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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: Machu Picchu and the Manu-Kosñipata Road

Tour Narrative

This year’s Manu and Machu Picchu tour had many highlights—no surprise given that we recorded well more than the average number of species from the past several years’, among them more then 20 write-ins to a decade-old master list.

After our guided visit to the ruins of Machu Picchu (followed by amazingly easy Inca Wrens), we plunged head first into the bottomless pit of diversity known as the Manu. Starting in the treeline cloud forests, we had memorable sightings of Grass-green Tanagers, Chestnut-crested Cotingas, and a flock of very green Barred Parakeets. Farther down, a Solitary Eagle carrying sticks to a hidden nest spot, stunning Versicolored Barbets in almost every mixed flock several days in a row, and a confiding Lanceolated Monklet were the top birds. Amazonia Lodge offered its interesting mix of foothill and Amazonian species, with the most stunning red imaginable on a pair of Masked Crimson Tanagers and fantastic hummingbird watching, including two Rufous-crested Coquettes and the chance to inspect every feather of Sapphire-spangled Emeralds.

Moving out into the lowlands on some very relaxing and scenic boat trips, we settled down for several days at Manu Wildlife Center, where the pisco sours were expertly made. The parrots were spectacular, especially the intense colors of Orange-cheeked Parrots and daily sightings of gorgeous Blue-and-yellow Macaws. An Amazonian Antpitta was spied in the understory (and watched at length in the scope), a Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant hopped out for some to see well, and a Pectoral Sparrow defied its drab name with eye-popping colors and patterns. In the canopy were a last-minute Curl-crested Aracari, a Red-billed Scythebill, flocks of migrant Eastern Kingbirds, and a handsome Ornate Hawk-Eagle whistling from a perch. Our last morning near Puerto Maldonado wasn’t too shabby, either, with a super-confiding Black-throated Antbird putting its family to shame, displaying Gray-headed Kites overhead, and a second country record of White-bellied Seedeater. We finished up with some quick coastal birding, adding many species, among them some particularly lovely Gray Gulls.

On our first morning at Huacarpay Lake we were treated to spectacularly cooperative Many-colored Rush-Tyrants that wanted to show off their many primary colors. The Wren-like Rushbirds were also quite bold, and we enjoyed the sounds they made. Numbers of Plumbeous Rails were amazing: we saw at least 20 during our short time here. We thought we’d have to leave here without a Bearded Mountaineer, but one came in at the last minute to perch bravely just a few feet away. With Rusty-fronted Canasteros and good numbers of Spot-winged Pigeons on our list, we were off to our hotel. Along the Urubamba River were Andean Gulls and hundreds of Brown-bellied Swallows.

Our list-and-run encounter with a handsome pair of Inca Wrens at Machu Picchu was followed by limited birding in the hotel courtyard, where a Green-and-white Hummingbird fed. Not long thereafter we were watching our first treeline birds in the form of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Puna Thistletail. We retraced our steps just a few miles to catch up on the endemic Creamy-crested Spinetail and Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch. Working the upper elevation forests was extremely productive: rarities such as Ochraceous-breasted Flycatcher, Plushcap, Chestnut-crested Cotinga, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Marcapata Spinetail, and Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan were all thrilling. But even the commoner birds were fun. Black-faced Brush-Finches were everywhere, and adorable Black-throated Tody-Tyrant and White-banded Tyrannulets showed well. While the Rufous-banded Owl remained coy, a Swallow-tailed Nightjar came in right on cue. We especially enjoyed one giant mixed flock on our last morning before we headed to the middle-elevation cloud forests.

We worked our way to lower elevations, but up high we enjoyed White-collared Jays, more Chestnut-crested Cotingas, and good comparisons of Citrine and Two-banded Warblers. Hummingbirds were at every stop, especially Amethyst-throated Sunangels and Rainbow Starfrontlets, but we had especially nice views of several Rufous-capped Thornbills. We got really lucky with singleton Chestnut-breasted Coronet and Fawn-breasted Brilliant, too. We saw both Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals. A rare White-throated Hawk soared right over the road below Pillahuata, where we had a confiding Barred Becard, a seen Trilling Tapaculo, and great views of a pair of Olivaceous Siskins feeding on the ground. Farther down, we had good mixed flocks with Inca Flycatcher, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, and some nice tanagers such as Slaty and Beryl-spangled. With patience and hard work, we got views of a Red-and-white Antpitta in the scope and White-eared Solitaire overhead. One of the best birds of the entire drivewas a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, which has to be one of the most colorful, showiest woodpeckers on the planet, but the colors of Versicolored Barbet gave it a run for its money. A big troop of Gray Woolly Monkeys delayed our arrival at our next lodge, but we had a great time watching them move through the canopy and take turns eating the fresh fronds of a tall tree fern.

We returned to the middle elevations with some excellent birds, the rarest a Semicollared Hawk that soared in the open right over our heads. Almost as rare, a Solitary Eagle seemed to be carrying nesting material in the valley way below. Striped Woodhaunter eventually showed before we took an impromptu hike, bumping into a great mixed flock not far from the hotel. A pair of Yellow-rumped Antwrens were the stars, but Orange-cheeked Tanager, Ash-browed Spinetail, Yellow-throated Tanager, and Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant were among the many gems.

The feeders at the Cock-of-the-rock Lodge again hosted Many-spotted Hummingbird (we later found one building a nest down the road a short ways), and a Bronzy Inca was a good find—we would have another one up the road. Visiting the flowers at the lodge were our only Wire-crested Thorntail and at least two Wedge-billed Hummingbirds. The Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek near the lodge had suffered from March’s landslides, but there were at least three males. Well spotted from the observation platform was an adorable Lanceolated Monklet. Also at the lodge was a pair of Black-banded Woodcreepers that played hide-and-seek, but by far the best bird on the grounds was a Band-bellied Owl that began singing after the evening rain had stopped.

As we worked our way down in elevation towards Amazonia Lodge, we added many birds. Not all were new; our second Semicollared Hawk of the trip was a shock, but a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle was more expected. Before we dropped down too far, we added Fine-barred Piculet, Cinnamon-faced Tyrannulet (great, extended views, a lifer for everyone present), Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, and Black-billed Treehunter. A little lower and we were in the range of Black-goggled Tanager (a name more interesting than the bird) and a Chestnut-breasted Wren with a gorgeous song. A quick movement in front of the bus led to an inspection of a hollow area in the dark, mossy rocky face, revealing two nests of Green-fronted Lancebill, one with two eggs, the female of which came in several times for great views. After adding Yellow-bellied Tanager and Olive Finch, we found ourselves in a large area of bamboo with pairs of Bamboo Antshrikes and Chestnut-backed Antshrikes emerging on top, followed by a whole group of White-backed Fire-eyes in the understory. Birding in the open areas was productive when we came across groups of both Purplish and Violaceous Jays and lucked into a Mottle-backed Elaenia. We were close to our next lodge in the late afternoon, surrounded by several Black-capped Tinamou.

The hummingbird show at Hacienda Amazonia Lodge was nonstop. Sapphire-spangled Emeralds, Gray-breasted Sabrewings, and absolutely stunning Golden-tailed Sapphires could be counted on, and careful watching produced a White-necked Jacobin once in a while, Violet-headed Hummingbird not infrequently, a Koepcke’s Hermit at least twice, and a few wonderful sightings of Rufous-crested Coquettes. Gould’s Jewelfront, Blue-tailed Emerald, White-bearded Hermit, and Fork-tailed Woodnymph rounded out the star cast.

About 160 additional species in the next two days kept us busy. Seeing Cinereous Tinamous and Gray-necked Wood-Rails was facilitated by the long, straight stretch of the jeep trail. We had to work a little harder for views of Rusty-belted Tapaculo, but the ones we ended up with were astounding as this odd bird walked back and forth and sang from a log. This area was particularly rich in antbirds, with a Rufous-tailed Antwren one of the rarer finds. More common, but providing memorable views, were a Pygmy Antwren, Manu Antbird, White-browed Antbird (about as responsive as a bird gets), White-lined Antbird (some saw the male, some saw the female), and Goeldi’s Antbird. Taking the cake for most effort expended was the Spot-backed Antbird near the tower. A Rufous-breasted Piculet came in once very unexpectedly, below eye level and super close.

For those tired of little birds in the foliage, the big birds were a treat. Spix’s Guans were seen every day, a Blue-throated Piping-Guan came in once, a Great Black-Hawk soared at the appropriate mid-morning hour, and Chestnut-eared Aracaris flaunted their colors near the lodge. The lodge clearing turned out to be one of the better places to bird. A fruiting tree periodically came alive with birds, one of the better finds being a female Plum-throated Cotinga. The Hauxwell’s Thrush we heard so often made a brief appearance (Black-billed Thrushes were all over the place), and some nifty tanagers came through, including the stunning Masked Crimson, Turquoise, Green-and-gold, and the incomparable Paradise Tanager. Every evening a Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper came into the breadfruit tree outside our rooms and gave its two or three evening songs, while a Plain-crowned Spinetail eventually came out into the open for all to see.

Some other highlights from the trails at Amazonia Lodge were a rarely seen Tawny-throated Leaftosser, a nest of Buff-throated Saltator with two eggs, migrant Yellow-browed Tyrant and Southern Scrub-Flycatcher (the latter a tough bird to ID, but responding well to tape), a Forest Elaenia that came right out of the canopy, and Euler’s Flycatcher and Sepia-capped Flycatcher simultaneously. We spent a fair amount of time at the oxbow lake, where a Sungrebe flew out of sight and a Black-capped Donacobius showed very well. A night walk here produced a gorgeous Amazonian Tree Boa and roosting Blue-crowned Trogon, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and Common Pauraque. Perhaps the most memorable sighting here was a Sunbittern at the end of the bamboo trail, which sat still behind foliage until everyone finally saw at least bits and pieces of it; it then flushed in exactly the right direction to give everyone a great view of the most unexpected and most spectacular open-wing pattern of any bird in the world.

Then we were off to Manu Wildlife Center, the several days of birding on foot gladly followed by a day of relaxing in the boat, watching the scenery go by, and recharging our bodies’ batteries. We didn’t stop birding, though, enjoying Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Cocoi Heron, Swallow-winged Puffbird, and Drab Water-Tyrant among the more common species, while Little Ground-Tyrant and Yellow-browed Sparrow on the islands took a little more effort. A quick turnaround to check out some parakeets on a mud bank was a good choice, as they ended up being our only good views of Tui Parakeets, alongside some Cobalt-wings for good comparison. We paused for a Bat Falcon and a Pied Lapwing, doubled back for good views of a driftwood wreck dripping with Sand-colored Nighthawks, came to a complete stop for a roosting Great Potoo, and tried chasing down an Amazonian Umbrellabird, which resulted in a noisy flyover of a Red-throated Caracara. Two last prizes were a huge Jabiru standing on one of the gravel islands and a rarely seen Giant Anteater walking off into the riverside vegetation.

Our five days based out of Manu Wildlife Center were amazingly birdy, with over 300 species all told, an amazing number for such a small area. We were welcomed by a gorgeous male Band-tailed Manakin in a bush just outside the bar. Our first birding targets in the area were actually “off campus”: we visited the macaw lick, two different lakes, a canopy platform, and a couple of trails with more bamboo than near the lodge. Drifting along quietly with no motor was a delight on the lakes. A single Pale-eyed Blackbird and a distant family of Purus Jacamars were two targets that we snagged. The Horned Screamers were a hoot, Sungrebes were everywhere (one allowing very close approach), and along the shore Silvered Antbirds and a Black-backed Water Tyrant hopped out in the open and an American Pygmy Kingfisher played hide-and-seek. One of our boatmen spotted a roosting Ladder-tailed Nightjar, and with work and luck we all got to see Gray-breasted and Rufous-sided Crakes.

A visit to the Blanquillo macaw lick is virtually obligatory here. We lucked out when finally all the Yellow-naped and most of the Orange-cheeked Parrots were gone and several Red-and-green Macaws came out of the trees, along with one Blue-and-yellow. The Blue-headed and Mealy Parrots, in the meantime, remained abundant and noisy. A Gray-breasted Crake immediately below the raised observation platform remained invisible, but we ended up with great looks at Dark-breasted Spinetail and Black-billed Seed-Finch before we hit the trail. Along the trail were some nice birds, the best the Amazonian Antpitta we all got to see through the scope.

The other trails to and from the lakes and through the bamboo added their fair share. Chestnut-capped and Striolated Puffbirds were seen only on such trails, as were Ruddy-tailed and Bran-colored Flycatcher. In the bamboo we finally saw Cabanis’s Spinetail and Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant, got repeat views of Goeldi’s and White-lined Antbirds, and heard a Peruvian Recurvebill. Some people glimpsed Pale-winged Trumpeter several times. One of the more exciting events was the discovery of a winged termite emergence. The bamboo and smaller trees all around were alive with dozens of Eastern Kingbirds, flitting and snapping like animated confetti. Joining them were many other species, including Green-and-gold and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Lemon-throated Barbet, Syristes, and Red-billed Scythebill. From the same spot we finally got views of Emerald Toucanet, which we had only heard until now.

The river trips between the various destinations were productive; it’s hard to imagine ever getting used to the Pied Lapwings, White-winged and White-banded Swallows, Swallow-tailed Puffbirds, and flyovers of Chestnut-fronted Macaws. A family group of Orinoco Geese was seen once, and one morning saw something of a fallout, with a Solitary Sandpiper on the beach below a huge swarm of recently arrived Cliff and Bank Swallows.

Open areas offered our best raptor viewing, including King Vultures and Slender-billed Kite. Other good raptors were Snail Kite at one of the lakes, Slate-colored Hawk at the macaw lick and in the forest, a fabulous Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched in a tree and whistling nonstop, and two species of heard forest-falcons—Lined from the canopy platform and Slaty-backed from the trails. Looking down to the forest floor, we had mixed success with tinamous. Most were heard from a fair distance, but we were very close to a White-throated Tinamou that must have walked the other direction after a while; a Bartlett’s Tinamou was actually seen walking and not heard. Often one sees a tinamou only when it bursts out from underfoot, but we had the opposite experience with a Gray Tinamou that appeared to burst out of the sky and land a few yards away just off the trail.

Back at Manu Wildlife Center, we birded many trails and went to the canopy platform twice. From the platform we saw at least two migrant Swainson’s Flycatchers, a gorgeous male Plum-throated Cotinga, Bare-necked Fruitcrows (often over our heads), and a cooperative Dark-billed Cuckoo. At the very last moment one of the most wanted birds of the tour suddenly appeared, a fancy and responsive Curl-crested Aracari that came bounding into our tree before we had to descend and begin packing for our boat ride home.

The longer trail to the Collapa Tapir mud wallow resulted in very quick Rose-fronted Parakeet, Black-capped Parakeet, and Dusky-billed Parrotlet, but many of the birds we saw along the way were worth the walk alone. It started with a stake-out Pavonine Cuckoo, followed by Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleaner (possibly clearing out a nesting spot), Chestnut-winged Hookbill, Striped Woodhaunter, White-chinned Sapphire, and Pink-throated Becard. Memorable for the amount of patience and effort expended to see them would be the Fasciated Antshrike and Blue-backed Manakins.

One mixed flock along the Creekside Trail absorbed us for over an hour as it waxed and waned, making appearances in the understory, mid-story, and canopy, over our heads and across the stream. Some of the stars were Scale-breasted Woodpecker, Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner, White-eyed Antwren (at eye level right at the start), Sclater’s Antwren (overhead, near the end), White-winged Shrike-Tanager, Chestnut-shouldered Antwren, Opal-rumped Tanager, and Rufous-tailed Xenops. Elsewhere, we came across memorable birds on isolated territories, such as the Pavonine Quetzal, the displaying Round-tailed Manakin, several Olive-backed Foliage-gleaners (the first one magically vocalizing invisibly), Peruvian Warbling-Antbird in a thicket right below the canopy platform, Casqued Oropendola, and a Screaming Piha (among many others heard).

Owling was successful. We had canopy views of a handsome Crested Owl and a Mottled Owl below eye level just outside the dining hall, and each morning we heard both Amazonian and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, the latter coaxed out during the day.

We did some birding right near our rooms. This is where we finally had great views of the Plain Softtails heard so often, and while we were looking at them from the bridge, an unexpected immature Black-faced Tanager passed through. The same place had our only Red-stained Woodpecker.

Another relaxing day as we rode the boat downstream to Laberinto was not without some good birds. A Jabiru soaring, Hook-billed Kite with its swollen-looking bill, a perched Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Capped Heron, and hundreds of Sand-colored Nighthawks were the highlights before we loaded the bus and worked our way to Puerto Maldonado, stopping for Southern Lapwing, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Red-belled Macaw, and Point-tailed Palmcreeper.

From a logistical standpoint, our last day was dominated by travel, yet we still managed to amass a list of 120 species. Starting with a group of Hoatzins as we drove through the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado, we worked our way down the Infierno road and past the Tambopata River, stopping wherever we saw birds. A burst of activity led to an hour and a half of excellent birding, with many migrants providing the highlights. Several Alder Flycatchers came from the north, while wintering birds from the south were represented by Plain Tyrannulet, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Large Elaenia, and a White-bellied Seedeater that apparently represented only the second record for Peru. A Barred Antshrike and a singing Striped Cuckoo joined the activity, as did Black-throated Mango and Little Woodpecker. Responding well were a Plain-winged Antshrike, Dull-capped Attila, and a Black-throated Antbird, the latter approaching to within a few feet and showing better than almost any other antbird we saw. Farther down the road, we worked harder than seemed necessary for something as plain as Grassland Sparrow, nevertheless a very good bird for Peru.

Providing for an exciting, list-padding climax was our hour spent at Ventanilla, north of Lima, where the marshes were teeming with things like White-cheeked Pintails and Slate-colored Coots; we also saw a nesting Great Grebe. New land birds for the list included Peruvian Meadowlark, introduced Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, and migrant Purple Martin and Barn Swallows. At the shore we were astounded by the numbers of Andean Gulls while mesmerized by the subtle beauty of Gray Gulls, then looked out over the Pacific Ocean to add Gray-hooded, Belcher’s, and Kelp Gulls, Peruvian Booby, and Peruvian Pelican.

- Rich Hoyer

Updated: November 2010