Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Pervuvian thick-knee
White-winged guan at Chaparri
 Northern Peru, where I was four years ago, and will return to next week, is a land of stark contrasts, from the desolate coastal dunes of the Sechura Desert and dry Tumbesian forests, to the lush cloudforests of the slopes of the Andes. Peru has a varied geography and topography, and its wildernesses of so many different life zones, have endowed Peru with the greatest biodiversity and density of birds on earth. Unlike other top-ranking Neotropical birding destinations, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, Peru has vast tracts of forest and wilderness untouched by civilization. There are areas which are completely unexplored.

Peru is a magical place for birders!  It is the number one country in the world for birds.  Its boasts more than 1,800 species, one-fifth of the world’s total, a staggering amount for a single country.
Yet, one needs a good guide to find the varied species, especially when in the jungles or mountains, as the birds tend to hide in the greenery. And after awhile they all look yellow!
Golden-Olive Woodpecker- Peru

When I was in Australia six years ago, I added over 300 species to my life list, and most I could have found myself, as they were everywhere. Imagine sitting in a friend's yard and seeing 2-3 species of parrots, cockatoos and rosellas.  In Peru the going is much harder, and even though I was in Northern Peru the same amount of time as Australia,  I found 100 less birds, and found many of these, thanks to my friend Jeremy.

No country has seen the discovery of as many birds new to science in the last few decades than Peru has, and in the late seventies and early eighties new species were described at an average rate of two per year. Since they were usually found in isolated mountain ranges and remote areas, the full scale expeditions that led to their discovery greatly increased the knowledge of South American birds in general, and more was learned about many birds that until then were only known from a few old specimens. Many of the country’s birds are still poorly known, and there are still  species of which practically nothing is known.

Redmasked parakeet

My friend Jeremy Flanagan, who has lived in the area for over 25 years has devoted his life to conservation, not only of the land, but of the birds. Sometimes it is a battle, and in the remote areas (where most of the birds live) people are more concerned with where their next meal comes from, not how to conserve. Jeremy has been working closely with his friend, the famous Peruvian wildlife photographer, Heinz Plenge, the founder of the fabulous Chaparri preserve, where we had the privilege to stay for 3 nights. Among other birds we daily were treated to the rare white-winged guans, who would perch on the fences in front of the dining area.

Jeremy (middle) with friends
While conservation is his number one priority, Jeremy knows his birds and before we hit Chaparri, we searched for the Peruvian plantcutter one of the  rarest birds in the world. It has been one of his missions to protect the plantcutter and its Peruvian habitat. Plantcutters are finicky about their diet and  are among a handful of birds known to eat leaves. Along with finches, they form part of an even smaller group of birds that can move their serrated beaks from side to side, not just up and down.

The plantcutter's precipitous decline is the result of a massive loss of its habitat which is sparse desert scrub similar to the mesquite forests of the SW United States. Jeremy and I trekked thru thorny scrub for over two hours going in circles before we found the one male. Was it worth it? Well, to add such a rare bird to a life-list is indeed worth scratches, thirst and exhaustion.

“What keeps me going is the hope that we can change things,” says Jeremy. “It's now or never for this land and this bird.”

Other than a good guide, the most important thing to have in Northern Peru, besides an appreciation for relative time and distance, is a great driver. Paved roads are a rarity, especially when in the cloudforests or traveling along the coast in  the small villages.

Donkey trail to Ayabaca
When going to my favorite place, Ayabaca (almost 10,000') the “highway” we traveled on was a rough donkey track cut along the sides of mountains, sometimes overlooking great chasms, just inches from our car's tires, with no guard rails or warning signs of any kind, except for the crosses and flowers people had put up in places where friends or relatives had gone over the edge. Yet, one goes slow and  when watching for birds, the danger seems remote!

Now, as I return to Northern Peru it is with a mission of conservation for birds and students. The University of Piura has invited me to give a presentation- that can be on-going- which may help save the campus as it exists today.  Fifty years ago, when the University was established it sat on desert land.

According to Lonely Planet:

        After several hours of crossing the vast emptiness of the Sechura Desert, Piura materializes like a mirage on the horizon, enveloped in quivering waves of heat. It’s hard to ignore the sense of physical isolation forced on you by this unforgiving environment; the self-sufficiency imposed upon early settlers may explain why they identify as Piuran rather than Peruvian. Being so far inland, the scorching summer months will have you honing your radar for air-conditioning as you seek out chilled venues in which to soothe your sweltering skin.

Desert before irrigation
Peruvian pygmy owl     

Over the years many acres have been reclaimed and irrigated from the river, to make the campus the oasis it is today.  It is unique in the area and is home to many species of birds, not usually seen in the area. They come down from the highlands to nest and live. The problem now, is the government wants to put a highway through the campus which would not only disrupt the birds, but also the lives of the students. Both Jeremy and I have already written articles (mine translated into Spanish) about the crises, but as in so many places the dollar (or sole) speaks louder than the birds! I certainly do not claim to know the politics of this foreign land, but do know there are hundreds of miles of desert where highways can be built, especially around the campus, not through it.

UDEP campus today

At present the campus is one of serenity and peace and always green. I look forward to seeing the iguanas that look like a huge dragons and love sunning on the roof of the dining hall.

We pray that a "miracle" happens in the minds and hearts of the city leaders and that students and birds alike don't lose this precious bit of green in a vast desert.

West Peruvian dove

Peruvian meadowlark

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