Wednesday, March 31, 2010

South American Conclusion

I have failed miserably in blogging, I admit it. I've even been home for a few weeks, but just haven't gotten around to it. I have no excuses. My apologies.
Since I last blogged all those months ago, many things have happened. I'll try to keep it as succinct as possible. Caution: these following tales may include reckless stories of birding, building dams, British compatriots, and robbery!

After I last wrote from Northern Peru in Pomacochas, we travelled north through the dry Marañon Valley, picking up many more endemics along the way, and into southern Ecuador. We had two reasons for heading into Ecuador, the main one being to renew our tourist visas, because we expected to be in Peru for a time greater than our 90 day visas allowed, and the second being to see Jocotoco Antpitta! Jocotoco Antpitta is a bird that was discovered in 1997, and since then has been trained to come in and feed on worms every morning at a certain reserve in Southern Ecuador. Luckily we were able to witness this, and quite an amazing experience it was, with at least 2-3 birds within 15 feet, and as close as 6-8 feet sometimes.
During our time in Ecuador at one point our funds were down to 57 cents, just the change I had in the bottom of my backpack!
We made a loop of southern Ecuador through Loja, coming back into Peru via the border down of Macará, down into lowland NW Peru. I really disliked NW Peru while we were there, it was hot, dirty, smelly, overpriced, and overcrowded. The rest of Peru was fantastic, but I was happy to get out of NW Peru as soon as possible. The birding there is good however, and lots of good birds were seen.
After the lowlands we went into the central highlands to the Cajamarca area, a lovely town and area, and from there into the Balsas Valley, at the upper end of the Marañon River Valley. This was quite a stunning place, with drop dead gorgeous scenery, and in one day we went from close to treeline down to hot desert with cactus, quite a change.
From Cajamarca it was time to head to Lima once more, where we had a pelagic scheduled to leave on January 20th. We spent a couple days before the pelagic being lazy in Lima, going to see Avatar, eating at Pizza Hut, etc, and it was fantastic.
The pelagic was quite enjoyable, seeing 6 species of storm-petrel, and our first albatrosses (Waved), penguins (Humboldt), and diving-petrels (Peruvian)! We also met someone who ended up joining our group after the pelagic, a British fellow named Simon Mitchell, who had been working in Bolivia for a few months, and had a couple weeks free before he had any commitments.
With Simon now in tow, we rented a car, quite cheap when split four ways, and headed off into the central highlands to the Huaraz area. Huaraz is backed by the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range that is considered by many to be the most beautiful in the world. We spent a few days in this area, getting such interesting birds as White-cheeked Cotinga, and we also finished the entire family of Inca-Finches! Inca-Finches are an endemic genus to Peru, with five species being represented, which we saw in the order of: Little; Gray-winged; Buff-bridled; Great; and Rufous-backed. Finishing the Inca-Finches is always one of the primary goals during an extended visit to Peru, and definitely near the top of our list.
From the Huaraz area, our next place to visit was a small town called San Damian, midway between the interior road in Huaraz and the coastal highway. Of course, the main theme down there is north-south roads, and we had to head west. This involved a tiny winding dirt road for hours, which was fun at first, but after a while got tiresome. We also had to stop and ask for directions a few times, because we only had a general idea where we were going. Just as it was starting to get a little dark out, after we'd been on roads like this for 3-4 hours, all of a sudden the road was washed out. There had been lots of rain higher up, and now that we were descending down the western slope of the Andes, the stream right next to the road had burst over its banks and flooded the road. So what choice did we have at that point? We built a dam. It took a little over 30 minutes probably, but after hauling rocks from a nearby slope, we managed to reduce the ~8" deep torrent to a slow moving couple inches of water. We kept going down, through a narrow gorge most of the way that was just stunning while lit up by the setting sun. However, a few miles further down, it being mostly dark now, we saw a single headlight coming in the other direction. A guy riding a dirtbike quickly flagged us down and told us that ahead the road was ENTIRELY washed out in multiple places, and completely impassible. Disheartened, we retraced our steps, having to get out a few times so that the lessened weight allowed the car to get over certain parts of the road with just the driver in it. We ended up spending the night in the little town of Aija, where unbelievably I had cell service, so we had the lovely use of the internet. We stayed at the only hostel in town, which also was a restaurant, so we never really had to leave that building.
The next morning we talked with the proprietress, who assured us that people were going down to work on the washout this morning. Dubious, but wanting to believe it, we went back down the road that we had turned back on the night before, this time going for around an hour one way, where we reached a massive spillway that was all sharp rocks, with about 6 switchbacks leading down it. Quite an impressive sight, the whole area being set between two steep cliffs and with a small lake at the upper end. Here was where it had washed out, and not just in one place, but in three or four. We walked around and pondered for close to an hour whether we would be able to repair the road enough using all the rocks around to be able to allow our pitifully low clearance car to pass. Chris was so firmly set against it that I believe he might have caused us bodily harm had we tried it, and eventually all four of us decided, reluctantly, that rather than risk it, we would have to go the long way around. The long way was over 3 hours back to the main road in Huaraz, then AROUND, an extra 150k+, and 8-9 hours of driving. One of the other problems is that the rental car had a milage limit on it, so we had to pay more to drive around as well.
The next morning from the other side we got to San Damian without incident, got the birds, and headed back towards Lima. We deserved the target birds there, Piura Chat-Tyrant and Russet-bellied Spinetail, perhaps more than anyone ever has, having build a dam, driven for a couple hundred kilometers, and spent 3 full days getting to them.
Back towards Lima we spent the night in Huacho, a pretty seedy town. We kept joking, telling each other to "Huacho-self!" during our time there. Turns out someone should have been watching the car instead.
For parking the car at nights they have places called "cocheras" where you pay someone to watch the car for you in a small enclosed lot for the night. Well, the place that we chose for this night either had a blind and deaf watchman, or he was in on it somehow. During the night our driver-side window was smashed in, but unbelievably, nothing was taken! We had money lying out in plain sight, albeit in small amounts, and our bags were in the trunk even. We just got really really lucky.
The most amazing thing about the whole event is that the guy who watched our car denied any responsibility! He claimed that he was there to keep our things safe, and had any of our things been stolen? No. So therefore he felt perfectly fine about his job. We were simply awestruck at his reaction to all this, and eventually got the cops involved, trying to get him to pay for our broken window. What eventually came out of this was a wasted morning, and we drove to Lima and got the window repaired ourselves, which cost a pittance, something like $30 I believe for the window and all the labor.
Now back in Lima we had planned to head the Machu Picchu and southeastern Peru next, but it turned out to be the rainiest rainy season in recent history, and as some of you may have heard, the train tracks to Machu Picchu were entirely washed out in a few places by mudslides, and people even died. As well as all that, thousands of people were stranded in the town by Machu Picchu, and people were getting evacuated by helicopter, and it was something of a national emergency. In any case, most of southeastern Peru was inaccessible and/or unsafe. At a loss for a brief period of time, we quickly decided what must be done. Another country must be visited. Since Ecuador was old hat, and Bolivia needs a visa, we were left with Chile. Mere victims of fate, we had no choice but to go to Chile. Unfortunately Simon had to head back to the UK, so he was unable to join us.
A couple days later our once again three person party hopped the 20 hour bus to the Peru/Chile border, and then crossed over into the lovely country of Chile. It was amazing how many things were instantly different in the much more first-world country of Chile. Of course, everything costs more. We spent one night in the town of Arica, and then got on a 30 hour bus to Santiago, the capital of Chile.
During this bus ride, about 5-6 hours in, the most unfortunate thing to ever befall me happened.
We were stopped in the town of Iquique, our first stop since leaving Arica, and people were getting off and getting on the bus, per usual. The driver was supposed to be at the door, checking peoples tickets that got on, but he had gone to the back to help get out baggage for the departing people. I noticed one person that had gotten on and was sitting in a seat a few rows up, a guy wearing reflective sunglasses that was looking around, seemingly in idle curiosity. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Another guy got on and sat to the right of me across the aisle, between me and my friend who was in the opposing window seat. A third person came and sat behind me, and unbeknownst to me at the time, pulled the backpack that was under my legs under my seat and right to him. He proceeded to put it on and walk off the bus, right past me, past my unseeing eyes. A lady a few rows behind me came up and started speaking hurriedly to me in spanish, but I just didn't get what she was saying about my bag. And then I looked down at the vacant spot where my bag was, and realized what she was talking about.
I quickly ran off the bus, because after all I knew what these guys looked like, I had watched them get on the bus. They were of course long gone, and I would never see my backpack again. I lost my camera, two lenses, my binoculars, 1600 pictures, over 2 months worth of field notes, my iPod, and many other small trinkets, totaling over $5,000 worth of stuff. They sure picked the right gringo to rip off.
At least I had my blackberry, wallet, and passport on my person, as I do at all times.
More than a little disheartened, we continued on the long bus to Santiago, making a police report when we arrived. I'm still dealing with insurance people now, but it looks like I'll at least get a couple thousand back, if I'm lucky.
Other than that MINOR hiccup, Chile was absolutely wonderful. We spent about 2.5 weeks there, seeing all sorts of wonderful birds and gorgeous places. My favorite location in Chile was Chiloé Island, a place as far south of the Equator as Boston is north. Some of the coolest places that we visited included a penguin colony on Chiloé called Puñihuil, where there were hundreds of Magellanic Penguins, with a few Humboldt mixed in, as well as other fantastic sea life like Marine Otter, and a constant stream of Sooty Shearwaters going by that totaled close to 100,000 individuals during our time there.
We also visited volcanic slopes up in the Andes, where the only rocks are pumice and obsidian, and the forests are Monkey Puzzle Trees and Nothofagus forest, the latter a relative of the redwoods.
The individual highlight of me would have been the pelagic trip that we took out of Valparaiso, where we got to share a boat with a Field Guides trip led by Peter Burke, a great guy and a co-author of the Birds of Chile guide. The pelagic was simply unbelievable, with 3 Southern Royal Albatrosses, 19 Northern Royals, 75+ Salvin's Albatrosses, and tons of other amazing tubenoses. If only I had a camera! I ended up borrowing Andrew's bins for most of the trip (thanks Andrew), and I took pictures with my phone through his scope as well, as much as I could.
We concluded the trip in Santiago, Chris flying out a few days before Andrew and I did. When we left we flew together to Lima, and then spent a day there before leaving on different flights back to the states.
I met my parents in southern California at LAX, and we spent a couple weeks there before coming back to Mass. I've been back in MA since March 5th, and have seen some good birds since then! Unbelievably, I managed to see every state bird that I missed this winter except one, them all having stuck around. Some of the better birds in the past month have included Common Chaffinch, Tufted Duck, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Sage Thrasher.
This spring I will be working at Manomet Bird Observatory again, banding per usual, and as of the moment I'm not sure where my next travel plans will be. Perhaps the Desert SW this summer, and then somewhere in South America this winter. Time will tell.
Below are my personal species lists for Peru and Chile, and pictures from Peru can be seen at:

Good birding,
Ian Davies
Manomet, MA

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