Day 9 – May 13 – Ollantaytambo to Cusco

For those of you that think birding is for sissies (which I hope is a small or non-existent minority) you would have been well served to accompany us today and you would have seen that birding is more like an adventure sport.

Today we went in search of one of the world’s rarest birds. We hiked 7kms, up and down a mountain, in zero-degree temperatures at 4300m.

It felt as though I was climbing Everest as every few steps we’d stop and I’d suck in as much air as I could before resuming the slow slog up the mountain. It was hardcore stuff.

But, in the meantime we’ll pause this bit and come back to it later. I’ll keep you in suspense as to the success or failure of our mission.

Our day started at the usual pre-dawn 5:30am departure. Jeanie will be pleased to hear that our two-night stop allowed for a bag of laundry, which meant my bag smelt less like a soggy towel and more like a fresh spring morning.

We ascended Abra Malaga (which means the Malaga Pass) for the second time in two days. This time, though, we made a few strategic stops on the ascending slope to mop up a few species that we hadn’t had time for yesterday. One of those species was an endemic, Junín Canastero, which thrilled me to the core but would have looked like the most arbitrary bird to most of you.

Andean Flicker

Andean Flicker

Junin Canastero

Paramo Pipit

We got to the top of Abra Malaga at around 7:30 and the weather was miserable. It wasn’t snowing, but you couldn’t see very far with the mist and it was freezing. Not for the first time on this trip, Juan made a great strategic decision. We’d save our hike for a little later and first attend to a few more birds in the cloud forests on the other side.

Yesterday we sought out two species of Antpitta, which are notoriously frustrating. Today, aside from that rare bird I’m keeping you in suspense for, Juan decided we’d target two birds in an equally frustrating family. Tapaculos are mostly little birds that look like furry balls with tiny little tails that they hold erect. Odd little things. They live in forests and dense thickets and hate to be seen.

Weirdly, Puna Tapaculo gave itself up far too easily but that’s because it is known to be the showiest of all tapaculos.  It is also unusual in that it occurs in the low, dry hillside scrub rather than in the damp forested steeper slopes.

The second one was a bird called Diademed Tapaculo. This thing is so impossible that during our prep for the trip we couldn’t find a single photo of it on the net.

Within a few minutes of arriving at another one of Alex and Juan’s secret sites, we got a response from a tangled thicket alongside a mountain stream. And, yes, you guessed it – Garret saw it straight away as Alex pointed to its position. My binoculars took three seconds longer to find it, at which time it had disappeared from the branch it was sitting on and dived undercover again. I may not have heard it, but I could feel the collective groan from my companions as I missed another bird, which meant they, more or less, had to start again for me. I also had to quell my jealousy but Alex came to the rescue once again, a few minutes later, as he spotted it as it popped out of the bush for long enough for my laggard eyes to get a fix on it. Sadly, I can report that there is still no easily available photo for this bird.

The cloud forest also delivered some really beautiful birds that we had not seen the day before in the same patches of forest. It just shows how diverse these forests are.

Amethyst-throated Sunangel

Tyrian Metaltail

Moustached Flowerpiercer

Moustached Flowerpiercer

Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager

Mountain Wren

Mountain Wren


So, what is this rare bird we were off to next?

Royal Cinclodes is a bird that lives exclusively in the weird stunted trees that you find in the extremely high reaches of the Andes. The habitat has a name – it’s called Polylepis and, up close, it’s quite beautiful as moss grows under the groves of trees and on the branches and stems. It’s where the Cinclodes picks up little morsels and it must be about as fussy an eater as one of my children, whose name I won’t mention, as it will not go anywhere other than these groves at more than 4000m plus.

The Polylepis has been systematically removed for firewood over the centuries in this cold climate and there are now believed to be fewer than 250 Royal Cinclodes remaining on the planet. Oddly, it isn’t endemic as there is one grove in which it occurs in Bolivia. There are only about four known localities and Abra Malaga was our accessible site.

As we huffed and puffed our way to the specific grove, I was thinking about my daily blog. I had one version where we saw the Royal Cinclodes and I had one version where we didn’t. Much like the Wimbledon finalist must prepare two speeches, depending on the outcome of the match, I needed two versions of this daily blog.

I would have to acknowledge that I had a far better prepared loser’s version as I was highly doubtful that we’d see it. Alex had missed it on two previous trips and I know a serious lister who was here last year and also missed.

So, now I’m scrambling for the right words as we actually managed to find a pair. Well, to be 100% accurate, Juan found the pair but I’m using the Royal “we” (that could be the worst pun of my blog series). Fortunately, when you do find them, they’re actually not that hard to see as they’re pretty big birds and they feed like thrushes amongst the mosses and tussocks. Nothing quite like the tapaculos and antpittas.

Royal Cinclodes

Royal Cinclodes

Royal Cinclodes

Royal Cinclodes

Royal Cinclodes

Non-birders will probably not understand the emotional excitement of seeing something like a Royal Cinclodes. We’d come so far and worked so flippin’ hard, so it was a mixture of exhilaration and relief. We didn’t go quite as far as an aerial chest bump on the side of that mountain (the binoculars usually get in the way and the altitude is always a limiting factor for celebrations that are too energetic) but we certainly celebrated with high fives all around as soon as the birds had disappeared.

Aside from the day’s highlight moment we saw quite a few other exciting birds on our way down the valley to meet Daniel at the car.

Mountain Caracara

Plumbeous Sierra-finch

Rufous-naped Ground-tyrant

White-browed Tit-spinetail (endemic)

Chiguanco Thrush

The rest of the day involved a very long drive back to Cusco, which included a lunch stop at a truly authentic Andean trout diner, a detour due to a strike in the town of Urubamba (of mazed streets and market fame) and a roadworks delay due to a landslide across the road.

I’m feeling absolutely shattered now, which is a combination of altitude and lack of sleep, so it’ll be early to bed for me. Tomorrow is another early start so Garret may need to carry me to the car. But there are more birds to be seen so I’ll be up and at ‘em as soon as it gets light.

Till tomorrow…

  • Total day birds: 60
  • Total trip birds: 301
  • Total trip endemics: 30
  • Mike day lifers: 19
  • Mike total lifers: 253
  • Garret day lifers: 12
  • Garret trip lifers: 185
  • Bird of the day (and bird of the trip): Royal Cinclodes

Click here for day 10