12 June 1998

Big Bird Discovery Puts Egg On Ornithologists' Faces

Walking along a mountain path high in the Andes of Ecuador, professional bird watchers Robert Ridgely and John Moore halted in their tracks when they heard a birdsong unlike anything they had ever come across. That's when the duo got their first glimpse of the biggest bird to be identified as a new species in the last half century. The discovery is the ornithological equivalent of finding a long-unnoticed Snuffalupacus in your living room.

"It is amazing that this bird has gone undetected since the area is so well known to birders," says Ridgely, director of the Centre for Neotropical Ornithology at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. "It's like finding a pot of gold in your own back yard. It certainly makes me wonder what else is out there if something this unusual could go undetected for so long." (The Abominable Snowman or JD Sallinger perhaps? - ed.)

The lucky find occurred when Ridgely and Moore, an expert in bird vocalizations, were carrying out field work near Podocarpus National Park in the southern part of Ecuador. In the family of Antpitta - a group of notoriously shy terrestrial forest dwellers - the bird is notable for its large size, strange voice and white facial markings. Its song is a cross between a dog's bark and an owl's hoot, say the researchers.

"Gathering data and documenting these birds can be quite challenging on steep slopes and wet climates," says David Agro, collection manager for ornithology at the Academy. In a mission more suited to Indiana Jones than mild-mannered birdologists, Agro joined Ridgely and colleague Doug Wechsler for five days of gruelling endurance as the trio set about luring the bird into a net so it could be photographed.

Nearly all the birds in the world are thought to have been discovered and scientifically documented. That this latest find - yet to be named - has eluded researchers for so long is perhaps a case of egg on an ornathologist's face. A complete description of the bird will be published soon.