Peru: A feather for any birder’s life list

by Rachel Dickinson

You might characterize me as a casual birder, which is one-step up from an armchair birder. I am married to a man who once headed the Sapsucker team for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the World Series of Birding so just through sheer osmosis I should be a much better birder than I am. But that would mean I’d have to pay attention.

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© Rachel DickinsonSeveral years ago my husband Tim and I were invited – along with a couple dozen other people – to look for birds in Northern Peru. This was the not the part of Peru you always read about – the Peru of sexy Machu Picchu – this was a trip to the Northern Andes, a wonderful and wild place where new species of birds were still being discovered.

We traveled in a funny red bus that was really a Volvo flatbed truck with something like a container welded to the bed that served as the bus part. As a result there was no communication between the passengers and the driver, especially since the intercom system didn’t seem to work. There was a loo in the back that got increasingly stinky as the week progressed. We bounced and bumped our way along the one-lane road that was carved into the side of the mountains. The bus didn’t seem to have much power so it chugged and ground its gears as it headed up the switchbacks toward the narrow passes and then made liberal use of air brakes on the downward climbs.

Every now and then we’d pass a one-story house adobe house perched on the side of the cliff. They usually had two small windows in the front with vertical bars on them but no glass in them and when we passed the houses at night there was never candle or lamplight coming from within. Often a family would be sitting outside in front of the house and they’d turn on a little flashlight as we passed, perhaps to see us better.

In this part of Peru people dressed in traditional clothes – the women wore red or purple skirts with broad brimmed straw hats – and as we peered down the sides of the mountains we could see them walking like tiny bright spots of color on narrow foot paths – paths that snaked up the sides of mountains, paths connecting houses to fields of corn and potatoes, paths to fields where brown Swiss milk cows were tethered. Men wearing ponchos and broad-brimmed hats led donkeys with wooden frames perched on their backs for carrying things.

Every time we got out of the bus we saw a dizzying array of new and colorful birds and by the end of the trip, most of us saw about 300 species of birds that were new to us. We also saw exotic flowers and butterflies. Some of these hardcore birders are also into butterflies and more than once I watched a grown man crawl on his stomach in the road trying to get a photograph of a butterfly drinking from a puddle of donkey urine.

photo by kookr via flickr common licenseOne thing we were all looking forward to trying to see was the Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird. This highly endangered hummingbird has two extremely long tail feathers that end in large, diamond-shaped discs and there was only one place on earth where it could be found.  It looks very much like something you’d see in the movie Avatar.

We arrived at our little inn late the night before we were to look for the hummingbird. Dubbed the Ghost Hotel by one of the birders who had been there before because several people had seen apparitions in the hallways, it was indeed a creepy place. The walls were covered with Daliesque paintings and in our room a crocodile hide was nailed to the wall and blue-skinned ladies stared at us from two pictures opposite the bed. The next morning I noticed a big wooden sarcophagus in the lobby with the mummified remains visible in the back.

We headed out before dawn toward the hummingbird site. The bus climbed the hill out of town and parked at a farm and a young boy came out to meet us. An auto-rickshaw – a little three-wheeled vehicle – with the image of Che Guevara was parked in front of the house. The boy led us up the narrow path through the pastures behind his house. Curious cows lifted their heads and watched us pass – we looked a bit out of place wearing our Goretex coats with expensive binoculars slung around our necks carrying tripods and camera equipment. Up the side of the mountain we climbed. Up above the cow pastures into a scrubby forest then up onto a clearing where we were told to sit and wait and look toward one patch of scrubland.  The enterprising young boy had hung several hummingbird feeders as a way to attract the birds.

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© Rachel DickinsonI watched as the hardcore birders jockeyed for position – each one wanting to be the first to spot the Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird, a feather for any birder’s life list. And while the birders focused intensely on a ten-yard patch in front of them waiting for the dream bird to appear, I sat back in the wet grass. And I laughed to myself as I watched a big red sun rise and slowly dissipate the thick clouds filling the valley below and I thought of how this might be the perfect illustration for the phrase about not seeing the forest for the trees.

Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the Trip Shop

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