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Rediscovery of Kalinowski's Tinamou Nothoprocta kalinowskii
by Gunnar Engblom
[Update 2007: "Kalinowski's" Tinamou is now known to be Ornate Tinamou Nothoprocta ornata.]
At the beginning of last year (2000), I solicited on various lists participants for an expedition with partly birding and partly scientific content to the interior of Peru. Only one person responded on such short notice - Pièrre van der Wielen from Holland. Many of you have already heard about our great finding, but I'd like to more publicly announce it. We saw for the first time in 100 years Kalinowski's Tinamou - which is known from only two specimens 900 km apart. The sight record is not 100% solid, but very probable due to circumstantial evidence, which I detail below.
On April 26, 2000 we were driving at 4250m close to Cerro Perdiz (which incidentally means Tinamou Mountain) in extreme North Ancash just a couple of kilometers from the departmental border with La Libertad. As I was behind the wheel I saw a tinamou head sticking up among the bunch grass. Pièrre saw two heads. We were only 21 km from Hacienda Tulpo, where Kalinowski's Tinamou was collected in May 1900. I backed up and we studied this head for half a minute. It had a raised crest and peppered face, the throat was white and there was no supercilium. These characters fit both on Ornate and Kalinowski's Tinamous, but rule out Andean and Curve-billed, as well as Puna Tinamou, which is way out of range. It was extremely large and had a very distinct head pattern. The head disappeared, and we rushed up the bunch grass-covered slope (severely panting at the altitude of 4250 meters =14,000 feet) but we could not immediately find it. As we walked back to the car quite disappointed some 30 minutes later, Pièrre, Gregório Ferro (Goyo) and Tarsila Gómez flushed the tinamou. Pièrre had studied up on the field marks and saw rufous markings on the secondaries clearly as it dropped on the other side of the road. The rufous ruled out Ornate Tinamou, but Curve-billed has a similar wing pattern. The head pattern did not seem to fit as mentioned for Curve-billed. Furthermore, our bird was clearly larger than Andean Tinamou, which we had seen earlier. Curve-billed Tinamou, about the same size as Andean Tinamou, occurs only to 3700m and is in more scrubby habitat, not in this puna landscape (stepp-like highland grassland). We continued to walk in the area where it apparently came down, but we did not manage to see it again despite an hour's search. We felt quite certain that is was Kalinowski's Tinamou we had seen, but it was very frustrating that we did not get any prolonged views of the whole bird. But Pièrre stumbled upon something interesting. Feathers!!!! There were a number of feathers on the ground. Small feathers with mostly with black blotches and some with vermiculation of black, buff and tawny-rufous. Apparently, a bird had been hunted here by maybe a Puna Hawk and either lost a large number of back feathers or lost his whole body and just some feathers remained. We tried to think of other things than tinamous for these cryptic feathers, but over and over again we came back to the conclusion that they must be tinamou feathers. It seemed likely that these feathers indeed were from the same species we had just seen. However form these cryptic feathers we could not tell for certain that they really were of Kalinowski's Tinamou. We collected the feathers and decided that they eventually should be sent to the American Museum of Natural History, where the 1900 Hacienda Tulpo specimen is kept. Eventually I will send the feathers to the AMNH for DNA analysis. Being limited in time, I taped the feathers on a piece of paper, scanned them and e-mailed the image to the AMNH. Later they confirmed that the feathers match those of Kalinowski's Tinamou, but Ornate Tinamou could not be ruled out. However, based on field observations, it does seem likely that both the sighting and the feathers comes from Kalinowski's Tinamou.
I went back to the area in August together with Phil Richardson. But though spending most of the morning there we could not find the bird.
How can such a large bird go undetected for 100 years?
1. First, very little is known about its habitat requirements since the record from Hacienda Tulpo was described as being at 3000 m (which is true for the Hacienda - but the bird could have been taken from the slopes above) where the habitat basically is scrub. The type specimen from Cusco (not exactly relocated) from 1894 was taken at 4575m and was believed to be erroneous by later interpreters. However, this latter altitude would correspond to habitat very similar to what we found, i.e steppe-like bunchgrass habitat.
2. The collecting localities had not been revisited by ornithologists during the entire period as far as I know. It was a killing, 18-hour drive from Yungay in Cordillera Blanca to get there on a terrible road. It is a very isolated area today with very little traffic, but in roadless years not too far back it must have been more remote than Europe.
3. All tinamous are heavily hunted in the Andes and many are extremely shy. It is likely that Kalinowski's Tinamou has been locally extirpated due to this hunting pressure, and where there is habitat left and it remains it would have evolved to be very shy and difficult to flush after thousands of years of hunting.
4. It is likely only to be found in areas with vast puna grassland where Ornate Tinamou does not exist (which seems to be its ecological equivalent and very closely related) and where the human population is not big. However, the highlands of Peru are heavily used for grazing animals, and the human population is quite numerous. Everyone you meet in the highlands carries a sling-shot, and they could sure hit a Tinamou if they should see one. Vast areas with grassland like this one are rare to find.
I had made a trip through the area of Hacienda El Tulpo in December 1999 hoping we could find the Tinamou just by driving through. Close to El Tulpo we saw a tinamou rushing over a road. This was clearly an Andean Tinamou by size and wing pattern when we flushed it later. We asked around in the area and people told us that there where two tinamous known - one smaller around there (c 3000m) and a larger one from the highlands. I suspected the highland one could be Kalinowski's Tinamou, and we therefore took a higher route to reach Huamachuco this time. It was a lucky strike to get a hit this easily.
All in all this shows how relatively inexpensive and simple it is to do much needed surveys in Peru. And how much information can be obtained just by visiting old collecting sites for rare species. It also shows the lack of interest from larger funding bodies to implement strategies for the conservation for specific identified bird conservation priorities. BirdLife International has classed Kalinowski's Tinamou to one of the most threatened in Peru in the critically threatened category, together with Royal Cinclodes, White-winged Guan and Junín Flightless Grebe. But Kalinowski's Tinamou had not received any attention until this mini-expedition.
My guess is that it is a truly rare bird, but that the vast and seemingly sparsely populated areas close to where we now found it could hold an important population. There is quite a lot of mining in an area not too far away and this is worrying as there would be direct impact of some areas in form of pollution and an increase in the number of people if mining should increase generally here.
Kolibri Expeditions is doing a 4-day trek in April, and there may be an expedition prior to that should there be interest. Contact me for more details.
I am working on a more extensive trip report from the expedition in April-May 2000 which I will give news about when ready.