Peru is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet and is extremely rich in bird diversity, boasting an impressive 1,808 species of birds, the third most species of any country in the world! The country is so rich in bird diversity that new species and subspecies are still being discovered!
Peru has such a vast bird list because it has such extensive habitat diversity. A dominant feature of Peru is the Andes Mountains which run down the length of the country, however much of eastern Peru is flat and only 300m above sea level, being a part of the Amazonian basin. Peru is justifiably a birder’s dream destination with the possibility of seeing new birds every single day, even over an extended period of time, not to mention the country has 106 endemics (per Clements 6th edition). Several birding world records were made and then broken in the country of Peru. A recent “Big Day” set a world record of having seen/heard 354 species of birds in a single day! Although Ross has visited before, it is no surprise that he wanted to come back and at the conclusion of this trip we will have spent 56 days in Peru, the most time spent in any country!
We left Bolivia a few days early and headed to Peru. After touching down at the Cuzco airport, we grabbed a taxi and headed to Lake Huacarpay to search for Bearded Mountaineer and Rusty-fronted Canestaro. It only took a few minutes before we had views of Rusty-fronted Canestaro so the rest of our allotted time was dedicated to searching for our other target bird, the Bearded Mountaineer. This hummingbird enjoys the flowers of introduced tobacco plants, Nicotiana, which can often be found along the roadside edges. Thankfully this plants’ flowers were all in bloom and we thought that we would surely find the bird! We spent the next 4 hours searching high and low for the Bearded Mountaineer, but to no avail.
We headed back to Cuzco and hopped on a collectivo headed to Ollantaytambo, a bustling tourist town thanks to nearby Inca ruins and being the last stop before needing to catch a train for those wanting to visit Machu Picchu. Although we had plans to visit Machu Picchu eventually, we first wanted to take some time to bird the surrounding areas of the town. That afternoon Ross set out once again to search for a spot known in the past to produce Bearded Mountaineer while I took a nap, but he again dipped on this endemic hummingbird! We spent the evening walking around the quaint tourist town and coordinating a taxi for early the following morning.
The next day we headed to Abra Malaga (The Pass), a famous birding site that allows birders to visit remnant patches of Polylepis forest. This site is most known for harboring Royal Cinclodes, a rare bird with probably less than 200 individuals left in Peru. The site itself is beautiful with a few trails leading through the forest at high elevations, but being that we have gotten accustomed to the altitude, maneuvering our way around wasn’t too strenuous, albeit still very cold at such heights.
We began roaming the trails searching out Royal Cinclodes. After a kilometer or so of hiking and just as we reached a sign stating “Royal Cinclodes Zone” we heard the definitive trill of a Royal Cinclodes calling nearby. It was at that moment however that the sky opened up and started doing a combination of rain/snow/hail/sleet until our shoes and feet were thoroughly and completely wet. If that wasn’t bad enough, the bird stopped calling and was never to be seen. We then started on the long, wet and cold walk out of the valley via one of the muddy trails.
Along the hike out highlights included Ash-breasted Tit-tyrant, White-browed Tit Spinetail, Line-fronted Canestaro, and Puna Tapaculo. At the conclusion of our time in Abra Malaga, we had hiked over 7 miles so we rewarded ourselves with a lunch of fresh trout at a nearby restaurant. Ross, being the trout lover that he is, proceeded to eat three whole plates of trout. The best part about lunch however was that we were able to snag a ride down the hill with the driver of a big-rig and found ourselves back in Ollantaytambo before dark.
After the grueling day before, we proceeded to take the next day fairly easy, not to mention we had a train to the town of Aguas Calientes to catch that afternoon preventing us from going too far from town. That afternoon we caught our train, arrived in the town of Aguas Calientes, lined up a hostel, bought our tickets for Machu Picchu, and then spent the evening birding the road. While walking out of town and across the bridge, we saw several species of birds in the form of Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Cuzco Brushfinch, and Highland Motmot.
The next morning we woke up super early as this was the day we planned to visit Machu Picchu. In years past the “early-birds” were able to hike up the mountain and arrive at the entrance gate to the ruins before the buses, thus being one of the first to enter. It also used to be that these first comers could then run to the back of the park and snag one of the 400 tickets to climb to the top of Huanapicchu Mountain overlooking the ruins. We were not aware that the times had changed and the 400 tickets could be bought ahead of time online. As it turns out, the bridge before the trail now doesn’t open until 5AM meaning those taking the buses would actually be the first to arrive. Oh well, we didn’t find that out until it was too late. We hiked up anyway and man was it a workout! The steep steps of the access trail leading to the summit of Machu Picchu climb 1,280ft in elevation in just over a mile! It was an aggressive start to the day, but well worth it as we still arrived at Machu Picchu early and had views of the ruins before they were flooded with the day’s tourists.
We also hiked the trail to the Sun Gate which provided an equally impressive view of the city that the Incas built at the top of a mountain ridge so long ago. For those who think world history class was too long ago to remember, Machu Picchu dates back to the 15th century. Although the exact rationale behind the construction of Machu Picchu is unknown, it is widely believed to have been built as a royal retreat under the fifteenth-century Inca Emperor Pachacuti (per Wikipedia). The city is built along a fault line and the Incas solution was to carve the rocks and fit them together perfectly without the use of mortar. Clearly the results were effective, standing the test of time with only 28% of the ruins having been renovated. Also as a fun fact, this ancient gem was only discovered 100 years ago!!
Even within the park, the birding never stopped and several species were seen such as Green and White Hummingbird, Inca Wren, Glossy Black Thrush, Highland & Sierran Elaenia, White-throated Hawk and Fawn-breasted Tananger.
We spent a few hours meandering through the ruins before starting on the trail back down the mountain.
Along the walk down, we birded the access trail with highlights being Andean Cock of the Rock (our first of the trip AND away from a lek!), Sclater’s Flycatcher, Andean Guan, Green Hermit, Ocellated Piculet, Torrent Tyrannulet, Barred Becard, and Oleaginous Hemispingus.
The next day we headed back to Ollantaytambo and the following day headed back up to Abra Malaga to try once again for the Royal Cinclodes. We hired a taxi driver for the entire day who agreed to stop at various locations along the way while we birded. The morning produced Unstreaked Tit-tyrant, Black-capped, Superciliaried & Parodi’s Hemisphingus, Plushcap, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Mountain Parakeet and Marcapata Spinetail. The driver then dropped us off at Abra Magala (The Pass) and agreed to meet us at the trout restaurant we pointed out to him on the way up (the same one we ate at last time.) Although the weather was much more cooperative and the hike much more enjoyable, we again did not get to see the bird.
After five hours of hiking we arrived at the trout restaurant and noticed that our taxi driver was nowhere to be found. Hoping he might arrive soon, we decided to grab a bite to eat. Just as we were walking in to the restaurant, a wild Peruvian dog with blood shot eyes lunged at me, tore my pants and bit my leg. Thankfully all I had was some neat shaped bruising and a bit of pain to show for it as the skin was not broken! (But even so I’m glad I am up to date with my rabies vaccination!)
As we were sitting in the restaurant waiting for our trout, Ross spotted a Chestnut-breasted Mountainfinch, one of the birds we were planning to look for that afternoon. With the weather looking like it was about to turn grim, and no taxi driver in sight, we gave up on birding and started on the 20km walk back to town. We hitch-hiked en route and not long after we were picked up by a semi-truck and driven back to Ollantaytambo. We then got a collectivo back to Cuzco still wondering what ever happened to the taxi driver who deserted us.
The next day we opted to visit Pisaq, an archaeological site known for having some ancient Inca ruins, but also known amongst birders as another site for having the Bearded Mountaineer. Before we took a collectivo to Pisaq, we dropped off my dog-torn pants off at a shop to be mended and headed on our way. So for probably the FOURTH time since arriving in Peru, Ross and I set out to find this endemic hummingbird. When we arrived, Ross hiked one side of the valley and I hiked up the mountain on the other side but at the end of the morning neither of us had seen the #1 target.
We reunited after probably hiking over 3 miles each and started walking out of the archaeological site sad that we were dipping on this bird for the fourth time. In an unexpected turn of events, Ross spotted a large hummingbird with a black and white tail perched in a tree. We couldn’t see it very well as it was perched but a few moments later the bird took off and somehow we had great looks at a Bearded Mountaineer! We spent a few minutes watching the bird and finally walked out very happy that our morning ended on a good note!
When we arrived back at the shop to pick up my pants, we found the door closed and locked with the man who agreed to fix my pants nowhere in sight. According to the hairdresser next door, he left and probably wouldn’t open again until after 4PM. Unfortunately for us, we had a flight to Lima leaving at 4PM and couldn’t afford to wait around but we didn’t just want to leave without one of my only two pairs of pants! The door to his shop was somewhat flimsy, so it didn’t take much force for me to open it despite it being locked. Whoops. We snuck into the shop and searched until we found my pants! With pants in hand, we closed the door behind us and went on our way!
And just like that the first of what we are calling “The Four Legs” of our Peru trip has concluded and we are very excited to begin the next 12 days exploring the Amazon rainforest!