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


  1. Fascinating! Birding via the internet,especially in such far off places is wonderful.Thanks.

  2. Hi,

    The morning in Peru is cloudy and so nice, sounds of different birds are like singing song. They are feeling so fresh and happy. The woodcreepers are also suboscines of course but much easier to see than the ground dwellers. Thanks a lot.

    Wildlife Photographer

  3. Good website! I truly love how it is easy on my eyes it is. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS which may do the trick? Have a great day!
    Faucets Canada

  4. Thank you Poulous, "following" the blog is another way


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