Travel

Bird Photography in Peru

by Glenn Bartley | June 19, 2012

© Glenn BartleySimply put—Peru is perhaps the best country in the world to see and photograph birds. Sure Colombia boasts a slightly higher species list and, based on its size, Ecuador is also in the running. In Peru however, there are so many unique endemics that it is a destination that every serious birdwatcher or bird photographer absolutely must visit. With exciting discoveries of species that are new to science still occurring with surprising regularity Peru also offers the thrill of seeing birds that few people have ever seen before. Accommodation, access to information and ease of travel for visitors are also rapidly improving. These days it is relatively straightforward to plan a few weeks in Peru and expect to see 500 or so bird species. The difficult decision will be which parts of the country to visit first.

In 2011 I traveled to Peru for a three month long bird photography expedition. Although three months may sound like a long time, the reality is that Peru is such a large country and has so many endemic species and unique habitats that I knew that this trip would only be the beginning. Peru is one of those destinations that I could return to over and over again and always find new birds to photograph. Below are a few of the photographic reasons why you should visit Peru.

Andean Cook of the Rock © Glenn Bartley

The Andean Cock of the Rock is the national bird of Peru. The males gather at “lek” sites to display for females and put on a very impressive show!

Incredible Endemics

One of the most incredible things about bird watching and photography in Peru is that there are so many spectacular birds that are found there and nowhere else. For me, these endemic species are always especially exciting to see and photograph. With well over one hundred endemic species of birds there are plenty to chase after. Atop my wish list when I traveled to Peru in 2011 was the rare and poorly known Long-whiskered Owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi).

The Long-whiskered Owlet was first discovered in 1976 by John O’Neil and was then not seen again until 2002! Even to this day very few people have had good looks at it. At just 5 inches this bird is among the smallest species of Owl in the world. It is so unique that upon discovery ornithologists immediately put it in to its own genus Xenoglaux which means “strange owl.” Endemic to a very small area of northern Peru this bird seems to prefer cloud forests with dense undergrowth. It is thought that there may be as few as 250 individuals in existence prompting the Alliance for Zero Extinction to place this species on their list as one of the 800 animals in the world most at risk of extinction.

Late one evening in November I trekked down a muddy trail into the elfin cloud forest that surrounds Abra Patricia. I knew that spotting this bird was incredibly unlikely but I decided to give it a try anyway. Once I reached an area of suitable habitat I waited patiently to hopefully hear the birds call. Before long, to my delight, I heard what I believed to be an Owlet calling in the distance. I began to use the birds call to try to lure him in towards me. It was a jolt of adrenaline and excitement when I realized that the recording was working and the bird was coming closer. I stood motionless. I didn’t dare fiddle with my equipment. I didn’t dare check to see what insects were crawling up my leg. Heck…I didn’t dare breathe!

All of a sudden I saw a flash of movement in front of me. The moon was nearly full and there was enough light to just make out the movement. I shone my flashlight in the direction of the fluttering object and there it was not even 20 feet away on an open branch staring right at me—The Owlet. As I walked back up the hill after photographing this incredible bird I could hardly believe what had just happened. I think that there are moments in our lives as photographers and bird watchers that we will never forget. For me, this was most definitely one of them.

Long-whiskered owlet © Glenn Bartley

Coming face to face with a bird as rare as the Long-whiskered Owlet was a surreal bird photography experience that I will not soon forget.

Macaws in the Amazon Lowlands

In the heart of Manu National Park (one of the most biologically diverse places in the world) a birding spectacle occurs that rivals any in the world for brilliant colours, captivating sounds and fascinating behaviour. Along a river bank a familiar event plays out day after day when a variety of parrots, parakeets and macaws visit an exposed bank of clay.

Various theories exist as to why these birds need to eat the clay on an almost daily basis. Many believe that it is to neutralize the toxins that are in the fruits, nuts, seeds and leaves that make up their diet. Others believe that it is actually sodium that the birds are after. Whatever the case, this kaleidoscope of colours, the frantic squawking and the interaction between the birds is absolutely awesome to behold.

Surely the most spectacular of the visitors are the Red-and-Green Macaws. These large Macaws are stunning with their brilliant red, green and blue plumage. Although seeing one or two of these birds would likely be enough to satisfy any birder there are often close to one hundred macaws visiting the clay lick at the same time!

Macaw in flight © Glenn Bartley

Seeing over 100 Red and Green Macaws flying around the jungle is one the most spectacular wildlife events that I have witnessed.

So many Hummingbirds

There are about 330 species of hummingbirds in the world and well over one hundred of them can be found in Peru. Traveling around the country it seems that everywhere you look you are spotting a Sunbeam, Emerald, Hillstar or a Woodnymph. These tiny birds with fantastic names that stir the imagination have indeed proliferated in Peru more so than just about anywhere else on earth. Of all of these spectacular flying jewels there are perhaps none more stunning than the Marvelous Spatuletail. This tiny bird truly has to be seen to be believed. As is usually the case with birds, the male steals the show when it comes to good looks. Adorned with two incredibly long racquet shaped tail feathers that are a beautiful shade of violet-blue, and a stunning iridescent crown and gorget, the spatuletail is breathtaking.

These birds are extremely rare and are confined to a very small area in Northern Peru where they generally inhabit forest edges where their favourite flowers grow. Unfortunately, due to increasing threats from continued loss of habitat the Marvelous Spatuletail has been listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Nowadays the best chance to see a Marvelous Spatuletail is at a small reserve near the town of La Florida where in 2006 the American Bird Conservancy in cooperation with the Peruvian ECOAN group have managed to create a small reserve. Although much more timid than the other hummingbird species in the area the Marvelous Spatuletail does regularly visit the hummingbird feeders that have been set up for them.

Marvelous spatuletail © Glenn Bartley

The Marvelous Spatuletail may well be the most spectacular of all of the hummingbirds.

Highland Birds

One of the reasons that Peru has so many species of birds is due to the Andes mountains that dominate the landscape throughout the country. The scale of these mountains make them insurmountable obstacles for many species and have caused populations to become isolated from one another—eventually driving the process of evolution. While most species of birds find the upper realms of the Andes to be inhospitable places, there are a surprising number of wonderful birds that thrive in this harsh environment. Birds like the Andean Condor, White-bellied Cinclodes, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe and even a stunning hummingbird called the Black-breasted Hillstar.

Perhaps the top “must see” highland bird in Peru is the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchellii). Unlike most plovers that are found near major water sources the Diademed Plover lives many miles inland in high elevation swamps and bogs in the Andes. In fact they are only found above 4000 meters above sea level. Like most plovers they are classified in the Charadriidae family. However the Diademed Plover is clearly a unique specimen as it is classified in the monotypic genus Phegornis. Looking at a photo of these beautiful little “shorebirds” it would be easy to assume that their striking plumage would make them easy to find. I can testify that this is most certainly not the case as they are scarce and surprisingly difficult to find. This species is classified as near threatened due primarily to habitat loss. Standing up in the high elevation bogs of Peru I watched truck after truck drive up into this strange highland landscape and fill their cargo bays with the peat-rich soil to be used as a source of fuel. Sadly, it was not hard for me to imagine a future where this bird would have nowhere left to live.

Diademed plover © Glenn Bartley

High in the central Andes of Peru the Diademed Plover is a “must see” bird…

Conclusion

Peru is definitely one of the most exciting bird photography destinations out there. The astonishing species diversity and the number of phenomenal endemic birds is unrivaled by any other country in the world. If you are thinking about a destination for your next bird watching or photography trip it would be hard to find a better or more rewarding location than Peru.

About the Author

Glenn Bartley is a professional nature photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He focuses almost all of his efforts on capturing intimate images of birds in their natural habitat. Glenn is especially well known for his portraits of rare and difficult to photograph birds from the Neotropical Region and his portfolio of hummingbird images. In addition to his own photographic pursuits, Glenn also leads instructional photographic workshops to exciting destinations throughout the Americas. These tours are designed to take advantage of Glenn’s experience in this region and teach participants to capture their own spectacular images of tropical birds. Glenn is the author of several books including Birds of Ecuador, Birds of British Columbia and The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography. You can find more of Glenn's work at: www.glennbartley.com.

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