Day 57: The White Sands of Iquitos

Birding specialities in a little-known jungle habitat.

February 26, 2015, Iquitos, Peru — Gunnar, Glenn and I were up early this morning to meet Francisco in Iquitos. The four of us took two mototaxis and then a regular taxi to a patch of white-sand forest about a half hour outside town, and walked into the trees just before dawn.

This piece of forest was the main reason for my 24-hour side trip to northeast Peru. Tropical white-sand forest is markedly different than other, nearby forest types. Because the soil is poor (literally white sand, though mostly covered by leaf litter), the trees are skinny and stunted; botanists have aged two-inch-wide trees here to be a hundred years old. The canopy is relatively short, and the forest is dense. And with a unique habitat comes a unique set of birds—there are about 25 birds in the white-sand forest patches of northeast Peru that are found practically nowhere else.

It’s not easy to see them, though. Francisco, armed with a GPS, led the way into the forest on a narrow machete trail, climbing logs and fording streams, while Gunnar, Glenn and I followed behind. Francisco is working on a thesis about the gradation of bird species in this white-sand forest and in nearby terra firme (“normal” rainforest), and he had saved GPS points for detections of interesting species. We followed a maze of machete tracks to get from point to point, sometimes doubling back when the route petered out entirely. Gradually, we found some of the good specialties: Ancient Antwren, Zimmer’s Antbird, Mishana Tyrannulet, Citron-bellied Attila, Gray-legged Tinamou…some of which weren’t even described as species until the 1990s. As habitats go, tropical white-sand forests have only recently been appreciated for their unique characteristics.

Bird activity shut down around 10:00 a.m., and the four of us picked our way out to the highway and flagged down a bus to return to Iquitos. Francisco bid us farewell, and Gunnar, Glenn and I headed to the airport for a quick flight down to Lima, where we are spending tonight before continuing to Cusco in the morning (I will have one more week in southeast Peru before continuing to Ecuador). We arrived in Lima with a couple hours of daylight and spent the late afternoon birding by taxi, adding another half dozen new birds (Surf Cinclodes, Peruvian Sheartail, Hudsonian Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper, Surfbird, and Inca Tern) before sunset.

New birds today: 26

Year list: 1347

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