"3 weeks of mayhem in the world's most biodiverse forests". A report on a visit to The Manu, Peru, and associated sites.
Report compilation by Chris Gooddie, firstname.lastname@example.org The maps referred to below, plus a full species list, are available from the author at this e-mail address for the cost of a small donation to the Neotropical Bird Club.
Since 1999, the survivors from the Malaysia/Thailand tour - Kit Britten, Bob Harris, Graham Hogan and I - had been talking about how to top our collective birding experiences in Asia. Our friend Gary Rosenberg, a leader for Wings, had been banging on for a while about the wonders of The Manu, I had already had a taste of Peruvian excitement, (birding Abra Malaga and Machu Picchu in 1998,) and Bob H. had cunningly invited us all to an RSPB group's Peruvian slide show one wild and windy evening in Watford during December 2001. Eventually, it seemed, the lure of the Manu would be too strong for us to resist, and so it proved.
Having bolstered the team by enlisting the animal-ID talents of Pete Wheeler to ensure we could tell our Caimans from our Capuchins, the 5 of us duly drew up the itinerary from hell, designed to give us maximum access to the various types of se Peruvian habitats/altitudes, and hence the largest possible species list to go at. We then spent an age checking back over trip reports, working out optimum timing to coincide with when Gary R. would be free, liaising with tour companies and ground agents etc. This finally resulted in us plumping for a 3-week tour in Nov., rather later than many groups visit the Manu, (and already into the start of the wet season,) but at a time when we hoped many birds would be at their most active. We would just have to hope that the weather would not overly curtail our plans for an extreme birding schedule.
We also wanted to include one day at high altitude, and a side-trip to Machu Picchu, and we'd further decided that we wanted to spend some time in the Manu proper, not just on the edges, hence three days at the tented Cocha Salvador camp well up the Rio Manu was added in to the itinerary. As a result, it quickly became apparent that 3 weeks were the absolute minimum time required to achieve our combined goals without 'spreading ourselves too thin.'. So many birds, so little time.
Trip/Peru Background - General Information.
Itinerary: Having to'd and fro'd over the various possibilities, trying to fit everything in, we finally whittled the trip down to the following final itinerary:
Sat Nov 1st: Fly from London's Heathrow Airport to Miami on AA57 at 1035 arriving 1520. Depart Miami for Lima on AA917 at 1655 arriving just before midnight.Sun Nov 2nd: Flight from Lima to Cuzco, bus from Cuzco to Pillahuata CampMon Nov 3rd: Pillahuata CampTues Nov 4th: Bus from Pillahuata to Cock-of-the-Rock LodgeWeds Nov 5th: Cock-of-the-Rock LodgeThurs Nov 6th: Cock-of-the-Rock LodgeFri Nov 7th: Bus from Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge to Atalaya, boat across the river to Amazonia Lodge.Sat. Nov 8th: Amazonia LodgeSun Nov 9th: Amazonia LodgeMon Nov 10th: Boat from Amazonia Lodge to Salvador Camp via Boca ManuTue Nov 11th: Salvador CampWeds Nov 12th: Salvador CampThurs Nov 13th: Boat from Salvador Camp to Manu Wildlife CenterFri Nov 14th - Mon Nov 17th: Manu Wildlife Center
Tues Nov 18th: Boat from Manu Wildlife Center-Boca Manu, flight to Cuzco, bus to Urubamba in The Sacred ValleyWeds Nov 19th: Train Urubamba-Machu Picchu, tour of the ruins, train back to Urubamba, bus to Cuzco.Thurs Nov 20th: Flight from Cuzco-Lima, bird the coast south of Lima all day
Fri Nov 21st: Bus to Marcapomacocha, returning late afternoonSat Nov 22nd: Flight Lima-Miami AA2110 dep 0803 arriving 1347, then Miami-H'row AA56 dep 2005 arr LHR Sun 0930 23 Nov (In the end, this itinerary had to be changed slightly to allow us time to divert to Puerto Maldonado, see below.)
Reading: Since we spent a year and a half planning our trip, we had plenty of time to do some advance research. CG spent a happy six months using his daily commute to learn pidgin Spanish, (inflicted on anyone who would listen,) and the songs of any species with 'Ant-' in its name. The sheer volume of species possible in The Manu means that arriving without at least some preparation could easily prove overwhelming. (We saw/heard 727 species in 3 weeks; biodiversity, you gotta love it.) Between us we took the following litt. in its entirety, or copied plates where excess baggage costs prevented:
A Guide to the Birds of Peru: Clements, Shany, Gardner, Barnes.
The only field guide to depict all the species likely occur in The Manu. Very useful, although text descriptions are very brief, there are no maps, the quality of illustrations is highly variable, and critical ID details for difficult species groups/pairs usually need more detailed checking elsewhere. The species order is truly bizarre and often infuriating at times, with closely related species often widely scattered, and some of the data seemed less than 100% reliable. A new Peru guide is due out approx. '05 which should improve matters. This is nonetheless an essential guide for the time being, and we used it heavily before and throughout the trip.
The Birds of Ecuador: Ridgely and Greenfield. Helm Field Guides. The text is excellent, and the guide covers many though not all of the species likely to be encountered. It's almost as compact as the above guide, and much more detailed; essential.
A Guide to the Birds of Colombia: Hilty & Brown, illustrated by Guy Tudor amongst others. Princeton. Also very useful for the lowland forests of Manu, more detailed and accurate but, understandably, also doesn't cover 100% of the species encountered.
The Birds of South America Vols I + II: Ridgely and Tudor, Oxford University Press. An essential bible for research before/after the trip, especially Vol II. Volume 1 covers the Oscine Passerines (Jays, Swallows, Wrens, Thrushes and allies, Vireos, Wood-warblers, Tanagers, Icterids and Finches.) Volume 2 covers the Suboscine Passerines (Ovenbirds, Woodcreepers, Antbirds, Gnateaters, Tapaculos, Tyrant-flycatchers, Cotingas and Manakins). Great for reference, but far too bulky for use in the field. (Use to decode scribbled field notes after the event. Copy colour plates and take with you into the field if possible. Then avoid spilling a litre of water over the plates on day #1 rendering them useless as I did.)
The Birds of The High Andes: Jon Fjeldsa and Neils Krabbe; Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen. 1990 (Apollo Books, Denmark.) Another superb guide covering many of the species likely to be encountered in the temperate and puna zones on this tour. Although not quite as large as the above tome, still too damn heavy to include in the luggage/use in the field.
Neotropical Rainforest Mammals - A Field Guide: Louise Emmons, Francois Feer. University of Chicago Press. Very useful for the monkeys etc.
Peru: Lonely Planet Survival Kit: Rob Rachowiecki. A useful source of background detail. We didn't take it with us as all our accomm./logistics were pre-booked
We also sourced the following reports from the internet: (Check the usual suspects e.g. surfbirds, Peru-birding, Blake Maybank's site etc. Most reports I could find are little more than species lists however.)
Birdwatching in Peru, Aug-Oct 1986:Andersen, Jensen, Madsen, Molgaard
Peru 1989, 24th July-14th August: J Hornbuckle
Peru 1996, 11th October-27th October: D Cooper, J.F. Cooper
Peru, Ecuador, Colombia 6 June-5 August 1999: Samuel Hansson, Mathius Bergstrom
Manu Biosphere Reserve Oct 2000: Lawrence Rubey, Alfred Adamo
Peru South East, 24 Sept-15 Oct 2000: Ron Ketchum
Peru, 19 July- 3 Aug 97: Roger Boyd
Peru, June 3rd-24th 2000: David Lange
I also built a spreadsheet of our most likely 1000 or so species and incorporated altitudinal ranges/habitat/site occurrences/ID basics/song and call transcriptions for each species. This was pretty useful for learning which species to expect where etc, but also curtailed any kind of social life for a few weeks beforehand.We also had access to species/site lists (English and Latin names) from previous Wings Manu tours, all of which I cut and pasted into this one behemoth spreadsheet, adding in the extra species we could expect on our day on Marcapomacocha. Information on recent splits and local races of certain species were also striped in. E-mail to the above address if you'd like a copy of this file (Excel for Mac or PC) to edit for your own use.
Getting There/Getting Around: Most people arrive in Lima when visiting Peru; we did the same, flying to Lima from London via Miami with American Airlines which cost us £695 per head booked 11 months ahead. The AA experience was the usual check-in scrum, huge overbooking on the way out of London, and a 'nominal' $5 charge for any alcoholic beverage on the 10 hour London-Miami and 6 hour Miami-Lima flights- cheers AA! All our international flights worked OK however, with max. 1 hour delays, as did our flights within Lima. Allow an hour and a half for check-in for local flights and three hours for International when leaving Peru, and check all flight times locally a day or so in advance- they can change at short notice. Reconfirm often.All flights within Peru were with the cheerfully ad hoc Lan Peru, and were included in our trip fee (we organised a private tour through the US company Wings, whose UK sister company is Sunbird.)
We took an early flight from Lima to Cuzco, departing at c6am, (all Lima flights to Cuzco are in the morning, because windy conditions prevent safe landings in the afternoon.) The flight was smooth with amazing Andean scenery en route- ask for a seat on the left hand side of the plane Lima/Cuzco, right hand side Cuzco/Lima if you want the best view of the peaks. Cuzco airport is only c10 mins from the centre of Cuzco and there are plenty of taxis if you need one, (c$7 max.) Hotels are easy to find in Cuzco, which is well set up for tourists of all varieties/budgets- check Lonely Planet for details.
Travel into the Manu was by bus and boat, and our driver Argiles, and co-ordinator Americo looked after us extremely well. The Manu Road is not for the faint-hearted in places, almost entirely unpaved, narrow and precipitous and twisting in places- passing oncoming vehicles can be interesting, and a few trucks a year go over the edge- one such incident had occurred a month before our visit, killing a passenger or two. In theory there are separate 'up' and 'down' days for the Manu Road, but when commuting to and from lodges for example you need to drive against the flow on occasion.
Travel in The Manu east of Shintuya is exclusively by river. Boat times travelling down-river are obviously appreciably shorter than when travelling up-river against the current.
In order to save time, we had originally arranged to make the return journey by small plane from Boca Manu grass airstrip. (NB: make sure that you make a mental note of your body weight in kilos before you leave if taking this option, as this info. is required by the pilot for this flight. Baggage weight is limited to 15 kilos per person on the light aircraft.) However, the flights out of Boca Manu have been increasingly unreliable in the very recent past, often cancelled for days on end at short notice. As a result we decided to take the safer option of returning on a scheduled flight from Puerto Maldonado, 7-8 hrs boat ride further down the Madre de Dios. This cost us half a day's birding at Manu Wildlife Center, but gave us a morning's birding in Savannah-style farmed habitat close to P. Maldonado. In the end, having done well at Cocha Salvador/Pakitza our reduced time at Manu Wildlife Center was not a problem, and we probably saw more species as a result of this extra travel, see below.
Our day trip to Machu Picchu was pre-booked on the train from Urubamba. This train from Urubamba is a separate service from the one that leaves Cuzco, and just before Ollantaytambo it joins the main Cuzco/Machu Picchu line that runs down the Urubamba Valley. Hence we missed out the first tedious hour of hill-climbing out of Cuzco, which requires endless zig-zagging to get up enough power to ascend out of the city. The other BIG advantage is that the Urubamba train gets you to the ruins a good hour and half before the Cuzco train disgorges its payload of passengers, so you get to see this amazing site before the crowds descend; definitely the best way to see it, short of staying overnight in Aguas Calientes below Machu Picchu and arriving even earlier.
We had elected to maximise our time in the Manu itself, so our MP day was something of a sprint out of necessity, half ruins and half birding. Nonetheless, it's well worth a day's jaunt, even if your schedule is as crowded as ours was- the scenery and history is incredible, and the atmosphere is something special.
Ground Logistics: We booked a private tour through Wings, who in turn arranged all ground logistics through Barry Walker's Cuzco-based company Manu Expeditions, who I cannot recommend highly enough. Logistics for the Manu are tough and complex, but were flawlessly/flexibly executed throughout. The staff speak fluent English and Spanish, and are able to deal with every practical detail. The company is contactable by e-mail at Adventure@ManuExpeditions.com, Tel +51-84-226671. Barry's companies variously own Manu Wildlife Center, The Cross Keys pub in Cuzco, and one or two other going concerns.
It would be very difficult to bird the Manu without a local operator of some kind, and in theory it's now illegal to enter the park without a local guide. Access to the reserve needs to be arranged in advance with the police and local rangers, the Manu Road cannot easily be driven without local knowledge and nerves of steel, beyond Shintuya all travel has to be by river boat since there are no roads, many of the camps are not contactable except by short-wave radio etc etc. With fluent Spanish, lots of time and patience it could probably be done, but if things do go awry, as an independent traveller it would be pretty easy to get caught out.
Access to the Manu is almost solely via the Manu Road, which runs from se of Cuzco, through Huancarani, over the Ajanaco Pass at c3,800m, and then down the eastern Andean slope through Paucartambo (115kms twisting road-miles east of Cuzco,) Pillahuata, and Pilcopata to Atalaya and a little way beyond. Total road distance from Cuzco to Atalaya is c230kms and takes c20hrs in the dry season. Although it is possible to drive another c40kms to Shintuya, like most people, we took to the river from Atalaya onward, (Amazonia Lodge is 10 minutes down river from here on the opposite bank,) heading east down the river (rio) Alto Madre de Dios. Boca Manu is 4.5 hours away further to the east down-river (quite a bit longer against the current when coming the other way,) and lies just east of the confluence of the Rio Manu, (which winds sinuously to the north,) the Rio Alto Madre de Dios, (to the west,) and the Rio Madre de Dios, (to the south-east.) The latter flows all the way to Puerto Maldonado and beyond. Boats dock at the gold-rush town of Laberinto, (7 hours down river from Boca Manu), from where buses run to Puerto Maldonado, (an hour further east by road.) To the north, Cocha Salvador is 5 hours up the Manu river from Boca Manu, (after c3 hours you pass the Manu Lodge on the right bank,) Pakitza is one hour further north, and Cocha Cashu is another c3 hours further still. The park itself is huge- 1.8million hectares i.e. half the size of the Netherlands, but access is limited to the Reserve Zone, which is a roughly triangular area in the south-east corner. Most of the lodges/camping areas (except the Manu Lodge and Cocha Salvador) actually lie outside the park proper along the southern edge. Pakitza is at the north western tip of the Reserve Zone, and beyond this point lies the Park Zone; tourists are not permitted to enter this section of the park.
Accommodation: Our package included pre-booked accommodation throughout as follows:
Hotel Manhattan in Lima (a small hotel close to the airport) Pillahuata camp site, CORL Lodge, Amazonia Lodge, Tapir Tours' Manu Tented Camp (Campamento Aguaje, but just called 'CS camp' below; we had planned to stay at Barry Walker's tented camp just to the north, but it had been destroyed by a major tree-fall a few weeks before our visit,) Manu Wildlife Center Lodge, Wasai Lodge Hotel in Puerto Maldonado, (on the river and has a small pool,) Hotel Incaland in Urubamba, Hotel Los Andes de America in Cuzco, and the Hotel Jose Antonio, Lima.
Clothes: Wellington (rubber) boots,(knee-length, or thigh length if that's your kind of thing.) are absolutely essential in the lowlands as trails can become very muddy, even flooded at times; they also provide invaluable protection against strikes from the smaller species of snakes. Lightweight waterproof hiking boots are very useful at higher altitudes. Dull coloured clothes are of course advisable when searching for skulking species. Breathable fabrics and a small sweat towel are useful for the humid lowland forest areas. A collapsible umbrella is also extremely useful, and a sun-hat is essential. Note that highland birding may require warm clothing, gloves etc- three fleeces were required the day we were at Marcapomacocha, and even at mid-elevations e.g. Pillahuata it can be cold at night/birding at dawn.
Weather: We were extremely lucky with the weather; we had expected to lose at least a day or two due to rain, as November is already into the wet season in the Manu. We experienced rain on 5 or 6 days, but the heavens always opened overnight, or when we were on boats, or else the deluge was short-lived. One benefit of visiting in November is that the cold weather friajes that can sweep in bringing the kind of windy and cold conditions that paralyse avian activity have already ceased this late in the year. Most days in the lowlands were very hot and humid by 9am, often with reasonable cloud cover- a definite boon since it kept the sun at bay and maintained bird activity later in the day. On sunny cloudless days birding could be very slow between 10am and 3pm. It was cold at night along the Manu Road at Pillahuata (we slept fully clothed, and a fleece was required for early evening owling etc.) Cuzco and other mid-elevation locations are usually pleasant/temperate, cool at night.
Birding Hours: It was light enough to start birding at 5-5.15am each day, and it was dark by around 6pm. (The significance of which, of course, is that it's then officially dark enough to go owling.) We were in the field at dawn every day; activity can die off pretty quickly mid-morning e.g. by 9-30am, especially if it's hot/sunny.
Visas: UK/US passport holders do not require a visa for stays of 90 days or less- passports should have at least 6 months left to run before expiry. Photocopy the picture page and keep it separately in case of loss.
Insurance: Get some before travelling- the UK's post office offers reasonable deals. Take your insurance documents with you; it would not be clever to be hospitalised in remote Peru without access to insurance.
Language: Spanish is very useful, but many people speak English in Cuzco/a little in the lodges. The local Indian language in the southern Manu is Quechua.
Maps: We had only one, 'Peru South': International Travel Maps, Vancouver, Canada 1: 1,500,000. We used this basic map and added our own detail, but found it hard to track down a detailed map of the Manu area; try specialist map retailers e.g. Stanfords at the west end of Long Acre, Covent Garden, London. In our case we had local knowledge/guides to rely on. Be careful if you go off-trail in dense forest- it's very easy to lose your way only 50m or so after leaving the trail. Take a compass or GPS if walking unfamiliar trails.
Audio: We used mini disc (MD) recordings extensively, and also on occasion used a small shotgun mic. to record and play back in the field. Using some kind of playback is absolutely vital if you want to see skulking and elusive species in dense forest. Pishing often works well too, with many birds responding quickly and positively. The usual precautions apply when using playback- do not overuse, especially at frequently birded sites etc. The superb new 3-volume Antbird CD by Phyllis Isler and Bret Whitney (Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds), and the Cornell Lab. series CDs (e.g. Tom Schulenberg's, Voices of Amazonian Birds, Volumes 1,2 & 3/ Voices of Andean Birds, Volumes 1 & 2 etc) were especially useful, but we relied heavily on GR's encyclopaedic collection, and we were also able to obtain a few obscure species' songs locally from BW. (Any references to 'tape' below actually refer to MD tracks; old habits die hard.)
Photography: GR and CG are keen digiscopers, (Leica Apo 77 + Olympus 4000) and PW upheld the analogue tradition with his Canon SLR throughout the trip. Conditions can be tough for photography in the forest, much of which is dense, but riverine habitat, canopy towers, forest edge, The Andes, and of course, Machu Picchu mean it's still well worth carrying the extra weight around to snatch those precious images as life-long reminders of the wonders of Peru. It's difficult or impossible to find memory cards or even batteries outside the major cities, so bring all supplies with you. We had no problems either with cameras or digital media, even in high lowland humidity.
Other Equipment: Many of the lodges have no electricity, and some have little or no lighting, so a head-torch is absolutely vital for copying up notes or even just to enable moving around after dark. (Available from specialist outlets eg www.field-trek.co.uk) An altimeter, (most are now built into wristwatches, prices start at c£100,) is also extremely useful for checking altitude and thus defining likely species' altitudinal ranges etc, a key aid in identifying species in some of the more difficult groups. A GPS is useful for logging specific locations- it can be hard to describe a specific site accurately up on featureless puna or in an unbroken stretch of dense forest. A spot-light is essential for night birding. Mosquito repellent, a sun hat and sun block are essential- we burned through factor 15 sun-cream in under 2 hours at altitude. Other essential items include: a small rucksack for half-/full- day excursions, long sleeved cool shirts, warm clothes for high altitude, rain gear, collapsible umbrella, batteries, pocket knife, water bottle, sweat towel, bins!
Water: probably not safe to drink in most of Peru- we drank mineral water exclusively, which is widely available; bottled water can be purchased from hotels and shops and a free supply of safe drinking water is available in most camps and at all the lodges. Avoid ice in drinks etc up country. Don't underestimate how much water you will need in the sapping humidity of the forest lowland sites.
Money/Security: The currency is the Peruvian nuevo sol, (c5.5 = £1 Nov '03,) although many places, (not all,) accept US dollars in place of the nuevo sol. Food, accommodation etc are cheap if you shop around in towns/villages, or hotels at up to $200 for a double are available in the larger towns if you want a life of luxury. Camping is the only low cost accommodation option along much of the Manu Road. US dollars (cash) are accepted in some hotels, restaurants etc, and travellers cheques can be changed at Lima airport- US $ are better than UK £ in all cases. Avoid changing one foreign currency into another foreign currency if possible, as the rate is truly terrible with e.g. airport rates/2 sets of commission. Travellers cheques and credit cards are usually only of use in Lima and Cuzco. We spent very little money other than on the tour itself which was all paid in advance; beer, chocolate (i.e. the staples of life) laundry, gifts for friends and airport departure tax (US$28 as of Nov '03) were the only things that cropped up.
You need to be security conscious in Lima and Cuzco, but looking after your valuables, (carry your passport and tickets on your person not in a bag etc,) not flashing money around and a little common sense are all that are needed for a hassle-free trip. The area around the station in Cuzco (for trains to M. Picchu) is rumoured to be one of the less savoury districts. Violent crime is unusual, most thefts are from pickpockets, snatch-thefts of unguarded bags, and razor slashing of e.g. backpacks. Spread your money in safe spots about your person, don't carry large sums in public etc. Having read the dire warnings in Lonely Planet you may be somewhat paranoid on arrival, but this really is not warranted. Everyone we met was friendly and courteous, intent on relieving us of our money only by selling rugs, jumpers, bags, ponchos, hats, paintings, whistles, pots, beer etc (the latter with notable success.) Cuzco/Aguas Calientes are great places to shop if you have a few spare hours. Just don't buy any of those bloody panpipes.
Altitude Sickness: Cuzco (c3,400m) is higher than M. Picchu, (at c2,400m) but slightly lower than the Andean passes (e.g. c4,000m at their highest point as you cross the peaks on the Manu Road before descending the eastern slope down into the foothills/on to the lowland forest of the Manu.) Even Cuzco is high enough to require some acclimatisation, especially if you fly straight from sea-level Lima. We suffered from mild headaches and slight shortness of breath, and one of us had a nauseous night at Pillahuata, but nothing more serious, even up at 5,000m on Marcapomacocha. It's sensible to avoid all strenuous exercise, avoid big meals, don't smoke and don't over-indulge in the excellent Cusquena beer in the 1st day or two at altitude. Drugs such as Diamox can help, but although they alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness they can also mask the onset of more serious altitude-related problems (AMS.) Coca tea is widely available in Andean hotels etc, and seems to help with the acclimatisation process. NB don't bring coca leaves home through customs and expect a warm reception.
On the last day we ascended directly from sea level to the upper levels of Marcapomacocha at 5,000m. As most in our party had not seen e.g. Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, White-bellied Cinclodes etc, and since Marcapomacocha can be accessed in a day in a hire car, we decided that we would mount a suicide mission to the upper altitudes, aiming to track down the key species and then retire to the coastal lowlands again in the evening before our bodies knew what had hit them.This is definitely not recommended if you can avoid it, but we lived to tell the tale with no serious side effects, although one member of our group was a little less than 100% compos mentis at one point.
Other Health: Immunisations against Yellow Fever, Tetanus, Typhoid, Hepatitis and Cholera are recommended. Malaria prophylaxis is also recommended, although the incidence of Malaria is low in The Manu. We variously took Malarone (new, very effective but expensive,) or Chloroquine/Paludrine. There are also a few spectacular insect-borne diseases that can be contracted, e.g. leishmaniasis, which is extremely unpleasant and difficult to treat. It's carried by a species of Phlebotimus sand-fly (small with red eyes and 'Mickey-Mouse-ear' wings that dances on the skin before biting.) There have apparently been a number of cases around Cocha Cashu up the Rio Manu, so we were particularly careful at Cocha Salvador/Pakitza. All are best avoided by spraying exposed areas with deet-containing insect repellent i.e. don't get bitten in the first place. Dawn and dusk are the highest-risk times. There are a few dangerous snakes in The Manu, most notably Bushmaster and Fer de Lance. The usual precautions apply; don't put your hands where you can't see, do not approach any snakes seen etc. There's a tiny theoretical risk from Jaguar, but just seeing the beasts in the first place is hard enough.
Beer etc: We took our own into Pillahuata, Cocha Salvador etc, but after 9 days of warm beer, a cold beer at The Manu Wildlife Center was a gift from the Gods. The Cross Keys is Barry Walker's bar above the main square (Plaza de Armas) in Cuzco, (diagonally opposite the Cathedral,) fiendishly hidden behind 2 enormous crossed keys... Barry is an ex-pat Brit of 20 years standing, (in fact from God's own city, Manchester,) and is THE contact for birds in se Peru- he can organise trips to suit almost any itinerary and is the expert on The Manu. (See contact details above.) The Cross Keys is a great place for a quiet evening drink. BW is a top guide by all accounts, and certainly his company handled all the logistics for our trip so that we were free to concentrate on the matter in hand. The walls of The Cross Keys are decorated with football shirts, (Barry sadly is a Man Utd supporter but we won't hold that against him here,) and a careful study of the end wall in the bar will reveal a number of candid shots of a motley crew of now well respected senior birding figures in a variety of compromising and dubious positions- top value.
Food: Generally very good in the lodges. We took our own cooks with us to Pillahuata and Cocha Salvador who managed to conjure up amazing feasts on the hoof. There are plenty of good restaurants/bars/cafes in Cuzco, but we ate in the Cross Keys to maximise the gossip opportunities, and enjoyed a mean chicken curry. Try the granadilla fruit in Amazonia, you remove the outer pith and suck the seeds out like a passion fruit.
Laundry: can be done at various points along the route to Manu, at Amazonia Lodge and Manu Wildlife Center and in Cuzco. Note that in some lodges washing is handled in the best way possible given local limitations i.e. beaten on rocks at the river's edge, so save washing tuxedos etc (naturally we all dressed for dinner.) until you get home.
Habitat types/zones: We birded as many different habitats as possible to maximise our species count. Those available in The Manu that we dipped into/that occur elsewhere in the region include: (ref: Ridgely and Tudor vol. #1, p20: habitats.)
Temperate zone: Upper elevation forested zone 2300-3500m. Subtropical zone: Mid-elevation zone 1000-2500m. Often humid montane forest. Upper Tropical zone: 500-1000m. Mostly humid forest. Lower Tropical zone: 0-500m. Mostly humid forest.
Puna: Open, dry southern grassland of upper Andean slopes/plains (called paramo further north) 3400-4500m. Elfin forest: Stunted mossy woodland growing on high altitude ridges, a specialised version of cloud forest. Cloud Forest: Montane forest above 600m which is frequently enveloped in cloud. Hence wet and mossy. (Neblina; The cloud in 'cloud-forest.') Terra firme forest: S. hemisphere equivalent of primary rainforest. (immediately above the varzea flood zone,) never flooded. Transitional Forest: intermediate between terra firme and varzea. Varzea forest: Seasonally inundated riverine tropical forest. Chusquea bamboo: Tall dense S. hemisphere bamboo of the temperate zone. Guadua bamboo: A spiny bamboo, which grows in thickets. Polylepis: High altitude (3500m+) monotypic gnarled bluish shrub-forest with flaky reddish bark, above the treeline on Puna, home to a set of high altitude rarities. Mostly remnant patches now.
New Species: There are a number of outstanding avian mysteries in the Manu. Three of the most recent/interesting concern an unidentified Cnipodectes Flycatcher, an undescribed 'tanager', (probably of a brand new genus,) and a Ciccaba owl.
The Cnipodectes was found in a skin collection in Lima by Dan lane in late '02. Looking at skins of Rufous Cassiornis, DL noticed one specimen, collected at Pakitza up the Rio Manu, which did not fit. Further research has confirmed that the bird is of an unknown species. Just before our visit, Frank Lambert had obtained video of the species at Cocha Cashu, well up the Rio Manu, (where he'd spent many weeks earlier in the year,) but the vocalisations remain unknown. It is larger than Brownish Flycatcher (aka Twistwing, Cnipodectes subbrunneus) and appears to be a Cnipodectes flycatcher but is pretty distinct from subbrunneus, the only known member of that genus.
The new 'tanager' was seen briefly by GR and Dan Lane in October 2000. They searched the same location for it each year since but without success, and having never recorded it again, the inevitable doubts started to set in. However, any such doubts in the minds of the finders were dispelled on October 6th 2003, when the bird was seen well by both GR and DL, and also by some lucky Wings tour participants. The bird has not been seen again, despite extensive searches. It resembles (per GR) a large Piranga, bright yellow below, burnished darker above, with a slightly conical pink bill, and has a thick, black post-ocular stripe which is narrowly edged white above and below. The recorded song, to the ears of our party, was a rollicking 'killbillykillbillykillbillykillbill' and this, combined with the yellow-with-black-stripe motif led us to refer to the bird as the "KillBill" Tanager, (an irreverent but well-intentioned homage to the new Tarantino movie of the same name, which stars Uma Thurman sporting a tracksuit of approximately the same colour/design. (Not that Tanagers wear tracksuits but you get where we're coming from.)) Little is known of the birds habits, but in our idle discussions we mooted the idea that perhaps it is a flowering bamboo specialist and hence nomadic, only occurring when flowering bamboo is present? Equally it may just be that the bird is scarce, and/or that few roads cut through suitable altitude/habitat, so that the opportunities for sightings are few and far between. Either way we dipped!
The undescribed Ciccaba was only known from The Cabañas San Isidro in eastern Ecuador until it was seen near CORL at c1400m on a recent Wings tour in the Manu. It apparently looks like a cross between Black-and-White-/Black-banded- Owl.
Many site locations are pretty meaningless for the Manu - if you're in the right micro-habitat/at the right altitude species may well be present. Equally if local conditions change, they'll be absent. The forest is so vast in The Manu that suitable habitat may extend for miles and miles, so the sites reflect where we chose to bird rather than necessarily the best options for all trips/specific stake-outs. However, certain species have habitat requirements that may only be accessible from one or two trails. (For example, Rufous-fronted Antthrush seems only to inhabit narrow strips of lowland, strictly riverine bamboo, which is rarely penetrated for any distance by trails. Hence in accessible Manu, one of the very few places to see them is the Antthrush Trail at MWC. (Although if you were to bird up at e.g. Camisea c100kms to the nw, they are said to be relatively common in this habitat. (per Tino, our guide at CS.)) Equally, Black-faced Cotinga is very scarce on the southern edge of the Manu, (Pakitza/CS seems to be at the southern edge of where they regularly occur,) but common further up the Rio Manu (a kitchen window bird as Frank Lambert put it e.g. at Cocha Cashu.) Note that for all GPS readings listed here, the last number is the percentage of a minute, not the number of seconds.
Access: by vehicle east along the Manu Road from Cuzco. Note: the road is one way, and the direction of traffic changes daily as follows: Cuzco-Shintuya i.e. west to east: Mon., Weds., Fri., Sun. Shintuya-Cuzco i.e. east to west: Tues., Thurs., Sat. We birded:
- The pass above the camp site; c20 mins drive uphill from the camp. We walked the roads either side of the sign that marks the Manu Park boundary.
- The Tunnels; c2kms (?) below the camp site, forest extends continuously either side of The Tunnels, (short narrow truck-shaped passages blasted through the rock, the road passes through both of them.) Walking down the Manu Road from the campsite to The Tunnels and beyond takes you through various altitudes and can be bird-rich.
- Pillahuata village; a collection of 2 or 3 shacks and a miniscule tin church. The best site for Red-and-White Antpitta (birds are further above and below too, but it's easier to get into the bamboo sections c300m either side of the village.) There's plenty of good Upper Tropical zone birding from just above the village to well below, again easy to do from the road.
Access: along the Manu Road is basically the only way in, tough to do on public transport but there are occasional local buses/trucks, it should be possible to ride in for a small fee with the latter. The lodge is sandwiched between the humid subtropical cloud forest above, and the upper tropical forest zone below. Birds can be anywhere- just find suitable habitat (which isn't hard.) and bird from the road. The main areas we birded at/close to the lodge are:
- The Main COTR Lek; an easy 200m walk up the road above the lodge entrance, get the key for the hide from the lodge in advance if you want to lurk in the hide, but it's not necessary to see the Cock-of-the-Rocks as they are clearly visible beyond the end of the bamboo screens from the road a few metres before you reach the hide entrance. The 2nd lek is a few hundred metres further up the road on the same side.
- 'Tanager Corner'; less than 1km (?) below the lodge, down the Manu road towards Pilcopata. Just after crossing the large river (road bridge) and having passed the football field on your right the road bends 90º to the left. This is the corner, and the birding can be excellent from here on down the road in fairly open forest habitat.
- Above the lodge; birding from the road can be excellent. We had our biggest mixed flock of the entire trip here; anywhere is good, from the lower (main) lek up to the mirador.
- The mirador; a viewpoint c20 mins drive above the lodge back up the Manu Road towards Pillahuata. A classic stake-out for Lyre-tailed Nightjar, there are also other species here at slightly higher altitudes than the lodge. An Ochre-breasted Antpitta had been heard (a single, eminently-overlookable downslurred 'psew') just a few metres above the mirador a couple of days before our arrival.
- The loop trail behind the canteen; the trail-head is visible in the right hand corner of the garden behind the canteen, and loops back to the other side of the garden. Good for Yungas Manakin, Slaty Gnateater and Rufous-breasted Antthrush (not that we saw the latter.)
- 1000m Bridge; actually a little higher than 1000m according to our GPS/altimeter? c30 mins drive below CORL Lodge; a small road bridge that provides a convenient reference altitude. We birded here for species at the top end of the Upper Tropical range with some success.
Amazonia Lodge- MAP #3
Altitude: 600m (Lodge, Jeep Track) 750m (top of The Hill)
Access: By boat; 10mins. by river from the end of the Manu Road at Atalaya. Pronounced Am-a-zone-EEH-ah Lodge, this is a charming family-run place and a great birding site, which straddles the division between Upper- and Lower Tropical faunal zones. A little off the main eco-tourist trail, the lodge caters pretty much exclusively for birders, and with the lodge list at almost 600 species it's not hard to see why. See www.amazonialodge.com We concentrated on:
- The Jeep Track; starts 100m across the lodge compound, provides access to the marsh clearing (very close to the lodge) and into good forest habitat. Flat and easy-going, which is a major bonus in the heat and humidity.
- The Hill; a steep climb up but good birds and easy trails once you reach the top, where there's also a good canopy tower.
- The Bamboo Island; c20 mins walk from the lodge across the river (wade-able unless there's been recent rain.) Relatively low bird densities but a few good specialities e.g. White-cheeked Tody-Fly. (although we dipped here.) NB The river floods regularly, so this trail can drastically change its course.
- The Lodge Compound; good for hummers, Pale-legged Hornero, nightbirds etc. The veranda is great to chill out on when you're too exhausted to walk any further.
Note; once you get into the lower foothills/lowlands, the forest is pretty much continuous, so birds can be anywhere in habitat; it's simply a question of finding trails into varzea, terra firme etc.
Salvador Camp/Pakitza- MAP # 4A, 4B
Altitude: 350m (CS, Pakitza)
Access: Only by boat, up the Rio Manu from Boca Manu. The official name of the camp is the Manu Tented Camp, (Campamento Aguaje) owned by Tapir Tours, but called 'CS camp' below as life's too short. GPS of the camp site is 12º 00.30 S, 071º 13.77 W. We covered:
- Pakitza; an hour up-river from the camp, Pakitza has two trails accessible from the compound, Trocha Tachigali (which is called the terra firme trail below) and Trocha Cañabrava, which lead from the rear/right corner and centre/right side of the compound respectively as you look from the river.
- The trail north of CS camp; this is nameless as far as I know. It leaves from by the quay at the camp entrance and runs north parallel to the river (on your right) for a few hundred metres, then kicks left into great mature open terra firme, providing a 6-hour (birding speed i.e. 2 hours max at normal speed) loop. One of the best trails we birded.
- Cocha Salvador ox-bow lake; accessible by boat directly opposite the camp, also has good trails, where we scored the Conioptilon amongst other things. The catamaran is at the end of the trail that leads from the drop off point (a sandbank on the river,) and a 2 hour time slot must be booked in advance with the rangers at Limonal. 9am-11am is currently the best time for Giant Otter.
- Cocha Otorongo; 30 mins down-river from CS, this has mozzie-infested trails and a sizeable ox-bow lake/canopy tower. If you had to miss out any of the sites up the Manu I would drop this one, but we did see our only Plumbeous Antbird and 5m-range Red Howlers next to the canopy tower here.
Manu Wildlife Center- MAP #5
Altitude: 400m (Lodge)
Access: by river from Atalaya via Boca Manu, or by air on the small plane from Cuzco to Boca Manu/ a 1 hr boat ride to MWC. (Very unreliable chartering for this small plane by late '03- many future tours may go in from/out to Puerto Maldonado which is a much longer (c9 hours up-river PM-MWC, c7 hours down-river) boat trip away.) We birded:
- The Trails; there is a large network of trails all accessible from the lodge- we only scratched the surface, doing the Colpa Trail (runs north for 3.1kms out to the Tapir Lick,) and part of Creekside (from the canopy tower parallel to/eventually joining the Colpa Trail.) We didn't have time to bird the Manakin, Tigrillo, Liana Trails, nor the Bamboo Grid on the other side of the river opposite the lodge.
- The canopy tower; a 10 min. walk from the lodge through transitional forest, this sturdy structure is built into the arms of a huge tree and is a must-bird location for canopy species. We visited 3 times and saw different species each visit.
- The Antthrush Trail; cunningly named, this trail is rich in Guadua bamboo, and is the main stake-out for Rufous-fronted Antthrush at the lodge. It's a c15 min boat-ride down river and the early stages can be covered in an hour or so's birding.
- Cocha Camungo; an ox-bow site with a good entrance trail and often-poor canopy tower, 10 mins further downstream from the Antthrush Trail drop off. The best site for Purus Jacamar and Pale-eyed Blackbird, both of which are easy here via catamaran.
- Cocha Nueva; a nice bamboo/bamboo + young terra firma mixed forest site, good for White-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher, Manu Antbird and other 'boo-ophiles. This is also the Giant Otter site at MWC.
- The Grid; this is an interlocking grid (hence the name, hello?) of well-maintained trails that criss-cross through the forest; A, B, C, D run horizontally and are crossed vertically by Z, Y, X, W and V. An access trail leads out from behind the lodge compound to trail A, or you can follow the River Trail which connects with Z. Draw a map of the letters/layout to take with you; it would easy to get disorientated and wander round for days on end.)
Machu Picchu/Aguas Calientes MAP #6
Altitude: 2000m (Aguas Calientes/Bridge over the Urubamba) 2400m (Ruins)
Access: Machu Picchu can only be accessed by train, or by train part way and then a 4-day trek along the Inca Way for the athletic- we took the easy option. You can take either the local train from Cuzco, (absolutely rammed to a ludicrous degree- book 1st class if you take this option, and watch for pickpockets,) or the tourist train (autowagon.)
If you visit se Peru without spending a day in Machu Picchu you really are a sad listing anorak who needs to get out more- the ruins are stunning. The small town of Aguas Calientes is the only place to stay if you want to enjoy the ruins in peace and quiet early in the morning, (before 9-45am when the buses deliver the tourist-train hordes,) or after mid-afternoon, (after the bulk of the day visitors have headed back at 2-30pm to catch the return train.) However, our tight schedule only allowed a one-day visit from Urubamba. If you do stay at Ag. Cal. there are plenty of small cheap hostels here- see Lonely Planet.
The ruins themselves are pretty birdless, except for Inca Wren, White-tipped Swift, Pale-legged Warbler etc but it's worth checking the Inca trail which heads east from the top of the ruins to the Intipunku Gate of the Sun, (c1 hour fairly easy walk round trip without birding stops,) and the main road 400m below by the road bridge over the Urubamba river between Ag. Cal. and the ruins. (This is only c10 mins walk beyond Aguas Calientes.) If you have more time, some of the best birding here is along the railway track to the west, (the track runs almost parallel to the river, you follow the track downstream through two short tunnels, through the deserted P. Ruinas station, round a right hand bend.) Watch out for trains which still pass slowly down the track heading for the power station in the valley west of the ruins- you can hear them coming. So long as you don't bird on the bends you have plenty of time to get out of the way, and trains are few and far between, (max. 4 per day?) The feeders in the grounds of the Pueblo Hotel (just above the railway track crossing at the eastern edge of town, c200m east of the station, access from the end of the platform) are excellent for hummingbirds.
Watch for White-capped Dipper, Torrent Tyrannulet and Torrent Duck along the Urubamba on the train journey from/to Cuzco- if you miss any of these they can also be found along the river beyond Ag. Calientes.
Access: difficult without private transport, a rental car is advisable, 4x4 not totally necessary in good weather but preferable. It's 3-4 hours' drive from Lima to the start of the Marcapomacocha road in light traffic, (slow trucks/single lane highway fun likely later in the day.)
The Central Highway north from Lima passes through (in order) the villages of Chosica, Surco and San Mateo, then cuts through 2 or 3 rock tunnels, before reaching the Marcapomacocha road turn at cKM122. This spot is apparently called 'Casapalca' although we saw no signs/village, GPS 11º 37.41 S, 076º 14.09 W. The Marcapomacocha road forks sharply off to the left here, just as the main road curves sharply to the right.
A few hundred metres after forking left off the Central Highway at cKM122 onto the unpaved Marc. road, you reach the San Mateo train station on the right at c4200m elevation. A quebrada forms a small valley immediately to the right of the road c500m beyond this point, and this holds Stripe-headed Antpitta. The DSP bog is higher up, c0.3km after the obvious set of very tight 'switchback' U-bends that cling to the edge of a steep area of the hillside. This is (extremely approx.) 7kms after forking off the Central Highway. The last of these U-bends is a more open curve which loops close to 270º back on itself i.e. enclosing at least two sides of the bog on the right hand side, which is at GPS 11º 34.88 S, 076º 15.85W at 4560m. You pass another bog just to the left of the road heading in, only c400m max. before the bog we walked (i.e. on the outside (left) of this last more open curve itself.) This left hand bog actually looked better for DSP than the one we explored- wetter with better cushion plants. There may be birds on both?)
If you have a vehicle and at least two days at the site it would be possible to do 'the whole loop' i.e. head 120kms north from Lima up the Central Highway to Casapalca, left along the Marcapomacocha road for c15kms, left again to head south down the Santa Eulalia Road (look for the distant lake on the right hand side/well below in a depression after c3 (?) kms to confirm you're on this road, there are no signs up here,) and then rejoin the main Central Highway some 70kms to the south i.e. approx. 50kms north of Lima. Alternatively you could do the Santa Eulalia road from the bottom up.
The pass is c6kms beyond the DSP bog i.e. c13 kms after turning off the central highway, at an altitude of c5,000m and the turn off left down the top of the Santa Eulalia road is another 2 or 3kms beyond the pass/shelter. (Note: I did not measure any distances accurately on this road, all are estimates from my basic 1:1,500,000 south Peru map.) The Santa Eulalia road runs roughly north/south parallel to the Central Highway 20kms to the west and eventually rejoins the Central Highway much lower down i.e. closer to Lima completing a triangle, hence you can do the whole wide loop given unlimited time/energy. Birding off the Central Highway might prove to be an easier alternative to the Santa Eulalia road for some of the mid-elevation species if birding without transport. The scenery is relatively grim though along the Central Highway; small villages, little access to the hillsides, lots of trucks/buses blaring horns at you etc etc. We only tried a couple of spots but e.g. Great Inca-Finch must be here somewhere. Other alleged possibilities, certainly along the lower/mid- elevation sections of the Sta. Eulalia road include Black-necked Flicker, Bronze-tailed Comet, Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, Peruvian Pygmy-Owl, Canyon Canastero, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Streaked Tit-Spinetail, Striated Earthcreeper, White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, Grayish Miner.
Access by public transport is tougher, although it should be no problem to get up to the eastern end of the Marcapomacocha road; the road north from Lima to this point is the Central Highway i.e. a number of buses head up that way from Lima for sure, through Chosica, San Mateo etc, but from the Casapalca turnoff you'd have to walk it i.e. c15kms to Milloc (the top of the Santa Eulalia road) with good altiplano habitat but not much oxygen (approx. 4000m at the turn off up to 4900m at the pass.) It is supposed to be possible to stay at San Pedro de Casta half way up the Sta. Eulalia road, and public buses probably run there but no higher I'd imagine?) An alternative is to take a bus to the town of San Mateo and then a taxi round trip from there. Frank Lambert did this is Dec. '03 paying c100 soles for the taxi excursion.
The Marc. road is unpaved, and at this starting point you are very close to the San Mateo (?) railway station just to the right of the unpaved road (NB this station is nowhere near the village of San Mateo. It may be possible to get a train there, although it looked pretty much like a freight/mining stop only. The line heads further up (but not through the DSP/Cinclodes bog valley) so it might be worth checking out further station/train options. However it would be very hard work walking the considerable distances involved at these kinds of altitudes, and there is very little traffic here making hitching difficult. The whole thing is 1000% easier if you can blag a lift with a birding trip/rent a vehicle. NB there's NOTHING up there once you've passed north of San Mateo on the central highway, until you get a few hours down the Sta. Eulalia Road to San Pedro de Casta, so you'd need a tent, lots of warm clothing, food, water. There is a shelter at the pass but it's three-sided only with a roof, you could maybe camp inside, out of the wind unless it's blowing from the south. It snowed and hailed briefly when we were up there, just a few flakes, but it would be pretty perishing if the weather closed in.
Thanks to: all at Manu Expeditions for a faultless trip, especially to Barry Walker and his logistics team, and the guys who helped us out in the field; (Jesus and Elias, Argiles and Americo, Tino, our cooks at CS etc,) the Wings crew, our long-suffering partners, (for allowing us to b*gger off for three weeks,) but most of all to Gary Rosenberg for his unstinting efforts, without which our list would have been way shorter and doubtless inclusive of a few dubious identifications. Besides, in Gary's absence, who would have been our insect diversion?
Daily Birding Diary
Sat Nov 1: We left the gloom of a winter's morning at London Heathrow behind courtesy of American Airlines flight AA57. 10 hours later we arrived in Miami, yomped across terminals, (baggage checked straight through these days, no need to pick up and cart through customs when we travelled, although procedures seem to change weekly at present,) and boarded a 2nd flight to Lima, 6 hours to the south. We arrived on schedule at 11-30pm, all bags present and correct, rendezvoused with Gary R. at the airport through the melée, and adjourned to a nearby hotel to snatch a few hours' sleep.
Sun Nov. 2: Lima to Cuzco, Cuzco to Pillahuata Camp. We left the hotel at 4am to check in for our 6am flight to Cuzco. Met by the smiling troops from Manu Expeditions at the airport, we boarded the bus that was to carry us laboriously up the famous Manu Road. We headed out to the nearby Huacarpay Lakes, an hour's drive se of Cuzco, and finally, after all those months of planning and waiting, we started birding. The shallow, reed-fringed lakes are a good size and are heaving with birds- we scribbled the first of many notes as we logged Puna Ibis, Andean Gulls, mixed flocks of American Golden Plover, Wilson's Phalarope, Pec. Sands. and both Black-necked and more surprisingly White-backed Stilts (usually only in Amazonia.) A Many-colored Rush-Tyrant and a couple of Wren-like Rushbirds were universally admired, but it wasn't until we crossed the end of the causeway and reached the sparse scrubby habitat beyond that we scored the first endemic- a cracking male Bearded Mountaineer, feeding in the flowering tobacco trees, just as every trip report in history says they should. Equally spectacular were a couple of nearby Black-trained Trainbearers, whilst a pair of Streak-fronted Thornbirds taped out from cover at the base of a small cliff were less sartorially elegant but just as valued. We mopped up a few more species around the edges of the lake, picking out a single Bare-eyed Ground-Dove on a mud wall as we left, before starting up the barren western Andean slope, and onto the Manu Road proper.
We wound our way up through the altitudinal zones, with those on the left hand side of the bus whimpering quietly as our wheels traced the very edge of the narrow switchback road. This section of the Manu Road is not for the faint-hearted, and we were grateful for the professional calm of our excellent driver Argiles. Progress was slow over the broken surface, but we eventually stopped at Huancarani, c35kms west of Paucartambo at just below 3,800m. We 'scoped through flocks of Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches finding 3 Mourning Sierras, until just beyond the town we finally discovered our endemic goal- a pair of Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finches which hopped along the edge of a walled field providing great views for all. Nearby, a pair of Andean Lapwings posed photogenically, and we took a series of frame-filling shots of them as we enjoyed the first of many packed lunches. The highlight of our al fresco meal was a small slab of chocolate that became our staple diet- 'Sublimo' by name and most definitely sublimo by nature. We noticed a small circle inside the wrapper which puzzled us all, the solution to which took us a few days to unravel.
We crossed over the Ajanaco pass at 3,800m, pausing just long enough to add a Rusty-fronted Canastero and a Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, and headed further east, jumping out for the odd brief stop. One such pause allowed us to grill a second pair of Mountain-Finches, before a hill farmer appeared with a large group of livestock, prompting BH to pipe up; If we don't get ahead of these animals we'll be here until the cows come home.
We rumbled onward to Paucartambo, our interim destination. This was to be a critical stop, since we managed to buy the entire stock of the town's beer- 24 large bottles of cervezas Peruanas. Arriving at the Pillahuata campsite after dark, we squeezed into the mess tent for a dimly lit dinner. In the growing darkness the tattoo of raindrops piercing the thin air and drumming on the tents was gradually becoming louder, and KB, huddled in the corner of the tent captured the moment, announcing gravely, my wife would hate it here. GR had assumed we would be too tired to try for Swallow-tailed Nightjar, but we were having none of it, and having thrown our motley collection of gear into the tents, we crawled up the road to try for the birds, the lowering skies suggesting our chances were slim. However our MD player succeeded in bringing in a single female nightjar, although we failed to persuade the White-throated Screech-Owl which Barry Walker's group had seen a couple of nights earlier to drop in out of the drizzle. We settled down for the night at 2,900m, (actually if your head is at 2,900m your feet are at approx. 2898m, which makes for a tendency to wake up in the morning squashed against the bottom of the tent!) and slept the sleep of the just, barely aware of the now heavy rain cascading down around us.
Mon Nov. 3: Pillahuata Camp We stumbled from our tents before first light, (all except GR avoiding the numerous cow pats,) and gazed up at the incredible light show above our heads- no light pollution here. (Hardly surprising, given the total absence of street lights, house lights, or indeed, electricity of any kind come to that.) We left camp at 4-30am, bussing up to start birding at 5am at the pass above the camp, c3500m. Few people bird here in the early morning, and anticipation was running high. Our first birds included numerous Black-throated Flower-piercers and Shining Sunbeams, and a Giant Hummingbird was an early star turn. Scarlet Mountain-Tanagers drew gasps from the assembled onlookers, but a Sword-billed Hummingbird (surely it's flying backwards?) shooting off at high speed was even more of a thrill. CG's composure was sorely tested by a calling Barred Antthrush, but the bird was very distant and inaccessible. We speculatively played tape for the high altitude Scytalopus Tapaculo here, simonsi, and a Puna Tapaculo immediately appeared in a nearby bush, proceeding to sing perched out in the open for minutes on end - amazing stuff! A pair of Tit-Spinetails flirted in the brush on the top of the crags adjacent to the road, and eventually revealed themselves to be Andean Tit-Spinetails- a 1st for the Manu reserve. Tyrian Metaltails flitted from bloom to bloom, and the first of many Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants showed well. At 8am we tore ourselves away from this cavalcade of new species, and sat down, (at a trestle table set up in front of the Manu park sign,) to an impromptu breakfast which Argiles and Americo had prepared for us - hot coffee, cold pancakes with maple syrup, and bread and jam- who could ask for anything more?
Returning, replete, to the job in hand, we slowly birded the road back towards the camp, quickly adding Puna Thistletail, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, White-throated Tyrannulet etc. However it was more than just the altitude that set our pulses racing a couple of bends down the track, as a male Barred Fruiteater flew up from the edge of the road. As we descended we encountered small groups of Hooded Mountain-Tanagers and a single Golden-collared Tanager, a glamorous, scarce and range-restricted species. A Crowned Chat-Tyrant of the race spodionota (split by some as 'Peruvian Chat-Tyrant') made an all-too brief appearance, but nobody missed the Plain-breasted Hawk that flew right past us, skimming the tops of the stunted bushes. The birds came thick and fast, and we were still scribbling notes as we sat down to lunch back at the camp site. We wolfed down the rolled chicken and green bean salad as if our lives depended on it, appetites sharpened by the morning's exertions at 3500m.
In the afternoon, we birded the road below the camp down as far as The Tunnels until dusk. Highlights included a lone male Rufous-capped Thornbill perched high up in hillside vegetation, a single Grass-Green Tanager which proved to be our only one of the trip, and a Marcapata Spinetail building a nest - a new bird even for GR. At the bridge between the tunnels a svelte Maroon-chested-(Slaty-backed-) Chat-Tyrant completed our one-day Chat-Tyrant slam. We heard another Barred Antthrush, and at least three different Red-and-White Antpittas, and checked Barry et al's stake-out for a star bird they had heard two days previously - Rusty-breasted Antpitta. As we played tape a couple of us glimpsed a suitably Grallaricula-shaped blob in the undergrowth, but could not even confirm a genus let alone a species.
As the light failed, a pair of Gray-breasted Mountain Toucans called, but much to our frustration they were well down-slope and could not be enticed up to say goodnight.
We trooped wearily back to the bus and chugged up to the camp, wheezing our way to the dinner tent in the thin air. Since the night was fine, after a couple of restorative beers and a fine meal conjured up by the camp cooks, we wandered uphill again to try for nightjars and the Screech Owl. This time we saw at least two nightjars, (sadly neither was an adult male with full tail streamers,) but the owl again eluded us.
Tues Nov. 4: Pillahuata to Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge We were woken by one of our number vomiting at 3-30am- the altitude had claimed its first victim. However everything has an upside, and as we were awake anyway we got up and witnessed another beautiful star-studded night sky, complete with a shooting star speeding across the velvety blackness. Deciding that the shooting star could only be a good omen for Red-and-White Antpitta later in the day, we beat a path to the breakfast tent. Suitably fortified, we began a new foray into the field. We started out at the site of the previous night's Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan dip, and whilst we expert birders strained to hear or catch a glimpse of birds responding to the tape, our driver Argiles quietly pointed out a bird that had sneaked in under our radar, not 30m away up the hillside. After a brief panic we all got on the bird, which was promptly joined by a congener, and we watched the pair in awed silence. After celebrating our good fortune, we decided to try again for the Rusty-breasted Antpitta, all of 20 yards further downslope, but not a sniff. We walked on, finding a Bronzy Inca, a male Barred Becard, and yesterday's Marcapata Spinetail, before driving down to the forest immediately below the Two Tunnels to try our luck.
Bird activity was high, and we found ourselves surrounded by an endless succession of new birds which replaced each other at regular intervals. An Andean Guan clumped about in the sub-canopy, Capped Conebills played hide and seek with us in the mid-storey, and the latter's activity led us inadvertently to a small group of Handsome Flycatchers, a range-limited species this far south, (since the oblitus race is disjunct from the nominate (but apparently almost identical) races further north in Ecuador and Colombia.) Barred Antthrushes continued to torment us from distant tracts of understorey with their song - a typical forceful rising Chamaeza rippling refrain- but we were never even remotely close to a calling bird. Trilling Tapaculos, (parvirostris, the Scytalopus of choice at this altitude,) also teased us from the undergrowth but refused to show themselves. We struggled with an elusive pair of Glossy Black Thrushes, which finally gave themselves up, along with our only Andean Solitaire, before we reluctantly boarded the bus, (hiding, like some timid animal, just around every corner behind us it seemed, its snout peeping out from time to time as Argiles and Americo diligently followed our every move.)
We drove on, losing altitude all the time, alighting just above the three or four shacks that proudly huddle together to create the teeming metropolis that is Pillahuata. Even this modest drop in altitude (here at c2,400m) brought new birds, with Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and Pale-footed Swallows making their debut. Of rather more interest to those ground-dweller-fixated individuals amongst the party, was the fact that we were now approaching the epicentre of Red-and-White Antpitta viewing opportunities, and having heard at least four birds calling ('pew.pew, pew') all morning our appetites were well and truly whetted. Just above the first of the shacks- a tiny ramshackle church as it turned out- we heard the familiar strains of another Antpitta, and this time wonderfully close to the road. We struggled up the slippery bank and sneaked into the forest, as silently as unfit gringos can manage. We played tape, and the bird came in, with a couple of the party getting unobstructed brief views, whilst the rest of us suffered in tense silence, horribly blocked by tree roots. After 15 minutes or so the bird had settled in an impenetrable thicket and was calling consistently from a static position- our chance had gone, and we slithered back down to the road, our respective body languages telling very different stories. I must confess that during the next few minutes I felt my chance to see one of the key endemics had slipped away, but the shooting star must indeed have been an omen; 400 yards lower down another bird was calling from a dense bamboo thicket, into which a single narrow entrance could be forged to allow us a clear view of a tiny area of understorey. Those of us who had missed the earlier bird crept in, and, crushed together in the tiny space, sweating profusely, and gamely trying to ignore the ravenous evil elbow-biting flies, we played tape and waited. We did not have to wait long- a Red-and-White Antipitta responded, calling and moving closer. In seconds it was in view, hopping at amazing speed across the forest floor to come and check us out. The bird showed well for a few glorious seconds, then was joined by a 2nd bird, before both of them melted back into the forest, leaving us bitten but victorious- back from the brink!
Needless to say, we emerged from the undergrowth to find that GH had been watching yet another bird from the comfort of the road, and as if this wasn't bad enough, a 5th bird called from the opposite side of the road, perched close in thin cover, allowing us to set up a scope- a disgrace to its tribe! PW and CG called those forging ahead back for the views of a lifetime- stellar stuff.
We walked still lower, finding our only Rust-and-Yellow Tanager of the trip, a phenomenally co-operative Black-streaked Puffbird and the first of many Swainson's Thrushes- any Catharus thrush is a good bird for a British twitcher- before driving down to 2050m. At this lower altitude we heard, taped and saw another Scytalopus, down here an atratus ('Northern White-crowned' Tapaculo) all blackish with slightly barred flanks. A singing Wedge-billed Hummingbird, (a rhythmical, well-spaced, high pitched 'sewing machine' squeak,) gave brief views, and Long-tailed Sylph and Speckled Hummingbirds showed rather better, as did our first Golden-headed Quetzal and our only Black-streaked Puffbirds, whilst a pair of Speckle-faced Parrots shot by on the way to an important forest event. As we approached the pepper farm above Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge (CORL) we heard a mournful 'whew.phewp' from way up on the hillside, the 2nd note higher than the first, repeated at exact, 12-second intervals. Tragically, this was to be as close as we were to come to a White-throated Antpitta. Meanwhile overhead, White-collared Swifts started to outnumber Chestnut-collared, and a male Versicolored Barbet made its only appearance of the trip.
We eventually reached CORL at 1500m, spending the twilight minutes at the mirador above the lodge. In low, swirling cloud and light rain we heard a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar calling continuously from the crags above the road, but the bird had obviously decided that conditions were in no way conducive to dining, and stayed out of sight well above us. We met up with Barry Walker and party over dinner, to feast on Hawaiian meatballs (globalisation eh?) and catch up on the latest football results.
Weds Nov. 5: Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge As the first rays of sunlight fell upon our unshaven faces, our intrepid party could be found walking the short distance up to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, just above the lodge. Even before we had reached the cramped hide we had seen the first males jousting with each other just below the road, vying for the females' attention. A COTR lek is truly one of nature's most thrilling spectacles, and we spent a while just enjoying the carnival. Eventually we tore ourselves away and entered the hide, having picked up the key from the lodge at breakfast. We squeezed into the rickety structure overlooking a forested slope, but found it difficult to manoeuvre scopes and bodies in the hide's tight confines. A Rufous-breasted Antthrush called from the far end of the forest patch, but no amount of understorey scanning could pick the distant bird out. A Scaled Antpitta also called, again frustratingly far away, but a stunning Crested Quetzal soon arrived to banish the unco-operative ground-dwellers from our minds. Three-striped Warblers flicked about in the bushes just below us, with our first Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager making up the numbers.
We exited the hide and almost immediately walked into the middle of a mega-flock, the next hour or so being a blur of gaudy tanagers, (including 2 Slaty, 1 Yellow-throated and a Golden-Eared Tanager,) dainty Honeycreepers, cryptically-plumaged Woodcreepers and a variety of Hummers including a Booted Racket-Tail. As we stood catching our breath and scribbling notes with the flock moving away, GR shouted us, the urgency in his voice triggering a quick rush for the scopes. Across the valley at the top of a bare tree sat an Amazonian Umbrellabird, preening and generally getting ready for whatever it is that Umbrellabirds do with their days. We took a couple of record shots, before returning to the fray, the parade of Euphonias, Flycatchers and furnarids seemingly endless. Eventually the activity lessened, and we were able to relax a little, checking ID details of an obliging Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant and digging out typically hard-won views of an Ash-breasted Spinetail.
We drove a little higher up, and worked our way down from the Mirador to the Manu Cloud Forest Lodge (Union Camp) at 1800m. Yungas Manakins called from hidden perches and resisted our best attempts to find them, but an Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, 6 Black-eared Heminspingus, a couple of gorgeous Blue-naped Chlorophonias and a Deep-Blue Flower-piercer were more accommodating. Just below Union Camp PW found a Sunbittern hunting for prey well up a stony bank, and we spent a few happy minutes taking photos, oohing and aahing as the bird occasionally spread its wings to negotiate a particularly tricky section of the cliff; not a new species for any of the group, but nonetheless a great bird to end the morning with. As we adjourned for lunch we passed a truck with the owner's name emblazoned across the front.
Our early afternoon session took us down the narrow trail immediately behind the lodge canteen, in an attempt to locate a few understorey birds, notably Rufous-breasted Antthrush. As we entered the trail we finally obtained brief views of the ever-elusive Yungas Manakins as they fired off 'pe-pew-pew' salvos of their 'laser gun' song that was surely written for them by Jean Michel Jarre. Another hundred metres along the trail we trawled with a mini disc cut, and were delighted when a pair of Slaty Gnateaters flew in, perching up on fallen logs and nipping to and fro in the undergrowth. We heard the Antthrush again, a little closer this time, but still very distant, lurking in the inaccessible far dense cover towards the river; no chance. We completed the short trail loop and jumped aboard the bus once more, driving down the main road to 'Tanager Corner' and birding there until 5pm. The corner is so named (by us at any rate) because of the undescribed tanager species that was seen there by Gary R. and Dan Lane in 2000, and seen again on October 6th, 2003, i.e. a month before we arrived in Peru. We played the new tape recording speculatively, and combed through the mixed species flocks, hoping against hope that we might see this enigmatic bird, but to no avail. No-one has seen the species since October 6th, despite some fairly intensive searching; a Manu mystery that remains to be unravelled. We did see some nice stuff however, starting with the bus being brought to a screeching halt when our drivers spotted a large raptor perched 30 metres ahead of us at the roadside. Not a Roadside Hawk in fact, but a juv. Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, which sat serenely whilst we digiscoped. Being English, checking out the small football field just before the corner was de rigeur, and we were rewarded with the resident Little Ground Tyrant, perched up on the crossbar at 'The Lodge End.' Considerable goal-mouth activity ensued, giving good scope views. A mixed tanager flock held the usual avian jewels, but also concealed a Yellow-breasted Antwren and a pair of Bronze-Green Euphonias, both of which eventually showed well. A pair of Cabanis's Spinetail poked about in a raised bank, and a Golden-headed Quetzal provided a fabulous splash of iridescent colour.
We ended the day with Barry's group, the Americans showing us how it's supposed to be done with a line of chairs already set up in which to recline whilst waiting for the Lyre-tailed Nightjars to show up. Suitably educated, we too unloaded chairs from the back of our bus, but added our own ingredient- Six large bottles of our Paucartambo-sourced beer, which was soon distributed. We played nightjar tape. We also played tape for the "San Isidro Owl", but failed to secure our place as a footnote to ornithological history for the second time in a day, and finally returned to the lodge for food and the log.
Thurs Nov 6: Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge We started at Tanager Corner below the lodge at dawn, determined to give the KillBill Tanager one last chance to prove its existence, but we once again came up empty-handed. We also dipped the Peruvian Piedtail that Barry's group had seen the day before, but our morning was enlivened nonetheless by Stripe-chested Antwrens, a Black-goggled Tanager, 2 White-backed Fire-eyes, educational side-by-side views of Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees and the heavier-billed Olive-sided Flycatcher, and the scarce/range-limited Cinnamon-faced Tyrannulet. CG's anti-raptor bias was sorely challenged when a magnificent Solitary Eagle soared over a ridge and circled us, putting on a majestic show, but an Ornate Antwren, 2 Chestnut-backed Antshrike and a (Yellow-breasted) Warbling Antbird evened up the ground-dweller balance nicely.
As we wandered further down, we came across a stationary van full of birders, watching a juv. American Golden Plover feeding in a puddle on the road, probably the 2nd record for the Manu Road. Having photographed the bird walking by us at c1m range (!) we returned to the lodge, and, post-feed, tried the trail behind the canteen again. Before entering the forest, we dawdled first in the lodge garden to admire a family group of Brown Agoutis, and the amazingly huge and most-definitely-blue Morpho butterflies. The Morpho's flight is truly strange; they look as if they are being manipulated by a lepidopterist puppeteer from above, yanking on a string to jerk them wildly up and down. The trail was quiet, save for 2 Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrants, 2 Green Jay and half of the Slaty Gnateater couple, although the Rufous-breasted Antthrush continued to toy with us, singing repeatedly from a far horizon.
We soon tired of the trail and our attendant mosquito chums, and adjourned to bird the area above the lodge between the main and secondary leks until 5-30pm, surprised to find 15 or so male Cock-of-the-Rocks lekking in the middle of the afternoon. Apart from this amazing show the birding was slow, but a solitary and hard-won Uniform Antshrike was a late highlight. A pair of Smoke-colored Pewees constituted our fourth Contopus of the day, but we abandoned them to hurry up to the Mirador- our last chance for the nightjars.
We arrived at 5-30pm and bumped into fellow Brit. Frank Lambert, who advised he had just left a White-eared Solitaire 50 metres up the road, so we rushed up there, only to find that the bird had just left to roost. Returning to the mirador we set up chairs and cracked open the beer, (if a thing's worth doing once.) and finally, in the last few minutes of daylight, a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar soared into the air, flipped over and plummeted back to its perch, its bizarre and outlandish tail swinging behind it. The bird even allowed perched views, and we pushed back the boundaries of nocturnal digiscoping, with a team effort producing appallingly blurred spot-lit images.
On a roll, we played tape for Rufescent Screech-Owl, and were immediately rewarded by a bird flying in and perching up conveniently in the spotlight for a few moments. We drove back down to the lodge, saving Frank and his companion a long walk in the process, and celebrated a good day with the usual libations, with the addition of a cake that had been baked in GR's honour. Gary, it seems, was the only person who had forgotten it was his birthday.
Fri Nov. 7: Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge to Amazonia Lodge At 5am we said our goodbyes to the CORL staff and drove down the Manu Road to the Thousand Metre Bridge, arriving 30 minutes later. A pair of Wire-crested Thornbills entertained in a flowering tree, and two cute Ornate Flycatchers squeaked ('pseeep!') at us from the mid-storey. A 2nd Amazonian Umbrellabird appeared briefly, before we were distracted by Plain Antvireos, a male Bamboo Antshrike and a Green-fronted Lancebill. We trawled suitable areas of low shrubbery for Black-backed Tody-Flycatcher, (a rapid, rating 'wi-churrr',) eventually locating a pair of these diminutive endemic gems. Equally tiny but no less welcome was a Fine-barred Piculet, whilst a little lower down we found our first Southern Chestnut-tailed Antbird, a male White-lined Antbird, and a male Manu Antbird.
We continued birding along the road towards Pilcopata, before putting in a few bus-miles, stopping briefly in degraded farmland just short of Patria to 'pad the list' (and find a female Fiery-capped Manakin in a small patch of scrub, feeding a very young juvenile, surely one of the ugliest nestlings in the known universe.) We rattled on, crossing the invisible boundary between the departments of Cuzco and Madre de Dios, until we came to 'The Ridge,' a spur which juts out just before Atalaya i.e. opposite Amazonia Lodge, an area covered in slightly higher forest (at c800m elevation.) By now the sun was high in the sky, the distant peals of thunder not looking likely to bring a break in the weather, and we expected to see little in the searing heat, but a few minutes of roadside birding proved how wrong we were. We bumped into a mixed flock of larger species, and picked up 2+ Yellow-billed Nunbirds, a Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, a male White-winged Becard and best of all, a Scarlet-hooded Barbet, the only individual of this scarce endemic that we saw all trip. Our monitoring of the macaw flocks flighting overhead eventually paid dividends when we picked out a single pair of Blue-headed Macaws. After a couple of hours wilting in the heat we reached the river, where we found a Fasciated Tiger-Heron and a pair of Black Caracaras waiting to greet us. A final stop at a bluff overlooking the river- our first sight of the impressive Rio Alto Madre de Dios in full flow- produced a dazzling male Plum-throated Cotinga, flashing blue and purple as it flipped into a bare tree down the hillside, and GR once again earned his spurs as he heard and then tracked down a singing Red-billed Tyrannulet. An Orange-backed Troupial and a Bat Falcon completed the haul before we had to tear ourselves away, although our departure was delayed to steal a few extra minutes' watching a female Black Antbird skulking in the low cover, before we finally sped down to the village of Atalaya to rendezvous with our motoristas. After our recent isolation, Atalaya's urban sprawl came as a bit of a shock, but we took the half dozen houses, 5 people and a dog in our stride.
We scampered down the muddy river banks and swung into our 5-30pm boat, and after a peaceful 10 minute scoot downstream, inelegantly disembarked to walk through the forest to the lodge in the failing light, hearing frustratingly close Black-faced Antthrush and Black-spotted Bare-eye en route. (The latter species was to be heard daily over the next week or so, but birds proved depressingly unresponsive.) We owled in the grounds from 7-8pm, finding a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl, before adjourning for well-deserved showers, nourishment and warm beer.
Sat. Nov. 8: Amazonia Lodge Dawn arrived on schedule to usher in our first day at Amazonia Lodge, and we set off down the famed Jeep Track with high hopes of swelling our list with a swathe of Upper Tropical elevation species; we weren't to be disappointed. As we crept through the small marsh clearing, we heard the tiny bugling of a group of Rufous-sided Crakes, and three birds soon came in to our tape, showing down to a few yards. As the light slowly improved, a cackling dawn chorus of bizarre Hoatzins and clumsy Speckled Chachalacas heralded the new day, whilst a Tiny Hawk perched up briefly in a dead tree opposite the crakes' hide-out.
We edged down the Jeep Track, nervous of flushing any birds that may be feeding close to the trail edge, and sure enough, a party of Undulated Tinamous soon crossed the track, nervously looking around before hurrying off into the forest. A Gray Antbird called from off to the right ('cook-ies, cook-ies') and showed well, before being displaced by a small group of Antbirds; a pair of Goeldi's, and a cracking male White-browed. As we approached the side trail that leads left to the cocha, we heard a quintet of uniform, well-spaced notes that signalled the presence of a Thrush-like Antpitta, and we set to work to try to winkle out this skulking species. A second bird called behind us, and we soon switched our attention to this closer individual, eventually finding the bird singing from a static position on a branch a few inches above the forest floor. Scope views and partly-obscured digiscope shots soon followed, and we headed off to the cocha in high spirits. As we arrived, we saw a pair of Sungrebes swimmingly furtively in the rank vegetation along the edge of the cocha, and a male Band-tailed Antbird flicked along the opposite edge, singing all the while; a typical 'bounce-ball' Antbird affair. As we returned to the main track, a couple of Purple-throated Fruitcrows larked noisily overhead, before a Johannes' Tody-Tyrant drew our attention. As we wandered slowly along the upper reaches of the trail, the forest gave way to more open habitat with rough fields on both sides, with evidence of some small-scale farming. (Possibly dog-farming judging by the deafening volley of mongrel barking that greeted us as we passed.) We waded through a small river that crossed the track, pausing to cool our overheating rubber boats in the blissful chill of the water, before pushing on to a further section of forest. A few hundred metres further on, we heard a deep, hesitant 'owk.owk.owk', and quickly realised that an Amazonian Antpitta was close by. Luckily there was a small, accessible clearing, so we shuffled in and waited to see if we could lure the bird in to show itself. However, it proved to be well dug in, skulking in a dense section of scrub just beyond a deep overgrown stream- things did not look good. Nonetheless, we scanned the few open patches of forest floor, and CG was fortunate enough to have a good view of the bird's head and breast as it paused in a tiny hole in the undergrowth. We backed off a little, and as we played tape the bird came in, suddenly calling from the other side of us- somehow it had crept by without any of us seeing a thing. (As GR ominously remarked, 'they often take the subway.') Undaunted we persevered, and over the course of the next hour, all bar one of us saw at least part of the bird well.
We dragged our sweating bodies back for a late lunch, and stretched out on the veranda for a while, sleepy in the heat of the day. The temptation of a brief hour's kip meant risking missing the hummingbird show at the feeders, but the star hummer, a Rufous-crested Coquette, put in an early appearance. With the pressure off we risked a short siesta, and suitably refreshed, summoned up our remaining strength and staggered back into the field for the rest of the afternoon. After a brief wade across the river we reached The Bamboo Island to try to catch up with a few of the Guadua bamboo specialities. However, the heat had stilled almost all birdsong, and our main quarry, the endemic White-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher was noticeable only by its absence. We did manage to add Bluish-Slate Antshrike and a Little Woodpecker to the list, and a close encounter with a curious troupe of Bolivian Spider Monkeys who came low and rattled bamboo at us in miniscule fury charmed us all.
We negotiated the rapids again with wobbly élan to return camp-side, inspecting fresh animal tracks (almost certainly tapir) in the mud en route. As dusk fell we owled again along The Jeep Track, picking out three Pauraques loafing on the trail, their eyes glittering in our torch beams. Better still, we eventually succeeding in persuading one of the decidedly unresponsive Common Potoos to perch up on a dead snag for our viewing pleasure. Thus when we finally trooped wearily back to the lodge, the nightbird fiend in our midst, GH, was successfully pressured to get the beers in. As we sat on the veranda draining the dregs after dinner, we noticed that the night seemed even darker than usual, and we soon realised why; the face of the full moon was slowly turning black as a near-total lunar eclipse progressed, a fittingly specatular end to a two-Antpitta day.
Sun Nov. 9: Amazonia Lodge Another day, another 4am alarm clock.it's light enough by 5am to be out in the field and birding, and since bird activity is greatly reduced from 9am on most days, early starts are essential. So it was that we set off up 'The Hill', a short but steep ascent on the trail that leads across the river from just behind the long chalet on the opposite side of the AL lodge compound from the canteen. The right fork leads up the mountain, but we briefly/wrongly 'forked off' to the left- fortuitously as it turned out, since just as we were turning to retrace our steps we heard a Silvered Antbird which promptly showed well to all and sundry. Having found the right trail we yomped up the hillside, pausing breathlessly to bird at frequent intervals. The highlight of this early session was undoubtedly the Rusty-belted Tapaculo that sang and showed well, (OK, well-ish, it's a tapaculo after all,) but a male Round-tailed Manakin and a male Sooty Antbird also vied for bird of the morning.
On arriving at the crown of the hill we were met by the sight of the canopy tower looming over us, and we duly ascended, KB with some trepidation as ever, (not without just cause as it turned out, since the whole structure swayed alarmingly as we clung on, climbing up through the sub-canopy and into the tree crowns some 120ft above.) The sweat bees were delighted to see us, and clung mercilessly to our every limb, our exertions providing sufficient salt to arouse their undying interest. The day proved to be unforgivingly hot, and after an hour or so we gave up the unequal struggle and returned to the relatively cool, sweat-bee-free understorey trails. A Ringed Antpipit walked in and perched up in a perky fashion, though the Lemon-throated Barbet overhead tortured us by calling at a head-swimming altitude just out of view.
Our progress downslope was considerably faster, and we arrived back at the stream behind the camp just in time to flush a stunning Agami Heron from its vigil - a scarce species here, as everywhere. We refilled our water bottles and returned to the dark corridors of the Bamboo Island in another failed quest for the White-cheeked Tody-Fly, but a male Band-tailed Manakin and a brief fly-by Koepcke's Hermit provided some recompense, one of a number of painfully brief sightings of this latter endemic. After a brief lunch and reviving glasses of Chicha Morada (purple juice, squeezed from a distant relative of the plum it seems,) we dragged on the rubber boots (now we know why tough regimes are known as 'boot camps'.) and wandered back up the Jeep Track to try to sweep up the few species that had eluded us so far. By now it was 96º in the shade, and the forest was quiet as a result, but a group of Bare-necked Fruit-Crows entertained, Rufous-bellied and White-lored Euphonias gave us all neck-ache as they hopped about overhead, and a Black-faced Antthrush showed briefly. As the light failed, a pair of Starred Wood-Quail started their dusk duet, competing with the Blackish Rails, which called and called but never showed.
Mon Nov. 10: Amazonia Lodge to Salvador Camp Day 9; The Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl bade us farewell, continuing to sing unperturbed through an electric storm as we departed, and by 5am we were aboard our trusty Manu Expediciones boat piloted by our quietly capable motorista Jesus, ably assisted by Elias aka Maradonna. (The only actual footwork we witnessed was his barefoot pursuit of a snake at Cocha Salvador, so we cannot attest to the suitability of his nickname.) We put-putted down-river, revelling in the chance to relax with our boots off, and enjoyed a 3.5 hour cruise following the twisting course of the Alto Madre de Dios, passing through mile after mile of wonderful mature primary rainforest with giant emergent canopy trees, edged with varieties of successional riverine growth. An hour down-river from AL we must have passed the dock for the famous Pantiacolla Lodge, but we never saw it.
Eventually the ramshackle waterfront of Boca Manu peeked out around a distant corner ahead, and we hove to in order to refuel. This process involved a long length of hosepipe being draped over the river bank, some exhausting and lung-bursting siphoning, and a large mouthful of petrol for Elias. 20 minutes later, having plugged a small leak which had sprung up below the water line of our boat, we turned north, navigating the choppy waters of the rivers' confluence, and entered the mouth of the river- into the Manu proper! Having alighted briefly at the fly-blown ranger station 4.6kms upriver at Limonal, (with its generations of decaying insects piled up at the base of the screen windows,) we signed in and booked a time slot two days ahead for the catamaran on Cocha Salvador to look for Giant Otter, and returned to the boat. As we headed slowly up river our eyes were glued to the river banks, straining for a sign of Jaguar. Four and a half hours later, we arrived without a sniff of a big cat, but had notched up 4 Capybara, the snout of a White Caiman, a few Side-neck Turtles, Black Skimmers, dainty Collared Plovers, immaculate Pied Lapwings, a lone Sanderling, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, and a single group of 5 Orinoco Geese. We slithered up the steps that had been cut into the clay bank, traipsed past the camp sign (ominously lying on its side beside the entrance; this was the only evidence that we were actually staying at the Manu Tented Camp, (Campamento Aguaje) owned by Tapir Tours,) picked our way through the leaf-strewn camp, and dumped our bags in the timber-framed tents. The torrential rain that had set in during the latter stages of our odyssey up the Manu eased somewhat, allowing us to re-cross the Manu to bird the last hour of daylight at Cocha Salvador opposite the camp. We just had time to find a Limpkin, a Solitary (in both senses of the word) Sandpiper, and a trio of Muscovy Duck, before the rain returned, and we sloshed our way back down the increasingly muddy trail to the river bank. What we saw there concerned us a little, namely, no boat. The rain intensified, and we broke out umbrellas as we slithered around on the muddy sand bar, hollering for Jesus (er, the boatman that is,) and casting a nervous eye over the moonlit surface of the river for marauding Caiman. We returned to the relative safety of the forest edge after some unified team shouting, and at length, were reassured to hear the distant strains of an outboard engine puttering towards us. Relieved, we clambered aboard, perhaps a little more aware of just how easily things can go wrong in this remote locale.
We re-crossed the river, picked our way up the camp steps, and after a quick wildlife removal program in the tent (3 cockroaches, and 1 alarmingly big spider safely tapped into the waste bin and returned to the habitat outside.) and a bug-infested dinner, fell into the usual deep sleep.
Tue Nov. 11: Salvador Camp, Pakitza Woken at 4-15am by the eerie shrieks of the Red Howler monkeys, we were up and ready by 5am to head an hour further up river towards our long-awaited destination- the research station at Pakitza. The heavy overnight rain had abated; the perfect prelude, we reasoned, to stimulate forest activity. Few people bird this far up the Manu, (although there is a research station 4-5 hours further still up-river at Cocha Cashu,) and we had long been dreaming of what might await us on Pakitza's trails. Met with unmistakable enthusiasm by the lady who ran the research station- delightfully talkative and keen for any news from civilisation- we listened enviously to her tales of encounters with Jaguars on the trails.
We had been warned that much of the flowering bamboo along the trails had recently completed its cycle and died, and so were not sure whether our expectations for the site had been set too high. We were particularly anxious to track down two species at Pakitza whose ranges barely extend to the southern edge of the Manu reserve; the near-mythical Black-faced Cotinga, (reverently referred to by our group as 'The Conioptilon,') and a little-known Lophotriccus, Long-crested Pygmy-Tyrant.
Our progress up the mosquito-ridden Trocha Tachigali (terra firme) trail started well, as we encountered a single Flammulated Bamboo-Tyrant on one of the first corners, that eventually showed well in response to our MD cut. 10 minutes later we heard a Dwarf Tyrant Manakin doing its miniature Rusty-naped Pitta 'chow-wit' routine, and after a little careful tracking we all enjoyed great views as we stood directly below the tiny immobile manakin endlessly claiming one small part of the exploded lek. A couple of hours in we heard a short trill, 'trip-tip-tip-trrrr' and within seconds had brief views of the Lophotriccus- success! CG managed to snatch a reasonable digi-scoped shot before the bird disappeared deeper into the forest. Other highlights of a fascinating and hectic morning included Dot-winged Antwren, White-bellied Tody-Tyrant, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Black-faced and Striated- Antbirds, Blue-crowned Manakin, a Dusky-tailed Flatbill, a female Golden-Green Woodpecker, and a prized male Ihering's Antwren. An unexpected bonus was a single Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin, a little-known species, which was recorded and taped in. We returned, exhausted but elated, to the ranger station for lunch. Their collection of pickled beasts in specimen jars was impressive, but did little to encourage our appetites.
Suitably refreshed we set out onto the second trail- The Trocha Cañabrava- which leads into the forest from behind the latrines and loops back close to the river. The day was by now searingly hot and bird activity was low, but we still managed to pick up a Great Jacamar, a Slaty-capped Shrike Vireo, a Great Tinamou which flushed up from the trail-side and sped off into the forest, and best of all, a mixed species group of Tamarin monkeys that included one Emperor Tamarin amongst the Saddle-backeds. We 'hammered the tape' for Black-faced Cotinga but never heard a squeak in response, a major disappointment, since we had hoped birds would be here. Unfortunately the trail was longer than expected, and blocked by numerous treefalls etc, so the latter stages turned into something of a route march to enable us to get back to the boat in time to make the return journey before darkness descended. (Much of the river system here is officially classified as 'unnavigable', and the large number of sub-aquatic obstacles mean nocturnal river trips are dangerous and hence not recommended.) Having successfully navigated the tightrope-walk of the tree-bridge over a muddy culvert full, (we were sure,) of snapping caimans and ravenous piranhas, we made it back to the compound and fell into the boat, worn out but delighted with another great day's birding.
Weds Nov. 12: Salvador Camp We took the boat over the river at first light and birded the Trocha Espigon trail around Cocha Salvador. Our catamaran slot had been booked for 9am-11am, the best bet for the otters to be both active and accessible according to Tino our local guide. Birding from the catamaran is supremely restful; we sat on a wooden platform whilst our 'puntaristas' slowly poled us along the edges of the oxbow lake. The Giant Otters showed up as soon as we left the jetty, and we headed straight for them, maintaining a safe distance so as not to disturb them. (In fact our careful approach seemed a little unnecessary since a couple of them later swam over to check us out anyway!) In all we saw at least 7 individuals, a family party that Tino had recently been studying. Having taken photos and drunk in every detail of these beautiful and endangered mammals, we continued on our slow tour of lake-edge scenery, picking up a female Ladder-tailed Nightjar blinking in the bright sunshine at the cocha's edge, a Sunbittern, a Rufescent Tiger-Heron, an American Pygmy Kingfisher, and a couple of Lesser Kiskadees.
We returned to the jetty at 11.02 thanks to some hard paddling in the latter stages, and disembarked to continue working the trails.
Not more than 300m from the jetty GR and CG suddenly froze as we finally heard the sound we had waited so long to hear- a querulous, rising 'oooorrrreeee?' The Conioptilon! A brief panic ensued, before a pair of Black-faced Cotingas eventually appeared in the canopy above us, duetting and posing for 'scope views and digiscope shots. Much celebration ensued as one of the major target birds of the trip bit the dust. The cotingas were a hard act to follow, but we added a few more lowland birds further on, including a female Scaly-breasted Woodpecker.
After a leisurely lunch in the heat of the day at the camp, (leisurely except for the moment when CG met a blue and red snake right next to the main camp path.) we took to the water again and birded Cocha Otorongo, 30 mins boat-ride to the south. If the humidity and heat were oppressive, the squadrons of mosquitoes were worse; simply incredible numbers here, great clouds of them would lift from the trail-sides as we walked past. Birding without serious repellent here would be utterly impossible, and the mozzie density is certainly the highest I have ever encountered in any tropical forest anywhere in the world. We escaped into another canopy tower at the edge of the cocha, only to have the mosquitoes replaced by sweat bees. A troupe of Red Howler Monkeys at c3m range in the canopy soon helped us to forget our new insect friends however, and the primates obligingly posed for point-blank photos. Our last night at Cocha Salvador was the most bug-infested to date, with one very large insect making an unscheduled contribution of its own to the evening log from the rafters above us- nice.
Thurs Nov. 13: Salvador Camp to Manu Wildlife Center Our familiar routine began again at 5am, a brief session from the camp steps revealing a Bat Falcon, a showy Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and the hesitant strains of a distant Bartlett's Tinamou. We departed on foot to bird the trails close to the camp, which pass through relatively open, mature terra firme forest. Slowed only by the thought of encountering the large Bushmaster that Tino had seen fit to tell us the previous evening he had recently seen in the area behind the camp, we nonetheless soon left the riverine vegetation along the western edge of the Rio Manu and entered the grand cathedral of mature rainforest.
A large troupe of Woolly Monkeys crashed by, distracting us from a couple of Collared Trogons, a female Plain-throated Antwren and a Lemon-throated Barbet. As we approached a flat open section of the trail, we heard an unfamiliar sound, which Tino at first thought might be a cat in pain. GR recorded the sound and played back, at which point the sound grew louder and it became apparent that either we were bringing in a Jaguar (!) or that the source of the sound was in fact a bird giving some unknown alternate call. After a tense 30 seconds or so we felt a rush of adrenalin as the simple call was replaced by the unmistakable low bubbling of a Pale-winged Trumpeter - and it was close! We all froze, and were soon rewarded with a view of one of these stately birds gliding through the sparse cover and eventually crossing the trail not 20m from where we stood rooted to the spot. The bird circled us, showing occasionally before melting back into the forest, leaving us to savour the experience.
Another couple of hundred metres of trailwork brought us to an incredibly responsive Rufous-capped Antthrush, which nearly knocked us over as it came shooting in like a rocket, before parading around, indignantly pacing the forest floor. However, our focus was disrupted when we heard a distant, very low frequency song some way ahead; 'uh-ooh-uh-urrrrrr.DOH!' Razor-billed Curassow! We stealthily attempted to home in on the bird, finding it difficult to pinpoint the source of the song. Eventually we realised the bird was in the canopy, and 2 of us had a brief flight view as the bird moved from one tree-crown to another, before sadly giving us the slip. The rest of the morning passed quickly, with high bird activity producing a male Blackish Antbird, Euler's and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, 2 Ruddy Quail-Doves flushed from the side of the trail, a Casqued Oropendola, a Red-necked Woodpecker, 2-3 Cinereous Mourners and a Long-billed Woodcreeper.
We returned to the camp clearing at 11am, threw our bags into the boat and headed the 3 hours back down the Rio Manu, seeing a single Orinoco Goose, 2 Sunbittern and 2 Blue-headed Parrot en route. Having checked out at the Limonal Ranger Station and refuelled at Boca Manu, (where we said goodbye to Tino and our cook,) we continued on down the Madre de Dios, arriving at the Manu Wildlife Center an hour before dark. We adjourned to the bar to enjoy (too small a word) our first cold beer in 10 days and met up with Barry Walker and his group to swap stories and compare notes. An excellent dinner did little to subdue our high spirits, and we headed to our comfortable beds late in the evening (um, 10pm) to debate what the morning would bring at this famous location.
Fri Nov. 14: Manu Wildlife Center After a swift but hearty breakfast we marched over to the canopy tower, only 15 mins walk through the transitional forest at non-birding speed. We ascended the tower to be met by a light drizzle and cloudy skies, but the rain never became heavy enough to cost us any birding time and had abated altogether by 10am. Highlights of the morning session from our lofty perch were an Amazonian Pygmy Owl, a responsive Cream-colored Woodpecker, a Sirystes right over our heads in the canopy tower tree, an all-too-brief male Spangled Cotinga, a fly-by Orange-cheeked Parrot, and a Striolated Puffbird which eluded us for an age before finally posing for pictures. A passing canopy flock included a Yellow-billed Cuckoo - a rare bird in the Manu- and small numbers of tanagers, euphonias, and both Grey-crowned and Dusky-chested Flycatchers. We returned briefly to HQ to refill our water bottles, chancing upon a close and melodious Musician Wren on the way, before striking out into the rich primary forest along the main Colpa Trail. A group of Saddle-backed Tamarins entertained us briefly, until birds once again intervened in the form of a Round-tailed Manakin, 2 Slender-billed Xenops in a furnarid flock, an immobile Semi-collared Puffbird, and best of all, a male Pavonine Quetzal which called and then flew in close to the trail, perching up for killer views. Around midday Elias and Jesus appeared bearing chicken and rice wrapped in banana leaves and tied up with strings of bark. Lunch was however delayed by 20 minutes as we became aware of a small antswarm just ahead, and we settled down on an ant-free brow at the top of a small slope to recce. Thirty metres away we could hear the calls of a mixed 'professional' antbird flock, and our patience was rewarded with views of White-throated Antbird and a White-chinned Woodcreeper. Sadly a distant Hairy-crested Antbird eluded us, and at least two Black-spotted Bare-eyes once again refused to show. Picking our way back through the ants we returned to the trail to refuel, before continuing our progress deeper into the forest. The afternoon was enlivened by excellent views of a Golden-collared Toucanet, (one of the rarest and most attractive of the family in The Manu,) and a Black-bellied Cuckoo in a Squirrel Cuckoo flock, with a mystery hermit eventually being resolved as a Needle-billed Hermit. A pair of Spot-winged Antshrikes flicked about in the low canopy, before a Buff-rumped Warbler danced ahead of us on the trail, running from side to side and flashing its rump- the tart! The primary forest gradually thinned, giving way to scrubby secondary growth, and shortly after flushing a Slate-colored Hawk we arrived at our destination; the Tapir Lick (or 'ccolpa' in Quechuan.)
The lick is a large depression some 30 metres wide containing a mass of well-mulched clay, a vital component of many mammals' diets. As darkness descended, we settled down under mosquito nets to wait for animals to appear, (some of us settling in rather too well as a fusillade of resonant snores confirmed.) A Red Brocket Deer arrived and fed timidly at the far end of the lick in the last of the light, allowing a painstaking approach to 5 metres away on the raised viewing platform. Activity over the next few hours was minimal, (consisting of a single Peruvian Tree Rat; thrilling stuff,) and all of us struggled to stay awake, our long hours in the field and short nights' sleep taking their toll. At 10-30pm, just as we were beginning to give up hope, GR shocked us awake, hissing 'the Tapirs are here'! And sure enough, there they were, a pair of Brazilian Tapirs squelching around in the clay looking like a cross between a baby elephant (front half) and a baby hippo (rear half.) We watched them, bathed in a surreal red light courtesy of a spotlight with a red filter so as not to disturb their nocturnal activities. After 30 minutes or so of this rare spectacle we took our leave, our headlamps casting tiny pools of light ahead as we wearily wove our way the 3kms back through the forest to the HQ in the darkness. Our passage was halted by a calling Great Potoo, and after a little legwork and a few anxious minutes we finally tracked one down, staring down at us from a bare branch, its other-worldly 'WAAAAAAAGH-ooooogh' call echoing through the forest. Whilst searching for the Potoo we also came upon a tiny Western Woolly Opossum high on a cross-branch which checked us out before disappearing into the inky night. We returned to the camp to find a second Great Potoo calling defiantly outside the chalets, (just like London buses; none for ages, then two come at once.)
Sat Nov. 15: Manu Wildlife Center Our second day at MWC saw us take an early boat 20 mins down-river, to be in place on the Antthrush Trail for dawn. The trail was formerly a good stake-out for Rufous-fronted Antthrush, but we had been advised that the accessible pair had moved territory, so that their range no longer facilitated trail viewing. We had not walked more than a couple of hundred metres when we heard an Antthrush singing, but it sounded depressingly distant. Undeterred, we carefully picked our way into the riverine bamboo at an agonisingly slow pace, all the while pausing to re-locate the source of the song. After 20 minutes we had carefully forged a neat trail towards the bird, only to find ourselves presented with a curtain of dense foliage and a huge tree fall, behind which the bird had, needless to say, carefully positioned itself. We hatched a plan B, and struck out to the left hand side, where to our collective delight we emerged into a relatively open mini-clearing in the bamboo. We sat down in silence, and played our MD cut. The bird moved across us, clearly intent on circling, and each of us was able to catch glimpses of this elusive Formicarius in gaps in the bamboo as it walked across the leaf litter. Finally it reached a larger gap, and paused for effect, showing the orange beacon on its forehead and a rather pale mantle. After a couple of minutes the bird returned to its treefall-hidden territory, leaving CG beaming like an idiot. Even those in the group less afflicted with ground-bird fever had to admit it was a finely executed exercise in stalking- impresionante señor! We picked our way back to the trail, pausing only to build an impressive edifice indicating the star bird's location for Barry's mob later in the day. Just to make sure they didn't miss the spot we spelled out 'ANTTHRUSH' in sticks on the trail; some birds are worth the extra mile.
We spent another hour or so on the trail, finding a male Goeldi's Antbird but no Flatbills or Rufous-headed Woodpecker, before speeding 10 minutes further downstream- cooled by a blissful breeze- to Cocha Camungo. Our only Rufous-breasted Piculet of the trip made an appearance as we walked towards the ox-bow, and a female Great Antshrike and a male White-browed Antbird also showed up.
Our catamaran was waiting for us at the lake-edge, its sun-bleached decks and casual chairs evoking a bygone cruise ship era, (so much so that BH enquired, "anyone for a game of quoits?") and we settled back to relax in the sunshine. Just when we thought it was safe to rest our eyes and bask in the heat, a pair of Sungrebes put in an appearance, whilst a Slender-billed Kite drifted lazily overhead, and shortly afterwards all thoughts of slumber were banished as we reached the Purus Jacamar zone, with a good number of birds perched up on the isolated bare trees vying for attention. Pale-eyed Blackbird, a recently-described species, was our other target bird here, and they duly obliged. (An honest species; as was noted at the time, 'it's a Blackbird with a pale eye- it does exactly what it says on the tin.') As we returned to the jetty after a restful hour, an Amazonian Streaked Antwren squeaked its name ('I-am-AM-A-zone-ee-an',) and we at last managed to obtain good views of a pair. Our return route to the river took in a forest edge canopy tower, south of the jetty on the western edge of the oxbow lake. Little activity was evident, but we finally managed to track down a calling White-necked Puffbird hiding in the crown of a distant tree. Easier to spot, but no less impressive, was a King Vulture that passed by the canopy platform at eye height, some 30 metres away! We headed down the 251 steps (statistician- BH) and tramped down the last few hundred yards of the trail, hearing another Black-spotted Bare-eye and once again entirely failing to pull it in. The return boat journey was quiet, save for the by-now de rigeur cries of "wader on the left. Spot. Sand.") and we quaffed juice and wolfed lunch aboard before diverting up another tributary to check out Cocha Nueva. The pressure was off since we had already had great views of Giant Otters up the Rio Manu, but we still needed a few bamboo specialities, in particular White-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher. Our MD trawling soon elicited a response, and we all enjoyed views of this elusive sprite before it tired of us and flitted off into the forest. GR and CG had brief views of a large, thickset furnarid that was almost certainly a Peruvian Recurvebill, but it refused to offer anything other than the most fleeting glimpses as it clumped about deep in the bamboo- the one that got away. A Large-headed Flatbill finally gave itself up, and another Manu Antbird lurked in the shady depths of a thicket. As we wandered back to the river we once again heard the wheezy, melancholy 'wheeer, wheer, wheer, woo' of our nemesis. This time however, the bird responded to tape, and a Black-spotted Bare-eye finally perched up, to the delight and relief of the entire party.
Relaxing in the boat as we chugged back up-river, Elias suddenly shouted something in Spanish, and KB passed the message forward; 'They've just seen a Trumpeter.' GR's immortal words, "I don't know what it is but I can guarantee it's not a trumpeter out here" were barely uttered before we drifted backwards downstream alongside the source of the excitement- which amazingly proved to be just that - a Pale-winged Trumpeter that had hopped onto a tree-trunk at the forest edge, only to find itself with nowhere to go. We fired off a couple of photos at point-blank range, before the bird finally and inelegantly managed to turn around and crash back into the forest- a truly bizarre end to the day.
Sun Nov. 16: Manu Wildlife Center Today was frustratingly windy early on, but good cloud cover kept the strongest of the sunlight at bay until 10am, at which point the skies cleared leaving us to sweat our way through a hot and humid day. We walked slowly though the transitional forest to the canopy tower, and ascended for a spot of canopy-surfing in the stiff breeze. A passing flock disgorged 2 Sclater's Antwrens, 2 Gilded Barbet, and best of all, a Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak. A pair of Rock Parakeets put in an appearance, but the show was stolen by a close pair of Purple-throated Cotingas, which hung out in 'our' tree. A singing Terenura proved to be a Chestnut-shouldered Antwren which led us a merry dance as it flicked through the canopy in a mixed species flock, and Dusky-capped Greenlets, a male Black-capped Becard, a Yellow-crested Tanager and a pair of White-shouldered Tanagers completed a busy morning. We turned up Barry et al's Rufous-capped Nunlet by the bridge on the edge of the camp compound, before grabbing a few of the pre-requisite Casino biscuits and bananas to sustain us through the 2nd morning session.
As we walked out to the famous Grid - a network of short interlocking trails - we passed through good open forest and trawled hopefully for Banded Antbird, a much-wanted species. After only a few minutes we were all amazed to hear a distant high-pitched, 'eeeee-eeeee-eeeee-eeeee' ringing back off-trail in response. We abandoned our scopes and silently walked in, struggling to pinpoint this ventriloqual species. After a frustrating 20 minutes tracking the bird we came full circle and were reunited with our scopes- the bird must have walked straight past our original position on the trail! We persevered, and 10 minutes later most had brief but wonderful views of this incredible tiny ground-dweller, walking around in open forest on the leaf-litter and occasionally 'freezing' to sing again. As suddenly as we had found the bird, it disappeared again, leaving one of us with only the briefest of views.
We walked on, digging out our only White-breasted Warbling Antbird, and hearing a Golden-crowned Spadebill, which was singularly unimpressed by our MD efforts as usual. After lunch we birded the Creekside Trail for a couple of hours, before returning for a final visit to the canopy tower. The humidity was intense, and the sweat bees were delighted to see us as a result, but we finally managed to see a pair of Cuvier's Toucans that we had been hearing for the last three days. CG descended the tower to try to photograph a Rufous-capped Antthrush that was calling from the gathering gloom directly below, securing a few blurry shots before returning as dusk fell. As the light failed we played tape for Crested Owl, hearing a response almost immediately. The bird came relatively close, but stayed hidden in the canopy less than 100 metres away- close but no cigar. We stumbled back to the lodge for a farewell dinner, good views of a Red-tailed Boa by the kitchens, and a couple of well-earned beers.
Mon Nov. 17: Manu Wildlife Center This was scheduled to have been our last full day at MWC, but the absence of reliable planes out of Boca Manu meant that we had to change our plans. So it was that we joined Barry Walker's group and left at first light to be sure of reaching Puerto Maldonado (where we could be confident of getting a regular flight back to Cuzco,) before dusk. In the event the boat trip down river to Laberinto took less than eight hours, (punctuated by a Jabiru, 4 more Orinoco Geese and an Ornate Hawk-Eagle,) and our creaking bus, (we still have no idea why the doors featured Korean symbols?) hauled us up the dirt roads and into P. Maldonado without incident. Our preternaturally good fortune with the weather continued, as it rained for much of our journey along the river, (whilst we were covered up by tarpaulins,) and a second deluge arrived just as we checked into the hotel. Using our 15 mins of down time for a brief dip in the leaf-strewn swimming pool, (warm enough if you keep low, out of the lashing rain,) we headed back to the bus just as the downpour ended, and scooted out on the Cuzco road to pad our list with a few se savannah species.
Puerto Maldonado lies at the junction of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers, and is the capital of the M. de Dios department. Few people bird here, but the recent spread of agriculture has meant range extensions for a number of Bolivian species into this south-eastern corner of Peru. We stopped at a small Mauritia Palm plantation along the road and were rewarded with all four of the Mauritanian specialists on view at the same time; Point-tailed Palmcreeper, Sulphury Flycatcher, Red-bellied Macaw and Fork-tailed Palm-Swift. Having shown the Palmcreeper to a couple of rather inebriated on-lookers who had ventured out from the roadside bar to see what we were all looking at, we drove out along the dirt road to KM marker 15. As soon as we alighted we heard Red-breasted Blackbird singing, and duly recorded and photographed the bird, one of at least 20 present in the open paddocks, the first documented record for Peru. A nearby sparrow proved to be an Ammodramus, Grassland Sparrow, and a distant perched vulture was photographed and later identified as a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. A worn Empidonax was swiftly identified by GR as an Alder Flycatcher, and a Straight-billed Woodcreeper posed on a nearby fencepost. We spent the evening in the hotel restaurant, drinking Cusqueña beers, eating steak and chips, and poring over the map of Peru, whilst Barry entertained us by pointing out far-flung sites that were simply bound to contain species not yet recorded in Peru.
Tues Nov. 18: Manu-Cuzco-Sacred Valley. We birded KM15-16 on the Cuzco road again from just after dawn until 9-30am, seeing more of last night's species, plus a few new additions; 4 White-tailed Kites were a good find, (known only from Pampas del Heath in the extreme se in Peru,) a pair of Black-faced Tanagers performed well opposite the KM15 hacienda, Scaled Pigeon proved fairly common, but a Gray-breasted Crake, flushed in a very British field manoeuvre, was even better-a life bird for Barry W.! We headed back to the road, and our last birds before leaving for the airport were a pair of Rusty-margined Flycatchers. Our flight to Cuzco was as punctual as ever, leaving us barely enough time for an Inca Cola and a frenzy of Manu t-shirt purchasing. Argiles was waiting at Cuzco airport to drive us the two hours to Urubamba. We checked in at the swish Hotel Incaland but immediately vacated to sweep the Pumahuanca valley close by. However the wind had got up and birding was poor, with only a couple of brief views of Golden-billed Saltators and an equally brief Red-crested Cotinga. We trawled at length for our endemic target species without a sniff, but at the 11th hour, well up the valley with barely 45 minutes of daylight remaining, a pair of Creamy-crested Spinetails finally showed well, their floppy manes blowing in the breeze- pretty fancy for a spinetail.
Flushed with success, but a little breathless after stomping up the steep slopes at c3,000m, we returned to the hotel for dinner, nose-bagging in the large restaurant buffet. The scene was enlivened by a delightful pan pipe band whose repertoire, we were ecstatic to discover, included that most beloved of Andean standards, El Condor Pasa-aaaaaagh.
Weds Nov. 19: Machu Picchu Having checked the restaurant at 5am to ensure the pipe band were nowhere to be seen, we sat down to sip coffee and chew toast before wandering down to the adjacent railway station to catch the train to Machu Picchu, CG and BH gripping everyone with a Black-backed Grosbeak en route which departed with indecent haste. Birding from the station platform provided, appropriately enough, a Black-tailed Trainbearer, until just after 6am when the smart locomotive hauled us out into the Urubamba Valley. The early stages of the journey were marked by train-chasing dogs and other urban Peruvian vignettes, and involved at least two tragic chicken incidents (now at least we know why so many of the chickens served in Peru are distinctly flat.) Once our branch line had joined the main Cuzco-MP main line to follow the winding course of the Urubamba valley, we pressed our faces to the train windows, soon finding the object of our attention - Torrent Ducks and White-capped Dippers. The American lady seated behind us turned out to be keeping her own Peruvian trip bird list, and we were soon pressed into action identifying her sightings of Rufous-collared Sparrow etc. We arrived at Aguas Calientes nice and early, and took the first bus up to the ruins, arriving well ahead of the Cuzco train. The atmosphere of this sacred site was as special as ever, and the tour of the ruins was fascinating and informative, although our attempts to avoid birding for at least a couple of hours were sorely tested by a Pale-legged Warbler, a couple of Streak-throated Bush-Tyrants and a pair of Inca Wrens. After feasting royally on suckling pig and a wickedly seductive dessert trolley at the hotel by the ruins, we bussed down the hairpin road to the bridge over the Urubamba, seeing little but tantalisingly hearing a Masked Fruiteater, which resolutely refused to show. A Silver-backed Tanager, male Variable Antshrike and both Sclater's and Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulets provided some consolation. We paused for a beer on the main street in Ag. Cal. (which doubles as the railway track) before a final few minutes birding at the feeders in the grounds of Pueblo Hotel. Highlights amongst the Chestnut-breasted Coronets, Long-tailed Sylphs and Green and Sparkling Violetears were a male Booted Racket-tail and a Gould's Inca. We returned to Urubamba, met up with the ever-smiling Argiles, and finally rolled back into Cuzco mid-evening. We cancelled our restaurant reservations in favour of a chicken curry and a few cans of Murphy's at The Cross Keys, spending a happy couple of hours putting the world to rights and comparing notes with Frank Lambert, (in Peru for seven months and counting, and who had gripped us since we met at CORL with Rufous-breasted Antthrush and White-throated Antpitta.) After catching up on e-mails at an internet café we collapsed into our beds to salvage a few precious hours sleep before our early flight to Lima.
Thurs Nov. 20: Cuzco-Lima, coast south of Lima Our 7-45am flight landed in Lima on time/without incident just before 9am and we headed directly to the beach in yet another bus. The Playa San Pedro is approx. 1 hour by road south of Lima down the Pan American Highway, and faces a couple of islets offshore which teem with nesting seabirds. Restored to the kind of birding with which all Brits are innately familiar (sea-watching) we soon found our target species, although the list reads rather differently from a typical day off the north Norfolk coast - 3 Humboldt Penguin, (altitude, 0m.) 100+ Inca Terns, 1 Red-legged and 200+ Guanay Cormorants, Grey, Band-tailed, Franklin's and Kelp Gulls and heaps of Peruvian Boobies. The Whimbrels on the beach could have been Norfolk birds, except that they were all hudsonicus race, and there were at least a couple of hundred of them. The accompanying large flock of Willet would have been a good Norfolk record too.The rough fields just inland held a pair of Peruvian Thick-knees and a couple of Yellowish Pipits, and GR's classic stake-out for House Sparrow duly produced the goods.
We ate lunch on the beach, basking in the sunshine, with at least one of our number 'accidentally' scoping beach scenery of a not-strictly-speaking avian nature. When the midday sun proved too much, we climbed back into the bus and headed out to an area of scrub en route to nearby Pucusana, (opposite the cemetery, 500m before the military base,) and inexpertly navigated our way across the bizarre columns of cracked, sun-baked mud to wade through scads of Amazilia and Oasis Hummingbirds, Peruvian Sheartails, and Short-tailed Woodstars. 3 Short-tailed Field Tyrants made their presence felt, and a single male Collared Warbling-Finch finally appeared from the middle of a dense thorn bush. Astonishingly colourful male Vermilion Flycatchers perched up; (we didn't see any of the dark morph birds that dominate in Central Lima - one theory suggests that the dull, dark morph birds predominate in the capital because the more typical scarlet morph are all killed by children wielding slingshots in the city centre.) We drove on to the bustling fish-market scenes of Pucusana harbour- a malodorous experience in the heat of the afternoon - and photographed close Inca Terns before finding our main quarry - a pair of Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes. A single Wandering Tattler in amongst a small Ruddy Turnstone flock was a nice bonus, and a fly-by Blackish Oystercatcher was a late addition.
We ended the day just south of Lima at the well-known marshland site of Pantanos de Villa, adding Least Bittern, Peruvian Meadowlark, Grey-hooded Gull, Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Semi-palmated Plover to our burgeoning trip list. A sea-watch for the last hour of daylight added a couple more penguins and 2 Pomarine Skuas, before we reluctantly put away our scopes and headed into town for a 'Chifa' Chinese meal and a very few beers, no-one wanting to imbibe too freely for fear of suffering the ultimate hangover on our last day at 5,000m- into the vomit zone!
Fri Nov 21st: Marcapomacocha We left our Miraflores hotel at 4am and thanks to driving worthy of an F1 champion, had arrived at the turn-off to Marcapomacocha by 7am. Having forked left off the Central Highway, we started birding by the San Mateo train station at c4200m and found Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches, Black Siskins, mixed flocks of sierra-finches, a gorgeous Aplomado Falcon perched atop a telegraph pole, a ground-feeding Olivaceous Thornbill, and best of all, a Black-breasted Hillstar on the hillside opposite the station. We drove on a few hundred metres and stopped to check the quebrada to the right of the road. After a few minutes' scanning, CG picked up a Stripe-headed Antpitta, hopping about in the open between the isolated clumps of bunchgrass. A 2nd bird soon joined the first, and we were able to take excellent digiscope shots of the pair.
Mindful of our tight schedule today, we bounced onward, around an alarming series of S-bends, eventually reaching a small distichia bog that more or less matched the GPS co-ordinates we had secured in Cuzco. The bog looked rather dry, but we strode out anyway, (OK, we inched out at a snail's pace, painfully aware that we had already ascended to 4,560m from sea level.) After 20 minutes or so a shout went up as one of us picked up one or our two key target birds - a stunning White-bellied Cinclodes! We watched a pair of these amazing birds calling, displaying and generally carrying on around the edges of the bog. Edging around to the rear of the bog to the wetter areas, we were concerned not to find any waders, but just as we were running out of habitat PW called over from 100m away. His urgent tone could mean only one thing- DSP!
We hurried over, (1 pace every couple of seconds.) and set up the scopes at a respectful distance to enjoy the pair of near-mythical Diademed Sandpiper Plovers. We had nearly walked right past them as they were perched high up on the dry banks above the bog. They stayed put for a full 10 minutes, allowing even the most breathless of our party to make their way over and share in the spectacle.
Elated by our early triple success, we drove on up through the imposing grandeur of the altiplano, over the pass at c5,000m, getting out to sample the spectacular scenery of the altiplano, and scan for the high altitude specialists. A flock of Andean Geese did their best to ruin their credentials as wild birds by sticking close to the only farmhouse for miles around, and two Gray-breasted Seedsnipe and a small flock of Dark-winged Miners completed the scene. Our attempted stop for lunch was interrupted when we flushed a pair of Puna Snipe off the Milloc bog (by the junction at the top of the Santa Eulalia Road.) We met two vehicles heading up this road from the south who told us that the road was passable with care, but we decided not to risk it, since failure to get all the way down this western side of the loop would have meant that we would have run out of petrol had we had to turn round and retrace our steps back up over the pass. The upper half of this road remains little birded and there are a number of highly desirable species a couple of hours down the road, including White-cheeked Cotinga. We settled for pioneering as far as a lake c2 miles down the road, and as we were scoping the distant Giant Coots, GH broke off from his conversation with GR mid-sentence. The cause for this uncharacteristic silence soon became apparent, as an Andean Condor swept in at close range to check us out. After a couple more sweeps the bird decided we were most likely inedible, (highly likely after 3 weeks with limited laundry opportunities,) and soared out of sight.
Our return passage back to the Central Highway was broken by a couple more stops, which produced more White-bellied Cinclodes, 3 Streak-throated and, crucially, 2 Junin Canasteros - one more endemic for our trip list. We grilled a few Cinclodes, finally managing to identify a couple of White-winged, before our driver hurtled back to the main road leaving a cloud of dust in our wake.
We stopped a couple of times as we descended, attempting to find equivalent altitudes/ habitats to those we knew were on the Santa Eulalia road just a few kilometres to the west, and our searches of scrub behind the roadside villages were rewarded with two final endemics - 2 Black Metaltails and a skulking Rusty-bellied Brush-Finch. As we returned through Chosica, an hour north of Lima, we added one final species to our tally; Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, a colourful finale to an incredible haul of birds.
We hit a major traffic jam on the outskirts of Lima, which we bypassed via a convoluted and highly dubious diversion, madly pursuing a small collectivo who appeared to know a sneaky back route. We nearly lost our guide a couple of times, saved only by following the wildly swinging wimple of a nun in the back seat ahead! Our unofficial tour of the backstreets of Lima (not in the brochure) caused us to pass through the middle of a backstreet volleyball game, (the players kindly dismantled the net and suspended play so that we could pass,) career the wrong way down a succession of one-way streets, (including a dual carriageway and past a stationed police car at one point - our driver responded to the latter with an admirable Peruvian logic and simply turned off our vehicle's lights so that the police couldn't read our license plate before accelerating away.) and scrape through tiny gaps in the traffic that the average cyclist would have thought twice about. We lived to tell the tale - just - and recovered with a final celebratory dinner at a local restaurant, sipping Caipirinhas and beers, and reliving our exploits of the past twenty-one days.
Sat Nov 22nd: Having checked in at some obscure hour at Lima airport we headed for coffee and limp sandwiches at an airport café, just in time to see Johnny Wilkinson's last-gasp drop-goal seal the rugby World Cup for England 20-17 over Australia, a fitting climax to a very British adventure. Our 6 hour layover in Miami allowed a quick sprint to the beach to look for warblers - few passerines were present, but a White-crowned Pigeon was a new bird for one of us, and the refrain of the holiday- "wader on the left. Spot. Sand" was given one final airing. We landed back at London's Heathrow airport in the early hours of a typically depressing winter's morning, freezing cold and lashing with rain, but it would take more than a little inclement weather to dampen our spirits, after a trip that had exceeded every one of our expectations.