Peru: Manu Biosphere Reserve Aug 11—24, 2013

Posted by Steve Hilty


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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My wakeup call came early—3:15 a.m. Two-and-a-half-hours later we had checked in for our predawn flight to Cuzco, finished an airport breakfast, passed through security, and were boarding our flight. By 8 a.m. we were on a bus departing Cuzco and en route to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge far to the east. Sometimes logistics actually work as planned! We made several stops on our trip across the dry altiplano and highlands of Peru, adding a good number of interesting species before reaching the final highland ridge. And there it was—the vast cloud forest of the eastern Andean slope spread out below us. Our first cloud forest stop, just a few hundred meters beyond the pass, brought a beautiful Golden-collared Tanager and several other species in a small mixed species flock. It was still a long drive downslope to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge. It would take three more hours to reach it, just at nightfall. Less than an hour later, gathered at a candlelight dinner, it seemed difficult to believe that earlier this same day we had begun our journey in Lima.

Over the next two-and-a-half-days we would explore elevations above and below the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, spend an hour with nearly a dozen displaying male cocks-of-the-rock at point-blank range, experience mixed species flocks of tanagers containing dozens of birds that foraged so rapidly we could hardly keep pace with them, view a rare Andean Potoo on its day roost and a cute little Rufescent Owl by a puddle on the road at dusk, and watch a magnificent Puma (Mountain Lion) walking down the road on a switchback just below us. Around the lodge itself we watched a Tayra and oropendolas coming to a fruit feeder, and later a beautiful pair of Golden-eared Tanagers (among other species) visiting this same feeder.

On our fourth day we traveled downslope further, ending at the lovely and tranquil Hacienda Amazonia. With a full day and an early morning there we added many new species and could begin to see a dramatic change in the spectrum of birdlife, as we added such exotic species as Hoatzins, wood-rails, quail-doves, macaws, puffbirds, antbirds, spinetails, manikins, and a new cast of tanagers (but fewer Tangara), many new hummingbirds, and a wider array of nightbird sounds.

From the Hacienda Amazonia we journeyed down the Madre de Dios River (a spectacular seven-hour trip) leaving the mountains behind, passing its junction with the Río Manu, and adding new birds and new sights and sounds along the way. By mid-afternoon we had stepped off our longboat at the Manu Wildlife Center and there began perhaps the most exciting series of adventures of the trip. The next morning found us looking at a minimum of 75 Red-and-green Macaws on the exposed clay bank of an old river oxbow. But, despite their top billing, there were plenty of other show-stopping items around—nearly a dozen lovely Orange-cheeked Parrots, a blur of wings from 250 Blue-headed Parrots exploding from the clay bank, and a large representation of Mealy and Yellow-crowned parrots that arrived early to the clay bank. From our spacious elevated “blind” or hide we also added Laughing Falcon, Zone-tailed Hawk, a rare Black-billed Seed-Finch and other species.

During the next several mornings we traveled downriver to a high canopy platform overlooking a lake; spent an idyllic morning on a catamaran at an oxbow lake with screamers, macaws, parrots, araçaries, and woodpeckers; walked forest trails; spent an early morning at a second canopy observation platform; watched an improbable group of hump-backed trumpeters stalking through the forest; searched for noisy Screaming Pihas; observed colorful butterflies on riverbanks and troops of monkeys in the rain forest; and struggled to identify canopy dwelling birds in mixed species flocks high overhead. Around the lodge there were hummingbirds at verbena shrubs, two noisy colonies of caciques, and a few oropendolas with them, nesting in an astonishing tall tree behind the cabins. Behind our cabins, in a clearing along a quiet stream, there were noisy macaws, woodpeckers, and caracaras, and a Crested Owl came one night to watch us. In the dining hall there were stocking feet on polished floors, predawn candlelight breakfasts and more candlelight meals in the evening, bowls of apples and granadillas (passion fruits), and decisions over whether to choose Nescafe or Peru’s famous “essence of café” or a cup of hot “Milo.” A few of us enjoyed a visit by Vanessa, a hand-raised tapir that was released into the forest a few years ago. She made an unscheduled appearance the last evening. Completely self-sufficient, she may have come to the lodge area seeking food because now, at the peak of the dry season, there is less fruit in the forest. This, also, is the reason why so many macaws and parrots, which are eating poor quality fruit at this time of year, come to the exposed bank on the river to eat clay. It is thought that the large surface area of the clay particles may bind toxins, which are present in unripe fruit and seeds at this time of year. They do not gather in the rainy season when fruit is abundant.

This was my 30th tour to the Manu region and still there were surprises and new sightings. The Mountain Lion, which we saw on the road at 2480 m elevation, was a first for this trip, and the Bush Dogs on the Manu Wildlife Center grid trails were only the second records, as were the Rufescent Screech-Owl, Silky-tailed Nightjar, and the three Ocellated Poorwills (the latter two records are partly a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that we only infrequently walk back from the tapir clay lick after dark). This was one of the few times that we have seen a Giant Otter completely out of the water and up on a log. It also was one of the few times we’ve actually seen Rufous-breasted Wood-Quails (albeit briefly), Andean Potoo, and Black-streaked Puffbird among others.

The Manu region provides a true Amazonian wilderness experience, an all-encompassing journey that includes rainforest trails, rainforest canopy platforms, quiet lakes, rivers, clay river banks, mineral licks, patches of bamboo, clearings, gardens, and a region that remains, to this day, a complete ecosystem—one in which all of the large birds and animals and top predators are still present. And, all of this is possible with a level of comfort almost unimaginable just a decade or two ago: catamarans for languid mornings on oxbow lakes, canopy platforms, and sleek longboats with shaded roofs, comfortable seats, and outboard power. We need bring only our curiosity and an open mind to enjoy this great wilderness…and maybe a camera!