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The Inaccessible Island Rail, one of the rarest birds in the world. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

A Very Rare Bird

Birdwatchers are one of my favorite species of people to watch.

They are curious, motivated by any flash of feathers that passes by their hawkish view. They like to tick lists and they like to count and compare.

When people ask me if I’m a birdwatcher, I tell them I like to watch birds–any birds. I’ll watch a pigeon or a penguin for hours. In this regard, my love for birds is more voyeuristic than scholastic.

But I also love birds because I travel. Travel and birds go very well together, because along with landscapes, languages, food and flags, native birds are the only way to really tell where you are in the world. Birds are somewhat geospatially unique–and some of them are very unique.

Atlantisia rogersi has wings but it cannot fly, which is unfortunate since it lives on this farflung island with very high cliffs. Luckily he is a good climber and hops well.

I was exceedingly lucky in that I was able to meet the Inaccessible Island Rail while on Inaccessible Island (watch the video here). The professionals say that there are about 8,400 mature individuals alive and well on Inaccessible Island. That sounds like a lot of birds–maybe not so rare–but what makes them so rare is that they only live on Inaccessible Island, nowhere else in the world. Imagine if the robin or cardinals in your backyard could only live in your backyard and nowhere else.

Traveling with birdwatchers was fun because I got to watch them hunt high and low on Inaccessible Island, looking for the Inaccessible Island Rail. They never found one, and so a friendly islander from Tristan Da Cunha plucked one out of the bushes and showed him to me. I was happy to meet this bird. He was very cute and energetic and did not like being held for this picture, just like most kids. But I was so impressed by his little lovely head and long shiny black beak–a species that is most certainly and extraordinarily unique.

So I saw one of the rarest birds on earth. And now I will sit back and watch the birdwatchers turn green with jealousy.