Barbets are small to medium-sized, usually brightly colored birds with disproportionately large heads and thick bills. There are 83 known species dispersed throughout tropical environments in Asia, Africa, and Central & South America. Up until this point in our trip we had seen many species of Barbets, however we were about to begin a search for arguably the most remote, The Scarlet-banded Barbet.
The Scarlet-banded Barbet was a spectacular ornithological discovery. Its existence was unknown to science until 1996 when it was discovered by Dan Lane and John P. O’Neill while on an expedition to an extremely remote and inaccessible location of Peru along the Cordillerra Azul. The Scarlet-banded Barbet was known only from this one location for many years, which prevented all but a handful of ornithologists and very die-hard birders from going to see it, as reaching the location required a 10 day expedition, hiring 2-3 guides to cut a trail, porters to carry food/tents, many permits, and many hours of strenuous hiking to reach the habitat. However in 2010, another Scarlet-banded Barbet population was found in the small town of Plataforma, 50 miles southwest from the original location. Although getting to Plataforma is still a challenge and is still something for only the most avid of birders, it only requires a 2-3 day expedition (vs 10) and therefore ticking this bird is much easier than it used to be.
Because this bird can be found nowhere else in the world, and because Ross is THAT die-hard birder, we departed Bellavista at 0400 on June 27, 2015 to start our journey to Plataforma in search of a bird that very few people have ever seen.
The road, if you even want to call it that, to Plataforma can only be travelled by a 4WD vehicle, specifically a high-centered Toyota, otherwise you would not fit as the mud is soft and over the years a single-lane tire track has been carved into the mud that a truck must follow to avoid getting stuck. Also, it is required to hire a driver (for a pretty penny) who knows how to handle the road. On our travels, we saw several trucks stuck in the mud, although we figured this is probably a regular occurrence for those making this trek. Everyone carries a shovel in the back of their truck for obvious reasons. Truthfully, it was impossible to believe that people actually lived on the other side of the mud road. If I hadn’t seen both the road and the town on the other side, I still may not actually believe people lived this way.
Plataforma, the location of the barbet, is only 50 kilometers away from Bellavista, but it took us close to 7 hours to get there! (That’s bouncing around at 5 mph for 7 hours!) When we finally arrived we began to search along the road at a location that our truck driver stated the bird had been seen in the past. We didn’t see them during the 20 minutes we spent looking, but our driver informed us that there is a second known location, so we decided to head that way next. Before continuing our search, we dropped our bags off at the only hostel in town. For a very unaccommodating room, we paid s/35 (a typical room such as this should only be s/20!) but since it was the only place to stay in town, we agreed with it and went on our merry way.
Our driver pointed us in the direction of the trail that the barbet has before been seen. Because he has done this before, we believed him when he said he knew of another location. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for us to find out that the ‘trail’ is a very wide mud path used frequently by the locals to reach the coffee plantations. We travelled a bit along this footpath, trying as best as we could not to fall in the mud before stopping to scan the trees. I don’t think I can accurately describe how seeing this footpath made me feel. People would walk in 2-ft-deep mud day in and day out to get to work, but the fact that no one has taken the time to build even the most simple of bridges (or just strategically place a few rocks and branches) to shorten their commute (by hours!) was baffling to me. It was hard not to feel anything other than truly disappointed with the people who lived out there willing to commute like this instead of taking the time to create a real path. I couldn’t figure out how they lived like this.
Deciding that the track was impossible to traverse, we returned to the main access road and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the barbet “hotspot” along the “road”. About 1 km before town, we found a group of fruiting trees (the favorite food source of the barbet) and spent the evening hanging around the area. Our hopes were high as dozens of birds visited the fruiting trees. We saw Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Gilded Barbet, Versicolored Barbet, Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater, as well as dozens of other species, but no Scarlet-banded Barbet. At dusk we called it quits and were planning to spend the entirety of the following day in search of this bird. We headed back to our hostel where the lady cooked us a basic meal of fried chicken, rice, and beans. It was a fairly typical, though below average, meal, but when we went to pay she said it was going to cost us s/40! We found this to be outrageous as this meal, which we had eaten dozens of times, usually cost us no more than s/10! It was just another thing to add to the increasing list of why Plataforma is a terrible place to visit.
The next day, June 28th, we woke up early and walked out to the same area of fruiting trees we had visited the afternoon prior. Our hopes were high as we had heaps of species visiting the fruiting trees and there was no reason that the barbet wouldn’t be there. Once again the area was loaded with birds, including all of the highlights from the day before as well as Golden-headed Quetzal, Collared Trogon, and Blue-headed Parrot. The problem was that there weren’t any Scarlet-banded Barbets to be found visiting this section of fruiting trees. A bit bewildered by this but desperate to see the bird, we made the decision to walk back in to town midday and decided to once again walk along the terrible muddy trail that our driver had showed us the day before.
This time, knowing what to expect, I went to a local shop and paid s/10 to rent a pair of rubber boots for the afternoon. We hiked the track, up to our mid-calves in mud, for almost two hours. We passed many locals and often Ross would stop and ask how much further until the good forest. The answers we received were quite variable, some saying “mas arriba” meaning much further, and others saying we were in the good forest now! Finally we met a nice couple, who insisted we turn around. Apparently we were on the wrong trail! We followed them back to town and the nice man and woman (truly the only nice people we met in the town) pointed us in the actual direction of the barbet trail. At this time we were extremely frustrated as we had wasted a few hours today, not to mention the day before. Ross, who suspected all along that we were on the wrong trail, had questioned our driver (who we had been told knew the spots of the barbet) the day before, but the driver had insisted there were no other trails in town! So midday we started the trek up another terribly muddy trail in hopes of finding the rare Scarlet-banded Barbet, this time knowing we were at least going in the right direction. However, after an hour of walking up hill along an equally muddy trail, I was getting increasingly irritated with the terrible condition of the trail. As if living in the town center, 7 hours from other civilization wasn’t enough, we even passed a few houses back along this trail! After hiking in some incredibly muddy mud for hours, I eventually got up to my knees in the mud which would sink if you weren’t careful. I couldn’t move either of my legs to get out. Never in my life had I been so stuck. Ross came over and pulled my feet out of my boots and then proceeded to dig me out. He was covered in mud up to his elbows trying to get my boots unstuck! At this point I had had enough. When you are completely stuck in mud up to your knees, it’s not hard to think “no bird is worth this kind of torture.” So I decided I no longer wanted to see the barbet! I bid Ross adieu and started heading back to town attempting not to get stuck a second time while Ross, determined to find the Scarlet-banded Barbet, continued on without me.
Over the next two hours Ross continued hiking the terrible trail and eventually reached a set of GPS coordinates he had gotten off of eBird. Exhausted and frustrated he decided to rest in a large clearing near where someone had seen the barbet about a year prior. After a half hour a few birds started to move through the area with a small flock of Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers being the highlight. As he was watching the tanagers, a barbet type bird flew from a massive tree to a smaller tree in the middle of the clearing. As he put the scope on it, all he saw was another mountain-tanager, but after a few seconds the tanager jumped, and there it was! The Scarlet-banded Barbet was sitting there in the middle of a small tree eating some fruit. Ross enjoyed it through the scope for 5 minutes before it flew once again to the massive tree at the edge of the clearing. He tried to relocate the bird, but never did see it again. He was elated, but at the same time a bit disappointed that I wasn’t there with him to see it, especially given the amount of money we had paid to tick this one.
He headed back towards town, grabbed our things and our driver, and picked me up along the main road and we started our journey back to Bellavista. We arrived in Bellavista around 11pm that evening and so ended the Scarlet-banded Barbet trip. It had been a long, exhausting and very frustrating two days.
Because the town is in the middle of nowhere and is only visited by the most devoted birders, of which I am sure are not young and female, the people rarely see anyone quite like us. People would completely stop what they were doing and watch our every move as we walked the streets of the village. Several children even ran after me just to touch my arm. I imagined this is what it must feel like to be a celebrity. Overall, we were very disappointed with Plataforma. The town was littered with garbage, but the small community didn’t even care to pick it up. As I alluded to earlier, the trails the townspeople used daily were in terrible shape. The extent that the people living there tried to rip off the “gringos” was beyond that of the typical Peruvian. On top of all this the community charges $100 USD (yes, US dollars) per person to even enter their town!! Even though we had paid this fee, Ross still was approached by a local man demanding that he pay him money to walk the trails and look for birds. (Of course Ross laughed in his face and walked away). It is extremely apparent that this $100 entrance fee isn’t being used for anything constructive and absolutely no conservation is being done to save habitat for the barbet. The area continues to be cleared to make coffee plantations. Who knows how much longer the barbet will be able to tolerate the habitat destruction. Hopefully someone finds an area more accessible to birders so that people can visit a nicer area than Plataforma.