Earlier this month we celebrated World Bird Day on 9th May! It is particularly significant for us here at Aqua Expeditions and our Aria Amazon crew because Peru is amongst the top bird-watching destinations in the world, with its diversity representing 20 percent of the world’s total bird species (over 1,800 species, of which 120 endemic species found nowhere else in the world). The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon is also a bird-lovers paradise, with 449 recorded ornithological species.
Passionate birdwatchers can participate in our small group excursions which usually take place in early mornings as this is the time of day in which birds are the most active foraging for food. The sound of birdsong and rustling leaves forces the mind into fine-tuned observation and mindfulness, while the meditative state leads the participant a moment of stillness, one that is free of distraction. Many studies have shown how bird-watching and sustained exposure to nature can have a positive effect on mental health, lowering stress hormones, depression and anxiety, even improving cardiovascular disease and longevity.
Our guides are trained to spot and easily recognize these birds and their individual unique calls while on skiff excursions along the Amazon river and tributaries and jungle walks. In fact, George Dávila, one of our Amazon naturalist guides and ornithology experts, has the unique talent of imitating bird calls, a skill he learnt from his parents. Here are just five of the exotic species you might sight on one of our excursions.
Horned Screamer (Anhima cornuta)
Horned Screamers are the largest of the screamer family (measuring between 84-95 cm) which also includes the Crested screamer and Northern screamer. They are found in the wetlands of South America, including the Peruvian Amazon riverbanks. Their most distinctive feature is a 15 cm horn-like cartilage structure projecting forward from the crown, reminiscent to that of the mythical unicorn. It is loosely attached to the skull serving no defensive purpose and regrows as the tip breaks. Mostly dark grey and black with a white belly, they are also recognized by their wing spurs which they use for fighting.
As their name suggests, these are noisy birds whose loud sounds can be heard to up to a 3 km distance and are repeated for hours. They perform three main calls: the “Moo-co” used to alarm others of a predator or for the relocation of other screamers; the honking call used for greetings; and the trumpeting, which is the most intense and acts as a distance call and morning wake up. Horned screamers are non-migratory birds that mate for life; males and females often engage in duets, especially during breeding season.
White-throated Toucan (Ramphastos Lucanus)
The popular and beloved white-throated toucan does not fail to impress travellers wandering the Amazon. They are large in size (up to 60 cm), featuring a huge bill with yellow tip, black plumage, white throat and chest with a red border line below, as well as blue bare skin surrounding their eyes. This exotic species is endemic to South America’s Amazon basin, including the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Females and males are alike but differ in size, the latter being larger, sporting a noticeably longer bill. Their mating ritual consists of the male bringing the female a piece of fruit and throwing it back and forth between their bills. In fact, 95 percent of their diet consist of forest fruits.
It is fairly easy to spot this creature in the rainforest, mostly due to its loud, distinctive sound, uttering a series of yelps that can be described as “eeoo, hue hue”. These are social birds who live in small groups and emit different calls to communicate with each other, for example to indicate warnings or for mating.
This beautiful bright-yellow bird with black wings, tail and back, is a medium-sized (30cm) species belonging to the Icteridae family. They have brown eyes surrounded by black bare skin, as well as black markings below the beak. Oriole Blackbirds are commonly found on open habitats near rivers including riverbanks, marshes, pastures, and similar habitats of low altitude in the northern part of South America. This lowland species flies in pairs or small flocks, foraging mainly on the ground, feeding on caterpillars, earthworms, winged insects, small frogs and other tiny creatures, as well as fruit.
Oriole Blackbirds emit loud sounds, scratchy calls which are usually delivered from the top of a tree or while flying. The nasal screech it produces which rises sharply towards the end is said to be similar to the sound of a gate with rusty hinges.
Cream-coloured Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)
Its unique pale-yellow plumage with a raised crest and brown wings makes this endearing woodpecker stand out from the crowd. You will be able to recognize males because of their red malar stripe. The cream-coloured woodpecker is found mainly in the seasonally flooded and swamp forests of South America, in countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. They are a non-migratory, arboreal species that can be often seen pecking at termite or ant nests on trees, foraging alone or in small groups low in trees or in the ground. As with other woodpeckers, their flight pattern is undulating, which means they alternate between rapid wing flaps and brief pauses on closed wings, losing some altitude until flapping their wings again.
Cream-coloured woodpeckers utter a distinctive high-pitched call described as “wutchuk kee-hoo-hoo-hoo” or “pueer, pueer, purr, paw” with a lower pitch in the last note. While interacting with other species it also makes a “kiu-kiu-kiu-kiu” sound which is often repeated.
Capped Heron (Pilherodius pileatus)
This stunning bird is a rare find and will astound any passionate birdwatcher longing to spot unique species in the Amazon. The capped heron is widespread from eastern Panama to South Brazil, almost exclusive to the Amazon Basin. They inhabit wetlands such as marshes and swamps and along rivers in lowlands up to 900 metres above sea level. Its colours make the capped heron different from other herons, as no other in its family has the unique combination of a sky-blue beak and face (which becomes brighter during breeding season), cream-colored feathers on neck and body, pale grey back and wings and of course, its black cap. This solitary heron feeds mostly on fish and is very territorial. While hunting it will stand in a crouched position and then introduces its bill into the water in a rapid motion to catch its prey.
Capped herons are shy and quiet birds. In display, they perform a series of low-pitched sounds that can be described as a two-syllable “wa-huu wa-huu wa-huu…”. As with other members of the heron family, it may also utter honks and guttural croaks. The exotic capped heron is in fact one of the least known species in its family (Ardeidae) and we have still a lot to learn and discover with regards to its biology, habits, population density, and interactions.