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Asian birds biodiversity

New bald-headed bird discovered in Laos; lessons for Costa Rica

Ok, so I’m talking about Laos, that narrow, southeast Asian country and not a town in Costa Rica. The importance of this news though, supersedes both human-constructed frontiers and barriers imposed by continental drift and so I mention this discovery at a blog about birding in Costa Rica. Although It seems that with every exploration and attempt at understanding our world’s biodiversity, species new to science are described, these tend to be arthropods, fish, and amphibians. Among the most studied and watched of organisms, it is a rare occurrence when a “new” bird is found, especially so when the bird looks as amazingly distinct as this recent find from Laos.

First seen by an ornithologist in 1995, when R.J. Timmins related his sightings to his colleagues, no one even considered that he may have seen an undescribed taxon. A bald-headed songbird just sounded too strange and since a “naked head” is a condition that can be explained by factors such as molt or disease, the initial discovery was overlooked. When the birds were seen a second time in 1999, they were once again overlooked and written off as possibly being Light-vented Bulbuls. It wasn’t until 2008, that ornithologists carrying out surveys in Laos realized that they had definitely come across an undescribed species. A bird guide and tour operator for southeast Asia also independently discovered the Bare-faced Bulbul the same year; his account of finding this amazing bird highlighting the gap too often found between ornithologists and birders as he hadn’t heard about any of the previous sightings.

If you are wondering why this bird went overlooked for so long, the answer can be neatly summed up in saying, “Never underestimate how incredibally biodiverse Earth is”. The Bare-faced Bulbul was at first overlooked because assumptions were made based upon a faulted hypothesis; that there weren’t any undescribed birds in the area they were surveying. Even though the first two sightings didn’t match any known bird species, it doesn’t sound like the possibility of an undescribed taxon was given much consideration. Instead, the hypotheses that the birds had to be diseased or were a variant of another species of bulbul was assumed despite there being little evidence to support these ideas. Therefore, nothing was made known to the birding community about these strange sightings, information that may have led to the Bare-faced Bulbul being described sooner. The importance of describing a bird that is new to science sooner rather than later, can’t be emphasized enough in light of the high degree of habitat destruction occurring on both the local and global scale that has been detrimental to hundreds of bird species. I realize that one doesn’t want to raise false alarms about the occurrence of “possible new species”, but information about sightings that merit further investigation could at least be shared with the birding community to increase the chances of undescribed birds being found before they go extinct

Fortunately for the Bare-faced Bulbul, it probably isn’t endangered at this time because there is a good deal of the habitat in which it was found; dry forest on top of limestone karst. This hot, craggy, inhospitable habitat also explains why it went undetected for so long and brings up the second manner in which the biodiversity factor was underestimated. In modern times, bird species tend to be described from little known areas that host unique vegetation types such as the white sand forests of Amazonia (which probably harbor more bird species awaiting description). If a distinctive, new bird species were to show up in Laos, it would likely be something that was adapted to unique, restricted habitats such as karst forest or unique vegetation types at higher elevations, especially since there are already several Asian bird species known to be highly adapted to this habitat (Sooty Babbler and Limestone Wren-Babbler for example).

So what does this say about Costa Rica? Although discovering an undescribed bird species in Costa Rica is pretty unlikely, habitats overlooked because of their inaccessibility or because they were thought to be “species-poor” should be investigated and birded just as much as rich, rainforest habitats because once again, biodiversity on this planet should never be underestimated. Although access might be limited at the peaks of Guanacaste volcanoes, Barra Honda National Park, or just south of Lake Nicaragua, and there might be fewer species than other better-known sites, bird species that are rare elsewhere might be more common here, and maybe something new for the country will turn up.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands middle elevations

How to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird

“Cephalopterus glabricollis”. I love the official, scientific term for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It makes it sound like some massive-headed, ominous creature from the depths of darkest outer space that uses its supreme intelligence for ominous plans so nefarious that even the strongest among us (such as E.O. Wilson, the Dalai Lama, and Alex Trebek) would swoon with despair at the merest of glimpses into those dark machinations. Someone should make a movie….

In the meantime, unfortunately for most birders visiting Costa Rica, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is so hard to see that it might as well be from outer space. One of the largest Passerines in Costa Rica, this crow-sized bird has seriously declined with deforestation. While many species need just one type of forest for survival, unfortunately for the Umbrellabird, it needs at least two types of forest; lower middle elevation rain forest and lowland rainforest. Breeding in the mossy, very wet forests between 700 and 2,000 meters, this species spends the rest of the year in the hot, humid, Caribbean lowlands. While the lowlands are still there, most of the lowland forests aren’t, and since umbrellabirds don’t hang out in banana plantations or cattle pastures, they might be in serious trouble. It’s hard to say if so few individuals of this species are seen because they occur at naturally low densities or because their populations have declined because of massive deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands. In any case, this is definitely one rare bird. The experiences of those photographers and field naturalists extraordinaire, the Fogdens, mirror mine with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In a paper they published in the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club (supercool- all celebs should join), the Fogdens mention how this species seems to have a patchy occurrence even within suitable looking looking habitat. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I don’t see the Umbrellabird in what appears to be intact forest at the right elevation. I don’t think its a question of difficulty in seeing this species either because on the few occasions I have seen a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the birds were always easy to see, stayed in the subcanopy, and weren’t particularly shy; the same impression it has had upon other birders I have spoken with. In any case, I think its apparent rarity merits surveys carried out on its breeding grounds (albeit a very difficult endeavor), and in the foothill forests and patches of lowland forests (much more feasible) of the Caribbean slope. In conjunction with surveys, at least some assessment of the fruits it utilizes should also be done to possibly help this species through propagation of its food sources. Although I suspect it needs intact forest to survive (as it also feeds on large katydids, stick insects, and small invertebrates), I think such a study would be worthwhile.

In addition to a bit of rambling about studies I would love to do, I hope the information above gives you some idea of why you didn’t see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird on your visit to Costa Rica. However, if you have yet to visit Costa Rica for wonderful birding, butterflying, getting rained on, and eating rice and beans, don’t swoon with hopeless dismay at the prospect of not seeing a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. They do occur more regularly in some places than others and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at connecting with this Elvis Presley of birds (don’t believe me? –take a look at its hairdo!).

During the breeding season (probably March to July), you might have more luck with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird by visiting a lek on its breeding grounds. Until other accessible leks are found, an adventurous trip only for those fit enough to hike a few hours downhill (and then back up to get out) to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Monteverde Preserve could be the most reliable way to see this species. March is the time of year to go to this field station, which, if you don’t see the Umbrellabird at least has excellent birding for other foothill species. There are one or two lekking sites near the station, which have had fewer birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Although the birds are only active at dawn and display from high up in the trees, the sight of bizarre male Umbrellabirds inflating their red throat patches while making low-pitched hooting noises will give you a birding high that might keep you awake for a few days.

If you aren’t visiting Costa Rica in March or don’t fancy a long hike to see the Umbrellabird, the other most reliable site for this mega species is at the Aerial Tram near Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Bare-necked Umbrellabird is seen most days at this site and the expert guides, most of whom are serious birders, keep up to date on sightings of this and other species. One a recent excursion to the Aerial Tram as part of a high-school trip where my wife teaches, we had good looks at one male Bare-necked Umbrellabird (my first for the year!). Although they are sometimes seen during the ride through the canopy, this one was hanging around the main buildings.

Although I don’t have photos of the Umbrellabird, here is what some of the canopy ride looks like.

The canopy ride was beautiful and our friendly guide top-notch. Although the habitat is fantastic foothill rainforest, the birding during the ride was pretty slow (as is typical during the tram ride). Birding is much better on the trails or around the main buildings. The only bad thing about this place is that you have to take an expensive tour for access. They don’t allow one to simply walk in and use the trails and have seemed pretty adamant about this which seems to be not very birder friendly in my opinion. I must stress that, however, the bad points of the Aerial Tram are associated with management working from some disassociated office and is not related in any way to the excellent, friendly, guides and staff who work on site.

The other main area to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird and where most birders have seen it is at the La Selva Biological Research Station. Visiting the forests of the station offer a fair chance at seeing Umbrellabird sometime during your stay. Taking the guided tour (compulsory for a day visit) at La Selva will increases your chances at seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at most times of the year-just make sure you tell the guide how important it is for you see this it. Once again, if you don’t stay overnight at the station, you can only access the forests on one of their guided tours which are at least more affordable than those of the Aerial Tram.

Away from La Selva, other regular sites for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird are other forests in the Sarapiqui area such as Selva Verde, the forests around Arenal such as the Hanging Bridges and trails at Arenal Obsevatory Lodge, and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua. No matter where you go to look for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, your best bet at finding them is to watch out for mixed flocks of toucans and oropendolas. Anytime you see a group of Aracaris, and especially if you run into a large flock of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, keep your eye out for this elusive Elvis-like bird. If you think you see a crow, remember, the only crow-like bird in Costa Rica is the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.