The world’s only red-, white- and blue-striped bird lives atop a remote, cloud-shrouded Peruvian mountain in one of the most biodiverse areas on earth.
By Rex Graham
The Scarlet-banded Barbet was discovered only 20 years ago by a team of ornithologists from Peru and the U.S. that trekked to the top of a 1,538-meter (5,046 ft) peak.
The high, remote cloud forest where the barbet lives has few human inhabitants and little hunting. Mahogany logging on the mountain had previously been banned.
The new species was found on a plateau atop “Peak 1538” with a 1-meter (3.3 ft) deep floor of spongy moss. “Epiphytes, especially bryophytes, bromeliads, and orchids, covered most of the trunks and large branches of the short trees (generally 10 to 20 m tall) in the forest.” the discovering scientists wrote in 2000 in The Auk. Female and male Scarlet-banded Barbets look alike with minor color differences.
The new species is in the family of New World Barbets, a group of 18 species of rather plump birds with big heads and short necks that are closely related to toucans. These fruit- and insect-eaters usually nest in tree holes and don’t migrate.
Scarlet-banded Barbet ‘purring’
The team collected 13 barbet specimens and recordings of the birds’ 50-120-note “purring song,” which was archived at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Their 1996 research trip was funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
The discovering scientists named the new species Capito wallacei in honor of Robert Wallace, a supporter of ornithological exploration in Peru by scientists with the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science. Wallace championed research in biologically unknown areas before they become altered by development. Wallace would love the habitat of the Scarlet-banded Barbet atop Peak 1538 (7°05’S 75°39’W) on the east bank of the upper Rio Cushabata.
Dubi Shapiro photography
Award-winning bird photographer Dubi Shapiro, who specializes in photographing the world’s rarest and most endangered birds, has photographed the new barbet, and one of Shapiro’s is published in the latest edition of Bird Families of the World.
During one afternoon on their 1996 trip, the discovery team watched 6 barbets foraging in the shaded interior branches of a tree with reddish berries. Another bird drank from water pooled in bromeliad leaves. Other barbets occasionally foraged as part of a mixed-species flocks that included the Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Versi-colored Barbet, Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Three-striped Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Bronze-green Euphonia, Orange-bellied Euphonia, White-winged Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager.
Barbet also lives nearby?
The discovering scientists said the barbet was a relatively common sight across the entire plateau of Peak 1538, but they didn’t see it below the transition to drier forest at 1,250 m (4,101 ft). “We predict that the new barbet will be found in the ridge system to the north of Peak 1538 and that it probably occurs to the west as well,” wrote the discoverers, John O’Neill, Daniel Lane, Andrew Kratter, Angelo Capparella and Cecilia Fox Joo.
Ornithologists have devoted little attention to this region of Peru where the Vilcabamba Tapaculo and Sira Tanager also are found at single locations. Those species, the Scarlet-banded Barbet and many others may be present in other areas isolated by rivers and river valleys.