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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Peru: Machu Picchu and the Manu-Kosñipata Road

2019 Narrative

In Brief: This year’s tour to Machu Picchu & the Kosñipata Road had some surprising highlights. Of course, the bizarre but beautiful Andean Cock-of-the-rock ranked very high among favorite birds, and we witnessed a busy morning at the lek with continuous activity for the hour we were there. A Common Potoo brooding a week-old chick was also irresistible, as were the colorful tropical gems such as Paradise Tanagers radiating from the treetops, an Ornate Flycatcher defying the drabness of most of its family members, a super bright Scarlet-hooded Barbet, simple yet honestly gorgeous Blue Dacnises, both Band-tailed and Masked Fruiteaters offering up rich greens with just the right touch of brightness, and a Golden-headed Quetzal that sang out in the open at great length, offering an opportunity for photos and video. Hummingbirds always rank high, and the Bearded Mountaineer that put on a show in our hotel garden was exciting, as was a trio of Aplomado Falcons that sped past our group, chasing one another down a canyon. The oddity that is the Hoatzin, the only ruminant in the class Aves, never fails to make the list of top birds, and when a difficult and attractive bird like the Black-banded Owl finally appears after hard work, a wonderful memory is made. But it was on our first morning at Villa Carmen as we were walking back to the dining hall for breakfast, when a Blue-crowned Trogon lit in front of the group at eye-level only a few yards away, that the group had found its favorite bird of the tour. It’s a rather common and widespread species, but at such close range and in perfect light, the beauty sat there for several minutes, and the glittering green of the back, the deep blue head, and the crimson belly were truly a remarkable sight to behold.

In Detail: We hit the ground running when we arrived in Cusco. It was a beautiful day at Laguna Huacarpay, whereupon arrival a pair of Mountain Caracaras landed on the shore only 50 yards away. Migrant Barn and Cliff Swallows mingled with a few Brown-bellied Swallows while below on the water were Puna Teal, Yellow-billed Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Duck, and White-tufted Grebe. Plumbeous Rails were everywhere. Our foray up into the scrub very quickly resulted in Rusty-fronted Canastero. We heard many Wren-like Rushbirds, glimpsed a few as they dashed between the rushes, but we never did get solid looks at one. Not so with the Many-colored Rush-Tyrant which displayed in the tops of the rushes, showing all its colors. A Cinereous Harrier added itself to the cumulative list by hunting over the marshes then circling around behind us over the Incan ruins. Hummingbirds were scarce around the lake, but after a couple stops along the Urubamba River we had excellent looks at a male Bearded Mountaineer feeding in tree tobacco while Andean Swifts zoomed overhead.

Our day to Machu Picchu was a full one. After tallying several White-capped Dippers and Torrent Ducks from the train, we had our first Green-and-white Hummingbirds before we exited the train station. After our first tantalizing view of the fabulous ruins with our guide Vilma, we got distracted by the birds, lured towards the Sun Gate along the Inca Trail to view a mixed flock that contained both Cuzco and Tricolored Brushfinches as well as the sought after Inca Wren. We then spent the rest of the morning walking through (and up and down) the extensive ruins, covering the religious and industrial sectors after having seen the agricultural area first. We learned about the Inca symbolism of the snake, the puma, and the condor, but we might wonder what the original inhabitants thought of the spectacular flights of White-tipped Swifts as they raced over the ancient site. After lunch, we walked a mile and half back to town starting with Sclater’s Tyrannulet and Masked Fruiteater in the lower switchbacks of the road, followed by a very confiding Blue-banded Toucanet, a Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, and a pair of Silver-beaked Tanagers as we approached the town. The train ride back was entertaining, with a demonstration of the Festival of Carmen as celebrated in Paucartambo, followed by a fashion show featuring gorgeous baby alpaca woven garments.

Our travel day over the mountains had many fine sightings, starting with a rarely seen White-tailed Deer by the main highway in the Sacred Valley. A short way up the Pisac road we made a quick stop and quickly found the endemic Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrants relatively quickly. Then up at Abra Muruhijsa we added quite a few good birds, including handsome Andean Flickers right next to the road, Scarce Streak-throated and Streak-backed Canasteros, and a very cooperative Slender-billed Miner. Lunch at a nice little pullout was highlighted by a very fast flyover Aplomado Falcon and a Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrant, while those who wandered above were treated to some yellow blooms of the furry white cactus Austrocylindropuntia floccosa. It was a long drive to our next stop, which was in the more humid scrub home to two Creamy-crested Spinetails that showed well. A White-bellied Hummingbird was an unexpected surprise here. A short stop at Acjanaco Pass resulted in another Creamy-crested Spinetail at high elevation, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants, and a rare Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. After dinner, a few of the group wandered up the road had some fair views of a Swallow-tailed Nightjar foraging over the road in the distance.

Our full-day based out of Wayqecha Lodge was full of great birds. We started the morning with great views of three White-banded Tyrannulets and then at our second stop connected with a Masked Trogon immediately followed by a pair of gorgeous Band-tailed Fruiteaters at close range. A distant Chestnut-crested Cotinga was a lucky find, while Amethyst-throated Sunangels were more active in flowers close to the road. A White-throated Hawk briefly appeared twice soaring overhead and later pounced on some prey on the side of the road right in front of our vehicle. Not far up the road from there, we watched a magnificent immature Solitary Eagle very slowly circling over and disappearing over the ridge. Later we got good views of Blue-capped Tanager from the lodge garden, while Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan eluded the group and rewarding only those who abstained from the siesta and took a walk on their own. In the afternoon we returned to the elfin forest at higher elevations and got lucky with a Golden-collared Tanager and even luckier with extended views of an Undulated Antpitta singing on a perch. In the evening before dinner, a Swallow-tailed Nightjar without streamers sang back at us and flew back and forth in front of the group.

Before leaving Wayqecha and dropping in elevation, a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker appeared above the road by the van, but then it was time to head for lower elevations and an increase in diversity. We stopped for a singing Rufous-backed Treehunter and ended up with amazing views of a Golden-headed Quetzal and White-collared Jays instead. A Gray-breasted Wood-Wren should have been completely invisible in a dense roadside thicket, but it appeared ankle-high on an exposed branch and sang its heart out just a couple of feet from the group. Farther down the road we saw the local Inca Flycatcher and connected with the even more local and furtive Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. Lunch was at a beautiful mossy stream crossing with a splendid diversity of butterflies as well as the stunning, purple-winged damselflies known as Euthore terminalis. We arrived at Cock of the Rock Lodge in time to check out the feeders and flowers in the garden, and late after turned out to be the best time for spotting three minuscule gems – Booted Racket-tail was at the feeders while the porter weed hosted a Wire-crested Thorntail and a bonus rare Peruvian Piedtail. Before dinner we took advantage of the good weather to do a bit of night birding, spotting a cooperative Andean Motmot along the way. A Rufescent Screech-Owl couldn’t have been more cooperative. Though we couldn’t coax a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar to call and fly overhead, a female perched on a rocky ledge over the road was an acceptable substitute.

Our having enjoyed several days of perfect weather was bound to come to an end, but not before we enjoyed the marvel of Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek in full splendor. It did seem odd that after an hour it never got light enough for any photos, but the distant thunder at dawn might have been a clue. Sure enough, the rain started at about 6:30, became torrential by breakfast, and only finally let up in the late afternoon. We drove a while down the road, hoping for a let-up, but getting out of the car for the tour’s only Bat Falcon was a dampening experience. The rest of the day was spent watching the feeders and flowers in the garden of the hotel, where highlights included the cheeky Russet-backed Oropendolas, a furtive Andean Slaty Thrush, Paradise Tanagers, Speckled Hummingbird, and a Booted Racket-tail.

The next day dawned gorgeous, as the cold front had passed through quickly. We spent the morning birding the higher elevations above the lodge, and we had an incredibly fruitful morning with several mixed flocks. In one, the rare Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Orange-eared Tanager, and Yellow-throated Tanager vied for our attention all at once while we were being distracted by at least a dozen other flycatchers, tanagers, and others. Green Jay (Inca Jay) showed well on the hillside, Versicolored Barbets appeared over the road, and Long-tailed Sylph and Buff-thighed Puffleg fed from roadside flowers. After lunch, we birded the road below the lodge before we had to beeline to our next lodge. We failed to find a cooperative mixed flock, instead seeing our first Bluish-fronted Jacamar at the upper limit of its elevational range as well as our only Large-headed Capuchins, which seem to have been discouraged from visiting the lodge feeders. A huge surprise in a quickly-moving mixed flock in a bamboo patch was a Chestnut-collared Becard, a rare bird in the region and possibly a record high elevational sighting.

On our first of two full days at Villa Carmen we birded along the entrance road before breakfast, where a Blue-crowned Trogon flew in unannounced and landed on a vine at eye level only a few yards away in the perfect morning sunlight. It became the most memorable birding moment of the tour for many. The show of parakeets and Chestnut-fronted Macaws, while we had breakfast, was also a hit, and late morning by the cabins revealed a few fruiting trees that harbored stunning Swallow Tanagers and a blindingly blue male Plum-throated Cotinga. As we finally set down a trail, the first of many glistening Bluish-fronted Jacamars appeared, a King Vulture soared overhead, and a scarce Rufous-headed Woodpecker flew in for all to see. Other highlights from the day included a Common Potoo sitting on a chick (both male and female perform this duty) and a lovely Spot-breasted Woodpecker near a likely nest hole by the pond below the dining hall.

Our second morning was quite different when we attempted to see an Amazonian Antpitta that had recently become habituated to a worm feeding site down a trail. On the way there we flushed an immature Rufescent Tiger-Heron that perched at length for all to see. The antpitta seemed to be absent for a while, but then we finally heard a distant song phrase. Then after another long wait, the song sounded very close to the pile of worms that Leonidas had placed on a mossy rock. Finally, it hopped right out in plain view, grabbed a worm, and skulked away to eat it. It performed this two more times for us, and we declared success. We birded the bamboo forest thoroughly the rest of the morning, a highlight being the adorable White-cheeked Tody-Flycatcher, a super cooperative pair of Plain Softtails, and a mixed flock that held a stunning Green Honeycreeper and a Little Woodpecker. Back at lunch, Blue-gray Tanagers showed how lovely they can be in good light, and an afternoon walk down to the lower Piñi Piñi River resulted in a pair of immaculate Capped Herons and a stunning Scarlet-hooded Barbet that came in with a mobbing group of birds riled up with owl imitations. Some of us did a longer night walk, discovering the pair of Black-banded Owls well down into the tall forest, and with some patience, we were rewarded with excellent views.

Our travel day back to Cusco wasn’t without some significant bird highlights. While our luggage was being loaded, a pair of Magpie Tanagers added themselves to our burgeoning list. A quick stop right in the town of Pilcopata for a noisy group of Red-bellied Macaws also resulted in a sighting of a beautiful Blue-necked Tanager feeding nestlings in an ornamental plant at very close range. We made brief pauses for Blue-and-yellow Macaws as we passed through the lower Kosñipata Valley, then once we reached the foothills our first stop for mixed flocks was in a territory of a stunning Ornate Flycatcher, a first for our tour list. But it was soon time to make tracks, though a stop at lunch lucked into a pair of White-browed Conebill, and just down the road we watched a trio of Aplomado Falcons blast by as they sped down the canyon in hot pursuit of each other. A final stop at the pre-Inca ruins of Ninamarka on a high, dry Andean ridge allowed us to reflect on the amazing diversity that we had witnessed in the past few days.

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