Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ocellated Quail

Yesterday morning I had the good fortune to stumble upon a very handsome bird that’s rarely seen: Ocellated Quail. They live where I live, on Cerro de Hula in Honduras, and I occasionally hear them or get brief views of birds I flushed from practically under my feet. When that happens, they usually fly only short distances, then drop down in the vegetation, and you can search all you want to, you’re unlikely to see them.

For years, Xeno-Canto only had one recording, from Guatemala, of a bird giving a drawn-out whistle (“puuuuuurr”), followed by some shorter phrases (“piu-piu-piu”). 

Living in Honduras these past three years, I would hear that long phrase sometimes, but never the shorter second half [edit: I once heard the shorter phrases without the long phrase, which I mention in an eBird checklist comment I forgot about, here]. I wondered if the second part was only given part of the time, or perhaps part of some Guatemalan dialect that the Honduran birds didn’t do. 

Not so long ago, I flushed a pair on nearby Montaña de Izopo. Classic scenario of practically stepping on them, then seeing them fly a short distance, next they drop down in the vegetation and are not seen again. This time, however, they flew off in opposite directions. Then they started vocalizing. One of them – the male? – gave the long whistle, while the other answered with the shorter phrases. Exactly as in the Guatemalan recording – mystery solved! 

The birds yesterday were right at the edge of a dirt road on Cerro de Hula. At first I saw only the male, just sitting there. Thinking my time with this bird would be very limited, I snapped away some photos, but the bird did not move. After about a minute or so, a female appeared from out of the grass. Together they posed for more shots.

Then, as I stealthily walked closer, two more females materialized! Evidently, this male was quite the gentleman, keeping watch while the females foraged. They then quickly walked off, of which I was able to get a few seconds of video.

Anyone interested in seeing this species should come to Honduras, where it is probably a little less rare than in Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua. The pine forests of Olancho have traditionally been the place to look for them here in Honduras, although they can also be found closer to Tegucigalpa. Parts of Olancho are not considered safe, which is why I haven’t done much birding there. I’ve seen or heard them several times in an open pine forest with a brushy understory on Montaña de Izopo, about 20 km south of Tegucigalpa. Here on Cerro de Hula (close to Montaña de Izopo), they are found in an agricultural area where fields are used for corn cultivation or left abandoned for horses to graze. There's a few small patches of degraded woodland here and there, but it's mostly grassland. Land management practices here include yearly burns (usually around April), where most of the grassy vegetation that dried out during the dry season is burned at the end of that season. One would expect such practices to impact the local bird communities, yet the Vulnerable (IUCN) Ocellated Quail occurs here, as does a large population of Sedge Wrens (highly local in most of Central America). This spot is also the only known wintering location of Cassin’s Kingbird in Central America (the majority wintering further north, until southeastern Mexico).


Tom Jenner said...

What fantastic news John, congratulations. I have never come across photos of Ocellated Quail, and in 9 years in northern Central America I only saw them twice, both times poorly. Great photos. This might be a good opportunity for someone to do a study on this species, which is almost completely unknown. When I am next in Honduras I will certainly try to make a visit, though it may not be for a couple of years as I was in El Salvador this summer.

Tom Jenner - currently living in Sudan

johnvandort said...

Thanks for your comment, Tom. I actually submitted a proposal to study Ocellated Quail a few years ago to a foundation in The Netherlands (associated with Naturalis Biodiversity Center) but my proposal was not accepted there. There's little published material available (recently only the Eitnear & Eisermann paper from 2009:, so a study would be very worthwhile. Most records in eBird are from Honduras.