Peru Bird-Watching Takes Flight With 1,800 Species

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.

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