Chasing Neotropical Birds

[ Natural History ]

Chasing Neotropical Birds

Text by Bob Thornton
Photography by Vera and Bob Thornton

An album of magnificent color photographs of over 100 of the most beautiful, rare, and amazing neotropical birds.

Number Sixty-one

2005

$34.95$23.42

33% website discount price

Hardcover

8.25 x 10.5 | 254 pp. | 126 color photos, 2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-70589-0

Look Inside

From Belize to Brazil, the forests of the American neotropics are home to an astonishing array of birds—over 3,700 different species, or nearly 40 percent of all the birds on earth. Because of this overwhelming abundance, birders come from all over the world to try to catch glimpses of species that can be found nowhere else, such as toucans and antbirds, motmots and manakins, bellbirds and cocks-of-the-rock, and practically all of the planet's hummingbirds. Two such birding enthusiasts are Vera and Bob Thornton, who have spent fifteen years photographing these special and exotic birds in the rainforests of eleven different countries of Central and South America. In this book, you'll find more than a hundred spectacular color photographs they took during their travels, along with a highly entertaining account of their adventures—and misadventures—in chasing these exotic neotropicals.

The birds pictured here are among the Thorntons' personal favorites—birds that, in their words, "either dazzled us with their beauty, or charmed us by their behavior, or, in a few cases, simply challenged us by the mystique of their rarity." This latter category includes such elusive and sought-after birds as the Black-crowned Antpitta, the Zigzag Heron, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and the monkey-eating Harpy Eagle. In the accompanying text, Bob Thornton engagingly describes the challenges as well as the magic of negotiating the neotropical rainforests in search of colorful birds to photograph. For those who would like to follow in the Thorntons' footsteps, there are also helpful tips about photographic gear and techniques, preferred places to see the birds, lodging, and guides. For everyone who enjoys excellent nature photography, Chasing Neotropical Birds is a must-have volume on the coffee table or in the library.

  • Maps
  • Bird Log
  • Neotropicals
  • Costa Rica—a Beginning
  • La Selva/Corcovado
  • Hatchet Tongue
  • Singing "Pittas"
  • Río Napo
  • Army Antswarms
  • Among the Maya
  • Venezuela Revisited
  • The Lipstick Bird
  • Canopy Queen
  • Bellbirds
  • The Blue Cotinga
  • Manu
  • The Harpy Eagle
  • Hyacinth Macaws of the Pantanal
  • Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador
  • Suriname
  • Postscript
  • Family Album
  • Advice Lab
  • Resource Center
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book tells a story of an adventure that extended over a fifteen-year period as Vera and I photographed some of the exotic tropical birds of Central and South America. It was inspired by an earlier project of ours to photograph all of a special family of U.S. nesting birds called wood warblers. That quest led us each spring through the temperate forests of North America in pursuit of those small, colorful birds and resulted in a book, Chasing Warblers, which was published by the University of Texas Press in 1999.

However, during several weeks of those very same years, and with no grand goal in mind, Vera and I began to probe the forests of the Neotropics to find and photograph the magical birds indigenous to those habitats. In a geographical range running between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, we explored the rainforests of Belize and Guatemala in the north down to the coastal woods of Brazil and the Amazon Basin of Peru in the south. There were weeks spent high up in the cloud forests of Costa Rica and the Andes of Ecuador and others down through the Pacific lowlands of Panama and the Guianan Shield forests of Venezuela and Suriname.

In embarking on this Neotropical journey, Vera and I plunged into what was an enchanting and mysterious world of giant, ancient trees dripping bromeliads and wild orchids. We encountered cathedrals of vegetation with mosaics of green, impressive complexities of mosses and ferns and fertile stands of bamboo that grow a foot a day. We patrolled riparian thickets and tropical savannas and elfin forests, finding along the way a stunning tangle of wildlife diversity. There were glorious great moths with "eyes" on their wings to discourage predators, brilliantly colored beetles of metallic rainbow colors, and poisonous dart frogs of bright red/blue and yellow/black harlequin markings. We saw Crab-eating Foxes, Bird-eating Spiders, and Fish-eating Bats. There were eagles that ate monkeys and sloths.

And there was adventure. We were charged by a herd of White-lipped Peccaries in Panama, attacked by a jealous tapir in southern Venezuela, and greeted by the deadly Fer-de-lance one night in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. Our excursions were charmed by moonlight canoe rides through Ecuadorian river forests and rattled by howler monkey troops moving through camp at dawn. We saw crocodiles and caiman, great otters, and anacondas, and were dazzled by special butterflies with reflective wings of a magic blue. We jumped both Jaguarundi and Ocelot, but never the magnificent Jaguar, "El Tigre," though we saw its tracks often and heard it cough one evening at the edge of a forest where it had dragged off young colts a few months before. We waded through army antswarms in the Darien of Panama, rope-climbed to the canopy of a giant laurel tree in eastern Venezuela, and at the La Selva camp off the Río Napo in Ecuador, shared a bathroom with a tarantula we named Sue.

There were crisp, cerulean blue days in the high Andes of Venezuela and blistering hot treks on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. There were rainy-season marches in the Amazon Basin that nearly washed us away. And all of this exploration while weighted down with gear, but uplifted by a sense of wonder and an appetite for challenge as we stalked the exotic land birds of the Neotropics—with hopes of capturing photographs of which we could be proud.

For our adventure had always been about the birds, and the forests of Central and South America have more of them than any other place on the planet. The tropical latitudes of this hemisphere support over 3,700 different species, nearly 40 percent of all such avian creatures on earth. While North America might play host to perhaps 800 or so different varieties of birds, Costa Rica alone—a country about the size of West Virginia—can brag about having at least that many. Colombia and Peru have more birds than any other country in the world, with about 1,800 apiece, each hosting more individual species than the entire continent of Asia. Their neighbors are also loaded: Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil—with over 1,500 birds per country—each claim more varieties than either India or China, and even the number posted by landlocked Bolivia exceed that of the entire continent of Australia. The reason for this abundance of riches has everything to do with the impressive calibrations of equatorial habitat that occur within a relatively compressed geographical area—from a high Andes tree line dropping quickly through a series of ecological zones to a humid Amazon Basin, sliced and diced and serrated along the way by ridges and rivers, cordilleras and canyons that have permitted the evolution of so many special and discrete species.

The Neotropics are inhabited by birds that are found nowhere else in the world—such as the toucans and antbirds, motmots and manakins, as well as the unusual members of the cotinga family like the umbrellabirds, bellbirds, and cocks-of-the-rock. These splendid creatures came in an assortment of colors and sizes and produced a marvelous range of songs and sounds. Some of the birds eloquently romanced us with their stirring melodies and flute serenades, while others barked like dogs or mooed like cows or screamed like cats. Some trumpeted, some hooted, some hissed, some moaned. And in addition to the celebrated and exotic birds we chased, the Neotropics support a great many more mundane species, like the ovenbirds and woodcreepers, and nearly four hundred different flavors of tyrant flycatcher. These birds are accompanied by other "little brown jobs" like the leaftossers and woodhaunters, the gnateaters and streamcreepers, to which we were conspicuously inattentive and weren't able to devote much time.

As far as actually photographing tropical birds, Vera and I decided early on not to concentrate on any one family, as we had done with the wood warblers. Nor did we choose to showcase a representative bird from each family. Rather we pursued birds that we personally considered to be "special," a preferred Neotropical sampler of those species that either dazzled us with their beauty, or charmed us by their behavior, or, in a few cases, simply challenged us by the mystique of their rarity.

In selecting birds for elegance and beauty, we focused on the charismatic quetzals and hummingbirds of Costa Rica, brilliant honeycreepers found in Trinidad, and the extravagant tanagers common to Venezuela and Ecuador. In addition, there were jacamars and trogons, parrots and macaws, toucans and motmots, which defined, at least for us, the most glamorous birds the Neotropics had to offer. These were the stunners, the real showstoppers.

But we also targeted birds whose behavior and habits we found to be particularly intriguing, creatures that continually fascinated and often astonished us. This category was not about beauty, but behavior—although some of these birds were gorgeous in their own right. There were manakins displaying on their assembly arenas throughout the Neotropics, the cocks-of-the-rock in the woodlands of Suriname and the cloud forests of southern Peru, the "professional" antbirds stalking army antswarms in the Darien of Panama, and the marvelous bellbirds "bonking" throughout the day on the mountaintops of Costa Rica. There was also the incomparable and delightfully bizarre Capuchinbird.

And, finally, Vera and I were fortunate enough to photograph several birds that even the most discriminating Neotropical ornithologists might concede to be big wins—birds seldom seen and rarely photographed: the Black-crowned Antpitta, the Zigzag Heron, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the Long-tailed Potoo, the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, and, arguably one of the grandest of them all, the monkey-eating Harpy Eagle.

Trying to locate and photograph these birds in a rainforest environment, however, represented a huge challenge for Vera and me as we were, quite frankly, neither competent Neotropical birders nor broadly experienced wildlife photographers. In addition, we had committed ourselves from the beginning to capturing artistic images of these special birds rather than simply settling for obligatory photographic records of new birds encountered.

This, of course, made it harder and often required us to work within twenty to thirty feet of our targets, while striving at the same time to confiscate enough ambient light so that the picture would look as natural as possible. Consistently pulling this off, however, was difficult for us: many of our targeted birds hung out in forest canopies, and working close enough for a photograph was always a challenge. Or else they skulked in the dark interiors of the forest itself, where light is a scarce commodity on the brightest of days, and adequately flattering the subjects, even with the use of a flash, was often problematic. Our best-case scenario was a bright, overcast day, which spread a diffused light across the forest interior, but even then only 2 percent of the light reached the forest floor.

Another issue with rainforest photography is, of course—rain, which is what rainforests are known for even in the "dry" season. Many an otherwise promising day was literally washed out by the weather, and although tropical birds prefer rainy and foggy weather to sunshine, it's hell on photographers. We spent a lot of time wet.

Along the way we discovered that while a particular section of tropical forest might embrace many species of birds, there was not an abundance of individual birds to be found. The bird biomass was small, and even the most colorful of these birds on the brightest days of the year are often hard to see because they blend in so well with their surroundings. Many are sit-and-wait foragers, and even experienced ornithologists have difficulty spotting birds that perch immobile and mute amid thick, tropical foliage. The Neotropical woods can be both melancholy and expansively silent for long stretches of time, and many a wildlife photographer, dispirited by the inaction, has thrown in the towel early on to gratefully retreat stateside and resume shooting stationary waterbirds in good light. While there is no shortage of superb photographs of Roseate Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons, flattered by the dappled glow of a South Florida lagoon, quality images of Neotropical forest birds are more difficult to come by. World-class photographs of some rainforest birds have indeed been taken by posing the birds in a controlled situation after they have first been mistnetted. Vera and I, however, "chased" our birds down, and our shots were taken in the field. Hence the title of the book.

In our pursuit of Neotropical birds to photograph, we initially sought whatever we could flush or spot as we moved ever so slowly through the forest, hoping to catch some small movement or even a snatch of a song or call note that would alert us to a bird's presence. We also attempted to locate areas where a targeted species of bird was known to consistently display, or call, so that we could try to maneuver close enough to it for a shot. At times we would use a tape recorder to play back the male's own song in an effort to draw him in curiously closer, but on other occasions we would simply remain motionless in the bird's area for long periods of time until it finally relaxed and resumed its routine.

Many of the birds we captured on film were busy and absorbed with feeding, and were often unaware of or unconcerned by our presence. There were berry pickers and insect snatchers, there were nectar drinkers and dead-leaf specialists. Consequently, jacamars diving after morpho butterflies, mixed-species flocks foraging up a mountainside, and squadrons of tanagers blowing into melastome trees provided us with some of our very best opportunities. Investing time looking for the right fruiting tree or the preferred feeding situation turned out to be our most useful strategy of all; these were the honey holes we attempted to locate in order to find the birds.

In the process, we learned that the insect eaters are far more likely to be specialists than the fruit eaters, and are more typically territorial as they defend their turf against competitors. We found many of the same birds in the same general area, day after day. Since insects are consistently harder to find than forest fruit, both parents are required to pitch in to keep a nest full of baby birds fully fed, and this has often encouraged monogamous pairings in some species.

The fruit-eating birds, on the other hand, have developed a different lifestyle, built around the luxury of having a relatively abundant food source available to them and lots and lots of time on their hands. After mating, this permits the female of many species to manage nest duties all by herself while rendering the male irrelevant to future family responsibilities.

In some species, these bachelor males congregate in display assemblies called "leks" and spend their days performing acrobatic and bizarre rituals, with repertoires often mystical in sweep, in order to convince the ever-so-choosy female that he is the one worth having. The female will eventually select the winner, and the two will proceed to mate. Afterward he will flutter back to his bachelor buddies to await another female, while she will pull herself together to fly off and tackle life as a single mother. A few members of the cotinga family, some hummingbirds, and a great many of the manakins operate in this fashion, and Vera and I delighted in ferreting out these display grounds for the dazzling male birds performing there.

Our exploration of the Neotropics, however, was not just about the creatures of the forest, but also the marvelously diverse and interesting people we met along the way. Many helped us immeasurably in locating some of the birds we were after, and they brightened our entire Neotropical experience. We learned from them, enjoyed their company, and some even became close friends. We also found it interesting to learn that many of the world's best Neotropical ornithologists are Americans who have for the last forty years been at the forefront of discovering, recording, photographing, documenting, and writing books about the birds of these remote regions. We spent some quality time with several of these experts, despite our own dilettante status, and were significantly influenced by their advice and insights.

There was the patrician Bob Ridgely, then representing the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and more recently affiliated with the American Birding Association. He and his collaborator, illustrator Guy Tudor from New York, are responsible for undertaking the definitive work on Neotropical birds, The Birds of South America, a four-volume tome of which the first two volumes have already been published. Ridgely also recently coauthored a new book with Quito resident Paul Greenfield, The Birds of Ecuador, which was released in the summer of 2001. He is arguably one of the most respected Neotropical ornithologists in the world today and is even credited with discovering a new species of antpitta high up in the Andes of southern Ecuador as recently as 1998.

We also spent some time with Alvaro Ugalde, one of the principal visionaries in creating the splendid park system of Costa Rica that has become a working model for Neotropical ecotourism throughout the hemisphere. Toward the end of our journey, we worked with Raúl Arias, the enterprising Panamanian entrepreneur who built the Canopy Tower in the former Canal Zone as a focal point of ecotourism in his own bird-rich country.

There was Ted Parker, the most accomplished Neotropical ornithologist of them all and perhaps the greatest field biologist of the twentieth century until he was killed in an airplane crash in Ecuador in 1993. Parker's almost mythical genius for recognizing bird songs and call notes was so extraordinary that he had imprinted the songs and sounds of over 4,000 different tropical birds. It is part of his legend that once in some remote rainforest in South America, he identified by song a rare bird he had never seen or heard before simply because he knew by elimination what it had to be. He protected his ears and hearing much as concert pianists safeguard their hands, and his tragic death at the age of forty extinguished one of the great tropical resources of our time.

Following in Parker's footsteps, in addition to Ridgely, is the much respected Steve Hilty, the coauthor of A Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia and author of both Birds of Tropical America and the recently published A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela. There was the brother-sister team of John and Rose Ann Rowlett, founders of the highly regarded birding company Field Guides; Bret Whitney, one of the keenest birding talents and "ears" in the world; and Paul Coopsman, Kevin Zimmer, and Andy Whittaker, the renowned pros of Central and South American birds. We also corresponded with John O'Neill, the acclaimed ornithologist and wildlife artist from Louisiana State University, who had spent many years documenting the bird life of Peru. John is himself credited with the discovery of several new species of tropical birds, and the splendid book A Parrot without a Name, by Don Stap, chronicles one of those early adventures. A frequent partner of O'Neill's during those early years in Peru was John Fitzpatrick, formerly of Chicago's Field Museum and now director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. John himself co-discovered several species of birds new to science, including the Manu Antbird, and is additionally recognized as a world expert on tyrant flycatchers.

We were especially influenced by our close friend Victor Emanuel, founder and owner of V.E.N.T., one of the oldest and most successful ecotourism companies in the world. Victor's boyhood sense of wonder and his enthusiasm are contagious to all who meet him, and he is as responsible as anyone for exposing a whole new generation of birders to the Neotropics. Over the last twenty-five years V.E.N.T. has hosted trips around the world for more than 30,000 birders, and the destination of many of these tours has been the rainforests of Central and South America.

Through the years we would bump into many of Victor's guides in far-off tropical places, and they would help us however they could in trying to locate, or approach closely, or tape-call into view some particularly elusive species that we might have been pursuing. One such guide was David Wolf, who put us onto the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta in the Coastal Cordillera of Venezuela while his wife, Mimi, painted its portrait for us several years after the original photograph was taken.

And there was also David Ascanio, the accomplished field ornithologist from Caracas who worked with us on some of the rare cotingas and located for us the majestic Harpy Eagle in the rainforests of the Río Grande Reserve of Venezuela. Debra Hamilton and her extended family of researchers spent many hours with Vera and me in pursuit of both the Three-wattled Bellbird and the Bare-necked Umbrellabird in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Also in Costa Rica we visited the famous English naturalist and tropical photographer Michael Fogden at his summer retreat in Monteverde, and the redoubtable Alexander Skutch in the small patch of forest where he had lived and studied and written on the Neotropics and its wildlife for over sixty years.

In addition to these professionals, a whole separate cast of characters played an assortment of colorful cameo roles in our little adventure: "the Hummingbirders," the Randalls, "the Vertical Man," Bruno, "the Ice Cream Man," "the Germans," "the Harpy Man," and "Raymond the Maroon." And, of course, there was the unforgettable "Hatchet Tongue." You'll meet them all later.

But perhaps one of the most remarkable inspirations happened to be a woman who was the most accomplished birder of all—Phoebe Snetsinger. Of the 10,200 different bird species on this planet, Phoebe had managed to find and identify over 8,500 of them, exploring remote habitats in over one hundred different countries for twenty years to do so. Only one other birder has ever logged 8,000. Most believe her record is unlikely to be equaled, as future advantages accruing from increased access to rare birds in remote places will most probably be negated by the inevitable acceleration of species extinctions. And for Phoebe herself, it was no stroll in the garden. While battling cancer off and on over those exploration years, she fell off of a mountain in the Philippines, nearly drowned when her boat capsized off the coast of Irian Jaya in Indonesia, was gang-raped and left for dead in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and was finally killed in the fall of 1999 in an automobile accident in Madagascar—hours after identifying yet again another rare bird to add to her list. She was sixty-eight.

Two months before her death, and the last time Vera and I heard from her, she wrote to compliment our book Chasing Warblers and the photograph of the Blackburnian Warbler on its cover. She said, "The first one I saw that magical spring over thirty years ago, and the impact of something so beautiful that I had never seen before, was strong and immediate—and changed my life." Years earlier, Vera and I had ourselves experienced a spiritual reconnection with nature in much the same way during a "fallout" of Neotropical migrants on the Texas Gulf Coast. It was quite a moment, as birds of all colors dropped from the sky like holiday ornaments and began dancing at our feet as they feverishly tried to re-nourish. We could have reached out and touched them. It was magical. It was as if we had never before been dazzled by a sky full of stars until one crisp, clean night we were pulled by a strong premonition—to simply look up. And as we began our exploration of the Neotropical rainforests in search of the colorful birds living there, we knew that we were entering one of the planet's last sanctuaries of enchantment and mystery—and that inexhaustible opportunities for wonder were awaiting us.

Text by Bob Thornton
Photography by Vera and Bob Thornton

Vera and Bob Thornton, of Dallas, Texas, are longtime conservationists and enthusiastic wildlife photographers who also coauthored Chasing Warblers in 1999.

"This book is for anyone who loves nature photography or birding, and it is a fine introduction to the beauty and diversity of this region for anyone who plans on traveling there."
—Southeastern Naturalist

"The Thorntons have high standards indeed—some of these pictures are easily the best ever taken of their respective species; some are spectacular, even dazzling."
—Robert S. Ridgely, Vice President, American Bird Conservancy

"Nothing quite like this book has ever been done by anyone—great photos of tropical birds and interesting, informative text."
—Victor Emanuel, President, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours