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BIG MONTH IN PERU OCT 1-31. 1006 species!! (1 Viewer)

Birding Peru

Well-known member
Hi Everyone,

It has been a while since I logged onto Bird Forum, which is a quite a shame as the content here always rocks. Anyway, my birdwatching outfitter company in Peru turns 20 years this year so I thought I do something I had never done before. A BIG MONTH. There are many reasons for this, but mainly I wanted to do something different. Although the concept was sold as a trip punters could join, I was fast determined to do it regardless. In a way to see Peru one bird at the time over the 31 days of October 2018.

It is a crazy thing to do, the sure you could say that it does no good for the environment and the global warming. However, it is my belief that many areas in Peru suffer from rates of deforestation so fast, that a single birder travelling around with a carbon emitting fossil fuel engine, could actually highlight so many cool birding options for the general public, that many more areas could be saved, if only there was a few more eco-dollars flowing in.

So in spite of not doing a fundraiser, simply for the human limits of time constraint, I hope these posts will inspire more people to visit Peru and liaise with the local communities who are trying to save some remaining habitat.
20 years in Peru has given me quite unique knowledge in what is needed, and as I have done in the past, there may be some ideas for fundraisers for conservation when I am done with these posts.

Since the result of the whole shabang is already out there, I shall tell you.
1006 species on 31 days. Less, than I had expected but still a number I am extremely proud of. Shit happens when you are birding for so long.

Please forgive my faulty English as I will write here directly and no editing. English is not my native language, so I am sure there will be some things that could be said in another way. My good friend and Kolibri Expeditions co-worker Warren Latham shall edit these posts eventually, and also put out more information dense posts on my website blog where there will be some plugs. You are welcome to visit my blog for more info.

Big Month.

20 years ago, In 1998 I made Peru my home, and started Kolibri Expeditions. It would have beeen great to be able beat some record. We could perhaps have attempted to do a Big Day and get the record back to Peru, but after the jaw dropping number some dedicated birders got in Ecuador two years ago (431 species), it did not feel it would even be possible to get close.

So what about a Peru Big Year? I had the privilege to set up the Peru birding part of Noah Strycker’s record breaking Big Year around the globe in 2015 in which he got 6042 species. Quite a few birders have now done Big Years covering the whole world, countries, states or counties, birding intensely for a whole calendar year. In Peru it would be quite possible to do a Big Year reaching 1500 species. In fact Kolibri Expeditions's legendary bird guide - Alex Durand - is actually pursuing this for 2018. But for me, this would be far too time consuming and also a constraint on work and social life. So I figured a month would be something I could get away with and also something that I could perhaps get paying customers to join, at least for parts or for the whole thing, to celebrate Peru’s biodiversity with me.

Iain Campbell and Nick Athanas of Tropical Birding got 1674 species in a month visiting 9 countries. Surely this could be beat with a wide ranging trip including several continents, but costs would be extremely high and we’d unlikely get anyone to sign up for such a tour. So instead I concentrated on just one country - Peru.

How many species are possible to record by an individual or a party in one country for one month? In the 90s, before eBird and Facebook-friends, Paul Salaman organized a tour to Colombia for a month and got just over 1000 species. The biggest list for a tour over a calendar month was made by Rockjumper in Colombia in 2014 with Forrest Rowland leading and 1044 species. 

Could Peru beat Colombia for a big month?

Noah and I got 784 species in 21 days during the rainy season in Peru (not ideal) during Noah’s Big Year. Arjan Dwarshuis and Miguel Lezama got 1001 species in 24 days (not rainy season) the year after during Arjan’s new record breaking Big Year with 6848 species. 

Optimizing time of year, and keeping it within a 31 day month, I was setting my mind to crush the Big Month record for a tour to one country and get the record to where it belongs - Peru!

Here are some main thoughts how one should try to pull this off.

  • No checked-in luggage. In order to save time, everyone were traveling with just carry on luggage and a personal item on the flights. No time for check-in luggage and less time to stand waiting at the carousel for a bag. High tech clothing for fast laundry, mini telescope and tripod, point and shoot camera, will keep the luggage to a minimum. Furthermore, practically all our vehicles would have a larger spotting scope and tripod. 
And if you think it can’t be done - that is travel, with only a carry on for a month, this is what Noah Strycker packed for a full year birding https://www.audubon.org/news/gear-year around the world. 

    Even without checked in luggage, the regulations on what you can bring on board for many airlines are quite lax. You can actually have two “carry-ons” - one ordinary size cabin bag (height 55 cm) and one, so called, personal item (height 45 cm) and although the larger of the two should not weigh more than 8 kilos, I have rarely had any problems with this when flying well recognised LATAM airlines in Peru.
  • Scouting the Amazon. During the Southern section with Tambopata and Manu road, it is especially true for the lowlands that birds can be notoriously difficult to see. So during the Big Month, many Amazonian birds would be heard only. Obviously, this is not fun to someone who pays money to SEE birds. To remedy that, we did 4 full days of Amazon lowland birding before the actual start on Oct 1. So from Sep 27-Sep 30 we checked every birdable corner near Puerto Maldonado to maximize the list and stake out where our targets are for the start on October 1. 

  • Starting the Big Month with a Big Day on Oct 1.
    After 4 days of solid birding most species would have been seen in our surrounding, so we would start with a Big Day covering old Secondary lowland floodplain forest, some primary terra firme forest near Infierno, swamp forest known as aguajal, bamboo thickets, Moriche Palm swamps, lagoons, ponds, forest creeks, river, river island, pastures and savanna like habitat. This mix, will have far more species than just continuous Amazonian forest. The goal was to reach 300 species seen and heard by 1pm and fly to Cuzco at 1.40 pm. Between Cuzco and the top part of Manu road perhaps 40-50 species can be added, and putting the team in the range of a new Peru record. 

    Oh well, that was the plan, but to no surprise, we failed miserably!
  • Night travel: The the most efficient way to move from one birding spot to another with no particular birding in between, and without losing birding time, is by night. It is also of course the most efficient time to get some rest. The truly hard core birders are good at this combo. But it takes some practice. 

Naturally because of the reason I just mentioned there are a few night drives scheduled and most flights are in the evening. This means that we need to catch up on sleep as we move. In my experience this does put a lot of stress to the party, but this can be mitigated by knowing up front which sections are to be done at night (this was specified in the day to day program). We recommended to carry an inflatable neck pillow, sleeping mask, headphones with noise elimination, practice napping with the Pzizz app and Headspace for daily meditation. 

  • Birding celebrities are joining. The first part Sep 27-Oct 7 we got the company of South African top birder Trevor Hardaker for the southern part of the trip. Noah Strycker was with us from Oct 7-24 for all things north. Finally, well known Colombia Birding guide and social media king, Diego Calderon from the Colombia joined for the last Central Peru part Oct 26-Oct 31. 

    All were very generous sharing stuff as we went along and afterwards on the social media platform.
    Big Month.jpg
  • Paying clients. It cost money to have fun, so the idea was to have some clients who would pay to join us. In the end we had only a handful paying birders who made the budget somewhat more pinkish red, than flaming deep red proximity to bankruptcy. Huge thanks to Juha Autio, Geraint Langford, and Frank Smith for company in the field. You made a huge difference to be able to pull this off.

I was personally guiding throughout, and in many ways it was like running a marathon. There were sections when one just wanted to quit and enter the closest bar to get drunk, and curse the whole silly project as useless and pointless. At times it was not that much fun. I destroyed birding equipment and gadgets worth several thousands of dollars during the trip and I probably missed a few clients when not being connected to internet. Luckily, since this year the South African Warren Latham mentioned above does a lot of email correspondence for me and keeps in touch with the clients. Without him, and my trusty Kolibri Expeditions staff in Lima working logistics and bookings for clients such as BirdQuest when I was away, this would not have been possible at all.

Are you ready? Let's jump into it. Continuation follows.


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Big Day - sorta, on the Road to Hell. Day 1. Big Month

Oct 1, 2018. Puerto Maldonado-Cusco

Some days things do not go to plan. This was such a day. On the most important day, we could not put all the ducks in line for a perfect birding day.

Listen! A Zig Zag Heron had been calling practically all night but when we stood on the wooden bridge over the dry swamp at 00.02H, it was completely silent. How long were we going to give this enigmatic species to get it on to the list for the Big Day and the Big Month?

Two potoos (Great and Common) and several owls and tinamous responded one after the other, but after 45 minutes it was time to move on. 
A fast coffee, prepared by Lucho Tudela and his staff at EcoAventuras Lodge and getting our gear together we were off along the Cachuela road. Here I have always been able to get three different nightjars, but not this night.Total silence. None of Spot-tailed, Rufous or Little Nightjar called back to my playback. 
A great view of a Striped Owl was great compensation though. 

Yesterday, I had mentioned to Juha, Trevor and Geraint, that I may change the plan for the first day. I considered to go for the Crested Eagle an hour from Puerto Maldonado, which we had searched for on our own the day before, without finding the nest. But if we could get a guide showing us the actual tree, we may strike lucky. The mature floodplain forest there was high and seemed very diverse, so it could have been birdier than Saona. I had to give up this plan in the end as there was no guide who could show us the nesting tree of the Crested Eagle, so we just reverted back to the original plan of birding at the end of the road to Hell.

Night birding on Infierno Road.

Yes, Infierno means Hell. Apparently named so by the locals because of the immense number of mosquitos. In reality we did not see many mosquitos, but the road was a hell full of potholes and bumps. Additionally, we already knew it was hell of chiggers. For two days prior the start, Juha and I had walked the trails of Saona and the access trail , and we both got our fair share of chiggers. Juha even more than normal. We should have worn wellies from the first day here, since chiggers don't climb up rubber boat shafts. 

Regardless, we got some good night-birds, and managed to get some bits of micro sleep in the van in spite of the bumps.

Saona Lodge is owned by the Duran’s, brothers and sisters of our legendary guide Alex Duran. I have been there a few times over the years and always impressed by such complete ecosystem so close to the big city of Puerto Maldonado. It should be ideal to combine in a big day, had it not been for the horrendous condition of the road. It is also quite wild. We saw Red Howler Monkey, Large-headed Capuchin and Tippin’s Titi-Monkey in our short visit

I, and on my recce a week ago I also had a Pale-winged Trumpeter.
I had long planned for the perfect Big Day with Saona Lodge and trails being the core, combining with La Pastora, Cachuela and EcoAdventuras, and finally a flight to Cusco to add birds of the highlands.

Big Day planning is not easy. There are so many things that can go wrong. And today they did.
We missed three nightjars and the Zig Zag Heron. We did pick up a bonus in the observation fo a Silky-tailed Nightjar and we heard a Pheasant Cuckoo, so there was still some optimism.

It appeared, just before dawn that it was going to a day with overcast which would be the ideal, but the clouds took off in the wrong direction and soon the whole forest was under the glazing sun. And sun is the biggest enemy of Big Days. There was not as much vocal response and by 7 o'clock we only had some 80 species, with Bicolored Hawk, Great Jacamar and Black-capped Parakeet as the best birds.

Then it was back to La Cachuela, where the promised Purus and White-throated Jacamars would not show, before Trevor had to be back to the airport to check in his luggage and a slightly earlier flight than ours.

As the rest of us travelled light with no checked in luggage, we had a later departure and yet another hour to bird. Things picked up when we birded the Tilapia farm at the beginning of La Chachuela. We got Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Southern Lapwing and Brazilian Teal which likely would not be seen again in the month, so those were important. Also an out of place Wilson Phalarope, which seems to be very unusual for Puerto Maldonado and a Horned Screamer.

Just as we were about to leave and Juha approached the little creek to photograph the turtles that were sunbathing, a large dog charged at him and bit him in the arm. Yet another thing going fantastically wrong! Now we had to get Juha to a hospital for rabies shots.

We were off towards the airport with a stop at La Pastora, where Purus Jacamar were singing which made it countable for the Big Month, but impossible to see. Now we were in a hurry to the airport, only to find that our flight and Trevor's flight were delayed. 

We ended up in Cusco one hour behind schedule. Having to fit in a visit to Huacarpay and some more birding, and make a visit to the hospital we saw no other way than to cancel our reservation at Wayqecha, and stay overnight in Cusco.

Tomorrow would be a new day, and it would start at 3 AM with driving to Manu on famous Manu road. And the rabies shots had to wait until Pilcopata close to Villa Carmen where we shall be staying, as the Cusco private clinique did not have vaccine. 

Total after day 1: 162 species. 

Manic Birding on Manu road. Day 2.

October 2. Big Month Birding Peru, day 2.

Man, it was difficult to get up this morning! I set the alarm for 2:30 am, had a quick shower, and packed my small carry-on suitcase and my small backpack all in less than half hour. Luckily, when doing a big month and relying on only hand luggage, you can’t carry too much stuff and packing is easy.

Today awaited Manu road. One of the most species rich stretches of road in the world with a total bird list of over 1000. We drove the first, relatively species poor stretch, at night. The first bird of the morning, having past Huancarani was an Andean Tinamou on the roadside.

There is a new road under construction to the main town of Paucartambo and as can be expected the road signs were totally absent. We went down two wrong tracks only to have to turn around, but eventually we reached Acjanaco the gateway to the Manu National Park. Birds during the last part included Moustached and Black-throated Flowerpierces and a calling Puna Tapaculo, but no sign of Scribble-tailed Canastero.

The plan was to drive on beyond Amazon Conservation Association’s (ACA) Field Station/Lodge Wayqecha at 3000m, where we were supposed to have stayed the night before, and go straight on to the Red and White Antpitta site at Esperanza camp of ACA a bit lower down the road. The Antpitta was right there beside the trail in the first patch of bamboo. I didn't even have to play the tape.

Lower down in the Pillahuata area, we ran into a flock of White-collared Jay and Southern Mountain Casique, as well as Rufous-capped Thornbill and amazing views of Golden-headed Quetzal before we had a late breakfast by the side of the road. Another flock produced Slaty Tanager and Spotted Barbtail. At the Mirador over the Kosñipata valley we finally also got good views of Yungas Manakin.

We arrived to Pilcopata in the late afternoon to visit the local health care center. Juha did not get the shots yesterday, as the private hospital did not have the vaccine. We were directed to the regional hospital, but since it was late, and were also were told that the dog was OK, we opted to try to get the vaccine here in Pilcopata. It turned out, they were out of the vaccine here as well. In only two days we would be back in Cusco, so there would be time to go to the hospital then.

We spent the night in ACA’s other lodge on the Manu road - Villa Carmen. I had stayed here a couple of years ago, and I knew they had good bamboo. Now the lodge had been expanded with a new dining hall, and several new cabins, electricity, wifi, cold beers and everything a birder needs. For about 6 months, various tinamous and Amazonian Antpitta have been fed at the feeding stations for close up views. I did not want to miss the opportunity to have my group experience this. More birds - tomorrow.
Bamboo birds at Villa Carmen and Tapir and hummers and Amazonia Lodge

Day 3 Birding Peru Big Month. Villa Carmen and Amazonia Lodge.

For the last 30 years or, Amazonia Lodge has been the legendary last birding outpost on the Manu road, the gateway to the lowland Manu National Park, or the lowest most Amazon affinity turnaround point on the Manu road to see some of the Amazon birds and wildlife.

Lately, there is a new contender. Villa Carmen, which has been run by ACA for several years, and while previous little notice had been directed towards birders, now it is a whole different ball game. 

A few years ago, Laura Kammermeir did a consultancy gig for ACA putting together recommendations for their lodges to become more birder friendly. Laura asked me, and I think I pretty much cited the recommendations in a blogpost from 2011 on BirdingBlogs - How to niche an ecolodge into a birding lodge.

The main point was identifying the key species and make it easier for birders to see them. It is therefore very rewarding to see that this is exactly what Villa Carmen has done. There are now a feeding station for Amazonian Antpitta and other tinamous, including Black-capped Tinamou. So it worked.


I decided we should stay at Villa Carmen this time because of this. Does this mean that Amazonia has lost the game? Not really, Amazonia Lodge still boasts with the longest bird list of any ecolodge in the world with well over 600 species recorded. Rather than choosing between them, birding tours should try to include both.

Today, during our Big Month we visited both sites, as well as a short visit at the small lake Machu Wasi next to Salvacion village. 

Since it had rained a lot last night, the forest floor was more active than usual with slugs and bugs, and therefore it provided a assortment of food items for the Antpitta and the tinamous. Hence, they simply failed to show up. This shows, that one should probably allow for more than one night staying her to increase the chances.

Otherwise, the morning was great. We birded trail 7 which has lots of bambu and specialities such as Manu Antbird, Bamboo Antshrike and White-cheeked Tody Flycatcher.

At mid morning we made a stop at Machu Wasi Lake beyond Salvacion. This is a fairly new project run by the local community. They take you around basic balsa rafts, but one does get close and eye level with many birds. It is a great place for Hoatzin, Horned Screamer, Pale-eyed Blackbird and Black-capped Donacoius.

Back in Atalaya around a 3pm for a short stop at Amazonia Lodge. The feeders did not disappoint with Koepcke’s Hermit and several other hummers. And the little lake produced a TAPIR!!!! Almost totally submerged in the water. Only the head sticking up.
The species of the day was a mammal.

Total list on Day 3. 276 species and 49 additions.
Rabid rain in the rain forest.

Day 4. Big Month Birding Peru. Oct 4.

The plan for the way back to Cusco, around 200km with some 7 hours of driving, needed to be in place to be the most efficient. We planned stops in the bamboo of Chontachaca, near Quitacalzones bridge, the feeders at Cock of the Rock Lodge and lunch at 2 pm at Wayqecha, then continue to Cusco trying to get there in a decent time so we could finally get Juha his rabies shots.

The night had been quite cold for the rain forest, so when arriving at Chontachaca, we could see that we were going to get hit by rain any minute. But for once we were quite lucky. We got excellent views of the speciality Black-backed Tody-Tyrant before the rain set in. 

We also picked up Bamboo Foliage-gleaner. This species has three different names in English just to make sure that we do not forget it. It was originally known as Crested Foliage-gleaner in for example Birds of Colombia. Later Ridgely in seminal Birds of South America - Passerines choose a new name, as it is not particularly crested. It became the Dusky-cheeked Foliage gleaner, only to change name again to Bamboo Foliage-gleaner in a later Ridgely publication. It is in fact almost entirely associated with bamboo, why the latter name has stuck for IOC, while Clements/Ebird calls it Dusky-cheeked.

Best bird at Chontachaca was a bird that was seen rather quickly, as i played the call of Peruvian Recurvebill, it did a few fast flights over us never really allowing good views. A good bird to get on the list.

When the rain started pouring we seeked shelter to have our breakfast, and then continued to Cock of the Rock Lodge up the road. This famous lodge by InkaNatura is a pioneer in providing lodging for birders in the subtropics already in the mid 90:s. Birdwatchers wanted a place to stay where there is a totally different set of birds compared to the lowlands. I think it is fair to say, that birding was the “cutting edge” of the eco tourism in Manu. The first birders did not need many amenities as long as the birding was good. InkaNatura knew how to build an observation platform to watch the Cock-of-the-Rock lek and how to maintain a battery of hummingbird and fruit feeders. All the birders raved about the birding and the services and soon less hard core naturalists followed suit.

At the lodge we watched the feeders for a while and then went on a small walk around Monkey trail. We heard the song of Scaled Antpitta, but could not figure out where the song came from. Finally, we realized it sang above us, when it flushed and Trevor caught a glimpse of it.

At the clearing we saw a Bolivian Dwarf Squirrel, a Brown Agouti and several Brown Capuchin Monkey’s which were coming to raid the fruitfeeders.

We fitted in one more stop at Pacchayoc Bridge area with Chestnut-belted Chat-Tyrant, Gould’s Inca and Blue-banded Toucanet.

We had late lunch at ACA:s second lodge Wayqecha on Manu road in the low temperate zone at roughly 2900m and added Dark-faced Brush-Finch, also know as Black-faced Brush-Finch, also known as Gray-eared Brushfinch.… Take your pick!
So much for consistency in English bird names.

The rabies shot saga continued when we arrived in Cuzco. Juha and I, got dropped off at the regional hospital, only to learn that:
1. The vaccine is administered only in the morning.
2. All local health centers would have it.

So we could get the vaccine anywhere along our route tomorrow. Good news, as we would pass through four major villages tomorrow. Mollepata, Limatambo, Iscochaca and Ollantaytambo. Tomorrow, we were going to start at 3 AM start in order to try to fit in some owling in the Apurimac valley! Sounds familiar?

Total list after day 4: 316 species of which 32 were new.
Apurimac endemics - and the rabies saga continues.

Big Month Birding Peru. Day 5. Oct 5.

Up at 2:30 and off at 3 AM. Just another day - birding in the Andes. Our goal was the Apurimac drainage which has a number of endemics species. We arrived before break of dawn and soon got both Apurimac ssp of Koepcke’s Screech-Owl and Peruvian Pygmy-Owl, followed by Pale-tailed Canastero and White-eared Puffbird. Higher up, beyond Mollepata and the Sorayapampa plain, the Salcantay massive towered to the sky with immense glaciers. This beautiful areas is popular among hikers. One can hike from here to Machu Picchu over 4 days, and indeed there were hikers and dome shaped hotels everywhere. The route was popularized by Andean Lodges, who made agreements with local communities to build luxury lodges along the route, so that hikers who don’t fancy camping could have a comfortable trek. The previously poor communities along the route have bettered their living standards tremendously in the last 20 years.

We we here for the endemic birds, though. Next on the agenda were Apurimac Spinetail and Apurimac Brush-Finch, as well as White-tufted Sunbeam and Creamy-crested Canastero which gave us no problem, but the Vilcabamba Tapaculo on top, which called back, had to go down as heard only, in spite of spending well over 30 minutes to try to see it. For a Big Month also heard birds count.
Now it was time to get Juha to the hospital to see if he could get the first of several rabies shots. The health care center in Mollepata were out of vaccine so we carried on to Limatambo, and after some wait the doctor received us. He told us that there was vaccine, but the regulations was that if a treatment was initiated the patient would have to stay for the whole program of 5 shots over 3 weeks. Furthermore, if the dog is OK, there was really no need for treatment. We found out that the dog was still fine and showed no signs of rabies. Furthermore, the doctor said that rabies is quite rare in Peru.

The last part of the day we birded Laguna Huaypo wetlands with an assortment of Andean birds including Chilean Flamingo. Also a male Blue-winged Teal, which is a relatively uncommon migrant in Peru and nice to have on the list. 

We checked in at Hotel Munay Tika and had dinner across the street at the connected restaurant.

Total list after day 5: 350 species and 34 new ones.
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