A Bittersweet Swap: the Blackthroat

Ever sat in an airport cafe watching your flight delays grow and grow?  I have.  It’s disheartening.

It seems decidedly over-privileged to complain about waiting a little longer to climb aboard a technological marvel and rocket through the sky like some mythological figure or comic book superhero, but waiting sucks and there are only so many ways to entertain yourself in an airport.

So here I find myself, taking yet another crack at the blog after yet another lengthy and unintended hiatus.  Fortunately my return to the fold comes at a fortuitous time of year, as the 2018 update to the Clements Checklist has just been released and that always provides something to write about1.

Clements is updated yearly to reflect the latest information in the ever-changing world of bird taxonomy, and for one-word-bird fans those updates are rarely good.  Most years they indicate casualties from the one-word-birds list – victims of species splits, new taxonomic assignments, or simply name changes to conform to some researcher’s pedantry2.

The 2018 update is no exception, as with it we have lost a distinguished member of the one-word-birds community.  The aptly-(and awesomely)-named Firecrest has been split into two species: Common Firecrest and Madeira Firecrest.  The split is not unreasonable – the island-endemic Madeira Firecrest is distinct from other populations – but it stings all the same.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the Firecrest’s family at this time, especially its close cousins the Goldcrest and Flamecrest who remain on the list3.

Don’t lose yourself in sorrow yet though4, because there is more news from this year’s update and amazingly, it’s positive5.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we gained a bird!  This almost never happens.  I am unreasonably excited.

Allow me to introduce you to our newest member: the Blackthroat.

blackthroat
This photo looks a little grainy…

Formerly known as the Black-throated Blue Robin, the bird’s official name change brings the checklist in line with widespread usage.  But who is this new addition, this interloper?  Why does it deserve its addition to the list?  And why is there only a century-old painting where a photo should be?

These are great questions, and I’m glad you asked them.  To answer the first, the Blackthroat is a robin.  But not a robin like the American Robin.  A robin like the European Robin6.  This means it’s a chat, or a sort of Old-World flycatcher7.  Basically it’s a little hop-around bird that eats bugs and stuff.  It is bluish-grayish and it has – you guessed it – a black throat.

The bird may seem at first unremarkable, but it actually deserves its one-word name through and through.  A 2011 paper published in BirdingASIA called it “Asia’s most enigmatic robin,”8 and with good reason.

The species was first described by ornithologists in 1891, and since then only about 50 adults have been seen.  Most of those observations have been the direct result of targeted attempts in the last decade.  The first photos of a wild Blackthroat were taken in 2011, and a female was finally discovered for the first time in 2014.

The limited number of photos of this species (none of which are available royalty-free) means I’ve got nothing to show you but the painting above, but a moment or two on Google will give you a glimpse of this dapper bird.  The Blackthroat joins esteemed company, as it is closely related to another handsome, enigmatic, Chinese forest-dwelling, one-word-named chat: the Firethroat.  Definitely Google him too, for he is a handsome fellow indeed.

The details of the Blackthroat’s discovery may lead you to believe that it is rare, and surely enough it is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.  But the bird is unassuming and lives in a remote, inaccessible habitat.  Its distribution may be small, but when researchers actually started looking for them, they found them.  This boom in recent observations may suggest that Blackthroats are more common than previously thought.

The world can be a sad place.  Flights get delayed, one-word-birds are lost, other things happen I assume…but at the end of the day, there’s always a reason for hope.  Sure the Firecrest is gone but the plucky Blackthroat is here to take its place, and hopefully it’s here to stay.  Clements taketh away, but it can giveth too.  Now if I could only get home.


1If you’ve just joined us, the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World is the accepted authority on bird nomenclature and the authority used by this writer to compile the master list of one-word-birds.
2If you, like me, are a mega bird nerd and would like to read about all the exciting changes in bird taxonomy this year, head on over to https://ebird.org/news/2018-ebird-taxonomy-update.
3For now.
4Put down that bottle!
5Don’t put down that bottle, this calls for a toast!
6Or as the Brits call it, the Robin.  The Brits think they invented birds.
7Not like a New-World flycatcher…you know what, never mind.
8http://orientalbirdclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Qian-Blackthroat.pdf

Photo:
By Gustav Mützel – Ptitsy gansuiskago puteshestviia G. N. Potanina 1884-1887, M. Berezowski & V. Bianchi, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37317457

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