Saturday 8 June 2024

A Month In Northern Peru, Part 8: Pale-billed Antpittas In The Elfin Forest (February 10, 2024)

February 10, 2024

The Pale-billed Antpitta is a large, fancy-looking Grallaria antpitta only found in the high Andes of northern Peru. Because of its proclivity towards dense forest with an abundance of bamboo, there are few places where this species can be easily found. These sorts of forested habitats are not usually found close to roads or trails, since humans have already accessed those areas and cut down all of the trees and cleared out the bamboo. The best way to find this species in its limited range is to go on a long, arduous hike into the hills. If it is a difficult site for birders to reach, it is also a difficult site for other humans to access and clear vegetation from. 

Most birders who seek out this distinctive antpitta do so along a trail known as Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo. The beginning of this trail is easy to reach just outside of the town of Pomacochas which was our home base for two nights. I am not sure when this trail was constructed but presumably it has been in use for hundreds of years. It is the only access point for some of the homesteads and small communities far away from the roads in this corner of the Andes.  

Laura and I planned to spend the better part of the day on Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo. We prepared ourselves for a steep hike as the first stretch of trail gains over 400 metres of elevation. But after that, the trail more or less levels out. We packed ourselves plenty of food and water, put on our rubber boots, and began the climb just after dawn.

Cinnamon Flycatcher - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

We initially focused on making good time and didn't linger for very long on the lower slopes, other than to catch our breath, of course. While the antpittas used to reside in forest patches along this stretch, most of these areas had been cleared in recent years. Now, one has to go a lot higher to stand a good chance. 

Still, the birdsong at this early hour was tempting and we stopped for species like Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Andean Guan and Amethyst-throated Sunangel. 

Andean Guan - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

The steepest portion of trail was behind us after an hour and a half, and we explored at a more leisurely pace from here on out. We often stopped for some of the many interesting plants found trail-side. 

Cyrtochilum macranthum - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Passiflora sp. - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Fuschia sp. - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Early avian highlights included  two new ones for us: a vocal Rufous-backed Treehunter in a dense stand of bamboo and scrub that refused to come into view, and a Rusty-tinged Antpitta that sang from somewhere down the slope. 

We have seen Golden-plumed Parakeets before but one that was teed up on the top of a mossy tree was a worthwhile study. 

Golden-plumed Parakeet - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Our birding luck continued to improve when we reached a flat, muddy section of trail that passed through one of the more extensive forest tracts. 

Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Our first mixed flock materialized. In ten minutes our species list for the day doubled, as we observed birds like Drab Hemispingus, Black-capped Hemispingus, Hooded Mountain-Tanager and Citrine Warbler. Plain-tailed Wrens duetted from the dense bamboo, and several hummingbirds zoomed by. A feast for the senses. 

Cinnamon Flycatcher - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

We finally heard our first Pale-billed Antpitta in this area. And then, an incredible experience unfolded. A snippet of playback enticed the bird to approach us from down the hillside. I noticed some movement beside the trail and then the antpitta hopped up onto the trail, completely out in the open! I gestured to Laura to turn around and she slowly did, as the antpitta gave us face-melting views, completely unobscured. It only lasted for a few more seconds until he bounded off the trail, taking about five giant hops to do so. We were gobsmacked! I hadn't had time to think about photography, but the memory is seared in my mind, anyways. 

We would go on to hear several more Pale-billed Antpittas throughout the morning, but that was unfortunately the only one we would see. An unforgettable experience with a spectacular bird. 

Panyapedaliodes sp. - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

The birding, butterflying, botanizing and bugging was excellent as we ventured further along the path. The overcast conditions had remained, meaning that the day was relatively cool and the birds were active. We enjoyed watching a little group of White-collared Jays, hearing the various tapaculos and antpittas, and photographing the occasional trailside plant that captured our interest. 

White-collared Jay - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Passiflora cumblensis - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Eventually, the forest thinned out and became more scraggly, interspersed with sections of bunchgrass and low shrubs. It was beautiful, especially as the fog lifted over a distance ridge. 

Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

The birds were quieter here, and I focused more on searching for interesting plants and insects. 

Unidentified plant - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Plant life along Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru 

Astylus bonplandi - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Andean Red Bumble Bee (Bombus rubicundus) - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

I must confess that I am not very proficient at identifying lichens, but with the help of the iNaturalist community I was able to put a name to some of them. 

Family Baeomycetaceae - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

This one was particularly eye-catching and it is known as Cladonia lopezii. We have several Cladonia here in southern Ontario as well, including the well-known Reindeer Lichen and British Soldier Lichen. 

Cladonia lopezii - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

My iNaturalist observation of this Cladonia lopezii was chosen as iNaturalist's Observation Of The Day, and it was posted onto their social media accounts. Who knew that a lichen could be so popular? :)

Cladonia lopezii - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Laura and I reached a point where the trail began a long descent into a valley. As our stomachs were grumbling, we decided that this would be our lunch spot and the point where we would turn around. 

Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

As we snacked on our crackers, apples and sandwiches, a Coppery Metaltail perched prominently beside us. During a break in the fog I snagged a few photographs. 

Coppery Metaltail - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

As an aside, Laura and I may be some of the only tourists who have spent an extended period of time in Peru and have never visited Machu Picchu. As much as that site is world-famous for a reason, going to a tourist hotspot like that just isn't our scene. The amazing thing with being a birder is that by following the birds, we often end up at sites like Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo. Though it isn't much like Machu Picchu, it is an incredibly scenic trail that cuts through a swath of beautiful habitats with unforgettable vistas. We were able to find all kinds of interesting birds and other species here, and up to this point we hadn't run into a single person. These are the places that I love exploring; I'll take this over a tourist-filled archaeological site any day. 

Coppery Metaltail - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Unidentified wasp on Baccharis genistelloides - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

As we finished our lunch on the rock outcrop we heard some birds calling from the shrubby vegetation that sounded a lot like thistletails. It didn't take too much effort to coax one into view. 

White-chinned Thistletail - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

White-chinned Thistletails are limited to grassy, shrubby habitats at the treeline in the eastern Andes. They are very skulky and difficult to see well, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to photograph this individual. In true thistletail fashion, it dove for cover a few seconds after these photos. 

White-chinned Thistletail - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

The numerous Moustached Flowerpiercers were a little easier to observe. 

Moustached Flowerpiercer - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

We retraced our steps, stopping here and there for birds. We tried again for the Pale-billed Antpitta but were unable to coax another one into view, but we had a few more mixed flocks and found interesting species like Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet, Gray-browed Brushfinch and Blue-backed Conebill. A Yungas Pygmy-Owl tooted away from somewhere across a valley. 

Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Periodic moments of sunshine caused a few butterflies and moths to flit about beside the trail. 

Pedaliodes peruda - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Unidentified moth - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

As we neared the end of our hike, we came across some locals that were hiking out to the main road as well. They were quite interested in what we were doing and we explained how we were birdwatchers. We let the kids try out the binoculars which was a lot of fun for them. 

Birding with the locals - Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo, Amazonas, Peru

Laura and I really enjoyed our hike at Trocha Cresta de San Lorenzo; it was one of my favourite days during our Peru trip. Though the walk up the hill was a little tough, we would highly recommend this hike to anyone with an interest in birds or nature. It was incredible. 

Friday 26 April 2024

A Month In Northern Peru, Part 7: The Marvelous Spatuletail (February 9, 2024)

There are several bird species that are near the top of the wish-list for any birdwatcher visiting Peru for the first time. The enigmatic Long-whiskered Owlet is one, as it is a recently described species of owl that is only known from the stunted cloud forests in a very small area of northern Peru. The Marvelous Spatuletail is another. It, too is endemic to the mountains of northern Peru. Its claim to fame is the outrageous tail that mature males have, and which they utilize in mating displays.  Some birders include the Marvelous Spatuletail on their short list of most spectacular birds in the world. Now, a list like that would be hard to whittle down to even a top 50, and I'm not sure where I would place the Marvelous Spatuletail. But I knew it was a bird that I had to see. 

There are only a few sites where Marvelous Spatuletails can be reliable found. These include a private feeder setup in the town of Cochachimba, and the feeders at the Huembo Lodge, located just outside of Pomacochas. There are other sites where the spatuletail can be observed, of course. But we wanted to have really incredible views, ideally of a male with two full "spatulas", and a feeder set-up will give you much better odds. 

The Huembo Lodge is run by ECOAN, which is the same organization that controls the Owlet Lodge. When we booked our stay at Owlet, we also inquired about Huembo, and were told that we could visit for the day for 15 USD per person. And so we made a reservation for the afternoon of February 9.

February 9, 2024

We had a well-deserved sleep-in this morning, which allowed us the opportunity to take part in the breakfast at Hotel El Duke at 7:30 AM. A rare occurrence for us, as most hotels don't usually offer 5 AM breakfasts. Our late departure also afforded a few extra minutes for one final snuggle with the resident puppies. 

Puppy snuggles at Hotel El Duke, Leymebamba

The morning was mainly spent driving while we also had a few errands to make. We only made a couple of birding stops in the AM. One of them was a two-minute break when I spotted a Fasciated Tiger-Heron in the Utcubamba River. 

Fasciated Tiger-Heron - Río Utcubamba, Nuevo Tingo area, Amazonas, Peru

We also stretched our legs in Nuevo Tingo. This town's claim to fame is nearby Kuélap, a walled settlement built by the Chachapoyas people in the 6th century. Our interest wasn't in the ancient archaeological site, but rather, with some of the birds found in the scrubby vegetation here. 

We walked a particular stretch of road where the Marañón Crescentchest and Speckle-chested Piculet had both been reported, hoping that we would get lucky with at least one of them despite the late-morning heat. 

Heliconius himera - Nuevo Tingo, Amazonas, Peru

And we were! We easily found a pair of Speckle-chested Piculets that flew in and checked us out. The Speckle-chested Piculet is yet another range-restricted species endemic to the mountains of northern Peru. It is listed by Birdlife International as a Vulnerable species due to its very small range and extensive deforestation in the valleys that it prefers. 

Speckle-chested Piculet - Nuevo Tingo, Amazonas, Peru

Speckle-chested Piculet - Nuevo Tingo, Amazonas, Peru

A small family group of Marañón Tyrannulets were hanging around too, giving me a chance to improve my photos of this species. 

Marañón Tyrannulet - Nuevo Tingo, Amazonas, Peru

The crescentchests remained stubbornly uncooperative and we could not find any. Not to worry, we would have many chances for this species in the upcoming days. 

We pulled up to Huembo Lodge in the mid-afternoon after a long day of driving and taking care of errands. Much of that time was spent in the city of Chachapoyas. We needed to find a particular bank so that we could drop money into the account of the owner of Fundo Alto Nieva, since our international bank transfer a few weeks earlier had been unsuccessful (long story). Our venture into the city had been doubly successful. Not only did we take care of the payment, but we also found a bakery with some delicious treats. 

The gate at Huembo was dummy locked. We pulled in, closed the gate behind us, and walked down the path to the main lodge buildings where we met Santos Montenegro, the caretaker of the lodge. He had already filled the feeders and a steady buzz of hummingbird activity livened up the place. 

Long-tailed Sylph - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Little Woodstar - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

We only had to wait a few minutes before the first Mavelous Spatuletail appeared. It was a young male with very short spatulas but he left almost as quickly as he had arrived. Still, the antics of the other species kept us entertained while we waited for a repeat performance. 

Little Woodstar - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Sparkling Violetear - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Though the Sparkling Violetear is a very common species in much of the Andes (and indeed, it was the most common hummingbird at Huembo Lodge), they have absolutely incredible iridescence to their plumage and deserve more love. What a bird. 

Sparkling Violetear - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Sparkling Violetear - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

The next common species of hummingbird at the feeders was the White-bellied Hummingbird. Most males and females are "female-plumaged"; a modest, green and white species. 

White-bellied Hummingbird - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Santos suggested that we check out the other feeder set up, located down a path inside the forest. The change of scenery was nice and we sat on plastic chairs and watched the action. Though fewer hummingbirds were visiting here, this site can sometimes be more reliable with Marvelous Spatuletails. We staked it out for a while, then switched back to the main feeders. 

Chestnut-breasted Coronet - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Luckily, on our second visit to the forest feeders, we got lucky and a male Marvelous Spatuletail appeared! The low light made photography difficult, and he disappeared for large stretches of time. But eventually, I managed a few record shots. 

Marvelous Spatuletail - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

My photos of him in flight are kind of crappy since I blew the focus, while the low light ensured that the images would be noisy due to the high ISO required. Still, you take what you can get!

Marvelous Spatuletail - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Laura and I were stoked that not only had we found our main target, but we had also seen him so well. He was just as spectacular as I had imagined him to be. 

For the rest of the afternoon we alternated between the two feeder setups, while we also kept an eye out for other wildlife. We hoped to find a Purple-throated Sunangel which had somehow eluded us up to this point. This would be our last shot (for this trip, at least). 

Tropical Parula - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Highland Elaenia - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

White-tipped Dove - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

The Little Woodstar was a new photographed species for me, so I made sure to obtain decent images of them. Photographing woodstars in flight is a little easier than some of the other hummingbirds, because they move so slowly and deliberately, like a large bumblebee. 

Little Woodstar - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

A trio of male White-bellied Woodstars were frequent subjects for my camera. 

White-bellied Woodstar - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

Laura and I spotted this amazing lizard resting on one of the rocks in the garden. It is definitely in the genus Stenocercus, the whorltail iguanas, which is a very diverse genus ranging throughout South America, with most species living in the Andes. 

Undescribed Stenocercus sp. - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

The only problem is that this lizard does not match any of the known Stenocercus, at least based on my searching, as well as the comments of several experts. The closest is Stenocercus rhodomelas, but that species is only found in a small area of southern Ecuador, and shows some obvious differences to this one. 

Undescribed Stenocercus sp. - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

This was one of those sightings that was more exciting after the fact. In the moment, I had no idea that we might have just stumbled upon an undescribed species of lizard. It just seemed like a neat-looking lizard to us. It is only after doing some research that the potential significance of the finding came to light. At any rate, if anyone reading this has expertise with Stenocercus lizards and might know what this may be, drop me a line. 

As the afternoon turned to evening, the hummingbird activity picked up at the main feeders. A quick rain storm sent us to the lodge, but we could still watch the action in the rain. Some of the hummingbirds seemed to enjoy the weather change, and we watched one Lesser Violetear seemingly having a shower. This isn't a great photo, but it gives you an idea. 

Lesser Violetear - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

It is funny how territorial some hummingbirds can be. Despite there being numerous feeders, each with 4-6 "wells", some hummingbirds spent more time fighting than attempting to feed. This Sparking Violetear and Violet-fronted Brilliant had quite the standoff. 

Sparkling Violetear (left) and Violet-fronted Brilliant - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

The rain stopped for the last half hour or so of the day. On Santos' recommendation, we watched a patch of Blue Porterweed (Tachytarpheta jamaicensis), a plant which is very popular with hummingbirds and often planted in gardens. Just as Santos predicted, a male Marvelous Spatuletail spent some time buzzing around the flowers. Given the low light and the hummingbird's erratic movements, I wasn't able to grab any good photos. 

Titan Sphinx (Aellopos titan) - Huembo Lodge, Amazonas, Peru

This Titan Sphinx was doing its best hummingbird impression at the Blue Porterweed as well. This particular sphinx is rather widespread, ranging from Argentina northward to the United States. We even have a few records in southern Canada, though I haven't seen it locally (yet!).

We left just before dusk and made the short drive to Pomacochas. Even though we had dipped on the Purple-throated Sunangel, we had seen several Marvelous Spatuletails with full spatulas, and found a nice variety of other species including a possibly undescribed species of whorltail-iguana. A great visit!