23 - 24 September 2000
by Shane Hunt
Scarcely 24 hours before the trip, I learned we would definitely be going. It had depended on finding another paying customer, raising the total from one to two, and on Thursday evening Gunnar Engblom of Kolibri Expeditions, a Swedish birding guide recently settled in Lima, called to tell me that the customer had been found. In a trip lasting less than 36 hours, we would go from smoggy, coast-bound Lima to the high reaches of the Peruvian sierra, a land above the tree line marked by jagged peaks, empty valleys, scattered lakes and bogs, and very little oxygen. We would search for some rare species of birds, see what we could see, and then come back down from the mountains to reenter the urban world.
Our destination was a bog called Milloc. Located at some 14,000 feet along the dirt road leading to the mining encampment of Marcapomacocha, it has acquired some fame in the birding world as a prime site for the diademed sandpiper-plover, a bird described in one book as "almost mythical." While most other sandpipers and plovers pass contented lives along ocean shores, this species has chosen for its only habitat Andean bogs above 4,000 meters. I wanted to see one, and I wanted to see anything else that came by.
For the prior two months, ever since I had learned that Gunnar was in Lima, and that I was going to visit there, I had tried to latch on to a trip to the sierra without having to pay for it all by myself. Fortunately, at this same time Gunnar decided to experiment with one- or two-day birding trips, moderately priced, as fillers between the major guided tours that are his bread and butter. But his first efforts, the weekend before, had not been auspicious. On that earlier Saturday, Gunnar, his birding assistant Goyo, and his driver Juvenal had scheduled an outing to the Pantano de Villa, and I was their only customer. The following day they had a full-day outing to Puerto Viejo, a coastal lagoon 70 kilometers south of Lima, and once again I was the only customer. Common business sense said that this could not go on. For a trip to Marcapomacocha, priced at a modest $80 that included transportation, food, and overnight accommodation, at least two paying customers had to be found.
Gunnar's principal interest was not in the diademed sandpiper-plover but in an even rarer bird, the white-bellied cinclodes, also an Andean bog dweller but over an even more limited range. The few bogs where this species has been found have been shrinking in size because of peat extraction by local campesinos. For these people, peat has become an urgently needed source of cash, since it is sold to commercial mushroom growers based in Lima. Gunnar has rather taken up the cause of the white-bellied cinclodes, and has gotten into rather acrimonious debate with mushroom growers over the extent to which the peat extraction threatens the survival of this species. Thus he was very well pleased with the appearance of the second customer, not only because the trip could go forward, but also because the customer was a biologist from INRENA, the government agency concerned with natural resource management. Having been alerted by Gunnar to the threat to an endangered species, INRENA wanted one of its own people to see what was going on in the bogs.
The INRENA biologist turned out to be a very nice kid who had finished his undergraduate training at the Agrarian University only two years ago. Daniel was a bright guy who turned out to be a good birder and a good traveling companion. On Saturday at noon he showed up at the meeting point in Lima and the expedition took off in a solid but slightly beat up Dodge van. The group consisted of the two customers, Daniel and me, the driver Juvenal, and the birding guide Goyo. Gunnar was under the weather and did not go along.
We headed up the valley of the Rio Rimac via the crowded Central Highway, through Chaclacayo and to Chosica. Then we veered off to the side valley of the Rio Santa Eulalia. A few kilometers past Chosica, still at low elevations, the pavement ended and the road became unpaved, one-lane, bumpy, and dusty. The valley sides were precipitous the roadsides parched, the vegetation brown, and all crops dependent on irrigation water. Soon the valley bottom pinched out and the road climbed up the slopes on one side. Goyo saw something, the van stopped, and we all piled out.
The tree tops were below us, and in the tops a flock of scarlet-fronted parakeets was feeding and squabbling. I had had glimpses of these birds before in the parks of San Isidro, but always hidden in tree tops and silhouetted against a bright sky. Now we were above them, and their colors shone, their bodies a brilliant green that glowed with just a shading of yellow.
We proceeded upwards, the road rising to hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet above the valley floor. It was so narrow that when a vehicle came in the opposite direction one driver would have to stop at a point where some extra width would permit the vehicles to scrape past each other at a snail's pace. Juvenal was a very reliable driver, but he was also a birder, and his attention to the road was only intermittent. I wasn't actually scared but I was constantly alert to the danger of the road. It triggered a nagging reminder in the back of my head that would not go away.
A few hours and several kilometers after the parakeets, we stopped again, to watch condors wheeling in the sky on the far side of the valley. A small bird was spotted in the bushes on the slopes below us. We stood on the edge of the road, the tips of our shoes over the edge. It didn't seem too scary because below was a slope, not a sheer drop. I did note, however, that if one fell down the slope it would be hard to stop. Perhaps one could by spread-eagling. And perhaps one couldn't.
The bird was a great inca-finch, but I never saw it well enough to claim it.
Toward the end of the day we came to a fork in the road, one branch continuing up the valley and the other going across it. At this point the valley below us disappeared and became a narrow slit in the rock, hundreds of feet deep but spanned at the top by a bridge no longer than perhaps 100 feet. We crossed the bridge and continued up a side valley to the town where we would spend the night. We were so much higher now that there was greenery on the slopes, and more farming activity. We stopped in an area thick with eucalyptus trees and had a bounty of several spectacular birds, among them yellow grosbeaks, a blue-and-yellow tanager, and a black-necked flicker. This last bird, a Peruvian endemic, was working away on a eucalyptus branch with such determination that we were able to get the scope on him, giving everyone had close-up view.
The sun had set and the chill of an Andean night had come upon us by the time we reached the town, San Pedro de Casta. The van's headlights moved along dirt-packed streets flanked by adobe walls, all shrouded in a darkness relieved by only an occasional weak electric light in a doorway. We entered an open space that was the town's plaza, then into more narrow streets, and suddenly we came to a stop. One of the dark buildings by our side was our hotel.
The hotel had no other customers, and the owner was a bit surprised to see us arrive. We had to wait while he found sheets and put them on two beds. The room had the two beds, and two metal chairs, and an electric light bulb that hung from the ceiling. There was a bathroom down the hall and everything was clean, but bare and tiny. I asked Daniel what the thought the room cost and he guessed 10 soles - about 3 dollars. We didn't know for sure because Goyo had arranged everything. It was part of the package.
While Daniel and I unpacked, Goyo and Juvenal went to find a restaurant, and they soon came back to lead us through a pitch-black alley back to the plaza. The restaurant consisted of 2 or 3 tables outside and a kitchen and family room inside, the two areas connected by an open counter cut into the side of the building. It was so cold by this time that they moved a table inside, so the four of us ate in the kitchen.
Inside it was warm but the noise was deafening. On one side was the stove, powered by a propane gas tank that gave out its flame with a continuous roar. A television set was also turned up so as to provide its own roar. The food preparation area consisted of a stove and a table, both darkened by grease. The cook, who was also the owner, I think, was a señora of indeterminate age with a large baby wrapped in a manta and slung over her back. She offered us lomo saltado or pollo con tallarines. I don't remember which I ordered, but I do remember that my back was to the stove, and that was fine with me. I didn't want to have to contemplate the preparations. Instead I watched the TV. Canal 5 was on, with a variety show featuring a frenetic M.C., a lot of music and a lot of girls dancing in scanty costumes. The cameraman must have been lying on the floor, so as to have an angle where he could see the girls from the legs on up, a view that was half absurd and half obscene. At the table next to me - there was room for only one other table - was a señora indígena, her face wrinkled, her head covered by a traditional straw hat in whose headband she had placed, incongruously, some sprigs of fresh flowers. She was watching the TV show, her face impassive, and I wondered, "What in God's name is she thinking?"
Suddenly, from over my shoulder, a plate of food appeared. It was pollo saltado, a nice compromise, and it was excellent. And I didn't get sick later. Goyo paid - it was part of the package - and if I heard correctly the bill was 22 soles - about 6 dollars - for the four of us.
San Pedro de Casta is at above the same elevation as Cuzco, perhaps 11,000 feet, but the night wasn't too cold inside the hotel room and I slept well. Goyo and Juvenal slept in the van; Juvenal explained that they did so to forestall vandalism by local kids, but I suspect that the cost of a hotel room also had something to do with it. Next morning there was a knock on the door at 5:30AM. Daniel and I staggered out and found a cup of piping hot mate de coca waiting for us on a camp stove that had been set up beside the van.
I stood on the side of the plaza sipping the brew and watching the buildings take shape in the strengthening light of early dawn. The plaza was of an amorphous oval shape and ran downhill. Flat ground didn't exist in this area. In shape and slope it seemed a small, humble version of the Piazza del Campo in Siena. It was unpaved, just dirt and dust, but a couple of bright flower beds had been set up and fenced in on the sides of the plaza. As a project for urban beautification, it was a start. On the upper side of the plaza there was a church that was charming even in its shabbiness, and also some kind of government building. On the lower side was our restaurant and various other one- or two-story adobe buildings. And over everything were the looming peaks, their outlines etched against a sky that was getting blue with the coming day. Somewhere on one of those peaks were the ruins of Marcahuasi, the Inca citadel that is closest to Lima and the objective of weekend outings by intrepid hikers from the city.
We headed out of San Pedro de Casta well before 6AM, returned down the side valley, recrossed the 100-foot bridge over the 1000-foot gorge, and resumed our climb up the valley of the Santa Eulalia.
The valley was flatter now, and the road stayed in the valley bottom. The flanking hills were still high above the valley floor, but we had passed the steepest part of the flanks of the Andes, and could expect to see the valley widen as we approached its upper reaches. We had some wonderful surprises as we bumped along close to the roaring river. First there was a pair of white-capped dippers, then a torrent duck, then another pair of dippers. After perhaps an hour's time we turned on to a side road and left the Santa Eulalia valley for good. We would head up and over a pass and into the watershed of the upper Rimac valley, and to Milloc.
After an hour's progress on this side road, at about 9AM, Goyo called a halt and announced that we had arrived at the polylepis forest.
I had read of these forests in various birding guides and was curious to see what they looked like. I knew that they were in the high Andes, that they were shrinking at an alarming rate as campesinos searched for firewood, and that they were home to a number of unique species not found anywhere else. We were going to look for one of the rarest of these species, the white-cheeked cotinga. Another Peruvian endemic, it is known from only a few locales, and this was one of them.
The valley was fairly shallow and open at this point, the pastures below the road sloping down to a roaring stream. Above to our right, the slope was steep, with a rivulet emerging from a ravine above us and rushing down a steep slope to join the larger stream. Goyo had been pushing us on because he wanted to arrive early at this place. He explained that early in the day the cotinga came down from the ravine above us to feed and drink at the river, but that after mid-morning it went back into the higher ravine and was hard to find. He feared that we might already be too late.
Goyo, Daniel, and I started up the slope toward the ravine while Juvenal stayed with the van to do some maintenance work. The climb was steep and after every few paces I had to stop and gasp for oxygen in the rarefied air. We were at about 12,000 feet. Between the massive boulders, the slope was covered with bushes that were 10 feet high in some places, maybe 5 feet in others. Goyo showed me that they were in fact trees, with gnarled trunks under their bushy exteriors. These were the polylepis trees.
The birding was spectacular. A giant hummingbird perched on a branch and rested long enough for good views through the scope. A Peruvian sierra-finch perched on a rock, showing its brilliant ochre breast, and a white-browed chat-tyrant landed briefly on another rock. A puna hawk wheeled through the sky, coming close to investigate and giving us stunning views. But no white-cheeked cotinga. I didn't much care. I had seen so much that I was well satisfied, and I said so to Goyo so that he wouldn't feel bad. Also, I was tired. The sun was hot, the oxygen was insufficient, and a retreat to the road and the van and a glass of water seemed an acceptable conclusion. But Goyo wouldn't give up. He moved up the slope and no more than 10 minutes had passed before he signaled to us that he had spotted a cotinga.
Daniel and I scrambled up to join him. Meanwhile, fortunately, the cotinga remained perched on a distant polylepis tree, on an inner branch where his head was obscured by some of the leaves of outer branches. We got the scope on him and all of us had good views. A robin-sized bird, he was facing us showing a spectacular breast of burnished cinnamon, covered by thick intermittent black streaks set in geometric order on the cinnamon background. Each component of a streak was shaped like a dangling rubber band, or perhaps an elongated race track oval. As soon as each of us got views, off it flew. I had seen the white-cheeked cotinga, even though I hadn't actually seen the white cheek.
Back in the van, we resumed our progress along the road, always going upwards, parallel to the roaring stream. We were in a high grassland now, the puna. The trees had been left behind, even the stunted polylepis trees. The land was utterly empty. I lost track of time. I don't know how long it was before we came to the source of our roaring stream, in a lake that filled a broad bowl at the head of the valley. On the boggy ground by the lake's shore we saw a flock of Andean geese grazing. The road curved around the far side of the lake, past a very solid building with a porch. I was later told that it had been headquarters for the sheep ranch that the old Cerro de Pasco Corporation had run in these parts. Nobody was about.
We left the lake and kept climbing, to another lake, and a third, and a fourth. The second lake was a metallic greenish color, contaminated by mining operations, but the higher lakes were clear and fresh. We saw black siskins, and in the fourth lake nesting giant coots, crested ducks, and a solitary Andean gull that was hanging around the coots' nest in hopes of getting lucky.
As we ascended to higher and higher elevations the temperature dropped, grass became sparser and the ground more littered with rocks of all sizes. Patches of snow clung to the shady sides of the clumps of ichu grass. The drop in temperature was not entirely related to elevation. Clouds had blown in, the sun was gone, and a storm seemed to threaten at any minute. We crossed the pass at perhaps 14,000 feet and entered a wide, treeless valley, devoid of any sign of habitation. The valley was flanked by jagged hills, and behind the near peaks one could see the tops of nevados, the higher snow-capped peaks reaching above 20,000 feet. We made our way down into this wide valley, where one could see for miles in any direction. Suddenly we came, incongruously, to an intersection. We had reached the road that ran up the valley from Casapalca to Marcapomacocha. At the intersection Juvenal pulled the van off the road. This, Goyo explained, is Milloc.
A bog? Well, sort of. The valley floor looked like a broad rich pasture, but it turned out to be spongy when one walked on it. And it had certainly been mined for peat. All about were the signs of ruin, broad areas where the grass and soil had been stripped away, leaving shallow rocky depressions. In some places the peat had been stacked in small towers to dry out before being trucked off to Lima. Daniel got busy estimating the extent of peat mining and taking photos to supplement his report to INRENA. Goyo and Juvenal set off in different directions, in search of the white-bellied cinclodes. I occupied myself with birds that were more common but still of great interest: an Andean flicker with his raucous call, various plain-capped ground-tyrants, a pair of Andean geese.
Goyo returned. No luck. It was getting late in the day. Once again, Daniel and I were satisfied and ready to call it quits, but Goyo wasn't done. We got into the van and found a side road that went over a low ridge and down into a lower valley bottom. Again we spread out and walked across a treeless plain. But no luck again. We did see a pair of gray-breasted seedsnipes, which I thought pretty exciting, but no cinclodes. And no diademed sandpiper-plover. We returned to the main road in the valley and headed for Casapalca, and for Lima.
But Goyo was not finished. A few kilometers down the valley, over another low ridge and to a lower valley floor, Juvenal pulled the van well off the road and once again we set off across a spongy green carpet, jumping from tuft to tuft to keep our feet dry. The clouds were very dark now, and thunder claps were loud and close. I noted that we were in the center of a flat valley with no high points that might attract a lightning strike. I was however consoled to see that this valley was relatively small, the peaks close and very high above us.
Goyo saw it first. Perhaps 100 yards ahead of us, moving past the tufts of grass, then motionless. We got the scope on it. It was a diademed sandpiper-plover, a male, with its dark head giving emphasis to the white line above its eye that extended completely around its head. That was the diadem. It behaved like a killdeer, its abundant relative, standing perfectly still for extended periods and then moving very fast to another point of standing still.
I remember that as we got the scope on the bird, a snowsquall hit us. But it didn't matter. Daniel showed the instincts of the true birder with his reaction as he looked into the scope: "Wow! Fantástico!"
But we weren't done. We moved forward. The snow stopped but the thunder kept rolling over our heads. Goyo and Daniel got another bird, sitting on a rock just ahead of us. A hummingbird? Indeed it was, although there wasn't a flower within miles. It was an olivaceous thornbill, and so tame that Goyo got to within 6 feet with his camera snapping away before the bird flew.
Goyo still wasn't done. We continued in the same direction. I looked back at the van and it seemed awfully small. Goyo saw movement along a fence line some 200 yards in front if us. Again we got the scope on it. A white-bellied cinclodes, unmistakable because of its size and the whiteness of its breast and belly. We all got good looks at this rarest of birds. Gunnar and Goyo estimate that perhaps as few as 20 individuals remain, although this is disputed by certain mushroom growers who are also good naturalists. Goyo asked if we wanted to move in for a closer look but Daniel and I respectfully declined. We were content. All the birds targeted for the trip had been spotted. As we made our way across the bog back to the van, hailstones started to fall on us.
Before we got down the dirt road to rejoin the Central Highway at Casapalca, it was dark. We had started up the side road from the Santa Eulalia Valley at about 8AM and reached Casapalca at about 5PM. During that entire time, we hadn't seen any other vehicle.
By what seemed to me a miracle of endurance, Juvenal negotiated the twisting Central Highway back to Lima without getting sleepy. The rest of us dozed. We were back in Lima by about 9PM, 33 hours after we had started off.
In my view, the trip would have been spectacular even if we hadn't seen a single bird. In so short a time, we had escaped the confinements of city living, with its noise and smog and traffic lights and locks on doors and limited vistas, and we had entered a world of silence and space, with vistas uncluttered by houses or people or trees, where you can see across the lake and down the valley to the farthest mountain, taking in every bit of an entire valley in one view. It is a world where the solitude is both beautiful and terrifying. It is a land that is wonderful to visit, but tough to live in.
For a birder, however, the trip was even more spectacular. I finish simply with a bird list, where "L" designates a life bird. (Others in the group had other sightings that I missed.)
Saturday September 23
Santa Eulalia Valley
Yellow grosbeak (L)
Black-necked flicker (L)
Blue and yellow tanager (L)
Rusty-bellied brush finch (L)
Croaking ground dove
Mourning sierra-finch (L)
Sunday September 24
Santa Eulalia Valley
Rusty-bellied brush finch
White-capped dipper (L)
White-cheeked cotinga (L)
D'Orbigny's chat-tyrant (L)
High Lakes and Vicinity
White-winged diuca-finch (L)
Black siskin (L)
Giant coot (L)
Puna snipe (L)
Milloc and Vicinity
Plain-capped ground tyrant (L)
Gray-breasted seedsnipe (L)
Diademed sandpiper-plover (L)
Olivaceous thornbill (L)
White-bellied cinclodes (L)