Mike Weedon joins a bird race in Peru, for a week of breakneck birding in this South American hotspot
The idea was insane. Bring together six, four-man teams of top bird researchers and tour leaders from five countries and set them up for six consecutive days of ‘bird racing’ against each other in Peru. And just for good measure, start the racing in the southern Amazonica region, then after a few days travel up into the Andes to finish racing around the legendary Machu Picchu. If that isn’t enough to break them, I don’t know what will. I’ve got it, let’s make the schedule extra gruelling and throw in more than a bit of sleep deprivation.
As a bit of birding theatre, it was exceptional, as the most enjoyable way to spend your birding time for a week in Peru, I have my doubts; and doubt most normal birdwatchers would choose this route to getting the most of South America. However, I must confess that I was not strictly a racing participant, so I will never really know. I was a hanger on, a birding journalist along to follow the whole caboodle.
But, as you may have guessed, I was not there to stroll around kicking up leaves on the rainforest floor and lounge around. I was there to get as much out of the wildlife experience of this incredibly rich country as I could. And as we journalists were on the same regimen of 3-4 hours sleep per night followed by a full day’s action, followed by another 3-4 hours’ rest if we were lucky, I was able to absorb much of the insanity of the inaugural Birding Rally Challenge.
Things were a little different at the start, when we all met in Lima and had inevitable introductory sessions and flesh pressing and a bit of birding at the Pacific coast near the capital. In addition to a good smattering of American waders, herons and ducks, some of the great birds on show were Many-coloured Rush-tyrant, Peruvian Thick-knee, White-tufted Grebe and Belcher’s Gull (a fine name for a bird). On the ridiculously rich sea, Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelicans passed constantly, a Peruvian Diving-petrel (which looks like a Little Auk) a new group for me, was sitting on the water, and a Peruvian (what else?) Tern was a rare find in the area.
And in the evening, a few us paid a visit to a traditional resting area for the amazing Inca Tern, a bird which looks like it was drawn by a child with a particularly vivid imagination.
But this action was just warm-up stuff, blowing the jetlag cobwebs off the binoculars and adjusting the optics of our eyes for South American birding. The real action was going to kick off once we had travelled another 500 or so miles south west to Puerto Maldonado and the wonderful Inkaterra Amazonica Lodge on the banks of the Rio Madre de Dios, near the Bolivian border.
We were staying in raised wooden huts in the beautiful grounds where agoutis (like large, smooth guinea pigs) trim the grass and the wooden paths are patrolled by large bright green-and-brown lizards, appropriately called Amazonian Race Runners. There are giant snails, bigger than your clenched fist, the trees resound to the polyphonic madness of dancing oropendolas and caciques (both types of icterid or New World oriole) and even before the 4.30am wake-up knock, the Grey-naped Wood Rails are calling so loud sleep is impossible.
To keep the official Birding Challenge as fair as possible, all the teams visited the same areas, but at different times or on different days. Our little band of hangers on were a little more flexible and followed similar, but not identical, routes.
Most of these consisted of a 5.30am boat trip along the mighty Rio Madre de Dios, watching early morning movements of parrots, oropendolas, hawks and herons until we reached one of various rainforest destinations, rich in life.
The forests are a delight, and for an ill-prepared newbie to the region, a head-spinning mass of sounds and shapes. There were brilliant blue butterflies, tiny, agile Squirrel Monkeys and birds of all shapes and sizes, from Great Black-hawk and Greater Ani to tiny hummingbirds. Among the highlights of our first morning were Chestnut-eared Aracari (a small toucan) and the crazy, crow-sized Amazonian Umbrellabird, though Long-billed Woodcreeper (like a treecreeper on Olympic-standard steroids) pushed them close.
Best of all for me, though, was a bird which sounds like a tortured donkey, roaring its terrifying bray from the treetops, before briefly flying out like an enormous, long-legged, black-and-white eagle. It was the Horned Screamer – a bird which looks half chicken, half vulture, half made-up bird, half turkey, half goose, and is probably related to ducks, geese and swans, though you wouldn’t guess it. To the teams, it was just another tick, but we were in the privileged position of being able to enjoy it. We able to use this to our advantage over the next couple of days. Our visit to the ox-bow lake at Sandoval started well enough with White-fronted Capuchins (monkeys) and a wonderful gathering of parrots including Blue-and-yellow Macaw in an old palm tree. But by the time we got in the canoe for the lake trip, the rain became absurd (and my Peruvian bird book has never really recovered). We were able to rectify the situation slightly in the afternoon at Inkaterra’s Concepcion site, with a couple of superb Sunbitterns, the striking Slender-billed Kite and more Hoatzins then we knew what to do with.
But we hadn’t got what we had come for on the ox-bow, so begged to have another go the next day, sacrificing a farmland birding site to do so. And, boy, was it worth it. After only a few minutes in our canoe on Sandoval, we spotted our prize splashing in the distance: a family group of seven Giant River Otters. We paddled up close and had the group fishing for piranhas around our boat, rolling and playing and coming up to breathe like squeaky, puffy, playful little long-necked whales – one of the most magical mammal encounters imaginable.
We spent the afternoon on a high, post-otter, but also on the canopy walkway at the Amazonica lodge, where a Curl-crested Aracari (a toucan with a curly haircut) paid us a visit.
The next day, after even less sleep than usual, the teams had the little matter of crossing the Andes to contend with. The Challenge rules were even more bizarre than usual: teams were allowed and encouraged to bird on the way, as they crossed altitudinal divides revealing more and more diversity of avifauna. However, we all had to arrive at the destination at a certain time (to catch a train), so only had a couple of hours total to be out of the vehicle actually watching birds.
Luckily, this tactical conundrum was of little concern to us hangers on, and we got on with enjoying the view, the thin air of altitude, the Mountain Caracara, Andean Flicker, Andean Gull, the colours of the mountain people’s clothes, the llamas...
We all took the night train journey to the little town at the base of the hill up to Machu Picchu, where we stayed at Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, in lovely hummingbird rich gardens by a classic Torrent Duck torrent.
The fabled lost city of Machu Picchu is, of course, one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. I wonder how many people have ever gone there for a bird race? This is what we were here for, and the breathless paths overlooking the magnificent ruins were surprisingly rich in birds – all different from the lowland rainforest bids of further east. There were White-tipped Swifts, Rusty Flowerpiercers, Green-and-white Hummingbirds, White-winged Black Tyrant... I could go on.
Back in the valley near the town, the birding was excellent and, as the teams struggled desperately to add a few more species to their totals, I went birding with the Challenge organiser Dennis Osorio, in the woods and gardens of the valley. It was a moment of peace, a chance to step away from the madness of the race, to take time and really enjoy the birds of this wonderful area. I was able to add many birds to my week’s ‘list’ (totalling close to a very respectable 300 birds, rather than the race-winners’ 500 or so). Highlights of a great walk included flocks of varied tanagers, the giant Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, the Blue-banded Toucanet and best of all, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, one of the iconic birds of South America.
Trumping even that, though, was a family of Spectacled Bears (mother and two cubs) feeding in treetops across the torrent from the hotel. The most competitive Birding Rally team even took the extreme course of spending a precious hour watching the bears, rather than ticking more birds. Of course, they were to use this time as their excuse why they eventually ‘lost’ by a handful of species. But, I sneakily suspect, it was a case of sanity breaking out in this most insane of all bird races.
Mike would like to thank the organisers of Birding Rally Challenge 2012, especially Dennis Osorio, and Inkaterra (inkaterra.com) for their exceptional hosting.