by Dave Geale
Reflections on a First Week in Peru
Just over a month ago, I received an offer from Gunnar Engblom to work with his Lima-based bird tour company, Kolibri Expeditions (http://www.netaccessperu.com/kolibri, firstname.lastname@example.org) , for half a year. I landed in Lima on April 20th, and the next morning set out for an incredible inaugural week of birding in central Peru with Pierre Van der Wielen and Alma Leegwater (two Dutch birders), Gunnar’s two Peruvian aides Juvenal Ccahuana and Goyo Ferro and of course Gunnar himself.
We began our journey by driving up the Santa Eulalia Valley, hoping especially for Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, a rare Peruvian endemic whose song Gunnar was hoping to record for the first time. Although we had no luck with this particular species, the birding along the road was spectacular; Great Inca-Finches, another endemic, were seen frequently, as were Peruvian Sheartails with their long tail streamers. As we searched a shrubby hillside for the Warbling-Finch, Pierre called “Condors” and we spent a few minutes admiring two majestic Andean Condors soaring below us. Giant Hummingbirds cruised around looking remarkably like Bee-eaters; they were one of seven hummers seen that first day. We set up camp to the sound of the distinctive “Pacific” race of Peruvian Pygmy-Owl calling from an open perch directly above our heads!
On our second day we continued up the valley, seeing such South American classics as Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper before reaching a hydro-electric station where we found many birds. Among them were two more Peruvian endemics, Black Metaltail and Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail as well as Thick-billed Siskin and White-winged Cinclodes. A landslide prevented us from taking the planned route, so we returned to the main road to drive over Tiqlio Pass. The detour proved interesting, as we found our best bird so far at the pass – a family of the very local and endemic White-bellied Cinclodes. We found some typical Andean waterfowl at a lake just across the pass including Crested Duck, Andean Goose and Silvery Grebe. We drove on to camp outside Satipo at the eastern base of the Andes.
We spent the next three days exploring the Satipo Road, an area which hadn’t been visited by birders for over thirty years due to terrorist activity in the area. Now that the area is safe to bird again, the road is sure to become a popular destination soon; we found incredible birds at all elevations along the way! We spent the first day working up to about 1000 m., seeing fourteen tanagers including such gems as Paradise, Green-and-gold, Black-faced and Beryl-spangled Tanagers and Blue Dacnis. We encountered Andean Cock-of-the-rocks twice during the day, and an Amazonian Umbrellabird appeared to be a fitting conclusion to a great day of birding – but, as dusk closed in, an encore appeared in the form of a Lyre-tailed Nightjar as we set up our tents! The next day we continued up the road, seeing a kaleidoscope of tanagers again and many other incredible birds! The morning was highlighted by an obliging pair of Lanceolated Monklets and a Fasciated !
Tiger-Heron, while in the afternoon Chestnut-breasted Coronets and many Booted Racket-tails put on quite a show as we prepared to camp at 1500 m. Our final day on the road was perhaps the best, although the first two were hardly disappointments - I added over 50 species to my life list that day, and many of them were stunning birds! The morning produced crippling views of a Chestnut-crowned Gnateater and a pair of Blue-browed Tanagers as well as some gaudy Versicoloured Barbets. The tanagers were again colourful and numerous, including many Mountain-Tanagers (Lacrimose, Hooded, Blue-winged, Buff-breasted, Chestnut-bellied and Scarlet-bellied!) as we ascended into true montane habitat. Around 2000 m we found an incredible flock including, among many of the tanagers mentioned above, Streaked Tuftedcheek, three Brush-Finches, Violet-throated Starfrontlet and Spectacled Whitestart. After a few more goodies, including Sword-billed Hummingbird and Collared Inca, we stopped just outside a small village above the tree line for a hummer someone had spotted from the car. It turned out to be a Peruvian endemic – Fire-throated Metaltail. As we watched it, Goyo made the best discovery of the trip so far – an Eye-ringed Thistletail! Another endemic, this one not seen by birders in thirty years! We watched it breathlessly as it skulked in a thicket until we all had seen it well. What a bird to complete our exploration of the Satipo Road; sure to become rival for the world-famous Manu Road as it is visited by more birders!
After arriving in the small village of Punto late at night, we awoke in the chilly Andean dawn anticipating another exciting day, which we got! We hiked down to an area known as Otuto hoping to find the recently described Black-spectacled Brush-Finch, although it had previously only been found in a nearby valley. We were distracted from our search by many great birds, including what appears to be a new taxon of wren, possibly an isolated subspecies of Plain-tailed Wren or maybe even a new species to science! After great looks at Mountain Caracara, Rufous Antpitta, Black Siskin and Shining Sunbeam, we did find the Brush-Finch and got pleasing views of it too! We made the trek back up to the village for a meal with the president of the community, and over some of the world’s best potatoes and cheese, we discussed with him the potential for ecotourism around his remote village. Satisfied, we headed for Huancayo for a night in civilization.
Although waking up to car horns instead of bird songs was a bit unpleasant, we had all enjoyed a night in a bed, and we settled back into the van for the drive to Marcopomacocha. Although we’d left the humid heat of the lowlands just days before, we drove through fairly serious snow on the way. However, the afternoon weather was acceptable as we found four Furnariids, including two more Peruvian endemics – Junin Canastero and Dark-winged Miner. In the same area were four species of Ground-Tyrants, including the first Lima Department record of Black-fronted. However, the best bird of the day was the last – great looks at a Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, a sought-after species that Gunnar has not yet missed at this site! We drove on down to Lima, stopping in San Mateo for a well-earned and hearty meal.
To conclude my first week of Peruvian birding, I made a day trip with five other birders to Lomas de Lachay, a desert oasis north of Lima. The hour’s drive up was through an incredibly desolate sand-and-rock landscape, and it was somewhat surprising when a Coastal Miner appeared out of the bleak desert while we ate a roadside breakfast. It was the first of three endemic Furnariids on the day; we spent quite a bit of time getting everyone looks at the most difficult; the Cactus Canastero. At the oasis itself we found a very cooperative Thick-billed Miner and also had great looks at Burrowing Owls and Least Seedsnipe.
It was a week of climatic extremes – brief tropical downpours in the lowland heat of Satipo, thick snowfall and biting winds at Tiqlio Pass and scorching desert hills on the coast – and these extremes of habitat produced an amazing variety of bird life. South America earned its reputation as “the bird continent” with me by producing 259 species in my first eight days, including many vibrant tanagers, skulking canasteros, dainty flycatchers and countless other brilliant birds!