Ornithology, quite simply, is the scientific study of birds. Amateur ornithologists—also known as “birders” or, disparagingly, “bird nerds”—can be seen in flocks of their own on weekends, binoculars in hand pointed up at the high boughs of the forest canopy trying to identify birds on their tick-list.
Julian Heavyside exists on the other side of the birding spectrum. He’s an adventurer and professional ornithologist who spends much of his time in remote wilderness areas of Central and South America working on bird studies for the Zoology Department at the University of British Columbia.
His specialty is slogging through steaming jungles and forested mountain slopes catching and banding birds. Incredibly, he recently captured a brand-new species of bird that had never been logged or recorded before. This is Julian Heavyside's story about adventure birding and the discovery of the elusive Tatamá Tapaculo.
I imagine you as being a sort of the "Indiana Jones of the Bird World," looking for rare discoveries that may still exist out there—any truth to this? Do you use a bullwhip in the field too?
My field-mates and I are just a bunch of scraggly weirdos who really like birds—hardly an image worth comparing to the great tomb raider. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough in the budget for a real bull whip, but I do have a badass Colombian leather machete holster (best way to avoid finger laceration), and I sometimes carry a stick if I’m worried about—or want to—catch snakes.
What is an ornithologist, how did you become one, and why?
Ornithologists study birds and all aspects of their biology, such as their behaviour, evolution, physiology or conservation. Since the dawn of humankind, we have been struck by our avian neighbours and their fantastic ability to explore what is just beyond our reach. Growing up here on Earth, I couldn’t help but develop a fascination with biodiversity, and birdwatching was one of the easiest ways to get my fix.
Birds are a very well studied group of animals, and many of the great biologists of ancient and modern times (Aristotle, Florence Merriam Bailey, Charles Darwin, Ernst Mayr, etc.) used birds as a model to develop broader biological theories. Many hobbyist bird watchers, or birders, have a very profound knowledge birds and can be quite obsessed with twitching rare birds that show up in their area (i.e. driving 350 kilometres through the night to see some little brown bird from Russia that showed up in a parking lot).
If you are a biologist, there’s a good chance you will end up studying ideas that were developed with birds in mind, and you might even end up working with them first hand. Several research programs in the Zoology department at UBC work on concepts pertaining to birds. During my undergrad there I ended up working with Dr. Jill Jankowski, a professor who studies tropical bird communities in the Andes and Amazon of Peru and Colombia and Costa Rica. I had been birding a lot around British Columbia, and enjoyed the thrill of tracking down a new species for the life list. I knew that South America held some of the world’s greatest species diversity, so in 2013 I applied to help out on Jill’s project in Manu, Peru and spent five months working along the eastern slope of the Andes, from cloud forest down to the Amazon lowlands. After that season, I was hooked, and have been back to South America several times to help answer interesting ornithological questions.
Do you own a cat?
I have had cats my whole life. My parents’ freezer is full of the things they’ve dragged in over the years (they don’t really know about that). And yes, I know cats kill billions of birds, but cats are cool too.
What are your interests outside of ornithology?
I grew up in Horseshoe Bay, BC, and I enjoy the medley of outdoor activities you can do in the Sea to Sky corridor. I was pretty obsessed with mountain biking and skiing for a while, and still get out for a few good backcountry ski trips every season. I also fish some of the local rivers, but usually just spend the morning watching dippers feed their babies instead. I’ve found a way to incorporate birding into each of my old pastimes. After all, birds are everywhere, from the shore of the Salish Sea to the peaks of the Coast Range. I have other interests, but to my pleasant surprise I’m always able to link them together with birds. Recently, I made a loaf of sourdough for the first time, so I guess I’m also totally an artisanal baker. Not sure how birds fit in there yet though.
In what areas of the world have you done ornithology field work?
I started out as a birder in Vancouver, and have done some work on yellow-rumped warblers, which are migratory birds that spend the winter around California and Mexico and breed in the boreal forests of North America. I have spent two field season in Manu, Peru, catching birds and searching for their nests in the jungle in order to learn more about their breeding biology and the impact that a shifting climate is having on species living in the mountains.
I have also worked in Colombia, on the west slope of the Cordillera Occidental. Colombia is an amazing country for so many reasons, but the biodiversity there is absurd. There are nearly 2,000 species of birds alone, which is 20 per cent of the world’s bird species. The geography is fantastically diverse, with Pacific lowland forest, three massive chains of Andean cloud forests with lush valleys between, Amazon rainforest in the southeast, grassy plains to the northeast speckled with huge monoliths, dry coastal scrub on the Caribbean coast and Sierra Santa Marta, one of the world’s largest coastal mountain ranges, soaring above the northern coast.
There’s a commonly held belief that you have to own a Tilley hat in order to be an ornithologist. Is this true?
I’m not of the clan of birders that were born before 1960, so I don’t wear one (at least not when birding). I do own one though, but only use it for sunny spring days in the alpine. Melanoma kills.
Describe a typical day of field work in the jungle/forest.
For a bird-bander, a typical work day starts at 4:00 a.m. (although we usually get lazier by the end of the season). Crawl out of your damp tent, mind the ants that have taken up shelter under your vestibule, and turn yesterday’s socks inside out and pull on your cheap rubber boots. Grab some coffee and head out to the mist net station in time to open the first nets at dawn. Set up a tarp at a central area in case of sudden downpours, and then go back through all the nets to check for captured birds. Bring birds back to central station in little cloth bags to keep them relaxed, then process them one by one. This means putting a uniquely numbered band on their leg, taking some measurements like wing length and mass, snap a few photos and let them fly free. Check the nets again every 30 minutes for the next six to 12 hours, depending on the protocol. Shut all the nets at the end of the day, head back to camp and cook some beans and rice.
Some seasons have been better than others for food. In the Amazon we’re at the mercy of people upstream, who send weekly (but usually biweekly) food loads. Mould happens fast in the world’s greatest rainforest, so you learn to tolerate a lot. We work six days, then have a day off. This usually means laundry and bathing in the river, a game of soccer and maybe even a sheep roast. Field life is paradise.
Are there any dangers associated with the job?
The main danger is the remoteness of the field sites. Basic medical problems can get out of hand, and it’s important to have a well stocked medical kit. Bullet ants are a hazard, particularly for nest searchers who spend the whole days bushwhacking and inevitably upsetting wasps, bees, and, unfortunately, the odd bullet ant (world’s most painful insect sting; 24 hours of brutal muscle pain at the sting site). No one I know has ever been bitten by a venous snake, but they are abundant in the Amazon. They don’t really want anything to do with you, so you just have to watch your step.
I’ve had absurdly painful caterpillar stings that caused strange things to happen to my heartbeat. We use machetes to clear trail a lot, and an unlucky friend once slipped while carrying his with the freshly sharpened blade in his hand, deeply lacerating three fingers as it slid across them. One long hike, a motorcycle ride, got him to a clinic (actually, maybe a veterinarian?), but the injury and crude repair appears to have left him with permanent nerve damage. You have to have your wits about you in mountain terrain, and an intense rain storm in the Amazon will bring trees down, and turn creeks into deadly torrents. It’s important to understand and respect the environment, just as it is when travelling in avalanche terrain.
How were you involved with finding the new species of Tapaculo (PICTURED ABOVE)? Describe the circumstances, who you were with, and how did you end up catching it?
From January to April in 2015, I was working on a project on the Montezuma Road in the Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá in Colombia for Dr. Jill Jankowski (here at UBC) and Dr. Gustavo Londoño (Universidad ICESI, in Cali, Colombia). This long term project seeks to understand the dynamics of montane bird communities, as well as to describe their breeding biology. Field assistants would spend every day walking through the forest, looking for nests, or running bird banding stations. I was working as a bird-bander. We use fine, 12-metre-long mist nets suspended from three-metre poles to catch birds as they go about their business.
We were midway through the season when Dr. Gary Stiles showed up unexpectedly in our camp. Gary is a very well-known ornithologist who specializes in Central and South American birds, and has been working in Colombia for several decades. Twenty years ago, he came upon a pair of Tapaculos in a previously unstudied range near Tatamá, and didn’t recognize the male’s song. Each species of Tapaculo sings a unique song, and this is often the only way to identify them as many species are visually identical. He realized it must be a new species, and has been trying to catch one for the past two decades in order to take DNA samples and officially describe it.
He was alone when he came to our field station, so I offered to help him. After two months working in the area, I knew of several reliable locations to find the bird, and I knew how to set up a mist net quickly on my own to target individual birds. The terrain in this area is quite challenging, and these birds live in steep ravines far from the road. Everything is steep, wet (this area supposedly receives the most consistent rainfall anywhere on the planet), muddy, and covered in vegetation—very difficult netting conditions. These Tapaculos skulk around in the dense understory, rarely flying, and are extremely difficult to catch. I would set up a net, only to watch the bird slip under it. This happened several times. Eventually, I pinned the net down with some small sticks, and lay on the ground with a speaker playing a recording, to lure the individual in. Finally, a bird landed in the net and I quickly and carefully grabbed it to prevent its escape. I took the bird out of the net, put in in a small cloth bag used to handle birds, and let Gary take some measurements etc. In one exhausting morning, we put an end to a 20-year search for the Tatamá Tapaculo. Two years later, on March 1, 2017, Gary published the official species description in The Auk journal.
How rare is it to find a new species these days?
There was a burst of new discoveries in the ‘70s and ‘80s when well funded expeditions led by US schools such as Louisiana State University set out to document the bird communities of remote areas of South America. These days, you can expect only a handful of newly published species descriptions to come out of places like Colombia and other South American countries. There have also been some recent findings made in the mountains of Borneo. While there are more to come, we are reaching a plateau in the rate of species discoveries, with the total number hovering around 10,000 species.
Are there more species out there, waiting to be discovered?
Definitely. There are many areas that haven’t received the full treatment, and others that likely contain overlooked birds, especially birds that are shy, small, and drab (like the Tatamá Tapaculo). As testament to this claim, I have been involved, as a lowly undergrad assistant, with not one but two new species sagas. On my first trip to Peru in 2013, I took the first ever photograph of a currently undescribed species nicknamed the Manu Tanager. This bird is large, bright yellow with an orange bill and black crest—not quite the shy, brown skulker that is the Tapaculo.
This Manu Tanager had been seen a few times before, but no one knew anything about it. Since my sighting and photograph, a LSU field expedition in Bolivia shockingly uncovered a whole breeding population of these birds. This suggests they migrate north from remote parts of Bolivia to ridges in the Andes, where birders and tour guides have spotted it a few times. Like the Tapaculo, this Manu Tanager seems to have a very small range, but is quite locally common. Surely there are other remote mountains that contain new species, but I’m not telling you which ones I think they are!
Is the bird population in your field work areas stable, growing or declining? What kind of threats do birds face in the tropics and the world in general?
The Tatamá Tapaculo is endemic to a relatively small mountain range in the Cordillera Occidental, so they are relatively few in number, which makes them more vulnerable than a widespread and abundant species. However, they are fairly common within their range, if you look in the right habitat. We don’t know enough about them yet to say whether they are stable or declining, but habitat loss occurs frequently in Andean regions, and I would venture a guess that this species is in decline, along with many other montane forest species.
Land is cleared for lumber, minerals, and agriculture—because the major valleys and lowlands have been cleared already, mountains almost all of the remaining natural resources. Fortunately, the Tatamá National Natural Park contains quite of bit of habitat that these Tapaculos use, and will play a crucial role in the conservation of the important biodiversity found in this area. Colombia is entering an interesting time—a half century civil war draws to a close, and the government and guerrilla movements such as FARC-EP are negotiating peace deals. During the conflict, many people living in rural areas moved en masse to urban centres, abandoning vast areas of countryside, and freezing the extraction of natural resources in time. Many vast forested regions of the country have been left untouched due to the dangers associated with the military conflicts. As peace is restored, people will be advised to return to their farmland, to restore their rural economies. Many Colombian biologists are concerned that this will place enormous stress on the country’s natural areas, and advise that conservation must be considered in the peace deals.
What can we do to help birds?
At home, you can create habitat in your own backyard. There are many great resources online and at your local gardening store. More broadly, we can make sure that birds have enough natural space to live their bird lives, which means you should vote for political parties that incorporate strategies in their platforms. You can contribute financially to groups like Audubon in the US, or Bird Studies Canada here, which are two groups that do a lot to conserve North America’s bird populations.
Personally, I think simply learning more about the birds and other living organisms in your area can help in the long run. We will inevitably work to save the things we enjoy, and I think with minimal effort, people can learn to enjoy birding. It’s like Pokemon Go but it’s actually real.