Birding in Peru and the rest of South America
My Ten Favorite Birds of Peru
By Eduardo Ormaeche
This is definitely my favorite bird in South America. What can I say? Strangely, I cannot explain why I feel so attracted to this bird, as many other birders are as well, who find the legendary Diademed Plover a big target in the high Andes of South America, especially on our Central Peru tour.
There is no way how to describe the immense satisfaction whenever I find this classic bird in the Peruvian Andes at 4700 meters about sea level and have the privilege to show it to our clients and friends. If you want to see this bird you must really be ready to go for it. At 130 kilometers east of Lima city, where the bog cushions of Marcapomacocha lie at the base of the snow-capped mountains and where there is not much oxygen and the air is very thin, you can have the magical experience (if you are lucky) to find a pair of Diademed Plovers (or Diademed Sandpiper-Plover as they are also called), perhaps even with chicks, as we have on several of our Central Peru birding tours or even Lima days tours. They breed at high elevations in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, with only a few accessible places to go for them.
(Photo Niall Perrins)
I used to live in Northern Peru for several years and had the opportunity to explore the area very well, including the famous Abra Patricia Mountains even before the Long-whiskered Owlet Lodge was built. I and other folks have explored the moss-covered trails of the cloudforest in search of the mythical Long-whiskered Owlet. So many tries in the past with no success! At that time its vocalization was completely unknown – trying all night long, with full moon, with no moon, in the rain, we so often had to come back to the tent empty-handed. But since the call was recorded for the first time in 2008 and the local NGO ECOAN built the lodge and actually found the territory of the owlet, the chance of finding one of the most enigmatic birds in the world is very high.
Looking for the owlet might not be an easy task, since it involves some hiking on steep terrain and waiting in the dark for some time. Nobody has seen it at daytime yet, and most of its behavior is still unknown. But again, the sensation is indescribable when one feels the bird responding, coming closer and closer, and suddenly we turn the spotlight and there is this bird at two meters in front of us. Your heart beats fast in your chest!
(Photo Alan van Norman)
This fantastic hummingbird has become one of the most wanted bird species to see in Peru and the symbol of conservation in the cloudforest of Northern Peru. It occurs in secondary semi-deciduous woods and in a few patches of cloudforest at both banks of the Utcubamba River in the Amazonas department of northern Peru, one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, which is full of waterfalls, green mountains, deep canyons, gorges, mountain rivers, caves, and the remains of the ancient Chachapoyas culture, a civilization that flourished in this area before the times of the Incas and built huge stone works similar those of the Incas in size only.
The bird’s most remarkable feature is the male’s two long racquet-shaped outer tail feathers, which cross each other and end in large, violet-blue discs or “spatules”. The bird can move them independently.
I remember that during our first Birding Ecotours trips in 2004 and 2005 we had to walk on steep terrain to reach the patches of forest that allowed us just a brief glimpse of the bird, but since sugar feeders where set up in the localities of Huembo and Leymebamba you now can really enjoy longer views at what is for sure one of the most gorgeous creatures on the planet.
(Photo Niall Perrins)
Even though this is not a classic bird of the typical Northern Peru circuit due to its rarity everywhere, Birding Ecotours found a reliable location thanks to the help of the local NGO San Antonio Reserve not far from the town of Chachapoyas. We were the first company to have taken clients there with the mission of finding and photographing this rarity. If you really want to score, the best way is spending a night camping in the reserve and waiting until dusk, when the bird starts calling, as we did in 2012. We heard it and tracked it and were reward with this unbelievable view. This prized owl was celebrated with a single malt scotch!
(Photo Alan van Norman)
Amazing, very large, one of the most powerful eagles in the world, this is the dream of every birder who comes to the Neotropics. Even though widely distributed on the continent, the Harpy Eagle is rare everywhere, and sightings are either by chance or because an active nest has been detected somewhere in the rainforest. Even though you can see the Harpy Eagle (if you are lucky) in Venezuela, the Guyanas, and Brazil, we have a healthy population in the Peruvian rainforest, especially in Manu National Park and Tambopata National Reserve, where we have been lucky to see it in the surroundings of the Refugio Amazonas Lodge.
(Photo Ken Logan)
A large and striking mountain tanager endemic to the elfin forest of Central Peru, this bird occurs at 3000 – 3600 meters elevation. The search for the Golden-backed Mountain Tanager is for the most adventurous birders. To reach Bosque Unchog in the Huánuco district in Central Peru, you must be prepared to deal with low, humid temperatures, high elevation, moderately steep walks, and even with the possibility of having to camp in such an environment. But in the process you might be enjoying other sought-after species like Bay-vented Cotinga, Rufous-browed Hemispingus, Pardusco, Undulated Antpitta, Swallow-tailed Nightjar, and Brown-flanked Tanager. Due to habitat loss the species is considered endangered; it is vanishing and getting more and more difficult to find. If we are lucky we could score during a single-day visit, but we normally plan to spend at least two full days in the area. A gem for tanager fanatics!
Birding Ecotours has organized successful tours in Central Peru since 2004.
(Photo Alejandro Tello)
This bird is another of my favorites in Northern Peru and can also be found on our tours to Ecuador and Colombia. This is considered the heaviest member of the Thraupidae family. These birds do not occur in mixed flocks with other species but forage in single flocks of four to ten individuals. They are very noise when they call and travel through the forest canopy, especially in open areas, and can come in aggressively responding to playback from some distance. I have noted on a few occasions that they travel not with but close to White-collared Jays, as the jay itself sometimes does with mountain caciques. The call and behavior of the White-capped Tanager does not seem to fit with those of most of the tanagers. The mountains of Abra Patricia are a great place to look for this species.
(Photo Trevor Hardaker)
The Antbirds family (Thamnophilidae) encompasses nearly 50 genera and more than 230 species, plus numerous subspecies, and is endemic to the Americas. The family contains groups such as the Antshrikes, Antwrens, Antvireos, Antbirds, and others. Most of them are skulkers, secretively living in the forest understory, but many occupy other habitats as well. Many have similarly cryptic coloration that varies from sooty gray to black, brown, and other dusky colors, which has earned them the unjustified title of “A things” or “little brown jobs”, even though there are as beautiful and sought-after species as Ocellated Antbird, Scaled Antbird, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, Harlequin Antbird, White-breasted Antbird, and Bare-crowned Antbird among them.
Some of the antbirds are professional ant-followers, which means they are found in mixed flocks, together with other antbirds, woodcreepers, and even some tanagers, and follow the swarms of army ants on the Amazon rainforest floor. The purpose is not to feed on the ants themselves but to steal the prey the ants are carrying.
My favorite is the White-plumed Antbird. For a tour leader like me there is great satisfaction in finding and showing clients and friends this hard-to-find species, which is the reward of the challenge this species poses. We found the White-plumed Antbird in terra firme Amazon forest on our tour to Iquitos, a tailor-made extensions of our Northern Peru tours.
We are crazy about Antpittas (Grallariidae). The reason probably lies in the difficulty they provide to be observed, since they can remain for what seems like forever in thick bush without coming out or even moving much. They can be a few meters in front of you without your being aware of their presence. In order to see some of the most secretive species, birders have to leave trails and walk into the bush, looking for a tiny hole-like window that may provide a view, many times on their knees or literally crawling, in the quest for a prized bird. There is no better reward than finding an antpitta for clients and friends. Northern Peru possesses some endemics species such as Pale-billed Antpitta, Chestnut Antpitta, Rusty-tinged Antpitta, and Ochre-fronted Antpitta. The new trend of attracting antpittas with worms has revolutionized the experience of finding them, especially in Ecuador and then in Rio Blanco, Colombia, where you can see five species in one hour on our Colombia birding tour, allowing better views and seeing more of the behavior as well as providing better photo opportunities. However, the experience of finding an antpitta in the bush (even if there is more time involved) is by far more rewarding.
Here is a good picture of one of the most widespread species, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta.
(Photo Christopher Calonje)
Another one of my favorite birds in Peru, even though it is not endemic and also found on our tours to Bolivia and Colombia, is Chestnut-crested Cotinga. It is really great to have scope views of this species in the Abra Patricia Mountains, where it sometimes perches exposed in the top of a tree. Other places to find this bird are the Paty Trail in Central Peru and the famous Manu Road below the Wayquecha Biological Station.
(Photo Juan David Ramirez)