Lost Birds: The Search to Rediscover Species That Might Not Yet Be Extinct

The Blue-eyed Ground-Dove was rediscovered in Brazil in 2015 after a 74-year absence from the scientific record. It was rediscovered more than 600 miles away from where it had last been seen in 1941. Photo by Rafael Bessa.(Sarah Gilman 8 June 2017)

The song was a surprise: A succession of coos like water drops, both monotonous and musical. They sounded sleepy, familiar, and yet just foreign enough to catch ornithologist Rafael Bessa’s attention.

It was a brilliant June afternoon in 2015, and the song fluted from some rock outcroppings near the verdant palms of a vereda, or oasis, in an expanse of shrubby grasslands in southern Brazil. The country’s Amazon rainforest has long captured conservation headlines, but the cerrado—as this mixed savanna of grass, brush, and dry forest is called—covers 20 percent of the country’s landmass, and is more threatened. Bessa himself was there in the state of Minas Gerais to conduct an environmental assessment for a proposed agricultural operation. He had stumbled on the vereda while driving from his hotel to a distant survey site. There was no time to investigate the plaintive call, but the “woo-up…woo-up…woo-up” sounded a bit faster and deeper than the Ruddy Ground-Doves that occur in abundance in the area. Bessa decided to return.

The next day, he managed to record the mysterious call and summon its maker into a nearby bush with the playback. He aimed his camera and took a series of photographs, then zoomed in on the images.

It was indeed a small dove—not necessarily the sort of quarry birders get twisted up over. Its back was an unspectacular greenish-brown, and its head, tail, and breast were a muted ruddy orange, blending to a creamy belly and a set of bony pink feet. But its eyes were arresting pools of spectacular cobalt blue, echoed by little half moons of the same dabbed across its wings.

Bessa’s hands began to shake. “I had no doubt that I found something really special,” he says.

Seeking confirmation, he texted his friend Luciano Lima, the technical coordinator at the Observatório de Aves of the Instituto Butantan, São Paulo’s biological and health research center. Lima had done his master’s degree in a museum with an extensive specimen collection, and agreed to drive to his office to pull up the photos on his computer and see if he could identify the mystery dove.

“I was in my car,” Lima recalls, “and he suddenly sent me one of the pictures, and I almost crashed!”

Lima called Bessa back from the institute: “‘Hey man, you found the bird! You found the bird!’ I remember repeating it to him like a thousand times.”

Bessa had discovered a pocket refuge of Columbina cyanopis, the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove. The creature was exceedingly rare; some suspected it was extinct. Though there had been a few published sightings over the past couple of decades, it hadn’t been documented with hard evidence in 74 years. And Bessa had taken the first-ever photos and recordings of the bird some 600 miles away from the nearest place specimens had been collected.

“There is thousands and thousands, and hundreds of thousands, and millions of thousands of hectares, and he just managed to be in the exactly right place,” Lima marvels.

When Lima himself went out to see the bird a year later, after the rediscovery was announced, he was overcome.

“I don’t have words to describe it,” he says. “It’s like seeing a ghost.”

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