Colombia: Recurve-billed Bushbird

I was playing tic-tac-toe with the bushbird’s head. Cross branches of bamboo several feet deep between me and a lifer look. Something is crawling up my pant leg (don’t scratch), sweat dripping down my forehead (don’t swipe), don’t move I told myself. The black object had made progress towards our small group, calling much of the time, now it was perched just in front of us. Easy, easy, take a step slowly to one side…

Success! Guide Richard Webster captured this evocative image of the bushbird he and Jesse spotted with their group on a recent Field Guides Colombia tour.

The Recurve-billed Bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii), as it is awkwardly (for me, anyways) called, went nearly 40 years without a single documented record. C. alixii was once thought to be endemic to northern Colombia, but it was rediscovered in the Sierra de Perija of Venezuela near the Colombian border in April 2004. That find was part of a Rapid Assessment Program team involving Venezuelan Audubon, the Phelps Collection, with financial support from Conservation International. With this confirmed sighting, interest shifted back to Colombia, a country quietly but steadfastly healing after years of internal conflict and neglect by the birding community. Sure enough, a year later, Colombia had its rediscovery by Oscar Laverde at Agua de la Virgen, near the bustling city of Ocaña. Thankfully, for us and the bushbird, it has now been recorded at several more sites.

My expectations of this bird were that the bill was going to be bigger than the bird. I think in part because every photo I had seen of it was taken at an angle, bill on and bird-in-hand, which exaggerates its size in comparison to the head. So, when I finally did see this bird my first impression was, “Well, cool, the bill is much smaller than I thought.” However, the bill is big, the culmen nearly straight, with the mandible curving up to meet the bill tip. Why does it have such a bill structure? Gusanos, amigo. Worms and bamboo, dude. The bushbird uses its bill to slice open thin bamboo shoots, like slicing open a can of cranberry sauce with a pocket knife. However, once the bill is inserted it is forced upward using the straight-edge to cut the bamboo stalk. Inside, it works to dig out larvae of beetles and other arthropods. Interestingly enough, not all bushbirds have been found within thick bamboo stands (“bushbird” is more appropriate than “bamboobird”), so they are obviously able to survive searching for prey in other ways. So, why have that strange bill?

As Jesse demonstrates, the bushbird uses its bill on bamboo like a can opener, with the resulting tell-tale signs in the image at right above. (Photos by Jesse Fagan)

This bird is truly spectacular. Not a let down. It lives up to all expectations. Rare, certainly local, loud and vocal, and that bizarre bill, this is a bird to see (or try to). Deep within the bamboo, I managed to get one decent photo of the bird. Not great, but it captured a split second in a memorable experience for our group on the recent Field Guides BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA tour I co-led with Richard Webster, who scouted and developed this exciting itinerary.

Use the player below to listen to my recording of the bushbird:

[If you have trouble using the player, here’s the direct mp3 file link.]

And did you know? Currently, Clytoctantes is not monotypic. The Rondonia Bushbird (C. atrogularis), equally rare and local, was only recently discovered in 1984 from a small area of southwest Brazil. There are currently just four reports of this species, and no male specimens. Despite outward similarities and behavior with C. alixii, the vocalizations of Rondonia Bushbird appear closer to Black Bushbird (Neoctanes niger) and according to Bret Whitney would keep C. alixii “within a monotypic genus despite similarities to Rondonia Bushbird.” You can discover additional information about the Recurve-billed Bushbird at Birdlife International.

We have a whole lot of Colombia coming up in our 2011 schedule, with 3 distinct itineraries and 4 departures.  Jesse will be returning for COLOMBIA: BOGOTA, THE MAGDALENA VALLEY & SANTA MARTA while Richard will guide both our COLOMBIA: THE CAUCA VALLEY, WESTERN & CENTRAL ANDES and COLOMBIA: SANTA MARTA ESCAPE tours. A few spaces remain open as of this posting.