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...

28 October 2014

Best Day's Birding; EVER!...Peru (12th Sept.)

This trip to Peru was far from typical; the tour had been condensed from a usual 14-day trip into 11 days of birding. This left a high risk of missing a number of birds, but holiday restrictions for some in the group left no choice in the matter. However, we enjoyed rare, rare luck on this trip, and were so lucky and successful, it felt like a trip that can never be repeated. This day was the perfect example of this...

We awoke at Owlet Lodge, with skies cast in the colour of charcoal, illustrating the imminent threat of rain. For this reason, the three people in the group armed with digital SLRs, myself, Nick and Mark, all left our cameras in our rooms. Rain seemed extremely close, and threatened to curtail birding from the look of the skies above, and so we headed out on the trails near the lodge, with antpittas on our mind. The Abra Patricia area is rich in antpittas, and offered me alone 3 species I had not seen before, all of which are Peruvian endemics. As we had seen one of these the day before (Ochre-fronted), we were now focusing on the others. We started out by trying a spot where Rusty-tinged Antpitta had been heard the day before. It did not take long for a bird to respond, and soon after an antpitta shot across the trail at the speed of the Superhero the Flash! We feared, that would be that, but then, suddenly, another Rusty-tinged Antpitta hopped languidly on to the trail. Our first thoughts were that it would not remain long, but the bird defied usual antpitta behavioural etiquette, and not only remained for several joyful minutes, but even hopped up onto a rock, to make itself prominent and visible to all! At this point three in the group looked rather sheepish at having left our cameras locked safely in our rooms, and unable to capture the moment. Another hour or so on the trail, and we also nailed a third lifer antpitta in this area for me, with a Chestnut Antpitta that hopped out beside my speaker on he trail, and we also managed to track down a Rusty-breasted Antpitta too, to complete a hatrick of antpitta species for the morning. On the way back towards the lodge, with rain beginning to fall, we picked up the fantastically named Oleaginous Hemispingus, and the scarce Olive Flycatcher. By the time we reached the lodge, the threat of heavy rain, had turned into real, heavy rain. Knowing our birding in this area was now curtailed, we decided to head down to lower elevations along the road below the lodge; we had seen nearly all of our targets at the upper altitudes, and also by dropping lower, we hoped that we would move below the main rain belt....

However, when we arrived at Afluente, a famed birding spot, that is actually nothing more than a pull out by a tyre shop, the rain was very much still in evidence, and we were quickly forced back into the van for shelter. It soon became clear no matter how much we complained, prayed, and sat frustrated in the van, that the rain was here to stay for a while. There was nothing left to do than take advantage of the rain break, and take a long nap in the van! Which we did. After over an hour of birding being frozen out Nick awoke us with the news that the rain had nearly stopped, and so we left the vehicle promptly fearing there would not be too many breaks in the rain during the day, thus keen to take full advantage when there were. What followed was one of the busiest and most thrilling birding sessions I have ever experienced in the Andes. The first sign of a flock coming into the area was a Versicolored Barbet making a rapid appearance; then Mark noticed a White-eared Solitaire perched in an open tree! As I missed the solitaire, a much-wanted lifebird, and felt my lack of 'scope did not help, I immediately ran back to the van for my telescope, just a hundred meters or so away. However, this was the period when the floodgates opened for birds, and there was barely time for me to even get my 'scope. As I was reaching the van, a shout went up from Nick "Chestnut-crested Cotinga!" (a long time nemesis of mine), which had chosen to land in the very same tree as the solitaire. Moments later, while still revelling in the cotinga, Mark indicated he had the White-eared Solitaire again, and this time, we all got it. We were taking in both of these striking birds, when Nick, gestured to another beauty located lower down the same tree: a male Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater! It was becoming abundantly clear, we were in for a rare, rare day in the Andes. The next two hours or so were spent admiring a myriad of species that streamed through the trees around us, either as part of an amazingly diverse feeding flock, or visiting a number of trees that were clearly baring fruit in the area. Among the many species seen were" a pair of Lanceolated Monklets, a male Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a lifer Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet, the endemic Speckle-chested Piculet, Spotted, Saffron-crowned, Green-and-gold and Blue-necked Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, and a pair of Chestnut-tipped Toucanets. It was thrilling to be surrounded by so many birds, and a flock holding real quality within.

We soon reached lunchtime, but were forced back into the van, after the rain moved in once more, and the flock evaporated into the forest. Another nap was undertaken to cope with the rain break; and with the time approaching mid-afternoon, and the rain still very much in evidence, we opted to head lower still to the town of Aguas Verdes, and check out a new reserve on the edge of town: Bosque de Arena Blanca. This proved an inspired choice as we packed in some final quality birds before dusk forced our dream day to a close. As we walked towards the reserve we noted Lettered Aracaris, the endemic Black-bellied Tanager, and a Amethyst Woodstar in the trees closeby; and at the hummingbird feeders we were treated to both Blue-fronted and Green-fronted Lancebills, and a Many-spotted Hummingbird. While we were there another, large, tour group were there too, and in spite of the din of us all excitedly taking in the great hummers on site, someone spotted a Red-ruffed Fruitcrow in the trees above, which was something I had been dearly hoping to see. Taking a break from the feeders, we were met with mixed success; we got cracking looks at some cracking birds (Blue-naped Chlorophonias, Black-faced Dacnises, Golden-bellied Euphonias, and Paradise Tanagers), but missed a covey of Rufous-breasted Wood-Quails that came in to a gran feeders while we did so. This would have been a great lifer, but after the day we had just had there were no complaints from me; it was truly one of the most thrilling days I had ever experienced in the Andes....

Next up was a hike for yet another new antpitta, and a very, very special one at that...

23 October 2014

Night of the Long Whiskers...PERU (11 Sept.)

After a giddy day's birding around Abra Patricia, I felt I still had a score to settle with a certain owl; or rather, owlet. I decided to take things into my own hands. Knowing that no other people or groups were going after the regular lodge bird, I decided to make a late night foray for it. It involved a kilometre hike (a bit of a killer on the return, uphill leg, for one of shameless low levels of fitness like me). I set out on the trail, which I was unfamiliar with. It soon led to fork; I had great instructions of where to go, thought no one had mentioned a fork. I gambled on a certain direction, and finally found a set of benches which I figured marked an old, closer, spot for the owlet, which I was led to believe was of little use in recent months. So I forged on, I knew I had another 200m or so to go and that should be the current hotspot. I could not find any trail markers, and started to get worried, when I chanced upon another bench, and so hoped this was the marker for the new spot. I soon got my answer. On playing its soft, near frog call, it did not take long to hear it respond to my overtures; GAME ON. I felt confident, I was alone, I had time (after all it was only pushing past ten o'clock! However, this tiny calling night creature was a bit of a devil to see, For it is one of the world's smallest owls. Thus, in spite of its regular calling, which should help somewhat in locating it, the high volume noise of the river combined with the softness of its call, was causing me some trouble. I tried sloshing through the mud, and weaving my way through a rain soaked bamboo understorey. Only to emerge, wet from my feet up to my crown, and completely owless. I was thinking of giving it a miss, when it called again, from a spot, which it seemed to favour in my short time there. I was convinced it must be visible, but I might just have the wrong angle, with a vital leaf blocking my view in some way. So I walked through the dense cloak of bamboo once more, ensuring I was, again, freshly wet, from my boots up, This time I tried a bit more ducking and weaving (Ali-style), and took a step to the side, when there it was, sat on an open branch: LONG-WHISKERED OWLET. It must have been there for some time, as the call had continued from the same spot for a frustrating age; all I needed to do was take that crucial step, removing that crucial leaf, from my line of sight. It was tiny, its face was full of whiskers, and it was a real beauty; and I had a view for the ages. A grail bird for birders, and even more so for someone like me who has an unhealthy obsession with owls. It had been a rare trip indeed for owls, and it turned out we were not yet done with owls....

Plenty more beckoned on the remainder of our trip in Northern Peru...

20 October 2014

You know you make me wanna shout...PERU (11th Sept.)

So, it all started with a bird named Lulu, Lulu's Tody-Flycatcher, a great named bird if ever there as one, which, unfortunately, has been now officially name Johnson's Tody-Flycatcher. I still vehemently vote for Lulu! Much of the day was spent birding in and around the excellent Owlet Lodge in Abra Patricia. This fantastic birder's lodge, set up to preserve the habitat for its famous and rare owlet (Long-whiskered), has a series of trails, which are marked with small signs with bird names slapped upon them. Now I have seen this before at reserves, but rarely do you find the birds beside the appropriate sign. But not at this lodge; we picked up Lulu, right beside the sign bearing its name; this is the way birding should be. 

We then left the lodge and birded along the road below the lodge for a while, walking along another of their trails much further down the road. We were here to try for a scarce flycatcher, and try our luck with the first of several antpittas we were hoping for in this area. While Nick played for the flycatcher, I tried for the antpitta. While we worked on these, we nailed down a Bar-winged Wood-Wren that took little persuasion to come in and check us out. Not long after Nick's target responded from a swathe of bamboo: Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant, and it did not take long before we saw a pair of these spritely birds. Then. a shiver went up my spine; behind us an Ochre-fronted Antpitta called back rather belatedly. We quickly backtracked and could hear it calling close, it felt like we should be able to see it, but no amount of scanning could track it down. I nervously pressed play on my I-Pod, keeping the volume down, and instantly, it popped up onto an open branch! Amazingly, it lingered there, so we could approach closer and train our cameras on it at length. It was a very special antpitta sightings indeed. 

During the remainder of the morning, we picked up more White-capped Tanagers (five this time, compared with seven the day before), a White-collared Jay, a Highland Elaenia (which was a rather lame lifer for me), and enjoyed a flurry of tanagers, dominated by Flame-faced Tanagers, Saffron-crowned Tanagers, and Silvery Tanagers.

After lunch, we decided to try one of the local trails at the lodge, after a brief rest. We headed off down the trail with rain looking imminent. Luckily it stayed away for an hour, which was just enough time to find a White-faced Nunbird, sitting high above a sign with its name on of course, and a super Red-hooded Tanager. Much of the rest of the afternoon was rained off, but, when you have just added a nunbird of this quality to the list, that was fairly easy to take.

More from Abra Patricia and Afluente came the next day, a day which was even better than this one!

19 October 2014

Cinnamon and Spice and all things nice! PERU (10th Sept.)

With dusk approaching our plans were single-minded for the evening; look for the most enigmatic owl in all of Peru: Long-whiskered Owlet. We were staying at Owlet Lodge, after which the lodge was named, so we were in the right place (indeed pretty much the only place from where the owl is known). We had bumped into another group a few days before and had worked out that from our second night at the lodge we would overlap. They were a perfectly friendly and amiable group, but feared that two groups searching for the owlet on the same night might be a little crowded, and so we had planned to look for it on the single free night we were at the lodge alone, before they arrived. However, when we arrived at the lodge (near to dusk), we saw the very same group heading off down the trail for the owlet! They were here one day earlier than we had thought, and what's more had trumped us by going straight for the owl, before we had even checked in! Our plans needed a rapid rethink. Nick Athanas, the official guide for this trip, where I was tagging along, spoke to the lodge staff and soon got confirmation of a place downslope, where a new private reserve was being set up and had the owlet. Nick had this in his back pocket anyway, as a back up site if the lodge plan faltered. So the natural thing to do was visit the back-up site first; which we did. After dumping our bags in our rooms, and grabbing our torches, we headed straight to the "back pocket site"; we were led to believe there was a ranger on site 24 hours and all we needed to do was simply turn up, talk to him (and pay of course), and he would take us to his known owlet spot. However, on arriving we found an abandoned reserve with no human presence at all. Nick gestured for me to do up the trail with Mark and Rick, and try for the owl while he busied himself finding a human! Night was threatening to come, and in the tropics, night falls like a switch, none of this gradual on set of dusk, as we know it in the north; it approaches rapidly and falls almost instantly. Thus, not long after we were in owlet time, with a starry night and bright moon overhead, just the conditions we could have hoped for. However, we could have hoped for a bit more local knowledge of where to look! Thankfully, I soon heard voices and noticed a spotlight approaching behind; Nick had found a human, and the right one too; the ranger had been having dinner and was away for the short time when we arrived! Now he was here, he was with us, and knew exactly where to look for the owlet. He led us a short distance up the trail, gave us  a run down of what we needed to do, and Nick pressed play on his I-Pod. Minutes later, a clear call from the Long-whiskered Owlet was heard, ad goose bumps dotted my arms; it was close. We tried drawing it in even closer, but the stubborn little owl refused to budge. The local ranger was unphased though, instructed us to stay put, while he went to try and find it perched. He'd barely been gone minutes when he called us up, he had his spotlight planted right on this tiny owl! Me being a Tropical Birding guide on holiday on a Tropical Birding tour, did the genial thing and stayed at the back, thinking that once Rick and Mark had had their fill, I could move in for better looks. Unfortunately, the owlet left before I was able to do so, and I felt a little miffed I had not seen it's face, and it's famous whiskers better. But I was lucky enough to have seen this rare owl, and we were fortunate enough to have seen it at our first attempt. We arrived back the lodge for dinner triumphant, but on hearing the other group had not seen the owlet where they had tried, we had to mute our celebrations somewhat.

After dinner, and feeling luck was on our side, we opted for some further owling around the lodge, for this region is rich in owls, and we were enjoying the fruits of this on the trip, and did not want it to end. We visited their small canopy tower a few hundred meters from our cabins, and called in a White-throated Screech-Owl successfully, although it never sat where photos were an option unfortunately. We also heard a Rufous-banded Owl from their, but could not get it to come closer. Recognising this was another rare night for owls (I mean we had seen two species and heard three with relatively little time in the field), I was keen to head on further down the trail for another species, and one which I had not seen: Cinnamon Screech-Owl. However, with the clock pushing past ten o'clock, all the same people in the group turned the offer down to join me. So I found myself alone, walking on down unfamiliar trails. However, I was in my element, owls were calling regularly-I heard another (thought distant) Long-whiskered Owlet, another Rufous-banded Owl (equally as stubborn and uncooperative as the first), and so felt good about my chances. It seemed a vocal night for owls. I continued on down the trail, every so often playing the call of Cinnamon Screech-Owl in the hope of hearing an answer. I was not really sure how far I'd come (and had been told that the magic marker for the owl was 700m); but at one point I was near certain I heard just the right call for my quarry. I played the call softly to check that my thoughts were right, and was then utterly convinced I had heard the Cinnamon Screech-Owl. I ploughed on down the trail, with my neadlamp lighting the way. A hundred meters or more further, I noticed something in the periphery of my vision sitting beside the trail, and it seemed to glow orange: CINNAMON SCREECH-OWL. None of this chasing it down and scrambling through undergrowth that I had envisaged, it was merely sitting by the trail, waiting for me to turn up!

I climbed into bed at 1 o'clock in the morning ecstatic at a three owl night (again) on the trip; and full of enthusiasm at what this exciting venue was going to produce the next day. We were not to be disappointed, as we enjoyed several excellent days birding in the area...

15 October 2014

The "other" Snowcap...PERU (10th Sept.)

After our mega day in the foothills and our late night with a few large spectacular owls, you'd think we'd be happy for a lie in. But if you think that you do not know birders; some of us (me included) are a headstrong group of obsessives, who'll stop at nothing for the next bird (more or less); thus, next morning, we ate breakfast pre-dawn and headed straight out in the field. Our first clear target of the day was an interesting thrush; not so much interesting in appearance for, in truth, it is rather dull, coloured in drab olive tones, but more for the story behind it... This turdus thrush was first collected in 1961, and in spite of a different coloured bill (yellowish-green) and a different-coloured tail (grey), from "normal" dark-billed, rufous-tailed, Hauxwell's Thrushes, the specimen was considered as a Hauxwell's all the same. In 2007 the excellent field guide "Birds of Peru" was produced, and in there, clear as day, on plate 256 are two, quite different, illustrations of Hauxwell's Thrush; one depicted with an olive bill, yellowish eye ring, and greyish tail, labelled as a "gray-tailed morph", and another with a more rufous body and tail colour, lacking the pale eye ring, and with a dark bill. They are as different as some of the other species of thrushes in this section. To be fair, one of the co-authors of this brilliant field guide (one of my favourite guides), and original collector of the 1961 specimen, legendary ornithologist John P. O'Neill, in this guide, if you delve into the text, lie the immortal words "probably a separate species". Then from 2003 and later, due to the field skills of Barry Walker and B. J. O'Shea, and working with Dan Lane, Brett Whitney and others, strange thrush vocalisations, led to the final lightbulb moment; this strange, pale-billed, grey-tailed, "morph" of Hauxwell's Thrush sounded quite different from that species after all; a new thrush was born, the so-called Varzea Thrush. After a confusing 50 years in a dusty specimen draw, in a 2011 paper, that 1961 thrush finally got a name, and a rightful identity all of its own (paper here). I am not in any way mocking the people behind this; I have not described a single species after all, and am in awe of scientists of this creed, but it does make for an interesting story. So back to Peru in September; it turns out that the wonderful Waqanki Lodge, is one of the better places to try and track down this enigmatic thrush. The reason for this? An individual regularly feeds on the ground very close to the lodge; or so we were told. Our afternoon search the day before came up empty, although we did hear some intriguing calls, which were clearly coming from a near Varzea Thrush. Thus, after a slightly later than usual, dawn-time, breakfast, we set out in search of this turdus just a few minutes walk away. Our first scout of the area, revealed no thrushes feeding on the ground, and a possible Varzea Thrush sitting completely backlit in a tree, which we had to let go, with no clear ID features being seen. We walked back over the same areas, and Carlos quickly gestured to a thrush feeding on the ground: pale bill, we had it VARZEA THRUSH!

Some final birding around Waqanki that morning (when we refrained from our super-hike activities of the day before, having already bagged the antwren, and in need of a little easier birding). In the open areas we tracked down a pair of nesting Blue-winged Parrotlets, and both Stripe-necked and Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrants. Returning deeper into the forest again, passing canopy flocks held Yellow-bellied Tanager and Purple Honeycreeper, and we got cracking looks at Wing-barred Piprites, a rather handsome, and vociferous, manakin species. Once again (as the day before) we were serenaded by a Chestnut-throated Spinetail, but could not drag it into view, as it called from a thick tangle below us. Mark and I had had enough of this bird, and found a way into the valley bottom, working our way right into its favoured thicket as we did so. Murphy's Law of course ensured that by the time we made it into our idyllic position, the spinetail had fallen silent! We waited, and waited, and then suddenly it returned our playback, and then suddenly appeared on the ground, crawling around more like a tapaculo than a spinetail, just eight feet away! We then packed up and prepared to leave for the cloudforests of Abra Patricia. The beauty of this area is that the route up to those cloudforests is largely forested, meaning a range of altitudes can be covered. Before we rose up in elevation though, we dropped down the road a few bends, parked up by a bridge crossing a deep, dark cavern, and admired some 47 Oilbirds roosting underneath.

Working our way up towards the enticingly sounding "Owlet Lodge", activity was generally on the low side, with the sun beating down, and clouds few and far between (a death knell for bird activity in the Andes). Finally, we arrived at a spot for some "Andean Royalty", jumped out of the van, and walked straight on to the scarce Rufous-tailed Tyrant and the fancy Flame-faced Tanager. However, the Royal Sunagel, our primary avian target, was nowhere to be seen. We moved further up the road, with the aim of trying another spot. However, our focus was quickly switched when the harsh, jay-like cries, of a group of White-capped Tanagers reached our ears. One of the group, Rick, had missed this bird in southern Ecuador, and has a tanager fetish; we simply had to find them. While Nick scouted for the sunangel, I tried calling in the tanagers. They fell silent, when Nick returned with his significantly louder speaker; he cranked up the volume, pressed play, and we watched as seven of these gorgeous tanagers sailed in and landed alongside us. These are big boisterous tanagers, which feel more like jays than tanagers, (they sound so similar to jays, they can cause you to question which it is you have heard). 

After spending over a quarter of an hour with the "other Snowcap" (i.e. the tanagers), we climbed a small hill, with some interesting looking flowers below. Nick pressed play again, when a deep blue hummingbird darted in: Royal Sunangel! We'd barely started breathing following the splendid site of the male sunangel, when a pair of Blue-browed Tanagers suddenly appeared beside us too. The afternoon was turning into a bit of a classic, but there was little of it remaining, so we headed straight for Owlet Lodge, our fantastic lodging for the next three nights. We checked in, (or rather Nick checked us in while we feasted on hummingbirds at the feeders). The feeders were buzzing, and I quickly found my main target, a lifer Emerald-bellied Puffleg, which was backed up at the feeders by Long-tailed Sylph, Sword-billed Hummingbird, White-bellied Woodstar, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Green Violet-ear, and Booted Racket-tail.

Dusk was approaching, which could only mean one thing: O-W-L-I-N-G! We had already enjoyed rare success with this, but we were not in a supreme area for owls, and the haunt of the enigmatic Long-whiskered Owlet. As it got dark, the image of this owl preyed on our minds...

12 October 2014

Don't Underestimate the Power of the Dark Side...PERU (9th Sept.)

After our bumper day in the Andean foothills, there were two options: 1) Accept your good fortune with a smile, and retire for the night; or 2) Get greedy and try to extend that luck to a bit of night birding near the lodge. We chose the latter! I am an owl fan of note, so this trip, which ended up with 12 different owls seen for the group, was ideally suited; thus my commitment to go out owling was never in doubt. Thankfully, Mark and Rick (the two tour participants), were dog-tired, like me, but just could not say no! The excellent local guide Carlos advised us that anything prior to 10PM was not worth it, so we it was a super-long day or nothing. We chose the tortuous option! I could not figure out way this late timing was important, as, traditionally, when searching for owls, when tapes are played to get a response, just after dusk or just before dawn (on clear nights) are usually the most fruitful. A quick scout for birds around the lodge earlier that evening failed to produce the Rufous Nightjar or the Spot-tailed Nightjar we'd seen the evening before, during an evening where clouds regularly featured in the night sky, compared with the beautiful clear night of the "Supermoon" the evening before. My fear was, that this night was simply not a good night for night birds. Anyway, we gathered by the bus at 10PM ready to launch another night foray, with plenty of cloud still present above, interspersed with periods of starry skies. Not perfect, but not disastrous either. Our first owl search was not what I was expecting. I was thinking that the guide would lead us to a spot and suggest I play a call for the stakeout species. But no, we proceeded five minutes drive from the lodge to a large power plant of some sort, sprinkled with many bright street lamps. Here, the guide Carlos advised us to check the posts by the lights for any owls. No recordings were played, but no owls were seen either. We swiftly moved, vowing to check the posts on our return journey. Next up, we scanned the cables along this far from quiet highway for any sign of a Striped Owl. Sadly this impressive owl did not feature either. Owls 2-US 0; the owls were winning this battle hands down. I was beginning to feel decidedly guilty at having dangled the "owl carrot" to the group, only to result in a tortuously late night with little payoff. Still, Carlos seemed unperturbed, and his continuing enthusiasm, and optimism was infectious; my dark thoughts of failed returns were kept locked inside my head! The next stop in this owl quest was another unlikely venue. We moved into the outskirts of the noisy city of Moyobamba, which could rightly have laid claim to the title "the city that never sleeps" at this time; cars and motorbikes zoomed around the city, heavy-bass, pumping disco music seemed to burst from every few houses, and the distinct lack of any large patch of bird habitat, all seemed the very antithesis of what you need to see owls. Under Carlos's instructions we left the bus, accompanied by the ever-present sounds of Latino dance music coming from across the street, and scanned a large university grounds for sign of our next quarry. There were a few scattered, tall Eucalypt trees bordering the building, but nothing in the way of what I would label decent habitat. Carlos expanded his information to us; gesturing to a large red-and-white cellphone antenna, he indicated our target owl, the magnificent Stygian Owl, regularly chooses to sit on the large aerial. However, it was abundantly clear the large red-and-white structure was completely owl-less. We walked around the border of the property scanning the few trees on its fringe with a spotlight for any sign large, reflecting red eyes staring back at us, but found nothing. Carlos led us to the busiest street that bordered the property, and suggested I play the tape (obviously just loud enough to be heard above the continuous dance music present), and told us to keep an eye for a large owl flying from one thin strip of trees to another. With a distinct lack of belief that any owl would respond while the town was still deep within party mode, I followed his request all the same. Amazingly, within just a few seconds of play, a huge owl sailed overhead, lit up by the spotlight, and glided onto an open branch above us! We watched, quite literally open-mouthed, as the Stygian Owl called back and glared at us from its lofty perch, accompanied by the unwanted sound of Latino club music! A curious and unlikely scene for seeing a rarely seen owl. Carlos told us that the owls had been discovered here in just the last few years, at an elevation fully 1000m lower than their stated altitudinal range in the excellent Peru field guide. Stygian means "Dark" and the owl certainly appeared that; dark and menacing.

After enjoying excellent views and taking a few snapshots, we headed back towards the lodge, once more failing to find a Striped Owl on the return journey. A short time before turning back into the lodge, we stopped again at the plant with the bright street lamps, but found the posts still missing any owls. Rick glimpsed an owl, which gave us renewed hope, and moments later a Black-banded Owl (sadly missing an eye), sitting right out in the open next to one of the bright street lamps! Another unlikely setting for a normally tricky owl species! As we drove back the short distance to the lodge, Carlos lit up another owl-Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl-sitting on a fencepost to complete a three-owl night, all seen within one hour! A remarkable end, to a remarkable day.

Next stop was Abra Patricia, the cloudforest realm of the rare and much wanted Long-whiskered Owlet...

09 October 2014

Don't Cry for me Peru!...9th Sept.

We awoke at the wonderful Waqanki Lodge, full of excitement at the enormous avian potential for our day. By the day's end, potential had become reality, with some 150 species recorded; an impressive haul considering we lacked for any waterbirds as we spent the day inside the forest. The name Waqanki is a Quechua, and means "You will cry", and by the end of the day we were nearly weeping with joy. Simply put, it was a mega day, from start to finish. The finish was late, as we could not resist trying to track down some of the best owls in the area.

The day dawned gloomy, with the real threat of rain. However, here in the Andean foothills, the worst weather that you can have is hot and dry days, when birds are usually not too active. Our day unfolded with spells of rain interspersed by overcast weather. The rain was never too troublesome and the regular grey skies kept it not only cool, but active through the day. Andean birds simply love this weather. On this day we were accompanied by Carlos, a superbly talented local guide for the lodge, who I would highly recommend to anyone visiting there. Shortly after entering the forest we tracked down a calling Wing-barred Piprites (a type of manakin), before Carlos put us on to a local endemic flycatcher: Mishana Tyrannulet (which was later photographed much better later in the day). 

Working our way further up the trail, the ante was upped, when a male Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher was reeled in; a smashing looking flycatcher that puts all those dowdy empidonax to the shame! Then Carlos pulled a real corker out of the hat, when he stated "Fiery-throated Fruiteater!" This caused me to almost fall off the trail in my hurry to get to Carlos and the bird. I have lived in Ecuador for nigh on 9 years, and had longed for this bird, which had masterfully eluded me thus far. I wanted it bad, and I was within touching distance of it. I looked to the place indicated and, honestly, was a little disappointed! I was ready for a visual feast, a tiny lime green bird with a burning red ember for a throat. However, all I saw a an all green female; I was unsatisfied momentarily, until I glanced up and saw the male, ember in place, sitting just above her; satisfaction complete. Instantly, a real contender for bird of the trip had honed into view. 

We continued up the trail, pushing on with the promise of rarer birds still on ahead. A clearing brought us a pair of Red-billed Tyrannulet, a miniscule White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, ad an equally tiny Speckle-chested Piculet (a Peruvian endemic). The Andean foothills are graced with a swathe of colourful tanagers, and another clearing brought stark evidence of this, with Green-and-gold Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, and the endemic Black-bellied Tanager all sharing the same trees.

After this point our continuing climb became tough; the trail was steep and energy was sapping as we neared a 3km walk from the lodge. However, we pushed on, birds like Gilded Barbet, and a perched party of Swallow-tailed Kites giving us a welcome boost as we continued up. I nailed another nemesis from my Ecuadorian birding, when we tracked down a Buff-throated Tody-Tyrant. Finally, we reached the ridge, with the forest seeming all but quiet. However, Carlos gestured us onto a side trail, where we played the call of Ash-throated Antwren, a scarce endemic, and waited. Not long after a clear response from an antwren was heard, and we legged it down the trail towards the sound. A little more playback, some slipping sliding in the mud, and we were all looking straight at up at a male Ash-throated Antwren, a lifer for all concerned, even Nick Athanas, for which it had been a bit of a nemesis. A fabulous surprise came up the trail, as the lodge staff walked our cooked lunch to us on the trail, which tasted all the sweeter for having just added a certain antwren.

Coming down the trail in the early-mid afternoon was predictably much quieter than the way up, during the traditionally least active time of day. We did see a pack of Saddleback Tamarins on the way down, and also recorded a new bird for the reserve in the form of a flock of Band-tailed Pigeons (a common species at higher altitudes). We closed the afternoon (but not the day), back at the hummingbird feeders, where, once again birds like Rufous-crested Coquette and White-chinned Sapphire were the standout attendees, along with Black-throated and Great-billed Hermits, Golden-tailed Sapphire, Black-throated Mango, and Gray-breasted Sabrewing among 13 species present that afternoon.

Our day did not end there though, as we got out in the field again, post-dinner (actually near 10PM), as we went out for one of the stranger sessions of owling that I have ever experienced...