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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The new songbird that sent an ecologist’s heart aflutter

A tailorbird peeks out of the floodplain scrub. Identified as a new species in June of this year, the bird for many years alluded classification.  SCOTT HOWES
A tailorbird peeks out of the floodplain scrub. Identified as a new species in June of this year, the bird for many years alluded classification. SCOTT HOWES

The new songbird that sent an ecologist’s heart aflutter

AS WE drove underneath the golden, colosseum arch at the entrance to Garden City Golf Club at dawn, the location hardly seemed ideal for bird watching.

Just six kilometres north of Wat Phnom, a large country club is under construction in the midst of some unremarkable flood plains across the Prek Phnov bridge in Kandal province.

“This is not somewhere where you would really go to look for birds,” said Simon Mahood, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) ecologist who first suggested that the Cambodian tailorbird, a small wren-sized bird with a cinnamon-coloured tuft on its head and a loud song, was a distinct species last year.

Listen to the Cambodian tailorbird sing



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Last month, however, it was announced in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail that a new species of tailorbird was discovered at this spot. In response to the unusual discovery of a new bird species within the limits of a major city, Mahood found himself a subject of the international media overnight.

Just down the road from the partially completed golf club house, Mahood stopped the car in the middle of a marsh.

“We first saw them over here, the very first time we found this bird.”

All I could see was a lot of scrub and a pile of rubbish by the side of the road.

“This bird stays hidden inside the dense vegetation. You tend to detect it by playing the voice back to the bird.”

Mahood played a recording of the Cambodian tailorbird’s song on his iPhone. When that failed to produce a tailorbird, he made a bird call with his mouth. But none of them showed up, so we moved to another spot and tried again. Still nothing.

Mahood at the marsh where tailorbirds have been known to make an appearance.  SCOTT HOWES
Mahood at the marsh where tailorbirds have been known to make an appearance. SCOTT HOWES

“I’ve been coming here for a year, and I’ve never not seen one,” said Mahood apologetically.

Despite its proximity to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian tailorbird, officially known as Orthotomus chaktomuk, (named after the traditional Khmer name for the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers) eluded scientists since the first European naturalists arrived in Indochina in the late 19th Century. Mahood said that their failure to identify the bird was due to several methodological oversights.

“Whereas a lot of birds were collected in Vietnam and Thailand 100 to 150 years ago and sent to museums, there wasn’t so much of that in Cambodia,” said Mahood, who added that scientists moved on to the region’s more remote locations early in the last century.

“If it hadn’t been discovered by then, it probably wouldn’t be discovered.”

Mahood previously studied birds in Vietnam and Bangladesh.   SCOTT HOWES
Mahood previously studied birds in Vietnam and Bangladesh. SCOTT HOWES

Once it was assumed that all the birds in plain sight had already been discovered, scientists who stumbled upon the Cambodian tailorbird identified it as one of the other tailorbird species present in Cambodia.

“When you’re identifying birds, you don’t expect to identify the bird as something that is not in the field guide,” said Mahood. “You try as hard as you can to match it to something.”

Such was the case in 2009, when a WCS Global Health team netted four specimens during a routine medical sampling for avian flu. Although the team recognised that the specimens were some type of tailorbird, they didn’t have the usual colours in their plumage.

“We had captured both common and dark-necked tailorbirds during our survey work, so we initially assumed we had caught an odd genetic variant of one of the usual tailorbirds,” said Howie Nielsen, who was part of the medical sampling team and co-author of the Forktail journal article that announced the species’ discovery.

The Cambodian tailorbird is only one or two species to reside solely in Cambodia. ASHISH JOHN/WCS
The Cambodian tailorbird is only one or two species to reside solely in Cambodia. ASHISH JOHN/WCS

The birds were eventually misidentified as Ashy tailorbirds by an ornithologist, a species that had never been recorded in Cambodia.

“In retrospect, I feel a bit intellectually lazy, as the bird didn’t quite fit as an Ashy, but I deferred to the experts,” said Nielsen.

The matter was put to rest until 2012, when Ashish John, a WCS technical advisor, photographed the same deviant tailorbirds and showed the photos to Mahood.

“I hadn’t been a part of the 2009 discussion, although I was aware of it,” said Mahood. “They didn’t look right, and what was most striking is that they didn’t sound right.”

It took more sleuthing, however, before Mahood was comfortable declaring the bird a new species.

“It comes down to a logical parable where either its a new species, or you’ve got aberrant birds. But if you find enough that all look and sound the same, it’s a new species.”

To test the theory, Mahood and his team went to the marsh at the golf club and counted over ten individuals in June 2012.

“We were back in time for lunch, but in that time we discovered a new species.”

Although nine people were included as co-authors in the journal article, Nielsen said Mahood deserves the most credit for discovering the species.

“Credit goes to Ashish and his love of bird photography and for capturing images of the bird in 2012, but the big prize goes to Simon, who kept asking questions and pursuing answers, spending a lot of time looking for and at these birds. His curiosity and knowledge pushed this whole discovery.”

However, Mahood said that it took time for him to mentally process the good news and fully realise that he was a discoverer of a a new species.

“It’s kind of strange to discover a new species. There’s wasn’t really one moment of eureka, just a gradual realisation. Quite a long period of convincing people that it really was the case.”

Finding the small birds thriving in Phnom Penh was even more of a surprise.

“I always wanted to find a new species, and then I move to Phnom Penh and thought I was going in the wrong direction in terms of making bird discoveries.”

When asked if the discovery of the Cambodian tailorbird suggests that more bird species could be lurking around the Charming City, Mahood seemed doubtful.

“I’m sure there are new species of bats, rats, mice, moths, beetles, and reptiles around, but I doubt there are anymore new species of birds. Birds are a lot more known and visible. But at the same time, I would have said the same thing last year.”

However, Mahood said that the discovery of new birds, particularly in the tropics, is a matter of routine.

“Bird watchers are a little blase about the concept of discovering new birds. It seems like the nonspecialist press gets more excited about it.”

But as only one of two bird species known to reside solely in Cambodia, Hong Chamnan, a Forestry Administration official and journal article co-author, said that the bird is a matter of Khmer pride.

“It’s very important that we have a bird that we cannot find anywhere else,” he said.

“We are very proud to have that natural resource.”

With most new species discovered in exotic, lightly-tread locations, the Cambodian tailorbird piques the interest of some because of its more humdrum origins.

“I found it incredible that a new species was found in such a densely populated area as the capital city,” said UK nature photographer Will Nicholls, who will be coming to the Kingdom later this year to produce a documentary on endangered wildlife.

“When I come to Cambodia I will be based in Phnom Penh, and will of course keep my eyes peeled for the Cambodian tailorbird.”

At the end of our failing bird watching trip at the construction site, Mahood went to one last spot and played the Cambodian tailorbird’s song.

Finally, a pair emerged from the scrub about five metres from us. With their small gray bodies and reddish tufts on the tops of their heads, they sat on the branches and chirped loudly back at us.

“As you can see, they’re not the most spectacular birds in the world,” said Mahood.

But by playing hard to get, these modest birds have caught the world’s attention.

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