Trip report: Northern Peru (September 2014)

Guided by Nick Athanas and Sam Woods. This was a shorter version of our normal set-departure tour; it did not visit Chaparri Lodge and had less time in a few locations. It also had a custom extension to the high Andes above Lima.

Peru is one of the World’s “megadiversity” countries; with well over 1800 bird species (second only to Colombia), it quickly enters the radar of any serious world birder. It is packed with a multitude of habitats and therefore birds, and boasts a healthy number of specialties and endemics, some 105 species are confined to Peru (one of the highest lists for country endemics on the continent), and there are a good number on top of that list that are regional endemics only shared with either Ecuador or Bolivia in the main. Thus, whichever way you look at it, Peru is a must visit country for anyone looking to build a good World list; like Ecuador to the north, it deserves at least one visit, and unsurprisingly many serious world birders return time and again to sample its extreme avian riches. However, most people who visit Peru, either for the first time, or just the once, choose to focus on the Manu region of the southeast, which can be easily combined with the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. However, on many levels (bar Machu Picchu of course), Northern Peru stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the southeast in terms of avian riches; trips to this region also score extremely high species lists (in just 11 days of birding more than 550 species were recorded on this tour, with more than 30 species added on short, 2-day extension), and it is a region loaded with many regionally restricted species, with a discrete set of Marañón specialties, a load of Tumbesian endemics, and an interesting set of other localized species, including the incomparable Marvelous Spatuletail and the unique Long-whiskered Owlet. Thus, the surprise is that Northern Peru is birded as little as it is, particularly as good hotels and new lodges, have made this region easily accessible and, indeed, a pleasure to bird. This trip was put together as a custom tour for Rick, who had birded every region of nearby Ecuador, and so was keen to focus on the specialties and endemics during the short vacation time he was permitted to visit this area. Thus, the trip formed an abridged version of our usual set departure to Northern Peru, with the site of Chaparri being forfeited, in order to keep the trip short enough for Rick’s vacation. Mark joined the trip later, making for a small group, which focused primarily on the specialties and endemics, rather than chasing a large trip list. In spite of this, due to some extreme luck throughout the trip a healthy 550+ species were recorded by the end of the main tour, more than was expected, with Mark (having not visited southern Ecuador previously), walking away with well over 200 lifebirds after the tour. We had extraordinary luck, with weather rarely affecting us, and the birds largely acting as if they were trained for our viewing pleasure!

We enjoyed a rare trip, with rain affecting the birding very little indeed, just pouring regularly on two of our days in the Abra Patricia/Afluente area, where birding between the bouts of rain yielded a fantastic haul of the area’s targets, which included Rusty-tinged and Chestnut Antpittas, Lanceolated Monklet, White-faced Nunbird, Chestnut-crested Cotinga, Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater, Red-hooded Tanager during the rain breaks.

The Abra Patricia area saw us run into a rich vein of form, with the often-elusive Long-whiskered Owlet seen with no fuss; an Ochre-fronted Antpitta that sat there begging for its photo to be taken; and a gorgeous deep blue male Royal Sunangel seen at the first time of asking. The trip was formulated by Rick, (with Nick’s input), and being a tanager fan, Rick was keen to see some of those missed on previous trips to Ecuador. Thus, he was especially pleased with the performances of two different groups of White-capped Tanagers in the Alta Nieve area (photo, page 16), where seven birds came screaming into the trees above us, where they remained for long, super looks.

This trip is also arguably the best in all of South America for owls, and this was proved on this tour, where the group saw 12 different species of owl, which included a Stygian Owl (seen to the raucous sound of disco music in Moyobamba), Band-bellied Owl, (photo right), Black-banded Owl, the local Koepcke’s Screech-Owl, and 3 species of pygmy-owl.

The trip started in Lima, departing quickly to Peru’s fourth largest city, Chiclayo, from where we immediately started birding at Bosque de Pomac, where Peruvian Plantcutter, (photo page 2), Rufous Flycatcher, and Tumbes Tyrant were the highlights. Next stop was the montane scrub in Abra Porculla, where the target Piura Chat-Tyrant performed well, eventually. From there the trip wound its way northeastwards to the city of Jaen, where tropical scrub near the city hosted several Marañón specialties, including the difficult Marañón Spinetail, and stunning Marañón Crescentchest, while Little Inca-Finch punctuated the journey to Jaen. From Jaen, we moved further east, (picking up several male Marvelous Spatuletails along the way), into the forest-cloaked Andean foothills, where a stay in a fantastic new lodge proved an inspiring addition to the trip; under the guidance of their superb local guide, Carlos, we found some real avian treats: Speckle-chested Piculet, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Ash-throated Antwren, Mishana Tyrannulet, Buff-throated Tody-Tyrant, Chestnut-throated Spinetail, Fiery-capped Manakin, Varzea Thrush, and the endemic Black-bellied Tanager, along with 4 species of owl and 3 species of nightjar, as well as a siege of hummingbirds at their amazing feeders, with Rufous-crested Coquette, White-chinned Sapphire and Black-throated Hermit taking top billing there. We then moved up to the cloudforests and foothills accessible from Abra Patricia, where, along with the aforementioned species, Torrent Duck, White-capped Dipper, White-collared Jay, Versicolored Barbet, Lulu’s (Johnson’s) Tody-Tyrant, and Red-ruffed Fruitcrow featured. The next stop was near the town of San Lorenzo, where a boulder-strewn mule track beckoned us up, and led us to a superb Pale-billed Antpitta, as well as the tricky endemics Russet-mantled Softtail and Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant, (photo below). We then returned to the extraordinary diversity of the Marañón Canyon, birding from one lip to another, taking in cloudforests on the rim, which held Neblina Tapaculo, Coppery Metaltail, and the local form (species in waiting) of Rufous Antpitta; and also birding the desert-like base and arid sides, where Peruvian Pigeon, Yellow-faced Parrotlet, Buff-bridled and Gray-winged Inca-Finches and Chestnut-backed Thornbirds were the highlights. Moving southeast we moved to the culturally distinctive city of Cajamaraca, where people toiled in the agricultural fields, wearing traditional Indian hats distinctive to the region as they did so. Ending in this area helped us add two very local species: Gray-bellied Comet and Great Spinetail, before we wrapped up the main tour with a flight back to Peru’s capital, Lima.

Mark and Sam stayed on for two extra days birding from Lima into the high Andes of Central Peru, which proved an inspired choice, recommended by Nick, who departed with Rick on the final night of the main tour. In the cool morning air of Lima Sam and Mark connected with an experienced “bird” driver, and so eased into many famed stakeouts, as we spent much of the first day in the arid, steep-sided Santa Eulalia Valley, before spending the second day mostly in the area near Marcapomacocha, in the puna, where we reached a heady 4800m/15,750ft. We missed little, picking up the cute Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, crimson-throated Bronze-tailed Comet, and rare Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch in the lower areas; White-cheeked Cotinga and Stripe-headed Antpitta in a remnant polylepis grove higher up; and then finding some of the best birds in the windswept puna highlands on our final day, where we saw the rare White-bellied Cinclodes, a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, and the unique Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, the undoubted “showstopper” of the extension.

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