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New year, new birds: 10 newly-recognised species

By Alex Dale

BirdLife is proud to announce that Volume 2 of the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World is now available to purchase. Published  by Lynx Edicions in association with HBW and BirdLife International, Volume 2 chronicles the world’s passerines (perching birds), and completes the most exhaustive illustrated checklist of birds ever compiled, with stunning, full-colour portraits of all the world’s 10,965 extant species.

As part of our commitment to this birder’s tome, BirdLife’s science team performed a rigorous taxonomy review of all the world’s birds, and discovered that previously we had underestimated the world’s avian diversity by as much as 10%. Many birds previously thought races, or sub-species of other birds, were actually fully-fledged species in their own right.

As a result of these studies, over 1,000 new bird species were recognised during the compilation of the Illustrated Checklist, 10 of the most eye-catching of which are featured below.

 

1. Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch Fringilla polatzeki

Meet Europe’s newest, and rarest, resident bird. Previously considered the same species as the larger, and far more common, Tenerife Blue Chaffinch Fringilla teydea, the Gran Canaria relative makes its Red List debut in the Endangered category, as forest fires on the island have decimated this rare finch’s preferred Canary pine habitats. Future fires could prove disastrous.

2. South Island Kokako Callaeas cinereus

Is the ‘Grey Ghost’ still haunting New Zealand’s South Island? Distinguished from its North Island relative by its orange (rather than blue) wattles, this arboreal forest bird has not been reliably spotted since 2007, which explains its Red List categorisation as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct). But given that the last verified sighting before 2007 was in 1967, however, it’s perhaps a little too soon to stop believing in ghosts…

 

3. Asir Magpie Pica asirensis

Look familiar? It should do – this Saudi Arabia endemic was, until 2016, considered a race of the famous Eurasian Magpie Pica pica. However, unlike its widespread relative, which has a range that spans Ireland to Vietnam, just 135 pairs of Asir Magpie remain, all of which are restricted to juniper forest in the valleys of south-west Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to distinguish visually from the Eurasian Magpie (although there is marginally more black plumage on its back), but its call is very different: a loud ‘quaynk-quaynk’ sound.

 

4. Bahama Nuthatch Sitta insularis

The Brown-headed Nuthatch Sitta pusilla is a common species throughout much of the southern and eastern parts of the USA, but the much rarer race insularis, now recognised as a distinct species, has a much smaller range, confined as it is to the island of Grand Bahama. Aside from location, it can be distinguished from the Brown-headed Nuthatch but its longer, thinner bill and its darker eyestripe.

5. Comoro Blue Vanga Cyanolanius comorensis

Previously considered a subspecies of the Madagascar Blue Vanga Cyanolanius madagascarinus, this striking shrike-like bird is still reasonably common on Comoros, but ongoing habitat loss and degradation are contributing to its gradual decline.

 

6. Marsh Antwren Formicivora paludicola

Despite living practically on the doorstep of São Paulo, this species was only discovered in 2004. It occupies an area possibly less than two square kilometres, and has already been lost from two sites in the short time since its discovery. Some of the birds were translocated from one of these sites ahead of the construction of a dam upstream that wiped them out. Talking of South American dams…

 

7. Antioquia Wren Thryophilus sernai

Newly described from north-west Colombia and newly-acquainted to the Red List’s Endangered club, the construction of the Ituango Dam, an embankment dam on the Cauca River, could wipe out over half its known dry forest habitat.

8. Nias Hill Myna Gracula robusta

This stocky myna, possibly the largest extant member of the starling family, is prized for its talking ability and this has led to its demise. Restricted to the Banyak and Nias islands of Indonesia, wild populations have seemingly been almost entirely wiped out by visiting bird trappers. This freshly-split species was considered extinct in the wild until 2015, when Czech zoologists discovered a new population.

9. Lendu Crombec Sylvietta chapini

Stick in a pin in the most wild, untamed part of the African rainforests you can find on a map, and you will have stuck a pin right through last known whereabouts of this elusive warbler. It is known only from three specimens taken in montane vegetation on the ultra-remote Lendu Plateau in Democratic Republic of Congo. Some habitat still remains and the species may still be extant, but civil war prevents us from finding out for sure. Until then, it is officially classified as Critically Endangered.

10. Vampire Ground-finch Geospiza septentrionalis

If you’re reading this list last thing at night, then you’re probably going to want to keep the lights on. This bloodthirsty Galapagos finch, endemic to the islands of Wolf and Darwin, was always considered a very distinct subspecies of the Sharp-beaked Ground-finch Geospiza difficilis, not least because of its rather ghoulish feeding habits. This aptly-named species occasionally pecks at the skin of other birds, such as boobies, until a wound opens so it can drink its victim’s blood. It is believed the Vampire Ground-finch developed its taste for blood to compensate for the scarcity of resources on the arid islands it calls home.

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