Cordillera Azul Antbird: The dream of finding an undescribed bird species
Based on a 10-year period, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that one new species is discovered every three days in the megadiverse Amazon Basin. This includes plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. If we consider birds only, that number dwindles to 1.6 new species per year.
A female Cordillera Azul Antbird. Digital painting/adaptation by Alfredo Begazo.
Most amateur and professional ornithologists dream of finding a new species. I have heard stories from fellow birders about being in a remote area where a bird that looks like something they had never seen rises their hopes of maybe being something new. With careful notes taken in the field side by side with the country or regional field guide hopes are shattered as what they saw turned out to be just an immature plumage of a bird that looks very different as an adult.
Well, this is what happened to Josh Beck one morning while birding near the Village of Flor de Café famously known for being the most accessible place to see the Scarlet-banded Barbet, a bird with a fascinating story itself. Fortunately for him, a hope for a new species of bird resulted in a dream come true. In June 2013, Josh and his partner Kathi Borgmann left most everything behind and embarked on a multi-year birding expedition intended to collect data on Neotropical birds, from California to the southern tip of South America.
While visiting Flor de Cafe, Josh stumbled upon an Antbird with a plumage and vocalization he could not recognize. The bird appeared to spend a considerable amount of time on the ground, which was unusual among the regional avifauna he was already familiar with.
After checking the bird guide (Birds of Peru), a still intact hope was further mixed with a sense of intrigue as nothing on the bird guide resembled what he saw in the field.
In a rather amazing sequence of events, a team of Louisiana State University and CORBIDI ornithologists arrived at the village as Josh’s need for an answer built up. After describing the antbird and playing its vocalization, the team as a whole had a strong suspicion they were being described something very interesting.
The next morning the entire group set off on a search of the antbird to corroborate Josh’s description. I can’t imagine the feeling of seeing something no one ever knew it existed; a new species of bird, one undescribed to science!
To obtain more information for a formal description of the new Antbird, an additional expedition to the area was conducted by a team from LSU. Andre Moncrief, Oscar Johnson, Daniel Lane, Josh Beck, Fernando Angulo, and Jesse Fagan formally described the new antbird naming it Cordillera Azul Antbird (Myrmoderus eowilsoni) in honor of renowned sociobiologist and myrmecologist Edward Osborne Wilson, usually cited as E.O. Wilson. See the article here.
Andre Moncrief (@Andre_Moncrief)-Twitter
As with other bird discoveries in recent times, penetration roads allow access to remote areas. With access to explore unstudied areas also comes access by settlers and deforestation. Coffee of the “full-sun” variety is the prevailing crop in the area. This variety requires cutting down the forest. As ornithologists were collecting information on the new antbird the sound of chainsaws was nearly pervasive. The team asked the locals to stop using their chainsaws momentarily to allow recordings of the Cordillera Azul Antbird free of chainsaw background noise.
The team asked the locals to stop using their chainsaws momentarily to allow recordings of the Cordillera Azul Antbird free of chainsaw background noise.
While the forest continues to be cut down around human settlements in the region, habitat for the new Cordillera Azul Antbird and the Scarlet-banded Barbet is being protected within the boundaries of the recently created Cordillera Azul National Park. The park is located within 9 Kilometers of Flor de Café.
As for dreaming of finding a new species of bird, everyone should keep this hope alive. It happened to Josh in one of the most unexpected places along his birding adventure in the Neotropics.
Andre E. Moncrieff, Oscar Johnson, Daniel F. Lane, Josh R. Beck, Fernando Angulo, and Jesse Fagan, 2017. A new species of antbird (Passeriformes: Thamnophilidae) from the Cordillera Azul, San Martín, Peru. The Auk: Volume 135, 2018, pp. 114–126.
Schulenberg, Thomas S., Douglas F. Stotz, Daniel F. Lane, John P. O’Neill, and Theodore A. Parker III, 2010. Birds of Peru. Revised and updated edition. Second printing, and first paperback printing, revised and updated. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 638.