Photo: Yann Muzika
In 1929, a naturalist by the name of Jérôme Alexander Sillem collected two unknown bird specimens on a high plateau in Xinjiang, China. The unidentified specimens eventually made their way to the Zoological Museum of Amsterdam, where they sat in a drawer for 62 years until finally being given a name. But the new species, now called Sillem's mountain finch (Leucosticte sillemi), was never seen again. That is, until now.
On a recent trip to the Yeniugou Valley on the Tibetan Plateau, photographer Yann Muzika snapped the photo of a lifetime. He didn't know it at the time, but the plainly-colored finch he spied was the long-lost Sillem's mountain finch. The photo above represents the first time anyone has seen one of these birds in over 80 years.
Virtually nothing is known about the bird so far, but it appears to be a high-altitude specialist. Both the original specimens and the bird Muzika photographed were found living at over 5,000 meters (or around 16,500 feet). That's three times the altitude of Denver, the mile-high city. Its high-altitude home is probably the major reason that the birds are so rarely seen.
Muzika has planned a trek set to embark in 2013, and he has made the Sillem's mountain finch his priority for that trip. A DNA sample will be required to officially identify the finch.
Without further study, it's impossible to know how many of these birds still exist. Birders traveling to the region are strongly encouraged to be on the lookout, as any new information would be invaluable-- even just reports of further sightings. Though its high-altitude environment may keep the bird safe from the impact of humans, the fact that sightings are so rare could indicate that the species is endangered too.
By Bryan Nelson