|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.
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.
|Black-lored Parrot - Buru, Indonesia: Family Old World Parrots (180 spp)|
|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.
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.
|Great Frigatebird - Lady Elliot Island, Australia: Family Frigatebirds (5 spp)|
|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.
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.
|White-breasted Whistler - Cape Keraudren, Australia: Family Whistlers & Allies (57 spp)|
|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.
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.
|Superb Lyrebird - Woy Woy, Australia:Family Lyrebirds (2 spp)|
|Yucatan Jay - Tulum, Mexico: Family Crows, Jays & Magpies (124 spp)|
|Abyssinian Roller - Waza, Cameroon: Family Rollers (12 spp)|
|Soft-plumaged Petrel - Sunshine Coast, Australia: Family Shearwaters & Petrels (87 spp)|
|Puerto Rican Rody - Guanico, Puerto Rico: Family Todies (5 spp)|