for, | November 20, 2021

They Found a New Bird!

Why the inti tanager was so hard to pin down

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A director’s cut of this Q&A appears in Indignity, a newsletter by Tom Scocca.

On October 10, 2000, while guiding an ecological tour group along the edge of Manu National Park in Peru, the naturalist Daniel Lane, a research associate with the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Sciences, saw something he was “entirely unprepared for”: a strikingly bright yellow bird with a black eyebrow and a pink bill.

The location was “one of the ornithologically best-studied sites in Peru,” Lane and a team of seven other researchers write in the current edition of the journal Ornithology, yet no one had reported such a bird there before. Lane’s LSU colleague Gary Rosenberg also glimpsed it, but the bird flew off before anyone else could see it, leaving Rosenberg with a brief recording of its song and Lane with a quick pencil sketch.

After two more decades collecting observations, recordings, photos, and specimens across Peru and Bolivia, Lane, Rosenberg, and their colleagues conclude in their new paper that the bird is a previously unknown species—and genus—of tanager, part of a diverse, and often colorful, family of songbirds. Unlike most other tropical birds, it appears to migrate over short distances, leaving its breeding grounds in forested valleys in Bolivia to appear in the lower slopes of the Andes in Peru.

The team named their find the inti tanager, after the word for “sun” in the indigenous Quechua and Aymara languages, with the proposed species name Heliothraupis oneilli. “Heliothraupis,” they wrote, combines the Greek helios, for “sun,” with thraupis, “meaning ‘finch’ or ‘small bird,’ but in current usage usually referring to tanagers.” “Oneilli” is a tribute to the LSU ornithologist John O’Neill, who helped establish ornithological research in Peru and who in 1964 discovered the orange-throated tanager, Wetmorethraupis sterrhopteron, there—alerting natural historians that there were still new birds to be found even where, as O’Neill wrote at the time, “the bird life of the country as a whole is reasonably well known.”

In a phone interview, I asked Lane what it was like to see something no other scientist had seen before. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Scocca: What happened the very first time you saw the bird? You were guiding an eco tour, in Peru? 

Daniel Lane: This was my first tour to southeastern Peru—my first time actually birding in southeastern Peru. But I had spent several years at LSU, I’d had the time to memorize a lot of the birds that would be likely in the area. So I felt pretty prepared for going down there.

I was co-leading with Gary Rosenberg. We had another fellow named Barry Walker along, who was sort of an unofficial third guide. Barry is a British expat who lives in Cusco and is sort of a walking font of knowledge on birds in Peru. So he was along to keep us on the straight and narrow if we got off into the weeds.

This road, the Manu Road, comes from the city of Cusco, it crosses over a high pass, which is above the treeline, and then it descends down a series of valleys. We were starting our last day, descending down into the lowlands. At this particular elevation, at about 1,400 meters, it’s high diversity, and a lot of these small forest birds tend to move in mixed-species foraging flocks.

When you encounter one of these flocks, it’s high-impact birding. These birds are moving quickly, and they’re hiding in leaves and foraging and fluttering and catching insects. There’s so much going on at once, and they can pass through in 15 minutes. So it’s a situation where you’re sort of in triage mode as a tour guide, trying to choose which birds are most important to show to your clients before the flock disappears and you lose the opportunity.

So this flock was in front of us, and we were desperately trying to point things out. And in the background, I was hearing a birdsong. The thing that I sort of latched on to with this birdsong is it sounded a bit like a yellowthroat. There’s a species in that part of Peru called masked yellowthroat, which is typically found in second growth. I figured, as we continue down the road, when we get into where there’s more people, we’re probably going to run into this bird. So it’s not something that’s high priority to show to the group.

But after a little while a bird flew up and landed on the very top of a damaged tree trunk, quite tall, and started belting out this song. And that’s not the behavior of a yellowthroat. So I immediately looked at it with my binoculars, and it was far enough away, I couldn’t really see detail. So I then turned to my telescope and put it in my telescope. And it didn’t add up. It wasn’t something that looked at all like anything I was expecting to see in this region.

I turned to Gary Rosenberg, who was standing right beside me, and said “Gary, you gotta see this thing and tell me what you think.” And he looked through my telescope and he stepped away and said that to him, it looked like—there’s a family of birds in the Old World called orioles, the original orioles. And there’s a couple in Asia and Africa that have sort of canary yellow plumage, a pink bill, and a black eyebrow. Those are the features we were seeing on this bird. So he said, “Well, I mean, all that’s coming to mind is one of these Asian or African orioles.”

I said “That’s exactly what came to my mind,” even though that’s obviously not possible. Those birds just simply won’t be turning up in South America. So we turned to Barry Walker. Barry stepped up to the telescope. And all he saw was a bouncing branch. The bird had departed the tree, just before he looked through the scope. So he never saw it.

And we didn’t really announce this thing to the group. It’s just the two of us, Gary and me, sort of just trying to make sense of what we just saw.

Gary managed to get about five seconds of the bird’s song in a recording. And I immediately did a sketch. The bird flew from that tree and it disappeared over a ridge and it would not come back. We were kind of on a schedule; we had to keep moving.

We didn’t understand what we’d just seen, although at that point I had already had the opportunity to be a participant in the discovery of a new species, so I was getting the inkling that very possibly it was something along those lines.

What was the previous new species?

It was on my very first trip to Peru. I don’t know if you have the Birds of Peru Field Guide, but the front cover has this very colorful bird called a scarlet banded barbet, and I was the lucky first person to see that bird in life. That was a bit of an inauguration for my career, unexpected and very welcome. But perhaps too much too soon for a 22-year-old kid.

So I had that sort of Spidey sense in the back of my mind that this may very well be something new. But we passed the sketch and the song recording around to experts in neotropical birds and tanagers in particular. And everyone basically gave us the same response. They kind of gave us this slightly skeptical look and said, “Are you sure that’s what you saw?” A sketch is not the same as a photograph, it’s obviously something that can be affected by the observer’s impressions.

We were doing this tour every year at about the same time in October. So we did the tour again, in 2001, and 2002. And I was very much sort of hoping that we would run into this bird again, but there was just no sign of it. I think in 2001, I went there on my own, to see if I could encounter the bird apart from a tour group, where I had more time to really put an effort into it, and I just could not come up with the bird.

In 2002, by that point, I was really seriously starting to doubt what we had seen. The song that Gary made the recording of did sound a bit like a bird called a brown-capped vireo. And there is the phenomenon of plumage pigment issues—albinism, for example. We’ve got specimens here at LSU of some common birds that are missing their melanins, their dark pigments, but they still have their yellow pigments and so they look like a yellow canary even though normally they would look green or dark brownish. These plumage colors are created by layered pigments of different types that your eye picks up as a single color.

So I thought, well, perhaps this could be a situation where this was a vireo that was missing its melanins, but had its yellow pigments, but it had a bit of a retained melanin around the face. And it had a pink bill. I was trying to come up with some explanation.

But then in 2003, on the same tour again, Gary and I were turning that same corner, it was the same sort of respective day of the tour, when we’re heading downslope. And as we turned the corner, I heard that song off in the distance, and I turned to Gary and I said, “Gary, I think that’s our bird.”

We walked up to the sound, and I got recordings of it, and played the recording back, and the bird just popped right up on the top of the tree in full view of everybody in the group. It was exactly the same thing, canary yellow, pink bill, black eyebrow.

At that time, 2003, digital cameras were not what they are today. I guess nobody in the group had a film camera. Gary would put his camera up to the telescope to get photographs. But of course, you have to first allow the tour participants to look through the scope, because they’re paying you to do it. By the time the last participant got their last look, and Gary stepped up on the scope, the bird flew, and it wouldn’t come back. So we didn’t get a photograph of it.

But we were absolutely certain this thing was new. This was a new species. And it seemed to be a tanager. We had better documentation. I made another sketch, I had much better recordings.

How many times have you seen this bird, total?

I’ve seen it three times in Peru, and I guess on two occasions in Bolivia. In Peru, I’ve seen it for only a few minutes to, at most an hour, in any given observation. In Bolivia, we camped where they’re breeding and they’re much more obvious and easier to find, so several, several different days each visit. But basically, five times.

And from initial sighting to publication, it’s been 21 years.

It’s been a long time. Longer than I would have liked, if I’d had my druthers.

Where’s the point where you’re able to declare?

How does that all unfold? Obviously, documentation is the most important thing. Humans are prone to factual error and to exaggerating, so science does require hard documentation that is objective that other people can review and come to their own conclusions on.

The general accepted standards are to have a type specimen, or even better, a series of specimens. These are museum skins that can be used to investigate and compare to related forms. In the modern day, those specimens are almost always now associated with additional information like tissue samples, maybe sound recording or video or photographs in the field.

Specimens are very, very crucial to documenting these individuals, especially in cases where a new species is not distinctive, where it looks very much like a relative. In this particular case, the bird is really quite distinctive, there’s nothing else that looks like it. So we were certain from the beginning that we had something new.

What we didn’t know was where this bird fit into the family tree of birds. We needed tissues that we could send to one of my authors, Kevin Burns, who is an expert on tanagers and related birds.

In the course of his studies, he’s shown that that family and the related families were actually sort of poorly defined. Here in the United States, we have a couple of birds we call tanagers—scarlet tanagers, western tanagers. But in fact, his studies show that those are not tanagers, those are actually related to our cardinal and to rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeaks, and so on. He also showed that a number of birds that we thought were finches and sparrows in fact, aren’t sparrows, those, in fact, are tanagers.

It made it a very important aspect of this discovery to actually be certain what this bird really was. Was it truly a tanager? Could it be a cardinal? Could it be something else? And so we needed the tissues. The very first specimen I got, unfortunately, the tissues were lost.

We could have described this thing in 2004, but it would have been a very bland description of an outstanding-looking bird, which would have been kind of a disappointment to me. I like the idea of having a story that’s something that will actually make the paper have some teeth. And, you know, 21 years later, I think the paper does.

Finding this story on the heels of reading the Fish & Wildlife Service in September knocking however many birds, from the ivory-billed woodpecker on down, out of existence—it was sort of heartening. 

It’s kind of a nice way to see that, you know, we’re not just losing things. Of course, it’s not like this bird just appeared out of nowhere. It’s been there all along. It’s just, we didn’t recognize it. Nevertheless, yeah, it is heartening to hear about new species that have only just come into the scientific and public consciousness in the past however many years. It’s quite an honor for me to be playing a part in that, to actually have the opportunity to be someone who can unveil some of these new species for the public.