Sunday 20 November 2022

Manú Road: Introduction and Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Station

There is a level of giddy anticipation that comes with researching a country and its species for the first time. Opening a field guide published about an unfamiliar corner of the globe reveals a treasure trove of information about the exotic and unique creatures which call that place home. By completing a baseline amount of research - perhaps by perusing a trip report, or by scanning eBird for the reddest (and therefore most bird-diverse) hotspots in that country, or by hearing a friend regale you with tales of a previous adventure - one begins the journey of discovery, the thrill of learning something new and exciting about a tantalizing destination. 

I initiated this baseline level of research for Peru around seven years ago, in anticipation for a tour that I was scheduled to lead. Unfortunately, the tour fell through and I put Peru on the back burner for a little while. But during this bout of research, one place was referenced time and time again: Manú Road. 

Manú Road

Over the years, whenever I came across anything bird-related about Peru, Manú Road was inevitably mentioned at some point. And for good reason! Some say that it is the most biodiverse road on Earth and it is hard to quibble with that assessment. Beginning high in the mountains east of Cusco, Manú road descends from above the tree-line to the Amazon lowlands, passing along the mega-biodiverse east slope of the Andes. It transects an altitudinal gradient of well over 3 kilometers. 

Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle - Manú Road, Cusco, Peru

Much of the length of Manú Road runs adjacent to the Manú Biosphere Reserve and other protected areas, such that the scenery along its upper and middle reaches is some of the most magnificent in the world. There is just unbroken forest as far as the eye can see. The east slope of the Andes holds some of the rainiest forests on earth, since humid air over Amazonia condenses as it passes westward over the Andes. Turn on the taps, and you turn on the biodiversity. 

Nearly 1000 species of birds have been reported along the length of Manú Road, a staggering number indeed. Of course, this insane level of biodiversity is mirrored with all other organisms that reside in Andean or Amazonian ecosystems. 

Laura and I saved the best for last during our trip, and we budgeted for almost three weeks to explore various sites in the Amazon basin as well as Manú Road. Needless to say, we were excited. 

September 2, 2022

Before journeying to the beginning of Manú Road, Laura and I detoured to an alpine lake, often visited by birders. While we had already encountered most of the birds targeted by birders at Laguna de Huacarpay, the Streak-fronted Thornbird had eluded us. Our dawn arrival was timed perfectly to search for the thornbird. 

Laguna Huacarpay, Cusco, Peru

Unfortunately, the thornbird was nowhere to be found but we had an enjoyable morning, anyways. Many-coloured Rush-Tyrants put on a show, we spied several Cinereous Harriers over the reedbeds and we had our best views ever of Rusty-fronted Canastero. We did not linger too long since Manú Road awaited. 

Rusty-fronted Canastero - Laguna Huacarpay, Cusco, Peru

The rest of the drive to the upper reaches of Manú Road was largely uneventful. We passed areas of farmland, Eucalytus copses and small towns through the series of inter-Andean valleys that stretch between Cusco and the east slope of the Andes. Road works derailed our plans somewhat as we had to follow a confusing detour, but asking some locals for directions put us on the right path. We crested the final ridge just before noon. The sunshine from the dry valleys disappeared behind us as we were met with a wall of clouds. We were definitely on the east slope.

Laura and I had plans to spend the night at Wayqecha Biological Station, giving us a couple of hours to kill along the uppermost reaches of Manú Road. We attempted to drive down Carretera a Tres Cruces, but the guards manning the gate at this reserve would not let us through without charging us a pricey day-use fee. We passed on that. 

Grass Wren - Paso Acjanaco, Cusco, Peru

My main target down that road was the range-restricted Scribble-tailed Canastero, the only one of Peru's nine canasteros that Laura and I had not yet found. We resolved to return to Carretera a Tres Cruces later on in the trip when we had more time available to justify the entrance fee. 

But that would not be required after all. We lucked out with a pair of 'scribblers' a few kilometers further down Manú Road! 

Scribble-tailed Canastero - Upper Manú Road, Cusco, Peru

We tried birding at various points between here and Wayqecha, but heavy fog had ascended up the slope and blanketed our position, making birding very difficult. The afternoons can be tough up here, with fog and rain practically guaranteed during parts of the year. 

Luckily, Wayqecha was clear of the fog, giving us hope that we could have some productive late afternoon birding. 

Though Manú Road provides physical access to a ridiculous amount of biodiversity, it can be difficult to explore it cheaply. Most birders hire local guides to take them around and they stay at various ecolodges which are strategically placed at certain elevations. This was out of our budget; we resolved to visit Manú Road on our own via a rental vehicle. 

Band-tailed Fruiteater - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

In the lower parts of Manú Road it is possible to stay at a number of hotels or homestays in the town of Pillcopata. There are no budget options in the middle elevations of Manú Road, just a handful of very expensive ecolodges. Laura and I planned to complete day trips to these middle elevation areas from our base in Pillcopata. In the upper reaches of Manú Road, there is basically only one option: the Wayqecha Biological Station. 

Run by Amazon Conservation, Wayqecha doubles as a biological station as well as a lodge for birder/naturalist types. While it is far from inexpensive, Wayqecha is cheaper than the various ecolodges along Manú. Laura and I chose the dormitory option which cost us $70 USD each per day. This included all meals and full access to the trail system (and guides were not required to use the trails). Laura and I booked only one night at Wayqecha. It was a welcome surprise when, upon arrival, we were informed that we had been upgraded to our own chalet, as opposed to staying in the dorm with the researchers (we were the only tourists here during our stay). 

Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

During our first afternoon we explored part of the trail system, choosing Trocha Zorro (trocha is a Peruvian term for trail) which explored some of the higher elevations roughly parallel to the main road. The birding was good in spite of the heavy overcast conditions, and we quickly tallied our first Rufous-capped Thornbill. 

Rufous-capped Thornbill - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Several mixed flocks before dark produced a few more firsts - Black-faced Brushfinch and Band-tailed Fruiteater - along with Barred Fruiteater, Rust-and-yellow Tanager, Golden-collared Tanager and more. 

Andean Guan - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Since we only had one night at Wayqecha, Laura and I resolved to make the most of it. Even though Wayqecha's elevation ensured that the evening temperatures were rather cool, this did not hamper the moth diversity. I set up my sheet next to the chalet and we marveled at the diversity that appeared during the evening hours. Below is a small selection of the goods. 

September 3, 2022

Laura and I spent the morning on the trail system at Wayqecha. Though the system is extensive, Wayqecha's location along the side of a ravine means that you are either walking up or down. There is very little flat ground! However, some of the trails are cut into the side of the valley, running parallel to the river, helping to minimize the constant elevation changes. 

Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

One advantage of exploring the trail system instead of walking along Manú Road is that the trails provide a chance to observe rare skulkers like tinamous, wood-quails, antpittas or antthrushes. And while we struck out with the former two groups (only hearing Brown Tinamou and Stripe-faced Wood-Quail) we lucked out with the latter two. We spotted an Urabamba Antpitta early on in the morning, while we later played hide-and-seek with a Barred Antthrush that provided brief views. Several other antpittas remained as heard-only including Red-and-white and Leymebamba.

Urubamba Antpitta - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

The birding was slow at times, but with some effort our species list for the morning grew. Mixed flocks contained a nice variety of tanagers and flycatchers. 

Hooded Mountain-Tanager - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Ochraceous-breasted Flycatcher - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

The only lifer of the morning came in the form of a Fulvous Wren. 

Fulvous Wren - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Laura was feeling under the weather and so she followed the main road back to the station, while I stayed out and birded along the Canopy Trail, eventually reaching the canopy walkway. 

Canopy Walkway - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Fog had descended at this point, minimizing the chances of flyby raptors or parrots. Luckily for me, a mixed flock passed through below eye-level. 

Black-capped Hemispingus - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Grass-green Tanager - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

White-banded Tyrannulet - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Masked Flowerpiercer - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

The Canopy Trail produced a few more gems on the way out: a Maroon-belted Chat-Tyrant, a Golden-browed Chat-Tyrant, and several Puna Thistletails. 

Golden-browed Chat-Tyrant - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Golden-browed Chat-Tyrant - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Puna Thistletail - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

The variety of orchids and other plants along this stretch of trail provided a strong distraction.

Epidendrum secundum - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Cyrtochilum sp. - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Gaultherium sp. - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Cyrtochilum aureum - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Bejaria aestuans - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Monnina sp. - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

The rain threatened but ultimately held off during the walk along the road back to the lodge. Obtaining my first good views and photos of a Rufous-capped Thornbill was a big highlight along here. 

Rufous-capped Thornbill - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Rufous-capped Thornbill - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Laura and I packed up and left Wayqecha, having made the most of our 24 hours here. Our next destination: the Villa Carmen Biological Station in the lower foothills.

Andean Guan - Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, Cusco, Peru

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Apurímac Valley Endemics And A Rare Tinamou

August 29, 2022

Laura and I drove back over the Abra Málaga pass and spent the night in Ollantaytambo, which you can read about in a previous post.

We continued west, passing through scrubby side and deep valleys adorned with planted Eucalyptus. Yep, we were back in an inter-Andean valley. 

Our goal was to explore a few valleys and reserves in this part of Peru in search of several localized endemic birds. These included the Apurimac Spinetail, Apurimac Brushfinch and Ampay Tapaculo. I also wanted to connect with the enigmatic Taczanowski's Tinamou, a mythical bird that is most commonly encountered in the Ampay area. 

We broke up the drive at a dirt road which left the main highway and climbed high into the dry hills. Within minutes we had located our target: a quartet of cute White-eared Puffbirds. This species is common in forest edges and scrub in Bolivia, Brazil and eastern Paraguay, but it is rather localized in Peru. 

White-eared Puffbirds - Limatambo area, Cusco, Peru

We also found a few other species of note during our brief detour including White-winged Black Tyrant, Andean Swift, Black-backed Grosbeak and Blue-and-yellow Tanager. 

White-winged Black Tyrant - Limatambo area, Cusco, Peru

Laura and I had plans of spending the night in Mollepata, situated at the base of a road that climbs high into the mountains. This particular road is home to good numbers of the Apurimac Spinetail and Apurimac Brushfinch, along with several other interesting birds like the Vilcabamba Tapaculo and Buff-fronted Owl. 

Habitat along the road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

During my preparation for this leg of the trip, the road to Soray looked like it would be a quiet dirt road with an abundance of suitable-looking brushy vegetation on either side. Perfect for our target Apurimac endemics. What we did not count on, however, was the crazy amount of minibus traffic. See, this road is the starting point for those planning on completing the trek to Machu Picchu. All of the tours have a similar itinerary in that they leave Cusco very early in the morning, laden with 20-somethings excited for their Machu Picchu hike. After a certain number of days the minibuses return to pick them up and transfer them back to Cusco. 

Barnadesia arborea - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

Our afternoon birding must have coincided with the afternoon pick-up, as for around 1.5 hours straight there was a steady stream of minibuses heading past us, full of exhausted North Americans and Europeans who had completed the trek. It certainly made the birding difficult.

That being said, we found our two targets with relative ease. The Apurimac Brushfinch was the first target to fall. While the pair that we found were quite skulky, with time we managed half-decent looks. It is a pretty sharp-looking bird. 

Apurimac Brushfinch - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

We had to work a little harder for the Apurimac Spinetails to play ball, but they showed themselves as well. My attempts at a photo were pretty terrible so I will spare you the sight...

Just before heading back to Mollepata we found a small mixed flock that contained a few Creamy-crested Spinetails and Rust-and-yellow Tanagers. 

Creamy-crested Spinetail - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

Laura and I grabbed a room in a cheap hotel in Mollepata and settled in for the evening. 

One thing about traveling in Peru that was a constant annoyance for us was the lack of dining options after around 4 PM in most small towns. Peruvians are big on eating lunch, and restaurants serving enormous amounts of food are open from late morning until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. However, once the lunch restaurants close, good luck sourcing food! Since Laura and I are usually out in the field during the middle of the day we prefer to eat something quick like a sandwich, fruit and snacks. By the time we are done birding for the day we look forward to finding a restaurant for a big plate of home-cooked food. This strategy doesn't always jive with the local culture. We have resorted to either acquiescing and eating a big lunch, or we finish our birding for the day early to be ready for dinner before these restaurants close at 4 or 5 PM. 

Our timing was off in Mollepata since we could not find a single restaurant that was still serving food at around 5:00 PM. You would have thought that someone would be open, but that was not the case! As a result, we had to resort to eating our sad sandwiches....

That evening, I headed out on my own for a bit of owling. The Buff-fronted Owl was the tantalizing option here, with the Apurimac subspecies of Koepcke's Screech-Owl being a potential consolation prize. And it played out exactly like that. Despite my best efforts, the Buff-fronted Owls remained silent. I heard a few Koepcke's Screech-Owls singing distantly but was unable to observe any of them in my flashlight beam. That is birding for you...

August 30, 2022

We returned to the dirt road hoping to improve on our views of the Apurimac Spinetail. This time, we left very early in the morning. We hoped to have a few hours of quiet birding before the minibuses inevitably appeared with their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed patrons, eager to set sight on Machu Picchu. 

This strategy sort of worked. We enjoyed about an hour of minibus-free birding, though not the 2+ hours that we had dreamed of. However, we succeeded with improved views of the Apurimac Spinetail, while we found a few other Apurimac Brushfinches, too. 

Apurimac Spinetail - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

The Apurimac Spinetail basically looks and sounds like an Azara's Spinetail, though it is a darker gray in colouration and shows a slaty-ish tail colour as well. 

Apurimac Spinetail - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

The birding was pretty good and we found a sharp Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch amongst some of the common species. 

Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

We drove a little further up the road, hoping to access some higher elevations with a different set of birds. Unfortunately, this was not possible without paying a hefty entrance fee. Instead, we birded near the checkpoint, finding some Mountain Velvetbreasts and a couple of additional Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finches. We endured the beginning of the minibus onslaught, then retreated to a dirt track that veered off of the main road. 

Dirt track along the road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

We took our time and enjoyed the peace and tranquility here. A Green-tailed Trainbearer lifted our spirits, as did an eye-level Red-crested Cotinga. 

Red-crested Cotinga - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

This species may be common throughout much of the Andes, but any cotinga is a good cotinga in my opinion!

Red-crested Cotinga - Road to Soray, Cusco, Peru

We birded the beginning stretch of road leading from the highway to the town of Mollepata before continuing west. My goal here was the Crested Becard as it was the only realistic new species for us in this region. We were unsuccessful during our short walk and so we gave up and made the long drive westwards. 

Leptotes callanga - Mollepata, Cusco, Peru

Smooth-billed Ani - Mollepata, Cusco, Peru

August 31, 2022

Laura and I were not sure what to expect with our visit to Sanctuario Nacional de Ampay. Not a ton of foreign birders make it this far from Cusco and so the eBird data is relatively scarce. The reserve contains a single hiking trail that climbed in elevation and cut through montane forest and eventually, elfin forest and scrub. If one is adventurous, it is possible to camp up here and hike a large loop that takes several days to complete. 

Several tantalizing bird species are possible at Sanctuario Nacional de Ampay, the most notable being the scarce and secretive Taczanowski's Tinamou. Some of the other possibilities include Ampay Tapaculo, Apurimac Brushfinch, Apurimac Spinetail, a nice variety of hummingbirds including Scaled Metaltail and Purple-backed Thornbill, Yungas Pygmy-Owl and much more. 

Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Laura and I loaded our packs with food and water, paid our entrance fee and began the hike. It was a gorgeous morning and we were excited for the possibilities.

Fuschia apetala - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

The walk was steep and we gained quite a lot of elevation early on, making it difficult to focus on the birding. We had made a canine friend at the entrance gate and she took it upon herself to guide us all the up to the top and back down again over the course of the day.

I tried some playback for the Taczanowski's Tinamou as we passed through some bits of farmland early on. This species generally avoids dense forest, preferring scrubby edges or other areas without dense tree cover. Not surprisingly, we had no luck with this near-mythical species. 

Mutisia sp. - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

The montane forest was absolutely beautiful despite the relative lack of birds early on. 

Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

But slowly, the birds began to reveal themselves. We found several Purple-backed Thornbills, a lifer for Laura and a year-bird for me. This species has the smallest bill to body ratio of any hummingbird!

Purple-backed Thornbill - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We glimpsed an Undulated Antpitta at a stream crossing, the first of three that we would encounter during the day. A small mixed flock produced our lifer White-browed Conebill. This species had been strangely absent for us thus far in southern Peru. 

White-browed Conebill - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Several minutes later, I heard the distant song of a Yungas Pygmy-Owl. We had heard this species twice previously in Peru, but this time, we actually managed to see it! A magical moment...

Yungas Pygmy-Owl - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Yungas Pygmy-Owl - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Yungas Pygmy-Owl - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

I kept an eye on our elevation since we needed to reach over 3400m or so to be in range for the Ampay Tapaculo. With some relief, I heard the day's first Ampay Tapaculo shortly after our owl encounter. The tapaculos would prove to be quite common above 3550m as the trees began to thin out. 

Ampay Tapaculo - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We had seen some fantastic species up to this point but the best was yet to come. We heard a unique bird call, and Laura caught a glimpse of a tinamou, in flight, disappearing into some nearby scrub. A Taczanowski's Tinamou! We waited around the area for a while, but there would be no encore performance. 

The story did not end there, however, and there would be more Taczanowski's Tinamous in our future... more on that in a bit.

Laura and I pressed on through the scrubby vegetation. We were now over 3700m in elevation and had left the montane forest behind. We climbed for another hour or so, reaching Laguna Uspaccocha where we had lunch with our trusty guide dog. 

Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

The lake's elevation was around 3818m, meaning that we had gained over 900m over the course of the morning. The rest at the top was well-deserved.

 Laguna Uspaccocha - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We found a few additional birds of note in these higher elevations including White-tufted Sunbeam, Shining Sunbeam, Scaled Metaltail and Rusty-fronted Canastero. Apurimac Spinetail was quite common up here, while we found a few Apurimac Brushfinches as well. Some other species near the lake were new for our eBird checklist including Andean Flicker, Andean Lapwing and Mountain Caracara. 

Tyrian Metaltai - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Laura and I hiked back down, losing the elevation that we had just gained. It was a bit easier on the lungs this way, but tougher on the knees. 

Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We had almost reached the tinamou spot from earlier when Laura called my attention to a dark shape on the side of a path. Another Taczanowski's Tinamou! It crossed the path, ran through a grassy patch and disappeared down the side of the embankment. While Laura ensured that our canine friend remained with her on the path, and not off chasing tinamous, I snuck over to the edge to see if I could spot the tinamou down the bank. Suddenly, there it was. Huddled at the edge no more than three meters away and looking back up at me was the Taczanowski's Tinamou!

Taczanowski's Tinamou habitat - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

The looks were incredible and I could really appreciate the dark plumage with fine white markings as well as the bird's huge, curved bill. I slowly grabbed my camera and brought it up, just as the tinamou stood from its hiding spot and quietly slunk down the hillside. No photos, but hopefully that image will be burned in my brain for decades to come. 

Metardaris cosinga - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

Eventually, I came down from my tinamou high and we continued our descent. The birding was slower during the early afternoon hours as we had expected. One highlight was a great look at a Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Laura's first. Some authorities have split off this taxa as Kalinowski's Chat-Tyrant. 

Kalinowski's Crowned Chat-Tyrant - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We stopped one more time for a snack with our guide dog. Unsurprisingly, we look rather exhausted at this point. 

 Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

 Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

It was a tiring hike but well worth it, and I would highly recommend a visit to Sanctuario Nacional de Ampay. The habitats and scenery is incredible, the birding is top-notch and, best of all, you will likely not come across any other people, especially if you visit on a weekday. 

September 1, 2022

Laura and I enjoyed a well-deserved sleep-in before returning to Sanctuario Nacional de Ampay. We birded the entrance road for an hour or so, hoping to turn up a Crested Becard which was now the only possible lifer that we could find between here and Cusco. Again, we struck out, though a pair of White-throated Hawks was a nice consolation prize.

White-throated Hawk - Sanctuario Nacional del Ampay, Apurímac, Peru

We left the area behind and drove east, arriving in Cusco during the late afternoon. We switched out our small car for a Renault Duster and found a cheap hotel on the outskirts of the city. The next leg of our trip would take us down the famed Manú Road.