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Peru Birding Trip Report
15-26 March 2003
By Jon Hornbuckle
This tour into the Andes of Central Peru, organised and led by Gunnar Engblom of Kolibri Expeditions, with me as co-leader and Naturetrek representative, was the first of what is intended to be an ongoing series of budget tours operated by Naturetrek. It focused on finding a number of very special and rare birds, and had 13 British and one American participants. We succeeded in seeing nearly 350 species including such rarities as Junín Grebe, White-bellied Cinclodes, Bay-vented Cotinga, Tschudi's Tapaculo, Great Inca-Finch, Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, the latter two voted birds of the trip. We also saw Hoatzin, a multitude of Oilbirds, Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan, and a fine selection of seabirds, and even whales and dolphins, on the pre-tour pelagic.
Inevitably, there were logistical problems, as expected on such a pioneering, low-cost trip, and these are outlined in the text below. The itinerary of future tours will be modified slightly in the light of these experiences.
SATURDAY MARCH 15
We flew from Heathrow on the early morning Iberia scheduled flight to Madrid where we connected with the non-stop service to the Peruvian capital of Lima, arriving at Jorge Chávez International Airport during the evening. We were met by Gunnar Engblom and transferred to Hostal de las Artes, opposite Lima's main police station. Here we met John from Florida, who had arrived a day earlier. A few of the party were gripped off by his species list around Lima which included Peruvian Thick-knee.
SUNDAY MARCH 16
We departed at 5 a.m. for Callao, the starting point for the pelagic, and were joined by Noam Shany (co‑author of A Field Guide to the Birds of Peru), Joe Tobias and Natalie Seddon. Unseasonal fog delayed our start until 7.20 but we were able to watch a multitude of terns and gulls, highlights being superb Inca Terns and Franklin's Gulls flushed with pink underparts. We boarded the relatively small yacht and left the harbour on a flat sea, passing 4 perched South American Terns and numerous Peruvian Boobies. At 0800 a tall volcanic island looming out of the mist heralded the first of 4 groups of Humboldt Penguins, which were followed by Waved Albatross, Peruvian Diving-Petrels, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Grey Gulls the first of many Pomarine Skuas, along with the sun, which was to stay out for the rest of the day.
Farther on we came across rafts of Sooties and the storm-petrels started to appear: White-vented and smaller numbers of Wilson's, Ringed, and the larger Black and Markham's. The final 25-28 nautical miles out, with quite a swell, held large numbers of Dusky Dolphins and at least 3 whales, which appeared to be the large Fin Whale species.
The good selection of birds out there included a single Blue-footed Booby, White-chinned Petrel and Chilean and South Polar Skuas, along with a few Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels and Sabine's Gulls, one of which was in full breeding attire. The journey back was less eventful until we reached the off-shore islands where guano is harvested. Here the Inca Terns, boobies, pelicans, gulls and Guanay Cormorants were abundant and we were able to spot pairs of Red-legged Cormorant, Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes and Blackish Oystercatcher. We came into dock at sunset as 1000s of Franklin's Gulls were streaming out to the islands to roost, a most picturesque sight against the orange sky.
MONDAY MARCH 17
After an early morning call at 3.30, we were ready for departure at 4.00 but as the bus arrived over an hour late, we did not leave until 5.30. We met Gunnar on the outskirts of Lima in the Landcruiser which was to carry the food and camping gear for the whole trip. Proceeding to the Santa Eulália Valley, our first stop at 7.45 produced Great Inca-Finch, Collared Warbling-Finch, Greenish Yellow-Finch and Giant Hummingbird. A recent stake-out at Scheque Power Station gave excellent views of 3 large Magellanic Owls roosting in eucalypts. Most time was spent in the arid scrub of the west Andean slope around San Pedro de Canasta, at about 3000 meters, where a fine selection of specialities was seen. Highlights were Andean Tinamou, Andean Condor, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Aplomado Falcon, Mountain Parakeet, Peruvian Pygmy‑Owl, Bronze‑tailed Comet, Black-necked Woodpecker, Rusty‑crowned Tit‑Spinetail, Canyon Canastero, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Pied‑crested Tit‑Tyrant, Blue‑and‑yellow Tanager and Rusty-bellied Brush-Finch, with Peruvian Sheartail and Rufous‑breasted Warbling‑Finch for a lucky few.
In the afternoon we continued along the river and with rain in the air, proceeded up to the village of Huanza at 3,500 metres where we were able to secure some beds and covered floor space, rather than camp. After a meal of spaghetti and sausage in a tasty sauce, cooked by Guido, we dropped down to look for an owl, recently seen by assistant guide Eduardo and thought by Gunnar to be the little known Koepcke's Screech-Owl. Only one person saw an owl, in flight, but everyone had good views of Band-winged Nightjars.
TUESDAY MARCH 18
We left at 6.30, after a lengthy period loading the vehicles, to the Polylepis forest at about 4000m. Here we had breakfast and waited for the rare White‑cheeked Cotinga to appear. It failed to show but there was consolation in the form of Torrent Duck, Black Metaltail, Shining Sunbeam, Stripe‑headed Antpitta, D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, and for some Black-breasted Hillstar, Thick-billed Siskin and Black-throated Flowerpiercer. Continuing upwards, we soon encountered a major problem: the overnight rain had caused a landslip, under-cutting the road. There was no alternative but to go all the way back down to the main road – a bitter disappointment as we were only an hour or two from reaching the highway just below the pass. This journey, through spectacular scenery, took 3 hours, and after lunch we climbed back up into the Andes on the Central Highway for another 3 hours until we reached Chiclio at 4,700 meters at dusk. As this was the prime site for several key birds, we disembarked and set off after Gunnar across the bog in a blizzard! Visibility was so poor that the only sight was a Puna Snipe in flight, before darkness fell and we reached the bus lower down the hill. Continuing to the mining town of La Oroya, but choking on exhaust fumes inside the straining bus, we were relieved to reach the Hostal Trujillo, to have a warm shower and a decent meal at a nearby restaurant.
WEDNESDAY MARCH 19
Arrangements had been made to fix the bus' exhaust at 5.30, but, it being Peru, the repaired bus did not appear till 8.30. A short sortie to the nearby hillside gave Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant for some. After boarding the bus, we decided to return to Chiclio as the weather was good, to look for the enigmatic Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (DSP).
On arrival, we soon saw the rare endemic White-bellied Cinclodes, then spread out and walked across the spongy bog, breathless due to the high altitude. Steve spotted a DSP and we were treated to fine views of this "almost mythical" creature. Other birds encountered were Rufous-bellied and Grey-breasted Seedsnipes, Puna Snipe, White-winged Diuca-Finch, Cinereous, Puna and White-fronted Ground-Tyrants, and Plain-breasted Earthcreeper. Giant Coot was seen on a nearby lake as we returned to La Oroya for a fulsome lunch.
In the afternoon we drove past Lake Junín and two handsome Vicuñas, before heading north and stopping at Polylepis woodland at 3,850 meters where Stripe-headed Antpitta and Thick-billed Siskin were new for some. We finally arrived at the bustling city of Huánuco at 8.30, a day behind schedule. Hostal Aryra was comfortable but noisy for those with rooms overlooking the main square – unfortunately, we were too tired to visit the adjacent almost-all-night disco.
THURSDAY MARCH 20
Departing at 6.15, we soon stopped at a river bridge and watched Amazon Kingfisher, White-bellied Hummingbird, Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulets, before continuing to the Carpish Tunnel, around which and on the nearby Paty Trail, we were to spend the rest of the day. Cloud forest flocks included the gaudy Grass-green Tanager, Hooded and Lacrimose Mountain-Tanagers, Yellow-scarfed, Saffron-crowned and Flame-faced Tanagers and a variety of warblers and Tyrant-flycatchers. Hummers included the beautiful Mountain Velvetbreast and Violet-throated Sunangel, while other notable sightings were the stunning Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Rufous and Azara's Spinetails, Pearled Treerunner, Barred Becard, Tschudi's Tapaculo and a pair of Maroon-chested Chat-Tyrant with a youngster, for Gunnar's group. The day's rarest bird was only seen by Phil Barden and Ray, unfortunately – the spectacular Greater Scythebill, a tick for both leaders, had they seen it! Thanks to the unexpectedly good weather, we were able to stay 'till 4.45, before returning to Huánuco for an "early" night. Here we were saddened to find that one member of the group, whom we had left resting in bed, had returned to Lima on the advice of a local doctor who felt his lung infection was being aggravated by the altitude.
FRIDAY MARCH 21
This day was start of the tour's most ambitious element, the exploration of the Bosque Unchog area. Overnight heavy rain was clearing as we made an early start in anticipation of afternoon rain. A navigational error had us driving up and down the mountain-side on a rough road, before abandoning the bus due to a broken spring. The Landcruiser continued to the top, to dump the camping gear and return for us, but inexplicably did not arrive back until 11.30. A pick-up was located farther up and eventually came down to collect members of the group who had walked some distance up the hill with Gunnar, in the hope of finding some interesting birds. After a quick lunch at the top, we were all able to bird in afternoon due to the unexpectedly good weather but bird activity was minimal and most returned to the campsite with White-collared Jay the only notable addition to the list. Steve, Mark and Jon stayed down in the forest till late afternoon and were rewarded with good views of Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager and Rufous-browed Hemispingus. Tents were quickly erected at dusk and after a tasty meal we retired to bed under a fairly clear sky. Surprisingly, the heavens opened later on and we were treated to heavy rain all night, accompanied by one tremendous clap of thunder.
SATURDAY MARCH 22
Although the rain had eased by dawn, it showed no signs of stopping and had caused some of the groundsheets to leak, wetting sleeping bags and clothes. After breakfast, three members decided to go straight down and back to Lima, with Eduardo accompanying them, while the rest set-off for the longish walk to the forest. Departure for the former was delayed by the discovery that the Landcruiser had a puncture and the spare wheel did not fit, but eventually the flat tyre was pumped up and stayed up. Unfortunately, driving on the road was unsafe due to thick mud, and so the departees had a 2 hour walk down to the village before driving back to Huánuco.
The remainder of the group had a good day's birding, with the highly localised Pardusco being one of the first birds to be seen, followed by Golden-collared Tanager and Rufous-crested Cotinga. Some elected to go further down with Gunnar on a successful quest for Sword-billed Hummingbird, with Peruvian Wren and Peruvian Chat-Tyrant also recorded. Those who stayed with Jon had great views of two parties of Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, and saw Three-striped Hemispingus, while John Tomkins and Veronica also had the rare Rufous-browed Hemispingus. Gunnar's group returned just in time to see the Golden-backs before they disappeared and then Steve spotted a Bay-vented Cotinga perched in almost the same spot as where the Red-crested had been hours earlier. Other unusual birds seen by some were Large-footed Tapaculo, White-chinned (plengei race) Thistletail, Line-fronted Canastero, Rufous-webbed Tyrant, Paramo Pipit and Cloud Forest Brush-Finch.
Although the rain had largely stopped by noon, we decided to pack-up in the late afternoon, as most of the special birds had been found and the possibility of overnight rain might make conditions even worse. We had to walk down a slippery trail for 75 mins to reach the pick-up which we hoped to use to take us and the luggage the last few km to the village where the bus was waiting. Unfortunately, the driver had gone down to the village to participate in a fiesta, but Gunnar eventually persuaded his wife to part with the key so he could drive it. We had to wait an additional hour for the horses to arrive with our bags, before we could load up and drive down in the dark through the deep mud to the village – a rather hair-raising journey. The return to Huánuco on the bus was uneventful, thankfully, and we were able to get a decent meal when we arrived at the hotel at 10.30.
SUNDAY MARCH 23
After a bit of a lie-in, we departed at 6.20 for Carpish. Here we split into two groups again with one doing the track and main road while the other went down the Paty Trail. Highlights for Carpish were Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant and Andean Guan, and for the Paty Trail: Ocellated Piculet, Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Uniform Antshrike, Long-tailed Antbird, Trilling and Rufous-vented Tapaculos, Flavescent Flycatcher, Black-eared Hemispingus and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, while both groups saw Scaly-naped Parrot, Collared Inca and Barred Fruiteater.
After lunch we drove down to the infamous town of Tingo María, and on to perhaps the most spectacular Oilbird cave in the Americas. The sight and sound of many hundreds of unique Oilbirds flying round in the gloom and resting on ledges in the giant cave, making a tumultuous noise, must be one of nature's finest experiences. The nearby forest held Lafresnaye's Piculet, Rufous-bellied Euphonia, the endemic Huallaga Tanager and Yellow-breasted Flycatcher. We returned to Tingo María before nightfall, to avoid any risk of hostilities, and checked in at the comfortable Hotel Residencial Royal.
We were now in the lowlands on the fringe of Amazonia and only 10 minutes east of town we spent from 6 till 8 a.m. and saw a host of new birds in fairly scrappy, marshy habitat. Highlights were Hoatzin, Green Ibis, Sapphire-spangled Emerald, Black-throated Mango, Ringed Kingfisher, Gilded Barbet, Black-fronted Nunbird, Little and Spot-breasted Woodpeckers, Black-capped Donacobius and Oriole Blackbird. We set off on the long journey (545 km) back to Junín but soon took a picturesque trail alongside a river, hoping to find Cock-of-the-Rock. Birds were surprisingly few but we did see Black-throated Antbird and a scarce Fasciated Tiger-Heron. Having belatedly found we had taken the wrong trail, we drove a few km up the road and with a local guide set-off on the correct one, crossing a long swaying bridge over the river. We soon ran into a colourful tanager flock, which included Paradise, Turquoise and Masked Crimson Tanagers, which left us with no time to go further. The next Naturetrek group should be able to profit from our experience and see the spectacular Cock-of-the-Rock.
We drove straight past Carpish this time, by-passed Huánuco, and then made a short stop to bird the dry scrub. It was afternoon by then with little activity, the only notable bird being Fasciated Wren. We climbed up to the puna and stopped at a lake to view Puna Teal, Andean (Slate-coloured) Coot and a scruffy White-tufted Grebe, before reaching Junín at 6.45. It took another hour along a rough road before we stopped at Ondores (4,080 metres) where Gunnar had intended to camp but arranged for us to stay in a village house. After a basic meal in a local restaurant, accompanied by firewater and the strains of Gunnar on guitar, we retired to our sleeping bags, with the reassuring sound of the zodiac being blown-up ready for the morrow's assault on Lake Junín.
TUESDAY MARCH 25
The tale of the launching of the zodiac on the lake is too painful to relate, but by 8 a.m. we were on our way, with local frog-catcher Francisco Tueros at the helm, in search of one of the world's rarest birds. The flightless Junín Grebe, critically endangered, has to be distinguished with care from the much commoner Silvery Grebe. The lake held a variety of waterfowl including Andean Goose, and many Wilson's Phalarope, while the reeds supported Wren-like Rushbird and Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant. After a couple of false alarms, we trained our binoculars with delight on an obvious Junín Grebe with peaked crown. As the boat was filling up with water, we then beat a hasty retreat back to the shore. The slow return to the town of Junín gave Plumbeous Rail, Burrowing Owl, Dark-winged and Common Miners, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Andean Negrito, and good numbers of waders including Baird's Sandpiper.
We left Junín at 10.50 and stopped at the pass (4,808 m) for group photos, and then a little farther on at the Chinchan railway terminal where we scanned the hillside for the endemic Black-breasted Hillstar, observed at a distance. A late lunch was taken at San Mateo, the bus-driver really put his foot down and got us to the Indian market near Lima airport by 5.30. With souvenirs duly bagged, we reached the airport at 6.30 in good time for our overnight flight to Madrid.