Peru: Manu Biosphere Reserve Sep 19—Oct 05, 2015

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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It was 3:30 a.m. when we assembled for the short walk across the busy street to Lima’s international airport. Inside, the airport was already buzzing with activity: hundreds of people checking in for flights, restaurants serving early breakfasts, and shops open everywhere. It would be a long day for us, but the contrast couldn’t have been greater—from the glitz and bright lights of the predawn airport, the flight to Cuzco, and then the little farms in the arid Andean highlands just a few hours later. By late afternoon we reached the relatively new Wayqecha Lodge located at 9,750 feet elevation. Situated on the humid eastern slope of the Andes, but little more than thirty minutes beyond the high pass at about 12,000 feet that marked a dramatic and rapid transition from the arid interior valleys of Peru to its humid eastern face, the lodge provided the third important contrast of the day—montane forest. Even before our bags were unpacked, participants were roaming the grounds and cabin porches, sighting Grass-green Tanagers, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, and Black-faced Brush-Finches among other exciting highland birds.

The next several days took us downward through a series of habitats as dramatic as any in the world. It was a stunning transition—from puna grassland and scrub at 12,000 feet down through patches of elfin forest, then taller montane forest, and finally more humid foothill or lower montane forest, some of it mixed with bamboo. We would stay at three lodges, each at a lower elevation than the previous, and experience each with an almost completely new avifauna, a remarkable demonstration of how species replace each other as one travels up or down mountain slopes. Hummingbirds, furtive little furnariids like the Puna Thistletail, and large mountain-tanagers dominated the highlands. Lower down, mixed species flocks of smaller Tangara tanagers dominated, and in the foothills, everything suddenly seemed to change. There were parrots, macaws, antbirds, woodcreepers, a different cast of hummingbirds, and the increase in diversity was obvious.

Two days later we left the foothills and the polished floors of the Hacienda Amazonia and were soon gliding swiftly downriver toward our final and most important destination, the Manu Wildlife Center, with its canopy level observation platforms, lakes, forest trails, and the spectacle of parrots and macaws descending to a river bank to eat clay early in the morning. And, by now the avian diversity was simply overwhelming. We’d left all those colorful mountain-tanagers and hummingbirds far upslope, but they’d been replaced here with Hoatzins, wood-rails, puffbirds, nunbirds, kingfishers, antbirds, spinetails, manakins, and new tanagers (but fewer Tangara) and more nightbird sounds. Also, by now Dave Wolf was almost crazy chasing down butterflies too numerous to count. Dark highland forests with dense tiny leaves were now replaced by many plants with large leaves, many more palms, and trees that were impossibly tall. This was the Amazon rain forest we’d dreamed about.

This trip plunges you into arguably one of the most diverse biological regions on the planet, and there is simply a lot more of everything than a visitor can possibly comprehend in a whirlwind trip of just over two weeks, but it is a great sampler. Something for everyone, something to stir new interests, stimulate questions, flesh out a western Amazonian life list and, if nothing else, it is a place that takes you just a little bit beyond your normal comfort zone, where suddenly everything is new and different and exciting, and the unexpected might be waiting around the next bend in the river, or a little further down that forest trail. And that, I think, is what makes a birding trip, or any trip, exciting.

Avian highlights are well-marked in red on the main list, but a few stand out above all others. To me the pair of Crimson-bellied Woodpeckers near the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge rank among the top. Others include the Cock-of-the-rock lek itself; the Common Woolly Monkeys; the pair of Jabirus (quite unusual here); the Solitary Eagle over Wayqecha; the Peruvian Piedtail; Festive Coquette (rarely seen on this trip); the spectacle of more than 120 Red-and-green Macaws gathered on the river bank; the White-eared Solitaire perched in the open; and perhaps rarest of all, the Yellow-shouldered Grosbeaks at Camungo. And who will forget the Giant Otters, the variety of monkeys, timid agouties in gardens, and the potoos and owls at Hacienda Amazonia.

We hope you enjoyed this trip, felt a little sense of adventure from time to time, made some new friends, and took away some great memories and photos (well, I believe if it moved it was photographed!). We also hope that this trip leaves you wanting to see and learn more. So, of course, we want to see each of you again somewhere on another adventure.