Peru Bird-Watching Takes Flight With 1,800 Species

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 22, 2004
Eco-lodges are sprouting under the forest canopy, guidebooks are rolling
off the presses, and Peruvians are eager to showcase their country as a
bird-watcher's paradise.

That is the message trilled by John O'Neill, an ornithologist at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, who has visited the country to study birds almost every year since 1961.

"It's a country that still has major areas totally unknown biologically," he said. "There have been more than 50 species of bird discovered and described in the last 50 years. I've had the good fortune of being involved with 13."

Peru is home to more than 1,800 bird species, 120 of which are found nowhere else in the world. At least five new species have also been discovered as of this year and are still waiting official scientific description.

The diversity of bird species in Peru, O'Neill said, stems from its ecological and geographical diversity. On the coast, the Pacific Ocean laps at parched desert. Inland, dry forest and scrubland rise to the snowcapped Andes. Toward the east, cloud forests spill into the Amazon Basin.

"It really is packed with landscapes and habitats," said Thomas Valqui, a Lima-based ornithologist and graduate student at LSU. "In five hours you can go from a dry desert through snow at 5,000 meters [16,400 feet] elevation to the rain forest."

Thomas Schulenberg is a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago and an expert on Peruvian birds. He said South America is the "bird continent," thanks to bird species that are more diverse and abundant than those in tropical Asia or Africa.

That, in turn, makes Peru a hot spot, Schulenberg said. "Peru has dazzling geographic diversity, which equates to habitat diversity, which translates to more bird species."

Birders' Delights

Barry Walker is the owner of Cuzco-based Manu Expeditions and a recognized expert on birding in Peru. He said the opportunity to discover bird species new to science is attractive to a handful of people, but most come simply to marvel at the diversity of species.

"Large numbers [of birds], plus some large spectacular attractions, are the prime reason for a visit," he said.

Walker noted that clay licks in the Amazon River Basin are a particular draw. Hundreds of macaws and parrots gather at the exposed riverbanks to feed on clay, which helps the birds digest their diet of nutritious seeds.

Valqui, the LSU graduate student, said another great spectacle is the mixed flocks of birds, composed of as many as 70 different species, that can be seen swooping through Peru's rain forest.

"Each species is represented by a pair of birds, and maybe a young or two, moving through the forest, each one with a specific role," he said.

Sentinels in the flocks keep one eye out for the approach of predatory birds such as forest falcons or hawks. The guard birds also watch for large insects, which the flock sends scampering for cover. Other birds hunt insects as they scurry from niches in the rain forest canopy.

Biologists believe the advantage birds gain by foraging in a mixed flock is primarily one of protection against predators. Also, since only one pair of each species is allowed to join the flock and each species is a niche forager, competition is kept to a minimum, Valqui said.

The flocks themselves are territorial. When two mixed flocks cross paths, bird-watchers are witnesses to elaborate, complex screaming matches between like species in each flock.

"Regarding bird-watching, it's known to be feast or famine," Valqui said. "You can be walking in total silence, and you think, What's going on here? They told me the tropical rain forest is full of birds; they were talking about 20 to 30 species in a flock. When the flock arrives, it is actually too much."

Valqui, whose guidebook Where to Watch Birds in Peru was published in August, added that birders quickly learn to cope with the diversity.

"I have guided several tourists in Peru who see more birds in a week or even a day than they saw in their homeland in the last five years," he said.

Schulenberg, the Field Museum conservation ecologist, noted that there are some bird species that can only be seen in Peru. He added: "There are any number of spectacular individual birds, such as the Andean condor and Andean cock-of-the-rock, that are found as easily in Peru as anywhere else."

The Andean condor, one of the world's largest flying birds, soars on ten-foot (three-meter) wingspans and can weigh up to 33 pounds (15 kilograms). The Andean cock-of-the-rock is a brilliantly colored, pigeon-size bird known for its elaborate courtship displays.

Growing Interest

O'Neill, meanwhile, said he is thrilled at what he describes as surging interest in Peru's birds. Working with colleagues, O'Neill is preparing a field guide to the country's birds to be published next year.

"When I first went to Peru in '61, I knew of two or three people interested in birds. Last October there was a Peruvian workshop on ornithology in Arequipa—a city in the south—and there were 350 to 400 people there," he said.

While the workshop drew an international audience, O'Neill estimates 250 of those who attended were Peruvian, many of them college-age students pursuing science careers.

Valqui agrees that interest in Peru's birds is growing but cautions that the bird-watching industry is still young.

"It has changed from zero to a little bit, and that might be a big step," he said. "Maybe the toughest step has been done."

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