3 MONTHS IN PERU – A BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY EXPEDITION
On the first of September I traveled from my home in Victoria, BC to Lima Peru for a 3 month bird photography expedition. My plan was to travel around the country in search of as many of the most beautiful and endemic birds that I could find.
Why Peru? The answer is simple. Peru is a country that is perhaps unsurpassed in terms of “quality” birds. While Columbia boasts a higher total number of species it is tough to beat Peru’s endemic birds like the Marvelous Spatuletail, Long-whiskered Owlet, Royal Sunangel and about 120 other birds that are found nowhere else on Earth except within the border of Peru.
My search for these birds took me from sea level to 4850m above sea level (ASL). From deserts, to lowland rainforests. From cloud forests to high elevation grasslands. And down many a bumpy road… I slept in towns where I swear no tourists had ever been. I slept in the back of my truck for two of the coldest wettest nights I can remember. I slept wherever I had to in order to be able to have a reasonable chance at photographing these birds. To me…it was all worth it… This is truly what I live for…
Cusco and Manu National Park
After a quick stopover in Lima I took an internal flight to the lovely city of Cusco. Cusco is a city full of culture and history and it makes a great base to visit several local ruins and cultural sites. Nearby there is a high elevation lake called Lago Huacarpay. It was here where I would begin my search for endemic birds.
Those of you that know me know that I love hummingbirds. One of the really special ones in Peru is called the Bearded Mountaineer. It is endemic to Peru and found only in a small area in the southeast. Huacarpay is definitely the best place to see it and it was a great start to the trip to find this beauty feeding on some Nicotina flowers near the lake. In addition to the Mountaineer, Lago Huacarpay produced a beautiful White-tufted Grebe and the strange looking Plumbeous Rail.
Flipping through the field guide to the birds of Peru there was another hummingbird from this region that grabbed my attention. The White-tufted Sunbeam is a real stunner that is also endemic to Peru. I had to travel to the smaller town of Ollantaytambo and then commandeer a taxi for the day to take me up above the tree line (around 3600m ASL) in order to search for this member of the Trochilidae family. The first day I went up the wind was howling and I knew that there was no way I would get any photos. But I found where the birds lived and made a plan for the following morning. Returning up the hill the next day rewarded me with not only the Sunbeam but also another endemic – the Creamy-crested Spinetail.
With these targets photographed it was time to start making my way into the jungle. I really wanted to spend some quality time in Manu National Park. After all, it is the most biologically diverse place on the planet! Imagine a single park with over 1000 species of birds. It is enough to make your head spin! I made a plan to spend the next 3 weeks in Manu and began to prepare for what was sure to be an amazing adventure.
What makes Manu National Park so diverse is the fact that the park covers elevations from approximately 3500m all the way down to sea level in the Amazonian lowlands. This kind of altitudinal gradient creates all kind of different habitats for plants, animals, insects and of course birds to thrive in. Getting the most out of Manu means spending time at various elevations because many of the birds have very specific habitat requirements.
Driving in to the park from Cusco was incredible. The windy road took me up and over a pass of about 4000m ASL and then began to descend toward the park entrance. Before long the grasslands faded from view and gave way to cloud-forest. Trees became larger and were covered with moss and bromeliads. Clouds rolled in from the lowlands below hiding much of what lay ahead beneath a mysterious veil.
After a lengthy drive I arrived at my first photo stop at an area around 1500m. I would spend the next 3 days searching this area for as many birds as I could find. This area turned out to be great for mixed species flocks and I saw some really stunning birds. Photographing them however was often a challenge. But over the three days I did have some really rewarding encounters. Perhaps most memorable was a visit to a very active lek for Andean Cock of the Rocks (Peru’s national bird).
ANDEAN COCK OF THE ROCK
RUFESCENT SCREECH OWL
Three days came and went and it was soon time for me to continue on down the road deeper in to the park. I hitchhiked down the road to the next town and then took a moto-taxi to the town of Atalaya. From here I hired a boat to take me on to my next destination located at about 500m ASL where I would spend the next 5 days. One of my main targets at this elevation was the feisty little Rufous-crested Coquette and I was very pleased to get some nice images of this little guy. My five days at this location were full of exhilarating encounters with birds like the Band-tailed Manakin, Gould’s Jewelfront, Blue-crowned Trogon and many, many more! One of the coolest birds I found was the Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant. This bird is the smallest passerine in the world and let me tell you – he is tiny! The field guide has a very accurate description – “a tiny ball of feathers that is scarcely larger than a bee”. What a cute bird!
SHORT-TAILED PYGMY TYRANT
At this point I had reached the end of the road…literally. All travel deeper in to the park would require a boat. I managed to join a tour group to move on down the river – WAY down the river. We took the boat several hundred kilometers into the jungle and into the Manu National Park reserved zone. This is an area that is strictly protected from logging and hunting and is truly pristine. Some of the highlights for me in the reserved zone were the Agami Heron, Horned Screamer, Red and Green Macaw and a family of Giant Otters!
RED AND GREEN MACAW
GIANT RIVER OTTER
The tour group dropped me off at their final stop – a lodge based at 300m ASL. I would spend the next week here trying to photograph some of the really difficult lowland birds. Bird photography at this elevation can be really difficult. To start with, there is almost never any light to work with. Competition for the suns rays in the rainforest is fierce and most light is intercepted before it reaches the forest floor. This makes for hopelessly slow shutter speeds and high ISO’s. Not ideal! The other challenge is that while species diversity is incredibly high – the actual number of individual birds is quite low. Birds here often have huge territories and roam around in mixed species flocks throughout the day. Sometimes you have to be lucky to run in to the flock. Otherwise you may not see much at all. Even if you do find a good flock they are often up in the canopy or moving to quick to get decent shots of. Like I said…photography in the lowlands is very difficult!
That week I spent hiking around the trails for between 8-12 hours a day. Sometimes with very long gaps in the action. I was focusing on trying to photograph Antbirds and did manage to get a few. Fortunately for me I found a huge Army Ant swarm for a few days and this attracted a lot of birds that were looking for an easy meal. You see, when the army ants raid they flow out into the forest in rivers of ants. There can be hundreds of thousands of them and they are all hungry! They overwhelm anything that gets in their way, tear them to bits and carry the food back to the queen. Needless to say the other insects on the forest floor want nothing to do with the ants and try to get out of the way as fast as they can. The Antbirds and Woodcreepers know this and wait patiently above the ant swarm. When a cricket or cockroach moves from its hiding place to escape the birds pounce. An easy meal!
When I found the ant swarm I knew that this would be where I would be spending quite a bit of time. I think I stood in that swarm for something like 10 hours (over two days) trying to get images of Antbirds. I was rewarded with a few keepers…and quite a few ant bites too!
I left the lowlands behind me and started the long journey back to Cusco. Before returning to civilization though I wanted to make one more stop. I felt like I had missed out on the birds in the higher elevations of the park so I decided to stop in at a lodge at about 2800m ASL to try for a few cloud-forest specialties.
The cloud-forests are home to a dazzling variety of beautiful tanagers. Birds like the Scarlet-bellied and Hooded Mountain Tanagers, Grass-green Tanager and Golden-collared Tanager to name just a few. These cloud forests of the Neotropical Andes are probably my favourite places on earth. So, for me, these few days were pure joy.
I traveled back the rest of the way to Cusco for a much needed break from bird photography for a few days. It was the perfect time to take a side trip to one of the wonders of the world – Machu Picchu.
The trip to Machu Picchu involves traveling to Ollantaytambo and then onwards by train to Aguas Calientes. From here it is a short bus ride away to these most incredible Inca ruins. What a spectacular place to spend a day!
The Central Highlands
Visiting Machu Picchu was a nice break from bird photography. But after a few days off I was ready to get back to work. I flew back to Lima to meet up with a friend of mine from Ecuador. We rented a 4×4 truck and set off for the Central Highlands.
Our first destination was an area of high elevation grasslands and bogs called Marcapomacocha. When I say they were high I mean it. We were birding at over 4800m ASL which was the highest I have ever been. The thin air, strong sun and cool temperatures were all forgotten though when we spotted the first of our main targets – the critically endangered White-bellied Cinclodes.
Our next target proved to be more difficult to find and was much more difficult to photograph. The Diademed Sandpiper-Plover is one of the most beautiful shorebirds in the world and certainly one of the toughest to track down. Living only in high elevation bogs above 4500m you dont just stumble upon them. It was a great reward for all of the huffing and puffing up there to come away with some nice images of this species.
DIADEMED SANDPIPER PLOVER
Over the next few days we worked away on some of the other high elevation species such as the Black-breasted Hillstar, Andean Goose, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe and Junin Canastero.
From Marcapomacocha we continued on towards the town of Huanuco. This was our base from which we would visit the legendary Bosque Unchog. Bosque Unchog is a beautiful area of Elfin Forest where some really special and endemic birds can be found. It is decidedly off the beaten path though. No facilities exist and it is a rough road to get there. We had to spend two VERY cold nights sleeping in the back of the truck in order to bird this area. But the birds made it all worth while. Although I missed getting photos of the most spectacular bird at Bosque Unchog (the Golden-backed Mountain Tanager) we came away with shots of many other great birds. My favourites had to be the Yellow-scarfed Tanager, Bay-vented Cotinga, Pearled Treerunner, Streaked Tuftedcheek and Chestnut-bellied Mountain Tanager.
CHESTNUT-BELLIED MOUNTAIN TANAGER
After Bosque Unchog it was back down to Lima and then on northwards. Most people probably don’t realize this – but the Peruvian coast is a complete desert. Traveling back to Lima and then 800km up the coast was a long, long drive. But it was necessary in order to reach the next set of endemic birds.
Eventually we arrived at our first destination near the town of La Florida. This region is the only place to find what is perhaps the most extravagant hummingbird of them all – the Marvelous Spatuletail. I really wanted to get some solid images of this species and after two days of hard work I was able to get the shot I had dreamed of.
Not far from where the Spatuletail lives there is a new lodge that is dedicated to birdwatchers. It is a fantastic place to spend a few days and some really special species can be found in the nearby forests. After 10 weeks of grinding it out in the field let me assure you that it was not hard to convince me to stay here for a few nights!
On our second day at the lodge I had one of those days in the field that I will NEVER forget. The day started off with an unbelievable opportunity to photograph an Undulated Antpitta. Later on I had a phenomenal chance to photograph the Royal Sunangel. I was feeling pretty good about the day at this point and decided to try my luck at some owling that night. My target was the Long-whiskered Owlet and to be honest I did not think I had a chance to see it let alone photograph it.
The Long-whiskered Owlet is an enigma. The bird was only discovered in 1976 and was then not seen again until 2002! Even to this day very few people have had good looks at it.
At just 5 inches this bird is the smallest species of Owl in the world. It is so unique that upon discovery ornithologists immediately put it in to its own genus “Xenoglaux” which means “strange owl”.
That evening I trekked down a muddy trail into the elfin cloud forest and I waited patiently to hopefully hear the birds call. Before long, to my delight, I heard what I believed to be an Owlet calling in the distance. I began to use the birds call to try to lure him in towards me.
I’m sure you can all imagine the adrenaline and excitement that I was feeling when I realized that it was working and the bird was coming closer. I stood motionless. I didn’t dare fiddle with my equipment. I didn’t dare check to see what insects were crawling up my leg. Heck…I didn’t dare breathe!!
And then…I saw a flash of movement in front of me. The moon was nearly full and there was enough light to just make out the movement. I shone my flashlight in the direction of the fluttering object and there he was not even 20 feet away on an open branch staring right at me – The Owlet!
As I walked back up the hill after photographing this incredible bird I could hardly believe what had just happened. I think that there are moments in our lives as photographers that I think we will never forget. For me this was most definitely one of them.
3 months in Peru came and went in a flash. What a wonderful trip and what a great country for birds. I will definitely be returning soon!
If you would like to see more photos from my trip - CLICK HERE
If you think that a bird photography adventure to Peru might interest you make sure to EMAIL ME to sign up for the wish list for my workshops that will begin in the fall of 2013.