Friday 29 July 2022

Relaxed Birding Along The Satipo Road

July 22, 2022

Laura and I had done quite well along the Satipo Road and in the Andamarca Valley but there were a few species that we had not been able to track down. I left on my own before dawn on July 22nd, making decent time navigating the bumpy dirt road from the lowlands back towards Calabaza. It was a beautiful cool morning by the time that I arrived at my chosen destination - the road leading to the Andamarca Valley south of Calabaza. I stopped around 5 km south of town, at an elevation of approximately 2700 m. 

Above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Two species were top of mind: the Oxapampa Antpitta and the Junin Tapaculo. I had heard the antpitta during our first morning along the Satipo Road, but the tapaculo would be completely new. Both of these species are known from limited areas in the eastern Peruvian Andes - indeed, the road south of Calabaza is probably the easiest place to find them both. 

Exiting the car, I heard some excited chips coming from down the hillside. I was floored to see a Yellow-scarfed Tanager making the vocalizations! This is an absolutely beautiful species, and one of my top ten most wanted birds for Peru. It is an endemic to this country, finding habitat in montane forests on the eastern slope. It isn't supposed to be particularly rare, but just look at it. Wow!

Yellow-scarfed Tanager - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

My luck continued as I played some speculative playback for the Junin Tapaculo at a decent looking stream crossing. Immediately I had a response, and a few minutes later I observed the little skulker beside the road. True to tapaculo fashion, photography was impossible but I came away with some excellent recordings. 

Moments later, the first Oxapampa Antpittas of the day called from down the steep slope. One cooperated and I gawked at it for several moments. This was the best photo that I could manage, given my camera setup, dense undergrowth and low light levels. Still, I was thrilled, especially since only three other photos of this species exist on eBird. 

Oxapampa Antpitta - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

I backtracked to Calabaza and lower elevation forests since I had now cleaned up in the areas above 2100 m. The morning was warming quickly but I managed to rustle up a few nice mixed flocks along the road between 2000 m and 1200 m in elevation. 

Among the flock constituents were my first Inca Flycatchers, Peruvian Tyrannulets and a White-eared Solitaire. The latter species was, sadly, a heard-only (Laura and I would rectify this later, though!). 

Inca Flycatcher - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

One particular flock was chock-full of tanagers and other colorful birds, including Yellow-throated, Orange-eared and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, Deep-blue Flowerpiercers, and a pair of Crested Quetzals. A little further along, a Sunbittern skulked beside the river. 

Yellow-throated Tanager - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Crested Quetzal - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Yellow-throated Chlorospingus - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Slaty-capped Flycatcher - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Montane Foliage-gleaner - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Really, though, it was the butterflies that impressed me the most. Late morning is the perfect time for these lepidopterans to be active, and several stream crossings were littered with them. Below are a few of my favourites. 

Perisama tristrigosa - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Altinote sp. - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Lymanopoda panacea - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Leptophobia sp. - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Orange-spot Duke (Siseme neurodes) - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Orange Mapwing (Hypanartia lethe) - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Steroma modesta - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Other insects were present including this dancer (Argia sp.) and an unidentified geometer moth. I love one of the Spanish names for damselfies: caballitos del diablo (devil ponies). 

Unidentified geometer moth - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Argia sp. - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

The sun was shining high in the sky and so I made my way back down to the town of Satipo to reconvene with Laura at the hotel. It had been an excellent morning!

July 23, 2022

When Laura and I allocated ten weeks for our Peru trip, I went back and forth on how to plan an itinerary to maximize our experience in this incredibly biodiverse country. Two and a half months is enough time, if you are a hardcore birder/lister, to visit most major regions in Peru. But in the end, Laura and I resolved to only explore parts of central and southern Peru. In general I do not like blitzing through an area, only spending the minimum amount of time to see the special birds of the region before moving on. There is something to be said for taking our time in an area and getting to know it a little bit. And besides, Peru is the sort of place where you could spend a lifetime and only scratch the surface. 

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

We also refrain from hiring guides for most of the trip since we prefer the thrill of self-discovery, going at our own pace, only using a little bit of playback when necessary, and saving money. Having a guide makes it so much easier to visit a site for the least amount of time necessary to clean up all the target species. We don't know of the best spots and so we have to take more time to track down all these birds on our own. 

Often, we have booked two nights in areas where guided birding groups stay for one, or four nights in a place where these tours sojourn for two or three nights. This means that we are missing out on the entirety of northern Peru and all of its fantastic birds, but we will be back to visit that region on a separate trip, I'm sure. 

White-crowned Manakin - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

All of this is a long way of saying that Laura and I still had one more full day to explore Satipo Road, even though our target lists were dwindling quickly. And I must say, it was pretty fun to bird the mixed flocks at the low and middle elevations of the road without feeling rushed. 

White-bellied Woodstar - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Laura and I savoured a relaxed morning of foothill birding, focusing on the elevations between around 1200 m and 1800 m where the forest along the Satipo Road is still mostly intact. Though the mixed flocks did not blow us away or anything, we had a lot of highlights when it was all said and done. 

The winner of the Bird Of The Day challenge for both of us was our lifer Versicolored Barbet. The colours on these things are a bit ridiculous, without much rhyme or reason as to the design. The Versicolored Barbet is an east slope species, found in Peru and northern Bolivia. 

Versicolored Barbet - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

An early highlight was a flyover Black-and-chestnut Eagle which was a new species for Laura. It was a bit distant and difficult to fully appreciate, but one does not complain when it comes to epic species such as this. Some of my favourite birds are the big eagles of the Neotropics and the Black-and-chestnut is right up there for me with the likes of Harpy and Crested Eagle (and Solitary Eagle, but I'm pretty sure they don't exist). 

Black-and-chestnut Eagle - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

When it came to spotting umbrellabirds, Laura was on it. She found a few different individuals perching quietly beside the road. 

Amazonian Umbrellabird - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Amazonian Umbrellabird - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

The Versicolored Barbet was not the only new species for us. We also bumped into our first Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, Sapphire-spangled Emerald, and heard-only Cerulean-capped Manakin and Brown Tinamou. Luckily, we would have more chances at the endemic manakin in upcoming days. 

Olive-backed Woodcreeper - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

The tanager flocks held quite a few beauties, though my number one target, the Blue-browed Tanager, did not appear. This bird was becoming a bit of a nemesis...

A small group of Paradise Tanagers showed near the lower elevations that we explored. This is a bird that looked like it was designed for a paint-by-numbers art project, ages 3-5. 

Paradise Tanager - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

With another successful day in the books, Laura and I retreated to the air conditioning of our hotel in Satipo for our final night in the town. In the morning we had plans for a sleep-in (like the lazy birders we are), followed by a drive to the La Merced area and Hacienda Armorique. 

Thursday 28 July 2022

Undescribed Species In The Andamarca Valley

The Andamarca Valley is located a short drive from the Satipo Road. In stark contrast to the green environs along the Satipo Road, the Andamarca Valley is located in a rain shadow, meaning that the prevailing westerly winds dump their rain as they travel up over the eastern slope of the Andes, leaving little precipitation to fall in the Andamarca Valley. Some of the species that inhabit this valley are "stuck" here, since the conditions in their valley are quite different than the surrounding areas, with towering mountain ridges discouraging their movements and containing them inside of the valley.

One particularly bird, the Black-spectacled Brushfinch, is only known from the slopes of the Andamarca Valley. In recent years/decades, intrepid ornithologists and birders have noticed that some of the other bird species here seem a little different than expected. These include forms of Azara's Spinetail, Plain-tailed Wren, and Streak-fronted Thornbird, all of which will likely be described as new species when someone gets around to it. These forms are informally referred to as the Mantaro Spinetail, Mantaro Wren, and Mantaro Thornbird for now. 

Laura and I hired Juan to join us for a day of exploration in the Andamarca Valley. He had traveled all the way to Calabaza to open the building for us and so we felt that it was the least that we could do to hire him for a day. Besides, he knew all the spots for the target species which was a nice luxury for us! eBird data in Peru is, in my experience, less high quality than in other countries that we have birded recently (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, etc), and it is difficult to find accurate locale information. Having a top-notch guide to show us around for a day would be great!

Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We figured that we would have to backtrack up the Satipo Road for a few hours, to enter the Andamarca Valley via the town of Runatullo. But Juan had other plans, having us simply drive south along the dirt road from Calabaza (this road is not shown on Google Maps, by the way). That way, we could bird the Andamarca Valley for the morning, and during our return, stop on the humid slope on the way back to Calabaza to search for a few more of our targets. He insisted that the road was passable with our small car, and despite a few hairy sections, it was. 

July 21, 2022

We left before dawn and our first stop was around half an hour out of Calabaza when we spotted a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar on the road. His tail streamers were pretty impressive when he flew up off the road, but despite a thorough search, we were unable to relocate him. The night's darkness was just beginning to give way to light, barely illuminating the mountain landscape as Andean Solitaires provided the first voices of the pre-dawn chorus. 

Above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

We continued up the switchbacking dirt road, passing small communities high up in the mountains. We crossed the mountain pass into the Andamarca Valley at a touch below 4000 m in elevation. 

 Top of Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Here, we exited the car for a brief moment and found some typical high-elevation species, including Striated Earthcreepers, Andean Lapwings and an inquisitive Many-striped Canastero. A well-named bird, the Andamarca Valley is the southern terminus of this species' range.

Many-striped Canastero - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We only had a short drive remaining to our next destination. Some of us were more excited for the potential endemic species that inhabited this site, while the anticipation of breakfast was perhaps the more appealing thought for others! Luckily, we could enjoy both, as the ringing songs of Mantaro Wrens provided the soundtrack while we tucked into our sandwiches. 

Mantaro Wren - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

The trio of Mantaro Wrens were enjoyable to watch as they skulked around the shrubbery. A great start!

Mantaro Wren - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Mantaro Wren - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Mantaro Wren - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

After finishing our breakfast we hiked up a trail cut through the shrubbery along the hillside, holding out hope for the Black-spectacled Brushfinch. They were playing a bit hard to get, but there were many other birds to look for in the meantime. These included our first Highland Elaenia and Creamy-crested Spinetails, along with a Shining Sunbeam, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant and flyby Andean Ibises. 

Creamy-crested Spinetail - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Several Junin Antpittas were vocalizing and so we tried a bit of playback to lure them in. Laura and I had heard this localized species during the previous day, but we obviously much prefer to actually see the birds! Juan's playback worked like a charm and we experienced good views of two individuals. The Junin Antpitta was one of the new species "created" when the Rufous Antpitta was split several years ago.

Junin Antpitta - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Eventually, we struck gold with the Black-spectacled Brushfinches as we heard a pair of them chattering up the hillside. It still took another twenty minutes until we observed them, and during the fleeting experience I went for my binoculars instead of my camera. A good choice, even though it meant that I never managed a photo of this endangered species. At least we had a decent, albeit brief, view of them. 

Andean Firebush (Oreocallis grandiflora) - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Juan birding the Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We walked back down the slope to the car, blasting the heat to warm us up from the 4 degree temperatures outside. Our next stop was a little further down the mountain and a few degrees warmer, at a site inhabited by the Mantaro Spinetail. Like the brushfinch, it was also playing hard to get and we didn't have the patience this time. Laura and I had to be satisfied with hearing it vocalize, and seeing a dark shape skulk in the bushes. At this site we also noted our first Golden-billed Saltator for the trip, a lifer for Laura. 

Golden-billed Saltator - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We continued our descent into the bottom of the valley, eventually passing through the town of Andamarca. Juan instructed me to pull over near a stand of introduced Eucalytus trees as this was a site where a Koepcke's Screech-Owl could sometimes be found roosting. Juan was good - within seconds he had spotted the owl! This was our first owl of the trip, and worth getting the scope out for. While watching the owl, we ran into the leader of the community of Andamarca and he welcomed us. 

Koepcke's Screech-Owl - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Most of our Andamarca target birds were acquired, though one was missing: the Mantaro Thornbird. Juan knew of a site where a pair were nesting and he took us there. Once again, we were successful in short order! We enjoyed watching the pair, though they kept a wary eye on us and did not venture too far into the open. 

Mantaro Thornbirds - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

Mantaro Thornbird - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

As is typical for thornbirds, the nest consisted of a large, hanging mass of sticks and twigs. There were two hanging from the same tree. 

Mantaro Thornbird nests - Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

 Thanks to Juan's expertise, we had found all of the birds on our wish list before 10:30 AM! This whole "birding with a guide" thing was almost too easy!

We backtracked the way we came, and though I considered another stop to try again for better views/photos of the Black-spectacled Brushfinch, we pressed on. Laura and I still had a long drive to Satipo later that afternoon. 

Top of Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We stopped for a lunch break at the pass near the top of the Andamarca Valley, which also doubled as a pit stop to seek out Eye-ringed Thistletails and Jalca Tapaculos. We were successful on both fronts! 

Top of Andamarca Valley, Junín, Peru

We descended back onto the humid side, entering elfin forest and then montane forest as our elevation dropped. Our strategy was to drive slowly and listen for mixed flocks. 

 Above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

This worked out beautifully and we experienced a few solid flocks. One in particular was unforgettable, with around 20 species including some really interesting ones. 

Violet-fronted Starfrontlet - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Marcapata Spinetail - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Highlights were many - our lifer Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Rust-and-yellow Tanagers and Marcapata Spinetails (the weskei subspecies with the pale crown), a distant tooting Yungas Pygmy-Owl, and a flyover White-throated Hawk among others. 

Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Drab Hemispingus - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

The White-throated Hawk is a bit of a lookalike to the more familiar (to us) immature Broad-winged Hawk, but the dark armpits give it away. This species breeds further south but winters in the Andes. Keep in mind that July is the middle of winter for austral-breeding species. 

White-throated Hawk - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

But nothing could top the incredible views we had of Unstreaked Tit-Tyrants. This is a scarce species that is endemic to a narrow elevation band in the eastern Andes of Peru. Three of them popped up in the bamboo in front of us and chattered away at us. Eventually, we had to walk away with them still scolding us!

Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant - above Calabaza, Junín, Peru

With the clock ticking, we finished the rest of the drive to Calabaza. We made one more stop for Junin Tapaculo, but struck out. Can't get them all! Juan was interested in getting a ride to Satipo with us, so after packing up, we jumped back in the car and completed the drive into the lowlands. We didn't stop too often for birds since we were eager to make good time, but a female Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (our first in Peru) provided a good excuse to stop for a moment. 

Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - Satipo Road, Junín, Peru

Laura and I dropped Juan off at the bus station and then found a hotel which would be our base for three nights. We still had unfinished business along Satipo Road...