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Birding Peru part 14 - Machu Picchu

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 

August 29, 2012 - A day at Machu Picchu

After our lunch in Cusco, we met up with our driver Charles again, at the Cusco Aranwa Boutique Hotel, where we stayed our first 2 nights in Cusco before the Amazon.  They also owned the resort we were staying at in Sacred Valley so Charles went there to wait for us.  As a side note, our entire trip to Peru was based around the 5 nights we booked at the Aranwa hotels.  We purchased a deal on Groupon that was about 50% off the 5 nights, and all the transfers between the two places and the airports.  Once we did that, everything else was planned around it.

Entry to Sacred Valley from the highway

The drive out of Cusco into Sacred Valley was surprisingly relaxing--and was the first leg of the trip to Machu Picchu.  Getting there is an adventure in itself, and in our case required two car rides, and a train ride--you can take one train form Cuzco that goes all the way there to simplify things.  In any event the scenery going into the Sacred Valley was amazing--the Andes rose straight to the skies above, some of the slopes from the valley floors seemed impossibly steep, and the mountains just towered over the tiny villages below.  It was only about 80 minutes driving to Huayllabamba along the Rio Vilcanota where our hotel was.  We were not staying here tonight but our train didn't leave for more than 4 hours, and the staff allowed us to hang out and relax on the grounds while we waited.

Stained Glass in the Aranwa Hotel Lobby, and Sam on the phone

We spent most of the time in their business center recharging cell phones, cameras, and iPads, as well as calling family to let them know we were alive and had survived the Amazon.  The time here flew by and we were soon on the road for a 45 minute drive up to the "end of the road" at Ollantaytambo.  Going to Machu Picchu this is the last train stop before the tracks follow the river  into the canyon and the tiny village of Aguas Calientes.  There is no road into Aguas Calientes, so the train is the quickest route there.  You can also hike in--but must hire a guide, and have a permit--I imagine this would be an amazing experience. Charles walked us to the station and where we needed to wait--he said goodbye and let us know he would meet us back here the following night.

We boarded the train for the 2 hour ride.  Sam slept most of the way while I stared out into the darkness--I had wanted to ride this in the day in hopes of seeing a few birds, but in the end just getting to Machu Picchu was more important.  The train arrived without issue, and we left with the masses of other tourists.  The scene when you leave the station is hectic.  Maybe 100 people standing outside the gates with signs for different hotels, and people arriving. It's a little overwhelming trying to find yours, but eventually we found a sign with our name. We followed the folks from the hotel on a 5 minute walk up through the streets of the town to our hotel.  After a few minutes we had our keys and retired to our room for the night.  Clean clothes, fresh showers, and a comfortable bed--it was like 5 stars compared to the Explorer's Inn.  We soon fell asleep, with a 4:30am wake up call to start our day at the ruins.

Sleep came easy and the phone ringing in the morning was an unwelcome sound--I could have slept all day.  We woke, packed our things for the day, and headed to the lobby for breakfast.  It was potentially one of the worst meals of the trip, and later in the day I didn't feel very good--attributing it to breakfast.  In the dark we left the hotel and made our way to a ticket station along the road for bus tickets.  As we stood waiting I heard a song I knew as a LYRE-TAILED NIGHTJAR wailed somewhere up in the canyon,  It was a bit away, but the distinct sound was hard to miss. Song below from Fabrice Schmitt on xeno-canto:
After getting our tickets we waited in a line with about 100 other people near the buses--finally they loaded, and we ended up in the 3rd bus. We were on our way up the mountain as it became light enough to appreciate the forest and cliffs surrounding us.  Up and up the buses climbed on switchbacks barely wide enough for one vehicle.  When another bus met us coming back form dropping off the first group, it was a game of back up and move over to make things work.  This happened coming down as well, and the drivers maneuvered like pros.

The drive up only takes about 30 minutes, and it goes by quickly.  We exited the bus and got in line with the others--this was it, we were here.  When they opened the gates the flood of early risers made their way in.  We were 2 of the first 100 people in this day, and after reading the plaques just inside the gates, we high tailed it up the trail towards the overlook of the ruins. It only takes about 10 minutes, and the view is unforgettable.  When you emerge from the trees onto the path below the guard house the view that awaits is awe inspiring--that is the only way to describe it...

Machu Picchu at first light

We probably spent the first hour up there taking pictures and just taking the whole scene in.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and we wanted to remember this forever.  It was overcast, but clouds were not covering the mountain.  The conditions were almost perfect for photography.  Of course I couldn't help but notice a few birds--the most obvious were the numerous BLUE-AND-WHITE SWALLOWS flying by and sitting on the tops of walls everywhere.  I spotted several GRAY-HOODED BUSH-TANAGERS and several times heard the raucous song of a SCARLET-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER.  I am not sure how common that species is here--I know it is seen at quite a few locations in the mountains nearby.

Sam was taking pictures with 3 different cameras... so was I...

We started to make our way through the ruins, taking time to take pictures, and admire how perfect the cuts on the rocks were.  It was just spectacular, and took several hours to go room to room from area to area.  An AMERICAN KESTREL came zipping by along the cliffs--and despite continually checking the surrounding ridges and skies, I never did seen an Andean Condor.  Swifts were everywhere zipping over the tops of the ridges.  We picked up ANDEAN SWIFT and WHITE-TIPPED SWIFT among the numerous CHESTNUT-COLLARED and WHITE-COLLARED SWIFTS.

White-tipped Swift seen above Machu Picchu

Eventually we made our way from the south end to the north  in a couple hours just as the clouds parted and the sun lit up everything.  I saw there were thick patches of Bamboo here so I pulled out my iPod.  This was the only time on the entire trip I used it, but knew it would make getting the endemic Inca Wren easy.  It only took about 20 seconds of playing the song and there were 3 or 4 INCA WRENS in the trees around me.  They moved quickly, but finally one popped out int he open.  My camera was giving me issues, but I managed to snap off one shot in manual and somehow it was in focus.

Bad photo I snapped of an endemic Inca Wren

I turned off my speaker and continued through the ruins.  We hiked back to the south to the exit and went to the small cafe to grab a drink and something to snack on.  We decided to head back in and up to the guard house for photos with the sun out.  It was well worth hiking back up as the sun made it even more scenic.

The ruins at Machu Picchu in mid-morning sun

A flock of SPECKLE-FACED PARROTS came flying along the ridge and through the trees, while an OCELLATED PICULET chattered from the forest.  I only saw one hummingbird up top--a GREEN-AND-WHITE HUMMINGBIRD that was a flyby.  By lunch time we had gone back through the ruins finding a couple things that we saw in the book that we missed earlier in the day.  By this point the place was swarming with tourists--probably 2,000-3,000 people were now here as the main tourist trains form Cusco arrived mid-morning.

Sam and I leaving Machu Picchu

If you ever go to Machu Picchu, get there the night before and take the early buses up the mountain.  It's worth it to explore before the groups show up and make it impossible to take pictures without having dozens of people in your shots.  The last thing we checked out was the "condor" before we headed for the buses...

"The Condor" at Machu Picchu

The bus ride down was quick and we were soon back in town.  We walked to a restaurant overlooking the Rio Urubamba and grabbed a table at the windows where we could see out while we ate.  Along with numerous BLACK PHOEBES we picked out several TORRENT TYRANNULETS, and a WHITE-THROATED TYRANNULET.  The swallows nested along the building here and came and went in swarms.  A TROPICAL KINGBIRD patrolled the other side of the river, and BLUE-AND-GRAY TANAGERS moved form tree to tree on the opposite hillside.  After eating we hiked the road back towards the ruins along the river and picked up WHITE-CAPPED DIPPER which was dwarfed by the boulders strewn in the river bed--some the size of small houses.

White-capped Dipper along the river on the Rio Urubamba

We kept looking for Torrent Ducks, Tiger-Herons, and anything else that might be along the river, but didn't see any on the hike out to the museum.  A pair of GOLDEN-CROWNED FLYCATCHER  did provide excellent looks along the railroad tracks though.

1/2 of a pair of Golden-crowned Flycatchers

At the museum there were quite a few birds in the gardens.  Numerous hummingbirds worked their ways through the tree tops, including: GREEN HERMIT, COLLARED INCA, GREAT SAPPHIREWING, WHITE-BELLIED HUMMINBGBIRD, and CHESTNUT-BREASTED CORONET.  There weren't a ton of songbirds here but a CINNAMON FLYCATCHER called several times from somewhere in the canopy.  The highlight of the gardens was without a doubt the SAFFRON-CROWNED TANAGER that posed for several seconds before flying off.

A gorgeous Saffron-crowned Tanager

After touring the small museum, we headed back towards town.  In the first stretch of tree we got into a good number of warblers, that included both SLATE-THROATED and SPECTACLED REDSTARTS as well as TROPICAL PARULAS.  A GOLDEN-OLIVE WOODPECKER  flew across the road and called several times form somewhere across the river.  Every time we came to a good vantage point we would look up and down the river for the ducks, but still had no luck.  As we walked around a curve I was scanning the cliffs for Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks when Sam asked if the birds standing on the rocks in the river was the Torrent Duck.  She was peering through the trees that I wouldn't have even looked through--and instead of finding a duck she spotted a FASCIATED TIGER-HERON--what an awesome find!

Sam spotted this Fasciated Tiger-Heron I would have missed

As we kept walking we added DUSKY-GREEN OROPENDOLA making a racket form a perch on the other side of the river.  We ran into several birders who didn't speak any English--bummer.  Then we ran into two more folks, one who clearly was decked out as an "American Bird Watcher".  Multi-pocket jacket, khaki pants and matching bucket hat, tall hiking boots, and of course binoculars.  I asked what she was looking at as she stared across the river into the trees.  She responded with the name of some type of Orchid--I was a little thrown off as she was clearly a birder.  So I asked, "are you a birder?".  To which I go the most ridiculous answer--I kid you not, "well no, I am a Biologist!" she said as if calling her a birder was an insult.  I mentioned that when you see someone looking in the trees with binoculars, the first thought is, bird watcher, to which she responded, "well I do watch birds."  I didn't even know what to say--talk about a round about way of getting to the point.

The only Dusky-green Oropendola we saw

In any event I was glad I talked to her, because she mentioned having just seen a cock-of-the-rock nest shown to here just back up the road.  She told me that one of the bus drivers there pointed it out to her, so it would be worth asking him.  I thought it was kind of cool but seeing a nest didn't compare to seeing the bird.  We made our way to where the bus driver was and after realizing that he did not understand the term "cock-of-the-rock", we finally managed to get on the same page about a bird nest by the river.  He pointed and explained where it was on the cliffs.  I put my binoculars up and scanned--to my surprise I found 2 blue eyes from a ruddy-brown-orange ANDEAN-COCK-OF-THE-ROCK female staring back at me--she was on the nest!

The unofficial bird of Peru--the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock

Sam couldn't believe I was freaking out about seeing a nest, when I offered her my binoculars to look.  She said she didn't care to see a nest and couldn't believe I thought it was so cool.  I about died laughing and said look, because the bird was there--ah, my goofy excitement was warranted.  I thanked the driver profusely, and we continued back towards town.  A HIGHLAND MOTMOT called from across the river, but I could never pick it out among the trees.  We walked out on an overlook to scan the water again and I spotted a speck up river on a rock.  I joked that it was probably the duck, but didn't think it was--I was pleasantly surprised when I brought my binoculars up and it was indeed a TORRENT DUCK.

Lifer Torrent Duck on the Rio Urubamba 

We had basically picked up every bird I had hoped for walking the river--with the exception of any other tanagers.  We made it back to town and headed to our hotel to get our bags.  We spent a couple hours relaxing, before it was time to catch our train back to Ollantaytambo.  We hit the shops on our way out of town, picking up a few souvenirs, and a couple water bottles to rehydrate. We boarded the train, and slept most of the way back.  Charles was waiting where he said he would be, and had us in the car on our way to the hotel again.  When we arrived we checked in, and then dove into bed--where we slept for almost 12 hours.

32 life birds today / 226 total trip life birds / 282 total trip birds
Photos from Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes on TimAveryBirding.com

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Anonymous Pat ODonnell said...

Nice pics of some cool birds. "Well no, I am a biologist"- that is hilarious!

October 23, 2012 at 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Was this your best day of birding in Peru? Looks like you saw a lot of great birds here.

October 31, 2012 at 8:06 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Pat Thanks! Yeah that cracked me up. My wife and I joked about it the rest of the walk back to town. I even went so far as to propose being a "Well no, I am a biologist" for Halloween. Good times.

@Mark: It was a pretty excellent day of birding. At the time I had no idea how many lifers I had actually seen. It didn't hit me till the following day when I was going back and entering the checklist in eBird that I realized it had been so good. I missed a lot of birds that are there, but can't complain with the amount of time I had.

I already know that when I go back (yes I said when not if) I will try to spend at least 2 if not 3 days just in Aguas Calientes so I can do some serious birding and photography!

October 31, 2012 at 8:16 AM  

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