LSU team wins top honor in Peru event

A team of LSU graduate students brought home the first-place trophy in an international birding event this month after spotting 493 species during a 5½-day competition in Peru.

The trophy — a statue of a bird species first discovered in Peru by an LSU museum curator in the 1960s — is an example of how long LSU researchers have been working in South America.

“LSU has been at the forefront of finding species of birds in South America,” said Michael Harvey, a graduate student at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

The bird depicted in the trophy even has a Louisiana name. Although commonly called the black-faced continga, the scientific name is Conioptilon mcilhennyi after the McIlhenny family members who have been big supporters of bird programs at LSU, said Glenn Seeholzer, a graduate student at LSU Museum of Natural Science.

The group learned about the contest through Dan Lane, a research associate at the museum who has done a lot of work in Peru, Seeholzer said. Although Lane couldn’t participate in the Birding Rally Challenge Peru 2012, he sent the information to graduate students, and the team of Seeholzer, Harvey, Ryan Terrill and Paul Van Els got ready for the trip.

This trip was unlike previous birding trips the graduate student team members have participated in during their research in South America.

Instead of sleeping in tents in the jungle, eating beans and rice for every meal, and dealing with the logistics of organizing a research trip into remote areas, this one had a taste of luxury.

“This trip they had taken care of everything. All we had to do is be up and ready to bird watch,” Seeholzer said. “It was really plush. We were staying in some of the nicest hotels.”

Although there have been birding events in the U.S. and Europe for years, both Seeholzer and Harvey agreed this was a first in several ways. Not only was this even longer than most at 5½ days rather than two or three, but it also drew in teams from around the world.

The four-member teams came from LSU, Cornell University, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Spain and Brazil, according to information on the Birding Rally Challenge website. The event started on Nov. 29 and continued until Dec. 4 through the Amazon River jungle and up into the mountains of the Andes.

The competition started each day at 5:30 a.m. and every team had to be back at the hotel by 6:30 p.m. to confirm the birds they had found.

At least two of the team members had to confirm a bird sighting or bird song before the list could be submitted, Seeholzer said.

It’s an honor system, he said, and there’s no reason to cheat.

“It’s like cheating on solitaire,” Seeholzer said.

The first day out was the LSU’s team best day. The team either spotted or identified through bird song 225 species of birds.

“In the Amazon, it’s hard to see birds,” Harvey said. So it’s a big advantage if people are really knowledgeable on what birdsong they expect to hear. “If you can hear a bird calling in the distance, you don’t have to spend 10 minutes chasing it down.”

The birding event was organized by Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism and other partners to help raise awareness about eco-tourism opportunities available in Peru, Seeholzer said.

The tourist commission wants to change the perception that the terrain and amenities in Peru are too difficult for eco-tourism, he said. Although at one time it was more difficult for Americans and Europeans to have eco-friendly vacations in Peru rather than Costa Rica, that’s not really the case anymore, Seeholzer said. Plus, he said, the variety of birds that can be seen in Peru really is superior, he said.

“Mike and I don’t go to Costa Rica. We go to Peru and Bolivia because they have so much more to offer,” Seeholzer said.