The last of our group of fourteen birders straggle into the clearing. We are in a gully below Owlet Lodge, located on an Andean ridge in northern Peru. Nearby is a favored perch of the recently discovered Long-whiskered Owlet. Many birders come hoping for a glimpse of the tiny bird only to be disappointed. We hope to have better luck. Our birding tour leaders, Rose Ann Rowlett and Richard Webster, know the area well. They remind us that nothing is assured.
The light rain that made the steep trail muddy and slick has mercifully stopped. Moonshine is replacing the fading daylight. The air temperature at about 7300 feet is cooling after a pleasantly warm day, but standing still for a long period of time may require several layers. I am wearing all of mine but now I worry that I am overdressed.
A huge image of the Long-whiskered Owlet greets visitors to the lodge property. The actual bird is five inches high. I wonder how well that image depicts the real bird.
When all of us are present, Roberto, the local guide most familiar with the owlet’s habits, gives us our final instructions. Richard translates from his Spanish. “When we get to the viewing site, place yourselves so you can see the perch and settle your feet so they are solidly planted. Once Rose Ann begins playing the recording of the owl’s call, any small movement or noise can scare him off.”
I remove my nylon jacket and drop it by the trail with a couple of others. Too noisy.
When we are ready, Roberto leads us into the subtropical forest. We slurp down the trail to the viewing site. Roberto points to a vine draped across an opening in the trees.
“He says this is where the bird will sit so keep your eye on that horizontal vine,” Richard whispers. He motions to a small mound on the other side of the trail where we are to arrange ourselves so everyone has a good view of the perch about fifteen feet from us. We shuffle into position, wiggling our boots for a solid plant.
The last of the daylight fades. The wait begins.
Rose Ann sits in front of us on her stool and watches for signals from Roberto. She plays a recording of the call, a quiet soprano “woh”, repeated slowly. After several iterations of the refrain, she turns it off and cocks her head down the canyon. After a long silence, a distant hoot answers.
The owlet has heard the challenge. I hope he will investigate.
Roberto motions for Rose Ann to turn up the volume of the recording. She plays it for a while and quits. Silence.
I am conscience of my careful breathing.
Another careful “woh”. Closer. Is it a question?
Rose Ann plays the call again at lower volume.
Time drags. Little tickles on my forehead and cheek demand attention. Just let them be, I tell myself.
As Rose Ann lures in the owlet, I run over in my head what I know about the discovery of this bird. The owlet was first seen in 1976 and then not seen again for years in spite of intensive searching by many skilled birders, including Rose Anne and Richard. In 2002, Dan Lane’s assistant, on a Louisiana State University research expedition to the Andes, heard a strange call from a newly netted bird. They were near the original site of the owlet’s discovery and Dan recognized the bird as the Long-whiskered Owlet. He released it inside his tent that evening. Sure enough, early the next morning the owlet began to call. Dan recorded the call for the first time, enabling the eventual discovery of additional pairs of the owlet in the area where we now stood.
I have to shift my weight. Careful not to move my feet, I make a slight adjustment. Time drags. I wonder how long we have been waiting. More importantly, how much longer we will be standing here?
OK. I want to see this special owlet. Endangered. Rare. What a privilege if it does show up. But my back is tired. How much longer before I can move?
Something flaps past my face. Owls don’t make any sound when they fly so it must have been a bat.
The calls are close now. Sound is hard to track, but I’m guessing it is behind the vine, not visible yet if there were enough light, which there isn’t. Facing the dim forest, I strain for the direction of the call. The owlet is so small and well camouflaged, soft, brown feathers, no hard edges to the silhouette. It will be hard to spot.
I hear a soft click. The forest in front of me bursts into color. My eyes scramble to make sense of what I am seeing in Roberto’s light.
I panic. What if the owlet is somewhere nearby and I can’t find it before it flies off?
Because I think it’s not close, I scan the background. Nothing. The vine looks the same. But wait. I don’t remember that lump in the middle. Inattention, probably. A bromeliad. Very small.
Two giant eyes blink, and the tiny figure snaps into focus. That lump is the owlet! I am seeing the Long-whiskered Owlet! So much smaller than its name. The tiny fluff sits calmly on the vine, a familiar home perch for him. Or her. But probably him.
Yellow-orange eyes are surrounded by long, thin feathers like a starburst, making him look perpetually surprised. He turns his head oblivious to the light.
We all watch in stunned silence.
He squinches his eyes, as if he were sleepy. Is he going to take a nap? Right here?
Awestruck, I am frozen. Any tiny twitch will send him off. Considering that many bird sightings on this trip have been flashes of color, this view is becoming incredibly long. How long? I can’t see my watch, and don’t know when he came in anyway. I just want to know. For bragging rights. The group last year only saw a flash and many birders see nothing at all.
Study. Study this bird. At fifteen feet, it is just a brown fluffy ball that turns its head and big eyes that blink.
Our owlet seems quite at peace with our respectful gawking.
After good looks, we each carefully raise our binoculars. Quietly. Quietly
He is so sweet, at home on his perch.
Richard slowly raises his camera and takes a photo without his flash. The owlet doesn’t even wince. After a few more shots, Richard dares to turn on the flash, risking flight. The owlet doesn’t flinch. It should be a great photo.
After what seemed like an hour…I know it wasn’t that long, (Rose Ann says less than ten minutes), Roberto turns off his light. He motions for us to go, and we creep away, leaving the little bird to his nocturnal hunt.
The next time I’m at the entry gate, I can see that the painting of the Long-whiskered Owlet is an excellent likeness.
Birds that feed on ants, worms, grubs and other food found in the leaves and debris of a thick forest understory challenge the patience of many birders. Antbirds, antpittas and their allies all lurk quietly on or near the forest floor. Their names come from their habit of following marching ants through the forest. They stir up tasty insects that flee their path. Antbirds have adapted to living on the dangerous forest floor by being secretive.
Antpittas, a type of ground antbird, have chubby brown bodies and long legs.They range from wren to robin sized. They stand close to upright and walk or hop around among the dead leaves and debris, sometimes singing from elevated perches. Coming up with common names for them must have been a problem since they all look about the same. The variations of “brown” in their names show creativity though few are helpful for identifying a particular bird. Any stripe or feather variation is difficult to see in the dark understory even if you are lucky enough to see one of these secretive birds. They do, however, have distinctive calls, which is the primary identifier.
At dawn we follow Ever (Ay-vair), one of the lodge staff, across the two lane highway and through a gate into another part of the property. He is responsible for feeding one of the area specialties, an Undulated Antpitta. These antpittas are known to sometimes venture onto trails in the morning. Ever is using that tendency to train one to come into a small clearing for earthworms. This bird has been named Dorita for convenience. It takes patience and lots of worms to train a shy bird to come for food, and Dorita is still wild bird and has a mind of her own.
Ever shows us the feeding spot and scatters his worms. We stand atop a hump in the trail and take our wait-for-a-while position, feet solid and flat. Ever pulls back toward us and settles down, camouflaged behind a small tree.
When we are ready, Ever calls, “Dorita, Dorita, Dorita.” He pauses. “Dorita, Dorita.” Another pause. After several minutes my mind wanders. I am envious of how fast he can spin off her name. My stiff American tongue doesn’t even come close. Ever persists calling for about 15 minutes, but Dorita doesn’t show.
Footfalls approach from behind. It is Roberto, who showed us the owlet. He beckons for us to follow him. He has just seen Dorita at another location where they have just begun to work with a different type of antpitta. Clever Dorita has discovered a new source of worms.
We do get to see Dorita as she chows down on worms meant for the other bird. She is big for an antpitta, over eight inches long, with a buffy, speckled breast. I wonder if maybe she is a bully in the antpitta community, out for all the treats she can get.
The training will continue, Roberto says with a shrug, but maybe across the road.
My first disturbing memory of stalking a secretive bird occurred during a trip to Madagascar, only my second international birding trip. On an afternoon break, a local guide drove two of us to some rice fields to find a wren-like bird, a Gray Emutail. We tromped along the dikes of the wet paddies, across a small dam to the edge of a marsh. He played a tape of the emutail and a small bird flew in, took one look at us and dived into the grass never to reappear. From my glimpse, it looked like it could have been the emutail. But it was not a great look. The guide stood planted in his spot and continued to play the tape. After five minutes, I was certain the emutail had grown tired of the commotion and left. I wondered if the tape was one that all the local guides were using and the bird knew it.
I made several polite suggestions to the effect that the bird was either gone or ignoring the tape. Maybe the guide worried about his tip if the bird failed to show again, but he finally stopped. Our trip guide did not use tapes and that afternoon started me thinking about the use of taped calls. What I had just witnessed was certainly harassment, keeping the bird from what it needs to do to survive. I wanted no part of it. While I like it when local people know the birds well enough to guide, that young man had a lot to learn and I had learned a good lesson.
Having now experienced a variety of situations in which guides use a recorded call to bring in forest skulkers, I have a better idea about how they can be used respecting the birds’ inclinations and needs. After hearing a target bird call, the guide finds a break in the vegetation on the side trail or road where there is a good opening back into the undergrowth. We spread ourselves in a line so each of us has some view where the bird might cross. The recorded call is played on the side away from the bird’s first call. If the bird is responsive, which is not guaranteed, it moves toward the “intruder”.
We who wait need to stay still and quiet, even if someone down the line whispers “I see it!” Too often, the bird is scared away by an eager but forgetful birder. With good luck, the bird crosses in front of all of us, though that rarely happens on the first try and the guide can change position to draw the bird back across the openings. Birds, being smarter than the birders, can catch on and lose interest after a few tries.
Often, we see only a quick glimpse of brown, a part of the bird as it skulks through the vegetation: a head, a tail or body. If I can see the movement of brush or grasses that obviously marks the passage of some creature, and I can hear the call, that’s good enough for me. If in addition, I do see a flash of brown, the flick of a wing, or hear a faint crack of a dry leaf, I consider myself blessed.
When, rarely, I actually get a good and full view of the bird, it is a gift beyond measure. I like to believe the bird felt comfortable enough in my presence to show itself. I prefer to respect the natural habits of the bird and if it does not want me to see it, it won’t let that happen. Of course the bird doesn’t go through that same thought process, but that is how I like to see it.
The seven of us spread ourselves along another trail near Owlet Lodge, each with a different window into the foliage, hoping to see a Chestnut Antpitta known to be in the area. Every one of us hopes the bird will show itself in our special access to its domain. This is not a particularly rare bird, but a sneaky one that must be lured close to be seen. Rose Ann plays the call to pull the bird in. She stops it to listen. A bird replies, not close but not too far away. They have a conversation, the bird and the recording. It calls and then stops. In the silences we are on high alert. The curious bird is moving and we all hope it will cross our personal forest window.
After a few minutes, a couple of people have seen the bird, but not everyone. We walk down the path ten feet and Rose Ann tries again. We peer into the foliage, tracking the movement of the calls. These cautious birds will circle the location of the intruder as they approach and one person sees one cross the trail.
After a valiant effort Rose Ann says, “Well, that may be it.” Her face brightens. “Sometimes these birds will come out when they think you’ve left. Do you want to try that?”
Of course we do.
The ones who have seen the bird make a noisy exit. I have not seen the bird, so I stay. The three of us watch the trail where it was seen. We listen. We wait. Nothing.
Finally, someone says, “Well, that didn’t work.”
I agree and relax my vigilance, letting out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I turn a quarter turn…and find myself staring eye to eye with the small brown bird. It is sitting inside the vegetation on a low twig about five feet from me. I freeze, totally mesmerized. The details of its being sear into my brain. It has hardly a distinguishing mark, maybe a bit redder than some but in that instant, I see no spots, stripes or patches of white. I certainly don’t need my binoculars and cannot lift them anyway or it will fly. If I speak it will vanish. I stand and stare, enchanted by the bright-eyed bird.
We study each other. And then it is gone.
Now, someone else might believe we exchanged some sort of mystical message but the bird was probably as surprised as I was and had likely been sitting there for some time before being discovered; a Chestnut Antpitta, close and calm.
I did not sense that my presence was unwanted or feared. The bird seemed just curious, as I was. The encounter lasted only a moment, but it was one of those moments burned into my memory. A gift.