Manu Birds and Bird Watching
Article written by Barry Walker, owner of Manu Expeditions and ornithologist guide for Adventure Specialists (www.gorp.com/adventur/).
Peru's Manu Biosphere Reserve has the highest concentration of bird life on Earth. At the time of writing approximately, 925 species have been recorded. Ornithologists expect this figure to break the 1000 mark in the near future as remoter areas of the reserve are explored. There are a little under 9000 species of birds in the world, meaning Manu holds one in every nine species found on the planet. No other protected area on Earth contains so many birds.
The Biosphere Reserve encompasses a great variety of altitudinal zones and habitat types. Altitudes vary from over 4000 meters above sea level in the high Andes down to 350 meters in the lowland Amazonian rain forest. For every 1000 meters gained or lost, the structure of the bird communities differs. This altitudinal variation, coupled with the variety of forest types, grasslands, lakes, and micro-habitats such as bamboo stands, reed-beds, and treefalls, has produced the highest bird count for any area in the world.
Manu is a birdwatchers paradise and many eco-tourists visit the reserve specifically to watch birds. On a two to three week birding trip to Manu, from the highlands to the lowlands, birdwatchers regularly record 450- 500 species, a staggering number.
The high grasslands at Ajcanacu pass hold high altitude Tinamous, Canasteros and Sierra-finches. This life zone is one of the least ornithologically explored areas of Manu. We expect several new species for the Manu Reserve to be added in this zone in the near future. At this altitude of nearly 4000 meters, a stunted forest, known as elfin forest, hosts several Tanagers, Flowerpiercers and a Thistletail found nowhere else in the reserve. Below the elfin forest and high grasslands, at approximately 3400 - 2500 meters is the humid temperate forest, characterized by tree-ferns and chusquea bamboo stands. Birds such as the Gray-breasted Mountain-toucan, Swallow-tailed Nightjar, Mountain Cacique, Barred Fruiteater and Collared Jay are typical.
Below 2500 meters, down to 1500 meters is the humid subtropical forest. This is the home of one of Manu's most well known and spectacular birds, the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. A visit to a lek (traditional display site) is a must as up to 20 brightly colored males sing and display in an attempt to attract the seemingly indifferent females. Here are Quetzals, Toucanets, and a wide variety of Tanagers, Flycatchers and Wrens. A morning's birdwatching here can be a fantastic experience as large flocks containing several dozen species of birds move through the cloud forest, some sally-gleaning, some probing crevices, others climbing tree trunks or limbs. Below here and between 1500 and 900 meters is the humid upper tropical forest where some of the difficult-to-see birds of Manu exist.
The forest at this altitude is under much pressure in the rest of South America due to cutting for the growing of tea, coffee and coca. In Manu, it remains intact. Here mixed-species flocks may contain Orange-fronted Plushcrown, Versicolored Barbet, Chestnut-breasted Wren, Cerulean-capped Manakin, Peruvian Piedtail and scores of Flycatchers, Woodcreepers, Tanagers and Flowerpiecers.
Leaving the Andes behind with it's rushing streams and montane forest, the visitor to Manu suddenly finds flat humid tropical forest, the Amazon Basin proper. Here, the Manu River is characterized by a meandering, slow flowing watercourse with white sand beaches exposed during the dry season from June to October. These beaches provide valuable nesting habitat and are loaded with nesting and visiting birds. Unlike many other river systems in the Amazon, birds breed here unmolested. Hundreds of Black Skimmers, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Orinoco Geese, Pied Lapwings, Collared Plovers and Sand-colored Nightjars nest along the Manu. These beaches are also used by Jabiru and American Wood-storks, Roseate Spoonbills, a variety of Egrets and Herons and in late July and August, many migrating shorebirds from North America on their way to points further south.
The slow flowing river forms high banks on outside river bends where, hundreds of Macaws, Parrots and their smaller relatives, congregate to eat clay essential to digestion. The spectacle of hundreds of Macaws, the worlds largest members of the Parrot family, screaming , wheeling overhead and settling on the clay lick is surely one of the worlds great wildlife shows, worth a trip to Manu on it's own!
Macaws are still common and seven species occur in the forests of Manu, unlike many other areas where Macaw populations have been severly depleated due to deforestation, hunting and collection for the pet trade. The meandering Manu has created many ox-bow lakes in various stages of development, from recently formed to very old, overgrown lakes with almost no water. This is a microhabitat characterized by birds such as Sungrebe, Sunbittern, Wattled Jacana, Muscovy Duck, Rufous-sided Crake, Pale-eyed Blackbird, Anhinga, Agami and Boat-billed Herons, Silvered Antbirds, Streaked Antwrens, Red-capped Cardinals and the strange prehistoric looking Hoatzin.
The forests of the Manu drainage vary from varzea forest and transitional floodplain forest to tierra firme forest. These pristine lowland forests hold over 500 species alone and present some of the most tricky but exciting birdwatching in the world. A good ear is essential as many species are only located when the song or call note is recognised.
Many birds live only in the canopy of the forest and are difficult to see, others only in the middle and understory and others yet are terrestrial. Some specialize in creeping up trees and probing for insects, others sally out to catch flying insects or turn over leaf litter in search of anthropods or fallen seeds and fruits. Forest-falcons and other winged predators lurk in vine tangles ready to snatch a small bird out of a mixed species flock! Large bamboo stands occur as microhabitats within these forest types and hold some of the rarest and most sought after birds such as the Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Manu Antbird, White-cheeked Tody-flycatcher, Peruvian Recurvebill, and Long-crested pygmy-tyrant.
Recently formed islands hold willow loving species such as the Orange-headed Tanager and River Tyrannulet. Here in the forests of Manu, many species of birds flock together as a defense against predators - more eyes to keep watch. These mixed-feeding flocks are divided into two main types, canopy flocks and mid-story flocks. When the two types of flock join together as they often do for short periods, up to 70 species of bird may be present at one time!
In short, the Manu Biosphere Reserve is home to some of the most important and varied birdlife found anywhere and indeed certain species, such as Black-faced Cotinga and Rufous-fronted Antthrush can be seen with certainty only here. Truly a paradise for the birdwatcher and for the birds a very important protected area indeed!
Copyright Barry Walker Manu Expeditions, Peru 2000
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