Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Overdue blog – Part 2 (Bosque Unchog and the north)

Back on a bus in the morning, another 10 hours or so to Huanuco, the city that boasts “The best climate in the world” on the city limits signs when you enter the town. They actually could be right, it always seems to be the perfect temperature there. It’s a nice town, I enjoyed our stay there both times that we were there. Huanuco was our base to get to Bosque Unchog, one of the more famous locations in Peru.
Bosque Unchog, meaning Unchog Forest, is an area with elfin forest right near treeline on the eastern slope of the Andes. It has many very rare and local birds that are only known from a few locations in the entire world, and Bosque Unchog is the easiest place to get to where you have a good chance of seeing Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, Bay-vented Cotinga, Rufous-browed Hemispingus, and Pardusco. The only way to get there on public transport is to take a collectivo to a small town called Cochabamba, about 90 minutes from Huanuco, and then hike 8k at 3000m (10,000’), while gaining 650m (2,100’) in those 8k (5mi). It was sunny as well. About 4k in we met a guy heading up as well on a motorcycle, and he offered to come back and take our bags up. We gratefully said yes, and he said he would return after dropping off the stuff he was already carrying at his home at the end of the road, which was our destination. We hiked about 1.5k more before he returned, and sadly he was only able to take two backpacks. Chris held on to his and Andrew and I got ours strapped on the back of his motorcycle, fairly sketchily, and he vanished around the corner with our worldly belongings. I took Chris’s camera bag, and now that all of us were carrying less we felt like new people, and the last few k were a piece of cake in comparison. When we arrived at the end of the road our motorcycle-owning friend was there with our bags, and after paying him ten soles we crested the pass and simply reveled in the beauty. Right at the end of the road there is a small valley with marshy grassland at the base, elfin forest coating both slopes, and the glorious Unchog Mountain standing tall on one side. We made camp above the marshy area and just below the forest, and that would be our home for the next couple nights. Goods had been purchased back in Huanuco, namely spaghetti, rice, onions, tuna, Tang, and tomato sauce. That first night we got some birding done before dark, and I got terrible distant backlit looks at a Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager. Little did I know that that would be the only one that I would see during our time there. For dinner we made spaghetti, which we overcooked, but simple pasta with tomato sauce from a packet has rarely tasted so good. We had a small amount left over which would end up being brunch the next morning. After a mediocre nights sleep we saddled up and headed out. There are three main forest patches at Bosque Unchog, #1 is right by the camping area, and is most known for Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, while #2 is 1.5 valleys away, and has Rufous-browed Hemispingus, and #3 is even more distant, but is best for Bay-vented Cotinga, as well as lots of good flocks. Two and three turned out to be the best areas by far. On the first day Andrew split off from me and Chris early on, and while we birded the first forest patch thoroughly he headed on down to 2 and 3. We spent most of the morning seeing almost nothing, and we somehow picked up a ~12 year old kid who told us that he knew where the mountain-tanager hangs out. Having seen nothing but a few Parduscos, the easiest specialty to get, we decided to head down towards where we suspected Andrew of having headed, and also that was where the kid said the tanagers were. We picked up a few more birds on the walk down, the best being a heard-only Bay-vented Cotinga. We got to a small area of forest where the kid said he sees the Ave de Oro, or “Bird of Gold” regularly. Despite his assurances we spent a long time watching this area and never ended up seeing the tanager. While birding this patch Andrew came back up the path from the other direction, and of course had seen every single target bird except the tanager. Bay-vented Cotinga he had heard only, lots of Parduscos, Golden-collared and Yellow-scarfed Tanagers, both gorgeous and rare tanagers, and Rufous-browed Hemispingus, the supposed rarest of all of the specialties, a bird that most groups that visit here miss. Saddened, Chris and I could not come up with anything at all that Andrew had not had. We blame it on the fact that he had a pygmy-owl tape to call birds in and we didn’t. We spent the rest of the day looking for the mountain-tanager, nobody had seen hide nor hair of it except my brief crappy look, and we got nothing more except some noise that Andrew and I heard that was most likely it. He got a recording and has yet to compare the sonograms on the computer, so I’m not 100% sure yet.
The second night we attempted to make rice. I mean seriously, how hard can it be? After a meal of slightly undercooked rice that tasted like burning, and a packet of four Oreos each, we called it a night for another mediocre night of sleep, at least for me.
Up just before dawn, we headed out as a pack today, Chris and I hoping to recoup our losses. We went to a spot where you can stand on a rock and look out over the canopy of some forest, a great spot, and had THREE Bay-vented Cotingas feeding, calling, and generally being awesome within as close as 30 feet. Spectacular. While there a mixed flock moved through that contained at least three Golden-collared Tanagers. Two down. Back at the spot where the kid said there were mountain-tanagers, there were no tanagers. However, while Andrew was recording a Tschudi’s Tapaculo, he spotted another (!!) Rufous-browed Hemispingus just sitting in the undergrowth! Most groups don’t even see one, and between us we had seen two by now. It wandered around in the semi-open for a while before disappearing as suddenly as it had been spotted. Now all we needed was Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager and Yellow-scarfed Tanager and everyone would be on the same page. We proceeded on down to patch three, and had a couple small flocks with some nice things like Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager in them, but nothing stupendous. We heard some faint calls coming from the underbrush in front of us, and upon close approach, I saw another hemispingus, this one moving around a bit and calling. Chris and I were able to get nice photos of this one, amazingly the third one of our time there. A little ways further down we ran into a couple flocks that held Yellow-scarfed Tanager, so every goal had been met except the holy grail, Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager. We decided to wander back to the rock outcropping near good forest in the hope that some mountain-tanagers would just wander by, and on the way back stopped at a Swallow-tailed Nightjar nest that we had found earlier in the day by flushed the parent off of it. It had one chick, and when we went to photograph the adult on the nest, instead of the female from earlier there was a nice male! A lifer for both Chris and Andrew, it was quite a way to get such a spectacular nightjar. We all spread out near the rocky area in various states of tiredness, and Andrew definitely picked the best spot. After about 30 minutes of waiting a flock came through, and all of a sudden, from about 30m away, Andrew yells “GOLDEN-BELLIED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER!” No such bird exists, but we both knew what he meant. We made our way there as fast as we could, but it was in vain. The bird had made a cameo appearance, and was never seen again. Some Golden-collared Tanagers within 15 feet were nice, but could not console us. The flock was gone in a matter of minutes, and hope left with it. It was about 12:40pm then, and we decided that we wanted to spend that night back in civilization. After a little bit of searching for the flock we headed back to camp in order to pack up and hike back down to Cochabamba. Of course, the only time that it rained during our time at Bosque Unchog was when we had to pack up. Everything to do with a tent got wet, but we just wanted to get back down at that point. After an 8k hike downhill in rubber boots with a full pack, I was feeling a bit the worse for wear. The only nice part about the hike down was a small group of Brown-flanked Tanagers, and back in the land of internet, as far as my Blackberry was concerned. It’s a scary world when you have internet in places such as that.
A few hours later when we got back to Cochabamba, the problem was then to find a car. Little did we know that what was about to follow would be the most memorable taxi hailing ever. We went to the little store in town to ask when cars left for Huanuco, and they just pointed down the road and said that way. We went around the corner and asked again, and the ladies that we asked pointed across the fields downhill. At first we didn’t get it, but then we saw the last car of the day, about ½ mile away, across the valley that we were in. Our hearts sunk with the realization that we would be spending a night camping on the soccer pitch in town, when all of a sudden one of the ladies started whistling. You have never heard a whistle like this, it could shatter glass from a hundred yards, I swear. After a couple whistles, the car unbelievable slowed and then stopped. While driving, half a mile away, across a small valley, the taxi driver had heard this lady whistle through his open window. Absolutely amazing. We started almost jogging in order to get to the car ASAP, after thanking the “whistle-lady” for her help. In retrospect I wish we had given her money, a skill like that should get recognition. When we made it to the car it turned out to be empty, and we gladly got in and collapsed into the seats, and a couple hours later were in a hotel room. Once in the hotel room we strung up lines to hang our wet tent stuff from, which made the room decidedly humid upon our return from eating copious amounts of food, and drinking liters of juice. Life was good.
The following morning we started what ended up being a bus-saga, the first leg of which was to Lima, at least originally. We had been in the bus for about 9 hours and all of a sudden we just came to a halt. Traffic was not moving at all. We were in an outskirt of Lima, called Chosica, and apparently someone had hit a 5 year old kid, and the road was cordoned off or something. In any case, we would have had to wait 3 or more hours until we would have been able to continue. It was 9pm or so, and we got off the bus, got on a little minibus back to Chosica, and spent the night there. The following morning we took a taxi into Lima to get a bus to Trujillo, another 10 hour bus ride, and this one through one of the driest deserts in the world. It was 3 hours of being stuck in cities and 7 hours of feeling like you were in Saharan Africa, except for the occasional paralleling of the Pacific Ocean. However, all ten hours were comfortable, because of the fact that we had gotten a little bit crazy and spent about $3/hour for a VIP bus instead of $1.50/ hour for the economic version. We also got the front seats on the second floor of a double decker bus, so it was a great ride with floor to ceiling windows, frequent refreshment, and copious amounts of bad movies. The first bad movie was Inkheart, which was pretty terrible, but it looked like a marvel of cinematography next to the two that followed it. After Inkheart was something that we think was called Firehouse Dog, which had a terrible plot that was complimented by bad acting, and the terrible trio was rounded off by some movie that doesn’t even deserve to be called a chick flick, if I recall correctly it was called Aquamarine. We don’t speak of that movie. The first two were watched because there was nothing else to look at but sand, but the final televisional travesty was worse than looking at sand. We arrived in Trujillo after dark, per usual, and took a taxi to a pretty crappy hotel which was overpriced, lessening our already low opinion of the city of Trujillo. We went out for dinner at a Chinese place, something Andrew would do every meal if he had his way, and it was fairly good, except for what we think were guinea pig bones in Chris’s noodles and vegetables. No meat, just bones. That is bad enough as it is, but it is worse considering that Chris eats no meat except fish. He also had his shin viciously attacked by the corner of my bed, so it was not his best night ever.
Our plan the following morning was to go to a spot called Sinsicap, but there is only one bus daily going there, and for some reason it wasn’t leaving that day. So it was 6am, we couldn’t go to where we wanted to go, and overall the day wasn’t so good. We decided the only way to make use of the day was to get on another bus. So we did. This time for 16.5 hours. We ended up traveling over 700 miles in two days, and that is not including Huanuco to Lima, which surely puts the total over 1,000 miles in three days. The 16.5h drive took us through some nice habitat, and I managed a few lifers, namely Savannah Hawk and Pearl Kite, two raptors that I very much wanted to see. Our destination was La Florida, a small town that has a small bird nearby, but undoubtedly one of the coolest birds in the world, at least in my opinion. The bird I am speaking of is the Marvelous Spatuletail. The Marvelous Spatuletail is a hummingbird, and arguably the most amazing of the family, which is saying something. It has a small body, only a few inches, smaller than your garden variety hummers in the US, more like a woodstar body size, but its tail is what sets it apart. It has evolved to have only four tail feathers, as opposed to the usual 10-14 of most birds. The central pair of feathers are like long pins, more than twice as long as the body, and extending straight out from the back. The outer two are a whole different story. They are at least 5 times as long as the body, and curve out like a bow in a semi-circle from the tail base. At the tips they have large round “spatulas” feather tips about half the size of the body of the bird itself. This outer pair of feathers moves independently from the rest of the bird, so when it is perched at rest, they kind of wander aimlessly. Such a wonder to watch. We went to the spot for them this morning, after arriving in La Florida last night, and had at least nine individuals, with at least three and probably four adult males in one spot. They were, dare I say, marvelous? We are going to go back this afternoon to watch them again for a while, because this valley is the only place in the world where they occur, and who knows when we will be back here next?
Other good birds at the spatuletail spot included Purple-throated Sunangel, Buff-bellied Tanager, Purple-collared Woodstar, and Rufous-capped Antshrike.
I write this now sitting on the bed in our hostal, with Andrew asleep on the next bed, and Chris out getting money. I will have been here for a month tomorrow, and depending on how well we do birding tomorrow, I may break 500 species in this first month. Tomorrow we are heading to the Rio Chido trail, a place where the target is Pale-billed Antpitta, one of the coolest antpittas in the world, and a spot that also has good birds such as Straw-backed Tanager and Chestnut-crested Cotinga. From here we head farther east to Abra Patricia, then down to the Tarapoto area, and retrace our steps back through Abra Patricia and the Maranon Valley to Lima on January 20th, where we will take a pelagic before doing the final month in the southern part of the country, the Manu Road, Machu Picchu, and the Cuzco area.
Hope everyone is well and that you have a great holiday season.

Take it easy,