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.


  1. Nice post...I think I remember reading about all of these except the finches. And I fully agree with your characterization of them.

  2. Awesome roundup! Glad to see you back in the blogosphere, and it was especially good to catch up, all too briefly, in Ithaca. Sorry our conversation got cut short, hopefully we can continue in the near future. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

  3. this is soooooooooooo cool

  4. I witnessed a bird species but I'm starting to think its not a bird at all, but it has wings. They look like owls in the face, they are big, carnivorous, some might be scrawny brown or another shade of brown/bague maybe because of dirt from traveling of such far distances. When I saw this bird I was amazed

  5. nice to see these birds....