In a very rare find, two birders have come across and photographed a Mount Victoria Babax, a bird species not seen in India since 1997, in Mizoram on Wednesday.
The bird was sighted at Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park, one of the two national parks in Mizoram, close to Myanmar. Located in Lawngtlai district, the park is named after Phawngpui, the highest peak in Mizoram with an altitude of 2157 metres above sea level.
Though the bird has been sighted in Myanmar, usually at or around Nat Ma Taung, (also known as Mount Victoria-after which the bird is named) the highest peak in Chin state of the country, it’s the first time it has been seen in India in 25 years.
“It was known from only one specimen collected by Walter Norman Koelz, an American zoologist, in March 1953 at Phawngpui,” said Delhi-based birder Puja Sharma who along with Andrew Spencer, a digital media manager at Cornell Lab of Ornithology of Cornell University in US, saw and photographed it.
In 1997, Dipankar Ghose (now with WWF India) saw and photographed the bird at Phawngpui, although his sighting went almost unnoticed. Back then, it was the Chinese Babax. The species was split in 2005.
Both Sharma and Spencer are bird-sound recordists and had been hiking and birding in the area for the past four days, when they first heard the bird’s song at 6:30 am on Wednesday before seeing it.
“We heard the bird singing first as we were getting ready to descend and trek back to the nearest village, Thaltlang at the periphery of the park and the road head for the trek to Phawngpui peak ,” said Sharma.
“We managed to get closer to the source of the sound and were able to track the source of the sound to this gorgeous bird, singing from within an oak tree after which we got a visual confirmation and managed to photograph and videograph it for further documentation,” she added
Mount Victoria Babax (Pterorhinus woodi) belongs to the laughingthrush family Leiothrichidae and is found in a limited geographical range in Mizoram and the Chin state of Myanmar.
In an article published in November last year, Bird Count India, an informal partnership of organizations and individuals interested in bird distribution and populations, listed Mount Victoria Babax in 8th rank among 20 rare bird species seen in India.
“This is quite significant . Though it is slightly widespread in Myanmar, in India it is limited to a very small area in Mizoram. This is the first photographic record of species in India and shows its continuous occurrence in the area,” said Anwaruddin Choudhury, retired bureaucrat, conservationist and an expert on birds of northeast India.
The species was first described by Frank Finn, an English ornithologist, in 1902 from a specimen collected in Kanpetlet near Nat Ma Taung. It was considered a sub-species of the Chinese Babax till 2005 when two American ornithologists, Pamela Rasmussen and John Anderton, argued that it should be considered a separate species based on its plumage and song.
A streaky brown babbler with a slightly down-curved dark bill and thick black moustache stripe, the Mount Victoria Babax is found in open forest, forest edges and tangles at elevations of 1200-2800 m. It can be recognized from persistent inflected bubbling whistles that goes-‘puh-pooo-yih’.
“Confirmation on the presence of the bird species in the area shows the need to protect the area around Phawngpui National Park from development and other activities. It is only when the area is preserved well that the bird species can thrive,” said Sharma.