In Search of the Marvelous Spatuletail: June 28-30, 2009

Easily the world's most fanciful hummingbird, the Marvelous Spatuletail must be the top target bird in northern Peru, and birding tours in this region sell out regularly by headlining the shockingly baroque adult male. Unfortunately, adult males can be maddeningly difficult to see because of a variety of factors, including the species' limited range, habitat loss, and an apparently low male to female ratio at hummingbird feeders. Still, with a few day's time and plenty of patience, it's almost a sure thing to see this incredible bird for yourself, bobbing and swaying extravagantly, as if it were three birds instead of one. Despite her busy research schedule, Aimee and I were able to fit in short visits to three sites in which the Marvelous Spatuletail is frequently seen, giving us a decent chance of at least witnessing an adult male.

The most obvious of the three sites is the Marvelous Spatuletail Interpretive Center, which is located about ten minutes by mototaxi from the modest town of Florida on the shores of Lake Pomacochas. Sponsored by a slew of international conservation organizations, the center boasts a modest patch of montane scrub and woodland, an informative museum, and a vast network of hummingbird feeders, only a few of which are visited sporadically by the Marvelous Spatuletail. Most impressive though is the recent but extensive reforestation effort in which tens of thousands of trees have been planted on site in the hopes of expanding the habitat within the property of the reserve. Birders should find accommodation in the town of Florida to be extremely comfortable in comparison with most of northern Peru, as Puerto Pumas, a relatively posh hotel, provides excellent rooms and service as well as decent birding in the bountiful gardens.

After arriving at Puerto Pumas in the mid-afternoon, Aimee and I rushed out to the Interpretive Center in hopes of landing our target bird of the trip. We spent the last few hours of the day obsessing around a particular group of feeders that the manager claimed was the most likely to bear the famous hummingbird. Activity was disappointingly low, although several female Marvelous Spatuletails showed briefly before being chased away by aggressive Sparkling Violetears and Chestnut-Breasted Coronets. Before leaving the site, Aimee chatted with the manager, collecting information for the new LP guide while I pouted near the reforested area, where the feeders were abuzz with common high Andean hummingbirds. Dipping on the bird here shouldn't have come as a surprise as Rudy and his group had waited three hours for one measly glimpse of an adult male.

Fortunately, we had a lead on another site nearby for tomorrow morning. One of the managers at the interpretive center, Santos Montenegro, has some property on a hill overlooking Lake Pomacochas with a reliable lek on site. Although he's pretty difficult to track down as there is no cell phone coverage in the area, the manager at Puerto Pumas was familiar with the site and assured us that an early morning visit wouldn't be a problem, even if Santos wasn't there. Sure enough, we showed up before dawn at his house the next morning, and his young daughter led us up the hill towards the lek. Passing through some open fields and woodland, we then arrived at sunrise in an unassuming, scrubby open area. After we had stood around expectantly for a while, the girl finally pointed out the clump of stunted trees where two adult male Marvelous Spatuletails were seen displaying.

Before you get the wrong idea, I need to remind you that these are lightening-fast hummingbirds, not stolid cotingas, and the viewing conditions at the lek were difficult as the birds zipped in and out of deep cover, chasing each other off every few seconds. In fact, Aimee didn't get much of a look at the two males at all as she was still winded from our rapid ascent to the site. I quickly gave up any hope myself of capturing a passable photograph of the birds, and had to be content with binocular-less views of the two males sparring in the air or recovering deep within the shrubby tree. Still, the sight was awesome, and after a few partial looks I was able to put the pieces together to form a coherent picture of the male: glittering green gorget, bright blue front, bold black ventral stripe over a white belly, and the incredibly long, plastic tails feathers, the two ending in purple-sheened spatulas almost as big as the bird itself. Here's Greg Homel's incredible video of the males displaying at the same site, which will take any birder's breath away.

Since Aimee never really locked onto the birds like I was fortunate enough to, I tried not to play up the event too much, hoping instead that we'd get a chance to wax eloquent about them together at the third known site in the Utcumbamba Valley. The town of Leymebamba is famous not for its hummingbirds, but for the neighboring museum which houses over two hundred mummies found nearby at the Lake of the Condors. Just across the road from the museum is Kentikafe, a new hostal and café set amidst good montane scrub and woodland habitat. Two dozen hummingbird feeders attract a number of fine birds, including the Purple-Throated Sunangel, Rainbow Starfrontlet, and of course the Marvelous Spatuletail. After an interesting visit to the museum, we hung around the gardens of the café for several hours, enjoying at dusk amazing views of two adult males visiting a pair of feeders just a few meters away. Again the low light, and my hesitancy to use flash, prohibited meaningful photography, but Aimee and I still had unbeatable views as the males spun their tails overhead and side to side as they approached the feeders. Visitors to the area will soon be able to stay in lovely rooms at Kentikafe, which is a no-brainer in comparison to the accommodation available in town.

Finally, while you're on the trail of the Marvelous Spatuletail, you would be remiss to skip a visit to Kuelap, an up-and-coming archaeological site often celebrated as the next Machu Pichu. These massive, mysterious ruins are set atop a spectacular ridge outside of Chachapoyas, which is a sizable tourist hub and an attractive colonial city in its own right. Now overgrown with bromeliad-laden trees, the walled city merits a full day to explore and mull over the various hypotheses about its ancient use and construction. Who knows? There's a remote chance you might even encounter the hummingbird here among the ruins.


Gunnar Engblom said...

Hi Derek

Checking out your blog. Interesting you are saying that there will be lodging available at KentiKafe. I was there a couple of weeks before you and asked about lodging, but apparantly then that was unheard of. That would be great if it becomes reality.

Also, great to read that you visited Santos site. We raised the money for Santos to buy this. The idea is to form a small reserve with his neighbours and make a visitor center here as well with feeders.
Hope you supported with a donation!

Un abrazo


Derek Kverno said...

Thanks for the message, Gunnar. I love checking out your various websites about bird in Peru, by the way. They're outstanding.

At KentiKafe my girlfriend chatted with the manager for a few hours while I staked out the spatuletail, and she even saw the rooms for herself, reporting that they were much better than what's currently found in Leymebamba (she covered the region for Lonely Planet this year).

Santos' site was my favorite of the three because of how the spatuletails were interacting with each other in a natural setting. You bet we left a donation!

Many thanks for your incredible work conserving bird habitat in Peru!


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