Thursday, 11 August 2022

Bunchgrass Birding At Lago Chinchaycocha

One feature of Peru's mountainous geography is the presence of numerous alpine lakes. The largest Peruvian lake is Titicaca, though it is shared between Peru and Bolivia. Lago Chinchaycocha, often called Lago Junín, is the most expansive lake that is situated entirely within Peru's boundaries. Lago Chinchaycocha is home to a couple of species found nowhere else in the world including several fish, a frog, and two birds: the flightless Junín Grebe and the Junín Rail, considered by some authorities to be a subspecies of Black Rail. Laura and I left the Villa Rica area and hit the road for the moderately long drive to the town of Junín, situated near the south shore of the lake. 

July 29, 2022

Most birders who visit Junín do so for only one night, since they are usually on a tight itinerary to see as much of central Peru as possible in a short period of time, and one night is sufficient time to search for the rail, grebe, and various high-elevation songbirds that reside in the bunchgrass habitats around the lake. Laura and i budgeted for two nights here since we like exploring each area a little bit more thoroughly, if possible. We found a decent hotel in Junín (it cost the equivalent of 15 Canadian dollars a night) and then headed out for a bit of afternoon birding. 

Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

Much of Lago Chinchaycocha is ringed with emergent vegetation. At the moment, the water level is rather low meaning that it can be difficult to access the shoreline. We decided to visit a site along the eastern part of the lake called San Francisco de Uco. The paved highway approaches close to open water here meaning that a nice variety of waterbirds should be present. 

This was a good choice and in the golden afternoon light we observed Chilean Flamingos, Andean Gulls and Lapwings, and several duck species including our first Puna Teals. Two Plumbeous Rails vocalized from the extensive reedbeds. I played some tape for Junín Rails to no avail. 

Puna Teals - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

I walked through several large patches of bunchgrass, hoping to drum up some canasteros, but it was not to be. At least some Andean Negritos provided excellent views along the nearby train tracks. 

Andean Negrito - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

We noticed several Vicuñas in bunchgrass plains around the lake. These camelids are the wild ancestors to domesticated alpacas. Once considered an endangered species, vicuñas have rebounded from 6,000 individuals in 1974 to over 350,000 today. 

Vicuñas - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

The afternoon's biggest surprise was a pair of flycatchers hunting from a stone wall and adjacent hydro wire. Slate gray in colour, these flycatchers showed striking chestnut flashes in their wings and tails. They were Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrants, a lifer for us. 

Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrant - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

This species has only been recorded around Lago Chinchaycocha a few times previously so it was a lucky find, indeed!

July 30, 2022

We both had a relatively poor sleep in our hotel room despite the many blankets and hot water bottle delivered by the hotel staff to help stave off the cold. It turns out that sleeping at high elevations is not easy for the first few nights, and Junín is situated at around 4,100 m. But when dawn arrived we scraped the thin later of ice off of the car's windows and headed out, hoping that the sun's rays would warm the frosty landscape. 

Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

We drove fifteen minutes south of town to a large protected area with extensive bunchgrass called Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca. It was hard to find much information on the birds found here, but the bunchgrass looked excellent and so I had high hopes for some of my target species. 

We parked alongside the quiet road and wandered out into the bunchgrass. We hoped to see Ornate Tinamous and were not disappointed! We found close to a dozen of them. Most were located when they flushed from underfoot, exploding away from us (and nearly giving us a heart attack each time). 

Ornate Tinamou - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

We managed to spot a couple of them before they saw us, allowing us to admire their intricate plumage. 

Ornate Tinamou - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Ornate Tinamou - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

My canastero quest was quite successful as well. Over the course of the morning Laura and I found all three species that we were aiming for: Streak-backed and Cordilleran Canasteros were common, while we found a single Junín Canastero near the end of our walk. 

Streak-backed Canastero - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

We drove past the impressive monument and through a farm property situated next to a creek. This oasis attracted many hundreds of birds, the most numerous being Andean Geese, Yellow-billed Teals and Puna Ibises. Various shorebirds, ducks and pipits provided excellent photographic opportunities. 

Andean Lapwing - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Puna Snipe - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Two species of pipits reside in this region of Peru: Correndera and Short-billed. I had previously seen the former in Chile and Argentina, but the latter was a new one for me. Both were lifers for Laura. 

Correndera Pipit - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Short-billed Pipit - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Rocky hills rise up from the plains beyond the farm property. After having our fill of the numerous waterbirds we were ready to seek out the inhabitants of the stony hills. My main target was the Dark-winged Miner, and it proved to be remarkably easy to find here. Photos, on the other hand, were tricky!

Dark-winged Miner - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

The Slender-billed Miners were slightly more accommodating. 

Slender-billed Miner - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Vicuñas were abundant in these hills as well. 

Vicuña - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Though it may sound surprising given the elevation, butterflies inhabit the grassy plains around Lago Chinchaycocha. Below are two species that we found during the later morning. 

Puna Cloudless Sulphur (Colias euxanthe) - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

Infraphulia madeleinea - Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

We finished our morning walk with almost 40 bird species, a pretty good total given the low diversity at that elevation. 

Sanctuario Historico de Chacamarca, Junín, Peru

From there, we motored up the west side of the lake to explore a few sites near Ondores. This area receives considerabl more birder coverage and so eBird data is better populated. I had just a few targets remaining, and the first one fell early when we spotted a Cinereous Harrier from the car. 

Black-breasted Hillstar site - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

Our first destination in Ondores was a rocky hillside that seemed suitable for a specialized hummingbird found in high elevations, the Black-breasted Hillstar. Laura had worn her hummingbird-attracting red jacket earlier in the day in the bunchgrass plains and it had worked - a hillstar had checked her out briefly. But my views of it were poor and we were both hoping for another chance. Fortunately, it did not take much time to find a few territorial males along the stony slope. 

Black-breasted Hillstar - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

A Black Siskin evicted one of the hillstars from his perch atop a cactus. The hummingbird did not seem too pleased with the situation. 

Black Siskin and Black-breasted Hillstar - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

We made one final stop in Ondores before driving back to the hotel to call it a day. It was a site that I had heard was productive for Junín Canastero. The intel was accurate - we easily found a very territorial pair! This improved our views from earlier in the morning. 

Junín Canastero - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

Junín Canastero - Lago Chinchaycocha, Junín, Peru

We drove back to the hotel feeling satisfied with our excellent day of birding. That evening, we enjoyed plates of fried rice for 8 soles (the equivalent of $2.75 in Canadian dollars). 

The main reason that we had ventured all the way to Junín was, of course, to search for the Junín Rail and Junín Grebe. That would be tomorrow's adventure...

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