So, our Machu Picchu tour had kicked off, we had flown into Cusco, visited Ollantaytambo briefly, taken the train to Aguas Calientes, seen Machu Picchu, and we were getting ready to bird the Mandor Valley. We were at our lowest elevation of the entire tour here in Aguas Calientes (6,693'). What that meant was we were in the elevational range of a whole slew of different species, some just reaching our elevation from the Amazon Basin to the east. And the view in town? It was freaking incredible. I'll just never forget the view of the steep topography that greeted us every morning:
On this particular hike, we walked alongside railroad tracks for several miles. We weren't the only ones though; many folks were backpacking, locals were walking to the next village, etc. You have to remember that since there are no roads connecting some of these towns to each other, the next best way to get around is hiking along the railroad tracks:
One of the highlights was this BLACK-STREAKED PUFFBIRD that we spotted. This secretive species, basically a fluffy baseball, is a "sit-and-wait" hunter meaning it sits motionless for long periods of time as it watches for insect prey:
What's cool about this species is that it specializes in foraging on clusters of dead leaves. And then take a look again at the bird in the photo... it's doing exactly that!
The birding on the grounds was productive as well and we saw several new species for the trip. Here's an ANDEAN MOTMOT that was sitting mostly motionless:
As most of you know, this species is a specialist of fast-flowing streams in the Andes (and it's one I have wanted to see for a loooong time). We eventually found a pair of adults and several of their chicks braving the currents.
A pretty uncommon species that we had great luck with around Aguas Calientes is the SCLATER'S TYRANNULET. It's a pretty drab flycatcher with subtle markings but I think I got the hang of them before I left. Here's one trying to look like a Tennessee Warbler or something:
So this race of Red-eyed Vireo (the "Chivi" subspecies) doesn't even have a red eye! Maybe they'll change the name to Dark-eyed Vireo instead (not likely).
The fruit feeders at this InkaTerra hotel were busy with a variety of species such as BLUE-GRAY TANAGERS, BLUE-NECKED TANAGERS, DUSKY-GREEN OROPENDULAS, THICK-BILLED EUPHONIAS, and, one of my favorites, the BLUE-NAPED CHLOROPHONIA:
There were a variety of hummingbirds present here as well including the "GOULD'S" COLLARED INCA and this CHESTNUT-BREASTED CORONET:
Sadly, our itinerary had us moving out of the lower elevations of Aguas Calientes and back uphill to Ollantaytambo (9,160'). The last 3 days of our tour we'd spend birding the areas around Abra Malaga, an imposing mountaintop sitting amongst the clouds.
Our train ride from Aguas Calientes back to Ollantaytambo, climbing roughly 3,000 feet, provided a 2-hour look through the countryside. You'll see dry hillsides, agriculture, introduced eucalyptus trees, and snow-capped peaks:
A rather brilliant species we saw several times near the hotel was the BLACK-BACKED GROSBEAK. That name works, to be sure, but so would Yellow-bellied Grosbeak! Awesome bird with one massive bill:
The common robin-like birds were CHIGUANCO THRUSHES, a pretty cool species to have hopping around the hotel. I've heard them described as "sturdy" and I couldn't agree more.
The most common species on the grounds though was RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROW (which many of you are familiar with). However, the second-most common sparrow around was BAND-TAILED SEEDEATER. Note the gray plumage, yellow bill, and cinnamon-colored undertail coverts:
This was my first time around this species of seedeater but I was struck by how common they were. Seeing a dozen feeding on the mowed grass lawn wasn't uncommon.
In order to be up on the slopes of Abra Malaga at the good times of day for birding, we often would depart around 5 AM and start the 1-2 hour drive up the switchbacks in the dark. Once it got light, though, it was a heck of a lot to take in. Take a look at this world-renowned road:
On the first Abra Malaga day, we birded on the western slope which is fairly dry. Dry doesn't mean bad birding though; it wasn't long before we started seeing some very unique species like this CREAMY-CRESTED SPINETAIL:
This pale-headed furnarid is only found in Peru where it's endemic to the tropical, high-elevation shrubland.
A little farther up the road we saw our first tit-tyrants of the trip. These little flycatchers resemble chickadees/titmice (which are known in parts of the world as "tits"). Here is the TUFTED TIT-TYRANT donning its spiky tuft:
As I write this more than a week or two removed from this Peru trip, I look back and can confirm that this next sighting was one of my favorites of the trip. It's a hummingbird, actually. A hummingbird that is only found in Peru and nowhere else on earth. It's called a White-tufted Sunbeam:
This Peruvian endemic inhabits dry mountainsides where we were lucky to have several encounters. The above photo was taken with my iPhone through my spotting scope.
Against the jagged, enormous cliffs above us, it was hard to gauge the size of this giant but when it would float down to ridges high above us, it slowly dawned on me how large they really are. The cliffs above us, well, they just kept rising into the clouds. It was breathtaking (or was that the elevation?!):
We were now at elevations up to 14,000 feet. Think the elevation of Denver... and then make it twice as high as that. Because of the altitude, we weren't surrounded by lush, tall forests. Instead, we were in the land of steep hillsides peppered with potato fields, puna grasslands, and stretches of bunchgrass. It was a cool habitat that I had never been in before.
As one would expect with such an interesting habitat... it hosted interesting birds as well. The high-elevation bunchgrass hosted a couple different kinds of canasteros. Here's a JUNIN CANASTERO which is endemic to Peru:
As our Mercedes bus drove higher, the weather got nastier and nastier. Here's our group fully bundled in raingear and hats/gloves:
When you're at elevation like that, you might not think to yourself "Hmm, this looks like good antpitta habitat"... but you should! The rocky slopes here are home to the STRIPE-HEADED ANTPITTA, a species that is still relatively little-known. We had success in actually seeing these guys:
We kept climbing. The scenery as we drove into the clouds was stunning (and the road sinuous!):
If you think it has the same shape as a Killdeer, you're on to something (lapwings are in the same family as Killdeer).
As we climbed, the weather transpired against us. Here I am at 14,100 feet, in the mist. We decided to stop for a while to let the mist clear before driving the windy roads.
One of the fascinating birds we worked on seeing here was the DIADEMED TAPACULO. This mouse-of-a-bird skulks around and getting any clear looks at it is a challenge. However, I was lucky to have my camera pointed at the right place when it stuck its head out:
A much more gaudy species of the humid east slope was the SCARLET-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER. Pretty well-named, wouldn't you agree?
This species has a very limited range and is endemic to Peru. In fact, this species was unknown to science only 50 years ago!
Nearby we had another species of tit-tyrant, this one known as the UNSTREAKED TIT-TYRANT:
Just like the hemispingus, this species is only found in Peru. It's found in bamboo thickets on the eastern slope of the Andes, between 2700 and 3100 meters in elevation. Birding here is all about putting yourself in that right elevation!
As a brief intermission to the bird photos... here's a pic of some humid characters in a very humid setting! Our group pictured here is trying to figure out exactly what we can pull out of the mist:
One answer to that question was this PLUSHCAP!
Although the conditions weren't great for photography, you can see the bright yellow forecrown on this bamboo specialist.
Another bird we were able to dig out of the mist was another species of tapaculo; this secretive guy is a TRILLING TAPACULO:
I was happy to gain some more experience with chat-tyrants on this day. We had at least 3 species on tour including this BROWN-BACKED CHAT-TYRANT:
Again, this species is found only in patches of Polylepis in the high-elevations of Peru. It's estimated that there are fewer than 1000 of these left.
A similar species found in the same habitat is the TAWNY TIT-SPINETAIL:
Although they're not considered endangered (they are more widespread, found in Bolivia, etc), they're still listed as Near Threatened and the populations are thought to be decreasing.
Saving maybe the best for last, I was extremely lucky to be nearby when Jesse called out a bird I hadn't dreamt of seeing. "ROYAL CINCLODES!"
It was a bit panicked as we all got into position and attempted to track down the bird but, in the end, we all got looks. Here's proof!
This species was the rarest we saw on the entire tour (and was probably the rarest bird I've EVER seen). In fact, it's considered Critically Endangered. It's estimated that there are between 50 and 250 of these left on earth and some way, some how, we found one! They typically aren't found as low as we were that day but the nasty, snowy weather had obviously pushed some Polylepis species down the mountain and, well, we struck it big! It was the only bird on the entire tour that was a lifer for everyone, even Jesse who lives in Peru and has done this tour many many times. It's an interesting bird from a beautiful place: