Abra Patricia, Peru: June 26-27, 2009

A new private reserve cum birding lodge strategically located near several of northern Peru's endemic bird areas, Abra Patricia is one of the most important and desirable birding sites in South America, offering unparalleled access to subtropical, montane, and ridgetop forest in the northeastern Peruvian Andes. Located near the highest point of one of Peru's most famous birding roads, the lodge serves as a multi-day base for birding groups in northern Peru that roam the area in search of fabulous endemic species, several of which the reserve itself boasts, including, most famously, the Long-Whiskered Owlet. Independent birders with deep pockets are also welcome, and Aimee and I spent two productive days in Abra Patricia itself, birding the new trails as well as the upper part of the road.

Typically birders in northern Peru have their own transport, as deforestation in the region has been pretty extreme and good habitat is usually difficult and time-consuming to reach. Given that I was merely tagging along while Aimee researched the area for a chapter in the new edition of Lonely Planet Peru, birding where and when I could, we covered much of this hallowed birding circuit using a series of cheap, inefficient, and sometimes dangerous modes of transport, including local buses, shared taxis, and even motorcycles. This meant that we had no meaningful opportunity to bird the forested road connecting Abra Patricia with Moyobamba, a small city in the foothills, as we ascended to the reserve in one long day from Tarapoto. Speeding past kilometers of gorgeous subtropical forest in a shared taxi with the stereo blasting was a real bummer, especially when we passed by the unique stunted cloud forest at a slightly higher altitude. Next time, I kept telling myself.

Lodging at the reserve is comfortable, if a little cold, and the service and food are outstanding. Several enthusiastic guides are available to accompany birders, although you're free to roam the trails yourself, and they're quite forthcoming with information about bird territories and stake outs. I spent much of my visit on the two principal trails, the Grallaria and Monkey Trails, but also birded the road from a few different lookouts. Of course, the grounds of the lodge make for great birding as well; I chased several mixed flocks around the various paths as the birds moved quickly but openly about the regenerating montane woodland. There are several hummingbird feeder stations as well, but the most exciting addition is that of an observation tower currently under construction. When it's complete at several stories high, birders should have unobstructed access to the dense montane forest canopy, weather permitting of course.

We found out quickly that weather is a critical issue at Abra Patricia, as it rained on and off for most of the first day, pouring especially hard mid-afternoon. We encountered some good birds just after dawn on the Monkey Trail though, including the Long-Tailed Antbird, Black-Throated Tody-Tyrant, Variable Antshrike, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch, and Golden-Browed Chat-Tyrant. Supposedly, this trail passes through the territory of a White-Faced Nunbird, and the WINGS birding group that was there had had great views the previous day using playback (I opted not to bring any audio equipment on this trip). Overhearing them review their list the night before, I judged the nunbird to have been by far their best bird of the day.

Next on the Grallaria Trail, I pulled up short at a fruiting tree off in the distance, noting some movement inside the crown. As I watched a group of White-Eared Solitaires forage actively in the branches, several other species dropped by, including the Green-and-Black Fruiteater and Emerald Toucanet. My heart practically stopped when the unmistakable Chestnut-Crested Cotinga flew into the tree from right nearby, flashing its absurdly rufous throat and neck in the sun. This large, stunning, arboreal cotinga is rare and very local, known only from a few sites in Ecuador, where I've always missed it. The bird foraged for a minute or so, flew off, and then came back for about another minute. Camera in hand, I must have waited for it for several hours to return to the same tree during the course of the next two days, but it never did.

Before lunch we waited out a rain squall in a shelter near the parking lot while a mixed flock circled about, including the ubiquitous Blue-Capped Tanager, the lovely Yellow-Throated Tanager, and the endemic Yellow-Scarfed Tanager. Abra Patricia is probably the easiest site to observe this fine endemic tanager, as well as the endemic Lulu's Tody-Tyrant and Ochre-Fronted Antpitta, both of which we would pick up on the following morning. After lunch, I spent some time at the hummingbird feeders while Aimee took a break; eight species were in attendance, most spectacularly the Emerald-Bellied Puffleg, which I've yet to encounter in Ecuador, where it is quite rare. Long-Tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, and White-Bellied Woodstar were also abundant at the feeders.

The weather cleared in the late afternoon, and I birded the road a bit where one of the guides had seen a large mono-specific flock of Red-Hooded Tanagers that morning. I spent a half hour with a mixed flock containing the Yellow-Throated Tanager, which I tried to enjoy for as long as possible knowing how difficult it is in Ecuador. Aimee came down to join me before dusk as we watched a group of Sickle-Winged Guans come to roost in a large tree near the road. That night the WINGS group tried for the Long-Whiskered Owlet, as I'm sure everyone does who visits the reserve; they dipped on it, as well as on the Cinnamon-Throated Screech-Owl early next morning, probably due to the rainy weather. Without audio equipment or even a spotlight, it was pointless for me to try for owls myself.

On the other hand, Aimee and I had excellent luck the next morning, enjoying a pair of Lulu's Tody-Tyrants foraging in the roadside scrub before locating a pair of Ochre-Fronted Antpittas at the stake out on the other side of the road near the entrance to the reserve. This endemic grallaricula species has distinct black-streaked underparts, easily observed in the field, and an ochre-colored face, which was a little difficult to distinguish from below in the poor light. Like all tiny antpittas, the birds were located up in the undergrowth several meters off the ground, and we heard one make its distinct high-pitched call a few times. I have to admit that we were pretty lucky to see them without using playback, but sometimes a lot of patience and a little local knowledge will do the trick. For me now, that's four grallaricula species down and four to go.

With a handful of endemics and a slew of good birds seen in just a day and a half, Aimee and I decided to cut our stay short at the reserve and move on in search of the Marvelous Spatuletail. Before leaving, we encountered recently arrived Rudy Gelis and his birding group in the dining hall. The owner of Pluma Verde Tours, Rudy is an exuberant ornithologist based in northeastern Ecuador at Yanayacu Reserve, and we've played basketball against each other several times in Quito (he's extremely tall and skillful). He'd been on the road for over a month with six clients and they'd been cleaning up in the region, having seen over 500 species already. We swapped information about the Ochre-Fronted Antpitta and Marvelous Spatuletail, which they had seen the previous day, and then were on our way.

Notable birds seen: Sickle-Winged Guan, Emerald-Bellied Puffleg, Long-Tailed Sylph, Bronzy Inca, Green Violetear, Emerald Toucanet, Strong-Billed Woodcreeper, Pearled Treerunner, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Long-Tailed Antbird, Ochre-Fronted Antpitta, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Chestnut-Crested Cotinga, Lulu's Tody-Tyrant, Black-Throated Tody-Tyrant, Golden-Browed Chat-Tyrant, Pale-Edged Flycatcher, Streak-Necked Flycatcher, White-Eared Solitaire, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Bluish Flowerpiercer, Grass-Green Tanager, Yellow-Throated Tanager, Yellow-Scarfed Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Silver-Backed Tanager, Olivaceous Siskin.

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