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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: Machu Picchu and the Manu-Kosñipata Road

2017 Narrative

In Brief: Breathtaking views of Machu Picchu were just the beginning of this year’s highlights of the tour to the department of Cusco, Peru. We had a full morning’s tour at the ruins with a delightful local guide who didn’t mind our interruptions to see Inca Wren and scan the skies for swifts. Then began our drive over the mountains and down the Kosñipata Valley, darting in and out of the boundary of Manu National Park – and thence began a daily barrage of lovely scenery and some truly memorable bird experiences. Perhaps the most mind-blowing and voted as the favorite was the Pheasant Cuckoo that flew towards us over a hundred yards across the Piñi Piñi River at Los Amigos, landing in a bamboo thicket just a few yards away from our astonished faces. No one expected that to happen! But other very memorable birds included the Buff-tailed Sicklebill that appeared at a staked-out clump of pendant Heliconia flowers (something which you always try but rarely succeed at), a scarce Buff-thighed Puffleg in roadside flowers, Scarlet Macaws preening and playing in a tree top, fabulous Grass-green Tanagers in multicolored mixed flocks, Plumbeous Rails strolling out in the open in a highland marsh, two Solitary Eagles in the cloud forests – one flying by quickly over us and another soaring at length below, and a most adorable White-bellied Woodstar coming to the feeders at Cock of the Rock Lodge. Cheeky Brown Capuchins at one lodge were memorable, while the butterflies were out of this world, for example the Panacea prola (Red Flasher) that landed on most of the participants, one-by-one. Our stay at Villa Carmen was a treat with the very comfortable rooms and great food. It was a particularly fun group of participants, and our wonderful driver Eliazar did a great job of keeping the bus clean and working, and us safe and on time.

In Detail: A perfect flight and seamless transfer to our bus and meeting Eliazar was followed by an ease into the tropical diversity in the temperate highlands. We started at some wetlands with birds in familiar families, such as Yellow-billed Pintail, Puna Teal, and White-tufted Grebe and even a familiar species – a write-in Wilson’s Phalarope. Another write-in was Chilean Flamingo, which apparently colonized this lake not long after the last WINGS tour visited here, as they’ve been present ever since then according to eBird. After getting some good solid glimpses of the unlikely Many-colored Rush Tyrant, we watched several Wren-like Rushbirds, including a pair at the nest, and enjoyed the Plumbeous Rails walking around. After much work we finally had suitable views of the very range-restricted Rusty-fronted Canastero.

The ruins of Machu Picchu were as impressive as ever, and the weather cooperated for us. Inca Wren was easier to see than ever before, with a pair appearing with a mixed flock just after the entrance ticket booth. We took the long flight of steps up to the fabulous overview of the ruins, and on the way back down through the complex saw a Northern Mountain Viscacha feeding like a long-tailed rabbit on the grass as well as a Machu Picchu lizard when the sun came out. After lunch we went to feeders behind the restaurant, where huge Dusky-green Oropendolas dominated all. Hummingbirds were surprisingly scarce, but Collared Inca was a nice highlight, and the colorful tanagers at the feeders included a handsome male Thick-billed Euphonia. Green-and-white Hummingbird was feeding in Inga trees away from the feeders, and we directed some German birders to them who seemed very eager to find one. We had wonderful views of White-capped Dipper and Torrent Duck on the river upstream from the restaurant, and we got quite close to a Fasciated Tiger-Heron feeding in the middle of the river. After it looked like we had dipped on the White-tipped Swifts at the ruins, we ended up with spectacular views of several birds zipping back and forth over the river at and even below eye-level, offering better views that you can usually get of any swift. On our way back to the train for the return trip to Ollantaytambo, an Andean Motmot cooperatively emerged from the mossy shadows and perched on the power lines.

A Band-tailed Sierra-Finch was one of the first nice surprises on our day’s drive over the mountains to our next lodging. A final stop at a gas station before passing through Pisac and up the slope brought us close flocks of Mitred Parakeets followed by a pair of Aplomado Falcons right in town, one perching briefly on a radio antenna. We stopped at the very high Abra Muruhijsa where we lured Streak-throated Canasteros into view, watched Cream-winged Cinclodes cavorting, and witnessed an explosion of over a dozen Andean Flickers. Here and there during the drive were beautiful Mountain Caracaras, and at one stop we discovered an active nest on a cliff across a canyon. We had time for some productive birding stops in the more humid areas closer to our destination where Creamy-crested Spinetails and a Yungas Pygmy-Owl were highlights. Upon arrival at Wayqecha Biological Station we had chance to check the feeders and see our first of several Amethyst-throated Sunangels.

We divided our fifth day of the tour between the higher elevations near Acjanaco Pass (until fog made birding too difficult) and below the lodge (where we discovered a beautifully perfect hole in fog) during a spectacularly active afternoon. In the morning we saw Violet-throated Starfrontlet, confirming a glimpse from yesterday, enjoyed our last Mountain Caracaras and Variable Hawks of the tour, found a flock with very confiding Rust-and-yellow Tanagers, and upon our first attempt had a very good response from a rare and little-known Scribble-tailed Canastero. It took us a while to find Puna Thistletail, but eventually we were treated to fantastic looks not long before yet another mixed flock showed us our only Golden-collared Tanager trying to hide amongst the many flowerpiercers. On the road below the lodge, a Black-throated Tody-Tyrant took some patience at first, but we eventually had terrific views. Mixed flocks had many wonderful species of tanagers, warblers, and tyrannulets, but of the more memorable were Grass-green Tanager and Hooded Mountain-Tanagers. In the evening we wandered up the road hoping for a male Swallow-tailed Nightjar, but had to settle for a lovely female – which perched out in the open at arm’s length, suitable for photos with a point-and-shoot.

After struggling in an early morning downpour, in which we had our only Band-tailed Fruiteater, we had more time than originally planned to enjoy the Amethyst-throated Sunangels, Andean Guans, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers on the lodge grounds due to a small landslide that we found impassible until a few trucks had smashed it down somewhat. In the meantime we also enjoyed snacks and a new rainy morning drink we nicknamed the Inca Toddy. Farther down the mountain, a Red-and-white Antpitta in a very open bit of narrow habitat inside the hairpin curve of the road was an incredible opportunity, and everyone got great looks at this notoriously skulky bird. Saffron-crowned Tanager and Yellow-throated Tanager were some of the more memorable members of the colorful mixed flocks as we continued down the road. A Chestnut-crested Cotinga was a great find, especially at such a low elevation as we got closer to our next lodge, and a rarely seen White-throated Hawk was a bit more of a puzzle but in retrospect a dead ringer. At Cock of the Rock Lodge a White-bellied Woodstar was the favorite visitor to the hummingbird feeders.

We began our one full day at San Pedro with an early morning visit to the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, where several males had close perches, leaving us amazed. Some fun Speckled Chachalacas at the lodge after breakfast were followed by a morning’s birding to higher elevations where highlights were a Buff-thighed Puffleg at very close range and a gorgeous Long-tailed Sylph feeding from a roadside Pitcairnia bromeliad. We saw yet another and even better White-throated Hawk, while the morning was capped by a thrilling sighting of a Solitary Eagle soaring below the road, eventually rising and disappearing behind the ridge above us. Flocks nearer the lodge contained gorgeous Paradise Tanagers, while a Cerulean-capped Manakin teased us with its call notes from deep in the thickets along the trail behind the garden. We saw a few birds in the early afternoon before the sky began to darken, and the rest of the afternoon was lost to rain – the continued effects of an unseasonably late cold front – except for some fun hummingbird watching at the feeders, where Violet-fronted Brilliant dominated and Wedge-billed Hummingbird made a brief appearance in the hibiscus.

The early morning drive back up the road before breakfast resulted in our best views of the simple but adorable Bolivian Tyrannulet, and Lemon-browed Flycatchers gave a repeat performance with their flashy head stripes for those who had missed them the day before. It was this morning we had the great luck to see a Rufous-breasted Antthrush through a hole in the vegetation, while anyone who sat out the morning’s walk was instead treated to a Wire-crested Thorntail, otherwise missed during the tour. We then worked our way gradually down the road to our next lodge, first snagging a Peruvian Piedtail near the sicklebill spot, a lifer for everyone. A Crested Quetzal sat right over the road in response to a whistled imitation – sometimes it works better than the iPod! The same could be said for a Scaly-breasted Wren which defied all expectations and emerged from a dense roadside thicket, flew across the road to a more open bit of forest, and then chose a perch that could be seen with the spotting scope, continuing to whistle its amazing song. In mixed flocks we saw the very range-restricted Yellow-breasted Antwren, and everyone caught up with the rainbow-hued Versicolored Barbet, which had been seen but only very briefly the previous two days. Eliazar’s having to remove a rock between the tires in the later afternoon gave us our first taste of the tropical lowlands near Patria with several flycatchers, parrots, and seedeaters by the roadside. A Hoatzin greeted us as we arrived at Villa Carmen, and after we moved into our rooms, a chorus of Undulated Tinamous reverberated all around the buildings, and one even walked across the open lawn, visible from our bathroom screens. One lucky cabin even had a Chestnut-capped Puffbird right by their door.

We had two full days at Villa Carmen Biological Station, and we tallied nearly 180 species, never being farther than three quarters of a mile from our rooms. The weather was surprisingly nice, relatively mild following the passage of a late cold front, so we had every daylight hour, and even some evening hours to build up the list. Favorites included several species very close to our rooms, such as a big family Hoatzins, Red-capped Cardinal, Rufous-breasted Hermit (seen from within the rooms), Purplish Jay, Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Bluish-fronted Jacamar, and Black-tailed Trogon. We weren’t far from the rooms when we saw Lemon-throated Barbet, Black-crowned Tityra, Magpie Tanager, or the Sunbittern, but it was in the bamboo, in deeper forests, and at the Piñi Piñi River where we found some other favorites from these days. A Jet Manakin was a big surprise in one clump of bamboo, and in one low, wet part of the forest a few of us had a wonderful, very close encounter with a Rusty-belted Tapaculo. The aforementioned Pheasant Cuckoo was certainly a tour highlight, but from the same location we also saw Bare-necked Fruitcrow and King Vulture for further highlights.

On our last morning we managed to get some birding in, despite having to spend most of the day on the road. While we had breakfast it was very entertaining to watch a large group of Smooth-billed Anis feeding on moths on the dining hall screen just a few feet away. Purplish Jays were as cheeky and noisy as usual, and as we said our goodbyes, a Scarlet-hooded Barbet flew in and landed right over the garden. We had time to bird down the road just a bit, finding yet another new bird in the form of a Fine-barred Piculet. The drive back over the mountains to Cusco went without problems, and we made many brief stops, the first of which was for a Black Hawk-Eagle perched right by the main dirt road near Patria. Another quick potty stop resulted in a most obliging Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, one of the favorite birds of the entire tour for one participant. Then our lunch stop back at Acjanaco resulted in a lovely reprise of Aplomado Falcon, and then one last try for hummingbirds found us looking at Giant Hummingbird, a fitting end to a spectacular tour with 401 bird species (37 of them heard only), and not to be forgotten are the seven mammals, seven herps, and 32 species of butterflies.

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