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Birdwatching in Perú

Birdwatching in Perú
Andre Bartschi ©

Kosñipata Valley - Click to Enlarge
Alex Treptow/INKANATURA ©



Blue and Yellow Macaw with Scarlet Macaw - click to enlarge
Alex Treptow/INKANATURA ©



Jacomar - Click to Enlarge
Walter Wust ©



Flamingo - Click to Enlarge
Walter Wust ©


Manu, Paracas and Marcapomacocha are just a few of the many places that draw international birdwatchers to Peru.With more than twice as many species as the whole of North America, Peru is one of today's top birding destinations.

Peru is the number one country in the world for birds, and stands at the top of the international birder's agenda. Its varied geography and topography, and its wildernesses of so many different life zones, have endowed Peru with the greatest biodiversity and density of birds on earth (see accompanying story). About 1780 bird species exist in Peru, the highest list of any country; 18.5% of all bird species on earth, and 45% of all Neotropical birds. For ornithologists, it doesn't come more exciting than this eight species new to science have been discovered in recent years; four of them so new they have not yet been given scientific names.

Unlike other top-ranking Neotropical birding destinations, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, Peru has vast tracts of forest and wilderness untouched by civilization; two-thirds of the Manu Biosphere reserve, for example, is completely unexplored. If you are new to Neotropical birding, Peru's potential can be daunting; a four-week trip can produce over 1750 species, and some of the identifications can be tricky! Unfortunately, there is no single field-guide that covers all the birds of Peru, and some species are not illustrated anywhere. However, taking a combination of a few books (see Guide Sheet) will ensure that 90% of your sightings can be identified. All of Peru's birding sites cannot be covered in the space available here, but the following will give a taste of what this country has in store:

Paracas National Reserve

One of the most convenient and spectacular places to visit on arrival in Lima. About three hours south of the capital, Paracas is a paradise for inshore birds of the Humboldt Current. The Pisco marshes are crowded with herons and waders, and the surrounding grassy fields hold specialties such as Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, Tawny-throated Dotterel and Peruvian Thick-knee. On the adjacent rocky coastline of Lagunillas, surfbirds abound during the northern winter and Surf Cinclodes can be seen searching amongst the seaweed. The mudflats of Paracas Bay host thousands of North American waders, especially during the northern winter, and Chilean flamingoes during the northern summer. The nearby Ballestas islands are a nesting site for thousands of sea birds. Almost all of these are Humboldt Current species, and they include the dazzling Inca Tern and Peruvian Booby. During the boat ride, many pelagic (offshore) species are visable, including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters. This makes a great introduction to Peruvian birding. The local seafood is fantastic, too!

Lomas de Lachay National Reserve

About 90 kms. north of Lima, and a convenient place for a day-trip (e.g. while awaiting an evening international flight). This small reserve, holding several important species, is loma habitat, a typical form of vegetation which grows during the winter months by dew falling from the coastal fog banks. It is home to the endemic Raimondi's Yellow-finch and Thick-billed Miner.


An area of high Puna grass- and bog-land, about four hours drive east of Lima along the central highway. This is high-altitude birding at its extreme: a giddy 4,500 m.a.s.l. Take it easy here, and drink lots of fluids. Besides regular high Andean species such as ground-tyrants, seed-snipes and sierra-finches, the main reason for birding here is twofold: the Diademed Sandpiper, a rare, almost mythical wader of the mineral-rich marshes, and White-bellied Cinclodes, perhaps the prettiest and one of the rarest of the furnarids. With luck, both can be seen here. Other highlights include Giant Coot on the lake at Marcapomacocha, and the smart black-breasted Hillstar, a hummingbird endemic to Peru.

Along the Central Highway from the Marcapomacocha turn-off, the well-paved road continues another 120 kms. to Lake Junin, where, with prior arrangement, it is possible to hire a boat to see the endemic Junin Flightless Grebe. This lake is also a fantastic place to see all the highland water birds and raptors, and the surrounding fields abound with sierra-finches and ground-tyrants.

A further 180 kms. along the highway brings you to Huánuco. This is the base for exploring the Carpish Tunnel area. About one hour's drive northeast of Huánuco, the road passes through the Carpish range, and birding either side of the tunnel can be very productive. Powerful Woodpecker, Sickle-winged Guan and large mixed feeding flocks appear out of the mist in the epiphyte-laden cloud-forest.

Huascaran National Park

Situated in the central Andes, Huaráz (eight hours drive northeast of Lima) is the starting point for excursions. From here, it is possible to explore the more remote areas of the mountains, such as the lakes of Llanganuco, where, in the surrounding high Andean woodlands, many little-known and interesting birds can be seen. Here, a search may produce that rare mistletoe species, the White-cheeked Cotinga, or the endemic Plain-tailed Warbling Finch, whilst a check on the skyline will surely produce an Andean Condor soaring against the breathtaking backdrop of 6,000 ms. snow peaks. Three or four days in this area will provide a wide variety of both grassland and woodland species.

LakeChincocha in Llanganuco, Ancash
Lake Chincocha in Llanganuco, Ancash - Walter Wust ©

Chiclayo-Cajamarca Circuit

Starting at the coastal city of Chiclayo, a tough but rewarding trip can be made into the deep Marañon valley and its environs. On this route, some of the most sought-after and spectacular of Peru's birds can be found - legendary species such as the Marvellous Spatule-tail, Marañon Crescent-chest, Long-whiskered Owlet, and Buff-bridled Inca Finch, to name but a few. Many of the species on this circuit have been seen by only a handful of ornithologists.


From this city it is possible to visit a number of rainforest lodges. Some of these are very touristy, but nonetheless good for birding. Two lodges stand out above the rest: Explorama and ExplorNapo. These lodges are quite expensive but very comfortable. ExplorNapo has a canopy walkway, which is superb for observing tree-top birds. Both lodges are excellent for Amazon birds, especially for the many species that are not seen south of the Amazon River.

Machu Picchu & Abra Málaga

Most visitors to Peru visit the southeast of the country, attracted principally by the archaeological sites of the Inca civilization. The city of Cusco is the starting point for trips in this area for birder and non-birder alike. Nearby Machu Picchu is the major tourist destination - and a nightmare for lovers of peace and solitude. However, the bamboo stands surrounding the ruins provide excellent opportunities for seeing the Inca Wren! Also, a walk along the tracks near the railroad station can produce species which are difficult to see elsewhere; this is the place in Peru to see the White-capped Dipper and Torrent Duck.

From the town of Ollantaytambo, on the way to Machu Picchu, it is only two hours drive to one of the most accessible native polylepis woodlands in the Andes, whilst the humid temperate forest of Abra Málaga is only 45 minutes further on. In the polylepis, some very rare birds can be located without too much difficulty, including Royal Cinclodes and White-browed Tit-spinetail (the latter being one of the ten most endangered birds on earth). The humid temperate forest is laden with moss and bromeliads, and mixed species flocks of including multi-colored tanagers are common.

Manu Biosphere Reserve

This is probably the most pristine conservation unit in the world! The reserve itself is over half the size of Switzerland, and much of it is completely unexplored. Uncontacted Amazonian peoples still inhabit the upper reaches of Manu's forest. The variety of birds is astounding; the reserve holds over 1,000 species significantly more than the whole of Costa Rica and over one tenth of all the birds on earth. Large mammals such as Jaguar, Giant Otter and Andean Bear also exist at maximum population levels. Access to Manu is strictly limited, and only authorized operators can take visitors into the reserved zone. However, there are adjacent areas where one can see all the Manu bird specialties and an astounding variety of other wildlife. A typical trip into Manu starts in Cusco and takes you to the wetlands at nearby Huacarpay, where a variety of Andean waterfowl and marsh birds are abundant. Here the endemic and beautiful Bearded Mountaineer Hummingbird can be seen feeding on tree tobacco. Then the route proceeds to the cloud forest of the eastern Andean slopes. Trees are continuous from the treeline at 3,300 ms.a.s.l. down in to the Amazon basin, and on to the borders of Brazil and Bolivia. Driving slowly down through the cloud forest, every 500 ms. loss of elevation produces new birds. This is the home of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. A visit to one of their leks (courtship sites) is one of the world's great ornithological spectacles. There are also two species of quetzal here; in fact, these humid montane forests are home to a mind-boggling variety of multi-colored birds; a mixed flock of tanagers, honeycreepers and conebills can turn any tree into a Christmas Tree!

The last forested foothills of the Andes level out into the upper tropical zone, a forest habitat that elsewhere has disappeared, to be replaced by tea, coffee and coca plantations. In Manu the forest is intact, and special birds such as the Amazonian Umbrellabird, and Blueheaded and Military Macaws can be found. A good base for upper tropical birding and an introduction to lowland Amazon species is the Amazonia Lodge, on the Alto Madre de Dios river, about 9 hours drive from Cusco, without birding stops. From here, transport is by river. The beaches are packed with nesting birds in the dry season; Large-billed terns scream at passing boats and Orinoco Geese watch warily from the shore. Huge colonies of Sand-colored Nighthawks roost and nest on the hot sand.

As you leave the foothills and reach the untouched forests of the western Amazon, you enter jungle with the highest-density of birdlife per square km. on earth. But beware sometimes it seems as if there are fewer birds than in a European woodland; only strange calls betray their presence until a mixed flock comes through, containing an astonishing 70-plus species; or a brightly colored group of, say, Rock Parakeets dashes out of a fruiting tree. For the birder who craves the mysterious and rare, this is the place.

This forest has produced the highest day-list ever recorded on earth, and it holds such little-seen gems as Black-faced Cotinga and Rufous-fronted Ant-thrush. Antbirds and furnarids creep in the foliage and give tantalizing glimpses until, eventually, they reveal themselves in a shaft of sunlight. To get to this forest is difficult and expensive, but the experience is well worth it.

A trip to Manu is one of the ultimate birding experiences, and topping it off with a visit to a macaw lick is a great way to finish; hundreds of brightly colored macaws and other parrots congregate to eat the clay essential to their digestion in one of the world's great wildlife spectacles.

Tambopata-Candamo Reserved Zone

This area is accessible via the Tambopata river. A number of jungle lodges offer excellent lowland rainforest birding, providing a reasonable alternative for those who do not have the time or money to visit Manu.


The best birding route is the road to Laguna Salinas, a large salt lake which regularly holds three species of Flamingo (Chilean, Andean and Puna). Andean Avocet and Puna plover are also common here. Between Arequipa and the lake, birding the polyepis-clad slopes and arid scrub can produce various earthcreepers and canasteros not found elsewhere, and this is one of only two locations for the Tamarugo Conebill. A highlight of this region is the Cruz del Condor, at the end of a long, dusty drive from Arequipa into the Colca, the world's deepest canyon. This viewpoint overlooks a spot where condors roost and in the mornings they soar upwards on the thermals, passing startled observers at point blank range.

Common Eagle, Buteo polyosoma, overlooking Colca Canyon
Aguila, Buteo polyosoma, sobre el cañón del Colca  Walter Wust ©

This is a just brief look at some of the birding hotspots of Peru. There are many more. Some are easy and cheap to reach, some are difficult and expensive, but there is something for everyone. A great three to four-week combination is about 16 days in Manu, then two or three days in the highlands at Abra Mlaga and two or three days at Huascarán National Park. A trip into the Marañon valley instead of Manu allows access to some of the most sought-after endemics, but many fewer species overall.

Apart from the world's best birding (and as we all know, birding is just an excuse to get us to wild and wonderful places), Peru is just a great place to be. It has unsurpassed scenery, a magnificent history, friendly people, good food - and the beer is not bad, either!

Peru and megadiversity

Among the world's 200 nations, just 17 countries are home to 70% of the biodiversity-the natural riches of the planet. This is the conclusion of a study presented by the environmental organization "International Preservation" on December 9, 1997 in Washington, D.C.

The 17 countries considered "megadiverse" are located across four continents. Seven are in America: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, U.S.A., Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. The other countries are South Africa, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Indonesia, China, Papua New Guinea, India, Malaysia, Philippines and Australia.

"Just as the G7 countries (Group of Seven) own the greatest part of the economic wealth of the world, more than two thirds of the biological wealth of the planet is concentrated in these 17 megadiverse countries. This represents a tremendous responsibility as well as a unique opportunity for these countries," explains Dr. Russell Mittermeier, president of the environmental organization International Preservation, in the book Megadiversity: the most biologically rich nations in the world", published by the Mexican company CEMEX as part of its contribution to the effort for environmental awareness.

The number of endemic plants - those that only exist in one country-is the principal criteria for a country to be considered megadiverse. Another is the number of species and the number of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The marine ecosystems are also placed in this classification, with seventeen countries in this group all having coastal waters. Some, such as Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and Madagascar are archipelagos or islands with isolated evolution, encouraging development of species.

The American continent is considered the richest of all and has the largest area of natural environment still intact. Brazil is considered to have the greatest biodiversity, with 55,000 plant species which is equivalent to almost 22% of the approximate total plants existing in the world.

Also it is the first for mammals (with 524 species), fresh water fish, insects, macaws and parrots. Colombia follows with 1,815 bird species out of the 9,000 on the planet. This country also has more amphibians than Brazil and is also second in plants and third in reptiles. Ecuador, the smallest of the 17, qualifies as megadiverse for the variety in ecosystems and for the species of birds and reptiles which it has on the Galapagos Archipelago.

Peru is not the largest country among the mega diverse nations. Nevertheless, it has the greatest concentration of ecosystems ranging from the most arid deserts on the planet on the Pacific coast to snow capped peaks of the Andes, forest clad mountainsides on the eastern Andes and tropical rain forests of the Amazon in the lowlands.

The tropical rain forests of Peru are some of the most extensive still found on earth, and its portion of the Amazon (almost 700,000 Km2) is the fourth largest rain forest in the world. Peru is one of the first 7 megadiverse countries originally selected, due to its high levels of biodiversity and endemic species among certain organisms.

Depending on the system applied, Peru has 11 ecoregions (Brack, 1987), 15 biogeographic provinces (CDC, 1987), or 84 of the 101 life zones described by Holdrige, having the highest concentration of Holdrige zones of any one country.

In analyzing the number of species, it places third among vertebrates, excluding fish (2,873 species), second in diversity of birds (1,710 species), fourth place for mammals (466 species), first for butterflies (3,532 species) and third place for endemic species (350).

Travel throughout South America with

By Barry Walker
Volume III/Issue 12, Page 06
Updated,  2003

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