Guide: Will Haffey
It should come as no surprise that this year’s trip to Peru did not disappoint. From the cold waters of the Humboldt Current just south of Lima to the high Andes and (not so sweltering) Amazon, our group tallied 442 species over the course of the two-week trip. In this ornithologically and geographically diverse country, the stunning scenery and wonderful food rivaled even the most striking species.
Though the trip was full of an array of amazing birds, some highlights included: a colony of Humboldt Penguins on the edge of a frothy Pacific Ocean, male and female Amazonian Umbrellabirds, four sneaky Giant Otters, and a great views of several foothill and Amazonian antbird species.
The tour began in Lima, the coastal capital of Peru. Bathed routinely in fog, it’s impressive architecture and dramatic cliffs lent a monumental feel to the beginning of what would certainly be a memorable trip. After a meet-up and a quick lunch, we birded a few small parks in the Miraflores section of the city, tallying the usual urban birds while snapping some of our very first impressive shots of Amazilia Hummingbirds, Bananaquits, and the ever-popular Vermilion flycatcher. Interestingly, this last species exhibits a striking dark color morph in roughly half of the individuals in this coastal local. After a filling dinner, we went to bed early so as to prepare for our first real adventure in the morning.
Leaving before dawn, we drove roughly an hour south of Lima along a fog-choked desert highway to the small town of Pucusana. Here, from the rocky cliffs overlooking the churning Pacific below, we noted an abundance of Inca Terns, Red-legged Cormorants, and Peruvian Pelicans. The birding only improved when our private launch brought us around the front of the rocks, where breeding Peruvian Boobies and Humboldt Penguins intermingled with lounging South American Sea Lions. Returning to Lima, we stopped briefly at Los Pantanos de Villa refuge, where Chilean Flamingos fed amongst a myriad of waterfowl. A Many-colored Rush Tyrant even gave us a quick show! Leaving the coast behind, we boarded an evening flight to Cuzco, traversing the Andes and arriving in this charming highlands city just in time for dinner, a quick walk around the Plaza de Armas, and bed.
The activity of Day 2 was only a prelude to Day 3! In a freezing predawn light (37 degreees F!), we departed for Ollantaytambo, a small colonial town with a rich Incan history that serves as the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. Flowering roadside tobacco growing on the road to Ollantaytambo produced several endemic Bearded Mountaineers, while a charming morning breakfast stop at some feeders yielded even more hummingbirds, including Sword-billed and Giant. The rising sun warming the chilly mountain air punctuated by horticultural and avian gems was truly our first real taste of neotropical birding! Upon stashing some luggage at a hotel, we boarded a train, whose snaking tracks led us past not only snowy Andean peaks but Torrent Ducks as well! Upon arriving in Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, we were treated to many more neotropical species, such as Speckle-faced Parrot and Andean Solitaire, that thrive in these lower elevations.
An early morning bus ride up to Machu Picchu yielded not only birds, but dramatic scenery as well. Highlights from the relatively busy trails included close views of singing endemic Inca Wrens, Chestnut-capped Brush Finches, and a smattering of tanagers. The ruins, which dramatically opened before our very eyes as the morning fog lifted, did not fail to stun even returning visitors. Concluding our tour of the ruins, we descended back to Aguas Calientes, birding along the road where possible. An afternoon train departure back to Ollantaytambo provided us with a blazing sunset over the Andean highlands, which was followed by a delicious dinner at our comfortable terra-cotta style hotel.
Early the following morning we departed for the high Andean pass at Abra Malaga and the high elevation forest found just on the other side. A quick stop in the pass at sunup provided perhaps the most dramatic view in the trip, where frigid temperatures contrasted sharply with the brilliant sun reflecting off the snow-capped peaks. Endemic Marcapata Spinetails were quick to greet us with their dawn songs, while mountain-tanagers and local Cuzco Brushfinches provided the morning entertainment a bit further down the slope. After hard work, both Urubamba and Red-and-white Antpittas showed extremely well, a prelude to our delicious picnic lunch overlooking a deep, forested canyon. On our way back to Cuzco, a quick stop at a roadside patch of scrub provided Stripe-headed Antpitta, Creamy-crested Spinetail, Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch, AND a very confiding White-tufted Sunbeam! Birding in Peru is always full of surprises!
After a very early start at our Cuzco hotel and a brief stop for waterbirds and rails at Haurcapay Lake, we slowly made our way to the famed Manu National Park and Wayquecha Research Station. Stopping for arid highland species, such as Andean Flicker, we slowly descended towards the main entrance to the National Park. Manu, with its staggering bird list, is arguably the single best place to watch birds on planet earth, and we began with an evening birding the somewhat sleepy grounds of the lodge. Several new species of tanagers and hummingbirds greeted us at the feeders, while thick blankets and a clear, cold moonlight night rounded out the day.
Day seven began early (no surprise!) but our dedication was rewarded with one of the most amazing birding days of the trip. Early morning sun electrified such beauties as Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, and Band-tailed Fruiteater. Working our way down Manu Road, descending through a subtle yet dramatic change in scenery, we encountered enigmatic local specialties such as Inca Flycatcher and Slaty-backed Chat Tyrant on our way to Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge. Once ensconced in the lodge’s more tropical surroundings, Peruvian Piedtails and a plethora of Tangara tanagers entertained us on the lodge grounds, while mixed flocks were an almost constant occurrence for the balance of the afternoon. A command matinee performance by 18 male Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks at a nearby lek was the cherry on top.
Morning birding yielded further tanagers, flycatchers, barbets, and furnariids, and our patience on one local trail ultimately paid off with views of both Yungas Manakin and Slaty Gnateater. Prying ourselves away from the always active feeders, a short drive downslope to an impressive overlook rewarded us with four Amazonian Umbrellabirds. As the sun set, two Lyre-tailed Nightjars sallied for insects in the beam of our flashlight, providing a fitting end to another very birdy day.
Leaving Cock-of-the-Rock lodge early in the morning, we slowly birded our way down the slope towards the Amazonian foothills. With each change in elevation, both the birds and vegetation became noticeably different, adding new species such as Yellow-breasted Warbling-Antbird, Black-fronted Nunbird, and a slew of new parrots. Upon reaching Villa Carmen, our lodge for the next two nights, we were blown away not just by the incredible accommodations but by the birdiness of the entire area. A deluge of new species, from several macaws to Purplish Jay to Hoatzin seemed to drip from every tree. A short jaunt to a collection of hummingbird feeders landed us such gems as Rufous-crested Coquette, Gould’s Jewelfront, and Koepcke’s Hermit only feet from our faces.
A full day in the foothills began with a morning trek to the most unusual of feeder birds: vultures. By constructing a blind and regularly laying out cow carcasses along the banks of a river, a local man provided us with close views of several King Vultures. In addition, a nearby wetland hosted an accommodating Rufous-sided Crakes, while working the roadsides and bamboo thickets yielded both Manu and Bamboo Antbirds, among others. An afternoon mixed flock proved to be perhaps the most active of the trip, hosting Plum-throated Cotingas, Scarlet-hooded Barbet, and Chestnut-capped Puffbird. After a rewarding dinner, we all went to bed early to prepare ourselves for a long boat trip down the Madre de Dios River.
Striking out early in the morning on the seasonally low Madre de Dios, we immediately began ticking waterbirds that, up to this point, had eluded us so far. Cocoi Herons, Sand-colored Nighthawks, and White-banded Swallows were only a few species that seemed to be around every turn in our seven hour journey to Manu Wildlife Center. After getting settled in our rooms, a walk through mature forest to the canopy tower perched in atop a kapok tree yielded an onslaught of new species. From our lofty perch we ticked off White-rumped Syristres, Ivory-billed Aracari, and White-necked Puffbird while the golden light and pairs of several macaw species signaled the closing of the day.
Our final full day of birding was colored by the nocturnal arrival of a strong cold front from the south, that not only brought gale-force winds but sheets of cold rain. With the temperature no more than 50 degrees and steady rain continuing, we were forced to cancel our much-anticipated visit to Blanquillo Clay Lick. Fortunately, by mid-morning the rain ultimately relented and we squeezed in a visit to Cocha Blanco, an oxbow lake home to a family of Giant Otters. Paddling quietly on a catamaran, we spied not only the otter family but Purus Jacamar, Black-capped Donacobius, and Silvered Antbird. An afternoon hike through terra firma forest on the grounds of the Wildlife Center produced Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, White-fronted Nunbird, and Black-faced Antthrush.
Leaving in the still chilly pre-dawn light, our boat snaked down a foggy Madre de Dios towards Boca Colorado, a boom town from where a car ultimately drove us to the airport in Puerto Maldonado. Though the birding was pretty sparse on this travel day, we did have one final view of a perched King Vulture on the side of the road that bid us farewell to southern Peru. As our flight back to Lima crossed the jagged, snowy peaks of the Andes colored pink in the setting sun, it was easy to reflect upon the incredible trip that now was drawing to a close.
You can also watch the full clip with more highlights from the 2022 Peru birding tour on our Nature Travel Birding Youtube channel.
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