Category: Blog


Published: August 3, 2013

Remembering Ted Parker

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


Several weeks ago, a colleague (and former graduate school roommate), Kevin Burns, asked me about a pdf of a paper I wrote back in 1992.  Here is the citation:

Bates, J. M., T. A. Parker, III, A. P. Capparella and T. J. Davis.  1992.  Observations on the campo, cerrado, and forest avifaunas of eastern Dpto. Santa Cruz, Bolivia, including 21 species new to the country.  Bull. Brit. Orn. Club 112:86-98.

He wanted it because he had found a reference that we discussed the systematic position of the Bluefinch (Porphyrospiza cearulecens).  The paper brought back some of the best memories I have of being in the field and coincidentally coincided with me finding a Facebook photo posted by one of my co-authors on the paper, Tristan Davis, of me, Ted Parker and park personnel at the Los Fierros camp in Noel Kempf Mercado National Park.  In the paper, we wrote that Bluefinch was not one of the 21 species that was new to the country, but we found it to be common in the Campo Rupestre regions (A Portuguese term for rocky Cerrado habitat) on top of the plateau.  We also tacked on a paragraph with Ted’s “gut feeling” based on song that this species could not be close to the buntings.  21 years later, Kevin is preparing a manuscript describing where this bird actually falls based on his molecular phylogenetic work, but it brought home how valuable and insightful basic and added-on observations about natural history can be when experts expound on what they know, or in this case what they think they know.

For anyone who does not know, Theodore A. Parker was an incredible field ornithologist with an encyclopedic understanding of Neotropical birds, especially their vocalizations.  He was the founding expert for Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), and he died tragically in a plane crash in Ecuador along with botanist Alwyn Gentry and an Ecuadorean pilot on August 3,1993.  The Field Museum’s Parker Gentry Award is given annually to a conservation biologist in their honor.  As we have come to the 20 year anniversary of the accident, I know everyone who knew him has great stories about Ted. Here is mine, based on field work I was lucky enough to get do as a Louisiana State University graduate student in Bolivia.  Ted played a big role.  As I said, I got lucky.  In the summer of 1988, I ended up in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park with a field team from the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and the Museo de Historia Natural “Noel Kempff Mercado” only after our efforts to obtain permits for fieldwork in Peru fell through.  Carlos Quintela and James Van Remsen set up the fieldwork in Bolivia after Pete Marra and I had left Baton Rouge for Lima.  As per Van’s instructions, I left Pete in Lima (he went to Explorers’ Inn to collect data for his Masters Thesis) and I flew to Santa Cruz, Bolivia where I met up with Mary Garvin, and Greg and Donna Schmidt.  Together we met the Noel Kempff Mercado staff and made the plans to cross the eastern Department of Santa Cruz to the park.  People often ask how scientific collecting has value to conservation.  I feel like work by LSU and the museum in Santa Cruz over a three-year period from 1988-1990 illustrates this well.

During the first season we collected at several sites below the plateau and, following Ted’s instructions, I tape recorded frequently on dawn mornings when singing was most active.  When we got back to Baton Rouge, we determined we had found 15 species that were new for Bolivia.  Ted heard many species we never saw when he listened to the tapes.  At the time, it was an education I could not have gotten anywhere else.

In 1989, we prepared for a second field season and the Curator of Birds at LSU, Van Remsen, wrote a National Geographic grant to fund the work.  The grant was successful based on the long track record of LSU in Bolivia and Peru.  We planned to work on top of the Serranía de Haunchaca, the plateau that dominates the eastern side of the park, where I set my sights on sampling forest understory birds in forest fragments on top of the plateau to look at the genetic effects of forest fragmentation.  The only issue was I had no idea what would be there.  In late June, by renting the small plane of Bolivian conservationist Hermes Justiniano, we reached a runway on top of the plateau where the Bolivian ornithologist Noel Kempff Mercado had been shot several years earlier along with several Spanish colleagues.  The runway was broad, long and smooth and we landed with no problem.  Several trips were necessary when all our gear was unloaded, we hand-carried it into the forest to the area where the cocaine processing campo had been.  The work here at the “Huancha Uno” camp was incredible, and for me, it was topped off by park guard Armando Yépez and I spending two weeks working in a second smaller fragment getting samples for my dissertation.  I would prepare specimens and write notes at night over the fire.  From 19 July to 4 August, we worked at northern forest below the plateau near the town of Piso Firme.

In the first week of August, we returned to Santa Cruz and my colleagues, Angelo Capparella and Curtis Marantz, returned to the U. S. That is when Ted arrived and he had every intention of cramming as much as could into a tight schedule. He was restless with the possibilities of the region and he and I immediately traveled north to Buena Vista, the gateway to Amboró National Park.  Here, we met with Robin Clarke, head of the park and Guy Cox, and made hasty arrangements to hike up into the Park for several days, here Ted found Bolivian Recurvebill (Simoxenops boliviananus) essentially relocating it (Parker, Bates and Cox 1992).  I remember him suddenly freezing when there was an incredible zipper-like call from the down the steep hillside. turning to me excitedly on the trail and saying “Did you hear that?  That bird hasn’t been seen by anyone for 50 years.” We also glimpsed Horned Curassow (Pauxi unicornis) and other poorly known Bolivian foothill birds. 

We came back to Santa Cruz and immediately returned to Noel Kempff Mercado, Ted’s mind boiling with the possibilities.  On the long drive out, he pointed out a far off Robin song in seasonally dry forest as the poorly known and extremely local Unicolored Thrush (Turdus haplochrous).  We reached Los Fierros and Ted went birding.  In typical fashion, he came back to the camp with a little grin on his face, asking us if we’d ever recorded Gray-bellied Hawk (Accipter poliogaster) or Pompadour Continga (Xipholena punicea) and several other species.  No, we hadn’t, but he had.  Ted was running all over and asking to be driven to as many habitats as we could get him to below the plateau.  On a forest walk, he froze and then became completely agitated as he recorded and played back to a distant call note, we saw the bird briefly.  Back in camp he actually had to pull out Meyer de Shauensee’s Birds of South America before he announced that the species he had just tape-recorded was Zimmer’s Tody Tyrant (at that time known wonderfully as Hemitriccus aenigma, but now known as H. minimus), a species formerly known only from the type locality over 600 km to the north.  In the cerrado, he found Black-and-tawny seedeater (Sporophila nigrorufa), a species known only from a few specimens and only from this part of Bolivia and Brazil.

Hermes Justiniano took us by plane for an overflight of the park.  In doing this, we discovered a runway built by a Brazilian lumber company across the Rio Verde into Bolivia and the Park.  The Brazilan loggers were illegally taking out lumber from a Bolivian national park.  On returning to Santa Cruz, Hermes would report this to Bolivian authorities and the bridge subsequently was blown up by the Bolivian army.  We also scouted and then landed at a small runway on the western edge of the plateau above Arroyo del Encanto.  This runway was short and overgrown with the wreckage of a plane at the far end.  We circled it once before deciding to risk the landing.  Ted and I walked back down the runway after we landed and noted we had missed a large termite mound hidden in grass by inches.  Here, surrounded by pristine cerrado, we had a day or so to look around.  Again, I was scrambling after as he ran around recording all sorts of exciting things (e.g., Sharp-tailed Tyrant, Culicivora caudata; Rufous-tailed Attila, Attila phoenicurus, Planalto Tyrannulet, Phyllomyias fasciatus; Helmeted Manakin, Antilophia galeata and other species).  At one point he stepped into what he thought was a small stream and dropped over his waist into a trench the stream had cut into the plateau.  As he dropped, I watched him swiftly pull his tape recorder over his head so it didn’t get drenched. 


It was an incredible whirlwind trip and Ted wasted none of it.  We returned to Santa Cruz and he headed back to the states, I waited for Gary Rosenberg to arrive and then Gary and I headed back out to Los Fierros.  We met back up with Tristan and hired help to pack supplies up the Serranía to the site with the small runway and the wreckage of the small plane.  That camp that has become known as Haunchaca dos.  Thanks to Ted we had a lot of leads on species we should be looking for, but even he didn’t expect that fires would come and burn the cerrado and with them would appear two of my favorite birds, Coal-crested Finch (Charitospiza eucosma) and Campo Miner (Geobates poeciliptera). 

Ken Rosenberg, my LSU officemate, who is now Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, started his dissertation defense on South American dead-leaf foraging birds, by saying that his goal as a doctoral student had been to learn something Ted Parker didn’t already know.  The statement got a laugh from the audience, but it was because we all knew how hard that was to do.  However, our survey work at Noel Kempff yielded specimens that even Ted did not figure out.  This is the beauty for truly detailed collection-based inventories.  It would be several years before I would figure out that a female seedeater was actually the first record of Sooty Grassquit (Tiaris fuliginosa) for Bolivia.  Years later, I couldn’t help but smile when Kevin Zimmer discovered and described Chapada Flycatcher (Suiriri islerorum) was a cryptic species co-occurring with Suiriri Flycatcher (Suiriri affinis).  One morning, on that incredible time in Noel Kempff N. P. with Ted, he and I worked into the cerrado near Los Fierros and collected what we thought were two Suriri flycatchers.  Kevin realized that these specimens represented both species.  I smiled because I could remember being with Ted and having him tell me we needed a few specimens of Suiriris.  I remember one coming in high and displaying with its wings, while another came in low with a different song and little display.  Ted and I collected both species on the same day in the same area, but did not know they were distinct species.

Back in 1989, I came back to LSU that Fall with an incredible collection that led to the publications mentioned above and provided material and data for many others.  I had tissue samples of five species for my dissertation research, but those days I got to spend with Ted were the best.  It was an incredible experience with an incredible set of people, but none more amazing than Ted Parker.


Parker, T. A., III, J. M. Bates, and G. Cox.  1992.  Rediscovery of the Bolivian Recurvebill (Simoxenops striatus; Furnariidae) with notes on other little-known species of the Bolivian Andes.  Wilson Bull. 104: 173-178.