Hugh Powell is down in Peru covering the World Birding Rally that kicks off May 13, 2014. You can follow the progress of the competition on their Facebook page. This article covers an exciting re-rally pelagic, one that happened to nab Steve Howell, a world expert in seabird identification, his last storm-petrel species.
Sunday was an organizational day for the World Birding Rally, which gave many of the participants time to nip out for some birding.
At about 6:30 a.m. we boarded a tiny, 24-seat open boat and set off westward. The next land ahead of us, we learned, was Cape York, Australia. We were embarking on that celebrated subgenre of birding, the pelagic trip, in which observers attempt to identify small, fast moving dark birds at great distances while rocking back and forth in the smell of diesel oil and fish entrails. It was spectacular.
It was tough getting out of the harbor without getting whiplash as Inca Terns—those postcard terns with chocolate-sooty bodies, red bills, and creamy mustachial feathers—mobbed the water. A flock of 500 circled in the dizzy gray heights over Isla San Lorenzo, a guano island and former penal colony, as the boat pushed around the point and into the swell.
On the rocks below the cliff seven or eight Humboldt Penguins stood like passengers waiting at a bus stop. Chevrons of Red-legged Cormorants veered past our bow—ridiculously pretty gray-and-red birds that look like somebody in upper management had decided to rebrand the cormorant.
The first real seabird we saw was the fabled Ringed (or Hornby’s) Storm-Petrel—a specialty of the Humboldt Current and a bird whose breeding grounds are still unknown. This was before we’d even seen a Sooty Shearwater, for crying out loud. It was the last storm-petrel species in the world left for Steve Howell, a rally participant and one of the world’s foremost seabird identification experts. Later he said “That’s the first tubenose in a long time I didn’t bother to take a photo of. I just watched it.”
It’s a slim storm-petrel whose delicate flight style is matched by muted colors—smooth gray with light bars on the wings and a neat band across the chest. It appeared out of the gray distance when only a few dozen yards from the boat, light on its wingtips, and then shadowed alongside us for a hundred yards.
Almost as soon as it vanished David Fisher pointed out a Peruvian Diving-Petrel sitting on the water—part of an unusual family of Southern Hemisphere seabirds that look and act like auks but are not even remotely related to them. Chilean Skuas flapped heavily high above the water. Sooty Shearwaters appeared in darting groups of 8 or 10 as if to say, hello again, I think I saw you on your last pelagic. The captain was aiming to get us 32 to 35 miles offshore, but Barry Walker, who runs Manu Expeditions and had organized this trip, had a more specific spot in mind. Later, Rich Hoyer learned the spot happened to be just at the head of a submarine canyon. When we pulled up to it the storm-petrels really set upon us.
We cut the motors and a clinic ensued. Howell went astern clutching a bottle of fish oil and soaked a breadstick he’d saved from dinner the night before. Jean Paul Perret of Ecologistica Peru added some cut-up fish, and soon we were in the middle of a thousand storm-petrels. An air of concentration settled over the boat broken by the sound of shutter clicks. Everybody else was far more comfortable with ID than me, but it was especially interesting to hear Howell’s soft running commentary.
At one point he spied a fast-moving Pterodroma petrel at least a half-mile away. It looked like a piece of thistle-down blowing across an empty parking lot. “Cook’s I think, by the inner primary molt,” he said.
Storm-petrels, as you probably know, are best distinguished by subtle details such as size, how deeply they flap their wings, and how blackish-brown vs. brownish black their plumage is. Here we were being mobbed by White-vented (or Elliot’s) Storm-Petrels, but in among them were Wedge-rumped (Howell pointed out the widespread smaller subspecies as well as a few of the larger, Galapagos subspecies), plus the “Fuegan” subspecies of Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.
Most of the boat saw the differences immediately, but for me it was like learning to see four-leafed clovers. Often the White-vented were so close that I could see without binoculars the small white patches on their undersides as they banked. Slowly the deep wingbeats of the Wedge-rumped started to catch my eye—especially when the birds were going downwind, when other species would be flapping less vigorously. Only later did I become aware of the really quite obvious broader white rump patches. The “Fuegan” Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were rarer and less distinct. “Just look for blacker plumage and the really white bar on the wing coverts,” advised my Cornell Lab colleague Tom Schulenberg, author of Birds of Peru.
Later I relaxed and enjoyed the sight of this cloud of little birds, no bigger than swallows and quite similar in their darting and fluttering and multispecies flocking. They were totally at home out here, reaching down with their long legs to patter on the water without breaking the surface tension. Somehow this made them look even lighter, to see these sturdy appendages lowered beneath them as their wings brushed against the air. A number of Black Storm-Petrels had joined in, coursing among the tiny White-venteds like shadows of swords. “Their wingbeats look like they’re being pulled on puppet strings” Howell said. “Much different from Markham’s.” Ringed Storm-Petrels made a half-dozen more entrances, each time focusing the attention of the boat but never staying to do more than investigate the fish-oil slick. Searching for it among the fluttering masses, I had to remind myself to look for a largeish, buoyant, long-winged bird instead of a light-gray bird with a ring on its breast—a worthwhile lesson in ID you can take anywhere.
It was almost as a reward that the Waved Albatrosses really put on a show as we turned back. We’d glimpsed these immense birds in the distance, lumbering into low arcs in the light breeze, but now they were creeping up in our wake, sometimes two at a time, gaining effortlessly on us until their creamy heads and massive yellow bills were close alongside.
In the evening we attended a kickoff reception for the Rally, including a surprise appearances by dignitaries from the Peruvian ministries of both tourism and the environment, along with Rally director Manuel Bryce and José Koechlin, the owner of Inkaterra and a vigorous supporter of ecotourism in Peru. “This [rally] is a concept that moves us,” Koechlin said. “In northern Peru, as you’ll see, it is still a poor country coming out of poverty. We are interested in how we can conserve a given area by restoring what nature has provided in the past.”
He was referring to the nearly 1,000 remarkable bird species on offer in just the sliver of northern Peru we’ll be covering in the next week and a half. As I contemplated how to summarize a day in which we saw both a penguin and an albatross, and they weren’t even the highlights, I appreciated both the challenge and the potential.