Bird watching in Perú

Bird watching in Perú

Perú is a country of extraordinary biodiversity. Its geography splits into three major regions - the desert coast, the Andean highlands and the humid jungle. However, there are estimated to be at least 50 (and probably nearer a hundred!) distinct biomes within these crude distinctions. The birds of Perú follow this intricate pattern of climate, soil and plant life, and are extraordinarily complex. Thanks to David Geale and Jeff Pippen of Duke University for their invaluable help in making sense of this complexity.

The birds of Perú are extremely diverse. There are around 1750 species in the country, which is nearly a fifth of all of the bird species on Earth. Around 120 bird species are endemic to Perú, some confined to relatively tiny habitats. 78 of Perú’s bird species are considered globally threatened. A few notables among these include: Junin and Titicaca Grebes, both flightless birds confined to single lake systems high on the Andean Plateau; White-winged Guan, the star of a remarkable and ongoing conservation story since its rediscovery in the late 1970s; Royal Cinclodes, an extremely rare bird restricted fast-disappearing to high-elevation Polylepis forest and; Long-whiskered Owlet, one of the world’s most enigmatic birds and hardly known in life.

The high sierra is home to many raptors, including the famous Condor. Many waterfowl congregate around the icy permanent lakes that mottle the highlands. The chief focus of variation amongst the birds, however, tends to occur in the region where the arid highlands plunge into the humid jungle, the so called eyebrow of the jungle, or ceja de selva.

Start Each valley has something distinct to offer, and each hundred metres or so of descent changes the nature of that particular valley. This recording was made in a small, closed forest valley in Manu.

Let us take an example of this. The Manu biosphere reserve in the South of the country alone has over thousand species recorded. To give a full representation of the birds in Manu is impractical, but here is a brief selection of birds from the higher parts of the humid forest:

Hooded Tinamou White-throated Hawk Andean Guan
Shining Sunbeam Crimson-mantled Woodpecker Pearled Treerunner
Trilling Tapaculo Barred Fruiteater Pale-footed Swallow
Fulvous Wren Black-capped Hemispingus Hooded Mountain-Tanager
Moustached Flowerpiercer Grass-green Tanager Blue-and-black Tanager
Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager    

As we descend in elevation, the number of species increases. Typical of lower “cloud forest” are:

Brown Tinamou Black-and-chestnut Eagle Speckle-faced Parrot
Lyre-tailed Nightjar Many-spotted Hummingbird Versicoloured Barbet
Violet-fronted Brilliant Crested Quetzal Red-and-white Antpitta
Black-billed Treehunter Slaty Gnateater Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
Yungas Manakin Inca Flycatcher Bolivian Tyrannulet
Chestnut-breasted Wren White-eared Solitaire Yellow-throated Tanager
Saffron-crowned Tanager Golden-naped Tanager  

Still on the flanks of the Andes, but also showing many characteristics of Amazon birdlife, the lower hill forest is among the most exciting areas for birding. Some typical species include:

Sunbittern Military Macaw Blue-headed Macaw
Bluish-fronted Jacamar Koepcke’s Hermit Wedge-billed Hummingbird
Peruvian Piedtail Black-bellied Thorntail Scaled Antpitta
Ash-browed Spinetail Cabanis’ Spinetail Stripe-chested Antwren
Chestnut-backed Antshrike Blackish Antbird Amazonian Umbrellabird
Black-backed Tody-Flycatcher Olive-striped Flycatcher Ornate Flycatcher
Cinnamon-faced Tyrannulet Two-banded Warbler Golden-bellied Warbler
Olive Tanager    

The lowlands of Manu are among the most bird-rich areas of the world. Many sites have recorded over 500 species within a small area. The following is a very small selection of birds typical of the Amazonian lowlands:

White-throated Tinamou Variegated Tinamou Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Muscovy Duck Crested Eagle Black-collared Hawk
Starred Wood-Quail Razor-billed Curassow Pale-winged Trumpeter
Ruddy Quail-Dove Amazonian Pygmy-Owl Fork-tailed Palm-Swift
Gould’s Jewelfront Brown-mandibled Aracari Purus Jacamar
Rufous-breasted Piculet Cream-coloured Woodpecker Long-billed Woodcreeper
Brown-rumped Foliage-gleaner White-eyed Antwren
Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner Sclater’s Antwren
Bamboo Antshrike Dusky-throated Antshrike Goeldi’s Antbird
Black-spotted Bare-eye White-browed Purpletuft Screaming Piha
Fiery-capped Manakin Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant
Dusky-tailed Flatbill Golden-crowned Spadebill Moustached Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren Lawrence’s Thrush Pectoral Sparrow
Opal-crowned Tanager White-lored Euphonia Rufous-bellied Euphonia
Troupial Pale-eyed Blackbird Casqued Oropendola
Giant Cowbird    

This incredible array of birds provides a true wonderland for the naturalist. On a single two-week trip to Manu from Cusco, covering the whole range of elevations and habitats, 541 species were recorded, including 10 tinamous, 10 herons, 14 raptors, 19 parrots, 5 nightjars, 31 hummingbirds, 7 trogons and quetzals, 10 jacamars and puffbirds, 11 woodpeckers, 26 ovenbirds, 15 woodcreepers, 45 typical antbirds, 9 ground antbirds, 85 tyrant flycatchers, 9 wrens, 8 thrushes, 56 tanagers and 8 blackbirds. Few, if any, places on earth can compete with this diversity. In truth, every time scientists look closely at the jungle, they find something new, and it is almost certain that the variation which we recognise today much understates what is in fact there.

The yunga region (where the moorland shifts into patchy forest, farming and woodland) is home to many endemic species. One crosses the continental divide quite quickly, and the dry “rain shadow” valleys that the high mountains can provide creates isolated habitats where unique birds are found. The most notable of these is the Marañon Valley, where a selection from a long list of endemics includes Yellow-faced Parrotlet, Great Spinetail, Marañon Crescent-chest, Buff-bridled Inca-Finch and Peruvian Pigeon. Other such valleys host smaller numbers of specialties, including Apurimac Spinetail, White-tufted Sunbeam, Creamy-crested Spinetail, Pale-tailed Canastero and Black-spectacled Brush-Finch.

The coast is, of course, desert, spotted with areas of irrigated farmland. This does not mean that birds are poorly represented. The sea is - or was, until over-fished - amongst the richest in the world, and the marine bird life is still exceptional. The Paracas reserve is an example where pelicans and gulls mingle with many other species.

The rich waters of the Humboldt Current flows just off Peru’s Pacific coast and provides habitat for a great variety of seabirds. Many offshore islands, such as the famous ones at Paracas, are covered with nesting Peruvian Boobies, Peruvian Pelicans, Guanay and Red-footed Cormorants and Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes. Immediately inland, the land is incredibly desolate, but a few species such as Coastal Miner and Least Seedsnipe eke out a living in these bleak conditions. Some coastal hills are relatively rich in vegetation due to the dense fog that occurs much of the year, and these are home to more birds like Greyish and Thick-billed Miners and Oasis Hummingbird. The northern coast is slightly more hospitable, and a much greater diversity of birds can be found. The dry thorn forests of Tumbes, Piura and Lambayeque especially are interesting, featuring Peruvian Plantcutter, Rufous Flycatcher and Necklaced Spinetail.

This coastal desert is very narrow, and, reaching the steep western slopes of the Andes, the diversity of birds increases quickly. Common birds in the scrubland and dry forest at mid-elevations along Peru’s Pacific slope include Peruvian Sheartail, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Mourning Sierra-Finch and Blue-and-yellow Tanager. Locally one finds much rarer species such as White-winged Guan, Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner, Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, Great Inca-Finch and Russet-bellied Spinetail. The very highest parts of the Andes are also home to some very special birds. Most of the vegetation is puna grassland, dotted occasionally with marshes, lakes and small pockets of Polylepis forest. The grassland is home to Cordilleran Canastero, Ornate Tinamou and Paramo Pipit amongst others, while the marshes and lakes are inhabited by Speckled Teal, Giant Coot, Wren-like Rushbird and Plumbeous Rail. Polylepis forests form one of Peru’s most unique habitats and harbour a very special range of often rare birds, such as White-cheeked Cotinga, Stripe-headed Antpitta, Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Tit-Spinetail and Giant Conebill.

It is, therefore, impossible to give a sense of the scope of Perú for bird watchers without resorting to endless lists of names. Fortunately, however, Perú is gifted with a definitive book on the subject. A Field Guide to the Birds of Perú by James F. Clements and Noam Shany (ISBN 093479718-8 ) lists the species, and almost all of them are illustrated with photographs.

You can, of course, set out on your own to spot birds. This is, however, one area where an experienced specialist company can help enormously. Travel in the Ceja de Selva (where the source plant for cocaine is cultivated, amongst other difficulties) does require finesse. Madre de Dios, in particular, needs a deft hand as there are few if any facilities away from the few primary lodges.