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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Central Peru, July 11-20, 2008,
(Including Lima Pelagic, Lomas de Lachay, Alta Pichita, Satipo Road, Ticlio/Marcapomacocha, Santa Eulalia)
NOTE: This report covers a trip taken slightly over one year ago. It was largely written then, but a tidal wave of personal responsibilities and issues that awaited me on my return kept me from completing it until now. The primary consequence is that the “official” bird list shifted in the meanwhile (the Clements checklist essentially converted itself to the SACC list). For details see the annotated checklist accompanying this report.
What follows is a report on a birding trip to Central Peru from July 11 through 21, 2008. The report is in three parts: a daily narrative, logistics, and an annotated species list. This narrative includes references to some of the more interesting species (first mention in caps) but for a full list of all species seen by location and Latin names see the annotated species list. In the narrative I don’t include detailed access instructions when those are adequately covered in Thomas Valqui’s excellent book, Where to Watch Birds in Peru.
The trip was booked through and expertly run by Kolibri Expeditions (further details in logistics section). Peru is a marvelous country, on many levels: people, food, culture, scenery, and not least, the spectacular birds. This trip was an introduction to, and—as it turned out—a very successful compromise between, various competing internal elements.
As I planned and daydreamed about the trip many months ago I correctly surmised that Peru was not a country that one could “do” in a single trip, or even three or four. That led me to try to plan a trip that would pick a general region and enjoy what that area had to offer without attempting to squeeze too much into too little (time, money, geography). Alas, even with this awareness and these best of intentions I still planned far too ambitious of a trip. Whatever time you allow, Peru wants more from you, though it does offer yet more in return. There were many opportunities to be overwhelmed by our rush through one bit of spectacular habitat after another, by the frequent logistical challenges (even with a guide and expert local tour company) and by the sheer magnitude of the birds present in the places we visited.
Fortunately we didn’t lose sight of the prize in hand. Despite this hedged and slightly obscure introduction, make no mistake—this was a wonderful trip in many ways: Incredible birds (both rare and physically beautiful), wonderful companionship, expert guiding, good food, devastatingly beautiful scenery and a peek at the beginnings of some significant local ecotouristic efforts.
I was honored and blessed to have as my traveling companion on this trip Peter Metropulos—expert birder, marvelous companion and old friend.
Friday, July 11. The travel to Peru was wonderfully uneventful. Flights left and arrived on time, connections were easily made, luggage not lost, Kolibri arrival pickup perfectly executed. As is typical on trips like this, on the way there we eagerly gazed through the airport windows during our layover in San Salvador and added a few birds to our very short El Salvador List: GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (literally a “garbage bird” as they hopped and poked around in an overflowing dumpster!), WHITE-TIPPED DOVE (one sneaking around at the edge of a grove of trees), TROPICAL KINGBIRD, GRAY-BREASTED MARTIN. Other smaller swallows we couldn’t quite make out, nor could we confirm what were the many doves flying around just out of range—perhaps White-winged, or, in this day and age, maybe Eurasian Collared Doves?
On arrival in Lima we spoke on the telephone with Kolibri’s master, Gunnar Engblom. Although tired from the overnight flight and despite our latish afternoon arrival, we didn’t want to rest at the hotel, but preferred to get right to some birding. The driver watched the bags in the van while we spent an enjoyable couple of hours with Javier, a very capable and amiable local birder that Gunnar arranged to accompany us around Olivar Park (near Miraflores). We didn’t see anything particularly rare, of course, but it felt great to start seeing some genuine Peruvian Birds. Species new for us, or otherwise interesting, were PACIFIC (WEST PERUVIAN) DOVE, CROAKING GROUND-DOVE, (only two here and took some searching to find—much easier to find at Lomas de Lachay), AMAZILIA HUMMINGBIRD, SOUTHERN BEARDLESS TYRANNULET, VERMILLION FLYCATCHER (both the all dark, melanistic form and the “regular” Vermillion-colored), LONG-TAILED MOCKINGBIRD, SCRUB BLACKBIRD, among much more familiar birds.
We checked into La Melodia Hotel, our San Miguel district hotel, just dropping the bags in the room and hastening out to a nice seafood dinner in the area. Javier kindly accompanied us to dinner, where we learned that seafood is more of lunchtime affair in Peru, though we still managed to sample some tasty grilled fish. The district was busy and a perhaps a little scruffy around the edges, but felt safe. We stayed there, as opposed to one of the more upscale districts such as Miraflores, because of the proximity to the birding locations at the beginning of our trip.
The beds were comfortable and we slept well, despite the strange loudspeaker blaring outside the window, which we later learned was some kind of drive-through restaurant doing brisk business well into the weekend night. I never travel without my earplugs—even in the USA or Western Europe—and once again they allowed me to have good night’s sleep despite the late-night take-out orders!
Saturday, July 12. The next day began early, or didn’t they all? Breakfast was simple toast and coffee. Then we made the short drive to the docks at Callao where we met up with Gunnar, our new friend Javier, the chummer/bird spotter Renzo and three other fellow-North American birders, plus the crew of two. It was a very compatible group. Because there were so few of us, Gunnar had arranged for the use of a smaller boat, a very fast, clean and comfortable 30 foot cruiser. It allowed us to spend more time at sea birding, while still providing a comfortable ride. It was dry all the way out (with the wind, against the current), but a little wet on the way back (with the current, against the wind). The swell wasn’t too bad, and the overall experience was like a gentle day back home on Monterey Bay. No one was seasick the entire day, and we all ate heartily from the nice spread Gunnar provided.
The strategy was simple: straight out past San Lorenzo Island into deep water, perhaps 35 miles offshore, a bit of trawling around, then back to port via the rookeries of Palomino and Kawinza Islands. Finally getting out into the Humboldt Current was a dream come true, with a continuing parade of new (for me) species in great light, with great visibility. Gunnar was a very capable bird guide, getting everyone on the key species with good descriptions of what we needed to be watching for. It didn’t hurt that Peter is also a seabird expert, with amazing spotting abilities as well as solid knowledge of what might be present there. Highlights on the open sea included PERUVIAN DIVING PETREL (relatively close in-shore, just beyond the islands), PERUVIAN PELICAN, PERUVIAN BOOBY, GUANAY CORMORANT, CHILEAN SKUA, BELCHER’S GULL, GRAY GULL, KELP GULL, SWALLOW-TAILED GULL (two basic birds just off Isla San Lorenzo were the only ones seen), SOUTH AMERICAN TERN, INCA TERN, WAVED ALBATROSS, WHITE-CHINNED PETREL, SOOTY SHEARWATER, WILSON’S, WHITE-VENTED, WEDGE-RUMPED, MARKHAM’S AND RINGED (HORNSBY’S) STORM-PETRELS. The only marine mammals were Southern Sea Lion and two small pods of Dusky Dolphin, which put on a fine show zooming under the bow and leaping out of the water on all sides.
Cruising by the two smaller islands was particularly interesting. Not only were the mass of seabirds a delight to behold, but the vast colony of Southern Sea Lion and the human presence of the guano harvesters/guards were fascinating to see as well. Now there’s a job with a lot of time for thinking and daydreaming! There were great birds on the rocks as well, including HUMBOLDT PENGUIN, RED-LEGGED CORMORANT (only a few of this handsome species among the much more common Guanay), and PERUVIAN SEASIDE CINCLODES (required some dedicated searching, but not hard to see once we got on one). On the way back in we put out the last of the chum, which conjured up a feeding frenzy of hundreds of Inca Terns and Peruvian Boobies—surely one of the highlights of my birding life.
We returned to port in the mid-afternoon, and drove the short distance through the refurbished part of old Callao (very attractive colonial seaport village, but seemingly kept under lock and key!) and walked along a birding trail built aside the Aranilla Pozala (lagoon). Most surprising was a large number of roosting ANDEAN GULL, along with more expected species such as BLACKISH OYSTERCATCHER, (EASTERN) WILLET (that one not so common at this season, I think), GRAY-HOODED GULL, and many of the inshore species seen from the boat. This would be a good place to take a walk if you weren’t able to take a pelagic trip but still wanted a chance for the inshore species.
Peter and I had dinner in a semi-chain barbecue place near the hotel. It was good, but nothing spectacular.
Sunday, July 13. After an excellent night’s sleep—thanks again to my trusty earplugs—we arose at our customary 5:30 a.m. for toast and coffee. Alas, the guide was an hour late due to transportation problems (the reserved cab never showed up at his remote residence and he had to scramble to find another way to the rendezvous). Soon enough, we were on our way for a day of coastal birding north of Lima. We were joined by our friends from the previous day’s pelagic trip. Our guide for the day was Alejandro Tello, a fine Peruvian naturalist and excellent birding guide. Our friend Javier assisted with the bird guiding and client herding. The drive north took us through some moonscape-like dry country, past towns of varying levels of prosperity—some of them truly heart-breaking slums.
After a couple of hours we turned off at the main entrance to Lomas de Lachay Reserve, a natural area in the hills that rise east of the coastal plain. The lower elevations are still pretty dry, but did yield some good birds: CINNEREOUS HARRIER, RED-BACKED (VARIABLE) HAWK, LEAST SEEDSNIPE (a real highlight, including precocial young running alongside the adults), BURROWING OWL, COASTAL MINER, GRASSLAND YELLOW-FINCH and PERUVIAN MEADOWLARK. As our good dirt road climbed higher into the hills the fog forest revealed itself. The grass turned green, trees and shrubs appeared. It felt almost lush. It turns out this is the greenest and wettest time of year; even so, it doesn’t really rain here very often, but the thick fog makes for a rich floristic environment. Unfortunately for us, this also meant that some of the specialty bird species this area is known for were widely dispersed and hard to find. In the drier seasons the birds tend to concentrate in the few seeps and catchments. After a hearty picnic breakfast (coffee!) we took a short hike through the interesting rock formations and “forested” canyons. Bird highlights were CROAKING GROUND-DOVE, BARE-FACED GROUND DOVE, MOUNTAIN PARAKEET, THICK-BILLED MINER, MASKED (BLACK-LORED) YELLOWTHROAT, CINEREOUS CONEBILL, BAND-TAILED SIERRA-FINCH, and COLLARED WARBLING-FINCH. Unfortunately such hoped- for species such as Raimondi’s Yellow-Finch and Oasis Hummingbird eluded us.
At around noon we drove another 30 kilometers north to the salt flats and estuary of Paraiso. Right where the rough track to the lagoon leaves the highway we saw a flock of 12 PERUVIAN THICK-KNEE. Again, our timing was a bit off. As we arrived we saw a departing busload of happy kids, who had managed in their morning visit to scare most of the birds to the far side of the wetlands. With some good scope work by Alejandro we came away with a few prizes: GREAT GREBE (in the ocean just beyond the breakers), PUNA IBIS, CHILEAN FLAMINGO (but only two instead of the usual dozens or even hundreds, the rest probably roosting in the far corners of the wetland area), WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL, AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER, PERUVIAN TERN (roosting on the salt flats—we would not likely have found these birds without Alejandro’s special knowledge, not to mention his scope) and YELLOWISH PIPIT. Also well-represented were the typical inshore birds, such as PERUVIAN BOOBY, PERUVIAN PELICAN and the like. This is a place to really spend some serious time, walking miles out into the fabulous habitat into the secret corners were the best birds hide.
We drove back southward, unfortunately dipping on Tawny-throated Dotterel (which Alejandro had seen just a few days previously in several spots we now checked unsuccessfully). We detoured to the lower, eastern “back” entrance to Lomas de Lachay (Valqui has a map showing access details). This was a much drier habitat, reminding me of the Sonora Desert back home. We easily found our primary target, CACTUS CANASTERO just off a few hundred feet up the road. There were some other good birds in the area such as BLACK-CHESTED BUZZARD-EAGLE, SHORT-TAILED FIELD-TYRANT, and one that got away—a very likely Grayish Miner which we flushed but saw only as a grayish blur as it flew across the canyon and out of view. At this point some of the party was weary of chasing after little gray-brown birds in the rocks, and with discretion the better part of valor we didn’t insist on working back through the canyon to locate the little gray-brown limited range (but not endemic) species that might have been found with another hour of work. Just outside the entrance to the Preserve, along a little canal with some small trees and shrubs, were AMAZILIA HUMMINGBIRD and DRAB SEEDEATER.
A very late stop in fading light at Pantanos de Ventanillo, allowed a quick, unsatisfying look at MANY-COLORED RUSH-TYRANT through the gates of the closed Preserve, while buses, trucks and curious people passed by. I’ll admit we were glad we weren’t standing in that spot alone at that hour! We wound our way back through the busy streets of Lima. Eventually Peter and I were deposited at a really nice restaurant called Tanta in Miraflores. It felt good to relax and enjoy the delicious new wave Peruvian/crossover cuisine, with time for some work on the bird notes and quiet conversation. The time passed quickly, and before we knew it Gunnar came bursting through the door and bustled us off through the chaos of Lima to the overnight bus station for our night bus to the east.
The plan was a good one: our jeep for the Satipo part of our trip would drive through the night with our bags and meet us in San Ramon early the next morning. We would travel in the greater comfort of an overnight sleeper-bus. How much sleep one can actually get in such a situation is very relative. Once we pulled out of Lima I put in my earplugs, blew up my little inflatable neck pillow, put a shade over my eyes, took a Benadryl, tilted the seat back and started counting sheep. I dozed, slept, woke, dozed again, and wondered where we were as the bus ground its way over the Andes, sometimes straight, sometimes turning sharply, ever colder. There was a movie on that was just distant buzz, and the lovely hostess came through from time to time providing notices and information I didn’t really hear or see. It only seemed like a short time before Gunnar tapped me on the shoulder and said it was time to disembark, but that really belongs in tomorrow’s account. Some passengers didn’t even try to sleep, but just read a book, watched the movie, or sat quietly. If you can’t sleep in these situations make sure you schedule an easy itinerary for the next day. Know who you are and plan accordingly!
Monday July 14. As I said, soon enough Gunnar was tapping me on the shoulder and the bus pulling into the empty streets of pre-dawn San Ramon. In a fuzzy hurry I packed up all my sleep supplies and stumbled out of the bus. Parked right at the corner was our faithful driver Henry, with all our gear neatly packed in and on our SUV for the next segment of our trip. We didn’t see much of San Ramon, but what I saw I liked. It was a busy little city in the mid-elevation Andes. Even at that hour the usual mototaxis were beginning to zoom around. Shops were all still closed, but the city had a good vibe. The coffee—blessed substance—was as delicious and strong as it had been in Lima. The day arrived, and my birding zeal grew. It was time to get BIRDING!
We drove up the rough dirt road to Alta Pichita, arriving at mixed second growth “shade coffee” forest (with some fairly intact looking subtropical forest in the mix) at early morning “prime time.” The birding was terrific until it finally slowed around 11:00 a.m. We didn’t really make it very far up the hill, only just reaching the entrance to the private mining concession below the official natural area. No matter. We had a nice blend of harder-to-find birds such as STRIPE-CHESTED ANTWREN, CREAMY-BELLIED ANTWREN, HIGHLAND ELAENIA and PERUVIAN (GOLDEN-FACED) TYRANNULET along with the delight of easy-ish tropical roadside birding. Is there anyone out there who DOESN’T want to see SPECKLED CHACHALACA, REDDISH HERMIT, BLACK-THROATED (EMERALD) TOUCANET, OCELLATED PICULET, PLAIN-CROWNED SPINTETAIL, BUFF-BROWED FOLIAGE-GLEANER, BLACKISH (“FOOTHILL”) ANTBIRD, CHESTNUT-TAILED ANTBIRD, STREAK-NECKED FLYCATCHER, GREEN (INCA) JAY, OLIVACEOUS GREENLET, SLATE-THROATED REDSTART (WHITESTART), SILVER-BEAKED TANAGER, ORANGE-BELLIED EUPHONIA, RUSSET-CROWNED WARBLER, BUFF-THROATED SALTATOR and DUSKY-GREEN and RUSSET-BACKED OROPENDULA! Also in this area we saw one of our few forest mammals of the trip, the very local Junin Red Squirrel.
It would have taken more luck and skill than I possess to have found the specialties without Gunnar’s excellent guiding here though I suppose we would have done fine alone on the basic roadside birding, assuming we could have found the start of the road. Although Valqui gives directions to this location, it would be easy to get turned around and head up the wrong road at first. Even Gunnar, who is familiar with the location, had to ask locals several times for confirmation that we were indeed on the correct road. Once you are heading up the mountain proper it is very straight-forward. Getting through the mine gate would be difficult without all permit papers in good order.
We headed back to San Ramon for the “daily special” lunch at the same restaurant at which we ate breakfast. Papas orocopa (potatoes in green sauce with an egg), vegetable soup, fish, rice and yuca, accompanied by delicious fresh juice, all for about $2 each! From there we began the “one hour” drive to Satipo. The time estimate was a bit of a Gunnarism—rather on the optimistic side—as the trip was actually around two and a half hours, not counting stops! As we approached Satipo we contemplated the dramatic effect that the changed political circumstances had on our access to this area. Not so long ago this was deep in Sendero Luminoso country, and it would have been deadly foolish for us to be in this location. Supposedly the heads of traitors were put on stakes outside the towns to warn that this was Sendero territory!
By the time we rolled into the dusty frontier-like town of Satipo is was getting late. To buy our needed supplies and get up the long track to our originally intended overnight spot (Apalla) would have put us in extremely late. So we opted to stay in a hotel in Satipo. That way we could have a nice dinner, shower, etc. while they got the supplies, and just leave a bit earlier the next morning for our birding on Satipo Road. Unfortunately our “little” excursion up the Satipo Road to track down a possible rail ended up taking over 2 hours. We got back to Satipo on the late side, very tired and more than a little grumpy. I was consumed with fretting over one thing or another, some with merit, some without, but nothing worth being so wound up about.
Time, the advice of a good friend and traveling companion, and a naturally optimistic attitude heal, and it wasn’t long before I felt just fine. Despite its scruffy demeanor, I really liked Satipo. We had dinner at Rambo Chicken—the place of great name, even greater logo, and forgettable food. The Chinese place next door is a much better choice, as we learned on our way back through the town a few days later. While Gunnar and Henry ran around buying supplies and Gunnar located an internet connection to keep his business running, Peter and I strolled about the town and called home from one of the long distance calling shops. The town is a maze of dusty streets, market stalls, hundreds of little shops selling an endless variation of water, soda crackers, odds and ends. Mounds of excavated trench material are piled here and there. The town has a frontier-like quality, a place with a lot of people and activity right on the edge of something. We stopped for a drink at a tiny little store/café in the market. The proprietors’ young daughter came home and did her schoolwork at the counter, then curled up and fell asleep. When the shopkeepers started to roll down the metal gates we knew it was time to go. We were trying to think of slogans for the local tourist board, with two finalists: “Satipo: there’s no Starbucks here” and “New York. London. Paris. Satipo.” After completing these profound musings we headed back to the VERY comfortable Hotel Majestic for a few hours of sleep.
Tuesday, July 15. Because of our hotel stop it was a 4:00 a.m. departure instead of our usual 5:30. We jostled up the bumpy road towards Huanuco, trying to nod off as best we could. We continued along the road, always up, for about two hours. The landscape changed from almost steamy in Satipo to cool and crisp by the time we reached our morning rendezvous, just below the Puente San Jose below Apalla. Another Kolibri group was just leaving the Satipo area (3 clients plus guide and driver). We shared some simple conversation and a tasty breakfast of sausage sandwiches and excellent press-filtered coffee. After a half an hour of this, they headed down and we headed up the road.
The small Andean town of Apalla (sometimes written “Apaya”) is the main “camping” headquarters for Gunnar’s Satipo trips. It is also where a number of locals live who are participating in Gunnar’s truly worthy local eco-tourism project. Gunnar is involved in a long ongoing discussion and demonstration of how protection of community-owned forest areas and development of a simple tourist infrastructure can benefit the local community far more than simply cutting the trees, overplanting in potatoes and shooting the wildlife. Gunnar is incredibly patient and respectful in the way he approaches the residents. His plan includes much more than just tourist lodging and T-shirts, but also encompasses various land-steward and community education concepts. It is a good beginning, with a long way to go. We were very supportive of Gunnar’s efforts and made it clear that we were willing to sacrifice some trip time to allow him to continue his conversations and meetings with community members. In fact this rarely took away from true birding time, even though it did leave us with some time when we were hanging around waiting.
Our lodging was in the unneeded second room of the school house. We met the schoolmaster, who proudly showed us their computer (no net connection yet, though maybe that day isn’t so far off). I particularly admired the poems and pictures by the students that were posted out front. Our “lodging” itself was definitely a work in progress. We slept in sleeping bags on creaky cots or leaky air mattresses—take your pick! For meals we sat in the tiny little school chairs at the school tables, while Henry cooked our meals with his camp stove. There was a semi-flush toilet in a clean privy outside (you filled the tank with a bucket before flushing). Everything was basic, slightly dusty maybe, but swept and clean. Nothing “icky” here. It would be hard duty for some, but was just fine for me. Honestly, I might feel disappointed if I come back in a few years and find a little lodge in its place, though that would undoubtedly be good for their business!
One of the real highlights for me was being an honorary temporary member of the town. We had tacit permission to walk everywhere. Some residents eyed us with curiosity, but no hostility. Others called out and we spoke (in Spanish—no English here!), or they offered us delicious fruit from their trees. There is a newly installed satellite phone, so you can even call home if you want to. One 11 year old boy followed us around a lot. His friends have dubbed him “Il Ornitologo” for his growing interest in birds. He is working with his mother to make their little garden behind their dwelling more attractive to birds. He used to be considered the best in the village with a slingshot. Now he chastises anyone who harms a single bird. I would have loved more time just hanging out in the village.
More time—aye, there’s the rub. Our 3 days here weren’t remotely close to sufficient time in this splendid valley. A week would be about right for the casual visitor, and more even better. As we headed up the Pampa Hermosa Valley following our first roadside breakfast we were dumbstruck with awe. Gorgeous forests from Neotropical to Temperate, Paramo/Puna above, sprinkled with Andean villages of varying levels of prosperity. Some—Mariposa, Apalla—may look shabby to privileged North American or European eyes, but are not bad actually. They have electricity, clean water, roofs in good repair, people with pride and hope in their eyes. Other towns look incredibly primitive. It can be difficult to tell which of these are inhabited and which abandoned. The residents’ only sustenance is subsistence agriculture. Potato growing, wood cutting, some grazing is about it. Everyone we passed on the roads or in the towns was curious, with reactions ranging from amazing friendliness to subtle hostility, though we never felt in the slightest danger.
And the birds in this lovely forest? Utterly fantastic! We had a steady stream of birds all day, from our first birding below Apalla in the early morning through our afternoon puffing around the slopes near Carrizales. In the annotated bird list I indicate more precisely which birds we found on which elevational segment of the road we visited, as well as some of the taxonomic considerations. The highlight reel is a good one, though, with a mix of “regular” species and profoundly spectacular endemics seen well throughout the day. Mixing elevations, the daylist included PUNA (VARIABLE) HAWK, MOUNTAIN CARACARA, ANDEAN GUAN, SHINING SUNBEAM, COLLARED (PERUVIAN) INCA, FIRE-THROATED METALTAIL, WHITE-BELLIED WOODSTAR, GOLDEN-HEADED QUETZAL, HIGHLAND MOTMOT, BLUE-BANDED TOUCANET, EYE-RINGED THISTLETAIL (!), STREAKED TUFFTEDCHEEK, BAY ANTPITTA, FULVOUS (“OBSCURE”) ANTPITTA (!!), “MILLPO” TAPACULO (!!!), TSCHUDI’S TAPACULO, SIERRAN ELAENIA, TUFTED TIT-TYRANT, RUFOUS-BREASTED, BROWN-BACKED and WHITE-BROWED CHAT-TYRANTS, ANDEAN SOLITAIRE, GLOSSY-BLACK THRUSH, CITRINE WARBLER, WHITE-CAPPED TANAGER, WHITE-BROWED (“BLACK-CAPPED) and SUPERCILIARIED (“WHITE-BELLIED”) HEMISPINGUS, RUFOUS-CHESTED TANAGER, HOODED, LACRIMOSE and SCARLET-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGERS, YELLOW-SCARFED TANAGER, PLUSH-CAPPED FINCH, MOUSTACHED FLOWERPIERCER, SLATY (“TACHANOWSKI’S”) BRUSH-FINCH and many other species.
We returned to “camp” happy and tired. Dinner was a nice concoction of spaghetti with tuna and olives, washed down with a pretty decent Chilean red wine in a tetra pack (or fruit juice, as you prefer). Then we went back up the road looking for nightjars. We didn’t have much success with the night birds, but we did have a splendid conversation with Gunnar about a wide range of subjects.
Wednesday, July 16. When Gunnar’s alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, Peter and I were two grumpy puppies. Neither of us had slept very well, thanks to our middle of the night discovery that the air mattresses would leak to flat in a few hours’ time. We packed into the car without even coffee to give us a little boost and started bouncing our way up the side road towards Andamarca. “Gunnar’s Birding Boot Camp” was how Peter described it. Our goal was to find some owls on the ridge, then have breakfast, then work our way to some spots for super-localized bird species. In fairness to Gunnar, WE were the ones who told him we were interested in nightbirds and super-local specialties! This was another point where my failure to really think through what we were after took its toll. We had some discussion on the precise allocation of priorities. In just three days there wasn’t time to do everything. If we focused on all of the true Satipo specialties that would not leave sufficient time to just jam on roadside tropical birding. Up on that frozen ridge at dawn we hammered out a compromise that led to a mostly satisfying result. But some strong advice: working these issues out in advance honestly and realistically makes for a smoother and less stressful trip.
We heard, but didn’t get much of a look at, a number of excellent nightbirds. Standing there in full grump mode I watched dawn come to the High Andes, mist rising off of distant peaks, green forests gradually coming into light and view, the dawn chorus of birds. Peace descended on my soul, and Henry ascended from Apalla—the sound of the jeep’s gears grinding up the hill brought the promise of morning coffee and a hot roadside breakfast. With the morning sun beginning to warm the forest and our attitudes properly adjusted we set off on our mix of target and tropical roadside birding.
We had mixed results on the target birding. A pesky overcast and steady wind kept the day very cool and dark at the higher elevations, which greatly suppressed bird activity. Some of the targets such as GRAY-BREASTED MOUNTAIN-TOUCAN, LARGE-FOOTED TAPACULO (a particularly interesting local race), UNSTREAKED TIT-TYRANT and PERUVIAN WREN appeared, while others on our “hope to see” list remained elusive. We also came upon a few flocks and individuals of other interesting species, if not quite so rare and local as those mentioned before, still nice to find, such as SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD, MONTANE FOLIAGE-GLEANER, BROWN-BELLIED SWALLOW, GRASS-GREEN TANAGER and (SOUTHERN) MOUNTAIN CACIQUE. Considering the likelihood of more mist, long birdless stretches from one target habitat to the next, and quiet thickets, we opted at this point to go lower and move into “general birding” mode. That meant abandoning further efforts to find several very special birds such as the probable new Phacellodomus Thornbird species, the “Montaro” Wren, and perhaps a Striated Earthcreeper or Creamy-crested Spinetail. I know that makes any super-listers reading this drop their jaws in astonishment, but it worked for us!
Our reward was 5 hours of some of the best roadside birding I’ve ever experienced. We drove down below Apalla to about 1800 meters and spent the rest of the afternoon walking slowly down the road. We were rewarded with great views of a long list of special birds, including BLACK-AND-CHESTNUT EAGLE, VIOLET-THROATED STARFRONTLET, GREAT SAPPHIREWING, AMETHYST-THROATED SUNANGEL, BOOTED RACKET-TAIL, MASKED TROGON, CRESTED QUETZAL, POWERFUL WOODPECKER, RED-CRESTED COTINGA, ANDEAN COCK-OF-THE-ROCK, STREAK-THROATED BUSH-TYRANT, WHITE-CAPPED DIPPER, various MOUNTAIN TANAGERS, YELLOW-THROATED, GOLDEN COLLARED, ORANGE-EARED, SAFFRON-CROWNED, BLUE-NECKED, BERYL-SPANGLED, and SILVER-BACKED TANAGERS, and DEEP-BLUE FLOWERPIERCER.
As we happily bounced back up the road towards Apalla in the late afternoon, we hit a bad rock and blasted a hole in the sidewall of a tire. Henry put on a spare, but this blowout caused a lot of hassle in the days ahead. Balancing that, as we were walking back up the road while Henry worked on the tire, we noted a LITTLE GROUND-TYRANT standing on the road in front of us. We returned late to Apalla. Gunnar had a meeting with the town council on the eco project, so Peter and I amused ourselves by hanging around in the town. Kids shyly approached us and would run away giggling when we said anything. We really got them going with a comedy routine where I would ask Peter, “¿Habla usted Gato?” and he would reply “Miaoooo” and so on through a variety of animals. We watched a pig break into the storekeeper’s living quarters. Peter went in to chase it out; minutes later Peter and the pig burst out the door—I’m not sure who was more startled! Then there was the clever chicken that had a plan to knock over and eat bread from a bag on a counter in the store before fluttering into a box to nest for the night. We eventually wandered back to our dwelling for another of Henry’s filling dinners. We worked on notes and heard Gunnar’s report on his meeting after his return.
Thursday, July 17. Our dawn awakening felt like sleeping in. We had opted for cots, which resulted in a much more satisfying sleep. Gunnar woke up a bit earlier and put on the coffee water, which allowed us to have a pre-departure cup—a distinct improvement! We walked into town and visited with a few of the townspeople. One of the stronger supporters of the project mentioned that up on his nearby finca there was a fruiting tree with a lot of birds on it in the mornings. We strolled up to have a look and were rewarded with SPECKLE-FACED PARROT, MOUNTAIN VELVETBREAST, WHITE-CRESTED ELAENIA, TRICOLORED BRUSH-FINCH and BLACK-BACKED GROSBEAK, among others.
We continued to walk and occasionally drive further down the road. It wasn’t a very birdy morning, despite stops in a number of known birding locations. Our best birds in this stretch were a pair of extremely furtive CABANIS’ SPINETAIL (coaxed out, and that barely, only with a tape), CLIFF FLYCATCHER, PARADISE and FLAME-FACED TANAGER. By noon we arrived back in Satipo and had an excellent lunch in the Chinese (Chifa, actually, a combination of Peruvian and Chinese food) restaurant. I had pork with perfectly cooked stir-fry vegetables over rice, with fresh-made Lúcuma juice on the side, followed by a scoop of Lúcuma ice cream from a nearby shop. Henry went off to patch the tire. Peter and I killed a little time wandering around Satipo some more, calling home and buying a few odds and ends.
Alas, our “3 hour” trip on the highway back to La Oroya turned into another grueling ordeal. The tire blew again, necessitating another tire change, more attempts to find spares in the next town, and a very late arrival in La Oroya. It didn’t help that a quick stop to look at a pair of FASCIATED TIGER HERON near Santa Ana led to discovery of a possible Oilbird cave (no confirmation possible this time, but stay tuned on the Kolibri website). That stop was with our permission, but it added to the delay. We rolled into La Oroya at around 11 p.m., hungry, tired and feeling the altitude (3750 meters). As we ate dinner in the only restaurant open at that hour, we again modified the plan to slice off the next morning’s planned visit to Junín Lake and instead have a more “leisurely” time at Ticlio Bog, Marcopomacocha and the Upper Santa Eulalia Valley. Doing all of that PLUS Junín would have been insane, but that’s the way I had planned it!
Our hostal was a cozy little place, like a simple Alpine Lodge. I would have liked to enjoy it more, just as I would have loved to have seen some of the spectacular mountain scenery on the drive up here, but the flats and other delays meant that most of the mountain part of the drive had been at night.
Friday, July 18. We arose early after a good, but short, night’s sleep. By prior arrangement, Gunnar had left on a night bus to Lima, and our guide from Lomas de Lachay, Alejandro, very capably took over the guide’s seat. They parked us at a decent restaurant where we enjoyed a bowl of Andean chicken soup and drank tea while they went off in search of new tires that were supposed to have been delivered overnight. This caused yet another modest delay, so we began our birding a good 2 hours later than intended. At least we knew we had good tires now! In fact, that was the last of the mechanical issues for the rest of the trip.
It didn’t take long to get to Abra de Anticona on the main Lima highway. At 4873 meters (about 16,000 feet) we didn’t exactly go sprinting up the mountain. Still, thanks to a week of acclimatization at a lower elevation and the good sense not to hurry too much we didn’t feel too bad. Zipping straight up here from Lima would be tough, and rob you of the magic of the place. Yes, successfully tracking down the super rarities of the area is a thrill, but this is definitely a place NOT to be in a hurry, and not just because of the altitude.
As our jeep ground its way up the sharp curves to the summit I thought often of the marvelous passage in Patrick O’Brien’s novel The Wine Dark Sea, when his intrepid naturalist/surgeon/spy Stephen Maturin is making his way up the Rimac River Valley and over this very pass on his faithful little donkey. The silent inhabitants of the little rocky homes along the way who watched Dr. Maturin pass were much the same as their distant descendants in our time.
The drive showed off the extremes of this area: spectacular physical beauty of rugged mountains with sensitive flora and fauna contrasting with vast mines and industrial operations—the drivers of Peru’s economy that help lift their people out of poverty and lay waste and ruin in their wake. The world is not a simple place. Towering peaks of red and brown, some with glaciers, stretched out north and south, with deep canyons slicing through to the west and east. We stopped for a few minutes at the shrine at the highway summit. Even here there were great birds flipping around: WHITE-WINGED and BAR-WINGED CINCLODES and STREAK-THROATED CANASTEROS. A CRESTED DUCK kept company on a small pond with PUNA IBIS and ANDEAN GOOSE. We kept our eye on the prize and quickly left for the short side road that took us to Ticlio Bog.
Surrounded by dramatic peaks, the bog itself is a sloping plain with half-icy pools in green mossy banks. Our late start meant it wasn’t quite as cold as it could have been, though the wind still blew cold. It was a hauntingly beautiful place. And the birds! Birds were everywhere. We were engrossed in watching the more common species when Alejandro called out, “DIADEMED SANDPIPER PLOVER!” and there it was, or rather, there they were. We studied and marveled at these beauties for as long as we wanted. They were always around somewhere, sometimes very close at hand. Equally riveting was the curious OLIVACEOUS THORNBILL, flutter hopping from one tubular flower to another, perching on the ground during sips. The endangered endemic WHITE-BELLIED CINCLODES was conspicuous and easy to find. Various other cinclodes, ground tyrants and sierra-finches strutted and fluttered around, including a flock of 17 RUFOUS-BELLIED SEEDSNIPE, not to mention WHITE-FRONTED GROUND-TYRANT, PLUMBEOUS SIERRA-FINCH, WHITE-WINGED DIUCA-FINCH, BRIGHT-RUMPED YELLOW-FINCH and most of those seen moments before at Abra de Anticona. Larger beauties included ANDEAN IBIS, PUNA IBIS, ANDEAN GOOSE and ANDEAN LAPWING. Attention birders! This is NOT a place to grab a rarity and run. Slow down and spend some time here. It is a marvellous place.
We finally tore ourselves away and after a brief drive west on the main highway turned off on a good dirt road toward Marcapomacocha and Abra Milloc. There were many birds along the way such as GRAY-BREASTED SEEDSNIPE, DARK-WINGED MINER, PLAIN-BREASTED EARTHCREEPER, CINEREOUS and RUFOUS-NAPED GROUND-TYRANTS, PERUVIAN SIERRA-FINCH, as well as continued spectacular scenery: long sweeping valleys in green and brown, craggy peaks of various shades, totally dominated by the massive bulk of the Cordillera Negro. Here and there were huts and rock wall animal pens, some in use, some abandoned, while in the higher pastures alpaca and llama grazed. Gazing at the Cordillera at lunchtime I felt happy, grateful and content.
We drove past the lonely intersection to Marcapomacocha, and followed the track to and over Abra Milloc, about the same elevation as Ticlio Bog. At the top of the pass there is a sacred Quechua spot, where hundreds of rock cairns are stacked on the crags and buttresses. From there we wound our way down the equally gorgeous Santa Eulalia Valley. Great birds and great views continued, with SILVERY GREBE, ANDEAN DUCK, GIANT COOT and BLACK-BREASTED HILLSTAR topping the list. We had a few good looks at that curious mammal, the Vizcacha, scurrying around in the talus alongside the road. Already we were feeling the pinch of time, despite our modified schedule. We lingered a bit more in the higher country, and paid for it by not having enough time lower down. It was already late afternoon by the time we reached the famous polylepis patch, and decided it had to wait until morning. Fortunately we had managed to see a few key species on the drive down, including BLACK METALTAIL. A late afternoon sighting of a pair of PEREGRINE FALCONS perched on what looked like an old nest was an exciting sight. This species is a very rare nester in this part of the world.
We drove on down the increasingly precipitous road, especially the high road to San Pedro de Casta and Huachupampa. People afraid of heights might want to cover this stretch with a blindfold on! We spent the night in the very new, very comfortable guest house at Huachupampa. I had the feeling that they were still figuring out the whole tourist accommodation bit, but it was a very comfortable, very inexpensive place to stay. I liked the town of Huachupampa, even though we never got to see it in full daylight. Here we go again with the time problem. This would be a great place for a layover day. The charming town square, the houses and buildings tucked in to the cliff face, the church, the interesting condor statue—all would have been great to explore with some daytime leisure. Dinner at the hostal was also fine—simple meat, rice, potatoes with anise tea to wash it down. Various townsfolk had gathered in the restaurant to watch the movie of the night on the restaurant’s television. The movie was a very fun, corny monster movie about giant underground snakes, filmed in Inyo County back home in California. A good time was had by all!
Saturday, July 19. We woke at dawn, loaded up the car and set out for our last birding day in the Andes. After discussing drive times with our guide and driver, we made another painful decision, this time to focus our birding on the lower valley and forego the polylepis patch with its possible White-cheeked Cotinga. We slowly worked our way down the valley, with frequent stops and walks for birds. We managed to find most, but not quite all, of the specialties. Just like at Lomas de Lachay, the time of year made it hard to pin down some of the key birds, which were well-dispersed throughout the area. We dipped on Bronze-tailed Comet and Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, and only Peter saw the Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail. Our day list did include a lot of great birds, however, not least of which were ANDEAN TINAMOU, SPOT-WINGED PIGEON, BARE-FACED and BLACK-WINGED GROUND DOVE, MOUNTAIN PARAKEET, PERUVIAN PYGMY-OWL, ANDEAN SWIFT, GIANT HUMMINGBIRD, PERUVIAN SHEARTAIL, BLACK-NECKED WOODPECKER, PIED-CRESTED and YELLOW-BILLED TIT-TYRANTS, SPOT-BILLED GROUND-TYRANT, RUFOUS-CHESTED TANAGER, BLUE-AND-YELLOW TANAGER, MOURNING and BAND-TAILED SIERRA-FINCHES and RUSTY-BELLIED BRUSH-FINCH.
We drove over the dramatic bridge at the bottom of the valley, had one last good bird stop that yielded GREAT INCA-FINCH and GREENISH YELLOW-FINCH, then started our drive back to Lima. We were briefly delayed by some roadwork. A crew was busy dealing with debris from a landslide, dynamiting the big rocks and pushing the mess off the road. While visions of being stuck in the valley and missing our flight floated through our heads, the workmen efficiently finished the job and the road was duly opened. While driving down the still-spectacular road that clings to the side of the steep canyon walls, Alejandro caught sight of an Andean Cat streaking across the road in front of the car. Alas, I was busy gazing at the endless switchbacks across the valley and wondering if someone actually walks all the way down to the little patch of green at the bottom every day, so I missed the whole thing. All too soon we were back in Lima.
This time Gunnar booked us into the terrific Bay View Hotel in Miraflores. It was very comfortable—elegant even. After a quick wash and change of clothes, we met our friend Javier for a high-speed tour of the old colonial downtown part of Lima. The buildings were magnificent, all brilliantly lit at night. We looked inside a number of grand, ornate churches, one of which had a wedding in progress. A violin and organ filled the high vaulted space with lovely music, making a particularly striking effect. Crowds of people were out on the street enjoying the lovely evening. We ate dinner at a pricey, but very good, Miraflores restaurant overlooking the Pacific. Note to self: Pisco Sours are really good, but really strong!
Sunday, July 20. Our last morning in Peru. Once again Javier met us for some local birding. Gunnar had arranged for our car and driver to be available for an extra morning, so we didn’t have to worry about the logistics of transportation, luggage safety, etc. We spent a good three hours or so at Pantanos de Villa in the southern part of Greater Lima. Gunnar had hoped to join us, but was stuck with family duty, something I don’t have any trouble understanding or forgiving. It was nice to have Javier with us. He knew all the good birding spots, the birds, and which areas to steer away from (though the latter isn’t too hard to figure out).
The birds were great, mostly old friends at this time, but a few new species, and finally a good look at the little jewel otherwise known as the MANY-COLORED RUSH-TYRANT.
All too soon we were out of time. We dropped off Javier, then were ourselves dropped off at the airport for the uneventful flight home. By any definition this was a very successful trip. In nine days of birding I noted (depending on whose taxonomy you use) 323 bird species, of which 24 were endemics, 12 special status (e.g. endangered, threatened, etc.) and 131 lifers for me. Others on the trip added an additional 15 species, including 5 more endemics! So close and yet so far! A more dedicated lister could have traded 50 or so of the “regular” roadside birds for another 10+ endemics, not-yet-described, or other severely range-restricted species. Some of the birds we saw were among the rarest in the world, and many are contenders for the “most beautiful and interesting” categories as well. The tire hassles, the long bumpy days in the jeep, the leaky mattresses: all fade quickly into quirky travelers’ tales, while the image of the birds, scenery, people, food, all remain clear in my mind.
AIR. We had heard varying reports, not all to the good, of the reliability of TACA airlines, often referred to as “Take A Chance Airlines.” Due to the significantly better cost and arrival times TACA offered, we did take a chance, and were rewarded with a very good experience. The planes were modern, the food acceptable and sufficient, the crew professional and pleasant, the flights on time and connections made, and the luggage duly delivered at the proper time. Was this typical or just good luck? I guess I’ll just have to take the chance again and see for myself!
TOUR GUIDE. Enough has been said by me and others about the “guide vs. do-it-yourself” option. I’ve done it both ways on previous trips. This time, for us it was a no-brainer when going on a short trip to areas in Peru with significant travel difficulties and some very hard to find and identify birds, many extremely local in distribution.
We booked the entire trip through Kolibri Expeditions, www.kolibriexpeditions.com. I give them excellent marks in all important categories. A major advantage to booking with Kolibri was that Gunnar truly did “move heaven and earth” (as promised) to make the pelagic trip happen. We would have been very disappointed if the trip couldn’t go, so we were grateful for the special efforts to make sure it did.
We had a really positive experience with Gunnar and Kolibri. Positives are mentioned throughout the narrative, with the short list being superb knowledge of the birds (including the taxonomy, the calls, where to find them and how to identify them), the geography, the people, the language, a genuine commitment to environmental protection, more than adequate command of the difficult travel logistics in Peru, and very competitive pricing. Gunnar is also a very interesting and entertaining guy. Your non-birding conversations will not be dull! We also really enjoyed our time with Alejandro Tello. He was definitely equal to the task on the birding. His English was good enough, and his knowledge of the scientific and environmental aspects of birds and Peru were outstanding (and fascinating to hear more about).
I don’t want to overemphasize the few negatives. In fact, one of them—Gunnar’s frequent need to locate internet connections for future business communication needs—is now solved. In the year since our trip, Gunnar has improved his mobile connectivity, so he is able to do most of that kind of activity during non-birding car travel, during meals, etc. Another problem area is driven by the conundrum of taking a tour where the trip guide is also the owner-operator of the company. On the one hand you get the incredible richness of knowledge and resources of the head of the company. On the other hand, you have to deal with the inevitable distractions of that individual’s need to take care of the myriad company details enroute. So is it better to request a trip guide other than the company owner? I guess the answer is one of individual preference. I was very happy that we had Gunnar as our guide on this trip, but have to admit that tolerating his greater business needs required some patience and was sometimes a little annoying. Maybe a bigger home office staff would help, but then fewer staff members means a lower trip cost. And travel logistics problem solvers who are also knowledgeable about birds and the remote areas that birders like to go to can’t be easy to find. No easy answers to that one, I’m afraid! Another minor negative were the consistent underestimates on travel time. A “one hour” drive was inevitably at least three; it always took a LOT longer to get where we were going than had been represented. You will note that I am NOT counting in the negative column the sometimes challenging field conditions and the fairly primitive setup in Apalla. That is just what you get when you venture into the remote regions we covered on this trip, and, in any case, if you want competitive pricing you have to be prepared for less than plush arrangements. The last entry in the complaint department isn’t really fair to pin on Gunnar: He will deliver the trip you request. If you plan a stupid trip, he might pause, but he won’t try very hard to talk you out of it or suggest more realistic alternatives. He could probably be a little more assertive about making sure you really know what you are getting yourself into.
BOOKS. Now there is a first-rate field guide for the birds of Peru: Schulenberg, et al., Birds of Peru (Princeton University Press, 2007). No field guide is perfect, and I had a few quibbles as I used the bird in the field (see annotated field list for details). But they are just quibbles. This is a marvelous book. I only wish there had been enough room in their publishing budget to include an accompanying guide with more natural history, taxonomy discussion, etc.
Valqui, Where to Watch Birds in Peru (2004) is very helpful and would be essential to the solo birder. Even to someone going on a guided trip it is very helpful for trip planning and preparation. As with any site-finding guide, don’t be too dependent on milepost markers and other highly specific information. Markers can change, or be mistakenly recorded in notes, car’s odometers can vary, or there can be any number of other points that go slightly astray. Remember that lists of possible species are just that: possible species! Don’t let the ones on the list that you didn’t see rob you of the joy of the ones that you did find. Thank the bird gods for our luck that someone took the time to assemble such a good combination of materials, check the web, ask locally before you go, and have fun finding your own birds and making your own discoveries.
Trying to save weight, I didn’t bring any other guide books or manuals.
MAPS. There are a number of decent country maps of Peru, though none with the detail that a birder craves. I thought the Rough Guide (1:1,500,000) and the Freytag & Berndt (1:1,200,000) were both pretty good. If you are a total map freak like me, you can also buy the US Tactical Pilotage Charts (TPC) for the region, especially the TPC Aviation Series. They aren’t designed to be used as ground maps, but have a lot of topographical detail. You can buy them at www.maptown.com for around $10 each. Think about leaving them with your guide or a local birder or scientist (who can use them) when you leave, unless you plan on returning to that exact location.
OTHER MATERIALS. There are too many great websites to list with trip reports, local birdfinding, checklists, etc. Here are some of my favorite websites, in no particular order, with apologies to the many worthy sites that I haven’t listed. I would annotate these, but then this trip report would be another year out of date by the time I finished!
TAXONOMY. Oh, the battle rages over what to call these feathered creatures and how to organize that information! See the discussion in the annotated list for something of an overview. It is really getting impossible for the casual, but well-intentioned birding tourist to figure all of this out!
701 Walnut Ave
Burlingame, CA 94010 USA
Please send E-mail with questions about this report to me care of Gunnar Englblom at firstname.lastname@example.org. Personal e-mail addresses on publically accessible websites carry too much spam risk to be worth posting. Gunnar has kindly allowed the use of his better-protected Kolibri address.