The Nechisar Nightjar

Cover Art © Pegasus Books

Although I haven’t read this book yet, I do know what it’s like to be on an expedition to find a bird that hasn’t been seen in several decades, which is the subject of Vernon Head’s book, freshly published in the US this month. “The Rarest Bird in the World” tells the story of the search for a bird related to potoos called the Nechisar Nightjar, which had been identified as a new species in the 1990s by Cambridge scientists who found a single wing of the bird in a remote area of Ethiopia.

The publisher blurb makes it sound pretty engaging:

Part detective story, part love affair, and pure adventure storytelling at its best, a celebration of the thrill of exploration and the lure of wild places during the search for the elusive Nechisar Nightjar. In 1990 an expedition of Cambridge scientists arrived at the Plains of Nechisar, tucked between the hills of the Great Rift Valley in the Gamo Gofa province in the country of Ethiopia. On that expedition they found three hundred and fifteen species of birds; sixty one species of mammal and sixty nine species of butterfly were identified; twenty species of dragonflies and damselflies; seventeen reptile species were recorded; three frog species were filed; plants were listed. And the wing of a road-killed bird was packed into a brown paper bag. It was to become the most famous wing in the world.

When the specimens finally arrived at the British Natural History Museum in Tring it set the world of science aflutter. It seemed that the wing was unique, but they questioned, can you name a species for the first time based only on the description of a wing, based on just one wing?

After much to and fro confirmation was unanimous, and the new species was announced, Nechisar Nightjar, Caprimulgus solala, (only wing). And birdwatchers like Vernon began to dream.

Twenty-two years later an expedition of four led by Ian Sinclair set off to try to find this rarest bird in the world. Vernon R.L. Head captivates and enchants as he tells of the adventures of Ian, Dennis, Gerry and himself as they navigate the wilderness of the plains, searching by spotlight for the elusive Nechisar Nightjar.

Vernon Head did a short interview on Leonard Lopate’s show for WNYC, New York’s public radio station, which is available to listen to here. In their discussion, Head brings up the profession of birdwatching, the invigorating nature of searches for rare birds, and some fantastic details from the expedition he took in Ethiopia to find the Nechisar Nightjar.

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