The World’s Tiniest Owl – June 21-26, 2015 – Updates from North Peru

The morning of June 21st we woke up super early (AKA 4:30 AM) to make sure we’d be at our intended destination before dawn, because we were headed to Bagua Chica, aka “the hottest city in Peru,” and we wanted to beat the heat! Aside for being famous for the heat, this small town is known to be the most reliable location for Little Inca-Finch, another Peruvian endemic. Continuing with the frustration of having a driver that had no clue what was going on, (read about that in the previous post) we were a little confused as to where the best spot was to find the inca-finch. Normally Ross would have researched into the details more, but we thought we’d have a driver who knew the locations so he had concentrated on other things. We had a little information from a trip report we’d been referencing throughout our trip and a little information from Gunnar, whom Ross had spoken with the night before and gleaned information about a location that the inca-finches can sometimes be found. We were torn with which information to follow, the trip report or Gunnar’s, but we eventually decided to go with Gunnar’s suggestion first. The stakes were high as inca-finches are known to be much easier to find first thing in the morning so we didn’t have time to choose the wrong location.

As the sun rose, our hopes of finding the bird faded. The area we had stopped looked terrible for the bird. There were no cacti or bromeliads in sight, both prerequisites for finding Little Inca-Finch. Fearful that it would soon be hot and the birds would become inactive, we decided to give up on this area and head to the spot mentioned in the report. We quickly found the start of the trail referenced and headed up the hill. As we reached the top of the hill, our enthusiasm once again faded. The report we were using was five years old and clearly the information was very outdated. An area that was once dominated by bromeliads back in 2010 was now a bunch of rice and corn fields scattered with live-in shacks! Off in the distance it looked as though there was some potential habitat, so with no other ideas we headed in that direction. We walked for a few kilometers, finally outdistancing the farming sprawl, but the habitat still only looked marginal. As we came closer to our destination, we discovered that this area was apparently the Bagua Chica garbage dump! By this time it was already 10 AM and our hopes were running low, especially knowing that with every passing hour our chances of finding this morning bird were dwindling. Luckily it was cloudy so temperatures remained low and bird activity stayed surprisingly high. (We were very fortunate to have a cloudy day in a place like this!) Frustrated with a lack of information on where to find the bird we were about to give up on the garbage dump. Just as we turned to start the long walk back to the car, Ross heard an interesting chip. A few minutes later he was yelling to me that he had found the bird! Finding Little Inca-Finch, our fifth and final inca-finch for Peru, was definitely all thanks to my awesome bird guide husband! We ended up getting great looks at an adult and two young birds before heading back to the car.

Little Inca-finch

Little Inca-finch

Ross after seeing ALL of Peru's Inca-finches.

Ross after seeing ALL of Peru’s Inca-finches. (Note that we are in the garbage dump.)

Before departing Bagua Chica we visited a few of the flooded rice paddies and added Spotted Rail and Paint-billed Crake to our year list. From here we started on the long drive to Abra Patricia and eventually arrived in the area with only two hours left of daylight. We spent the evening birding the road below the pass seeing the endemic Ochre-fronted Antpitta and Sharpe’s Wren. After dark we found a calling Cinnamon Screech-Owl, but sadly it began to rain before we could see it.

The next day, June 22nd, we spent along a short section of road centered around the town of Afluente. For a few kilometers on both sides of this town there is a good tract of forest which is known for producing large bird flocks. We spent the entire day hiking in this area and throughout the day we encountered numerous new birds for the trip including Ecudorian Piedtail, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Speckle-chested Piculet, and dozens of tanagers. Although it wasn’t a new bird for the trip, we did have several lekking Cock-of-the-Rocks!

Male Cock-of-the-Rock. Peru's unofficial bird.

Male Cock-of-the-Rock. Peru’s unofficial country bird.

The next day, June 23rd, we birded the morning along the road up through Abra Patricia before arriving at Fundo Alto Nieva midafternoon. Here we said goodbye to Jose as he left to pick up Julio from the bus station and himself return to Lima. We were to be meeting back up with Julio that evening, something we were actually looking forward to! Although our six days with Jose could have been worse, we were very much looking forward to having a driver we could communicate with.

We grabbed our bags and started walking up to the lodge where we were to be spending the next two nights. Fundo Alto Nieva lodge is currently THE place to see the world’s tiniest owl, the Long-whiskered Owlet. Despite the price of staying at this lodge being outside of our typical budget, we decided to go for it in hopes that we could find the owl. Either way staying here was only 10% of the cost of the “Owlet Lodge” up on the hill which charges roughly $200 per night per person where most birding groups stay! Very little is known about the The Long-whiskered Owlet. Although it was discovered many years ago from being caught in mist nets, it wasn’t until 2007 that the bird was observed in the wild! (Per Wikipedia.)

We spent the remaining daylight hours walking the lodge’s well-maintained trails and checking out the hummingbird feeders. Although our morning along the road was very productive, our afternoon at the lodge walking the trails was somewhat dull with the only highlights being great looks at the hummingbirds coming in to the feeders as we waited around until dusk to go owling.

Does anyone else stop and selfie in the middle of the forest?

Does anyone else stop and selfie in the middle of the forest?

Just before dark we walked with Kenny, the manager of the lodge, and a group of two older Columbians along with their bird guide to a site known for the main attraction, the Long-whiskered Owlet. Surprisingly it wasn’t even dark (maybe 6:30pm) when we heard the distinct calls of the bird. Because we were lumped into a group while looking for the owl (something we usually don’t like to do but understandable given the situation), we weren’t able to do things “Ross’s way.” Our owl-finding skills have been pretty reliable thus far in the trip and it wasn’t long before we were a bit frustrated with someone else leading the show. To make a long story short, the owl was nearby the entire time but as a group we were moving across the forest to see if we could call it over using playback instead of going over to it. But eventually the tiny owl was spotted sitting up high on a branch! Unfortunately, from how the bird was positioned, one was only able to see its butt and not its trademark “long whiskers”. I suppose this ‘look’ was good enough for the other people in our group as they all left the site to head to bed leaving us alone in the woods. Without even using playback we walked a bit further and found the Long-whiskered Owlet perched right in the open!! The owl was so close we didn’t even have to use a flash in order to get a high-quality image!

Because it’s such a good bird, here are a few shots Ross took:

Long-whiskered Owlet

Long-whiskered Owlet

Long-whiskered Owlet

Why so angry?

Long-whiskered Owlet

Long-whiskered Owlet

We spent the next 20 minutes watching and photographing the owl as it sat a mere 10 feet away from us! The owl apparently didn’t want to go anywhere so even after taking a ‘selfie’ with the owlet we walked away super content and laughing because of what everyone else missed out on. Perhaps “Ross’s way” with owls is the right way after all.

Can you see the owlet?!

Can you see the owlet?!

The next day Ross and I had different morning agendas so we opted to spend them independently (mine naturally involved sleeping in a bit and then heading out hiking while Ross’s certainly involved getting out VERY early.) In the end we both separately encountered the endemic and elusive Rusty-tinged Antpitta! (Although I happened to see it perched extremely well on my walk and Ross only caught a glimpse of movement as it flew away on his.) I told him maybe he should start following my lead! However, Ross ended up with great looks at Hooded Tinamou, something I didn’t get to see, so we were both very happy with our mornings! We spent the rest of the day birding the slopes of Abra Patrica and despite the heavy fog and rain, we were able to find Lulu’s Tody-Flycatcher and had great looks at White-capped Tanager. The most unexpected sighting of the day though was a flock of 10 Wood Storks which were seen flying in circles and back and forth over the mountains, clearly confused and lost in the heavy fog!

Lulu's Tody-flycatcher

Lulu’s Tody-flycatcher

Several very lost Wood Storks

Several very lost Wood Storks

White-capped Tanager singing at the top of its lungs.

White-capped Tanager singing at the top of its lungs.

The next day we spent the morning at a new birding hotspot called Arena Blanca located in the town of Agua Verdes. A local man, realizing the benefits of ecotourism, has established a new hummingbird feeding station and has also set up a blind where he puts corn every morning. So far his efforts have been extremely successful with 16 species of hummingbirds currently being seen, two species of tinamou and wood-quail visiting the corn feeder! At first light we were in his blind and soon had great looks at Cinereous and Little Tinamous, birds that you rarely get to see very well. We also saw Orange-billed Sparrow, Grey-necked Wood-Rail, and eventually had great looks at a small flock of Rufous-breasted Wood-quails!

The feeder setup with two tinamous visiting.

The feeder setup with two tinamous visiting.

Rufous-breasted Wood Quail

Rufous-breasted Wood Quail

While at the hummingbird feeding station we had absolutely great looks a number of new hummingbird species for our year list. Highlights included Rufous-crested Coquette, Blue-fronted Lancebill, Green-fronted Lancebill, Wire-crested Thorntail, and Long-billed Startthroat.

Coquette

Rufous-crested Coquette visiting the preferred flowering plant.

Cocquette

One more because have you seen a more awesome looking hummingbird? Rufous-crested Coquette.

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Blue-fronted Lancebill perched.

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Wire-crested Thorntail, another spectacular hummingbird. Sadly this picture doesn’t do this bird any justice but it’s all we could manage.

From here we headed south and spent the middle part of the day looking for Point-tailed Palmcreeper in various palm swamps. It took a lot more effort than we expected, but eventually Ross spotted a Point-tailed Palmcreeper flying across the highway and we were able to jump out of the vehicle and get great views of it. From here we headed to Wakanki Reserve located outside the city of Moyobamba. It was already late afternoon when we arrived, but we were still able to find a few interesting species such as Lafresnaye’s Piculet, Black-and-White Tody-flycatcher and Blue-rumped Manakin.

We had spent the night car camping at Wakanki Reserve and were up before dawn to start a long hike to the top of the ridge. The game plan for today, June 26th, was to hike to the top of the ridge to look for a localized endemic, Ash-throated Antwren. It was a long and steep hike, but after an hour of hiking we had neared the top of the ridge. Views from the top were reminiscent of views you might see in Hawaii, with beautiful tree-covered mountains off in the distance.

I promise it was even better in person!

I promise it was even better in person!

For the next four hours we followed a trail along the top of the ridge and looked for our target species. We had seen a lot of interesting birds, but we still hadn’t seen our main target and the well maintained trail we had started on had diminished to nothing more than a “deer trail” covered with limbs and vegetation. By this time we had been hiking for hours and had gained 1,000 meters (over 3,000 feet) in elevation! We decided it was time to turn around, but before heading back, Ross decided to play the tape one last time. Don’t you know, just as we were about to turn around, Ross heard a weird call note above us and soon we were looking at a pair of Ash-throated Antwrens! We were able to get some nice recordings of the birds calling and singing as well as some pictures before they disappeared. Success!

Antwren

Ash-throated Antwren

Ross somewhere near the top of the ridge.

Ross somewhere near the top of the ridge carrying all of his gear up and down the mountain.

We spent the rest of the day birding the Wakanki property and saw a number of interesting species including Yellow-breasted Antwren, Spot-backed Antbird, Speckle-chested Piculet, and Yellow-billed Nunbird.

From Wakani, our next task was to find the extremely localized Scarlet-banded Barbet. Believe me, this “experience” is something I will never forget. I’d mention it now but it deserves its own post. MORE TO COME SOON!