Ex-HK banker Yann Muzika tells of challenge photographing rare finch

Former HK banker tells of challenge and delight in photographing finch for first time in 83 years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:06am

When they met the first time, the finch turned its back on Yann Muzika as if it was laughing at his awkward presence in such a foreign place.

The French nature photographer had just finished erecting a tent in the middle of nowhere - Yenigou Valley in the northwestern province of Qinghai , to be exact. And at an elevation of 5,000 metres, this was no easy task. Muzika's lungs screamed for oxygen after two strenuous days of hiking. To make matters worse, he was suffering from a bout of food poisoning.

The adventure in June was supposed to be just a three-week trek, and he had no intention of birdwatching, but Muzika carried along a full-frame digital camera with a 400mm lens, which at this particularly moment weighed heavy in his shaky hands.

In contrast, the bird seemed quite comfortable in the snow-parched wasteland. Its wings were long and legs short - evidence that it had evolved to fly in thin air. "It was sitting quietly," Muzika recalled.

Seeing this bird that he didn't recognise, Muzika was just happy that he summoned the strength to press the shutter. Only later would he learn that the picture, along with a couple of others snapped in an encounter a day later, might prove that he is the only living person to have seen the Sillem's Mountain Finch, which was discovered during a Dutch expedition 1,500 kilometres to the east in Xinjiang , by ornithologist Jerome Sillem in 1929.

No sightings of the bird have been reported since.

Muzika was delighted as ornithologists congratulations on his summer find streamed in.

"I don't think I am going back to my former life," he said, referring to his nearly two decades as a banker in Hong Kong. Six years ago he decided to answer the call of the wild.

Some of his friends and family were sceptical. He was born and raised in a city and he was good at what he did.

But he pressed on, abandoning his career to venture out into some of the world's wildest areas. To convince people he was sane, he started a webpage and posted photos and written entries about his journeys.

The naysayers were soon convinced, and some of his friends became so fascinated by his adventures in China, Indonesia, India and Finland that they asked to join him.

But different people go into the wilderness with different expectations, Muzika said. Some look at photos of Tibet and Qinghai and form an idealistic view about its beauty. But when they actually visit, they are defeated by the harsh environment.

Some can't accept that beautiful scenery and rare animals can be reached only after weeks of strenuous trekking.

"Being in the wilderness is not at all a lonely experience," Muzika said. "It actually emphasises and amplifies human relations with your companions - both good and bad aspects."

Living comfortable lives in a metropolis could make people forget their origins, he said.

When he was photographing polar bears hunting and eating seals last year in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic, the bloody scene reminded him that it wasn't that long ago when his ancestors were living through similar struggles, where every piece of meat required a fight, and every second they had to be alert for possible predators.

But not everything Muzika has witnessed during his excursions has been a welcome sight.

"Overgrazing is one example," he said. "As the ongoing expansion of road networks allows herders to go deeper and deeper into the wilderness, they encroach on what had been the territory of only wildlife."

Only time will tell if Muzika will see his feathered friend again. And in the meantime, he said, the discovery still needed further confirmation, including photographs and hopefully a blood sample for DNA analysis.

Krys Kazmierczak, who manages the Oriental Bird Images database for the UK-based Oriental Bird Club, told BBC News he immediately thought the bird was a Sillem's Mountain Finch. "However, being of A cautious disposition, I did quite a lot of checking and consultation with others," he said. "Now we are pretty sure that it is a Sillem's Mountain Finch."

But further confirmation could take months or years. As Muzika noted, "the location of the sighting is fairly remote".

His advice to intrepid birdwatchers: "Look for the bird at more accessible locations along the highway from Golmud [Qinghai] to Lhasa [Tibet], and in particular around and above the Kunlun and Tanggula mountain passes."