Sunday, November 16, 2014

Day 3 in SE Peru: From High to Mid-Elevations

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Today Susanne and moved from our lodging at about 9600 feet elevation down to the mid-elevation community of San Pedro at about 4500 feet. The total distance is only 22 miles, but we took most of the day, walking many stretches of road for up to a mile at a time, looking for flocks of birds and seeing many other cool things. It’s quite amazing to see how the habitat changes, and that there are only a tiny handful of species one could possibly see in both locations.

This Violet-throated Starfrontlet perched briefly just below the tunnels only a couple kilometers below Wayqecha Biological Station, but with taller trees we were already in a different habitat.

This is an Amethyst-throated Sunangel, and he perched for quite some time, allowing me to actually get the gorget iridescence.

One stretch of the road had several of these Gunnera species. This is a distinctive genus, somewhat resembling rhubarb with its huge, round leaves, and I see an even larger species on my Costa Rica tours. There are over 60 species worldwide, but all are only variations on a theme, and while they are related to other advanced flowering plants, oddly the only close relatives are a couple of species of plants found in drier habitats in Madagascar and southern Africa.

As we dropped in elevation below the settlement of Pillahuata, we saw our first of four Golden-headed Quetzals. Where were they when I was here with the butterflies & birds tour?

Likewise with this butterfly: White-banded Lyman, Lymanopoda albocincta; we had five species of this genus last month, but not this one.

We did have one of these, a Star-dusted Lyman, Lymanopoda obsoleta.

This is Staudinger’s Ringlet Manerebia staudingeri and Rustic Lyman, Lymanopoda rustica – another one our group missed last month.

Oh my gosh, yet another lep we didn’t see on the tour with nearly 500 species: Mimardaris lomax, the Lomax Firetip.

This is another Peruvian lily relative, Bomarea edulis. I haven’t yet learned what’s edible about it.

We were still pretty high in elevation when I saw a bird flit out from under the vegetation overhanging the bank to the right of center.

Then I heard it, and then with playback we got eventually got great views of this Inca Flycatcher, a Peruvian endemic that occurs at a limited elevation from close to the Ecuadorian border in the north to near the Bolivian border in the south.

Curious about where I had seen this bird fly from, I took a closer look (photo by Susanne).

Sure enough, there was the nest of the Inca Flycatcher, though there were no eggs yet. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds website, the nest and eggs of this species are still undescribed. It’s a fun discovery, but I don’t really welcome the work that entails describing a new nest. Where’s Harold Greeney when you need him?

A little further down, we saw this Greenish Puffleg, in the same area where a month ago my tour group had seen two. It’s a rarely observed species in this region, so I was very glad to have gotten at least a blurry photo that seems to clearly rule out any other species. The leg puffs are frequently hard to see on this bird, and only with my recent close observations in northern Peru have I become confident in identifying this little-known species (which is otherwise unidentifiable if you’re only relying upon the limited illustrations in the Birds of Peru field guide).

This Andean Solitaire seemed to be more concerned with another bird singing nearby and postured on this branch for several minutes, vocalizing off and on, until a truck drove by.

Hummingbirds are clearly one of the dominant groups of birds in this habitat. This Long-tailed Sylph sat just barely long enough for me to get a shot.

This Booted Racket-tail wasn’t quite so cooperative, but at least you can see what it is. Note the rufous booties and the way the long tail feathers cross – if you’ve seen the birds in NW Ecuador that are also called this species (with their white booties and tail feathers crossing in the opposite direction), you’ll understand why splitting them is not a radical addition to the world list but merely correcting a stupid error by whomever created the initial master list for the region.

This is a flower in the genus Marcgravia, family Marcgraviaceae. Birders are more familiar with the genus Souroubea, with the bright red bracts below the long flower spikes bearing the nectaries that attract so many birds. This genus is much less known, despite being the type for the family. Georg Marcgrave was a 17th century naturalist who was one of the first to describe the natural history of South America. 

My 50x Canon camera barely captured this metalmark Ithomiola tanos. It turns out that there are a couple specimen records from here, but it’s otherwise virtually unknown in life.

Our last stop of the day was the Mirador, looking down the Kosñipata Valley. Our lodge for the next night is on a tall bank above the left side of the river, right at the sharp line between shade and sun in the upper center of the photo. It doesn’t look that far from here, but it is actually a slow 3.7 miles and 20 minutes’ drive from here, past many unbelievably juicy mixed flocks and rare cloud forest birds.

Just before we pulled into the driveway of our lodge, this Andean Motmot flew in front of our vehicle and perched on the power line just outside my window.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Day 2 in SE Peru: the Wonders of Wayqecha

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This is the second blog in a series from my recent private tour to SE Peru, starting with this post.

As our first full day in the field, including a long morning and an additional short afternoon on the trails, this will be a very photo-heavy blog. We were at Wayqecha Biological Station, a wonderful place to stay at about 9800 feet (3000 m) elevation.

This morning Susanne and I decided to walk one of the longer and more difficult trails, something I don’t get to do when leader larger birding groups here. So after breakfast we set off down the Picaflor Trail, which heads quite steeply down the slopes below the lodge, and intended on catching the Oso Trail which ends at the Esperanza station where the researchers stay. We were soon surprised by a flock of about 20 twittering Andean Parakeets that flushed from some fruiting bushes and perched in the treetops. I’ve rarely had a chance to see them so well.

This Masked Flowerpiercer is a very common bird in the rather stunted woodland that grows on the poor soils of this particular slope.

The Scarlet-breasted Mountain-Tanager is also one of the most common species here, usually in flocks and sometimes just in pairs, but they are found in almost any type of high-elevation forest.

Much more limited to the scrubbier habitat is the Rufous-capped Thornbill, but it’s still a common hummingbird in this area; I’m not sure there are many other places where it so easily seen, though it is still outnumbered by the abundant Tyrian Metaltail and Shining Sunbeam.

This terrestrial orchid, Epidendrum secundum, is commonly seen on these sunnier slopes.

After many steep switchbacks and numerous stops for birds and plants, it became clear that we weren’t going to have time to hike the entire Oso Trail, so we turned back and followed the much easier Zorro Trail, eventually entering a taller, moister forest and still ending up at Esperanza. Here we found many mushrooms, which Susanne was so hoping to see. I didn’t take many pictures of them (just wait…), but I did find this tiny Favolaschia-like species quite adorable. The honeycomb-like structure to the underside, where many mushrooms have gills (the hymenium), was not something I’ve noticed before – but then I’ve only rarely turned over mushrooms.

More intriguing were these apparent fungal balls growing on Chusquea bamboo stalks. Even Susanne had no idea what it was.

The plant life in this much moister environment was fabulous. This single stalk of what I think was a true moss was nearly a foot tall (those are centimeters on the ruler).

The varieties of lichens seemed endless, many of them quite lush and beautiful.

I’ve read that over 200 species of orchids are known from here, but we saw “only“ perhaps about 10-15. This one is Neodryas rhodoneura.

Another very showy one is this Odontoglossum lasserum.

Some have really tiny and relatively uninteresting flowers but fascinating plant forms, such as this Pachyphyllum species.

Some have tiny yet still exquisite flowers. This may also be a Pachyphyllum.

This tiny green orchid is possibly in the genus Stelis.

We saw several birds that prefer this taller forest, including this Masked Trogon that was nesting in a cavity only waist-high, right next to the trail. I had walked right past it, noticing only the trail cam opposite it. Then it suddenly burst out of the tree cavity right between Susanne and me, eliciting a yelp of surprise from her.

In trying to attract a mixed flock of tanagers, warblers, and tyrannulets, I whistled like a Yungas Pygmy-Owl, and soon I had attracted the genuine article.

We frequently heard the distinctive sound of what I call the Acjanaco Andes-Frog (Psychrophrynella usurpator), but I’ve still never seen one.

So when I saw this frog hopping on the trail, I thought I might have one. But thanks to photo sheets published by the Field Museum I was able to identify this tiny thing as Pristimantis pharangobates. Perhaps it’s the other frog sound we heard, the occasional single click.

This is a weevil, probably a broad-nosed weevil in the subfamily Entiminae.

This is a leaf beetle, family Chrysomelidae.

This lovely, golden scarab looks surprisingly similar to a North American beetle in the genus Cotalpa but is probably something quite different, perhaps Platycoelia.

Cicadas are more typical of the warmer low elevations, but there are some up here too, though I’ve rarely seen them and hear them only when its sunny. This one was caught by a strand of spider web not far up a tree, so I was able to grab it for inspection. Its much furrier body and stouter, more compact shape than lowland species (less surface area for its size) are clearly both adaptations to the cool, moist environment.

It was sunny almost all day, rare at this location, especially since we should be well into the start of the rainy season, when afternoon cloud buildup and rain should be a daily thing. The most unusual lepidopteran we saw was this skipper, whose true identity is still unknown; there are very few skippers at this elevation, where the convergence of sunny skies and the presence of lepidopterists is an exceptionally rare event.

This satyr is a Pale Lyman, Lymanopoda eubagioides. This one breaks the thermoregulation rule of most high-elevation butterflies, which are dark brown to even black in order to absorb solar radiation more effectively.

This is a more typically colored satyr. It was discovered here only relatively recently and is still known only as Eretris sp. nov.

This Blue Jewel, Perisama philinus, is one of many in the genus that have an underside that bears no resemblance to the top. When it’s sunny, it opens its wings to get warm.

Flitting in the shady edges above the sunny roadside after we had reached end of the trail, this moth in the genus Erateina looks deceptively like a butterfly.

This gorgeous caterpillar was sitting still on a leaf in the forest understory; it’s certainly a moth, but I’d have no idea what family to start with.

Of course, I can barely help myself when it comes to the amazing blooming plants here. This Tibouchina species was irresistible, though it pales in comparison to the ones I’ll see on my SE Brazil tour nextNovember.

This shrub Bejaria aestuans was a new ID for me (thanks again to Field Museum photo sheets), though I had seen it before; it’s a rather atypical member of the family Ericaceae, most of which have fused petals in bell-shaped flowers.

In the late afternoon we hiked the trail to the hanging bridges in the gorgeous cloud forest. Here I am looking down on one of the many species of tree fern in the region.

Looking up from the same vantage point, one sees a distant hillside of puna grassland glowing in the afternoon sun.

Then after dark there’s always the moth show at the lights – better when there is some overcast or fog and a new moon. It was mostly clear with a waxing moon, but I still saw a few nice things.

Two noctuids:

Two epiplemids:

And a handsome tiger moth I hadn’t seen before (family Erebidae but in the distinctive subfamily Arctiinae):

There were also some large beetles attracted to the lights. This rhinoceros beetle is not such a straightforward ID as it would first seem; tribe Oryctini is about as close as I can get for now.

This amazing thing is a female stag beetle (family Lucanidae), Sphaenognathus giganteus. Thanks to my friend Margarethe Brummermann who knew the species.

Yes, Wayqecha is a wonderful location. My blog doesn’t even come close to showing you what it’s like to be there, but this video from the non-profit that owns it gives you a better feel for it.