Unexplored South Eastern Peru: A Birder's Paradise

One of the most visited destinations by bird watchers is the south-east of Peru. There are two places in particular: Manu National Park and the Tambopata area, near Puerto Maldonado. Both places are located in the department of Madre de Dios, which is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

For many years the destination in the lowlands forests of Madre de Dios has been the Manu. A well-known destination with excellent opportunities to observe wildlife but with challenging logistics which demands a long trip and increases the costs. The area around Puerto Maldonado now offers a versatile alternative destination.

There are at least 5 commercial flights daily from Lima and Cusco to and from Puerto Maldonado. From there one embarks directly to the different lodges that near the city. It is a very fast and effective process that allows one to maximise time in the forest in a short visit.

The diversity of habitats in the region is impressive. Floodplain forest, terra firme forest, palm swamps, oxbow lakes, and the rivers themselves. These habitats support a diverse avifauna. Access to the canopy is often provided through well designed and secure platforms built in the top of the trees.

For the visiting birder there are a number of species considered the “specialities” of south-eastern Peru; they mostly also occur in adjacent areas of Brazil and Bolivia but are easier to access in Peru.

Some of these species are: Black-capped Tinamou, Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl, Bluish-fronted Jacamar, Purus Jacamar, White-throated Jacamar, Semi-collared Puffbird, Western Striped Puffbird, Scarlet-hooded Barbet, Curl-crested Aracari, Golden- collared Toucanet, Peruvian Warbling Antbird, Humaita Antbird, Rufous-fronted Anthrush, Amazonian Antpitta, Acre Tody-Tyrant, Fiery-capped, Band-tailed and Round-tailed Manakin, Black-faced Cotinga to mention a few. In addition there is a group of birds known as the bamboo birds that are one of the specialties of southeastern Peru, these species being almost exclusively found in stands of Guadua bamboo: Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Rufous-breasted Piculet, Red-billed Scythebill, Cabanis's Spinetail, Peruvian Recurvebill, Dusky-cheeked and Brown-rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Ornate, Ihering's and Dot-winged Antwren, Bamboo Antshrike, White-lined, Goeldi's, Manu and Striated Antbird, Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant, White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant, Large-headed and Dusky-tailed Flatbill.

Additionally, there are still healthy populations of birds that have been extirpated by human pressure in other parts of the Amazon. It is still quite easy to see large gamebirds like to see Spix's and Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Razor-billed Curassow, Pale-wined Trumpeters and large raptors such as Harpy Eagles are still reasonably common!

From Puerto Maldonado most travel is by boat to the different sites and there are offerings for all budgets and tastes. Be aware that generally the lodges closer to Puerto Maldonado do not offer as good a chance of the more spectacular wildlife as the more distant sites. The offer ranges from very basic to the most luxurious hostels of Inkaterra near Puerto Maldonado at Madre de Dios river, Sandoval Lake Lodge to the famous Explorer’s Inn, (the first and classic lodge in Tambopata!), Posada Amazonas Lodge (which belongs to the native community of Infierno), Wasai Lodge, Chuncho Lodge, and Refugio Amazonas among others.

Perhaps two of the most spectacular places are the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) on the Tambopata River and the Amazon Research and Conservation Center (ARCC) on the Las Piedras River. Due to their remote locations, at both places it is possible to find good populations of large mammals such as Jaguars, Tapirs, Giant Otters, White-lipped and Collared Peccaries to mention a few and 8 to 10 species of primates.

The road to Infierno (Hell…yes, you are reading correctly! This is the name of the community at the end of the road), was once THE place to watch birds near Puerto Maldonado. Unfortunately, deforestation has taken its toll and whilst it still has good birds! There is a new road that is now a better option, known as the Carretera Corredor Tambopata (the Tambopata Corridor) the road passes through an area that is well preserved due to the initiative of the landowners and it offers good opportunities to find interesting birds near to the city.

Other good places to watch birds in the morning or afternoon around Puerto Maldonado are la Pastora, Chorrillos, Carachamayoc and La Cachuela. The more open habitats mean one can find species that are unusual near the lodges. Some of these birds are Brazilian Teal, Black-bellied and White-faced Whistling-Duck, White-tailed Kite, Southern Lapwing, Scaled Pigeon, Striped Cuckoo, Striped Owl, Burrowing Owl, Southern Caracara, Purus and White-throated Jacamar, Rusty-backed Antwren, Point-tailed Palmcreeper, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Black-faced Tanager, Grassland Sparrow, and even Chopi Blackbirds! The birding is done mostly from the road and at an easy pace.

Following the Interoceanica highway from Puerto Maldonado to Brazil, you will reach the small town of Iberia. The trip takes about three and a half hours to reach town, which is small and has only basic services. There are three decent but simple hotels. Options for eating are not very diverse, but include a Polleria, with the speciality of spit-roasted chicken (a Peruvian delicacy!) and a pizzeria at the main square. The main reason why one would like to visit this area is to have the opportunity to see two birds in particular: the Rufous Twsitwing and the recently described Acre Tody-Tyrant. Both species are restricted to large bamboo stands. Birding in this area is alongside roads through pastures and patches of forest. There are few roads that go through some interesting habitat but the landscape is constantly changing due the turning the forest into pastures. Along the road, it is possible to find other species very similar to those described for the surroundings of Puerto Maldonado, plus the Black-faced Cotinga.

Visitors to this area should be aware that during the months of August and September there is a lot of burning to turn the forest into pastures, this can be very challenging and dangerous, and from November it starts to rain and the situation to observe birds is complicated as access to the roads becomes difficult.

North-east of Puerto Maldonado there is the Las Piedras River (Rio Las Piedras), a hidden gem of Madre de Dios. The presence of major fauna such as Jaguars, Giant Otters, Tapirs, and Peccaries, as well as several species of monkeys make this place an impressive site not only for birdwatchers but all nature lovers. There is a new lodge by an oxbow lake called the Amazon Research and Conservation Center (ARCC). The avifauna reported here includes all of the the specialties of Southeastern Peru plus Violaceous Quail-Dove, a rather rare species in Peru among others. In the same area there is another new place called ARBIO that will be opening its operations soon.

Another place worth to visit in the area is known as Finca Las Piedras and it can be reach by road from Puerto Maldonado. It is a basic site with shared bathrooms and is widely used by different institutions to develop workshops and teaching tropical field courses. Brazilian and Small billed Tinamou, Humaita Antbird and Bar-bellied Woodcreeper have been reported here.

One of the most amazing attractions of Southeastern Peru are the incredible “collpas” (a quechua word that means salt). These clay licks are located for the most part at exposed sections of river banks and can attract hundreds of large and small macaws, parrots, parakeets, and parrotlets every day to ingest the clay to supplement their diets. A speciality of south-eastern Peru, where natural salt concentrations are low. It is possible to find collpas throughout the region, even near Puerto Maldonado where there is a small collpa at La Cachuela. Collpas are found from Manu, where one of the most popular is known as Blanquillo, but those of the Tambopata River are generally superior in terms of diversity of species and numbers of birds.

Clay licks change from year to year as the rivers change course and cut through new salt-bearing strata or move away and the banks become covered in vegetation. The most famous of all the clay licks is at Tambopata Research Center, the headquarters of the macaw project and previously the largest clay lick known, in terms of numbers and diversity of birds. It has been featured in many wildlife documentaries. After years of, it does not have the same amounts of species but is still as one of the most diverse. Currently, the most popular and visited of these clay licks is known as Collpa Chuncho located at the confluence of the Tambopata and Chuncho rivers. This is best visited from the lodges of the Tambopata river. At present there are a number of lodges in the area that include the visit to the clay lick as part of their programs. Perhaps Chuncho Lodge, Wasai Lodge, and Amazon Refuge are the most recommended since these are ones that are closest and have well developed programs to visit this site.

Southeastern Peru is one of the best places in South America to reach species with restricted range and other rarities. Many of these birds also occur in the adjacent region of Bolivia and Brazil, but access in these countries is very complicated. Looking for these birds in Peru very easy and hassle free place to bird, not to mention the spectacular wildlife that occurs also here.

Text by Pepe Rojas.