'You have to understand the passion'

They don't come any more passionate than birders, so it's not surprising that two of Cape Town's best-known birders were prepared to travel thousands of kilometres to Ethiopia to hunt for Africa's rarest bird.

This is the nightjar, known only from a single wing that was collected from a road kill.

And when they finally managed to get a brief but perfect view of the Nechisar Nightjar, which was flying in the beam of a spotlight through evening skies in a remote and treacherous volcanic area of southern Ethiopia, it was passion rewarded in a way that only die-hard birders can appreciate.

"It was the greatest birding experience of my life," says Vernon Head, one of four members of the expedition that recently returned from their historic quest.

The expedition to the "pretty isolated area" between volcanoes in the Rift Valley was led by Pinelands-based Ian Sinclair, probably Africa's best-known birder who has personally seen more than 2 000 bird species on the continent.

It also included two other "twitchers" - Gerry Nicholls from America and Dennis Weir from Northern Ireland.

Sinclair explained that a team of British researchers had found a nightjar road kill on the Nechisar Plain in southern Ethiopia 20 years ago and had kept the wing.

"Later, at the British Museum, they discovered this wing didn't fit any known African nightjar and they described it as new to science. I examined the fabulous wing when researching the African Field Guide (which he co-authored).

"I drooled over it and dreamed of seeing the bird."

Head, chairman of the Cape Bird Club and vice-chairman of BirdLife SA, said the expedition had literally been handed a map with an "X marks the spot" to indicate where they should look.

The nearest town to this site had been a "nightmarish" two-day drive from Addis Ababa and they had had to hire armed guards from the locals "who carry Kalashnikovs (rifles) in one hand and a spear in the other".

"That was fairly daunting, and to break the ice one of the locals opened a beer using the end of his Kalashnikov - that got things going!"

Sinclair said it had taken a further tortuous three-hour drive - only 20km along a rutted track - to the site of the road kill.

This had then been followed by a "long, anxiety-filled", wait until dusk.

They had seen some of the usual local nightjars before their spotlight picked out the eye shine of a "very large nightjar".

"When flushed, the huge, skua-like wing patches were striking and brilliantly white, quite unlike any other nightjar in Africa."

Head recalls Sinclair shouting: "That's the bird!"

"I had it in my bins (binoculars) and it was very distinctive - certainly the biggest nightjar I've ever seen.

"I had perfect views as it flew off."

They had all felt physically drained from the emotion of the first recorded sighting of this species and after getting back to their base at 4am had spent the rest of that day in dead silence, Head said.

"You have to understand the passion - this was a world quest for a bird that's never been seen.

"It's not something that happens every day.

"I had taken a special auction cigar to celebrate but I was so stressed afterwards that I couldn't smoke it for about a week."

They returned again to the site on the third day, hoping to catch a specimen with a home-made net fashioned from mosquito nets to be able to examine it more closely, Head added.

But although they had found another specimen and Sinclair had got to within a few centimetres of it, they had not been able to catch it.

Video footage by Nicholl is now being enhanced by experts in New York to see whether they can extract usable stills pictures, Head explained.

"I'm seriously thinking of writing a book about this week of my life - it made such an impression on me," Head concluded.

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