Guest writer Hugh Powell is down in Peru covering the World Birding Rally. This is his second post.
Days 1 and 2 of the World Birding Rally took us into tropical forest, but perhaps not the towering, vine-laden canopies that first come to mind. Our days were spent in nearly full sun beneath the thin shade of dusty trees and cacti. It was a stark introduction to the unique Tumbesian region, where an unusual climate has helped create a birder’s wish list of endemic species.
By midday on Day 2, when the teams left these lowlands, the overall list topped 200 species, including fascinating endemic birds like the Peruvian Plantcutter, Cinereous Finch, White-winged Guan, and Tumbes Tyrant. The Sunbird/Wings team had the lead (full standings are listed below).
Day 1 began with a 4 a.m. wakeup call and a drive through the dark streets of Chiclayo. The South African team, on a hunch, stopped by the wooded fringe of Bosque Pomac long enough to hear a Peruvian Screech-Owl in the distance, then piled back in and headed for the reserve of Laquipampa.
As the sun came up the teams recorded birds both familiar and unusual, and sometimes it took me a while to figure out which was which. Saffron Finches sang from telephone lines next to Croaking Ground-Doves. The fluting, descending call of a Pacfiic Hornero filtered in through the van window—an unusual bird that by evening was familiar. That song was the first of about 10,000 that we heard that day. Burrowing Owls stood on fence posts and rooftops in the small towns we passed through. Cattle Egrets floated across the early morning sky, white as fresh pillows. Groups of noisy Red-masked Parakeets came through, flying like they’re part of a motorcycle gang.
But these, it turned out, were the familiar birds. The teams were hard at work searching out endemic and near-endemic species—birds that occur nowhere else in the world. All of these species were probably much more common before humans settled here (well over a millennium ago). Laquipampa and Bosque Pomac are two key forest reserves that still harbor these specialties of the equatorial dry deciduous forest.
It seems that the Tumbesian region has so many endemic species because of this dry-but-not-too-dry climate. To the south is the great Atacama Desert where essentially no rain falls. That’s too dry. To the north are the extravagantly wet lowlands of Ecuador—not dry enough. Sitting right between the two, the Tumbesian region gets enough moisture to support low trees and cacti, plus endemic plantcutters and guans. But it still stays formidably dry, which helps to isolate its inhabitants from populations to the north. And that’s a recipe for endemism.
As the minivans lurched up the La Leche valley toward the reserve of Laquipampa, I had my first hint of what the Andes will look like. Even here on its lowest flanks, immense rock walls thrust thousands of feet over the valley. Irrigated ricefields filled the floodplain in neat terraces marked by single rows of corn. Higher up, people grew corn and beans as far up the slopes as practical. The remaining forest is wedged into the space in between field and cliff. It’s a sort of high-water mark of human activity. Below that mark all the way down to the coastal plain, most of the forest is simply gone.
The South African Birding Ecotours team worked the canyon road, picking up glimpses of birds in moister curves along the river. An Elegant Crescentchest stuttered like a gecko, while a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta whistled a chipper tune with a slightly deflated air. The Surbound and Sunbird/Wings teams hiked higher up the slopes, finding birds such as Henna-hooded Foliage-Gleaner and Ecuadorian Trogon.
That afternoon at Bosque Pomac, on the flat coastal plain about 25 miles from the sea, it was even hotter and drier. We trudged through deep, floury sand beneath the tiny, filmy leaves of the region’s characteristic Prosopis trees. Their leaflets were just yellowing and the sea breeze was stripping them off the branches and scattering them in yellow carpets. Spiderwebs strung along the understory caught them, too, and looked like filmy lichen growing along the limbs.
Three teams converged at a spot helpfully signposted “Plantcutter Trail” and began listening for, imitating, and playing recordings of the Peruvian Plantcutter. (Using playback to attract birds is a very common practice in tropical birding, and all the teams used it.) Plantcutters are possibly the weirdest of the Tumbesian endemics. They’re in the cotinga family, but instead of swallowing large fruits the way many cotingas do, they have evolved a thick serrated bill that they use to bite off pieces of leaves and eat them.
The Tumbesian lowlands portion of the rally wrapped up on the morning of Day 2 with a visit to the coast at Puerto Eten. One of the first things the Surbound team discovered was just how many mosquitoes can come swarming out of a coastal marsh before sunup. They retreated as the light filled in, revealing scads of Black-crowned Night-Herons, Black-necked Stilts, and lingering migrants such as Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, and American Golden-Plover. Snowy Plovers scurried high along the beach and at least 50 Gull-billed Terns rested on the beach with some Elegant Terns. Surbound leader Alfredo Begazo spotted a set of fresh Peruvian Thick-knee tracks leading into the dunes, but couldn’t find the bird they led to.
Tiny Peruvian Terns skittered in the breeze out over the waves in front of Peruvian Pelicans, and Peruvian and Blue-footed Boobies. A couple of teams spent time scanning the ocean horizon and spied Pink-footed Shearwaters and even a Waved Albatross.
Back at the marsh, Field Guides’ Fernando Angulo was watching a Many-colored Rush-Tyrant. Teams met up and swapped information, including the news that Peruvian Plantcutters were on offer at a scrubby site about 20 minutes away. So despite the stultifying heat of Pomac the day before, everyone ended up with this strange bird on their lists anyway.
Even so, the bird of the day according to Tom Schulenberg, was the influx of Gull-billed Terns. “I personally was stunned,” he said. Less than 10 years ago, when Schulenberg led the team that wrote Birds of Peru, they called Gull-billed Tern a “rare boreal migrant.” “And this was not one or two but a whole group,” he said, probably several hundred in total, and all in full breeding plumage. Somewhere in Peru, it seems, there’s a new, expanding breeding population.
Gull-billed Tern may not be the most memorable bird of the day for someone like me, who is more easily distracted by a Sparkling Violet-ear or a Black-tailed Trainbearer. But for longtime observers like Schulenberg, this was the bird of the day.
At dusk on Day 2 the teams pulled into Cajamarca, at 9,000 feet in the Andes. Sun hats and t-shirts had been replaced by raincoats and long sleeves. At dinner, the judges announced the current standings. Sunbird/Wings: 181 species total; Field Guides 175; Surbound Expeditions 158; Birding Ecotours 151.
When asked about their upcoming strategies, most everyone echoed Surbound’s Alfredo Begazo: “Do your best and don’t forget to have fun.”
More about the Rally: