Category Archives: From the Journals

Horned Lark, not one but six species?

José Luis Copete

Is it time to view the Shore Larks/Horned Larks with new eyes? And for UK birders did you see the bird on the Isles of Scilly in 2001..?

One of the passerines with a widest natural distribution in the planet is the Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) since it’s present in boreal and alpine habitats from five continents or subcontinents: Europe, North Africa, continental Asia, North America and South America. Its habitat requirements were a selective pressure to produce isolated populations, especially those inhabiting mountains. So, it was a case to test about its phylogeography and the resulting taxonomic implications.

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris atlas Morocco January © Carlos Naza Bocos

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris atlas Morocco January © Carlos Naza Bocos

Sergei Drovetski, who is working for the University of Tromsø, has been involved during recent years in analysis of the phylogeography of Holarctic species. These cases are especially convenient to be analyzed in the light of the new laboratory and computer techniques, to check whether there are separate species along the break between North America and Eurasia. He entered into the subject more than 10 years ago, studying the phylogeography of species like the Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator), some grouse (Tetraonidae) and rosy-finches (genus Leucosticte), as well a first study about the Horned Lark, examining the mtDNA of one subspecies, strigata, present in British Columbia (SW Canada) and NW USA south to Oregon (Drovetski et al 2005 Streaked Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris strigata has distinct mitochondrial DNA. Conservation Genetics 6: 875–883).


Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris brandti Qinghai China July © Carlos Naza Bocos

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris nigrifrons, NE Qinghai China July © Carlos Naza Bocos

Now he and colleagues expanded the range of taxa examined in the same species, sampling the birds from a very wide range, in North America, Eurasia and North Africa (Drovetski et al 2014 Limited phylogeographic signal in sex-linked and autosomal loci despite geographically, ecologically, and phenotypically concordant structure of mtDNA variation in the Holarctic avian genus Eremophila. PLoS ONE 9(1): e87570. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087570).

Download: >>> Eremophila <<<


Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris penicillata Turkey May © Carlos Naza Bocos

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris penicillata, Turkey May © Carlos Naza Bocos

They propose a multiple split of some of the taxa present in the Palearctic, and one for North America, where pending of further study they are conservative.

The suggested splits would therefore be:

elwesi, from S & E of Tibetan Plateau

atlas, from Atlas Mts in Morocco

penicillata, from E Turkey and Caucasus E to N & W Iran

brandti, from  SE European Russia (lower R Volga) and N Transcaspia E to W Manchuria, S to N Turkmenistan, Tien Shan and Mongolia

flava, from  N Eurasia E to NE Russia (Anadyrland), S to S Norway, L Baikal and NW Amurland

and finally alpestris, for the whole of North America, pending further study, since in that continent there are around 30 different subspecies described, depending of the authorities.

Moreover, their results suggest paraphyly between Horned (alpestris) and Temminck’s (bilopha), confirming the traditional separation as two species in the birdguides.

Temminck's Lark Eremophila bilopha Morocco April © Carlos Naza Bocos

Temminck’s Lark Eremophila bilopha Morocco April © Carlos Naza Bocos

It’s expected, probably, that more species will be proposed as the study continues as there are many subspecies described for mountains of south USA and Mexico, not to mention the most isolated population in the Sierra de Santa Marta (peregrina) and nearest mountains, in NW Colombia, far away from any other subspecies.

Origins and radiation of true rosefinches (Carpodacus)

José Luis Copete
A paper recently published investigated the potential splits and the possible cryptic diversity hidden in a group with striking plumage similarities: The Carpodacus rosefinches.
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus, Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

The genus Carpodacus, or rosefinches, comprise about 25 species, 19 of which are living in the Sino-Himalayan region, where they most probably originated.

Roborovski's Rosefinch Kozlowia roborovski Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Roborovski’s Rosefinch Kozlowia roborovski Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

A paper recently published (Tietze et al 2013 Complete phylogeny and historical biogeography of true rosefinches (Aves: Carpodacus). Zool J Linn Soc 169: 215–234) investigated the potential splits and the possible cryptic diversity hidden in a group with striking plumage similarities, especially in females and juveniles. According to their results, that genus originated in SW China and the Himalayas about 14 millions years ago, giving rise to a small clade consisting of Common Rosefinch (C. erythrinus), Scarlet Finch (Haematospiza sipahi) and the nowadays extinct Bonin Islands Grosbeak (Chaunoproctus ferreorostris) on one side, and on other side a larger clade comprising 22 species. The latter split into four major lineages when the uplift of the Himalayas. In that group, they found support for four splits already advanced by some works:

dubius from White-browed Rosefinch (Carpodacus thura), present in WC China (NE & E Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia S to E Xizang)

formosanus from Vinaceous Rosefinch (Carpodacus vinaceus), present isolated in Taiwan

grandis from Red-mantled Rosefinch (Carpodacus rhodochlamys), present in NW & NE Afghanistan, W & NC Pakistan and W Himalayas E to N India (E to N Himachal Pradesh)

verreauxii from Spot-winged Rosefinch (Carpodacus rodopeplus), present in  S China (NE Yunnan and SW Sichuan) and NE Myanmar.

However, one of the already proposed splits, severtzovi from Great Rosefinch (Carpodacus rubicilla) was not supported and then they consider it should be still considered intraspecific.

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla severtzovi Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Great Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilla severtzovi Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Of great interest, too, is they suggest the central Asian lineage of Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) deserves species rank, Carpodacus stolickae. This is indeed not only evident looking at the phylogeny, but also to the morphology. During my last visit to Tring museum last November, for the job of checking skins (ageing/sexing and subspecies differences) for the forthcoming Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds, a quick examination of the skins from the range of stolickae compared with the birds present in Jordan/Israel and other spots in Near East,  was showing how different they are in colouration and size.

Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus davidianus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Beautiful Rosefinch Carpodacus pulcherrimus davidianus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Finally, the Pink-rumped Rosefinch (Carpodacus eos) and Beautiful Rosefinch (C. pulcherrimus) complex consists of four lineages, pulcherrimus/argyrophrys, davidianus, eos and waltoni. They propose to consider C. pulcherrimus waltoni with C. eos as C. waltoni.

Red-fronted Rosefinch Carpodacus_puniceus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Red-fronted Rosefinch Carpodacus puniceus Qinghai China © Carlos Naza Bocos

Given that many rosefinches occur in remote/isolated mountains, the authors didn’t obtain material from the field for logistical reasons, and had to rely on old skins which were providing only four markers for 13 out of 28 terminal taxa, so a few older nodes remain unresolved. It’s therefore of high interest to try to examine these cases with material taken in the field nowadays, since there is still the potential to find hidden diversity.

They also suggest to include Chaunoproctus, Haematospiza, Kozlowia, Pinicola subhimalacha and Uragus inside the genus Carpodacus.

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus_rubicilloides Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Streaked Rosefinch Carpodacus rubicilloides Ladakh India © Carlos Naza Bocos

Blackthroat, an Asian enigma resolved

José Luis Copete

The Blackthroat: Confirmation the species was still alive in 2004. First field photos in May 2011 (see below). Recent expeditions add information on calls, plumages, especially of almost unknown females and habitat preferences. DNA studies illumine taxonomy and assigned to latin genus Calliope not Luscinia. More:

One of the most enigmatic species from Asia is the Blackthroat (Calliope obscura, formerly considered inside the genus Luscinia). During decades it was unknown the breeding and wintering ranges, even to know whether it was a truly valid species and not a plumage variant of the Firethroat (C. pectardens). During many years there were only a couple of records, from the description of the species in the decade of 1890. A couple of birds collected between the end of XIX century and beginnings of XX century in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, in C China. After that, a few records in Sichuan and Yunnan, in south China, and north Thailand. The latter regions, considered birds in the wintering range.

To get an idea how enigmatic is the species because so few records known, a look at the very big Threatened Birds of Asia, a huge work published in two volumes in 2001, present all the published or known records of all species with some category of conservation by the IUCN, reveals only half a page for the Blackthroat, when for the rest of species they invariably show several pages. It’s worth of mention that one of these few records concerns a female observed in Doi Inthanon, a few kms down of the first checkpoint, a place well known for most of birders visiting Thailand.

It was not until 2004 when was published a birdguide showing the bird species recorded in the markets of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan (Wang 2004 A photo guide of cage birds in Sichuan. Chengdu: Sichuan Science and Technology Press). In that book appears an image of a live male, in the hand, photographed before 2004, but surely not many years ago. So, it was a confirmation that the species was still alive.

The BOOM arrived in 2011, when two Chinese birders, Wei Qian and He Yi, obtained the first pictures in the field, a superb male in spring migration, on 2nd May, on the campus of Chengdu University (Qian & Yi 2011 First images in the wild of Blackthroat Luscinia obscura, Asia’s most enigmatic robin. BirdingASIA 15: 17-19). Some of the images presented in that note are available at the images database of Oriental Bird Club.

After that, an specific survey in the Qinling Mountains to try to find the breeding region of the species was developed, was successful. These expeditions, lead by Gang Song, Per Alström (who is working as invited professor in Beijing straight now), Yongwen Zhang and some others, obtained a good amount of information about vocalizations, plumage variations, including excellent descriptions and pictures of the female plumage, almost unknown, the specific habitat it occupies for breeding, as well as diverse data about its breeding biology, distribution and conservation status. All this info is now in press in Journal of Ornithology (Gong et in press Rediscovery of an enigmatic Chinese passerine, the Blackthroat Calliope obscura: plumage, vocalizations, distribution, habitat choice, nesting and conservation. J Ornithol DOI 10.1007/s10336-013-1009-5).

Thus, this species is nowadays ‘twitchable’ on specific trips, in the Changqing and Foping reserves, where several western birders already visited the region to try to tick the species, obtaining at the same time very good photographs, some of them already available at the OBC image database.

It breeds at altitudes betweeb 2100 and 2500 m, in pure bamboo extensions, or mixed with deciduous forest. It seems to be absent of the pure conifer forests. These observations suggest the species is not breeding in Sichuan and Yunnan.

Apart from the previous, the same team also published few weeks ago in the issue of Forktail, a confirmation of the validity of the species. It shows a divergence of 6,4% in mtDNA between obscura and pectardens, a similar distance shown by other Turdini species. The vocalizations are also different, adding arguments to consider obscura a good species on its own (Alström et al 2013 Taxonomic status of Blackthroat Calliope obscura and Firethroat C. pectardens. Forktail 29: 94-99). The change of genus, from Luscinia to Calliope, is a consequence of recent research which shows that the Turdini are not forming a monophyletic group, being obscura and pectardens inside the same branch that Luscinia calliope, now Calliope calliope (Sangster et al 2010 Multi-locus phylogenetic analysis of Old World chats and flycatchers reveals extensive paraphyly at family, subfamily and genus level (Aves: Muscicapidae). Mol Phyl Evol 57: 380-392; Zuccon & Ericson 2010 A multi-gene phylogeny disentangles the chat-flycatcher complex (Aves: Muscicapidae). Zool Scripta 39: 213-224).

The Blackthroat male found in 2011 in the Chengdu campus, Sichuan, China. Image obtained from Oriental Birds Images at  © Wu Jiawei/Oriental Bird Images

The Blackthroat male found in 2011 in the Chengdu campus, Sichuan, China. Image obtained from Oriental Birds Images at
© Wu Jiawei/Oriental Bird Images