Stretching from the Pacific coast to the heart of the Amazon basin, the Northern Peru Birding Route traverses a multitude of different and stunning landscapes from desert, mountains and forests. This diversity of ecosystems supports a staggering diversity of fauna and flora, with many of the unique habitats containing their own endemic species. The region is home to over 1600 species of bird, including some 150 restricted-range species which have a geographic range of less than 50,000 km2, and are usually a specialist of specific habitats.
The route commences on the arid coast of northern Peru near Chiclayo where the cold nutrient-rich waters of at the northern end of the Humboldt current create a wealth of marine life, where this mixes with the warmer waters flowing south you get an abundance of birdlife with a unique mix of species where Magnificent Frigatebirds fly over Humboldt Penguins. The coastal lands are arid and home to desert species such as Least Seedsnipe and Coastal Miner. Along the base of the Andes dry forest, the southern part of the famous Tumbesian endemic bird area is found with many restricted-range species such as the White-winged Guan, Peruvian Plantcutter, Tumbes Tyrant, Rufous Flycatcher, Tumbes Swallow. Key sites include the Chaparri Reserve, the forests around Casupe, the Bosque de Pomac Historical Sanctuary and some forested valleys near the town of Olmos. Further north additional Tumbesian species may be found in the forests of Cerros de Amotape National Park, The Tumbes Mangroves and adjacent areas. Not usually considered part of the main route, the area is complimentary and worthy of a visit.
The route crosses the Andes at their lowest pass, Abra Porculla. On the western side remnant forest patches support various Tumbesian species including the scarce Piura Chat-Tyrant. Crossing the pass one sees a rapid transition as the road descends into the arid Marañón valley. The northern part of the valley is dominated by areas of intensive rice cultivation along rivers and cactus dominated scrub and dry forest. Around the town of Jaen many of the Marañón endemics can be found including the eponymous Crescentchest, Spinetail, Pigeon, Slaty Antshrike, and Thrush.
To the east the Utcubamba river is a significant tributary of the Marañón that runs through a spectacular limestone valley, home to the ancient Chachapoyas civilisation and now an increasingly popular area with tourists. This area is home to some good birds including Koepcke’s Screech-Owl. The delightful Andean town of Leimebamba is located at the head of the valley and is a good base for exploring the Rio Atuen valley and the road over Abra Calla Calla (also called Abra Barro Negro) where montane forest and paramo vegetation are home to sought-after species like Coppery Metaltail, leymebambae Rusty-breasted Antpitta, Russet-mantled Softtail, and Large-footed Tapaculo.
Continuing west over the pass the road passes through the impressive steep-sided canyon of the Marañón valley divides the eastern and eastern Andes and is home to a suite of birds that inhabit its dry forests, cactus scrub and riverine woodlands. These include the Yellow-faced Parrotlet, Buff-bridled and Grey-winged Inca-Finches. The road continues to Celendin and Cajamarca and allows access to some very rare birds such as the cajamarcae form of Rufous Antpitta (likely to be split very soon), the spectacular Grey-bellied Comet, Unicoloured Tapaculo, and the Great Spinetail near the town of San Marcos.
East of the Utcubamba river the highlands of the Cordillera Colan near the town of Pomacochas are home to two of the most iconic species of the route. The aptly named Marvelous Spatultail, perhaps the most spectacular and sought-after hummingbird in the world can now be readily seen at the Huembo reserve. The fabulous Pale-billed Antpitta, one of the largest and most striking of the Antpittas can be found at its only accessible site above the village of San Lorenzo, the hike to the habitat up a trail of stone steps requires some effort but those who accept the challenge can be well-rewarded.
Slightly further east the cloud forests of the Alto Mayo Protected Forest provide some of the world’s best birding. The road descends through the forest through a series of different forest types, each supporting their own specialities and complemented by the wonderful mixed species flocks dominated by tanagers that can be found in the area. The stunted ridge-top forests are home to the Royal Sunangel, Bar-winged Wood-Wren and Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant. Second-growth areas harbour the snazzy Johnson’s Tody-Tyrant. The mature forest at higher elevations holds the enigmatic Long-whiskered Owlet, one of the world’s smallest and least known owls. Only discovered in 1977 it is only in the last decade that one has a reasonable chance of seeing it on the trails of the well-named Owlet Lodge or at Alto Nieva. The area is also home to the very local Ochre-fronted Antpitta, which is now being fed at Fundo Alto Nieva.
Lower elevation forests here hold sought -after birds such as Peruvian Piedtail and Ash-throated Antwren. The Alto Mayo valley is now intensively farmed but remaining areas of natural habitat hold a suite of interesting birds including the recently described Mishana Tyrannulet and Varzea Thrush. Near the town of Moyobamba, Waqanki lodge has wonderful hummingbird feeders and a great orchid collection. The forest above the lodge provides fantastic birding with chances of scarce species including Ash-throated Antwren, Grey-tailed Piha, and Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher.
The city of Tarapoto provides access to the Cordillera Escalera, an outlying ridge, where Koepcke’s Hermit and Dotted Tanager are amongst the highlights of a diverse avifauna. Dry forests nearby, such as those at Quebrada Upaquihua, give a different suite of species including Buckley’s Forest-Falcon, Zimmer’s Antbird, Sulphur-bellied Tyrant Manakin. From here one can also access the forests of the Cordillera Azul at Plataforma where the Scarlet-banded Barbet and recently described Cordillera Azul Antbirds are amongst the highlights.
A short flight from Tarapoto to Iquitos takes one into the heart of the Amazon lowlands and an area with an extraordinary biodiversity, a single hectare of lowland forest here can contain more tree species than the continent of North America. The city of Iquitos lies on the north bank of the Amazon river and is a convenient point from which to access the variety of forest types in the surrounding area and as the Amazon river is a major biogeographical divide, it also allows the visitor to bird both banks and see the different species that occur on each.
Habitats here include the flooded forests in and around Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, perhaps best visited at Muyuna Lodge near the village of San Juan de Yanayacu on the Yanayacu river. This is one of the best places to see the rare Wattled Currasow. Vegetation on the ever-changing river islands has a rapid successional process and the different stages support a suite of specialist birds. To the north of the Amazon the famous Explorama and Explornapo lodges provide access to flooded and terre firme forest. The Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve protects the various habitats of the white-sand forests and is home to the Iquitos Gnatcatcher, Allpahuayo Antbird and other restricted-range species.
Northern Peru has some many birds and great birding habitats that it can keep a birder entertained for a life-time and the perhaps the greatest challenge to the visitor is deciding where to go. Whichever options one choses, a three-week trip one can expect to see in excess of 700 species of bird, making it one of the most productive destinations for the visiting birder. The great birding is also combined with spectacular scenery, delicious food and a fascinating history with some world class archaeological sites.
Text by Rob Williams.