Today’s journey could have taken us an hour on the Central Peruvian highway but instead we headed for a big loop in the Andes that took us 14 hours. It was a monster day of travel but it was chosen that way so we could find all the special birds. And find birds, we did.
It was a day of classic roadside birding, stopping every few kilometers at suitable spots and simply walking along the road picking up species as we went. Our list count was a relatively modest 72 species but 63 of those were lifers for me. It was quite incredible.
We started our day at around 1200m and topped out at 4670m and then dropped down to San Mateo at 3040m.
The scenery was beyond compare. I’ve seen stuff like it but never on this scale. It was similar to a Sani Pass ascent but by a factor of 2 or 3 with the road cut impossibly along the sheer cliffs that fall a thousand meters or more into the tumbling Andean rivers. Jeanie would have died a thousand times over with her vertigo as, at times, the vehicle’s wheels were within a meter of the sheer cliff drop-offs.
Thick-billed Miner (endemic)
Peruvian Sheartail (endemic)
Great Inca-finch (endemic)
Great Inca-finch (endemic)
We had yet another phenomenal breakfast stop on a bridge over a huge chasm in the mountain. Julio is, without doubt, the best roadside chef on the planet. We had freshly cut fruit and fried egg sandwiches in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe the food just tastes better when accompanied by the rarefied air and the unmatched scenery.
Black-necked Woodpecker (endemic)
The birding stops were exhilarating. At every stop we had lifers whizzing around us and there were many times we didn’t know which one to look at.
West Peruvian Dove
Rusty-bellied Brush-finch (endemic)
The best stop of the day, however, came at a waterfall at 3800m in a habitat called polylepis forest. It’s not a forest in the traditional sense, but rather short stubby trees filling the gulleys that are filled with so many good birds. Birding at this altitude is no easy task as every upward step sucks all the air from your lungs, so we had many serious “hands on knees” moments where Juan or Alex would call us over for a good bird and we’d have to run up the slope to meet them.
The bird that made us pant the most was a thing called a White-cheeked Cotinga. Its range is entirely restricted to Polylepis at high altitude and Alex knows only two spots in Peru where it occurs. Even in those spots it is extremely rare and hard to find. But Alex has seldom let us down in the few days we’ve been with him and true to form he found one for us, with much high fiving that followed and the requisite breath recovery in between.
Speaking of Alex, his credentials are top notch. He’s my age and he’s officially the top birder in Peru. He’s seen 1708 species out of 1890 or so species in Peru. Last year he did a Peru big year in which he recorded 1400 species. Those are impressive numbers for those that may not necessarily understand the calibration.
I didn’t manage to get a photo of the White-cheeked Cotinga but a very close second to a photograph of the Cotinga was our first antpitta of the trip in the most atypical circumstances. The antpittas are amongst the shyest bird family on the planet but the Streak-headed Antpitta that we saw on the polylepis hillside was thrillingly showy.
We ended the day climbing to 4670m and ticked a decidedly rare hummingbird called a Black-breasted Hillstar and spend an endless amount of time at extreme altitude trying to spot a Puna Tinamou.
Black-breasted Hillstar (endemic)
Things then completely fell apart for me after that. It turns out that altitude sickness is really a thing. I was desperately nauseous and just wanted my mommy. We stopped for a vomit and then I was given oxygen. I know Jeanie is rolling her eyes at my hypochondria and that’s probably why I really wanted my mommy.
The oxygen helped a lot, as did the rapid descent to our hotel at around 3200m. It was delightfully oxygen-rich “down there” and I was able to get stuck into what has become my firm favourite Peruvian meal – Lomo Saltado – a stir fried sirloin with red peppers and onions served with rice and French fries. Things have to be bad for me to pass on something that good.
The worst bit is that we go straight back up there again tomorrow to look for our special bird. I’m dreading it already. The worst outcome for me is that we get all the way into position for one of my most wanted birds of my life and I feel so sick that I don’t really care if I see it or now.
All I do know is that I will be gorging on Garret’s concoction of altitude sickness tablets and taking my chances with the side effects.
- Total day birds: 72
- Total trip birds: 134
- Mike lifers: today – 63; total – 105
- Garret lifers: today – about 50; total – about 80 (he’s fast asleep so that’s as good as I can do.)
- Bird of the day: White-cheeked Cotinga
Click here for Day 4