As I sat on a moss-covered rock looking up through the branches of this particularly dense area of Peruvian cloud forest, a flash of deep orange bordering on red flew up from the stream area below and settled on a branch right in front of me. It hopped around 180 degrees on its perch, bowed quickly with its black wings above its head, and let out a loud guaaark! Nothing quite prepared me for the enviable plumage and behaviour of this impressive bird - the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus), known to the locals in these parts as Tunki or Gallito de las rocas, and none other than Peru's national bird.
I am on steep forested land belonging to the Pacpapata community in Fauna Forever's Quellomayo Project area. Located about 5 hrs by road from Cusco, in the province of La Convencion within the buffer zone of the Machu Picchu National Sanctuary and at 2,000 metres above sea level, the landscape around me is a patchwork of cloud-forest on the one hand and coffee, tea, banana, citrus, and pineapple plantations on the other. Waterfalls, Mitered parakeets and Andean solitaires dominate the background sound. I am loving this new environment!
My last two months with Fauna Forever have been in the sweltering heat of the lowland jungle in the Madre de Dios Region around the city of Puerto Maldonado, where temperatures fluctuated between a warm 25 Celsius to a veritable furnace of 36 Celsius. The cool cloud forest, where I will be for a total of 6 weeks, is a huge relief. I had an amazing time in the jungle, don't get me wrong, but the weather here where I am now, half way up the Andes, suits me much better. I am also enjoying the fabulous views that stretch out miles in every direction sometimes - a far cry from the flat jungle where visibility can be barely 50m if you are lucky. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa, which although a coastal city is also a mountain city so it’s reassuring to have massive, towering masses of rock all around me once again. The scale of the Andes however makes the Cape Fold mountain range, of which Table Mountain is a part, look more like a few piles of little stones. But enough about me and my petty preferences – let’s talk about this project!
The current team consists of the Brothers Krauss (Jake and Nathan) and I. The Brothers Krauss are from just outside Washington DC (USA). Jake is the scientist and our team coordinator in this case. Nathan is a photographer and filmmaker, and has joined his brother with the aim of getting some footage of these colourful birds for a film project he is working on. I am just a guy on a glorified holiday who wants to see the world and get a chance to help save it by volunteering my time to scientists and conservationists around South America. I can't forget to mention our fearless driver, Tino, who is responsible for driving us up the mountain road most days to get us as close as possible to where our focal birds congregate - thus cutting down our walking time allowing us to arrive quite early at the lek.
Cock-of-the-Rocks are endemic to the cloud forests of the Andes and are found between 500 and 2,400 m elevation. They are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males look very different to the females. The males are truly striking creatures with their bright red/orange body feathers, jet black wings, and tails with grey scapulars, not to mention their brilliant white eyes and of course their crazy little crests which jut out skywards from their foreheads giving them a very distinct appearance. The females are quite a bit smaller (the males are about 30 cm from beak to tail) and are brown with much smaller crests. Juvenile males seem to be a mix between male and female plumage, with their red feathers being interrupted by splotches of brown and their crests are smaller as they fill out only as the little guys come into maturity. They are omnivores and eat mainly fruit and insects, and because they eat fruit they are likely important seed dispersers for tree species, many of which are endangered due to the fact that cloud forests across the Americas are being cleared at an alarming rate. Indeed, one of the questions the project is trying to answer is which species of tree are dispersed by Cock-of-the-rocks.
So what makes this particular species such a fascinating one to study? Well, apart from their striking appearance, it’s their mating behaviours of course. The males congregate in areas called leks, from the Swedish word for "play", and expend massive amounts of time and energy putting on elaborate displays of colour, sound, and movement in the hopes of attracting a female. Lekking takes place during dawn and dusk and lasts anywhere from one to about three hours. They are truly impressive spectacles to behold, incorporating a vast array of bodily movements and sounds, frequently in rapid succession. The lek we have been going to has between twelve and fifteen regulars with the central four more often than not stealing the show. The central four seem to be the most dominant of the group at this lek, and they have made sure they have access to all the best branches to impress the ladies from. The males tend to pair up and seem to have a weird kind of competitive alliance with one another and the pairs compete and practice together and defend their branches from other pairs of males. The competition gets pretty fierce, often resulting in violent displays of aerial combat. Its not easy being a Cock-of-the-Rock.
The ladies only show up every few days and stick around for a few minutes at a time so most the males’ time is spent “practicing their dance moves” and songs and competing for the most desirable branches in the lek. But when they do, the entire area erupts into a cacophony of calls and activity. The females seem to be extremely observant when they are there, their little heads twitching in every direction trying to take in all the activity and flying between the different branches with intent where males have staked a claim and it seems pretty obvious they are looking to see which ones are the most suitable to mate with. In the few weeks I have been going to the lek, I have only observed actual physical contact between a male and a female once. It was brief but my goodness was it intense! It was still very early in the morning and quite dark so I’m not entirely sure what I witnessed but I like to think it was an extremely passionate possible mating between a female and one of the central males. It was the male who seems to the most dominant of the central four so I guess all the competing that happens when there are no females around pays off.
So what do we do on the Cock-of-the-Rock research team? We sit in an absolutely beautiful spot and watch the birds and collect data, is the short answer. We are up at about 4:30am every day so that we can be at the lek by the time the birds have started to congregate. We get driven by Tino our driver from our base at the Yellow River Homestay were we are staying (which is excellent by the way!) up to close to the lek site and then it’s about a fifteen minute walk through a stunning bit of cloud forest to the lek itself. We usually arrive a little before 5:30am which is about half an hour before peak activity so there is plenty of time to observe the males putting on their displays. Once the birds have had enough, they disperse and we go back to the hostel and then return in the afternoon for the pre-dusk activity. My data collection task, although fairly challenging, is a simple one. Every ten minutes I record the time, the temperature, the humidity and the number of individual males I can see and hear in and around the lek. I also make any relevant notes including such information as the presence of females, juveniles and what the weather is up to. Counting the birds took quite a lot of getting used to! It’s still dark when we arrive and they move around a lot, so keeping track of the numbers at any given moment is not easy at all, especially at first before my eyes and ears were tuned in to the environment and the movements of the birds. But once the sun has come out, their bright red plumage makes them very easy to spot and keep track of. Jake's task is a little more complex. He records information about the birds behaviour including categorising each of the “dance moves”, feeding activity, expressions of aggression towards each other, etc. Nathan sets up his camera and spends his time waiting for, and capturing the perfect shots. Nathan also has the unenviable task of lugging his massive backpack full of camera equipment up and down steep mountain slopes to and from the lek everyday!
And the point of the data collection? Well for the short term, we are hoping to establish whether this awesome and incredible lek site will be a suitable place for ecotourists, particularly birdwatchers, to visit and in the process generate a new income stream for local community members and an economic incentive to protect the forest and the lek site from potential destruction. Bird population data at the lek is also required prior to the arrival of visitors in order to establish a strong baseline with which to compare future data collected at intervals during the ecotourism-use cycle of the lek, as a way of determining if these visits are having a negative effect on the birds or not. We currently need to find out how many male birds use the lek consistently, what their behaviour is both in terms of their natural lekking dances and also their reaction to humans. In the medium term, it is hoped to place rings/bands and potentially GPS tags on a selection of males to determine their movement patterns. Observations of these birds away from the lek, for instance while foraging on fruit, will also help in this regard and will help estimate the population size of Tunkis in this valley. By monitoring these birds and also the structure and size of the cloud forest patches and human uses of this area we can identify whether this population is stable/increasing or not, and if not then what could be done to reverse the trend.
This research and conservation initiative is in line with similar initiatives established elsewhere in Peru by Dr Chris Kirkby - the man with the plan behind Fauna Forever. Information from here will be fed into the data banks that he and his teams have been managing for the last twenty years or so, and which are used to better understand the state of wild nature and the drivers of change. Peru's lowland jungle and Andean cloud forests are precious ecosystems, and part of the delicate cosmic jewel we call Planet Earth. You go Chris! The world needs more like you.