Oxford researcher photographs rare bird

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The endangered Moluccan Woodcock has been photographed for the first time by a researcher from Oxford.

Eden Cottee-Jones from Oxford, and John Meieittermr from Lousiana State University, both alumni of Teddy Hall, camped on Obi Island in the Northern Moluccas of Indonesia for two months in 2012, in order to rediscover and take the first ever photographs of the Moluccan Woodcock. The team also included three members of the University of Indonesia.

The bird’s elusive nature has made it difficult to record. The Woodcock, which has only been recorded 10 times since its discovery in 1862, only performs territorial display flights at dusk and dawn and stays hidden in dense undergrowth in the day. John Mittermeier said “We only had two or three chances daily of taking a picture, and the best spot for a view of the bird was usually in the middle of a river!”

Cottee-Jones told Cherwell how the researchers were standing in the river when they managed to photograph the Moluccan Woodcock, which was flying 20 metres overhead. They were alerted to the bird’s nearby flight by its “distinctive rattling call”.

The researchers faced many challenges in their endeavour. The island’s terrain and humidity affected the camera equipment. “Every morning we would have to wake up and put our disgusting wet, blood-stained (leeches, palm spines) and muddy clothes on, which I can tell you gets pretty dispiriting. At one point we had to dive off a boat to into saltwater crocodile infested waters to swim ashore, collect some equipment from a logging camp and paddle it back to our boat with a canoe we found on the beach.”

Cottee-Jones was inspired to travel to Obi Island after reading a book named ‘Shorebirds of the World.’ He said, “Inside I stumbled upon an account of the Moluccan Woodcock. It basically said ‘we know nothing about this species, it is the largest woodcock on Earth, and is also believed to be endangered. It is only found on one or possibly two islands in a remote corner of Indonesia.’ I immediately wanted to go and find it. Eight months and several funding applications later, I was watching one perform its display flight on Obi.”

The expedition apparently proved that the Moluccan Woodcock was not as rare as previously suggested. The researchers calculated that as many as 9500 species could live on the island. “It is actually quite common. Our results were published a couple of months ago where we recommend that the status of the species is re-evaluated, and downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable. A rare case of good news in conservation!”

While on the island, the team also made first documented ascent of its summit, discovering at the peak a new subspecies of pygmy-parrot. Cottee-Jones stated “Sadly, the non-stop rain we had endured for two weeks while making the climb had damaged all our photographical equipment.”

“We are currently planning a return trip to climb the mountain again and catch the parrot.”

The researchers also found 14 species which appear to be new island records, along with a new subspecies of Invisible Rail.

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