Josep del Hoyo was always fascinated with the classification of organisms, especially microorganisms, paving the way for a career in medicine. But in a rural village in Spain, where he maintained a medical practice, del Hoyo started watching birds, sparking an interest that would lead him to create one of the foremost publications in ornithology, The Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) and the companion website The Internet Bird Collection (IBC).
“My eventual dedication to ornithology,” wrote del Hoyo in an email, “was not a far stretch from my studies, as it seems that just the size of the organisms that got my attention in the end were much bigger.”
His attention was also focused on documenting the world’s birds through photos, audio recordings, and video to provide educational material to help people learn about and appreciate birds, and to be of use to science and conservation.
Del Hoyo traveled the world to document as many species as he could. He has photographed >4,100 species, recorded the vocalizations of >2,200 species and taken videos of >5,500 species. Del Hoyo has over 11,000 photos, over 4,000 audio recordings, and more than 36,000 videos to his name.
All of this media went to support the HBW project and the Internet Bird Collection. When del Hoyo was planning Volume 1 of HBW, he came across a specimen of a Giant Ibis at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “At the time,” del Hoyo said, “The Giant Ibis was considered practically extinct.” But in 1993, the species was rediscovered in Laos and by 1994 a population was also discovered in Cambodia. In 2001, del Hoyo was fortunate to travel to Cambodia where he recorded a Giant Ibis vocalizing in a dead tree. “The observation,” del Hoyo said, “was very special.”
The local guides knew where the birds were roosting that night, so they walked del Hoyo through the forest in complete darkness to prevent the birds from noticing them and taking flight. Del Hoyo started filming when he could barely see the shape of what seemed like a bird. But as the sun rose, del Hoyo’s camera focused on a Giant Ibis. Minutes later, the bird gave several loud calls and two other ibises joined it in the same tree. “Recording the magnificent Giant Ibis, a species that I was convinced was already lost forever, was very thrilling,” said del Hoyo.
In 2008 del Hoyo went to northeast Brazil, an area with higher than average destruction of natural habitats, to observe the very rare Alagoas Foliage-gleaner. After much searching, del Hoyo eventually found the bird in the Frei Caneca Reserve and filmed the bird singing—an incredible video that will forever remind us of what we have lost.
In 2018 BirdLife International and the IUCN Red List declared the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner extinct. Del Hoyo says, “I feel lucky to have seen it, but I am incredibly saddened by its fate. I will never forget that video and documenting the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner’s penetrating song.”
Despite having documented more than half of the world’s birds, del Hoyo says there is still more bird behavior out there to discover. “Often when you’re in a blind filming,” says del Hoyo, “you’re rewarded by some unexpected sights. For example, a male may start disputing with another, or an adult could appear with some juveniles and begin to feed them, or a male may launch into a courtship display in front of a female—it’s all very satisfying.” Del Hoyo, for example started filming two European Turtle-Doves drinking water when to his surprise they started an interesting courtship display.
Del Hoyo says he’s now a bit more relaxed about targets and goals than when he was younger, but you’d never know that when you hear about the trips he has planned in his head. Currently del Hoyo is busy working on a new book, but later this spring he plans to visit the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain with hopes to film a number of mountain species, including the White-winged Snowfinch—a species he has not filmed before. He also hopes to get better-quality video of other species such as the Wallcreeper, Bluethroat, Yellow-billed Chough, and Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush. Del Hoyo says he would also like to visit any country in Central Asia, maybe Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, and a trip to Micronesia is high on his list as well.
Del Hoyo is happy to see that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, HBW, and IBC are joining forces. “I have always felt that it is better to create one strong, leading project by joining forces, rather than having lots of small projects, each with their own agendas,” said del Hoyo. And now, says del Hoyo, “I have extra motivation to fill in the gaps in the new joined collection.” What was that about being more relaxed about finding targets? Del Hoyo’s passion is never-ending. And for that we are extremely grateful.