Pelagic Birding in the Humboldt Current
Gunnar Engblom
Kolibri Expeditions

The Humboldt Current, which flows northwards along the Peruvian coast, brings cool nutrient rich waters from Antarctica that rise to the surface along the edge of the continental shelf creating the richest marine region of the world. This high productivity is reflected in the wealth of marine life found here; the anchovy fishery and the guano extraction from off-shore islands being well known examples of man’s exploitation of the resource. The abundance of plankton and fish provides ample food for many seabirds that are found in the region, including several species endemic to the Humboldt Current. Although several of these species can be seen from shore or by visiting off-shore islands where several species breed, such as the Ballestas Islands near Paracas, it is by taking a pelagic trip that allows a wider range of species and greater numbers of birds to be seen.

Historically little attention has been paid to the seabirds of Peru aside from early studies by Murphy in the 1930s and a few more recent observations by the late Ted Parker and the late Robin Hughes. However it is only since 2000 that true pelagic trips been available for the visiting birder to access these fascinating waters and get to grips with many of these seabirds. Pelagic trips now run regularly from Lima and can also be easily arranged from Paracas in Ica and Pimentel in Lambayeque. Results of the first pelagic trips have been astonishing and the waters off Peru are fast becoming known as a world pelagic birding hotspot.

The species that can be seen include several species that only occur in the waters of the Humboldt Current off Peru and Chile, four species that breed in Galapagos and commute to Peruvian waters to feed, species that breed in the south-west Pacific off Australia and New Zealand and appear seasonally off South America, species from the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic islands and species that breed in the northern hemisphere and migrate south to Peruvian waters. These groups of birds combine to create an impressive community of pelagic birds that congregate in large numbers providing the visiting birder with an impressive spectacle

Humboldt Current Endemic Seabirds

  • Humboldt Penguin
    Spheniscus humboldtii
  • Markham´s Strom-Petrel
    Oceanodroma markhami
  • Ringed Storm-Petrel
    Oceanodroma hornbyi
  • Peruvian Diving-Petrel
    Pelecanoides garnotii
  • Peruvian Pelican
    Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Peruvian Booby Sula variegata
  • Guanay Cormorant
    Phalacrocorax bougainvillii
  • Red-legged Cormorant
    Phalacrocorax gaimardi
  • Grey Gull Larus modestus
  • Band-tailed Gull Larus belcheri
  • Inca Tern Larosterna inca

Galapagos/Humboldt Current Endemics

  • Waved Albatross Phoebastria irrorata
  • Galapagos Petrel Pterodroma phaeopygia
  • White-vented Storm-Petrel
    Oceanities gracilis
  • Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus

The continental shelf, where the seabed of the relatively shallow coastal waters drops away sharply to depths of approximately 1500 m, is where the greatest concentrations of birds are found. The continental shelf lies relatively close to the coast in Peru, the exact distance varying along the coast, but the 35 nautical miles from port in the case of Lima is typical. As bird activity peaks during the morning it is recommended to make an early start to reach these waters while there is still good activity. Typically one departs at dawn.

Leaving port one can expect to see Band-tailed and Kelp Gulls, Neotropic Cormorant and seasonally Elegant, Common, Sandwich and South American Tern. Rocks and islands near shore hold Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstones and Surfbirds during the boreal winter and Grey Gulls can be seen on-shore or loafing on the sea from May to November. Rocky islets also provide an opportunity to see Red-legged Cormorant and the most marine of all passerine birds, the Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes. In-shore waters are dominated by Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, Guanay Cormrant and Inca Terns but here the first Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are found and Sooty Shearwaters soon become common passing is streams all around the boat. Smaller numbers of scarcer species of shearwater and storm-petrel are present and vigilant eyes usually son find Pink-footed Shearwater. The in-shore waters are also good for Humboldt Penguins and Peruvian Diving-Petrel, two of the several globally threatened species that have declined drastically due to habitat destruction on breeding islands, persecution and depletion of food supplies through over-fishing.

Moving farther from shore activity declines until one reaches the continental shelf when things can get hectic with large numbers of Wilson’s and White-vented Storm-Petrels, White-chinned Petrels being found, and Cape Petrel and Waved Albatross are regular in smaller numbers. Searching through the flocks of birds and chumming usually is rewarded with Markham’s, Wedge-rumped and Ringed (Hornby’s) Storm-Petrels and during the austral summer Black Storm-Petrel is regular. Westland Petrels are to be looked for amongst the White-chinned Petrels and species such as Southern Fulmar, Southern and Northern Giant Petrel, Cook’s Petrel can be seen with luck. Careful scanning may find some Swallow-tailed Gulls roosting on the sea, the only nocturnal gull in the world they rarely fly by day.

Seasonally during the northern winter these waters are visited by all three migratory jaegers (Pomarine, Arctic and Long-tailed), Sabine’s Gulls, Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes. During the austral winter Chilean and South Polar Skuas are found, Brown Skua has been seen but awaits photographic confirmation. From June to September one can expect to see a variety of other Albatross species with Black-browed, Grey-headed and Salvin’s being the regulars but several other species being possible.

Many other species are potentially possible in Peruvian waters and it is certain that more will be found in the coming years as more birders undertake pelagic trips.
The trips also recorded large numbers of sea-lions and provide regular sightings of cetaceans with Common Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin and Bottle-nosed Dolphin being the most commonly seen but large whales such as Blue, Humpback, Sei, Fin and Bryde`s Whale are also regularly recorded and several rarer cetaceans are likely overlooked.

In contrast to several other pelagic hotspots the sea is always relatively calm off Lima and sea-sickness is unusual. The area is generally not windy and consequently there is a rolling swell rather than choppy waves. By eating well (a full stomach is less prone to sickness) and avoiding sniffing the chum bucket most people suffer no problems.

A pelagic birding trip is the perfect complement to birding mainland Peru, allowing a new suite of species including all the Humboldt Current endemics to be found.




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