Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another New Bird Species for 2009

The December issue of the Oriental Bird Club bulletin BirdingASIA has added a potential new species to the known birds of the world (see the other birds described in 2009 here). In June of 2009 (how's that for turnaround time?), two birders and tour leaders for Field Guides found a flowerpecker species (Dicaeidae) feeding on fruiting mistletoe above the rainforest canopy walkway at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. It was unknown to them and the ornithologists working in this large primary forest. In sightings over several days, they took pictures of at least two individuals feeding on the mistletoe and heard one sing (too briefly to get a recording). Then they were gone, and the strange flowerpeckers haven't been relocated by the time of publication.

I have no experience or knowledge of flowerpeckers, so I can't comment on this birds' distinctiveness. The authors knew it was something different though, and ended up combing through the literature and 25,000 museum specimens comparing the photos to every possible look-alike, including little-known juveniles of all the flowerpecker species. Nothing matches. The authors speculate that the bird must be a canopy specialist to have avoided previous discovery in a well birder and surveyed area.

With no specimen in hand, a new species cannot be formally described. Instead, the authors gave it the label 'Spectacled Flowerpecker' and published their findings, ending with a plea to birders and ornithologists to help search for this species.

For more information and photos of the new bird, check out the paper, linked below.


David P. Edwards, Richard E. Webster, and Rose Ann Rowlett (2009) 'Spectacled Flowerpecker': a species new to science discovered in Borneo? BirdingASIA 12:38-41. PDF

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Unintentional Quest for 400

In a fit of frustration with my progress in other more meaningful ventures (like getting into grad school and finishing publications), I recently decided to take a brief break and do something else constructive: organize my birding lists, which I've been putting off for oh... about two years. I skipped updating my life list, because that would involve combining lists from three neotropical countries and correcting the various taxonomies, not a brief project. So instead I just updated my ABA-area list, a much easier venture. When I tallied it all up, I came to 397... awesome! Then, I began noticing a few errors. Common Myna was not on the checklist I was using, but it is countable and I saw some in south Florida this year. 398. Oops, how could I forget Hoary Redpoll? 399. Then, I saw another bird I missed on the list, and my ABA tally reaching 400. 400! I glowed with excitement realizing I had reached a birding milestone. Best of all, the species that I forgot to add to the list, the one that pushed me to 400, was also the latest new ABA bird I had seen, and it was a good one.

Way back in August of 2009, I had a month off in between my old job in Florida (Scrub-Jay intern!) and my new job this fall and winter (Scrub-Jay and Red-cockaded technician!). I spent the month in Ithaca, working hard on wrapping up some research, putting a talk together for the AOU meeting, presenting at the AOU meeting, and writing up my research into publishable manuscripts. I was pretty frantic and I needed just a few days truly off so my 'vacation' from Florida actually felt like one. So, I headed down to Long Island with Shawn to get my shorebird fix.

We really canvassed the island, hitting several far-flung birding locations in several days. First up was Avalon Park in Stony Brook. This little place is good for flocks of tame geese, ducks, and gulls along the pond shore, lots of basking Red-eared Sliders and Painted Turtles, and a nice walk in the woods to escape the madness of suburban Long Island.

Laughing GullPainted TurtleRose-breasted Grosbeak
We took a trip out to the end of the island, Montauk. We ended up not seeing a whole lot interesting bird-wise, but we did find this really awesome Phasmid. Check out its blowing-in-the-wind mimic action.

Farther west along the south shore, we checked the flats near the Ponquogue Bridge on Shinnecock Bay (I love place names on Long Island, by the way). We started tallying up shorebirds, but stayed focused on the tern flocks roosting on the sandbars exposed at low tide in the bay. It had been a while since I had seen a new tern and I was positively itching to find one of the east coast species I've been dipping on for a while.

While scanning through the Commons and Forster's Terns on the distant sandbar, I passed over one tern that was noticeably paler. Taking a closer look... my lifer Roseate Tern was at hand! It was made even better by the fact that I picked it out before Shawn. We found one or two more in the flock, too, before summertime boat traffic stirred up the tern flocks too many times. ABA bird #399... check.

My lifer Roseate Tern, I swear

Jones Beach is a standard stop for my Long Island birding trips, because it is quite close to Shawn's place. I can't admit to liking it much in the summertime though, because so much boat and beach traffic displaces congregating birds. Seriously, why can't everyone else enjoy our shore resources the same way? Well, not much was going on in the bay side of Jones Beach. The little island by the Coast Guard station harbored a few sleeping Oystercatchers and assorted sandpipers. Its a treat for me to get to see Oystercatchers, but after scanning what there was quickly I got bored and started looking at fish and jellyfish in the harbor.

Then the harbor blew up in our faces. A Peregrine came out of nowhere and strafed the little sandbar island, sending oystercatchers, peeps, and gulls flying. The falcon quickly singled out an unlucky Ruddy Turnstone and they began dogfighting over the bay. Shawn and I just froze and watched the two go back and forth. The little turnstone couldn't hope to outrun the falcon in level flight, so the action stayed right in front of us as he twisted and turned. I was secretly rooting for the falcon, but as the chase dragged on without end I had to give that little turnstone some respect. Then the turnstone pulled the craziest maneuver I've ever witnessed*. It turned and actually flew between me and Shawn on the dock. The falcon, slightly more cautious of two birders with their scopes, veered away at the last minute and went sailing overhead. Hot pursuit broken, the falcon failed to relocate the turnstone and wandered off. Looking around, we found the turnstone hiding in the shadow of one of the dock steps. Epic win!

That bit of excitement aside, we could turn our attention to the beach side of Jones Beach, where peeps awaited us. Best birds were Western Sandpiper and Piping Plover (it had been too long since I had seen those, too long...) but I spent the most time just watching the plentiful Sanderling flocks playing in the waves... I already posted about them here. I think I could spend all day watching these beach birds.

Mary Beth walking the beach

This picture was supposed to contain Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpipers. I think it only came out with two of those, but the third might be hiding behind that grass clump:

If you think I achieved my shorebird fix with a few quick trips to Jones, you don't know me. Plus, I had yet to find my target bird, the big 4-0-0. So, off to J-bay.

A Pec among Peeps

Unknown photographer getting down and dirty

Least Sandpiper

White-rumped Sandpiper
Can you guess this one?

Look at that schnoz... Western!

Birding Jamaica Bay with Shawn, Drew, Trudy, and Mary Beth was fantastic for getting gobs of up close and personal sandpiper sightings, including a whole bunch of good species (Avocet, White-rumped, Western, etc etc...). On our way out, we had a sighting of a different nature. I ran into Will and Corey, fellow bird bloggers. We stood around, shifty-eyed and uncomfortable at meeting in person instead of the safety of the internet. Then my group left, and Will and Corey went on to take much better photos of the cool shorebirds at East Pond. They even spotted one we missed, an American Golden-Plover, identified by the unique bright blue arrows pointing it out.

Well, by this point Shawn and I had exhausted just about every good shorebirding location on Long Island, and we still hadn't stumbled across my highly desired target species. I had definitely gotten my shorebird fix and was quite sated in that regard. I was also thrilled to have gotten a lifer Roseate Tern. If I didn't get this target though, all of that good fortune would be tarnished by the stain of yet another trip to the coast without finding this common species. I had literally been searching for years, including at least half a dozen similar birding trips to Long Island in multiple seasons and various trips to the coast in other parts of the country. Every trip I made Shawn would swear the locations we visited are reliable, regular locations for this species, but as every trip passed by with no luck this bird began to take on a mythical status in my mind. Never before has there been such a nemesis bird!

We had one more trick up our sleeve - Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. We walked the boardwalks of this small sanctuary of saltmarsh flats butting right up against suburban sprawl. By the time we reached the preserve, it was already midday and not particularly nice out. As I recall the tides were not in our favor either. At least this Great Egret made a very willing subject:

After scanning the mucky channels as much as possible, we began aiming back for the nature center. Shawn at one point claimed to see my target make a dash across a muddy opening in the marsh, but I laughed at his belief in mythical creatures and shrugged off the sighting. I wandering down one last boardwalk spur, and Shawn stopped at the last bit of marsh before the nature center. Then he started shouting and waving frantically. Rushing back to meet him, clambering atop a bench to get a better look out into a half-hidden channel, was that... ?

YES! A CLAPPER RAIL walked around in the muck followed by six black downy half-grown chicks bathing!!!!!!!! Years of searching and not only do I find my life Clapper Rail, but I get the incredible cuteness factor too! The view into the channel was too reed-choked to get anything better than these pictures, but they are undeniable proof that this species exists, it is no longer just a legend, and yes, I even saw it myself!

This sighting was made even sweeter by my discovery two months later that this long-desired species was #400 on my ABA list. Thanks, Shawn! I owe you big! This almost forgives the infamous Ross's Gull incident. Almost.

Well, I could finally retire to my studies in Ithaca happy. The same could not be said about my boots. Heavy duty saltwater, sand and muck finally killed off what adventures in Costa Rica and Venezuela did not. Farewell, my friends.

Epilogue: This post, a birding trip in late August / early September 2009, was started in November 2009. I set it aside and then picked it up to finish in January 2010. By now, I am at 402 on my ABA list, both of those new birds being lifers. At my current rate of writing, expect a post about those in oh... six months or so.

* The second craziest maneuver - Walking to High School one early morning years ago, a House Sparrow went careening past me and shot up underneath the awning on a house. The Sharp-shinned Hawk right on its tail couldn't maneuver that fast and could only bring up its legs, flare its wings and tail, and it slammed into the wall. That last-second braking action saved the hawk - it bounced off and recovered in a nearby tree, looking more than a little miffed. House Sparrow +1

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Bird Species of 2009

Welcome to the world! We're sorry we missed you for so many years.

Synallaxis beverlyae
, Rio Orinoco Spinetail (Hilty and Ascanio 2009)

Prowling the mighty Rio Orinoco in Venezuela in 1998, Steven Hilty heard something strange singing from a small river island. Since Steven Hilty literally wrote the (excellent!) book on Venezuela's avifauna, this was nothing to dismiss. 11 years and a lot of hard work later, he amassed enough evidence to publish a description of a new spinetail species named for his wife Beverly. The new spinetail is most similar in plumage to S. albescens, a species in the llanos that overlaps S. beverlyae in range, but the song is closer to other species including S. albigularis from other regions of South America.

The new spinetail exhibiting typical spinetail shyness (Source: Hilty and Ascanio 2009)

This spinetail is found only in unique scrubby dense vegetation on river islands that are seasonally flooded. So far it is only known from three widely separated islands (see map below) but the authors guess that it could be distributed on islands in-between, which have been poorly surveyed. See Gunnar's post about this discovery for more as-yet-unnamed potential new species from these river islands (and more pictures of the new spinetail). While the population size and conservation status of these birds is unknown, the authors note that dams on the river threaten the natural flood cycles and the ecology of these islands.

The widely disjunct islands known to have the spinetail (Source: Hilty and Ascanio 2009)

Phylloscopus calciatilis, Limestone Leaf Warbler (Alstrom et al. 2009)

Beginning in 1994, ornithologists began to notice birds thought to be the Sulpher-breasted Warbler (P. ricketti) in breeding condition, singing, in what was their wintering range in Laos. Upon more detailed study, they realized these warblers represented a unique taxon. The plumage was nearly identical to P. ricketti but the Laos birds differed in songs, calls, and morphometrics. Analyzing the genetics, they found this new warbler was actually more closely related to the Yellow-vented Warbler (P. cantator), which is much more distinct in plumage, than P. ricketti, with which it is so nearly identical. Together the three species form a closely related group among Phylloscopus species, and they occupy distinct ranges in southeast Asia that don't quite overlap, as is typical for a closely related species complex. The authors named this new warbler calciatilis ("dwelling on limestone"), the Limestone Leaf Warbler, after the unique limestone karst region it is endemic to.

Limestone Leaf Warbler compared to similar species (Source: Alstrom et al. 2009)

Pycnonotus hualon, Bare-faced Bulbul (Woxvold, Duckworth, and Timmons 2009)

By far the strangest new bird is a bald, ugly, boring thing, like the Limestone Leaf Warbler, discovered in the limestone karst region of Laos. Observations of strange bald unknown bulbuls in the region were made as far back as 1995, but they were met with "good-natured ribbing". It wasn't until December 2008 that good, repeated observations were made by the authors and birds were captured in mist-nets. This crazy new species was named hualon - a Lao word for bald-head - and is noted in the publication as only found so far on one limestone outcrop. Other sightings are mentioned, and it appears to have been recently independently discovered at another location by this guy, who nicknamed them Khammouane Bulbuls. Check out his page for better photos of the species and the habitat.

Meet the Ugly Bulbul (Source: Woxvold, Duckworth, and Timmons 2009)

The birder who independently discovered these bulbuls seems to feel a little peeved at the original discoverers for not getting a publication out sooner. It is worth pointing out in all of the species here that none of them were first seen in this decade. While new species publications can (and should) happen a lot quicker than this, it is an enormous investment of time and effort for the ornithologists involved. Unless the new bird just serendipitously falls into a researcher's mistnet, it takes repeated observations by birders and researchers just to confirm a new bird has been found. Then you've got to go through the effort of capturing the bird and collecting specimens, getting recordings and characterizing the behavior and range of the new species. It needs a detailed comparison with other closely related species, and sufficient material might not be available for study in museums, necessitating more fieldwork. These new species are also not being found in heavily trafficked areas, and require setting up expeditions to remote areas. But I digress...

So, I could only find three completely new bird species descriptions for the year (Note I said descriptions, not discoveries, because as I've rambled about there is a lag time before publication. If you're wondering how many as yet undescribed birds are floating out there, there is a pretty good Birdforum thread about that) I think three is around average based on my recollection from the past few, but I haven't actually looked at the numbers. One of these days I'll get to that. To bolster this year's total, here are two more that don't quite make the cut as full new species.

Honorable Mentions:

Loxia sinesciuris, South Hills Crossbill (Benkman et al. 2009)

When compiling new species discoveries and descriptions, I try not to count those that were already known as populations or subspecies of another species and then split based on new data. There are lots of those every year, and it is plenty hard to keep track. Plus, completely new species are simply a lot cooler. This crossbill blurs the line.

A resident population of Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) with a distinct call note was discovered in the South Hills of Idaho in 1997. Anyone who knows anything should know that Red Crossbills are one of the craziest and complex examples of adaptive evolution and incipient speciation this side of Darwin's Finches. There are 9 or 10 call types in North America, each with a particular conifer specialization and a bill morphology adapted to that conifer's cones. Many of these call types are nomadic across large swaths of North America, and bill morphology varies enough to make identification without call note difficult or impossible. I am less familiar with old world crossbills, but there are at least as many variants of Red Crossbill on that side of the pond. Basically, crossbill systematics are fubar.

The tiny geographic range of this putative new species (Source: Benkman et al. 2009)

So, that's why when the Idaho crossbills were discovered to be a resident population, crossbill guru Craig Benkman wasted no time getting them studied. Through his lab's work, they documented that the crossbills with the resident call type were almost totally reproductively isolated by assortative mating from other crossbill call types that periodically moved through the area. The other calls would breed in the same area as the South Hills call type, but the two weren't mixing. Because reproductive isolation is one of the strongest criteria for delimiting species, Benkman and colleagues lifted these birds out of the curvirostra morass and named them a new species. I could write a whole lot more about this system and all of its problems (I know because I've had a half-finished post started way back when this paper first came out), but I thought a brief summary was due here.

Geospiza sp. nov.?, Darwin's Finch (Grant and Grant 2009)

Remember two paragraphs ago when I mentioned the only more complex example of adaptive radiation than crossbills? Yup, this is it. The Grants have been studying ground finches in the Galapagos since just after Darwin left the early 1970's, and more than any previous work have made them the true example of Darwinian speciation. They've written whole books about their work, others have written books about them and their work, and countless scientific papers. Their paper this year has to be one of the coolest, though.

The Grant team has been tracking the fate of every medium ground finch on the small island of Daphne Major for 30 years through the use of color bands. In 1981, an odd immigrant from the other islands with hybrid characters from medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) and cactus finch (G. scandens) arrived and started getting it on with the locals. The Grants monitored seven generations descending from this immigrant. In the forth generation, the lineage was reduced to two siblings, who bred and kept the lineage going. After that event, the lineage remained totally distinct, likely due to their distinct song, and have stayed reproductively isolated from the other finches on the island.

I get it now... the immigrants don't like to breed with bluebands (Source: Grant and Grant 2009)

Basically, the Grants just watched the birth of an incipient species. The immigrant lineage had larger beaks than the island native birds, providing ecological niche differences. When song differences arose through inbreeding, the lineage was able to remain distinct from other ground finches through behavioral isolation. This would have been the ultimate new species discovery, but the Grants refrain from giving it full species status (or any taxonomic status at all) and a name. They note that there is no answer to how many generations of isolated breeding are necessary before the lineage can be called a new species. They also note that many incipient species lineages are likely to fail before achieving full reproductive isolation, and predict that theirs will do so either through behavioral breakdowns leading to re-absorption by hybridization into the parent species or stochastic extinction of their tiny population.

So. Freakin'. Cool.


Alstrom, P, P Davidson, JW Duckworth, JC Eames, TT Le, C Nguyen, U Olsson, C Robson, and R Timmins (2009) Description of a new species of Phylloscopus warbler from Vietnam and Laos. Ibis 152: 145-168. Abstract

Benkman, CW, JW Smith, PC Keenan, TL Parchman, and L Santisteban (2009) A new species of the Red Crossbill (Fringillidae: Loxia) from Idaho. The Condor 111(1):169-176. Abstract

Grant, PR, and BR Grant (2009) The secondary contact phase of allopatric speciation in Darwin's finches. PNAS 106(48):20141-20148. Abstract

Hilty, SL, and D Ascanio (2009) A new species of spinetail (Furnariidae: Synallaxis) from the Rio Orinoco of Venezuela. The Auk 126(3):485-492. Abstract

Woxvold, IA, JW Duckworth, and RJ Timmins (2009) An unusual new bulbul (Passeriformes: Pycnonotidae) from the limestone karst of Lao PDR. Forktail 25:1-12.