Friday, August 26, 2011

Birds: It's Almost All New

Written 20 August 2011

Three days before departing to this, my first inventory, Doug Stotz took me through the bird collection at the Field Museum to show me some of the species of special interest likely to occur in the Cerros Kampankis, an ornithologically unexplored region in northern Peru.

Doug opened one of the drawers with a series of antbird specimens.  He pointed out subtle differences among closely-related, hard-to-identify species and moved to another drawer.  “We expect to find this hummingbird,” he told me, pointing out a specimen almost identical to the rest.  “Also, this antpitta”… “this flycatcher”… “this hawk,” and continued showing me other species while I took notes as fast as possible.

Most of the species he pointed out that day are new for me.  The portion of the Neotropics that I have visited frequently, from southern Mexico to Panama, shares many of the families and genera that we would find in northern Peru, although South America has the world’s most diverse avifauna and each of these groups contains many more different species than the ones I am used to.

Facing such a complicated task, I opted for preparing for this trip as well as I could: I read as much of the field guide to the Birds of Peru (of which Doug is a coauthor) as possible, studying each illustration and distribution map.  I looked at the species lists of the most recent Rapid Inventory to have a clear idea of the number of birds registered at last year’s site and to get a sense of what was expected of my work in the field.  I pulled all the music off my iPod and replaced it with the content of several CDs with bird songs of the Amazonian and Andean regions of Peru.  For days I didn’t listen to anything but bird songs, including the cow-cow-cow of the familiar Collared Trogon and also learned for the first time the choo-choo-chuchuchu of the White-flanked Antwren and the cher-cher-chrrr, chrr of the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker that I never heard before.

And my first day in the field came.  The bird team is composed of Renzo Zeppilli,  Debby Moskovits, and me.  Both of them have lots of experience identifying Peruvian birds and they readily identify them left and right as we hear them in the forest.  “That is a Black-faced Antbird”… “That one is a Paradise Tanager”… “Oh, Plumbeous Pigeon, out there, in the distance.”  That morning each of them picked a different trail.  I picked my own and left camp with my backpack containing my digital sound recorder, my camera, and my field guide.  In my left pocket, my iPod with a small speaker.  In my right, my field notebook.  Hanging from my neck my binoculars.

Field Museum conservation ecologist Ernesto Ruelas reviewing recordings at 
Quebrada Katerpiza.  Rubber boots in European size 46 are hard to find in Tarapoto, 
and Smurf-colored ones may be your only choice.  
Photo: A. del Campo.

Ssscoooeee-cooeo!  I heard nearby, by the stream.  Loud, clear.  It sounded like “my” piha, the one I can find in the forests of southern Mexico.  I reached for my iPod and looked for a piha, I played the track, and immediately identified that bird that I could not see, but whose call is unmistakable.  A new species for me, one that has the (very appropriate) scientific name of Lipaugus vociferans.  I followed the trail, tzk-tzk-tzk, then cooe-cooe-cooe, etc.  I look at my iPod and found some of them easily identifiable, while some others were not.  I made recordings of those worthwhile documenting and of those that I didn’t know.  Within a few days I learned more and more vocalizations and made some mental calculations of how many I was able to actually see and how many I could only identify through their vocalizations.  Was it 80% by voice and 20% by sight?

Straight-billed Hermit photographed asleep.  Hummingbirds drop metabolic 
rates at night to save energy and stay warm positioning their feathers in a position 
perpendicular to their skin that allows them to immobilize air.  Approaching them at 
night to take a photograph becomes an easy task due to their state of torpor -- 
but finding them is not.
Photo: A. del Campo

Three camps afterwards (with many vocalizations identified positively and many others left unidentified), I feel familiar with the most common of what can be found at low elevations, approximately 1,000 feet.  Each member of the bird team has covered between 3-6 miles of trails per day recording birds.  We climbed three hilltops to elevations over 3,000 feet (two of them above 4,200 feet!) that brought us records of mountain species and additional findings for our inventory, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, considered by many the national bird of Peru.

 Every night we sat down together to review what each of us had found, shared the details of notable records, and compiled our data in a central list.  Days have gone by really fast.  My arms are covered in mosquito and bug bites and my feet almost used to wearing rubber boots.

Orange-throated Tanager, a coveted species for birdwatchers, rare record for 
ornithologists, andbird of cultural significance for the Wampis indigenous 
group, was recorded in two of our campson both slopes of the Cerros 
de Kampankis.
Photo: A. del Campo

Today we are in the last locality that we will visit, Camp 4, and our list has nearly 340 species.  I took a shorter than normal walk, since we need to start working on our reports and synthesizing information from the entire trip.  While I was reviewing the list, I confirmed many of the species expected for Kampankis and also tallied the many unexpected surprises.  Of the species of special interest, we found the hummingbird, the antpitta, and the flycatcher that Doug showed me a little over three weeks ago in Chicago; in my mind, I have fixed the voices of many, including the choo-choo-chuchuchu, tzk-tzk-tzk, and also the very interesting cow-cowcow, one of my favorite forest-falcons.

Peruvian ornithologist Renzo Zeppilli discusses the cultural significance of the bird 
inchituch (Wampis for Orange-throated Tanager) with local scientists at Camp 4 
in Quebrada Wee. 
Photo: Á. del Campo.

 Post by Ernesto Ruelas, Conservation Ornithologist

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