Sunday 30 October 2022

Ollantaytambo And The Abra Málaga Pass

The Sacred Valley is the epicenter of tourism in Peru. Probably well over 90% of all foreign tourists who visit Peru end up here, with their ultimate goal being the archaeological site of Machu Picchu. 

But Laura and I had no plans of setting foot on Machu Picchu, much to the surprise of everyone that we chatted with during our stay in the Cusco region.  While Machu Picchu looks like a spectacular site, the idea of spending a lot of money so that we could stand next to hundreds of people just did not appeal to us. 

There were other things that drew us to the Sacred Valley, though. Birds, of course! And herps, and butterflies, and so much more. We had booked a rental car in advance for several weeks and I planned a route that would incorporate amazing birding sites while minimizing the number of tourists that we would bump into. 

This blog post will cover several visits that we made to the Abra Málaga pass. 

Puna Tapaculo - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

August 25, 2022

Our overnight bus from Arequipa was comfortable and the ride was relatively painless. We managed some light sleep, though both of us were rather bleary-eyed when we arrived at the terminal. The representative from the rental agency soon appeared to drop off the car and we were on our way, navigating Cusco traffic. 

Llama - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We left the city behind but we would have to wait a while longer to escape the tourists, since our lodging that night was in the town of Ollantaytambo. This town consists of beautiful cobblestone streets that were built hundreds of years ago, while the Ollantaytambo ruins, looming over the town from high up on the hillside, are visible from many points. Ollantaytambo has a rich cultural history going back nearly 600 years, though nowadays it appears to function as a jumping off point for people traveling to Machu Picchu. As expected, Ollantaytambo was chock full of North Americans and Europeans either preparing for, or having recently returned from their Machu Picchu visit. By my estimation roughly 50% of these people were decked out in a recently purchased alpaca sweater, apparently a mandatory item to bring home after visiting the Sacred Valley. 

Metadaris cosinga - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

After grabbing a quick coffee in the main square, Laura and I continued through the town and up a winding road leading to a mountain pass called Abra Málaga. This is a world-famous birding road, and rightly so. The top of the pass is roughly 4400m in elevation and high-quality Polylepis patches are reachable on foot from here. The stretch of road between Ollantaytambo and the pass cuts alongside dry, scrubby hillsides that are home to a number of interesting birds including the localized White-tufted Sunbeam and Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch. The weather on the far side of the pass is much different, with frequent rain and fog. Puna grasslands give way to elfin forest, cloud forest and eventually lower montane forest. If it wasn’t for the frequent traffic this would be up there as one of my favourite birding roads. 

Laura and I planned to hike around the Polylepis forest at the top, though we first made several pitstops along the way. Our main targets were the aforementioned sunbeam and mountain-finch, two species that are endemic to southern Peru. It was a beautiful sunny morning and spirits were high. 

Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We easily succeeded with both of our targets. I was particularly enthused with the White-tufted Sunbeam, a species that I have wanted to see for some time. It looks similar to the common and widespread Shining Sunbeam, though it is much darker and has that peculiar white blotch on its chest. 

White-tufted Sunbeam - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We rolled up to the pass and readied our day-packs: we had arrived at the Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes reserve. This is a privately-owned site where people can hike for a fee.

Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

The weather at the Abra Málaga pass can be fickle but luck was on our side this day. There was a distinct lack of fog, nor was there any precipitation. Laura and I took our time hiking up to the ridgeline. Though we were fairly well-acclimated to the elevation by this point of the trip, hiking up a slope above 4400m is still a bit of a challenge! The views from the top were worth it, though…

Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

The eponymous bird of this reserve, the Royal Cinclodes, is far from guaranteed. This Critically Endangered species has a small range in southern Peru and adjacent Bolivia and it lives in high-elevation Polylepis groves. It is sensitive to habitat disturbance and most of the original Polylepis is gone, having been used for firewood. Only a few hundred Royal Cinclodes remain in the wild. Many birders who visit the reserve end up dipping on the cinclodes. Evidently, they are relatively scarce here. 

Laura and I took the path leading to the right after reaching the ridge and we spent the afternoon slowly descending into the valley below. Other than the cinclodes, we had several other birds we were hoping for. With time, some of them cooperated including a handsome group of Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrants and some White-browed Tit-Spinetails, though the latter disappeared before satisfying looks were had. Both of these species are Polylepis specialists, and both have a small global range. 

Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

Laura and I birded for a while, striking out on the cinclodes the whole way down. We decided to check one final Polylepis patch before turning around to begin the long, grueling hike back up to the ridge. Right after birding the patch, we began our ascent when I heard a funny bird song, one that I had memorized. Could it be the cinclodes? Laura and I listened closely but it refused to vocalize again. I believe Laura accused me of stringing, birder parlance for making up a bird, and we continued on. But then she spotted it – a Royal Cinclodes probing the earth underneath of a Polylepis tree! 

Royal Cinclodes - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

For the next ten minutes we watched the cinclodes as it foraged. It did not seem the least bit concerned with our presence and I came away with some photos that I was really happy with. Talk about a lucky sighting!

Royal Cinclodes - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

Unlike other species of cinclodes which populate open areas, especially near water, Royal Cinclodes frequent dense Polylepis groves. It isn’t a particularly shy species but it is unobtrusive and can be easily missed in an area. 

Royal Cinclodes - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

Royal Cinclodes - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

August 26, 2022

Since we had acquired little sleep on the bus during the previous night, we slept in this morning and did not leave our hostel in Ollantaytambo until around 7 AM. I photographed this Blue-and-yellow Tanager in the courtyard before we headed out. 

Blue-and-yellow Tanager - Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru

After breakfast, Laura and I returned to the Abra Málaga pass. Having succeeded with most of our targets from the day before, we passed on birding the dry side of the valley. We elected to skip the Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes reserve, too. Instead, we continued to the humid side of the pass. The only birding stop we made was just before the pass so that we could tick our lifer Puna Tapaculo (heard-only, unfortunately).  

 Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

I had grand plans of spending the morning sifting through mixed flocks all along the humid slope, picking up ten or more lifers. But, unfortunately, the morning did not play out as I had envisioned. 

 Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

It was not a total bust of course, and we still ended with some great species for our lists (not to mention the incredible scenery). The slow birding was not entirely unexpected since we missed the most productive three hours of the morning due to our late arrival. The mixed flocks did not materialize and most of the lifers that we acquired provided brief views, or they remained as heard-only. It was the slowest seven-lifer day that I have had in quite some while! Four out of the seven were only heard, while I never even managed so much as “record photos” of the remaining three. One of those days! 

Orophila diotima - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

The elfin forest produced a few nice sightings including our first Puna Thistletail, vocalizing Urubamba Antpittas and brief views of our first Scaled Metaltails. We found a few other species here including Tit-like Dacnis, three species of flowerpiercers, a Shining Sunbeam and a Violet-throated Starfrontlet. The only bird that remained in place long enough for a photo was this Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant. 

Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Lower down, the birding slowed even more, though the spectacular scenery partially made up for that. Verónica, the snow-capped peak looming above us, shone in all her glory. 

Nevado Verónica - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We connected with a singing Diademed Tapaculo further down, while our first Red-and-white Antpitta sang as well. Duetting Inca Wrens rounded out the lifers for the morning. 

Nevado Verónica - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

One of the morning’s highlight was a butterflying session at a creek crossing during the late morning. All butterfly enthusiasts know that late morning is prime time and today was no different. The rarest butterfly was Lymanopoda prusia, a species with very few publicly available photos online, but here are photos of a few others, too. 

Manerebia sp. - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Corades cistene - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Orophila diotoma (left), Dione glycera (right) - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Lymanopoda prusia - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

August 28, 2022

Laura and I returned to Abra Málaga a few days later after a very successful spin to the Vilcabamba Valley and back (more on that in the next post). On our way back to Ollantaytambo, we made a few quick stops along the humid side of the pass. The birding was pretty slow once again, and we again failed to find any mixed flocks. My highlight was finally succeeding in observing (and poorly photographing) a Trilling Tapaculo. 

Trilling Tapaculo - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We also found a Sapphire-vented Puffleg teed up on a dead snag. This was a new species for Laura!

Sapphire-vented Puffleg - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

August 29, 2022

Laura and I had overnighted once again in Ollantaytambo. It may be touristy, but it is conveniently located and is home to several restaurants that can make a half-decent wood-fired pizza. Good pizza is not always easy to find in Latin America. 

Before leaving Ollantaytambo, we walked around in a bid to find a Bearded Mountaineer. This incredible hummingbird is endemic to southern Peru and only lives in dry inter-Andean valleys. Ollantaytambo is one site where they can be regularly found. 

My strategy was to seek out yards with lots of flowers in hopes that the mountaineer would be present. It worked! The street we chose overlooked the landscaped properties of several high-end hotels, and we found a male Bearded Mountaineer with little effort. The lighting was not ideal but the colors of the forehead and beard still come through in this image.

Bearded Mountaineer - Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru

Bearded Mountaineer - Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru

September 12, 2022

Laura’s father, Mark, joined us for a week of exploration in southern Peru during the middle of September. We planned some cultural activities along with plenty of hiking and birding. The rugged beauty of Abra Málaga seemed like the perfect location to explore, after a few busy days of sightseeing in Cusco. 

We returned to the Polylepis at the Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes reserve during the first day. This time, we turned left once we reached the ridge and birded some of the forest patches not far from here. 

Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

As you can see in the above photo, the fog had rolled in and it remained in place for the duration of our visit. At times, it shifted just enough for us to catch a glimpse across the valley, but snow-covered Veronica remained hidden. 

Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

Birding Polylepis patches is all about quality over quantity. As expected given the altitude, species diversity is relatively low, but those that are present are usually specialists that have unique natural histories and limited ranges. We connected with a few of these birds with Mark. Undoubtedly, one of the highlights was this Puna Tapaculo which jumped out into the open and provided phenomenal views. 

Puna Tapaculo - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

We also bumped into a pair of White-browed Tit-Spinetails, a single Tawny-Tit Spinetail, several Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrants and a pair of Giant Conebills. Quality all around! 

White-browed Tit-Spinetail - Abra Málaga Thastayoc Royal Cinclodes, Cusco, Peru

The rain began when we reached the car and it followed us most of the way back to Ollantaytambo. Even though the fog had obscured the view of the mountain, we had lucked out once again with the weather. 

September 13, 2022

But our luck would not last forever. Laura, Mark and I returned to Abra Málaga for one final visit the next morning, hoping to find the mixed flocks that surely live somewhere on the humid side of the pass. 

Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We began on the dry side of the pass. One quick stop produced a number of great birds, many which were new for Mark, including Green-tailed Trainbearer, Andean Parakeet, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Black-backed Grosbeak, Golden-billed Saltator and Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch. 

We crossed over the pass and continued down to the elfin forest. The morning continued to be memorable as we had walk-away views of a Puna Thistletail. These skulkers are not always easy to observe as they remain hidden deep in the bamboo. 

Puna Thistletail - Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

We only managed an hour or two of half-decent birding before the fog rolled in. Some of the highlights during this time included Scaled Metaltail, White-browed Conebill, and some heard-onlies: Urubamba and Undulated Antpittas, Inca Wrens and a Trilling Tapaculo. 

Abra Málaga, Cusco, Peru

Once we were socked in for good, we retreated back to the pass to warm up with some hot coffee that was for sale from one of the homesteads. 

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Target Birding In Arequipa

Laura and I consider ourselves reasonably savvy when it comes to renting vehicles. We have rented in over a dozen countries, have used all of the big companies as well as many local ones, and have dealt with most situations that one might encounter. However, we experienced a new scenario when renting a car in the city of Arequipa from a small, local company. Upon picking up the vehicle at the office, we were informed that "our" car could only be driven on paved roads. The employee provided us with a map showing which major roads were off limits. Any violation of this rule would result in a hefty fine. I was quite annoyed as this information should have been relayed to us ahead of time when we made the reservation. Normally in a situation like this, I would just agree and then drive on the gravel roads anyways. But we had slipped up and informed him of our likely route before he had mentioned the dirt road restrictions. 

Fortunately, most of our route could be easily done on paved roads but there were two sites in particular that required driving on a gravel, both north of Arequipa. We decided to rent the car for only 9 days, return it to Arequipa and swap it out for a pickup (which was allowed to be driven on gravel roads), and then spend the last two days visiting the dirt road sites with the pickup. We were successful in getting the employee to reduce the daily rate for the pickup so that it was only a little bit more expensive than the original car we rented. 

Laura and I completed the vehicle exchange during the afternoon of August 22. It felt a little ridiculous to be driving around in such a big truck, equipped with roll bars, a fire extinguisher, a shovel and pick ax, especially since I knew that the gravel roads we would be navigating can be easily traversed with a small car. 

August 23, 2022

Surrounding Arequipa lie several volcanoes which contribute to the dramatic scenery of the area. To the north is snow-capped Chachani, while Misti looms to the northeast of the city. East of Arequipa is another series of mountains referred to as Picchu Picchu. A gravel road snakes its way along the south flank of Misti, climbing higher in elevation until reaching a plateau above 4300m. Situated on this plateau is an extensive salt lake, creatively called Lagunas Las Salinas. 

The gravel road leading up the mountain towards Lagunas Las Salinas is a popular birding route. The vegetation communities along the road change depending on the elevation. The town of Chiguata sits at roughly 3000m, while the plateau containing Lagunas Las Salinas is at 4300m. A sizable patch of Polylepis forest can be accessed along this road near the 4000m mark. 

Laura and I left our motel in Arequipa at dawn and made our way to Chiguata, the beginning of our route up the mountain. We had around six target bird species. 

Road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

The first two targets fell at our first stop. First up was a pair of Black-hooded Sierra Finches, looking sharp in the early morning sun. 

Black-hooded Sierra-Finch - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

A couple of noisy White-throated Earthcreepers populated a nearby gravel pit. This species proved to be reasonably common in this lower elevation band, but it was absent further up the road. 

White-throated Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

The White-throated Earthcreeper has a limited range, preferring dry Andean valleys in southern Peru and northern Chile. An isolated population has recently been discovered near Lima in coastal central Peru.
White-throated Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru


White-throated Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Of course, there were many other birds to look at given that the sun had just risen and everything was active. We briefly observed both Andean Tinamou and Andean Hillstar, along with common species in this habitat type such as Giant Hummingbird, Yellow-billed Tit-Spinetail and several species of sierra finches. 

Our third target to fall was a skulky Puna Canastero, but my photos of it leave a lot to be desired so I will refrain from posting them.

I had been keeping an eye out for any Straight-billed Earthcreepers, though they prefer slightly higher elevations here than the White-throated Elevations. Upon reaching the right elevation (around 3500m) we quickly found a Straight-billed Earthcreeper!

Straight-billed Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Any time that I can obtain a good photo of an earthcreeper or other furnariid is a cause for celebration. These brownish streaky things don't lend themselves often to photography.

Straight-billed Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Straight-billed Earthcreeper - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Just like that, Laura and I had found four of our target birds. The last two species (Tamarugo Conebill and Thick-billed Siskin) are Polylepis specialists here. The Tamarugo Conebill has a very limited breeding range in northern Chile while the entire population winters a little further north in the mountains, reaching southern Peru. The Thick-billed Siskin ranges a little wider, but it is never common and is strongly associated with Polylepis groves. 

Polylepis grove - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Birding along the road was becoming quite frustrating given the volume and frequency of large trucks and buses. The road was composed of dust that seemed to get finer and finer the further up the mountain we traveled. During our roadside birding we had to make frequent dashes back to the truck, or risk getting completely coated by the dust. 

Luckily, a small trail led off of the road into the Polylepis forest. This gave Laura and I a break from the traffic and its associated dust. We made the most of this opportunity, even though it was now late morning and bird activity had really quieted down.
Polylepis grove - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

The Tamarugo Conebills were present in large numbers. In fact, they may have been the most common species for us in the Polylepis! An attractive little conebill, though one that was extremely skittish and difficult to observe well. 

Tamarugo Conebill - road to Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

And we succeeded with our sixth and final target for the day as well, the Thick-billed Siskin. A male began to sing from somewhere up the slope behind us and I managed a quick view of it before it took off down the hillside. We heard it a few more times, but it never showed its face again. A frustrating encounter, though I suppose it was better than not seeing the bird at all. 

Having had a productive morning of birding, Laura and I visited the salt lake for an hour or so at midday. 

Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

Lagunas Las Salinas is well-known as a site to find James's Flamingos along with small numbers of Andean Flamingos. Fortunately, we had already seen these two species earlier in the trip and so we did not need to track them down. That being said, it was hard not to notice the James's Flamingos. Even with the harsh midday light, I could not resist taking a few photos against the white, salty backdrop. 

James's Flamingo - Lagunas Las Salinas, Arequipa, Peru

August 24, 2022

For our second and final morning with the Toyota Hilux, Laura and I drove north along the road that passes between the volcanoes Chachani and Misti. We had no conceivable bird target since our previous day had been so successful. I figured that we had two options: 1) return to the Polylepis grove from the previous day, to give ourselves another shot at better views and photos of the Thick-billed Siskin, or 2) visit this new road and search for Puna Canasteros which are quite common here. 

Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

We picked option 2 since it also meant that we would be visiting a new area. This was a good idea. Not only did we improve our Puna Canastero viewing experience, but I cracked off a few photos that I was very happy with.

Puna Canastero - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Puna Canastero - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

We birded a little further up the road until it was the late morning. We did not find anything too crazy, but it was nice to enjoy species like Andean Hillstar, Creamy-breasted Canastero, D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrant. I also spent some time checking out the flowering plants along the roadside, some of which were attended by various butterflies. 

Nabokovia faga - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Chirgus sp. - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Calceolaria inamoena - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Spergularia fasciculata - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Mesonychium sp. - Tambo Cabrerias, Arequipa, Peru

Checkered-skipper sp.

That evening, Laura and I caught an overnight bus to the city of Cusco where the next leg of the adventure waited.