By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
Deep within the forests of Luzon, Philippines, lives the Brachypteryx, a bird so wily that even an experienced naturalist like Edgar A. Mearns (1856-1916) named it “one of the most elusive birds that I have met with”. Although Mearns generally refers to this bird as Brachypteryx in his field book from July-August 1907, he was possibly describing Brachypteryx montana poliogyna, a sub-species noted throughout the volume. What made this bird so elusive?
Mearns conducted extensive field work in the Philippines from 1903 to 1907 while serving in the Military. According to this website, Mearns described two of the 14 species of Brachypteryx montana (malindangensis and mindanensis), which he found in the Philippines. The Brachypteryx montana poliogyna, however, had already been described by William Robert Ogilvie-Grant (1895).
Before reading what Mearns had to say about Brachypteryx, I did a quick internet search on “Brachypteryx,” “Brachypteryx montana,” and “Brachypteryx montana poliogyna.” Most of the initial search results retrieved little information other than taxonomic hierarchy and records of bird sightings. The best resource I found during my brief search was the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) page for the Brachypteryx montana. From EOL I learned that the Brachypteryx montana is found in various parts of Asia, inhabiting high elevation montane forests, and often living and traveling on the forest ground. I also learned what typical Brachypteryx montana poliogyna males and females look like.
When I finally read Mearns’s notes on Brachypteryx, I was delighted by his playful and informative description. Mearns writes:
One will dart across the trail and alight in one of the tangles of brushwood and fallen timber that it delights to inhabit. The instant it alights it hops to a lower level where its flitting tail appears for an instant like the parting twitch of a prarrie [sic] dog’s tail as it changes end and salutes as it disappears into its burrow. One awaits in vain its reappearance; for the chances are in favor of its being far down the hillside inspecting the hollow of some decayed stump. Most of my specimen have been taken in small traps baited for mammals with a [pinch?] of [?] usually placed in hollows of decayed trees or among cavities of rocks. It is crepuscular, its sweet high notes shrilling up and down the scale at dusk, when it is much more apt to appear abroad than during the hours of sunshine. I have never seen one more than a yard above the ground, on which it runs at an amazing pace.
Although briefer than the description EOL provides, this account contains a more colorful illustration of the Brachypterx’s tendancy to live and travel on the ground, a fact that is further highlighted when Mearns explains the necessity to use small mammal traps to capture specimens. These notes also told me something I didn’t find in my internet searches: the Brachypteryx is crepuscular—a creature most active in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn. Finally, Mearns’s description of the Brachypteryx’s song motivated me to find this example.
Mearns lived another nine years after he granted Brachypterx the honor of being one of the most elusive birds. Did Mearns meet with other birds during his remaining years that presented him with even greater challenges? Then there is also a question that begs to be asked—if Brachypterx was one of the most elusive birds, which was the most elusive? Will we ever know which bird holds this highest honor? If I find the answer, I’ll tell it to you.