Birding on the Edge of the World

by | Dec 9, 2005

Hormiguero ocelado (Phaeonostictus mcleannani), Ocellated Antbird

The dirt road crossed the pass at about 15,000 feet and entered a wide treeless valley, without any sign of human presence. Flanked by jagged hills, the valley spread below the peaks of snow-capped mountains. Vegetation was sparse, rocks scattered everywhere. Patches of snow clung to the shady sides of the clumpy ichu grass. In this high puna area of the Peruvian sierra, we had come as birders, riding in a rattletrap Dodge van, searching for some of the world’s rarest birds in an area that seemed at the limit of survival possibility for any species of the animal kingdom.

Our objectives were the White-Bellied Cinclodes and the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, both species resident only in high alpine bogs of the Andes. Found only in a few locations in central Peru, the Cinclodes is considered by one Lima-based ornithologist to have a surviving population of fewer than 30 individuals. Nevertheless, the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, although more widely distributed from central Peru to southern Chile, has been described as “almost mythical.” The Cinclodes, a Peruvian endemic, i.e., a bird found in only one country, is one of 118 endemic species in Peru. Of all the countries in the world, only Brazil has more. By contrast, there are only six endemic bird species in the continental United States. The total number of bird species in Peru is approximately 1800, a figure exceeded only by Colombia among the world’s nations. Such numbers are constantly growing, however, because new species are still being discovered.

This remarkable species diversity makes the mountains and jungles of South America a paradise for birders. Unfortunately, many of these species are confined to impossibly small areas, struggling against the imminence of extinction. Among the species on evolution’s chopping block are the two target birds that we sought.

In pursuit of these and other Andean birds, we were an expedition of four: driver, birding guide, and two paying customers, who had been charged the princely sum of $80 apiece for a two-day trip, up from Lima on Saturday, back on Sunday, food and hotel included. We could hardly complain that the accommodations were primitive. They were, after all, the best that the town of San Pedro de Casta had had to offer. Moreover, our birding guide, Gregorio (Goyo) Ferro was competent and relentless in his search for target birds.

The road continued down a gentle slope, the valley floor being nearly as high as the pass we had crossed. The vegetation changed substantially as we descended, the scattered ichu at the pass giving way to a thick green carpet. It looked like a broad rich pasture, but when we stopped and walked about it turned out to be spongy underfoot. This was one of the Andean bogs that was home to our target birds. There were no trees, no bushes, just the green carpet stretching outward from rock ledges on the valley’s sides.

Goyo and Juvenal, the driver, set off in different directions, in search of the birds. I was not feeling peppy in the high altitude, so I stayed close to the van and occupied myself with birds that were more common but still new to me: an Andean Flicker with his raucous call, various Plain-Capped Ground-Tyrants, a pair of Andean Geese.

Goyo and Juvenal returned. No luck. It was getting late in the day, and menacing clouds had been rolling in, putting an end to the day’s sunshine. We two customers were satisfied with the trip and ready to call it quits. Earlier we had seen other marvelous Peruvian endemics: a Great Inca-Finch, a Black-Necked Flicker, a rare and improbable White-Cheeked Cotinga. Goyo however didn’t want to give up. We got into the van and found a side road that went over a low ridge and down into a lower valley bottom. Again we spread out and walked across a treeless plain: no luck again. We did see a pair of Gray-Breasted Seedsnipes, which I thought pretty exciting, but no Cinclodes. And no Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. We returned to the main road in the valley and headed for Casapalca and the highway back to Lima.

Still Goyo was not finished. A couple of miles down the valley, over another low ridge and to a lower valley floor, Juvenal pulled the van off the road and once again we set off across a spongy green carpet, jumping from tuft to tuft to keep our feet dry. The clouds were very dark now, and thunder clapped loud and close. I noted that we were in the center of a flat valley with no nearby high points that might divert a lightning strike. I was, however, consoled to see that this valley was relatively small, the peaks close and very high above us.

Goyo saw it first, perhaps 100 yards ahead, moving past the tufts of grass, then motionless. We got the scope on it. It was an adult Diademed Sandpiper-Plover with its dark head giving emphasis to the white line just above eye level that extended completely around its head. It behaved like a Killdeer, its abundant North American relative, standing perfectly still for extended periods and then moving very fast to another point of standing still. Goyo spotted another bird, sitting on a rock just ahead of us. A hummingbird? Indeed it was, although there wasn’t a flower within miles. It was an Olivaceous Thornbill, and so tame that Goyo got to within 6 feet with his camera snapping away before the bird flew.

Goyo still wasn’t done. We continued on. Seeing movement along a fence line some 200 yards in front if us, we aimed the telescope toward it. It was a White-Bellied Cinclodes, unmistakable because of its size and the whiteness of its breast and belly. We all got good looks at this rarest of birds. Goyo asked if we wanted to move in for a closer look but we respectfully declined. We were content. All the birds targeted for the trip had been spotted. As we made our way across the bog back to the van, hailstones started to fall on us.

Fall 2004/Winter 2005Volume III, Number 1

Shane Hunt is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Boston University and a DRCLAS Affiliate. He has birded from Cambridge to Callao.

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