Hummingbirds galore and a host of other exotic species await you on a birding tour in northern Peru.
If top of your birding wish list is the chance to tick a Marvelous Spatuletail, then there is only one place in the world you can possibly aspire to go – the Rio Utcubamba Valley in the northern Peruvian Andes, particularly the Huembo Reserve.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Marvelous Spatuletail
This is the unique location for this little jewel of a hummingbird, the male with its iridescent purple crown, turquoise throat patch and long wire-like tail feathers tipped by shiny dark blue paddles, and the female with her white throat patch and shorter tail feathers.
The good news is that there is a well-established, although not yet well-trodden by tourists, Northern Peru Birding Route that can take you to the conservation area where this endangered species has been rescued from near-extinction.
And the bird itself makes spotting it relatively easy if you take the time, as it tends to feed from low-growing plants at the edges of the cloud forest and will come to feeders in the reserve if you are patient.
So as with all birding, although there are no guarantees, when you take a northern Peru tour to the right area you have a good chance of getting decent views. And if you go between November and June you may even get the chance to observe a courtship display.
However, the Northern Peru Birding Route is not just about the Marvelous Spatuletail. This area of the country is home to around 1,600 species of birds. There can hardly be a more diverse range of special habitats anywhere in the world, and not many with such a magnificent collection of endemic and region-specific birds as can be seen in this area of northern Peru.
You could spend a lifetime travelling the route and still be encountering new species regularly, but on a three-week birding tour, you can still expect to chalk up some 700 species, which has to be as exciting a list as you could wish for on any birding trip.
One end of the Northern Peru Birding Route lies on the Pacific Ocean coast near the town of Chiclayo, founded by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. Here, the birding adventure begins in the arid coastal lowlands and deciduous forest with Humboldt Penguin, Waved Albatross, Peruvian Thick-knee, White-winged Guan and Peruvian Plantcutter among many others, including a number of endemics.
Photo credit: Wilson Diaz, Green Tours, White-winged Guan
The Pomac Forest Historic Sanctuary is an important birdwatching spot in the area, and additionally interesting because of its many pre-Inca pyramids and dense carob tree plantations.
The lowest pass in the western Andean mountain range is the crossing point from the coast and foothills to the bird-rich valleys beyond.
Lower Marañon Valley
Moving further inland, the route takes you through the province of Cajamarca to the city of Jaén and reserves such as Gotas de Agua. This region hosts small birds such as Spot-throated Hummingbird, Golden Grosbeak and the cactus-loving Little Inca-finch, as well as larger species such as the Peruvian Screech-owl.
Photo credit: Wilson Diaz, Green Tours, Tropical Gnatcatcher
The river Marañón and its tributaries define this region, the first part of which is known for its rice growing. The extensive paddy fields host birds such as Orioles, Black-billed Seed Finches and Spotted Rails.
The forests that border the upper Marañón are where you can find endemic species that have taken their names from the river – Marañón Spinetail, Marañón Crescentchest, Marañón Slaty-Antshrike and last, but not least, the Marañón Gnatcatcher, a sub-species of the equally enticing Tropical Gnatcatcher, which can also be found on the Northern Peru Birding Route.
Next stop is the aforementioned Huembo Reserve, and your chance for Marvelous Spatuletail. To get there you have to drive almost 2,000m up into the mountains, but it’s well worth the steep climb.
Photo credit: Machu Picchu & Cusco Birding, White-bellied Woodstar
This is the place for a real hummingbird extravaganza as the safety of the reserve and plentiful food supplies attract so many of these birds with their evocative names: White-bellied Woodstars, Bronzy Incas, Andean Emeralds, Sparkling Violetears, Green-fronted Lancebills and Purple-throated Sunangels, to name but a very few.
This is also the place to make your comparison with the Tropical Gnatcatcher, hopefully having seen its cousin down by the river.
The October 2019 bird list for Huembo contained 314 species, including numerous tanagers, warblers, flycatchers, doves, finches, parrots, flowerpeckers, vultures, wrens and swifts, along with a number of exciting bird of prey such as Black-chested Buzzard-eagle. Similar numbers can be found at Abra Patricia Reserve, a little further on and 100m higher.
With such a mouthwatering array of species on offer, you might be tempted to spend all your time on these amazing reserves, but even more hummers, such as the Rufous-crested Coquette, await the further east you travel.
Moyobamba Area & Abra Patricia
Moyobamba, the capital city of the San Martín region of Peru, and the nearby Wakanki Reserve, are back down the mountain road, although still high at nearly 1,000m above sea level. Here, you are approximately three-quarters of the way along the Northern Peru Birding Route.
The botanical gardens in Moyobamba are famous for their thousands of orchid species and an orchid festival is held there every year at the end of October/beginning of November. The area is additionally known for its natural pools and hot springs.
Orchids can also be seen at Wakanki, along with 23 different species of hummingbird! West of there, high up in the cloud forests of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, lives a tiny owl that was only discovered to science in 1977.
Photo credit: Kolibri Expeditions, Long-whiskered Owlet
It’s possible to see the Long-whiskered Owlet, but it involves a reasonably long walk at night along forest paths, so it may not be to everyone’s taste or ability.
Utcubamba Valley & Cajamarca Highlands
Retracing your steps allows you to take the Cajamarca branch of the birding route, heading for the Marañón Canyon and yet another birding experience looking for species such as the endemic Peruvian Pigeon and the Yellow-faced Parrotlet in this dry páramo environment.
The town of Leymebamba is at the head of the Río Atuen valley where you can spend an enjoyable productive time finding Coppery Metaltail, Rusty-breasted Antpitta and Large-footed Tapaculo, among others.
- Birding in Peru: Where to Go and the Best Times to Visit
- Endemic Hummingbirds of Peru
- The Wildlife of Peru’s Natural Wonders
- Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
- Birds of Peru: a gift to the world
Northern Peru Birding Route – A Birdwatcher’s Paradise
All-in-all, the Northern Peru Birding Route is a birdwatcher’s paradise. In two weeks you can cover a lot of ground but it will be a very active tour. For a slightly less frenetic pace, three weeks is advisable.
Photo credit: Kolibri Expeditions, Rufous-crested Coquette
The temperature changes between the coast and the mountains will be noticeable and you will definitely need cold-weather clothing for early mornings and evenings at altitude. Whatever the time of year, rain is possible at the higher reserves.
Much can be seen close to the roads, but if you want to be a little more adventurous, and potentially see more species, you will need to take comfortable boots or walking shoes and be capable of moderate hiking on some of the reserves where there can be some steep paths.
Any part of a northern Peru birding tour will be rewarding, and for lovers of hummingbirds, exceptionally so. Your only true decisions are when to go and for how long!
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Facts about the Marvelous Spatuletail hummingbird
One of the world’s rarest species of hummingbird, it was first recorded for science in 1835 by bird collector Andrew Matthews.
Its scientific name is Loddigesia mirabilis and it was so named by Matthews, who was collecting skins on behalf of George Loddiges, a London botanist who also had a keen interest in hummingbirds.
Photo credit: Manu Birding Lodge, Marvelous Spatuletail
The Marvelous Spatuletail is a medium-sized hummingbird, the males being 10-15cm long, including the tail, the female 9-10cm.
The four wire-like tail feathers, or rectrices, consist of two central straight ones and two outer ones that cross over each other and end in a disk in the male and a droplet in the female. They lengthen with age and can reach four times body length. The male can move his tail feathers independently.
During courtship, the male makes a snapping noise while hopping at a furious speed on a twig and hovering in front of the female and waving his tail. The snap was originally thought to come from the tail disks clapping together but close observation has led to the conclusion that the sound comes from the bird’s throat.
The bird is found only in Peru, in the Utcubamba River Valley and one site in the province of San Martín, although isolated sightings have been reported near the town of Leymebamba and further south at Tingo.
Based on the skin of a male sent back to England in the mid-19th century, the ornithologist and bird artist John Gould included a painting of it in his Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds published between 1849 and 1861.
It became endangered through a combination of deforestation of its mountain home and capture for its tail feathers and its heart, which was reputed to be an aphrodisiac if roasted and eaten.
Peruvian conservation organisation ECOAN teamed up with the American Bird Conservancy in 2006 to recreate its habitat and preserve the bird on the 100-acre Huembo Reserve.
This reserve was the first to reach an ecological easement with the local people where, in return for protecting the native wildlife, the profits from tourism are divided evenly amongst all the community members.
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