Peru, Manu: Machu Picchu Extension Aug 19—24, 2009

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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If the hummingbirds at Abra Malaga were good this year—and they were—the mixed flock at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was even better. This was one of those rare occasions when the flock moved slowly, first in one direction, then slowly back again, providing unparalleled opportunities to see a good variety of little flycatchers, tanagers, and warblers, including some we rarely see here such as Black-capped Tyrannulet, Slaty Tanager, and Blue-naped Chlorophonia. All in all, our final morning of birding provided a fitting climax to a week-and-a-half of spectacular birds and wildlife viewing in southern Peru.

This short itinerary, coming on the heels of our Manu Lowlands trip, provides a dramatic contrast to the steamy lowlands and overwhelming biological diversity of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. This is a trip through high mountain valleys carved from powerful rushing rivers, a trip into high Andean grasslands and, most of all, a trip through history. It is, by all accounts, a region of colorful markets and of remarkable people dressed in distinctive but regionally varied clothing. Women carry babies, wrapped in bright blankets, on their backs. Men with broad sandal-clad feet, bent under heavy loads, move with a quick shuffling gait, all amidst majestic ruins, ancient terrace-rimmed valleys, and beside puna lakes shimmering beneath ultraviolet skies. Our route took us through traditional villages, past Usnea-draped basaltic cliffs, into mossy woodland inhabited by sprightly tanagers, and among deep, cold valleys where dawn comes slowly to restless hummingbirds fleeing retreating shadows in endless pursuit of flowers.

Lago Huacarpay and the high puna grasslands of Abra Malaga provide an excellent cross section of high Andean birdlife, while the hotel grounds around the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel offer an oasis of birds, flowers, and tranquility amidst a cacophony of hawkers of souvenirs, tourists, noise, and congestion in the little town of Aguas Calientes. The hotel grounds, mined to the hilt with orchids, flowering Heliconia, bird-of-paradise, Centropogon, and dozens of other flowering plants, offer hummingbirds, multicolored tanagers, and other small birds a diverse array of places to forage and seek shelter. Inca Wrens, first observed around the Machu Picchu ruins in 1965, were not formally described until 1985. Curiously, these wrens may not have been present during the years of intensive surveys and collecting following the discovery of Machu Picchu in the first half of the last century. Also, it seems that a trip into this valley below these famous ruins would not be complete without at least a glimpse of its most famous avian inhabitant, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, whose image now adorns everything from t-shirts to luggage tags. And so, of course, one more view of this bird, after our cloud forest trip, was like icing on an already luscious cake.

The combination of birds, scenery, and history is incomparable on this trip. The ruins, as always, remain impressionable, mysterious, and evocative—the more so perhaps because so little is known of their origins, and because of the breathtaking location. The ruins of Machu Picchu are indeed one of the world's great travel destinations, but they are, in themselves, just a brief chapter in a long and fascinating history of human occupation of the Urubamba River Valley.