21 October 2017

Groovin' in the Peruvian Andes

--- Before I start into the blog post... did you realize that Field Guides post their triplists online for the public to enjoy?  Yep!  For example, click here to see the complete triplist from this particular tour I helped with.  It includes every species we saw on tour and many photos.  Enjoy!---

I felt like I had a hole in my blog timeline... and then I realized I hadn't even blogged about our Field Guides tour to Machu Picchu and Abra Malaga!  I joined Jesse again in August of this year and we spent an amazing 1-2 weeks birding parts of the Peruvian Andes near Cusco.

Although we didn't really starting birding until Cusco, our tour began in Lima where we all arrived and met each other.  We boarded a plane early one morning and off to Cusco we went.  As the flight proceeded, we got higher and higher and we eventually broke through the marine layer that, at that time of year, keeps Lima enshrouded.  Looking down on the cloud layer butting up to the mountains, it looked like water as it snaked up the valleys:
Once on the ground, we met our fantastic local guide Lucrecia and our trusty driver Carlos (these two are great, our tour went with them last August as well).  They had some warm coca tea waiting for us which reminded me... we were all of a sudden at 11,000 feet elevation!  Yes, Cusco is a fairly high city.

We spent the day birding our way towards our hotel in Ollantaytambo.  En route we stopped at Huacarpay Lake to work some marsh species and to stretch our legs.  Our birding got off to a great start with good looks at the MANY-COLORED RUSH TYRANT.  Wow, talk about an amazing looking bird!
Not only did we hear PLUMBEOUS RAIL, we actually got to see this secretive species as well.  It swam through a break in the reeds which was pretty wild.  You can see the yellow bill with the red base of the lower mandible:
We also birded the dry and scrubby hillsides near the lake where we connected with more Peruvian targets like STREAK-FRONTED THORNBIRD:
The above ovenbird, while not endemic to Peru, is the highland representative of the thornbirds.

And then there was this Peruvian endemic, the RUSTY-FRONTED CANASTERO:
This species, which is also in the ovenbird family, is actually rather poorly understood.  It's always a treat to see this range-restricted species and this particular tour is great for it.

We eventually moved on but a brief look at the Ollantaytambo River yielded this stunningly-sharp YELLOW-BILLED PINTAIL:
The hotel grounds in Ollantaytambo can be pretty interesting in terms of birding actually.  Here's a GREENISH YELLOW-FINCH, a highland finch of western South America:
The back gardens at our hotel were hosting a mixed flock including this BLACK-BACKED GROSBEAK with its monster bill:
This GOLDEN-BILLED SALTATOR also was looking sharp:
The following morning was spent taking the train down towards Aguas Calientes and then, once there, we hopped aboard the buses that took us up to the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu.  We arrived to a thick layer of clouds which had us scratching our heads... I guess we wait?  Turns out, we didn't have to wait for long before the clouds cleared revealing the ruins in all their glory:
The precision in which the Incas were able to cut rocks back in the 1400s... is staggering:
After our day at the ruins, we spent another couple of days birding the lush forests near Aguas Calientes.  The birding there, at roughly 6700 feet in the Andes, can be excellent.  In fact, the birding even on our lodge grounds is superb.  You can look below and the rushing river will often host TORRENT TYRANNULETS and WHITE-CAPPED DIPPERS.  Here's the latter:
You can wander the grounds of the hotel and find a wide variety of tanagers, hummingbirds, flycatchers, you name it.  One of my favorites that we bumped into was the GOLDEN-NAPED TANAGER, a Tangara tanager of the Andes:
Here's a picture of bird that is NOT that striking.  Actually, it's hard to see the bird at all!  Why include it?  Well, the tail you see is of an AMERICAN REDSTART:
Sure, it's a common species in the US but it's actually quite rare there in Peru because they don't typically winter that far south.  Add to that, it was August when this species should be hundreds of miles north and on a different continent!  It's strange but this was probably the rarest sighting of our trip.

This little guy along one the trails at the lodge is a SCLATER'S TYRANNULET, a somewhat rare species overall:
This big-headed (but tiny) flycatcher is an ASHY-HEADED TYRANNULET that we also had good looks at:
Oomph, what a looker this tanager is!  It's a BERYL-SPANGLED TANAGER and it was right outside my bedroom!
The hummers at the lodge were fun too... we enjoyed species like LONG-TAILED SYLPH, COLLARED INCA, and WHITE-BELLIED WOODSTAR.  The most common hummer there, however, was the CHESTNUT-BREASTED CORONET:
One of our days there in Aguas Calientes we spent on a nice, day-long hike along the Mandor Valley and birded the whole way.  This was some of the most premium birding on the tour and we enjoyed a myriad of crazy-cool sightings like this BLUE-BANDED TOUCANET:
Even the parakeets put on a good show!  A flock of MITRED PARAKEETS landed at almost eye-level giving us incredible views:
This next sighting was special.  So many birders visit the Andes hoping to see this huge cotinga... and we did just that.  It is, of course, the emblematic and bizarre ANDEAN COCK-OF-THE-ROCK:
Along the river we had more excellent views of TORRENT TYRANNULETS, WHITE-CAPPED DIPPERS, and even a few TORRENT DUCKS.  Here's a female of the latter:
Sharp eyes are usually trained on the edges of the river looking for sneaky herons.  Our main target?  The secretive FASCIATED TIGER-HERON and, lucky for us, we found this one near town:
The second part of the tour leads us up to Abra Malaga, a pass up at 14,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes.  That elevation is the key and the many elevational zones and habitats that we pass through translate to a lot of endemic and specialty species.  Here's a panorama of us birding at elevation:
One of the first specialties we saw on our climb up was the CREAMY-CRESTED SPINETAIL, a species only found in Peru:
The very high elevations are no match for these geese, they actually prefer the high altitudes of the Andes... they are ANDEAN GEESE.  They even posed very nicely for our group:
The birding up at 13,000 feet is actually really interesting there, in my opinion.  You enter the land of puna, canasteros, ground-tyrants, bizarre flycatchers, strange ibis, and even giant condors.  This TACZANOWSKI'S GROUND-TYRANT up at about 14,000 feet was a new one for me and one that I had been hoping to see:
You might even catch a glimpse of a woodpecker up there... in the land of few trees.  No matter, ANDEAN FLICKERS are at home at high elevations where they just forage on the ground:
We birded the many zones of Abra Malaga for a couple of days, actually, and the lush east side of the mountain was especially birdy.  You enter the zones of bamboo, mist-enshrouded trees, and a completely different mix of birds.  Here's a MOUSTACHED FLOWERPIERCER that was singing up a storm right above us:
The specialties kept coming and so we kept powering through... next up was the very range-restricted and endemic MARCAPATA SPINETAIL.  Lucky for us, it came right out and gave truly incredible looks:
The chat-tyrants were especially fun.  They're a sharp bunch of flycatchers with many having noticeable superciliums.  Here's a RUFOUS-BREASTED CHAT-TYRANT:
Here's a PARODI'S HEMISPINGUS, yet another Peruvian endemic.  This one wasn't even discovered until the 1960s!
We had a new variety of hummers down the east side too including GREAT SAPPHIREWING, VIOLET-THROATED STARFRONTLET, SAPPHIRE-VENTED PUFFLEG, and SCALED METALTAIL.  We even caught up with one of the most distinctive hummers in the world... the SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD... check out its bill!
So that bird has a bill that is longer than its body.  And the Sword-billed Hummer is the ONLY bird in the world where that's the case.

However, it was the next hummer that took my breath away.  We were at one of our roadside stops when all of a sudden Jesse called out "PURPLE-BACKED THORNBILL!"  This tiny but brilliant hummer came right in and, against all odds, perched point blank in front of us.  I'm so thankful I managed to get my camera focused on it in time:
In some ways a complete opposite of the Sword-billed Hummingbird, this hummer has a SHORT bill.  How short?  Well, it is the shortest bill of any hummingbird on the planet.

This following aerial stud is the very large WHITE-COLLARED SWIFT.  Although it's not a hummingbird, it traditionally shared the order Apodiformes with them.  We found ourselves in the middle of a swarm of them on the east slope of Abra Malaga:
Up there at that elevation, if you see a thrush, there's really only one kind it could be... the GREAT THRUSH.  They are big, great, and have bright legs, bills, and eyerings:
Another of the distinctive montane species we enjoyed was the MOUNTAIN CARACARA.  The bold black-and-white pattern was a common sight and, as the below picture shows, one flew by at close range once with what looks to be a little bit of fur or something.  Strange!
All in all, it was a really fun tour and I honestly hope I get to help with this tour again in the future.  Of all the tours I've done in the last 1-2 years with Field Guides, I think I prefer the scenery on this tour the most!  Can you really blame me???
And lastly, I'll leave you with our super-fun group posing for a quick photo.  You'll notice a lot of hats and warm coats... yes, it's cold up there!
As always, you can find more info about this tour online including our past triplists and our itineraries.  Check it out here.