Central South America spectacular birding adventure: here we go!


It's all very well writing for BirdGuides about hummingbirds, antpittas, and Diademed Sandpiper-plover, as I did at the start of this year, but this only just scratches the surface of the extraordinary range of species available to be seen by the visiting birder to any part of South America. I was originally going to wind up my series of articles on Ecuador and Peru after those initial three, but now I find there is a gap that I'd like to fill by describing a few more of the many wonders to be found in travelling through these two extraordinary, exciting countries. Bear with me, I am not going to fill the page with endless lists of names of obscure little flycatchers or Furnariids (a very large South American bird family encompassing a wide variety of species) that are of interest mainly to the specialist or the collector of large lists. I don't do trip reports. Instead I'd like to concentrate on introducing you to a few of the more outstanding or exotic species that I hope will be of interest to the general reader.

For a long time I was quite put off the idea of travelling to South America myself, because I thought I would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of bird species to be found there. But if you glance through the field guides for either of these two countries (or Brazil, or Venezuela, or Colombia) you may find, like me, that the draw is just too irresistible to postpone. And there's no doubt that some birds stand out more than others. I just found the name 'Marcapata Spinetail' in my notebook; and though my scribbled writings tell me I saw several on the Manu Road of central Peru, I can't remember the first thing about them. I could say the same about a couple of dozen of the 500-or-so birds I encountered on my three-month trip last summer. But some South American specialities are just purely unforgettable. It's some of those birds I'm going to concentrate on here. Forget for now the antpittas and hummingbirds that provided such a central spine and a focus to my journey, and which I've already described in some detail. Here, I shall talk about some of the other magnificent birds that filled out and added shape and colour to the body of my total South American birding extravaganza.

I have chosen to describe these birds more-or-less chronologically, as I encountered them, using a sort of site-by-site travelogue, rather than systematically or taxonomically, because personally, I find things much more satisfying to recall that way. I hope you the reader find it more accessible too.

Our journey through Ecuador and Peru begins in what I consider one of the most idyllic little towns I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. If you are contemplating a short first trip to South America and you want a comfortable and enjoyable place in which to begin, I have only one word to say to you—Mindo. Described in the Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Ecuador as 'a little Alpine village in the Andes', Mindo is a most astonishing place for the birdwatcher. How many places have you been to where the hotels have large signs up saying: "Welcome Birders", and where, as you enter the village, there are huge painted murals of the walls of hummingbirds, toucans, parrots, and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (a very special Andean bird that occurs quite regularly around Mindo)? The best bird I have seen at Mindo, and one of the best I have seen in the whole of Ecuador and Peru, is the Sunbittern. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for BirdGuides recalling my failed quest to see a Sunbittern over the final ten days of a six-week trip to Costa Rica in 2001. It was something of an obsession that cost me the chance of thirty or forty easily more accessible 'lifers'. On my first visit to Mindo, in February 2006, and again in May 2007, that particularly large birding bogey of mine was consigned to history. If you've ever seen Attenborough's Life of Birds and footage of a Sunbittern squaring up to a Roadside Hawk you might understand my commitment to seeing this bird. If you haven't, here's a picture before I go on...

Sunbittern one of the most spectacular birds in the world, in my estimation (photo: Julian Hough)

I believe there are some parts of the world—for example in Costa Rica where this picture was taken—where one or two Sunbitterns venture right out into the open and are easy to see. I haven't been to those places. The places where I have looked for Sunbittern have been wooded and enclosed. I am told they once used to venture out on to the paths at Mindo, but in the two weeks I have spent there they have not come to me: I've had to go off and search for them myself in quiet, mosquito-rich, forest pools. The Sunbittern, I think, is a quite outrageously inimitable bird, in a family of its own—standing out from its peers in the Field Guide to the Birds of Ecuador (as I've said before) in the same strangely significant way that Malaysian Rail Babbler once did for me in Ben King's Birds of South-East Asia: a bird that is too good to be true. Its shyness, and the difficulty of seeing one, is all part of the appeal. Part-Bittern alright (though how many 'Bitterns' have you see in a rainforest?), it could also be labelled as some kind of giant rail? Its structure—the sleek, wiry neck and dagger bill—and its stealthy movements are perhaps reminiscent of an American Tricolored Heron, but its plumage is completely different: the dark purplish-brown body heavily barred black (except for a few whitish spots around the shoulder), the head black-capped, with a white supercilium, black face and sub-moustachial streak, white 'moustache' and chin. The eye is deep red and clearly alert; the legs short and bright orange. Hidden beneath folded wings are the striking orange-rufous flashes that dazzle in flight (I've seen them briefly) or in puffed-up threat postures such as the one seen on Attenborough's Life of Birds (well worth seeing, if you haven't already seen it...and worth seeing again if you have!)

And then there's the Cock-of-the-Rock. High on many birders' Wanted List for South America, I'm pleased to say that this species is actually reasonably numerous and widespread, and can be seen at many cloud-forest sites, up and down the length of the Andes. It was Mindo where I first saw it, and it was here also I had my best views: watching a preening male at close range for half an hour one afternoon. This extraordinarily gaudy orange-red and black bird displays in leks like, for example, Black Grouse and Ruff in Europe: rival males meeting to exchange the most unearthly weird calls first thing in the morning, and to puff and preen and posture, attracting the best females in the process. Find out where the leks are (and there's more than one in the Mindo area), get there before first light, and you're practically guaranteed a sighting. It's not a shy bird, this.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock This superb bird is not uncommon throughout the Andean region, and is easy to see (photo: Tropical Birding)

Moving on—for we've a lot of birds to get through here—I'd like to mention a couple more species among the many outstanding introductions to South American bird families to be found first at Mindo. The Toucan Barbet is a species confined to what is known as the 'Choco region': an area of high endemism incorporating southern Colombia and the extreme north-west of Ecuador. It's featured on the cover of the excellent Sound Guide to the Birds of North-West Ecuador by Niels Krabbe et al.: an impossibly colourful, almost clown-like bird in appearance; its sonorous duetting calls echoed around the valleys of Bellavista during my first visit to Ecuador, but it was at nearby Mindo where I had my best views. Its gaudy appearance epitomizes a trip to the tropics, though it is by no means alone in that respect: the Golden-headed Quetzal, Green-and-Black and Scaled Fruiteaters, and various species of toucan are quite easily seen around Mindo, extending the tropical feel there.

Toucan Barbet Spectacular Choco endemic (photo: Roger Ahlman)

More accessible, perhaps, to Northern-Hemisphere birders, might be the White-capped Dipper; its sharply demarcated chocolate-brown and white plumage goes to show that you don't have to be dressed in vivid primary colours to attract the astonishment of an appreciative birder. My first view on the River Mindo gave me much delight: a fine example of when a picture in a field guide does a bird no justice at all. I am pleased to report the species followed me (or I followed it) on my travels all the way down the Andes, into northern and central Peru. If you go to Venezuela, you'll find it there too: look for the same fast-flowing, stony rivers as where you'd be looking for our representative of the dipper family here in Britain.

Another strikingly patterned bird of a handsome two-toned variety that keeps popping up from time to time throughout South America is the Swallow-tailed Kite, the only raptor that gets a mention in this treatise of favourite birds of mine. Nowhere have I seen it more numerous than in Mindo, where I've watched up to twenty at a time circling gracefully around the hillsides at the edge of the town, floating on the breeze. A scan on any sunny morning will usually reveal at minimum of half a dozen in the mid- to long-distance range, but every now and again you'll come across one or two low above your head, and these are to be savoured, and watched for every available second until they decide to flap away. You must never look up and say: "Oh, 'just' another Swallow-tailed Kite," and put down your bins!

From Mindo, it's a two-hour bus ride back to the Ecuadorian capital Quito—where I finally ticked Vermillion Flycatcher in a city-centre park, twenty years after I first drooled over its picture in the National Geographic Guide to the Birds of North America—and another two hours' climb to the 4000-metre Papallacta Pass. Papallacta—weather permitting—can provide you with a number of high-altitude, open-country species: none more eagerly sought after than the excellent Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. To some, it looks a little out of place (lined up as it is with the Spoon-billed Sandpipers and Wilson's Phalaropes of this world) but nevertheless, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe is right there for all to see in Marchant and Hayman's Shorebirds—one of the first, and undoubtedly still one of the best, of the authoritative Poyser family guides. For that reason alone it demands our respect. Part shorebird (therefore), yet also (in appearance, at least) part grouse, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes inhabit some of the highest and most remote parts of South America, where they shuffle around in pairs on largely inaccessible, barren hillsides, rarely taking flight. I saw my only example of the species on my first month-long trip to Ecuador in February of 2006. Sitting tight to the ground, relying on its camouflage plumage pattern to conceal it, was this Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe: as approachable a bird as you could imagine.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe We got much closer than this: but I just liked the setting of this photo (photo: Paul Derbyshire)

I didn't have time to stay at 'the Magic Roundabout'—on the Ecuadorian Andes' northeast slope—on that first visit, but I noted it for future reference, and I went back there and spent a fabulous week in May 2007. Run by a smashing, dreadlocked English bloke, Ali McClure, the Roundabout is a superbly situated place to stay to experience the bird-rich region of the Andean forests, three hours east of Quito. The accommodation is wonderfully rustic, but great value at a tenner a night (US dollars). From here, you can take a bus thirty minutes to the Guacamayos Ridge (a notoriously wet, but ultimately very exciting, location, with several species of antpitta), or much closer, the beautiful San Isidro Reserve. There are plenty of birds in these three areas, but only two I'm going to dwell on here: the Barred Antthrush and the San Isidro Mystery Owl (what a great name!)

I'd already paid one visit this trip to the Guacamayos Ridge, and had success pulling out the Slate-crowned Antpitta you read about last time I wrote. But on this one particular morning, I had my senses even more finely adjusted...for a bird whose skulking capacity apparently made even the antpittas seem like outrageous attention-seekers: the Barred Antthrush. Long before I came to Ecuador and Peru, I had this earmarked as one of the quintessential exciting birds to get to grips with. If I could pull out this notorious skulker—with the help of a CD player—then I could at least congratulate myself on having tapped in to the level of commitment necessary to claim I was still operating as a serious birder, despite certain appearances to the contrary (oh, those long breakfasts, and those afternoon naps!)

The Barred Antthrush has a long, bubbling song. Unlike the songbirds we are familiar with—which, in the breeding season, reach an apogee of sound at sunrise—it delivers its song intermittently, at unexpected intervals throughout the day. Unless you hear it first, you're very unlikely to see it. Then again, even if you do hear one singing, the chances of a sighting are slim unless you can attract its attention using tape playback. I had two Barred Antthrushes singing at the same time in response to my playing the call, one either side of the track. This was exciting enough in itself, but they were excruciating minutes as I tried to 'reel one in' for a sighting. The tension in my body was incredible. I was pressing the 'play' button on my CD player, but every time I did so, I was sure the Barred Antthrush wouldn't respond, and eventually, like a number of birds I'd 'encountered' so far, it would just fade off into the distance. The habitat was disconcertingly dense: how could any ground-dwelling bird be seen in vegetation like this? Any yet there it was! One of them anyway: this thrush-sized, barred, scalloped crippler, appearing not quite exactly where the song was coming from; I'd picked it up by chance, ventriloquially disconnected from the bubbling sound I was trying to follow through the undergrowth; bobbing nervously up and down; walking along...then gone. That was my view of Barred Anthtrush: forty-five seconds tense gripping of the binoculars; binoculars that at first wouldn't focus closely enough. Hurrah, hurrah, and more hurrahs! I can't find any photos on the Internet of this species—in this day and age of technological wizardry that should be enough of a measure of just what an elusive crippler this species is.

Forty-eight hours later, I had my next 'must-see' bird under the belt. For several years now, there's been much discussion about the specific identity of the pair of owls that appear outside the cabins at San Isidro every night. Slight plumage differences and vocalizations mark them out from both the widespread Band-bellied Owl and Black-and-White Owls, but more importantly, they occur at an elevation 1,500 metres higher than either of those two species have been recorded. Any number of experienced South American birders have come and passed by San Isidro—it is a renowned gourmet's paradise, as well as an outstanding place for birds—yet no-one has ventured a final say on the identification of its 'mystery owls'. So, for now, that is the name the bird trades under: a pair of 'San Isidro Mystery Owls' can be seen practically every night, flying about between the cabins, or perching next to the dining room at the reserve. Sightings are practically guaranteed, unless it happens to rain. It was yakking it down the night I was there! It took me until four o'clock in the morning—a pretty sleepless night, I can tell you—to gain a memorable sighting of one of the birds, spotlighted in the 'streetlights' next to the cabins. It was calling rather loudly, yet somehow, I failed to track it down to the call; I was just lucky that it happened to fly through the spotlights at one point, and landed in a low, bare tree for my examination, eating a massive moth. Watching such a bird at such an unearthly hour of the night sure livens up the senses and I expect those twenty minutes' views to be indelibly etched onto the invisible recesses of my internal viewing hardware for a very long time to come.

San Isidro Mystery Owl One of the great world twitches of our time, as far as I can see. A great bird, offering great views, with more than a hint of mystery about it (photo: Tropical Birding)

I have to stop in this area again briefly, to make passing note of the fact that I haven't mentioned any tanagers so far. Along with the hummingbirds, the tanager family represents a large and very popular South American bird family, with over 250 species, many of which are quite common and widespread. As we pass through Mindo, over the Andes, and down the East Andean slope of the country, be aware we are passing through the ranges of some 30-odd species of tanager, including the spectacular, Blackburnian Warbler-coloured, Flame-faced Tanager, the aptly named Grass-green Tanager, and the beautiful Hooded Mountain Tanager. Space and time won't permit me to dwell for as long as I'd like on these crippling birds, not to mention such gorgeous creatures as Pearled Treerunner and Streaked Tuftedcheek, two of the more numerous flock species to be found at the cloud-forest altitude we are passing through now (1500–2500 m a.s.l.).

'Saraguro' is a name that doesn't appear on many trip reports for Ecuador. I was lucky to come across it at the last minute, in a trip report on the 'net. It was here I hoped to find a bird called Ocellated Tapaculo, which occurs at several sites down the spine of the Andes, but another that is notoriously hard to see. I needed a tape recording off the 'net, firstly to learn the bird's various calls, but also to give me a reasonable chance of being in a position to lure one out into view among the dense bamboo habitat the species favours. Once again, that label—'a much-desired' bird—springs to mind, when recalling my pre-trip assessment of my wish to see Ocellated Tapaculo.

And how sweet the success! It didn't come easy; at least not at first. It might have been an anticlimax if it had? Once out into the temperate bamboo forest outside the town of Saraguro, it took thirty minutes to hear my quarry calling. Closer and closer I crept, playing my recording of its call, until I got so adjacent I could practically hear the indrawing of breath the bird made prior to each series of calls. Yet still I could not see it. Twenty minutes this stand-off persisted, and I was practically weeping with frustration by the end. Any passing locals that morning might have been surprised to hear a loud volley of incomprehensible obscenities emanating from the bamboo as the Tapaculo finally got up and repaired to a different patch of the forest, leaving barely a trace of its shadow in the undergrowth for me to be able to say that I'd seen it. And then, just when I'd given up all hope, a second bird started calling from a much more open stand of bamboo and soon, within thirty seconds, I was watching this remarkable, Quail-like, forest-dweller calling back at me from a low, exposed perch—a sighting that lasted all of two minutes. And two minutes is a long time in a dense mountain forest.

Ocellated Tapaculo I wouldn't have expected the best photo of this species to be anything less than partially obscured. It's an extremely skulking crippler (photo: Jose Illanes, Tropical Birding)

Next stop: Bombuscaro; an area of subtropical forest within the borders of the huge, much under-explored Podocarpus National Park in southern Ecuador. I was disappointed to miss out on Short-tailed Antthrush here: they were supposed to be easier to see than the Barred Antthrush above, but despite hearing one or two birds singing a loud, bubbling song at close range, I couldn't get one out for a sighting. I also had frustratingly brief glimpses of Plain-backed Antpitta in the half-light three mornings in a row; but these two setbacks apart, the birding in general was very, very good. A pair of Torrent Ducks appeared right next to me one afternoon while I was swimming in the river—a widespread, though rarely common, species throughout the Andes—and my first Oilbird flew past a bright, full moon one evening (more on this species later). In all, I had over 40 new species here in just four days, but the bird I enjoyed above all was the Coppery-chested Jacamar: the first member of this classic South American family I'd seen, after a total of almost twelve weeks in a Neotropical environment. The Jacamars are a colourful family of medium-sized, Bee-eater-like birds: usually perching quite conspicuously in the open for long periods, often on a dead branch or tree snag. The Coppery-chested Jacamar—iridescent emerald green above, orange-rufous below; the 'coppery chest' is not so distinctive—happens to be a little more skulking than the norm. I flushed one from the side of the trail one afternoon and watched it for thirty minutes sitting quietly in the undergrowth. In a dazzling flash of wings it was gone.

Coppery-chested Jacamar my first member of this classic South American family was late in coming (photo: Sam Woods, Tropical Birding)

Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper is another exciting species to be looked for at Bombuscaro—a scarce and charismatic bird with an unusually patchy distribution across the whole of the South American continent. It is a skulking, streaky brown bird that should satisfy the 'little brown job' hunters among you. As the name implies, it inhabits wet areas within dense forests, and as I found to my cost over the first three days of my visit, it is an extremely shy, difficult-to-see bird. Even though it responded to a tape-recording of its song (a loud, rather Wood Warbler-like trill) it flew past me so quickly and disappeared, it could easily have been mistaken for a hummingbird! When I did get to see one, it was only because I was some distance from it, and I stumbled on it washing and preening in a small gap in the vegetation in a ravine down below. I must admit, although it stayed for a minute, I would still like a better view one day.

Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper occurs locally all the way from Venezuela to Argentina, but usually very hard to see (photo: Lee Dingain)

Continuing the journey, we bus down through southern Ecuador, towards the Peruvian border (stopping only to tick off Jocotoco Antpitta along the way). We cross a small footbridge into Peru, get our passports stamped, and the first bird we see in our new country is a male Vermillion Flycatcher. Welcome! I've seen very little of Vermillion Flycatcher in Ecuador (apart from my first in the centre of Quito) largely because the habitat they occupy is more open, and at a lower elevation than most areas I travelled through in that country. I was pleased to find it is a numerous species in Peru, even occurring around the massive city of Lima, the Peruvian capital. I am fascinated by a bird whose distribution extends all the way from central South America, all the way up to the southern United States—there are very few species of bird that do that—as well as by its stunning contrasts of black and crimson red. Even the females are attractive, in their confiding habits, perching out in the open, and with their lighter, strawberry-jam-coloured plumage. An unusual dark-phase form occurs in some populations, and I saw several, later on, on the coasts of Lima.

My first two weeks in northern Peru were spent largely in pursuit of hummingbirds and antpittas featured previously in BirdGuides articles, so I have little to add here. I spent a week living sparsely on a restaurant floor in the mountains, surrounded by excellent forest, and then moved down into the subtropical lowlands for a spell of R and R, and a wash and a clean-up. Here I encountered another species of jacamar—the Bluish-fronted—and several other tropical delights, such as Chestnut-eared Aracari, Swallow-wing, and Plumbeous Kite. One of the most beautiful birds at this elevation (500–1000 m), and quite numerous in small flocks, is the Paradise Tanager. On first perusal of the field guide, I thought it almost too gaudy, with its apple-green face, brilliant blue underparts, bright orange-and-yellow rump patch, but the reality of my first flock of half a dozen in the field brought a great feeling of satisfaction: a spectacularly colourful (and not uncommon) bird epitomizing the tropical and subtropical lowlands. The rare and skulking birds of a region are one thing, but the commoner everyday species that characterize an environment are, to me, no less important in the overall enjoyment of a trip. Having spent nearly all my time at an altitudinal zone around 2000 m, this brief excursion to 500 m, and my sighting of Paradise Tanager, afforded me a very brief taste of the many wonders of Amazonia—a region I wouldn't be covering on this trip, as I turned round and headed back into the Andes.

Climbing back over the Andes and down the Pacific coastal strip of northern Peru, it was seventeen hours in an overnight luxury coach to Lima. At the station in Lima I was met by a young lady whom I'd encountered in the forests of northern Peru, where she had been studying the rare and endangered Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey, only two hundred of which are known to exist in the wild. I was very glad to a have a native Peruvian guide me through the maze of this massive urban sprawl, and even better, to find one of her colleagues at the Peruvian Museum of Natural History had knowledge of where to find two sought-after birds around the nation's capital. One, Peruvian Thick-knee—six of which I saw—you can probably imagine because of its affinity with the Stone Curlew; the other was Many-coloured Rush Tyrant, a colourful little flycatcher that inhabits reedbeds all the way down from central Peru to southern Argentina. A photograph does it better justification than words...

Many-coloured Rush Tyrant (photo: Roberto Villablanca)

It was also pleasing to find that the Inca Tern is very common all the way along Peru's coastline, including around suburban Lima. I don't know why, but they looked from photographs as though they should be quite rare! This relatively large, all-dark-grey bird with its blood-red bill and unusual white moustachial feathers was yet another of my Top Ten 'must-see' birds at the start of my trip (though as you can probably tell by now, my Top Ten was in fact closer to a Top Fifty: that's South America for you). I first went looking for them on the Lima coast, not far from the city centre. I wandered through a posh suburban shopping centre and ended up gazing down at a vast sweep of the Pacific Ocean, a hundred feet below me. There, gliding about low above the misty waters, two dark grey forms materialized as my desired lifer: a couple of Inca Terns. They were too far off to really enjoy, but I reckoned if I could get down to that pier at the base of the cliffs, and along to that restaurant with all those pigeons on the roof, I might just get a closer view. Thirty minutes later, I'd negotiated a tricky, steep footpath, and I'd got to where I realized what I thought were forty or fifty Feral Pigeons were in fact forty or fifty Inca Terns loafing about the pier and the restaurant, allowing me picture-perfect views. Only I didn't have a camera with me; but my mate did when I took him back there a month later...

Inca Terns on the seafront at Miraflores, Lima, Peru. It was pleasing to find such an extraordinary bird to be so common (photo: Ian Puckrin)

Moving on south from Lima after a relaxing and indulgent four days, I journeyed to the seaside resort of Paracas, ten miles south of Pisco, the bustling fishing town that was destroyed by a large earthquake about a month after I'd been there. I say 'resort', but in actual fact Paracas consisted of no more than a few small hotels, and a dozen shops and restaurants selling local fare. Paracas is more popular than Pisco to the north (for the latter is said to be dangerous after dark) so it was here, for the first time in two months, that I encountered crowds of fellow gringo tourists. My first evening was quiet enough; it was when I stood in line for a boat trip to the Ballestas Islands next morning that I remembered I had arrived in peak gringo season. There were over 200 British and American 'dudes' festooned with cameras, as we were allotted half a dozen different vessels to take us on a two-hour leisurely 'cruise' around seabird cliffs littered with thousands upon thousands of Peruvian Boobies and Guanay Cormorants (a million pairs of seabirds are estimated to breed on the islands, 95% just these two species). There were much smaller numbers of the rare (and attractive, for its family) Red-legged Cormorant and Inca Terns also nesting on the guano-spattered cliffs, and most notably, about 30 Humboldt Penguins, low down on one of the few rocky shores. This last species (somewhat famously if you've watched one of Attenborough's programmes) is an oddity: a penguin occurring right next to the Equator, a niche it is able to fulfil thanks to the cold-water Humboldt current, which sweeps up from the tip of southern South America and washes up the western coast all the way to central Peru. It was a remarkable thing for me to be seeing such cold-water creatures within days of watching such subtropical Amazonian specialities as Paradise Tanager and various parrots and toucans (and hummingbirds) and it was a moment that underlined for me the unique ornithological wonder that is Peru.

Declining the opportunity to join the tourists to see the mysterious Nazca lines in the nearby town of the same name (but still enjoying a pleasant night in its tourist-friendly environment) I slowly began to make my way from sea-level to 3,800 metres, passing through some quite stunning changes of habitat along the way, and taking three days over it, rather than the 10-hour overnight special gringo tourist bus. Here, I believe, I encountered some of what I would call the 'real Peru'; the Peru of my imagination: arid deserts turning to grassy paramo; becoming cactus-festooned rocky canyons (replete with Giant Hummingbirds!), then spectacular snow-capped rocky peaks; llamas; alpacas; Andean Lapwings (and Geese) and bright-eyed, scruffy kids kicking tin cans down dusty little village streets. It was marvellous. I hadn't completely lost the birding bug, but for a week I took some time out: slowly making my way up to the much-vaunted, spectacular old Inca capital city of Cusco, some 3,750 metres up in the Andes. Here, would you believe, is a British-style 'pub', the Cross Keys Inn, run by an ex-pat British birder Barry Walker (who also happens to be Peru's highest 'lister' and owner of several wildlife tour companies specializing in trips to the spectacular Manu National Park in central Peru). At the Cross Keys Inn on the night of the 4th of July, I celebrated my fortieth birthday with Barry, and with Ian Puckrin, an old birding friend from Australia who had just arrived that very day to join me on what would be the most concentrated three weeks' birding of my entire trip.

Eschewing the Boddington's and Abbotts Ale on offer (almost 4,000 metres up in central Peru!), the author poses, much the worse for wear, after his fourth or fifth Pisco Sour of the evening, a delicious, but lethal local cocktail (photo: Ian Puckrin)

Ian and I hired a car and managed to do at least part of the drive into the Manu Wildlife Refuge. The Park boasts a list of around 1000 bird species (the highest for any National Park in the world) and encompasses an astonishing variety of habitat from bleak windswept, high-altitude grasslands, down through lush Andean cloud forest, subtropical rainforest, and Amazonian lowland forest. A journey into Manu would be a report all of its own, and I'm afraid I've already taken up too much of your time to go into any great detail about it here. Very briefly: Ian and I were able to cover only a small part of the reserve, driving and camping by the roadside; we were there at a relatively quiet time of the year, and birding wasn't always productive—a few highlights each day, some repeats of birds I'd encountered previously, and a number of birds—such as the Maracapata Spinetail I mentioned earlier—of interest mainly to the collector. Besides, it was the adventure and the companionship I enjoyed more at this stage of the trip—watching Fawlty Towers on Ian's iPod at 4000 metres while quaffing wine in the front seat of the car (whilst parked!) will always remain in my mind as a highlight.

Cooking by torchlight at the side of the Manu Road was an experience in itself (photo: Ian Puckrin)

It was the same when we flew to Lima and took a car through the Central Highway for a further ten days: many new bird names we encountered—Diademed Sandpiper-Plover aside—are just a blur in my mind. Birding every day for three months does sound ideal, but I was getting to that stage where I needed to get home to refuel and reflect. But there is just one final bird species I'd like to describe before I sign off.

I've already noted that I saw my first Oilbird by chance, flying past a full moon at eleven o'clock in the evening during my last nights in southern Ecuador. That was an interesting one-off encounter but I was keen to see more. The location maps for Oilbird show it spottily distributed from Central America to northern South America and, though not uncommon, it is reported as sometimes hard to find. That is unless one goes to one of its famous roosting sites, about half a dozen of which are known throughout Peru and Ecuador. The Oilbird roosts by day in caves, usually inside humid subtropical forest at 500–1500 m altitude. Here, too, they nest; sometimes in colonies of hundreds, occasionally in thousands. La Cueva de las Guacheras in central Peru is of the latter magnitude. Though it was a two-hour drive out of our way, and though both Ian and I had Oilbird on our 'list', I persuaded him to drive to the town of Tingo Maria at 500 metres so we could go and experience an Oilbird cave for ourselves. The name of this town is forever etched in the memories of the British 'world birding' populace, for it was here that two British birders were murdered in the late 1980s. At that time Peru was a dangerous and volatile place to be travelling through—it still is, in some regions—and Tingo Maria was an area under control by a group of infamous guerrillas calling themselves the Shining Path. It was my impression that it was this group that had been responsible for the murder of the two Brits, but I was told that in fact it was Native Indian landowners who had taken offence to birders trespassing on their land, and had dealt with the intruders in their own way. I'm still not entirely sure exactly where the attacks happened, but both Ian and I were supposing it was somewhere near the Oilbird cave. Still, we were reassured that the area had been pronounced safe to visit; ex-Peruvian president Fujimori had dealt swiftly and expediently with the Shining Path guerrillas soon after coming to power. All the same, you can imagine something of the pall that hung over us as we contemplated visiting the caves. As it happened, the town of Tingo Maria, like many lowland Peruvian towns, seemed entirely safe and carefree, lively and quite affluent. I was later warned, though, not to walk back alone from the Bird Reserve. The presence on the outskirts of town of heavily armed police officers guarding a checkpost hinted at some of the tensions that still lie under the surface with the local coca farmers who are similarly equipped.

But let us not detract from the experience that was seeing the Oilbirds. We arrived at the Park in mid-afternoon and stepped into this magnificent high-ceilinged cavern, two hundred metres from the entrance gate. I'd been thinking about visiting a big old cave for the past couple of years and hadn't got round to it, so this was a double delight: huge stalactites and stalagmites protruding jaggedly from roof and floor, and here I was inside the Earth for the first time in many a long year. We couldn't see them for fifteen minutes, but the smell and the noise of the Oilbirds was palpable all round. Once our eyes got used to the dark it was surprising how much we could actually see of the birds' forms against the dark walls of the cave up above. Occasionally, the odd bird would take off and flap across from one bit of wall to another, producing a raucous cackle of protest from the birds all around. Half an hour was enough inside the musty cave for Ian, and he drove off back to town, but I stayed on another hour and a half until dusk, and watched the most incredible spectacle of an estimated six thousand birds leaving the entrance to the cave at ten past six, right on sunset. Though there were three more days to go before my flight home, these were travelling days, and this, I reflected, was the finale to my birding adventures on the continent, at least for now.

Oilbird a strange, nocturnal fruit-eating creature, living in caves during the day (photo: Tropical Birding)

And so we come to the end of this three-month long, several-thousand-kilometre trek through Ecuador and Peru. Thanks once again to the photographers whose pictures enhance this report, especially the guys at Tropical Birding. I feel as though I have described a lot of birds to you in a short space of time, yet my actual 'list' of some 500 or so species is only a fraction of the total number of approximately 4000 species available on this bird-filled landmass. If you have been inspired to visit South America yourself, or even if you've just enjoyed experiencing some of its birds vicariously, I invite you to contact me at Britseye@googlemail.com. Hopefully next time I write it will be to eulogize some significant birding event on the Isles of Scilly. Watch this space.


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Written by: Graham Gordon