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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: Machu Picchu and the Manu-Kosñipata Road

2021 Narrative

We packed in a lot of memorable bird sightings in our ten days of birding in the department of Cusco. Of the tour group’s favorite picks, a super close pair of Inca Wrens at the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu was the only one from the interior, while five more came from the lush and delightfully cool cloud forest: a pair of Urubamba Antpittas in the deep, mossy interior of the short forest at Wayqecha; a super cute Peruvian Piedtail at the Cock of the Rock Lodge’s flowers, somehow managing to grab a sip despite the super aggressive Sparkling Violetears; the unforgettable Andean Cock-of-the-rocks at their lek; the pair of Squirrel Cuckoos provisioning their nest with a praying mantis; and a rising kettle of nearly 90 Swallow-tailed Kites leaving their group roost to continue south for the winter. Maybe because it came at the end of the tour, or maybe because it was so full of birds, Villa Carmen produced more than its share of favorite bird sightings. When we arrived, the air was alive with sounds of so many birds, the soundscape was enhanced by frogs and cicadas, and even the occasional bamboo-rat vocalized after dark. Few will ever forget the Band-tailed Manakin, its sunburst glow piercing like a beam in the dense bamboo understory, and it received by far the most votes for favorite bird. Also mentioned from here were Bluish-fronted Jacamars, the Blue-throated Piping-Guan (performing its rattling display flight while we watched), a Chestnut-capped Puffbird, a Rufous-capped Nunlet, Gray-crowed Wood-Rail (barging in on the trail as Pam was trying to catch up), and Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl (shocking us as it clambered out of its nest in a hollowed-out palm trunk). Finally, it was at the nearby hummingbird feeding stations where a male Rufous-crested Coquette (or maybe 2 or 3) was the star. Rounding out the tour were the additional aspects of natural history, such as so many butterflies and interesting mammals, delicious regional food, and the wonderful Peruvians we saw and met, especially our driver Omar.

We were on the very first flight of the day to Cusco, which meant a super early departure from the hotel, but it also gave us some excellent birding time in the highland valleys. Word was that Many-colored Rush-Tyrant was a desired bird, so we went directly to the bridge at Huacarpay, where we had two or three within minutes. Wren-like Rushbird, Plumbeous Rail, and Yellow-shouldered Blackbird also showed well here, and a close fly-by of a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle was highlight of the day. As we continued around the lake to a successful stop for the endemic Rusty-fronted Canastero, we were shocked to find an Andean Tinamou walking on short grass just above the shoulder of the road. It did scurry off like a proper tinamou at first, but soon it came back out of the brush, forgetting it was tinamou for a few more moments. A group of Chilean Flamingos looked like they might be attempting to breed here. We moved on to Lago Piuray on the other side of Cusco where breeding Silvery Grebes were a highlight. There were more flamingos here, as well as Andean Geese, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and countless other water birds. We then visited the newish hummingbird feeding station in the Sacred Valley called Ensifera Camp, where Cesar was preparing a traditional Pachamanca meal for a group arriving after us. A Scaled Metal greeted us upon arrival, but it wasn’t seen after that; we were so preoccupied by the Black-tailed Trainbearers, Giant Hummingbirds, and Shining Sunbeams that hardly anyone noticed. One last birding stop to try for the elusive Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch proved it to be elusive, with some seeing one only in flight. A consolation here was a Peruvian Pygmy-Owl that came in for photos. At the hotel, we squeaked in a few more minutes of birding on the grounds, and those who did were rewarded with a handsome Bearded Mountaineer.

The ruins of Machu Picchu were no less impressive than anyone expected. A treat was getting to walk a newly cut trail that went through a tunnel of bamboo allowing us to get face-to-face with a super close pair of Inca Wrens. We saw our only White-tipped Swifts while in the ruins, and a displaying White-winged Black-Tyrant was a worthwhile break from the cultural attractions. After the ruins, we birded the road and along the Urubamba River, where Masked Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, Silvery Tanager, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and Torrent Duck were very memorable birds.

The Bearded Mountaineer from two days ago didn’t reappear on our hotel grounds in the early morning, but two Peruvian Pygmy-Owls did, which was a pleasant surprise since the one 2 days ago was a first for the tour’s master list. A stake-out patch of tree tobacco down the highway turned out to be in absolute peak bloom, and we got good looks at a couple of Bearded Mountaineers as well as an incredible show from several Giant Hummingbirds all around us. We then began our ascent over a couple ridges of the Andes, the first reaching over 13,600 feet. A White-winged Cinclodes at a bridge was a good find, and Streak-backed Canasteros, Slender-billed Miner, and Andean Flicker were seen before we reached the high point of the road. A pair of Mountain Caracaras were building a nest on a rock outcropping, and near the top a heavily molting Aplomado Falcon flew over, more resembling a Swallow-tailed Kite in some angles. Our lunch stop provided us with Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrant, and just down the road was our only Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant. We had time for a couple short stops in the more humid scrub as we approached the final ridge at Abra Acjanaco, and while the mountain-finch continued to elude us, Creamy-crested Spinetails were unusually abundant, vocal, and easy to see.

Our full day based out of Wayqecha gave us another opportunity to work the higher elevations towards Abra Acjanaco. We started at dawn at a grassy location where a Line-fronted Canastero was an unexpected find. At the highest elevations we tooted in a Yungas Pygmy-Owl while a very scarce Bar-bellied Woodpecker came in. A Diademed Tapaculo made itself quite visible, but it was put to shame by a Puna Thistletail that hopped out in open for a couple of minutes, often too close for photos. We made a return to the dry side to attempt once again for Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch, but they just wouldn’t respond. A very worthy consolation prize there was a Sword-billed Hummingbird that fed from the beautiful, pink, and perfectly designed Passiflora mixta flowers, and a rare White-rumped Hawk soared overhead twice. We returned to the humid side of the mountain and more highlights came one after the other, including Grass-green Tanager and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant close to the lodge, and then down beyond the tunnels were Blue-banded Toucanet, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Band-tailed Fruiteater, and Golden-headed Quetzal, a nice change to look at some larger birds. A White-throated Hawk was a nice find soaring over the lodge at mid-day.

We started our final morning at Wayqecha birding a forest trail, but upon hearing Urubamba Antpitta at the start, we hunkered down and attracted a pair of this elusive bird to within a few feet away. Before we had a chance to bird the rest of the trail, the morning sky grew dark, thunder approached more closely, and it began to rain – the sign of an approaching cold front. Later, on our way to the next lodge, we had to endure some rain to enjoy the White-collared Jay flock by the road, but fortunately the front passed, and by late morning we were able to bird our way down though the elevation changes to the Cock of the Rock Lodge. There were Cinnamon Flycatchers all along the road – so common, yet still charming, and quite unlike anything we have at home. Nesting evidence was everywhere, such as a pair of Streaked Treehunters provisioning a nest making them unusually easy to see, and a pair of Beryl-spangled Tanagers at our lunch stop were also acting rather suspicious. The sounds of the cloud forest were made memorable by the ethereal Andean Solitaires and a musically talented Pale-eyed Thrush, even though we never did see the latter. At the lodge, the hummingbird feeders were dominated by Sparkling Violetears, but by carefully watching the porterweed bushes we spotted a fairy-like Peruvian Piedtail deftly avoiding the big green monsters.

We started our next day at the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, where some 15 birds presented a wonderful dawn show. Instead of returning to the lodge for breakfast, we took a picnic with us and broke our fast by the roadside up at about 2000 meters elevation. Inca Flycatcher, Buff-thighed Puffleg, and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker were some of the memorable birds from here, but by far the prize at this elevation was the Isothrix barbarabrownae, the caviomorph rodent best referred to as Brown’s Toró (as opposed to something like Barbara Brown’s Brush-tailed Rat). We were lucky to have heard of the nest from Lisa and Li Li who found it six days earlier; it turns out they were the first people to see one since the type specimen was collected in 1999. Nearby a Black-streaked Puffbird called and called but would not come in; it’s a rare bird here so it was a surprise when we found one several miles farther down the road, one that came in quite nicely. Almost back at the lodge, a Uniform Antshrike took a lot of patience to see but we deemed it worth it. At the lodge, a stunning Golden-eared Tanager came into the fruit. An owling outing did not result in the hoped-for fly-over of a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar, but we instead found a female on an egg right on the roadside, and a Rufescent Screech-Owl called from the tall trees well up the slope, sometimes barely visible, but mostly out of sight.

The birding at the lower elevation cloud forests near the bridge known as Quitacalzones was excellent all morning. A pair of Ornate Flycatchers started out the busy hour we spent here, and Amazonian Umbrellabird was a nice surprise perched in the trees. A flock contained the local Yellow-breasted Antwren and Cinnamon-faced Tyrannulet, and we had our best views of Golden-bellied Warblers here. We returned to the bus to find that a female Blue-fronted Lancebill had a nest right where we parked; we couldn’t see into it, but she was bringing insects to feed nestlings, and it was interesting that two or three males were acting territorial around the nest. Farther up the road we came across a Double-toothed Kite, Blue-necked Tanager, and an impressive kettle of Swallow-tailed Kites that grew from 10 to 20, to eventually nearly 90 individuals. The wonders of migration never cease to delight, especially when exhibited by such a beautiful and graceful species. At our last stop before lunch was our first Squirrel Cuckoos of the trip, memorable especially because one was carrying a green praying mantis, presumably to a nest with young. It was a quick drive in the afternoon to Villa Carmen, with just one roadside stop when a pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws in flight turned around and landed in a tree. The profusion of bird sounds as we arrived at Villa Carmen was almost overwhelming, though if one could mentally filter out the many Black-billed Thrushes, it was almost manageable. Then one could appreciate the crazy Hoatzins, the handsome Capped Herons, and the lovely Silver-beaked Tanagers. Especially memorable was the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail that creeped into the trail right behind the group and just in front of Pam as she was trying to catch up with us.

There were many highlights among the 110 species we registered before lunch on our trail walk around Villa Carmen. The Band-tailed Manakin was the highlight, even though no one reported being able to see the band on the tail – the glowing, supernova yellow, orange, and red was enough for us. Not everyone had good looks at the Red-billed Scythebill that moved through with an understory flock, but everyone did get scope views of the stunning Plum-throated Cotinga. Another highlight from closer to our rooms was a pair of curious Pale-legged Horneros. In the afternoon we took a trip to visit two hummingbird feeding stations up the road, both which were started by friends associated with Villa Carmen just a week before the pandemic began. We were among the first international tourists to visit. The first didn’t have as many hummingbirds, but a Zone-tailed Hawk was a good find there, scarce in this region, and we had our first good looks at a Blue-crowned Trogon here. The second set of hummingbird feeders, a bit higher into the hills, was just alive with birds, and it was difficult to sort out the 18 species. So, it was amazingly lucky to have spotted a 19th coming to flowers of a heliconia plant in the garden – a very rarely seen Buff-tailed Sicklebill. It did not return during the hour we spent there, so it had a trapline route that took at least that long. The one hummer that stood out among the masses of others was a gorgeous male Rufous-crested Coquette.

We had just one more full day at Villa Carmen, and our list nearly 140 species showed we made the most out of it. The morning walk gave us a few mixed flocks, among which we had good views of Bluish-slate Antshrike – not rare but often very shy and hard to see well. The walk ended with fabulous views of a Rufous-capped Nunlet that our binoculars stumbled into while trying to spot a scythebill. After lunch had time to wander around the grounds near our rooms, which is when some of us became more familiar with the amazing Hoatzins, finally caught up with the intermittently present Rufescent Tiger-Heron, or got better views of the singing male Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch. Some late afternoon aimless wandering, as we hoped to catch up with a very distant singing Pheasant Cuckoo, first led us to a Chestnut-capped Puffbird perched quietly in the forest midstory, then to a mixed flock that contained our only Lemon-throated Barbet, and an incredibly noisy pair of Red-throated Caracaras that perched in the open.

With a long drive back to Cusco, we didn’t really have any time for a last morning birding walk at Villa Carmen, but three birds from the area still made favorite birds of the day – the pair of Limpkins at the pond, the Orange-fronted Plushcrown in the trees right by the dining hall, and our only flock of perched Blue-headed Parrots right outside the entrance to the reserve. A short stop on the roadside while still in the Kosñipata Valley got us heard-only but very close Rufous-sided Crakes, a pair of Sulphury Flycatchers in their own Mauritia flexuosa palm, and a marvelous flyover of a pair of noisy Chestnut-fronted Macaws. Some slightly longer birding stops back up in the cloud forest were good. We caught up with part of the big mixed flock above San Pedro and got the scarce Gray-mantled Wren out of it. Higher up we made another stop before lunch and found a mixed flock with Fawn-breasted Tanager among many others. With a short but nearly birdless stop at the ruins of Ninamarka, we made one more stop in a humid draw in the dry, Cusco side of the mountain. Thanks to the superb bird-finding skills of our driver Omar, we finally saw Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finches, one of the more localized endemics in Peru, and our very last new bird of the tour.

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