Birding in Peru

Nov 15, 2017

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited on an intense birding trip to Southern Peru, whose purpose was to promote ecotourism and showcase the regions birding potential. Mission accomplished.

Peru is a country of 1800 bird species, a country where you fly into the coastal desert city of Lima, with nesting penguins and other cold water marine birds, only to find yourself, after a quick plane hop over the 20,000 foot spine of the Andes, in the hottest, wettest, most biodiverse jungles on the planet. The number of bird species is almost oppressive – even our local pro birding guides couldn’t identify them all, leaving us flipping through a field guide full of fictitious-sounding birds, like Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Horned Screamer.


Here we canoed among nearly six-foot long Giant River Otters as they munched on fish, were swarmed by tropical butterflies, and nearly stepped on a gorgeous Rainbow Boa as it crossed a trail. One afternoon we were suitably drenched and muddied on an hour-long hike through a tropical downpour, adding an air of authenticity to our rainforest experience not provided by our surprisingly upscale accommodations.


When you need a break from that relentless, wet heat of the Amazonian rainforest, you can swing up to more temperate Cusco, as we did, to visit the spectacular Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world. The ruins are nestled at 8000 feet among impossibly gorgeous, cloud forest-draped mountains dense with orchids, tanagers, and hummingbirds, and patrolled by the endangered and mysterious Spectacled Bear. Motmots, big, fluorescent blue and green birds with long, clock pendulum tails, might flop down on the trail in front of you at any time. Some of the dozens of hummingbird species you might see, like the Tyrian Metaltail, sound more like minor Game of Thrones characters.


For me, the excitement about a place like Peru comes from that feeling of being a little birder kid again, of waking up in a place where I have almost no idea what I’m hearing or seeing. Sometimes I saw 10 species in a row that I had never seen before, some I had never heard of. Many of the birds have no North American analog, adding to their exotic mystique, like antshrikes, antpittas, motmots, and tinamous.


But as much as I relish the torrent of colorful new species a trip like this can bring, I also enjoy encounters with birds from home spending their winter in a faraway land. Familiar North American land birds become scarce the further south you go in South America. But some of our most ambitious migrants can be found in the forests deep in Southern Peru, including Swainson’s Thrushes, which we encountered in both the lowland jungles and the cooler, high elevation cloud forests. One afternoon, as we hiked through riverine cloud forest near Machu Picchu, I was startled to hear a familiar sound from home in the form of a calling Broad-winged Hawk. This bird, now nestled at 7000 feet in the Andes for the winter, could have come from Cape Cod or Canada.


We even found an out-of-place pair of Sanderlings hanging out with Chilean Flamingoes on an Andean Lake at 12,000 feet. For me, this highlighted one of the unsolved mysteries of bird migration – why are some Sanderlings content to winter here on Cape Cod, while others feel the need to fly another 8000 miles to southern South America? The sciencey answer would be to say that they come from different subpopulations subject to different selective pressures during the evolution of their migrations. But the real answer is, I have no idea.


What I do know, is that I can’t wait to get back to Peru. I only have another 1300 species left to to see there.