Finding 'lifer' birds where I live in Colombia was getting harder and
harder, so I decided to revisit Peru, and to do a long trip in hopes
of photograping as many endemic and rare specie as possible. To
accomplish this I decided to do the entire trip with a guide. This
wasn't an easy decision. In over a decade of birding in tropical
America, I had spent most of the years traveling on buses, never using
a guide, and with a strict $100(USD)/day limit on expenses. When I
moved to Colombia I broke this rule just a few times. Twice with
guides, one to Chingaza and one to visit the sub-paramo of Nevado del
Ruiz (before the Termales hotel was open). Then there were two
expensive lodges, Hato Aurora and Wild Sumaco Lodge in Ecuador. And
more recently a trip to Capurgana, and then, the most expensive per
day ever, a mostly unsuccessful visit to Uraba, Antioquia.
I really like Peru. The country has almost as many species of birds
as Colombia, and has many different ecosystems including the western
desert, the puna highlands, the dry northern ecosystems, and other
high altitude ecosystems. Peru is relatively safe, and the murder
rate is less than half of that in Colombia. Perhaps because much of
Peru is desert or other treeless ecosystem, cows are less common, and
vegetables are much easier to find. When traveling in rural Colombia
I almost always eat the same dish: rice, beans, plantain, and a tiny
salad (I eat a vegan diet). In Peru there is much more variety in
grains, vegetables and cooking styles. And I even made an exception
and tried both cuy (Guiena pig) and alpaca, which are raised in the
puna grassland ecosystem and don't contribute to deforestation.
This trip to Peru was in the Peruvian winter, and had no idea of how
cold it was going to be! The good news is that I was a number of
austral migratory species present, such the Cinereous Ground Tyrant
and the Ochre-naped Ground Tyrant, and quite a few I didn't see.
I found a Peruvian birding guide on the Internet, and although the
trip did not go badly, I was often frustrated with my guide, also a
photographer, putting too much attention in his photos when I was
paying him to help me with mine. On occasion I guide people, and have
strict rules I follow such as showing the client a bird before
photographing it, and letting the client walk first on narrow trails.
With this issue and a few others, and also the bitter cold in Cuzco,
after three and a half weeks I cancelled the second part of the trip
to north Peru, and got on a flight to the Amazon.
Carla and I started the trip in Lima and quickly went to Paracas, a
great place to see shorebirds, and to take a tourist boat to Isla
Ballestas to see Boobies, Pelicans, Cormorants, and even the Humboldt
Penguin. Quite a few shorebirds were on the beach at Paracas,
including some that hadn't gone north like the American Oystercatcher,
Whimbrel and Pectoral Sandpiper. One day we went to the national park
adjacent to the city and found a Blackish Oystercatcher and Coastal
Miners. The main attraction is the tourist boat to Islas Ballestas,
and it is both frustrating to be on a boat that you can't direct for
photos, and exciting to have so many nesting sea birds to photograph.
We spent a few days in Mejía, a coastal town near a wetland inside the
Peruvian desert. What impressed me about the area was the irrigation
canals. I imagine in the past some large river from the Andes had
emptied most of its water into the ocean. Now the area supported
agriculture as well as wildlife. Thinking of man actually doing
something to improve the environment was new for me. More common
actvities like preserving an existing area, or reforesting a previously
forested area are just maintaining the status quo.
Then we visited Colca Canyon and the puna ecosystem at higher
altitudes. From Chile to Peru the high altitude ecosystem above the
tree line is much more diverse than in Colombia. There are many
species of Sierra Finch, Earthcreepers, Miners, and Ground Tyrants.
We found two species of mammal and at least dozen birds at 4600 meters
above sea level, at below 0 degrees! I have read that because the
Andes in Peru and southward are older than in Colombia, there has been
more time for species to evolve.
On the way to Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Manu National Park, we
stopped in Puno, a high altitude city alongside Lake Titicaca. The
lake is home to the endangered flightless Titicaca Grebe, which has
seen its numbers plummet in recent years. The reason seems to be the
tourist trap floating cities, built on cut reeds, that need to be
continually reinforced. The cities are billed as a place for native
people who had to move to the lake to escape conflict when other
groups. But in reality it is just a money-making scheme at the expense
of local wildlife. It is hard to see how the grebe will survive.
Machu Picchu and Manu National Park were just as impressive as they
were ten years ago. Two sites in Manu have over 600 species recorded
on eBird. Just don't make the mistake we made, and get a four wheel
drive. Although we made it, we had to navigate a recent landslide and
also a very narrow dirt road with a raised center. Unfortunately the
stop which seemed to have the most bird activity, Cock-of-the-rock
Lodge, was our shortest stay, also had a day and a half of rain. I
hope to revisit, but this time using local transportation and
hitchhiking, and then transferring by boat from the Amazon in Manu to
the Amazon in Puerto Maldonado further south. Paying a guide and a
rental car was not the right choice for Manu.
Puetro Maldonado is the capital of the Madre de Dios departament in
the southern Peruvian Amazon. For me the Amazon has the most magic of
any place in the world, but trying to photograph birds with the high
canopy and low light is a real challenge. We stayed there almost
three weeks, and it took me almost that much time to get some good
photographs. I found two talented guides, but only had one day with
each. But I got enough information to learn what birds were where and
some of the sounds, and finally left with some good photos of some
uncommonly photographed species. A few of those were Bluish-slate
Antshrike (M/F), Southern Chestnut-tailed Antbird (M/F),
Yellow-breasted Antbird, Fiery-capped Manakin (M), and Black-faced
Antthrush. Puerto Maldonado has a mix of conservation and
exploitation of the Amazon. Chain saws, falling trees, and hunter's
rifles where all frequently heard. But the Tambopata reserve is
apparently is just as good a shape as when I visited ten years before,
and small ecolodges are opening closer to the city.
We got back to Lima, which was surpisingly cold for a city at sea
level close to the equator. Perhaps this has to do with the Humboldt
current which brings cold water and penguins to the Peruvian coast.
We had time for one more short trip, and rented a car for four days to
climb the Andes in central Peru (Santa Eulalia in the direction of
Junin). We followed a canyon with a small river and although there
were a lot of birds, there was also a lot of people, agriculture,
dogs, horses, fires, and clearings. One has to wonder how long before
the birds give up. I managed to get photos of some of the target
species including the Peruvian endemic Black-necked Woodpecker,
Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, endemic Rufous-bellied Brushfinch, endemic
Thick-billed Miner, Yellow-rumped Siskin, and Collared Warbling Finch.
A local guide told us most of the birds I was looking for, such as
three species of hummingbirds, were at over 4000m, but that could only
be reached with a 4x4. Unwilling to be beaten, I left early the next
morning and hiked up to the ruins, and although it was one of the best
experiences of the trip, I didn't see a single hummingbird in the
'meseta' plain at the top. There were quite a few cows, and sierra
finches and ground tyrants I had seen earlier in the trip.
We spent on last morning at Lomas de Lúcumo for the coastal fog
ecosystem. Some birds I had hoped to see were the Least Seedsnipe and
Slender-billed Earthcreeper. The fog was a big problem, and although
the ecosystem looked healthy we didn't see all that many birds. I
only managed one reasoanble photo of the Collared Warbling Finch.
Overall the trip was good for high altitude ground birds, with photos
of eight species of Ground Tyrant, three Miners, a Field Tyrant and an
Earthcreeper. With hummingbirds I had the least success, missing
virtually every high altitude species, and only the Purple-collared
Woodstar from Mejía was somewhat of a rarity.
One thing very evident is Peru is the inequality in the world. When
returning from Santa Eulalia we stopped at a car wash. For ten soles
(around three dollars) three men washed our car for about 45 minutes,
with a vacuum, pressurized water and a generator to pull water from a
well. At the other extreme, a new ultra-luxury development on the
beach in the Miraflores district costs half a million dollars for 120
The best part of the trip was there were no lost items, robberies,
broken items, and we had no health problems. I hope to revisit soon
and finally visit north Peru and the central area around Junin as
well. If you are interested in sharing expenses, let me know.