Tuesday 3 April 2018

So It Begins . . . Biking Birder IV - Peru 2018. An Attempt at the Green Birding Big Year list record.

Los Pantanos de Villa, looking north

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April 1st, 2018

Los Pantanos de Villa

Early morning cloud burnt off by eleven, then hot, 28 Celsius, sunny with very little wind. Westerly.

And so the great Green Birding adventure begins, Biking Birder IV-Peru2018. Manuel and I are at Los Pantanos de Villa, a wonderful nature reserve south of Lima. Ever since we met back in 2014 at a lodge, Chuncho Lodge, in Tambopata National Park near Puerto Maldonado, Manuel and his wife Katia, together with their two boys, Luis-Fernando and Nicholas, not forgetting their three dogs, have been close friends. No visit to Peru would be the same without seeing them. Manuel, Mani for short, is a keen nature photographer and eager to learn more about birds. We are in the right place. There will be thousands but, more importantly for the World Green Birding record attempt, how many bird species will we see. My worry is that the waders that spend the Austral Summer in South America, before migrating north for the breeding season, will have already gone. Otherwise I know what to expect at Los Pantanos. I have been here many times before. This fact becomes apparent when the girl behind the desk in the reception cabin greets me like a long lost friend. “Gary!” Grecia shouts and introduces me to her co-worker, Nick.

Permits bought, ten soles each, birding we go. Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis are on the fence, Black Vultures Coragyps atratus are atop every palmtree with more flying overhead. West Peruvian Doves Zenaida meloda are cooing whilst sitting on telegraph wires as skeins of Neotropic Cormorants Phalacrocorax brasilianus fly towards the northern lagoons. Franklin's Gulls Leucophaeus pipixcan seem to be everywhere in the sky with a huge chimney of hundreds of them riding a thermal.
Mani and I cross the road and enter the northern area through high metal gates, passing the four bins for rubbish and recycling. The pathway towards the largest of the lagoons is squashy, made of cut reeds and dragonflies of three species are common, as are a skipper-like butterfly.


Two Harris Hawks Parabuteo unicinctus take off from their palmtree perches and head off over the road towards large reedbeds. Blue & White swallows Pygochelidon cyanoleuca are hawking the insects. Eared Doves Zenaida auriculata are in the only substantial tree adjacent to the path. Crossing over bridges, we look into the shallow water of narrow dykes and see lots of fish. Two small stripey fish are beautiful and small long-tailed fish are feeding on algae on floating sticks. Larger fish appear including one around twenty five centimetres long with broad horizontal stripes, some sort of perch species.

We reach the lagoon and watch as Great Grebes Podiceps major dive to catch fish. Superb grebes with tall, elegant necks and smooth gliding action over the water followed by a gentle submergence. Scanning around brings a variety of egrets; both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night Herons
Nyctanassa violacea and Nycticorax nycticorax, Great and Snowy Egrets Ardea alba and Egretta thula, Striated Heron Butorides striata and a lone Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis. Past experience tells me there will be a lot more later at roost time. Moorhens. as I know them, or Common Gallinules Gallinula galeata, those ubiquitous rails with their around the globe distribution, are present in numbers and there are a few Cinnamon Teal Spatula cyanoptera. Out on the water there are a couple of Grey-hooded Gulls Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus with a larger party of bathing Franklin's Gulls. A Many-coloured Rush Tyrant
Tachuris rubrigastra flies past but lands out of sight amongst the tall reeds. Nine colours or ten, a spectacular small bird that is so difficult to photograph. Now do I call the next bird species seen Andean Coot or Slate-coloured Coot Fulica ardesiaca? I prefer the former but most lists name it as the latter. No matter, down onto the list it goes.

A walk around the lagoon via the long pathway ends with a tall observation tower of very sturdy construction. It is near to the busy dual carriageway but the reserve is inaccessible here unless one wants to wade through a deep and wide dyke.
From the tower's platform, how I wish there were seats, we look over the reedbeds and lagoon and see hundreds of Neotropic Cormorants on islands of cleared reed. A single Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi is walking along one of the island's edges. Way over at the back of the lagoon a couple of Ruddy Ducks Oxyura jamaicensis are easy to see, despite the distance, as the male's bright blue bill shines out in the strong sunlight. A couple of Belcher's Gulls Larus belcheri fly over.A heron strides across one of the furthest islands and I write down Coqui. Reflect, check . . . no it isn't but what is a Black-crowned Night Heron doing out in the open in broad daylight? My mistake.
Back the reception area, we pass it and follow a circular path around a mostly hidden lagoon where one can take a motorised boat ride. I can't. Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps adults are feeding two youngsters small fish and a Wren-like Rushbird Phleocryptes melanops reveals itself briefly. 

On crossing a small bridge, where a dyke is almost filled by verdant green water plants, we can see a nearby Great Egret wading and Mani spots a Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius. As we both photograph it a Plumbeous Rail Pardirallus sanguinolentus flies out and is soon lost amongst the taller reeds. I see another one a little bit later as it to quickly scuttles into the deeper recesses.
Back to the road, Mani and I chat as we head for the sea. Vermilion Flycatchers Pyrocephalus rubinus of differing ages and plumages are in the trees by houses we pass and two American Kestrels Falco sparverius seem to be unconcerned as we pass near to where they perch. Back in Britain I would wait to count Rock Dove Columba livia until I had seen true birds on Outer Hebridean islands of West Scotland. Here I am not so fussy and write down the name onto the growing Green Birding list. A few Groove-billed Anis Crotophaga sulcirostris are in hiding in thick bushes beside the road.
What on earth is that?! A brilliant green, yellow and blue bird of some size is a bush then a shrubby tree. What is a Green Jay Cyanocorax yncas doing here? It must be an escaped bird. How sad to think that there is a trade in captured Green Jays. It doesn't go onto the list but is lovely to see and so unexpected.
Near to the end of the hedgerow bushes, just before the extensive sea-locked lagoon near the beach, Bananaquits Coereba flaveola and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds Chrysomus icterocephalus
are calling, singing and occasionally showing themselves.

The lagoon, my favourite area with thousands of birds. This lagoon will either have lots of American-bound waders or not. A small rocky island is covered with birds. Mainly Ruddy Turnstones Arenaria interpres, there are also Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca and Tringa flavipes, Stilt Sandpipers Calidris himantopus, American Oystercatchers Haematopus palliatus, Spotted Sandpipers and six Least Sandpipers Calidris minutilla! The waders are here. Nearer to us, on a muddy and well vegetated bank are more Lesser yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers with a Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos as well. Brilliant. Mani walks away to photograph nearby Yellow-headed Blackbirds and finds a Killdeer Charadrius vociferus. Meanwhile, on the stony island, a Common Tern Sterna hirundo lands. On a post bill structure points to the bird being a Cabot Tern Thalasseus acuflavidus.

Along the lagoon there are small headlands that triangulate out into the deeper water. These are all covered in birds; the nearer ones have hundreds of Franklin's Gulls but the further ones have around a thousand Black Skimmers Rhynchops niger. There are few more bizarre birds than a Black Skimmer. The lower mandible of the large red and black bill is a lot longer than the upper. The bill can be so heavy that the poor bird has to sometimes lie prostrate on the sand to rest it's head! With bill open, the Black Skimmer flies along a waterway dragging the lower mandible in the water. On feeling contact with a surface feeding fish the mandible snaps shut and hence a food item is taken. Seeing Skimmers skimming is an avian treat. Seeing them en masse like this is likewise a true thrill. Mani tells me that the Spanish name for them is Rayador americano, the American Streaker!

In the haze of the distant inland bank of the lagoon we see a Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea and some Black-necked Stilts Himantopus mexicanus, together with some White-cheeked Pintails Anas bahamensis. Still at the north end of the lagoon we find House Wrens Troglodytes aedon and Mani shouts as he finds a superb male Peruvian Meadowlark Sturnella bellicosa on a tall brick wall.
We walk along the beach, looking along the lagoon's closest edges and see a small group of Willets Tringa semipalmata just as a flock of twenty eight Hudsonian Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus fly over. Out at sea it is a huge surprise to see practically nothing. The usual massed ranks of boobies, cormorants and pelicans aren't to be seen and it takes some time to see even the common seabirds. Eventually though Peruvian Boobies Sula variegata, Inca Terns Larosterna inca, Peruvian Pelicans Pelecanus thagus, Guanay Cormorants Phalacrocorax bougainvillii and Royal terns Thalasseus maximus are added. Last year, with Jason Oliver, we estimated the Guanay Cormorant flock to be around 50,000! Today the number is less than ten. Amazing. On previous visits I have seen massed curtains of Peruvian Boobies diving in a synchronised wave into the sea but not today. Every visit is different. Part of the charm of the place, how I would love to be able to visit more regularly.
Walking the beach, Mani photographs a Snowy Egret in the sudsy surf as I watch a couple of Gray Gulls Leucophaeus modestus, another bird I have seen here in their hundreds before today. I can't complain though, the waders are here.
Up on the highest area of sandy beach I am heading to the south end of the lagoon as Mani continues to photographs birds along the tideline. Suddenly I hear a plaintive call and turn around to find an American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica quite close by sitting on some twigs and rubbish. Brilliant to see one so close and unconcerned instead of amongst a huge flock of European Golden Plover.

Going to the inland side of the lagoon, Mani and I conceal ourselves behind large reeds and get astounding views of a few Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Eyeball to eyeball with these birds is a wonderful experience as dozens of Blue & White Swallows hawk around us, picking off just a few of the millions of small flies. Masses of spiders' webs take some more of them but they hum as we walk through them.

Along the sandbank, more Mul
ti-coloured Rush Tyrants show themselves and the views towards the favellas is incredible. Over a wooden bridge and along a stream, we pass two waders that allow great comparison between the two closely related species, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs.

Heading for an area where in the past there have been a number of bird-filled shallow scrapes and pools, Mani and I find it mostly dry except for a small amount of marshy mud. This has birds, not many but amongst the Lesser Yellowlegs is a Pectoral Sandpiper and a couple of Semi-palmated Sandpipers Calidris pusilla. Three Peruvian Meadowlarks are here too as well as a Striated Heron and Little Blue Heron. Fascinating to watch numbers of Blue & White Swallows coming down to take a drink from the stream.
Back to the road with time approaching five p.m. Mani and I search for and find a Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia almost totally concealed in long grass. Two Scrub Blackbirds Dives warczewiczi are noisily calling and the American Kestrels are still on the same palmtree.

At the visitor's reception two guinea pig-like animals scuttle across the path and it is time for Mani to leave for Lima. It has been a truly magnificent birding day and having Mani share all the wonderful moments has been terrific. Mani leaves in a car. I start to walk for my overnight hotel in Chorillos. Walking along the very busy dual-carriageway towards Chorillos I count the Cattle Egrets coming into roost. I count around 650 before I have passed the roost site. Crossing the road to view a couple of very dirty pools, there are more Franklin's Gulls, Coots, Neotropic Cormorants, Black-necked Stilts and Lesser Yellowlegs and another Plumbeous Rail is out in the open. By the time I get my camera out of my rucksack it has gone.

Later, in my hotel room, I open my notebook and see the number 64. Sixty four bird species on day one, I feel content that this is a reasonable start.

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