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 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.

any Cock-of-the-Rock
Rupicola sp.
[South America]

The two Cocks-of-the-Rock — Andean R. peruviana (left) and Guinean R. rupicola — are among the most memorable & unique birds in South America. The Andean, with glowing red-and-black males, lives in wet subtropical forest from Colombia & w. Venezuela to Bolivia. The Guinean, with bright orange males, occurs in rocky subtropical forests from the Venezuelan tepuis to the Guianas and n. Brazil. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock was the bird we ought after most on during my first trip to South America, and was shy and elusive then. There are now many more sites to find them, but one never tires of seeing the spectacular males.
Yes; 2 of 2
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.
Helmeted Hornbill
Buceros vigil
[Malay Pen. to Greater Sundas]
Among huge birds of Old World tropics, the most impressive may be hornbills. The largest are in genus Buceros in the Oriental lowlands. Each is wonderful: Rhinoceros B. rhinoceros has a spectacular bill, Great B. bicornis is a giant from India to Malay Pen.; Rufous B. hydrocorax is a Philippine endemic; and Helmeted B. vigil, now hunted for its casque and recently listed as Critically Endangered. I opt for Helmeted of the Malay Pen., Sumatra & Borneo because of its scarcity and its unworldly calls. These may be the most awe-inspiring vocalizations in the avian realm.
36 Hooded Grebe
Podiceps gallardoi
[s. South America]
Hooded Grebe is a beautiful small grebe with elaborate courtship dances and displays [only a couple other grebes have synchronized courtship dances on the water]. It is an Argentine breeding endemic on isolated lakes in the remote barrens of Patagonia. The entire population winters (Apr-Aug) on coastal lakes and estuaries in s.e. Argentina, with just a few records for s. Chile. Grebes are an ancient group of foot-propelled divers, but 3 resident species in 3 genera went extinct in the 1980s. Hooded was only discovered ~ 50 years ago; it is now critically endangered. No
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.
Palmeria dolei
[Maui, Hawaii]
When this "best birds" project began [1974], 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 a small population (~3500) of '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.
39 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. Yes

any Red-Cotinga
Phoenicircus sp.
[South America]

The two species — Black-necked Red Cotinga P. nigricollis (left) and Guianan Red-Cotinga P. carnifex — are very impressive lekking cotingas. Black-necked, in bright crimson and black, was virtually unknown until ~50 years ago, when a lek was discovered quite close to Exploronapo Camp, downstream of Iquitos, Peru. Black-necked ranges across the Amazonian Basin; the more obscure Guianan is in humid lowlands in n.w. South America. The displays of both species have only recently been studied, and both are very hard to find away from leks.
Yes; 1 of 2

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 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
  • Rangkong Indonesia, an organization working on protection for Helmeted Hornbill, display this art of a Helmeted Hornbill in flight on their website [© Rangkong Indonesia], and used here under the fair use doctrine

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),and 'Akohekohe (Maui, Hawaii). [Excellent photos of Guinean Cock-of-the-Rock at a lek are in a paper by Pepper Trail (1985; Amer. Birds 39: 235-240].
  • 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)
  • Ignasio Gonzalo photographed the pair of Hooded Grebe in Patagonia, Argentina, from Kini Roesler's paper "Last tango in Patagonia," in BirdLife, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Oct–Dec 2021)

or the picks via links at right:



  page initially created 7-10 May 2002, revised 7 June 2002, 5 Nov 2003 & 28 Nov 2005, 21–28 Feb 2010, 6 Dec 2014, 20 Apr 2016, 23 Feb 2021, 23 July 2022  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved