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HBW Alive Newsletter
Nº7, January 2015

The changing face of new species discovery

Guy Kirwan
Editor, HBW Alive

Writing at the height of World War II, John Todd Zimmer and Ernst Mayr (two of the most prolific describers of new bird taxa in the 20th century), famously remarked “it is safe to say that practically all the widespread species of the birds of the world have been discovered, whether they be rare or common” (my emphasis). In the preceding years, these authors calculated that the rate of new species discovery had slowed to a mean six per annum. Fast forward to 2014, when three species and four subspecies names were described, while in 2013 in excess of 25 new birds were named (the vast majority at species level, including 15 alone in the final volume of HBW). Given such totals, it might seem (with the eternal beauty of hindsight) that Zimmer and Mayr were overbold in their assertion, but in truth the key words in their statement were those that I italicised, “widespread” and “species”. Few modern-day, unambiguous, new species occur across geographically large areas. Obviously novel, non-cryptic, bird species described in recent decades, like Scarlet-banded Barbet Capito wallacei and Araripe Manakin Antilophia bokermanni, are highly range-restricted, rare in overall numbers, and their discoveries represent a heady mixture of delicious good fortune and sometimes careful planning, making them truly the stuff of dreams.

Turning our attention to the ‘more average’ new species discoveries, for example the 15 described in the HBW Special Volume of 2013, although a few of these do (or are suspected to) have comparatively large ranges, e.g. Western Striolated-Puffbird Nystalus obamai and Inambari Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes fatimalimae, it is also true to remark that their recognition as ‘something different’ has often involved substantial field and museum work, using techniques either unavailable or undreamt of by Zimmer and Mayr, access to a part of the planet (Amazonia) that is still under-sampled ornithologically, and finally that not all of these taxa will gain widespread acceptance as new ‘species’. Indeed, the puffbird has already been ‘lumped’ by the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, while nine of the others were at least provisionally treated at subspecies rank by the second volume of the influential Howard & Moore world checklist (Dickinson & Christidis 2014). Species philosophy has come a long way since Richard Bowdler Sharpe, who rejected trinomials reputedly because he couldn’t cram three names onto a specimen label, but it still plays an important role.

In Sharpe’s heyday, the final third of the 19th century, which might be viewed as a near-golden age of zoological exploration—although the privations endured by field collectors were still legion (and death not uncommon), taxonomic novelties remained relatively commonplace and many parts of the planet were already starting to ‘shrink’ closer together—new species description was achieved rapidly and succinctly, often in just a few lines, in the next issue of Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club or Journal für Ornithologie, coupled with specimen’s exhibition at a dinner with colleagues (and rivals) at Frascati’s Restaurant on Oxford Street. Nowadays...
In this Newsletter
  • The updating process for all of the “new species” (resulting from splits) continues and we have updated several families; check them out!
  • In this issue of Birds Alive we’ll explain why we have selected each of this month’s picks of IBC materials – they’re really special!
  • Learn how to use the Geographic Filter, one of HBW Alive’s most powerful tools.
  • Now in My Birding you can introduce the subspecies of your sightings. We’ll show you how.
News on Birds
New Taxa
Find here the recently described species and subspecies new to science.

Desert Tawny Owl (Strix hadorami)

Desert Tawny Owl
Genetic and morphological analyses revealed that the type specimen of Hume’s Owl (Strix butleri), the geographical provenance of which is open to doubt, differs significantly from all other specimens previously ascribed to this species. Despite the absence of vocal data definitively linked to the same population as the type specimen, the authors consider that two species-level taxa are involved, principally because the degree of molecular differentiation is close to that seen in other taxa of Strix traditionally recognised as species.
Partially complicating this otherwise straightforward issue is the recent description of “Omani Owl S. omanensis” from N Oman based solely on photographs and sound-recordings. The authors of the new paper  suggest that there is clear evidence of at least some morphological congruence between the butleri type and the phenotype described as “omanensis”. Until specimen material of “omanensis” becomes available for genetic and comparative morphological analyses, they recommend that this name be considered as a synonym of butleri, especially bearing in mind the possibility (not previously considered in detail) that the type of butleri could have originated in Arabia, specifically from Oman. Kirwan et al.  describe other populations heretofore ascribed to S. butleri as a new species.
Photo by Guy M. Kirwan © Natural History Museum, Tring.
Recent News on Birds

Climate warming decreases the survival of the Little Auk

Little Auk
A mark-resighting study conducted in breeding colonies in the Barents Sea and Spitsbergen has recently found the survival of adult Little Auks (Alle alle) to be negatively correlated with both the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index and local summer sea surface temperature. The effects were likely mediated through a change in food quality and/or availability: reproduction, growth and development of Arctic Calanus copepods, the main prey of Little Auks, are negatively influenced by a reduction in sea ice, reduced ice algal production and an earlier but shorter lasting spring bloom, all of which result from an increased NAO; and a high sea surface temperature shortens the reproductive period of Arctic Calanus, decreasing the number of eggs produced.
Photo by
Christophe Gouraud

Apparent Batesian mimicry in a nestling of Cinereous Mourner

Cinereous Mourner
An extraordinary example of Batesian mimicry has recently received apparent confirmation, from the morphology and behaviour of a nestling of Cinereous Mourner (Laniocera hypopyrra) that was closely studied in Peru, following earlier speculation that this was the case based on observations made in E Amazonian Brazil. On hatching, the nestling had a distinctive bright orange colour and modified feathers all over its body.
Six days after hatching, it started to move its head very slowly from side to side, resembling the movement of a hairy, aposematic caterpillar when disturbed. The authors argue that the slow growth rate (c. 20 days in the nest), combined with high rates of nest predation in tropical passerines, favours the evolution of such an anti-predation mechanism. This nestling is similar to the chick of Elegant Mourner (Laniisoma elegans), which has perhaps developed a similar strategy, but whose nesting ecology has yet to be fully elucidated.
Photo by Santiago David-Rivera

Whole-genome analyses of birds compared

Science Magazine, December 2014
A four-year study by a consortium of over 200 scientists from 20 different countries, the Avian Genome Consortium, has been able to compare for the first time the full genomes of 48 different bird species, spanning most avian orders. The different analyses conducted have resulted in eight papers published simultaneously in Science (a special issue in December 2014) and 20 papers in other journals. These include two main papers: one exploiting genomic-scale data to generate a highly supported avian order phylogeny; the other a comparative genomic analysis exploring avian genome evolution and the genetic basis of complex traits.
Other studies describe convergent brain regions and gene expression for avian song learning and human speech, the singing activated genome in songbirds, complex evolutionary trajectories of avian sex chromosomes, a single loss of teeth in the ancestor of modern birds, and the genomes of their closest extant relatives (crocodilians) and inferred dinosaur ancestor. A big step forward in revealing the evolutionary history of birds.
Brief News
American Wigeon
1. A flock of nine American Wigeons (Mareca americana) was recorded on Yeu island, western France, in November 2013. Flocks previously recorded in Europe include 10 individuals in Scotland in 2000 and 13 individuals in Ireland in 1968. Hindermeyer et al. (2014).
Laysan Albatross
2. The oldest-known ringed bird, a 63 year-old female Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) known as Wisdom, was re-sighted at her colony on Midway Atoll in late November 2014. She was ringed in 1956, at an estimated age of 5 years.
Photo by Dani Valverde
St Helena Petrel
3. A recent DNA study has found that the extinct St Helena Petrel (Pterodroma rupinarum), which is likely to have survived until human colonization of the island in the early 16th century, was closely related to the Cape Verde Petrel (Pterodroma feae) and the Desertas Petrel (P. deserta). Welch et al. (2014).
Australasian Bittern
4. Relatively large numbers of Australasian Bitterns (Botaurus poiciloptilus) have been recently found in the extensive rice fields of the Riverina region, New South Wales. This is excellent news given that the Australasian Bittern is an Endangered species thought to be threatened by habitat loss. Herring et al. (2014).
Humblot’s Heron
5. The only record for mainland Africa of Humblot’s Heron (Ardea humbloti), endemic to Madagascar, has been now formally accepted: an adult in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania, in 2007. Fisher & Hunter (2014).
Photo by Jacques Erard
Northern Gannet
6. The Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) colony on the Bass Rock, Scotland, reached over 75,000 nests in 2014, a 24% increase since 2009. It has now overtaken St Kilda and Bonaventure Island to become the world's largest colony of this species. Murray et al. (2014).
Photo by
José Ramon Martín
White-backed Vulture
7. Up to 191 poisoned vultures, most of them White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus), were found in July 2011 around the carcass of an elephant killed by poachers in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbawe. Groom et al. (2014).
Photo by
David Taylor
Griffon Vulture
8. A dead Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) found in southern Spain in 2012 was apparently poisoned by flunixin, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used in veterinary medicine and similar to diclofenac, the drug responsible for the collapse of the Gyps vulture populations in South Asia. Zorrilla et al. (2014).
Photo by Jorge Rubio
White-tailed Eagle
9. A DNA study of bones of the extinct Hawaiian Eagle has shown that it was closely related to the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), of Eurasian distribution. It lived in isolation on the Hawaiian archipelago, where it was the largest terrestrial predator, for more than 100,000 years. Hailer et al. (2015).
10. The world’s largest colony ever found of the Crab-plover (Dromas ardeola) appears to be at Dara Island, Iran, where c. 15,000 nests were counted in May 2011. Tayefeh et al. (2013).
Photo by Piotr Jonczyk
Sooty Tern
11. Since the 1950s it has been well-known that the Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus) breeds on Ascension Island at intervals of 9.6 months. A recent ringing and re-capture study has now been able to demonstrate that this very unusual sub-annual cycle occurs at both the population level and the individual level. Reynolds et al. (2014).
Photo by Josep del Hoyo
Chattering Lory
12. The Chattering Lory (Lorius garrulus), a Vulnerable species endemic to the North Moluccas (Maluku), Indonesia, is threatened by the pet trade. Its population on Obi island has been put at 7,000–16,000 birds but recently an annual harvest of c. 6,000 birds has been estimated there, which could lead to the rapid extirpation of the species from the island. Cottee-Jones et al. (2014).
Photo by Josep del Hoyo
Hermit Thrush
13. A migratory divide, supported also by genetic and morphological data, has been found for the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) in the Rocky Mountains. Two birds marked with geolocators in E British Columbia overwintered in Arkansas, while three birds similarly marked in W British Columbia overwintered in N California and Oregon. Alvarado et al. (2014).
Photo by Don DesJardin
14. The breeding range of the Rook (Corvus frugilegus) is spreading in the Mediterranean region of France, where nesting was first recorded in 1998 and there were at least 500 breeding pairs in 2014, some almost at the Spanish border. Olioso (2014).
Photo by
Brendan Marnell
White-browed Sparrow-weaver
15. A rare reversal of the typical avian sex difference in dispersal has been found in the cooperatively breeding White-browed Sparrow-weaver (Plocepasser mahali), with males dispersing further than females, as shown both by direct observation and a population genetic analysis. Harrison et al. (2014).
Photo by Cristiano Crolle
Prevost’s Ground-sparrow
16. A recent analysis of plumage, morphology, and voice has revealed that there are species-level differences between subspecies of a Central American bunting, Prevost’s Ground-sparrow (Melozone biarcuata). The subspecies cabanisi, endemic to Costa Rica, has been therefore proposed as a new species, the White-faced Ground-sparrow. Sandoval et al. (2014).
Photo by Róger Rodríguez
Gouldian Finch
17. Management of bush fires in the Central Kimberley, Australia, appears to be successful in increasing the numbers of an Endangered species, the Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae). Previous studies had shown that this granivorous species, with a relatively restricted diet, was vulnerable to seed shortages caused by excessively frequent fires.
Photo by
Mark Gardner
Bohemian Waxwing
18. In the Yukon Territory, Canada, several Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) were found drunk last autumn after having fed on fermented berries of the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia). They were brought to an animal health facility and generally recovered after a few hours.
Photo by Josep del Hoyo
Compiled by Eduardo de Juana.
First Country Reports
The following section lists first country reports around the world, obtained mainly during 2014. The reports are largely unchecked and their publication here does not imply future acceptance by the corresponding Rarities Committee.


Western Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus), one photographed at Namdaecheon, Gangneung, South Korea, in November.
Report photo by Park Dae-Yong
Western Water Rail
Pygmy Cormorant (Microcarbo pygmaeus), one photographed in the Massona lagoon, Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l'Alt Empordà, Spain, on 13th December.
Report photo by Ferran López
Pygmy Cormorant
Radde's Warbler (Phylloscopus schwarzi), a first-winter bird ringed in Batumi, Georgia, on 6th October.
Report photo by Folkert de Boer
Radde's Warbler

Middle East

Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus), one found on Gan-Shmuel, C Israel, on 3rd December.
Report photo by Meir Levy
Ashy Drongo

References at retrieved on 22th December 2014. at retrieved on 22th December 2014. at retrieved on 22th December 2014. at retrieved on 22th December 2014.
Compiled by José Luis Copete.
New Books on Birds
The Barnacle Goose

The Barnacle Goose

By Jeffrey M. Black,  Jouke Prop and Kjell Larsson

The Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) is a distinctive, handsome black-and-white bird. It gets its name from a medieval myth that the birds hatched from barnacles. The species migrates from Arctic Russia, Norway and Svalbard to winter throughout northern Europe and Britain. This work represents the culmination of 25 years of research on the behaviour and natural history of this species. It is the story of one of the long-term studies most celebrated in Europe, which details the life of these sociable birds.
It includes chapters about their mating system, relationships between members of the same family, nest parasitism, food and feeding, population size, annual cycle and migration and conservation, as well how the present population is being affected by climate change. It is a detailed review of the life-history of this species, published in the elegant style of the Poyser monographs.
IBC's Video of the Month
Slender-billed Curlew

Slender-billed Curlew

(Numenius tenuirostris)

A video with great historical value of this Critically Endangered species, now feared to possibly be already extinct. On the IBC there are four videos recorded by Jacob Wijpkema at Merja Zerga, Morocco, in January 1995.
Merja Zerga, Gharb-Chrarda-Béni Hssen Region, Morocco © Jacob Wijpkema, 21 January 1995
IBC's Photo of the Month
Sulu Hornbill

Sulu Hornbill

(Anthracoceros montani)

A Critically Endangered species restricted to Sulu Archipelago, southern Philippines. Nowadays it is very dangerous to visit the Sulu area, as the author of this picture knows very well.

Locality Sulu Archipelago, Philippines © Lorenzo Vinciguerra, 31 January 2012

IBC's Sound Recording of the Month
Common Moorhen

Common Moorhen

(Gallinula chloropus)

Calls of this widespread, common species recorded in Comoro islands, subspecies pyrrhorrhoa, completely different from the nominal subspecies calls.
Mayotte, Comoro Islands © Phil Gregory, 13 December 2014
News on HBW Alive
New Species from the Checklist Updated
During the last month, we have finished the updating process for all of the “new species” (resulting from splits) of these families:
Blue-throated Toucanet
Podargidae (Frogmouths), Caprimulgidae (Nightjars and allies), Aegothelidae (Owlet-nightjars), Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles and allies), Psittacidae (Parrots), Meropidae (Bee-eaters), Coraciidae (Rollers), Momotidae (Motmots), Galbulidae (Jacamars), Bucconidae (Puffbirds) and Ramphastidae (Toucans).
And we have already started on the Picidae (Woodpeckers).

Check out the updated texts.
Forthcoming Updates
Greater Flameback
This January we will be working on the updating process for the “new species” (resulting from splits) of these families: Picidae (Woodpeckers), Capitonidae (New World Barbets), Megalaimidae (Asian Barbets), Lybiidae (African Barbets) and Indicatoridae (Honeyguides).
New Species from the Checklist with Links
Once a “new species” (resulting from a split) has been updated in HBW Alive, we add links to videos, photos and sound recordings to complement the texts. Right now more than 150 of these new species have links. Here are a few recent examples:
White-necked Puffbird (Notharchus hyperrhynchus)
White-necked Puffbird
Madagascar Marsh-harrier (Circus macrosceles)
Madagascar Marsh-harrier
Some species have been split into several new species, like the Coconut Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus). Have a look at the new ones:
Biak Lorikeet (Trichoglossus rosenbergii)
Biak Lorikeet
Flores Lorikeet (Trichoglossus weberi)
Flores Lorikeet
Scarlet-breasted Lorikeet (Trichoglossus forsteni)
Scarlet-breasted Lorikeet
Red-collared Lorikeet (Trichoglossus rubritorquis)
Red-collared Lorikeet
Marigold Lorikeet (Trichoglossus capistratus)
Marigold Lorikeet
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus)
Rainbow Lorikeet
Or the Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus), that has been split into four species:
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Channel-billed Toucan
Yellow-ridged Toucan (Ramphastos culminatus)
Yellow-ridged Toucan
Ariel Toucan (Ramphastos ariel)
Ariel Toucan
Citron-throated Toucan (Ramphastos citrolaemus)
Citron-throated Toucan
Recently Updated Species
Royal Tern
We have added links to photos, videos and sound recordings for all of the species of the “former” Sternidae family, now grouped with Gulls and Skimmers in Laridae. We also have added links to the Larks (Alaudidae); we have incorporated a total of 1130 links in the species of this family, with Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) having the most with 40 links. Explore them!
We also have updated the texts of several species. Here you have a selection of them:
Spangled Owlet-nightjar
Diademed Plover
Spangled Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles tatei)
Diademed Plover (Phegornis mitchellii)
Spot-winged Parrotlet
Madagascar Paradise-flycatcher
Spot-winged Parrotlet (Touit stictopterus)
Madagascar Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone mutata)
New HBW Alive Features

Split species from the Illustrated Checklist

These last months we have been updating the texts of the “new species” resulting from splits from the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Our editors are creating all of the sections for these species, with the goal of having full species accounts for all of these cases. Here you will find a list of the split non-passerine species from the Illustrated Checklist, and you can filter to see just the updated species and order them by date of updating or by taxonomic order.  Now it is even easier to keep track of the updated split species.
Split species from the Illustrated Checklist

Brief Ornithological News

The brief news items that appear in the Birds Alive newsletter can also be viewed grouped together on HBW Alive. You can order the news pieces by post date, title or most viewed. You can also access this page from the side bar on the Ornithological News page.
Split species from the Illustrated Checklist

Also, a new box has been created on each relevant species page, “Brief News on this Species”, where these items will be posted as well.
Other Useful Features

Geographic Filter

The Geographic Filter (see upper left-hand corner of the page) is one of HBW Alive’s most powerful tools, as it allows you to filter all of the information on the site to just the species present in one or more countries that you select.
Geographic Filter

For example, if you filter by Japan, the Taxonomic Tree will automatically be reduced to only the species present in Japan, and you will only see the Orders and Families of those species. This makes it easier to explore the bird species present in a country.

Also, with the same filter activated, if you go to the “World list” option under My Birding you will see that Japan is already selected in the Geographic filter box, so only the species present in Japan will be displayed.

You can then filter by Common name, Genus, Species and Family, and also by Global conservation status and Country status. Also, if you have entered Birdlists, you can choose to show all of the species for which you have sightings from that country or not.

Combining different data filters, you can obtain important information when planning a trip. For example, if you select Country status "regular” and My sightings “No”, you will get a list of all the species regularly present in Japan that you have not seen yet!
Get the Most Out of My Birding

Subspecies recognition

Now when you are introducing your sightings you can specify the subspecies that you observed. If you click on any species, a box will open where you can specify different aspects of the sighting, like the number of birds seen, notes, if it was heard only, etc. You will also be given a drop-down list from which you can choose the subspecies, and below this you will find the “Subspecies and distribution” information for convenient reference.
Subspecies and distribution

This way it is easy to see which subspecies are present in a given locality, and choose the correct one for your sighting from the list. 
Choose subspecies

After choosing the correct subspecies and entering all of the details you want, click the green “Save with details” button. Now if you look at the list of sightings for that Birdlist, you will see all the subspecies that you have defined.
List of sightings

It’s also very easy to add the subspecies in sightings you have already created. In My Birdlists, select the Birdlist with the sighting for which you want to add the subspecies and click the Edit button for that species. A box will open where you can edit the sighting, adding the number of birds seen, notes, and more details, as well as choosing the subspecies, again, from a drop-down list. 
Edit sightings

We recommend that you specify subspecies when possible, especially because when Volume 2 of the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World is published, the new taxonomy for passerines will be applied to HBW Alive, and for those species that are split, it will be easier for you to determine to which species your sighting belongs.
New Publications from Lynx
Illustrated Checklist - Set of 2 Volumes

 Volume 1 + Volume 2 


Take advantage of our Special Offer price
for the set!

  • Buy Vol. 1 now at the discounted price of 145 €.
  • Pre-order Vol. 2 at the same price and pay in 2016!
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