Birding in the Unknown: Tips and Tales,
An Interview with Thomas S. Schulenberg, Co-author of
Birds of Peru,
Guest article from Hugh Powell, a science editor at the Cornell Lab of Orinthology
It's not often a bird watcher gets the chance to tour a new country accompanied not just by a good field guide but by the field guide's author. That's what happened to me in May 2014, when I joined Tom Schulenberg on the World Birding Rally in northern Peru. Schulenberg, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is the lead author of Birds of Peru.
Schulenberg describes his role in the book as almost accidental--he began visiting Peru in the late 1970s as a graduate student, and his original role with the book was just to help with maps. The true architects of the book, Schulenberg says, were John O'Neill ("the person who more than anyone else in the modern era put Peru on the ornithological map," according to Schulenberg), and Ted Parker, the now-legendary field ornithologist whose career was cut tragically short in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993. In the mid-1990s, Schulenberg took up the mantle of the book, recruiting ornithologists Doug Stotz (Field Museum of Natural History) and Dan Lane (Louisiana State University) as additional coauthors.
The field guide was a major undertaking--Peru is home to 1,800 species of birds, more than any country in the world except Colombia. The book was eventually published in 2007, nearly 35 years after O'Neill and Parker first envisioned it.
In late May, at the close of the 8-day rally (during which our group found nearly 800 bird species), I sat down with Schulenberg to learn more about the genesis of the book and the joys of birding in Peru--or, as he put it, "the fun of being completely overwhelmed by what you see."
Why Peru? Was it just happenstance that you went there instead of somewhere else in the world?
It wasn't happenstance. I joined the AOU when I was in my early teens, and one of the first issues [of the Auk] I received was the issue in which John O'Neill and George Lowery described the Elusive Antpitta from this indigenous village called Balta near the Brazilian border. There was this color frontispiece of an antpitta, and the introduction of the paper talks about how even after years of work, within a few square miles you can still be encountering species you didn't know were in the area, and sometimes they might even be new to science. I was just totally blown away. I had no idea that people were still discovering new species of birds, and I was completely entranced by this idea of an avifauna so complex that you could be there for years and still be learning new things about it.
So you went to graduate school at Louisiana State University with O'Neill as your mentor. And pretty soon his prediction about finding new birds actually came true for you?
It's not like I went to Peru really expecting to find new species--I was just trying to work on my life list. But the possibility always was there. And on my [second] trip to Peru we found several species that were undescribed or recently described. We found Cinnamon Screech-Owl, Megascops petersoni [like many tropical ornithologists, Schulenberg reflexively refers to birds by their scientific names in conversation]; Hemitriccus cinnamomeipectus, the Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant; Johnson's Tody-Flycatcher, Poecilotriccus luluae; which actually had been collected in the 1960s by Ned Johnson from Berkeley, but at that time Ned had not yet gotten around to describing it. Grallaricula ochraceifrons, Ochre-fronted Antpitta, we caught two in a single night in adjacent nets. [But all those were in the process of being described by other scientists, and] "all" we got out of it was the Pale-billed Antpitta. It was a fantastic trip though--I'm not complaining.
What field guide did you use before Birds of Peru?
Now remember that when some of the greats first started going down, people like John Terborgh and John O'Neill, there was literally nothing except the primary literature. But in 1970 an ornithologist [named] Meyer de Schauensee published a one-volume guide to the birds of South America, and it had some illustrations, but the illustrations were not great, and there was basically no attempt to illustrate every species. Instead what you had was about a paragraph on each species.
It definitely was difficult to use, and we disparagingly and no doubt unfairly started referring to it as "Meyer de Schloppensee." But you know, that was our bible from ‘77 until 1986 when Hilty and Brown published the really revolutionary Colombia field guide.
Why did you publish the book with Princeton?
In 1986 Princeton published the Colombia guide by Hilty and Brown, and it was just a total bombshell all across northern South America--it was very good. It was the size of a Manhattan telephone directory. Some birders would even buy copies and rip out the plates, which now that the book is out of print and copies sell for hundreds of dollars, you could cry over that. Anyway the Colombia book was one of the things that made us very comfortable with working with Princeton, because it was so good and set a very high bar.
The modern format of Birds of Peru--text facing illustrations on every page--left little room for text about each species. How did you handle that?
The shorter species accounts were a challenge in many ways. We had only 110 words per species, on average, so there's no character development that's for sure. We had to leave out a lot of words.
Because the illustrations were opposite the text, we rarely describe what the bird looks like, and that saves a lot of space. Instead we focused on things like aspects of its behavior, or its habitat associations, its vocalizations. We tried to point out what you really need to focus on to ID the species. And we got that information from a lot of very knowledgeable people. If you look in the book, I think we have the longest acknowledgments section on record.
Where are the best places to go birding in Peru?
Well the nice thing about watching birds is you can never be bored, and that's certainly true in Peru. Wherever you end up, you'll be seeing interesting species about which not much is known. Certainly there are some places that get a lot of attention. The altiplano, though it might not have the most species, has very remarkable things like the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. And then down in the Amazonian lowlands, those are the most species-rich places, and it's both challenging and very rewarding to bird there. There's the dry deciduous forest in the northwest, where we were [during the World Birding Rally], it's got lower diversity but incredibly high numbers of individuals. I'm always amazed to go into those forests and see the sheer number of birds that are in that habitat. And there are the foothills, the places where the Andean habitats mix with Amazonia, and there are lots of species occurring in these narrow elevational bands. Pretty much anywhere you are in Peru, there's lots there.
What do you look forward to when you go birding in Peru?
Part of the fun of going down there is the experience of being overwhelmed by what you see. Especially in humid forest on the eastern slope, where you start to get the Amazonian influence. You'll run into a tanager flock, and just the sight of all these birds running around in the treetops, it's challenging and exciting at the same time.
But if you pay attention to that flock, and if you can get beyond the gaudiness of the Saffron-crowned Tanagers and the Golden Tanagers, there are all these other dull-colored birds. Don't pass them over too quickly. There's this whole other set of birds that, as you gain experience, you may find are more interesting. You know, What's this foliage-gleaner? What's this antwren? And you'll start to get sucked into the whole depth of birds Peru has to offer.
People go gaga over Paradise Tanagers, but I'm more likely to get excited by something like a Gray-mantled Wren. That's a bird that's at relatively low density, it has a narrow elevational range, so you have to pay attention. But when you see it, it's sort of a sign that I'm in a really nice spot here, and there are probably other things here that are worth looking for.
Do you have any practical tips for people traveling to Peru?
Well, first is, you should do it.
Then, let's see: Study your field guide. Look at the range maps. There's information in those maps, so don't ignore it. Use eBird--it has become a great supplement to anyone traveling in Peru to find out what's been seen where. Keep your binoculars clean, and have a great time.
Is there a best season?
Peru is so large and so variable, you can't go wrong. It's a little more rainy during our northern winter, especially in the southeast of the country, in Amazonia. You can get into more trouble there with roads that time of year. But it doesn't really matter what season you go.
And how long a trip should a bird watcher plan to take?
I think something like three years is a good time frame to shoot for.
For the record, he was laughing. But at the same time, he also seemed perfectly serious.
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File created: 8/12/2014