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Birding Peru part 8 - Huacarpay Lake

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 

August 24, 2012 - Day in Cusco
August 25, 2012 - Morning at Huacarpay Lake

Downtown Cusco from the Golden Temple

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.

Locals shopping for fruit and vegetables at the San Pedro Market.

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.

Here's looking at you... A pigs head in the San Pedro Market.

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.

Huacarpay Lake is a must visit for birders who visit Cusco

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.

The best photo I managed of a White-tufted Grebe

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.

One of two White-browed Chat-Tyrants seen at the lake

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.

Variable Hawk just off the road at Huacarpay Lake

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.

Puna Ground-Tyrant - not a flashy bird, but still very cool

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.

The lone Black-tailed Trainbearer from the trip

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!

My lifer Bearded Mountaineer - what an epic hummingbird

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...

The 2nd Bearded Mountaineer we found posed nicely too

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.

Flock of Greenish Yellow-Finch gorging themselves

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.

The stunning male Andean Negrito

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

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Birding Peru part 7 - Puno to Cusco Bus

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, September 17, 2012 

August 23, 2012 - Bus ride from Puno to Cusco

We were up before 6:00am on our last morning in Puno.  We had a 7:00am bus to catch that would be taking us on a 10 hour ride to Cusco.  The ride doesn't actually take 10 hours--it's closer to 6, but the bus makes 5 stops at various archaeological and historical sites along the way.  The cost for the two of us was less than $100 combined, and it would give us a chance to drive through the Andes and see less inhabited places than we otherwise would.  Flights were also costing about $200 per person plus the cab we would have been about $30 to the airport--so all in all the Puno to Cusco Tour bus seemed like good alternative.  The only question was could my knees take that many hours in a bus?

The streets of Juliaca

We arrived at the bus station and were the first people there.  The tour bus looked very nice, similar to Le Bus but with a  laser green paint job.  After a short wait, the bus filled up and we were on our way towards Cusco.  I was intent on seeing birds out the window, so kept my binoculars in hand.  Until we got outside of Puno there wasn't much--but the drive to Juliaca turned out to be very productive.  The first bird I saw perched on a  tree just outside town was my lifer APLOMADO FALCON.  It was a brief look--as with the rest of my "drive-by-in-bus-birding" for the day, but it was still nice.  As we approached a large pond, I started scanning when a small flock of shorebirds flying over the water caught my attention--they were small and stocky, and appeared to be plovers--they were PUNA PLOVERS!  An extremely lucky find but not the luckiest of the day.  As the ride went on pas Juliaca MOUNTAIN CARACARA and ANDEAN LAPWING became prominent in the fields along the road.  PUNA TEAL and PUNA IBIS were also common site.  As we started our approach to our first stop of Pukara, a river came into view by the highway--my attention was now shifted to one of my top target birds of the trip--the only question was, would I be lucky enough to see a flamingo?

View of the Andes in the distance.

There were no flamingos before Pukara, where the driver maneuvered the bus into an alley I couldn't have imagined would fit the beast.  We made it to the town square where like most otters there was a cathedral, and here a lot of locals peddling nick knacks.  This stop was to go to a museum to view Incan artifacts.  I decided to leave my camera since we were going inside, and figured there would be no birds.  After a short walk we went  into the museum, and then came right out into a courtyard--great we were outside, and the singing RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS let me know there were definitely birds here.  It was only a few minutes before I noticed the first stocky yellow bird perched on the roof top.  It appeared to be a Yellow Finch species, and with a bright yellow rump, my best guess was BRIGHT-RUMPED YELLOW--FINCH.  Before I knew it there were 5 or 6 hopping around on the roof, and in the corners of the courtyard--dammit.  I could have taken some amazing shots.  Oh well, I figured I would see more during my trip--but in the end these were it.  Several BARE-FACED GROUND-DOVES perched on the roof as well, while a couple VARIABLE HAWKS could be seen soaring high over the town.  And scan as I might, I couldn't find a condor along the ridge lines.

As we left the museum several SPOT-WINGED DOVES flew past--their large white wing patches made for an easy ID.  I would see numerous during the day and ail to capture a picture--and as with the Yellow-finches I wouldn't get another opportunity to photograph them.  Back in the bus we made it back to the highway and were headed towards Cusco again.  The river came close to the road here, and made for easy scanning.  The occasional CATTLE EGRET was mixed in with the numerous PUNA IBIS on the river, which made up the majority of the birds.  We passed one large pond which had several YELLOW-BILLED PINTAIL along with number of PUNA TEAL.  Back to scanning the river I spotted the first of several ANDEAN GOOSE seen during the day.  As we came around a bend in the road, the river opened up to a wide stretch at an oxbow.  There along the sandbar at the edge of the creek was my prize for the day in 5 CHILEAN FLAMINGOS!  I watched in awe as the pale pink and white birds passed from window to window in the bus--and then it was over, less than 5 seconds of viewing and they were a thing of the past.  The damn tour bus...

Now I say Chilean Flamingos, only because they are the most likely species to encounter away from the extreme southwest part of the country--let's call it what it is and string along the exact species, based off this fact. Flamingo species on my life list just wouldn't cut it. It wasn't long and the bus came rolling into La Raya pass which sits at 4,338 meters above sea level--for those of us in America, that's just over 14,232' feet.

The mountains at the pass, and Sam & I posing at 14,000'.

Along the road here are various locals selling mostly products made from llama and alpaca fur. There were other souvenirs, but I passed as the prices seemed high compared to what I had seen in Puno.  I had also read that Cusco was a good place to pick that kind of stuff up because it was immensely cheap there.  We took a few pictures and admired the jagged peaks reaching up from the edge of the valley.  Impressive is the only way to describe the Andes.  As I walked to teh edge of an embankment overlooking a field I flushed a Ground-Tyrant from the rocks.  It took a minute to spot the creature again and ID my first TACZANOWSKI'S GROUND-TYRANT--say that one 3 times fast.  Other than the tyrant there were few birds at La Raya aside from a flock of PUNA IBIS and a few teal on a nearby pond.

Crappy digi-binoc'd photo of an Aplomado Falcon

It was only a 20 minute drive from the pass back down over almost 2,000' in elevation to where we had lunch at Sicuani.  The tour company provided a buffet lunch.  The food was alright, nothing to write home about--but the river behind the place would surely have a few birds.  After eating I headed out and found myself looking face to face with an APLOMADO FALCON perched on a pole in the field.  From here my attention turned to some bushes by the river where numerous RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS were hopping on the rocks.  Several BLUE-AND-YELLOW TANAGERS were flitting about in the bushes.  Despite this being a common species in Peru I would only see a handful in the coming week.  While I watched the tanagers a single YELLOW-BILLED TEAL flew past heading down river.  Numerous BROWN-BELLIED SWALLOWS could be seeing foraging out over the valley as well.

Yellow-billed Teal at Raqchi

It was soon back to the bus and continuing on our way to Cusco.  Our next stop were the ruins at Raqchi, which upon arrival looked impressive.  To be honest most of the ruins looked impressive the first week and we are glad we saw them.  Had we visited Machu Picchu first, none of these small sites really would have seemed all that special--everything pales in comparison.  I finally decided to grab my camera as we were going to have nearly an hour outside here.  There also appeared to be birds everywhere.  CHIGUANCO THRUSH were common, as were the RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS.  I got brief looks at my only GREAT THRUSH of the trip here, as well as a RUST-AND-YELLOW TANAGER.  As we sat and listened to the guide talk about a structure I spotted a beautiful VARIABLE HAWK circling nearby--it provided excellent photo ops.

Beautiful Veriable Hawk seen over Raqchi

AS we walked through the ruins 2 swifts appeared overhead.  I saw the white collar and assumed they were White-collared Swifts which are common in Peru.  I took a photo of one as it passed low just to have for the collection.  It wasn't until we were back on the bus and I was looking through my shots that I realized the collar didn't look right.  I pulled out the field guide and found a perfect match in the WHITE-CHESTED SWIFT.  This species is listed as poorly known in Peru, and ironically this sighting was the first in eBird for the country.

First White-chested Swift for Peru in eBird, seen at Raqchi

On the pond at the ruins were several dozen YELLOW-BILLED TEAL, as well as a couple COMMON GALLINULE, and PUNA IBIS.  An ANDEAN FLICKER called a couple times from a nearby hillside, rounding out my list for this stop.  Before getting back on the bus I took a couple minutes to corner and photograph a CHIGUANCO THRUSH.

Chiguanco Thrush at Raqchi

We made one final stop in a town with a name far to confusing to even try to write down--let alone pronounce.  Here we visited a church often called the "Sistine Chapel of South America".  It's painted ceiling was immaculate but they didn't allow any photos.  And despite a beautiful flowering tree outside, no hummingbirds were seen.  The rest of the bus ride took us past Huacarpay Lake where I would be birding in about 36 hours, and into Cusco.  After arriving at the bus station a taxi picked us up and drove right into the downtown historical district and our hotel.  The Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel was the nicest hotel of the trip, and to be honest the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at.  We booked it through Groupon and scored a killer deal which basically halved the price for this 5 star accommodation that otherwise I never would have stayed at.  After getting settled in we decided to walk over to the Plaza de Armas and check out the streets.  It was very nice and we felt extremely safe out here at night.  The whole area is extremely touristy and was a completely different atmosphere from Puno.  The fountain in the square was lit up and it was a beautiful night in the Incan capital.

Plaza de Armas during our first night in Cusco.

I went out on a limb and tried alpaca steak for dinner at our hotel.  It was actually pretty tasty, and now I could say I tried something different and exotic--guinea pig is a local delicacy and was on our radar for the following week.  After dinner we crashed in the most comfortable bed I slept in all trip.  It was nice to finally get a full nights sleep, with nothing but walking around Cusco on the agenda for the following day.

18 life birds today / 79 total trip life birds / 115 total trip birds
Photos from Sillustani on TimAveryBirding.com

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Birding Peru part 6 - Sillustani & Lago Umayo

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, September 12, 2012 

August 22, 2012 - Afternoon at Sillustani Ruins

Me checking out the shores of Lago Umayo. Photo by my lovely wife.

After the morning at Lake Titicaca and a short nap we were waiting in our hotel lobby for our guide to the Sillustani Ruins about 30 minutes from Puno.  A few minutes late he entered the hotel and told us to follow him.  We walked the 1/2 block to the town square where he was waiting at a combi bus/van that was packed to the brim with people.  This was not what we expected.  Realizing I had made a glaring mistake in not thinking to ask for a private guide and taxi, here we were squeezing into a van with 10 other tourists--most from a certain European country where deodorant isn't a popular item.  This wasn't going to work for birding.  The first cringe moment came when I spotted a CINEREOUS HARRIER just outside of town and there was no way to slow down and get a better look or take photos.  This wouldn't be the last cringe moment either--I was already regretting getting in the van, wishing I had said never mind, we'll find our own way there... But there was no turning back and all I could do is live with the decision.

I could have spent hours birding at Lago Umayo...

The drive out went fairly quick, and along with the harrier I saw numerous ANDEAN LAPWINGS, and a handful of PUNA TEAL.  When we arrived at Sillustani I wanted to walk the edge of the lake where there were 100's of birds including ANDEAN GULLS, numerous gallinules and coots, CRESTED DUCKS, RUDDY DUCKS, more teal and who knows what else.  The guide had a schedule and we were off hiking towards the ruins at too fast of a pace to look for birds--I was pissed.  Finally I fell behind to check out the first CHIGUANCO THRUSHES I had actually seen of the trip.  When I finally caught up to the group the guide was waiting for me to start talking.  He thought I had fallen behind the group because I was a big guy and says, "It's okay, the elevation makes it harder to hike."  I responded by saying I stopped to look at something.  I wanted to tell him to eff off but kept my cool and let him go on the first of several long winded stories about the site.  Don't get me wrong, I love history, I lover culture, and I think archeology is very interesting--but I hate being guided and given a textbook lesson on something.  I tuned him out and turned my attention to several ANDEAN LAPWINGS that flew in and landed on the hill below me--this would be my best photo opportunity now, and it wasn't nearly as great as the chance I had earlier in the day...

One of numerous Andean Lapwings seen at Sillustani

On we went to the next stop, which was a really cool flat piece of ground with 12 stones parked at various points around the outer circle--it was a sun dial.  Okay that's actually pretty cool, and judging by the looks of things it was sometime after 3pm--the coolness lasted about 2 minutes and then he droned on.  This time it was over the top--he went on for about 20 minutes.  It took every ounce of my good angel telling me its okay and to relax, to keep me from telling him enough already.  Finally when he was ready to move up the hill, I moved to the front of the pack and walked up and right away from the group--I was done with his tour.  While the rest of the tourists including my poor wide stood on as he went on to the next talking point, I made may way across the hill at the top of the ruins after a dove I had seen flush.  I soon found my first BLACK-WINGED GROUND-DOVE which allowed me to walk almost right up to it for photos.

Black-winged Ground-Doves were common at this site

I spent 5 or so minutes on this bird when I saw the group moving on and Sam falling back.  I headed towards her when I heard some chattering above and looked up to see a flock of about 50 parakeets flying over--they were MOUNTAIN PARAKEETS, a species I thought I probably wouldn't get.  The field guide did however mention that they were fairly common in the Puna Grasslands near Lake Titicaca!

Flock of about 50 Mountain Parakeets over Sillustani

At the crest of the hill we finally got the full view of Lago Umayo--it was quite an impressive lake and absolutely an amazing place to take pictures.

Lago Umayo from the top of Sillustani Ruins

The guide started up again and then promptly told us we had 10 minutes to explore before hiking back to the bottom.  I was furious.  Here we had wasted an hour making our way to the top of the ruins while you tell us innocuous bullshit.  Meanwhile when we actually get to the area that is worth exploring you give us 10 minutes--this was absurd.  I stormed off and immediately  flushed a tiny drab gray bird.  When it landed on a  near by rock I knew it was a Ground-Tyrant, but was unsure of which species.   I snapped a few pictures and tried to note any interesting features--the only thing that really stood out was the lower mandible had a pale base.  Lucky for me that one field mark was all I needed to identify the SPOT-BILLED GROUND-TYRANT.

This Spot-billed Ground Tyrant was extremely cooperative

I wandered around the ruins admiring the funerary towers--that is what the ruins here consisted of--5 to 6 large towers where royalty were buried.  There were several smaller "pots" and other landmarks, but the towers were what made Sillustani a tourist attraction.  Some chattering above me caught my attention and several BLACK SISKIN made a pass over the hill and down one of the slopes.  The guide started to gather  everyone up for the trek down.  What was I going to miss up here?  What else could I find with an hour to explore?  Why didn't we hire a private guide?  I really blew it here.

Sam with the tour group overlooking Lago Umayo

We hiked back down to the small village  where the locals were peddling hats, shirts, scarfs, and numerous other items made of alpaca fur.  The stuff here was pretty high priced, but we managed to talk one person down to $6 in American for a nicer quality traditional hat than what you can find in most shops around the country.  Back at the van I flushed a small flock of BLACK-WINGED GROUND-DOVES, and several ANDEAN SWALLOWS were now circling overhead.

Several of the funerary towers at Sillustani

As we headed back towards Puno the van made a stop at a small house on the side of the highway where they were going to show us how they raised guinea pigs, and mad ea number of local food staples.  But as we approached I noticed a ditch on the side of the road with several birds in it.  So as the rest of the group toured the house, I headed to the ditch to check out the birds.  The first bird I located was a CREAM-WINGED CINCLODES that was working around in a puddle.

A Cream-winged Cinclodes near Sullistani

On the opposite side of the road were a handful of ASH-BREASTED SIERRA FINCHES that are one of the most drab plain looking birds I have ever seen.  As I walked along the ditch I flushed 3 GOLDEN-SPOTTED GROUND-DOVES, and simultaneously spotted a WHITE-WINGED CINCLODES siting on the other bank.  This stop was quickly turning into the best birding stop of the trip.

A small flock of dull Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches provided great looks.

Out the corner of my eye I caught something flying and found myself staring at a BURROWING OWL landing on the top of a pole a few hundred feet away.  After spending about ten minutes checking the finches for anything different and going back and forth between the ditches, I moved back towards the house figuring I would give it a quick look.  Just as I was about to head in I heard a strange clicking and caught glimpse of a dove landing on a boulder on the opposite side of the road.  As I found it in my binoculars I about jumped for joy as it was a BARE-FACED GROUND-DOVE.  I snagged all 3 of the species found in Puna Grasslands within 30 minutes of one another.

A Bare-faced Ground-Dove completed the ground-dove trifecta!

After a quick walk through the house and meeting up with the group we were back in the van headed back towards Puno.  Not once, but twice we passed pairs of MOUNTAIN CARACARA within 50 feet of the road.  I could do nothing but scream on the inside as the van sped back to the city.  I had seen a nice number of life birds today between the two lakes, but had missed opportunities for 20-30 other species that more time would have allowed.  Originally in our plans I had thought we would hire a driver to drive us out around the lake and back to town--I had no idea we would end up on that bus with 10 other tourists like we did.  You live and you learn though--we couldn't change our guide and tour situation for this trip, but any future trips would have much more careful planning in that arena!  The day ended in Puno with another Pizza at Pizzeria Andina and us packing our bags for the 10 hour bus ride to Cuzco the next day.

12 life birds this afternoon / 61 total trip life birds / 96 total trip birds
Photos from Sillustani on TimAveryBirding.com

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Birding Peru part 5 - Lake Titicaca

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 

August 22, 2012 - Morning at Lake Titicaca

When I awoke at 5:00am the streets were silent.  The only sound I could hear outside was the whistling of a singing CHIGUANCO THRUSH--it was nice to recognize a song before ever hearing it in the wild.  After going back to sleep for a bit, we both got up, and had breakfast at the hotel before our taxi arrived to take us to the docks at the lake--this morning we were going to the Uros Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca.

Uros Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca

The drive to the docks was quick, maybe only 10 minutes and that was because we stopped to pick up two other people also going on a tour.  Once there we walked about a block through the streets then to the end of the dock. After a short wait for others int he tour group to arrive they finally led us down to one of the 100's of boats tied up along the single pier.  It was like a traffic jam in Times Square. I wanted to ride up top so I could watch birds as we went, but they forced everyone inside the boat so they could tell us the history of the islands, and the rules, etc.  I pulled my binoculars out of my bag, so I could at least try to watch from inside.  As the boat pulled away it wasn't long until I spied my first lifer from the water as a GIANT COOT stood out on a reed bed near several Common Gallinules.  It truly was a monster in comparison to the tinier relative.  I madly scanned the edges of the reeds and the open water in desperate search for the near endemic flightless grebe found here.  There were plenty of SLATE-COLORED COOTS and a few ANDEAN GULLS, and after about 5  minutes of looking there was the prize.  It's not a stunning bird, nothing noteworthy about the looks, but the TITICACA GREBE is only found on this lake, and I felt lucky to catch a glimpse as the boat motored on without a single other person noticing the bird.

Andean Gull flying over Lake Titicaca

Son we entered the reed-bordered waterway that led to the islands.  Here the bird life began to pick up.  Along with the coots and gallinules were now handfuls of PUNA TEAL.  More ANDEAN GULLS were flying around and my first YELLOW-WINGED BLACKBIRDS coursed across the canal ahead of the boat.  As we approached an opening to a large portion of lake there were 100's of tiny white birds on the water--I thought there is no way these are phalarope--but they were indeed WILSON'S PHALAROPE spinning on the water and standing on the edges of reed beds where they could.  I still can't get over how weird it is seeing  a bird that possibly could have migrated through Utah a month earlier thousands of miles to the south on another continent.

A few of 100's of Wilson's Phalarope seen here

The boat ride took less than 30 minutes and we soon entered a larger waterway lined with small reed-constructed islands with tiny huts on them.  One thing I noticed is that 90% of the people we saw living here were women.  I wondered how many of the men were either hidden way in houses, or out working as part of the tours, or where they actually were. As they docked us against one of the island it became evident rather quickly that the people did not live on this island--or any of the islands with viewing distance up and down the canal.

Local woman working on a textile.

Each island had tour boats docked at them, and I would imagine every island had the same show and dance prepared for visitors.  First they have you sit and listen to how the islands are constructed.  They then show you tools, food, hunting techniques, etc that are supposed to be how the people of the islands live. They introduced the "president" of the island we were on--he was wearing mostly modern western wear, but had a traditional hat and a vest on.  Meanwhile the local women sat to the side working on "making" textiles, while several small children sat around chewing on reeds from the lake.

Cute local child chewing on a lake reed

After the show-and-tell they give everyone a reed to taste--it was like bland celery, and not something I would want to really eat again.

Me giving the reed a try

Then the women grab tourists and get them to follow them to huts around the tiny island and show them the inside--they try to dress the women up in the native wear, which was pretty funny to watch.  After that, they drag you back to a line of blankets covered with necklaces, bowls, textiles, hats, and other tourist-popular items.  At this point they turn into hardened sales-people who expect you to buy something and if you don't actually get upset at you.  All the while the president is walking around behind the women telling them what to say and do--or to make a deal if necessary.

The goods the locals were hard-selling the tourists!

We bought a couple small necklaces and a bowl just top say we did, before heading back to the boat to watch the rest of the charade from the side.

Sam enjoying the warm sun atop the boat

The whole thing was an elaborate production.  Beyond the islands in the reeds were shack with metal roofs, and solar panels.  These appeared to be where the locals actually lived.  The islands they spent the days on were for show.  Although it was a cool experience it felt a little too forced--and as expected modern day culture had made its way to even this place.  The solar panels ran TV's and DVD players in the shacks that had them.  The Adidas pants worn by the president was a  sure sign of the times.  Perhaps the strangest things was as we left the island, all the little kids and women lining up and singing "twinkle twinkle little star" in perfect English.  I guess it's a lot like going to an old west show in Yellowstone--the majority of the people who come to see it are going to be amused and enjoy it.  I think my expectations for what I was going to see weren't in line with the year we live in!

The shacks the local actually lived in, behind the reed-made huts.

Back to the boat  I climbed up top and figured I would make them tell me to get down before just going back inside--after all we were on Lake Titicaca and there were plenty of birds to be seen.

Plumbeous Rail and just a small portion of the loads of trash at the islands.

As we waited for our boat to get going I spotted a PLUMBEOUS RAIL picking through the reeds, and the trash on a nearby island.  The blackbirds kept coming in close allowing for some great photos. Every once in a while a MANY-COLORED RUSH-TYRANT or WREN-LIKE RUSHBIRD could be heard chattering in the dense patches of reeds.  The gulls circled overhead, while occasionally a PUNA TEAL or two would pass by.  When the boat finally pulled away I spotted several PUNA IBIS  along one of the island where there was no activity--why couldn't we have landed there!  Our boat made it's way to another island a couple hundred feet away where there was a small gift shop and restaurant.  Sam went down to take a look while I kept watching the birds.  Across the canal I spotted a shorebird flying which I guessed was an ANDEAN LAPWING based off the wing-pattern.  I would see dozens in the coming weeks and confirm the wing pattern later.

One of a couple Giant Coots we saw here

It seemed like much longer but we had only been out a couple hours when the boat headed back towards the city.  Being up top made it a lot easier to watch for birds as we went.  Right away I spotted another GIANT COOT and managed to snap a few photos before we passed.  I caught a glimpse of a RUSHBIRD flying across the canal and snapped one shot before it disappeared into the thick--it's not a great shot, but the unique wings of the birds are easily visible and really stand out.

Wren-like Rushbird in flight

It seemed like there were less birds on the ride back, and it was probably true being almost noon.  Out the corner of my eye I caught a pair of ducks that didn't look like the common PUNA TEAL.  I got my binoculars on the bird and was excited to see they were CRESTED DUCKS.  Dipping over the reeds and out of view I didn't get to take a photo, but was happy I got to see them.  The large group of Phalarope were still out spinning around, and most of the same birds were seen on the way back in.  Try as I might I couldn't find another Titicaca Grebe, but did add WHITE-TUFTED GREBE before we were back to shore.  One of the most common ducks on the lake was the RUDDY DUCK.  The type found in Peru however has a completely black hooded, giving it the appearance of a completely different species from the ones we see here in the states.  I almost like these ones better...

The typical Ruddy Duck found in Peru

WE were soon back at the dock and making our way back to the street where taxis were waiting.  There is a large pond here next to the road covered in coots, gallinules, gulls, and ducks.  Had we had time I would have liked to have looked around a bit--but the tour guides were rushing us back to the road.  I did stop when an ANDEAN LAPWING took flight and caught my attention.  It landed on a culvert about 2 feet from a familiar shorebird from home--a WILLET.  I had packed my camera away but figured I would see plenty more for better photos later on--ironically although I did see plenty more, I never had a better photo opportunity than I would have right there.

One of many Puna Teal that flew by during the boat ride

After a quick ride back to the hotel we walked down the street to a bodega to grab a few water bottles and something to snack on--I grabbed a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup to get a peanut butter and chocolate fix!  We had a couple hours to relax so headed back to the hotel to rest before we made our way out to Sillustani and Lago Umayo in the afternoon.  Today was already far better than the the day before!

9 life birds this morning / 49 total trip life birds / 83 total trip birds
Photos from Lake Titicaca on TimAveryBirding.com

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