The Long Road
It took 40 years for the first field guide to the birds of Peru to hit the shelves. But as a busload of ornithologists driving through the rugged Peruvian Andes would attest, it was well worth the wait.
I have seen the book, and it is fabulous. I have used the book, and it works beautifully. I have birded with the book’s originator, co-illustrator, and coauthor, and he is amazing. The book is Birds of Peru, and the godfather of the book (which has five coauthors and about a dozen artists) is John O’Neill.
I still can’t believe it, but I ended up in Peru in September sitting on a bus driving the sometimes treacherous roads of the Peruvian Andes with John O’Neill and his wife and 14 of the world’s best-known birdwatchers. Our responsibility was awesome: Make it through the mountains with the first and only copy of Birds of Peru ever to reach the country, and deliver it and John O’Neill—its driving force—to Peru’s First Nature and Birdwatching Fair, in Tarapoto, on the north-western edge of the Amazon. The birding leader for our group was Barry Walker, British Consul in Cuzco and owner of Manu Expeditions, one of the premier Peruvian tour companies.
Our group flew to Cajamarca in the northern Peruvian Andes and boarded a tall bus, with our luggage below us and large windows on all sides. We were welcomed in Cajamarca in fine Spanish (photo below). But in truth, it was pretty much wasted on us—all but the most polite were off on the edges of the ceremony looking for new birds, including our first Peruvian meadowlarks (with bright-red, not yellow, breasts) and green-tailed trainbearers (long-tailed hummingbirds).
After Cajamarca, the real adventure began, as we started getting used to driving in a tall bus in the high Andes on narrow dirt roads (photo below).
Our bus was a bit underpowered, so for the next few days we experienced long, slow rides with exquisite mountain scenery, punctuated with short bird-filled stops (photos below) in patches of natural habitat surrounded by highly modified fields and scrub.
I expected to see a lot of colorful tropical birds; but during the first few days, many of the birds belonged to a primarily earth-toned tropical family—the ovenbirds, or furnariids. On the first day we had a striated earthcreeper, a white-winged cinclodes, and a streak-throated canastero. On consecutive days we added the chestnut-backed thornbird and the russet-mantled Softtail. Andes Day 4 brought the rusty-winged barbtail and the streaked xenops. Our final day in the Andes day climaxed with the rufous-fronted thornbird and two foliage-gleaners.
You should get O’Neill’s book even if you don’t expect to travel to Peru. Just reading the bird names is great enter-tainment. For example, we have lots of flycatchers in North America, but in the Andes we saw three species of tit-tyrants, a pygmy-tyrant, several chat-tyrants, and a couple of shrike-tyrants—not to mention the tyrannulets.
Traveling with John O’Neill was a revelation in many ways. We were with him for the 30th anniversary of his rediscovery of the white-winged guan, now the focus of a promising captive-breeding and reintroduction program. I took his picture (photo below) at the very spot where he discovered the long-whiskered owlet. We drove to the site easily, but the bird was found long before the road was built.
Many of the species we saw are referred to by more than one name, primarily because ornithologists aren’t sure whether the populations we saw are separate, endemic species or are merely well-marked populations of wide-ranging species. Birds of Peru takes a conservative approach, only splitting species when there is a published, peer-reviewed paper documenting the split. The book includes paintings and descriptions, however, of many populations that may soon be recognized as separate species.
We spent our first Andean night in Celendin, still at a pretty high elevation. The next day we descended to the Maranon River, famous for its many endemic species (and populations that might be species); then climbed up again through the Abra Barro Negro (abra is Spanish for “pass”) and back down a bit to spend the night at Leimebamba. The highlight of the day was seeing two of the five species of inca-finches, all endemic to Peru. The buff-bridled inca-finch looks at first like an Oregon junco, with a brown back, gray wings, and white belly. But a closer look shows a black face with a bright yellow bill and a light-buff whisker mark.
Day 3 started back near Abra Barro Negro with (among many others) a pair of colorful species—the gray-breasted mountain-toucan and the scarlet-bellied mountain-tanager. I just missed the spectacular sword-billed hummingbird! We were supposed to visit Inca-era ruins at Kuelap, but the road was under construction, and we retreated after getting distant views of a large walled city on a mountaintop.
The marvelous spatuletail (a hummingbird) was justly the focus of our entire trip. It is a medium-sized hummer, but the male has two outsized tail feathers with iridescent circles at the end that he waves to dazzle the females (and ALL the birdwatchers). We started Andes Day 4 with good views of several spatuletails, then went to Abra Patricia and its lodge, currently under construction.
Day 4 marked a dramatic transition from dry to wet, and Day 5 marked our descent from the Andes into the western edge of the Amazon Valley. All of a sudden we were surrounded by greenery and tanager flocks! We did most of our birding in Alto Mayo Forest Reserve, which is mostly cloudforest.
I always expected that Peruvian birding might get overwhelming, and in the Alto Mayo it almost did. I saw a dozen life birds in 15 minutes in a single flock. I might not have known what any of them were, except that standing by my side was David Wolf (a longtime guide with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours), who called them out one by one—and reviewed them all for me once the mixed-species flock had passed!
Evolutionary ecology has taught me that species are divided into niches—each species uses resources slightly differently from all other species to minimize competition. But these flocks were full of tanagers of the same genus (Tangara) that looked to be of very similar size and shape. Each species had its own kaleidoscopic array of colors, but they all seemed to be built from the same basic body plan.
Behavioral ecology has taught me that brilliant bird coloration is induced by sexual selection—females prefer to mate with gaudy males. In the Peruvian cloudforest, it looked as if sexual selection had produced a wide variety of species that acted ecologically as though they were one species. I am hoping to find some scientific studies that have addressed this conundrum.
After Alta Mayo, we were on the fast track to Tarapoto (on the northwestern edge of the Amazon) for the bird fair. En route I got to visit in detail with Martin Davies and Tim Appleton, co-originators and co-coordinators of the British Birdwatching Fair, which was the inspiration for Peru's First Nature and Birdwatching Fair. In addition to inspiring other fairs, the British fair has raised millions of dollars for bird conservation around the world, including several Peruvian projects.
Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of the bird fair—sponsored by PromPeru, the government tourism agency—was the chance to honor John O’Neill for his 46 years (so far) of contributions to Peruvian ornithology. John was one of several speakers that day, along with Peru’s vice-minister of tourism (photo below).
In addition, we were introduced to a number of upscale lodges and tour companies that cover all of Peru. And we acquired a T-shirt collection that should last a decade!
Birds of Peru is due out in November—you’ll love it! Read it, gawk at the plates. But if at all possible, use it as inspiration to visit Peru as soon as and for as long as possible. The mountains are higher there, the valleys seem lower, and there are more than 1,800 species of birds, almost all of which are unbelievably exotic!
Greg Butcher is Audubon’s director of bird conservation.
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