17 - 31 July 1999
by Ron Hoff
We have a group of 6 people that try to go birding out of the country somewhere each year. We decided this year to try to find some of the high Andean birds that are endemic or have restricted ranges, such as the Golden-backed Mountain Tanager. We had taken a trip to Manu in 1997 with Manu Expeditiones. They did a fine job of setting up our trip, so we decided to try them again. We e-mailed Barry Walker (BarryWalker@ManuExpeditions.com or firstname.lastname@example.org), a Brit who, along with his wife, own and operate Manu Expeditiones. Barry has lived in Peru for the last 18 years and is a very keen birder/guide. We specifically asked him to set up an itinerary that would concentrate on the high Andean endemics.
This trip was 15 days long and cost about $2,770/person (for 8 people), Lima-Lima. The cost was inclusive of everything except evening meals for 6 of the days. We did 1 day to Lomas de Lachay, north of Lima, 1 day on the Santa Eulalia road, 1 day to Marcopomacocha (15,000'), 1 day to Lake Junin', 3 days in Huanuco area, going to the Carpish Tunnel area and the Paty trail, 3 days to Bosque Unchog ( this was camping and we were only about the 4th group to ever go here), 1 day travel to Huaraz, and 3 days in the Huaraz area and Huascaran' National Park. I'll go through the trip day by day, listing what I feel were some of the highlights and hopefully some humorous anecdotes. I won't bore everybody with the commoner species, although some are quite nice.
Day 1 -
We left Lima about 9AM to go to this dry area north of Lima to search for a couple of target endemics; Thick-billed Miner and Cactus Canastero. To get to this area, you first drive through an extremely large dune of sand, cut only by the highway. It's a spectacular sight right off the bat. All along the coast of Peru is included in the Atacama Desert. The whole area is very dry. We went to Lachay park, just off the highway enough to gain some elevation and start having some stunted vegetation. The water for this vegetation comes almost solely from the fog that rolls in from the cold Humbolt Current. As we started walking to find the Miner, we spotted a Collared Warbling-Finch, 2 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles and some Amazilia Hummingbirds. We eventually found the Thick-billed Miner, and also added a Dark-faced Miner and some Bare-face Ground-Doves. Driving out of the park we found a couple of Least Seedsnipes, a Peruvian Thicknee (great look in the scope), and some Coastal Miners (endemic). We next went to another dry valley, and after much searching, finally found and saw well, a Cactus Canastero, along with a couple of Burrowing Owls. Night at Hotel Manhattan. A nice, clean hotel close to the Lima airport.
Day 2 -
We birded up the Santa Eulalia road to an elevation of 8,900'. The main target bird here was the Great Inca-Finch, one of 5 Inca-Finches, all endemic to Peru. This was also our introduction to the andean one lane dirt roads that 2 large vehicles somehow manage to pass each other! It requires a certain amount of resolve to remember that most vehicles never go over the edge! Some of the other birds found today included my first ever Andean Condor, 2 separate Peruvian Pygmy-Owls, Andean Swifts, Oasis Hummingbird, Peruvian Sheartail, Purple-collared Woodstar, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Rusty-bellied Brush-Finch, Mourning Sierra-Finch, and Golden-bellied Grosbeak.
Day 3 -
This day was a biggie for we really got up to high altitude. We went to an area known as the Marcopomacocha highlands, which was about 15,000', give or take a few hundred feet (but who's counting at that elevation?). We hiked down a trail for about a mile to a bog to look for some specialties like White-bellied Cinclodes (we saw 4 at very close range), and Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (great scope looks at a pair on the bog - what a beauty!). On the walk down to the bog we encountered several species. I got "throated" by a Black-breasted Hillstar, an endemic. Some others were Dark-winged and Slender-billed Miners; Plain-breasted Earthcreeper; Streak-throated Canastero; Puna,Plain-capped, Cinereous, White-fronted, and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants; Andean Swallow; and 15+ White-winged Diuca-Finches (Gorgeous and possibly the highest nesting passerine in the world). When we got down to the bog we encountered a flock of about 50 Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes and managed to get great scope looks at them. 2 Grey-breasted Seedsnipes were briefly seen flying away by some group members. We hoped to find them again later in the trip but never did. Another oddity was the near endemic Olivacious Thornbill, a hummer that we actually saw perch on the ground. This may not be as strange as it first seems, as there's not much at this altitude that's over 3" tall anyway! I even saw it chase off an Andean Swallow. A word her about altitude sickness. Everybody in our group except me took Diamox for altitude sickness. It pretty much worked but at this altitude caution is advised. I wound up with a strong headache but managed it with some aspirin and tolerance. The hike back up out of the bog was a killer. It took about 1.5 hours to go a mile, 75 yards at a time! A couple of more days to acclimate would have been better, but it would have been out of the way for our itinerary. We also had Andean Goose, Crested Duck, and a few saw some Puna Snipes. We spent the night in the town of Tarma at about 6,500' All altitude effects were gone when we got down there.
Day 4 -
Today we went to Lake Junin' (elevation 13,000+ feet) to look for the endemic and rare Junin' Flightless Grebe. Our guide had arranged for an inflatable boat and boatsman to lead us out into the reedbeds over a mile from shore, where the grebe lives and breeds. We lucked out with the weather and it was calm and sunny. It took us about an hour to paddle out far enough to get to the grebe's habitat. According to Barry, it would be virtually impossible to identify this grebe from the shore. It is very similar to Silvery Grebe, with the main difference being it's grayish bill. This can only be seen well at close range. Also Silvery Grebes scare off long before you can get close to them. By contrast, the Junin' Flightless Grebe was rather unafraid of us and allowed us to paddle slowly to within 15 feet for a knock out look. It kept an eye on us for sure, but never appeared to be stressed. As Barry would say, it was a proper mega-tick! On the way back in, we had a pair of beautiful Andean Avocets fly over, never to be seen again on the trip. Several Wren-like Rushbirds and Many-colored Rush-Tyrants were seen in the various reed clumps on the way out and back. Some other birds on the lake were: Andean Geese, Andean Duck, Speckled Teal, Crested Duck, Yellow-billed Pintail, Chilean Flamingos. We birded the area along the lake shore after we got back and saw: a super Aplomado Falcon in the scope, a pair of gorgeous Puna Hawks, Plumbeous Rail, Black-breasted Hillstar again, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, White-winged Cinclodes, Common Miner (the only ones on the trip - common?), Streak-throated Canastero, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Andean Negrito, and Short-billed Pipit. To Huanuco for the next 4 nights. We stayed in the Grand Hotel Huanuco. It was very nice and the food was very good.
Days 5 and 6 -
We birded both days in the Carpish Tunnel area. Both mornings we hiked down and up the Paty Trail, a few miles beyond the tunnel itself. This trail was birded by Ted Parker. It was very productive, but the hiking was tough. This was cloud forest (about 9,000') and like most forest birding it could be slow at times, but when the feeding flocks came through it was dizzying. Two of the specialties here were the Bay and Chestnut Antpittas. Barry taped both of them in to within a few feet, but we never so much as saw a leaf move! What skulkers! It was frustrating. We did get to see a Large-footed Tapaculo. We saw several hummingbirds on the trail such as Speckled, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Sword-billed (always a whopper!), Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Emerald-bellied Puffleg, Booted Racket-tail, and Tyrian Metaltail.
Some other goodies seen on the trail were: Golden-headed Quetzal; Azara's and Rufous Spinetails; Uniform and Variable Antshrikes; Long-tailed Antbird; Green-and-Black, Band-tailed, and Masked (endemic and very hard to come by) Fruiteaters; 4 Red-ruffed Fruitcrows; Peruvian Tyrannulets; Unstreaked and Tufted Tit-Tyrants; Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet; White-eared Solitaire; Peruvian Wrens; Tricolored, Slaty, and Stripe-headed Brush-Finches; Black-capped, Oleaginous, Black-eared, and Drab Hemispingus'; Hooded, Blue-winged, Lacrimose, and Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanagers; and Yellow-scarfed Tanager (breathtaking!). The late afternoons we spent walking the old road above the Carpish Tunnel. Birding was very good here as well with more cloud forest species such as Pearled Treerunner, Streaked Tuftedcheek, and Moustached Flower-piercer. The highlight here was a super scope look at a Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan. What a beauty!!!
Day 7 -
Today we drove south from Huanuco to search some Polylepis tree patches for some more endemics and found them. Black Metaltails (endemic) showed very well, as well as some Giant Hummingbirds. Striated Earthcreeper was endemic as well. 5 Baron's (or Southern Line-cheeked) Spinetails were seen. At our lunch break we spotted a pair of obliging (= great scope looks) Stripe-headed Antpittas and a family of White-capped Dippers. Maranon Tit-Tyrant was another endemic and a snappy one at that. We also picked up a Thick-billed Siskin, Giant Conebill (within 20 feet of us!), Brown-flanked Tanager (a hard to find endemic), 4 Rufous-backed Inca-Finches (another endemic), Black-throated Flower-piercers, and Golden-billed Saltator.
Day 8 -
Now the plot thickens. We traveled to Bosque Unchog today. This is a very difficult place to go to for some very hard to see species. The road o get there was very off the beaten path. The general plan was to drive as far as we could. Then there were horses arranged to pick up our luggage and tents to take them up to the pass where we would be camping. Then the horses would come back down and get us so we wouldn't have to hike so far. The gear went up first. We waited a long time for the horses and finally decided to start walking. The horses could pick us up when they came back down. NOT! We wound up walking the whole way up (about 4 miles; elevation here was 11,000'). It started raining after a mile or so. It wasn't so bad at first, but then the wind picked up and we really started getting wet and cold. Half way up, our crew brought the propane stove down and made us some hot soup right on the side of the road under a tarp. It hit the spot. We finally got to the camp sight right before dark. The crew already had the tents set up. We were all so cold that we all got in the large cook tent and the crew fired up the stove and warmed us up. 3 of the ladies were so soaked that we formed a semi-circle with our backs turned so they could take their wet clothes off and change into some dry ones. After a late supper we went to bed and finally warmed up in our sleeping bags. Boy was it ever tough to get out of them the next morning when it was about 38 degrees!
Days 9,10, and 11 -
We were warned that the weather here was pretty lousy and to only expect about 2-3 hours of decent birding weather in the mornings. We must have paid our dues hiking up the previous day (one of the hardest hikes I've ever done), because we had perfect weather for the whole time we were up here. I was afraid it might be too sunny for the birds, but that proved to be a non-factor. THE main target bird here was the Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager. A very restricted endemic and notoriously nomadic and possibly hard to find. We saw a couple the first morning, but they were several hundred yards away and we couldn't see much except they were large and golden. Barry said that might be our only look, so look hard. The next day we found one with some other birds and eventually got it in the scope at only 75-100 yards distance. Super look!! We also had Hooded, Scarlet-bellied, and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanagers; another Yellow-scarfed Tanager; and Golden-collared Tanager.
The other toughies here were Bay-vented Cotinga, Rufous-browed Hemispingus, Pardusco, White-chinned Thistletail, Coppery Metatail, and a distinct race of the Rufous Antpitta. We saw 2 Cotingas. The first was a fly by and barely countable, but the last day we happened to be in "the right place at the right time" and one flew in to within 15 feet of us. Pardusco was easy and almost common. The White-chinned Thistletail was trying to be cryptic, but we persevered and eventually got great looks. Neat bird! Coppery Metaltails were easy the first day, but scarce after that. We had them in the scope and they're gorgeous. The Rufous-browed Hemispingus proved to be the hardest of all to find. Barry taped all three days, but it appears that there might only be one bird living there. We got brief glimpses on day 2, but finally got a great, though all too brief, look on our last morning. It amazes me that gray and rufous can be so stunning! We figured that our luck with Antpittas just had to change and it did. We finally got a look at this cutie. Barry had taped it out for a couple of us, as we had gotten split up on the trail. When the others found out he had taped it out, they tried two more times and both times the bird popped up and gave brief but great looks. We must be living right or something.
A couple of other goodies up here were: unbelievable scope looks at Moustached Flower-piercer; a couple of White-collared Jays; Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant; Elfin Forest Tapaculo; heard Undulated Antpitta, Line-fronted Canastero; and Great Sapphirewing. We tried to tape out a Swallow-tailed Nightjar, but it did not show. This was a great experience at this location. We were only the 3rd group ever to go here. The logistics of the place are difficult, but Barry's crew did a great job and we had a super time. We even had bacon and eggs for breakfast one day! After birding the last morning, we finally got to ride the horses part of the way back down to our bus. I haven't been on a horse in many years, so it was fun to ride them. That is until my wife's horse behind mine bit my horse and my horse bucked to kick her horse, thereby throwing me off the front! Fortunately I had a hold of the reins and it allowed me to roll a bit and I landed on my backpack. I had my scope in the pack, but it wasn't damaged. Whew! Then it was back to Huanuco for a much needed shower with hot water. Ahhhh, life's little pleasures!
Day 12 -
Today was basically a travel day, but we managed to put in a few short stops to stretch our legs and pick up a few more birds. We drove over a few high passes and stopped by a couple of lakes. We added Crested Ducks at one of these lakes and Giant Coots at another. Along the way, our bus flushed up a couple of Black-winged Ground-Doves, the only ones seen on the trip. We stopped at an area where Barry said Ted Parker had seen a Gray-bellied Comet years ago, but all we could find were some Shining Sunbeams and a couple of Black Metaltails. This same area also produced a Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail. 2 Mourning Sierra-Finches, a couple of White-winged Diuca-Finches, and some Band-tailed Seedeaters were seen as we drove over a high pass. We got to Huaraz in time to actually have a couple of hours for shopping. This town is an international trekker destination and there were lots of foreigners around. We stayed here for the next 3 nights at the hotel Andino. It was very nice.
Days 13 and 14 -
Our destination for both days here was the Huascaran National Park. It took an hour's drive to get there, but the scenery alone was worth the trip. The park contains Huascaran mountain, which is the second tallest peak in the new world at 22,165'. The glaciers, improbable vertical walls, and crystalline streams tend to make one's jaw hang open. Oh yeah, there's birds in them hills also. We didn't see as many raptors as I thought we would, but did manage to find another Condor. We also ran into a couple more Aplomado Falcons, almost literally, as we spotted them flying up the road we were walking and they passed by within 100 feet. One of our participants, Lee Mixon of Chicago, was looking into some Polylepis trees, when he found a couple of Koepcke's Screech Owls, an adult with a nearly grown young. We managed to add a few more hummingbirds with Rainbow Starfrontlet and Blue-mantled Thornbill.
One of our main target birds in this area was the White-cheeked Cotinga. We struck out the first day, but after much searching the second day, we found 3 of them in some mistletoe berries, right where we were supposed to be looking, plant wise, but lower in elevation than we thought. Rufous-webbed Tyrant was another find along with Spot-billed, Puna, White-browed, and Plain-capped Ground-Tyrants. Black-crested Warblers and Rufous-eared Brush-Finches were new trip birds also. In the polylepis trees in the valley, not far past the park entrance, we had a family group of Giant Conebills come to within 10 feet of us, affording us great looks. This stretch of woods also netted us 10 Plain-tailed Warbling-Finches, yet another endemic. At the end of the second day in this area, we drove just north of the town of Yuncay (instead of south, going back to Huaraz), to look for the cinnamon-tailed race of Plain-tailed Canastero. We found it right where a friend of Barry's recently discovered it. The added bonus here was picking up the Spot-throated Hummingbird, another endemic.
Day 15 -
We left early, as it was a long drive back to Lima and we wanted to stop along the way to look for a few last species. We found them on Lake Conococha, where we picked up Silvery and White-tufted Grebes, and Paramo Pipit. We also picked up several trip birds at this lake that padded the list such as Yellowlegs, Baird's Sandpiper, etc. We eventually got down to the coast where we had lunch on the beach and picked up several common sea associated species as: Kelp, Grey, and Band-tailed gulls; Peruvian Pelican, Peruvian Meadowlark, and a stunning scope look at a preening Many-colored Rush-Tyrant (not that rare of a bird, but certainly one of the most beautiful!). We made one more stop at a bunch of fields and added Short-tailed Field-Tyrant and Drab Seedeater (yes, another endemic). Our last bird of the trip, we thought rather appropriately, was a Peregrine Falcon cruising by a huge sand dune just before we got back into Lima! Some final thoughts - Quite simply, we had a ball. We thought this was a fun, exciting, and very well run trip. By my account, we saw about 250+ species, including 32 endemics. I haven't actually looked all these up in the books to confirm this, I'm going by what I was told. If anybody contests any of the ones I called endemic, let me know.
If anyone wants to set up their own trip anywhere in Peru or Bolivia, send Barry your "menu" and see what he can do for you. They can probably customize a tour to fit your needs. They use 3 guides that I know of; Barry, Clive Byers (an artist who did some of the plates for the Helm guide "Sparrows and Buntings" and some plates for the Handbook of the Birds of the World), and another artist Eustace Barnes. We highly recommend this company for their expertise, efficiency, price, and personalities. I hope this report was somewhat readable and informative. I tried to minimize the mistakes, but I'm sure there are some. I take full responsibility.