Thursday, 28 January 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

February 2016 | Issue 284


How many people in Britain would describe themselves as conservationists? It’s difficult to estimate with any accuracy, but just by combining the total memberships of the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts we are already somewhere around the two-million mark, with any duplication in memberships being more than offset by those who belong to other organisations. That’s a good illustration of the massive public support for conservation – and the movement needs all the help it can muster.

The government appears not to have noticed, but biodiversity is in a grim state in Britain, despite a manifesto commitment to “conserve and enhance our natural environment” on the part of the Conservatives (party membership just 150,000, by the way). It’s a sad indictment of the lack of effective policies and leadership, both now and in previous governments, that wildlife is in such trouble.

Conservation largely seems to have become the responsibility of non-governmental organisations and charities, and even volunteers. As evidence of this, look no further than some of the birders and activists profiled in this month’s 'Local heroes' feature in Birdwatch – ordinary people who have dedicated their time to volunteering, surveying, educating and leading on behalf of wildlife. These role models were nominated by you, our readers, in the recent Birders’ Choice Awards, often with personal and moving endorsements of their achievements. Contrast that with the dire performance of Environment Secretary Lynn Truss, who earned your votes for the Guano Award for Environmental Harm.

We certainly need more local heroes. Whether we need so many wildlife charities, however, is a point explored this month by two of our contributors, Bill Oddie and Peter Alfrey. Personally, I think one ‘mega charity’ in this area is not the answer, and specialisation rather than generalisation is probably a better strategy. But it is down to all of us, both as supporters of conservation groups and as individuals, to do our bit for birds in every way we can.


Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Honduras 3: more birds – and mammals

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, one of many jewel-like hummingbird species in Honduras.
The stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot. Keel-billed and Blue-diademed (now split from Blue-crowned) were also seen, and a lucky few also heard Tody Motmot.
We may have only had five days in the field, but it felt like a lot longer – in a good way. Starting at dawn, working and birding throughout until dusk fell, and sometimes continuing into late evening with spotlights, it was one of those trips which seemed to run at a relentless but enjoyable pace.

Male Yellow-eared Toucanet, a very localised species which we were fortunate to encounter.
Great Potoo at its daytime roost in the grounds of The Lodge at Pico Bonito - an extraordinary bird.
In previous posts I gave an overview of why we were in Honduras, the country’s birds and a few of the interesting taxonomic points which visiting birders should bear in mind. Here I’ll close off coverage of the trip with some more images of birds plus some of the mammals and other wildlife we encountered along the way.

Mantled Howler Monkey - they sound far more fearsome than they look.
A great find by Jeff Bouton when we were out spotlighting one night at Pico Bonito: Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine.
On view in an adjacent tree to the porcupine was this Central American Woolly Opossum.
This is really just a taster, and if you’d like more I suggest you check out the links below of some of my fellow travellers. There’s also an album of largely different material on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share.

This Kinkajou curled up and went to sleep before I could grab a photo of it peering down at us.
Proboscis Bat. Several bat species seen included one which fed at the lodge's hummingbird feeders at night.
Acknowledgements
I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Honduras 2: a second look

Male Velasquez's Woodpecker: depending on your taxonomic outlook, it's a Central American endemic (IOC) or a form of Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which occurs north to the southernmost USA (Clements).  This individual, photographed at Pico Bonito in Honduras, is of the subspecies pauper, which is narrowly barred above; santacruzi, which occurs in south-west Honduras, has buff or brown tones in the mantle barring. 











Male Golden-fronted Woodpecker, photographed in Texas in March 2008. Note the differences in crown pattern and upperparts barring; together with genetic and vocal differences, there are valid reasons for separating these two woodpeckers at species level, and surely it is only a matter of time before Clements catches up with the IOC.
I mentioned in the first post on my recent trip to Honduras that the country boasted either 779 or 772 bird species, depending upon which world taxonomic authority the national checklist is based. Such are the differing views on avian taxonomy these days that perhaps most, maybe all, of the world’s countries are affected in similar ways – there are enough disparities between different taxonomic perspectives to affect national lists around the globe, and wherever you go it’s worth getting to grips with the detail of what’s involved.

In the case of Honduras, at seven species the headline difference between the International Ornithological Congress view (779 spp) and that of Clements (772 spp) amounts to just 1 per cent of the total avifauna. But actually it’s much more complex than that, as the distinctions between these two authorities also involve differences in subspecies and both English and scientific names. Using the excellent tool that is Avibase, I managed to generate a tabulated summary of these differences:


While in the field in Honduras with a group of birders mainly from the US, the North American preference for following Clements was both expected and obvious (Clements also being the taxonomy adopted by Cornell’s eBird program, which our group used to submit sightings in the field). However, as welcome as it might be to set eyes on the likes ‘Golden-fronted Woodpecker’, this is not the same bird as my compadres and I know from Texas. Clements currently considers the differences significant only at subspecies level, but the more progressive IOC treats it as the specifically distinct Velasquez’s Woodpecker, including all former Golden-fronted subspecies bar nominate aurifrons in the newly split species on the basis of Garcia-Trejo et al 2009. I suspect Clements will eventually play catch-up on this, as the American Ornithologists’ Union already has a proposal on the table setting out the reasoning to accept this split.

In general, the example of Golden-fronted and Velasquez’s Woodpeckers can be used to characterise the differences between the IOC and Clements perspectives. Broadly, the IOC view is based on an international consensus and is relatively fast moving and proactive; in contrast, Clements is somewhat more conservative – at least it has been since it was taken over by Cornell after the death of Jim Clements in 2005 – and in the Americas it now, unlike previously, rigidly follows the line of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Which species? This is a Middle American Screech Owl if you follow the IOC, or a Vermiculated Screech Owl in Clements's world order - a species which in the IOC's view occurs no further north than Costa Rica. Either way,
this Megascops species is one beautiful owl.
Back to the case in point with Honduras, where the species-level differences between the two taxonomies can be identified in the following which are recognised by IOC but not Clements:
  • White-breasted Hawk Accipiter chionogaster split from Sharp-shinned Hawk A striatus.
  • Spot-bellied Bobwhite C leucopogon split from Crested Bobwhite C cristatus.
  • Azuero Dove Leptotila battyi split from Grey-headed Dove L plumbeiceps.
  • Guatemalan Pygmy Owl G cobanense split from Northern Pygmy-Owl G gnoma.
  • Velasquez’s Woodpecker Melanerpes santacruzi split from Golden-fronted WoodpeckerM aurifrons.
  • Mistletoe Tyrannulet Zimmerius parvus split from Paltry Tyrannulet Z vilissimus.
  • Mayan Antthrush Formicarius moniliger split from Black-faced Antthrush F analis.
  • Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechia being split into Mangrove Warbler S petechia and American Yellow Warbler S aestiva.
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler S coronata being split into Myrtle Warbler S coronata and Audubon’s Warbler S auduboni.
That’s nine species-level differences, not seven, one of the other two being explained by the Clements list recognising Tricoloured Munia Lonchura malacca, an introduced species which is established in Honduras, and which should therefore also appear on the IOC’s version (in which case the IOC Honduras list total becomes 780). The other ‘missing’ species-level difference is not immediately identifiable, so presumably may have resulted from a similar glitch.

Significant diversity in a species doesn't always equate to a 'split', whatever taxonomy you follow.  The range of American Kestrel extends from southern Brazil and Chile north to Alaska, and there are 17 subspecies, including three in Honduras alone, two of which breed. These birds are probably tropicalis, the distribution of which extends from northern Honduras to southern Mexico - but they are still considered by all authorities as American Kestrels.
All of which goes to show that perhaps no checklist or taxonomy is ideal, and that it pays to check the minutiae of your chosen world order and keep on top of any changes. There is no perfect solution!

In the next post: mammals and more in Honduras.

Acknowledgements
I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Honduras 1: first impressions

Trogons are a birding highlight of any visit to the Neotropics; this is a Slaty-tailed, photographed in the lodge grounds.
Earlier this month I was one of an international group of birders and ornithologists invited by Leica Sports Optics to cover the launch of the company’s new Trinovid binocular range. Nine of us – mostly but not exclusively journalists and bloggers – were assembled for the task, with two from Europe, one from Israel and the remaining seven from the US.

Why Honduras? Exotic locations are the exception not the norm for such launches, but Leica clearly wanted to showcase its new product in a strong birding environment, and actually this Central American destination was a relatively short flight for most participants. In the event it proved an excellent choice, with our short stay in the country based at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, near the Caribbean coast just outside La Ceiba. My coverage of the product launch itself and the new binocular range (right) will appear shortly on BirdGuides and also in the February 2016 issue of Birdwatch (published January), but in the next few posts here I’ll share some personal impressions of the birding experience in the country, as few birders from Britain visit Honduras.
The Lodge at Pico Bonito - an excellent base for birding in Honduras.
It was my first time in the country, though I have birded neighbouring Guatemala (2010), as well as Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to the north (2007 and 2011) and Panama to the south (2006 and 2007). Of the seven countries in Central America, Honduras – the second largest – boasts some 779 species, ranking it third in avifaunal terms after Panama (995 species) and Costa Rica (992 species). This is based on IOC taxonomy; Clements - generally the preferred taxonomy in North America - puts the Honduran total at 772 species, while Gallardo (2014) cites 770. The country boasts a single endemic bird species, the delightful Honduran Emerald.

Honduran Emerald: the country's sole endemic bird species is a top priority for any first-time visiting birder.
Another hummer worth watching out for: Brown Violetear.
Our visit was a binocular launch and not a bird tour, so we had serious working priorities to factor in as far as the itinerary was concerned. Nonetheless, the overall number of bird species recorded by the group was still 268, a very respectable total for only five full days in the field. In an under-visited country such as Honduras much is still to be learned about species distribution, and any visiting birder(s) can help improve local knowledge by submitting their records; ours were entered daily into eBird by stalwart recorders Nate Swick and Drew Weber.

The amazing Black-and-white Owl - one of three we watched at a roost near Pico Bonito.
A good range of woodpeckers included the beautiful Chestnut-coloured.
The comical-looking but very desirable Boat-billed Heron.
A good number of the species were familiar to me from previous visits to Middle America, but there were also some new experiences to savour. In addition to the above endemic hummingbird, other highlights included Rufescent Tiger Heron, Boat-billed Heron, King Vulture, Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Lesser Roadrunner, Middle American Screech Owl, Mottled, Black-and-white and Spectacled Owls, Great Potoo, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Brown Violetear, Canivet’s Emerald, Slaty-tailed Trogon, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Keel-billed Motmot, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-cheeked, Velasquez’s and Chestnut-coloured Woodpeckers, Bat Falcon, Red-lored Amazon, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Great Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Lovely Cotinga, Azure-hooded Jay, White-bellied Wren, White-vented Euphonia, Slate-throated Whitestart, Black-cowled Oriole, Red-crowned and Red-throated Ant Tanagers, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Next up: some of the specialities and 'splits' in more detail.

Lesser Roadrunner can be found in dry thorn scrub habitat in the same area as Honduran Emerald.
Acknowledgements
I visited Honduras courtesy of Leica Sports Optics to attend the world launch of its new Trinovid binocular range. Many thanks to Jeff Bouton of Leica, and to fellow participants Nina Cheney (Eagle Optics), Ed Hutchings, Laura Kammermeier (Nature Travel Network), David La Puma (Cape May Bird Observatory), Jonathan Meyrav (Champions of the Flyway/IOC Tourism), Rob Ripma (Sabrewing Nature Tours), Nate Swick (American Birding Association) and Drew Weber (Nemesis Bird). Thanks also to all at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, especially James Adams and our guide Elmer Escoto, for supporting this visit.

Reference
Gallardo, R J. 2014. A Guide to the Birds of Honduras. Privately published.

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