After leaving Huancayo we headed via bus to a fairly small town called San Mateo, at about 3500m (11,500'), right along the main highway from Lima to the highlands. It was to be our base to bird a place called the Milloc bog, a spot that has some very range resticted and habitat specific birds. Upon arriving in the little town we tried to find a taxi diver to hire for the day to take us to the bog, which is also known as Marcapomacocha for a nearby town. We promptly found someone and gave him a downpayment of 20 soles to assure our commitment. After a night in the comfiest beds so far this trip, at 0515 or so we headed onward and upward.
Our main two target birds were Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, a very unique bird with a tantalizing name, and White-bellied Cinclodes, an incredibly range restricted bird, with only 28 individuals known, but the population is extrapolated to 200 or so from likely habitat that has not been seen by birders. One of the things that these birds share is habitat, they need a certain type of bog that only occurs over 15,000' in the Andes. In order to get to the place to see them we crossed a pass that was over 16,000', the highest I have ever been. The scenery on the rutted dirt road to get to these remote valleys was absolutely spectacular, with fog laying like a blanket in the valleys, snow-capped peaks rising over red, green, and gray colored rolling hills and cliffs, as far as the eye can see.
We got to the bog just as the fog was burning off, great timing, and started walking around at about 15,500', something easier said than done. After about 5 minutes of walking around in this strange terrain, we heard something interesting sing, and the second that Andrew yelled "WHITE-BELLIED CINCLODES!" I had just gotten my binoculars on the singing bird. There was a pair of them, and we followed them around for the better part of an hour, getting photographs of the birds doing a song-display, where they wave their wings while singing from atop a rock, and getting recordings of them singing, possibly the best recordings ever gotten of this species. Some other nice birds in that bog included White-winged Diuca-Finch, Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, and three species of ground-tyrant. But that was only the small bog!
We went further on down the road to the top of this talus slope (talus is kind of like shale, but more sketchy to walk on), and down at the bottom, a few hundred feet, there was an expansive bog, taking up an entire valley between a large mountain and some hills, over a mile long.
We made our way down the slope, and told our taxi driver, surely convinced as all others are that we are certifiable, to wait for us at the other end of the bog, where a different road conveniently transects the valley, so that you never have to walk uphill if you have a driver. Right at the bottom of the slope, only a few hundred feet in, all of a sudden there it was. Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. One of the birds I have wanted most in the world for a very long time, almost since I started birding. We ended up having three individuals, two adults and a juvenile, and we continued the tradition of recording and photographing these as well. We spent a few hours at this bog, and the other most interesting thing that happened didn't involve something rare, but something simply aweing.
We were down at the marshier end of the bog, where water was about ankle-calf deep, and since Andrew only had hiking boots he was hopping from hummock to hummock, while I tromped through mindlessly. I had stopped to photograph a Puna Snipe that had been flushed, and while I was looking through the viewfinder, all of a sudden I saw a blur and the snipe was gone. Then the screaming started. Three Aplomado Falcons had appeared out of nowhere, and one had attacked my snipe, and the snipe narrowly escaped with its life. All three falcons were wheeling around within 30 feet of us, screaming their heads off, periodically diving on Andean Lapwings or Andean Gulls, which were also flying around in a panic, and it was just complete chaos. The falcons seemed completely unaware of us, and they were too close to get the whole bird in the frame of a picture most times. One ended up landing on a small hummock about 40 feet away and hung out there for about 5 minutes while we watched it, and then they disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived. Very cool. We thought we had seen the end of it, but about 15 minutes later we heard the calls again, and this time all three of them were way up in the sky, at least 1/2 mile, and all had their talons locked into some bird, and were spiraling down, screaming at eachother, fighting for the bird. One of them broke off a few hundred meters from the ground, but the last two didn't split until they were within a hundred feet of the ground. The victor flew off and landed with his prize, and proceeded to eat it while the other two went hungry.
From there we headed to a nearby lake, saw some of the same stuff, Giant Coots, over 150 Andean Geese, Chilean Flamingos, etc, and then headed back to San Mateo. On the way back, right at the top of the 16,010' pass, we had to stop and pull entirely off of the road for a giant tractor trailer, which happened to be trailing a tractor. Go figure. I tried to use my Blackberry while I was up there, and something happened to it and the screen dimmed and then went blank, and nothing I could do could turn it back on. I thought that I was a goner, until I managed to get it to work again down here in Lima yesterday, not sure what went wrong, nor how I fixed it, but I'll take it. Once the truck and its cargo had passed, we proceeded on our way, stopping at one place for Junin Canastero, a small brown bird that just happens to occur in Peru and only in Peru in the whole world. While searching for this bird, which we found, another car pulled up, and a birder got out, and he happened to be from Colorado! He and Andrew had a great time talking about birding his part of Colorado, a place which apparently has no birders, and marveled at the chance meeting. Unfortunately he was heading in the other direction, so we wished him luck and continued on our way.
When we got back to San Mateo we decided that we didn't want to spend another night, and despite it being after checkout time, the owner let us go, and we got a bus to Lima. They made us take our backpacks on the bus, and I got stuck in the doorway with mine and had to be helped by the salesman on the bus, haha. A few hours later we were securely back in the Lion Backpackers Bed and Breakfast, a decent enough place that has redeeming qualities such as breakfast and wifi. We went out in the local area to eat, and had great trashy American food, I got some pizza from Pizza Hut and Andrew got some monstrous burger from Burger King. It was glorious.
When I woke up this morning, I was sick again. Great. More food poisioning. And I never get sick at home! Hopefully this isn't a trend that will continue. I've been taking some medicine, and am feeling better now, here is hoping that I'll wake up tomorrow all better.
Today, after being lazy all morning and hanging out on the couches on the internet, we took a break from our laziness and headed to a spot in the city limits of Lima, Pantanos de Villa. It's a marshland with a beach next to it, and we had some nice birds. The best bird that you can get there is Peruvian Thick-Knee, a spectacular shorebird that stands about knee-high. We had two pairs of them, and got very close to one pair. We also had Great Grebes, old hat for Andrew but a coveted bird for me. The gull show was also great, with over a thousand Franklin's Gulls and hundreds of Belcher's and Kelp Gulls, and a smattering of Gray-hooded Gulls, a really gorgeous gull.
Now we are back at the hostal, being lazy on couches with internet like we do when we can. Tonight Chris, the third member of our party, comes into town, and he should arrive here by taxi sometime after midnight. Tomorrow we head over the Andes again to spend the night in Tingo Maria, and then travel to road to Pucallpa the day after, a road that is unsafe at night. Pucallpa is a truly Amazonian town, the first time I will have really been in the Amazon so far this trip. Our goal there is to find the right people to set up a trip to the Cordillera Azul, a very remote place. The target bird there is called Scarlet-banded Barbet, and is one of the more remote birds in South America, if not the world. Only three groups of people have EVER seen this bird, and it is one of the focal points of the trip, hopefully. Its world range is 25 sq kilometers, and only on the peak of one mountain, in one mountain range. It is such a special and gorgeous bird that it, out of all the fantastical birds of Peru, graces the cover of the field guide. If we are able to see it, an expedition that involves 1-2 weeks of hiking and camping, we would be only the fourth group in history. The trouble is finding the right people to contact to get the boat to the trailhead, and then getting the local guides and such. That is our main goal in Pucallpa, and hopefully one that we will succeed in. I should be able to post from Pucallpa before we head to the mountains, but we shall see.
Take it easy,