Sickle-winged Nightjar – my 8000th bird   6 comments

I have been looking forward to seeing my 8000th bird for some time. Of course any bird seen for the first time is exciting, but some are more exciting than others, whether because the bird is very hard to see, is very rare, one that you have been wanting to see all your life, very beautiful or bizarre in appearance or because it is a landmark bird like my 8000th was.

I never thought I would get to see so many birds worldwide. I never set out with the ambition of getting to 8K, but once I had travelled to a few tropical destinations I realised that nothing in the birding world gave me more pleasure than setting eyes on a world lifer for the first time.  Of course it made sense to document all these sightings – which led to a list of what I had seen, ie my life list, and this in turn spurred me on to go to new areas to increase this list still further.

Progress at first was slow, but by the 90s I was able to do two or three foreign trips a year, as my employers prefered to give me time off in lieu, rather than money for working weekends and we had decided to stay in our small terraced house and spend money on doing things rather than owning things. Of course as time went by you ‘get less birds for your buck’, but as recently as 2003 I was able to get over 400 new birds in a year. In the last decade I have visited some pretty remote areas of the world, including islands in the Micronesia, Melanesia or Polynesia groups, gone well off the beaten track in Madagascar and the Comoros and climbed mountains on the Tibetan Plateau and the Andes to find new birds. It hasn’t all been about numbers, I have done many a trip where I only got to see a handful of new birds, either because I particularly wanted to see those special birds or because I particularly wanted to go to a certain place.

There has also been the question of what to count and what not to count. Initially I just counted what ever I was presented with, if a species was in a field guide or on a trip checklist then I just added to a paper list of birds I had seen. As time went on I realised that I had to computerise my records; and then came choices. Some available checklists or national authorities considered a particular bird to be a full species, others considered the same bird to be merely a race of another species. This level of uncertainty grew until it occupied about 10% of my list. By this time I had developed a real interest in the bird taxonomy which underpins what can and what cannot be considered a full species. For a while I followed the Clements checklist, but after Jim Clements’ death in 2005 it was taken over by Cornell University who declared that the North and South American checklist committees decisions would take priority over all other national or regional checklists, even if the species concerned was just a vagrant to the Americas. This Americo-centric view I found increasingly unacceptable, but fortunately by then the International Ornithological Committee (IOC) had a user-friendly, regularly updated checklist up and running that relied on regional advisors for their decisions. I have followed that list ever since and would urge others to do so.

Another issue has been whether to count ‘heard only’ birds. If I included ‘heard onlys’ I would have reached 8000 on 14/10/14 when I saw Mayotte Scops-owl in the Comoros, for a number of reasons I keep my ‘heard onlys’ as an add-on to the main list: see https://gryllosblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-computer-says-8000-but-im-not-celebrating-yet/  If I included these ‘heards’ my life list would currently stand at 8159.

Over the years many birds have had their taxonomic status changed. Some like Red-billed Gull of New Zealand have been lumped (with the Australian Silver Gull) but splitting has been much commoner than lumping. Since the seventies the number of bird species has increased from 8,600 to 10,600. About 150 of these 2000 extra species are genuine new discoveries but the rest has been due to taxonomic realignment, which is just another way of saying splitting. Adding to your list as a result of a split of a bird you have previously seen is known as an armchair tick, as you can add a new bird from the comfort of your armchair!

RB Gull 5

Red-billed Gull of New Zealand, now lumped with Silver Gull of Australia. Photographed in New Zealand in November 2009

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Originally considered a race of Collared Kingfisher this form has been split and now is considered a full species, Marianas Kingfisher. Photographed on Rota,  Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, Micronesia in November 2010

Of course I knew that number 8k was approaching, but after the cancellation of my trip to far-eastern Russia in June I also knew that I was unlikely to get there in 2015. I expected to pass this milestone in western India in January 2016. I had hoped that things wouldn’t work out so that was at the start of the trip, I wanted it to be a moment to savour towards the trip’s end. What I hadn’t expected however was that the IOC would accept numerous splits of Collared, Micronesian and Variable Dwarf Kingfisher from the Pacific region whilst I was in Paraguay which gave me nine additions and meant that it would be touch and go as to whether I would reach the magic number before the trip ended (if I didn’t it would mean that the 8000th would be an armchair tick obtained sometime between the Paraguay and Indian trips). Number 7999 was the fairly uninspiring Southern Bristle-tyrant, which looked quite like other bristle-tyrants I had seen before, so I’m glad that didn’t end up being the ‘Big One’.

Enough pre-amble: here is an account of my 8000th tick, it wasn’t hard to find, it was easy to see, but it was oh, so satisfying.

IMG_1252 nightjar site

On the evening of the penultimate day of the Paraguay trip we drove to Isla Alta, an island in the Paraguay River. The island forms part of a hydroelectric dam that spans the river between Paraguay and Argentina and although we were actually still in Paraguay we had to go through customs to get there. The island is owned by the power company, so a security guard on his motor bike shadowed us to make sure we weren’t up to no good.

IMG_1277 SW Nightjar

As darkness fell a pair of Sickle-winged Nightjars were quickly found. Like the con-generic White-winged Nightjar this species depends on visual display instead of vocalisations to attract a mate and hold territory. We were able to photograph the male on the deck ….

IMG_1287 SW Nightjar

…. with and without flash ….

IMG_6543 SW Nightjar

…. but it was only when Rob was able to catch the bird (he has been involved in a ringing study of these birds and needed to know if this individual was one of the birds he had ringed previously) was the bizarre ‘sickle-like’ structure of the bird’s wing revealed.

Coming at the end of an excellent trip, being such an enigmatic bird, seeing it in the hand (and from a fellow ringer’s point of view, being given the chance to release the bird myself) made it a very satisfying 8000th lifer.

Now what of the future, will I now give up – certainly not! Will I continue as before? – probably. I will target birds I particularly want to see and go to places I particularly want to go – but that’s exactly what I have been doing for the last 35 years. Perhaps the only difference is that I might not be quite so concerned with what my life list total has got to at the conclusion of each trip. I still need another 150 or so birds to reach 8k on the Clements list and that is still something I would like to achieve even if I don’t use that checklist routinely.

Will I ever reach 9000? Almost certainly no, as that is something only five birds worldwide have done (but I never thought I would reach 8000). The law of diminishing returns really kicks in at this level. Some tours are probably too tough for me to do now and there are some I’m not that interested in. Even including future armchair ticks I would be lucky to average more than 60 or 70 new birds a year, which means it would take about 15 years to see another thousand birds and that would make me nearly 80 years old!

As each thousandth life bird represents a milestone I have taken the opportunity to show them here. Even if I could have photographed them, all but the 7000th would be on slides (and I wasn’t able to photograph either of the contenders for number 7000) so all but two have been taken from the Internet Bird Collection.

I didn’t note my 1000th bird at the time, indeed I was already well past that number when I sat down to write out a life list. Working with the list as it stands today I have narrowed the 1000th to something I saw on Doi Inthanon, Thailand on 8/2/83 and of the various new birds I saw that day I have nominated the beautiful Yellow-bellied Fantail as number 1000.

YB Fantail Cedric Mroczko Kaladhung India

Yellow-bellied Fantail. First seen by me at Doi Inthanon, Thailand on 8/2/83. Photographed at Kaladhung, India by Cedric Mroczko. Photo from the Internet Bird Collection

I do know exactly which bird was my 2000th as I had the life list completed before I went to Venezuela in 1988. I went with a private group and the four of us arrived in the town of Barinas in the Venezuelan llanos in the afternoon of 18/2/88. It was baking hot, probably over 40c and we were all jet lagged, but we went out anyway. I remember a fantastic array of birds with over 40 life birds in a few hours, getting Green Ibis as my landmark species but returning exhausted with a splitting headache.

Green Ibis Aleix Comas Pantanal Brazil

Green Ibis: First seen by me in the Venezuelan llanos on 18/2/88. Photographed in the Pantanal, Brazil by Aleix Comas. Photo from the Internet Bird Collection.

My 3000th bird was seen in the Philippines in Feb/Mar 1991. This was a trip that I arranged at fairly short notice as I had been forced to cancel a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe the previous autumn for health reasons. I didn’t make a special note of which was my 3000th bird, but I have been able to narrow it down to one I saw on Mount Kitanglad on Mindanao on 28/2/91 or 1/3/91 so for the sake of this blog post I have chosen the amazing Giant Scops Owl, which at the time had been seen by very few birders.

Giant Scops Owl, Irene By, Mindanao, Phillipines

Giant Scops Owl: Seen by me on Mount Kitanglad, Mindanao, Philippines on 1/3/91 . Photographed by Irene By on Mindanao. Photo from the Internet Bird Collection.

My 4,000th bird was seen on 16/11/94 in Australia. My late wife Janet and I had been birding in Queensland and as we flew down to Melbourne I totalled up what we had already seen, the Queensland section of our month-long trip brought my life up to 3994. Six to go to 4k! We had quite a drive from Melbourne to Deniliquin the next morning where we planned to meet up with local expert Phil Maher, the man who knew where to find the enigmatic Plains Wanderer. I thought I could easily find six life birds myself on the drive north, after all it was an entirely new part of the country. Long-billed Corella, Little Lorikeet, Red Wattlebird, White-plumed Honeyeater and White-winged Chough were found, but could I find that sixth lifer? We met Phil Maher in the afternoon and he immediately took us to a pond and there were some Black-tailed Native Hens, great, but I wished I’d have found them myself!

BT Native-hen Col Trainor Australia

Black-tailed Native Hen: first seen by me on 16/11/94 at Deniliquin, Victoria, Australia. Photographed by Col Trainor in Victoria, Australia. Photo from the Internet Bird Collection.

My 5000th life bird was seen 16/2/98 near Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. This was quite a significant find as at the time there were considered to be about 10,000 species of birds in the world, so this represented the half way point. From now on the number of birds I hadn’t seen was smaller than the number of ones that I had. This had in several ways been quite a difficult trip, although ultimately a very rewarding one. My usual tour company had cancelled the Tanzania trip that I was booked on the previous year due to lack of support, so when I saw an advert for a comparatively cheap camping trip by another operator I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately El Nino floods had brought down bridges and we weren’t able to get to where we wanted to go, necessitating a 15 mile hike (each way to get to good forest). We got the overladen vehicles stuck in mud many times and the leader and one client were mugged by locals and had their passports stolen. Quite an adventure.

Abyssinian Scimitarbill buchert Ngorongoro Tanzania

Abyssinian Scimitarbill: first seen by me at the Ngorongoro conservation area, Tanzania on 16/2/98. Photographed by Buchert in the same area. Taken from the Internet Bird Collection.

My 6000th bird was also very memorable. Janet and I were in Hawai’i, I had seen all of the possible Big Island endemics except the wonderful ‘Akiapola’au (most Hawaiian birds have wonderful local names made up of too many vowels, lots of apostrophes and too few consonants). We had been on a guided tour to some restricted access area, but to no avail. We took another guided tour the next day to another area (in retrospect I wish I had gone on a helicopter flight over Kilauea’s fiery heart instead). It was looking like my 6000th lifer would be the attractive, but introduced Java Sparrow but I decided to give the Saddle Road another go. I remembered that the guide said that local tradition said that collecting a bit of lava from Kilauea’s slopes would invole the wrath of the fire god Pele, so I threw my souvenir piece of a’a away before I hiked across the barren landscape of pahoehoe lava flows towards a kipuka. These strange islands of vegetation are caused when a lava flow is directed on both sides of an area of forest by a rise, ridge or other obstruction, leaving an oval of forest intact in a sea of cooling volcanic rock. The lava flow around the kipuka I was heading for had been so extensive that the lava was level with the tops of the trees and you had to climb down 15m or so to enter this strange isolated world. I searched several kipukas over the next hour before returning to the first one, which eventually gave me great views of one of Hawaii’s most bizarre birds with it’s chisel like lower mandible to chip into soft bark and a fine curved upper mandible to winkle the grub out. Like almost all of Hawaii’s native bird the ‘Akiapola’au is endangered and suffers from introduced predators, introduced avian malaria and habitat destruction, both man-made and natural. Do I believe that throwing away my souvenir bit of a’a, collected whilst still hot from a recent lava flow, appeased the fire god Pele and led to me find this avian mega? Of course not (but its a good story).

Akiapolaau Big Island Hawaii

‘Akiapola’au: seen by me on 18/3/03. Photographed on the Big Island, Hawaii by Brian Scully. Taken from the Internet Bird Collection.

Strangely my ‘thousandths’ birds seem to come right at the start or the end of trips and this one was at the end. By 2007 fed up with the speed at which Clements checklist was incorporating newly split species, particularly in the Old World, I ended up counting lots of birds where the published information clearly showed they were good species but Clements (now in the hands of Cornell University) hadn’t taken the time to keep up to date. In Jan/Feb of that year I was in Colombia on the Caribbean coast on the last day of the trip when we came across a beautiful, yet critically endangered hummer (population estimated at 250 individuals), Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird, this was my unofficial 7000th bird.

Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird Magdelena district Colombia GuyPoisson

Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird: seen by me at Isla Salamanca, Magdelena, Colombia on 3/2/07: Photographed by Guy Poisson at the same location. Taken from the Internet Bird Collection.

Such was the disparity between my personal checklist and Clements that it took another three years before I got to 7000 following Clements, on 8/5/10 to be precise. In 2011 the IOC checklist started up and having met one of its editors, David Donkster on a trip to China and discussed listing issues with him, I decided to stick closely to the IOC list, departing from it only if our British BOU checklist differed.

In spring 2010 my friend Roger asked me for advice about visiting Georgia and Armenia, I replied that I hadn’t considered going as there were only two life birds (actually only one as Caucasian Rosefinch has since been lumped) but I expected that he would have an excellent time. However once Roger had booked, I kept saying that I wished I was going with him, until Margaret told me to stop moaning and go. We had a great trip (with the exception of the encounter with a drunken driver on a narrow mountain track), my only life bird was seen on the first afternoon on the pass that divides Asia from Europe and this was by 7000th bird following Clements.

caucasian-snowcock-georgia-2012

Caucasian Snowcock: seen by me at Jvari Pass, Georgia on 8/5/10. Photographed in Georgia by Birdfinders.

 

SW Nightjar J Newman

And finally back to my 8000th bird: Another Sickle-winged Nightjar male – this one was photographed on an earlier trip to mine in the same area of Paraguay by my friend Jonathon Newman and as before it has been trapped as part of the research program.

6 responses to “Sickle-winged Nightjar – my 8000th bird

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  1. Fantastic achievement Ian, many congrats. Wonder what this has cost or would you rather not know! Cheers Paul

  2. It was a special evening Ian, even though I still don’t know what country we were in, some where between Paraguay and Argenina according to the sign.

    • Hi Tony I think if we had commited a crime on Isla Alta it would have been the Paraguay police that would have turned up. Thanks for the comments. Any chance you could send me that photo of us all with girls outside the lodge at Mbaracuya? I can't find the one that Pete gave me at the time. Ian

  3. Fascinating story of your life-list Ian and very nicely illustrated. I was with you on the day of number 7000 but didn’t stay long enought to see your Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird, as I had to get a taxi to the airport ahead of the main group departure. Sickle-winged Nightjar is a really special bird (heard only for me) and a fitting way to mark such a milestone.

    • Thanks for the comment Steve, I wasn’t really following any approved checklist at the time, just ticking anything that was on the Birdquest checklist so number 7000 was a bit arbitary. 8000 on the other hand was a proper milestone. Have a great Christmas and New Year and hope to see you again soon.

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