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Bushbird Bounces Back

Rediscovering the ‘smiling bird’

A string of recent sightings of one of South America’s most unusual and secretive birds is giving conservationists hope in regional efforts to save crucial habitat for this and other threatened species. Having not been seen for over 40 years, hope was fading for Recurve-billed Bushbird Clytoctantes alixii. However, successive sightings from Venezuela in 2004 and then Colombia in 2005 and 2007, have led to renewed efforts to understand the distribution of a bird feared extinct by many. With a distinctive up-turned bill, this species gives the impression of having an enigmatic smile; however, it has evolved to rip open bamboo and small twigs to search for arthropods.

“These sightings really underline the importance of survey efforts: how one observation can be the starting point from which a bird –long thought extinct- can be shown to be of lower imediate conservation concern,” said Rob Clay, BirdLife International’s Americas Conservation manager.In 2004, a four-man Rapid Assessment Programme team organised by Venezuela Audubon and the Phelps Collection and financed by Conservation International was the first to come face-to-face with the bird in the Venezuelan foothills of Sierra de Perijá and obtained the first known photos of the species. Shortly afterwards, in July 2005, the species was rediscovered in Colombia, when Oscar Laverda found two individuals at Agua de la Virgen, Santander, Colombia. More recent observations in Venezuela has shown that bushbirds also occur in secondary habitats.

“The local farmers were crucial to our fieldwork as they were the first observers of the bushbirds. It goes to show how important it is to include local knowledge in these kinds of surveys,” said Chris Sharpe of Provita, part of the team which originally rediscovered the species. The most recent sightings of Recurve-billed Bushbird came in April of this year in Colombia, at two new localities with no previous records. British birder, Dave Willis located a pair in a vegetated gully close to Colombian NGO ProAves's reserve in San Vicente de Chucuri, Santander. Meanwhile, Gabriel Colorado, found the species at a site in Antioquia Province, while working on bird surveys in dry forests for the regional environmental authority CORANTIOQUIA. This area is not only threatened by deforestation but also by the possible construction of the Pescadero-Ituango hydroelectric dam, on the Cauca River. If approved, the dam will be constructed in the next few years, and the area flooded.

Gabriel Colorado said “We are now able to explore and survey areas that were once politically unstable, allowing us to learn more about the distribution of this and other rare species. Unfortunately, many threats exist for this new population, meaning we must act now in order to save it”.

4th July 2014