Birding from Cuzco to the Rio Madre de Dios

When the alarm went off at 2:45 am, my friend, Sue, and I both groaned. We needed to be ready to depart for the airport at 3:30. Once we were up and getting dressed, we started to get excited about beginning the main part of birding trip with Partnership for International Birding that would take us to both the cloud forest and rainforest in southwest Peru.

After retrieving our luggage at the Cuzco airport, Sue and I easily located the driver’s sign – Neblina Forest – and our names, amongst the throng of other sign-bearers. Marilyn, who had not checked her bag, was already in the van. Lelis, Dick, Joy and Ron arrived on subsequent flights and by 8:45, we were ready to leave Cuzco behind and travel south to the scrubby habitat around the high-altitude Huacarpay Lake.

While Common Moorhen and Andean (Slate-colored) Coot trolled around the shallow lake, we were delighted to locate two Andean Lapwings foraging on a spit.

Andean Lapwing at Huacarpay Lake - Photo by Sue Clasen

Andean Lapwing at Huacarpay Lake – Photo by Sue Clasen

“Negrito,” Lelis Navarrete, our Neblina Forest guide signaled. “Moving on the ground,” he added as I spotted one of the two the black birds, with a rusty patch on the back, appear from behind a shrub. Andean Negrito is a type of flycatcher that forages on the ground.

Next, our driver drove us around to the other side of the lake with both a marsh habitat, as well as a scrubby hillside.

Almost immediately we were able to locate a Giant Hummingbird. Their favorite plant
was in bloom. I had missed this spectacular hummingbird when I visited Ecuador.

“It looks like a swift,” Dick commented as one of them took flight and swooped over the hillside.

“In fact,” Lelis responded, “hummingbirds are closely related to swifts. They are both in the Apodifiormes family.”

Other species spotted at this spot included the Wren-like Rushbird and Many-colored Rush-Tyrant that we had seen on the coast. One of my favorites was the endemic Rusty-fronted Canastero

We started heading up the mountain, stopping alongside a river where Speckled Teal and Andean Gulls in winter plumage where resting in the water. We had to keep reminding ourselves that it was winter in the southern hemisphere!

Andean Gull - winter plumage

Andean Gull – winter plumage

Across from the river were a couple of Andean Flickers.

Our van wound its way up the mountain road, passing through several Quechua villages where traditional dress continues to be worn.
While we were not fortunate to spot an Andean Condor soaring on the thermals, evidence of the Quechua reverence for the vulture was displayed on the outside of an adobe house.
We pulled over to watch a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. A small girl appeared who was offering an opportunity to buy her woven bracelets – and Joy couldn’t resist.
“The road will go over one mountain pass, then down in a valley before we reach Acjanaco Pass located at the entrance to the Parque Nacional de Manu and the start of the cloud forest,” Lelis explained. The terrain was still dry with eucalyptus trees.

We stopped in the valley near the village of Paucartambo (9,500 ft.) to eat our lunch alongside the road
and sample the bird life. It was amazing how many bird species made an appearance as we were enjoying our chicken pieces and cold,cooked veggies. The only one I was able to photograph was a Chiguanco Thrush, somewhat smaller than the Great Thrush whose range overlaps with the Chiguanco.

Chiguanco Thrush

Chiguanco Thrush

“Band-tailed Pigeons,” Lelis stated as he pointed out of the window at familiar flying birds at a couple of locations after lunch.

As we approached the second summit and the entrance to the Parque Nacional de Manu,
we were enshrouded in dense fog. Dick discovered four Puna Ibis probing in the mud.

Puna Ibis

Puna Ibis

A sort distance beyond the summit, Lelis signaled the driver to stop the van. “We are going to get out and walk along the road,” he told us. This is a great location for the endemic Creamy-crested Spinetail.”

We walked towards a hairpin turn in the road and stopped. Lelis listened and then beckoned us toward a stand of trees. As we peered into the dense under-story, he played its down-trilling song. Before long, the spinetail moved into view long enough for us to catch a glimpse of its long rusty tail and cream-colored crest.

We arrived at the Wayquencha Research Station in the late afternoon and were dispatched to our cabins. It had been a long day. The cabin that Sue and I shared had a large picture window overlooking the valley below. While it had been raining lightly when we arrived, the clouds cleared during the night, and as I lay in my bed I felt as though I could reach out and touch the stars. The morning was seeping into valley when we returned from breakfast.
By 6:30 am we were out on the road birding – walking along the road for about two hours and stopping when we encountered a mixed flock. Now that we were in the cloud forest, many of the birds were colorful, as if to add a splash of color to the green landscape.

The first bird of the morning was a brilliant Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager that peeked out at us from behind a giant leaf.

Scarlet-bellied Tanager

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager

An Amethyst-throated Sunangel perched on the top of a thin stalk, giving us good looks at its purple throat.
Amethyst-throated Sunangel

Amethyst-throated Sunangel

At every turn, waterfalls thundered through narrow canyons – sometimes flowing under the road, but often oozing over it. Many of the birds that preferred the under-story were difficult to see, such as the Montane Woodcreeper.
Montane Woodcreeper - photo take in Ecuador

Montane Woodcreeper – photo take in Ecuador

Those species that preferred seeking out fruit in the treetops at the forest’s edge were easier to observe, such as the Golden-collared Tanager.
Golden-collared Tanager

Golden-collared Tanager

“Look at the hillside on the opposite side of the canyon,” Joy motioned. “The trees are so close together that they resemble broccoli clusters.”
Montane cloud forest along Manu Road

Montane cloud forest along Manu Road

In addition to colorful birds, there were a multitude of colorful butterflies bouncing gently across the road or getting moisture from the mud.
As we traversed down the graded, one-lane-wide Manu Road, our driver had to honk when he approached a blind curve and seek out one of the few wider spots if he saw another vehicle approaching. At times, he had to back up to allow a truck of van to pass, while we held our breaths. Lelis sat in the front seat with the window open and his head partially out of the window listening for birds. We chided him that he was like a dog with his ears flapping in the breeze.

“Mixed flock,” he would say suddenly, and the driver would find the closest location where he could drop us off. After trying to observe as many of the species as possible in fast-moving flock, we would begin walking. Every half hour, our driver would catch up with us. If there was no bird activity, we would get back in the van; if we were still seeing birds, we kept on walking. This would be our pattern for the next four days.
We arrived at Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge by late afternoon – still time to enjoy the hummingbirds at one of their many feeders outside of the dining room.

Many-spotted Hummingbird

Many-spotted Hummingbird

By day’s end I had tallied 51 new species – not a bad birthday present.

During each of the subsequent 3 mornings, we were at breakfast at 5:30,began birding around the lodge by 6:30, and then headed out to explore along Manu Road.

Despite the lodge’s name, I had not expected to see a Cock-of-the Rock so easily. In Ecuador, I had walked down a muddy trail in the dark to be at the lek at dawn. During our ‘siesta’ time the first afternoon at Cock of the Rock Lodge, I was enjoying the birds from a comfortable chair on the porch when a flash of red caught my attention – and there was a Cock-of-the Rock sitting in broad daylight on a limb across the river. Unfortunately, each time I tried to take a photo, it flew to another branch. Luckily, Sue was able to capture a wonderful photo the following day when it came closer to the lodge.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock – photo by Sue Clasen

Watching the birds from the lodge was never dull – from hummingbirds,
Violet-fronted Brilliant

Violet-fronted Brilliant

to tanagers,
Blue-necked Tanagers

Blue-necked Tanagers

to a Highland Motmot.
Highland Motmot

Highland Motmot

We also were treated to sightings of Black Agouti, Brown Capuchin Monkey and a large, long-legged weasel-like Tayra.

“What is the bird that sounds like a Canyon Wren,” I asked Lelis on one of our walks along Manu Road.

“It’s a Booted Racket-tail,” he responded. We later had the opportunity to see one perched near the road.

Booted Racket-tail - Photo taken in Ecuador

Booted Racket-tail – Photo taken in Ecuador

Highlights of our birding along the Manu Road included a Blue-headed Trogon,
Blue-headed Trogon

Blue-headed Trogon

Golden-headed Quetzal,
Golden-headed Quetzal

Golden-headed Quetzal

Slaty Tanager,
Slaty Tanager

Slaty Tanager

and Cinnamon Flycatcher.
Cinnamon Flycatcher

Cinnamon Flycatcher

We were treated to wonderful food at the lodge.
Photo by Ron O'Connell

Photo by Ron O’Connell

There is generator-powered electricity in the dining hall for three hours in the evening. The cabins used candle-power. Evidence of future electricity in the area was evidenced by concrete power poles along the Manu Road, such as these across from the lodge.
On our last morning at Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, the kitchen staff surprised us with a large cake with a single candle to commemorate the Fourth of July! We enjoyed the moist pound cake and frosting with our scrambled eggs.

As we began to descend in elevation, there were more flowering trees.
A mixed flock of Tanagers flew into a nearby tree providing good looks at the multi-colored Paradise Tanager

Paradise Tanager

Paradise Tanager

and Magpie Tanager.
Magpie Tanager

Magpie Tanager

The Masked Trogon seen at higher altitudes was replaced by the Collared Trogon.
Collared Trogon

Collared Trogon

The terrain became flatter. We stopped in a small village above Pilcopata and walked along a side road.

Birding became more challenging as all of the birds were nestled into the under-story. One of the highlights was a Golden-bellied (Cuzco) Warbler. “It looks a lot like a Worm-eating Warbler,” Marilyn commented.

Outside of Pilcopata, we slowed to watch a woman raking out drying coca leaves.
After eating lunch along the road, we continued trekking
and birding until we arrived at Atalya. Local town folks helped transport our suitcases
from the van down to the river boat so we could begin our journey along the Rio Madre de Dios.


2 thoughts on “Birding from Cuzco to the Rio Madre de Dios

  1. You certainly have captured your Peru adventures in word and with pictures. It is almost as good as being there with you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s