Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Peru! Andean Cock-of-the-rock!!!

Andean Cock-of-the-rock

When I was a teacher in the late 70s, one of my students was fixated on the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, the national bird of Peru. The funky males are an improbably glowing orange or red on their head, back, and underside, with shiny black wings and tail, and rectangular, soft- gray scapular feathers running down the edge of their wings in the center of their back. The forward-sloping rounded crest, on both sexes, virtually covers the small bill and gives the head an oddly bulging shape. The glittering white iris forms a perfect circle around the black pupil, all surrounded by that lovely tropical orange.

Andean Cock-of the-rock

I’d been birding for a few years back when I was a teacher, but I’d certainly never seen a cock-of-the-rock, and had no more concept of Peru than that Michael Bond’s sweet Paddington Bear came from deepest, darkest Peru. As I got more into birding and started learning about birds from beyond North America, I started wishing I could see a cock-of-the-rock myself, but it seemed improbable at best that I’d ever make it to Peru.

But in late July, I was asked to go to Peru for a week on a “fam tour”—I’d be shown several of the top birding spots in northern Peru with the assignment of writing about them. My very first thought was—was it possible I’d see an Andean Cock-of-the-rock there? I received an itinerary a few weeks ago, and instantly saw that it wasn’t listed as a target species. When I went through the eBird checklists for the places we’d be going to, it was listed on two of the checklists, but I realized that meant my chances were poor at best—the sightings from there might have been in the wrong season or the bird just too rare or too shy for an easy sighting with a group.

The cock-of-the-rock is an extremely secretive bird of a highly endangered habitat—tropical cloud forest. One of the most important dangers facing cloud forests in South and Central America is that the clouds are dwindling. Between the heat and droughts associated with climate change and the massive destruction of the forests, the land is warming, the clouds above it dissipating.

Other species associated with cloud forest, such as the Resplendent Quetzal and many trogons, toucans, and hummingbirds, are also dwindling. I tried not to get my hopes up about seeing a cock-of-the-rock, but that is of course easier said than done.

But last Tuesday, September 6, on our drive between two birding lodges, our guide Wilson Diaz (from Green Tours) told the bus driver to stop in a spot that looked pretty much like every other stretch of that mountain road, and we piled out. 















He started down the road a short ways, me scanning the forest floor on the downslope, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a brilliant orange blob of color hurling through a tiny opening in the trees. It was the briefest of sightings, and I didn’t even see the shape of a bird—for all I knew for sure, it could have been someone tossing away a rather large bowl of orange sherbet. But there is nothing else that color that occurs naturally there, so we stopped and scrutinized. 

After just a few minutes, someone spotted a female Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, and soon we noticed a second one, lurking in the shadows far below us. 

Andean Cock-of-the-rock

And then, what to our wondering eyes should appear but a glorious male. He was mostly hidden by foliage—even with a spotting scope, it took minutes before anyone could see his glittering eye and funky crest. 

Andean Cock-of-the-rock

Conditions were horrible for photography—the forest was dark, and the bird so far away that he was hard to locate in the camera viewfinder, much less to actually focus on. But I got took hundreds of photos, refocusing over and over hoping that a few would turn out. And suddenly he fluttered over a couple of branches, and for a few glorious minutes we had him in full view. Photography was still tricky with the low light and distance. About sixty percent of my photos didn’t turn out at all, but of the ones that did, thanks to the miracle of Adobe Lightroom, a few look pretty darned good, at least as memories of a magical moment.

Andean Cock-of the-rock


After my heart attack last year, I’ve pretty much scaled back my hopes and dreams for what I can do and see and hear in my remaining years. Just being in Peru, walking on ground that I knew cocks-of-the-rock had also walked upon, breathing air molecules that had been breathed by cocks-of-the-rock was wonderful enough. Spotting an orange blob hurtling through the air was wonderful enough. Seeing females in the shadows was wonderful enough. Seeing pieces of the male behind the foliage was wonderful enough. Actually feasting my eyes on this beautiful bird in full view for many minutes was a greater gift than I could have dreamed of—one that will stay with me every day I’m given on this beautiful earth.

Andean Cock-of the-rock

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