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New to Science -- Discovered!
by Jon Hornbuckle
Birdwatch Issue 112, October 2001, pages 30-33
Few travelling birders can have escaped the frustration of having to give up on a bird that they just can't match to anything in the field guide. But there is a select group that embraces the possibility they might just have found something altogether new. As a result of their efforts, there are several known or probable species lacking only a full description and name. JON HORNBUCKLE pays tribute to birding's adventurers and looks at some of their discoveries.
How often have you seen a bird that does not exist according to the field guide? This has happened to me many times, but in most cases I eventually decided I had mistaken what the bird looked like, often due to light conditions, or realised it was in some unillustrated or unusual plumage. These days I tend to dismiss such birds fairly quickly because, unless you are in one of the few relatively unexplored regions of the world, the chances of finding a genuine new species are exceedingly slim. In the course of various research projects and surveys, I have caught thousands of birds of some 800 species, several of which I was unable to identify at the time. However, there remains only one of those birds whose identification still escapes me and could have been a new species – but more of that later.
Ever larger world list
The number of bird species in the world is increasing inexorably with every passing year. According to James Clements, whose Birds of the world: a checklist is widely accepted as being the closest thing we have to a definitive world list, the current total stands at 9,780. There are three main reasons for the increase: "splitting" of existing species, which usually means elevating a subspecies to full species level; review of specimen collections; and discovery in the field of new, undescribed species.
Of course the numbers involved depend on what is meant by the word "species", and much has been already written on this issue. I do not want to comment further here, other than to say that I am using the term as generally accepted by the scientific community: if a new species is described in a learned journal then that's good enough for me. Having said that, the pond has been muddied by some authors of recent monographs and field-guides, who cannot resist splitting a number of species, usually without full scientific justification. Sometimes these splits are eventually accepted widely, while others are ignored.
There are many instances of "splits", but very few have been described from museum collections in recent years, probably because there are now so few museum-based taxonomists. This is a shame because Robin Restall, who works with the Phelps collection in Caracas, Venezuela said, possibly with tongue in cheek: "I think anybody could find new species or subspecies in almost any collection of Neotropical birds. For example, we have two undescribed Otus owls from Zulia and a Synallaxis spinetail from Amazonia which will be described one day."
The most interesting situation occurs when someone discovers an apparently new species in the field. Occasionally, such a bird will be so obviously different that there is no doubt that it is a full species and a description can be published within a year or two of discovery - good examples are the Scarlet-banded Barbet Capito wallacei in Peru and Jocoto Antpitta Grallaria ridgelyi in Ecuador. More usually, however, such work takes years to publish, as it must be proved that a "new" bird is not just another form or sub-species of another occurring elsewhere. The need for such caution was well illustrated by the arguments that followed the controversial descriptions of Nechisar Nightjar and Mascarene Shearwater published in the prestigious British journal Ibis.
To clarify whether a bird is indeed a new species, it is important to study its behaviour, record vocalisations, survey its distribution and collect one or more specimens. All this takes time and effort, while the taking of specimens is a thorny issue, with both the morality and legality – it may be difficult to obtain the necessary collecting permit – being awkward areas. Furthermore, it is accepted practice that the finder has the right to describe a bird but he or she may not be able to devote the time to the necessary groundwork.
Because of all this, there are a number of potentially new species awaiting formal description. They range from those whose description has been in the pipeline for years to birds that have been sighted in remote areas but about which little or nothing is known. While preparing this article, descriptions of two birds featured here have been published: Lulu's Tody-Tyrant Poecilotriccus luluae from northern Peru (Johnson et al, 2001) and Chestnut-capped Piha Lipaugus weberi from the Central Cordillera of the Colombian Andes (Cuervo et al, 2001).
South America is the major source of new birds. This is unsurprising as the continent holds more species than any other, there is more poorly explored terrain and a relatively large number of ornithologists work there. In addition to the Venezuelan birds mentioned above, there are at least two tapaculos, two antwrens, two tyrant-flycatchers and an antshrike, wood-wren, gnatcatcher and flowerpiercer to be described. Some of these are relatively well known, but others are "under wraps."
Brazil is the richest known seam, with two Herpsilochmus antwrens in Amazonia, a Thamnophilus antshrike in Acre, an Otus owl in the caatinga and other possibilities in the north. The antshrike is the only bird to be publicly announced, as it had been hoped to auction the right to name it and raise money for conservation. This was a laudable scheme which had been successful in Colombia a few years earlier, but unfortunately in Brazil it led to a dispute with the Brazilian authorities along the lines of who has the right to sell off a nation's natural heritage.
Proposals to auction bird names have also been made in Bolivia, where details of two tyrant-flycatchers have been released. One, a Cnemotriccus, closest to Fuscous Flycatcher C. fuscatus, was found to be uncommon in dry forest at 1,650-2,050 m in the rain-shadowed Andean valleys of La Paz and northernmost Cochabamba departments. Recordings of both song and calls are included on Sjoerd Mayer's Birds of Bolivia CD-ROM. The other flycatcher, a Phyllomyias tyrannulet, closest to P. fasciatus, from Serranía Pilón (Beni) and Cerro Asunta Pata (La Paz), is being written up by Sebastian Herzog (in litt.). There may be another new tyrannulet: according to Herzog "It behaves like a Phyllomyias but its vocalizations are very similar to those of Buff-banded Tyrannulet Mecocerculus hellmayri. I am not sure what is going on with this one, we found it in Carrasco NP from about 650-1350 m, but don't have a good specimen. There appear to be slight plumage differences between the Carrasco population and 'typical' M. hellmayri but we clearly need more material. Jon Fjeldså found an unidentified specimen in the CBF that seems to fit the plumage of the Carrasco birds and that has a typical Phyllomyias bill. The pieces of the puzzle don't seem to fit together yet."
Details of another possible Bolivian species are even further from publication. Herzog et al (1999) wrote of "an all black flowerpiercer, seen several times in the Pujyani humid montane forest between 2,700 and 3,100 m in May 1997, apparently related to Moustached Flowerpiercer D. mystacalis, which, although common in comparable habitat further north and south, has not been recorded in the study area. Birds were always in pairs in mixed foraging flocks in the upper canopy. No specimen has yet been collected."
Peru, which is to the north of Bolivia, and has produced a number of spectacular new species over the last 35 years. It doubtless holds more, but at present the only ones I know of are two Scytalopus tapaculos, and a Polioptila gnatcatcher near Iquitos, Amazonia. I photographed one of the tapaculos on my visit to Bosque Ampay, Apurímac in 1999; it has been known for some years, only from this one mountain. When I innocently asked Tom Schulenberg, the world's expert on tapaculos, what was holding up its description, his reply was "low blow" - evidently it is his responsibility to do it and being very busy with writing a handbook of the birds of Peru, he has not had time. A thistletail, hummingbird and antpitta occurring at Ampay have also been proposed as possible new species; none have been proven but there are specimens of the hummingbird which appear to be Many-spotted Taphrospilus/ Leucippus hypostictus, a bird occurring at much lower altitudes (T. Schulenberg in litt.). There is also another new tapaculo in the Venezuelan Andes under investigation (P. Boesman in litt.).
Pepe Alvarez, who started out in Iquitos, Peruvian Amazonia, as a missionary but was converted to becoming a birding conservationist, has discovered two new species: Ancient Antwren Herpsilochmus gentryi and a tyrannulet flycatcher Zimmerius villajeroi (in press). He has apparently at least one more bird awaiting description, a Polioptila gnatcatcher (Elton, 2001).
Paul Salaman, meanwhile, has toiled in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries on the planet, for some 10 years. His first reward was to discover the Chocó Vireo Vireo mastersi, considered so unlikely by the late, great Ted Parker that he did not believe it to be a new species until he was shown photos of the specimen. More recently, with Colombian co-workers on Evaluation of the Biodiversity of the Andes in Colombia expeditions, he found Chestnut-capped Piha Lipaugus weberi and a Henicorhina wood-wren. The Lipaugus, described commendably quickly (Cuervo et al, 2001), occurs on the Caribbean slope of the Central Andes in Antioquia, while the wood-wren, which has a distinctive voice but is fairly similarly plumaged to Grey-breasted H. leucophrys, is in the south-west. Serious armed conflict makes visits inadvisable.
Although strictly speaking not an undescribed species, Cuban Poorwill Siphonorhis daiquiri is known solely from fossils discovered in three areas of the island. Until recently it had never been searched for, but there is real hope that renewed ornithological interest in the remnants of xerophytic (desert) scrub habitat known to be favoured by its cogenerics, in Cuba's Oriente may lead to one of the most dramatic avian "rediscoveries" of all time. Indeed, Siphonorhis as a genus is incredibly poorly known: the Jamaican Poorwill, known from just a handful of specimens taken in the 1800s, is also presumed extinct, while the only-extant member, Least Poorwill S. brewsteri, is a globally threatened species confined to a restricted area of Hispaniola.
The search for new species away from the Neotropics has been much less productive in recent times. In Africa, two Cisticola warblers are in the process of being described, both from one small area of the Kilombero flood plain in Tanzania. The "White-tailed" Cisticola is most similar to Winding C. galactotes, while the "Kilombero" Cisticola is a "duetter" most like Black-lored C. nigriloris. Their presence has been known for some years (see Baker and Baker, 1990) and the birds are easily seen, but publication has been delayed by by one of the authorities on central African birds expressing doubts as to their validity as species (N. Baker in litt.).
Other unusual-looking birds have been observed in poorly-known areas of Tanzania, including a starling northwest of Tabora, which appeared similar to Cinnyricinclus femoralis but was far away from its distribution and habitat, and a small Serinus finch with a distinctive black breast and yellow-green throat in dry country northeast of Mtera Dam (N. Baker in litt.). The latter area is also rumoured to hold a new Nectarinia sunbird.
A more controversial bird is the "Ethiopian Cliff" Swallow, a dark martin-like hirundine with pale underparts and buffy cream to pale rufous rump. It was first noted by Madge and Redman (1989) in Ethiopia and has been seen a few times since at three sites, but only from September to November. Until there is more evidence, the jury is still out on whether this is a genuine new species, a range extension of Preuss's Cliff Swallow or an odd form of another species. Farther north, in Djibouti, a sunbird with a bright yellow-green crown, unlike any known species, was observed in 1985 in the Forêt du Day (Welch and Welch, 1998) but has not been seen since.
The huge central African rain forest must surely support more new species, but there has been very little exploration in recent years. A cisticola, similar to C. brachypterus, was discovered by Patrice Christy in the Lékoni area of Gabon, and an unidentified nightjar was heard by Dowsett-Lemaire and Dowsett (2000) in Cameroon and northern Congo-Brazzaville, although it could have been Itombwe Nightjar Caprimulgus prigoginei, known only from a single specimen. Elsewhere, the only potential new species of which I am aware is a small Bates's type Caprimulgus nightjar recorded by Ian Robertson (1992) and Nik Borrow in the Bamenda area of Cameroon.
Another intriguing region. Exploration of Vietnam has been very rewarding, with three new species recently described by Eames et al (1999, 2001). In the Sulawesi region of Indonesia there have been two new Rallidae described from the Talaud Islands (Lambert, 1998), with a Ninox owl there and a probable Muscicapa flycatcher, similar to M. griseisticta, on Sulawesi itself requiring further investigation. A scops-owl has been found on Sumba, in the Lesser Sundas, that has still to be identified (Jepson and Ounsted, 1997).
On the Philippines, a Scolopax woodcock was first discovered during a BirdQuest tour to Mindanao in 1993 (Harrap & Fisher, 1994) and has been illustrated as the Bukidnon Woodcock in the new field guide to the island group - a formal description is in preparation. A more complex situation exists with Brachypteryx shortwings on Mindanao: two very different songs are associated with what appears to be a single species, White-browed Shortwing B. montana. The "normal" song is given by birds at elevations above about 1,000m, while the different song is delivered by birds at lower elevations. There is a small amount of overlap where both songs can be heard. In 1996 I visited southern Mindanao with Pete Morris, who had first noticed this phenomenon, to try and discover more about these birds. We found them to be fairly common but with no obvious significant differences in plumage from the "standard" shortwing. As the "new" song is given by shortwings confined to lower elevation sites elsewhere on this large island, there must surely be two species here, but to prove this will take some considerable effort.
A major surprise has been Deepal Warakagoda's discovery in Sri Lanka of a new Otus owl species, on 23 Jan this year – the first new species for the country in 132 years. (Thomas 2001).
The description of a new wagtail from Cambodia, Lao PDR and, marginally, Thailand, based on observations spread over the last eight years, has been accepted recently for publication in Bull BOC. Lastly in this region, David Wells (1999) mentions the recent discovery of a scops owl on Perak Island in the Malacca Straits, Malaysia. It appears that this is another, but new, small-island specialist Otus from this part of the world.
The last region where new discoveries must await is New Guinea and adjacent islands. In the Bismarck archipelago, sightings of a Microeca flycatcher on New Britain and New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (PNG), in April 1984 (Finch et al, 1987) were the first of any of this genus from the archipelago. There have been a few subsequent reports, including three by myself and friends in May 1999, but since no specimens have been taken and no sound recordings made, a formal description has not been possible. On the island of Bougainville, PNG, the locals reported the presence of a ground-living bird with an unusual call. A specimen has recently been acquired and photographs indicate it to be a new warbler with rufous-orange on the head, possibly a Cettia. Bougainville lies at the western end of the Solomon Island chain; at the eastern end is the small island of Vanikolo. David Gibbs visited this in 1994 and found a Zosterops white-eye to be not uncommon – this was a taxon not known to exist from here (Gibbs 1996). A specimen was taken by Guy Dutson under licence in 1998 and will be described in due course.
Much of mainland New Guinea is still covered in forest and is largely unexplored. David Gibbs, again, made a pioneering visit in September 1992 to the uninhabited Fakfak Mountains of southwest Irian Jaya (Gibbs, 1994). He was only the second ornithologist - after Jared Diamond in 1981 - to go there in the 20th century. He found that the birds were numerous and readily approachable, in contrast to elsewhere in New Guinea, where they are usually subject to intensive hunting. Gibbs noted several species which appeared to be of undescribed forms, most notably two honeyeaters, previously reported by Diamond, and a paradigalla, a black bird-of-paradise with a striking yellowish wattle above the bill. One honeyeater was a Ptiloprora reminiscent of Grey-streaked P. perstriata, found a considerable distance away in the central ranges of New Guinea, while another was a Melipotes, a smoky honeyeater visually different from all three described species, with a prominent elongated eye wattle. Two paradigallas were seen near the highest altitude, the first record in the Fakfaks of this scarce genus, and differed from the two known species, Short-tailed and Long-tailed, P. brevicauda and P. carunculata, most notably in that the tail length was intermediate between those of the known species, in which the tails are of greatly differing lengths. Nobody has subsequently been to the Fakfaks, not the most hospitable of regions, and so the opportunity to describe possibly three or more new species remains open.
Although I have conducted fieldwork in several poorly known areas, only once have I encountered a bird that was definitely different from anything described. This was a Turdus thrush in Beni, Bolivia, that had a striking white eye-ring, a feature not shown by any Neotropical thrush. From the all-black bill, it appeared to be Black-billed Thrush T. ignoblis, but that species has no eye-ring and was not seen there in many months of fieldwork. An outside possibility is an undescribed form of the rare Unicoloured Thrush T. haplochrous, which does occurs there and has a well-defined eye-ring. It is poorly known but thought to have a greenish-yellow or brownish-black bill and uniformly dull underparts - my bird had a pale belly and white on the chest. I had hoped to encounter the bird again, as I spent another 4 or 5 months, over a 3 year period, doing fieldwork there, but I never did. Was it a new species, a hybrid or just a freak? I will probably never know.
The quest for new species is still going strong and, as shown here, opportunities abound for the keen birder to make a contribution. There are puzzles to solve in Bolivia, Peru, Cuba, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Philippines, the Bismarcks, PNG and doubtless many more. It needs determination, time, effort, and a fair amount of luck - but you could discover of a species new to science
In preparing this article I have been helped by a considerable number of people, most notably Des Allen, Neil Baker, Rolf de By, Nik Borrow, Peter Clement, Edward Dickinson, Guy Dutson, Sebastian Herzog, Guy Kirwan, Robin Restall, Paul Salaman, Tom Schulenberg, John Wall and Geoff Welch.
Nechisar Nightjar Caprimulgus solala was described in Ibis (Safford et al, 1995) from a wing salvaged from a decomposing corpse on the Nechisar plains, Ethiopia in Sept 1990.
Mascarene Shearwater Puffinus atrodorsalis was described in Ibis but DNA studies point to it being an immature Audubon's Shearwater Puffinus lherminieri.
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