Sunday, January 3, 2016

Peru: November 27-29, 2015

November 27, 2015

While moving from place to place on a regular basis is a great way to see the broader diversity of birds in a region, staying more than one night in the same place once in a while is a welcome break. For two nights we would stay at the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge, which meant that for today, we didn't need to pack everything up. Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge is situated in a very pleasant, temperate mountain location, and the property is divided into a series of cabins and a main dining/relaxing hall. Staying at this lodge was the first of several nights in a row where we would have to consider the possibility of malaria-carrying mosquitos. Subsequently, we each started our doses of malarone yesterday, and would continue taking them for the next two weeks. I don't recall seeing any mosquitos in my room; in fact, the only thing I do recall sharing my room with was a couple of good-sized cockroaches. Mosquitos or not, I was happy to have slept under a net.

At 4:30am my alarm seemingly screamed that it was once again time to get up, and by 5:00am we had all assembled in the dining hall by the illumination of our flashlights for breakfast. But there was no breakfast...either the cooks slept in or there was a mis-communication about the time. It didn't matter that much though, as we did manage to get some food by 5:30am and we were on our way by 6:00am. As daybreak came at the lodge, our first birds were Bananaquit, Russet-backed Oropendola, Blue-gray Tanager, and Sparkling Violetear. From the lodge we drove up hill, back from where we had come yesterday. Our first stop was at 1,735m elevation, at 6:18am. There was a lot of bird activity, with highlights including Saffron-crowned Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Slaty Tanager (lifer), Beryl-spangled Tanager, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Marbled-faced Bristle-Tyrant, and Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher (lifer).

Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge

Our second stop was at 1,760m, at 7:48am. We only spent a few minutes here, as we got our target bird, White-eared Solitaire (lifer), almost immediately. We then moved further uphill to 1,880m, but dipped on whatever it was we were trying to get. From here, we turned around and slowly started to make our way back. We stopped again a bit further down, at 1,870m, and while that doesn't seem like much of a change from the previous stop, the birding went from nothing to something in a hurry. In about 55 minutes we tallied 16 species, including Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Azara's Spinetail, Versicolored Barbet, Buff-thighed Puffleg (lifer), and Pearled Treerunner. Our next stop was at 1,700m at 10:02am, and while I didn't add any lifers here, the birding was still very good with additions such as Bronze-green Euphonia, Three-striped Warbler, and Golden-collared Honeycreeper.

By 11:00am the temperature was warming quickly and bird activity was diminishing. We therefore decided to head back to the lodge and spend a bit of time around the feeders before having lunch. Just before heading into the grounds we checked a patch of forest just uphill from the parking area for Slaty Gnateater, and within just a few minutes of broadcasting its' call we able to get great looks of this bird. Back at the lodge we had about 30 minutes to spare before lunch, and while we tallied an impressive list of hummingbirds, including Wedge-billed Hummingbird (lifer), we also saw several Common Wooly Monkey. Following lunch it was siesta time, as bird activity had slumped considerably.

At 3:00pm we departed Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge and headed uphill to Manu Lodge, just a few minutes away. Near Manu Lodge was a makeshift hide on the side of the road, which provided access to viewing an actual Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. The hide was held together with minimalist materials, and perched precariously on the road bank. It looked as though, at any moment, the entire thing could topple down, sending whomever stood upon its narrow platform to no uncertain form of serious injury. Despite my fulsome risk assessment, I ascertained that in all probability our risk of a catastrophic end to our birding adventure was slim, and so we proceeded, nimbly moving onto the platform and keeping or mass as close to the back rather than the front. Upon arrival, just one male bird was present; it was not difficult to miss, as its fire-engine red plumage radiated in a near indescribable way. The males plumage is so gaudy and exaggerated that no matter how long you look at the bird, you would swear that its head consists of just one eye and no beak. Over the course of our 15 minute visit, we observed four males in total.

Male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock at lek

'The Gang' at the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek viewing blind.

For the next two and a half hours we birded the road above Manu Lodge, but it was slow going. Birds were few and far between, and boredom soon set in. An occasional waterfall provided some visual relief, but even that couldn't stave the boredom. Subsequently, we had to create our own entertainment, and so Simon decided to give Howard's blue chair an unwanted bath. Perhaps the one reprieve we got from goofing around near waterfalls was that we found the nest of a Green-fronted Lancebill, which after a few minutes of waiting gave us excellent views. Other birds for the afternoon included Spotted Tanager, Spotted Barbtail, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Golden-olive Woodpecker.

A waterfall.

Simon giving 'Ole Blue" a rinse in a waterfall...poor Howard!

As we neared the end of our day, I did manage to squeak out one more lifer, which was Variable Antshrike. I was also able to get a photo of Masked Trogon, which sat patiently at the side of the road. As the sun set we moved further uphill to an owl stakeout. It's funny how nighttime takes so long to occur when you wait for it, but by 6:20pm it was dark enough to broadcast the call of Rufescent Screech-Owl. It took only a few minutes for a single bird to appear, which we got fairly good looks at. We returned to the lodge for 7:00pm, had dinner, compiled our notes, and went to bed. Another good day, and tomorrow we head into the Amazon basin.

Masked Trogon

Species seen today: 64
Lifers seen today: 8
Cumulative species for the trip: 259
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 101

November 28, 2015

In 2008, when I made my first trip to the tropics, I never would have imagined that just eight years later I'd be in southern Peru and heading to the Amazon basin. I knew in 2008 that a fire had been set in my birding belly, and that my quest for birds in Central and South American had only just begun. But when I first read about the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru in 2010, I truly felt that this incredibly biodiverse speck on the globe would rank in the unfortunate category of places I would never get to visit. Thankfully, I can say I was wrong. When viewing the area from Google Earth it appears irreproachable; a vast green wilderness with hardly a scare on the landscape. On the ground, it isn't much different, with only a few roads and small villages dotting the proximate landscape. The road we were on was the main road, and it was narrow and unpaved; there was no AAA in sight! The remoteness of the reserve is difficult to describe, but it has taken us seven days to get to the edge of it from Lima. Today, we descend from the Cock-of-Rock Lodge to the town of Atalaya, which marks the end of the road and our transition to river boat...the only way to enter the heart of the reserve.

A typical view while birding the eastern Andes

Today we woke at 4:30am, had coffee and some toast at 5:00am, and started birding around the lodge at 5:20am. The birding was remarkably good, and over the next 2.5 hours we tallied an impressive list of birds. Our first bird of the day was Olivaceous Siskin, followed quickly by Russet-backed Oropendola, Speckled Chachalaca, and Tropical Parula. My first lifer of the day was Two-banded Warbler, which showed well. We then added Ash-browed Spinetail, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Streaked Xenops, Dusky-green Oropendola, Golden Tanager, and a couple of familiar North American species, Scarlet Tanager and Swainson's Thrush.

My next lifer had a name longer than the species itself; Yellow-breasted Warbling-Antbird. This was followed shortly after by Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Stripe-chested Antwren, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Chestnut-backed Antshrike, Scale-breasted Pygmy-Tyrant, and Orange-eared Tanager. With only a few minutes remaining before we had to begin our journey to Atalaya, we added a few more good birds including Purple Honeycreeper, Lanceolated Monklet (lifer), Yellow-rumped Antwren (lifer), and another two North American familiarities: Hepatic Tanager and Canada Warbler.

At a little after 8:00am we piled into the van and continued the ever-winding, narrow, and bumpy road down hill. Our next stop was not until 9:38am, where our guide selectively decided to stop and try for some target species. I only added Short-billed Chlorospingus as a lifer here; I'm not sure what the "short-billed" is in reference too, as there is no long-billed variety of this species for comparison. Back into the van, we travelled for another 20 minutes and tried for some other targets; no lifers here, but good views of Black-billed Treehunter. Back in the van again, we travelled for another 15 minutes and stopped at 1,030m to try our luck at more targets. This time the payoff was good, as I was able to add three lifers from just the six species we saw: Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Yellow-crested Tanager, and Golden-bellied Warbler.

Descending below 1,000m we could feel the temperature and humidity increasing; a necessary tradeoff between decreasing comfort and increasing the species list. Our next stop was at 880m, in a small homestead that seemed deserted and overgrown. We knew immediately that this location had some good bird activity, as birds could be seen and heard actively feeding on fruiting trees and moving between feeding areas. My first lifer at this stop was Rusty-fronted Tody-Flycatcher, and over the course of 45 minutes was followed by three other lifers, White-banded Swallow, Fine-barred Piculet, and Short-crested Flycatcher. Other good birds at this site included Golden-tailed Sapphire, King Vulture, Piratic Flycatcher, and Magpie Tanager.

Our next stop was an unplanned one, forced only by getting a flat tire. The unfortunate part of this stop is that this flat tire was our spare; the first flat occurred two days ago and we'd had no opportunity to have it fixed. The driver was going to fix the spare in Atalaya, after dropping us off, but now we needed plan B. A few miles back we passed through a small village that had tire repair services, but getting back to the village, with the tires, we thought would prove challenging. Fortunately, it wasn't that bad, as a helpful Peruvian came along and agreed to take our driver and the two flats tires to the village for repair. I only assumed he'd bring them back.

Our flat tire occurred at 12:40pm, and given the predicament we figured we'd be in this for the long haul. Subsequently, we broke out the picnic table, chairs, and food and waited. We were now at 560m, and so it was especially hot. To add insult to injury, we also weren't parked at a particularly good location for birding, possibly symbolized by an all-black tarantula that I saw crossing the road when we first stopped. Nevertheless, I did manage to add two lifers: Fork-tailed Palm-Swift and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw. A couple of other good birds included Long-tailed Tyrant, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, and Dusky-headed Parakeet. At about 1:50pm our driver returned with two functional tires (functional meaning inflated; the tread, or lack thereof, was something to be desired).

When you get your second flat in two days, you know you have a long wait.

We arrived at Atalaya at really was the end of the road. We unloaded the van and poor Howard had to bid farewell to Ole Blue, which was destined for the return trip home to Wayquecha Biological Research Station. We were not coming back to Atalaya, as our journey was to proceed downstream along the Madre de Dios to Amazonia Lodge, the Manu Wildlife Centre, and Boca Colorado where we would then meet another van for our ground transportation to Puerto Maldonado. Howard was quite distraught about losing his seat, and the distress had caught the attention of our guide. Once again, a solution appeared, and it turned out to be the son of 'Ole Blue', 'Ole Blue II'. It took about 20 minutes to unload the van and pack everything into our boat, which was an impressively-large covered, motorized canoe. This river was huge!

At road's end in Atalaya, we must say goodbye to 'Ole Blue'. Howard weeps.

But wait, 'Ole Blue' has a son. Howard rejoices.

As we piled into the boat we added few species in the village, and the only new species for me was White-winged Swallow. The boat ride to Amazonia Lodge from Atalaya was short, taking only about 10 minutes. It was a pleasant ride nonetheless, and the occasional rush through some whitewater rapids was exhilarating. Conditions could not have been better.

Boating down Rio Madres de Dios on a beautiful sunny day...remember this image.

Amazonia Lodge is located at 450m elevation, on the bank of the Madres de Dios. As we arrived, the boat was carefully maneuvered toward the bank, and as we each exited we balanced along a narrow plank of wood to terra firme. It was a about a 400m walk from the boat launch to our cabins, which were arranged in a long row facing an expansive garden dotted with a few large trees and many flowering shrubs and plants. We spent about the first hour simply enjoying the view, resting our weary bodies in the chairs overlooking the garden. Birds were everywhere, and it took only seconds to get my first lifer here, the Red-capped Cardinal. Other birds included Black-billed Thrush, Masked-crimson Tanager, Russet-backed Oropendola, Silver-beaked Tanager, Gould's Jewelfront, Rufous-crested Coquet, White-necked Jacobin, and another lifer, the Blue-tailed Emerald. It was also amusing watching a Gray-necked Wood-Rail wander about the garden like a domestic chicken.

Amazonia Lodge in the Manu Biosphere Reserve

Red-capped Cardinal

At about 4:30pm we were led by Alex around one of the trails to do some late afternoon birding. We first ventured over to a small wetland where we were immediately greeted by 17 punk-rock birds of the world, Hoatzin (lifer). A quick glance down the wetland and I picked up a Sungrebe (lifer), a particularly difficult bird to see being one that tends to hide very well in the wetland vegetation. After having good views of the Hoatzin, and watching their cumbersome movements in the trees, we then picked up a Pale-legged Hornero, three Black-fronted Nunbirds (lifer), Blue-headed Parrot, Blue-throated Piping-Guan (lifer), and Squirrel Cuckoo. A bit further along the trail we picked up Swallow-winged Puffbird (lifer), Blue-crowned Trogon (lifer), Cobalt-winged Parakeet (lifer), Silvered Antbird (lifer), Ruddy Pigeon, Turquoise Tanager (lifer), and Bluish-slate Antshrike (lifer). As the last bit of light faded, a Plumbeous Kite flew overhead, presumably heading to a roost site. We arrived back at our cabins at 6:00pm, and had dinner at 7:00pm. Despite having a flat tire and travelling quite some distance, we had an impressive species count of 103 species, of which 29 were lifers for me. I attributed the good count to the range of elevations we covered, and the increasing diversity of species as we moved further into the Amazon basin.

Species seen today: 103
Lifers seen today: 29
Cumulative species for the trip: 337
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 130

November 29, 2015

One of the things the Amazon doesn't seem to lack are birds with 'ant' in their name; antshrikes, antbirds, antwrens, antpittas, ant-tanagers, antpipits. There was certainly a high probability of seeing something 'antish', and we were all more than ready for some 'ant-ticks'. We started the day early, with the alarm ringing at 4:30am, breakfast at 5:00am (wow, that's some strong coffee), and on the trail by 5:30am. Our destination this morning was a canopy tower, which is just what it sounds like...a tower that climbs into the canopy offering unique views and an opportunity to see canopy-dwelling birds at eye-level, thus reducing birders' neck and subsequent trips to the chiropractor. Before arriving at the tower, we first had to make our way through the forest, gradually climbing the hill slope to where the tower was perched. Our first birds of the day were garden birds, and in the faintest of morning light we added Black-billed Thrush, White-necked Jacobin, Piratic Flycatcher, and many of the other familiar birds that seemed to hang around the lodge permanently. The other distinct feature on the trail was 'Ole Blue II'.

Trecking through the forest with 'Ole Blue II'

Soon after entering the forest Alex was on the lookout for new species, and he quickly delivered. First up was Pygmy Antwren (lifer), followed shortly thereafter by Chestnut-tailed Antbird (lifer). We then had Black-faced Antbird, Collared Trogon, and Reddish Hermit (lifer). After that, a small gang of Pale-winged Trumpeter's came walking down the trail. They seemed utterly baffled by our presence, and unsure about whether there was room for both of us on the trail, each bird came down the trail, looked at us, then appeared to make a conscious decision that it was best if we kept our distance. Thus, they walked back up the trail for 20 meters or so, then disappeared into the undergrowth.

Pale-winged Trumpeter...such a strange looking bird

Once at the tower, the only hard part of the hike was the climb up the rickety set of metal stairs. The entire structure was not built for the faint of heart, and the three guy-wires that supposedly provided vertical support had more slack in them than a pensioner's pair of trousers. Having confirmed our life insurance policies were up-to-date, we proceeded to ascend, choosing not to count the number of steps but having our thighs remind us that there more than there we would have liked. At the top, we placed our packs toward the centre and tethered them to a guard rail. We then took our respective positions, and milled about the 6 ft by 8 ft platform trying to focus on finding birds rather than think about what would happen if the entire structure collapsed.

Hi atop a canopy tower...not for the faint-of-heart, unless you need canopy birds.

The tower offered spectacular views of the upper canopy, including the view in the image below. This particular view offered great views of macaws, of which we had Scarlet (lifer), Chestnut-fronted, Military, and Blue-and-Yellow. The crown of the tree we were in also produced an incredible variety of birds, if not for the nearly two hours it took to accumulate them. Some of the species included Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant (lifer), Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher (lifer), Striolated Puffbird (lifer), Green-backed Trogon (lifer), and Masked Tanager (lifer). A bit further afield we added Tiny Hawk, Olive Oropendola, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, and White Hawk. As the bird activity decreased, and the canopy flies increased, we descended the steps to continue our walk on the trail; I'd never seen Simon move so quickly so as to get his boots firmly planted on solid earth.

Why canopy towers exist...unobstructed views.

And when you're in the canopy, you get to see birds like this, the Striolated Puffbird, up close.

As we progressed along the trail our next bird was a Rufescent Ground-Cuckoo. A spectacular look, which instantly triggered recourse from Simon and Howard regarding a less than spectacular look I had of this species in Panama. At that time, I was confident that the blurred, shadowy object that disappeared from the edge of the trail and into thick undergrowth, but which Simon exclaimed merely a second earlier was a Rufescent Ground-Cuckoo, was tickable. For the millisecond that I saw the bird, it had the shape, profile, and size all going for it. I think some birders have ticked birds on much less. But back to this sighting. As an obligate of ant swarms, this bird showed well for several seconds as an ant swarm was just finishing crossing the trail. And a few seconds was all we could afford, because other birds also associated with the ant swarm needed our attention too. These included Hairy-crested Antbird (lifer), Sooty Antbird (lifer), and Plain Antvireo.

As we worked our way further along the trail we continued to add new birds, even if they weren't all in quick succession. First up was McConnel's Flycatcher, followed by Black Antbird, Ringed Antpipit (a very sharp-looking bird), Red-throated Caracara, Round-tailed Manakin, and Plain-winged Antshrike. As we descended back toward the lodge, we added Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Golden-bellied Warbler, Fasciated Antwren, and Lemon-throated Barbet (lifer). Back at the gardens I added two more lifers: Hauxwell's Thrush and Speckled Spinetail. At 12:00pm it was lunch time, and by 1:00pm it was nap time. The heat and humidity was certainly taking its toll, and a good nap helps to replenish energy levels.

At 3:00pm we gathered on the main balcony to do a late afternoon walk around the river trails. Before departing we first tallied the usual suspects at the bird feeders, as well as one lifer, the Sapphire-spangled Emerald. Then, once on the trail, the first new species to be added to the list was Gray Antwren. We then added Little Woodpecker, Speckled Chachalaca, White-browed Antbird (lifer), and Bluish-fronted Jacamar. The heat of the day had definitely suppressed the bird activity, and generally speaking it was slow going. Nevertheless, Alex earned his stripes by knowing exactly where and when to look for, or broadcast the call of, different species. Subsequently, for the next hour and a half, he managed to get seven more lifers for me, which included Scarlet-hooded Barbet, Chestnut-capped Puffbird, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Purplish Jay, Gray-fronted Dove, Amazonia Antpitta, and White-lined Antbird. We also added such trip ticks as Golden-bellied Euphonia, Capped Heron, and Gray-capped Flycatcher.

We returned to the lodge for 5:45pm, compiled our notes, had dinner at 7:00pm, and went to bed by 8:30pm. Tomorrow we would continue our journey by boat, heading downstream for nearly 7 hours to the Manu Wildlife Centre. There is a very good chance that tomorrow's destination will be the most remote place I've ever visited.

The Hoatzin, with its bizarre plumage and colours, makes the Trumpeter look normal.

Species seen today: 82
Lifers seen today: 35
Cumulative species for the trip: 395
Cumulative lifers for the trip: 165

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