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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: The Cloud Forests of the Rio Mayo and Abra Patricia

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Birding for ten days in Northern Peru during the rainy season was delightful – and it barely rained. Walking through tunnels of moss-, lichen-, fern-, and orchid-laden trees in a stunning landscape of forest-covered ridges elicited wonder during our birding outings even when we weren’t busy looking for one amazing bird after the next. We finally had a few hours of morning of showers on our next-to-last day, but other than that we had force ourselves to take time off from trail birding to sit and watch the hummingbird feeders. We saw and heard nearly 400 species of birds, over 11% of which were hummingbirds. But the only hummer that made to anyone’s top three was Rufous-crested Coquette, and we had fantastic views of several, highlighted by two males in a minutes-long duel right in front of the viewing platform. In any event, there was no consensus for favorite bird, highlighting how many memorable moments there were. Early in the tour were the Sand-colored Nighthawks perched in a couple trees in the town of Buenos Aires, which we nearly missed by just waiting in the van during a quick refueling stop. Up at the Owlet Lodge two extended encounters with the most adorable Johnson’s Tody-Flycatchers left a lasting impression (and some very nice photos), while also memorable was the Spectacled Redstart which made the rounds by all our rooms at the Owlet Lodge every day, singing his accelerating song and fighting his reflection in our bedroom windows just inches away. While the third attempt for the Long-whiskered Owlet finally resulted in a sighting of the elusive thing, the most exciting encounter on that late night hike was a Common Potoo, whose intense eyeshine was visible through the trees above the trail, and only by proceeding did we realize it was on a short, dead tree right over the trail. Our last day of birding provided some other top favorites, including a Scaly-breasted Wren that serenaded us while furtively sneaking along the fence line, a stunning male Fiery-throated Fruiteater that flew in very unexpectedly, and a pair of lovely Southern Lapwings, still a rarity but apparently increasing in a gradual colonization from the south. Other top birds in the lower elevations included the huge gaggle of Comb Ducks at Laguna Ricuricocha, a singing and displaying Blue-black Grassquit like an upside-down yo-yo tossed up by a branch, snazzy Bluish-fronted Jacamars darting out to catch wasps, a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher racing over the ponds and perching furtively by the roadside where we stood, a pair of Lettered Aracaris in a lone tree among pastures and ponds full of birds, and the Long-tailed Potoo on a day roost found by Hilder at the Koepcke’s Hermit feeding station. At the higher elevations, top honors went to a difficult-to-see but splendid White-eared Solitaire and Swallow-tailed Kites gliding with extreme elegance over the cloud forests. Among the other birds receiving top honors were the many wrens, and this is perhaps the best place to hear an amazing variety of some of the most beautiful songs in the family. A single Bar-winged Wood-Wren performed for us very well, and Chestnut-breasted and Sharpe’s wrens serenaded us from extremely close range. A fearless and very close Cinnamon Screech-Owl was a nice consolation on our second attempt for the owlet.

In Detail: We started tallying birds even before we got our luggage, full of excitement to see Blue-gray Tanagers, Great Kiskadee, and Eared Doves inside the terminal, and many Cattle Egrets and Saffron Finches as we drove south. One of more surprising birds of the tour was the White-browed Purpletuft right when we arrived at Pumarinri Lodge. Here we learned to know the more common Sliver-beaked Tanager and Social Flycatcher, and on the afternoon walk had the lucky fortune to find a Brown-throated (three-toed) Sloth just a few feet off the trail, presumably returning to the canopy from its weekly toilet break. Another very good bird just down the road was a Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant and we also found Paradise and Turquoise Tanagers and large groups of White-banded Swallows.

Our first morning’s early departure was delayed due to an unfortunate accident, but we managed to salvage some birding, starting with a Tropical Screech-Owl from the driveway. When we finally got there, the Upaquihua Valley relinquished a good number of its specialties, including Northern Slaty-Antshrike, White-flanked and Stripe-chested Antwrens, Ashy-headed Greenlet, Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin, and Plain-crowned Spinetail. It was wonderful have to many Dull-colored Grassquits foraging and flocks and still singing everywhere; outsid ethe breeding season this species can be hard to find. Back at Pumarinri we had a productive afternoon down the road with Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers, Riparian Antbird, the sparkling Bluish-fronted Jacamars, and a locally very rare Spangled Cotinga that posed for photos.

On the morning up the Escalera or the Tunnel Road, a fruiting tree yielded many tanagers including several Yellow-bellied Tanagers and amongst them one or maybe two rare Dotted Tanagers, along with a few dacnises and honeycreepers. Up the road was a wonderful mixed flock with many species, but the more memorable ones were the Olive-sided Flycatcher and Canada Warbler from the north, though the local Purple Honeycreeper was absolutely stunning. A Koepcke’s Hermit by the tunnel was a lucky find as they weren’t coming to the hummingbird feeders at the reserve that bears its name. At the feeders we did see wonderful Gould’s Jewelfronts and the rare Blue-fronted Lancebill, while the Long-tailed Potoo was certainly an unexpected bonus. On the drive westward a Giant Cowbird perched by the road was a favorite, and we enjoyed a full half hour with the Oilbirds at Quiscarrumi slot canyon. We had time to watch the hummers when we got to Waqanki, and Rufous-crested Coquettes were among the first we saw at the flowers by our rooms. A stately Black-throated Mango was a glorious sight perched high above the feeding station. Later at night, those willing to be stirred from their rooms were rewarded with a sighting of two Band-bellied Owls behind our rooms.

A Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift at its nest under construction at Waqanki was a nice surprise, but it departed well before light, before most of the group got to see it. A morning at Morro de Calzada was full of birds; hearing Ocellated Crake was a highlight there, and Chestnut-eared Aracaris were seen well, along with White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and the local Lesser Elaenia. The open country birding in the rice fields is always fun, and the amazing views we had of a Spotted Rail were worth the patience. We moved up in elevation to the feeders at Reserva Arena Blanca where we saw even more Rufous-crested Coquettes as well as a few female and immature male Wire-crested Thorntails. But the biggest surprise here were flocks of Barred Parakeets flying over, and Norbil had a tall fruiting melastome tree staked out where we had looks at several in the spotting scope. We arrived at the Owlet  Lodge with plenty of light, seeing a busy pair of Grass-green Tanagers on our way up the trail, followed by the Spectacled Redstart that became so familiar over the next days.

Our first morning at Owlet Lodge we took stock of the Owlet Trail, and didn’t find it in very good condition following what must have been a raging flood, but the birding was great. On the way down we spotted Masked Trogon, followed by a pair of Black-throated Tody-Tyrants, and then we heard an Ochre-fronted Antpitta, one of the most range-restricted birds in Peru, which eventually responded very well. Further down the trail we had a mixed flock of jays and Mountain Caciques, amongst which was a lovely Crimson-mantled Woodpecker. Further down the trail we admired a greenish flower in the gentian family that may be an undescribed species of Macrocarpaea, and this is where we stumbled across the sonorous group of Sharpe’s Wrens that were destined become ringtones. The Sword-billed Hummingbird at the lodge’s feeders was a daily favorite, and the afternoon visit to Fundo Alto Nieva produced Booted Racket-tail and several Royal Sunangels, not ever a guarantee here, though these are the only feeders in the world that host them. A quick stop at the Nieva bridge on our way to our first owling outing resulted in a pair of Torrent Ducks and a charming White-capped Dipper.

We started our next dawn at the lodge’s small canopy tower where a Chestnut-crested Cotinga was undoubtedly the best bird, and we got great views of the Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulets there. At the bottom of the tower we tried unsuccessfully to tape in a Rusty-tinged Antpitta but instead came to revel in the habitat-fitting song of the Chestnut-breasted Wren, also to become a ringtone. Our first Johnson’s Tody-Flycatchers appeared right near the van before we headed down the road to Florida de Pomacochas. A quick roadside stop was productive for producing a Rufous-browed Peppershrike and several Hooded Siskins in the alders. We then spent a lot of time trying to see the Marvelous Spatuletails, which weren’t coming to the feeders more than once every few hours, possibly because a favorite flower might have been at its peak. While we waited we enjoyed the few other hummers (there were shockingly few, a surprise even to Santos), listened to Speckle-breasted Wren, spotted a Southern Emerald-Toucanet, and got good views of a Highland Elaenia. We eventually caught up with the spatuletails using a superb recording of the female’s call, to which a female and two males responded by darting back and forth. Before we departed we spotted yet another spatuletail near the van while bringing in a scarce Streaked Saltator at the edge of its range.

We then spent another full day at the Owlet Lodge’s trails, first spotting the young male Swallow-tailed Nightjar that had recently taken up residence for just a few minutes each dawn. Highlights on the trail were finding the aforementioned White-eared Solitaire, having our best views of Johnson’s Tody-Flycatcher, and enjoying several mixed flocks in which were Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, Streak-headed Antbird, Mountain Wren, Streaked Tuftedcheek, and Golden-headed Quetzal, all favorites for the day. One more favorite for the day was White-capped Tanager, a group of which appeared by the feeders. In the afternoon birding was a bit more quiet on the Tino’s Trail, but here we enjoyed the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey spectacle.

On our last full day we ventured back to Fundo Alto Neiva to experience the feeders at a different time of day, paying off with a rare Rufous-vented White-tip, though the commoner Long-tailed Sylphs upstaged it. And upstaging all the hummingbirds here was a pair of the stunning Deep-blue Flowerpiercer with its staring yellow eye. Down the road we caught up with Bar-winged Wood-Wren, and moving farther down found one mixed flock that had Three-striped Warbler and Slaty Antwren, while a Southern Emerald-Toucanet was another addition along the highway. We finally turned around after an lucky spot of a pair of soaring Black-and-chestnut Eagles, making a last stop at the bridge where a pair White-capped Dippers entertained us.

We departed Owlet Lodge with a serenade from a particularly strident and talented Great Thrush. Before the fog congealed and it began to rain, we got views of a very high elevational record of Blackish Antbird before coming across a busy mixed flock with Marbled Bristle-Tyrant, many Blackburnian Warblers, and several other species. Then the rain began, forcing us to watch the hummers at the feeders where Green Hermit, Booted Racket-tail, and Ecuadorian Pied-tail were the stars. We added a few tanagers there and on a couple more stops then drove to lunch at a completely different habitat in the flat, upper Mayo River valley. Here was the Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, one of few one can see while standing on solid ground. We had unexpectedly good views of Hauxwell’s Thrush as well as Blue Ground-Dove before we made one last birding stop for easy and unusually numerous Masked Ducks just outside of Moyobamba.

The mammals, insects, and plants were also outstanding, an unexpected highlight for some. One request to see a Starry Night Cracker was fulfilled before lunch on our first day. The most amazing butterfly, if not fanciest and most colorful one, was the enigmatic Styx infernalis, placed its very own tribe and very rarely seen, this one for the first time on any WINGS tour. The moths at the Owlet Lodge got better each evening, the diversity of species, forms, and shapes mind-boggling, and some quite lovely. Other insects made the tour very memorable, such as the truly enormous elephant beetle Megasoma actaeon that flew into the lamps at one early morning breakfast and landed with a huge whack in the middle of the table and a mossy stick insect that exemplified the amazing adaption so many insects have to the cool, mossy forests of the higher elevations. We were incredibly lucky to stumble into a small troop of the highly endangered Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey on one afternoon hike, and we spent many minutes watching them eat leaves, fruits, and lap up copious amounts of nectar from a showy blooming tree with chalice-like flowers.  The orchids weren’t as abundant as in some years, perhaps because of the drier weather, but a Sobralia caloglossa hanging over the road (where we had just seen the pair of soaring Black-and-chestnut Eagles) was a show-stopper.

We kept adding very special birds up to the last minute. At Waqanki we saw the rare Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, the Fiery-throated Fruiteater, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, and a pair of Mishana Tyrannulets right by the hummingbird feeders, while we finally got Forest Elaenia off the heard-only list with a very cooperative individual. Finally, at our last stop, we paused on our way to the Tarapoto airport to see the Comb Ducks, mixed with a few Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and admire a pair of gorgeous Oriole Blackbirds.


Rich Hoyer

March 2018

Created: 14 March 2018