Moustached Puffbird, never before seen in Ecuador, has just been found in our Dracula Reserve

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First record of the Moustached Puffbird (Malacoptila mystacalis) for Ecuador. Click to enlarge. Photo: Alex Boas.

Ecuador is one of the world’s richest countries for birds, and it just got richer. Jose Maria Loaiza B. (a noted professional ornithologist who is EcoMinga’s community relations person in our Manduriacu Reserve), Juan Carlos Crespo (also an experienced ornithologist), and Alex Boas (ornithologist and photographer) visited Cerro Oscuro in our Dracula Reserve last week, partly because they suspected that the riparian habitat near the base of Cerro Oscuro might be appropriate for the elegant Moustached Puffbird (Malacoptila mystacalis), previously known only from Colombia and Venezuela. Puffbirds are tough to spot, since they spend most of their time perched quietly in the forest looking for large insects, but they have distinctive calls. Jose Maria heard a puffbird call near the edge of the stream that flows past Cerro Oscuro, and when they tracked it down, they were thrilled to find the first Moustached Puffbird ever seen in Ecuador! Continued searching turned up the mate of the first bird, and also a second pair of Moustached Puffbirds nearby.  Fortunately Alex was able to take some excellent photos and video to document the find. The team was not able to find any Moustached Puffbirds outside of the Dracula Reserve.  So for now, our Dracula Reserve is the only place in Ecuador where this bird can be seen.

Alex Boas’ video of the Ecuadorian sighting of the Moustached Puffbird.

Here are Jose Maria’s own words on the discovery:

“Novedades en la Reserva Cerro Oscuro

Por: José María Loaiza B.

Este pasado fin de semana realizamos una visita a la Reserva Cerro Oscuro en el noroccidente del Carchi y nos encontramos con una increíble sorpresa: la presencia de Mosutached Puffbird / Malacoptila mystacalis, especie que es registrada por primera vez en el Ecuador. Por el momento, la única localidad conocida es la parte baja de esta Reserva.

Este descubrimiento no fue del todo fortuito, ya desde hace tiempo sospechábamos que este esponjoso pájaro podía estar entre la vegetación ribereña. Dos parejas fueron encontradas: la primera justo a la orilla del río y la segunda más arriba de la casa-estación. Este hallazgo también contribuye con la extensión de su rango de distribución, y nuestra reserva asegura la supervivencia de lo que podría constituir una pequeña población en la frontera  noroccidental del Ecuador, posiblemente la única en todo el país.

El comportamiento característico de esta especie (y todos los Puffbirds), perchada sigilosa  en el sotobosque y relativamente quieta,   nos permitió detectarla por su canto y luego hacer excelentes fotografías y videos.   El equipo en campo estuvo conformado por la experticia de Juan Carlos Crespo, la experiencia fotográfica de Alex Boas y el  oído de José María Loaiza….”

They also made a second thrilling discovery in Cerro Oscuro. More on that in a future post. EcoMinga thanks Joe Maria, Juan Carlos, and Alex for their dedication and curiosity about the avifauna of our reserve.

 

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

 

A brief hike in our Rio Anzu Reserve


A couple of weeks ago I made a short visit to our lowest-elevation reserve, the Rio Anzu Reserve (1100-1200m elevation) in the Amazon basin, to mark some special orchids for a visiting student to study. Lowland Amazonia is the richest habitat on earth for birds and trees, and also hosts a seemingly never-ending parade of crazy insects. A trip to this reserve is always a mind-boggling experience, even though the reserve is very small and lacks larger birds and diurnal mammals due to indigenous hunting pressure in the surrounding area. (However, black jaguars stalk this forest unseen by human eyes, but recorded in several different camera traps…)


For a minute or two I saw this Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus), a core species of mixed-species insectivorous bird flocks here. Lou Jost/ EcoMinga.

For a minute or two I saw this Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus), a core species of mixed-species insectivorous bird flocks here. Lou Jost/ EcoMinga.

Quite often at the trail entrance of this reserve there will be a big mixed flock of mostly-insectivorous birds scouring the branches and leaves of the forest. On this trip I met with the flock as soon as I got out of the taxi-truck that brought me there. The flock and I seemed to follow the same forest path for a long way, and I enjoyed their noisy company. A particularly sharp bird call alerted me to the “leader” of the flock, a Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus) an uncommon bird which does not occur at our higher elevation reserves. This is one of the famous “liar” birds (not to be confused with Lyre-birds!) that watches for hawks, etc, and warns mixed flocks of danger, but will sometimes “freeze” the flock with a false alarm call when it sees a bird flush a particularly appetizing insect. It then grabs the insect for itself (Munn 1986). In spite of its occasional duplicity, the presence of this species allows the other flock members to find more food, since they don’t have to waste as much time looking around for danger (they rely on the Shrike-tanager to do that). So a flock will generally cluster around the local pair of Shrike-Tanagers, and they move together through the forest.

Heliconius butterfly in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This Heliconius butterfly sat on the trail in the Rio Anzu reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Throughout the day fancy butterflies filled the air. My favorite (at least on this day) are the Heliconius butterflies. These butterflies have larva that feed on poisonous passionflower (Passiflora sp.) leaves, and they themselves thus become poisonous to birds. The adults have strong warning colors and patterns, which show a very complex but interesting geographical variation. In any given area, often two different Heliconius species will share exactly the same pattern, but in a different region, the same two species can share a completely different pattern. The geographical variants are intensely studied to give clues about the process of incipient speciation, the possible locations of wet “refugia” during past hot dry epochs, etc. I saw many species that day, but only managed to photograph one.

Passionflower in the forest understory. Photo" Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Passionflower in the forest understory. Photo:Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Appropriately I soon found a giant passionflower plant nearby. This species is a canopy liana but has specialized short clambering flowering stems that often come out near the ground. They are pollinated by hummingbirds.

The crown of white pointy “tentacles” in the center of the flower have an important function. Flowers that attract hummingbirds generally produce a lot of nectar, and this nectar is a tempting resource for other creatures, including many that play no role in pollination. Flowers with better defenses against nectar robbery will leave more descendants than those that don’t, so very elaborate defenses have evolved in many hummingbird flowers, including this one. The white spikes protect the nectar below them. They are easily parted by a hummingbird’s needle-like beak, but a clumsy ant or bee can’t get its head close to the nectar.

The back of the flower also has a defense against nectar robbers. The bracts surrounding the base of the flower have “extrafloral nectaries”, glands that produce a bit of nectar themselves. Ants and wasps like to hang out there and drink this nectar, and these nasty bugs scare away other kinds of bugs that could chew through the back to get to the big store of nectar inside.

The day was full of grasshoppers. I photographed an especially flashy one, but many more escaped my lens. One of the grasshoppers I did manage to photograph was carrying two parasitic mites (ticks) on one leg. Mites are commonly seen on insects in the tropics, but I don’t know much about them.

Mites (one healthy, one dead) on a grasshopper's leg in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Mites (one healthy, one dead) on a grasshopper’s leg in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Along with the grasshoppers were many katydids. Most North American katydids eat leaves, but in the tropics things are more complicated. I found a nasty carnivorous katydid munching the severed torso of a walking stick [male of the genus Oreophoetes, according to Yannick Bellanger’s Comment below], while the walking stick’s mate another walking stick [possibly a new species according to Yannick Bellanger’s Comment below] sat and watched, motionless. The juices of the half-eaten walking stick, in turn, attracted tiny gnats which gathered under the katydid’s head waiting for a chance to steal a mouthful. It was a miniature Serengeti. The annoyed katydid repeatedly swatted the gnats with its forelegs, just like I was swatting the slightly larger gnats that were bugging me. [Edited Dec 1 to reflect my growing doubts that these two walking sticks really belong to the same species. They seem too different from each other. Any experts out there with an informed opinion? Edit June 22 2016: Thanks Yannick Bellanger for the IDs and for answering this question in the Comments. Both are males, of different genera.]

I found this carnivorous katydid munching on a walking stick while the walking stick's mate looks on. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I found this carnivorous katydid munching on a walking stick while the walking stick’s mate another walking stick looks on. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Victim's head. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Victim’s head. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This walking stick looked on while the katydid ate the other one.

This walking stick looked on while the katydid ate the other one Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

After a couple of hours I reached the Rio Anzu itself, an easy 15-minute walk if I had ignored the interesting bugs. This is where the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei grows on the wet riverside limestone. The plants are often submerged when the river rises. On this day the river was low and there were many individuals in flower.

A ladyslipper orchid, Phragmipedium pearcei, on the limestone of the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A ladyslipper orchid, Phragmipedium pearcei, on the limestone of the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Rio Anzu. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Rio Anzu. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

At first glance the texture of this ladyslipper orchid flower is unremarkable. It looks smooth like any other flower. I had never given it a second look until that day. A microscope revealed that the flower was a complex mosaic of textures, hairs, glands and stuff I still don’t understand. The hairs were clearly guides for the insect pollinators, which must first land on the white flat rim of the orchid’s pouch or “slipper” (the pouch is called the “lip” in orchid terminology). This white rim has a row of random green spots, and another loosely organized row of larger brown spots. When magnified, the green spots turn out to be many long parallel dark green ridges, separated by greenish brown “valleys”. The effect is almost iridescent. Edit Dec 1: In response to Lisa’s question below, I did some research and found that the pollinator is a female fly that thinks these green spots are actually aphids, the prey of the fly larvae. The female lands on the flower to lay eggs among the “aphids”, and falls into the pouch. My speculations about the spots looking like fly eyes were wrong.

Top view of the "slipper" or lip of the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Top view of the “slipper” or lip of the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The staminode above the "slipper" or lip. At this magnification the green spots on the lip begin to show their true complexity. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The staminode above the “slipper” or lip. At this magnification the green spots on the lip begin to show their true complexity. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Under higher magnification the green spots on the lip reveal complex textures and stiff hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Under higher magnification the green spots on the lip reveal complex textures and stiff hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remarkably complex surface details of the green spots. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remarkably complex surface details of the green spots. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer view of the green spots reveal they are not just smooth spots of color. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer view of the green spots reveal they are not just smooth spots of color. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Eventually the pollinator must fall into the pouch (perhaps drugged by the orchid). Once the pollinator enters the pouch, it finds itself trapped, with limited ways out. Most of the inner surface of the lip is only lightly hairy, but one strip is carpeted with long hairs, and this strip leads the insect up to an escape route that passes directly under the stigma and anthers. The insect thus is forced to pollinate the flower if it wants to get out of there.

A cross-section view of the "slipper". Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A cross-section view of the “slipper”. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer cross-sectional view. Note the various kinds of hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer cross-sectional view. Note the various kinds of hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The variety of textures on this flower make me eager to look more closely at other flowers. Expect to see many more micro-photos here in the future!

A jumping spider watched me photographing the grasshoppers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A jumping spider watched me photographing the grasshoppers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga

References

Munn, C. A. 1986. Birds that ‘cry wolf.’ Nature 319: 143-145.

Interspecific plumage mimicry in toucans

Mimicry among co-existing toucans: White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans live together in the Amazon and look the same. Chestnut-mandibled and Choco Toucans live together in the lowlands west of the Andes and look the same. Nevertheless, the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan's closest relative is the very dissimilar White-throated Toucan, and the Choco Toucan's closest relative is the very dissimilar Channel-billed Toucan. Modified from Ridgely and Greenfield's Aves del Ecuador.

Mimicry among co-occurring toucans: White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans live together in the Amazon and look the same. Chestnut-mandibled and Choco Toucans live together in the lowlands west of the Andes and look the same. Nevertheless, the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan’s closest relative is the very dissimilar White-throated Toucan, and the Choco Toucan’s closest relative is the very dissimilar Channel-billed Toucan. Modified from Ridgely and Greenfield’s Aves del Ecuador.

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True and coauthor of Speciation) kindly posted my photos of the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan  (Andigena laminirostris) on his website today. Earlier today I wrote a post about the striking similarity of color patterns in the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan  and the Toucan-Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus), and  I mentioned this mimicry in the comments on Jerry’s site. Reader Bruce Lyon responded to my comment by reminding me that there are other remarkable examples of plumage mimicry among the toucans.

Co-existing Amazonian toucans: Left, Channel-billed Toucan (a croaker); right, White-throated Toucan (a yelper. Photos from Roger Ahlman.

Co-occurring Amazonian toucans: Left, Channel-billed Toucan, a croaker; right, White-throated Toucan, a yelper. Photos from Roger Ahlman.

For example, here in the lowlands of Amazonian Ecuador two large Ramphastos toucans co-occur, the White-throated Toucan (Ramphastos tucanus) and the Channel-billed Toucan (R. vitellinus). They have very different songs: the larger White-throated Toucan is a “yelper” while the slightly smaller Channel-billed Toucan is a “croaker”. However, both species have virtually identical plumages. If they are not singing it can be very difficult to tell them apart, except by the bill proportions (the Channel-billed Toucan has a smaller bill relative to its head).

Co-existing  Choco lowland toucans: Left, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, a yelper; right, Choco Toucan, a croaker. Photos from Roger Ahlman.

Co-occurring Choco lowland toucans: Left, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, a yelper; right, Choco Toucan, a croaker. Photos from Roger Ahlman.

On the other side of the Andes, in the western Choco lowlands, there is another pair of co-occurring Ramphastos toucans: a “yelper”, the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan (R. swainsonii), and a slightly smaller “croaker” Choco Toucan (R. brevis). These also have plumages that are identical to each other, but they are completely different from the plumages of the Channel-billed and White-throated Toucans on the other side of the Andes.

Judging only by their appearances, anyone would think that the identical-looking Chestnut-mandibled and Choco Toucans of the western  lowlands were each other’s closest relatives. Anyone would also think that the White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans of the eastern (i.e Amazonian) lowlands were also each other’s closest relatives, since they are almost identical to each other and very different-looking from the western pair of toucans.

However, bill shape and song link the big western species to the big eastern species, and the smaller western species to the smaller eastern species, in spite of their very different colors. DNA analysis (Weckstein 2005) conclusively proves that bill shape and song, not the birds’ colors, are the phylogenetically informative characters in this case. (One of the most exciting things about DNA analysis is that it teaches taxonomists which morphological characters indicate evolutionary history.) The croakers on each side of the Andes are each other’s closest relatives, and the yelpers on each side of the Andes are each other’s closest relatives. This means the nearly perfect match between plumages of the coexisting species has come about through natural selection rather than inheritance from a common ancestor. There must be a very strong survival advantage to looking as they do, for one or both coexisting species.

Ramphastos toucan phylogeny, from Weckestein (2005), with toucan heads from Ridgely and Greenfield, Aves de Ecuador.

Ramphastos toucan phylogeny, from Weckestein (2005), with toucan heads from Ridgely and Greenfield, Aves de Ecuador.

What could the advantage be? One possibility, proposed especially by Prum (2014), is to reduce interspecific social dominance interactions. If larger toucans drive away smaller species of toucans feeding in the same tree, then it is advantageous for the smaller species to resemble the larger species. This might defuse the larger species’ instinctive aggression against non-conspecifics. An alternative theory relies on the observation that toucans are nest raiders. Most birds fear the largest toucans and do not put up a fight when they raid a nest. Perhaps if the smaller toucan looks like the larger and more fearsome species, other birds will mistake the smaller species for the larger one and flee more often.

Note added July 25: It remains possible that both species in each region have evolved these colors because they are regionally advantageous to both species. However, it is difficult to imagine what regional selective pressures, other than pressure for mimicry, would make the two co-occurring species so precisely similar to each other in each region. In the comments on my last post, in response to a question by Peter Tobias, I suggest some experimental tests of the mimicry hypothesis. End of note.

This kind of near-perfect apparent mimicry is rather rare in birds. It is probably facilitated in this case by the genetic similarity of the species involved. A pattern that is easy to evolve in one member of the pair should also be easy to evolve in the other member of the pair, since their genetic architectures are so similar. Perfection would be harder to achieve in more distantly-related mimicry pairs, like the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan / Toucan-Barbet pair I wrote about in the previous post.

The Toucan-Barbet (left, photo by Roger Ahlman) and the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (right, photo by Lou Jost) occur in the same forests and have  similar plumage colors and patterns.

The Toucan-Barbet (left, photo by Roger Ahlman) and the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (right, photo by Lou Jost) occur in the same forests and have similar plumage colors and patterns.

There are other apparent cases of mimicry in Neotropical birds. The Kiskadee-like flycatchers, those nemeses of beginner birdwatchers, are possible examples. However, it can be hard to separate phylogenetic constraints (inherited genetic architecture) from actual mimicry. The toucan case seems nearly ironclad, now that we know their phylogeny. Now that we know are pretty sure mimicry happens in birds, we should be on the lookout for other examples, and I think the Toucan-Barbet case I mentioned in my last post is best interpreted this way.

Prum, R. (2014) Interspecific social dominance mimicry in birds. Zoological J of the Linnean Society 172: 910-941.

Weckstein, J. (2005) Molecular Phylogenetics of the Ramphastos Toucans: Implications for the Evolution of Morphology, Vocalizations, and Coloration.The Auk 122: 1191-1209.

Lou Jost (www.loujost.com)

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Click to enlarge. Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Here’s a wildlife interlude between Part 3 and Part 4 of my endemic orchid talk. I have just returned from a visit to our Dracula Reserve with Dr Robert Ridgely (author of Field Guide to the Birds of Ecuador, Birds of Panama, Birds of South America, etc, and director of the Rainforest Trust, one of the major donors for the Dracula Reserve), Nigel Simpson (a director of Fundacion EcoMinga, and also of the World Land Trust and Fundacion Jocotoco), Javier Robayo (Exec. Director of Fundacion EcoMinga), David Agro (a director of the Fundacion Jocotoco), Francisco Sornozo (Conservation Director of Fundacion Jocotoco), Heinz Schneider (Curator, University of Basel Botanical Garden, another major donor for the Dracula Reserve), Rafaella Schneider (professor, University of Basel), and Hector Yela (EcoMinga warden). The trip was wonderful, a nice mix of birds and plants, and later I will post some of the things we saw. But I can’t wait to post our photos of this amazing Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (Andigena laminirostris), one of the most beautiful birds in the world. This species is restricted to mid-elevation Choco cloud forests in the western Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Learn more about it here.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Francisco Sornozo.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Francisco Sornozo.

This toucan is quite common in our Dracula Reserve, and we saw and heard and photographed them several times on the first day of our trip. At the end of that long day of birdwatching and botanizing, some of us were driving down the mountain to our hotel, when I spotted this toucan in the roadside trees. It flew across the road in front of our car and sat in good view in a bare branch. We pulled alongside and watched enraptured as it preened, regurgitated seeds, and modeled for us in the soft evening light. We took hundreds of pictures and many videos of it. Francisco, who is one of Ecuador’s most experienced ornithologists, was so moved as he was filming and photographing it that he said this was the most perfect and most beautiful bird observation he had ever experienced in his whole life. Here is a clip of one of the videos I made of it that evening. I cut out some random conversation, but Francisco made his nice comment near the end, and I left it in the clip. Then Bob Ridgely translates for the non-Spanish-speakers in the car.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Click to enlarge. Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, near our Dracula Reserve. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, preening near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Click to enlarge. Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Andigena laminirostris, preening near our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

We have two other mountain-toucans in our reserves. The Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca) lives in our Cerro Candelaria, Rio Verde, Chamana, Rio Valencia, and possibly our Zunac reserves, while the Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris) occurs in our Zunac, Cerro Candelaria, Naturetrek, and possibly our Rio Verde reserves. See our video of the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan here.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca). Painting by Lou Jost.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca). Painting by Lou Jost.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris). Photo: Roger Ahlman.

There is one other mountain-toucan, the Hooded Mountain-Toucan (Andigena cucullata), native to Bolivia and Peru.

Note added July 25: This bird’s plumage may be imitated by the Toucan-Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus); see my recent posts on plumage mimicry here (Toucan-Barbet) and here (more toucans).

Lou Jost
www.loujost.com

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