Birds of Peru
Over the past thirty years, scientists have discovered more new bird species in Peru than in the rest of the world combined. Nevertheless, while Peru, and Colombia, possess the greatest diversity of birds on the planet, as well as breathtaking landscapes and remarkable historical sites linked to the bird watching routes, this is not reflected in the number of travelers who heed the call of our country to engage in this specialized tourism sector. Regardless, the enormous potential Peru has in terms of birds will doubtlessly and inevitably be harnessed in the near future.
It is true that we are still labeled a country known for its Andean, archeological, and cultural tourism, which is all true and of which we are proud, but there are not many people who suspect that bird watchers see Peru as the most spectacular destination imaginable. There is no other country where you can see the following species in just two days: penguins, flamingos, hummingbirds, condors, and massive flocks of macaws. Since 1983, we have held an unbeatable world record for the most bird species spotted in one day: two prestigious ornithologists, Ted Parker and Scott Robinson, recorded seeing 331 bird species – without the use of motorized vehicles – in the area around the Cosha Cashu Biological Station, in the heart of the Manu National Park.
It is important to stress that South America boasts the top six nations in terms of bird species diversity in the world. Along with Peru are Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The next closest country is gigantic China, but with 500 bird species less than Peru. South America possesses more than one-third of all birds the world over, and nearly 1000 more species than in Africa, continent which is next on the list of greatest diversity.
Of all the nations on the planet, there are just two with more than 1800 species: Peru and Colombia. Nonetheless, ornithological research in Colombia has been historically superior to that in Peru, and that may be the reason why it has a twelve species advantage over our country. There are plenty of gaps in research in Peru, especially in border areas, from which, very soon, more birds will be added to the list of known species. There are at least twenty species living in bordering countries that would not be a great surprise to find in our country, as new inventories are taken. In addition, Peru has described, on average over the past few decades, one new species per year (it’s been 150 years since a new species was discovered in Europe), which is why it is highly likely that the country of the Incas, the country of Machu Picchu, the country of the Amazon River, will become the country with the greatest diversity of birds on Earth. One more thing to point out is that Peru is home to the world’s largest flying bird, the condor, and the second smallest, the Little woodstar, just one millimeter longer than the Bee hummingbird in Cuba (6.4 cm from beak to tail).
Historical airs of Peru birds
Even though the Spanish Conquistadors weren’t all that interested in birds during Peru’s Colonial Period, some of the historians, like Sarmiento de Gamboa, did write down the legend in which the Incan emperor, Manco Capac, carried with him an Aplomado falcon, named Inti, as a symbol of his power and divinity. What is not a legend but actual fact are the countless examples of admiration and even worship by ancient Peruvians of their most representative birds.
Take, for example, the Nazca Line figure of a hummingbird, more than 50 meters in length, etched on the desert floor. Or the large number of bird images carved in the rocks at Toro Muerto, Arequipa’s famed rock art complex. There are also some interesting controversies brewing. Experts are now saying the image ubiquitously found throughout Chavin iconography that they thought was a condor is, in fact, a harpy eagle (the largest, most powerful bird of prey in the Americas), if you look closely at the anatomy of its claws.
As reported by Walter Alva, Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum Director, some birds played the role of gods in the Mochican religion, such as the owl warrior, the duck man, or the owl priestess, connecting Earth and Heaven, establishing order, and marking the rhythm of life for this civilization. Another group of birds, cormorants, pelicans, and boobies, had great influence on pre-Hispanic coastal civilizations, like the Paracas, Chimu, and Chancay. Not only were these Peru birds used for fishing (tying strings to their legs), but their droppings (guano) that collected on the islands were a fertilizer par excellence for farmlands. Likewise, the regal Nascas used to wear clothing in which they wove feathers from macaws, cotingas, and other vividly colored birds from the remote jungle. They must have known the exact location and distribution of these species’ habitats in order to supply themselves with the raw materials for creating such lavish outfits.
Photo credit: Green Tours
The different regions
In general terms, you could say there are four large regions in Peru running parallel to the Andes and each with its own, peculiar birdlife: the Amazonian plain, the cloud forests, the highlands, and the coast. Thomas Valqui, who earned a Master’s degree in Ecology and Biological Evolution, states that while the Amazonian plain seen in satellite images appears uniform, it is, in reality, made up of a complex structure of spaces that explain why 50% of the birds of Peru live there. “According to studies done at the Manu National Park,” Valqui says, “you can find in one single point up to 160 overlapping territories of different bird species. To give us an idea of this diversity, the number of overlapping territories in the richest North American temperate forests is, at best, 40.”
The second region is comprised of jungles located on steep mountainsides. While this only represents 5% of all Peruvian territory, cloud forests (or the eyebrow of the jungle) at elevations fluctuating from 800 m to 3200 m shelter more than 600 bird species. Among these is the orange-red South American bird, the Andean cock of the rock, the Peruvian national bird. The third region, the highlands, the country’s most distinctive and emblematic, is characterized by its massive length: a 2500 kilometer long mountain range. The Andes are not an old range since they reached their great height and extreme climatic conditions about one million years ago. Studies show that most of the species living at the peaks originated in the Patagonia and thus were already conditioned for the harsh environment. Moreover, the majority of Peru’s aquatic birds, like ducks, herons, and coots, live in the seemingly never ending number of upper Andean lakes scattered throughout the range and, not to mention, famous Lake Titicaca. Lastly, there is the coast, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. To the north, there is the famed “Tumbesian zone” that encompasses mangroves and tropical forests in the department of Tumbes, the dry forests in Piura, Lambayeque, and La Libertad, as well as the southern sections of Ecuador. At least 55 species can only be found in that area. That is why the “Tumbesian zone” is one of the three most important centers of endemism in the world. Farther south, it becomes more arid until turning into the largest coastal desert in the world, reaching even to Atacama, Chile. However, there are 53 rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean from the mountains and that along the way form surprising oases of plant and animal wildlife of which birds take advantage. Other seasonal oases, fed by winter mists, are the so-called “lomas” (hills), like Atiquipa, the world’s largest, which is visited by valleydwelling birds. On a side note, the ocean, richest on the planet, attracts cormorants, pelicans, boobies, and penguins, along with many other species, that feed exclusively on fish. In the open sea, there are pelagic birds, like the albatross. In total, the cold, rich Humboldt current is home to ten endemic bird species.
Bird Watching in Peru: The Main Routes
1. North Amazonian Circuit: the specialists’ route.
With more than 1,200 bird species, the North Amazonian Circuit is best known for its endemic birds. These include the Marvellous spatuletail hummingbird (Loddigesia mirabilis), and the rediscovered White-winged guan (Penelope albipennis), the Long-whiskered owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi) plus the recently found Iquitos gnatcatcher (Polioptila clementsi).
White-winged guan (Penelope albipennis). Photo credit: Green Tours
The resurrection of the white-winged guan
The adventure may well begin at the city of Chiclayo, with a visit to the Pomac Forest. This is the habitat of many endemic Tumbesian species, and here you can see, flitting among the carob trees, the Peruvian plantcutter (Phytotoma raimondii) as well as the endemic Rufous flycatcher (Myiarchus semirufus), the Tumbes swallow (Tachycineta stolzmanni), and the Mouse-colored tyrannulet (Phaeomyias tumbezana), and, if the waters of the adjacent La Leche River are running, then the Black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopsis), which is a sporadic visitor to this protected area. The Chaparri Private Reserve Area also offers a variety of endemic Tumbesian birds, with the highlights being the reintroduced populations of the white-winged guan.
Following a northerly direction from here, you reach the small village of Limon where, in the wild, you can see the critically threatened white-winged guan, a bird that was thought to be extinct for 100 years until it was rediscovered in 1977. The wild populations of this species are now recovering, thanks to the work of conservationists. At Quebrada Frejolillo, close to Limon, you can easily see other birds like the Ecuadorian piculet (Picumnus sclateri), the Henna hooded foliage gleaner (Hylocryptus erythrocephalus), the Short tailed swift (Chaetura ocypetes), and many more.
From Limon, which is located close to Olmos, the route takes you towards the east along the road to Jaen. A must stop is the montane forest close to the Porculla Pass, where you will find a gamut of endemic Tumbesian species in their own habitat, like the Piura chat tyrant (Ochthoeca piurae), the Rufous necked foliage gleaner (Syndactyla ruficollis), and the Three banded warbler (Basileuterus trifasciatus). As you cross the Porculla Pass, you leave behind the western side of the Andes and enter its eastern slopes, specifically the Marañon River Basin. The road follows the Huancabamba River all the way to Chamaya, where you will take the turnoff towards Jaen. Close to this city, in the adjacent tropical thickets, you can find the Marañon crescentchest (Melanopareia maranonica), the Marañon spinetail (Synallaxis maranonica), the Chinchipe spinetail (Synallaxis chinchipensis), and other interesting Peru birds, many of which are endemic to the area.
Exiting Jaen, the circuits continues eastward and passes the place where the Chamaya River empties into the Marañon; a few kilometers ahead, you reach a relatively flat area that is dominated by bushes, approximately one meter in height, and out of which rise giant cacti. This prairie extends towards the Chinchipe River that flows from the north, the Utcubamba River that comes in from the east, and the Marañon from the south, all of which meet simultaneously at a place called the Pongo de Rentema. In this area, close to the town of Bagua Chica, it is possible for you to find the first member of a genus that is completely endemic to Peru: the Incaspiza genus, or Inca finches. The Little Inca finch (Incaspiza watkinsi) can be seen posing on the top of a cactus, while the Marañon gnatcatcher (Polioptila major) looks for insects among the branches of the bushes.
Birds of Atahualpa
Leaving this impressive place behind, the route continues towards the south by a road that runs parallels to the Utcubamba River upstream until reaching the village of Pedro Ruiz. Here, there are two options that you can follow: either to the east or to the southeast. If you chose the latter, the course takes you through a semi-dry, riverine forest on the banks of the Utcubamba River, where you can catch glimpses of endemic species like the Buff-bellied tanager (Thlypopsis inirnata), the Spot throated hummingbird (Leucippus taczanowskii), and the Marañon Thrush (Turdus maranonicus). As you approach the village of Leymebamba, which lies near the river’s birthplace (having passed the turnoffs that take you to Chachapoyas and the incredible ruins of the Kuelap fortress), the climate shifts, becoming humid. Continuing on the road that carries you to Balsas, you cross through the Barro Negro Pass (3670 m.), where awaiting to be seen are the threatened Russet mantled softtail (Thripophaga berlepschi), a bird associated with bamboo and found in just ten places in all Peru, the lovely Gray breasted mountain toucan (Andigena hypoglauca), entertaining hummingbirds, and several mountain tanager species. Once over the pass, there is an abrupt drop through delightful countryside until the arrival at Balsas, at an altitude of 850 meters and on the banks of the Marañon River.
The route, as it descends, crosses portions of paramo, dwarf forests, montane forests, dry thickets with scattered specimens of acacia trees, and dry forests, where the red silk cotton tree and cacti dominate the scenery, until it meets the banks of the Marañon. In this altitudinal succession, there is a fine selection of birds that are endemic to the Valley of the Marañon: the Yellow faced parrotlet (Forpus xanthops) and the Buff bridled Inca finch (Incaspiza laeta) live in the dry forests, the Marañon pigeon (Patagioenas oenops) close to the river, chiefly around the mango plantations, and the Chestnut backed thornbird (Phacellodomus dorsalis) and the Gray winged Inca finch (Incaspiza orizi) are found in the dry thickets.
From the course of the river, the route climbs westerly towards the city of Cajamarca, and to reach it, you pass through the town of Celendin. Throughout this section, close to the remaining patches of vegetation in the upper parts, it is possible to meet the White tailed shrike tyrant (Agriornis andicola) as well as the cajamarcae race of the Rufous antpitta (Grallaria rufula). Once in Cajamarca, the city where the Spaniards captured the last Inca, Atahualpa, you have to go and see the spot where the Gray bellied comet (Taphrolesbia griseiventris) feeds on the inflorescence of the bromeliads in the areas around the Chonta River. From this city, the route takes a southerly course towards the town of San Marcos, in whose environs one can observe the rare Great spinetail (Siptornopsis hipocondriaca) flittering among the acacia trees.
Marvelous spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis). Photo credit: Green Tours
The Most Beautiful Hummingbird in the World
If we are still in Pedro Ruiz and decide to take the alternative to what was just described, then the route follows the course of the Chido River, a tributary of the Utcubamba, and passes the famous “Chido Path”, the best known site for catching glimpses of the rare and endemic Pale billed antpitta (Grallaria carrikeri), definitely off the beaten path. In the upper parts of the Chido River, it is likely that you will see the most beautiful hummingbird in the world, the Marvelous spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis). This fabulous bird can be spotted as it feeds on a variety of flowers (depending on the season) that grow on the bushes just outside the village of Pomacochas. An almost certain way of seeing this bird is visiting the Huembo Reserve, which is dedicated to conserving this species.
From Pomacochas, the road continues east, arriving at the upper parts of the Nieva River just after crossing the famous Patricia Pass. These forests of the upper part of the river are incredibly special since in them is found a group of enigmatic birds, such as the Long whiskered owlet (Xenoglaux loweryi), a small owl that has rarely been seen in the wild, the elusive Ochre fronted antpitta (Grallaricula ochraceifrons), and the musical Bar winged wood wren (Henicorhina leucoptera), both discovered in these forests at the end of the 1970’s. Other interesting birds that can be observed in these forests are the Royal sunangel (Heliangelus regalis), the Cinnamon screech owl (Megascops petersoni), and an array of colorful tanagers, including the Yellow scarfed tanager (Iridosornis reinhardati).
Passing the upper headwaters of the Nieva River is the beginning of a rapid descent through the awe inspiring humid Alto Mayo Protection Forest, an area protected by the state. This fascinating forest is filled with birds, but some of the most spectacular are the Ash throated antwren (Herpsilochmus parkeri), Equatorial graytail (Xenerpestes singularis), the Black mandibled toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus), and still many others. Downhill is the city of orchids, Moyobamba, where you can climb Calzada Hill, a refuge for the Lettered Aracari, and then on to Tarapoto. Here, you find yourself very near to the Huallaga River, a tributary of the Marañon, which runs north of the boundaries of the Pacaya – Samiria National Reserve before joining the Ucayali River; moreover, their point of confluence is the birthplace of the Amazon River, very close to the city of Iquitos.
From this city, which was at one point in history known as the rubber capital, the possibilities of viewing birds are very exciting. The white sand forests of the Allpahuayo – Mishana National Reserve, located southwest of Iquitos, are full of surprising birds, many of which have recently been discovered like the Allpahuayo antbird (Percnostola arenarum), the Ancient antwren (Herpsilochmus gentryi), and the rare Iquitos gnatcatcher (Polioptila clementsi), a bird described in 2005. Another bird watching option is to travel the continuous line of islands located in the nearby surroundings of Iquitos; these have a distinct avifauna like the Short tailed parrot (Graydidascalus brachyurus), the Zimmer’s woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus kienerii), and many other birds before a sunset of oranges, lilacs, and reds, customary for the Peruvian Amazon.
Read more: Taking the Northern Peru Birding Route
2. Center Circuit: nearby paradise
An eight day route that begins in Lima and ends at the Cueva de las Lechuzas (Screech Owl Cave) in Huanuco and the scent of the tropical jungle. There are more than 350 species you can observe along the way, and among these, the standout is the Junin grebe, star inhabitant of Lake Chinchaycocha: beautiful, endemic, and at critical risk of extinction. Also, there is the Hooded mountain tanager, resident of the superb Unchog cloud forest. From Lima, you take the Carretera Central (Central Highway) and then, at kilometer marker 39, turn left and take the road that parallels the Santa Eulalia River. After two hours of driving, the charming little town of San Pedro de Casta, with all its houses facing the same direction, appears. At the top of Casta, extending outwards, is Marcahuasi and its mysterious stone forest, a delightful area for anyone who visits it.
White bellied cinclodes (Cinclodes palliatus). Photo credit: Tanager Tours
Condor in Sight
The fanatics, who do not believe in stories, will not stop until reaching the wetlands at Milloc, Marcapomacocha, Antajasha, and Ticlio Bajo that are located in the upper part of the river basin, where it is possible to appreciate White bellied cinclodes (Cinclodes palliatus), an endemic and “critically endangered” species that may just disappear from the face of the earth. Other interesting birds on the way are the Diademed plover (Phegornis mitchellii), the White cheeked cotinga (Zaratornis stresemanni), and the endemic Great Inca finch (Incaspiza pulcra), as well as many others.
In this river basin that features the characteristics of highland grassy plains, where mankind and nature anxiously wait for the rain, and includes areas ranging in altitude between 2200 and 4800 meters, there are more than 120 bird species that have been described by ornithologists like Gunnar Engblom, who constantly visits the area. A good part of the animal life is made up of endemic species like the Bronze-tailed plumeleteer (Chalybura urochrysia), the Blackbreasted hillstar (Oreotrochilus melanogaster), the Back necked woodpecker (Colaptes atricollis), the Dark winged miner (Geositta saxicolina), the Striated earthcreeper (Upucerthia serrana), the Rusty crowned tit spinetail (Leptasthenura pileata), the Canyon canastero (Asthenes pudibunda), the Rufous breasted warbling finch (Poospiza rubecula), the Rusty bellied brush finch (Atlapetes nationi), and others.
Likewise, there are several great possibilities to see the mighty condor (Vultur gryphus), especially at the lookout nearby the town of San Juan de Iris. Two days are needed to wander this area of Lima, which includes pretty queñual forests.
Junin grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii). Photo credit: Tanager Tours
The Legendary Grebe
After spending the night in the town of La Oroya, the next stop is Lake Chinchaycocha, and even though it has been severely contaminated by local mining, one survivor is the splendid Junin grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii) (thanks in part to bird watchers), an endemic among endemics because it only lives on this lake and nowhere else on the planet. The bird lost its ability to fly since it evolved during the Pleistocene, when Chinchaycocha was surrounded by glaciers.
The task of differentiating between a Junin grebe and a Silvery grebe (Podiceps occiptales) is entertaining because they look very much the same, at first glance; the major differences lie in the size of the beak and the posture. There are many different aquatic birds in this Ramsar site, and you can see the Ruddy duck (Oxyura ferruginea), the Puna ibis (Plegadis ridgwayi), the Andean negrito (Lessonia oreas), the Puna teal (Anas puna) and others. And in the surrounding bunch grass (Festuca ichu) prairies, you can easily pick out the Junin canastero (satenes virgata), with a limited range of distribution.
After midday, on the way to Huanuco, a convenient stop off is at the Quichua queñual forest in order to look for some of the specialists species from this habitat, like the Giant conebill (Oreomanes fraseri) and the endemic Striated earthcreeper (Upucerthia serranus).
Descending by way of the Central Highway that hugs the Huallaga River, you pass the first thickets – close to Ambo – where you might see endemic species like the Rufous backed Inca finch (Incaspiza personata) and the Brown flanked tanager (Thlypopsis pectorales).
Sword billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera). Photo credit: Green Tours
The Wonders of Unchog
On the fourth day, you begin the ascent from the city of Huanuco to the Carpish Pass (2700 m.), where a tunnel cuts through the mountains in search of more tropical regions. As you exit the tunnel, you notice the landscape suddenly changes. The jungle gives off a scent that awakens the senses. Five kilometers from the tunnel, you have to stop and get out of the vehicle to hike down the famous Paty Trail: a pathway descending through the cloud forest, a region with high endemism in species. It is easy to see striking tanagers flying over the forest canopy in mixed groups, like the absolutely marvelous Yellow scarfed tanager (Iridosornis reinhardti), the Grass green tanager (Chlorornis riefferi), and the Scarlet bellied mountain tanager (Anisognathus igniventris). There are also the colorful Barred fruiteater (Pipreola arcuata) or the sensational Golden headed quetzal (Pharromachrus auriceps), not to mention the Sword billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) and the almost imperceptible Tschudi’s Tapaculo (Scytalopus acutirostris) and the Rufous vented Tapaculo (Scytalopus femoralis). With a little luck, you can also see the Orange breasted falcon (Falco deiroleucus) and the Black and chestnut eagle (Oroatus isidori).
On the fifth day, 12 kilometers from Huanuco at kilometer marker 425.5 of the Central Highway, you take the turnoff and travel 24 kilometers on the road that passes through the town of Cochabamba on the way to the Unchog Forest. At Cochabamba, you make arrangements to enter and pay the fees to the community (members there maintain the road and are involved in guarding the ecosystem from fires and overgrazing). You set up camp at Unchog, at an altitude of 3600 m; its name is a Quechua word for “in the shape of a chair”; there is a mountain with the same name crowning the area that looks exactly as the name describes. There, you can find ancient stone vestiges and pre-Incan lookouts.
In the thickets close to the campsite, patches of queñual forests shelter the Many striped canastero (Asthenes frentelistado) and the Neblina tapaculo (Scytalopus altirostris). Later, you have to hike a 5 kilometer trail that winds its way through the extraordinary cloud forest, home to specialized birds of this habitat like the Golden backed mountain tanager (Buthraupis aureodorsalis and the pardusco (Nephelornis oneilli). The trail continues to descend, permitting you to see and to hear other birds, such as the Rufous browed hemispingus (Hemispingus rufosuperciliaris) and the Undulated antpitta (Grallaria squamigera), among the 150 bird species that have been reported in Unchog.
At night on the sixth day, you return to the base camp in Huanuco for a well deserved rest before beginning the second to last day of this circuit. Now, you descend from Huanuco’s 1894 m. of altitude to 652 m. at Tingo Maria, a decidedly tropical city. One of the “stars” of the area is the endemic Huallaga tanager (Ramphastos melanogaster), but the Blue headed parrot (Ara couloni) and the White eyed parrot (Aratinga leucopthalmus), known in the area as the Shamiro, call attention to themselves, as well. You spend the night in Tingo Maria, but it is possible to go out and look for nocturnal birds, like the Tropical screech owl (Megascops choliba) and the Band bellied owl (Pulsatrix melanota).
On the eighth and final day, your steps are directed toward the Tingo Maria National Park, in particular to its most glorified spot, the Cueva de las Lechuzas, inhabited by thousands of oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis). There are also species found in the park that are unique to their genus, like the prehistoric-looking hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin), whose young even sport a claw on each wing. Especially beautiful, as if the queen of this protected forest, is the Magpie tanager (Cissopis leveriana). Some travelers take advantage of the visit to the park to take a bath in the Velo del Angel (Angel’s Veil) falls as an end to a much gratifying circuit.
Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin). Photo credit: Jungle Experiences
3. Southern Andean Circuit: the classic, historical route
This route crosses a large part of what was the Incan Empire and its grand architectural legacy, but it also includes the Manu National Park, perhaps the most important protected area in all Peru. This circuit is easier for travelers than most and possesses a good tourist service infrastructure and excellent field guides.
The Huacarpay wetlands is a remote area of color and life lying just 24 kilometers south of Cusco; it is a must stop for birders, who can see hundreds of birds frolicking around. Huacarpay comes from the Quechua word “Huacar”, an onomatopoeia produced by the Great egret (Ardea alba), which is one of the symbolic birds of this lake.
Doubtless some of the egrets are the queens and damsels of this aquatic habitat and of the abundant totora reeds that surround it, like the Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), the Snowy egret (Egretta thula), and the Black crowned night heron (Nycticorax-nycticorax) Like all paradises, Huacarpay included, there are predators, and the main one here is the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the world’s fastest bird, reaching the astonishing speed of 180 kph while hunting.
Andean cock of the rock (Rupicola peruviana). Photo credit: InkaNatura Travel
The amazing Andean cock of the rock
From Huacarpay, you must take the turnoff that leads resolutely to the east and that passes through the delightful village of Paucartambo, with its white houses and light blue balconies, before ascending towards the Acjanco Pass, which is very close to Tres Cruces – thought of as a natural balcony where you can see the most beautiful sunrises in the world. Along this part of the route, you can see endemic birds such as the Chestnut breasted mountain finch (Poospiza Caesar) and the Creamy crested spinetail (Cranioleuca albicapilla).
Leaving Tres Cruces, you enter the Manu National Park at its southern gate and begin a steep descent into the Kosñipata Valley (a Quechua name that means “smoked land”, an allusion to the permanent fog in the area). Operating there is the important “Wayquecha” biological station, which also boasts a canopy walkway. It’s an excellent site for finding the Red and white antpitta (Grallaria erythroleuca), another of Peru’s endemic jewels.
160 kilometers from Cusco and in the midst of a cloud forest is San Pedro, the most marvelous lookout in the world for finding the Andean cock of the rock (Rupicola peruviana). From an eight meter high platform, you can watch the fantastic dance that males perform in the forest understory. You may also spy birds like the Solitary eagle (Harpyhaliaetus solitarius), the Black and chestnut eagle (Oroaetus isidori), the Blue banded toucanet (Aulacorhynchus coeruleicinctis), and other splendid species.
Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions
As the road gets closer to the Madre de Dios River, the jungle appears to thin out with the emergence of livestock pasture and rice paddies. We cross the river near Atalaya, where the charming and hospitable Amazonian plantation of the Yabar family lies; you can comfortably observe more than 150 species, among them a huge diversity of hummingbirds, including the Koepcke’s hermit (Phaethornis koepckeae) and the Fine barred piculet (Picumnus subtilis), endemic to Peru. Similarly, it is possible to see maquisapas, large monkeys who like to clown around, and normal sized mammals like deer and peccaries.
With an area of 1.7 million hectares, the Manu National Park is almost half the size of Switzerland. Its center is obviously the entire Manu River Basin. Bird watchers enter, going downstream on the Madre de Dios River on motorboats until they reach the mouth of the Manu River; along the way, they will see chiefly the Fasciated tiger heron (Tigrisoma fasciatum) and the Great black hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga); they will have to navigate the Manu River upriver to reach the open tourist area, where flocks of strident macaws fly about, always on the alert for the attack of some Black hawk eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus), and perched somewhere about is the powerful harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja).
There are nearly 1000 bird species registered in both the pristine forests in the upper reaches of Manu and at the lakes Cocha Juarez, Cocha Salvador, and Cocha Cashu. If it is necessary to tell you, the word “cocha” means lake in Quechua. There are plenty of lookouts and well marked pathways in the area, and, as you stand or walk about in the denseness of the forest, the cries of the howling monkeys are deafening. Inside the forest are so many bird songs that it becomes a torture for the necks of the bird watchers. However, the most remarkable phenomenon is the mixed flocks of dozens of species. Yet, the most interesting bird is the amazing Bluish-slate antshrike (Thamnomanes schistogynus) that stands guard over these flocks that includes anteaters, creepers, and woodpeckers as well as other species. This bird is in charge of giving the warning cry if it sees a raptor.
Countless birds let fly their territorial songs, but there are some that the experts would love to see, like the Black faced cotinga (Conioptilon mcilhennyi), the Rufous fronted antthrush (Formicarius rufifrons), the Peruvian recurvebill (Simoxenops ucayalae), the Pale winged trumpeter (Psophia leucoptera), and others besides. Seen along the beautiful sand banks are the Orinoco goose (Neochen jubata), the Bat falcon (Falco rufigularis), the Black skimmer (Rynchops niger), the Purplish jay (Cyanocorax cyanomelas), and many other varieties. Plus, there are enormous caimans resting on the banks and opening their jaws, and with some luck, there might be a jaguar that will make our day, showing us all his splendor.
After admiring the magnificent giant river otters and the thirteen species of monkey, it is time to leave this edenesque place (as always, by river) and direct ourselves towards Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios. One option from Puerto Maldonado is to sail down the Tambopata River and cross into the Tambopata Reserve, which boasts comfortable lodges which have excellent bird watching stations, some even for clay licks that are visited by the largest and most fabulous macaws and parrots the world over. The other option is to return to Cusco to continue visiting even more unparalleled places.
To reach the famous Malaga Pass, a little over two hours from Cusco, you must cross an area located between kilometers 22 and 90 of the road from Ollantaytambo (a town whose foundations are Incan) to Quillabamba. Along this section, there are queñual forests but also cloud forests since the route moves towards the jungle. The highest pass is at the altitude of 4230 meters and, from that spot, the view of Mount Veronica and its eternal snows is spectacular. Here is a good chance to see birds endemic to our country like the White tufted sunbeam (Aglaeactis castelnaudii), the White browed tit spinetail (Leptasthenura xenothorax), and the elusive, rare Royal cinclodes (Cinclodes aricomae), a seriously endangered species.
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Photo credit: Green Tours
The magic of Machu Picchu
This bird route culminates at a place with lots of energy and even magic after the trip by train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. There is not only that marvel of humanity to see at Machu Picchu, the incredible archeological complex, one of the Wonders of the World, but also bird species endemic to Peru like the Green and white hummingbird (Leucippus viridicauda), the Inca wren (Thryothorus eisenmanni),and the Masked fruiteater (Pipreola pulchra).
In total, there are 18 hummingbird species to be seen at Machu Picchu, very attractive for their colors, frailty, and the speed at which they flap their wings. But, something else very impressive is the number of orchids (327 species), each one more beautiful than the last. At the foot of these mountains, charged with history, runs the Urubamba River, where there is the chance of spying the threatened Torrent duck (Merganetta armata) sunbathing in the middle of the river and, in the forest denseness, there are birds like the Mitred parakeet (Aratinga mitrata) and the Chestnut breasted coronet (Boissonneaua matthewsii), and the Golden naped tanager (Tangara ruficervix). When you leave Machu Picchu, it is impossible not to look back one more time at the grand site we are leaving behind.
Andean condor (Vultur gryphus). Photo credit: Trogon Tours
His majesty, the condor
There is no better place to see the world’s largest flying bird than the Colca Valley, an unbeatable combination of countryside, culture, architecture, and nature.
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is considered the emblematic bird of Peru for many reasons. To start with, it is present throughout the ages in all Pre-Hispanic civilizations, from the Chimu to the Incas, having been depicted on temples, pottery, and textile art. However, this fact is not something that remains in the past since even today, especially in Andean communities, the condor is venerated as a god that can grant prosperity or misfortune to people. On top of that, it roosts in Peru’s three geographic regions, being found on the coast and in the mountains and jungle. It represents an important part of our identity and collective culture. Suffice it to say that there is a remarkable, finely carved condor in high relief at Machu Picchu in the temple that bears its name.
There are countless places in Peru where you can enjoy seeing the largest flying bird on the planet. And for those of you thinking of the ostrich fits the bill, please remember it is flightless. While no one has conducted a trustworthy census of the current population of condors in Peru, it is estimated that there are but 2500 specimens in the entire country. Thus, you can watch them soaring above the snowy mountains of the Huascaran National Park and even floating on the winds above the Pacific Ocean at the Paracas National Reserve.
Even though both of those settings are spectacular in and of themselves, the best place to observe the condor in Peru is definitely the Colca Valley in Arequipa. The 165 kilometers (3.5 hour drive) of surreal landscapes and abundant wildlife separating the city of Arequipa and the town of Chivay, doorway to the Colca Valley, seem to have been transplanted from another world.
As though it were part of the heavenly symbolism, the road leaves Arequipa at an elevation of 2400 meters and climbs above 4000 meters, almost touching the clouds, and paradise. During this section, we are awed at the sight of two guardian volcanoes, Mount Misti (5825 m) and Mount Chachani (6057 m). A great place to pause for a moment is at Pampa Cañahuas in the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve because it is guaranteed that we will see large flocks of elegant vicuñas running freely on the plateau.
The next point is Tocrapampa, where there are flocks of hearty alpacas and graceful llamas huddled next to the road. Likewise, small areas of wetlands shelter plenty of birds, like the Andean flamingo (Phoenicopterus andinus), Cinnamon teal (Anas cyanoptera), Puna ibis (Plegadis ridgwayi), and the Andean goose (Chloephaga melanoptera). We can also see raptors in flight, such as falcons and eagles.
The highest point on the road is the Patapampa Pass (4889 m), known as the Observatory of the Andes since you can see volcanoes like Mount Hualca Hualca, Mount Sabancaya, and Mount Ampato (where the mummy named Juanita was discovered). There are also a large number of “apachetas”, small mounds of stones made as an offering to the earth or to the “apus”, holy mountains where the ancient dwellers of these lands believed their gods resided.
When you arrive at the Colca Valley and begin the 50 kilometer route, which is the distance between Chivay and Cabanaconde, you will be flabbergasted by the most incredible set of terraced hillsides in Peru as well as by the Colonial era churches that provide that extra sparkle to such small towns as Yanque, Maca, and Pinchollo. As you traverse the road, you will see, flittering among the reeds flanking either side of the flowing Colca River, the Giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), a much sought after bird by ornithologists that measures up to 20 cm in length or about the size of a small dove.
Certainly the cherry on top is the king of the birds, the largest and heaviest flying bird on the Earth. Its wingspan can surpass 3 meters, and it can weigh 15 kilograms. It is one of the birds that flies at extremely high altitudes, harnessing the warm air currents that rise from the valleys to soar, with relative ease, to 7000 meters. It then glides for hundreds of kilometers, practically without flapping its outstretched wings.
The central point for observing this winged wonder is the famous observation point known as Cruz del Condor. The ideal situation is to arrive there before the sun rises because, as the first rays of light appear, you will see the harrowing depths since this is the point where the valley becomes a canyon (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) and the river now appears like a silvery snake in the distance.
But, nothing is really complete without the condors, and they always show up, rising in circles from the canyon floor until soaring just a few meters above the Cruz del Condor, as if they were trained to do so. Somewhere between twelve and twenty condors will appear: a few of them are young, known by their brown color, while those older than eight years now have black feathers and the white tuft around their necks, like a scarf. With barely a glance of pity at the tiny humans beneath them, they beat their large, spectacular wings, and take off upwards, conquering the magical world of the heavens above.
Read more: Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
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