Amongst Peru’s staggering number of birds there are 59 species that are mainly nocturnal. These present a special challenge to birders and are consequently coveted and if seen often become well remembered highlights of a trip. Most are far more often heard than seen and many required dedication and sacrifice of sleep to have a reasonable chance of finding them.
Owls are the most familiar group of nightbirds and Peru is blessed with no fewer than 32 species including two that are endemic. The tiny Long-whiskered Owlet is one of the world’s smallest owls and was only discovered in 1976. Restricted to a small area of humid montane forest around Abra Patricia, this species was not seen again for nearly 30 years but now the call is known it has become fairly reliable, though not yet easy, with the help of local guides who know the territories. The Koepcke’s Screech-Owl is also a recent discovery being described in 1982. Inhabiting dry forest on the west slope of the Andes and in interAndean valleys it is possible that the known populations represent several species and a distinct subspecies was described from the Apurimac valley in 2012. Other highly sought after owls include: Cloud-forest Screech-Owl which is now fairly reliable at Ulcumano Lodge in Pasco, Cinnamon Screech-Owl which can be found at Owlet Lodge, Abra Patricia, Buff-fronted Owl which is best looked for near Limatambo, Cusco, and Stygian Owl that can be seen in and around Moyobamba, San Martin.
The Oilbird is widespread species along the tropical Andes but is always a treat. Placed in its own family, this is the world’s only echolocating frugivorous bird. They breed and roost communally in caves and dark ravines and emerge at dusk to forage in humid tropical forest. Good locations to see this bird are near Moyobamba in San Martin, at the famous Oilbird Cave near Tingo Maria and for those prepared for a hike along the Alto Madre de Dios river.
Potoos are a Neotropical family and 6 of the worlds 7 species occur in Peru. These cryptic nightbirds pass the day reliant on their superb camouflage which mimics a dead branch, or in the case of the diminutive Rufous Potoo a hanging dead leaf. Common and Great Potoos are quite widespread. The Andean Potoo is known only from a few sites on the east slope of the Andes with the Manu road being probably the most reliable site in the world for this sought after species. The Long-tailed Potoo is uncommon in tall lowland forest and can be found throughout the Amazon but always requires luck or a well-informed local guide. Rufous Potto is restricted to nutrient poor forests and is best looked for near Iquitos.
The nighthawks and nightjars together comprise 21 species. 7 of these are nighthawks, oft seen hawking insects over open habitats or waterways at dusk, or even in daylight. The fabulous Sand-coloured Nighthawk nests colonially on sandy beaches in the Amazon. Unusually for nighthawks, the Rufous-bellied and Short-tailed Nighthawks are solitary species that forage over closed canopy forests, the former in the Andes and the latter in the lowlands. The 14 nightjars include one endemic, the recently split Tschudi’s Nightjar that is restricted to the coastal deserts and even occurs in downtown Lima. The most spectacular are the males of Swallow-tailed and Lyre-tailed Nightjars, these two Andean species have long forked tails that the males use in display.
Many other bird species call at night including Tinamous, Wood-quails, Rails and the rarely seen Nocturnal Currasow as well as mammals including several species of night monkeys. Night birding is challenging but rewarding and there is no better place than Peru.
Text by Rob Williams.