The Start of the North – June 15-20, 2015 – Tracking Down Endemics and Putting Up With A New Driver

The next portion of our Peru trip, really just an extension of what we were already doing, involved utilizing our vehicle to visit as many sites for endemic and range-restricted species as possible, obviously picking up all of the common birds along the way. This strategy worked extremely well for us and everywhere we went we kept a list of “target birds,” usually the better birds that could be found in an area. 

The next day, June 15th, we spent the morning birding quite frankly some pretty terrible remnant habitat in Chao, a sand dune area. The mosquitos were absolutely atrocious but the birds were fairly abundant and we were able to see an undescribed subspecies of Necklaced Spinetail (Chao Spinetail), Tumbe’s Tyrannulet, Superciliated Wren, Fasciated Wren, Gray and White Tyrannulet and Coastal Miner. If it weren’t for the bugs and the fact that a lot of habitat in this area has been destroyed, we would have stayed longer to search for Peruvian Plantcutter, but figuring that the bird is probably no longer found in this area, we decided to move on.

Coastal Miner

Coastal Miner

We made a pit stop to grab groceries before heading off to Sinsicap, where we spent the afternoon birding the montane scrub of that area. We came to Sinsicap to look for two localized endemics, Piura Chat Tyrant and Russet-bellied Spinetail. Sinsicap, a small town in Peru not larger than 175 sq mi and not larger than 8,000 people, encompasses a valley essentially of an arid montane scrub habitat where these two birds can be found. After coming up empty-handed at a few of the known locations along the road through the valley, we decided to hike down the side of the mountain, across the small but steadily flowing stream and up the other side to a trail that we noticed off in the distance. We weren’t too sure this trail would be productive but we were willing to give it a try. Finding the ‘trail’ that we saw proved to be difficult until we realized the ‘trail’ was more of walk along the irrigation canal. Either way, it got us into good habitat and we walked alongside the canal before I finally spotted a single Russet-bellied Spinetail in the bushes. We never did find the Piura Chat Tyrant, but because there were other locations we could try for this bird, we decided to leave Sinsicap and start on the first part of the 10+ hour drive to the town of Molino, the only known whereabouts of an endemic hummingbird, the Purple-backed Sunbeam. We drove for several hours before stopping to car camp on the side of the road. The next morning we woke up at 4:30 AM to finish the last long leg of driving and we arrived at our destination around 9AM. This species of hummingbird is rarely seen by visiting birders for one reason– it’s found in a very remote location that is on the way to absolutely nowhere. However, once you make it to Molino, the bird can easily be seen feeding on flowers along a stream. This held true for us and upon our arrival we quickly found numerous Purple-backed Sunbeams. We spent half an hour in the area picking up a few other new species including another range-restricted endemic, Unicolored Tapaculo.


Purple-backed Sunbeam perched

From here we continued driving down the terrible dirt road for an additional hour in hopes of locating another range restricted endemic, the Great Spinetail. The road was in very rough shape and the going was extremely slow, although we were told it is ‘better than it used to be’. After driving for over an hour, but only going 23 kilometers, we reached an area known in the past to produce Great Spinetail, although no recent sightings had been reported in eBird. Thankfully my bird guide (AKA my husband) knows good habitat when he sees it and only a few stops into our search, we found a good patch of montane scrub which held at least 6 Great Spinetails, including a pair at a nest. From here we turned the car around and spent the next 7 hours driving to our hotel in San Marcos, a town south of the big city of Cajamarca.

Although it's hard to see, this is a photo of 2 Great Spinetails at their nest. We had great looks but never managed a 'great' photo...

Although it’s hard to see, this is a photo of 2 Great Spinetails at their nest. We had great looks but never managed a ‘great’ photo…

We started off the morning of June 17th by heading directly to the Rio Chanta area and looking for the extremely range restricted Grey-bellied Comet. Before this location near a large city was known, this hummingbird was very difficult to see. After two hours of searching, we finally found our target hummingbird in the form of a single Grey-bellied Comet feeding amongst bromeliads on the side of a steep cliff. From here we headed into the city of Cajamarca to eventually meet up with our new driver. Today was the day for our driver switch and for the next 6 days we would be using Julio’s friend, Jose, as our substitute driver.

I just have to mention that while in Cajamarca we got our laundry done for the first time since before the Amazon! This task had been needed for quite some time and our sweaty clothes were starting to make our bags reek. Unfortunately, we paid quite the premium to do so, a whopping $20 just for a load of laundry! YIKES. But the good news is, two hours spent in a small internet café only cost us the equivalent of $0.30!

That afternoon we met Jose, Julio’s friend and our substitute driver, and we headed out for the afternoon. Julio assured us that he explained everything to Jose about what to do and how to drive for people who stop periodically (often on the side of major roads) to look for birds. Our goal was to reach Hacienda Limon for the evening. Along the way we made a quick stop for the Cajamarca subspecies of Rufous Antpitta and finished the evening with an unsuccessful search for Grey-winged Inca-finch in the hills above Hacienda Limon. Since we missed the inca-finch, we spent the night car camping at Hacienda Limon with the plan to look for the inca-finch again the morning.

Just so that I don’t have to harp on it ad nauseam for the remainder of the post, let me insert a little bit about our new driver Jose. Jose, although a collectivo driver in Lima, was a bit awkward behind the wheel of the Kolibri Expedition van… to put it nicely. During the extent of our 6 day stint with Jose, I can count the number of times on one hand that he DIDN’T have either the right turn signal, left turn signal, or flashers on. At night, the high beams were on 90% of the time, much to the dismay of passing cars and vehicles in front of us. On two separate occasions, he started to drive down the road with the emergency brake on with the van beeping away in protest until Ross would lean over and remove it for him. We affectionately nick-named Jose “corn cob” for obvious reasons. Perhaps a bit mean, but his antics were frustrating. Also, while he didn’t speak English (which is understandable as many Peruvians don’t) it seemed to us that he neither spoke Spanish (which is a bit perplexing). We couldn’t understand a single word Jose would say to us, nor could he understand a single thing Ross would explain to him. (Not that Ross’s Spanish is great, but he’s had no problem talking with dozens of taxi drivers and various other locals throughout the trip). Even when we’d stop for directions, other Peruvians would have trouble trying to give Jose simple directions and often Ross was the one figuring out what the Peruvian was saying! We concluded that he must speak a slang form of Spanish. Also, as part of our agreement with Kolibri Expidetions, the driver was supposed to help cook meals/clean, but this was not the case with Jose. Therefore, Ross and I found ourselves cooking and cleaning up after Jose, which having paid to have someone do that for US, it was more than a bit annoying. To say the least it was an “interesting” and painful experience.

ANYWAY, on June 18th, we woke up early so that we could get started on ticking some Peruvian endemics found in the Maranon valley. Our target list for the day was only seven birds long (5 endemics and 2 near-endemics) so we didn’t think we would have to stay in the valley for an extended period of time. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a gorgeous view from the mountains overlooking the valley, which was beautiful in its own right. The area, while a desert environment, had small shrubs and very odd-shaped trees that we found amusing to look at.

View into the valley

View into the valley

The morning birding the valley started off great and by 10am we had all but one of our targets in the bag! Gray-winged Inca Finch, Chestnut-backed Thornbird, Buff-bellied Tanager, Buff-bridled Inca-finch, Peruvian Pigeon, and Maranon Thrush came easy. We also had multiple great looks at several groups of Scarlet-fronted Parakeets.

Buff-bridled Inca-finches were EASY in the valley.

Buff-bridled Inca-finches were EASY in the valley.


Scarlet-fronted Parakeets

Unfortunately the very bird that we still needed, the Yellow-faced Parrotlet, is the only bird in the valley that is really known to give people trouble. Finally after another hour of walking, we heard a group up on a hillside, but despite our best efforts, we never could get eyes on them. Because this bird is an endemic, we didn’t want to leave it as a “heard only” so we decided to spend however much time it would take to find the bird, hoping it wouldn’t be that long before we found some more. We spent the next SIX HOURS (!!!) walking and driving up and down the road through the valley. While walking we passed the time wondering just how many people would put in this much effort for this one particular bird and we concluded it would not be very many. We walked for hours before I heard the chirp of a parrotlet and turned to scan the nearby hillside to finally see two parrotlet-shaped silhouettes perched on a branch. It just so happens that we saw our birds on the very hillside that we had heard a group on five hours earlier. It was a long and exhausting day for us, but certainly a productive one as we finally had looks at two Yellow-faced Parrotlets!

The bird that gave us so much trouble,

The bird that gave us so much trouble, Yellow-faced Parrotlet.

June 19th we spent the night car camping on the property of a Peruvian lady at the top of Abra Barro Negro or “Black mud pass”. We stayed at the top near the mountain pass so that we could be nearby our final destination by the morning as the main birding in the area is along the road. Unfortunately we woke up the next morning and the weather did not look so great; the clouds had rolled in and it was a bit misty. Despite these signs it really looked as though it could clear up any second so we started driving the road until we reached a few patches of bamboo, the habitat of our #1 target, the endemic Russet-mantled Softtail. Thankfully when we got out of the car (and explained to our driver for probably the fifth time what was going on) the rain had stopped and bird activity was present, although short lived. We had great looks at Blackish Tapaculo, Saphire-vented Puffleg, and Rainbow Starfrontlet, but no softtail before the weather again started to get worse, this time to the point that we decided to give up on the morning and head towards our next birding destination. Sadly, we had a long drive ahead of us and we wasted most of the morning driving.

I love herons. I just do. This Tiger Heron was a highlight from our morning drive.

I love herons. I just do. This Tiger Heron was a highlight from our morning drive.

We finally made it to Huembo several hours later to look for our next target, the Marvelous Spatulatetail. This spectacular hummingbird flaunts two large tail feathers as it flies around feeding on flowers. Luckily, a reserve for this rare hummingbird has been created and the bird is now regularly seen coming to a set of hummingbird feeders. We spent about an hour at the feeders watching two male Marvelous Spatulatetails along with other hummingbirds such as Bronzy Inca, Brown Violetear, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar, and Violet-fronted Brilliant.

Marvelous Spatuletail is unmistakable with a tail like that!

Marvelous Spatuletail is unmistakable with a tail like that!


Chestnut-breasted Coronet

Marvelous Spatuletail in flight. The tail just bobs along behind him.

Marvelous Spatuletail in flight. The tail just bobs along behind him.

After spending some time with the hummingbirds, we headed to San Lorenzo, a small village backed up against a steep ridge, known for a few rare birds. We spent the afternoon hiking up the very steep ridge, (an intense step workout for sure!) but found very little at the top. We hiked back down to the car and set up camp for the night with the plan of hiking back up the ridge early the next morning.

We awoke at 5:00 AM the next morning and started on the hike up to the top of the ridge, the same one that we had done the night before. The hike starts by climbing up a series of steep rocks and then continues that way until you eventually reach the top. Even though the surrounding area is heavily farmed and fragmented, a few good patches of bamboo still exist along the top of the ridge and this area is home to a few very rare birds. Our main targets of the morning were Pale-billed Antpitta and Russet-mantled Softtail. Sadly we only heard the Pale-billed Antpitta, but we were able to see a single Russet-mantled Softtail amongst the bamboo. Other highlights of the morning included great looks at a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, a pair of Leimebamba Antpittas, and a Rufous-backed Treehunter. By late morning we admitted defeat on seeing Pale-billed Antpitta and started in the direction of Jaen, a town located in the Maranon Valley and home to a number of range restricted species. We arrived in Jaen (pronounced hor-ren) midday and luck was on our side because even though we arrived at our first birding spot near a Catholic Seminary during the hottest part of the day, we quickly picked up our targets of Maranon Crescentchest, Northern Slaty Antshrike, and Ecuadorian Ground-Dove.


Chestnut-crowned Antpitta


Leimebamba Antpitta

By this point it was starting to get late in the day and we debated whether we’d have time to drive an additional hour north to look for two more range restricted species, Maranon Spinetail and Chinchipe Spinetail. We decided to give it a try and raced north as the sun started to set. We arrived at the spot about 30 minutes before dark and easily found both of our target spinetails, Maranon and Chinchipe, within minutes of each other! We had successful found all of our main Jaen targets and numerous other new species in one hot afternoon! We headed back to Jaen and got a hotel room for the night.


Chinchipe Spinetail

One thought on “The Start of the North – June 15-20, 2015 – Tracking Down Endemics and Putting Up With A New Driver

  1. Great that you got both the Softtail and the Treehunter at San Lorenzo trail. I have a client who is targeting the Treehunter in October. I was going to concentrate on the Leymebamba site, but perhaps the SL trail is better?

    I should perhaps clarify that Jose is not one of our regular drivers, but a friend of Julio’s. Now, the replacement (as you experienced) did not have the same experience as Julio. And it did involve that you would have to do more of the work of cleaning up and making food yourself for 6 days, but maybe that also put in perspective all the work that Julio normally did.


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