Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Southern Peru: How to get 500 birds in two weeks

Southern Peru is on the tourist map because of Machu Picchu. That, and the lovely gateway city of Cuzco, have drawn tourists from all over the globe for decades to what might otherwise be just another section of the longest mountain chain in the world.

As a result of long history of foreign visitors, infrastructure for birders wishing to explore some of the world’s best birding sites is top notch, with swanky tourist lodges ranging down the elevational gradient of the Manu Road and into the fringes of the Manu Biosphere along the Madre de Dios.

The Manu elevational gradient

While the bird diversity along this route is staggering for the uninitiated, it can be experienced in relative comfort.  This is a trip worth sharing. So Natalia and I, who were already in Lima for a wedding, assembled a small group of birders and set off on a two-week extreme birding trip.

We hired one of Peru's top guides: birding animal, extreme-machine, Gustavo Bautista, who is Peru’s 4-time eBird big year champion (his 5th consecutive crown is nearly in the bag now).

Gustavo Bautista, extreme birder and our guide

He’s also sponsored by Vortex, something he’s not shy about.

With Gustavo leading us, we absolutely crushed our route.

The route, starting in Cuzco (A) and ending in Puerto Maldonado (airplane), with stops at Huacarpay Lakes (B), Wayquecha Lodge (C), Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge (D), Amazonia Lodge (E), Tambo Blanquillo (bed), Los Amigos (binoculars). The segments not traced in blue were covered by boat along the Madre de Dios River. Natalia and I continued by plane from Pto. Maldonado to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca (not pictured)

Our first stop was Huarcapay Lake near Cuzco where we scored Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, Andean Negrito, Plumbeous Rail and various ducks.

Wetlands at Huacarpay Lakes
Puna Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail, Huacarpay Lakes
In addition to the high altitude wetland denizens, there's some nearby scrubby arid habitats that provide opportunities for a variety of altiplano species that we wouldn't get chances for later on the route.

Greenish Yellow-Finch (which can't help but be called 'Yellowish Green--Finch" on occasion)

Rusty Flowerpiercer, near Huacarpay Lakes

Yellow-bellied Tit-Tyrant
One of the best birds from this stretch was a random roadside stake-out (thanks Gustavo!).

Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch (female), a Peruvian endemic
Unfortunately the male didn't pose for photos.

We carried on to the entrance to the famous Manu Road, great place to stumble around in the fog and frozen grass trying in vain to see some silly skulking bird, like a tapaculo or Scribble-tailed Canastero.

The team at the entrance to Manu National Park

White-browed Conebill near the Manu Road entrance

We stayed at the Wayquecha Lodge, the highest altitude lodging along the road. This spot is built primarily for researchers, but I think montane forest is a harder sell for undergrads than lowland Amazonia (no monkeys that high, plus its cold). As a result they’ve learned to really roll out the red carpet for visiting tourists. 

View down into the Manu

Wayquecha is the perfect base for exploring the habitats above 2000 meters. Our strategy was to drive along slowly until we hit a flock.

What's that in the bushes?

Oh! One of our main targets, the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Near-threatened)

Red-crested Cotinga, Manu Road
There's the red crest
Black-backed Grosbeak
Tyrian Metaltail

This strategy really helped rack up the flocking birds and then Gustavo had some special locations for trickier targets, such as Red-and-White Antpitta.  He even called a friend for the latest intel on Andean Potoo!

Andean Potoo, Manu Road
The other great thing about Gustavo, is that he never gets tired. He would recite his policy about only including 2 night walks per week, but then wouldn't be able to help himself and take us out for a long owling session for the third straight night.

Near Wayquecha we heard some strange owl (a Strix) that may have been a Rufous-banded Owl. We never saw it, but as we tried to track it down, we flushed a nightjar off the road:

Band-winged Nightjar, a nice surprise on Manu Road

We could have easily stayed another couple nights at Wayquecha, but we had lower elevation species to find.  At 1400 m, the Cock-of-the-rock Lodge sits right at my favorite happy medium. I'm biased because I lived at this elevation in Ecuador for 6 months, but I feel like the birds here are a bit more diverse and colorful than they are higher up. Also the weather is perfect here; not too cold, not too hot. And unlike the lowland forest birds, submontane birds are reasonably easy to see well.

The moment we arrived at Cock-of-the-Rock there happened to be a frantic rush of bird activity at the lodge’s ‘backyard,’ which is strategically loaded with hummingbird and banana feeders. All kinds of birds were all showing up at once and everybody was calling things out on top of each other. Many people were too scared to go pee, no matter how badly their bladders ached from the bumpy ride down.  It was capped off by a squawking flyover from a pair of Military Macaws.

Amazonian Motmot at Cock-of-the-Rock lodge
Russet-backed Oropenolas began raining from the sky to assault the mango
 After a few hours we finally managed to peel ourselves away from the feeders only to stumble upon a sweat bird just across the road:
Amazonian Umbrellabird
 More crowd-pleasers along the Manu Road mid-elevations:

Golden-headed Quetzal

The elusive Lanceolated Monklet just sat for us (the behavior that makes them tough to find), a great spot by Gustavo
After a couple wonderful nights at Cock-of-the-rock, we continued downhill, eventually reaching the river where we parted ways with our driver and set off by boat to reach the Amazonia Lodge.  Again, some of the most amazing birding was right in the yard where the feeders ensured constant action.

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Rufous-crested Coquette
 When they put out the rice the tanagers are first to arrive:

Red-capped Cardinal, Black-billed Thrush, Palm, Masked Crimson and Silver-beaked Tanagers
 Then come the gluttonous chachalacas

Speckled Chachalaca scrum at Amazonia Lodge

We visited the canopy tower our first day.  Things started off very slow for the first few hours until finally we had a flock come in and then a beautiful White Hawk gave us a visit.

At night Gustavo showed off once again by calling in Tawny-bellied Screech-Owls, then we had a real surreal experience as we came  face-to-face with a Mountain Lion not 50 meters from the lodge. This was a lifer for Gustavo. Wow!

Amazonia Lodge is showing its age a bit and the quality of the rooms isn’t quite up to par with some of the newer more expensive lodges. But it’s still great value for money, plus it’s family-run and great to see everybody working together to make the place function.

From Amazonia we got back on our boat for our first major 8 hour boat trip. Weather was rainy and cold. Luckily our boat was covered and the driver gave us some plastic sheets to block the wind and spray.  We found a miserable-looking drenched Black Hawk-Eagle along the banks of the Manu.

Black Hawk-Eagle in the rain

Finally we arrived at Tambo Blanquillo, where we stayed in dorm-style housing. This place offers cabins, but they’re really expensive and don’t have the option for twin beds (queen only).  This didn’t work with our budget or group arrangement, so we pretended to be undergraduate coeds and made do in the dorms. 

The thing I really didn’t like about Tambo Blaquillo is that they make you pay extra for everything. Their famous clay lick costs $80 per person to visit—a small fortune in Peru.  And when we went it was a total bust. Two Red-and-green Macaws came and looked at the clay wall and that was it. Surely it must be better some days because they had erected a huge 90-person blind on stilts.

The canopy tower, on the other hand, was well worth the cost of admission. In fact, I'd say it's the best canopy tower I've ever visited.

Gigantic Ceiba tree that holds the Tambo Blanquillo canopy tower

Chestnut-crowned Becard, Tambo Blanquillo

The best canopy tower moment: when this Plum-throated Cotinga lit in the crown just above our heads
The oxbow lakes are also well worth the cost and effort to explore.  Actually there isn't much effort involved. The price tag includes a guy with an oar to paddle you around on a floating platform.
Super-relaxed birding on the oxbow lakes at Tambo Blanquillo

Watch out for Lobos del Rio ("River Wolves" also known as Giant Otters, endangered)

Some of the more photogenic bird life around the oxbows:

Ladder-tailed Nightjar

Purus Jacamar

The birds at Tambo Blanquillo were really nice and we could have easily spent another few days there without reaching diminishing returns.  But after the three nights we were happy to press on to our final lodge, Los Amigos.

The "Centro de Investigacion y Capacitacion Rio Los Amigos" is managed by the same NGO that runs Wayqecha, but unlike Wayqecha, students and researchers are the bread and butter at Los Amigos, with tourist-level catering more of an afterthought. The biggest surprise here was the lack of flexibility for meal timing. Every other lodge had been happy to feed us full breakfasts at vampiric hours, but Los Amigos with a few dozen undergraduate students to feed just couldn’t offer that kind of flexibility.

The station’s best asset for birders, was a PhD student named Sean Williams. Sean was in the middle of his fifth and final field season studying the behavior of mixed species understory flocks. Having spent so many months in the forest paying attention to birds and with an ear for their calls, he knew the location to the bush of just about every bird in the forest surrounding the station. The only downside is that he had no idea we were coming and thus had work to do for most of our time at the station.

When we could grab him for an afternoon, though, the birding suddenly became like shooting fish in a barrel. All the skulking tody-tyrants were casually revealed, thanks to Sean’s ear and Gustavo’s tape. It was a shame we couldn’t spend more time with Sean as there were a bunch of bamboo specialties we still needed to see that he would have been able to show us in short order. Alas Los Amigos was just a two-night stopover on our way out to Puerto Maldonado.

I don’t know why more birders don’t visit Los Amigos. Even without Sean it’s still an awesome place to see lowland amazonian avifauna, with essentially all the habitat types represented. There is certainly no shortage of primatologists who call it home.

Titi Monkeys

We saw several species of monkeys here in short order, as well as one big cat, a Jaguarundi--an unexpected surprise out in the open mid-morning.

We picked up more than 100 bird species in our short stay, but as is typical in lowland Amazonia, photographic opportunities were few and far between.

Pink-throated Becard (female) Los Amigos

A Trogon (Blue-crowned), reliable lens fodder when all else fails
Crested Oropendola dispalying at Los Amigos
The bird that got away on this trip was a huge raptor that went soaring overhead while we were resting in a tree-fall gap. Only part of the group got views and it didn't stay visible for long, but I'm 95% sure it was a Crested Eagle. Better views desired by all though, so we kept it off the list...

After Los Amigos Natalia and I said goodbye to Gustavo and our birder friends and took off for Lake Titicaca and a trek across the border and into Bolivia, uncharted territory for both of us.

The Puno waterfront offers some interesting birding.

Andean Lapwing, Puno

Chilean Flamingo, Puno

Cream-winged Cinclodes, Puno
Wren-like Rushbird
We visited the nearby Sillustani archaelogical site (for birds; our interest in archaeology is rather limited), mostly because it was easy to catch a bus there. Unfortunately the bus ticket came with a guide, who kept expecting us to stay with the group and care about the factoids he was regurgitating.  Eventually, we convinced him to let us go wander off on our own so we could see a handful of lifers, lose track of time, and then make a bus full of tourists wait for us (standard irresponsible birder behavior).

We also visited the floating islands of Uros, which is kind of becoming a tourist trap, but was so fascinating that I didn't particularly mind. There were plenty of birds to see on the boat ride there and back as well as while trapped on the islands.

Uros floating islands on Lake Titicaca

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, Uros. According to legend this bird stole all the colors from all the other tyranids. That's why flycatchers are so drab and boring, this guy is the exception that proves the rule.

The endangered Titicaca Grebe, Uros. Easy bird.
The Uros trip didn't net us any lifers that we wouldn't see later around the lake, but it was still a fun outing.

As we left Peru, we naively expected more of the same from Bolivia. We were in for a shock. Peru's southeastern neighbor, with which it shares this great lake, the southern swath of Amazonia and so much bird life, is a world apart in terms of infrastructure and organization.

But that's a topic for the next chapter. Stay tuned for birding in Bolivia.

Monday, November 14, 2016

How the West was birded

It's dark and miserable in Switzerland (snow on Nov. 7?!) and old world flycatchers and warblers are super boring, so let's flash back to happier times and a grand adventure out West.

The route, starting in San Fran and ending in LA, hitting up 7 national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree), one national disgrace (Las Vegas) and with a bonus add-on in South Texas.

Natalia's parents flew up for our graduations and this was kind of a celebration trip. Non-birders involved, so it was not a 'birding trip' per se, but with the focus on national parks, it was pretty easy to be opportunistic. Heck, I scored 24 lifers. And that was before scooting off to Texas.

Since Natalia and I had already done a good bit of birding around LA the opportunities for lifers were slim for the first several days, so we'll just gloss over those except for some obligatory landmark pics:

Golden Gate Bridge (sponsored by Hyundai)

Yosemite Valley

General Sherman Tree

During this stretch I was so desperate to see something new that I coerced the group into taking a small detour to a random city park outside Fresno to chase a Yellow-billed Magpie.

Yellow-billed Magpie, some park outside Fresno. This is one of the few birds endemic to the United States


After Sequoia we finally crossed the rain shadow to reach Death Valley, desert territory and the chance for some different bird life. The desolation surprised me with its beauty.

Death Valley. Last landscape shot from here on it will be all birds

At the Death Valley Visitor’s Center we picked up Lucy’s Warbler, Verdin and the much-desired Greater Roadrunner. Awesome!

I didn't manage any lifer photos in the 100+ degree heat, so have a Warbling Vireo instead. Death Valley

I was dreading the obligatory stopover in Las Vegas, but it proved to offer some great birding opportunities at local parks not far from The Strip.

Unlike game birds in a lot of parts of the world, these silly-looking Gambel's Quail are parking lot birds around Las Vegas.

I guess we were there during breeding season because this goof ball sat up for us to sing.

a skukling Verdin, one of my most-wanted desert birds in a park in Las Vegas
We also scored Abert's Towhee, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Costa's Hummingbird and Crissal Thrasher.

After surviving Vegas we took a "quick" detour by Zion National Park, which in retrospect, was a mistake. It added just a few hours of extra driving, but 4 hours is not nearly enough time to see this place. Heck, with the crowds it was barely enough time to park, have lunch and cram onto a bus for a spin around the valley.

It almost paid off big time.

California Condors are nesting in this hole in Zion Canyon. This is great news for condor conservation. Unfortunately for us the birds did not make an appearance.

Had the California Condor showed up at this hole where the ranger told us it nests, the Zion jaunt would have been well worth the effort.  But do yourself a favor and give this place at least a couple days.

After Zion, it was on to the main event, the Grand Canyon.

OK, I lied. This is also a landscape

The view really crushes the birds here though. I was surprised to find that Grand Canyon ended up being my favorite park of the seven. This was almost certainly because we took the time to slow down and stay a few days instead of stopping to tick a box and rush off to the next long drive. Also key was staying right in the park so we could get up at dawn to see the rim before the rush of tour buses packed things out. This is what we did wrong at Yosemite and Zion.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, Grand Canyon National Park
Violet-green Swallow at Grand Canyon National Park. Great shot for photo-stringing
White-breasted Nuthatch at Grand Canyon National Park. There are rumors that this bird may soon be split and have a new name. I have no idea what this one would be called.

Originally our plan had us cutting back through Vegas on the way to LA, but, fortunately, we instead cut south through Arizona in order to swing by Joshua Tree.  In Arizona we made tactical stops at Kaibab and Prescott State Forests.  These produced a nice haul: Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Scott’s Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Gray Vireo and Bridled Titmouse.

Finally at Joshua Tree, our 7th and final park of the tour, we found Rock Wren and Bendire’s Thrasher.

Bendire's Thrasher at Joshua Tree National Park, this bird is known to occur here, but apparently hasn't been photographed very often (or so the local eBird reviewer told me)

I caught a glimpse of what had to be a LeConte’s Thrasher scurry between a couple bushes, but like some jerk magician, it vanished into thin air.  Do these things burrow under the ground or something?  Not yet a nemesis bird, but I’ve got my eye on that one to show up later.

Black-throated Sparrow at Joshua Tree National Park

After the long drive back to Los Angeles, Natalia continued the tour with her parents down to San Diego, while I flew east to Corpus Christi Texas for a wetlands conference.

I don’t care too much for my U.S. list or the ABA area, so instead of driving south to Brownsville, I headed west for more lifer opportunities in the arid ecosystems around Falcon Dam State Park.

Pyrruloxia at Falcon Dam State Park

I finally got the Pyrruloxia I had always wanted to see after growing up surrounded by Northern Cardinals.  What surprised me about this bird is that it overlaps with the cardinal.  I saw both sing from the same bush by falcon lake.

Curve-billed Thrasher, Falcon Dam State Park

Inca Dove, Falcon Dam State Park
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Gray Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk and Olive Sparrow rounded out my Texas lifers, but I dipped out on the orioles.  Altamira and Audubon’s both eluded me.

Technically I got my first Mexican birds at Chapeno looking across the Rio Grande (which is so narrow!), but I haven’t properly logged them yet. 

From close range a border wall here seems even sillier than it does in the abstract sense.

My life knows no walls. This trip was really just a warm-up for the real post-graduation trip: six weeks in South America starting in Southern Peru and ended at Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina. Stay tuned for that!