Thursday, 29 August 2013

Re-finding the Recurve-billed Bushbird Clytoctantes alixii

Brooke Keeney of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently asked for permission to use photos of Recurve-billed Bushbird Clytoctantes alixii for the Lab's Neotropical Birds portal. The images have just gone up on the Recurve-billed Bushbird page. I'm set to recalling my first encounter with the bird, which resulted in these first photographs in 2004. At the time this species was effectively 'unknown in life', with no photographs, no sound recordings and unseen by ornithologists for almost 40 years. Steve Hilty (author of Birds of Colombia and, later, Birds of Venezuela) had told me during a converstion in 1992 that it would be THE bird to find in Venezuela.

Recurve-billed Bushbird was first described in 1870 by one of the founders of New York's American Museum of Natural History, Daniel Giraud Elliot, on the basis of one adult and one immature male supposedly taken on the "Rio Napo" (in fact, 'Bogotá' trade specimens). As Elliot notes, 

This extraordinary form of Formicariidae is apparently an exaggeration of Mr. Sclater's genus Neoctantes, to which it seems to be nearest allied. In many respects resembling other members of the genus Thamnophilus, it yet differs greatly from them in the form of the bill, and shape and size of the feet and claws.

Plate from Elliot's original description.

With no accurate idea of its range, the bird remained elusive, though almost certainly known to local inhabitants. A number of specimens were taken between 1914 and 1951 in the lowlands and foothill forests of NE Colombia. There were no Venezuelan specimens until the closing days of 1950, when an expedition including Hno. Ginés based itself at Kunana, west of Machiques from where a male and four females were obtained on Cerros Ayapa, Panapicho and El Escondido. After 1951 there are no further records except for Willis's extraordinary observation of foraging behaviour at a Colombian site in 1965 - up until then, the only documented encounter with live birds. 

In this context, Jorge Pérez-Emán and I began systematically searching for the bird in 2001, but it was not until April 2004 that we got lucky. We had spent ten days in a fairly remote part of the Venezuelan side of the Sierra de Perijá - my third trip to the area.
Dawn over the Sierra de Perijá.
The region was - at the time at least - notorious for the presence of Colombian guerrilla, which scared off casual visitors and certainly most birders. Local, Maracaibo-based birder José Gustavo León and entomologist Angel Viloria were two of the very few
exploratory pioneers. When Miguel Lentino of the Colección Ornitológica Phelps invited Jorge and I to take part in a Rapid Assessment Programme (RAP), under the auspices of Conservation International and the Sociedad Audubon de Venezuela, we jumped at the chance. José Gustavo gave us the benefit of his store of local knowledge and suggested the best site for the RAP. 
Jorge Pérez-Eman negotiates one of several landslides on the steep mountain roads.

The RAP aimed to produce a quick overview of the entire avifauna of the area, but being in Bushbird territory, I found it impoossible to pass up the opportunity for searching for such an elusive bird. A tip from José Gustavo led us to search some overgrown agricultural plots where, one hot, sweaty, mosquito-filled morning while drowsing by the net, I heard a distinctive Thamnophilid song that was new to me and could only be our target. I was lying in the undergrowth some distance from my recording gear, that I had carefully hooked to a snag, and had to decide whether to make a noise and lose time in getting ready to record or whether to imitate the song. I chose the latter, made several whistled imitations and within a few minutes a pair of large antbirds - one black, one chestnut - were heading purposefully towards us, jumping from stem to stem. There was an outside chance that they could have been Immaculate Antbirds Myrmeciza immaculata, a common bird on the mountain - but a quick look through binculars at the bill confirmed that they weren't!

Chris Sharpe with a pair of Clytoctantes alixii, the first ornithologists had encountered in almost 40 pears. Photo: Jorge Pérez-Emán

Recurve-billed Bushbird.

Recurve-billed Bushbird.

Recurve-billed Bushbird showing the semi-concealed white dorsal patch common to many other Thamnophilids.

Recurve-billed Bushbird.

Recurve-billed Bushbird.
Recurve-billed Bushbird showing its scissors.

Recurve-billed Bushbird habitat in Perijá.


Elliot, D.G. (1870) Descriptions of some new Genera and Species of Birds belonging to the Families Formicariidae, Pachycephalidae and Sylviidae. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1870: 242–244.

Ginés, H., Aveledo, R.. Pons, A., Yepez Tamayo, G. & Muñoz Tebar, R. (1953) Lista y comentario de las aves colectadas en la región de Perijá. Memoria de la Sociedad de Ciencias Naturales La Salle 13:145202.

Willis, E.O. (1988) Behavioral notes, breeding records, and range extensions for Colombian birds. Revista de la Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales 16(63): 137–150.

Recommended citation:-

Sharpe, C.J. (2013) Re-finding the Recurve-billed Bushbird Clytoctantes alixii. The Curious Naturalist. Downloaded from on .

Jun 2015 update: A summary of what we now know about this species available on Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive:-

Zimmer, K., Isler, M.L. & Sharpe, C.J. (2015). Recurve-billed Bushbird (Clytoctantes alixii). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2015). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 30 June 2015).

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