The colourful and spritely Deep-blue Flowerpiercer is a typically attractive member of the Tanager family. Photo: Rich Hoyer
Off limits to travellers 20 years ago but now part of a major birding circuit, the highway that straddles the departments of Amazonia and San Martín in northern Peru is home to some of the world’s most sought-after species, and birding this once remote area has become easy, comfortable, and safe. The cloud-forest-draped mountain pass known as Abra Patricia provides some of the most exciting birding anywhere in the Andes - the spectacular Marvelous Spatuletail and the nearly mythical Long-whiskered Owlet are both at the centres of their tiny world ranges here - and it’s comfortable now with the construction of an eco-lodge. We’ll begin by flying to the city of Tarapoto, where we’ll bird nearby valleys and isolated ridges before traveling by paved highway, with a stop in the Moyobamba area, to Abra Patricia. At the end of the tour we’ll return to Moyobamba for one night before returning to Lima. Besides seeing the many colourful and some very localized birds, we’ll learn about the seemingly endless variety of orchids and other flowers, and moths that come to lights in the evening, as well as other aspects of natural history.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6 pm this evening in the lobby of our Jorge Chavez International Airport hotel near Lima. Night near Lima.
Day 2: We’ll fly early this morning to Tarapoto, meet up with our bus and driver for the week, and begin birding. We’ll likely arrive at our lodge for the next two nights in time for lunch, and we’ll then have an easy afternoon on the grounds and birding from the nearby roadside. After dinner search the hotel grounds for Tropical Screech-Owl, Band-bellied Owl, and Black-banded Owl. Night south of Tarapoto.
Day 3: We’ll spend all morning to the south of Tarapoto to bird a rain-shadowed forest along the Huallaga River, an area still relatively poorly known ornithologically. Our goal will be patches of semi-deciduous forest where several very localized species occur, including Pheasant Cuckoo, Rufous-fronted Thornbird, Chestnut-throated Spinetail, Rusty-backed Antwren, the recently described Mishana Tyrannulet, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous Cassiornis, Sulfur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin, Ashy-headed Greenlet, and the endemic huallagae race of Northern Slaty-Antshrike. Along the Huallaga River itself we’ll stop to scan any visible sandbars for Comb Duck and Pied Lapwing. The afternoon will be based out of our lodge, with birding on a trail or down the road where we could see Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant, Blue-crowned Trogon, and Chestnut-eared Aracaris, among many other possibilities. Night south of Tarapoto.
Day 4: We’ll spend all morning along the well-known “tunnel road” northeast of Tarapoto, where humid tropical forest and foothill species mingle. We’ll look especially for the scarce and little-known Dotted Tanager and Plumbeous Euphonia or the more likely but still very range-restricted Koepcke’s Hermit, all specialties of outlying ridges in Peru. A new hummingbird feeding station will be a highlight, with the aforementioned hermit a specialty and possibly Gould’s Jewelfront and a half dozen other species. We’ll also bird the forest from the roadside, where a cliff face is home to a colony of White-tipped Swifts, and gaudy birds such as Curl-crested Aracaris and Andean Cocks-of-the-rock may be feeding in fruiting trees. After lunch at a restaurant we’ll drive westward on the Trans-Andean Highway, stopping for a quick view of an amazingly accessible Oilbird colony before continuing to our hotel. Night in Moyobamba.
Day 5: We’ll depart early for our main birding destination in the dry woodland at the foot of Morro de Calzadas, a locally managed nature preserve not far from town. Here and in the nearby area we’ll search for Western Puffbird, Cinereous-breasted Spinetail, Stripe-necked and Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrants, Lesser Elaenia, Striped and Fiery-capped Manakins, Pale-breasted Thrush, Black-faced Tanager, and Black-billed Seed-Finch. After a busy morning of new birds we’ll continue westward to Abra Patricia with stops in the rice fields and marshes for waterbirds, including Limpkin, herons, and several possible rails such as Spotted Rail, and we’ll make other opportunistic stops along the way, possibly in more open country in the central Río Mayo Valley as well as the wetter forests along the road as it ascends the lower foothills. After arriving at the lodge, our home for the next five nights, we’ll have a chance to watch the hummingbird feeders to get acquainted with the more common species, such as the delightful Emerald-bellied Puffleg. Night at the Owlet Lodge.
Days 6-9: We’ll have four full days to bird areas on either side of Abra Patricia, from Afluente in the subtropical east to Florida de Pomacochas on the slightly drier west side. We’ll use our judgment each day to decide which area to bird, depending on what the weather is doing and what we haven’t yet seen.
The mixed flocks in slightly taller forest could include such birds as Spotted Barbtail, Black-billed Treehunter, White-collared Jay, and Vermilion and White-capped Tanagers, while the more stunted forest up high has its own fascinating birds, among which are the colorful Johnson’s Tody-Tyrant, Green-and-black Fruiteater, and Rufous Spinetail. If we search the rushing streams, we might find Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Torrent Duck, and White-capped Dipper, though our birding will be dominated by searching through tanager flocks galore at every elevation; we may see 15-20 species in the genus Tangara alone. Some highly local species found in the stunted ridge habitats will also be on our radar, including Bar-winged Wood-Wren and Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant, while hummingbird feeding stations host the once difficult Royal Sunangel and scarcely known Greenish Puffleg and Rufous-vented White-tip.
At our own lodge’s feeding station - a perfect place to wait out periods of rain should they occur - Chestnut-breasted Coronets dominate while many other species, such as Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, and Collared and Bronzy Incas, zip in to partake of the sugar water. If we’re lucky, Sword-billed Hummingbird will be using the feeders, and a bold Tayra (a large weasel relative) often comes in for bananas or even a drink of the nectar. We’ll also look for skulkers in the dark, mossy understory: Rusty-tinged, Chestnut, Ochre-fronted, and Rusty-breasted Antpittas are possible, as are a few species of nearly impossible to see (but certainly audible) tapaculos. Our lodge also boasts a short canopy tower where mixed flocks with Grass-green Tanager might coincide with our visit, and Peruvian and Black-capped Tyrannulets are more easily seen here than from the ground.
On one morning we’ll cross over the pass and drive an hour or so to the town of Florida on Lago Pomacochas, near which a private feeding station hosts many species of hummingbird, including the incomparable Marvelous Spatuletail. The male spatuletail has only four tail feathers, two of which are rackets that bob in an animated fashion on the ends of long, bare shafts - truly a sight to behold. In the evenings we’ll have more chances to look for nightbirds, concentrating our searches on the Long-whiskered Owlet and perhaps in the process finding Cinnamon Screech-Owl or the spectacular Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Nights at the Owlet Lodge.
Day 10: On our final morning at Abra Patricia we’ll leave our options open for birding whichever elevation best suits our needs, constantly keeping alert for mixed flocks before we return east to lower elevations. It’s quite possible that we’ll still be missing some tanagers, and we may round out the list with Golden, Golden-naped, Turquoise, Green-and-gold, and Orange-eared Tanagers, to name just a brilliant few. There are also a number of scarce canopy birds in the lower foothill mixed flocks - we never see them all - and we’ll probably still be looking for one or more of the following: Gray-mantled Wren, Rufous-rumped Antwren, or Ecuadorian Tyrannulet. If we’re amazingly lucky, the magnificent Crimson-bellied Woodpecker could grace our binoculars, and while we’ll probably hear White-crowned Tapaculo, we’d have to be even luckier to see one. In the late afternoon we’ll check into our lodge near Moyobamba, where an orchid garden and several hummingbird feeders host a completely different mix of species from what we have seen. Night in Moyobamba.
Day 11: The hummingbird feeders, gardens, and foothill forest at our lodge will keep us busy for much of the morning. Black-throated Hermit, Brown Violetear, Gray-breasted Sabrewing, Golden-tailed Sapphire, and Rufous-crested Coquette are among the nearly 20 species we may see at the feeders, one of the most active and diverse feeding stations anywhere. The slightly drier forest near the cabins could have Rufous-fronted Thornbird and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, while the trail into the more humid foothill forest is home to Green-backed Trogon, Gilded Barbet, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, and the scarce Fiery-throated Fruiteater. In the afternoon we’ll return to the Tarapoto airport for our flight to Lima, where the tour concludes with a farewell dinner before our late-night flights back home.
Updated: 17 November 2020