Sunday, January 3, 2010

In The Footsteps of Antpittas

After our hummingbird-related adventures in the La Florida area we headed to the Rio Chido Trail in search of Pale-billed Antpitta, one of the coolest members of one of the best families of birds, in my opinion.
We started out as dawn was breaking, walking up a dirt road off of the main road, as many of our days start. The trail map for this area was less than fantastic, and so for most of the hike out we didn’t have any idea where we were going, and it turned out at the end of the day that we had been birding in an entirely different spot than is in the book! After finding the trail we wound our way through farm fields and denuded hillsides before making our way to a lush valley, after taking a side trail that went through someone’s front yard for a while. Oops.
Once in the real forest the birding started to pick up. The best birds at this location need large stands of bamboo of the genus Chusquea, and we were starting to see it patchily distributed in the understory of the forest, a good sign. We came on some small flocks with birds such as Black-capped Hemispingus, Flame-faced Tanager, and assorted flycatchers, but the first highlight of the day came in the form of a pair of responsive Johnson’s Tody-Tyrants, a small gem of a flycatcher that is endemic only to the small area of Northern Peru that we were in. The pair responded to playback so well that they were within the close focus ranges of our optics, and in perfect light too.
After glutting ourselves with full frame photos and great recordings we proceeded on up the valley, eventually coming out into a field where someone lived in a small house, the only marring in the forest, and behind the house, giant flowing stands of bamboo! Life was good.
While walking up the field towards the bamboo we started to hear some bamboo specialty birds, with Plain-tailed Wrens singing all over, and lo and behold, a Pale-billed Antpitta sang a couple times! We went to the largest patch of bamboo and proceeded up an almost vertical dry streambed to get closer to a singing antpitta. All we ever ended up doing was hearing singing antpittas, a few of them, but try our utmost, we could not get a view.
Lunch was had sitting on an area of mossy rocks in the streambed, in intermittent rain and an occasional passing bird. We began to head back down, but partway down the streambed we ran into a small flock. While piecing through the more common stuff, all of a sudden we saw a small rusty bird… a Russet-mantled Softtail!
Russet-mantled Softtail is more than just an evocative name, the bird it belongs to is one of the harder Peruvian endemics to get, and was something that was in the back of our minds for the days birding, not really expected. We followed the flock for a while, climbing up almost vertical mud to get closer at one point, and eventually had FIVE softtails go by us, with at least one juvenile mixed in, a plumage that is not often seen. The flock also had a couple Grass-green Tanagers mixed in, which are impossible not to enjoy.
Overjoyed with our success, we headed back to La Florida in mostly rain, occasionally heavy, and with few other birds to slow us down, the highlights being Plushcap and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant.
The next morning we got up before dawn had even thought about cracking and got a car to take us over the nearby pass to the lower eastern slope of the Andes, part of a place called Abra Patricia, more specifically the Garcia Trail. Abra Patricia is an absolutely phenomenal place for birding, with multiple species having been described to science there, including such enigmatic birds as Long-whiskered Owlet, a bird that wasn’t seen for 20 years after its original discovery, when it flew into some nets that people were using for banding! It was never seen out of nets until the past few years, and even since then not that many people are lucky enough to see it. We will have a chance for that later in the trip, albeit a small one.
Our targets for the day were Royal Sunangel and Ochre-fronted Antpitta, with the antpitta being even rarer than the Pale-billed of the day before. Before the morning was out we had seen both of those birds and many more. The best part of the whole morning was standing at a lookout point on a knife ridge, with flowers nearby that a male Royal Sunangel was visiting, and mixed species flocks with many species of tanagers moving through the trees below us. We had Metallic-green, Straw-backed, Yellow-throated, Silver-backed, Beryl-spangled, and Flame-faced Tanagers from that spot alone. Other spectacular birds that rounded out that great morning included Bar-winged Wood-Wren, within 8 feet, Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant, another very rare and local bird, and Chesnut-crested Cotinga, possible the worst heard-only bird I have.
Come mid-day the rain had set in, so we headed out to the road, figuring we’d catch a bus down to Moyobamba, our goal for the night. If only it were that easy.
Two hours later of waiting under a little roofed construction by the side of the road we started to build dams using sand and the runoff from the road. Things were looking grim.
Another hour later STILL no buses had come, which is practically unheard of on a major road like this. A small van pulled up at one point, which ended up being driven people who worked at the lodge on the Abra where the owlet is seen, and we got foreboding news that nobody has had the owlet for two months. Ah well.
One good tidbit of information that we got out of this exchange is that there was a restaurant a few kilometers down the road, so we gladly walked there and satiated our hunger, while, of course, watching two buses go by in the direction that we wanted. After finishing our meal we tried to get a bus once again. Two went by in the right direction, but wouldn’t stop for us. At this point we were trying to flag down anything with wheels. Five and a half hours after stopping birding some guy in a very shiny new pickup truck stopped for us, and we gratefully piled into the back, and were treated to a spectacular ride down switchbacks through gorgeous forest as the sun set. A truly memorable experience.
We eventually made it to Moyobamba where we wanted to be, after a collectivo and a mototaxi, and settled in at our new digs, Hospedaje Rumipata.
Treating ourselves to a little more sleep we didn’t wake up until after 5am, and when we got out of our nice little five bed cabin we were greeted by our hostess, an incredibly nice woman who ran the place with her husband and possibly some sons. She offered breakfast, and we gladly accepted, going into the main building on the property, which kind of resembled an antique farmhouse with an almost oriental twist. While sitting down at our table right near the kitchen, we saw a most unexpected sight. There was a monkey in the room. As she came over with our tea, the monkey jumped to her shoulder, and then to Andrew! It turns out that his name is Pepito, he is three years old, and after identifying him using the wondrous power of the internet, he is a Black-mantled Tamarin!
He was the best part about a great place to stay, and he kept us company at breakfast and lunch whenever we ate there. The first morning he spent almost all of the time on Andrew, the next breakfast on my lap, and our third meal with him on both Andrew and me. He didn’t seem to like Chris much, giving him a little nip at one point, and taking a very small leak on his leg at one point as well.
Anyways, back to the birds. The place to bird here is called the Quebrada Mishquiyacu, and has some really interesting foothill specialties. Our highlights in the three days that we birded there were numerous, but some of the best included a pair of Rufous-capped Nunlets coming within about 20 feet at times, a male Fiery-throated Fruiteater out in the open with a blazing crimson throat, Buff-tailed Sicklebill singing its head off 15 feet away in the open, a pair of Rufous-crested Coquettes feeding in a tree above our heads, and some more familiar sights, such as numerous Cerulean Warblers, a few Blackpoll Warblers, and countless Swainson’s Thrushes and Canada Warblers.
One of the four days that we spent in this area was used to go to Morro de Calzada, an imposing outcrop of stone in the middle of the dry Rio Mayo Valley, which is supposed to have some very interesting birds around it. We were fairly underwhelmed, but managed to get some of the birds, although we missed our first couple birds for the trip! Highlights here for me included Burnished-buff Tanager, Scale-backed Antbird, and Striolated Puffbird. Andrew got to hear a Spot-tailed Nightjar that both Chris and I missed. Gotta save some for later I guess.
After having our last meal with Pepito we packed up and rolled out, kind of sad to be leaving the great Hospedaje Rumipata, but also relieved to be on our way to somewhere new. Our last stop in this area was en route to Tarapoto, and was simply a bridge that the road went over.
We stopped, looked down, looked around, and all of a sudden we saw them. Oilbirds. One of the stranger birds out there, a nocturnal bird that breeds colonially in caves, or in this case slot canyons, and feeds on fruit which it finds by echolocation. Very cool birds, and they sound prehistoric on top of all that. The others had seen them before, but they were new to me. After that it was smooth sailing to Tarapoto, and then a couple days of birding “The Tunnel.”

But that’s a story for another blog…

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