Very soon we were birding! Just a short way out of Cusco we had an hour looking for birds and also getting used to the altitude. In Tarapoto we had been at 350 metres above sea level; Cusco is at 3,400 metres and we could feel the difference! Also, it was probably a bit warmer than most of us had expected so it was quite a leisurely walk that we had. Most of the birds seen, such as Andean Flicker, Cinereous Conebill, Chiguanco Thrush and Black-throated Flowerpiercer, were ones that would become familiar during the coming days but Rusty-fronted Canastero, White-browed Chat-Tyrant and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant were seen on just this one occasion.
A short while later we stopped again briefly at another lake and saw much the same selection of birds although one species that we hadn’t seen before was a Cinereous Harrier. That was our last birding of the day and now we headed to our overnight stay at the Hotel Munay Tika in Ollantaytambo.
Next morning we met at 4:00 am for coffee and to collect our packed breakfasts. It was then just a short walk from the hotel to the railway station. We were booked on the 5:00 am PeruRail service to Aguas Calientes, gateway to Machu Picchu.
For much of the hour-and-a-half-long journey the railway line follows closely the Urubamba River and more than 20 Torrent Ducks were seen from the train. At least one Black Phoebe was also identified.
At Aguas Calientes we walked through the town and then back along the river, sometimes actually walking on the railway line. This provided some excellent birding with highlights that included Grey-fronted Dove, Green-and-white Hummingbird, Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Motmot, Ocellated Piculet, Torrent & Sclater’s Tyrannulets, Streak-necked & Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireo, Andean Solitaire, Slate-throated Whitestart, Russet-crowned Warbler, Black-backed Grosbeak, Dusky-green Oropendola and some reasonably close Torrent Ducks with young.
At 9:30 am it was time to take the shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes, a journey of half an hour or so up a steep mountain road. And then, finally, we were able to enter Machu Picchu itself. Voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a 2007 worldwide Internet poll and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not surprisingly Machu Picchu is a major tourist attraction and although the number of visitors is restricted it can only be described as crowded. Cameras and selfie sticks were the order of the day!
It is believed that Machu Picchu was constructed around 1450 but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. It seems that it wasn’t discovered by the Spanish and it remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.
If such an impressive and sizeable Inca development was unknown for so many years, perhaps it is less surprising that Inca Wren wasn’t described as a species until 1985. Of course we were interested in the Incas and their construction work but also we were still birding and Inca Wren was a particular target here at Machu Picchu. It didn’t take long for José to find one once we had located the necessary bamboo habitat. There were few other birds around but hardly surprising with so many people everywhere!
At around midday we joined the very long queue for the bus back to Aguas Calientes where we had a very nice buffet lunch at Toto’s House Restaurant. We caught the 2:55 pm train back to Ollantaytambo, which arrived at 5:00 pm. Two White-capped Dippers were seen by those of us who were sitting on the right side of the train from which to see the river.
Our next day was devoted to birding in the Abra Malaga area. Abra Malaga is actually the name of a mountain pass located at about 4,200 metres above sea level. The road from Ollantaytambo climbs via numerous hairpin bends that each offers a spectacular view. We would be birding at various different points along the road. It was a cloudy morning with a hint of drizzle and we were warned that it might be cold higher up.
On the road to Abra Malaga
Higher still we found a Paramo Pipit and a Streak-throated Canastero before stopping for tea/coffee at Thastayoc. Here we stayed a little longer and found Rufous-breasted & Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants, Moustached Flowerpiercer, Puna Thistletail, Tyrian & Scaled Metaltails, White-throated Tyrannulet, White-browed Conebill, Pearled Treerunner, Three-striped Hemispingus and there was a brief glimpse of a Diademed Tapaculo. Surprisingly, we saw three species of swallows during the morning: Andean, Brown-bellied & Pale-footed, although it’s fair to say that we would have struggled to sort them out without the help of José as the light was mostly very poor and the finer features of identification very difficult to discern.
At Carrizales we took a trail from the road that climbed gently up the hillside. Here we were about 3,200 metres above sea level. At last the rain cleared and for a while we even saw the sun! It was here that we also saw one of the avian highlights of the day, a Rufous Antpitta that in the end was quite obliging and showed well. Another star was the Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, such a bright, colourful bird in contrast to the many shades of grey, brown and olive that predominated. Parodi’s Hemispingus and Marcapata Spinetail were two birds here more memorable for their names than their appearance. Apparently, José Parodi Vargas was a Peruvian politician and landowner and Marcapata is one of the twelve districts in the Quispicanchi Province in Peru.
After two hours we returned to the minibus and headed off to lunch, which Juan was preparing by the roadside at San Luis. We had a long wait before we had anything to eat but fortunately we were able to fill the time by searching for a Yungas Pygmy Owl, which called repeatedly in response to José’s recording but took a very long time before sitting out in the open to be admired and photographed. Two Red-crested Cotingas and a Sierran Elaenia were also around at lunchtime.
Yungas Pygmy Owl
The following morning we left the hotel at 6:00 am and walked down the road to Hotel Pakaritampu where we spent an hour or more birding around the neatly laid out gardens. Our targets here were mostly hummingbirds and we very quickly found the unmistakable Bearded Mountaineer, a bird of the tropical high-altitude shrubland with a particular fondness for the flowers of tree tobacco (Nicotiana). A female Green-tailed Trainbearer soon followed and later we saw a White-bellied Hummingbird and Lesser Violetear. Other garden birds included Black-throated & Rusty Flowerpiercers, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Bare-faced Ground Dove, Golden-billed Saltator and Black-backed Grosbeak.
After breakfast back at Hotel Munay Tika we packed up and checked out and by 8:15 am we were heading once again up the mountain road that we had been on yesterday. This time the plan was to concentrate mainly on sites at lower elevations although we did eventually reach 4,000 metres. Mostly we were birding from the roadside.
At our first stop we saw the only Rust-and-yellow Tanager of the tour and a Shining Sunbeam; there was also a better view than most of us had had before of a Creamy-crested Spinetail. Further on, there was a striking Chestnut-bellied Mountain Finch, another Peruvian endemic and a Tyrian Metaltail, yet another new hummingbird species for our list.
Chestnut-bellied Mountain Finch
A little further on, we saw more Rufous-naped & Puna Ground Tyrants, Hooded Siskins and two Andean Flickers and five Puna Ibises. A tiny dark dot about 400 metres away up the hillside was identified by José from its song as a Puna Tapaculo and it was clearly responding to playback.
Soon it was time for lunch, which again was prepared in an unlikely setting by Juan with assistance from Yosua. Juan had cooked both meat and potatoes using the most basic of equipment and a table and stools had been carried up the hillside for us!
Lunch on the hillside
At about 1:00 pm we set off to Cusco, a journey that took almost three hours. Our hotel was the Antares Mystic Hotel, which was a good choice although its location in the historic centre of the city meant that to reach it we had to negotiate narrow streets and traffic.
Next day we headed out to the north-west of Cusco, beyond the Sacsayhuamán archaeological site to an unnamed area where we walked a trail that took us eventually to an elevation of around 4,100 metres. Although not particularly steep it did prove something of a struggle. We had been as high as this previously but this was probably the furthest we had had to walk or climb at this altitude. In the event, it proved well worth the effort with several birds seen for the first time. It was also a very pleasant morning, mostly sunny but with a comfortable temperature.
Birds seen on the way up included Streak-throated Bush Tyrant, Common Miner, Spot-billed Ground Tyrant, Streak-fronted Thornbird and Junin Canastero. Just at the point where we decided not to go further, we flushed three Puna Snipe from a wet area just below the trail and then a Streak-backed Canastero was found. In the same area we saw a Stripe-headed Antpitta.
After lunch back in Cusco we had a couple of hours before we had to be at the airport, time enough to drive out to the east of Cusco to the Lucre - Huacarpay Wetland. Situated at an altitude of 3,020 metres, this High-Andean wetland is part of the Pikillaqta Archaeological Park and was designated as a Ramsar Site in 2006. The birds here included many wetland species that we had seen before including Puna Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Wilson’s Phalarope and the appropriately named Andean Gull, Andean Duck, Andean Lapwing and Andean Coot. A Cocoi Heron was a surprise find, we had a closer view of Plumbeous Rail than we had before and we had two ‘new birds’, an Aplomado Falcon and a Black-tailed Trainbearer.
Lucre - Huacarpay Wetland
Our last day in Peru was spent in the company of Alejandro Tello, another guide working for Kolibri Expeditions. He took us firstly to Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge, a protected area of coastal marshes and brackish water lagoons located in the district of Chorrillos in Lima. This is another Ramsar Site and it provided an excellent morning’s birding including some species we hadn’t seen before. We spent our time walking first along the sandy shore and then around the main lagoon. It was an early start and so to begin with the light was quite poor but gradually it improved and there were excellent opportunities for photographing gulls and shorebirds. Highlights were Harris’s Hawk, Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel and Killdeer, Kelp, Grey, Franklin’s & Belcher’s Gulls, American Oystercatcher, Barn Swallow, Black Skimmers, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Elegant Terns, Burrowing Owls, Peruvian Thick-knees, Many-colored Rush Tyrant, Scrub Blackbird, Shining Cowbird and Peruvian Meadowlark. Looking out to sea there were two Great Grebes on the water, several groups of Guanay Cormorants passed by and there were Peruvian Pelicans and Peruvian Boobies.
Many-colored Rush Tyrant
We returned to the hotel to pack our bags for the last time and then spent an hour before lunch at the Larco Museum (Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera), a privately owned museum of pre-Columbian art, located in the Pueblo Libre District of Lima.
Later there was time for one last birding session before our flight home and for this we went to Arenilla, a coastal site close to Jorge Chávez International Airport. Although there were quite a few species here that were very familiar, it was surprising at this late stage to find Western & Semipalmated Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plover that we hadn’t seen before and these brought the total number of species that we had seen during the tour to 434.