Peru: Manu Biosphere Reserve Aug 21—Sep 06, 2016

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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We left the hotel at 3:45 a.m. with a cart of luggage, crossed the street, and entered Lima’s International airport, already bustling with travelers. After check-in, a fast-food breakfast, security lines that proceeded smoothly, we were in the waiting area by 5:00 a.m., soon to board a predawn flight to Cuzco, leaving the glitz and glitter of Lima behind. At Cuzco, the second contrast of the day would begin—where our journey would really begin. We departed Cuzco shortly after 7:00, spent a couple of hours at nearby Laguna Huacarpay (elevation 11,000 feet; 3,300m) for an introduction to highland waterbirds, and then confronted a detour that lengthened our drive somewhat to the highland town of Paucartambo. The route was picturesque: villages, little mud and straw brick huts, farms, golden fields on hillsides, and birds scattering in front of our vehicle. Stops produced an interesting assortment of birds characteristic of Peru’s arid highlands, including miners, bush-tyrants, and sierra-finches. By midafternoon we plunged downward into a region dramatically more humid, and by late afternoon 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. We settled in to our rooms and made sure flashlights were handy. Nightfall comes early, and there would be only a three-hour span of electricity from a portable generator. And with no heat, the rooms would soon be cold.

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, flycatchers, and mountain-tanagers dominated the highlands. Lower down we encountered our first really good mixed species flocks with furnariids, wrens, warblers, tanagers, and brush-finches, and then spent time at a wonderful Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek before continuing our journey downward. In the foothills everything seemed to change again. There were aquatic species, hoatzins, parrots, macaws, antbirds, woodcreepers, and a different cast of hummingbirds; the increase in diversity was obvious.

Two days later we left the foothills and the comfort of the Villa Carmen Lodge for a long, rainy boat trip to 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 amazing. 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, new tanagers (but fewer Tangara), and more nightbird sounds. 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 rainforest 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. There is 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.

Highlights are marked in red on the main list, but a few stand out above all others. For me, the Razor-billed Curassows and Pale-winged Trumpeters are near the top for honors. Along with these are the macaw spectacle at the Blanquillo collpa, the Cock-of-the-rock lek, the Common Woolly Monkeys, Giant Otters, howler monkeys, adorable little Saddleback Tamarins, and timid gouties in gardens, but nothing, in my mind, equals the amazing views we had of a much chagrined Ocelot that failed in its prey capture attempt, then stood for some minutes looking around as if he hoped no one had seen his clumsy effort.

I hope you enjoyed this trip, felt a little sense of adventure from time to time, and now carry with you some great memories and photos. We also hope that this trip leaves you wanting to see and learn more. And, of course, I’d love to see you again on another tour in the future.