The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar
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, a group of Cambridge scientists arrived at the Plains of Nechisar in Ethiopia. On that expedition, they collected more than two dozen specimens, saw more than three hundred species of birds, and a plethora of rare butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, mammals, and plants. As they were gathering up their findings, a wing of an unidentified bird was packed into a brown paper bag. It was to become the most famous wing in the world.
This wing would set the world of science aflutter. Experts were mystified. The wing was entirely unique. It was like nothing they had ever seem before. Could a new species be named based on just one wing? After much discussion, a new species was announced: Nechisar Nightjar, or Camprimulgus Solala, which means "only wing." And so birdwatchers like Vernon began to dream.
Twenty-two years later, he joins an expedition of four to find this rarest bird in the world. In this gem of nature writing, Vernon captivates and enchants as he recounts the searches by spotlight through the Ethiopian plains, and allows the reader to mediate on nature, exploration, our need for wild places, and the human compulsion to name things. Rarest Bird is a celebration of a certain way of seeing the world, and will bring out the explorer in in everyone who reads it.
potential clues of discovery. We knew the calls of all other known species of nightjars, and the repertoire of Africa’s nightjars presented considerable diversity: some like barking dogs, others like crickets, some varied and melodious like robins, and some even as flatulent as frogs. We listened with our eyes too. That night I learnt how eye-listening in the darkness focuses the mind. Every sound was answered by a flurry of searching beams, sharp rods of light cutting, chopping and jerking,
our binoculars instinctively, and instinctively the bird flew, perfectly lit as it lifted and wobbled and reflected. Emotions stung all over me – inside and on my skin. Never before had I enjoyed such exhilaration. Never before had I felt more connected to the pulse of life. ‘That’s it! That’s the bloody bird!’ said Ian. I had hoped to hear him say that; I had prepared for it. He had not really expected to see this bird. From twenty years of past experience in Africa, his expectations were
mere collective nouns for populations of individuals, clusters of ‘survival machines’ (in Dawkins’s fine new term) for genes. Or should species be described as genetic units, a momentary statistical effect of constantly changing gene frequencies, the lowest common denominators of evolution? This would give them almost immortal status, like the ancient rocks living in geological time. Ultimately, the definition of a species is very simple. It is whatever we need it to be. It is a night bird on a
become extinct were the flightless ones: the biggest and most conspicuous, the easiest to see, hunt and eat. The elephant birds, various Aepyornis species, were exterminated. Bird megafauna destruction was absolute. All that remains today are fossilised eggs, large like the land, filled with rock, cracked and shelled and broken. When the big birds were gone, the medium-sized birds were taken next. Other genera and species were taken too. Extinction became a plague; the killing was popular and
Gerry’s hand and hugged him before setting off. Then Gerry and I decided to walk into town and see what we could find in preparation for the afternoon’s expedition back onto the Nechisar Plains. I liked walking into towns with Gerry; he had a way of talking me through a town like others talked through a problem. He walked analytically, his steps prodding, speaking to people, asking questions and reading the town the way one reads a book. The town of Arba Minch appeared to have slid lazily