Sunday, 11 September 2022

Lagunas De Mejía And Other Coastal Sites In the South

Overnight sleeper buses are a decent, relatively low-cost option to traverse long distances in South America. The buses are quite comfortable (even though I doubt that the seats recline 160 degrees as advertised!) and it prevents one from having to spend money on a hotel room for a night. It also provides one with lots of time to do research for future legs of the trip, as this is not possible if one has to stay attentive driving these distances instead. The quality of the sleep provided by one of these buses is not nearly as high as that afforded by a bed, especially if the bus is constantly navigating mountain roads, but it is not bad. 

August 14, 2022

Laura and I awoke somewhere on the outskirts of Arequipa, a large city firmly in the south of Peru. Upon arrival at the bus station we caught a ride downtown to pick up our rental car. Generally, Laura and I are pretty savvy when it comes to renting cars as we have done it on dozens of occasions, but this time we were met by a surprise. Mountain Car Rental in Arequipa surprised us by stating that we would not be permitted to drive on any gravel roads, and if we did, we would have to pay a fine of $200 US. This was the first time that we had ever encountered a scenario like this! 

Microlophus sp. - Lomas de Lluta, Arequipa, Peru

Obviously, as birders we would be driving on quite a few unpaved roads and so this threw a wrench into our plans. We argued with the agency that the roads we wanted to drive are easily navigated by a small car (I had looked into this ahead of time), and I promised that I would take it slowly and not drive down any terrible roads. They would not relent. I debated just picking up the small car and going with our route as planned, while hoping that the rental agency would not be following our route with the GPS tracker. But in the end, we decided to rejig our route so that only two days would require driving up gravel roads. We changed the dates of our rental to switch out the small car for a Toyota Hilux for the final two days of the trip. This was definitely an inconvenience, and it would have been nice if we had been informed of this ahead of time! The joys of renting a vehicle with a small, local company...

By mid-morning we were on the road. Laura and I had 11 days planned in the Arequipa area before bussing to Cusco. We hoped to drive eastwards to Puno and beyond, but first we had a couple of birds that we were still missing on the arid Pacific coast of Peru. We pointed the car westwards.

Searching for Raimondi's Yellow-Finches - Lomas de Lluta, Arequipa, Peru

Our first birding stop was in the barren mountains just before reaching the coast near the town of Mollendo. I had a beat on a site for Raimondi's Yellow-Finch, my first main target for the dry Pacific coast. This local and nomadic species has a limited range in southern Peru and northern Chile, preferring stony slopes and canyons. Signs of life were hard to find as we exited the vehicle with nary a bird around! Finally, we found a Common Miner. That's something, I guess!

Common Miner - Lomas de Lluta, Arequipa, Peru

A few lizards were basking on the rocky hillsides including this individual that was in the process of ecdysis, or the shedding of its skin. They are in the genus of Microlophus but I have yet to narrow it down any further. Microlophus contains the famous Lava Lizards found on the Galapagos Islands, which have, over time, evolved into several species now restricted to different islands.

Microlophus sp. - Lomas de Lluta, Arequipa, Peru

We were nearly ready to depart when the tell-tale call notes of yellow-finches caught our ears! Only one species of yellow-finch resides in this environment and with some patience we were rewarded with decent views of the Raimondi's Yellow-Finches. 

Raimondi's Yellow-Finches - Lomas de Lluta, Arequipa, Peru

We completed the drive to the coast, grabbed a hearty meal at a cheap roadside restaurant, and continued to the town of Mejía to find a hotel room for the night. Along the way, we stopped for a roadside pair of ibises which happened to be Black-faced Ibis. This is a southern species that, in Peru, can only be found in a few areas in the southwest of the country. It was a lifer for Laura, and her choice for bird-of-the-day. I went with the Raimondi's Yellow-Finch of course, because who doesn't love a drab, yellowish finch?

Black-faced Ibis - Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

With a bit of bartering we found an excellent room for a good price at Hotel Sacsay Mejía. This sleepy little place is a bustling resort town during the summer months. As it was now winter, we were likely the only visitors here (and the only ones staying at the hotel).

Laura and I ventured out after dark to look for our second main target bird in this region. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we could not turn up any Tschudi's Nightjars. This desert species ranges from northern Peru to northern Chile. A flyover Short-eared Owl was a nice consolation, however, but soon it was time to head back to the hotel, where we were both looking forward to sleeping in a real bed!

August 15, 2022

Not many foreign birders visit this part of Peru, simply because it is a ways off the typical birding route. Since we have ten weeks in Peru, all of which are devoted to the central and southern parts of the country, we have the freedom to explore a little further afield. This morning we visited a nearby reserve called Lagunas de Mejía. The main draw here are the series of bird-filled wetlands. Rare-for-Peru species like White-winged and Red-fronted Coot are regular here, and quite a few interesting shorebirds have occurred here as well. An an oasis in an arid environment, Lagunas de Mejía acts like a magnet for rare birds and anything is possible. I was also keen to search for the Slender-billed Finch here, main target #3 for the region. 

Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We had an absolute blast birding here for the morning, turning up almost 60 species. Shorebirds were particularly diverse and while we found no rarities, we discovered 13 species, a pretty good number for the date. Highlights included Wilson's Phalaropes, Stilt Sandpipers and good counts of Baird's, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. Amazing that these boreal migrants had already arrived in such large numbers in southern Peru by mid-August!

Wilson's Phalarope - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We bumped into several large flocks of Peruvian Thick-knees in some of the beach scrub. We counted 73 of them, a high count for this reserve. 

Peruvian Thick-knees - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Peruvian Thick-knees - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Peruvian Thick-knees - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

One of the most common species in the reserve was, of course, the Turkey Vulture. They were everywhere! This allowed some close photoshoots, though. 

Turkey Vulture - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Turkey Vulture - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We stopped at each of the wetlands, making full use of my spotting scope from the various observation towers. We sifted through all the coots, finding one White-winged Coot at Laguna Iberia Centro I. Ducks were abundant, and included a few rare (for the area) Yellow-billed Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail amongst hundreds of White-cheeked Pintails, Cinnamon Teals and Andean Ducks. 

Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

White-cheeked Pintail - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We also enjoyed our best views ever of Great Grebes, of which we counted around 30! Other grebes included White-tufted and Pied-billed. 

Great Grebe and Cinnamon Teal - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

As expected, heron-types were rather abundant. Several species that are rare for the region are regularly sighted at Lagunas de Mejía including the Tricolored Heron. 

Tricolored Heron - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Black-crowned Night-Heron - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

After having our fill of the wetlands, we continued south along the beach to the river-mouth. Cinereous Harriers perched in the dune grasses, while an Osprey surveyed the scene from a dead snag. 

Osprey - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Cinereous Harrier - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We reached the river-mouth and it was absolutely rocking with birds of many species, though mainly Peruvian Pelicans and Gray Gulls. Many hundreds of Peruvian Boobies massed offshore in a huge feeding frenzy. I zeroed in on a group of roosting terns, excitedly discovering that they were South American Terns! This was not a species on my radar as it is rather sporadic on the coast of Peru. It was a lifer for Laura. 

South American Terns - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

We ventured inland to an area where I hoped to find the Slender-billed Finch. This species is only found on the arid Pacific strip from central Peru to northern Chile, preferring trees or scrubby vegetation in this generally barren landscape. Find vegetation of a certain height, and you will find the finches! Before arriving at the spot, a family of Burrowing Owls distracted us for a little while. The youngster was a little shy, remaining in the burrow and only peeking out. 

Burrowing Owls - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

With minimal effort we turned up a Slender-billed Finch and managed some awesome views. Target acquired!

Slender-billed Finch - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Slender-billed Finch - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

While on the way back out of the reserve, we stopped a few more times to scan the pools. At one of the last ones we found a group of Chilean Flamingos and some Roseate Spoonbills. An Aplomado Falcon buzzed us at another site. 

Roseate Spoonbills - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Aplomado Falcon - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

Quite a few of these fish were swimming in the shallows of one of the ponds. This is a Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), an invasive species that is now widely found in South America. 

Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) - Lagunas de Mejía, Arequipa, Peru

That afternoon, Laura and I drove further up the coast to the city of Camana. We were still missing the Red-fronted Coot and this area has many records. 

August 16, 2022

Our destination for the morning was the mouth of the Río Camana and several other nearby wetlands. This was not the most scenic site that we have visited in Peru as the area was littered with plastic garbage and heavy machinery was busy at work in the river. The overall dreariness of the landscape caused by he heavy cloudy cover did not help the ambience. However, we found a few birds here and there in between the discarded InkaCola bottles and plastic bags. 

Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Early on, the Red-fronted Coots were playing hard to get. We contented ourselves by observing some of the other birds along the Río Camana, including a Green Kingfisher, Grassland Yellow-Finches and Many-colored Rush-Tyrants. 

Green Kingfisher - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Grassland Yellow-Finch - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Several Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles provided excellent views.

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Finally, a different looking coot swam into view as we checked some wetlands along a dirt road parallel to the coast. (Psst, don't tell the rental agency about this road's substrate). 

Red-fronted Coot - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Even though this Red-fronted Coot is an immature, it still sports the gallinule-like white tufts along the sides of its tail. 

Red-fronted Coot - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

Red-fronted Coot - Río Camana, Arequipa, Peru

We drove around for a little while more, searching in vain for a Dark-faced Ground-Tyrant since this would be another new species for Laura. Our luck had run out though, and with the day getting on we headed back to Arequipa. 

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