Monday, 3 March 2014

Obscure bird of the week: White-necked Picathartes

Before I begin, let me just quickly warn you that this blog post is going to be sickeningly lovey dovey (no pun intended) towards this week's obscure bird. The reason for this is because it's a White-necked Picathartes Picathartes gymnocephalus and to me, this is just about the 'Greatest Bird in the World!'

When Clarkson says it, you know it's true!

I am completely enchanted by the White-necked Picathartes of sub-Sarahan Africa. Its population covers an area of 389,000km2 in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Now I can talk a big game, but can I prove that this is the greatest bird in the world? Well I guess that's a very difficult question to answer accurately as one person's great is another person's half bald pheasant! I think it is a stunningly beautiful bird. It has a shape and facial pattern that is almost prehistoric as though it would be at home on John Hammond's Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park for the dinosaurly-impaired!). With the almost smooth feather pattern to the dark tail and wings, it almost looks computer animated.

Following on further from the Jurassic Park theme, the way these birds behave reminds me very much of the Compsognathus as seen at the start of The Lost World....sorry, If you thought Picathartes was hard enough to say/remember, Compsognathus isn't exactly a walk in the park!

So, it looks pretty amazing and behaves strangely, but what's the 'xfactor' about this bird? What makes it any better than the many many many other pretty amazing looking and strangely behaving birds of the world? Well, as with most birds, it is made much more desirable due to its rarity status. They are a hard bird to see in the wild, so a population estimate is very difficult, so the current estimate is between 2500-9999 mature adults and with a decreasing population, they're currently listed as Vulnerable.

They frequent areas of secondary forest with a forest clearing near to a flowing stream or river which allows them to collect mud to build their nest. The nest in question is similar to that of a swallow on the side of a cave wall where there is protection from an overhanging roof...that's right...imagine the site of a computer-generated dinosaur pheasant sitting in a big Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica nest! What a fantastic species this is!

It looks so wrong, but so right!

The even lesser-known Grey-necked Picathartes

White-necked Picathartes aren't alone, don't worry. They share their genus with the Grey-necked Picathartes Picathartes oreas of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Congo and just about Central African Republic. Now this species is about as rare as its cousin, it covers the same sized area, it behaves similarly, looks equally as odd and if anything is even more colourful. For some reason though, they seem to sit in the shadow of it's more clean-throated cousin.

Generally speaking, they nest next to rivers with muddy edges to build a nest, but this is also where they collect their invertebrate diet, but every so often, they eat what they can e.g. amphibians!

So there we have it. Hopefully, if you've never heard of a Picathartes before, you are sufficiently enchanted by this bewitching species. If you have heard of one but they're not your favourite bird, then hopefully I've changed your mind! If you already regard them as the greatest bird in the world, then I am glad I just made your day!

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

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