Discovering the Jocotoco

It sounds like an owl, but this creature won’t be showing up in your backyard! In fact, the jocotoco antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi) is so hard to find that ornithologists didn’t know it existed until 1997. Former Academy ornithologist Robert Ridgely was in the cloud forest of southern Ecuador when his group heard an unfamiliar bird call. Ridgely knew his birds well, so he knew better than to ignore an unusual call. He recorded the bird’s voice and played it back in hopes of luring the bird. Because jocotocos live in family groups far away from other birds of their kind, the bird followed the strange echo to defend its territory, affording Ridgely a coveted glance of the mysterious creature. After that first sighting, Ridgely returned to the area with his camera to take the first-ever images of the jocotoco.

The following year Ridgely organized a repeat expedition to the area, which included Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO) Director Doug Wechsler, who was charged with the important task of photographing the birds, and the Academy’s Ornithology Collection Manager at the time, David Agro. Sponsored by Nigel Simpson, the expedition provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about the birds and their habitat. David and Ecuadorian colleague Pancho Sornoza were responsible for catching the bird, but the crafty jocotoco kept hopping right out of the net! When they finally brought the bird into the photography tent, “it was really tense!” says Doug. “The bird was nervous, and we were all so curious about it. Before we knew it, the bird had shot up from its perch and escaped through a zipper in the top of the tent!” At least Doug got some good shots before the bird escaped. The photographs from that day were used in Audubon Magazine, Nature Conservancy Magazine, Birding World, the Handbook of Birds of the World, and other publications, and they are featured in the Academy’s VIREO collection along with Ridgely’s original photograph.

The endangered jocotocos are protected in an Ecuadorian nature reserve. Find out how the reserve got started.

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