Sunday, January 16, 2011

Peru: Part 6 - Deeper Down Into the Cloud Forest

The mid elevation cloud forests (from approximately 1000 m ASL up to around 1800 m ASL) are particularly rich in species. The forest structures changes subtly with altitude (e.g. the trees typically get taller at lower elevations) and so, even though some species are found across a wide altitudinal belt, others have a very narrow altitudinal range. The range maps of many of the more specialised species look like a thin north/south line. The two images below give you a sense of this magnificent forest. In the first image you can see the famous Manu Road, carved out of the side of the steep mountain valley. Notice the humidity and the patches of midst. In the second you can see the lower section of the valley as it widens and just a hint of the Madre De Dios River at the bottom.

Some dazzling gems can be found in these elevations, so why not start this post with one of the most famous of this ecosystem – the Andean Cock-of-the Rock. The dazzling large red contigids make a cacophony when on the lek as they dance and squabble for position. Here are a series of photos of males strutting their stuff at one of the leks along the Manu Road. Two photos with flash and two without to give you a sense of how lighting work in the dark understorey of the tall forest.

The fruiteaters are suboscine relatives of the Cock-of-the-Rocks, a group of mostly green contingids, many with colourful head patterns that are adapted to feeding on fruit in the canopy. The coloud combination of a predominantly green body with marking and other colours in the head area is common among many tropical canopy-dwelling frugivores from several families (birds as diverse as barbets, parrots, fruit-pigeons, leafbirds, tanagers and others). This combination offers good camouflage since green birds can be incredible difficult to see in the leaves, while also leaving room for the vibrant colours often associated with sexual selection. This is the Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater.

The foliage-gleaners on the other hand seem to spend a lot of time proving dead leaves and are typically reddish brown in colour. Here a Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner demonstrates their versatility. The first photo shows a classic pose that illustrates well the GISS of this group, the second shot shows this bird utilizing their skill as acrobats to take advantage of nectar, a rich food source, while the last photo shows this birds having just pried an insect prey item from dead leaves.

The handsome Lined Antshrike mostly stays well hidden in the vegetation but this one popped up just long enough for a photo…

There are many flycatchers in the mid elevations! From this diminutive understorey-dwelling Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant...

To the large, canopy-dwelling Golden-crowned Flycatcher,

And almost everything in between, including the common and conspicuous and incredibly handsome Cinnamon Flycatcher of open areas and mostly midstorey and the subanopy

The elegant midstorey insectivore, Slaty-capped Flycatcher...

The stylish Streak-necked Flycatcher is also mostly found in the midstorey but, despite their name, they are a fruit-eater (yes, that’s right, some of the New World flycatchers don’t eat insects).

The Peruvian Tyrannulet is also primarily a frugivore and is most commonly found at the forest edge, though sometimes they move with mixed species flocks. That is only a handful of the flycatcher diversity found here!

Speaking of diversity… the mid elevations hold a stupefying array of tanagers and mixed species flocks great the observer with an explosion of colour. The following is a selection of some of the tanagers that move through the forest, often with multiple species foraging together in flocks that leave the observer scrambling to try and account for all present! We start with possibly the gaudiest of all large avian genera, the Tangara tanagers. Here is one of my favourites and a true Andean gem – the Golden Tanager!

From gold to blue – here is the aptly named Paradise Tanager

Why not gold and blue together – the Saffron-crowned Tanager

Somewhat similar but yet so distinct, just wait 'til you find a Flame-faced Tanager in your binoculars (you’ll be the one with the flaming face!) – two views of this stunner!

The stylish Blue-necked Tanager puts in a appearance...

Somewhere in the vast nebulous hue between blue and green, the Beryl-spangled Tanager...

And right alongside them, the Metallic-green Tanager (and you thought colourful birds were always easy to identify?)

Some of the Tanagra tanagers are more subtly coloured, like this Spotted Tanager

And some even make use of black as part of their unique uniform… apologies for the poor quality photo of this Silver-backed Tanager.

Of course, there are other genera of tanagers present in these flocks too. I never quite managed a good photo of the phenomenally vibrant Orange-eared Tanager.

The Vermillion Tanager looks superficially like some of the North American Piranga (e.g. Scarlet Tanager) but is a true tanager (not a cardinal like the Piranga).

A tanager by any other name… this Black-eared Hemispingus is also a tanager.

And this bird… well, this bird… yes, a tanager but unlike any other really… the classy Magpie Tanager. Here are two photo, the first showing the distinct shape and the second showing the plumage pattern up close and personal…

In addition to tanagers, there are other families that join mixed species flocks like this Slate-throated Redstart, a.k.a. Slate-throated Whitestart, a wood-warbler… If you have seen this species in Central America you may know that the Central American birds have red bellies whilst the Andean birds have yellow bellies.

And even when you don’t find a flock, there is colour to be found. This is the White-fronted Nunbird. The nunbirds and puffbirds are a uniquely Neotropical family of near-passerines related to woodpeckers.

Every time you stumble upon a trogon you are in for a treat – they always appear to have such vibrant colours… This is a Collared Trogon (yes, I used flash for this photo).

A real bonus find on the Manu Road for me was this female Lyre-tailed Nightjar brooding a large chick. She had chosen a straw roof for a nest-site and was covered from above by a corrugated piece of sheet metal. I took this photo in the pouring rain but she remained high and dry.

There are plenty of hummers too like the elegant Long-tailed Sylph. This is a juvenile male whose tail has not reached full length (see my older post on Colombian hummers for a look at an adult male).

And here is a Sapphire-spangled Emerald – a gem no doubt though the name is perhaps a touch of overkill.

And there are plenty of mammals in these forest too though they are harder to see. Here is a Common Wooly-Monkey taking a fistful of fruit.

I was elated to see the rare, elusive and nocturnal Andean Night-Monkey while owling one night…

Then imagine our amazement to find one of these seldom seen animals by day…

Just goes to show that you never know what you might see in the seemingly dark and impenetrable cloud forest…

Net we drop down into the Upper Tropical Zone and towards the Peruvian lowlands. That will be the last area we visit in this series – at least until I find a way to get into the Amazonian lowlands on a future trip.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Peru: Part 5 - Cloud Forest

As you descend out of the elfin forest the trees begin to get larger and larger and covered in mosses. You are entering into the mysterious cloud forest, so named because of the mist that so often shrouds these lush and humid tropical forests. Cloud forests have extraordinary biodiversity but difficult viewing conditions and hide some of the world’s most secretive species. Peru's cloud forests in particular are home to a veritable multitude of avian enigmas, several of which are featured in this post. You can spend hours in these habitats and see very little or you can luck into a mixed flocks where the trees seem to be dripping with birds and you don’t know where to look. Here are three images to give you a sense of this habitat, starting with a wide angle and then zooming in to show some of the structural complexity of this habitat type.

The next photo shows you how large the trees can be. To offer some perspective, the Crimson-bellied Woodpecker in this photo is 35 cm in length (just a little smaller than Pileated Woodpecker but in the same genus as Ivory-billed Woodpecker).

Get prepared for a lot of rain in this habitat... and for a lot of wet birds! In the next photo, as in several others in this series of posts from the eastern Andes you will notice the rain falling on the seemingly oblivious subject. This is an Andean Guan, who sat still for a long time during this rain shower. The guans and chachalacas may look similar in some respects to pheasants but they have much more arboreal habits, as shown here.

There are raptors in the cloud forest, although they can be hard to see. Often they remain concealed in the subcanopy. Sometimes you get lucky to observe them perched on emergent trees or flying above the canopy. This bird was one of the highlights of my trip to Peru – the extremely rare and localized Semicollared Hawk, which we unexpectedly saw in northern Peru, an apparent range extension of several hundred kilometres for this species.

Hummingbird diversity in the eastern Andes is simply staggering but once again in the dense forest these little gems can be hard to see, especially the ones that dart through the undergrowth. Here is a Green-fronted Lancebill in a sea of green. I particularly like this photo because it shows the dense and dark green world that these beautiful birds live in. Green-fronted Lancebill live along forested streams, usually in the lower storey of the forest. They exhibit a behaviour known as “traplining”, which means visiting a series of feeding locations in a series. This interesting alternative strategy (as opposed to say defending a small territory to keep out competitors for example) is found in several hummingbird species and other birds.

The Sparkling Violetear is one of the most widespread and common hummers in the Andes.

The Chestnut-breasted Coronet is much les common and has a rather unique plumage for a hummer. The throat does have some iridescence though not visible here.

The Bronzy Inca lacks iridescence altogether. Though they lack colour, they are an impressive bird to watch, that is if you can find them in the dark forest.

The Sapphire-vented Puffleg does have iridescent plumage, but in a unusual spot – the undertail coverts. Here I used a little fill flash to highlight the feature that gives this species their name.

The Royal Sunangel was discovered on the same 1976 expedition that discovered Long-whiskered Owlet (and a third species we will meet in just a moment). Endemic to a small area of northern Peru and extreme southern Ecuador, this endangered species is truly breathtaking in their glistening navy blue uniform. Finding this bird feeding in shrubbery at the forest edge was a very special moment!

But perhaps the biggest prize of all the Peruvian hummingbirds is the endangered, enigmatic, elusive, endemic Marvelous Spatuletail. Confined to a tiny global range in the Utcubamba Valley, this bird is a denizen of the dense humid forests with dense undergrowth. Their tail is reduced to just 4 feathers, two long and straight central rectices and two ridiculously long outer rectrices that are basically just the feather shaft with a very large racket on the end. Their display involved an energetically costly flight pattern that causes the rackets to be suspended high in the air. This first image shows a male with his rackets trailing behind him and the flash gives you a sense of the iridescence...

The second image, without flash, gives some impression of the dark understorey of the forest these birds live in.

This third images shows a little of how the rackets can be suspended in the air in display (and just how long they are)

And here is a juvenile male who has just started to grow his rackets and gain his iridescent crown. Notice how large the rackets are in relation to the bird!

When most people hear the word “quetzal”, they think of the Resplendant Quetzal with their elongated plumes of Central America. There are however five quetzal species: Resplendent, Eared, Pavonine, Crested, White-tipped and this, the Golden-headed Quetzal.

As always in this post series we find ourselves coming back to the suboscine passerines. This time we start with a remarkable elusive group – the ground antbirds (antpittas and antthrushes to be specific). These birds are denizens of the dark forest floor and they are secretive and shy, making them be extremely difficult to see well. This Ochre-fronted Antpitta is one of the small Grallaricula antpittas and is the third big discovery that was made in 1976 in northern Peru (Long-whiskered Owlet, Royal Sunangel and Ochre-fronted Antpitta) and is equally as rare and elusive as the other two – also an endangered range-restricted endemic! To the best of my knowledge, this is only the third photo ever taken of this species in the wild so I was over the moon to see this male and to get a series of photos. Like the Long-whiskered Owlet, this is another one of those species that very few people in the world have seen.

In these habitats, I like to try an early morning “pitta walk”. That is, walking a forest trail as quickly and quietly as possible in the hope of surprising a ground bird out on the trail at first light. Many forest ground birds are sensitive to ground vibrations so you need to be as light on your feet as possible – not always easy on a muddy trail. With luck, if you are moving at the right speed and are light of foot, you can surprise one of the forest’s most secretive species as you come around a corner. And so it was, as I snuck around the trail at La Esperanza in the early morning that I chanced upon this Barred Antthrush (again too dark to focus… augh). I know this is a terrible photo but it gives a sense of this mysterious creature. Barred Antthrush are extremely elusive and almost never seen.

The woodcreepers are also suboscines of course but much easier to see than the ground dwellers. This is a Montane Woodcreeper feeding in characteristic fashion, probing the bark and epiphytes for tasty bugs.

Canopy dwellers can be difficult to see in this habitat and quite a few are green in colour and blend with the foliage. This is the superb Green-and-black Fruiteater (a member of the Contigidae family).

Some of the flycatchers are greenish too. Here a Bolivian Tyrannulet forages in the rain.

And this Sierran Elaenia moves through the understorey revealing their crown patch

In a bamboo thicket lurks one of Peru’s most sought after flycatchers, the tiny Johnson’s Tody-Flycatcher (a.k.a Johnson’s Tody-Tyant), which was first described as recently as 2001. This colourful but skulking species was formerly Lulu’s Tody-Tyrant but was renamed to honour of the discoverer after his passing. It can take a fair but of work to get a look at this range-restricted endemic species in their preferred bamboo thickets. This species is listed as Vulnerable.

Another flycatcher found in bamboo and dense undergrowth is the Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant. Here is my attempt at an artistic effect to show the complicated structure of the undergrowth using flash bouncing off the bamboo.

Out on the cliff faces and more exposed rocky slopes where the vegetation cannot grow so lush there are other species that find a suitable niche, such as this elegant Rufous-tailed Tyrant.

Of course, there are oscine passerines here too. A few examples include this Black-faced Brush Finch lurking in the undergrowth.

And this Three-striped Warbler.

And, in addition to birds there are many fascinating mammals in these habitats although the thick and lush vegetation makes them difficult to see in most cases. This is a photo of a Yellow-tailed Wooly-Monkey taken near La Esperanza (a site dedicated to their conservation). The Yellow-tailed Wooly-Monkey is one of the rarest primates on the planet and I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to have seen them! The history of our knowledge of this species gives you some sense of their extreme rarity. The Yellow-tailed Wooly-Monkey was described in 1812 from a skin taken from a local man but the lack of observations in the wild cause some to fear it extinct until 1974 when one was found being kept as a pet. Recently, these beautiful primates were found in the La Esperanza area and efforts are being made for their conservation there (see
Nature Blog Network Birdwatching Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites