Plain-tailed Warbling-finch (Microspingus alticola) is a rare to locally uncommon, medium sized tanager, with a slim long tail and a finely pointed bill. Easily recognisable by its dark face and white supercilium and submustachial stripes. Breast and chest are white, with rufous on flanks. This Warbling-finch is endemic to Peru, ranging from southern Cajamarca to central Ancash, principally West of the Río Marañon. Most of the sightings occurring along the road between the cities of Cajamarca and Celendín, and inside the Huascarán National Park.
According to Jaramillo, A. (2018), the species inhabits montane scrub, shrubby areas and low woodland, particularly ravines. Found mostly in Polylepis–Gynoxys woodland or woodland dominated by alder (Alnus), and other forests where Gynoxys present; is either strongly associated with Gynoxys or perhaps a Gynoxys specialist. Found at elevations between 2900–4300 m, mostly above 3500 m.
Forages actively among the foliage of Gynoxys and Polylepis trees, looking for small arthropods and sugary secretions from underside of Gynoxys leaves. It has also been seen moving (probably foraging?) on Eucalyptus and Pine tree leaves.
According to the sighting records on eBird, the northernmost limit of its distribution in Cajamarca department is near Comunidad Santa Rosa, south of the city of Celendín (-6.893755; -78.116803); and the southernmost site along the Lluchubamba Road, south of the town of Jocos (-7.541070; -78.003018).
As mentioned before, most of the sights are from the road between Cajamarca and Celendín, with twenty-one sightings reported between 2005 and 2018. Also, there are a few recent reports from the Río Chonta valley: two sights are from 2017, and one sight from 2018; with an additional sight from 2018 made by the author of this article, but not reported on eBird. There is also a single record of the species in San Marcos in 2006.
Since the species is rare, at Green Tours we decided to search for new potential sites for the species. By searching eBird Species Distribution Maps, we discovered a couple of reports from above the town of Namora. First record is from Dan Lane in 2013, east of lake Qillwacocha (-7.177094, -78.264674. Incorrectly named Huanico). And a second report in 2014 by Fernando Angulo on the same lake (Incorrectly named Huanico again).
We explored the area on July 31st 2018, and drove straight to a patch of Polylepis trees we have identified two weeks before and looked promising for the species (-7.1610757738; -78.24173641231). The place is a creek located just below the town of La Masma.
We arrived to the area at 07:30 am and started explore the southern part of the forest patch. Couldn’t find any bird for about one hour, consequently, we started to walk northwards down the road. Some 40 meters after start walking, we heard a pair of birds calling. They responded to our playback by flying around us, but never getting too close.
We stop the playback and walk for about 50 meters down the road and playback the call again, and a couple of birds rapidly responded by flying and calling around us (not sure if it was the same pair of birds or another one). Then, we walk the road down again for another 60 meters and try to call the birds again. We had a calling response again, but this time the bird was on a Eucalyptus tree, moving towards the top of the tree, always calling, and flew away across the creek, then disappearing in another patch of Polylepis; finally, we never saw the bird again. We tried the playback around the area for a few minutes but had no response. Then we walk back up the road towards the car, playing the calls again, but any bird responded.
At around 10:00 am we were back at the first spot we were early in the morning. Took a narrow, steep trail into the forest and try to call the birds again. It did not take too long before we had a response from at least two couples of birds that start to call and fly around us. We stayed in the area for about 20 minutes and the birds did not go away, they remain foraging among the Polylepis and Pine trees.
Finally, on our way back home we stopped for a few minutes near lake Qillwacocha, playing the Warbling-finch calls, but failed to find any bird.
It seems like Plain-tailed Warbling-finch might not be as rare as it seems, with more exploration we might encounter more sites like La Masma in the Cajamarca area.
If you want to help us with our conservation initiatives by supporting our team to look for more suitable areas, just book one of our birding tours to northern Peru; thus, part of your money will go to fund this project.
Text and photographs by Wilson Diaz.
Jaramillo, A. (2018). Plain-tailed Warbling-finch (Microspingus alticola). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/62061 on 8 August 2018).
Schulenberg, T. S.; D. F. Stotz; D. F. Lane; J. P. O’Neill, and T. A. Parker III (2010). Birds of Peru. Revised and Updated Edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.