Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A Feast of Feathers: Seeing All the World's 234 Bird Families

Hypocolius - Greater Rann of Kutch, India: Family Hypocolius (1 spp)
It didn't exactly take the breath away, but there it was. A drab, olive-green bird sitting motionless in a heavily forested gully in Darien National Park, in the far south of Panama. The bird was a Sapayoa, an enigmatic bird with a family of its own, and the only one of the world's 234 bird families that until that moment in October 2015, I had not seen.

Black-lored Parrot - Buru, Indonesia: Family Old World Parrots (180 spp)
Now, with all 234 families in the bag, it's time to reflect; this is being written because people have suggested I do so. I'm often asked three questions. Why chase bird families? Answer: No particular reason other than it seemed like a challenge with a difference. How difficult is it to snare them all? Answer: Quite. Will I keep chasing families if new ones are created due to taxonomic changes? Answer: We'll see, but having achieved the goal, I doubt I will feel compelled to do so.

Sapayoa - Darien National Park, Panama:  Family Sapayoa (1 spp)
I'd looked for Sapayoa before, the last time in Colombia in 2011, when our group birded the Quibdo Road in the choco of the country's western foothills. We saw no Sapayoas but did encounter heavily armed Colombian troops. We learned later that the road was in a region frequented by FARC fighters and bandits, where military conflict was commonplace. We were told we were stupid to be there.

Spotted Elachura - Eaglenest, India. Pic Tony Palliser: Family Elachura (1 spp)
It's in the nature of birding that one can be in potentially dangerous predicaments, particularly if alone. I had been targeted by armed robbers in Mexico and knife-wielding hooligans in Spain. I almost died of cerebral malaria contracted in Kenya. I've been charged by elephants and rhinos and stung by stingrays and killer hornets. Many birding friends have similar tales.

Regent Bowerbird - Border Ranges, Australia: Family Bowerbirds (20 spp) 
Yet we are driven still. Feathers in the head, it is said. Birders are a varied lot. Some are content to keep an eye on their local patch. Others in this country are focused on their Australian lists. There was a time, in the 1970s and early-80s, when I would go anywhere in Australia to twitch a vagrant. Once I was vying with John McKean and Mike Carter for the biggest Australian list.

Grey-necked Rockfowl - Korup, Cameroon. Pic Matthew Matthiesson: Family Rockfowl (2 spp)
I had no interest in world birding at the time, but that changed, beginning with a visit to Papua New Guinea in 1982. Near Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands, I watched a male Blue Bird-of-Paradise hanging upside down from a branch, shimmering in the sunlight in full display. It was and remains the most gorgeous thing I had seen; I was hooked.

Great Frigatebird - Lady Elliot Island, Australia: Family Frigatebirds (5 spp)
Since then I have been to Africa and Latin America 9 or 10 times each, usually on lengthy trips, and to Asia, Europe and America on many occasions. Numerous islands from the Caribbean to the western Pacific and Indian oceans were checked out. I experienced the wonders of the Arctic and Antarctica, staying in adjoining rooms on the same vessel for trips two years apart to the two ends of the globe.

Adelie Penguin - Ross Sea, Antarctica: Family Penguins (18 spp)
Each of the world's 10,000+ bird species belongs to one of 234 families. Sometime in the mid-1990s I decided that I wanted to see all those families. There was no particular reason; it simply seemed like a good idea to see groupings of related species. It became a goal, and quite a slug. I always plan exhaustively for overseas birding trips. The goal of seeing all bird families often complicated itineraries and added considerable costs.

White-breasted Whistler - Cape Keraudren, Australia: Family Whistlers & Allies (57 spp)
Some families are easy to tick. The 164 species of waterfowl and 144 species of rail are scattered across the globe. It is impossible to go anywhere in South America without seeing some of the 302 species of ovenbirds and their relatives. Other families are much more difficult, especially those with one or two species in remote and difficult-to-access places; these include Hypocolius, Spotted Elachura, Shoebill, Kagu, Magellanic Plover, Egyptian Plover, Plains-wanderer, Bristlehead and Rockfowl. Others such as Australia's scrub-birds and the Rail-babbler of south-east Asia are skulking and hard to find. 

Okarito Brown Kiwi - Franz Joseph, New Zealand: Family Kiwis (5 spp) 
Seeing the final three families on my world list took almost three years. In January 2013, with Bill Watson and Tony Palliser, I saw Hypocolius in the desert of the Greater Rann of Kutch in north-west India. In May 2015, again with Bill Watson and Tony Palliser, I saw Spotted Elachura in the rainforest of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in north-east India. There is symmetry to this; Tony has just returned from a trip to Argentina where he also clocked up the 234 families.

Superb Lyrebird - Woy Woy, Australia:Family Lyrebirds (2 spp)
I have long followed the taxonomy of The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, meaning that for all intents and purposes, I've seen all the world's bird families. Others follow the differing taxonomy of the checklist published by the International Ornithological Congress. If I had been in the IOC camp, I would have one more family to go, the Wattled Ploughbill of New Guinea, which I have heard but not seen in the field. 

Yucatan Jay - Tulum, Mexico: Family Crows, Jays & Magpies (124 spp) 
As it was, the radically changing face of taxonomy due to the technology of DNA made the task of seeing the world's families increasingly difficult as time progressed. Until recently, for instance, Spotted Elachura was thought not to have even its own genus, but DNA sequencing showed it was a highly distinctive taxa, warranting its own family. Another one that unexpectedly had to be added to the wishlist. 

Abyssinian  Roller - Waza, Cameroon: Family Rollers (12  spp)
For now, I can reflect on some on the pleasures of seeing those 234 families. The Kagu of New Caledonia was only just returning from the brink of extinction when I saw it in 2000; Yves Letocart, the celebrated French scientist researching the bird, led me to a gorgeously displaying male. An anxious wait of several hours preceded the fantastic spectacle of a group of Grey-necked Rockfowl bouncing about the walls of a cave in Korup National Park, Cameroon, in 2006.

Soft-plumaged Petrel - Sunshine Coast, Australia:  Family Shearwaters & Petrels (87 spp)
My first Hoatzin, a juvenile in Venezuela in 1995, looked positively prehistoric as it clambered about the foliage with clawed wings. Almost as unworldly was the solitary Shoebill stalking the shallows of Akegara in Rwanda in 1990, shortly before that lovely country was torn asunder by civil strife. A lone male Prezvalski's Rosefinch shone like a red beacon in the midst of the stark plains of China's Qinghai province in 2007. Back home in Australia, few things are as enchanting as a lyrebird - be it Superb or Albert's - in full song, while a male Regent Bowerbird in the sun never disappoints.

Puerto Rican Rody - Guanico, Puerto Rico: Family Todies (5 spp)
With 234 bird families in the bag, where to next? There are more than 10,000 bird species in the world: despite everything, I've see just 75 per cent of those.  


  1. Congratulations on an outstanding birding achievement Greg. Nice bit of understatement at the end; 'There are more than 10,000 bird species in the world: despite everything, I've see just 75 per cent of those.' - over 7 and a half THOUSAND species deserves more than 'just'!

  2. Thanks for that Ken. 7,642 to be precise. Still, I derive great pleasure from looking at birds around here.

  3. That was really interesting. Congratulations on your achievement.

  4. That was a great read Greg. Congratulations on your achievement and best wishes with your next venture!

  5. Add my congratulations also. It rather dwarfs Noah Stryker's big year. However he got more than six thousand species in one year. Not likely to be surpassed any time soon.
    I once fantasized about seeing every bird family on earth but dismissed the idea as something unobtainable. My guess is that your achievement will not be easily matched either.

    1. A couple of people have got there John. And I wouldn't underestimate Noah's achievement!

  6. Well done Greg. I would point out however that neither Madanga nor Grandala is in a separate family under IOC taxonomy, thank goodness!
    Peter Marsh

    1. Thanks Peter. Yes it seems you are right. Madanga is regarded as a pipit and Grandala is a thrush. So under IOC I have seen all the families except Wattled Ploughbill (which I've heard).

  7. My friend Murray pointed me to this blog article, and it was great fun to read. Congratulations! I've been trying to "see all the families" since the late 1980s -- and like you I used Clements as the standard -- and once did achieve it with Oilbird in Trinidad in 2006. But the discovery of new families through DNA studies accelerated and I'm short of the goal again. It remains a very elusive goal! For me it is the search that is exciting... and strangely enough it feels like fun to be short of the line again. Although I follow Clements, I have my own web page on bird families [link at bottom] that is often 2-3 years ahead of Clements as I read the most recent studies. I'll soon be adding 6 more to my website's list [241 right now] in the New Guinea/Australia area based on the most recent research [most are in the newest New Guinea field guide] and so for me I hope to visit New Guinea again later this year. As you describe, there is no place like New Guinea with its BOPs and now some new skulkers to seek out. So, for now, here's to you and your success! Don

    1. Thanks Don I'll check out your page. Greg

    2. Hi again Don. Have finally had a chance to go through your list. The only one of your families that I've not seen is Ploughbill. All the best.

  8. Amazing achievement Greg - a nice idea to tackle something a little different - youve been fortunate indeed to be even able to travel the world looking for birds and sounds like you've made every post a winner! 7500 species in itself a mammoth effort. cheers

    1. Thanks David. Yes fortunate I am, and grateful for the opportunities.

  9. Thank you Greg .. great read and huge achievement.

  10. That is an incredible achievement Greg!!

  11. Terrific achievement Greg, and thanks for sharing. I too follow the Clements Families, and tick each. In fact, next month we're heading to DomRep to tick Palmchat and Tody, so I keenly understand how you got there (though I am well behind!). DanC

    1. Thankyou Dan. Yes the DomRep required a special visit.