August 25, 2012 - Morning at Huacarpay Lake
We booked a day in Cusco during the middle of our trip to do some sightseeing in the Incan Capitol, as well as give ourselves an opportunity to do laundry, and have a couple nights in a nice hotel before making our journey into the Amazon. the day we happened to choose couldn't have been better--it was sunny and warm the entire day, and we managed to visit most of the popular tourist spots in the historic district, with the exception of the Cathederal (they wouldn't let me in wearing shorts...). We visited Santo Domingo, which in Incan times was known as the "Golden Temple" before the Catholic Church turned it into a church after the conquistadors took over the empire. The grounds had a large garden section on what I believe is the east side of the building where I got brief glimpses at SPARKLING VIOLETEAR, my first GOLDEN-BILLED SALTADOR, and several BLUE-AND-YELLOW TANAGERS. Other than that, birding was not part of the schedule. Aside from the history, the San Pedro Market is a must visit for tourists in Cusco.
The market is where the locals buy most of their fresh meat, produce, etc. The outsides of the market are shops selling clothing, blankets, tourist items, and other goods. If you are looking for souvenirs, this can be the sole stop of your trip and you can find everything you want. A word of advice--don't buy anywhere near the entrances--ask how much tings are, then work your way in and away and you can almost 1/2 the price f certain things like hats and gloves. The center of the market is where all the wet, dry, and other food goods are located and the smell can be overwhelming--it didn't bother me at first, but on my second pass I almost lost it. And if you're squeamish, definitely don't walk down through the meats area, where pigs heads are a common sight.
In any event, Cusco is a fun city, and I was glad we had a day here to explore. The next morning we were up 5:00am so our driver and only professional birding guide of the trip could take us to Huacarpay Lake to the south of Cusco for a morning of birding before we flew into the Amazon. We packed our bags, and headed down for breakfast, I had french toast, pineapple, and tea--not knowing what I would be eating the next 3 days I made sure to eat something tasty. I was a little worried about the french toast after I started eating it, as it was a little wet inside--but since it was piping hot I didn't mind. Just as we finished our guide Miguel peaked his head around the corner into the restaurant--it was time to go. I met Miguel ironically through the Utah Birders Blog. He was working in Utah this past winter at one of the ski resorts and saw my posts about prepping for Peru. Thus we started talking and found out he would be in Peru in August. We worked out a deal to trade some design work for a morning of birding and voila! Check out Miguel's Facebook page to find out more about him--as a note, I would highly recommend him as a guide if you ever plan on going birding on your own in Peru. He has a fledgling guiding business and should have a website up soon!
We headed out through the city and into the country southward towards Huacarpay. The lake is one of the only birding sites located near Cusco which you can find any information about--it made it a must visit--the fact that the endemic Bearded Mountaineer was found here also helped.
When we first arrived we took a quick walk to a viewing blind on the edge of the water where most of the birds present were ones I had seen at Titcaca or Pantaos de Villa. I got better looks at WHITE-TUFTED GREBE, and could hear numerous MANY-COLORED RUSH-TYRANTS and WREN-LIKE RUSHBIRDS singing from various patches of reeds.
We headed back to the road and drove a couple hundred feet to a bend in the road and a hillside, as we were driving I spotted a WHITE-BROWED CHAT-TYRANT along the fence and we stopped to get out. There were birds everywhere. At a small ditch there were about 10 MOURNING SIERRA-FINCHES along with CHIGUANCO THRUSH and the ever present RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS. We worked on re finding the chat-tyrant, and soon found 2 birds working their way along the fence. One of my favorite birds of the day by far.
At one point I spotted a tiny rufous bird near the ground that I suspect was a STREAK-FRONTED THORNBIRD, but never did get great looks at it. An Eleania flew in that we ID'd as a White-crested Eleania. Looking at my photos later I wondered if it my actually have been a LESSER ELEANIA given the habitat. I never saw a white-crest like I had on that species in Costa Rica, but was not sure. While we watching the chat-tyrants on the hill I spotted a VARIABLE HAWK perched just a few feet up the hill from us. The bird had flown over earlier but I didn't pay much attention. I guess it had been on the hill a while because when I tried to show Sam she mentioned that she had seen it when we pointed it out a couple minutes earlier. I told her that we were pointing at a tiny black and white bird and not the hawk--she had seen the hawk instead.
We made our way along the road to a location where Miguel said he had seen Bearded Mountaineers in the past. He mentioned that it would be a lucky find if we did get one, but a nice consolation should be the Giant Hummingbird which is common, and the largest hummingbird in the world. The edges of the road had bushes with drooping yellow flowers--the bushes were called Tobacco Bush and were a favorite of the mountaineer. We made another stop where we could see down a slope--here a HOUSE WREN sang the entire time. A Ground-tyrant flushed right when we got there, and I finally relocated it out in the open a few minutes later. After a quick check of the guide it appeared this individual was a PUNA GROUND-TYRANT, my 3rd species of ground-tyrant during the week.
About this time a hummingbird came zipping by and landing on the top of a nearby bush--it was a BLACK-TAILED TRAINBEARER, a female with a much less impressive tail than that of her male counterpart. I was still excited for this very cool hummingbird. Miguel hollered at me to come to where he was--he had found a RUSTY-FRONTED CANASTERO, an endemic bird that did not like coming out of the cover of the bushes. I got a brief glimpse but wasn't satisfied--luckily Miguel found another one a little later that I was able to see and even get a crappy photo of.
From here we decided to walk the road while the driver watched a hillside where Miguel had seen a mountaineer recently. Along the road we saw more of the same birds, but also added BAND-TAILED SEEDEATER and PERUVIAN SIERRA-FINCH to the list. Lots of sparrows and thrushes were around, and a single CINEREOUS CONEBILL rounded out the birds along the way. We turned back being short on time, and still needing to look for the hummingbird as well as a few other birds. When we got back the driver alerted Miguel that a mountaineer had been coming in every 5 to 10 minutes to a certain bush. I chose a vantage point that would get me great looks if it came back in while Miguel hiked down the road. It was only a couple minutes when I could see Miguel waving his hands at me to come down the road to him--he had found the bird! I made may way back to the road and half walked-half jogged my way down to him He explained to me where the bird was and told me to walk towards it. I made my way to where I could see down off the road, and get my first glimpse of a lifer, and an incredible endemic--the BEARDED MOUNTAINEER!
It sat on a limb within 20' of me, and I made my way to the edge of the road where I could kneel and take a steady photo, I took a bunch then called Sam over to get a look at the amazing creature. It sat there for 10 minutes allowing me a great opportunity to really enjoy one of my top 25 species to see in Peru. It really was an excellent experience and Miguel's knowledge of the bird and the area made it happen. I can almost guarantee that I would not have seen this bird without his help. We got back in the car and kept going as time was running low for birding. We hadn't gone a 1/2 mile when right along the side of the road, 10' from the car we spotted another BEARDED MOUNTAINEER feeding in the Tobacco Bush! Unbelievable...
We watched and took photos--but my flash was messing things up for me. By the time I got everything set right the bird had had enough and flew off. It was still excellent to get to see one flying around and feeding where the other bird had sat still for 10 minutes. The irony perhaps is that we never did see a Giant Hummingbird--in fact we didn't even see one during our last couple days of the trip, even though it was supposedly fairly common. As we made our way through an open field I spotted a huge flock of GREENISH YELLOW-FINCH feeding nearby. Had I brought a scope and had the time it would have been worth spending a few minutes checking for other yellow-finches. Miguel had a scope but it was currently stuck on the Manu road with his wife who wasn't able to make it back due to issues with the road.
As we made it back to the last stretch of marsh before the highway we again hopped out and hiked along the road looking for any birds that might be out on the ground--I hoped for a negrito but here didn't seem to be anything around. After a short while Miguel spotted a black bird out in the reeds. It looked to be a Yellow-winged Blackbird, but I gave it a second look because it didn't seem quite right. Just then it flew, and I saw the orange back of an ANDEAN NEGRITO. The best part was t he bird flew towards u and actually landed somewhat closer allowing me to take a few pictures. A couple minutes later a second negrito--a female joined the male for side-by-side comparison of the two birds.
And just like that, our time at Huacarpay was over. We had to be at the airport by 10:00am for a noon flight to Puerto Maldonado and it would take about 45 minutes to get to the airport. The driver did an excellent job of getting us to the airport with plenty of time to spare--in fact we were the first people in line at the TACA counter for our tickets. We checked our bags and got our tickets after a 20 minute wait, then headed up to the gate to wait. About this time I started to feel a little ill. I ignored it as nerves and just waited for the flight, figuring I would be good as soon as we got on board. As noon approached they got the gate ready, and told us we had been delayed about 30 minutes. Finally they told us it was time to form a line to board so we did. Then just as we got in line and they were going to start taking tickets they announced our flight was CANCELED. Let the 24 hours of hell begin.
Like cattle they herded us back down to the ticket booth where they told us we would be booked with another airline. We were glad we were near the front of the line because we figured there wouldn't be a ton of available seats. After spending 15 minutes waiting with nothing happening, they told us we needed to go to another line--but now we were at the back of the line and after a couple of minutes they announced the only other flight was now full--we would not be going to Puerto Maldonado today. As a side note, if you do book travel within Peru, DO NOT FLY ON TACA AIRLINES. The major carrier here is LAN and we only had minor issues with them, but no cancellations! I wanted to scream and yell, our trip was planned out to the hour, and this completely through a kink into the most important 5 day stretch. As we spent the next 3 hours at the airport trying to figure out what was going to happen I felt worse and worse. Aside from dealing with a language barrier, a host of excuses for why our flight was canceled, and other misinformation I had a pretty good feeling that I had food poisoning--my guess was the "wet" french toast was the culprit. By the time we were rebooked for the next mornings 9:00am flight on a larger airline, and in a taxi to a "5 star hotel" for the night, all I wanted was to crawl into bed. The hotel was the Costa del Sol by Ramada (Costa del Sol means shi*t hole in Spanish--okay not quite but you'll see...), and was a block away from our previous hotel. I figured we would be good. But it only got worse...
After nearly an hours wait to even get a room because of all the rest of the passengers, they haul us into the basement, and finally a dark hallway that seemed to represent a different caliber of hotel than the "5 star" we were told. The room was atrocious... It was dated to late 80's early 90's from my best guess; it was cramped and had a tiny window facing a wall 4 feet away--it was bad compared to our previous nights, but would make do for me just crawling into bed for the night. Don't get me wrong--I don't need 5 star accommodations--I've lived out of a car during numerous summers, and for most of my twenties could afford no more than the cheapest of hotels--if a hotel at all. But being told that you are going to have "5 star" accommodations then being presented with something totally different just isn't okay. But it could be worse right? Well it only took 5 minutes to find that out when the toilet in the bathroom started leaking from the floor-absolutely disgusting. I stormed to the front desk and demanded to be taken to a different hotel--within 20 minutes we were checked in at a much nicer place a few miles away in a clean and modern room. I spent the rest of the day feeling like I was going to die, just hoping this wasn't going to carry over into the jungle. By 8pm I was fast asleep, hoping the next day would be better.
Looking back it could almost be called a gift that we were forced to stay the day in Cusco--I don't know if I could have done the dirt roads, the boat, and the humidity of the jungle feeling like I did--it sucked to miss an entire day of birding in the amazon and probably cost me 50 to 60 lifers. But that is life, and a valuable lesson was learned--always build in a day or two of buffer time for the important parts of a trip--you never know what's going to happen in foreign countries!
15 life birds these 2 days / 94 total trip life birds / 130 total trip birds
Photos from Cusco on TimAveryBirding.com
Photos from Huacarpay Lake on TimAveryBirding.com