Day 10 | 14 May 2019 | Cusco to Andean Spirit Lodge

Morning all. A fraction of controversy on our choice of bird of the trip. It’s a brown job but it’s the rarest bird we’ll see and unless we discover a new species there’s little that’ll top it from a world significance perspective. But I do appreciate some feedback. Maybe I should post some more controversy to get a few more responses.

It was another 4:30am wake up for our 5am departure from Cusco, from where we travelled west to the Apurimac Valley. I have to admit that I had a wave of exhaustion wash over me at about 10am and when the guys shouted “Andean Tinamou” I nearly told them I’d be happy to just keep my eyes closed and give it a miss. The FOMO got my eyes open and on to it so I didn’t need to bemoan another bird that Garret had and I didn’t (there are, thankfully, only a handful).

The exhaustion is a combination of consistent pre-dawn wake-ups, the relentless pursuit of birds, the ongoing high altitude and the huge number of switchbacks we’ve driven around. This morning was also a relatively slow bird morning which also contributed. I snapped out of it with the Tinamou encounter and I pulled myself towards myself for the rest of the day.

The Apurimac Valley is about 50kms west of Cusco at a slightly lower altitude, but the surrounding mountains are just as high as the ones we’ve seen previously. It’s a stark contrast to the cloud forests from the last two days, being far drier and scrubbier. It was the first landscape on this trip that reminded me of the Cape mountains, particularly the dry Karoo near Robertson.

The reminiscent scenery must have got into my head as I could only hear South African birds at our first stop. There were Lesser Striped Swallows, Pin-tailed Whydahs, Karoo Prinias and Neddickys.

Of course there weren’t any of those, but it does help me to remember at least some of the calls by associating with South African birds. Don’t ask me, though, what the Peruvian match-ups were because I can’t remember other than the Pin-tailed Whydah which was a White-bellied Hummingbird. Clearly my method isn’t working very well.

We worked our way up another pass through switchback corners that were all tarred to make sure that cars can get through the steepness, stopping occasionally to pick up a few birds here and there. The ones we did see were pretty special and included the most attractive woodpecker I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

Pale-tailed Canastero

White-eared Puffbird

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

Pacific (“Apurimac”) Pygmy-owl

White-winged Black Tyrant

White-winged Black Tyrant

Creamy-crested Spinetail (endemic)

The afternoon was reserved for the Andean Condor viewpoint hike at the beautiful town of Chonta at about 3,700m. We both agreed that Chonta was the most authentically attractive town we’ve seen nestled on the side of the mountain, surrounded by verdant green hillsides and towering snow-covered Andean peaks. It was, however, a little like the town from the Andromeda Strain as we didn’t see a single person. Actually, that’s not true.  There was one pretty little Peruvian young lady who was the shop owner, tourist guide gate keeper and seemingly the only person that was immune to the virus that seemed to have wiped out the rest of the town. I hope you all know I’m being flippant here. Most of the population are out attending to their daily work, I guess.

There are two tourist sites in Peru to access soaring condors for photography and the most convenient one, for us, was the one at Chonta, as it looks down into the Apurimac Valley, which was where we’d be looking for two of Peru’s most localized endemics – the Apurimac Spinetail and the Apurimac Brush-Finch. In the end we found the Brush-Finch, just so we didn’t have the luxury of cancelling tomorrow’s birding for a lie-in, while we head out for the Spinetail.

Apurimac Brush-finch (endemic)

The hike to the viewpoint was undersold, with regard to time and strain. We assumed it’d be a one hour round trip but it turned into four. The 4.5km there and back reminded me a little of the Robberg hike in terms of terrain and distance but, obviously, there wasn’t an ocean to one side but rather the Apurimac River Valley.

It was a challenging up and down affair but well worth the effort especially since the condors were only three kilometers away and made them impossible to photograph. That’s clearly a bit of tongue in cheek but I’m just preparing you all for the disappointment of not seeing frame filling, eye popping condor shots.

It was a great fresh air experience, though, and we also managed the odd new bird here and there.

Slender-billed Miner

Tufted Tit-tyrant

White-collared Swift

White-throated Hawk

After yesterday’s vigorous Royal Cinclodes “Bird of the Trip” debate we had another one today. At the end of every day we discuss the bird of the day amongst the four of us. Today we had a range of very good birds so I did a little experiment. Some days the bird of the day is unquestionable but today I figured would be different.

As we sat in the little shop, tended by the pretty Peruvian lady, I asked my four companions what their bird of the day was. I included Daniel as well as he also carries around a pair of binoculars to see what we’re getting so excited about. This is how it went (and a photographic repeat of each one in case you don’t feel like scrolling up).

Alex – White-eared Puffbird (not endemic but very cool range restricted bird)

White-eared Puffbird

Juan – Slender-billed Miner (very hard to find Furnariid a la Royal Cinclodes but not nearly as rare)

Slender-billed Miner

Daniel – Peruvian Pygmy Owl (cute factor through the roof)

Peruvian Pygm-owl (Apurimac subspecies)

Garret – Apurimac Brush-Finch (opting for the only endemic we saw)

Apurimac Brush-finch (endemic)

Mike – Crimson-mantled Woodpecker (I’m a woodpecker fanatic and this one is the prettiest I’ve ever seen)

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

So, it just goes to show that birds of the day/trip are subject to a huge amount of personal preference and there are often more than one possibility. The irony is that we’re doing a night walk for owls shortly and if we see a Buff-fronted Owl the choice will be unanimous.

We’re now at a very beautiful lodge called Andean Spirit Lodge, which took some effort to get to on the most awful road. The bad news for my family is I don’t think we’ll ever get out as getting in was easy compared to getting out.

Night night.

  • Total day birds: 48
  • Total trip birds: 317
  • Total trip endemics: 31
  • Mike day lifers: 12
  • Mike total lifers: 265
  • Garret day lifers: 10
  • Garret trip lifers: 195
  • Bird of the day: White-eared Puffbird

Quick post scriptum to day 10.

We went owling last night. It’s a thing we do to really show how hardcore we are. After 12 hours of birding we forsake a quiet beer on a veranda and we head into the darkness with about a 4% chance of actually finding an owl.

Last night we got lucky and found a Koepcke’s Screech Owl after an hour of searching.

Koepcke’s Screech-owl

Koepcke’s Screech-owl

You would think that was good enough but, no, there was a Buff-fronted Owl that started winding up just as we were about to head for a late dinner.

We turned around and headed back into a thicket chasing the call. We were told by Alex and Juan to turn all lights off so it was interesting stuff trying to negotiate precipitous paths in darkness. Thank goodness it was nearly full moon.

We got to the calling owl and were about ten meters from it but, as we shone the torch, it ducked right and started heading further and further away.

Undeterred we followed it. Dinner was getting cold.

We ended up on a road just outside a house and were met by three large rabid dogs and an extremely drunk Peruvian, who first started shouting at us (which did the owl search no favours) and then he urinated right next to us. It was either time to laugh or to cry. We laughed.

We called it a day (or so I thought) and headed for dinner.

The offer was made for more owling after dinner but I declined. Another hour of searching for Garret yielded nothing so at least my FOMO was under control this morning.

Alex and Juan then spent another two hours and eventually saw it at 1:30am. I was delighted I wasn’t there.

Click here for day 11