Beauty and song, born when Gondwana was joined
Birds are a class of life that I have always found appealing, though I had never put forth much effort towards learning about, or observing, the impressive variety of species of the feathered kind. However, I did have a goal, during most of my adult life, to see parrots in the wild, as they had long been extinct from my home region and I found them to be generally intriguing. That aspiration was technically fulfilled during my Cuba Tour in 02002, and my Madagascar Tour of 02003, though the fleeting sightings I made in those cases were not exactly satisfying. Everything changed on the first days of the Tour of Gondwana, both in the urban zone of Melbourne during the first day after the Pacific crossing, and in Tasmania during the first cycling day, when, without any unusual efforts on my part, beautiful parrots presented themselves in their full glory for my admiration. From that point forward I was hooked, and, I suppose, I now consider myself to be a birdwatcher. That activity was one I had rarely considered in prior years, and certainly would never have thought of doing during a long bicycle tour. Nevertheless, before long I began to consider any day that included the observation of a new bird species as a great day, no matter how heavy traffic was along the way, or how exhausting the terrain had proven to be. By the time I reached the latter Stages, my occasional digressions sneaking across a farmer's field somewhere, in order to get a decent photo of the next bird, began to contribute to my increasingly dawdling cycling pace.
Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder: What should be the signature bird family for Gondwana? That is, what family of birds, not in a strictly taxonomic perspective, of course, would most make one think;
Here are the nominees:
The Bee-Eaters & Motmots
The Bee-Eaters are a family of small insectivorous birds that was unknown to me before the Tour. That changed during a relaxing day off at the Mataranka Homestead in the Northern Territory of Australia, where I enjoyed a little kayaking in the local spring-fed pools and rivers. In doing so, I spent a considerable time being entertained by the precision aerobatics of a pair of Rainbow Bee-Eaters, which were feeding from a tree perch over the water. In addition to their fascinating aerial antics, which are among the best in the bird world, the Bee-Eaters are among the most beautiful small birds I have yet seen. In addition, they politely pose for photographs in a much more accommodating manner, relative to other birds. That species is the only representative I saw in Stage 1, and I believe that there are no others found in Australia or New Guinea. Six more are found in south Asia, of which I saw two. However, it is Africa that is the predominant territory for this group, and that continent holds nineteen species. Of those, I only managed to observe four, though that was not bad, considering the limited area of the continent I visited during the Tour. All of the species I saw scored high in both the beauty and entertainment categories of my evaluations. The Bee-Eaters are not present in South America, however an allied group, the Motmots, can be considered to fill their niche. To me, the superficial similarities are significant, with a similar body and bill shape, dominant colors of olive and chestnut, with blue highlights, tail-racquets or -streamers, and a distinctive flying style used to catch insects. The Motmots are slightly larger than most Bee-Eaters, but otherwise I consider them to be the new world member of that group, and, taxonomically, both are included in the order Coraciiformes.
Rainbow Bee-Eater - Aus. | Chestnut-Headed Bee-Eater - Nepal Row 1
Green Bee-Eater - S.Lanka | Northern Carmine Bee Eater - Ethiopia. Row 2
Little Bee-Eater - Tanzania. | Madagascar Bee-Eater - Mad. Row 3
White-Fronted Bee Eater - S. Africa | Lesson's Motmot - Panama Row 4
Penguins score a massive number of points in my little contest by being the only bird, indeed the only animal of any kind, to inhabit the ice-bound Gondwanan fragment of Antarctica, a place that I have always wanted to visit, but was not able to during the Tour. However, I was slightly surprised at the ease at which I was able to see Penguins during three Stages, with India being the only part of Gondwana that is not inhabited or visited by the black-and-white, water-loving birds. My first encounter came on Tasmania when I met the Little Penguin. After that, a considerable length of time passed, not until the final day of Stage 3, before I saw the African Penguin on Boulders Beach, at Cape Town, South Africa. In South America there are a number of species which can be observed, though I only saw three; the Magellanic Penguin on the east coast of Argentina, where I was fortunate to make my observation just before the population had totally gone out to sea, the Humboldt Penguin of Peru, which I saw on an excursion to Islas Ballestas, and the Galapagos Penguin, unique in being the only member of the family to live at the equator and the only one that visits the northern hemisphere. It seems likely that Penguins may have originally evolved on South America and spread to the other continents by circling the Southern Ocean. In fact while I was riding Stage 4, a report was published that presented new discoveries of fossils of a giant penguin which once lived on the Peruvian coast. With the exception of the Little Penguin, all the species that I saw share a similar physical appearance, with a black arch above their white chest, and a variable amount of pink around their bills, and can be assumed to have diverged from a common ancestor. Their unique adaptation to a marine life, with the loss of their flight capabilities, and their charismatic behavior and general friendliness towards humans, make them ideal candidates in my search. On the other hand, the fact that they only live on a few coastal beaches, and leave most of the land area of Gondwana to other creatures, detract from their case.
Little Penguin - Aus. | African Penguin - S.Africa Row 1
Humboldt Penguin - Peru | Galapagos Penguin Row 2
Magellanic Penguins - Argentina Row 3
My early impressions of the Kingfisher family were based on the two northern-hemisphere species, and my limited experiences with those lead me to believe, incorrectly, that the family was primarily confined to the boreal regions. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as the Kingfishers are, most definitely, a Gondwanan family. Cousins of the Bee-Eaters, the Kingfishers share with that group a penchant towards colorful plumage, and a pronounced bill which is adeptly used for hunting. However, in contrast to the insectivorous Bee-Eaters, most Kingfishers feed on aquatic life. That fact makes facile observations of the many members of the group practical only near rivers or wetlands. There were plenty of those along my route, including the waterways of Kakadu National Park in Australia, where I saw four new species in a single morning. The other two Australian examples I saw were the forest-dwelling Kookaburras, of which the Laughing Kookaburra, is distinctive for its loud, exotic vocalizations, which have quite possibly been erroneously used as a sound effect in every bad jungle movie ever made. There are a number of species in South Asia, though the White-Breasted Kingfisher is by far the most common in the areas I visited. Africa is the evolutionary stronghold of this group, with nineteen species found on the continent, though I saw only four. In South America, though I tried as best I could, I only managed to observe three of the five local species. However, those three were all very impressive birds, as were the others I encountered along the way.
Azure Kingfisher - Australia | Forest Kingfisher - Australia Row 1
Little Kingfisher - Australia | Sacred Kingfisher - Australia Row 2
Blue-Winged Kookaburra - Aus. | Laughing Kookaburra - Aus. Row 3
White-Breasted Kingfisher - India | Pied Kingfisher - India Row 1
Grey-Headed Kingfisher - Kenya | Brown-Hooded Kingfisher - S.Afr. Row 2
Giant Kingfisher - Swaziland | Amazon Kingfisher - Brazil Row 3
Green Kingfisher - Colombia | Ringed Kingfisher - Brazil Row 4
In terms of distinctiveness, and evolutionary relevance to Gondwana, it is hard to beat the Ratites. That group, comprised of mostly large, flightless birds occupies a unique niche in the avian world. Strong, powerful, and fleet of foot, these birds do not seem to miss their lack of wings one bit. In Australia, the Emu is the group's main representative, and I had several encounters with the large, and only mildly nervous, birds. Unfortunately, my only sightings of the continent's other members of the group, the Cassowaries, perhaps my favorite member of the family, thanks to their rather outlandish appearance, were of captive birds in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. The most famous, and largest, member of the family, the Ostrich, lives in Africa, of course. There are four sub-species there, of which I saw two. Though it is possible to see an Ostrich in human-dominated areas, a greater likelihood of observing one is found in the many game parks on the continent. However, there is an increasing industry devoted to Ostrich ranching, especially in southern Africa, and those facilities can also make good places to watch the birds. South America possesses two examples, the Lesser and Greater Rheas. As its name suggests, the Lesser Rhea is the smaller of the two, and can be fairly easily seen in the southern part of the continent, especially in southeastern Patagonia. The Greater Rhea lives on the grasslands of eastern South America and my sightings came in the Cerrado of Brazil. India does not currently have a population of any Ratite, though, it did in the past, and that fact reveals the most fascinating and relevant aspect of this group's past.
Specifically, the ancestors of the moderns Ratites lived on Gondwana while it was still joined. Being flightless, the original population became separated and isolated on the various fragments after the supercontinent broke apart, leading to their divergence into the forms we know today. The exact time that these speciations occurred and paths they took are puzzling topics of study for those who work in paleobiology and paleogeology today. One surprising find from those studies is that the Ostrich may have actually been the "Indian Ratite," as its earliest fossils have been found there. Presumably, then, the Ostrich left India, and colonized Africa, after both of those fragments reconnected with Asia. It should be mentioned that there is an additional member of the family that I did not see during the Tour, but which I saw and heard on an earlier tour, the diminutive kiwis of New Zealand. Those islands were also home to one of two types of large Ratites know to have gone extinct in historical times, namely, the Moas. The other example was the "Elephant Bird" of Madagascar, which is believed to be the largest bird to have ever lived, and survived the arrival of humans on the island, possibly until 17th century. If those gargantuan birds still lived today, my tours there would have been even more amazing.
Emu - Australia | Southern Cassowary (captive) - PNG. Row 1
Ostrich - Botswana | Masai Ostrich - Tanzania Row 2
Lesser Rheas - Argentina. | Greater Rhea - Brazil Row 3
Sacred to the ancient Egyptians, Gondwana's earliest civilization, the Ibis family has deep roots in the southern world. I can't exactly say why, but I really like the Ibises. Perhaps it is just the way they strut about, browsing in grasslands or wetlands, and picking up food with their long, decurved bills. They are also large enough that they are easy to spot, though their somewhat nervous demeanor often caused them to retreat to just beyond good-photo range whenever I approached. Though there are some examples found in southern North America and Eurasia, the Ibis family has a true southern heritage. All of the major pieces of Gondwana are well stocked with members of the group, though South America is probably the most diverse region, with eleven species. I did my best to see all of those during Stage 4, and came fairly close. Two species live only in parts of the continent that my route did not reach, namely, the Sharp-Tailed Ibis and the outstandingly beautiful Scarlet Ibis. In fact, I was so intent on seeing the latter, that I planned to add a long tour into Venezuela to my route just to have the opportunity to see some examples in the wild. Unfortunately, that section of the route had to be cut due to time and budget constraints, and so I had to be satisfied with seeing a captive example at the Parque das Aves in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. I also thought that I might have failed to see a Green Ibis, and towards the end of the Stage I frantically searched for one, without success. It was not until after the Stage was complete that I realized I had actually seen several in the Brazilian Pantanal, and either had forgotten about the encounter, or never realized it had occurred in the first place. A thirteen-month-long tour is bound to cause such lapses, I suppose.
Australian White Ibis - Australia | Straw-Necked Ibis - Aus. Row 1
Glossy Ibis - Aus. | Hadeda Ibis - Ethiopia. Row 2
African Sacred Ibis - Tanzania. | Southern Bald Ibis (captive) - S Afr. Row 3
Puna Ibises - Bolivia. Row 4
Black-Faced Ibis - Chile | Buff-Necked Ibis - Brazil Row 1
Bare-Faced Ibis - Brazil | White-Faced Ibis - Argentina Row 2
Plumbeous Ibis - Brazil | Green Ibis - Brazil Row 3
White Ibis - Colombia | Scarlet Ibis (captive) - Colombia Row 4
The Sunbirds & Hummingbirds
The next candidate is another pair of unrelated families, one from the eastern hemisphere and one from the western. Though the Sunbirds and Hummingbirds are only distantly related (at the class level,) they share enough physical and behavioral similarities that I will nominate them together. These similarities have probably arisen due to their chosen lifestyle as nectar-feeders, and provide a nice example of convergent evolution. The most noticeable of their common features are small size, a usually long, and often curved, bill, brilliant and often iridescent plumage, and the ability to fly rapidly, precisely, and often without much forward motion. That final aspect results in another, more frustrating, similarity; that both groups are disturbingly difficult to photograph. There is only one species in Australia, the Olive-Backed Sunbird, which I saw on the Queensland Coast. In south Asia, which is home to a number of members of the group, I did observe a few beautiful examples, while I was in the Himalayan foothills, but they proved to be only the briefest of encounters and I was not able to secure a single photo. Africa, on the other hand is the Sunbirds primary domain, and there are at least 86 species living on the continent. My count of seven of those seemed to leave the majority of the family unobserved, but the beauty of the birds that I was able to see more than made up for that. The western hemisphere's counterparts, the Hummingbirds, are well known to residents of the Americas. What I did not realize before the Tour, was that the Hummingbirds of North America, represent only a small fraction of the family, and the real action is below the equator. For well over 200 species reside in South America. That meant that I was able to see them frequently, and in just about all geographic regions and environments. With patience, and more importantly, luck, I did manage to grab a number of fair images of many of the types I saw. However, with so many varieties to choose from, many of which display only slight differences in appearance, I cannot be 100% confident in all of the identifications listed on this page.
Olive-Backed Sunbird - Aus. | Variable Sunbird - Ethiopia Row 1
Tacazze Sunbird - Ethiopia | Bronzy Sunbird - Rwanda Row 2
Purple-Breasted Sunbird - Rwnd. | Madagascar Green Sunbird - Mad. Row 3
Malachite Sunbird - S Afr. | Greater Double-Collared Sunbird - S Afr. Row 4
Sapphire-Spangled Emerald - Brz. | Green-Backed Firecrown - Chile Row 1
Swallow-Tailed Hummingbd - Brz. | Long-Tailed Woodnymph - Brazil Row 2
Long-Tailed Sylph - Peru | Violet-Capped Woodnymph - Brazil Row 3
Amazilia Hummingbird - Peru | Green-and-White Hummingbird - Peru Row 4
Sombre Hummingbird - Brazil | Blue-Fronted Lancebill - Peru Row 1
Black Metaltail - Peru | White-Bellied Hummingbird - Peru Row 2
Green-Tailed Trainbearer - Ecuador | Sparkling Violetear - Colombia Row 3
White-Necked Jacobin - Colombia | Purple-Collared Woodstar - Peru Row 4
The Hornbills & Toucans
Like the previous candidate, this nominee consists of two very distantly related groups from opposite hemispheres which share a common defining characteristic. Specifically, in the case of both the Hornbills and the Toucans, that is an inordinately large and extended bill. Once again, this demonstrates nicely the concept of convergent evolution, though exactly what particular survival advantage these giant accessories provided to the ancestors of these groups still seems to be poorly understood. The Hornbills are the eastern hemisphere family and though there is one species that is resident on New Guinea, which I was not fortunate enough to observe, it was not until midway through Stage 2 before I saw my first example. The wait was worth it, as my first sighting was the endangered Rufous-Necked Hornbill, an impressive bird that I saw in the forests of Bhutan. Later in the Stage, I encountered a few more species, though the conditions for making observations were never very good during those occasions. Once I reached Africa, the variety and numbers of Hornbills increased dramatically, and I saw a number of different species. It was often hard to see them clearly through the characteristically tangled bush of the region, but with patience I managed a few good shots. In South America, the Toucans take up the charge, but do so in a much more colorful way. With their cartoonish bills and neatly combed, colorful plumage, the birds of that family almost appear to be artificial. Alive they are, however, though it was not until I reached the northern half of the continent that I was able to see any for myself to confirm that fact. When I did come across a wild member of the family, the experience never failed to impress, to be sure. In fact, the Keel-Billed Toucan could possibly be the single most attractive bird I have yet seen.
Ruffous-Necked Hornbill - Bhutan | Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill - S.Lanka Row 1
Indian Grey Hornbill - India | African Grey Hornbill - Ethiopia Row 2
Hemprich's Hornbill - Ethiopia | Northern Red-Billed Hornbill - Tanz. Row 3
Eastern Yellow-Billed Hornbill - Tanz. | Tanzanian Hornbill - Tanz. Row 1
Von der Decken's Hornbill - Tanz. | Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill - Tanz. Row 2
Trumpeter Hornbill (captive) - Africa | Black-&-White-Casqued
The birds shown on this page represent only about a quarter of all the species I saw for the first time during the Tour. The remainder included many beautiful and interesting species, and the complete list is given below. Considering that I was a complete birding novice at the time, and was also limited by the usual constraints of a bicycle tour, which was, of course, my primary activity, I think that I did rather well. I include on the list only those birds which I could positively identify, preferably with a good photo. The latter requirement was not always easy, as the light, portable cameras I prefer for cycling would be sneered at by any serious birder. Nevertheless, with a large dose of patience, a little practice, and, most importantly, several hours a day out in the natural world, I was able to achieve much more than I might have expected, with well over 700 species identified.
As far as ease of observations was concerned, here is the breakdown for number of kilometers of cycling per new bird species for the five Stages:
~ Stage 2: 366 km/species
~ Stage 5: 175 km/species
~ Stage 1: 130 km/species
~ Stage 3: 101 km/species
~ Stage 4: 79 km/species
Asia proved to be the least successful Stage for me, with a much longer distance needed to see a new species. While there are certainly plenty of nice birds there, their ranges have been so diminished by the ponderous human presence along my route that I was not able to observe very many of them. Stage 5 required a surprisingly long distance per species, despite Central America being a hotbed of birding. That largely resulted from the similarities of the avifauna of that region with the rest of the neotropics, meaning that many of the birds I saw there were already counted in the Stage 4 tally. Stage 1 in Australia would have ranked near the best of the Stages, were it not for the long, uniform distances of the Outback, which provided relatively few sightings of new species. Africa surprised me quite a bit with regards to its ease of observations, though that factor was not very uniform throughout the Stage. However, Stage 4 in South America, blew all the others off the map with a mere 79 kilometers required, on average, to spot a new species. Meaning that, in effect, I saw more than one new bird species for every cycling day, a truly satisfying state of affairs.