Little Known Asian Bird: The Guaiabero

by Thomas Arndt from BirdingASIA 4, December 2005.

The Guaiabero Bolbopsittacus lunulatus, one of the world’s least known parrots, is confined to the Philippine islands of Luzon, Leyte, Samar, Mindanao and Panaon. Mainly green and only 15 cm in size, the males have blue lores, cheeks, orbital region and chin, and over the upper back there is a thin pale blue band. Chest, belly and undertail-coverts are yellow-green, as are the lower upperparts and uppertail-coverts. The bill is bluishgrey, blackish towards the tip. Females differ from males by having the blue limited to a small area around the lower bill, and having a small hindcollar of black feathers with a wide yellowish seam. Four subspecies have been described. The nominate form occurs on Luzon, intermedius on Samar and Leyte (this on the whole is darkerplumaged, with stronger blue and, in the female, rather broader hind-collar), and mindanensis on Mindanao and Panaon (in which the male’s blue is restricted to the area around the lower bill and eyes). Placement of the population on Samar in its own subspecies callainipictus is increasingly discounted, since its coloration lies within the range of variation of intermedius. Geographically, too, this separation makes little sense, since Samar and Leyte are less than 3 km apart and too small for us to expect them to possess their own subspecies. The closest relatives of the Guaiabero are certainly the Australasian Psittaculirostris and Cyclopsitta, with which Bolbopsittacus shares a compact body shape, short tail, robust bill and probably also feeding habits.

Guaiabero, male nominate race  © T. Arndt

Guaiabero, male nominate race © T. Arndt

The Guaiabero has only been kept in captivity a very few times, and it appears to have been imported into Europe only once. Robiller (1997) reported that a Dr Burkard of Switzerland received a few birds in 1965, but that they did not breed. Two individuals came more or less together to San Diego Zoo, but do not seem to have survived very long. The only information about keeping and breeding them is from Janeczek (1994), based on experience gained at the establishment of the Philippine aviculturist Antonio de Dios. Janeczek reported that the birds were extremely delicate. They responded very negatively to being kept in an aviary, and were highly prone to stress. There were multiple deaths, even though care was very intensive and the birds were regularly attended by vets. The animals were clearly sensitive to protozoan infections and they improved only after being put into wire cages and once hygienic conditions had been optimised. Breeding did not occur for five years. The first success was in 1993, with three young hatching after 22 days of incubation, but two of them died at 14 and 16 days respectively, while the third young, removed from the nest for hand-rearing, lived for only 61 days. All four eggs of the second clutch hatched between 24 and 29 May 1993. The chicks were pulled for precautionary reasons after a month, and were independent at 90–110 days. Even so, a stable managed population did not result, and today de Dios appears to have stopped working with these birds.

Information from nature is extremely scarce. The species is frequent, lives in open areas, and prefers scrubby clearings and low woodland (Forshaw 1989). In general it occurs up to 1,000 m (Kennedy et al. 2000). Rabor saw it below 600 m on Samar, chiefly in fruiting trees which were either at the edge of forest or in cultivated areas near primary forest, but also in secondary vegetation (Rand & Rabor in Forshaw 1989). Gilliard (in The Guaiabero Forshaw 1989) found it frequently on the Bataan Peninsula on Luzon, where it was mainly found in isolated mango trees. It can also be found in mangrove areas (Collar 1997). It is normally seen singly or in pairs, but sometimes in flocks of up to 20 (Kennedy et al. 2000). On Mt Makiling 50 were seen in vines and the lower branches of a large forest tree, where they secretively climbed about to reach the berries (Amadon & Jewett in Forshaw 1989).

Forshaw says the species is easy to see while flying, but is brilliantly camouflaged when settled. Kennedy et al. (2000) call its flight bullet-like, and describe the vocalisations as loud, one- or twosyllabled zeet or zeet-zeet calls, which during feeding are markedly softer. The Grandala is perhaps the most bizarre of the four. The male is glistening purplish-blue with black wings and tail, the female dark brown with white streaking and wing-patch. A rather nomadic denizen of the high Himalayas, breeding up to 5,500 m, its most striking features are its wing-shape - very long wing-tip and rather short secondaries, producing a swallow-like effect - and its gregariousness, wheeling in flocks of tens or hundreds in pursuit of aerial insects, and hopping starling-like across short-grass slopes in search of terrestrial ones. Seebohm (1881) and Ripley (1952) both thought it was closest to Nearctic bluebirds Sialia, but Oates (1890), Oberholser (1919) and Vaurie (1955) demurred. Oberholser put it in its own family, Grandalidae, but the general assumption is that it is a highly modified chat (our photo of a female inclines me to agree). Taxonomists struggle to know where to put the turdine genera Myophonus and Monticola, both of which are characterised by blue plumage, and for the moment I think it makes sense to group Grandala informally with those taxa (but Heraclitus's warning predicts a very different outcome following DNA sampling!).

According to Collar (1997) food consists of the flesh and seeds of figs, the above-cited berries of wild vines, and the fruit of trees including guavas. It is this latter to which the parrot owes its native Spanish (and English) name, guaiabero, meaning “guava-harvester” or “guava-dealer”. We know nothing of the bird’s breeding biology. Collar (1997) and Juniper & Parr (1998) mention March as a month in which breeding condition is reached, apparently based on a single collected female. It is not just information that is scarce: so are photographs. Janeczek (1994) only contains one photograph of a young bird, while Fisher & Hicks (2000) portray a female. In the Lexikon of parrots (Arndt 1990–1996), a single shot of a female is supplemented by pictures of museum skins.

All this was reason enough for me to go off to the Philippines in search of the Guaiabero. I started the first part of my trip on Luzon, where I hired a car with driver. From Manila we drove to the Bataan Peninsula west of the capital. This region is known as the last main area for the Green Racquet-tail Prioniturus luconensis which, however, eluded me. I had more luck in the Subic Bay Free Port Zone, a large area in which the American Marines had a military harbour up to the 1990s. Here in the suburbs of the various residential areas Philippine Hanging Parrots Loriculus philippensis were to be seen searching for food in the palm trees and the blossoming trees of front gardens. Also relatively frequent were Bluenaped Parrot Tanygnathus lucionensis, which always appeared where there were wooded hills along the coast. In one case, at the edge of the residential neighbourhood “Jest Camp”, I saw eight Blue-napes which had settled on a tree and were eating its small fruit. Local people were familiar with this and the hanging parrot, but nobody had any idea about the Guaiabero.

It was, however, on my second day in 'Jest Camp' that I saw a pair of small green parrots fly across the road and land in the upper branches of a 20 m high tree. Their voice was reminiscent of a small Charmosyna lorikeet, and since they had a larger body than the hanging parrot they had to be Guaiaberos, as a scan through the binoculars eventually confirmed. During the next two days I stayed in this area, discovering very quickly that Guaiaberos were around here all day long, even though mostly just glimpsed crossing the road in their high-speed—indeed bullet-like—flight. In flight they gave a four-syllable, high-pitched ziit call in which the last syllable was notably lower. When they were perched one could normally only hear a sharp monosyllabic zet, produced roughly every 10 seconds, presumably for contact. From this call I was soon able to pick out the trees, usually not very high, in which the birds had perched; and this was when I discovered why the Guaiabero is so unknown, even to the locals. In the foliage they were so well camouflaged by their green plumage that it was practically impossible to detect them, even though they were not particularly shy. Only if I stayed by a tree for very long, and changed my place very often, would the birds—usually a pair—fly off, calling loudly, confirming their identity; but I could not get a photo.

In the course of the first day I noticed that many Guaiaberos flew off in the direction of a small brook a few hundred metres from my observation area, or flew in from there. Eventually, next to a bridge across the stream, I found a small fig tree from which the birds’ regular calls could be heard. Four Guaiaberos were in this tree, two of which immediately flew off when I started scanning the branches. I had no chance from the outside to see the two that were left. Only when standing directly under the tree and looking up was I able to detect a male. It calmly ate a fig and from time to time peered down at me. This gave me the chance to take my first pictures, but whenever I put the camera down to search for the second bird, which was occasionally calling and which I assumed to be female, I had trouble relocating the male in the greenery. I have rarely seen wild parrots that were so at one with their environment as these Guaiaberos. When after five minutes a heavy lorry drove past, the male flew off, followed by its partner, allowing me at last to identify her. I spent almost all of the next day in the vicinity of this tree. I never saw any Guaiaberos flying into the tree, but by their occasional calls I knew that they were regularly making use of it. Quite clearly they were taking care not to be seen, and were approaching the tree on the blind side. I realised that my chance of taking pictures would increase if I let the animals feed in peace and quiet for a time. Once they had got the taste of it they were more prepared to put up with my presence, and even when they had completely dissected a fig they did not simply fly off but slowly climbed up to the next one, always keeping me in view. At last I was able to photograph a female. As I followed the birds I could see that they only ate the seeds and not the flesh of the fruit.

A few days later, on my way back from Mountain Province, where I was searching for the Montane Racquet-tail P. montanus, I stopped again at “Jest Camp”. The Guaiaberos were still in the tree, but this time I saw that they were also foraging in the front gardens of nearby houses. In one case I was particularly lucky: a male perched in a young fig tree which only had a few branches but which was already bearing fruit, allowing me the chance to get good stills and some video footage. Then I flew to Leyte, in the Eastern Visayas. A visit to the tourist office in the island’s capital Tacloban helped me to get an appointment with the local conservation authorities. They gave me lots of tips on where to find parrots, especially the Guaiaberos. I was told that on Leyte the birds represented by intermedius can easily be seen in the vicinity of the village of Abuyog. Abuyog was a stroke of luck. It is true that the villagers had never heard anything about the Guaiabero, but they gave me a motorcyclist who took me off on his old machine along country paths by ricefields into a small valley whose slopes were well covered with forest. Very soon I saw the first Guaiaberos, flying around the scattered palm trees but also perched in high bamboos and fig trees. I spent two days in this region. Apart from the Leyte Guaiaberos, there were also Philippine Hanging Parrots (race worcesteri) in abundance, but I never saw the two species together in the same tree.

My experiences from Subic Bay stood me in good stead. Twice I was able to pick out feeding trees of Guaiaberos. But even here I was only able to take pictures of females. The behaviour of the birds and their voices were the same as on Luzon, but on the whole they were somewhat shyer. During the next four days I made a round trip through Samar. I was hoping to find one or two captive Guaiaberos, in order to determine more precisely whether the questionable subspecies callainipictus, in which the male has a paler blue colouring and the female a stronger yellow tone in the hind-collar (duPont 1971), is really different from the population on Leyte. However, as before, nobody knew the birds. The locals were keeping numerous Philippine Hanging Parrots, as well as some Talaud Blue-naped Parrots Tanygnathus lucionensis talautensis, Azure-rumped Parrots T. sumatranus everetti and even Blue-crowned Racquet-tails Prioniturus discurus whiteheadi, but they had no Guaiaberos. Only once did I see Guaiaberos in the vicinity of Paranas, flying across the road, but I was unable to take a picture, and next day I had to fly back to Manila, bringing my visit to the Philippines to an abrupt end. Despite this minor disappointment, my encounters with the Guaiabero are a source of good memories for me, as indeed are the Philippines in general, with their friendly, vivacious people and well-developed infrastructure for the traveller.

This article is an abridged and lightly edited translation, by I. Weiss and N. J. Collar, of Arndt (2005). OBC thanks Thomas Arndt for permission to translate his original paper and reproduce the photographs here.


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