When most people think of birding in Peru, they think of lush rainforest, scenic mountains, lost Inca towns, and colourful birds like tanagers and hummingbirds. Experienced seabirders and pelagic aficionados know better and the bustling and chaotic Lima has become the pelagic hub of Peru. Although it is not the place where the continental shelf is closest to shore, it is the place which has the best infrastructure and is the arrival and departure point for all visiting birders. Pelagics can also be organised from other ports such as Pucusana just south of Lima, Mollendo or Ite in the far south, and Los Organos and Cabo Blanco; all offer good birding but fewer birders visit, and consequently at least 90% of pelagics in Peru run from the port of Callao, Lima. Furthermore, the inner littoral birding closer to Callao could not be better with a large penguin colony on San Lorenzo and Kawinza Islands, and the guano island with Peruvian Boobies, the most beautiful Cormorant of the world - the Red-legged Cormorant and the Inca Tern - the most beautiful Tern in the world, as well as Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes. There is also an impressive South American Sea Lion colony of some 4,000 individuals.
The deep cold waters of the Humboldt Current create Peru’s marine riches as they hit the continental shelf and the nutrient-rich waters rise to the surface. Combined with light from the tropical sun and increased levels of oxygen and CO2, an enormous bio-production of plankton commences, which in feeds the small anchoveta fish. As well as being the main food for many of the seabirds they are the fish upon which Peru’s fishing industry depends; the vast quantities of anchoveta that are processed into fish meal make Peruvian coastal waters the world’s largest fishery. No wonder it is also one of the richest places to watch seabirds.
No less than 30 species of tubenoses have been recorded and 20 of these are encountered regularly. Regular species include Peruvian Diving-Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel, Waved Albatross and Pink-footed Shearwater. But it is perhaps the Storm-Petrels that attracts the serious pelagic birder the most. Six species are seen regularly: White-vented (Elliot’s), Wilson’s (Fuegan), Wedge-rumped, Markham’s (principally when there is cold water), Black (migrant from the north that becomes common when the water is warmer) and Ringed (Hornby’s) Storm-Petrels. In recent years Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels have been recorded.
There are two distinct seasons for pelagics. Winter, from April to November, with colder water, is when the greatest abundance and diversity of birds occurs, with many migrant tubenoses from Antartica and New Zealand, including Cape Petrel, Buller’s Shearwater, Salvin’s, Chatham, Buller’s and Black-browed Albatrosses. It is also the best time for the rare Ringed and Markham’s Storm-Petrels, as well as Southern and Northern Giant-Petrels, and Chilean and South Polar Skuas. The summer season, from December to March, has fewer birds, but there is some influx of birds typical of warmer waters, such as Waved Albatross, Sabine’s and Swallow-tailed Gulls, and very occasionally Galapagos and Cook’s Petrel.
A pelagic trip from Lima typically lasts 6-7 hours and are usually conducted in open boats with double outboard engines. A maximum of 16 participants gives 2 seats per person and allows everyone excellent views of the birds. Life vests are obligatory and the boats are equipped with GPS and radio. The trips aim to reach the continental shelf some 32 nautical miles from shore and spend a couple of hours chumming - enticing seabirds with a prepared oil and fish mixture. Warm clothing, a spray proof jacket and sunscreen are essentials for anyone wanting to experience a fascinating and very different form of birding.
Text by Gunnar Engblom.