Archive for February 2017

Central Peru part 7: the pelagic – 26th November 2016.   2 comments

This is the final post about the Central Peru tour I did in November 2016 and deals with the pelagic boat trip on the final day.

 

 

 

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Over the last 17 days we had followed this route clockwise from Lima. Now we were back at the capital for a final day of birding – not onshore but at sea on a pelagic trip 35 nautical miles (65 km) offshore.

 

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So early on the final day it was down to the docks ….

 

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…. to set off on our little open boat past the Peruvian Navy’s submarine ….

 

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and head out to sea ….

 

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As we passed the breakwater we saw a Hudsonian Whimbrel ….

 

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…. as well as several Surfbirds, a bird with one of the strangest non-breeding distributions on the planet, after leaving their Alaska/Yukon breeding grounds the entire population occupies a narrow intertidal band a few metres wide and 17,500 km long from Alaska to the Straits of Magellan. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo as the boat sped by so I used this shot by Marlin Harms from Wikipedia.

 

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Leaving the coast behind we headed towards the Islas Palominas ….

 

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…. passing sizeable flocks of Inca terns …

 

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…. and rocks covered with Peruvian Boobies.

 

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We spent some time at the Islas Palominas ….

 

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…. that held truly impressive numbers of South American Sea Lions.

 

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Many were hauled out on the rocks. The darker ones are still wet from their last swim.

 

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A small number of impressive bull sea lions were present.

 

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A boat load of people were in the water …

 

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…. swimming with the sea lions ….

 

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…. whilst undoubtedly a great experience for the swimmers, I’m sure it disturbs the sea lions, all the individuals on shore are alert and moving up the rocks (our boat is much further away and the photo was taken with a 1000mm telephoto setting) ….

 

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…. in addition taking swimmers into such heavy surf close to the rocks is the height of folly (I was H&S man at work and can’t help doing ‘risk assessments’, even now).

 

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Many other birds were seen including Peruvian Boobies, now much reduced in numbers compared to 30 years ago ….

 

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…. although still providing a spectacle as they fly back to the rocks …

 

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Once very common the boobies, like several other birds of the Humboldt Current, have seen catastrophic declines due to over fishing and climate change have all had an impact.

 

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Three species of cormorant were seen, the elegant Red-legged ….

 

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….Neotropic, which is more usually seen on freshwater lakes and the Guanay Cormorant, which although the commonest, was never seen close enough to photograph.

 

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Another ‘guanay’ bird is the Peruvian Pelican, a larger version of the more familiar Brown Pelican.

 

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For a centuries the droppings (guano) of all those cormorants and boobies was harvested for fertiliser apparently without harmful effects. However recently these ‘guanay’ birds particularly Guanay Cormorant have dropped markedly. On a similar trip in 1989 I recorded over 6000 Guanay Cormorants, this time we saw less than 1000. The major factors driving this decline seem to be the El Nino phenomena, climate change and overfishing. Here the loading platform and associated warehouses of the guano collectors can be seen.

 

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Other birds seen included the elegant Inca Tern ….

 

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… often seen in large tightly knit flocks.

 

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This lovely shot was taken by my friend and room-mate Steve Lowe.

 

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The cold waters of the Humboldt Current which flows up from the Antarctic has allowed a separate species of penguin to evolve off the coast of central South America, named (perhaps unsurprisingly) Humboldt Penguin.

 

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On the rocks were a number of Blackish Oystercatchers ….

 

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…. and the only passerine of the boat trip, Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes.

 

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Leaving the islands we headed out to deeper waters.

 

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On an earlier post I described Belcher’s Gull as being ‘inappropriately’ named. A friend pointed out that it wasn’t inappropriate as the species was named after an Mr Belcher, so perhaps I should have said ‘unfortunately’ named. The original Band-tailed Gull was split into two – the Atlantic Olrog’s Gull and the Pacific Belcher’s Gull. I suppose we should be grateful the Atlantic species wasn’t named after any other bodily function!

 

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We only saw a pair of the delicately plumaged and ‘appropriately’ named Grey Gull.

 

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Further out under the persistent grey clouds we saw our first Swallow-tailed Gulls.

 

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Swallow-tailed Gull breeds only on the Galapagos Islands (a location I have never visited). There are just two species of gull breeding on the Galapagos, the other – Lava Gull is one just of two gull species worldwide that I have never seen. The unusually large eyes must mean that it is adapted to foraging at night.

 

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The upper-winged pattern makes Swallow-tailed look like a large version of Sabine’s Gull (an Arctic breeding species that also winters in the Humboldt current). We also saw Sabine’s on the pelagic but due to the rocking motion of the boat the photos were too poor to use.

 

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Another gull we saw was Franklin’s Gull, named after legendary Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin whose expedition to discover the North-west Passage ended in such tragedy. The species breeds in the prairies of North America and winters in the Humboldt Current.

 

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The species occasionally turns up in the UK as a vagrant and I have seen it six times at home, all in Dorset or neighbouring Devon and Hampshire.

 

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A migrant from the opposite direction was this Chilean Skua which breeds in the far south of South America.

 

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Another migrant from the south was this White-chinned Petrel, the nearest breeding colonies are in the Falklands and South Georgia. Possibly not the best name for the species as the ‘white chin’ can be as little as a single white feather and can even be absent.

 

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But one of the highlights of this pelagic was the storm-petrels. We saw no fewer than six species, four of which were life birds for me. These are Elliots (or White-vented Storm Petrels). The only known breeding grounds of this bird are the Galapagos and some islets off north Chile.

 

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The diagnostic white vent and lower belly can be seen here, the pale panel in the underwing secondaries is best seen in the top photo.

 

IMG_5420 Wilson's SP

Wilson’s Storm-petrel is similar but much more widespread (the commonest seabird and possibly the commonest wild bird in the entire world, but we saw very few on this trip). It differs from Elliot’s by the lack of a white vent and a different flight action. I took this photo in the subantarctic in April 2016.

 

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I’ve been unable to conclusively identify the storm-petrel in this picture. It is in moult which the Elliot’s weren’t. I suppose it is a Wilson’s but I have never seen them looking this long-winged. The other four species we saw can be easily excluded by rump colouration/shape.

 

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From the small and crowded boat, and not having my DSLR with me, I found photographing fast-moving stormies to be very hard. The following three pictures (all of life birds) have been taken from external sources. Wedge-rumped Storm-petrel breeds mainly on the Galapagos but also along the coasts of Peru and Chile. Photo (taken from Wikipedia) by Brian Gratwicke

 

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Another life bird was Markham’s Storm-petrel, a large and dark stormie. Until recently its breeding grounds were unknown but colonies (underground burrows) have been found several Km inland in the Atacama Desert of Peru and Chile. This photo by Cock Reijnders was taken from Internet Bird Collection. I also saw the northern hemisphere Black Storm-petrel which is very like Markham’s but is smaller with a different flight action.

 

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The most striking stormie was Hornby’s (or Ringed Storm-petrel). Its breeding grounds have never been discovered but are thought to be in the Atacama Desert. Photo by Cock Reijnders taken from Internet Bird Collection.

 

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But the best bird of the day and one of the top five birds of the trip was this Waved Albatross ….

 

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This magnificent bird breeds only on the Galapagos and is one of four albatross species confined to the northern and central Pacific.

 

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Waved Albatross is the new last albatross species that I will ever see. I hope to do a blog post on my observations of the world’s albatrosses soon but I need to assemble the photos, some of which are on 35mm slides.

 

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After our return to Lima we had a quick look at this lagoon near the port.

 

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As well as expected species like this Snowy Egret ….

 

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…. Grey-hooded Gull….

 

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…. and this adult Belcher’s Gull ….

 

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…. there were thousands upon thousands of Franklin’s Gulls. Our estimates varied from 20,000 to 100,000 but I made do with the lower estimate.

 

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Franklin’s Gull can be distinguished from the similar but larger Laughing Gull in winter by the partial black hood and prominent eye crescents.

 

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The gulls were easily spooked by people getting to close ….

 

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…. but the resultant clouds were quite spectacular.

 

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Franklin’s Gulls are unusual in that they have a complete moult after breeding ( as most gulls do ) and then again in the wintering grounds (a moult strategy shared as far as I know only by Willow Warbler). That said most of these individuals don’t seem to have started the moult yet.

 

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This lad seems oblivious to spectacle behind him.

 

From here is was just a short drive to a hotel for a wash and brush up and then to the airport for the flight home. All my foreign trips are interesting and rewarding experiences but this trip was exceptional in many respects. Peru is one of the most interesting of all Neotropical countries and I hope to return for a fourth visit sometime in the future.

Central Peru part 6: Apaylla to San Mateo, Marcapomacocha and the Santa Eulania valley – 23rd-25th November 2016   3 comments

This post covers our final leg of the trip, back westwards to the continental divide and the descent to San Mateo with birding over the following two days at Marcapomacocha and the Santa Eulania Valley.

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Following on from the last post we climbed out of the humid subtropics and headed westwards towards the high Andes.

 

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Soon we were out of the cloud and back in puna grassland.

 

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Domesticated llamas replace sheep at these altitudes.

 

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Llamas were almost certainly domesticated from the Guanaco, whilst the wool bearing Alpaca originated from the Vicuña.

 

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A Variable Hawk watched us from a nearby ridge. Formerly treated as two species the lower elevation Red-backed Hawk and high elevation Puna Hawk; it was shown a decade or so ago that there were no consistent differences between the two and they were lumped under the name Variable Hawk. Back in 1989 as we climbed the Andes on my first visit to Peru, I asked the leader how you separated the two. ‘Easy’ was his reply, they are Red-backed before the lunch stop and Puna afterwards!

 

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It was a long, but scenic drive punctuated with birding stops but became easier as the latter part was on tarmac. However we did meet some serious congestion when we reached the Central Highway.

 

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We were running short of daylight when we reached the continental divide at Ticlio Pass at an altitude of 4828m but we did have a short stop at Ticlio Bog.

 

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In spite of the late hour we had good views of White-bellied Cinclodes, a critically endangered species restricted to a few high altitude bogs in Central Peru. (Photo taken the following day in good light). The world population may be as low as 50 pairs as the bogs are suffering from overgrazing, drying out – in the long term due to climate change (all are fed from glacial meltwater from glaciers that will eventually disappear) and in the short term, the effects of La Niña.

 

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We had to descend for about an hour to San Mateo for the night. The next morning we retraced our steps back up to the pass and along a side road. At least we didn’t have to be there for dawn as there is virtually no bird activity that early on at these altitudes.

 

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We soon started seeing cracking new birds like this Junin Canastero …

 

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… Dark-winged Miner …

 

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… and at the highest of the bogs – Andean Snipe …

 

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… and another couple of pairs of White-bellied Cinclodes. For a critically endangered bird they were remarkably easy to see.

 

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Dave, one of the participants, using a GPS to track our journey, declared that we were at 4898m asl. This was the highest I have ever been. However I realised that if I climbed two metres up this rock I could reach a nice round 4900m. I have often wished I could reach 5000m but there is no way I could climb a further 100m vertically. That said I had acclimatised and could walk about without the extreme shortage of breath and headaches that occurred at the start of the trip.

 

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The acclimatisation was to be put to good use as our next stop was the bog at Marcapomacocha.

 

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Whilst it was a couple of hundred metres lower than the Andean Snipe site we were to spend several hours jumping from one tussock to the next as we searched for our target species.

 

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The meltwater from the glacier spreads out forming this hillside of shallow puddles interspersed with tussocks and cushion plants.

 

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Of course there were common Andean wetland species like Andean Goose ….

 

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… and Puna Ibis …

 

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… whilst a Variable Hawk soared overhead.

 

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With all dark underparts this was a very different bird than the one we saw the yesterday (hence the name). With so much variation in all populations it is understandable that the two former species were lumped, but on altitude alone this one would certainly qualify as a ‘puna’ hawk.

 

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White-winged Duica Finches were common.

 

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Although the epithets ‘white-winged’ and ‘finch’ are self-explanatory, no-one seems to know the origin of the world ‘duica’.

 

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In the drier areas around the bog we saw several small groups of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, the third sneedsnipe species of the trip (the only other one White-bellied, is only found in the far south of South America).

 

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There were several species of ground-tyrant on the bog, the neotropical equivalent of the wheatears, this is a Cinereous Ground-tyrant. Had we come in the austral winter then the place would have been stacked with various ground-tyrant species as many migrate north from Patagonia seeking the comparatively mild conditions of the central Andes.

 

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After some searching we eventually found the main prize …

 

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… the exquisite Diademed Sandpiper Plover …

 

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… one of the most beautiful waders in the world. It has a wide range from Peru to Chile but occurs only sparsely in high altitude bogs. For me it tied with Junin Grebe as ‘bird of the trip’ but it only came fourth in the group-wide poll.

 

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With this gem securely under the belt we slowly descended to the Santa Eulania valley. On this dirt road it took several hours before we reached our next destination …

 

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…. there were many distractions both avian and scenic.

 

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Our driver Julio (L) and tour guide Eustace.

 

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In the late afternoon we slogged up this gully at an altitude of about 4000m into the dwarf scrub (we are now of course on the dry side of the Andes so there is no  temperate forest here).

 

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As well as common and familiar species like this House Wren ….

 

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…. we found the beautiful Pied-crested Tit-tyrant …

 

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… surely one of the cutest of the 436 strong tyrant-flycatcher family.

 

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A small flock of Spot-winged Pigeons was a surprise as they are mainly confined to the east slope of the Andes.

 

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Our main target was this Rusty-bellied Brushfinch which was a life bird for me.

 

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With the day drawing on it was time to head down to the town of Santa Eulania which at an altitude of a mere 1000m was a long way below.

 

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Driving down these narrow dirt roads in the dark was quite scary (these photos were taken of the same area the following day).

 

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I was at the back of the minibus and on the left so I could see directly down a 1000m or so to the river glinting in the moonlight.

 

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We also had a puncture but fortunately not on of the perilous hairpin bends. All of the staff seemed to have left the hotel leaving only a night-watchman so it was a bit of a Fawlty Towers situation. We ordered in pizza for our evening meal and ate it out on the lawn.

 

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The following morning we returned up the Santa Eulania road and took a side road to reach the other side of the valley.

 

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We spent a few hours birding an altitude of about 3000m.

 

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This Bronze-tailed Comet was a new bird for me as was the pretty, yet elusive Rufous-breasted Warbling Finch (but I didn’t get any photos of that one).

 

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Again there were plenty of common species around such as this Chiguanco Thrush.

 

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Lower down see saw this Pacific (aka Peruvian) Screech Owl.

 

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We descended still further and crossed the valley via this bridge.

 

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Views from the bridge in both directions were quite spectacular.

 

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From here we joined up with the road that we used last night and returned to the hotel. We packed up and had a leisurely lunch before heading off to Lima for our final night in Peru.

 

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….. but just before we left we had views of this female Peruvian Sheartail in the hotel garden – our last ‘quality’ land bird of the trip. Photo by tour participant Steve Lowe.

 

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The drive back into Lima was, as expected slow and tedious but we arrived at the hotel with plenty of time for a clean up and a repack.

 

The trip wasn’t quite over, as although our land birding was over we had another day before our evening flight home and that would involve a pelagic out on the Pacific Ocean. The subject (of course) of the next post.

Central Peru part 5: Lake Junin to Apaylla – 19th – 23rd November 2016   Leave a comment

This post covers our journey from Lake Junin across the puna and the descent (again) into the more humid eastern flank of the Andes, visiting several different valleys before heading back west towards the continental divide.

 

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To reach our next destination at Villa Rica we took a short-cut through the mountains, that way we hoped to avoid all the lorries crawling along the main road.

 

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It was well worth it as we had great views of these Vicuña, wild camelids of the puna grasslands.

 

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Vicuña wool is said to be the softest in the world and they were once almost hunted to extinction. Vicuñas are now well protected and have been reintroduced to parts of their native range.

 

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The short cut was going well until after an hour or more we found the road ahead was closed. There was a diversion but it was on more of a mule track than a road. In spite of some scary moments we made it through.

 

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The following day as we descended into the cloud forest again we realised that the bamboo had flowered recently and now was in seed. Various seedeaters were common and we even saw the nomadic Slaty Finch, although the equally nomadic Maroon-chested Ground Dove was a ‘heard only’.

 

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By lunch time we arrived at Ulcumana Lodge, a beautiful location in some charming subtropical forest. The forest here was similar to that at the Carpish Tunnel but was more extensive and less degraded.

 

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It would be worth the tour operators spending less time at the Carpish Tunnel and more here, but I would have hated to go home without the Orange-breasted Falcon under the belt that we only saw at Carpish.

 

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We saw many birds here but few were photographed, at least by me. Here is the diminutive Peruvian Tyrannulet ….

 

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…. and here the rather more impressive Golden-headed Quetzal. The best birds by far were seen at night, a magnificent Swallow-tailed Nightjar and also Cloud Forest Screech-owl a species new to the Birdquest Life List (which now must be approaching 10,100) Photos of both will be available on the Birdquest tour report once it has been uploaded to their web-site.

 

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We didn’t have enough time at the lodge as the next day we had to move on, on route we saw a whole new range of birds resulting in multiple ‘write-ins’ and I managed to photograph these oropendola nests if not the oropendolas themselves.

 

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On route we saw this Cliff Flycatcher ….

 

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The two adults were feeding a juvenile.

 

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The Cliff Flycatcher’s rufous flight feathers shows nicely in this shot.

 

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We descended further into the lowlands where even more ‘write-ins’ were added to our ever-growing list ….

 

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Blue-and-White Swallows were a familiar site although this young bird is neither very blue nor very white

 

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There are few hotels in this remote area and we spent the night in this basic accommodation, but as our evening  meal was prepared by our helpful drivers and they had a stock of cold beers in for us, it was no great hardship.

 

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The following day we headed for the nearby Upper Mantaro Valley, an area that has been neglected by birders yet has recently be shown to harbour several endemic species.

 

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Some of the first birds we saw were the widespread Andean Guan ….

 

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…. and Spectacled Whitestart

 

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The recently described Black-spectacled Brush Finch is a much more restricted ranged bird ….

 

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…. although I prefer the alternative name of Black-goggled Brush Finch.

 

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White-winged Black Tyrant is quite widespread ….

 

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….. but the ‘Mantaro’ Wren is a newly discovered (and possibly still undescribed) form of Plain-tailed Wren that almost certainly deserves specific status ….

 

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…. the lightly barred tail and paler grey head are some of the features that distinguish ‘Mantaro’ Wren from the highly disjunct Plain-tailed Wren. Photo by fellow tour participant  Steve Lowe.

 

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Other goodies in the Mantaro drainage included Eye-ringed Thistletail.

 

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One problem of using a bridge camera is that it is impossible to get a sharp focus if there is vegetation between you and the bird, but at least I got a record shot of this Creamy-crested Spinetail.

 

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We had good views of this Violet-fronted Starfrontlet (don’t hummers have the most marvellous names) ….

 

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The Peruvian form of this species may be split as Huanaco Starfrontlet (and indeed already has been by the Lynx/BLI Illustrated Checklist) the remaining population would the become a Bolivian endemic and be known as Bolivian Starfrontlet.

 

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In due course we left the Mantaro drainage and headed towards our stop for the night ….

 

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….  more basic accommodation, but the single bright light by the outside wash basin attracted a multitude of moths and I took many photos to send to moth-er  friends back home (the hyphen is essential otherwise moth enthusiasts become ‘mothers’).

 

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The next morning we had a field breakfast just as the sun was touching the high peaks.

 

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It certainly was a breakfast table with a view.

 

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These cecropia trees are typical of the subtropics, the low cloud and poor visibility is typical of the subtropics as well!

 

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A Broad-winged Hawk, a winter visitor from North America watched from a nearby branch.

 

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During the morning we slowly gained altitude and left the subtropical zone and the humid eastern slope of the Andes behind. From here we would cross the continental divide and descend towards Lima. That will be the subject of the next post.