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1,000 Birds and 1,000 Butterflies: the Madidi Expedition Continues

[Note: this is the fifth in a series of reports from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Identidad Madidi expedition currently taking place in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park]

By Rob Wallace

After a five month break during the wet season, the Identidad Madidi field team is reunited on the fifth leg of its Bolivian scientific expedition. The Andean foothill forests of the upper Hondo River represent our seventh study site in a series of fifteen spanning the unique altitudinal range of almost 6,000 meters (194m to 6,044m above sea level) of Madidi National Park. Identidad Madidi will run for two and a half years between May 2015 and October 2017 and I will continue to blog on its progress and findings.

Our first challenge of the 2016 field season is a familiar one – actually reaching our planned study site location. In Spanish, “hondo” means deep, but whoever named the river way back when must have had a singular sense of humor, because there is nothing deep about the Rio Hondo. Rather it is famed for being very shallow (extremely so later on in the year at the height of the dry season).

To reach our destination we spent the best part of four days hauling eight long, heavy, and laden wooden canoes upstream, traversing a series of “huarascas” or rapids, sometimes having to dig temporary channels among the slippery rocks. Three weeks later, and with the help of some overnight rainfall, it only took us a day to return down the river.

But of course, the effort was well worth it, because the study location is stunning, remote and wild. Big country landscapes have been memorable at all of the Identidad Madidi sites, and the Hondo is no exception, with striking views from on top of the magnificent Chepite escarpment and within the Hondo canyon.

As a photographer, I was hypnotized by the exquisite and delicate beauty and tranquility of the forest streams running off those foothills, as well as the Hondo River itself. Meanwhile, my wildlife highlight was a one-hour observation of a southern Amazonian river otter, oblivious to our presence as it fished, rested and swam among the rapids of this wilderness.

But as well as being beautiful, Madidi is probably the world’s most biologically diverse protected area. For example, this week Identidad Madidi was pleased to announce that a milestone 1,000th species of bird has been confirmed for Madidi National Park: the dusky-tailed flatbill (Ramphotrigon fuscicauda).

This secretive forest flycatcher was registered after analyzing audio-tapes recorded from the previous study site in Alto Madidi in October 2015 by Victor Hugo Garcia, an Armonia ornithologist working with Identidad Madidi. Victor Hugo and his colleague Rodrigo Soria-Auza have taken turns on the expedition. At each site they disappear before dawn every morning to observe and record birds in an effort to increase an already burgeoning bird list for the park.

Compared to other taxonomic groups, knowledge about birds in Madidi prior to Identidad Madidi was relatively good, with over 970 species already confirmed from the list of 1,100 expected species – an incredible 11 percent of all the world´s bird species.

It is especially fitting that Madidi´s 1000th bird was a flycatcher registered at Alto Madidi and confirmed by a young Bolivian ornithologist possessing the knowledge of bird songs and natural history required to register species. Victor Hugo follows in the footsteps of the late Ted Parker III, a legendary Neotropical ornithologist who pioneered the use of vocalization knowledge in tropical bird surveys and influenced a whole generation of Latin American ornithologists.

It was Parker, upon visiting Alto Madidi 25 years ago, who recognized that Bolivia had the chance to create the world’s most biologically diverse protected area. The nation subsequently created Madidi National Park, and biological research such as Identidad Madidi has since has proved Ted was right.

Flycatchers were the most abundant type of bird on Parker’s long list of birds. Among budding ornithologists many flycatchers are affectionately known as LBJ´s – or “little brown jobs” – that without knowledge of birdsong are notoriously difficult to identify. Of course in a place so diverse, there are some extraordinary exceptions. On the trip up the Hondo, we were able to photograph perhaps the craziest of all flycatchers – the Amazonian royal (Oxyrhynchus coronatus coronatus) – with its fabulously “fan-tastic” and retractable headdress that left us all dazzled and incredulous.

In this blog, I can reveal another “1000 species” watershed moment for Madidi. Taking turns on the Identidad Madidi field trips, three Bolivian entomologists – Martin Apaza (of the Bolivian Fauna Collection and Bolivian National Park Service, or SERNAP), Marcelo Aliaga, and especially Fernando Guerra (also of the Bolivian Fauna Collection) – have expanded the number of butterflies confirmed for Madidi National Park from 355 to 1,007 species.

That already represents almost 6 percent of the world’s butterfly species, and Fernando estimates that Madidi may contain almost 10 percent of known butterflies. Identidad Madidi focused on documenting butterflies because, due to their popularity and visibility, they are the best known portion of tropical insect diversity. But butterflies make up just 1.8 percent of known insects, and the other insect and invertebrate diversity in Madidi remains poorly understood.

Nevertheless, as the expedition progresses, vertebrate and butterfly numbers will continue to grow, further establishing Madidi as a globally outstanding protected area. You can follow our progress in more detail on our webpage or on Facebook, where updates are most frequent.

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Dr. Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), where he serves as Director of the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Conservation Program.