Location: Western Andes of Peru.
Endemic: Yes, from Peru.
The white-cheeked cotinga is mostly brown. The crown is blackish and most of its body plumage is light brown.
Length: 21 cm / 8 in.
Best Time for observation: All year round.
Habitat: It lives at the tree line of the western Andes, inhabiting small fragments of elfin forest dominated by Polylepis trees, usually on steep slopes.
It is best seen in the early morning, as the first rays of the morning sun hit the slopes. It will often sit on a prominent perch surveying its territory.
The White-cheeked Cotinga is an almost mythical bird of the Peruvian Andes. Only discovered to science in 1953, yet it was found within 100 km of Lima. The male remained unknown until 1966 and it was hypothesised that males and females lived in different habitats only coming together to breed. More has been learned about the species in recent years, but it remains a challenging bird to see and is a target for many visiting and local birders alike.
So unique that it is placed in its own genus Zaratornis, named after the Bosque de Zarate where it was discovered by the famous ornithologists Maria and Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke. It lives at the treeline of the western Andes, inhabiting small fragments of elfin forest dominated by Polylepis trees, usually on steep slopes. It feeds almost exclusively on the fruits of two genera of mistletoe and it is likely that it is the main seed disperser for these parasitic plants. The forests where it lives are disjunct and easily degraded by fire, overgrazing or cutting. Whilst it has quite a large distribution, the area of appropriate habitat is just a fraction of this and its global population is estimated as being only 1,500-6,000 individuals. Easily overlooked and very seldom giving its often unappreciated call, it is best seen in the early morning, as the first rays of the morning sun hit the slopes it will often sit on a prominent perch surveying its territory. Many of the places where the bird has been found are remote and difficult to reach. The few reliable sites that can be accessed by road where the bird can be found include the Santa Eulalia valley above Lima and the Huascarán National Park in the Cordillera Blanca.
Text by Rob Williams.