The past few days were quite memorable, with many things seen and heard that will be remembered for a long time.
We ended up hiring a pick-up truck for three days, which came with its own driver, and at the end of three days of constant togetherness, we still never knew his name! He was nice, probably thought we were crazy from the music that we played over the radio in the car, via the very modern MP3 hookup for our iPods, not to mention the fact that about every 500m we would yell "STOP!" to get out and run around in the puna grasslands above treeline, looking for some small brown bird with a name like Creamy-breasted Canastero, or something of that ilk. In any case, he drove well enough, helped communicate with the locals, and tolerated us enough. We also paid for his food during our time together, and he was particularly keen about eating as much as possible, as often as possible.
The road itself wasn't that bad, but it was definitely a long haul. We probably spent more than 20 hours in the car during the few days. On our way over we got caught in an epic hailstorm too, only about the size of tic-tacs, but so much that it covered the ground with about two inches of ice pellets. Very cool. The scenery was breathtaking, with knife-edge peaks, plunging river valleys, and cloud enshrouded ridges everywhere you cast your eyes. The birding was also spectacular, with lots of flocks at the temperate forest we birded near the Puente Carrizales, in english the Bamboo Bridge, and a very high endemism rate, as well as some species that just aren't official yet, being discovered so recently.
The first day our goal was to get to what we thought was the town of Carrizales, in order to camp there in preparation for birding the next morning. Well, after asking many locals for directions, and going by the crude maps that the bird finding guide to Peru gives, we ended up driving in the dark, over an hour past the location of the supposed town. Of course, nobody who gave us directions to "Carrizales" thought to tell us that it was just a bridge and a locale, and nobody actually lived there. We ended up staying near the next town down from there, Calabaza, where we ate in a subterranean restaurant, almost completely in the dark, along with about 5 locals and a TV blaring latin american music videos at deafening volume. It was one of the more interesting meals I've ever had. We camped just up the road, and by we I mean Andrew camped on the side of the road and I slept in the trunk of the pickup, diagonally, and not very well. As we drifted off to sleep we were heralded by a screech-owl, which turned out to be a Koepcke's Screech-Owl, a Peruvian endemic, and not the easiest bird to get.
We woke up at about 0430 the next morning, and proceeded to drive an hour or so back up to Puente Carrizales, hearing Chestnut-breasted Wren along the way, along with Andean Solitaires and Glossy-black Thrushes. Once up at the top, the birding commenced for real, and it was quite superb. Some of the highlights included Fire-throated Metaltail, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Paramo Seedeater, Tschudi's Tapaculo (seen), a male Purple-backed Thornbill, both on our list for one of the best birds of these few days, over 35 Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Drab Hemispingus, and tons of more common hummingbirds, including Tyrian Metaltail, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, and Amethyst-throated Sunangel. As we proceeded down the road to a lower elevation we hit some more flocks, and at one point a Barred Fruiteater flew by and perched near the road. Playback wouldn't bring it in, but it brought another one in, and we got gorgeous views from about 15 feet away at eye level of a female Barred Fruiteater. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, a male came in and started FEEDING the female, right in front of us. The light was bad, so the pictures aren't crystal clear, but I managed to get a bunch of pictures of the male feeding her. Sometime soon I need to upload some pictures.
After walking the road we got back in the car and headed to higher elevations, hoping for some of the more local birds, but first we needed a stop for lunch and gas. This involved picking up some Quechua woman from the side of the road, giving her a ride to the town nearby, a town of about 15 buildings, and then her manually pumping gas from a barrel into a metal pitcher, which she then covered with a cloth, because of course it was pouring down rain, and running to the car where our driver was covering the opening to the gas tank with a jacket, and pouring the pitcher of gas in, then repeating. This happened about 5 times, and only amounted to about 1/4 tank. Since the town didn't have a restaurant, we shopped at the little store, which had about 8 items, all of them either canned fish, drinks, or crackers. We got some peach nectar, soda crackers, and for the other two meat-eaters, sardines. It tasted great. After a little more birding in the pouring rain, when we got Tit-like Dacnis, we started the journey to our destination that night, the town of Acobamba, above which reside the incredibly local Black-spectacled Brush-Finch, described to science in 2002, and two yet undescribed species, "Mantaro Thornbird" and "Mantaro Wren". En route, during the 6 hour drive, Andrew pulled out his laptop, saying "I bet this is the last thing that our driver just expected me to get out", and checked spots for the third undescribed species in this area, "Millpo Tapaculo". It turns out that the spot was only a few hundred yards down the road from that point, so just in time! We got out, played the recording once, and boom, a few hundred feet away one responded. Of course it was on the top of a 60' cliff, so we just had to get up there. We went up a sloping pasture that took us to the top, and after some effort and playback, saw the bird out in the open from less than 15 feet away, photographed well, and recorded incredibly well. With that under our belt we headed down into the Mantaro River valley, where Acobamba is located. Gorgeous scenery going down all of it, and Creamy-crested Spinetails were the nicest birds we had. We arrived at Acobamba after dark, and were surprised to see a military checkpoint at the entrance to the town, with a gate and four guys with guns standing around, none of them seemingly older than 25. They checked our passports and let us in, per usual, and it turns out that this town has a large military presence, and an outpost that was just swarming wth cadets. We found out why later. We went to the only restaurant in town, which was owned by the same people that had the only hospedaje in town, and we patronized both that night. The meal was quite nice for $1 per person, a plate with tons of vegetables and rice, and no meat! Might be the only time this trip that happens. While waiting for our food, we could see the military building, and also one of the funniest sights I've ever seen. There were a couple cadets out front, and they took turns posing with their guns in heroic poses, while the other one took their picture with a nice digital camera, and then they would huddle over the camera to check out the picture, and usually take some more. So hilarious. More than just a couple people did it too, we figured it must have been a new shipment of soldiers, straight out of school.
After a night at the hospedaje, which was five beds on the second floor of someones house, accessed by steep stairs in a dark alley, we headed up the mountain directly above Acobamba, to a little town called Chucho Acha, above which are "Mantaro Wren" and Black-spectacled Brush-Finch, or so we hoped. We really had no idea where to go, but after asking the store owner in the three-building "town" where the previous gringos with optics had gone, he took us on a trail further up the mountain to a large patch of bamboo, exactly what we wanted. We only had a 20 sole note to pay him, so he was very grateful, 20 soles being at least twice what we would have paid otherwise, and he headed back down to the village, while we hung around and birded. The bamboo patch turned out to not have much of anything, but we struck paydirt on a trail leading downhill past it. At least three Black-spectacled Brush-Finches were singing, and responded to playback of their song for about 30 minutes, while we had gorgeous looks at this perhaps most beautiful of brush-finches, and continued the trend of photographing and recording it. Now we only needed the wren, but they are a bamboo obligate, and things were looking grim in the bamboo department. We walked a bit further town the trail, and while looking through a small flock, we heard a pair of wrens singing! This was great, because it means we could cut another day at our backup spot for the wren and brush-finch. We eventually managed to get incredibly close to the wrens, a pair and a juvenile, and photographed and recorded them as well, partially in the pouring rain. Joyful at our success, we headed back to the car and proceeded back down to Acobamba. On our way back down we picked up a couple locals to give them a lift back to town, and one of the even spoke a small amount of english! One of the surprises of the day, but not as surprised as we were about to be. Tired of the ominous foreshadowing yet?
On our way back into town we passed a small group of soldiers, and out of curiosity asked the locals what they were here for. They replied "For safety". Safety from what we naturally asked, and got the answer "Terrorists". Turns out after some more questioning, that there is a decent terrorist faction in that area, both for political reasons, drug reasons, and some of them are even leftovers of the Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso. That was slightly sobering.
Glad that we had learned about this on the last day, we started making our way back, with a few stops for the endemic "Mantaro Thornbird", which we finally heard distantly at one place, breaking our streak of photographing and recording every rare species in this area. What can you do. After a lunch of potatoes and rice at a small town, we started the 6 hour drive back to Huancayo. I managed to sleep a bit, but was still awake when we had Giant Hummingbird from the car, and also woke up to take some pictures of the gorgeous vistas. We had one bird that we still wanted to see well, and decided to stop at this likely looking spot for Eye-ringed Thistletail, another endemic to just this area. We almost immediately had one, and eventually got within about 8 feet of this bird, having it singing, walking on the ground, and all in all performing wonderfully for us, and this one caved to the formula of great pictures and recordings. We ended up having a few thistletails at this spot, as well as many "Millpo Tapaculos" and a Fire-throated Metaltail.
The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, just long. A nice Aplomado Falcon spiced things up at one point, and getting cell service to check my email again was joyous. We made it back to our hotel at about 7pm, and after trying to get charged $70/day for the car instead of $50, we managed to haggle him down to about $20 more than 50 a day. Ah well, we just wanted to get fed and sleep. We went back to the same hotel and restaurant as we did last time we were here, and had a great meal of french fries and salad for me, and fries and steak for Andrew. My parents kindly treated us to this Thanksgiving dinner, and also kindly reminded us of the fact that it was Thanksgiving indeed! Thanks Mom and Dad!
I write this from our hotel room, as we prepare to eat and then head to the Ticlio Pass/Marcapomacocha area to bird tomorrow, hopefully for Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and White-bellied Cinclodes, two very special birds.
Also, as a footnote, here are some things that I didn't cram in the above writings, but deserve mention nonetheless:
A herd of llamas charging down the road towards us, about 35 of them, taking up the entire road.
An old Quechua lady walking calmly down the side of the road, knitting as she went.
A roadblock that was done by three kids that were about 6-8, asking for money. Our driver talked them out of it and let us pass.
Happy belated Thanksgiving to all,