I recently spent three amazing weeks in Peru. The biodiversity of this region is truly spectacular and I managed to see 562 species in three weeks (contact me for species list). Included in those 562 species were 16 owl taxa, including one of the least known species on the planet and an undescribed species. What could be better than that? Those who know me can vouch for my obsession with owls, but even for an obsessed, all-night owler, that is a fantastic total.
This trip started with an invite from, as it turns out, an equally owl-obsessed birding friend, Alan Van Norman. Alan had organized a trip to Peru with Birding Ecotours that was tailored to look for owls and he invited me to tag along. That offer was too good to refuse, so I joined Alan and Eduardo Omeche for 10 days of owl-searching in the north and then headed for 10 days of birding on my own in the south (a new expereince for me as I usually bird and backpack around on the cheap). I will blog more generally about this trip in the weeks to come but, as usual, let’s start with the nightlife of Peru…
A big part of the inspiration for this trip was the quest for the bird that is sometimes referred to as the holy grail of Neotropical birding – the Long-whiskered Owlet. Discovered in 1976 and only ever seen a handful of times in a tiny area of Peru, the call of this species remained unknown until a few years ago when one was caught in a mist net and placed in a tent, from where the bird started to sing and was recorded. That recording made it possible to search for this bird. So Alan and I dedicated one night at Abra Patricia and three nights at the La Esperanza, a community conservation project where the owlet was found very recently (http://www.neoprimate.org/), searching. Like so many others, at Abra Patricia we had no luck but La Esperanza, well, read on...
La Esperanza requires a long hike in on a steep and extremely muddy trail (it took us 6 – 7 hours to hike in and we had mules for the packs). There are two rustic cabins where you can stay. On our first night we had no luck with the owlet although we had great looks at Cinnamon Screech-Owl (photos below) and heard Rufous-banded Owl and White-throated Screech-Owl. The sighting of the Cinnamon Screech-Owl was interesting because it happened very shortly after Eduardo had played the owlet tape on spec and a pair flew in, possibly in response to the owlet tape. On the second night, we heard the Long-whiskered Owlet call around 8pm. What followed was a long effort to bring the bird in, which seemed to be working. The call got closer and closer and we waited with baited breath. Then, that moment that makes your heart beat fast – two owls flew in! As we got the flashlight on an owl, the two teenagers who were our guides from the community conservation project got excited, telling us we were looking at the owlet. Unfortunately though, Eduardo, Alan and I were all doubtful – something was wrong! When the owl flew away and we discussed the features and looked at photos Alan had taken it became apparent that we had been looking at a Cinnamon Screech-Owl. The fact the we had had two occasions when Cinnamon Screech-Owl respond aggressively to the owlet tape and the fact that the guide had misidentified the bird had us very concerned – maybe some of the reported sightings from La Esperanza were in fact NOT the enigmatic owlet after all. At least we knew that some of the sightings were of the owlet as we had seen the photos but we suspected that this bird is nowhere near as common at the site as our young guide would have had us believe. Since we were there in August (dry season) and all of the precious few sightings of Long-whiskered Owlet we were aware of were between December and May (wet season) there might also be seasonal differences in calling and response rate that were working against us.
With that major let down, everyone slid back down the mountainside to get some rest... well, everyone except me that is – I stayed up all night in a vain effort to find the owlet but didn’t hear so much as a peep. Nightfall on our third and final night in La Esperanza found us in position on a steep slope where we had heard the owlet call the night before. We weren’t waiting long when the rain began (as so often happens when you go out at night in cloud forest). We waited and waited until 10pm or thereabouts when the rain started to let up and then tried searching for the owlet in vain for an hour or so. In the continuing drizzle and processing all that had happened, Alan and Eduardo decided to abandon the search and get some rest. I, on the other hand, was too stubborn to give up… after all, how many times in your life do you get a chance to search for Long-whiskered Owlet?
So, I walked up and down on the steep, narrow, muddy trails, pausing to listen at promising spots - nothing, nothing, nothing! By around 4am the drizzle had stopped and sky was much clearer and a calling Lyre-tailed Nightjar gave hope that the night might come alive. Closer to 4:30, it happened – a moment i won’t soon forget – I heard a Long-whiskered Owlet call from a ridge above me. A few seconds to calm my beating heart and I whipped up the trail as quickly and quietly as I could and up a narrow side trail to get closer to where I had estimated the sounds came from. I paused on the mountainside; a few minutes of intense silence, then, yes, there was the call again and much closer this time. Dawn was approaching and I had to think fast. I worked the trail trying to assess options. Since the owlet was calling from up on the ridge, I concluded my best chance was to find a spot with an opening where I could see uphill. In the dense cloud forest that was no easy task, but there was one spot where I felt I might have a chance. The problem was my spot was on a very steep slope and rather precarious. Calming my emotions, I started a dialogue with the enigma… and the owlet called back! What followed was an agonizing 45 minutes with the owlet calling ever closer to where I was standing.
As always, when searching for owls, your eyes and ears are on “high alert”. After so much staring into the darkness, I caught the silhouette of movement – something small had flown in and landed above my head!! Shining my flashlight, I saw the bird almost immediately - an absolutely diminutive owl! And, as I watched, this tiny little owl pointed their head skyward and called… there was no doubt about it – I was looking at a LONG-WHISKERED OWLET!! I was in ecstasy as I watched the owlet simultaneously raise their head and lower their wings to call, the long whiskers visible with this action. A once-in-a-lifetime moment to see such a secretive bird that has been seen by so very few!
I then tried to take some photos but because the owlet was right above me and I was standing on a steep slope, I was having enormous difficulty holding the light and focusing the camera simultaneously. I certainly wish my companions had been there at that moment! I took a couple of very out-of-focus photos before deciding that the only way was to try to put the light on the ground pointing up. Ordinarily, that might have worked but on this occasion I nearly fell off the mountainside trying - no chance! Of course, with dawn approaching the owlet did not stay there much longer and all I could do was watch it fly off into the night without a good photo to show for it. My souvenir, for what it is worth, is this horribly out of focus photo but I still won’t forget the thrill of finding this mysterious creature! (hey, but it wasn’t an Ivory-billed Woodpecker)…
Well, that photo is not much to look at though at least you can make out the owlet. Even though I missed the photo, this remains one of the best birding moments of my life.
Anyway, I will soon post part 2 of the Owls of Peru but this story could wait no longer. And I promise the next post will have lots of pretty pictures!