Sunday, 26 August 2012

The mythical Long-Whiskered Owlet


It was 4pm when we arrived at the Abra Patrica Lodge (or Long Whiskered Owet Lodge) run by ECOAN.

As we walked to the lodge building, we bumped into Aidan, one of Andy Marshall’s birding group.  He told us that the rest of his group had seen the Long-Whiskered Owlet well 2 nights earlier after trying for 2 hours, but that his torch had stopped working on the way down and so he had to give us and return to the lodge building.  He said that he was walking down to the spot for the first owlet at 900 meters on the owlet trail and that the lodge guide Roberto was meeting him there at 6pm.

I was glad that Andy’s group had seen the owlet, particularly as the Belgium group we met had spent hours looking for the second owlet and then only seeing it very briefly.

This is a tiny owl with (as the name suggests) long whiskers on its face.  It was only discovered in the 1970’s and for a long time very few people had seen it or knew where it could be seen.  Seeing it at this lodge has only been an option in recent years.

After a quick cup of tea, we were ready to go.  We had so many late nights on this Northern Peru trip, I was worried about Birdgirl’s capacity to be good and also how long she could last out owling tonight.  What if we didn’t see it tonight and had to go out again tomorrow night or pre-dawn the following morning?

Roberto, the lodge guide, came to check on us, looked at our feet, and asked if we wanted rubber boots?  When we asked how muddy it was, he said a little and so we decided against it as wellies are always uncomfortable to walk in.  However, when we went to meet Roberto ten minutes later, he asked again.  This time I did not hesitate.  When a local guide asks you if you want rubber boots twice, there is a reason for this.  The owlet trail turned out to be very muddy and steep.  Apparently, it is much worse in the rainy season!

During the hour long walk, we saw Rusty-Crowned Tanager which Birdgirl and I had missed during a loo stop on the Paty Trail, which always help the family “harmony index” as Gunnar described it.

Half way down, Roberto used his I-pod nano and realised that he was virtually out of charge.  We were too far down the trail to turn back and get it charged.  Chris said that he had a recording from Gunnar, which Roberto asked him to play.  He listened to it and then asked if we had any other recording as this was a contact call.  We didn’t have anything else but remembered that we could record on the I-phone.  So Roberto played his recording on loud and Chris recorded it, with the result of a pretty ok sound quality recording.  Disaster averted.

We reached the 900m sign just before 6pm, where there were some benches strategically placed.  Aidan was waiting for us and we were able to have a quiet chat whilst waiting for darkness.  He told me that he had read the blog before he came over and was so amused by my description of Andy that he had sent the link to Mike (another one of the group) with the heading “Andy makes an impression!”.  I said that he must have been on best behaviour for us then.

At 6.30pm it was dark enough to try for the owlet.  Roberto explained that we had to be very quiet and still.  Roberto played his recording and literally after one play, his i-pod went dead.  Chris stepped in with his I-phone.  He played it twice and then stopped.  Everyone pointed in the same direction down the trail, from where we could hear an owlet calling.

Roberto got us all off the benches and standing in a row on the raised bank opposite a broad tree.  It must be one that the bird favours.  We were standing in the dark, with the recording playing, staring at a tree for only a few minutes when heard it call close.  Roberto started searching the branches of the tree with his torch.  Surely he was looking far to low as the bird sounded like it was higher?  Birdgirl and Chris pointed higher just as Roberto located it just above where he was looking, sitting on a branch just in front of us, at head height.  Birdgirl was searching and I could see that she was blocked by a branch, so I grabbed both shoulders and move her 3 inches to the right, from where she could see the bird.  At the same time Aidan had moved to his right to try and get on the bird and had been intensely looking when he suddenly said that he could not see it.  Chris put his more powerful spotlight onto the owlet, after which it was more obvious where it was sitting.  Aidan had been looking higher, as he had thought like us that it was calling from higher.  After a few minutes watching the owlet in amazement and rejoicing in our god fortune, it flew away quietly.

The walk back to the lodge did not seem as far or as hard on the way back, even though more of it was uphill.  Birdgirl was buzzing, skipping ahead of us and singing as she went.  At the lodge it was good to catch up with Andy and the other two in his group, Mike, and David together with their tour guide Ramiro.

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