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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2017 Narrative

In Brief: This year’s tour to northern Peru’s cloud forests of Abra Patricia and the Rio Mayo Valley was full of exciting and beautiful birds. We saw over 350 species in nine days, many of them with exceedingly small world ranges and drenched with colors. It helped that there are now eight hummingbird feeding stations on our route, and we tallied at least 45 species of these jewels, four of which made it to the short list of favorites. The unbelievable Marvelous Spatuletail was at the top, with usually just fleeting views, but we enjoyed several repeat visits along with the other eight species of hummingbirds. The Emerald-bellied Puffleg and Sword-billed Hummingbird were both mentioned as favorites at the Owlet Lodge’s feeders, but spectacular Rufous-crested Coquettes at Waqanki garnered more votes than either of them. High on the list of favorites was the Long-whiskered Owlet, partly because of its recent discovery and mysterious background story, but also because of the time and effort we spent in looking for it, never mind that it was on our first evening’s attempt and that we also had killer views of Cinnamon Screech-Owl without even trying for it. Finding a Chestnut-crowned Gnateater from the shoulder of a busy highway was one of the best finds of the tour, while a Chestnut-crested Cotinga just barely visible was a result of severe persistence. Finally among the showy tanagers, the stars at the top were the noisy and rather jay-like White-capped Tanagers and the ultra-gaudy Vermilion Tanager.

In Detail: The tour began with our flight to Tarapoto, and upon arrival at our lunch spot (where we sampled the delicious fish dishes of the region) we saw our first and only Rose-fronted Parakeets that had been feeding right over the parking spot. The questionable weather made finding canopy birds a bit difficult, but a pair of slightly out-of-habitat Spot-winged Antbirds here ended up as the only ones for the tour. We made a quick roadside stop on the way to the tunnel just to see if there might be a mixed flock, and there was – Yellow-backed Tanager and the super rare Dotted Tanager were the good finds there, and we had our first taste of garishness with a group of Paradise Tanagers. At Aconabikh we netted the Koepcke’s Hermit and Gould’s Jewelfront without much of a wait, while a Golden-headed Manakin down one trail and a singing (and only glimpsed) Musician Wren were memorable finds. We finished the day with a pair of Hoatzins by the roadside shortly before our hotel, as well as a quick stop to admire the ammonite fossils exposed next to the same road.

A Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper at our lodge at dawn offered a taste of deeper Amazonia before we worked our way to the seasonally dry but currently lush Upaquihua Valley. We soon found several of the highly localized specialties here, such as the Ashy-headed Greenlet, Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin (including one on a nest), Stripe-chested Antwren, White-flanked Antwren, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, Northern Slaty-Antshrike, and White-browed Antbird, several of these with visually recognizable forms or subspecies endemic to this small region. We also had further evidence of breeding for Greenish Elaenia and Dark-billed Cuckoo, both of which were formerly thought to be only wintering or migrants in this part of Peru. After lunch we drove onward to Moyobamba with a stop to admire the easily accessible Oilbird colony beneath a busy bridge, and we then had time at Waqanki to get a sample of the amazing hummingbird show, the favorite from which were the male Rufous-crested Coquettes.

A morning at Morro de Calzada was full of birds, with a write-in Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant being one of the day’s favorites. We also had an amazingly cooperative White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, heard and saw the local Lesser Elaenias, spent some time with a pair of Mishana Tyrannulets, and compared Green-backed and Blue-crowned Trogons. In the later morning we had time to carefully check the Rioja rice fields, padding the list with lots of waterbirds as well as Oriole Blackbird, but remarkable were how many Spotted Rails were calling in the fields, and we eventually had good views of one bird crossing the track. The viewing blind at Reserva Arena Blanca had improved, with room for several people and an ingenious hopper that delivered cracked corn to the forest floor. We were the lucky group this day to see the covey of Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail, along with a pair of very furtive Gray-cowled Wood-Rails and the only Gray-fronted Dove we’d see on the tour. After our fill of hummingbirds, which included favorites Blue-fronted Lancebill and Wire-crested Thorntail, we made our way up to the Owlet Lodge. In case we needed to make several attempts for the Long-whiskered Owlet, we headed out this first evening at dusk and after a 25-minute hike situated ourselves at a known territory at Fundo Alto Nieva and waited for it to get dark. We heard a distant Rufous-banded Owl, Rufous-vented Tapaculos, and the evening song of White-eared Solitaire as we waited. It got dark, and we still waited for the owlet to call. Then we tried playing song. Then a Cinnamon Screech-Owl started tooting. We waited more, played more owlet song, waited more, and the screech-owl seemed closer – and sure enough it was sitting on an exposed branch and declared this its singing area this evening. We finally departed without any response from the owlet, tried for some more playback a few hundred meters back down towards the bus, and then we clearly heard a Long-whiskered Owlet not far down the trail. With a bit more playback one flew in and landed on a thick, mossy branch just over the trail, where the bird sat still for several minutes and appeared to fall asleep.

On our first full day at the Owlet lodge, we stayed on the grounds and trails all day. Much of the Chusquea bamboo was in seed, and Maroon-chested Ground-Doves could be heard from almost any point. There were also a few Slaty Finches here and there, but the big surprise was a single Slate-colored Seedeater that perched up right by the lodge early in the morning; it flew off, never to be seen again and apparently represents the first sighting from here. Green-and-black Fruiteater, Streak-headed Antbird, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant were some of the additional highlights we had from the trails, while the favorites from the always busy feeders were Emerald-bellied Puffleg and Sword-billed Hummingbird.

We started the next day with the Lyre-tailed Nightjar that was foraging before dawn right around the lodge buildings, then after some morning birding which included Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, the beautiful Johnson’s Tody-Flycatcher, and the scarce Olive Flycatcher, we took a side trip to the town of Florida. A few miles past it is the Huembo reserve where a couple different male Marvelous Spatuletails (or maybe even three) came at intervals to the feeders otherwise occupied by both Lesser and Sparkling Violet-ears, White-bellied Hummingbirds, Violet-fronted Brilliants, White-bellied Woodstars, and a single Andean Emerald. At Lago Pomacochas we spotted White-cheeked Pintails but were most captivated by a Striated Heron that was fishing next to the dock, using a small wasp as bait – a behavior some of us had read about but had never seen. Back at the Owlet Lodge we took the hike down into the Owlet Valley where it was mostly quiet (save for the nearly constant cooing of the Maroon-chested Ground-Doves), but adorable Black-eared Hemispinguses in a mixed flock were a bit of a surprise beyond the upper limit of their published elevational range.

After enjoying another show by the daily Lyre-tailed Nightjar at dawn, we ventured a bit farther afield on the next day, starting at the feeders Fundo Alto Nieva. There Booted Racket-tails dominated, and we had better views of Greenish Puffleg and the very local and little-known Rufous-vented White-tip. We heard the really tough Cinnamon-bellied Tody-Tyrant then got good views of Yellow-throated Tanager before we moved down the road to the Venceremos ranger station, where the hummingbird feeders hosted our only Tawny-throated Hermits, as well as more “bootlegs” and a Greenish Puffleg. A group of Scarlet-rumped Caciques were nearly the only birds we found in a usually very busy stretch of road, and then back near Fundo Alto Neiva we found a super noisy and bold family group of White-capped Tanagers. A short walk to the tower after dark resulted in one of the briefest of  successful owling walks ever when a White-throated Screech-Owl responded almost instantly and was easily found on a visible perch.

On our final full day at the Owlet Lodge we again walked some trails and spent a good amount of time birding the habitats accessible only along the busy highway. This is where we finally caught up with Yellow-scarfed Tanager, only to have one right at the lodge when we returned for lunch. But we saw our only Golden-headed Quetzal, Red-hooded Tanager, Drab Hemispingues, and a Yungas Pygmy-Owl here. The Chestnut-crested Cotinga just down the road from our lodge was on this day, and a later trail walk resulted in a well-seen White-eared Solitaire. A late afternoon rain shower (finally) forced us to watch the hummingbird feeders for a while, with Emerald-bellied Puffleg and Sword-billed Hummingbird providing some nice photo opportunities. We also returned to the trails in the late afternoon, hearing Trilling Tapaculo for the first time, and getting several glimpses of a Rusty-tinged Antpitta as it dashed (sprinting, and sometimes even flying) across the trail.

After a thoroughly enjoyable dawn serenade by a Great Thrush (which was preceded by the Lyre-tailed Nightjar one last time), we departed for lower elevations, first stopping for Bar-winged Wood-Wren, which finally showed well this time, with a repeat of Yellow-throated Tanager and our only Three-striped Warbler, Metallic-green Tanagers, and Bluish Flowerpiercer. Just down the road we had a great mixed flock where the scarce and difficult-to-find Ashy-headed Tyrannulet was the star for some, while the showy, gaudy, and noisy White-capped Tanagers stole the show for others. Another mixed flock was just another three kilometers down the road, with Vermilion Tanagers, Scarlet-rumped Caciques, and a stolid Gray-mantled Wren that took a long break from the typical frantic flock activity to preen in the eye-level crown of a tree below the road. We seemed to run out flocks when an unobtrusive noise from the undergrowth turned out to be the Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, one of the rarest birds of the tour. The lower elevation flocks at Afluente were a bit more elusive, though we did see a few more tanagers (for a crazy 31 species of tanager this day) so we worked instead on finding Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher, finally catching up with a pair of this very elusive species only a couple hundred meters from where a pair had been three years earlier. One last birding stop just outside of Moyobamba was meant to be for just a couple species in 10 minutes and turned into more than 40 species in as many minutes, including a Pearl Kite on a nest (thanks to Peruvian guide José Luis), Masked Ducks, and a Lineated Woodpecker. We also had bonus find of singing Ocellated Crakes, prolonging our stay as we tried to see this nearly impossible rail; alas, even the efforts of our driver Elvis to clear a corridor didn’t help.

A night of solid rain that lasted until early morning thwarted our attempts to try for the Ocellated Crakes again, but activity blossomed at Waqanki when the rain stopped, including Little Woodpecker, Buff-rumped Warbler, Short-crested Flycatcher, Mouse-colored Tyrannulets, and a persistently singing and even more persistently invisible Hauxwell’s Thrush. A Long-billed Starthroat at the feeders was our only one, and we managed to add Black-throated and Great-billed Hermit, as well as enjoy one last time the stunning male Rufous-crested Coquettes. Our last birding stop was a nice quick detour on the way to the airport where we had scope views of Comb Ducks, locally rare Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, and a surprise three Southern Lapwings, only the second or so record for San Martín.

Besides the wonderful birds, we enjoyed a stunning variety of blooming orchids, including the incomparable Phragmipedium kovachii (though those were “captive,” even if just a mile or two from the native sites), as well as a mind-boggling diversity of moths and other invertebrates at the lights each night; a Rothschildia aricia silk moth our first night (and still the next morning) was a beauty. The gorgeous forests along the lodge’s trails, the big bamboo seeding event, and nearly perfect weather throughout made this a tour to remember.

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