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PERU -- Cuzco and Machu Picchu (casual birding)

September 2001

by Tom Grey

A couple of weeks back I asked for suggestions on places to go birding on the side on a sightseeing tour to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, and for reading suggestions as well.  I got a number of good ideas on places to go, especially in the Machu Picchu area, and also field guide advice.  I decided to bring along Ridgely and Greenfield's Birds of Ecuador, plus a frequency chart of birds observed in the Machu Picchu area published by Barry Walker and David Ricalde in 1988 (thanks to Howard Winer for sending me a copy of the latter.) I was hoping to pick up the new guide by Barry Walker, Birds of Machu Picchu, in Cuzco, but unfortunately it was not available when I got there because of printing problems.

My wife and I had signed up for what promised to be an exceptional tour focusing on the great architectural and cultural treasures of the Cuzco area, including the Urubamaba Valley and Machu Picchu.  I was determined to take every advantage of the trip, doing only as much birding as could be worked into the interstices.  As it turned out the trip was everything we had hoped for and more.  I particularly can recommend Wilderness Travel and our exceptional guide Andrea Heckman to anyone who is thinking of taking a tour like this.  We also had the extra good luck of having two top archaeologists of Peru along to enlighten us on the latest theories and research, Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar-Burger.

I did manage to get some birding in, and that's what I want to report on here.  What I found out was that despite no experience of South America birds, little of tropical birds (one trip to Costa Rica), little prior study (almost all my prep reading was devoted to the Incas!), and only a few scattered hours to devote to birds, I could still have a lot of fun birding on the side during a "ruins trip" along this well-trodden tourist route.  So I'm posting this, thinking that some other Chatters may take a similar trip here and wonder about birding "on the side."

Our first days in Cuzco produced no birds (other than plenty of ROCK DOVES and HOUSE SPARROWS), and then on the third day we traveled to Pisac in the Urubamba Valley to see the ruins and the famous Sunday market.  Here I saw my first real Peruvian bird -- an AMERICAN KESTREL!  There were a few swifts flying around the slopes of the Pisac ruins, but I wasn't able to make a definite i.d.  -- so, Swift sp.

The next day we traveled from Cuzco over the highlands via Chinchero into the Sacred Valley to see Ollantaytambo, and we spent the night at a fancy hotel with nice landscaping and birdy grounds in Yucay, near Urubamba (Posada del Inca.) In Chinchero up in the potato-growing highlands at 12000 feet I saw an ANDEAN COOT in a pond along the road, a singing ANDEAN FLICKER on top of one of the attractive colonial buildings in the town, and a small flock of PUNA IBIS downhill from the pond foraging in a pool in a field.  Early the next morning before we set out for Machu Picchu, I was able to spend an hour or so birding the grounds of the hotel, and I turned up RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS (these pretty Zonotrichias were ubiquitous outside urban Cuzco, singing -- it's early spring in Peru), EARED DOVES, and CHIGUANCO THRUSH (distinguishable from Great Shrike by smaller size, lighter gray color, and yellow rather than orange bill.) I caught glimpses of several hummingbirds but couldn't identify them to species; later I found out another member of our tour had seen "a bird that looked like a brown hummingbird with a white rump but was much too big" in the hotel grounds -- well I was able to tell her she had seen a Giant Hummingbird, while regretting I had missed it.

The train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu produced the promised TORRENT DUCKS in the Urubamba River, but no dippers.  As soon as we got up to Machu Picchu around midday, I saw swallows flying overhead everywhere, and soon identified them as BLUE-AND-WHITE SWALLOWS.  During my stay there I kept looking for the Pale-footed Swallow, reported to be "common" in this habitat by Walker and Ricalde, but was never able to locate one.  I did see a swift overhead up at the top of the ruins, probably an Andean Swift, but couldn't pin down the i.d.

We spent two nights in Machu Picchu in the Ruinas Hotel, and didn't have a lecture or tour scheduled on the first morning until midmorning.  While the upward bound among our group climbed Huayna Picchu, I took the bus down the hill to the river, recommended for birding, and walked downstream along the railroad tracks from the bridge.  In the hour and a half or so I had, I walked down about a kilometer, sat for a while by the tracks where there was a horizontal view of some woods, and then walked back.  I got my best birding of the trip here, as promised.  I managed to see the GIANT HUMMINGBIRD I had missed in the Urubamba Valley, and added just two tanagers clearly identifiable enough for me count -- BLUE-GRAY TANAGER, and BLUE-NECKED TANAGER.  I saw several other tanagers -- I suspect they included Fawn-breasted Tanager, Silvery Tanager, Blue-black Tanager, and Masked Flowerpiercer -- but I couldn't get good enough descriptions written down to justify counting the birds when I reviewed my field guide later.  This is where more study in advance would have paid off!  I saw several RED-EYED VIREOS along this stretch of track, and also was pleased to get clear views of a STREAKED XENOPS -- an ID made possible by the fact that it is the only one of this difficult group that is found at Machu Picchu.

A ROADSIDE HAWK was perched along the river and gave me good views, and I saw one singing TROPICAL PARULA and heard several more.  A flock of parrots kept flying away from me into the sun, but finally perched enough off to one side that I was able to see the red patch that marked them as SCARLET-FRONTED PARAKEETS.  Finally my favorite bird of the morning was a RUSSET-BACKED OROPENDULA, seen perched, then flying awa, then perched again, with the russet back clearly visible.  I saw a number of hummingbirds, but wasn't able to distinguish them by species.  They were mostly green and white, as hummers tend to be, and doubtless some of them were the eponymous and endemic Green-and-White, but I couldn't say which.  The lack of an illustrations or descriptions of birds not found in Ecuador was a problem here.  No luck on seeing Cock-of-the-Rock -- this is said to be a good spot for them -- but I was very happy with the morning's birding.  I had had that special thrill of finding a number of new birds entirely on my own.  A good guide would have given me a longer list, but I'm not sure it could have been more memorable birding.

The next morning, we again had the morning off for individual exploration, and I decided to combine Machu Picchu sightseeing with birding -- first a walk along the narrow mountainside path to the spectacular Inca Bridge, and then the walk up above the ruins to the Gate of the Sun, with its famous view down over the ruins.  Probably because I did the bridge walk first, it produced the better birding -- good views of BLUE-CAPPED TANAGER and RUST-AND-YELLOW TANAGER, and a first view of an AZARA'S SPINETAIL, several more of which I would later see and hear along the other trail.  I also saw what was may have been a female Black-billed Thrush (I heard several times a song that matches the description of this species' song in Birds of Ecuador), but because I recorded the bird's bill as dark rather than yellow, I can't be sure enough to count the species.

Along the trail up to the Gate of the Sun, I had both HOUSE WREN and SEPIA-BROWN WREN; I was looking hard for the endemic Inca Wren, but didn't see one.  Overhead I saw my only flying raptor of the two days in Machu Picchu, a large falcon.  The glimpse was brief before the bird soared behind a mountain not to return, and backlighting kept me from getting a good view of the underpart plumage -- it could have been Aplomado or Peregrine.  I also saw several Elaenia flycatchers, but because they could have been either Highland or Sierra, a difficult separation quite beyond my capabilities, I was only able to say Elaenia sp.

After our return to Cuzco from Machu Picchu, we spent a day exploring the area south of the city.  This meant a tantalizing drive by the birdy Lake Huacarpay in the distance, where I could see some swimming waterfowl too far away to identify, but I also saw a couple of gulls, and since it is the only gull found up here, that allowed me to claim ANDEAN GULL for my trip list.  The highlight of our day's touring was the spectacular Inca terracing and fountains at Tipon.  This has water in an arid region, and was a birdy spot even in mid-afternoon; it might be a good first stop on a day's birding south from Cuzco with Lake Huacarpay as the main target.  I saw plenty of birds flying back and forth in the bushes above the ruins even in mid-afternoon, but didn't get close enough to identify any of them.  In the ruin itself, I finally had my first clearcut view of a GREAT THRUSH, and in the tubular red flowers that are all over the area another birder in our group spotted a spectacular GREEN-TAILED TRAINBEARER, which we then enjoyed watching for some minutes.

Most of our last day in Peru was spent in Lima, where we visited the Larco Herrera museum and on our way back from there took a bus detour along the coastline at Miraflores.  Our headquarters for the day was the Hotel Olivar in San Ysidro, which is right next to one of the few real parks in Lima, a grove of old olive trees.  In about 45 minutes of birding in the park, I was able to find VERMILION FLYCATCHER (including the local all-dark morph of this species), TROPICAL KINGBIRD, BANANAQUIT, a flock of (introduced) CANARY-WINGED PARAKEETS, WEST PERUVIAN DOVE, CROAKING GROUND-DOVE, and AMAZILIA HUMMINGBIRD.  The latter also appeared in the garden on the grounds of the Larco Herrera museum.  We saw TURKEY VULTURES overhead, and a couple of large dark-backed gulls along the shore in Miraflores -- which had to be KELP GULLS.

That gave me a trip list of 37 -- not a very long list for Peru, but one that represented a lot of good birding fun in what was basically a non-birding trip.

Tom Grey