Central Peru: Birds of the Incas

Peru is a country that defines diversity. Not only does it have over 1800 species of birds (making it one of the best countries for birding on the planet), it has habitats ranging from one of the driest deserts in the world, to one of the highest peaks in the Americas, to a huge swathe of virgin Amazon rainforest that defies superlatives. This tour targets a large number of endemic species that occur in the Andes of Central Peru, with highlights like Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager (surely one of the best tanagers in the world), the ultra-rare Junin Grebe and White-bellied Cinclodes, charismatic inca-finches, and White-cheeked Cotinga. We won’t ignore the more widespread species, and birds like Diademed Sandpiper-Plover could beat out the endemics on the list of favorites. Add to that some of the best scenery anywhere, and you have a truly unforgettable tour. This is quite an intense trip, and long drives and several very early starts are necessary.


See more Central Peru photos on our Flickr site

Below is a recommended 14-day itinerary, but it is totally customizable based on your schedule.

Day 1: Arrival in Lima. After arriving in Peru’s large and bustling capital we will transfer to a hotel near the airport for the night.

Day 2: Santa Eulalia Valley. We will spend today birding the Santa Eulalia Valley, which offers an excellent transect of the dry west-slope montane scrub over a wide elevational range. Here we have our first chance at a member of Peru’s flagship endemic genus in the form of Great Inca-Finch, as well as a slew of other Peruvian endemics, including the rare Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, Bronze-tailed Comet, and the subdued Rusty-bellied Brush-Finch.

The dusty, dry arid country in the lower Santa Eulalia Valley is home to the Great Inca-Finch
The dusty, dry arid country in the lower Santa Eulalia Valley is home to the Great Inca-Finch (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Marcapomacocha. Heading upwards from Santa Eulalia, we’ll get to some remnant polylepis groves right as the sun is hitting them, the best time for us to look for the scarce and beautiful White-cheeked Cotinga. Afterwards we’ll scour the high-elevation cushion plant bogs of Central Peru for two charismatic species: the ultra-rare White-bellied Cinclodes (with a tiny population limited to a handful of high elevation bogs in Peru), and the beautifully patterned Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (or “DSP” as it is known to shorebird aficionados). There is far more up here to keep us entertained, though, with a goodly variety of Furnariids including the endemic Dark-winged Miner, along with its more widespread cousins, Slender-billed and Common Miners, as well as Streak-throated Canastero, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, and another endemic, Junin Canastero. White-winged Diuca-Finches, dapper Black Siskins, and huge, hulking Andean Geese are also likely. In the afternoon we will drive to the base of the Satipo Road, near the city of Huancayo.

A shorebirder's
A shorebirder's "wet dream": DSP or Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Sam Woods)

Days 4-5: The Satipo Road. This long and sinuous dirt road crosses numerous deep valleys that have contributed to the amazing endemism of the region. Not only are there a number of known species found nowhere else, there are no less than three, and maybe as many as five, undescribed species that we’ll look for along this road. In order to save very long daily drives back and forth to a hotel, we will spend one night in very basic guesthouse located near some of the best birding sites.

We’ll spend one morning around the Puente Carrizales bridge, where the endemic Fiery-throated Metaltail is usually easily found, in addition to some endemic tapaculos (Tshudi’s, and an undescribed form of Large-footed that may even be a new species), and the rare Eye-ringed Thistletail. We’ll also check out a back road for Marcapata Spinetail and an undescribed thornbird before heading back upslope to look for another undescribed tapaculo and Black-breasted Hillstar.

Another early start will get us to the Acobamba Valley soon after dawn, where we hope to see the strikingly patterned Black-spectacled Brush-Finch, the undescribed “Mantaro” Wren, and a very distinctive sounding population of Azara’s Spinetail that probably deserves species status. The afternoon will be spent cleaning up on whatever we’ve missed and looking for another endemic – Brown-flanked Tanager. That afternoon, we’ll drive to the coffee town of Villa Rica, where we spend two nights.

Rufous-browed Hemispingus is handsome and strange - it often hops on the ground like a sparrow
Rufous-browed Hemispingus is handsome and strange - it often hops on the ground like a sparrow (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Villa Rica. The scattered shade coffee plantations in this foothill town offer surprisingly fun birding, with a whole suite of Amazonian species reaching the upper limit of their elevational range here. We’ll look especially for the localized endemic Creamy-bellied Antwren, but won’t ignore other specialties like Ocellated Piculet, Cabanis’s Spinetail, Lanceolated Monklet, the tiny White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, and Cerulean-capped Manakin. In the afternoon we’ll swing by a reed-filled lake where we have a good chance at the skulky Rufous-sided Crake and larger Blackish Rail, among a host of other wetland species.

Day 7: Villa Rica to La Oroya. We have another morning to clean up on whatever we have missed around Villa Rica before working our way back upslope to the high mountain town of La Oroya. Along the way we have a chance for the charismatic Torrent Duck, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and White-capped Dipper. We’ll spend the night in La Oroya.

A boat trip is set up to look for the rare Junin Grebe
A boat trip is set up to look for the rare Junin Grebe (Andrew Spencer)

Day 8: Lake Junin, travel to Huanuco. Today will be our day to search for one of the rarest birds on the planet, the critically endangered Junin Grebe. Taking a boat out onto the lake should offer us a decent shot at it, though it takes time to pick it out from among all the Silvery Grebes. We’ll also bird the lakeside wetlands picking through the slew of ducks which can include Yellow-billed and gorgeous Puna Teals, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Andean Ruddy Duck. Scanning the pools, we should find some of the hardy shorebirds that call this high-elevation lake home, such as Andean Avocet and Puna Plover. The odd Chilean Flamingo will add a dash of color to the mix, and drier slopes nearby host Short-billed and rarer Correndera Pipits. In the afternoon we’ll transfer to the city of Huanuco for a three-night stay, which has the self-proclaimed distinction of having the “best weather on earth”.

Days 9-10: Bosque Unchog. Very early starts are required to get up to the mountains above Huanuco, where we will set out on our hike to this famous birding location. The undoubted target of the morning is the large and indescribably beautiful Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, but we won’t ignore the other endemics on tap here, including Bay-vented Cotinga, the handsome Rufous-browed Hemispingus, bland but impressively named Pardusco, and gorgeous Yellow-scarfed and Golden-collared Tanagers. We’ll also search for the localized Neblina Tapaculo, and we have another shot at Brown-flanked Tanager on the ride down, if we missed it on the Satipo Road. Two days are planned here to allow a decent chance to see all the key birds. If we are fortunate on our first day with the targets, the second day will be spent instead at the Paty Trail and Carpish Tunnel. These two well-known cloudforest sites are quite close to Huanuco. The main targets will be two endemic antpittas, Bay and Chestnut, two endemic fruiteaters, Band-tailed and the stunning Masked, and the cute Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant. A variety of tapaculos will also test our patience, with Trilling, Rufous-vented, and the hulking Large-footed all possible. Nights in Huanuco.

Golden-collared Tanager, a gorgeous bird from high Andean forests
Golden-collared Tanager, a gorgeous bird from high Andean forests (Nick Athanas)

Day 11: Huanuco to Huaraz. if we haven’t had a chance to bird there yet, we’ll spend the morning at the Carpish Tunnel before taking the rather long drive to Huaraz, on the west side of the magnificent Cordillera Blanca, the most beautiful mountains in Peru. We’ll spend two nights in Huaraz.

Day 12: Huascaran National Park and Abra Portuchuelo. Huascarán, at 6,768m (22,205 ft), is the highest peak in Peru, part of the serenely beautiful Cordillera Blanca. Not only are the mountains spectacular, so is the habitat and the birding. We’ll check out a large polylepis grove by a surreal turquoise lake for specialists like Stripe-headed Antpitta, Giant Conebill, Tit-like Dacnis, and the endemic Rufous-eared Brush-Finch, before heading higher to Abra Portuchuelo, were we could find the surprisingly bold Ancash Tapaculo and have another chance at White-cheeked Cotinga. Around the entrance to the park, we’ll bird some drier scrub, where we could see our first Rufous-backed Inca-Finches, and Canyon Canastero and Black Metaltail are common.

With luck we will see the spectacular Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager at Bosque Unchog.
With luck we will see the spectacular Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager at Bosque Unchog. (Nick Athanas)

Day 13: Huaylas and Pueblo Libre to Huacho. The road to the small hamlet of Huaylas is perhaps the best place in the world to see two species of inca-finches, Great and Rufous-backed. Both prefer dry slopes with abundant terrestrial bromeliads, and are quite common at this site. We could find Greenish Yellow-Finches on the dry hillsides or a flock of Mountain Parakeets screeching overhead. Afterwards we’ll make a quick stop at the small town of Pueblo Libre, where an undescribed subspecies of Creamy-breasted Canastero lives among the tall, columnar cactus. The afternoon will be spent traveling to the city of Huacho, where we will spend the night.

Day 14: Lomas de Lachay and Pantanos de Villa. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the barren coastal plain near Lima is devoid of birdlife. But visit one of the coastal hills (lomas) near Lima and you’ll see a completely different side of this barren landscape. Here there are patches of forest that survive entirely on moisture from dense fog that forms during the wet season, and a number of birds that thrive in this habitat. We’ll look for a quartet of Peruvian endemics here – Thick-billed and Coastal Miners, Cactus Canastero, and Raimondi’s Yellow-Finch, as well as a scattering of other desert-loving species such as Grayish Miner and the diminutive Least Seedsnipe. Afterwards we’ll visit a wetter part of the coastal plain, the marshes of Pantanos de Villa, just south of Lima. Here we have a chance for the nocturnal Peruvian Thick-Knee lounging around in the daytime, the impressive Great Grebe, and a few species of gulls and shorebirds along the beach. Since international flights typically leave Lima late in the evening, we will have day-use rooms for showering and repacking.

We should be able to find the endangered White-bellied Cinclodes at Marcapomacocha
We should be able to find the endangered White-bellied Cinclodes at Marcapomacocha (Nick Athanas)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Warm and dry along the coast to very cold in the high Andes.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Physically it is moderately demanding, with some mountain trail birding required. Two days will be spent at very high elevation up to 4800 m (15800 ft). Some very early starts and long drives are essential on this tour.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly good to very good, but there will be one night in a very basic dorm-style guesthouse with a shared bathroom on the Satipo road. Staying here saves us hours of driving and gives us a much better chance at some tough species.