British Columbia

B.C. student helps discover new bird species in Colombia

Julian Heavyside describes how he helped capture and identify an alto de pisones tapaculo — a new bird species — during his field work as an undergraduate ornithology student in the Western Andes region of Colombia.

Find capped a decades-long search by well-known ornithologist Gary Stiles

Vancouver biologist Julian Heavyside helped discover this new bird species — the alto de pisones tapaculo — in the Western Andes region of Colombia. (Julian Heavyside)

A tiny black bird deep in the forests of Colombia has been recently named a new species thanks to the efforts of a B.C. ornithologist.

In 2015, Julian Heavyside, then an undergraduate student, was on a two-month field assignment in the Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá in the Western Andes region of Colombia when he captured the bird — an alto de pisones tapaculo.

The alto de pisones tapaculo makes a sounds like a frog. The territorial and secretive bird stays low to the ground, hidden in the dense foliage of the forest floor. (Tim Forrester)

Heavyside was participating in a joint project between the University of British Columbia and the Universidad ICESI, in Cali, Colombia to conduct long-term monitoring of the bird community to estimate population size.

He spent his days — along with other field assistants — walking through the forest, looking for nests and using mist nets to capture and record information about birds.

Gary Stiles — a "rock star" ornithologist of the bird world — has identified numerous new species of birds. He had been searching for the alto de pisones tapaculo for two decades. (Julian Heavyside )

Two-decade long search

One day Gary Stiles, a well known ornithologist in Colombia, stopped by the camp seeking some field assistants.

Heavyside said Stiles is kind of like a "rock star" in the birding community, well-known for his excellent museum collection and his work identifying numerous new bird species.

But one bird had eluded him for nearly two decades.

Twenty years ago, deep in the Pisones region near Tatamá, Heavyside said, Stiles heard a mysterious sound.

"He stumbled upon this strange new sound that he dismissed as a frog, until he saw a pair of small black birds was creating this sound," Heavyside said.

Listen to the sound of an alto de pisones tapaculo:

Stiles realized it was a new bird species, but in order for it to be acknowledged by the International Ornithologists' Union, he needed to capture a specimen.

Heavyside said Stiles then spent the next 20 years trying to capture a specimen but to no avail.

Julian Heavyside describes the terrain of the Tatamá region where the birds are found as very steep, very muddy and covered in vegetation. (Julian Heavyside)

Heavyside volunteered to head out with Stiles on the day trip.

"We spent a long morning tramping around the steep ravines of Tatamá, which is quite a wet and steep lush rainforest — picture the greenest, lushest, mountain forest you can," he said.

"After several attempts, we finally ended getting one into the net which was very, very exciting."

Research paper published

After the bird was captured, Heavyside explained, molecular work had to be done and its birdsong had to be analyzed by researchers.

"The thing with tapaculos is that many of the species look identical. There's no way to tell them apart visually," he said.

All this data was finally analyzed and formally published in a research paper in The Auk scientific journal on Mar. 1, 2017.

Heavyside said the discovery of the new species is not surprising since Colombia is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, particularly when it comes to bird species.

"It speaks to the interesting biodiversity that Colombia has. Every little mountain range has its own species."

Vancouver-based ornithologist Julian Heavyside, pictured with an Andean Cock of the Rock. (Julian Heavyside)

With files from The Early Edition

To listen to the interview, click on the link labelled B.C. ornithologist helps discover new bird species in Colombia