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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: Rainforest Lodges of the Madre de Dios

2021 Narrative

The rainforest lodges of Madre de Dios were an abrupt but delightful change of pace from the first Peru tour, where we had been mostly in mountains of the neighboring department of Cusco. For one, it was warm and humid, though on two days we were under the influence of a late cold front, when the overcast skies and cooler temperatures were quite welcome. We walked every day, piling on the miles, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of this tour is being able to bird right outside our rooms. And with a pared down group, we could focus on the species we wanted to see the most. We saw and heard 360 species in our ten days of birding, as well as many beautiful plants, butterflies, beetles, and other critters.

Our flight arrived too late in Puerto Maldonado for a safe boat ride to the lodge, so we had to spend the night in town, giving us time in the afternoon to bird at the edge of the city. Here we soon latched on to one of the main targets, White-throated Jacamar. A canopy flock with Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Small-billed Elaenias, Yellow-green Vireos, and several tanagers kept us busy, while the fishponds had Solitary Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Wattled Jacana. It was fun to see a flock of about 40 migrant Eastern Kingbirds move through.

The boat ride to Los Amigos went without hitch, and it was nice to do it in the morning when not so hot, though it never did get super-hot during our tour. A migrant American Golden-Plover was our rarest bird, and it was interesting to see recently fledge Large-billed Terns and Black Skimmers. We were at Los Amigos well before lunch, after which we did a loop on some trails, missing a turnoff, and taking the much longer route back via a steep ravine. Oops. But we had some nice birds along the way – a pair of very cooperative Great Jacamars, a White-throated Tinamou that slinked across the trail, a Dark-billed Cuckoo in a vine tangle over the trail, and a Needle-billed Hermit carrying nesting material were some of the highlights. A troop of Curl-crested Aracaris in a huge tree mostly blocked by the mid-story vegetation was frustrating, but we at least had glimpses.

It seemed promising when early on our first full morning we heard the highly-desired Black-faced Cotinga just back up the road. We backtracked quickly, saw something fly off, and never heard it again. Despite playback here and again on and off throughout the week, this would be our only encounter with the species. But that’s the way it goes with tropical birds – nothing is truly static, and they are only predictable until they aren’t. We birded around the soccer field quite a bit this first morning, as it offered a good view of the canopy and roving flocks of tanagers. Paradise, Green-and-gold, Masked, and Turquoise were all there, as were three species of dacnis. A pair of Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatchers were building a nest in the far corner, and we could hear Fiery-capped Manakins teasing us from the viney understory. A White-browed Hawk zipped over the clearing, giving us only the briefest view. On the trail system we caught up with some singing White-chinned Sapphires on an exploded lek then surprised a Cream-colored Woodpecker at eye-level in the understory. It inexplicably flushed only a few feet and then stayed put for several minutes as we took time to get the best of photos in the low light levels. We had success with some patience in the Band-tailed Manakin lek (though they were even more cooperative a few days later when we passed by again – even showing the band in the tail, which virtually no one ever sees). An Amazonian Pygmy-Owl just happened to be right overhead when Rich used the call to try to elicit a mobbing response from some birds, and we had strained looks at it right overhead. Farther down the trail we finally figured out a White-bellied Tody-Tyrant, and then only a short way down the trail noticed a bit of activity at a huge tree dropping red fruits to the ground, causing us to pause. It turned out to be Pseudolmedia laevis in the mulberry/fig family, and as we were about to pass it, we detected the sounds of Pale-winged Trumpeters approaching. In the next ten minutes we enjoyed a close encounter with a group of at least seven birds as they crossed the trail back and forth and then worked down the trail to the next wooden boardwalk. It was a magical time with a truly amazing bird. In the afternoon we entered the bamboo zone and retraced the steps we meant to take the previous day. A Bamboo Antshrike eventually showed, and the same huge tree hosted the Curl-crested Aracaris, which we got a much better view of this time. Almost back to the lodge we encountered a singing Rufous-fronted Antthrush in a location that had not had a territory in previous years. We tried playback, but it did not want to come anywhere near the trail. One highlight of the afternoon was the White-lined Leaf Frog that Pat, the station science coordinator, showed us that had been sitting on the same leaf for several days.

Our second full day began as would the rest – a greeting of the morning at the overlook by our rooms, where we had our daily fix of macaws (many Red-bellied this morning). After breakfast we hiked to the abandoned airstrip where we hoped for some more bamboo specialties. An exciting find here was a rare Brown-banded Puffbird which flew in silently as we were scanning the canopy for a singing Western Striolated-Puffbird that had been singing; this was a first for Rich in Peru. The bamboo prize bird was the Long-crested Pygmy-Tyrant on the same territory as two years earlier, and we had great views of a White-lined Antbird in the same spot. Johannes’s Tody-Tyrant was another one we saw only in this area. On the way back we flushed the same Great Jacamar as on the first afternoon, making us think they may have a nest nearby. In the afternoon we hiked to the southern end of the Carretera to try for the Rufous-fronted Antthrush territory from previous years, but a new gold dredging operation right across the river was deafening, and we eventually gave up without hearing any song. On the way there we connected with the family of adorable White-throated Jacamars on not far from the lodge, and on the way back we enjoyed the enchanting song of a Musician Wren.

Our third day started the same with checking the open areas at the overlook and around the soccer field, noting the progress with the Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher nest and seeing our first Opal-rumped Tanager. We returned to the bamboo on trail 10 and found another specialty, Dusky-tailed Flatbill. We then entered the taller forest, and noting a big, hollowed out trunk, Rich veered off the trail to investigate. Before he could shine his headlamp into it, a bat scrambled out of the top of the cavity and perched in the open on the trunk, a sac-winged bat in the genus Saccopteryx. All along the trail we admired the many types of traps researchers had set out to document the diversity of dung beetles, including one bated with a dead guinea pig; later in the evening we were to learn from camera trap footage that a Jaguar stole that dead guinea pig about an hour and a half after we had been standing in that very spot. A little further along, a Pavonine Quetzal responded amazingly well to a whistled imitation, and we got great views. There was one understory mixed flock, and in it was our only Rio Madeira Stipplethroat of the tour. We saw our second Needle-billed Hermit along this trail as well; they usually just zip by, but this one lingered, giving us excellent views. As we completed the loop, the trail brought us through the middle of a Reddish Hermit lek, and we got a good reaction from one bird while an Ornate Hawk-Eagle sang in flight somewhere over the canopy, well out of sight. When we got back to the lodge clearing, four King Vultures could be seen soaring at once. A late afternoon attempt for night birds at the airstrip wasn’t terribly successful, though we did see a Common Pauraque and at the cliffs on the way back a Ladder-tailed Nightjar.

The hike on our fourth full day was full of adventure. We wandered down trail 10 through the bamboo once again, but this time the surprise was a pair of super close Rufous-capped Nunlets, sitting well below eye level in the cane right next to trail. Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant continued to ignore our attempts to see it (and that trend would continue through the rest of the tour), but the bamboo also gave us Goeldi’s Antbird and Brown-rumped Foliage-gleaner. A tanager flock contained another Opal-crowned Tanager and several Paradise Tanagers, and Letter Araçari was surprising only in that it was a write-in bird; for some reason it is very uncommon here. We descended to the floodplain forest down a very steep trail that we had no intention on rescaling, even when we found that the old footbridge had been removed (not replaced), and we were forced to cross a muddy swamp on fallen tree logs. Michael chose the more adventurous elevated log and ended up with a rejuvenating mud bath treatment (fortunately a relatively soft landing). A blooming cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) stopped us in our tracks for a while, and just beyond it, a Ruddy Quail-Dove flushed from a nest containing two eggs in a tangle just above eye level. As we headed back towards the lodge, we took a look at the fruiting tree where the trumpeters had been and instead found some action in the canopy, which included a pair of noisy Casqued Caciques, and we eventually discovered a gorgeous Plum-throated Cotinga perched quietly just under the foliage; it sat there for scope views for quite some time as it either digested or took a nap. We detoured past the Band-tailed Manakin lek too, getting much better views than the first time, before returning for lunch and siesta. In the afternoon we descended the steps to the boat landing area only to discover that a Rufous-fronted Antthrush was singing in the thickets at the bottom of the steps. It took a lot of patience but sitting down in the dense undergrowth to avoid scaring the bird seemed like the best plan. It was not showing well from that vantage point after all, but once we risked standing up and scaring the bird, we were able to peer down through the branches and had great views of this very local species. We had seen a few Amazonian Parrotlets briefely up until now, but this time we had great views of several birds feeding in what turned out to be fruiting Guazuma crinita trees (family Malvaceae).

On our last full day we visited only trails we had been on before, but we still stumbled into new things. We had been hearing the Undulated Tinamous every day, but finally we caught them wandering around on the lodge grounds where we could observe them at length. The new, makeshift overlook had a pair of Plain Softtails, and then farther down the trail in the river floodplain forest we came across our first swarm of army ants. It was only a small swarm, hosting a pair of White-throated Antibirds and a single Black-spotted Bare-eye. Farther down another trail was an even smaller swarm, but this one hosted one of the rare and beautiful ant swarm-attending skippers, Tarsoctenus praecia, as well as a scarce Black-banded Woodcreeper. A mixed canopy flock gave us fleeting views of a Chestnut-shouldered Antwren, but maybe the number of amazing beetles, fulgorids, caterpillars, damselflies, and frogs were more fascinating than the birds on this particular walk. In the afternoon the lodge narrowly avoided being hammered by a nearby downpour, and we did a loop after it dissipated and left only a heavy overcast. But before we had left the lodge clearing, we noticed a pair of Dusky-headed Parakeets poking their heads out of a cavity right near our rooms, something we hadn’t noticed on the previous days. Moments later we were surprised by a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl that may also have been in a nest when it made a ruckus scrambling up from deep within a hollowed-out palm trunk and poked its face out of the top. If that weren’t enough nesting evidence for the day, on our walk we found a Gilded Barbet doing exactly the same, poking her head out of a probable nest cavity.

After a couple of fruitful hours of birding around the lodge clearing on our last morning, we embarked for the 7 ½-hour ride upstream to Tambo Blanquillo lodge. The previous day’s storm from a passing front made for a delightful ride under overcast skies, and there were plenty of birds to look at along the way. Swallow numbers were particularly high and included migrants heading south to breed, like Southern Martin and Blue-and-white Swallow, and those arriving from the north for their winter, such as Barn, Bank, and Cliff. We saw an Amazonian Umbrellabird fly over the river, real Muscovy Ducks, and all the expected herons and egrets, terns and skimmers.

The last days of birding at Tambo Blanquillo were a nice change of pace. Our first afternoon we added Burrowing Owl where we got off the boat, then found Chestnut-capped Puffbird and watched a Blue-throated Piping-Guan behind the dining room. Down one trail we flushed a Common Pauraque off her eggs right next to the path. We spent most of the next morning at the famous clay lick, but an extra-early start added Common Potoo to the list, as it was still foraging as we waited for a ride to the boat. It was a thrill to see a flock of about a hundred Red-and-green Macaws take off in a deafening flight at the end of our time at the blind – they never did come down to feed on the dirt, but many other species did, including a collection of Blue-headed, Orange-cheeked, and Mealy parrots. In the afternoon we had a delightful paddle around one of the oxbow lakes, where Pale-eyed Blackbird, dozens of Hoatzins, Greater Anis, Sungrebe, and many other species presented themselves. A favorite bird of the tour and a lucky find was a lone Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, perched typically in the deep shade of the overhanging vegetation. We then had a final early morning on the Camungo canopy platform, where highlights were a Dark-billed Cuckoo, a Bare-necked Fruitcrow on a nest in our very tree, an Amazonian Pygmy-Owl, a Chestnut-shouldered Antwren, two Black-banded Woodcreepers, Masked Crimson and Paradise Tanagers, and yet more Amazonian Parrotlets – a lot packed into just two hours.

Birding wasn’t quite over as we returned to Puerto Maldonado by boat, then taxi, then boat, then van. Horned Screamers gave us their best views along the Madre de Dios River and glancing out the window of the van at just the right time brought brief views of Red-breasted Meadowlark as we approached the city.

Created: 16 December 2021