11 - 28 October 1996
by Gail Mackiernan
"The Road to Paradise"
[Ed. Note -- this trip is incomplete, but still of enormous utility, and covers the dates Oct 11 - 19]
For the tropical birder, there are a number of "roads to Paradise"... perhaps the famous Pipeline Road of Panama, or La Escalera inVenezuela, or other roadways which provide access to a wide range of habitats and exciting birds. But one of the ultimates must be the road which descends, in hair-raising fashion, almost 12,000 feet (3700m) from the Andes through puna and cloudforest into the incredible diversity of Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru. In October, six of us made that journey, which, with time added for the high Andes and the coast, spanned 18 days and about 15,000 feet of altitude. Participants were yours truly, my husband, Barry Cooper, his brother John and nephew David Cooper, and friends Rosemary Jagus and Craig Faanes. The trip was arranged through Expediciones Manu (an outfitter, run by a Brit, Barry Walker, based in Cusco) and our guide was Clive Byers (of "Sparrows and Buntings "fame). EM also arranged car/driver hire for us for three days on the coast at the beginning and end of the trip, and took care of transport, lodging and food for the actual Manu bash itself. The whole trip had a very British flavour (only Craig and I being Yanks) which guaranteed a certain level of intensity to the endeavor.
The itinerary was as follows (altitude in meters):
October 11: Lima south to San Antonio, including Pantanos de Villa marshes, Puenta San Pedro, and Pucusana harbor.
October 12: Cusco vicinity, including Huacarpay Lakes (3400m)
October 13: Cusco to Ajcanacu Pass (3800m) to Pillahuata camp (2800m)
October 14: Pillahuata to Manu Cloud Forest Camp at Union (1800m)
October 15: Union vicinity
October 16: Union to Amazonia Lodge/Atalaya Road (800-500 m)
October 17 --18: Amazonia Lodge
October 19: Amazonia Lodge via Madre de Dios River to Manu Wildlife Centre
October 20-23: Manu Wildlife Centre (300m)
October 24: MWC to Cusco (flight); to Ollantaytambo
October 25-26: Abra Malaga (4400m)
October 27: Cusco to Lima; north to Lomas de Lachay NP
October 28: Central Highway to ~2200m; south coast (we were supposed to go up to Milloc Bog at 4800m, but had car problems -- sad details to follow!)
At this writing, I am still not exactly sure how many species of birds I saw personally -- say between 580 and 600, with another 20 or so heard only. Since we were not always together, everyone has somewhat different lists, but I estimate the group total to be well over 600 species seen. (When I finally locate my Tambopata checklist of 11 years ago I may also be able to calculate the number of life birds for me -- but again, many!) In my last installment I will post a final list, which should reflect what the entire group saw. In addition to birds, we also saw a number of mammals, including Jaguar, Giant Anteater and Giant Otter, and an incredible array of butterflies. As in any birding trip, there were the inevitable frustrations and disappointments, but also moments of unparalleled exhilaration and joy.
The trip begins at dawn -- or pre-dawn, as United Airlines flight 973 descends through Lima's infamous garua (fog) at 0430. After a quick trip through aduana, Barry, Rose, Craig and I are met at curbside by Alberto Garay of Overlandes Transport, who will be our driver for the first day. The first bit of unwelcome news -- John and David did not arrive the evening before as planned and at this moment no-one is sure where they are, probably stuck in Caracas! By the time we unload our bags at the small and pleasant La Castellana Hotel in Miraflores and do a quick wash-up, we have learned (through EM's Lima office) that their Viasa flight had been cancelled and they will not get in until this afternoon. Very bad luck as they will miss an important day along the south coast.
We are off, however, by 0600, and Alberto takes us to a local park where we quickly tally Amazilia Hummingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, Croaking Grounddove, Pacific (White-winged) Dove and some other common urban species (Bananaquit, Vermilion Flycatcher, Blue-black Grassquit, Southern House Wren). A small group of parakeets flush from a tree before we clinch the identification, but they appeared to be Canary-winged (an introduced species).
Then off to Pantanos de Villa marshes, a wetland preserve just south of Lima. En route we see our first Tropical Kingbirds (TKs). A small private reserve (s/1.50 entry fee) proves a lively spot as we see our first Many-colored Rush-Tyrants, including a pair building a nest, Masked Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Slate-colored Coot, Great Grebe, Gray-headed Gull, Franklin's Gull, Wren-like Rushbird, Forktailed Flycatcher and other goodies. Many Southern Rough-winged Swallows overhead. From the golf course side we add Peruvian Red-breasted Meadowlark, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Grassland Yellowfinch, a couple of still-wintering Puna Ibis, Wilson's Phalarope and an immature Purple Gallinule. Many of the Vermilion Flycatchers are the distinctive dark brown phase found in Lima.
South then along the coast, on the PanAmerican Highway, through the driest desert on earth, the Atacama, where rain is never recorded and any vegetation (mostly a few grass-like bromiliads) is maintained by fog. The landscape consists of dry brown dunes occasionally enlivened by squatter's settlements (many people fled the highlands during the days of Sendero Luminoso) and, further from Lima, barren-looking poultry-rearing facilities. A few small rivers flow seaward from the Andes, and these valleys are irrigated, full of cropland and (often) birds. Our first stop is in such an area, Puenta San Pedro, where a visit to the playa (beach) yields great views of Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, PeruvianTern, South American Tern, Guanay and Red-legged Cormorant (all apparently nesting on offshore islets), rather distant looks at Inca Tern, as well as Band-tailed, Gray and Kelp Gulls in abundance.
Unfortunately the fields around the bridge (where Alberto says other groups have found Peruvian Thickknee) seem now to be under the watchful eye of a man with a whistle who apparently resents our scanning the fields even from the public road. No Thickknees, but we do find Chestnut-throated Seedeater and Yellowish Pipit, and a Cinereous Harrier overhead. More fields, again no Thickknees, but we add Hooded Siskin, Streaked Saltator, Cinereous Conebill, a single Peruvian Sheartail (immature male), Variable and Drab Seedeaters (not a critique, their real name) in the shrubs and trees along the field edges.
The highlight is the little fishing village of Pucusana -- "try a boat around the harbor," we had been advised by Barry Walker, "for Inca Tern and other coastal birds." Alberto knows the ropes here, and negotiates a good rate for a likely craft. We are soon putputting out. Immediately, we have wonderful looks at Inca Terns which are frequenting the local fish market next to the boat docks, as well as extreme closeups of the beautiful Red-legged Cormorant and the huge Peruvian Pelican. A small bird along the rocks flies up and proves to be a Peruvian Seaside Cincloides, another endemic and one not expected here north of Paracas (we eventually see four). Other rock-lurkers include Surfbird and Ruddy Turnstone; the cliffs are alive with nesting Inca Terns. Offshore slightly, we see a Wedge-rumped Stormpetrel investigating some debris, as well as some Southern Sea Lions close to the boat. Just as the first large Pacific swells tell us it is time to turn our little craft around to the safety of the harbor, Barry sees four large heads pop to the surface not far away. It takes a second for the penny to drop and then I yell out, "Penguins!" -- four Humboldt Penguins, two adults and two juveniles, a rare prize this far north -- and we give each other high fives and grins. On the way in, we add Blackish Oystercatcher and a very close White-vented Stormpetrel to our growing lists. Our fees for this impromptu "pelagic" was a mere s/20 (about $8). We are so happy we give the boatman twice that and celebrate with an excellent fresh flounder lunch and huge Cristal beer at a seaside restaurant.
Onward south through the desert, stopping at likely lagoons and wetlands along the way (there is a large reserve west of the highway, just north of San Antonio, but I forgot to note the name. It can be scoped from the highway, or you can drive in.) We tick White-tufted Grebe, White-necked (Cocoi) Heron, and a number of shorebirds, including both Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Least, Pectoral and Baird's Sandpipers, Stilts and two welcome Chilean Flamingos. Next to an apple orchard in San Antonio we add Red-backed Hawk, Purple-throated Woodstar, Groove-billed Ani, Long-tailed Mockingbird and the endemic Coastal Miner and then, in an nearby olive grove, the unusual Parrot-billed Seedeater.
By now we are getting pretty knackered after our red-eye flight and the giant beers, so a few more stops on the way back, adding the odd bird or two, and we are ready to quit. Some of our targets, Peruvian Thickknee, Least Seedsnipe and Tawny-throated Dotterel, have managed to elude us. Nevertheless, we have seen about 90 species for the day, many new to us. The van radio tells us that John and David have (finally) arrived and they will undoubtedly be waiting rather unhappily at La Castellana. We bid Alberto adios at the hotel, arranging for an early pickup to meet our Faucett flight the next morning to Cusco, and go in to look for the missing Coopers. We find them unpacking and looking even more tired than us.
John and David have apparently been given a brief tour of various South American capitals as Viasa rather incompetently tried to reroute passengers from their cancelled Caracas-Lima flight (cancelled because there were not enough paying customers, not unheard of in South America). They visited Quito, La Paz and Bogata before finally arriving in Lima in late afternoon. Amazingly, their baggage stayed with them, save for one lost sleeping bag. And although they had managed to get to the shore and tick the booby, pelican and Inca Tern before darkness set in, they were not happy campers.
However, the bulk of our trip lay ahead, so after a quick supper at the hotel we all hit the sack, dreaming of antbirds and cotingas.
Alberto is there promptly at 5:00 am and we load the van and hurry to the airport. It is a zoo as all the flights to Cusco leave in the early morning (because of usual bad weather in afternoon), plus there seem to be an inordinant number of school-children and nuns trying to make the flights. Alberto makes sure our baggage is loaded, then takes our tickets to get the boarding passes. After a long time, he returns unhappily -- despite being reconfirmed five times, the latest the day before by 1) us, 2) Expediciones Manu's Lima office and 3) the South American Explorer's Club, Faucett has dropped two of us from the flight. It looks as if Barry and I will stay while our baggage goes to Manu -- but thanks to last-minute financial "negotiations" by Alberto, he manages to get us on... "Go...Go!" he yells as we tear down the gates and out across the field to the plane. The rest of our group looks relieved as we squeeze into the last two seats (our original ones?) -- now the trip won't be delayed waiting for errant members, no thanks to Faucett. (But lots of thanks to Alberto Garay of Overlandes, he cannot be recommended too highly -- knows the birds, birding sites, what birders want -- plus really cares about doing a good job).
We land in Cusco and retrieve our bags. Not only are there schoolkids and nuns aplenty, but the Shriners seem to be in town as well. We duck around all the welcoming committees and link up with the Expediciones Manu rep as well as our guide for the next two weeks, Clive Byers. Luggage loaded, we can finally relax as we are driven through the pleasant town of Cusco to Hostel Allemana. Clive suggests that we rest for a few hours to acclimate to the altitude, but not this group. We've had our Diamox and mate de coca, we're ready to bird! Fifteen minutes later, and we are out the door to Sacsayhuaman fortress, where (above the ruins), good birding habitat exists.
Clive points out a garden where the endemic and local Chestnut-breasted Mountain-finch can be found, then bids us adieu until later -- he has to go get organized! We lurk in the pines surrounding the garden and soon see a number of goodies for the trip list: White-browed Chat-tyrant; Peruvian Sierra-finch; Black-throated Flowerpiercer; Eared Dove; the beautiful Golden-billed Saltator; Chiguanco Thrush. No Mountain-finch at present, so we do a brief slog in the surrounding scrub, adding a lovely male Green-tailed Trainbearer. Returning to the pines, we are rewarded with (eventually) two gorgeous Chestnut-breasted Mountain-finches foraging on the ground. Then a short walk along a trail through scrubland, where we add several cute little Yellow-billed Tit-tyrants. We head back down to town, on the way ticking Andean Swift and Ash-breasted Sierra-finch.
Clive meets us at the hotel, and we organize for the excursion to Huacarpay Lakes and a late lunch. We are ready for both! The Lakes lie south of the city, amongst dry hillsides, and were threatened for a time by conversion to a reservoir. Luckily that scheme seems to have died the death, so the reedbeds and birds appear safe for a while. It is starting to get cloudy and threatening -- Clive notes that "the rainy season is early this year" (uh-oh) We eat a hasty lunch in the wind, surrounded by local sheep and a few curious children, and then get serious about birds. The lake is alive with waterfowl, and we soon add Puna and Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Slate-colored (Andean) Coot -- here with chestnut frontal shields and yellowish bills. A few Puna Ibis forage along the reeds; numerous Andean Gulls wheel overhead. Waders include both Baird's and Pectoral Sandpipers, many Wilson's Phalaropes, and a few American Golden Plover.
The rain holds off and the wind dies down (although it is still raining in the direction of Cusco), so we move around the lake to a large reedbed. There we are treated to more Many-colored Rush-tyrants, to the delight of John and David, as it was one of their blockers and they had of course missed the October 11 birds. Wren-like Rushbird and Yellow-winged Blackbird are also there, as is a cooperative Plumbeous Rail, and several Andean Ducks. The lakeside is pitted with burrows of wild Guinea Pigs, but all we see are their droppings (they are crepuscular). I 'm very interested to observe several local people crossing the lake in a reed boat like those used on Lake Titicaca.
The lake birds under control, we turn our attention to the dry hillsides. Here, in a ravine with flowering tree-tobacco, we search for the brilliant endemic Bearded Mountaineer, a huge hummingbird of very local distribution. We are soon rewarded with good looks at at least four individuals as they spar and feed in the yellow blooms. Some White-bellied Hummingbirds are also present, being chased around by the much larger Mountaineers. Clive, Craig, Rose and I concentrate on finding a Rusty-fronted Canastero (another endemic) while the Cooper men start off in another direction. Judicious use of taped playback brings in the bird, and we also "sort of" see a Streak-fronted Thornbird (a terrible skulker) for good measure. Other species in the dry scrub include Band-tailed Seedeater and Greenish Yellowfinch. Bare-faced Grounddoves are common in the ravine and we also add a Rufous-naped Ground-tyrant.
The afternoon is drawing on, so we all reunite and confer -- a pair of Canasteros are taped out for Barry, John and David's enjoyment. A final look at the lake for species missed (no Cinereous Harriers have come in to roost as expected, for example), and we journey back to Cusco in the twilight. Dinner downtown, then a quick and obligatory shopping trip for the many excellent bargains in sweaters and other woolies, under strict orders from home. An early bedtime with a 3:30 am wakeup -- tomorrow we hit "the Road!"
An early pre-breakfast of tea and biscuits at the hotel, then loading the van in the dark for the short hop to the Expediciones Manu office downtown, where we join up with the sturdy Volvo truck/bus which will take us to Manu. Everyone is pretty groggy (it's four in the morning), but we greet Clive and fellow artist/birder Eustace Barnes, who will journey down the Manu Road with us, as well as Guillermo, the driver, and the other EM staff (cook, boatman, assistant driver) who will come with us. It is a large bus (actually, a bus module fitted onto the body of a Volvo truck) and so we each take a seat and spread out. By chance, I take a seat on the right (the exciting side).
Bob Behrstock had warned me that the Manu Road was a "lane or less wide" and we soon see what he meant. The first part of the journey is through agricultural lands south of Cusco, past Huacarpay Lakes, and as dawn reddens the sky, we start upupup the Andean ridge through dry fields and sparse puna grassland. David has the non-dropoff side and he keeps gripping everyone off with sightings of Andean Flicker and Lapwing. I see alternating high banks and sheer cliffs with encouraging little crosses at the edge. I do not sleep.
The scenery is wonderful, and we stop briefly at a high pass for a look around (there are some interesting pre-Inca tombs), and soon see a fine pair of Black-billed Shrike Tyrants on the rocks. Other new birds include Spot-winged Pigeon and Black-winged Grounddove. No one seems bothered by the altitude (~3800m), so Diamox must work.
After this, we don't stop for any birds until we reach the little town of Paucartambo. Here we will have a real breakfast of eggs and coffee at a small cafe overlooking the river, and buy fresh supplies for the trip. But birds come first, of course. Sharp eyes have noted some activities across the river, and we soon are treated to the sight of a Giant Hummingbird sallying out from a shrub to fly-catch over the fast-moving stream. Other birds include a pair of Torrent Tyrannulets and more White-browed Chat-tyrants and Green-tailed Trainbears, with both Brown-bellied and Barn Swallows overhead. A Red-backed Hawk does a close fly-by. David has a glimpse of what have to be Torrent Ducks far downstream but they will have to wait until after breakfast.
As soon as critical supplies, including beer and fresh fruit, are purchased and stowed, we are off. A brief stop to get great scope views of a pair of sleeping Torrent Ducks. Nothing will wake them until Rose blows her whistle. This they notice! There is some back and forth as to whether this is the "best duck." The norteamericanos are unsure if it beats Harlequin, but it is a close call. Below the town, the Manu Road is one-way every other day, except Sunday. This is Sunday and tomorrow will also be a "down" day. Then we have to stay put for a day, not a hardship when so many fine birds await.
Still heading east, we top out at the Ajcanacu Pass at 3800m. Below the pass, the vegetation (and soon, the weather) reflects the wetter conditions of the Andean east slope. We stop at one stream crossing, and get out just in time to see a White-capped Dipper zip off downstream. It manages to elude us, but we are mollified by excellent looks at the very attractive Creamy-crested Spinetail, coming out to the tape, as well as multiple Great Thrushes.
We are now on the humid side of the Andes, and the vegetation starts to change, as shrubs and elfin woodland trees begin to replace the dry puna grass. Eventually, we reach treeline at about 3300m and decide to stop and do some serious birding. The stunted trees are festooned with lichens and moss, and there are lots of vines with (hopefully) hummingbird-friendly flowers. Soon we start seeing birds characteristic of this high cloud forest: Tyrian Metaltail, Rufous-capped Thornbill, White-bellied Woodstar, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Rufous-breasted Chat-tyrant, Glossy-black Thrush, Spectacled Redstart, Masked Flowerpiercers and others. A highlight is the sudden appearance of two Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers and, as they fly across the road, they are joined by one Golden-collared Tanager, a real glamour bird! A raptor soars over us, a White-throated Hawk, and suddenly there are two birds and Clive and Eustace are running, "Black-and-Chestnut Eagle!..." as the huge bird swings around over our heads and rapidly glides off along the cliff edge at eye level. John manages to snatch a couple of photos before the bird is gone. Crippling!
In this way we spend the rest of the day -- stop the bus, get out and bird down for a while, bus comes along and retrieves us, and so forth. The only interruption is the occasional large truck which passes with a rumble, forcing us onto the narrow verge. The frequent memorial crosses, usually at especially nasty spots, are a sober reminder that this is a pretty dangerous road. We have all decided early on that driving it, especially with one of the big trucks prominently labled "PELIGROSO! FLAMMABLE! GASOLINA!" would not be our most favorite occupation.
Multiple stops bring more new birds, some rather spectacular: a group of five Gray-breasted Mountain-toucans in a fruiting tree virtually at arm's length, Sparkling Violetear, Shining Sunbeam, Puna Thistletail, Smoke-colored Pewee, White-winged Black-tyrant, Citrine Warbler, Blue-capped Tanager, Rusty and Bluish Flowerpiercers, Andean Solitaire, as well as frustrating encounters with skulking Diademed Tapaculos. Our ultimate destination is the truck stop/camping area at Pillahuata, at 2600m elevation, in temperate cloud forest -- home for a night.
We reach Pillahuata in afternoon, in rather misty and damp weather. The EM folks start putting up our tents while we explore. Next to the primitive latrines is a break in the vegetation which is supposed to be "the" spot for the endemic Red and White Antpitta. Sure enough, we soon hear its distinctive three-note call. We all manage to stake out a spot to watch as the bird (based on voice) seems to be coming closer. Clive whistles the call, and then David spots a faint movement. The Antpitta hops across the opening, unfortunately in rather dark undergrowth, so not everyone sees it well. But we persevere, and eventually all are satisfied although we would have appreciated more light on the subject.
In intermittant rain (which does seem to dampen bird activity), we do some scouting around the camp where a stand of aspens seems out of place in an Andean cloud forest. Those folding umbrellas stuffed in at the last moment get their first workout of the trip! Near the antpitta spot we find White-crested and Sierra Elaenias, Streak-necked Flycatcher and Great Thrushes. Below camp, in various foliage flocks we find a number of good birds including Chestnut-capped and Rufous-naped Brush-finches, Mountain Cacique, Barred Becard, Superciliared Hemispingus, Fawn-breasted, Blue-capped and Blue-and-black Tanagers. Barry (and others, but not me!) see a Grass-green Tanager, one of my most-wanted species, but it gets away before I can locate it in the foliage. Something for the next trip!
The time is now ripe for a try at the Scissor-tailed Nightjar above the camp. Armed with spotlight, torches and tapes, we spread out along the darkening road. It is not exactly nightjar weather, being rumbly and damp. Way up the road I see a large shape fly over, not the expected nightjar. The torch is flashed and David says, "Shine it back on that bush, I think I have an owl..." And owl it is, the remarkable and seldom-seen White-throated Screech Owl, large for a screech owl, almost earless, with a very distinctive color pattern. No one in our group, not even Clive and Eustace, has seen this species before. The rarity sits rather quietly and lets us admire it. As we start to move closer (we had by now almost forgotten the nightjars), a male Scissor-tailed Nightjar flies down the road past us, and then drops away over the road edge. It does not come again, unfortunately for those who had been concentrating on the owl, but I got a reasonable look at the strange creature in the half-light.
Finally the owl has had enough and flits away, leaving us ecstatic. Clive and Eustace are doubly pleased because they have managed to grip Barry Walker off as well, since he also has never seen this bird! Heh-heh, British birders are so much fun!
Supper by lamplight in the truck stop dining area (the kitchen garbage disposal is a little "herd" of squeaky guinea pigs), then updating the log, and to bed. We are soon awakened by a violent thunderstorm which shakes the ground, and delivers torrents of rain all night. Luckily nothing leaks but I sleep badly, and am beginning to feel a little sick. Uh-oh!
I awake feeling definitely under the weather. My first thought is that it's due to my Larium medication, but it seems to be more of a mild flu-like "bug" -- not "turista" (thank God), but I pop some Pepto and a Cipro anyway for good luck, and get ready to bird. I have to be a lot sicker than this to stop.
It is a lovely sunny morning, the rain of the night before seems to have dissipated, and we walk down from the camp in high spirits. I feel pretty good, just a bit achy/shakey, and soon feel even better as we start to see some exciting birds: several Andean Guans, which regard us without fear from low trees, a half-dozen calling Blue-banded Toucanets, several White-collared Jays, a pair of Fawn-breasted Tanagers at eye level, heads flashing morpho-blue in the sun. A beautiful Barred Fruiteater flies in right in front of us; she is carrying nesting material and we soon see her settle into her well-hidden, mossy nest. We play cat and mouse with some Azara's Spinetails, which scold the tape playback from cover until finally one makes a mistake and hops into view. Lots of Common Bush-tanagers and the first of many Yellow-whiskered and Yellow-throated Bush-tanagers (which can be tricky to separate). An incredible male Long-tailed Sylph feeds from red blossoms, almost painfully bright in the sunshine. Other hummingbirds include a scolding Speckled HB, and a number of Shining Sunbeams. Across the valley, in an inaccessible spot, we hear the tantalizing, haunting call of the rarely-seen Barred Antthrush.
We finally (and reluctantly) have to turn around for breakfast. For me, breakfast turns out to be a big mistake and I am actually sick to my stomach for a while. During my "down" time my spousal unit manages to grip me off on several goodies, including Handsome Flycatcher and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker. I recover in time to do another watch for the Red-and-White Antpitta, which is calling from his thicket, and this time manage better looks in brighter light. As camp is broken, last-minute birding adds Yellow-billed Cacique, Striped-headed Brush-finch, Rusty-tailed Tyrant and Small-billed Elaenia. A large flock of Band-tailed Pigeons fly by.
The strategy of the day before is followed -- drive down to a likely spot, disembark, walk down birding, get retrieved by the bus in due course, and so on. We don't have far to go in kilometers (and about 1000m in elevation), so we can take it easy. In this manner we add many fine birds: four Golden-headed Quetzals at close hand, a male gleaming like an emerald in the sun as he peers at us; mixed flocks contain Pearled Treerunner, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, White-throated and White-banded Tyrannulets, Three-striped Warbler, Black-capped and Black-eared Hemispingus, Rust-and-yellow and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, Blue-backed and Capped Conebills. I am lucky in that the bus segments allow me time to rest -- I am mostly queasy and dragged-out -- and nibble nice dry crackers and cookies.
As we descend into subtropical cloud forest, we start hearing (and then see, though not well) the handsome White-eared Solitaire. This species has a very odd, almost metallic, buzzing call, unlike the usual flute-like solitaire vocalizations. Another tape duel with a Diademed Tapaculo -- Eustace and Clive both stand rigidly with arms outstretched, mikes pointed at the calling bird, then a quick playback, then little sneering (or laughing) noises from the tiny dark skulker. It is a scene to be repeated much in upcoming days. Rose opines that she "doesn't really believe in tapaculos, anyway."
Lunch is al fresco, with seats and table put out for us on the edge of the road, and we watch the many White-collared Swifts rushing overhead. Continuing, at one stop we see a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, and at another, a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock feeding in a tree. Andean Guans are common, and we hear the call of the Brown Tinamou everywhere. We have now passed from humid temperate to humid subtropical forest, and are now within the boundaries of Manu Park's cultural zone. The last part of the descent to our camp at Union is made in deteriorating weather -- dark, damp and not great for birds.
The Manu Cloud Forest Camp (1600m, at Union, at the confluence of two rivers) is a covered platform next to a rushing stream, with hot (!) showers and reasonable bathroom facilities. The whole is surrounded by cement footings for what was to have been a "Cloud Forest Lodge", but the project went belly-up when the owner realized that a 10-hour drive on a difficult road from Cusco was probably not going to attract hoards of tourists. Maybe some crazy birdwatchers, but... Perhaps as ecotourism increases in Peru, now that political stability seems achieved, the project will revive. It would certainly be a wonderful location for a research station, and the only cloud forest lodge in this part of the Andes.
The EM crew hasten to put up our tents on the platform, and we spread out, welcoming the chance to dry damp clothes and boots. A few folks go exploring, and return with reports of White-winged Black Phoebe and White-capped Dipper along the stream. We will be at Union two nights, which is fortuitous, because this is "the" site for Lyre-tailed Nightjar and tonight doesn't really look like a nightjar evening. But we dutifully gather on the bridge below the camp, in the fog and damp. Just at dusk, a female Lyretailed Nightjar flies down the road and over the bridge railing. That is that. No return visit, no males, no owls either.
Supper (I can eat the wonderful soup but my stomach balks at the spaghetti), a tally of the log, and to bed. Everyone sleeps like the dead, soothed by the rushing water.
Wakening as usual at 0415 (dawn is early, 0500), we dress and ready for the day. The sky is brilliantly clear, stars blazing in a way not seen by those of us who live in urban environments. I pick out a few constellations -- Gemini, Taurus -- but cannot locate the Southern Cross, which is apparently below the mountain ridges. Tea, coffee and a few biscuits and we are ready. Breakfast is still four hours away.
The plan for today is a very early start down to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, as this is an "up" day and the bus needs to get us "down" before the truck traffic arrives from the town of Pilcopata below. We will then bird the rich cloud forest habitats below the camp, and do the area above camp in the afternoon. After some discussion with Guillermo about which of two leks was most active, we are off. The leks are part of a private cloud forest reserve, and Clive goes off to get the key to the hide from the warden, who returns with him. While we wait, we listen to the amazing groans and growls from the displaying males, and can just glimpse one around the corner of the reed matting.
Entering the hide, we find we are at eye level with the lek -- which is located on the steep dropoff to the river below. Just in front of us, two brilliant red males posture and pose, hopping from branch to branch, then stiffly bowing their heads and drooping their wings, at the same time letting out groaning screeches which echo through the trees. This is definitely a photo-op, so we start snapping. There are only about 10 males here, and the centre stage is occupied by two which seem to be displaying as much for eachother's benefit as for the few dark brown females who are lurking in the background.
Photos taken and birds admired, we leave the hide and immediately locate a large mixed flock in a nearby fruiting tree. In short order we tickVersicolored Barbet, Spotted Barbtail, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Marble-faced Bristle-tyrant, Slate-throated Redstart, Pale-legged Warbler, Three-striped Warbler, Yellow-throated Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and several stunning Orange-eared Tanagers. It is a bit frustrating since not everyone is seeing the same birds, and it is hard to follow often-conflicting directions to specific goodies. (That is why I have usually found that being alone is best for dealing with active flocks -- you can concentrate better and what you don't see, well, you can't grieve over!)
The flock moves on, and we spread out along the road, up and down. Clive tries to interest us in some singing Yellow-browed Sparrows but they cannot compete with a pair of Black-goggled Tanagers which fly back and forth over the road, possibly feeding fledgings in an unseen nest back in the forest. Eustace hears a Yungas Manakin calling, and we try for a look, but the bird flies away -- just a glimpse of back and blue before it disappears.
In trees far below us we manage decent scope views of perched tanagers, Blue-gray (here with a large, pale wing-patch), Blue-necked, and Golden. More mixed flocks arrive, signaled by the thin whirring calls of tanagers, and we add new faces: Saffron-crowned, Golden-naped, Bay-headed, Beryl-spangled and more Goldens, Orange-ears and others. Hummingbirds are active as well, and we add Greenish Puffleg and Green Hermit to our lists. It is all pretty fast and furious, no sooner is one bird located than another is called out. Some we miss -- no amount of taped playback will budge a Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant calling from a thicket. Eustace sees a (much-wanted) Booted Racquet-tail fly over the road but it keeps going to everyone's dismay.
Eventually, the pangs of hunger drive us back to camp for a late breakfast. The bus has waited for us so the trip back is quick. After breakfast we deploy to the mirador (overlook) above camp, to try for raptors and to re-bird the area which, yesterday evening, was wet and slow. It is amazingly clear and bright -- good for birds of prey but not that conducive to cloud-forest flocks. Standing at the mirador, the first thing that strikes us is the incredible view -- we can see east all the way to the Amazon basin, which stretches like a dark green ocean to the horizon. You can even see the curvature of the earth -- and forest all the way. Clive and Eustace say that, despite many trips down this road, this is the first time they have ever glimpsed this remarkable sight.
Our revery is disturbed by a large raptor swinging into view, soaring below the treeline. It is another Black-and-chestnut Eagle, not as close as the day before's but in much better light. It passes behind us, and into a small valley from which another eagle starts calling -- Guillermo says there is a nest there, so it sounds as if one of the pair (or a large chick) is calling to the soaring bird. The only other raptor we see is a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but there are many White-collared and a few Chestnut-collared Swifts overhead.
Eventually, Eustace, Barry, John, David and I start to work our way back down the road. Just as we get to the first bend, a largish brown bird trots across the road about 20 yards ahead of us, and disappears into the roadside vegetation. "Brown Tinamou!" is called out. But as we quietly walk up to the spot, the grass at the verge parts and the bird steps out again, right in front of us. It is not a Brown Tinamou, but the larger (and rarer) Hooded Tinamou. Neck stretched up, alert and cautious but apparently unafraid, the bird walks slowly and deliberately down the road -- we can see every tiny spot on the wings, the slightly crested head, white throat, the grey legs and feet. John manages to get four or five shots off before the tinamou gains the bend, and then flies up the slope and away. The call note which eminates from the spot into which the bird flew is distinctive, and we now recollect that we have been puzzling over this loud wheeeep note for the last day or so. Pretty jammy!
When Clive and the others catch up, they are more than somewhat perturbed that they missed this infrequently seen (and possibly never-before photographed) species. However, soon we start to see other birds and disappointment fades. A mixed flock contains a number of Olive-backed Woodcreepers and Montane Foliage-gleaners, plus one Purple-throated Euphonia. Oropendolas fly over and they are Dusky-green, the cloud-forest species. Further on, a large landslide from heavy rains two years ago marks where the only accessible local lek of the Opal-crowned Manakin was washed into the river; the species has not been reliably seen in the vicinity since then.
A rattling call from the brush is that of the Southern White-browed Tapaculo, one of the taxonomically-confusing Scytalopus genus, which looks and acts much like its Diademed cousin from higher altitudes. That is, it skulks and creeps and scuttles along the ground in dense undergrowth, only giving small glimpses of here a tail and there a flank, and was that a head? while we all get in each other's way trying to see it. I don't think anyone is too happy with their views but nothing will encourage the bird to show itself fully, neither tape playback nor pishing nor even muttered curses, so we leave it scolding in the shadows.
Finally back down at the bridge, we are treated to excellent looks at White-capped Dipper as it makes it foraging rounds along the river. Clive says this species does not swim; it seems instead to pick food from just at the water's edge. As we are admiring the dipper, a Green-fronted Lancebill flies out and perches on a small rock. Adding to the avian activity is a White-winged Black Phoebe, or rather, a pair which act much as do Black Phoebes (considered the same species) back home.
After a late lunch, we decide to walk back downstream where there was so much bird activity earlier in the day. Eustace hurries ahead so as to be able to reach the fruiting tree near the Cock-of-the-Rock lek and make it back before dark. Our ambitions are less energetic, we bird slowly downstream. In the manner we tick up a number of new species, including a pair of Slaty Tanagers, Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, Golden-headed Flycatcher, Olive-tufted Flycatcher, and a single Grey-mantled Wren in a mixed flock of tanagers. A group of Plum-headed Parrots fly in and sit briefly for satisfying views. We finally manage to catch up with several cooperative Plumbeous Pigeons. At a vine filled with red flowers we see Bronzy Inca, Green (Mountain) Violetear, two more Lancebills and a Speckled Hummingbird. We are also seeing a lot of old friends, such as Golden and Blue-necked Tanagers.
Working our way slowly back, David notices some monkeys across the river on the opposite slope -- it is a large troop of Woolly Monkeys and we enjoy their antics for a while, until gathering dusk hurries us on. We have a date with some Lyre-tailed Nightjars! Eustace come up, breathless -- the fruiting tree contained a fine flock including a Golden-collared Honeycreeper (dang). Maybe tomorrow -- there was still plenty of fruit left, he said.
A quick run up to the camp for flashlights and then we gather at the bridge. It is a very clear, warmish evening -- the first stars are beginning to show. Almost on cue, a (the?) female Lyre-tail flies along the bridge and disappears over the rail. But we are waiting for the male. Eventually, one shows -- unfortunately not close to the ground, but back and forth above our heads, even with the ridgetops. But still a remarkable sight -- the huge long tail scudding along behind the little body. As darkness falls, it disappears, and is replaced by a remarkable display of stars in a crystal sky.
Supper -- I seem to be over my "bug" now and welcome the excellent food, cooked under pretty difficult conditions by the EM staff -- a quick update of the log, and to bed. Again we sleep deeply, lulled by the sound of the rapids.
The sky is clear and thousands of stars blaze out as we dress for the morning's birding. While the EM staff breaks camp and prepares our breakfast, we will make one final sortie to the road above Union camp, which we have never visited early in the day. After breakfast, we will start down the road towards Atalaya and Amazonia Lodge. We are actually not very happy about the clear sky, as it promises a hot, sunny day -- death on cloud forest birding.
But the early dawn is cool and misty, and we manage nice looks at White-eared Solitaire, much to my frustrated husband's delight, as well as a noisy family of Grey-breasted Wood-wrens. The dreaded White-browed Tapaculo again eludes us, except for frustrating glimpses of a creeping dark shape scolding us from the bamboo. Quick action as a rapidly-passing mixed mid-level flock yields Olive-backed Woodcreepers, a Golden-Olive Woodpecker and Montane Foliage-gleaners. A Long-tailed Sylph balances on a tree-top next to the road while Dusky-green Oropendolas gurgle and squawk below him.
As we walk down, the growing sunlight encourages a Yungas Manakin to start calling from a small roadside tree, but it is still a struggle to see the bird in the thick foliage. This species seems to sit absolutely still while calling, then flash to a new branch and start up again, which can be especially frustrating when six or seven people are trying to peer through the same tiny hole in the vegetation. Ultimately most everyone except Rose and Barry get acceptable views. Luckily we should still have more opportunities for this species on the way down.
By the time we make it back to camp, butterflies are already gathering on the roadside -- it's going to be a hot one! As we wait for the bus to be loaded, we enjoy final looks at the Dipper and Phoebe, and try to photograph brilliant Heliconia butterflies sipping at the puddles.
No stops are made until we reach the fruiting tree by the Cock of the Rock lek. The lek is ominously quiet as we disembark from the bus -- it is already very sunny and getting hot. The fruit tree is also quiet -- no feeding flock at hand -- but we decide to wait. After a few minutes a pair of Bay-headed Tanagers arrives, but there is little other action so we scatter to look for likely victims. Bits and pieces are around: Black-goggled and Beryl-spangled Tanagers, Blue-naped Chlorophonia and others, but so far nothing new.
Barry Walker's literature notes that from Union to about 800m is habitat hard to find in an undisturbed state in Peru (or elsewhere) and that the birds here are very special. We are happy that at least some of this area was covered in previous days because it is soon clear that today is going to be one of those quiet periods that frustrate birders in the tropics. The frontal passage seems to have brought in clear, sunny conditions -- great for travel but not ideal for cloud-forest birding. It may be ironic, but we keep looking up (hopefully) for clouds.
But "slow" doesn't mean "no" -- there certainly are moments of activity. We do manage to locate a calling Yungas Manakin for Barry and Rose. At one stop we remark that the bright blue sky at least looks good for raptors, and suddenly David is calling out, "eagle!" and it is a superb Solitary Eagle, big and black, soaring overhead. It is joined by a Black-and-chestnut (perhaps the same bird as yesterday's -- it is not far "as the eagle flies") and presents a great opportunity to compare the jizz and plumage of the two species. The huge Solitary seemes to dwarf its smaller cousin. We enjoy both for a while, running up and down the road to get better views. A distant and smaller soaring raptor is enticing -- it looks different and both Clive and Eustace get excited, but no joy as it drops below the tree line and away. Oh well, you win some and lose some... There are also swifts overhead, and we sort out several Pale-rumpeds from the more numerous White-tipped and White-collareds.
At San Pedro we stop at the bridge while Clive gives some papers to the local authorities. Behind the buildings we note with excitement (not!) our first east slope Tropical Kingbirds. Overhead, Southern Rough-winged Swallows which I scrutinize for the local Pale-footed, but don't get lucky. The canyon here is good for Amazonian Umbrellabird, but not today -- it seems to prefer mist and rain. (Well, what do you expect? ha ha) This large cotinga has an odd distribution in Peru; here in the SE it is a bird of the lower Andean slopes, but in NE Peru is is found along rivers or on Amazon River islands. It is nowhere common, and I am surprised to read in Birds of South America that in many areas this and a related species are shot for food.
For a lunch stop we select a relatively cool corner with a small stream of rushing water and shade over the road. This is a good spot, as we add some new birds at a few fruiting trees; our first gaudy Paradise Tanagers, Spotted Tanager, Purple Honeycreeper, more Golden and Beryl-spangled Tanagers. Three hummingbirds are alternately sparring and perching, and it takes us all a long time to sort out that they are all Blue-chinned Sapphires.
But we are bit by bit, moving down slope. The steepness of the terrain lessens and a few houses and small farms appear along the opposite bank. Eventually the bus drives out onto the plain which lies between the east slope and the last foothills before the land drops to the Amazon Basin. This flat area looks like a giant alluvial fan radiating out from the Andes, formed at a time when runoff (and erosion) was even greater than now. The soil is fertile, and thus the area is settled and the forest cleared to a great extent. Soon we start to see birds characteristic of disturbed habitat: Giant Cowbirds, Magpie Tanagers, colonies of Yellow-rumped Cacique and Russet-backed Oropendolas. A few black-looking Crested Oropendolas fly by. This area is pretty boring from the bus, although I think that it might contain different birds in some of the marshy second-growth areas. However, we don't linger, as we need to make the road above Atalya (in the foothills ahead of us) by late afternoon,
In the dusty little town of Pilcopata, we stop for welcome cold drinks and some supplies. While beer and other items are purchased in the tienda, there is a constant ringing of a new, recently installed pay phone. Right now the telephone seems a wonderful link to the outside world, but I have a feeling that in a few weeks having the only phone in miles is going to wear a bit thin for the shopkeepers, who live right behind the store.
Some of us take our beers into the shade of the bus and look up into the sky -- a few Fork-tailed Palm-swifts dart overhead, we pick a White-banded Swallow out of the soaring Blue-and-whites, and two White-eyed Parakeets fly by, screeching. A very distant raptor looks like a Great Black Hawk, closer birds are definitely our first Plumbeous Kites. A Greater Yellow-headed Vulture is up with Turkey Vultures over the ridge. The town is close to the Alto Madre de Dios River, which here runs between two foothill ridges on its way to an eventual confluence with the Amazon, apparently a good spot for raptors.
After the supplies are loaded, we are off, and soon cross the river on a newish long metal bridge; the road then starts to climb up the side of the ridge. This is the "Pilcopata--Atalaya Road" mentioned in Birds of South America and other references as the site for some very local species. As it climbs, the road passes through thick stands of bamboo -- where we will be birding tomorrow morning -- and overlooks riverine forest. Our destination for the moment is a mirador where, if we are fortunate, we can observe an evening fly-by of macaws to roost, including the very local Blue-headed Macaw.
There are lots of other good birds near the overlook, and as it is tending towards evening, the sunny day is no longer putting a damper on activity. We set up all our scopes looking out and soon pick out soaring Plumbeous Kites and one Roadside Hawk in a tree below us. Right next to us are calling Rufous-tailed Antbirds but they are not obliging. Everyone is looking out for macaws and soon two are spotted, winging their way downriver, but they are Chestnut-fronted, the common small macaw. Then two large macaws fly almost directly overhead, all green -- Military Macaws -- and a good sighting as they were our only birds of this species for the trip. A soaring raptor in the scope turns out to be a light-phase Short-tailed Hawk, agin our only sighting on the trip. A brief bit of excitement when a largish-appearing dark falcon lazily flies out over the river -- could it be Orange-breasted ?-- and then it circles towards us, puts on a burst of speed, zips past our lookout and we realize it is, after all, a Bat Falcon.
Clive and Eustace are starting to worry about the light -- we have to cross the river by boat to get to Amazonia Lodge and it is a crossing better attempted in daylight -- so we start off down the road to Atalaya on foot. A couple of bends down, we all halt by a grassy bank with bamboo, and the call of the Chestnut-backed Antshrike is played. One soon answers, but plays cat-and-mouse for a while before showing for satisfying looks -- a really striking bird. Then onward, as light fades. Two Red-throated Caracaras protest our passage, calling loudly, and flying alongside us as we hurry on -- barely stopping to enjoy them. A group of Speckled Chachalacas cackle their dusk chorus as we enter the little riverside town of Atalaya.
Expediciones Manu's field station is here, where the boats and associated equipment are housed, and where a number of EM workers live. The bus drives up and soon we are all hauling things off and loading them into a couple of small boats for the crossing; anything overlooked in the dim light can be retrieved the next morning. I unpack our big marine spotlight; it could be useful on the crossing -- unfortunately halfway over, I switch it on and it immediately dies. (Word to the wise -- pack spare *bulbs* as well as spare batteries!)
We are met at the opposite bank by Santiago Yabar, owner of Amazonia Lodge, in an ancient Landrover. Somehow everybody scrambles in, leaving part of the luggage for a second trip, and we bounce off down the Jeep Trail to the lodge. It is now pretty dark, and we all road-weary and ready to give it a rest. The lodge is an old tea plantation, a solidly-built structure with a huge verandah, high ceilings and comfortable lounge furniture. Mrs. Yabar greets us with pisco sours, and then a pitcher of fresh lemonade and snacks. Everyone crashes on the verandah as rooms are sorted out, ahhhh, luxury! A few people are able to scramble off for showers, cold but welcome, others are comatose from fatigue or pisco (or both) -- at least until dinner is announced!
After an excellent dinner, once again highlighted by the soup starter, we avidly read the note left by Barry Walker, who is with another group a week ahead of us along the same route. Well, heh-heh, they didn't get White-throated Screech Owl but they did see some cripplers around the Lodge and across the river. Mouth-watering, but all we have energy to do now is listen to the night chorus of Tawny-bellied Screechowl, Mottled Owl and Night Monkey, with Paraque in the lodge clearing. Chasing these will have to wait until tomorrow.
The rooms at Amazonia Lodge are large and comfortable, lighted by candlelight (there is electricity, but only for the verandah, dining area, and some outbuildings). The high ceilings and large windows let in the cool night air, as well as the sounds of the jungle. As I drift off to sleep, I hear --distant but clear -- the groaning roar of a Great Potoo.
When the alarm sounds in the dark, we struggle awake -- the comfortable beds and restful night sounds had us in deep slumber. It is, of course, still dark. It is also still perfectly clear, so we groan at the promise of another hot sunny day, which would have delighted any other traveler! Today we will cross the river and bird with the bus for the last time, doing the Atalaya--Pilcopata road for bamboo and foothill specialties.
An excellent breakfast -- fresh home-baked bread, eggs, all manner of other delicious items -- and we pack it away like troopers since it will be hours until lunch. Folks straggle around the clearing as light grows, looking for those first few birds while others gather their field kits. A Tawny-bellied Screech Owl calls from the wood edge but we don’t have time to go look for him.
Finally all are ready, but the first order of business is to start the Landrover. Santiago tries the key but the starter ignores him. One of the employees tries the crank, but all he succeeds in doing is exhausting himself, a few little sputters and then silence. Finally we all pile out and it is PUSH PUSH PUSH, Santiago yelling instructions from the driver’s seat as we drag the beast backwards and then forwards -- finally the engine sputters, catches, and coughs into life. (I recall ?Antichrist,” the ornery Landrover in the movie ?The Gods Must be Crazy” -- obviously a close relative). We then bounce down the jeep trail to the beach, pile into the boat and set off.
On a gravel bar in the middle of the river we see a new bird -- a fine Fasciated Tiger-heron -- sharing his island with several Neotropic Cormorants. At the town several turkeys parade around while we load onto the bus -- no, we can’t count them but they sure look out-of-place. This will be our final outing with the bus and Eustace as well, he is returning with Guillermo and the others this afternoon, an all-night drive up the Manu Road. No one envies them the trip.
Our initial stop is the mirador, as this is our last chance to see Blue-headed Macaw. Lots of birds are commuting upriver, several flocks of Chestnut-fronted Macaws, a single Scarlet Macaw, and then, finally!, good looks at two pairs of Blue-headed Macaws gleaming in the morning sun. Other species in flight include a Black Caracara and a group of six Olive Oropendolas. Our attention then turns to the increasing birdsong around our little spot, and we soon are able to locate a pair of Warbling Antbirds (which don’t warble, they actually have a rather querulous, jeering call) and a pair of Ornate Antwrens. Chestnut-tailed Antbirds are also heard but again are uncooperative. A pair of Epaulet Orioles fly in, and we get excellent views of one perched in a low tree. Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters are investigating the road edge. Other birds at the mirador include Green Honeycreepers, Paradise and Bay-headed Tanagers.
After a bit more scouting (Clive scrambles up a steep trail to listen for the Wattled Guan that sometimes frequents the ridge, but the bird is silent today) we drive to the start of the bamboo trail. The trail is narrow and we are forced to walk in single file. Almost immediately, we spook two Cabani’s Spinetails up from the path, and those at the end of the line are unhappy about their lack of view. We pause to sort out some ground rules, such as rotating position in line and being sure all can see, and then proceed into a thick stand of bamboo. A short play of the appropriate tape, and a fine pair of the recently-described Manu Antbird come into view. It is not easy to see them in the thick foliage, but eventually everyone gets reasonable views of the striking black male and the rufous female. Down a side trail then for a try for the Bamboo Antshrike, another relatively recently-described species, and a beautiful male responds to the tape, sitting right above us for close views. This is one of the zebra-striped antshrikes, with a dark eye and densely-barred plumage. It has a distinctive dull ?oo oo oo” call which we hear often as we move on through the bamboo.
Barry Walker’s letter had noted that his group had heard a Pheasant Cuckoo here the week before, so Clive trolls with a short sequence of the cuckoo’s three-note whistle. Completely unexpectedly, the bird immediately flies in and sits only about 25 feet away, calling repeatedly as we freeze and drink in this rarity -- not a common bird and very infrequently seen because of its skulking habits -- but a real beauty. It is a life bird for everyone in the group. Finally, after minutes of calling, during which time no one moves a muscle, the cuckoo flies off, although we hear it several times afterwards and once it flies across our path as the more-usually-glimpsed brown ghost. Certainly one of the top birds of the entire trip!
Overhead a little series of calls resolves into a pair of Ornate Antwrens, far better looks than this morning’s, foraging in branches above us -- moving quickly from twig to twig, the male and female calling to each other constantly. We troll unsuccessfully for the Gray-cheeked Nunlets seen here by Barry’ party, but we are compensated by great views of a calling and displaying Black Hawk-eagle soaring low overhead. On a side trail we encounter a small mixed flock apparently scolding something on the ground or low in a thicket, and we can observe them at eye level as the trail slopes steeply down at this point: a beautiful male White-lined Antbird, a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, a pair each of Warbling Antbirds and Great Antshrikes, as well as two or three Two-banded Warblers. But as we move closer to locate the source of the anxiety, the flock disperses and we find, strangely enough...nothing.
It is getting hot in the bamboo, and one last side excursion yields good looks at another Cabani’s Spinetail, much to the relief of the ?back of the line,” a McConnell’s Flycatcher foraging like a vireo in the tangle, plus less satisfactory views of the uncommon Ruddy Foliage-gleaner. When we reach the road again, it is really hot! Everyone is grateful for the snacks and drinks provided as we sit in the shade on folding stools and relive our morning. Then back into the bus for a run down towards Pilcopata for a try at Yellow-billed Nunbirds, which are often found perched in trees above bamboo understory. The Nunbirds go missing, but various stops yield Chestnut-eared Aracari, Bluish-fronted Jacamar, Piratic Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and two Yellow-margined Flycatchers building a nest.
Hummingbirds are active along the road, and we get nice looks at Grey-breasted Sabrewing and two stunning male Violet-headed Hummingbirds, but miss the Rufous-crested Coquette seen here last week. Roadside birding yields a dull Carmioli’s Tanager and a pair of Golden-bellied Warblers. Finally, at lunch we park in ?Skulker’s Corner”, a shady treed bend with a high bank on one side and a stream on the other. Good for a picnic of cold chicken, salad and rich cake, and also good for birds. Three Long-tailed Tyrants are patrolling the higher branches of the trees, and we also enjoy the lunchtime companionship of a pair of Dot-winged Antwrens in the tree branches (which species Clive says may be split and the local form renamed White-tailed Antwren), two Yellow-breasted Antwrens in the roadside vines, multiple Yellow-browed Tody-flycatchers, and a pair of White-winged Becards.
After lunch, we decide to leave the heat and head back to the deeper woodlands across the river. At Atalaya, we unload the last of our bits and pieces from the bus, and bid Eustace, Guillermo and most of the others adieu. Ernesto stays; he and Jesus (who lives here in Atalaya) will be our boatmen for the rest of the trip. The bus lumbers off, everyone waving -- they have a long hard drive ahead.
As we offload on the other bank, an unexpected Sanderling flies by. What is a Sanderling doing here east of the Andes? This turns out to be a new bird for the Lodge list, which now stands at 525 -- as far as anyone knows, the highest number of species for any area of comparable size in the world -- a mere 4 square kilometers!
We walk back along a forest trail, which has multiple tracks of Tapir and Ocelot. The afternoon is spent birding the vicinity of the Lodge, where it is much cooler and there is more bird activity. We enjoy great looks at a little family party of four Pale-legged Horneros, a somewhat plover-like furnarid which walks deliberately (and with a very self-possessed air) along the trail, Mr. and Mrs. Hornero stopping every so once in a while to feed their full-grown and identical chicks. They watch us suspiciously and herd the chicks away when they have decided we’re too close. Other birds seen in the vicinity of the lodge clearing or the nearby swamp include a Mottle-backed Elaenia, with its ?harpy-eagle” crest, building a nest right in front of the verandah, a loud and clumsy party of the remarkable Hoatzin, several Black-billed Thrushes, and calling Black-tailed Trogons, very lovely! The clearing is lively with the comings and goings of Yellow-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas (both of which are nesting in the same palm tree) and we see Crested Oropendolas along the trail.
Craig and Rose linger in the swamp, waiting for a pair of Black-capped Donacobius to show themselves again, and are treated to looks at a Grey-headed Kite (but no Donacobius). Rose sees a Blackish Rail cross the path; the rest of us are somewhere further down the jeep track, trying to find a calling Round-tailed Manakin. This is one of the hazards of tropical birding -- you can’t be everywhere at once!
As dusk gathers, a number of antbirds start to call -- tomorrow morning we will deal with them! A Paraque calls, then flies about in the lights. We all sit on the verandah and enjoy lemonade and beer, listening to the night sounds. Barry stands up, ?think I’ll visit the loo...” and then is back in about 10 seconds. In British understatement, ?I think I’ll wait for a while, there’s something that looks remarkably like a snake on the path...” A quick inspection with a flashlight reveals a small Fer-de-Lance, which decides to beat a hasty retreat onto the lawn. Hmmmm--have to watch out for that little guy!
After an excellent supper, everyone showers -- only cold water here, but welcome -- and hits the sack. No Great Potoo tonight, but Night Monkeys are calling behind the lodge.
Another early morning, the sky is still brilliantly clear and full of stars. We wander about the clearing waiting for breakfast; Craig and Rose manage to glimpse a Tawny-bellied Screech Owl as it flies off to roost. After another excellent breakfast, we gather to do the jeep trail for ?ant-things.” Later, we’ll climb the steep ridge behind the lodge for some species more characteristic of the foothills, like Koepcke’s Hermit.
Birds are starting to awake as we enter the swamp in the half-light. Several sleepy Spix’s Guans cackle and shuffle in a tree right beside the trail. A Limpkin calls and flaps into the top of a tree, while Hoatzins crash about in apparent confusion. We wait for a while but no rails appear, although Grey-necked Woodrails are calling a short way off. The Donacobius are also absent, but we manage to call in a couple of Dark-breasted Spinetails hidden in the swamp scrub.
Quiet watching and some judicious use of taped playback lures in a good assortment of antbirds, as we slowly make our way up the jeep trail: Goeldi’s, Warbling, and White-browed Antbirds, as well as Black-capped Antshrike. Scarlet Macaws and Chestnut-eared Aracari sit up in the morning sun. Two superb Plum-throated Cotingas are perched in a fruit-laden tree, along with several Cobalt-winged Parakeets and s stunning pair of Masked Crimson Tanagers. An odd little noise from a lower tree reveals three of the local and spectacular (not!) Johanne’s Tody-tyrant. We also see a couple of old friends, Red-eyed Vireos. Overhead, David points out a huge circling kettle of at least 500 White-collared Swifts -- one of the largest concentrations I have ever seen. As we watch, they peel off and disperse over the forest. We hear the lovely song of a Hauxwell’s Thrush high in a giant tree, but he is immobile on a song perch, and try as we might, no one can find the bird.
Walking back by the small oxbow lake, everyone enjoys wonderful views of the water-loving Silvered Antbird, and well as a pair of Lesser Kiskadee. We flush a Rufescent Tiger-heron from the reeds and he sits up in a tree for close examination. Unfortunately, we can’t find the Agami Heron which sometime lurks in the brushy overhangs along the lake margins.
Next a quick tramp back through the lodge grounds, where Grey-fronted Doves, Red-capped Cardinals and Hooded Siskins are feeding on the ground, and up onto the steep ridge behind the buildings. The trail seems to go straight up, and it is now getting both sunny and hot. But we persevere, and are treated to several mixed canopy flocks which contain White-winged Shrike Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Rufous-tailed, Buff-fronted and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners, Dusky-capped Greenlet and numerous Golden-bellied Warblers.
The ridge has proved a good site for ant-specialists over the years, and we are looking and listening for the calls of the Hairy-crested Antbird or the Black-spotted Bare-eye which would signal an ant-swarm. John and David, however, have dour predictions that they are doomed to never see an ant-swarm (which they have managed to miss despite numerous trips to Central and South America). Their jinx seems to hold up, since the only new formicarid action is a single Sooty Antbird and a pair of Bluish-slate Antshrikes. We also are treated to a pair of Tawny-faced Gnatwrens foraging on the ground.
However, one of our targets is the endemic and local Koepke’s Hermit. We stake out several promising looking clumps of flowering plants and are eventually manage rather unsatisfactory looks at a darting long-tailed, ruddy-breasted hummingbird. Everyone welcomes the rest however, as we are getting knackered. In fact, Clive (well below us at one point) calls out an Ornate Flycatcher, one of the prettiest species, and no one *up* the trail has the energy or inclination to climb back down to see it. Pretty pathetic (I admit being one of the pathetic ones!) Finally we struggle to the top of the ridge, literally crawling up hand-hold by hand-hold, and are rewarded with wonderful views of several calling Round-tailed Manakins. However, we also seem to be attracting hundreds of tiny sweat bees which fly into our eyes, mouths and ears -- they seem impervious to insect repellant and determined to make us miserable. A quick retreat downhill, at the bottom good looks at Bearded Hermit in a heliconia thicket. Then in to a late and welcome lunch!
After lunch, folks wander out on their own for a while, then gather later in the day for evening birding. Our first stop is down a back trail which leads towards the Madre de Dios. Here we hope to locate lekking males of the brilliant Band-tailed Manakin. We hear the birds before we see them -- a loosely associated group scattered in an area of old citrus trees. These manakins, despite their brilliance, can be hard to locate. They usually sit quietly, almost immobile, calling repeatedly, then fly rapidly to a new spot, and repeat the performance. Catching one in a static position is not easy, but after a while almost everyone gets good looks at this little fiery fellow -- that is, everyone except my husband. Not a happy camper, he!
By late afternoon, the sky is again filled with swifts, but a wider variety. Careful watching allows identification of three of the difficult Chaetura swifts: Short-tailed, Grey-rumped and Pale-rumped Swifts, as well as a couple of Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts. There is a lot of bird song, and, tantalizingly, we hear an Amazonian Antpitta calling right by the trail. A whistled imitation brings him closer, and suddenly he hops into view, deep in the dark undergrowth -- big-headed, almost tailess. Since some of us have missed him, Clive tries a tape playback. The bird responds, but surprises us by flying across the trail behind us (I get a glimpse) and starts calling again. This time we quietly wait and are rewarded with looks in much better light, albeit brief ones. Still -- it’s a great day when you see an Antpitta!
Light is now rapidly fading, so we retire to the verandah for beers and to listen to the night sounds. A distant Tawny -bellied Screech Owl and then, a Common Potoo which sounds closer. Everyone leaps up and we walk out to the edge of the marsh. The Potoo is definitely nearby -- we try a shot of the tape and he flies in for great flashlight views, perching on the top of a dead snag. But no owl seems inclined to pay us heed, so we opt for dinner, showers, some quiet conversation and then, to bed.
Our last morning at Amazonia Lodge, and we all arise before dawn so that not a moment is wasted. David, John and Clive have opted to re-climb the ridge for another try at an ant-swarm, and perhaps better looks at the Hermit. Barry and I want to find a Band-tailed Manakin, so we decide to walk down the Jeep Trail at first light, as there is the added chance of a Blackish Rail at the Marsh. We catch up with Craig and Rose who are standing watch at the marsh, waiting for the Donocobius. We watch with them for a while, but no luck on either the illusive mockingthrush or the rail, so we move on.
About 200 meters along, I hear one of the manakins calling just off the trail, and walk back into the woods to try and locate the little guy. After a minute or so, I hear Barry giving a low persistant whistle, a signal for me to ?come quick!” However, I’m not happy about abandoning my manakin search -- this had better be good! When I regain the trail, Barry points silently down the road and lifts his bins to his eyes again. I follow his example and it takes a second for what I am looking at to sink in -- about 100 meters away, there is a very large, very spotted golden shape sitting in the middle of the trail, its long tail sweeping around it, big square head and jowls, stiff pale whiskers, yellow eyes staring right at us. A JAGUAR! It is sitting up like a great dog, lifting its head to sniff (we are downwind) and exhuding an aura of supreme self-confidence. Considerably more self-confidence than we do at that moment, to be blunt. In our 10x binoculars, it looks pretty close! We stare at each other for long minutes, then it stands up across the road (it is so large that the tail disappears into the foliage) and slowly walks off the track. MEGAWOW!
We hurry up to the point it disappeared and find a low spot dappled with tapir and peccary hoofprints, so this might be a regular hunting spot for the big cat. But our spotted friend is gone, having melted silently away. Our hearts are still pounding when Rose walks up -- ?Seen anything?” Er...you really don’t want to know... trust us. We feel bad that our friends have missed this memorable sight, one which we hadn’t expected even in our wildest dreams.
After this experience, the rest of the morning is a bit anticlimatic. But we do see some nice birds, including good looks at Band-tailed Manakin for Barry, as well as a parent Ocellated Woodcreeper feeding a noisy chick, several White-bearded Hermits at Heliconia flowers, Rusty-belted Tapaculo, Blackish and Goeldi’s Antbirds, a pair of White-winged Tanagers, and a huge Crimson-crested Woodpecker tearing holes in a dead tree.
David, John and Clive return, happy to have had crippling views of Koepcke’s Hermit at a nest, but unfortunately no ant-swarm. They are naturally pretty chagrined at missing the Jaguar, however. Santiago Yabar tells us that the big cats haunt the outskirts of the nearby settlements, hoping to pick off wandering dogs. Sort of a reverse, man-bites-dog, food chain.
After a late breakfast, it is time to say goodbye. All our luggage, several cases of Cristal beer, and us are loaded into a motorized dugout for the seven-hour run downriver to the Manu Wildlife Center. Lifevests are in order; the upper Madre de Dios river is swift and dotted with snags -- a capsized boat could be a serious problem. Ernesto sits at the prow while Jesus deals with the motor and the bailing (the boat leaks a tad). It is a bright day, with scattered clouds, luckily no rain as the boat has no canopy.
This downstream run is a very birdy part of the trip, especially for raptors and waders. Sandbanks host the snazzy Pied Lapwing and the occasional Collared Plover. Yellow-billed Terns and finally, a few Large-bills, are spotted. We see more Fasciated Herons and the first of many Capped Herons, a very dapper bird indeed. As we proceed downriver, a large forested ridge looming ahead -- this ridge is not directly connected to the Andes and according to Clive, has not been seriously studied as to its avifauna. The river skirts this enticing area for miles and we dream about exploring its mysteries.
Ernesto is constantly calling out snags and giving directions as to the best course to run the many small rapids which we encounter. Someone cracks a nervous (and irreverent) joke that we have to be safe, ?we are traveling down the Madre de Dios with Jesus as our boatman.” Eventually, everyone gets into the rhythm and starts to pay more attention to the birds than to the river. In short order, we see a Crane Hawk soaring above the forest (which turns out to be the only one for the trip), multiple Ospreys, Great Black Hawks, Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, two King Vultures, perched Bat Falcons, many Plumbeous Kites. Many Black and Turkey Vultures, and I suddenly see one is a forgery -- Zone-tailed Hawk! On a sandbar, David calls out an Ibis and we struggle to slow the boat and determine which species -- it appears to be a Buff-necked Ibis (one of three recently-split sibling species). [We later hear that, if our identification was correct, it is the first record for Peru.]
It is afternoon when we arrive at the little settlement of Boca Manu, at the confluence of the Manu and Madre de Dios rivers. Here, if we were going to Manu Lodge in the reserve zone, we would turn into the smaller stream. The boat is snaked into shore and we climb the steep, muddy bank to the town. A convenient bar with a shaded porch beckons -- here we eat our belated lunch and down cool beers. Clive and Craig are off to check with the police. They soon return, there is a problem with our park visitor list -- it apparently does not agree with the list faxed earlier. A long negotiation ensues. The police representative, who is not in uniform and looks pretty scruffy, seems to want some cash ?to make photocopies.” Clive is not inclined to bribe this fellow. Everyone else is impatient -- give ?im some bucks and let’s go! -- but it apparently it would be a bad precedent (since EM has to operate here regularly). It looks as if we may be stuck for a while, and several of us start edging to the boat -- make a run for it? Clive finally asks the man’s name, and name of his supervisor, and he suddenly waves us away -- go! We go, quickly, continuing downstream in the waning afternoon.
These final two hours are the best of the boat ride, and among the best of the whole trip. The river is gentler here, with more sandbars. We start to see the first of many, many groups of macaws, flying overhead, bright in the sunlight. Blue-and-yellow, Scarlet, Red-and-green, Chestnut-fronted -- in pairs and triples, calling and shrieking. The sound of Manu. We will never tire of seeing these great parrots, with their enthusiatic attitude and glorious plumage -- wild and free as they were meant to be.
Every bend of the river reveals new wonders -- a snag covered with scores of perched Sand-colored Nightjars, next to a mud flat hosting a pair of Jabiru. Three ungainly and unworldly Horned Screamers. Wild Muscovy Ducks, with glossy crisp black and white plumage, a far cry from their barnyard congeners. Roseate Spoonbills. Sun Bitterns. Amazon and Green Kingfishers. And then, as the light is waning, we turn around the end of a wooded island, and up to the dock at the Manu Wildlife Centre.
There we are greeted by glowing oil lamps and John, a newly arrived British researcher, as Walter (the Peruvian manager) is away on business at Boca Manu. John shows us to our comfortable screened cabins, explains the mosquito net drill (although there are relatively few mosquitoes) and then we all gather in the dining hall for a late supper. A few beers and some popcorn later, and we are starting to relax. It is, by now, pretty dark but we can just make out the silhouette of a Ladder-tailed Nightjar perched on a stake near the dock, as it makes forays out over the water for insects.
Then to bed, a big day tomorrow --we will visit the macaw collpa (clay lick). The forest is noisy with the sound of frogs, insects and a few distant owls.
....[Remainder of Trip Report may be forthcoming some day].
University of Maryland College Park
Gail@umdd.umd.edu or email@example.com