20 November 2014

Ending on a High...PERU (17th Sept.)

This was our final day in Peru, and after an extraordinarily successful trip, it was fitting that the last day was arguably the best day of all. It ended on a high for a variety of reasons; not only were the birds that peppered the last day of the highest quality, we also reached the highest elevations at which I have ever birded, well over 4600m.
We started at an ungodly hour, leaving our base well before dawn, so that we could return to the same patch of polylepis we had visited the day before. Our reason for the return was simple: White-cheeked Cotinga; which is usually more easily found in the morning. However, after sitting and waiting for its appearance for several hours with the sun having hit the trees much earlier, our hopes were waning. We had agreed to give it until 8:30am, and then head up higher for some other massive avian targets. The longer we waited, the more nervous we got that we were eating into the precious time we needed higher up the valley. With us remaining cotinga-less at 8:30am, and having had smashing looks at a Stripe-headed Antpitta while we waited, we began to push our time there later, in the hope the cotinga was having a lie in. Then, at 09:00am, with mere minutes left of our time there, a shape appeared on a low polylepis tree: WHITE-CHEEKED COTINGA! There was barely time for relief, before we headed downslope, got back in our vehicle and pointed ourselves upwards. On our way up we stopped for some obliging and photogenic Andean Geese, and a pair of Black Siskins, a handsome high Andean bird if ever there was one.
We worked our way up with the scenery taking ever more dramatic turns around each bend; a few large lumps in a lake proved to be Giant Coots, then, finally, we reached a high Andean grassland, where as we were pulling in, up sat our main target bird sitting proudly on top of a rock: White-bellied Cinclodes. This bird was my main motivation for adding these days, and the bird did not disappoint, giving us cracking looks as we watched it foraging in a bog that also held Andean Flickers and Cinereous Ground-Tyrants among others.
We then moved from one boggy area to another, at similarly lofty elevations. We had expected to suffer from the elevation, but the birds and the crisp air made it a joy to be there. The next bog stop was delayed when a pair of Vicunas walked into the road! Arriving at our next designated spot, we were sidetracked from our main quarry, by a showy Streak-throated Canastero
As I moved in closer to snap a few shots of that bird, a pair of stout birds took off from my feet and landed in front of us: Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (the main bird we were visiting this bog for). Shortly after the birds landed, another bird scythed through the air towards them, darting right at one of the pair, and only narrowly missing, an Aplomado Falcon, had clearly had them in its sights!
The next major stop was, you guessed it, another bog. Here we were hoping for the champion of South American shorebirds: Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. The bog was small, so we quickly swept it with no "DSP" to show for it. A loose group of 16 Andean Geese eyed us warily as we did so. Refusing to believe we could have missed it in our thorough sweep, I took a wider birth, and soon realised the bog had a more extensive reach than it originally to have. As I continued my search, I lost sight of Mark, and lost sight of almost everything as hale and snow fell around me. This might sound miserable, but I was loving it; this was extreme birding at its best. As I walked around, I did find a lifer, in the form of a very confiding Puna Snipe sitting among the hale. Then, a sound I heard made me start back the way I came: the sound of a car horn could only mean one thing...couldn't it?! I hurried back to the car to find Mark beaming; he had found not only a pair of DSPs, but also Olivaceous Thornbill walking around on the bunch grass, as this strange hummingbird is want to do. Soon after a shout went up from Mark as we searched for the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (re-finding the thornbill soon after), as one of these oddball waders flew in and landed in front of us. We watched this smashing shorebird for some time, before we had to head back downhill, picking up a lifer Junin Canastero as we did so.
The next day we awoke early, added a final bird to the trip list, in the form of a Rusty Flowerpiercer frolicking around the hotel garden, and headed back to Lima for our flights out. It was sad to leave Peru, but I was glad to leave with some 70 or so new birds, more than I had expected by some way. Good fortune had come our way! I look forward to returning to the land of Incas again some day soon...

16 November 2014

The Other Comet Landing...PERU (17th Sept.)

Mark and I were now alone to explore a completely new area for the both of us; the spectacular Santa Eulalia Valley, east of Lima. We had two days in which to target numerous lifers for us both, using this first day to explore the lower reaches, and also dip into a remnant patch of polylepis woodland higher up too.
My reason for staying on for this was the chance to find the rare and beautiful White-bellied Cinclodes, while Mark was particularly focused on Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, as he had not previously seen that one. However, both those birds would not be looked for until the next day, when we were set to drive up to the lofty heights of 4,600m, where those birds can be found.
Unlike the main tour, where I was along to learn from the "master", Nick Athanas, who was our guide for the trip, we were on our own here. Although, that was not entirely true, as we were armed with a driver with ten years of experience of taking birders into this area. His experience was evident from the word go; he knew the spots, and knew the English names of the birds at them, we simply needed to find them! Luckily, we found nearly everything we wanted over the two days, missing very little indeed.
While the driver was clearly experienced, his car clearly was too, perhaps a little experienced, as a muffler dropped off the car before we had reached our first stop! The road into the valley is a true challenge for any car, and it quickly took its toll on ours. Never mind though; the car was a little louder, but bearable, and we survived the two days unscathed thereafter. Our first stop was for a fourth Inca-Finch to add to the three we had seen on the main tour. The driver knew the spot, and so did the bird, which responded well, and sung in the open in front of us: Great Inca-Finch. Driving just a little further we moved into the valley bottom, where Pied-crested Tit-Tyrants quickly showed themselves, as did the first of two Bronze-tailed Comets for the day, and the first of many Rusty-bellied Brush-Finches; all three lifebirds for us both. Working our way higher, we checked a spot for the rare Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, and eventually dug out two of them, after getting cracking looks at several Canyon Canasteros in the same area. The supporting cast in the lower areas included Mourning Sierra-Finches, half a dozen Peruvian Sheartails, a number of Giant Hummingbirds too, and. finally, my first Andean Swift, (a group of 6 or so were seen really well later that day). 
We rounded out a great day, by visiting a patch of polylepis woodland, a known hang out for the rare endemic White-cheeked Cotinga. As expected, we had not sign of that bird, as it known to be easier in the morning, but we did track down a super Stripe-headed Antpitta, (my 5th new antpitta on this Peru trip), a few Andean Condors, a perched Variable Hawk, a single d'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, both Plain-breasted and Striated Earthcreepers, and another pair of Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetails to add to the ones seen on the main tour.
It had been a whirlwind day, with 7 lifers for me, and numerous great birds, and generally plentiful birds around. However, the next day was to be the true landmark day of this short extension, which brought some classic birds at lofty elevations decorated with dramatic high Andean scenery too...

15 November 2014

The End of Days?; Not Quite...PERU (16th Sept.)

This was to be the final day of the main tour, with a site called San Marcos with our name on it.What made that site so necessary? One, great, bird. This is the stronghold of a rare and local Peruvian endemic, the Great Spinetail. Before we had even smelt the morning coffee (which we had with us for the field), the birds were in the bag, a walk of some thirty metres from the car being all that was required. The same area held Masked Yellowthroat, and repeat Black-necked Woodpecker and Buff-bridled Inca-Finch, but, sadly, no White-winged Black-Tyrant. With this miss, Nick opted to check another site, where we spread out and set to scan the area. I was just lifting my bins to my eyes for my very first scan of the area, when Mark promptly announced he had one! It was not meant to be that easy, but, as you may have realised from the previous blog posts, it was just that kind of trip. In the afternoon, after our final lunch together, and immediately before our return flight to Lima, we returned to the comet site at Rio Chonta, which for me at least provided a last stab at another possible lifer, Andean Swift. However, the skies proved to be free of swifts of any kind, although we did see Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Andean Flicker, Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Golden-billed Saltator, and White-winged Cinclodes among others to close out the main tour.
We departed for Lima, and Mark and I bid farewell to Rick who was Houston-bound, and Nick, who was Argentina-bound, while we went off shopping for supplies for our next day in Central Peru, when we were set to visit the Santa Eulalia Valley, east of Lima, where yet another Inca-Finch was in our crosshairs... 

04 November 2014

Third Wave of the Incas...PERU (15th Sept.)

After our late dip (i.e. miss) of the Yellow-faced Parrotlet the afternoon before, we had no choice but to backtrack towards Balsas and try again for this increasingly rare, but beautiful endemic. All credit for our parrotlets must go to Nick Athanas, who picked out their far off calls with the hearing of an owl, and then found them with eagle-like eyesight. They were far from easy, but once Nick had pinned them down we enjoyed some choice scope looks at this handsome little parrot.

Working our way back up the Maranon Valley, back in the direction of Celendin, we stopped in on our third inca-finch of the trip, this time Gray-winged Inca-Finch, which showed up just where Nick had planned it to be! Not much further up our final major target in the area fell too, with Chestnut-backed Thornbird also. Then it was time to leave the Maranon Valley behind and begin our long journey between Celendin and Cajamarca. Although the journey had barely got underway, when we picked up a Jelski's Chat-Tyrant lurking in the undergrowth. The same area also yielded great looks at another Baron's Spinetail, another Peruvian endemic.

Much of the day was spent making our way between these two cities, and in spite of much having been written of the devastation of habitat along this route, a fantastic, and very birdy afternoon ensued. First to fall was a White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant feeding in some highland fields; this was quickly followed by several successive Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrants. One particular scrub stop proved especially productive. We quickly found our main target, Striated Earthcreeper, which was followed soon after by Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, and Peruvian Sierra-Finch. An area of remnant forest (barely any forest being accessible from the road now), was sad to see, but still worth the stop for Golden-billed Saltator, Black-crested Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Chat-Tyrant and our first Black Metaltail.

Driving ever higher we emerged onto rocky highland fields and slopes, where a Slender-billed Miner was seen in display flight. Finally, we arrived, a little earlier than planned on the outskirts of the city of Cajamarca, and so headed straight to Rio Chonta, close to the city. This has become known as the site to find the rare Gray-bellied Comet, which Rick found, with remarkable ease, right while I was taking a toilet stop. I could hear the excitement, and had to rush to finish, and charge over to where I gathered they had the bird, only for me to arrive just as the comet vanished into orbit. There was a tense five minutes, with much consoling language from everyone else in the group directed at me. Never had a piss seemed so devastating to me, until Rick, finally put me out of my misery, spotting this rare hummingbird feeding in a non-native eucalyptus tree of all things. Relief came to me, and we followed this up with a confiding White-winged Cinclodes hopping upon the rocks of the river that gives the site its name.

We had but one day to go for the main tour in the area, before Mark and I added on two extra days out of Lima....

03 November 2014

In the Shadow of the Incas...PERU (14th Sept)

This was to be another day of extremes; we started the day at "Black Mud Pass", which sounds much more interesting in Spanish (Abra Barra Negra), an area of remnant forest and grassland right on the treeline. In other chilly, windy and wet; at least it was for us on our visit. However, this pass, with its location on the lip of the MaraƱon Valley, allowed us to drop right down into the bottom of the canyon by the afternoon, where we needed to strip layers off, as we ended by birding in arid, cactus strewn slopes, with the sun beating down on us with considerable strength. Thus, from the start of the day to the end we crossed from one side to the other of this impressive valley, which also offered up some of the best scenery moments of this fascinating tour.

Our visit to Abra Barra Negra was haunted by strong winds, and cool temperatures, which gave us our most challenging birding of the trip. We had been largely trouble free with the weather on this trip until this point, but the morning was far from that. In spite of this, we forced out some early lifers: Coppery Metaltail, another endemic hummingbird for the trip, and a vocally distinct "form" of Rufous Antpitta that is likely to be recognised as a full species in its own right in time. Other high Andean birds sprinkled the farm fields up there, like Mountain Carara and Andean Lapwing

I had dearly hoped to "grip-back" a Russet-mantled Softtail, which I had missed while I was gorging on Pale-billed Antpitta a few days before. I had reasoned at the time that I got the better of the deal, I would prefer to have got, than missed, the antpitta. However, like any greedy birder worth his salt, I was also keen to settle scores with that bird, but try as I might I could not find it. I tried standing outside the bamboo that they love, I tried standing inside the bamboo that they love, all to no avail. Much as I wanted the bird, the bird did not want me! Still, we saw some great stuff, including my fourth new owl of the trip, and the 11th seen on it for me! A Yungas Pygmy-Owl just sat there and let us stare at it, which I did, at length! Other finds, while fighting the wind and rain, were Andean Flicker, a woodpecker that seems, at times, to care little for trees at all; Drab Hemispingus, White-chinned Thistletail (of the peruviana form, which may be split), and Mountain Cacique. After failing to find a constantly calling Neblina Tapaculo in blustery conditions, which one of us saw briefly, we finally decided to call it a day and head down to less balmy conditions. 

On our descent of the valley side we picked up Rufous-capped Antshrike and Baron's Spinetail, and took in some of the most impressive scenes of the trip, before we reached the hot and sweaty area of Balsas at the bottom of this impressive canyon. The base of the canyon was key to our hopes of finding another endemic, Peruvian Pigeon. A few flight views were had, before we walked along the road and found a tree full of them; find the fruit, find the pigeon! This species is listed for southern Ecuador, although there are many who now think that it may not occur there, and the sightings may have been mis-ids, thus designating this as a declining and scarce Peruvian endemic.

We were being baked near the valley bottom (in shocking contrast to our morning's feelings), when we located another major target, which behaved as if for our specific viewing pleasure: Buff-bridled Inca-Finch, arguably the best looking of the five Inca-Finches. This distinctive group of finches are all endemic to Peru, and are therefore highly sought after by people like me. I was keen on getting my first Inca-Finch on this trip, and knew I had a shot at four. The Little Inca-Finch seen on our second day was my first, but underwhelmed me, as it stayed distant, and did not allow me to snap a shot of it. Thus, this bird felt like my first true Inca-Finch, and it lived up to every bit of the hype, providing some of the best photos of the tour...

Next day we had a date with a parrotlet, and a long journey to the city of Cajamarca to undertake...

01 November 2014

What's in a Name?...PERU (13th Sept.)

After a morning scooping up Pale-billed Antpitta, Chestnut-crested Cotinga and Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant in wet, damp conditions, at the chilly higher elevations close to San Lorenzo, we changed direction entirely in the afternoon, dropping down into the Utcubamba Valley. This valley was in stark contrast to our morning, semi-arid in nature, with cacti dotting the scenic, steep hillsides. We were passing through the valley to pick up some key birds before stopping the night in Leymebamba. This was hoped to be a short process, as we needed just a few there. Chief among them for me was a certain owl, known to roost beside a hotel: Koepcke's Screech-Owl, which would have been a lifebird, and a lifeowl at that, making it extra special. I say would have been, because on arriving and checking its recent branch, the branch held no such owl. We searched and searched in 4 different trees, where we were informed it can be, but came up empty-handed. The owners of the hotel finally indicated five possible trees where it could be, but after scouring them, we were owl-less. So we moved on to other things, quickly picking up a new woodpecker for us all: Black-necked Woodpecker, another Peruvian endemic. We also enjoyed a pair of Golden-rumped Euphonias and a number of Buff-bellied Tanagers too. But we were also missing our other main target: Maranon Thrush, a regional endemic, which was also proving elusive.

While we checked local orchards for the thrush, we noticed we were being waved at; being waved at frantically, from beside the "owl" hotel. This could mean only one thing, and as we ran full pelt back to the spot, we realised a new guy had turned up and promptly found the owl, sitting in the fifth tree, where we had spent the least time searching. Very galling for all of us, but we were very happy to clap eyes on a pair of Koepcke's Screech-Owl sitting without a care in the world, unaware of the stress that they had caused! So "What's in a Name?", in regards to this owl. The owl, or rather the name of the owl, has an interesting story behind it. The owl was named in memory of a German ornithologist who lived and worked in Peru, Maria Koepcke. On Christmas Eve in 1971, this esteemed biologist was travelling with her 17-year old daughter Julianne, on board LANSA flight 508 from Lima to Pucallpa in the Amazon rainforest. The plane crossed the Andes east of Lima without incident before hitting a thunderstorm and experiencing a lightning strike, which caused the plane to crash, killing Maria in the process. On board the plane were 92 people (86 passengers and 6 crew), all but one of which were killed in the tragedy. The sole survivor was Maria's daughter, Julianne, who fell from the plane, while strapped in her seat, falling 3km, and crashing into the canopy of the jungle, which broke her fall and leaving her with only relatively minor injuries (broken collar bone) that allowed her to walk through the forest for 10 straight days, when she was finally rescued. A remarkable story that sits behind a remarkable owl.

We settled in to our hotel in Leymebamba, and readied for another ascent into wet temperate forest again the next morning...

29 October 2014

The Beak of the Antpitta...PERU (13th Sept.)

After an amazing three days in and around Abra Patricia, we had to reluctantly move on. Well, I say reluctantly, although the promise of our next destination was quite substantial, meaning that the sadness of leaving that great place was softened somewhat. To say we left pre-dawn is an understatement, as it felt like the middle of the night, and was arguably not far off it. However, these are the necessities of the ardent birder, and the sacrifices we make for that one...MORE...BIRD! The early start was needed as we had a fair drive, plus a sturdy hike in order to reach the spot for our next target bird. We were led to believe our hike from the town of San Lorenzo, into the bamboo choked upper elevations was to be relatively easy, and was a much softer version of the old hike that people historically had to do for this same bird. However, in hindsight, I would wager that those people who advised us of the relative ease of walk, had not had a hip operation that year (as I had), and had also not undertaken it with a steady stream of rain turning the mule track into a hazardous uphill climb!

The walk was tough, but the way was eased with some avian downtime, when we spotted a little flick of Citrine Warblers and a Barred Fruiteater on the way up. Better still was to come, when a passing flock was found to hold a pair of Unstreaked Tit-Tyrants, which instantly pulled themselves out of the flock and into the surrounding shrubs with a little playback. Feisty little creatures they were! All this helped to ease the pain of the seemingly constant upward climb. We also saw the only Gray-browed Brush-Finch of the trip on the way up (a species that was formerly part of the Stripe-headed Brush-Finch complex that was recently split into multiple species). Another cotinga (in addition to the fruiteater) came in the form of a Red-crested Cotinga, which was a forebearer of a great day for this family. Slowly, but surely, we worked our way up to our target altitude, where our target bird was said to be found. We were armed with directions from another Tropical Birding guide, but trying his stakeout, we came up empty-handed, with neither sight nor sound of our target bird. Some compensation came in the form of a Plain-tailed Wren of the endemic schulenbergi form, which is a likely future species, by virtue of its distinct voice. We kept trying the call of our main target, Pale-billed Antpitta beside the trail, hoping for a response close to us. But, try as we might, the only one we heard was buried in what seemed to be a dense swathe of bamboo, across an undulating private field of wet grass. Finally, Mark and I snapped, and decided we simply needed to chase after the sound, albeit on the far side of a stretch of private land. Thankfully, the owners of the land were in, and seemed unperturbed by our request for entry. We made our way through the field, making sure our trousers were wet through by the time we reached the other side, and neared the bamboo patch, where we figured the bird was located. Remarkably, when we got close to the first stand of dense bamboo, the bird seemed tantalisingly close. I had already seen three new antpittas on the trip up until this point, all of which are endemic to Peru, and had enjoyed them all. However, this was the one I really wanted; there's just something about that pale bill, which created a pull in me. Before pressing play on my I-Pod, I scanned the forest floor for signs of movement, hoping that by some miracle I would locate an antpitta without the aid of playback (a rare occurrence). Finding nothing, I nervously pressed play, and waited. Mark quickly stated he had this mega bird in his sights, but it was abundantly clear that I was blocked from my position; one of those all too frequent moments that occurs in forest birding. All too soon, this hefty antpitta had hopped away and was lost from Mark too. I tried playback once more, adjusting my position again just before I did so. Horror of all horrors, once again this beefy bird jumped into a position visible to Mark, though entirely blocked from me.

At this point Mark declared he had enjoyed decent views and he was happy with what he had seen and needed no more. This was both bad news (I was completely gripped off by this-i.e. jealous), but the good news was that Mark was happy for me to plow into the bamboo alone to try and see it for myself, (getting the two of us into the bamboo may have been a real challenge with limited space available). I climbed in, now ensuring the rain-drenched bamboo, soaked through not only my trousers, but all other of my clothing items too. I found myself a small opening within the bamboo, which had an enticing looking log (just the sort of log, I hoped, that Pale-billed Antpittas, liked to hop up on) within full view of it. I pressed play again, and instantly the sound of the antpitta was on top of me; I scoured the ground, and then it jumped up onto my favoured log, posing with its ivory-coloured bill in full, fantastic view. I was wet through from head to foot, and may have permanently water damaged my shiny new bluetooth speaker in the process, but did I care? Did I heck, it was worth every single uncomfortable moment, and financial burden (the speaker).

On the way down we found our final cotinga of the day, a treble-cotinga day, when we chanced upon our second Chestnut-crested Cotinga in as many days; while also picking up Golden-browed Chat-Tyrant, and Drab Hemispingus

After our long hike, lunch tasted very good at the bottom of the hill and end of the hike, and we looked forward to a very different afternoon's birding ahead, in the dry Utcubamba Valley...