A Single Wing Starts Quest For Mystery Bird Birdwatching might not seem the kind of hobby to attract the Indiana Jones type, but Gerry Nicholls is what you might call an extreme bird watcher. This year he and his friends set out on an international chase for a creature that has never been officially sighted.
NPR logo

A Single Wing Starts Quest For Mystery Bird

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106749870/106783624" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Single Wing Starts Quest For Mystery Bird

A Single Wing Starts Quest For Mystery Bird

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106749870/106783624" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


To many, bird watching seems like a quiet hobby. It's mostly going for a walk in the woods with a pair of binoculars, but for some it can be a bit more adventurous. From member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut, Craig LeMoult has the story of an international treasure hunt for a very mysterious bird.

CRAIG LEMOULT: Gerry Nicholls is what you might call an extreme birdwatcher. He's been all over the world trying to get a glimpse of rare species, and this year he and his friends set out for Ethiopia to find the Holy Grail. A bird, he says, no bird watcher has ever seen.

Mr. GERRY NICHOLLS (Bird Watcher): This is adventure. This is what happened in the 1800s.

LEMOULT: Twenty years ago, a researcher found a decomposing bird in a remote Ethiopian plain and brought back just a wing to the Natural History Museum in London.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Halfway up the wing is a big, beige patch, so it was very distinctive. And on the basis of just one wing, it was described to science as a new species, Caprimulgus solala, solala meaning only a wing.

LEMOULT: Nicholls is 61 years old. He grew up in England, but now lives in Connecticut where he works as a nurse. He travels with a group of bird watching friends, including Ian Sinclair, a South African author of several bird field guides. Nicholls mostly calls the other two members of the group by their nicknames, Winky and Fruitcake. They knew finding the bird, which is more commonly called the Nechisar nightjar, was a long shot.

Mr. NICHOLLS: Nobody knew if the habitat existed. Nobody knew if it had been overgrazed. Nobody knew if there might be some forces there, disputing tribes over grazing land where we wouldn't be able to get in. Nobody knew anything.

LEMOULT: Okay, so maybe the people living in the region knew if the bird existed. But still, the mystery was part of what made the mission so much fun. So they decided…

Mr. NICHOLLS: Oh, what the heck.

LEMOULT: And they tracked down the researcher who had found the wing.

Mr. NICHOLLS: And this scientist drew a little, well, we called it a pirate's map. It was a line drawing with a X, X marks the spot, as far as he remembered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEMOULT: The group of four friends flew into Addis Ababa, drove two days south to a hotel and then there was another five-hour bumpy drive to go the last 20 to 30 miles into the Nechisar Plains. They hired a guard with a Kalashnikov rifle to join them for protection.

Nightjars, as their name suggests, come out at night, so the way to find them is to shine a bright light into a plain, look for the reflection of their eyes and then sneak up on them. Incredibly, on the first night they were there, two of them saw a bird they were sure was the Nechisar nightjar. But they didn't get the close look they were hoping for. So they went back two nights later with a net and Nicholls brought along a video camera.

Mr. NICHOLLS: On the second night, Fruitcake is on the - this time on the roof with a light and Ian and Winky are advancing to where the bird is.

Mr. IAN SINCLAIR (Author, Bird Watcher): Nine foot of wing, can't see it.

WINKY: That's right.


Mr. NICHOLLS: And Fruitcake is saying yes, it's just a bit further, a bit further and they are walking and they can't see it.

Mr. SINCLAIR: Where's the bird?

Mr. NICHOLLS: Take another step to the right. It's one meter. It's just don't step forward, you'll stand on it. And they still can't see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRUITCAKE: Get the net. Get the net. You'll get it.

Mr. SINCLAIR: Where? Can't see anything.

FRUITCAKE: I can't see you, but it's right there.

Mr. NICHOLLS: And then Ian gets down on the ground, puts his head down to ground level and presumably sees the shape of it and sees where it is and he says, pass me the net, and our guard with the Kalashnikov passes him the net.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. NICHOLLS: And he said, there's the bird. And then the net goes in and just misses it by inches.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes. Yes. Ah, yeah.

Mr. NICHOLLS: But it gave Ian and Winky a great chance to see the wing pattern and tail pattern again, within, you know, three foot away from them and see it naked eye, and they're ready for it with a spotlight picked these up.

LEMOULT: The video clearly shows a bird flying away, but it's so blurry, it could be a pigeon. Nicholls says even though he doesn't have any proof they saw the Nechisar nightjar, he's okay with it.

Mr. NICHOLLS: It is what it is and its part of the mystery here. And I wouldn't change any of it.

LEMOULT: No? I mean if you could capture the bird, if you could've caught it in the net, you wouldn't change that?

Mr. NICHOLLS: Ah. Now, it would've been nice to have touched it and just had a little quiet word in its ear, a little friendly chat. And then, and but the bigger thing would've been to have caught her and then let it go.

LEMOULT: They plan on submitting their findings to some of the top bird journals. Nicholls acknowledges some people may doubt they actually saw the Nechisar nightjar, but he says that's missing the whole point.

Mr. NICHOLLS: This is old, 1800s adventurism, and we did it. That's what matters.

LEMOULT: And if you still think they didn't see the bird, he says you should head to Ethiopia and check it out for yourself.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Fairfield, Connecticut.

HANSEN: You can watch the mysterious Nechisar nightjar escape Gerry Nicholls and his band of adventurers on our Web site npr.org. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.