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Notes from an author: Stephen Moss

In pursuit of a childhood obsession, Stephen Moss headed to a little-known mountain range in Tanzania, on a quest to find a very special little bird

Notes from an author: Stephen Moss
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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It was a long, hard climb, with no guarantee of success at the end. We were in the Uluguru Mountains of eastern Tanzania, in search of a bird with a very unusual name: Mrs Moreau’s warbler. My reasoning was simple: I had chosen to name my book on the origins of bird names after this particular species. That meant I had to see it in the flesh. This, at least, was the excuse I gave to my wife, for whom this trip looked suspiciously like what she calls a ‘jolly’.

The Ulugurus are one of a series of mountain ranges scattered like pearls across this part of Tanzania. They are known as ‘Africa’s Galapagos’, because they are home to so many endemic species, found here and nowhere else on the planet. We came across some of them as we climbed higher and higher: Loveridge’s and Uluguru violet-backed sunbirds, dazzling us with their bright colours. But there was still no sign of my target species — and by now I was beginning to worry. I’d invested a lot in getting this far, and if I failed to see the bird, the whole journey would have been in vain.

It was a journey that began when, at the age of 10, I came across the name ‘Mrs Moreau’s warbler’ in the pages of the weekly Birds of the World. Even then, it struck me as rather odd. I knew that birds could be named after their colour or size; their habits or habitat; the place where they were originally found, or the man (occasionally the woman) who had first discovered them. I’d heard of the blue tit and great spotted woodpecker, treecreeper and marsh tit, Dartford warbler and Bewick’s swan. But Mrs Moreau’s warbler? Surely, I thought, there must be a good story behind the naming of this obscure little bird. And, as it turned out, there was.

Winifred Moreau (known as Winnie) was the wife and professional partner of the distinguished ornithologist Reg Moreau. They met in Egypt, in the early 1920s, and soon relocated to Tanzania, where Reg was an accountant at a biological research station. Their shared passion was birds: in particular, the virtually unknown avifauna of this part of East Africa. They set about tracking down and cataloguing many new species, including a small, greyish-brown warbler with an orange-red head and breast, whose males and females sing in unison to forge the bond between them. In a touching gesture of marital devotion, Reg decided to name the new species after his wife: Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

As we climbed higher and higher up the hillside, we became aware of the pressures on this unique place. Swathes of forest had been cleared to grow crops, not only removing precious habitat, but also creating ecological ‘islands’, where any remaining birds will struggle to survive. We were using a classic technique to try to find the warbler: every now and then, our guide Elia would stop, play its song, and wait for a response. Every time we did so, no answer came.

Finally, just as I had given up all hope, Elia heard a familiar sound, and beckoned us off the path and into the forest. He played the song again, and this time, clear as a bell, came the response. Now came the tricky bit: I needed to see the bird; and I had already proved myself inept at seeing small, flitting creatures in this dense habitat. One by one, my companions latched eyes on the singing warbler; their exclamations of relief and delight making me panic even more. Finally, though, I caught sight of it through my binoculars, as it duetted with its hidden mate. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the show was over. As we walked back down to our camp, I wondered if I would ever see and hear Mrs Moreau’s warbler again. For today, 80 years after it was first discovered, Winnie’s eponymous bird is facing extinction. Estimates put the world population at just 500 individuals, which means that a miracle is needed to save the species from oblivion.

The decline of this obscure little bird symbolises the unthinking destruction of life on our planet. It also symbolises a loss of cultural diversity, as with extinction, the bird’s name also dies a kind of death. To paraphrase John Donne, as with any man’s passing, the loss of a species diminishes us. That bell really does toll for thee. That’s why, for me, the disappearance of Mrs Moreau’s warbler would be such a tragedy.

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names, by Stephen Moss, is published by Faber/Guardian. RRP £16.99.

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)