Friday 5 April 2024

A Month In Northern Peru, Part 6: A Long, Sketchy Drive To Find Atuen Antpittas (February 8, 2024)

One of the fun aspects of birding during this particular period of history is that our understanding of how birds are related to each other is changing rapidly. Back in the "old days", our collective knowledge of these topics was a bit more rudimentary. Species were grouped together based on how they looked, or due to details of their internal anatomy, or by similarities/differences in their voice. But the age of genetics has turned everything on its head. Yes, some of the general assumptions made decades ago are proving to be correct, but many others are not. 

Sequencing a genome is now fast and cheap. And, by looking at these genomes and by doing a bunch of other stuff that I am much too dumb to understand, scientists are able to determine the evolutionary relationships between species. Every year, scientists are getting around to studying these evolutionary relationships, one species (or genus, or family) at a time. 

How does this make it exciting to be a birder? Because new and exciting things are being discovered, whenever a scientist gets around to looking more closely at the genetics of a particular group. For example, it was long thought that the Bullock's Oriole is basically the western counterpart to the Baltimore Oriole (a familiar species where I live in the Great Lakes Region). At one point, they were even lumped together as the same species, the Northern Oriole. But recent genetic evidence has suggested that these two orioles aren't even sister species. 

An out-of-range Bullock's Oriole in Toronto, Ontario (March 2, 2024)

One of these consequences of the current genetic revolution is that a lot of birds are getting "split" into new species. For example, the Rufous Antpitta was formerly considered to be one species, ranging widely across the Andes, with little variation in plumage (but some variation in voice) across its range. The advent of genetics means that we now know how different genetically some of these populations are. The result is that the Rufous Antpitta was split into 13 species! Every year, many "splits" and a few "lumps" occur, which affects the numbers on a birder's life list. One has to be paying attention to keep track of all the changes each year. 

A few years ago, not a lot of birders really cared about the Tawny Antpittas in the northeastern or southernmost parts of their range. But recent analyses of the songs of the Tawny Antpittas indicated that the ones in northeast Colombia should be split as a different species (Boyaca Antpitta), as should the southern ones, found in the Andes of northern Peru (Atuen Antpitta). As a result of this three-way split, birders are now much more interested in these two populations of what was considered for a long time to just be Tawny Antpittas. I should also note that this Tawny Antpitta split is based on vocal differences; they haven't yet gotten around to doing genetic testing yet to confirm this, so our understanding of these species may yet still change. 

All of this was a long-winded way of explaining why Laura and I drove 25 kilometres (each way) down a terrible bumpy road on the morning of February 8. We wanted to be among the small handful of birders who had seen an Atuen Antpitta!

February 8, 2024

A cluster of eBird records around the small village of Atuen piqued my interest. It looked to be road accessible, and we had a Rav4 with relatively high clearance so I decided to give it a shot. I didn't know any of the birders who had been down this road before, so I wasn't able to reach out to someone to get some intel on the state of the road. But in the end, it turned out to be fine, and Laura and I had a pretty enjoyable day in the Andes. 

Making friends in Leymebamba

As you can see in the above photo, we were a little delayed hitting the road this morning, but I eventually dragged Laura away from all of the "friends" near our hotel. 

We knew that the drive to Atuen would be a long and bumpy one, and so we broke up the drive frequently. This particular road is often called Cañon de Condor since the road follows a beautiful river in a deep canyon, where Andean Condors are often seen soaring overhead. 

Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Our first few stops were not as birdy as I had hoped, but the forest was beautiful and we slowly teased species out of the woodwork. A Sword-billed Hummingbird is always an impressive sight, but one feeding on a wild Passiflora is even better than your stock Sword-billed on a feeder. I wasn't quick enough to photograph the hummingbird (it was too dark, anyways), but here is the Passiflora. You can see how that long bill of the hummingbird would come in handy. 

Passiflora tarminiana - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Birders very commonly report Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans here and yet, after an hour, we had not found one. I needn't have worried since one quickly materialized. Any encounter with a mountain-toucan is worth cherishing. 

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

The birding remained relatively slow and we couldn't find some of our targets, such as Purple-throated Sunangel and Large-footed Tapaculo, both of which are regularly reported along here. But we chipped away and built up our eBird list nicely. A group of White-collared Jays was enjoyable, while a few mixed flocks added numbers of tanagers and flycatchers to the list. We heard a few Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes, spotted a brilliant Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and observed a couple of Rainbow Starfrontlets as well.

Blue-and-black Tanager - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

As is typical when the birding is relatively slow, I resorted to photographing insects. My new lens setup (Nikon 500mm f5.6 PF) has a lot of advantages to my old lens (Nikon 300mm f/4 AF/S), but one thing it is not better at is insect photography. The minimum focusing distance is quite far at 3.0 metres, whereas with the old lens, I could almost photograph something perched on my foot! When photographing insects, having the additional reach isn't nearly as important as having a close focusing distance. 

Asphaera albomarginata - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Shield Bug sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Lichen Moth sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Metalepta sp. Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

We found quite a few Maroon-belted Chat-Tyrants both along the road and next to the river. This was a new photographed species for me. 

Maroon-belted Chat-Tyrant - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

We located a cooperative (but loud) pair of Mitred Parakeets near the above chat-tyrant. 

Mitred Parakeet - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Eventually, the forest patches were left behind as we gained elevation. In an open stretch we found a nice White-capped Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet along the river, though we couldn't dig up a Fasciated Tiger-Heron or Torrent Duck to complete the sweep of the"Obligate River Species Of The Andes". 

The driving was slow-going due to the many potholes (and my paranoia in getting a flat tire), but fortunately, the state of the road dramatically improved for the last 13 or so kilometres of the drive. Finally, by 10:20 AM, we rolled up to the sleepy village of Atuen. This photo below shows the "Urban Zone".

Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

We skirted around the town and up a hillside on a dirt road. It was here that the search for the Atuen Antpitta commenced, under steely gray skies and with a soundtrack of Tit-like Dacnises.

Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

Luckily, it did not take us too long to find an Atuen Antpitta. At first we only heard Chestnut-crowned Antpittas singing, but then a couple of Atuen Antpittas joined in. We couldn't find a good window to try to call one in and so we scrambled up the hillside, settling in the long grasses and scanning for antpittas. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous up here while we waited. 

Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

It took a while, but our search paid off when we both managed views of an Atuen Antpitta. My view was quite good but brief and so I didn't even have a chance to go for the camera. Still, a neat bird to see in the flesh!

Many Neblina Tapaculos were singing in the area, and since that was a species we had only heard before, I teased one into view. Photos were poor-quality record shots at best, as is standard with tapaculos. 

Neblina Tapaculo - Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

At one point, Laura spotted a couple of tinamous furtively sneaking in the long grass not far from our position. 

Curve-billed Tinamou - Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

We had to make sure that they weren't Andean Tinamous, but given the habitat and elevation that wasn't likely. These are Curve-billed Tinamous, a lifer for Laura and a species I had only ever heard before. Very exciting!

Curve-billed Tinamou - Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

We kept at it for a while, hoping for another view of the Atuen Antpitta, but eventually continued on our way as we had a long drive back to Leymebamba. 

Atuen area, Amazonas, Peru

Lucky for us, the drive back was uneventful and all four tires of the Rav4 remained wholly intact. We did not bird much on the way back, but we made a few stops in the better forest patches. The sun was finally out and I was sure we would see a few soaring condors, but it was not to be on this day. Instead, I had to settle for a flock of "condoritos" (Black Vultures). 

Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Catasticta sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

We spotted another Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, our first Black Phoebe of the day and a few other odds and ends. 

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

But mostly, we searched for butterflies and neat orchids and other plants. 

Begonia monadelpha - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Erateina sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Unidentified treehopper (tribe Polyglyptini) - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Ponthieva sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Perisama oppelii - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Unidentified moth - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Perisama bomplandii - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

Actinote sp. - Camino Atuen, Amazonas, Peru

We rolled back up to Leymebamba by late afternoon, giving us a bit of time to relax in our hotel room before we headed back out to search for Koepcke's Screech-Owls. A few of them are regularly found at the museum located just outside of Leymebamba. As the sun set, we waited outside of the gates of the (closed at this hour) museum. The frenetic activity of the Chestnut-breasted Coronets and Andean Emeralds stopped, and the voices of the Chestnut-crowned Antpittas and Great Thrushes were replaced by Common Pauraques. Once it was dark I played the tape once, and a trio of Koepcke's Screech-Owls appeared at the roadside! After checking us out thoroughly, they hopped back out of view and at least one of them sang back at us. We were happy to just listen to them, a perfect ending to the day. 

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