Photo: high-altitude bird rediscovered after 80 years

Jeremy Hance
October 29, 2012

The world's first photo of a Sillem's mountain finch. This is a male taken at 5,000 meters above sea level. Photo by: Yann Muzika.
The world's first photo of a Sillem's mountain finch. This is a male taken at 5,000 meters above sea level. Photo by: Yann Muzika.

In 1929 the U.S. Stock Market collapsed, the Geneva Convention set standards for prisoners of war, the first Academy Awards was celebrated, and Jérôme Alexander Sillem collected two bird specimens on a high plateau in Xinjiang, China. For 62 years, the specimens sat in a drawer at the Zoological Museum of Amsterdam until C. S. Roselaar found them, studied them, and determined they, in fact, represented a new species of bird: Sillem's mountain finch (Leucosticte sillemi). Now, 83 years after Sillem collected the only known specimens, a French photographer, Yann Muzika, unwittingly took photographic proof that the finch species still survives.

During a trip to the Yeniugou Valley on the Tibetan Plateau, Muzika snapped several photos of an unknown finch, amid other related birds. Passing the photos onto the Oriental Bird Club, a UK-based charity working on bird conservation and information in the region (including an online library of over 60,000 photos), proved fruitful. The photo editor of the OBC, Krys Kazmierczak, needed only one look at the enigmatic finch.

"The words 'Sillem's Mountain Finch' simply popped into my head, and I sat there for a little while somewhat awestruck," he later wrote to OBC supporters.

Kazmierczak then turned to several ornithologists, each of who has confirmed that Muzika had indeed captured a vanished species on film.

A trek to study the birds is required for final proof, including a blood sample for DNA. But Muzika plans to return to the site in 2013.

Sillem's mountain finch appears to be a high-altitude specialist, according to Kazmierczak. Both the original specimens were collected and Muzika's encounter took place over 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) above sea level, over three times the altitude of Denver.

The OBC encourages other birders traveling to the region to keep an eye out for the mysterious Sillem's mountain finch.

the Muenster yellow-toothed cavy
Close-up of Sillem's mountain finch. Photo by: Yann Muzika.

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Photo: high-altitude bird rediscovered after 80 years.