Monday, January 5, 2009

Peru narrative and photos; the longest blog post you'll ever read ...

Forward: Shortly after returning from this trip, I downloaded approximately 750 photos on to my computer. I realized very quickly that the photos meant nothing without the story of my Peru experiences. I also realized that I would forget most, if not all, of this action-packed trip if I did not write it down in some way. In email format, I wrote this narrative and attached the photos. The final version of the email contained 34 photos and only those with broadband or DSL connections could download the thing. Still, I was able to share it with many of my friends. I came across a draft version of the email and transferring it to my blog came to mind. Over time, I will probably edit or add more.  Here is the story of my August, 2007 Peru trip, published and saved for all posterity.
July 31 - August 10, 2007

Day One: Birding south along the coast from Lima - where the earthquake later struck on Wednesday, August 15, 2007.
Day Two: Birding north along the coast from Lima
Day Three: Pelagic tour
Day Four: Birding Carpish Pass on the eastern slope of the Andes down to the lowland tropical forest around Tingo Maria
Day Five: Oilbird Caves and then birding back up to the Carpish Pass
Day Six: Birding the Carpish Pass and making our way to the higher elevation around Bosque Unchog, where we camped.
Day Seven: Birded for the rare specialties around Unchog
Day Eight: Continued birding to higher elevation, eventually arriving near Lake Junin
Day Nine: Searched unsuccessfully for the rare and elusive (and flightless) Junin Grebe. Birded the area around the lake
Day Ten: Birded our highest elevation around Ticlio Bog and scored our 6 great targets. Began our descent
Day Eleven: Birded the St. Eualilia valley for some endemic specialties before arriving back in Lima for our flights home.
Starting even with the flight to Peru, this was by far the most grueling trip I have ever been on. This includes when, at age 24, I took a bus from London to Athens (in those days smoking was allowed on buses), stayed for a month in Greece with $100 in my pocket, and then returned to London by bus. What was I thinking? That was then. Fortunately now, at over double the age, I am able to put these things into perspective and enjoyed the Peru trip immensely. It no longer matters that I am unable to shower every day, or that the toilet is a hole in the ground. I also confirmed that I have good stamina and physicial conditioning and these qualities helped me to enjoy even the most uncomfortable situations. I slept poorly, as did almost everyone, most of the trip, and broke my left baby toe on the leg of the hotel bed my first night in Lima. Despite this, and more, you’ll read about other adventures, the trip was good.
Peru is a beautiful country. On this trip - itinerary above - we did not go to Machu Picchu or Cuzco, but rather to places where few people travel at all for purposes of tourism. Possibly only birders travel to most of these places. For example, on day seven, birding around Unchog, we saw the Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, Bay-vented Cotinga, Yungas Pygmy-Owl, Rufous-browed Hemispingus (well, sort of), and Many-striped Canastero, amongst others. I was later surprised to learn from our guide, Fabrice Schmitt, that perhaps only 100 birders visit this area annually. I can only believe that this is secondary to the difficulty in reaching the area and the lack of accomodations upon reaching it. Our tour company was set up to be able to camp here and so we were able to stay overnight in tents and bird the next morning at 12,000 feet. The skies were clear that night and the temperature dropped to 15 degrees F even though many of us had sleeping bags with a 40 degree F rating. I think I was the only one able to get warm and it was one of my better nights’ sleep. As I have suspected, a little extra fat never hurts.
Day three was a 12 hour pelagic trip in a 38 foot boat where we went out 28 nautical miles. I’ve never been on a pelagic trip before. The birds were plentiful and very different and I loved the storm-petrels as they literally danced over the water plucking tiny bits of food from the surface. We also saw the Northern Giant-Petrel (Macronectes halli), a large prehistoric appearing bird.

Northern Giant-Petrel
Humbolt Penguin
Cape Petrel

I also was able to photograph the Cape Petrel (Daption capense) which, along with the White-vented Storm-petrels (Oceanies gracilis), were probably my favorite birds of the pelagic. Later I learned that the Cape Petrel is famously disagreeable and bad tempered. One writer wrote that, "even a dead whale is too tiny a morsel for two Cape Pigeons to share without fighting." We didn't witness anything like that, and the bird appears rather innocent just floating on the water. Even with these very different birds, however, I’ve asked myself if I will do another pelagic. My biggest memory of this day will be trying to take down my layers of clothing in a closet-sized boat-bathroom with the boat pitching wildly, and me pitching with it, to aim for the toilet bowl all the while being afraid that I would pitch forward, break the wimpy little lock on the door, and bust out into the lower galley with my pants down. I finally completed my task without pitching out of the bathroom door. Then, before going back up to the front deck, I decided to eat a banana. No longer than ten minutes later my banana was overboard. I learned then that if I lost sight of the horizon, I was going to be in trouble. We went by a large, rock island colony of seals and nesting Peruvian Boobies (Sula variegata.) When you hear on National Geographic or PBS television shows that these are malodorous places, they’re telling you the whole truth.

Nesting Peruvian Boobies
Stinky! I was glad when the boat turned away.

Following the twelve hour pelagic, our trip was ingenously designed to take us on an overnight double-decker, sleeping bus trip across the Andes. Following twelve hours in a pitching 38 foot boat, this was a bit much for some of us. I found it difficult to sleep on the bus - others reported sleeping well - and I probably also got some restless sleep off and on. When we arrived at the bus station in Huanuco, we again boarded the [too small] bus that was, for all intents and purposes and aside from the day on the pelagic boat, our home for the trip. We immediately set off birding, first to the Carpish Pass. The birds were good here, and a few butterflies also presented themselves. I think my first bird was the Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager (Anisognathus lacrymosus lachymosus); the first of many very beautifully colored tanagers. Whether it was being without sleep for over twenty-four hours or the unfamiliar terrian or both I suffered my second accident (first was my broken toe). I was trying to point out an Amethyst-throated Sunangel (Heliangelus amethysticollis decolar) to Randy, and Juan, one of our guides who was also present in our broken away threesome, when I stepped backwards over a small berm and fell head over heels approximately ten or twelve feet. I was caught by the bushes and shrubbery growing up the mountainside. I was annoyed with myself, but knew almost immediately that I wasn't hurt. Randy and Juan helped me back up to the trail and my first words were, “Did I scare away the bird?” With that Randy burst out with uncontrollable laughter, followed almost immediately by me and Juan joining him. I think we were all laughing from relief. Later we caught up with the others and they learned what happened; they had heard the crash followed by our laughter and were puzzled by what could have been going on. The next day my right elbow had a large black bruise spreading down my forarm and up my tricep that was present for the whole trip. The ding on my head was a minor irritation when I tried to sleep on the bus. The thing is, there were many other areas along this trail that I might have backed over with nothing to catch me. This gave me a couple of nightmares. Even now, when I think of it, it gives me the shivers.

Following the overnight bus trip and the Carpish Pass incident, we went to see the Hoatzin (Opisthocomous hoazin) and drove through the small town of Tingo Maria (a former stronghold of the Shining Path) which was completely unlike any other village or town we saw the whole trip. It was thronged with people, cars, three-wheeled taxis, bicycles, markets and open shops. We saw the Hoatzin and I had my second fall of the day, in burned garbage, when I got my feet tangled up in the weeds and garbage. By this time I looked a sight.

The Hoatzin, above and below, is a crazy looking bird.
From here though we stayed at the most beautiful and restful spot of the whole trip. I would go back here again and would recommend it for others. Villa Jennifer, while certainly not lavish, was clean and comfortable, with beautiful and birdy grounds, and offered us our best food and coffee of the whole trip. My shower here was, beyond a doubt, the best of my trip. We saw Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum), Tropical Screech-Owl (Otus choliba), and a Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) heard, flying (looks like a giant moth) and well seen in the beam of a flashlight perched on the ground. I never think I am going to see birds like the pauraque, so it’s a thrill when I do. On this same night, we also saw the Southern Cross and the Milky Way for the first time - (see the Aug. 20, 2007 New Yorker article titled, The Dark Side: Making war on light pollution, by David Owen starting on page 28.) I don’t recall ever having seen the Milky Way before, at least not as an adult. The next morning we heard once, but never did see, the Band-bellied Owl (Pulsatriz melanota). I also saw the Chestnut-eared Aracari (Pteroglossus castanotis), the only toucan-like bird of the whole trip. I think Villa Jennifer is a resort, that because of their beautiful grounds and proximity to the Oilbird caves, is making a serious attempt at ecotourism.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention birding the Oilbird Caves for the Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) in Parque Nacional Tingo Maria. The Oilbird and the caves were very nice, but here what intrigued me most were the butterflies. I photographed as many as I could; that is, those that would land for me or allow me to chase them around while they tried to land. To my dismay, many of these photos are poorly focused.
One of the "cracker" butterfly species
For every butterfly I saw, a different one would come flying along or appear perched. I saw the six-inch Blue Morpho with neon blue wings - spectacular, but it did not land to be photographed. Also, the most extraordinary damselfly made an appearance. It was large with neon yellow at the tips of its wings and flew like a helicopter. It never did land, but I would have given anything for a chance to photograph it. Check out Julie Craves' blog link for more about this damselfly.
I guess my favorite bird here was the Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant (Myiornis ecaudatus) a very cute, tiny little bird.
I began this narrative out of sequence starting with day seven, birding around Unchog, to make the point about the places we traveled to. From there I went to day three - the pelagic. I have not mentioned anything about day one (birding along the coast south of Lima) and day two (birding along the coast north of Lima); looking back on those days, they went by in a blur. On Tuesday, 7/31/07 we birded all day in the exact area where the earthquake struck Peru on Wednesday, August 15, 2007. We learned that our guides and our support crew came through this without problems. Day one and two were our introduction to Peru's most common little sparrow, the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) which we saw everyday no matter how low or how high we were. We would be so lucky if this was our most common little sparrow. We also saw and photographed our first Peruvian Thick-knees (Burhinus superciliaris) at a stop along the highway on our first day. On day two the highlight birds were the Many-colored Rush-Tyrant (Tachuris rubrigastra) and the Great Grebe (Podiceps major.) Our last stop on day two was a very beautiful area called Lachay where I think The Lord of the Rings could have been filmed - deep green, foggy, chilly and moody. Very beautiful. Here I saw Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia), a first for me - which some in our group made fun of - but, even if you can see them in Florida, I enjoyed them enormously in Peru. We also saw Bare-faced Ground-Doves (Metriopelia ceciliae), which later became the bare-naked doves secondary to the challenge of learning so many new names.

Bare-faced Ground-Dove
Great Grebe
Rufous-collared Sparrow, of which we saw many.
Many-colored Rush-Tyrant
Burrowing Owls
Day five, leaving Tingo Maria, another fortuitous stop was called out. The bus was travelling down the road at a clip when Mike yelled out, "stop, STOP, SSTTOOPP!" Every one woke up and got out to look at an Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana) spotted by Mike from the bus window. The story gets more interesting. Had we not made this stop for the only Cock-of-the-rock of the trip, we would have also missed our only Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias). Spectacular as they are, I did not list either the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) or the Cock-of-the-rock as amongst my favorites. I did, however, list the Sunbittern. This is because I saw it fly. The pattern of the wings in flight is absolutely beautiful. I tried to get a photograph but was unsuccessful. See for yourself on the following link - scroll to the Sunbittern. This link also has many of the other birds we saw.

Even with such a poorly focused photograph, you can still see what an odd looking bird the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock is.
I did not describe Carpish Pass much beyond telling you the details of my fall. The habitat is described as cloud forest. We actually visited this trail twice. We visited another cloud forest trail called the Paty (there is an accent mark over the t in Paty) Trail twice - as it happened we spent quite a lot of time in the area of the Paty Trail. Once, as we were leaving, a carload of Belgian birders drove up to also bird this trail.
Near the Paty Trail, our location for about five meals. The girl sitting on the ground (white shirt) has Down's Syndrome. I think her mother made a living by providing this space for visiting birders who in turn paid a small fee. She also appeared to be able to sell some things from within her home. On our last visit I gave her my sleeping bag.
In the backyard, handwashing at its best.
This red car parked in the backyard had lichen growing on it.
Our cook, Renzo, and one of our bus drivers, Lucho.

Many of the group saw a variety of tanagers in this area. Unfortunately, due to being in a different place both times, I did not share the plethora of tanager sightings. I was able to see, with some difficulty, a relatively large variety of birds here - some tanagers, flycatchers, the Band-tailed Fruiteater (Pipreola intermedia) and others - but it was a narrow, down-sloping trail that was difficult to bird with a large group. It is, however, the one place where I was able to make my first (of two - more about this later) contributions to the group. I was heading back up the trail on my own when I came upon a bird limping up the path. I called Fabrice and he came to check it, at which point he called excitedly to the others. I heard a stampede (literally) behind me. It was the Bay Antpitta (Grallaria capitalis), a bird we would not have seen - only heard - had I not found this injured bird on the trail.
Bay Antpitta limping up the trail. You can see where the bird is dragging its left leg.
Injured Bay Antpitta captured by trip leader, Fabrice Schmidt, to allow this close photo. We let the bird go in a very safe place. It gave one protest note and then disappeared into the foliage.
From our final visit to the Paty Trail, it was high, higher and highest elevation birding. Here the habitat opened up to reveal some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen starting with Bosque Unchog (Unchog being the name of the highest peak in this area.) To my eyes the beauty and the differentness of this place alone was worth the price of the trip. Like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon, none of my photos reveal its true beauty. After our night of clear sky camping, the next morning arrived with a cold, sunny, bright blue sky. Once we started on the hike to our birding locations, however, the temperature heated up quickly. Here we saw the endemic Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager (Buthraupis aureodorsalis), the Bay-vented Cotinga (Doliornis sclateri), the Yungas (named for the area) Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium bolivianum), Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager (Anisognathus igniventris) - beautiful bird, Moustached Flowerpiercer (Diglossa mystacalis), Andean Lapwing (Vanellus resplendens) amongst many others. I would have liked to stay here longer, but keeping on schedule, that was impossible.
The beauty of Unchog cannot be captured by a photograph.
Some in the group were able to make the hike thanks to these sure-footed little pack horses. 

Packing up to leave Unchog. The field trip leaders and support staff work unbelievably hard on these tours. I was constantly taken by their strong work ethic - it's nearly a 24 hour a day job for them and away from home and family all of this time. Many of us pitched in to help whenever we could.
Apart from three stops after departing Unchog; the first in the village to give pencils and pens to the school (the tour company is trying to establish a win-win relationship with the village so that they will not cut down the elfin forests in the mountains surrounding their village) and while the village was celebrating one of its anniversaries, the second to look at a soaring Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Oroaetus isidori) and the third to see a very weird little bird, the Fasciated Wren (Campylorhynchus fasciatus - sounds like a rare, muscle-eating bacteria), we began our long drive to Lake Junin. We stopped again for lunch along the road on the way to Lake Junin and saw, amongst other good birds, very cool Torrent Ducks (Merganetta armata).

Lunch stop for Torrent Ducks and other good birds on the way to Lake Junin.
Torrent Duck
This new and clean building, photo taken from our moving bus, looks like a hospital.

Arriving at Lake Junin at sunset, we were allowed a rare, non-bird photo opportunity. Again, my photo does not do justice to the beauty of the place at sunset. We also passed an extraordinary cemetary which I was able to photograph from the bus window.
The setting sun on this cemetery gives the small buildings a western glow.
I thought I could sneak her photo, but she caught me. I tried to show the photo to her, but the bright sun blocked the viewing screen and we were unable to see it, even when I tried to block the sun out.

By the time we arrived at our accomodations in Lake Junin, which is little more than a dusty, small town at 14,000 feet, it was again very cold. Nevertheless, our accomodations proved to be surprisingly comfortable despite it being another no shower and loss of power night. We had a unique dinner in a freezing restaurant, the most memorable course being a mutton soup which I can still taste and see. I ate the whole [large] bowl, but many left it essentially untouched.
My bed that night had three heavy, alpaca wool blankets on it and when I, very happily, climbed in my bare toes touched something unexpected. I jumped out of bed, turned on the light and opened the door. I looked closely at the bed. Funny, no lump. But then, I rationalized, the weight of the alpaca blankets could easily smooth out a lump. I was thinking it might be an animal of some kind. A cat? Kitten? Finally, after a minute of study and knowing the door was open, I threw back the blankets to reveal a pink hot water bottle. I nearly burst out laughing. I slept well this night, as others also reported doing here. The hot water bottle was still warm in the morning.
Lake Junin is spectacular. Parts of the lake are heavily polluted by mining, but these areas are not where the Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii) will be found. Thankfully, I did not have to see the ruined parts of this beautiful lake. To make a long story short, we did not see the Junin Grebe (one of the world's rarest birds) and not for lack of trying. We saw many of its cousin, the Silvery Grebe (Podiceps occipitalis), had our second looks at White-tufted Grebes (Rollandia rolland) seen also on our second day; and many other fine birds, including, crazily, to my sea-level, pea-sized brain, Baird’s Sandpipers (Colidris bairdii.) We saw the Puna Plover (Charadrius alticola) - charming, little plover and many of the cute, little passerine called the Andean Negrito (Lessonia oreas). Many ducks were here including the Crested Duck (Anas specularioides). Still searching for the Junin Grebe, we drove to a different area of the lake and found birds like Plumbeous Rail (Pardirallus sanguinolentus), Puna Snipe (Gallinago andina) and Black-breasted Hillstar (Oreotrochilus melanogaster), a dark, little hummingbird. In short, this was a very birdy and beautiful place, but the target bird did not make an appearance for us. This didn’t ruin it for me.

It's impossible to capture the beauty of Lake Junin. Here's just one of my vain attempts.
At 14,000 feet this little butterfly made an appearance. I saw it again at 16,000 feet.

Our second to last day of birding took place at 16,000 feet on Ticlio Bog. Here we saw the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover (Phegornis mitchellii) which, for some unknown reason, was my target bird for the trip. I was not disappointed; it's a cute, little bird and we saw it well twice; with some difficulty at the first location because it's small and blends into its habitat, even when running. The second time we saw it very close from the bus window. I took photos of this bird and thought they would turn out, but when I got the photos on my computer, I could not find the bird in them. I did, however, get some moderately focused photos of the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (Attagis gayi) of which we saw many and the White-bellied Cinclodes (Cinclodes palliatus), common at this elevation.
Grainy photos of White-bellied Cinclodes above, and Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe below.

We stopped to take photos with the highest peak in Lima department, 17,958 foot Mt. Rajuntae, in the background. I have not been able to spend much time in real mountains so I found this all very spectacular. Even at 16,000 feet, I felt very comfortable. No shortness of breath, no headache, no heavy legs, etc. Granted we were there for a very short time and strenuous activity was not required, but it was still a good feeling to be able to participate so fully at this altitude.

Just in case you think I'm making this all up, here I am with Mt. Rajuntae in the background.
That night, to leave the area of Ticlio Bog and Mt. Rajuntae and arrive at our final stop, required a bus ride on a single-laned dirt road at the very edge of the mountain. I admire the skill of our driver. At times, though I’m sure there was really plenty of road beneath us, it felt as though the rear tire was glancing the edge of the road. My seat was in the very rear of the bus so I watched all the way down with fascination. There was nothing else I could do. I was a captive on this twisting journey to lower elevation.

And just in case you think I'm making up the twisting road story, here it is.

August 10th, our final day of birding came with some relief. It was beautiful, sunny and warm. We had two more target birds; the Great Inca-Finch (Incaspiza pulchra) was quickly spotted going back up along the same narrow road mentioned above and the Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch (Poospiza rubecula) with which I made my second contribution of the whole trip, for some, by sighting this bird in an easily viewable location. In between these two birds we saw the Peruvian Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium peruanum), Peruvian Sheartail (Thaumastura cora), Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas) and the Black-necked Woodpecker (Colaptes a. atricollis) amongst others.
Our final day, our final picnic. I knew I would miss this part of the trip. I still do.

Down the mountain and back to Lima, we reached the sprawling outskirts of this huge city in perhaps an hour or so. After a week of splendid escape, we were back to urban reality. We had our final meal together. Randy and Dana recommended ceviche (google Peru's national fish dish and the very first listing is excellent), raw fish "cooked" with lime juice which was wonderful. I’ve never had anything like it.
The red-eye flight home was uneventful and I arrived in Detroit when Delta Airlines said I would. In fact, both flights were completely without incident or any significant delay.
This was fun to write and I'm happy to share my experience with you. There is so much more, but this is the brief thumbnail sketch. I hope you've enjoyed it. If interested, a list of the over 200 birds I saw will follow. Let me know if you would also like to receive this list.

These final two photos are for the pure sweetness of the moment. Above: beautiful child at a Junin market. Below: white puppy sleeping with pigs.
Afterward: In addition to the above mentioned motivation for putting this narrative into my blog, I work with many Peruvian physicians who I can now easily share this. One of my Peruvian colleagues recently went to San Francisco for a conference. While he was in San Francisco he dined at a Peruvian restaurant of which he later said, "Oh my gosh, I was so happy I almost cried." I doubt that this will make him cry - at least I hope not - but it may be fun to read.

A word about the photos: many of them are very poor. At the time my camera, a Canon Powershot 3 with 12x zoom, was new to me. Many of the photos are poorly focused and very grainy. Additionally, I fiddled with "fixing" some of them on my computer, often with mixed to poor results. Finally, many of the subjects were fast moving birds or butterflies and my camera is really not great for taking this kind of shot. (I've written about this in earlier posts.) Additionally, the subjects were often far away, and I was working with the zoom and then cropping them on my computer. Despite the overall poor quality, I still think the photos work to tell their story. 

1 comment:

tjterns said...

Hey Cathy!
Your collection of photos and stories are wonderful! I will visit again and agin. I think I will work backwards so that I can keep up with your experiences.
This is awesome!
Love & peace,