Southern Peru (Tambopata, Cuzco, Paracas), 9 - 30 April 1999
Birding trip report  -  John van der Woude 

  Part 3 - Andes of Cuzco

Our first birding in the Andes of Cuzco was around the Saqsaywaham ruins above Cuzco town, on Tuesday 20 April. Our taxi driver soon understood that we were only partially interested in the ruins themselves, and searched with us for spots with trees. The ruins are scattered along a few public asphalt roads, so we could easily drive around. The first two species for our Andes list of this trip were friends from elsewhere: American Kestrel and Rufous-collared Sparrow. In a Eucalyptus plantation we saw several specimens of a large and pugnacious hummer, but never in good light, possibly a violetear. Further on in a more open landscape with bushes we got an easier hummer, a female Black-tailed Trainbearer. And here, so much South in the Andes, we finally have a convincing Chiguango Thrush, after all the Great Thrushes further North. The Chiguango is really smaller and duller. Other ticks for this Andes part of the trip were House Wren, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Hooded Siskin, Blue-and-yellow Tanager female, all by no means that easily identifiable, and in fact we had expected some more and easier birds here, to start our Andean birding. On we went, through Cuzco again, to the village of Anta, where we had a quick and embarrassing cheap lunch, together with our driver. After lunch we mentioned the driver that we suffered a little from the altitude, and out he went to buy coca leaves for us. Upon trying to chew it we discovered that it tasted horribly, only increasing our slight nausea.

From Anta we had a minor road into the mountains in order to visit the Huaypo lake. First we came along a small lake at the village of Chacan, at GPS30, c. 3500 m a.s.l. Here we did have some easy ticks, at short distance, in our 20x scope: Speckled Teal, Cinnamon Teal, White-tufted grebe, Puna Teal, Silvery Grebe. The latter three were lifers for us, and it is always nice to have lifers from nearby in the scope. That this small lake was by no means the Huaypo lake proper became evident three km further on, where we had our first stop at GPS31 (13' 24.961'' S, 72' 08.227'' W; photo above). Here we had a good view onto the Southern part of this large lake between the mountains. We had the sun in our back, and some dark clouds behind the lake in front of us added to the visibility of many species: Puna Teal (many), Ruddy Duck (some), Spot-winged Dove on the arable fields where we stood, a Cinereous Harrier along the reedy border, several White-fronted Grebe, many Andean Coot, an Andean Gull, three Burrowing Owls together on small sand bar, a Yellow-winged Blackbird in the border, three Greater Yellowlegs, Eared Dove, and a (lifer) Mountain Caracara in the distance across the lake. Further on, about halfway the lake, there was another good lookout point along the road: Barn Swallow (group of 15), American Golden Plover, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Yellow-billed Pintail (a group), Wilson's Phalarope (3), a Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt (12), Speckled Teal, and two Puna Ibis. These all mainly near a sort of sand spit projecting into the lake. A final look onto the border with rushes revealed a Wrenlike Rushbird, shortly flying across the rushes in a posture quite like depicted in the pen drawing in Birds of the High Andes, our field guide here.
On the last part of our journey to Ollanto (Ollantaytambo) we drove along the Urubamba river, and at a striking marshy part of the riverbed we saw a Black-crowned Night-Heron

The next day, Wednesday 21 April, was our day for the Macchu Picchu ruins, and we had bright weather. The train leaves at about 9 a.m. and before that I made a walk from the hotel (at the train station) to the village, on a narrow road along a mountain stream. Here I added Torrent Tyrannulet and Black-backed Grosbeak. White-browed Chat-Tyrant was there too, and now I saw that it is the Peruvian subspecies with the small white spot in the wings.

The train ride to Macchu Picchu was wonderful: steep valleys, white mountain tops and increasingly green as we gradually descended. Soon you see the Abra Malaga valley to the right (photo two above), but for further views you better sit on the left-hand side. The bus ride up to the ruins was worthwhile too: many orchids flowering. At the entrance of the Macchu Picchu ruins site (GPS32, c. 2500 m a.s.l.), we first stood gazing at the impressive, wooded gorges all around us (photo above), and were not surprised to spot a Peregrine as the first bird. On the ruins site itself we chose a high point (GPS33), apparently the one from where most of the postcard pictures of the famous place must have been taken. The site is impressive enough (although smaller than expected), but we were soon distracted by birds around us: White-winged Black-Tyrant showing its white wing stripe in display flights from a bush on the steep hill side next to where we sat, Black-and-white Swallow, Azara's Spinetail (heard), Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant on a well-exposed twig, showing its white tail regularly when sallying out from its post. We decided that we could not limit our visit to this lookout point, so we made the obligatory but interesting walk between the ruins themselves, before descending down with one of the many buses.

So from 13.15 h we walked along the railroad further down for a while, and in this semi-open wooded, upper subtropical landscape between the high mountain walls we first saw a group of 20 aratinga's: Mitred Parakeet with their remarkable low voice. Many Blue-and-white Swallows flew around, and the first tanagers we saw were Blue-capped and Blue-grey. This short walk is our only bit of (upper) subtropics of the whole vacation, so we were eager to see some of the tanager specialties. And we soon had a flock indeed, nicely at eye-level in the well-spaced trees next to the railroad: Fawn-breasted Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Capped Conebill, Spectacled Whitestart, and Slate-throated Whitestart. The combination of these whitestarts fits well in the altitudinal range, being in the upper zone of the subtropics, at the transition to temperate. Two Torrent Tyrannulets sat in a dark muddy hollow above the small cataracts, which the local railroad workmen had supposed to be out goal for this walk. After a Red-eyed Vireo and a Streaked Xenops we had another flock, with the nice Silvery Tanager as extra but also main species. Walking back along the railroad we added Black Phoebe and Brown-bellied Swallow, the latter indicating how near the higher mountains are. From the train, right after leaving Aguas Calientes, and sitting on the right-hand side now, we ticked Torrent Duck, male and female. During the remaining part of the train ride we saw this impressive species a few times again, the railroad follows the stream all the time of course in this narrow valley. We even got the French-speaking couple next to us into the sport of spotting new ones.

At 6.15 the next morning (Thursday 22 April) we stood at the Abra Malaga pass (GPS34), on the long and winding road from Ollanto to Quillabamba. Along the road up we had seen some Great Thrush and Bar-winged Cinclodes, and had taken a photo of two Mountain Caracaras in the ditch. We left the cold pass for later and descended into the lush East slope. At the first house (Canchallo), just at the tree line, the taxi driver stayed behind for breakfast while we walked down for 1 km or so. We heard Rufous Antpitta all the time, provided that the two-tone call is allowed to be of different pitch here. In the bamboo scrub we found a group of three Puna Thistletails. In a lone tree in the first sun rays a Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant sat warming up. The temperature still was very low, 1 degree (C) above freezing point, at 7.20 a.m. In that same sunny tree (GPS35) several other colorful birds appeared: Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant two hastily feeding, quite in contrast to their lazy behavior later on the day. Very slowly we walked further down in this splendid tree line habitat with a constant view (photo above) on a snow-capped mountain Veronica across the valley: Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer, more Great Thrush, Red-crested Cotinga, Unicolored Tapaculo (heard), Mountain Wren (a busy group, possibly a family). Figo the taxi driver came along and we drove on for c. 3 km, still in the shrubby habitat although with some higher trees: Violet-throated Starfrontlet, both chat-tyrants again, Collared Inca. We drove back to the shrubby puna just above the tree line, where we got a Streak-throated Canastero, very busy in the grass alongside a small stream between the bushes. A fox completed this calendar picture, and he saw us very late only. Driving back to the high pass we saw some more activity than early in the morning: Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, Puna Hawk, Speckled Teal (a few in a small lake), Mountain Caracara again from very nearby on the shoulder of the road.

At the pass Figo, who speaks Quechua as his native language, asked two women at a depressing pile of cut Polylepis wood where we could find some 'bosques', and they pointed towards the expected ridge above their house, and also to a point (GPS36) about 200 m down along the road from where we best started the walk up to the ridge crest, in order to cross it to those woods. During this exhausting 15 minutes walk up (seemed like half an hour) we were still able to look at a bird, a dark phase Puna Hawk. Figo accompanied us here, and when we stood at the crest at noon and saw the Polylepis woods below us in this side valley, he proposed that we could walk all the way down through this valley and that he would pick us up where this valley meets the road again, in the main valley. So we hopped through the remains of the Polylepis forest (photo above), where many branches had been cut off recently indeed, but the first birds gave us enough confidence: two Giant Conebills, at GPS37. Then we found a good lookout point where we could sit and watch around, at GPS 38, halfway the first and a second Polylepis forest patch. Several high altitude specialties came along: Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, Sapphire-vented Puffleg (the dark hummer that walks on the grass), White-browed Tit-Spinetail twice (once from above, once from below - the throat is diagnostic), Common Miner, two un-ID's, and a Tawny Tit-Spinetail. Slowly going down we got good views on the endangered Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant, and were misled by a nasty House Wren. Finally, after another D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, we ended at the valley bottom, near the spring of the stream (GPS40). There we were awaited by two viscachas, Andean rabbit-like rodents with a very long tail.
Via a network of sheep and lama trails we followed the stream on the right-hand side, down to where our taxi would be. This took about one hour, and this walk gave us a lasting impression of how the poor Indian peasants live in a remote Andean valley. In the upper part of the valley we still had many Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and Bar-winged Cinclodes. About 1.3 km from the spring, at GPS41, we saw quite some Polylepis on the opposite (left-hand) side of the valley. This should be worthwhile to explore, and we even thought now that those women at the pass had pointed mainly to this patch. Lower down in this side valley, we gradually entered the more arid intermontane climate zone, with many shrubs, and our first group of the very green Andean Parakeet with their rattling voice. Slightly later we came at the main road, where Figo was waiting with his taxi, at GPS44.

On Friday morning 23 April we went up to the Abra Malaga again, and took more time for the first semi-arid part of this long and rather bad road. Before leaving Ollanto we ticked Greenish Yellow-Finch when we had a short stop at Figo's garage in order to fix the spare tire of the car (little truck) that we had today. Along the road up, a Yellow-rumped Siskin jumped into the bushes showing its yellow rump set in black, and we had our first (and lifer) Golden-billed Saltator, one singing. At what probably are the so-called Penas ruins at about 3500 m a.s.l. (GPS42), we had more Golden-billed Saltators, and two Tufted Tit-Tyrants in a bush exposed to the first sun rays in this narrow mountain valley. Higher up in this valley, where you are standing between two very high and steep mountain walls, we saw the range-restricted White-tufted Sunbeam. A Giant Hummingbird sat on one of the huge rock boulders in the valley bottom, near the stream. Still higher up, but not yet in the puna zone, we had a singing Paramo Seedeater, a Blue-and-yellow Tanager, and several(!) Red-crested Cotinga's.
In the pass area, so in the open puna (photo above), with no trees around anywhere, we were surprised by a group of three Andean Flickers, one eating something from the ground, the other two hopping from stone to stone. This was at GPS45, and we saw many Bar-winged Cinclodes again, in a sunny 16 degrees C, at 11 a.m. We drove on to the small lakes at the other side of the pass in order to have our take-away lunch from Wendy's, but we got no birds there, not even those sully Speckled Teals of the day before. The camionetta type car of today was not well suspended, so the driving took a lot of time, and at 15 h only we arrived at the San Luis restaurant (GPS46), well into the temperate forest zone, at about 2800 m a.s.l., see photo below. We arranged to stay two nights, and said goodbye to Ruben the driver of today. Figo would return in two days to take us back to Ollanto.

At 16 h we strolled a bit on the road up, and soon had a flock: Spectacled Whitestart, Pearled Treerunner (never alone), White-throated Tyrannulet, Citrine Warbler (not yet the much alike Parodi's Hemispingus), Blue-and-black Tanager. A bit further on we had a Violet-throated Starfrontlet again, in the fuchsias. All the time we heard a strong, clear, short duet song of a Thryothorus wren. Later we would see it several times, this beautiful, range-restricted Inca Wren. We ticked Stripe-headed Brush-Finch and saw Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant again. Back at the restaurant well before dusk we had a first try of the trail going right down into the bamboo bush. This trail starts about 15 m to the right of the restaurant. Here we soon had a very busy group of three Black-capped Hemispingus. Cute as they might be, they were surpassed in this respect by their co-travelers, two or three Plushcaps, an absolute wish-list bird for us. These too were very busily feeding in the dense bamboo, but we saw them very well a few times. Less spectacularly to watch but a regional specialty nevertheless was a Marcapata Spinetail, seen from close by in the undergrowth of the bamboo. A Rufous Antpitta was calling, its two-tone call at even pitch here.

On Saturday 24 April we were out at 5.30 a.m. and walked down along the same bamboo trail. Citrine Warbler was singing, as did the Unicolored Tapaculo (which we never saw, but its song is well documented in Birds of the High Andes, although the taxonomy is still shifting I believe). Likewise we heard the unmistakable sound of the Barred Fruiteater. The sky was clear, no wind, and the temperature was about 6 degrees C at that moment. We met the same group of Black-capped Hemispingus and Plushcap, and had a very good sighting of an Inca Wren, gathering nest material. We heard several of them singing in choirs around us. Then we heard a sound that we had been hoping for yesterday already, a single note that probably belongs to the Red-and-white Antpitta that has been seen along this trail. It is a 'tjew' of a quarter second, and it sounded every two seconds. We crawled into the bamboo along a tiny side trail of this small trail, but had no luck, although we even sat waiting a while, just like we once did for the Ocellated Tapaculo in Ecuador. But while sitting there we finally saw the bird that we also heard all the time, a Masked Flowerpiercer. Great Thrush and Chiguango Thrush occur alongside here and again we found the difference rather easy.
Meanwhile, from 7.30 a.m., we were walking the main road a bit downward, in order to see some more species of the half-open temperate forest on this mountain slope. Here we soon had a flock in a flowering tree: Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer, Pearled Treerunner, Blue-capped Tanager, and Rufous Spinetail. A bit further on a Sword-billed Hummingbird flashed along, and we still think that this is one of the oddest birds to see flying (bill longer than body). An Amethyst-throated Sunangel was traplining along the side of the road, and hence well seen. And then we finally saw the Sword-billed Hummingbird in a far less odd manner, i.e. sipping from a long tubular flower, and seen at eye-level, and a sighting we so long had hoped for! A Paramo Seedeater was eating seeds from the tall grass of a small clearing, and it clearly was a 2nd year male according to the plate in Birds of the High Andes. In that same small clearing, something like a nest hung down from a lone tree, and it was frequently visited and still being built by Marcapata Spinetails, more than two individuals, so we wondered if they are known as cooperative nest builders, or if we were adding something to science here…
This slope stays a long time in the shadow so it kept being early in the morning. A Puna Hawk flew over high, and indeed if you look up the high slopes you see the tree line again. We had a very good Tyrian Metaltail, and a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle flew along and landed on a tree further down, well visible too. A Cinnamon Flycatcher was another welcome trip tick here in this temperate forest; mostly we only see it in subtropical forest. A Mountain Wren clearly was of the subspecies 'frater'. Time for a lifer again, and this was the Smoky Bush-Tyrant, two of them sallying out from tree tops, showing the rufous in their wings. After White-banded Tyrannulet, Tufted Tit-Tyrant and a group of 6 Mitred Parakeet we were back at the restaurant at 10.30 a.m., for a second breakfast (we had eaten our own cereals in the very early morning). From 11.15 a.m. we went out again, now taking the road up for a few kms. We soon had some trip ticks again: White-crested Elaenia, Sierran Elaenia, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, and then we met a large flock with a/o a now clearly distinguished Parodi Hemispingus, together with the much alike Citrine Warbler, Parodi having a brown and broad in stead of black and narrow crown stripe, and a thicker bill. Other goodies in this flock were Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Superciliared Hemispingus. Several other nice birds did we see further on for a second or third time this trip, and we saw a different sort of Morpho-type butterfly, large and white with a blue stripe or dot. At a nice lookout point (GPS47) we had a clear Rufous-capped Thornbill hovering in the side of the road, and a Paramo Seedeater was singing here again, but now also during display flights. A bit further on, at GPS48, there is a splendid view on the small river below, and we were so lucky to spot a White-capped Dipper a short while. Walking back 'home' we added Blue-backed Conebill to the list.
We had a late lunch in the restaurant (all very simple) and chatted with Osvaldo Toledo, the owner. He told us he has been helping ornithologists already some twenty years ago, and he mentioned John O'Neill as the first one who came here for this purpose. From about 15.45 h Osvaldo's son led us through the dense bamboo behind the restaurant but we saw virtually no birds, so we went down the road again where we had a group of 6 Band-tailed Pigeon but added nothing new. When dusk set in we sat down in the bamboo bush for that Red-and-white Antpitta again but got thrushes only, probably gathering here for their night roost. And again we heard the two-tone call of the Rufous Antpitta, but now at uneven pitch.

After a rainy night we had a cloudy day on Sunday 25 April. Again we tried the bamboo trail below the restaurant, from 6 a.m., and got a Phaetornis hermit and a group of three Streak-necked Flycatcher (the Southern race, belly streaked as well). We had a short glimpse of a brush-finch on the back, which was not enough to discern between Slaty and Rufous-naped, and 'of course' we had the Plushcap again. From about 7.50 a.m., after a quick breakfast, we did the road up again, and were rewarded with two outstanding beauties, rather tame even, the Golden-collared Tanager, at eye-level against a dark background of the bushes where they were feeding. They were accompanied by two now clear Slaty Brush-Finch of the dark subspecies canigenis. And well, we heard another antpitta song, a slightly descending series of 4 uu notes, 3 seconds in total, and this may well have been the other sound of our supposed Red-and-White Antpitta…
After a small flock with a/o White-banded Tyrannulet and Brown-capped Vireo, a group of at least 50 swallows came down for a feeding party across the tree tops, maybe because of the different weather now (cloudy after the rainy night). It took some time to identify them, but this was facilitated when part of the group was sitting on a bare twig: Pale-footed Swallow. It does not happen often anymore that we get a lifer swallow species, although we would still add another one that same day. In the side of the road we detected an Inca Wren because it was feeding two young, which are rather dull colored, with few streaks only. Now, at about 10 a.m., we were (at GPS49) on a scenic spot where the road bends inward for a small side valley or gully. Here, after a display show of a Violet-throated Starfrontlet, swirling around with spread-out tail, we had a huge flock. We noted Blue-backed Conebill, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Marcapata Spinetail (singing, again a sound that we had heard a lot here), Parodi's Hemispingus, White-banded Tyrannulet, Blue-capped Tanager, Spectacled Whitestart.

Figo had come in time to fetch us, and we were happy that he had come with his normal taxi again. We had a last simple meal, paid, and left some presents, like two caps with a banner advertising for something in the horticultural business in Holland… About 2 km before the pass, in the open puna again, we had a group of six Mountain Caracaras nearby at the side of the road, and also a Cinereous Harrier. We still had not properly birded right at the pass, so while Figo drove on slowly, we walked some shortcuts down. The road makes very wide bends here. The first shortcut after the pass (going back to Ollanto) starts about 100 m from the shrine. It is scarcely a trail but easy to walk, on a grassy slope with a few scattered small potato fields: Bright-rumped Yellow-Finch (about 10, males and females), Andean Swallow (that other lifer swallow of today!), Slender-billed Miner (first thought it was a wader…), Common Miner (3), Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, and of course several Bar-winged Cinclodes and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. The other shortcuts lower down did not produce anything new, but it is always nice to do some mountain walking downward, and the weather was good, sunny again up here. Good also for a few photos of some children herding sheep and lamas, Figo did a good job with his native Quechua. We asked him if it would be possible that we would ask them for a picture, but he just ordered the children (photo above) to stand up for this, and he was even so keen to remove the plastic cover of the girls' hat! We gave them all the remains we still had of our take-away lunch of two days ago, like cookies, candies and kiwis, a type of fruit they may never have seen but were eager to taste, or bring home anyway. We were back in Ollanto at Wendy's at 16.50 h, paid Figo the dollars for all the rides, and said goodbye.
On Monday morning 26 April we first did some birding along the small road up to the village, good for Blue-and-yellow Tanager male, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, and Black-tailed Trainbearer female. After breakfast we decided to do some sightseeing (cum birding…) at the ruins of Ollanto, they are so dominantly sitting on the slope right above the village that you can hardly skip them. In the village we had that heavy Black-backed Grosbeak again at the bridge over the mountain stream that we would follow later in the morning. At the ruins proper we only saw (well, apart from the impressive ruins themselves of course) an American Kestrel, although so well lit from all sides because of the reflection of all the stones here, that we kept enjoying it quite a while. We discovered that at GPS50 we could leave the ruins site up valley on a trail trough the arable fields with several bushes. This is at the low right-hand side if you are standing inside the entrance and facing the ruins. The first bird we saw was a Giant Hummingbird at a small irrigation gully. We had clear views of the Bare-faced Ground-Dove that we probably had seen flying before along the road up to the pass. Here, they were quietly feeding on the leftovers on the fields. Across some stepping stones (GPS51) we walked to the right, to the mountain stream, where (GPS52) we had a male Black-tailed Trainbearer, although with a shorter tail than should be, maybe a young male? We followed the stream up a while, walking a very old dirt road, up to GPS53, which is below a huge vertical rock face. Below us a White-capped Dipper was feeding, and several dozens of Andean Swift swirled before the rock face, while very high up in the sky a group of five Mountain Caracaras sailed around. A fine combination of birds to say to goodbye to this wonderful Andean scenery. Back to Cuzco we went and from there to Lima and Paracas the next day.