Lost bird found: Dusky tetraka seen in Madagascar after 24-year absence

by Liz Kimbrough 

  • The dusky tetraka, a small yellow songbird that had eluded ornithologists for 24 years, has been found again in the tropical forests of northeastern Madagascar.
  • The bird was found at a lower elevation than expected, in thick underbrush near a river. The team plans to search for the dusky tetraka again during the breeding season to learn more about its ecology and biology.
  • The dusky tetraka is listed as one of the top 10 most-wanted lost birds, an initiative that aims to locate bird species that have not been seen and recorded for a minimum of 10 years.
  • More than 90% of the species found in Madagascar are endemic, with the island yielding at least 150 new-to-science species in the last 30 years.

After 24 years of eluding ornithologists, a small, ground-hopping songbird known only from the tropical forests of northeastern Madagascar has been spotted by researchers once again.

The dusky tetraka (Xanthomixis tenebrosa) was last seen in 1999, and the research team, led by the Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar program, started its search from the location of this last sighting. After a 40-hour drive and half-day hike up a steep mountainside, they found that much of the forest had been converted to vanilla farms, despite its protected status. They spent five more days searching at higher elevations before heading downhill.

Eight days into the expedition, on Jan. 1, John C. Mittermeier, director of the Lost Birds program at the American Bird Conservancy, saw an olive and yellow-throated bird in dense undergrowth near the river. He took a photo and showed the team, who agreed it looked like a dusky tetraka. The next day, the team caught a bird to take measurements and a closer look before releasing it safely back into the wild.

“Seeing the bird for the first time was truly a surprise,” said Armand Benjara, the Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar program leader. “Our entire team was extremely happy and excited.”

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A dusky tetraka’s call. Image and audio by John C. Mittermeier.

The expedition team.
The expedition team with The Peregrine Fund’s Madagascar Program that rediscovered the dusky tetraka in two different locations. Photo by John C. Mittermeier.

The team found birds in two locations: on the Masoala Peninsula and near Andapa. The birds were observed to spend most of their time in thick vegetation near the river, likely seeking out insects and other prey amid the underbrush.

“If dusky tetrakas always prefer areas close to rivers, this might help to explain why the species has been overlooked for so long,” Mittermeier said. “Birding in tropical forests is all about listening for bird calls and so you naturally tend to avoid spending time next to rushing rivers where you can’t hear anything.”

The dusky tetraka is listed as one of the 10 most-wanted lost birds by the Search for Lost Birds, a collaboration between Re:wild, the American Bird Conservancy and BirdLife International. The Search for Lost Birds aims to locate bird species that have not been seen and recorded for a minimum of 10 years.

Another of the top 10 most-wanted birds, the Santa Marta sabrewing hummingbird (Campylopterus phainopeplus), not sighted since 1946, was found last year in Colombia.

“When we announced the top 10 most-wanted lost birds … we hoped that it would inspire birders to look for these species,” Mittermeier said of the hummingbird sighting last year. “And as this rediscovery shows, sometimes lost species reemerge when we least expect it. Hopefully rediscoveries like this will inspire conservation action.”

Researchers are still looking for the Siau scops owl (Otus siaoensis) in Indonesia, the South Island kōkakō (Callaeas cinereus) in New Zealand, the Himalayan quail in India (Ophrysia superciliosa), the Itombwe nightjar (Caprimulgus prigoginei) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Cuban kite (Chondrohierax wilsonii) in Cuba, the Negros fruit dove (Ptilinopus arcanus) in the Philippines, the Vilcabamba brush-finch (Atlapetes terborghi) in Peru, and Jerdon’s courser (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) in India.

River habitat where the dusky tetraka was rediscovered.
River habitat where the dusky tetraka was rediscovered. Photo by John C. Mittermeier.

The Madagascar team plans to search for the dusky tetraka once more during the breeding season, between September and October, according to expedition leader Lily-Arison Rene de Roland, the Madagascar program director for the Peregrine Fund. They intend to explore locations with similar elevation and habitat to where they sighted the birds in January.

Given the destruction of most of the lowland rainforests in northeastern Madagascar, it’s probable that the dusky tetraka is under threat, the researchers say. Still, knowing more about these birds can help conservationists and community members to better protect the species.

“Now that we’ve found the dusky tetraka and better understand the habitat it lives in, we can look for it in other parts of Madagascar, and learn important information about its ecology and biology,” Rene de Roland said.

More than 90% of species in Madagascar are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth. Scientists have found and named at least 150 new-to-science species from Madagascar in the last 30 years and are still finding more nearly every year.


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