Peru Birding – April 2012 – Part 3

Today, April 24, we took the 2.5 hour early morning train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The very comfortable train goes along the swift and turbulent Urubamba River all the way to Aguas Calientes.


From the train I caught brief glimpses of Torrent Ducks, an Andean Guan, a Fasciated Tiger Heron and an Andean Motmot. At Aguas Calientes we met our Machu Picchu guide, Vilma, and took the short bus ride up to the ruins, arriving there on a beautiful sunlit morning.

I had been told, but I was not prepared for the beauty of Machu Picchu. It does not look like a “ruin”. The buildings and terraces were constructed in the 1500s to house a city of about 800 Incans.


They lived there only a short time before it was abandoned due to the fears of the on-coming Spaniard Conquistadores, who in fact did not find it. It was “rediscovered” only about 100 years ago by a National Geographic photographer, Hiram Bingham. Pictures are better than words at conveying the loveliness of this place. I walked about half way to the top and then found a shady spot to stop while Adam and Vilma went on to the top.


I sat in the shade and mused about the history and spirit of the city and its founders, looking out over the buildings and terraces and the amazing mountains that surround the site. Blue and White Swallows, White-tipped Swifts and a lone American Kestrel, soared around me.

We met Silverio at the Machu Picchu cafeteria, in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel, for lunch. This is a cafeteria to challenge all cafeterias. The food quality and selection were outstanding. After lunch we boarded a bus and returned down to Aguas Calientes where we rested until dinner time.

The next morning, April 25, we took the bus half way back up the mountain toward Machu Picchu and were let off by the Urubamba River. From there we spent a leisurely morning birding our way back through the trees to Aguas Calientes along the rail road track and the Urubamba River. This was the most productive morning of birding of the entire trip. We had nice weather, the walking was easy and the birds were plentiful. Among the best sightings were spectacular looks at Torrent Ducks


and a White-capped Dipper on rocks in the Urubamba.


Along the way we saw an excellent sampling of Peru’s many Tanagers, including: Oleaginous Hemispingus (another one of these delightfully named birds), Rust and Yellow Tanagers, Blue-Gray Tanagers, Palm Tanagers, Blue-capped Tanagers, Fawn-breasted Tanagers, Saffron-crowned Tanagers, Golden-naped Tanager, Silver-backed Tanagers, and Blood-red Tanager. Hummingbirds were also present : Green Hermits (one very close), a spectacular Long-tailed Sylph, a Chestnut-breasted Coronet, a Booted Racket-tail, and Green and White Hummingbirds. Other birds seen along the way included Andean Guans, a Fasciated Tiger Heron, Versicolored Barbets, Ocellated Piculets, Mitred Parakeets, Variable Antshrikes, a Streaked Xenops, Sclater’s Tyrannulets, an Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, a White-crested Elaenia, Mottled-cheek Tyrannulets, a Streak-necked Flycatcher, Black Phoebes, Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Red-eyed Vireos, a Brown-capped Vireo, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, a Capped Conebill, Masked Flowerpiercers, a Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, a Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Whitestarts, and Russet-crowned Warblers.

We lounged around (slept) in the lobby of our hotel until the train departed from Aguas Calientes to Cusco, where we would spend the night before flying back to Lima the next day. The train ride was about 4 hours, but it was enlivened by a mischievous masked creature and a fashion show along the way. That night in Cusco we dined at a very nice cafeteria, where we were again entertained, this time by a traditional Andean band and dance group.


The next morning, April 26, our return was complicated because a large crowd was demonstrating on the streets outside our hotel and made it impossible for our driver to get to the hotel to take us to the Cusco airport. We walked a few blocks to connect, and made our flights back to Lima and the U.S. in fine shape.

Conclusions: Peru is a beautiful country. If you like scenery, go there. The mountains are unmatched. Machu Picchu lives up to its reputation as one of the great historical attractions of the new world. It is well maintained and well run. If you want to see a lot of large and colorful birds, the Cusco, Abancay, Abra Malaga and Machu Picchu area is not the best choice in Peru. It does harbor some nice endemics and other interesting birds. Our final tally for the approximately 5 days of birding was 117 species seen, almost all of which were new to me.

Peru Birding – April 2012 – Part 2

We rose early on April 21 for a pre-dawn start, and skipped breakfast to try to catch the morning appearances of several of the birds found best, or only, near Abancay.  We drove in the dry Apurimac Canyon on the road to Andahualas (below Abancay) and stopped frequently along the river after crossing the Sahuite Bridge. Here we saw quite a few White-tipped Doves and Andean Swifts, Tyrian Metaltails, a Shining Sunbeam, White-bellied Hummingbirds, and, as we were about to head back to town for breakfast, 2 of our primary targets, Creamy-breasted (Pale-tailed) Canasteros.  Adam spotted a lovely Black-backed Grosbeak from the van, and we saw another a little later on.

After breakfast we began our journey toward the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the tourist mecca of the area, Ollantaytambo.  Along the way we spent a considerable time looking for the extremely elusive Ampay Tapaculos, without success, although at least 3 individuals were heard.  Along the way we stopped for a late lunch off-road on a nicely secluded hillside on a high pass, where we spent several hours enjoying the scenery, the pleasant weather and the abundant bird life.  It was here that we saw one of the only 2 wild mammals of the trip: a Montane Guinea Pig.  (The other was a Mountain Viscacha, seen during our lunch stop the day before).  The area was quite open, so for the most part, the birds that were present could be seen, except for the vocal Antpittas, who stayed under cover.

Among the birds seen today were Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, a Mountain Velvetbreast, a White-bellied Woodstar, Cream-winged Cinclodes (fairly common), a Rusty-fronted Canastero (Adam only), a Black-billed Shrike Tyrant, Red-crested Cotingas, common old Red-eyed Vireos, a beautiful Rust and Yellow Tanager, a Blue and Yellow Tanager, a Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Cinereous Conebills, Black-throated Flowerpiercers, Peruvian Sierra-finches, Plain-colored Seedeaters, Golden-billed Saltators, and an Apurimac Brush-finch,

After a long day on the road, we arrived at Ollantaytambo and our Lodge, the very nice Pakaritampu Hotel, where we would spend three nights.  The contrast between Abancay and Ollantaytambo was very distinct.  I was glad that we were spending 3 nights at Ollantaytambo, not at Abancay.  Among other attractions, Ollantaytambo is the site of the second most noted Incan ruin in Peru.  We did not make the trip up to the ruins, but we enjoyed the view.


The next day, April 22, proved to be one of the most physically challenging days of my life.  I had questioned Silverio at dinner the night before about the difficulty of the hike down the west slope of Abra Malaga.  He left it up to me, and I decided to give it a go.  That was a mistake.  We drove from Ollataytambo up to the top of Abra Malaga, about 14,000 feet.  The drive was spectacular, with the beautiful mountain scenery.  Along the way we saw a cattle auction.


According to Silverio, a good bull (and all the males remain bulls) is worth about $500.  The ancient methods of agriculture are still practiced on the terraced steep mountain sides.


Not much room for tractors to turn around.  Thus, the importance of beasts of burden such as the bulls and the burros.

The design of the road should have been a tip-off as to the difficulty of the descent to follow, but I was oblivious.


The weather wasn’t very good.  Mist, wind and sporadic rain greeted us as we began our descent from the top of Abra Malaga.


There were some nice birds at the top, including 2 impressive Andean Flickers, and a Streak-throated Canastero.  We started down about 7:30 a.m., on what was billed as a 4 hour hike.

Fast forward, we finally got down 8 hours later, about 4:00 p.m., for “lunch“. Toward the end, my knees were nearly gone, and but for my decision to take my cane and wear knee braces, I would not have been able to walk out.  I crashed on my rear-end three times on the rain-drenched grass slopes, in the mud.  Thankfully, we were past the narrow mountain paths by then.  We nearly lost Adam as he careened down hill trying to catch his footing, coming to a halt stuck in a big mud hole, but standing tall.

As we left the treeless top of west slope of Abra Malaga we entered the Polyepsis woodlands, one of the few remaining in the world.


These are very short trees, with distinctive trunks and branches.  The Polylepsis contains some of the rarest birds in Peru.  I was very happy, after hours of searching the prior day, to finally see a Tapaculo, specifically a Puna Tapaculo.  This secretive, drab little bird walked out into an opening in the Polylepsis trees down-hill from us and I was greatly relieved that the pressure to find a Tapaculo was now off.

Among the birds that we saw during this marathon hike were Mountain Caracaras, Aplomado Falcons,


Andean Parakeets, an Olivaceous Thornbill, a White-browed Tit-spinetail, a Line-fronted Canastero, a Stripe-headed Antpitta, a rare and endangered Ash-breasted Tit-tyrant, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants, D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrants, Rufous-naped Ground Tyrants, a Puna Ground Tyrant, Cinereous Ground Tyrants, and Plumbeous and Ash-breasted Sierra Finches. Actually, quite good in retrospect.

I was famished, exhausted and in pain by the time we exited the Valley and arrived at the van.  We devoured our late lunch and headed back to the hotel. Between my knees and Adam’s apparent altitude sickness, we had a bad night, but by morning, April 23, we were ready to go again, provided we stayed in or near the van and all walking was on a nearly flat road with the van close by and on call.  With those limitations, we actually had a good day of birding.  This time we went back up to the top and explored the east slope of Abra Malaga.

We missed a couple of the birds that I had hoped to see here: Andean Goose and Puna Ibis.  The weather, again, was not good.  There was a lot of fog (Neblina), and sporadic rain.  But we did get good looks at a lot of interesting birds today, either on the east slope of Abra Malaga or on the road back to Ollantaytambo. These included a nice flock of Yellow-billed Teal, good looks at a Variable Hawk, more Andean Lapwings, a spectacular Sword-billed Hummingbird, Cream-winged Cinclodes, a beautiful White-tufted Sunbeam, and an equally beautiful Great Sapphirewing, Puna Thistletails, Marcapata Spinetails, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrants, Brown-bellied Swallows, Spectacled Whitestarts, Citrine Warblers, a Paramo Pipit, Parodi’s Hemispingus (I love that name), more Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers, White-browed Conebills, and both Black-throated and Masked Flowerpiercers, as well as the abundant Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Back at the hotel, I had time to bird the grounds and was pleasantly surprised to find a nice variety of birds right on the hotel grounds.  These were Spot-winged Pigeons, Sparkling Violet-ears, Green and White Hummingbirds, White-bellied Hummingbirds, and a female Rusty Flowerpiercer.

Peru Birding – April 2012 -Part 1

I arrived in Lima, Peru, about midnight on April 18th. The next day I hired a local city guide recommended by my hotel. That afternoon she, with a driver and me, toured some of the more historic or scenic parts of Lima. The Miraflores District was lovely, and the views of the ocean were interesting, if somewhat hazy. More interesting was the old city of Lima. My favorite place there was the Franciscan Abbey. The Abbey is a storehouse of the history of Peru from the Spanish conquest in the 1530s to the present day. I especially liked the old library with its thousands of ancient volumes. I wonder what sorts of information they contain. The catacombs, where almost 500 years worth of Franciscan monks and friars are buried, were dark and humid, not a place to linger. The library and the catacombs have in common their “VOB stacks”: one of Very Old Books and one of Very Old Bones. Dank and dusky volumes of forgotten lore and lives. We drove back to my hotel during rush hour, which is not an experience I wish soon to repeat. The traffic pendulum swung from tedious to terrifying, with little moderation in between.

Incidentally, for one arriving alone at the Lima airport I recommend the hotel where I stayed: the Costa del Sol Ramada. It is just a few feet from the baggage claim area at the airport, easily and safely accessible by foot. Their breakfasts were excellent and the dining room fare was very good. A bit of a steep price, but in perspective, worth it.

Adam arrived on schedule late that night, the 19th. We left for Cusco on Star Peru Airlines at 8:00 the next morning. We were met at the Cusco airport by representatives of our guide service, Manu Expeditions. After brief introductions, we left by van for Abancay with our guide, Silverio Duri, and our driver, Guillermo. We were impressed with the beauty of the snow-capped Andes ( I didn’t expect so much snow)


and the lovely green valleys and mountain sides.


We stopped for lunch along the road, by the Apurimac River.


We did not do a lot of birding this first day, because the drive to Abancay was long-very long. When we finally arrived at Abancay we found an old city, with not much in the way of tourism. Many people were in the streets celebrating the end of the week. To my surprise, although it was dark by the time we arrived, we drove on through the town, and turned off on a very poor and isolated road. This was to be the site of our search for one of our target birds for the Abancay area: the Apurimac subspecies of Koepcke’s Screech Owl. Silverio was optimistic that it would be found. I had doubts.

We finally came to a stop, of necessity, at the end of a closed-off bridge across the fast flowing Apurimac. Silverio hoped to find The Owl near where we stopped, but nothing turned out easy on this trip. To quote Silverio’s trip report: “Oh yes! We were initially slightly worried about this guy because almost as soon as we arrived to “Pachachaca” bridge below Abancay, I played the tape and one of them responded very close to us but we couldn’t find it and at the same time stopped calling, so then I kept playing and not more responses, that is why I decided to go back to the vehicle and onto a different spot but just before I got inside the van I tried again . . . And almost right away two of them responded and one of them came into plain view where we got great views. These Apurimac birds may represent an undescribed subspecies – slight vocal differences between these and the northern Peruvian populations, and they tend to ignore playback of the northern calls.”

Silverio graciously omits the full scenario: after a long hike, in the dark, away from the bridge to try to find the Owl, and before getting in the van, I needed a rest-stop, and while I was thus engaged, the others spotted the Owls. Because I was otherwise occupied, I failed to see them. Silverio was exasperated; how could I have missed this prize? Fortunately, one returned just as I re-joined the group, and Voila, the long day did not end in total disaster. I saw, and saw quite well, the (potential) Apurimac Subspecies of Koepcke’s Screech Owl. Of course, this provoked a theme for the trip that I was never able to live down.

We returned (slowly, slowly) to Abancay and our (old) Hotel de Turistas, where we were served a very late but decent and, by then, much needed meal in the Hotel Dining Room.

We did see a few other birds on this first day, during a few stops along the way: Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, Variable Hawk, Andean Lapwing, Andean Swifts (overhead as we stopped for lunch along the river), Tyrian Metaltails (a hummingbird), Mitred Parakeets, Tufted Tit-tyrants, a very lovely Red-crested Cotinga, Chicanguo and Great Thrushes, Peruvian Sierra Finches, Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finches, Plain-colored Seedeaters, Golden-billed Saltators, Rufous-collared Sparrows (many), and Hooded Siskins.