a web page by Don Roberson
Species [range]
Photo/art [see credits];
all photos taken in the wild
Summary of reasons for this choice
DR seen?
Scarlet-banded Barbet
Capito wallacei
[n. Peru]
The Andes of South America are well known for the diversity of birds and the prevalence of endemism, and nothing better illustrates this than the spectacular new barbet discovered in cloud forest on an unnamed peak near the upper Rio Cushabatay in Peru's eastern Andes. Discovered by LSU researchers (see also Orange-throated Tanager, below) in 1996 and named in 2000 (Auk 117: 569-577), it is as gorgeous as a barbet can get. In recent years it has been discovered at other sites nearby, and can be seen after an arduous jeep trip.
Bornean Bristlehead
Pityriasis gymnocephala
Bornean Bristlehead is a very odd, striking, elusive, and mysterious bird. It has only recently been recognized as the monotypic member of its own family, with no very close relatives on earth. Restricted entirely to remnants of lowland rainforest on Borneo, it is generally difficult to locate and observe, and is now perhaps "the" primary target on a bird trip that magic island; more on my Bristlehead family page.
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
Rupicola peruviana
[Andes of South America]
The two Cocks-of-the-Rock are among the most sought-after birds in South America. There are now many locales to find these birds, but one never tires of seeing the spectacular male. The Andean likes wet subtropical forest in often rocky terrain from Colombia and western Venezuela to Bolivia. It was certainly the bird on which we spent the most time (3 days) during my first trip to South America, and although some have quick success, it remains elusive and shy at many sites.
Guinean Cock-of-the-Rock
Rupicola rupicola
[ne. South America]
This is the bright orange cousin of the brilliant red Andean species; Guinean occurs in rocky subtropical forests from the eastern Venezuelan tepuis to the Guianas and northern Brazil. Both cock-'o-rocks are lekking species in which males have communal display sites. A fabulous article with gorgeous photos of a lek is by Pepper Trail (1985; Amer. Birds 39: 235-240).
Whitehead's Broadbill
Calyptomena whiteheadi
Of two dozen endemics in the Bornean highlands, none are more sought after than the "Whitehead's trinity:" a trogon, spiderhunter, and broadbill. The latter is among the most impressive birds I've seen: a glowing velvet-green cock-of-the-rock! The red or orange cock-of-the-rocks make this listing (just above) and this bird is right there with them. Its array of vocalizations almost equals its plumage. Although it is easy enough to reach Mt. Kinabalu, the world's largest broadbill remains elusive in the thick mossy forest.
Giant Pitta
Pitta caerulea
[southeast Asia]
The world's largest pitta is scarce — when found it may be the highlight of a trip to the Greater Sundas, peninsular Malaysia, or Thailand. Ground-dwelling pittas with their haunting voices are among the globe's most fascinating birds. Many qualify for this list: Superb P. superba in the Admiralty Is., Ivory-breasted Pitta P. maxima on Halmahera, or two Philippine pittas: Azure-breasted P. steerii and Whiskered P. kochi (both original "top 50" picks decades ago). My experience with Blue-headed P. baudii of Borneo was breathtaking, but I pick this one first.
Black-necked Red Cotinga
Phoenicircus nigricollis
[South America]
This very impressive lekking cotinga, robed in bright crimson and black, was virtually unknown until ~30 years ago. In the 1980s, a lek was discovered quite close to Exploronapo Camp (an outlying venture of Explorama Lodge headquartered in Iquitos, Peru) that has allowed birders to observe this great bird. Its cousin, the Guianan Red-Cotinga P. carnifex, could also easily be picked on any "top 50" list. The displays of both species have only recently been studied; and both are almost impossible to find away from leks.
Helmeted Hornbill
Buceros vigil
[Malay Pen. to Greater Sundas]
Among huge birds of Old World tropics, the most impressive are hornbills. The largest are in genus Buceros in the Oriental lowlands. Each is wonderful: Great B. bicornis is a giant from India to Malay Peninsula; Rufous B. hydrocorax is a Philippine endemic; Rhinoceros B. rhinoceros has a spectacular bill, and Helmeted B. vigil, now hunted for its casque and recently listed as Critically Endangered. Any Buceros is worthy but I opt for Helmeted of the Malay Pen., Sumatra & Borneo because of its unworldly, unbelievable calls. These may be the most awe-inspiring vocalizations in the avian realm.
Palmeria dolei
[Maui, Hawaii]
When this "best birds" project began [mid-1970s], 3 Hawaiian Honeycreepers made the initial top 50: Kauai 'Akialoa Hemignathus stejnegeri, 'O'u Psittirostra psittacea, and this, then known as "Crested Honeycreeper." The 'Akialoa went extinct in 1969; 'O'u was lost about 1987. This species was gone from Molokai by 1960 but 3500 'Akohekohe still live in prime cloud forest on the windward side of Maui's Haleakala volcano. Maui Parrotbill (below) shares that habitat but is rarer (about 500). I waffled on which to choose, and have now included both.
Maui Parrotbill
Pseudonestor xanthophrys
[Maui, Hawaii]
Maui Parrotbill shares the same habitat that still holds a population of 'Akohekohe (above) — prime cloud forest on the windward side of Maui's Haleakala volcano. It has declined seriously over the decades and today only perhaps 500 still survive. It has a totally unique bill among the Hawaiian Honeycreepers — a set that has many strange bills among them — and is absolutely thrilling to glimpse in the remaining rainforest canopy. It took me 3 trips over 26 years to finally see one.

All the artworks are copyrighted by the artist (as detailed below) and are either used with permission or are posted here in reliance on the non-commercial "fair use" doctrine; all rights are reserved by the artist

  • Martin Woodcock painted the Guinean Cock-of-the-Rock and Black-necked Red-Cotinga; from The Cotingas (1982) by David Snow (British Museum), and the Giant Pitta; from Pittas, Broadbills and Asities (1996) by Frank Lambert & Martin Woodcock

All the photographs are copyrighted by the photographer (as detailed below) and are used with permission; all rights are reserved to the photographer

  • Don Roberson photographed the Scarlet-banded Barbet (Peru), Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (Peru), Helmeted Hornbill (Borneo), and 'Akohekohe (Maui, Hawaii)
  • James Eaton photographed the Bornean Bristlehead (Sabah, Malaysia)
  • Hideo Tani photographed the Whitehead's Broadbill (Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia)
  • Michael Walther photographed the Maui Parrotbill (Maui, Hawaii)


or the picks via links at right:



  page initially created 7-10 May 2002, revised 7 June 2002, 5 Nov 2003 & 28 Nov 2005, redesigned 21–28 Feb 2010, 6 Dec 2014, and 20 Apr 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved