The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar by Vernon R. L. Head

A master birdwatcher lyrically describes his quest for the first scientific sighting of a little-known species.

rarest bird

“Searching enquiringly, steeped in a willingness to learn, we felt a connection with biodiversity and an appreciation of species.” This recurring concept of inquiry, combined with a sense of wonder, dominates Vernon R.L. Head’s poetic musings in The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. A conservationist and lifelong birdwatcher, Head was entranced by the findings of a 1990 scientific expedition to the Nechisar plains in Africa’s Great Rift Valley: among many specimens, the team collected a single wing of a bird that turned out to be unknown to science. After some discussion within the ornithological community–can a species be defined by a single body part?–it was named the Nechisar Nightjar, Caprimulgus solala (“solala” meaning “only wing”). “The new species was announced, and birdwatchers like me began to dream.”

Decades later, Head and three elite birdwatching buddies trek to the Plains of Nechisar in Ethiopia to search for this elusive, prized, nearly mythical creature. In an awestruck tone, he describes their journey, interweaving the story of the 1990 discovery, reflections on humanity’s place in the natural world, memories of other birds, and thoughts on taxonomy and naming. Head is appreciative of metaphor and playful with words: he coins the collective “an incantation of ibises,” calls Addis Ababa “a eucalyptopolis,” sees a cliff of striated rock as a “shelf of books to the past.” This fanciful mood defines much of the book, although Head does turn somber in contemplating the future of many rare birds. After slower paced sections, as in recalling the birdwatchers he travels with, the adrenaline increases as they draw closer to meeting the Nechisar Nightjar.

Head’s story of birdwatching and its relationship to conservation is also a meditation on extinction and an ode to the natural world. He is unafraid of wandering within these subjects, and his passion for this work is clear: “Each name [on a birdwatcher’s list] is a story of an interaction, a time of connection with the pristine, a collection of memories, an understanding of our place in the system of natural things, and a hope for the future of that place.” The skills involved in spotting rare species approaches magic, even as it references science. This combination of reverence and scientific history is attractive as both a work of literature and an illumination. The Rarest Bird in the World is an alluring view into birdwatching and multiple rarities.

This review originally ran in the February 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 eyeshines.

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