Northern Peru Jul 06—20, 2009

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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I enjoy all the trips I lead, but a few trips do make a little bigger impression than others, and this is one of those. This trip stands out in numerous ways—certainly for the Marvelous Spatuletail and White-winged Guan, two among a remarkable number of endemic and marquee species. This trip also stands out for the large number of birds with unresolved taxonomic issues, which are a reflection of stark habitat differences over short geographical distances and a lack of ornithological work here. Also making this trip notable are the large number of early morning departures; the remarkable number of field breakfasts and lunches (about 20) which were expertly prepared by our cook and an assistant that traveled with us; the great variety of habitats and elevations explored along this route; some unusually noisy nights in hotels (small Peruvian towns seem particularly prone to this); some interesting cultural sidelights involving the history of early Peruvian civilizations; and finally, that sense of adventure that always seems to accompany trips into remote areas that are beyond usual tourist routes.

We explored habitats ranging from deserts, tropical thorn and scrub forests to cloud forest, montane dwarf forest, and treeline Andean grasslands, and encountered a spectacular array of birds—endemics, near-endemics, rare species, and ones such as the Marvelous Spatuletail—that are so fanciful they have to be seen to be believed. This was, in fact, a fabulous trip for hummingbirds—along with northwestern Ecuador, one of the best anywhere. We recorded 40 species of hummers, with the majority being seen at feeders (three locations) where they could be seen to advantage again and again, rather than glimpsed in the field. Among them were, of course, the spatuletail (repeated visits at two sites), Sword-billed Hummingbird, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Purple-throated Sunangel, Little Woodstar, and more. This was also an excellent trip for small owls, with 6 species seen including the rare Cinnamon Screech-Owl and Koepcke's Screech-Owl. Last of all, this is an excellent trip for tanagers with nearly 40 species in some of the most colorful associations imaginable at small fruiting trees.

At the end of the trip I solicited a list of favorite sightings or events from the group. It is perhaps significant that, aside from near unanimous mention of the Marvelous Spatuletail, the lists were remarkably different, suggesting that there is such a diversity of birds and experiences on this trip that people chose widely from the possibilities. Top listings were Black-and-chestnut Eagle (perched close), Sword-billed Hummingbird, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Scaled Fruiteater, Rufous-winged Tyrant (unique hovering behavior when foraging), Black-crested Tit-Tyrant (very cute!), and Moustached Flowerpiercer. Best events included a tree full of tanagers (13 species) at dawn, and seeing three Peruvian endemics in the same small tree (Gray-winged Inca-Finch, Buff-bellied Tanager, and Chestnut-backed Thornbird); it is noteworthy that Marañón Gnatcatcher and Black-lored Yellowthroat, both represented by endemic subspecies, were perched near that same tree.