It’s hard to believe the mustached kingfisher is a real bird. First of all, it looks more like a Baltimore Orioles–themed stuffed toy than a bird. Second, it’s only found on the remotest of mist-caressed islands, similar to the legendary Pokemon bird Articuno. Finally, it has long eluded human capture, with only three specimens ever before collected, all females. “Beautiful but very cryptic,” is how birdlife.org describes it. “Very few sightings, and male plumage remains undescribed.” Until now.
Last week, a team led by Chris Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, identified and photographed the first-ever male mustached kingfisher. It happened one fateful morning while the team was surveying biodiversity in the mountainous forests of the “sky island” of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.* Suddenly, Filardi heard the unmistakable call: “ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew!” A dark shape criss-crossed his path. And then, silhouetted against the dappled sunlight, he saw it: the mustached kingfisher in its full, mustachioed glory.He put down his binoculars. He didn’t need them anymore.
“It was like finding a unicorn,” he told me over the phone. “It’s unimaginable. You dream about it. You can almost taste it. And all of a sudden, there it is.”
The Uluna-Sutahuri people of Guadalcanal have long lived in the midst of this legendary bird, which is known to them as Mbarikuku. But this is the first time it has been photographed and recorded. Due to habitat degradation (logging) and deadly predators, the kingfisher is exceedingly rare, with numbers estimated at between 250 and 1,000 and dwindling.