a black cap. The face bears orange-yellow lores. It has variegated wings with yellow, red and white patches. A crimson undertail is coverted with a black tail. The black bill mildly juts out with the face fading to pale white and stands with pink feet 2mm bigger than our Red-vented Bulbul.The voice is distinctive and reminds one of a flute. Among the three allopatric species of Liocichla, the new species? closest kin Emei Shan Liocichla, Liocichla omeiensis is endemic to mountains in south-west China, over 1,000km from Eaglenest. But what Ramana found had a distinctly different vocalisation (song), plumage and 10 per cent bigger body-size albeit a smaller beak. And so it was accorded a ?distinct species? status.
Species: L. bugonorum
This bird'spopulation is small and highly localised in west Arunachal Pradesh mostly on hillsides over 2000m, among dense scrubs as well as small trees that remain after logging. Ramana says, ?Clearly the species can exist in disturbed areas and utilizes different vegetation. This versatility is at odds with the small, highly local populations.?
What led to this serendipitous discovery? Protracted unfolding took over a decade.
Ramana Athreya had initiated Eaglenest Biodiversity Project in November 2003 to improve long-term prospects of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. By sheer freak a bonanza landed up on the fortuitous day. Ramana was on a short jaunt, holidaying with his wife who incidentally was through her field project in Kameng for her doctoral thesis. All this was in January1995 when he spotted a pair of birds that he conjectured not to appear in any of the contemporary books on ornithology.
And thereafter Ramana relentlessly stuck to his guns (though at times he felt doubtful as to what he had seen) for ten agonising years till it was spotted in January 2005 ? a flock of six at 3 pm and yet another flock of four after forty five minutes. But they failed to mist-net a specimen ? a prerequisite for recognition in the scientific world. With renewed efforts in March and April 2006, on four different days, he saw 14 of these birds. On May 21, 2006, Ramana had mist-netted a bird but it escaped though three photographs had been taken. Again on May 25, 2006, Ramana ultimately succeeded in mist-netting one more. This time he took vernier measurements of the bird'sbody and meticulously recorded all required details as well as took photographs to give full credence. In two hours, he released the bird back in its habitat. Considering it an endangered species with only 14 existing individuals, ?type specimen? was deliberately not collected by Ramana that amounted to killing it and preserving it as a museum specimen as per the laid down prerequisites for recognition of a new species. So feathers from the mist-net have been appellated as the holotype. The discovery was however made public later in mid-September when substantial evidence was corroborated.
Ramana promptly appellated the moniker ?Bugun Liocichla?, that got transmuted to Liocichla Bugunorum in Latinised scientific name. As per scientific taxonomy, a binomial name (zoological name) has two halves ? genus and species. The first half applies to its already existing genus while the species Bugunorum was named after the local Bugun tribe, to mark their symbiotic and harmonious co-existence and also to acknowledge the immense help extended by them during the entire errand.
This spectacular bird with a measly 14-member population presents an endangered existence. Only three breeding pairs have been known so far. To make things worse, there are plans to build a highway marauding this bird'score habitat. ?A busy highway could well push this spectacular bird into local extirpation, which could also be extinction? says Ramana Athreya, the discoverer of Bugun Liocichla.
Indeed a rara avis ? million dollar birdie
(The author is a freelance writer with varied interests, reachable at [email protected])