Birds & Birding

My Bird of the Year! (What Was Yours?)

December 27, 2013

Yellow-headed Picathartes. Image credit: Tim Boucher/TNC

My bird of the year was this Yellow-headed Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus), also known as the White-necked Rockfowl, which I finally spotted on a trip to Ghana.¹

Originally classified with the corvids (crows), the Yellow-headed Picathartes is now considered its own family — Picathartidae — within the order Passeriformes.²  There is only one other member of the family — the Grey-necked Picathartes (Picathartes oreas). Seeing both of these two special and very weird birds — as I now have — is birding nirvana, as it really does require a long state of suffering marked by intense, unsated desire that holds the mind hostage, followed by an intensely difficult path to a state of perfect happiness and peace.

We’d seen the Grey-necked Picathartes in Cameroon a year earlier, on an arduous trip that had us hiking for hours through tropical heat in Korup National Park. The bird only appears after rain storms and, on our first day in the park’s interior, it did not rain. We had only one more day in the park and rain seemed unlikely.

Every major birding trip has a moment of extreme anxiety and gloom. On the trip prior to ours — one we’d actually been scheduled to take — the bird had not been seen. The angst was palpable as we sat glumly, but then a sudden storm arose and we dashed through the forest, unable to see through the downpour, to arrive at a “cave” formed of several enormous boulders where the birds build mud nests on the sides of the rocks during the breeding season. They have never been seen away from these nesting sites. We then sat motionless and perfectly still for nearly 45 minutes awaiting the birds, who finally showed up and hopped about as though we weren’t even there.

Ghana was a different story — thank goodness. We had a short, pleasant and fairly easy hike to the “cave” and no rain was needed as this species checks on its breeding site every afternoon. We arrived early in the hope that the birds would appear earlier than normal.

After about an hour of hopeful silence and numb posteriors, the worst happened — gunshot in the forest! First thought — the birds won’t show  up if there are hunters in the area. Second thought — the hunters killed our birds!

We waited on, as dusk approached. All of a sudden, right by my foot, a Yellow-headed Picathartes appeared — but hopped off before anyone had a look. We waited, sure it would return. No, it was another 20 minutes before a bird appeared on a branch off to the far side of the cave. My wife saw it — but because we could not move, I couldn’t turn to get a look. Fortunately, it returned and brought three of its friends. They hopped into the cave and bounced about for a while, ignoring us, inspecting their nest sites, and making an occasional hiss, one of their two vocalizations. All too soon, they were gone.

We took deep breaths, closed our eyes, and burned the experience into our memories. We were the luckiest, happiest people on earth. Ever.

That’s my bird of the year — what was yours? Please post in the comments section below.

¹ Believe it or not, this bird is classified as a passerine (or perching bird).

² Genetic analysis shows it to be most closely related to the rockjumpers and the babblers.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

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  1. Hey Tim,

    Enjoyed reading about your ‘bird of the year’. Mine was a bit more prosaic. A Mississippi Kite. It was my first, and saw it quite casually, feeding on cicadas, in a little park near Independence, Missouri. I don’t ‘work’ for my birds. They are just ‘encounters’ while engaged in other activities. Wishing you much happiness in 2014.


  2. Tim,
    Lucky you, getting to see the Yellow-headed Picathartes and to visit Ghana! My year was tamer but I recently saw an Iceland Gull (a lifer) which appeared in South Louisiana for some unknown reason. Unfortunately, the gull is getting quite an appetite for bread crumbs used by visiting birders as a lure. Cheers, Harriett

  3. Loved hearing about your Yellow-headed Picathartes encounter, Tim! My bird of the year occurred on a trip up Haleakalā in Maui, HI. We saw a flicker of red that turned out to be an ʻIʻiwi and we spent the next hour watching this adorable little guy who was soon joined by a couple of ‘Apapane. Both life birds for me, I was thrilled and would have been plenty happy with just seeing them. Lucky for me there was more in store! A Pueo (subspecies of the Short-eared Owl endemic to HI) came into view. While he didn’t stick around long, I was able to get a good look through my binoculars before he silently disappeared back into the trees. A Pueo was definitely my bird of the year!

  4. Hey Tim, enjoyed the story about your bird of the year – quite a handsome creature! My bird of the year would have to be a male Temminck’s tragopan in Sichuan Province, China. While we saw a number of other pheasants on the trip also, this guy was nothing short of stunning; almost neon. Though it was early, cloudy and drizzly, he still looked like something from the mind of Dr. Seuss. Thankfully, the bird is not rare in its vast Asian range, though we only saw the one pair.
    Good birding, Tim,