Birding Without Borders

Day 54: What Marvelous Whiskers You Have

Noah goes after a pair of bucket-listers.

February 23, 2015, Abra Patricia, Peru — There are two particular birds in northern Peru I have long wanted to see: The Marvelous Spatuletail and Long-whiskered Owlet. Both are unique, charismatic, and endemic to a very small region. Today was my shot at both! Our crew (Gunnar, Carlos, Glenn, Julio and I) continued eastward through patches of cloud forest, ending the day near a pass called Abra Patricia. 

The Marvelous Spatuletail is a tiny hummingbird with good looks and attitude, restricted to the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru. Males have a pair of extremely elongated tail feathers, each stripped to a bare shaft, which curl around and end in a round “racket.” These tail rackets seem to bob in empty space a few inches behind the hummingbird as it flies. It’s a weird effect, and one of the bird kingdom’s stranger displays of attraction (presumably, female spatuletails go crazy for males with long tails). As it turned out, the bird was easy to see. We stopped at a place called Huembo, where 10 species of hummingbirds were buzzing around a set of sugar water feeders, and it took only two minutes for the guest of honor to show up. He darted in among the larger hummingbirds without fear, and zipped around so quickly that I could barely fire off a couple of photos. At last, he sat for a minute on an open branch. Brilliant!

The Long-whiskered Owlet is even weirder: It’s one of the smallest owls in the world (about five inches tall) and occupies its own genus which, in Latin, means “strange owl.” It has big eyes and long feather plumes like lacy eyelash extensions. It was discovered in 1976 but wasn’t observed in the wild until 2007, when its monosyllabic call was first recorded; it is still known from only a few sites within a narrow altitudinal belt in northern Peru, and its population is thought to be a few hundred individuals. Not much is known about its habits. Naturally, I wanted to see it! Gunnar checked us in at a basic but wonderful accommodation at Fundo Alto Nieva, below Abra Patricia (many birders stay at the nearby fancier Owlet Lodge), and after dinner Glenn and I wandered from our room into the forest with two local guides. We heard two owls calling spontaneously, and tracked one down and spotlighted it, just a few feet above our heads! Then we had similarly great views of the other one—two Long-whiskered Owlets in one evening, and two bucket-list birds in one day! Life doesn’t get much better.

New birds today: 37

Year list: 1258

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