Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.

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