During my seven years living in and researching the birds of Peru’s southeastern Amazon, I explored one of the more fascinating habitats in this mega-diverse ecosystem. The bamboo forests of Tambopata provide a unique home for a highly specialized group of birds.
The discovery of this niche was made by my birding hero, the late Ted Parker, after spending several seasons studying the avianfauna of the region. Ted was the best tropical ornithologist of his time and had the uncanny ability to detect very subtile differences in behavior among birds. He noticed that in these bamboo thickets there was something unusual happening – a pattern emerged that had never been recorded.
Parker’s observations inspired another ornithologist, Andrew Kratter, to complete a PhD dissertation on the subject. Based primarily in Tambopata over the course of several field seasons, Kratter determined 19 species of birds restricted to the bamboo forests. Summarizing his methodology, he found three degrees of specialization:
- He defined “obligate bamboo users” those specialists entirely restricted to bamboo. This includes: Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Manu Antbird, Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant, White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant, and Large-headed Flatbill.
- Next, he defined “near obligate bamboo users” which included those specialists that he found mostly mostly in bamboo and sometimes in other habitats. This includes: Peruvian Recurvebill, Dusky-cheeked Foliage-Gleaner, Brown-rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Bamboo Antshrike, White-lined Antbid, Goeldi’s Antbird, and Dusky-tailed Flatbill.
- Lastly, he defined “facultative bamboo users” as those birds that use bamboo as well as other habitats. This includes: Rufous-breasted Piculet, Red-billed Scythebill, Cabansi’s Spinetail, Ornate Antwren, Ihering’s Antwren, and Dot-wimged Antwren.
Lucky for me, nearly all of these birds could be seen in a single hike where I used to live!
But the story doesn’t end there. I’ve been traveling to Tambopata annually (some years for months at a time) for two decades. Over the last 10 years I’ve noted the disappearance of these birds with the corresponding die-off of the bamboo forests. For years I’ve wondered, are they gone? Are they just silent? The mystery of it all relentlessly nagged me, so much that I even briefly considered doing a PhD just to get to the bottom of it!
Fast forward another handful of years, and well the PhD didn’t happen. I decided instead to keep doing what I love and do best – being out in the field, studying and watching birds, and guiding birders to experience these incredible habitats.
Last year, while leading a tour in the Villa Carmen area of the Manu Road, I was floored to discover intact bamboo forest around on trails around the field station. It felt like I had been transported back in time to Tambopata – the thickets weren’t just back, but thriving. Would the birds be back, too?!
Up at dawn the next morning, I quickly ran out with my binoculars and within minutes had my answer. The bamboo birds were back! That morning I found 15 bamboo specialists during my hike. The forest had recovered, and it brought the birds with it.
That is, if they ever really left?
Do you know what happened to the bamboo birds when their thickets disappeared? I’m still very curious about this topic and am interested to hear any ideas or observations by my birding friends.