Sunday, December 30, 2012

Birding Rally Challenge Perú 2012 - Part 4

This last episode of the series documenting the Birding Rally Challenge I attended in Peru earlier this month covers the final destination of that mad 6-day birding frenzy: Machu Picchu. 

Fabled travel destination ever since its discovery by American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, Machu Picchu also offers fantastic birding. The ruins of the inca city were never discovered by the Spaniards during their conquest, and thus remained relatively intact. It's a lovely, tranquil place which, even though it is visited by many, does not feel crowded.

We arrived there around midnight, after a long day of travel that started in the Amazon rainforest in Madre de Dios, crossing the high Andes by car, then through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo, where we got on the train to Machu Picchu. Rest and tranquility was just what everyone needed.

But the competing teams had to scour the area for as many birds as they could find — no rest for them! This biome being so different from what we just left, almost any bird we saw there was new for the trip.

Torrent Ducks
The spectacularly plumaged Torrent Duck (now which other bird species has colorful and strikingly different plumages for both sexes?) was definitely a highlight for me. They are relatively common on the river that runs through the high peaks around Machu Picchu.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet
Lovely is also this Chestnut-breasted Coronet. As before in the Amazon, we were the guests of Inkaterra, which has the most beautiful (and also most expensive) hotel in town, in the garden of which this species is easily observed.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock
Andean Cock-of-the-rock is another classic bird from the area. Someone alerted us to this nest on the other side of the river, on a rock wall just a few meters above the torrents of the river.

Blue-and-white Swallows
Blue-and-white Swallows were common birds on the ancient inca monument.

In the end, the team from LSU ("Tigrisomas") won the competition, with 493 species tallied in just 6 days of birding. I did not see quite that many birds, but this impressive number does bring home the whole point of the Birding Rally Challenge: where on earth can you see that many birds in only a few days?

The answer: Peru.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Birding Rally Challenge Perú 2012 - Part 3

Curl-crested Aracari

In this third installment of what is now shaping up to be a four part travelogue, I'll show some more birds from the Amazonian rain forest in Madre de Dios, Peru. I'll leave the Machu Picchu birds and scenery for a final post in this series.

I was in Peru a couple of weeks ago to cover the Birding Rally Challenge, a competition between ace birders from all over the world to find as many birds as possible in one of the birdiest countries in the world.

The bird at the top is a Curl-crested Aracari, a medium-sized toucan found in the Amazon Basin. It is considered uncommon throughout its range (eastern Peru, southwestern Brazil, northwestern Bolivia), and the Tambopata Reserve in Madre de Dios is one of the better locations for observing this wonderful bird. We saw it on Inkaterra's Canopy Walkway, a set of hanging bridges at 25 m above the ground that offer an eye-level view of mature rain forest canopy. 

Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant
Another cool bird we saw there was Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, a bird the size and shape of a ping pong ball. Its tiny wings carried it on short, buzzy, insect-like flights through the canopy.

Black-fronted Nunbird
Black-fronted Nunbird is more easily observed in the Amazon Basin, and generally found at lower strata in the forest. 

Also easily observed - but none the less spectacular for it - are Hoatzins. Taxonomically, this is one of the best studied but least understood of all birds; its phylogenetic relationship to other birds are still not clear. We found them in small colonies throughout the area, including at Lake Sandoval. They're sometimes considered the arboreal equivalent of cows; they spend a lot of time feeding on plant matter, and possess an extended crop that pre-processes food in much the same way as the compartments in a cow's stomach do. 

Red-bellied Macaws
Parrots are easily one of the most charismatic avian families found in the tropics, and the Tambopata Reserve holds many different species. Each day we saw multiple species, including Scarlet Macaw, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Dusky-headed Parakeet, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, White-bellied Parrot, Blue-headed Parrot, and others.

Pale-legged Hornero
Pale-legged Horneros are one of the most common furnarids in the Amazon. We observed this individual building its nest with river mud.

Black-capped Squirrel Monkey
Black-capped Squirrel Monkeys are very cute. We saw them occasionally moving through the forest, or, as shown here, feeding. 

The next and last installment in this series documenting the Birding Rally Challenge in Peru will take us to Peru's number one tourist destination: Machu Picchu. Birders that have visited there know that the place is also an excellent birding destination.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Birding Rally Challenge Perú 2012 - Part 2

Turquoise Tanager
After birding the Pantanos de Villa in Lima and attending the opening ceremonies at the Universidad Científica del Sur on the 28th of November, we set off for the first of two spectacular birding destinations: the Amazon rain forest in Madre de Dios. When we landed in Puerto Maldonado in the afternoon of the 29th, I spotted a Southern Caracara being chased by two Tropical Kingbirds. The kingbirds we would continue seeing at every location we visited, but this species of caracara, uncommon in Peru, was not seen again as far as I know [edit: the LSU-team did see Southern Caracara again, leaving Puerto Maldonado on the way to the Andes]. During a short boat ride from Puerto Maldonado to the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica Lodge we saw some Black Caracaras. They were fairly common along the river Madre de Dios, and a daily sighting during the Amazonian part of the trip. Beautiful birds.

Black Caracaras
The first afternoon there we walked around the grounds of Inkaterra's Reserva Amazonica Lodge, literally teeming with birds. How about Black-throated Mango and Sapphire-spangled Emerald around your cabin, a roost of Black-fronted Nunbirds nearby, Spotted Tody-Flycatchers flitting around at eye-level, colorful mixed tanager flocks up in the trees, or colonies of Yellow-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas along the hotel's main trail? At night, we sometimes heard Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl and Great Potoo from the cabin, while every morning, just before first light, one or more Gray-necked Wood-Rails would give wake-up calls. That said, there was not a 'rainforest racket' of sound keeping you up all night, just some discreet frog background noise - the kind some people put on to fall asleep to. All these birds I just mentioned were easily observed around the cabins of this wonderful hotel. This place is not cheap, mind you. (We were invited, so for us it was free, ha!) Yet I think Inkaterra offers good value here, combining luxury and world-class cuisine with a thoughtful approach to limiting the environmental impact of the hotel. If I could afford it, I'd gladly come back here. (I'm plugging the hotel a little bit because I was invited there by the Peruvian government and by Inkaterra, to attend a birding event intended to promote birding tourism to Peru. Well, I'll say it again, this place is absolutely worth visiting.)

the birding rally kick-off: 30 November, 5 AM
We spent three days birding the Amazon rain forest in the southeastern corner of the district of Madre de Dios, close to the border with Bolivia. The organizers had selected a number of key sites in the vicinity of the hotel (the furthest a 40 km boat ride along the river Madre de Dios), and each day, two teams separately went to a site to find as many birds there as they could, rotating to go to the other sites on subsequent days. They were accompanied by a local bird guide, but the guide could only take them to the key spots, he or she was not allowed to point out or identify birds. The team I rooted for - Cornell's eBirders - had as their captain Tom Schulenberg, first author of the field guide everyone was using (the quite excellent Birds of Peru), so they had an obvious psychological advantage. However, it quickly became apparent that some of the other teams had extensive field experience in South America, and/or had thoroughly studied up on the bird calls. Other teams, although consisting of outstanding birders all, simply had less Peruvian field experience or knowledge of local bird calls, and seemed to be birding the area more or less the same way I myself was birding it: avidly, and with great enjoyment, without being able to identify every call coming from the forest. Comparing my own daily bird lists with those of the teams, I found that I actually wasn't doing so bad, lagging only a little behind the lowest-scoring team. And after all, they were searching for birds the entire time, while I was often in the company of non-birders or people only casually interested birding, and could not always, well, bird. Which was okay. There's just so many birds there, that I ended up seeing a few birds that the official competing teams didn't see. But the top teams observed way more birds than I did, and I could only be in awe of all the birds these guys were racking up there. Just incredible!

Silver-beaked Tanager
I'll close this blog entry with some 'pictorial highlights'. Some of these are actually rather poor photos of great birds. The light wasn't always good, and at times my camera suffered noticeably from the humidity (pulling the ole 'lens error' on me multiple times), from which it recovered once we got out of there. Yes, at 200 m elevation it definitely was hot and humid, and it being the rain forest, it did rain for almost an entire day once. Somehow I didn't really notice the heat or the humidity all that much, absorbed as I was with the bird life around me. And not just birds… also monkeys, butterflies, frogs etc.

Greater Ani
Greater Anis were quite common along the edges of rivers and lakes, often found in small groups of two or three.

White-throated Jacamar
I was fortunate to see a number of jacamar species. Besides this White-throated Jacamar, I also saw Paradise, Chestnut and Bluish-fronted Jacamars - all charismatic, beautiful tropical birds.

Cocoi Heron
Cocoi Heron was a cool bird that was a lifer for me, and relatively common in this area. But the heron I really hoped to see - and did see! - was Agami Heron. These birds also occur in Honduras, where I live, just not in my neighborhood.

Agami Heron
Fantastic bird!

Another one high on my wish list - and not seen by every team - was Sunbittern. It was getting dark at the end of a cloudy, rainy day, so the photo is poor, but what an incredible bird!

The other 'sun bird' on my wish list, Sungrebe, proved to be fairly common in this area.

I saw some amazing birds there. Amazonian Umbrellabird I will not forget easily. I'll leave the macaws, aracaris and pygmy-tyrants (and monkeys) for another blog entry.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Birding Rally Challenge Perú 2012 - Part 1

Elegant Terns with a Sandwich Tern and a Franklin's Gull
I have just returned from an amazing 8-day birding trip to Peru. I was incredibly fortunate to have been invited to cover the first Birding Rally Challenge, a birding competition in the Amazon Rainforest and high Andes between some of the world's top birders.

Sheer luck, produced by a series of unlikely coincidences, brought me to Peru, one of the world's dream birding destinations. Boasting an incredible 1836 species, Peru is second only to Colombia in terms of avian diversity. The event, organized by PromPerú and Inkaterra, aimed to promote Peru as a world-class birding destination. Six teams from various parts of the world competed in an intense 6-day birding rally trying to observe as many bird species as possible. My good friend Oliver Komar was invited by Cornell University to be a member of their team the eBirders; I was invited to be part of the press corps.

Oliver and I arrived the evening of the 27th of November, and were welcomed at the airport by the friendly and professional staff of Inkaterra, who took us to our hotel in Lima. The next day, we had our first birding outing scheduled, followed by a presentation of the teams and the opening of the event with a press conference at the Universidad Científica del Sur in Lima, Peru.

Check out this video from the first day (28 November 2012), when we birded a wetlands complex along the coast in Lima. The competition itself did not start until two days later in the Tambopata National Park in the Amazon rainforest; more about that in future blog posts. Here at Pantanos de Villa on the edge of Lima, everyone was getting to know each other and trying to find great birds.

I saw 70 species there, about a third of them 'lifers'. After all, this was my first trip to South America, so anything with the word "Peruvian" in it (Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Thick-knee, Peruvian Tern, West Peruvian Dove, and Peruvian Meadowlark) was new for me. Other lifers for me included White-cheeked Pintail, White-tufted Grebe, Great Grebe, Red-legged Cormorant, Guanay Cormorant (pronounced "One-Eye Cormorant"), Puna Ibis, Plumbeous Rail, Slate-colored Coot, Gray-hooded Gull, Belcher's Gull, Kelp Gull, Eared Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Burrowing Owl (finally!), Wren-like Rushbird, Many-colored Rush Tyrant, Long-tailed Mockingbird, Chestnut-throated Seedeater, Scrub Blackbird, and Yellow-hooded Blackbird.

juvenile Many-colored Rush Tyrant
The adults of the Many-colored Rush Tyrant live up to their name, although the juveniles are considerably duller. Still a pretty bird. Coastal marshes (such as Pantanos de Villa) are a good place to look for them.

Elegant Terns
Franklin's Gull and Elegant Tern were the most numerous birds there, with an estimated 1,000 Elegant Terns, quite possibly a low estimate. The large, dark gulls in the background are mostly Belcher's and some Kelp Gulls. Other larids present here were Gray-hooded Gull, Peruvian Tern (on the ocean), Sandwich Tern and Black Skimmer.

Peruvian Tern
Peruvian Tern is a small tern similar to Least Tern. I spotted one cruising the shoreline in front of us and got the whole group on it. This species is uncommon at the site, and was a good find for us.

The Pantanos de Villa is also a good shorebird spot. With the exception of Peruvian Thick-knee, all shorebirds we saw were familiar species like American Golden Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, Spotted Sandpiper, both Yellowlegs, Willet, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers.

American Oystercatcher chick
Not all shorebirds here were migrants from North America, though. Evidently is was breeding season for the local population of American Oystercatcher.

After the birding trip to Pantanos de Villa, we were welcomed by the Universidad Científica del Sur, where the teams of the Birding Rally were presented to the press, and the Peruvian Minister of Tourism expressed the hope that the event would attract the attention of birding tourists from around the world. From my perspective, I can only corroborate that Peru is definitely worthy of such attention. It's a truly amazing birding destination, with a rich cultural heritage and impressive scenery on offer as well.

Oliver Komar presenting eBird to a wider audience
As a member of Cornell's team the eBirders, Oliver took the opportunity to present Cornell's eBird to a wider audience. In the US, eBird is already widely used by birders, and in Latin America eBird is growing by leaps and bounds - in no small part due to efforts to promote eBird by Oliver and others. In other parts of the world, however, eBird is still relatively unknown. It was great to see members of the South African and Spanish teams express an interest in using eBird for their own record keeping.

I have many photos and stories from this incredible event, and will save them for future posts... Stay tuned.