Friday, 16 December 2011

Colombia: new(ish) to science

Parker's Antbird, described as recently as 1997, was named in honour of the late Ted Parker.
Colombia represents a challenging frontier for field studies. It may be ornithologically advanced compared to its neighbours, but its huge avifauna, combined with the difficulties of visiting some areas until recently, means that there are discoveries still waiting to be made. Even since my return earlier this month the country has hit the headlines with an unknown hummingbird – not the ‘missing’ Bogota Sunangel, as had been initially thought, but DNA samples have been taken to determine whether it is a hybrid or a new species to science.

The species is endemic to mid-elevation humid subtropical forest in the Colombian Andes.
If it is the latter, it won’t be the first in recent years. Colombia has a thoroughbred pedigree when it comes to new species being described, and in the Western Andes we were lucky enough to observe and photograph one of them. Parker’s Antbird Cercomacra parkeri was formally described as recently as 1997, and named in honour of the late Ted Parker, the legendary American birder whose life was tragically cut short in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993.

Parker was famously gifted for his knowledge of Neotropical birds, and best known for his skill with vocalisations, making many thousands of recordings which now reside at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It seemed that everything he heard was committed to memory and never forgotten, and he was said to be able to identify more than 4,000 species by voice alone. Once, according to his Wikipedia entry, “on hearing a recording of a dawn chorus in Bolivia, [he] realised that one of the sounds was an antwren of the genus Herpsilochmus - but since he knew all the sounds of those birds, he knew he was hearing a previously unknown species. The following year, the new species was discovered”. 

The species is generally far more furtive than these images suggest, lurking in the undergrowth.
Paradoxically, Parker’s Antbird was not discovered in the field or through its unique vocalisations, but in a museum collection. Gary Graves from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, a friend of Parker’s, began studying the differences in skins of antbirds collected at different elevations in Colombia, leading him to conclude that Dusky Antbird was actually two separate species. This view was supported by subsequent field research into the higher-elevation population which became Parker’s Antbird.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice photos. For the biography of Ted that I have been working on for some years, I am interested perhaps in utilizing one of these shots. Please let me know whether that would be ok. Did you take them yourself?

    Best wishes,

    Gregg Gorton
    homoaves [at]



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