Sunday, April 9, 2017

The quest for the Great Spinetail

A hard to find Peruvian endemic

By Wilson Díaz
9th April 2017

Great Spinetail is a restricted range and very local  species endemic to northern Peru. It looks similar to Necklaced Spinetail but it larger, has a bigger bill and longer tail, and it seems their distribution ranges do not overlap. I've been looking for this special, elusive bird for several years. Despite the classic sites for this Spinetail are very close to my hometown I always failed to see it. The "typical" and "most reliable" place to find Great Spinetail is a small creek west of the town of San Marcos, some 50 Km from the city of Cajamarca, the dry scrub in the area offers the perfect habitat for the bird, but also offers great places to hide. The many times I've been there I've always seen "movement", not even heard it calling, so I'm not sure the movement was made by "the Spinetail", so, as you can imagine, all my visits were quite disappointing for me and my clients.

A couple of years ago a friend told me he saw the bird at Laguna San Nicolas, a place closer to Cajamarca than is San Marcos, but located at a much higher elevation (slightly above 2800 meters). Since then I was planning to visit the area but for many reasons I wasn't able to go there until March 2017, just less than a month ago.

Laguna San Nicolas is surrounded by agricultural fields and dry scrub

Most of the area has been deforested for agriculture but the hills south of the lake still hold nice scrub patches that provides good habitat for birds. The area is connected by creeks to the Río Cajamarquino, which flows towards the Río Marañón, so there is an easy way for the birds and vegetation from lower elevations to reach this high elevation lake.

It took me two visits to find the Great Spinetail, the first time it seems I spend to much time looking for in the wrong places and missed the bird, but I must say I had to try since I did not knew of any specific spot to look for. Yes, I missed the Spintetail, but I had a lot of other Marañón specialists that I will mention later on this post, and I didn't expect to see there.

I returned a week later, and went straight to a patch of scrub that looked promising last week. As soon as I started to playback the song I had a response from a couple of Great Spinetails that showed up very quickly, they were calling back and moving among the top of the bushes no farther than 10 feet away from me. The couple stayed in the area for at least half an hour, until they stop singing and disappeared.

My very first pair of Great Spinetails

As I said before, some unexpected birds also showed up, like a Black-necked Woodpecker and many Spot-throated hummingbirds, and endemic hummingbird species of the Río Marañón valley. This species seems to be quite abundant around San Nicolas.

Black-necked Woodpecker

Spot-throated hummingbird

Another nice surprises were Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Tropical Parula, Pacific Pygmy-Owl, Cinereous Conebill.

Also, Band-tailed, Yellow-bellied, and Black-and-white Seedeaters were very common in the area, and showed up very quickly when the Pacific Pygmy-Owl call was played. Common hummingbirds in the area were Sparkling Violetear, Purple-collared Woodstar, Green-tailed, and Black-tailed Trainbearers.

Female Green-tailed Trainbearer

Another interesting species that can be found in this scrub are Peruvian Meadowlark, Hooded Siskin, Chiguanco Thrush, Golden-billed Saltator, Golden Grosbeak, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, and Andean Flicker.

Peruvian Meadowlark

But the birding adventure doesn't end up there, if you go further on the road and stop by the east side of the lake you will find a lot of more species on the shore and in the lake. The most abundant birds are of course Common Gallinules and Slate-colored Coots.

Slate-colored Coot

A huge population of Ruddy Duck also inhabits the lake. During this second visit I was pleased to find Puna Ibis walking on the shore, a Yellow-billed Pintail sleeping on a small island, some Wren-like Rushbirds calling among the reeds, Pied-billed and Silvery Grebes swimming among the Coots, a lone Osprey catching fish, a few Plumbeous Rails walking among the reeds, a Little Blue-Heron trying to catch something to eat near the shore, but the most pleasant views were provided but a flock of 10 Andean Gulls resting on the water not far from the shore.

Andean Gull

Ruddy Duck and Common Gallinule

If interested, for a complete list of the area you can visit

Or visit for a personalized tour and special prices.

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