Interview with Robert S. Ridgely, author of The Birds of Ecuador
by Peter W. Thayer
July 2, 2001 Cuenca, Ecuador
Pete: When did you and Paul Greenfield decide to
write a field guide for the Birds of Ecuador?
Robert: I first heard of Paul in July 1978 when I was conducting research in Ecuador on the status of certain rare parrot species. One of the people helping me mentioned that a young American artist, interested in birds, had just moved to Quito. People interested in birds were a rarity in those days, so I called him. we were soon out looking for birds in the mountains west of the city. We actually began working on the book in 1979. I did extensive research in Ecuador from 1984 through 1994 while working for the Academy of Natural Sciences. The Academy sent three expeditions to Ecuador during that time. I spent about 48 months in the field during those ten years, usually in three to five week blocks of time. Our research led to the discovery of no less than seven unknown bird species, the addition of several hundred species to the known fauna of the country, and the documentation of poorly known bird faunas in numerous remote areas. All of this information has been included in the book.
Pete: Why did it take twenty years to complete the book?
Robert: During the same period I was working on Birds of South America (Volume 1: Oscine Passerines and Volume 2: Suboscine Passerines) as well as tending to my duties as senior ornithologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences. We continued to discover new information about Ecuadorian birds during that time. Remember, the only information available was from Chapman's book on the Birds of Ecuador published in 1926. Almost nothing had been written since then.
I wanted this book to be as accurate as possible. I'm a perfectionist. We were constantly revising the text as new information became available. We learned a lot from our three expeditions to Ecuador as well as from ornithologists working in Ecuador such as Paul Coopmans and Neils Krabbe. We finally decided it was time to publish the book when I found that the changes I was making were all rather minor. We were no longer coming up with any major "goofs" in the text or the plates.
Paul Greenfield lives in Ecuador and would do the rough sketches in his studio in Quito. He would then fly to Philadelphia where he would examine the extensive bird skin collection at the Academy and then finish his drawings. You will have to ask Paul why it took him 20 years to finish, but I suspect that he will say it was because I constantly kept asking him to make changes!
Pete: Why Ecuador?
Robert: I love Neotropical birds, especially the hummingbirds, tanagers and of course the antpittas. When I first went to Panama in the 1960s and began to write The Birds of Panama, only a few dozen people were really interested in Neotropical birds. What a difference a few decades makes!
Ecuador is the Latin America country I love the most. It has over 1,600 bird species due to the incredible habitat. Ecuador has the Pacific ocean on the west, the Amazon basin in the east and the Andes Mountains running down the center of the country. Moving up as little as 200 meters in elevation presents a whole new set of plant life and this causes the birds found at that elevation to change as well. The equator cuts through the northern part of Ecuador. And it is along the equator that the largest variety of life is found. Over 19,000 plants have been identified in Ecuador.
Everyone should care about the natural world, and with this book I hope
that many more people will begin to appreciate the extraordinary riches that Ecuador still
holds. Many of the bird species in Ecuador are endangered. Of the 1,600 birds in the book,
four species are Extirpated; 10 species Critically Endangered; 16 species are Endangered;
63 species are Vulnerable; 25 species are Data Deficient; and 85 species are
Ecuador is a marvelous, friendly, safe country. New lodges in the Amazon region with canopy towers are attracting birders. Because of this [and the new book] tour companies like Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and others are adding new tours to Ecuador.
Pete: How many bird species have you discovered?
Robert: "Discover" may not be the right way to describe the identification of a new species today. Through the Academy and our expeditions into Ecuador, we have identified seven new species. This typically involved the careful study of bird specimens, the comparison of known ranges of various races and the comparison of behavior and songs among each of the populations. I guess I am closely identified with the "discovery" of three species in particular: the El Oro Parakeet, the Chestnut-bellied Cotinga and of course the Jocotoco Antpitta which was truly a "Eureka!" sort of discovery that just doesn't happen any more.
Pete: Tell me how you find a new species as distinctive as the Jocotoco Antpitta?
Robert: On November 20, 1997 I was birding with friends in southern Ecuador about three hours south of Loja in an area called Cerro Tapichalaca when I heard a call I did not recognize. An hour later and farther down the ridge I heard the call again, much closer this time. I recorded the call and played back the tape. When I did this, an Antpitta with bold white cheek patches walked out of the forest. You could have knocked me over with a feather! I new immediately that it was a new species none of us had ever seen before. I called the others over to see the bird. We were able to observe it for 45 minutes. A few months later we returned and collected four individuals, after determining that there was a reasonable sized population in the area (perhaps 20 pairs). By luck we had two males and two females -- they look the same.
I described the new species in an article published in the Auk (October 1999), the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union. Subsequent attempts to find the bird anywhere but one small area of southern Ecuador have been unsuccessful. The Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi) is found only on or near the ground at an elevation of 2300 to 2650 meters inside montane forest with an understory of Chusquea bamboo in the temperate zone on the east slope of the Andes in southern Zamora-Chinchipe, Ecuador.
Pete: Is this habitat protected?
Robert: It is now. Since the discovery, we managed to purchase land covering the known range of the Antpitta through a new conservation organization we created in 1998 called the Fundación Jocotoco (Jocotoco Foundation). The Foundation purchases and protects land of critical importance to birds in Ecuador. The land is managed as a private reserve. We try to preserve land adjoining Ecuador's National Parks (which cover 12% of the country). We have six reserves at present and have immediate plans for three more. We are often able to buy the land for under $100 per acre. We consider this a bargain that may help prevent the extinction of birds such as the Jocotoco Antpitta, El Oro Parakeet, Pale-headed Brush-Finch, Black-cowled Saltator, Long-mantled Umbrellabird, Coppery-chested Jacamar, Red-masked Parakeet and the Esmeraldas Woodstar. But so much more land needs to be protected. $25,000 can purchase a 100 hectare (250 acres) farm with most of its habitat intact. $250,000 can secure the core area of a reserve. [Charitable contributions to the Jocotoco Foundation can be made through www.worldparks.org at (202) 939-3808.]
The human population of Ecuador continues to increase at an extraordinarily high rate, one of the highest in the world, and this is having an ever greater impact on tropical forests in particular. We hope that with the publication of this book, the movement to protect Ecuador's magnificent birdlife will take a quantum leap.
Pete: What bird guides do you admire most?
Robert: I like the Birds of the Thai-Malaysia Peninsula: volume 1, Non-Passerines. We modeled Birds of Ecuador after that guide. I also like The Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson. Birds of Panama, which was published in 1976, was a groundbreaking effort. It cut a new mold for Tropical Bird guides and I am very proud of that. I believe Birds of Ecuador will prove to be equally as valuable to birders visiting South America. We hope to have the Birds of Ecuador Spanish text version ready by 2003.
Pete: You have accomplished an amazing amount in 55 years. What are you working on now that Birds of Ecuador is finished?
Robert: I'm not sure any field guide is ever "finished". We continue to learn as more ornithologists and birders explore new areas and examine other areas in greater detail. Bird ranges expand and contract. For example, over the past fifteen years, there has been a tremendous expansion in the range of the Killdeer in Ecuador. [Updates and correction to Birds of Ecuador will be available at www.Birding.com/birdsofecuador.asp ].
I am actually working on two book projects at the moment. Guy Tudor and I are working on an abridged version of The Birds of South America volumes 1 and 2. The plates are being reformatted and it will be released as a field guide, about the size and shape of Birds of Panama [7" x 9"]. Volumes 1 and 2 illustrated about 66% of the Passerines in South America. The abridged version will have about 80% of the birds illustrated -- all but the rare vagrants. It should be released in 2002.
I have also started working on volume 3 of The Birds of South America: Pigeons to Woodpeckers. Tracy Pedersen, a wonderful artist who was the principal illustrator for Birds of the West Indies, will be painting the plates for volume 3. I can't comment on volume 4. We will have to see how long I live. I am spending more and more time on conservation efforts. I hope my books help others to realize the importance of conserving the earth's resources.
Final note from Pete: Victor Emanuel Nature Tours celebrated the publication of Robert S. Ridgely's The Birds of Ecuador with a two week tour to Eastern and Southern Ecuador from June 21st to July 5th. The 40+ participants were the first to use the new field guide (shipped directly from the printing plant in Hong Kong). Everyone fell in love with the book. David Wolf, a senior VENT tour leader commented that he can finally show folks a picture of the birds of Ecuador, instead of using another field guide and saying "Well, it looks sort of like this bird, but this and this are different".
I was lucky enough to have Robert Ridgely and David Wolf as my guides. I found the books to be remarkably accurate. Driving up into the Andes near Loja in southern Ecuador, we spotted a pair of Wood Storks flying over the mountains! [OK, David Wolf actually spotted them and finally got the rest of us on them]. Turning to the field guide, we read "Generally uncommon in open marshy areas and around lakes in lowlands, most numerous locally along sw coast. Flying birds can appear almost anywhere, even crossing Andes. Large and ungainly looking, but graceful in flight when it often soars high." The elevation and habitat descriptions in the book are indispensable for proper identification. The book sets a new standard for all bird guides and is an absolute MUST HAVE for any birder traveling in South America.
The Birds of Ecuador is split into two volumes. Volume 1 contains status, distribution and taxonomy data (848 pages) and is designed to be used as a reference book back at the hotel. As Robert Ridgely said "Birders need to go beyond the plates". Volume 2, the Field Guide (740 pages) contains 96 color plates, range maps and a description of the bird and is designed to be carried into the field. The two volumes can be purchased together as a boxed set (at a reduced price). I highly recommend the boxed set.
Click here to
bid on an original painting by Paul J. Greenfield
Paul will paint any Ecuadorian bird selected by the winner
(All proceeds go to the Jocotoco Foundation)
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