At the Mic: Hugh Powell
Back in March, Sam Woods boldly published his list of the 20 Best Birds in Ecuador—bold because with 1,600 species of tropical beauties to choose from, how could any list be as short as 20 species? Recognizing the problem, Sam threw open the topic for discussion here on the ABA blog. And since I just got back from Peru’s World Birding Rally, which took place little more than an Andean Condor’s yawn away from the Ecuadorean border, I picked up the challenge.
Admittedly it was my first trip to Peru, so to add some much-needed expertise I quizzed my Rally compatriots, all of whom are professional bird guides with superhuman birding abilities.
The guides delivered their choices remarkably rapidly considering their sleep deprivation and the number of Pisco sours that had been served at that point in the evening. As they sorted through the deluge of birds they’d run across—777 species in 7.5 days—the ones that rose to the top were the spectacular, the weird, the recalcitrant, the endemic, the overlooked, the unforgettable. It seems that we as birders tend to gravitate toward dream birds for a few common reasons. And that makes these choices a good starting point for any Peru daydreaming you might be doing.
First are the no-brainers, the incredible and common birds that we marvel at in the pages of the field guides before ever entering the country. First on this list are things like motmots and jacamars—impossibly cool birds that even non-birders will stop to look at. These are the sightings that you likely remember as the moment you realized you weren’t in Kansas anymore. But cool as motmots are, they’re often too common to wind up on a “best birds” list—but birds like Swallow-tailed Kite and White Hawk, favorites of South Africans Niall Perrins and Duan Biggs, fit this category too. A good reminder that every country has its own spectacular birds—the Northern Cardinal, the Blue Tit—that evangelize birding by their simple presence.
Take a step up from here and you get the legendaries: birds that aren’t all that hard to see, but are so spectacular or weird that they’ve been lodged in your imagination for years. Chances are you’ve had dreams, or at least daydreams, about birds like the Andean Condor, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, and Hoatzin—which Terry Stevenson pegged as his favorite, saying “Even though they’re such a common species, I’ve been wanting to see one since I was 15.“
Then there are the weird ones that pique your imagination—birds that are a combination of slightly harder to see plus cool looking and/or sounding. Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Trevor Hardaker’s favorite) is a great example: a slightly deranged toucan whose extra “mountain” in its name makes it seem that much more intrepid. Other examples are Henna-hooded Foliage-Gleaner (Rich Hoyer noted “it’s the only bird in the world with “henna” in its name”) and Blackish Nightjar (Mike Nelson’s favorite), which takes the caprimulgids’ trademark intricate beauty and ups the richness and depth of the colors. Also, a 3-inch hummingbird with a shaggy, bright-orange crest and the attitude of a jousting knight (i.e., the Rufous-crested Coquette, Marcelo Padua’s pick).
But while beauty-appreciation is a big part of our hobby, let’s not forget that we are serious birders who are equally entranced by the whims of biogeography. And so the siren call of the endemics, those birds that radiate their own mysterious appeal from the many nooks and crannies of northern Peru, where some three dozen are to be found. These include species only moderately different from related, more widely distributed species—Koepcke’s Hermit and Koepcke’s Screech-Owl (Gustavo Bautista) come to mind—as well as stunners like White-winged Guan, which was Tim Towles’s and Diego Garcia’s pick of the trip. Garcia said “The biggest population is in Piura, where I’m from. They represent us. When it did that long aerial display in front of everyone, I got goosebumps.” There are many more endemics that could make this list—the weird Peruvian Plantcutter of the dry forest around Chiclayo; the entire genus of inca-finches, including Gray-winged Inca-Finch, which we saw along the parched Marañon Valley, and the indescribable Marvelous Spatuletail, which would have a solid spot in the “legendaries” category did it not also have an absurdly restricted range along the Utcubamba River. It was Paul French’s pick, along with “all the hummingbirds, really.” (French is a Brit and was on his first visit to hummer-spangled South America.)
Some birds wind up on a “best birds” list almost arbitrarily, as choice examples of some hopelessly diverse and spectacular group. I call these the emblematics. The best examples are the tanagers, which drift across montane canopies like multicolored streams of parade confetti. When you see a single tanager species on a “best of” list, the take-home is just that you really ought to see a tanager flock at least once in your life. For our group the Dotted Tanager (Eduardo Omaerche) and Yellow-scarfed Tanager (Adam Kent) were the emblems of that ideal.
“For me, it’s more about the moments than the species,” said David Simpson, putting his finger on one of the basic truths of birding: context matters. We bird for those moments when alertness, happenstance, and discovery come together. “Andean Hillstar is one,” Simpson said. “Hiking up the hill at the end of the day, seeing that bird flying straight at me with the sun at my back, and with that gorget that’s such a unique color. That stands out as pretty neat.” There are also those moments when something long wished-for comes through against all odds, such as when a boulder-choked landslide wasn’t enough to keep us away from a Royal Sunangel. And there are those times when serendipity and a few quiet seconds turn a fairly unremarkable bird into something you will always remember—as when a Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant popped out of a high-elevation tangle, glared at me from beneath its fierce yellow superciliary, and then hopped back into cover before anyone else happened along.
After you’ve visited a region once or twice, a new kind of bird will creep onto your most wanted list. These are the holdouts—not necessarily the most spectacular or the rarest, but the ones that have managed to elude you. “I had heard it once before, 13 years ago, so I had a score to settle,” was how David Fisher described his pick, the Rufous-headed Crake. Also in this category—though arguably in the “legendaries,” at least for pelagic birders, was Steve Howell’s sighting of Ringed (or Hornby’s) Storm-Petrel.
The last category is the experts-onlys. These birds mark the long progression from new arrival to seasoned veteran. First you seek out the “incredible and commons,” the “legendaries,” and the “holdouts.” But give it 25 or 30 years and you start looking for something else entirely. Alfredo Begazo, a native Peruvian who now lives in Florida, was most gratified by a good look at the often-heard White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant. Tom Schulenberg, now in his fourth decade of visiting Peru, dedicated his time on the Rally to searching out unusual subspecies of otherwise widespread birds like Rufous Antpitta and Northern Slaty-Antshrike. At the Tarapoto airport he pointed out an unusual sighting of Rufous-collared Sparrow, one of South America’s most common birds, and promptly eBirded it.
So there you have it. A bird list as idiosyncratic as both the Peruvian landscape and the 20 guides that spent a week traversing it. As Sam noted in his Ecuador article, “If you asked me to compile this list again tomorrow, I must confess that I might just come up with an entirely new selection.” What about your selection—whether you’ve been to Peru yet or not, which birds call out the loudest to you?
POSTSCRIPT: I lied—there’s one more category. No “best birds” list is complete without the ones to come back for. You’ll never see everything you want to—and honestly, seeing absolutely everything sounds like its own special kind of hell. Still, did I really have to miss the legendary Sword-billed Hummingbird?
More about the World Birding Rally:
- Birds, Culture, and Scenic Beauty Along the Northern Peru Birding Route – 10,000 Birds
- Be Careful What You Wish For: A Punter’s Guide to the World Birding Rally – 10,000 Birds
- Peru Birding Rally Challenge Days 7–8 Update – Rich Hoyer’s BirderNaturalist blog
- The Royal Sunangel Looks as Impressive as It Sounds – Cornell Lab blog
- The Strange Endemics of the Tumbesian Region – Nature Travel Network
- In the Valley of the Endangered, Endemic White-winged Guan – Cornell Lab blog
- Scads of Storm-Petrels on Pre-Rally Pelagic – Nature Travel Network
- World Birding Rally on Facebook
- Meet the teams: The World Birding Rally teams were composed of tour leaders from four companies: Birding Ecotours (South Africa, led by Duan Biggs); Wings/Sunbird (U.K./U.S., led by Rich Hoyer); Surbound Expeditions (Florida, led by Alfredo Begazo); and Field Guides (Texas, led by Rose Ann Rowlett).
- Many thanks to Rally organizer Manuel Bryce and to sponsors PromPeru, Inkaterra, LAN, Casa Andina, and Cajamarca Travel.
Hugh Powell, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, edits the All About Birds website, the Round Robin blog, Cornell Lab eNews, and manages the Lab’s Facebook page.
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