Story and Photography by Mercedes Benavides
Manú Road is a leading birding route that begins in the city of Cusco, in what was the capital of the Inca Empire, and journeys through deep valleys, lakes and mountains all the way into the rainforest, deep in the Manú National Park of Peru. One could even think of traveling this road as a pilgrimage: while there is one starting point and one direction, there are many paths along the way and plenty of stops to admire the breadth of avifauna and flora amidst dramatic settings as one travels up and over the Andes Mountain Range down to the Amazonian plain, all of which make Manú Road a spiritual experience for sure. As one of the top ten mega-diverse countries in the world, Peru holds the second spot in number of bird species at over 1,800, and is within the top five spots in amphibians, mammals and plants. Manú Road is representative of this biodiversity.
From Cusco, the first stop is the Wetland Lucre-Huacarpay, a Ramsar Site and Important Bird Area per BirdLife International, located in the South Valley. Archaeological finds in the area are rich in representations of birds from the wetland. And today, the site has year-round resident birds and boreal and austral migratory birds. From there, a left turn in the northern direction and one is on the road that climbs the western face of the Andes Mountain Range, and quickly reaches 13,123 feet, with stunning views of the mountains and the Puna. Next is the Acjanaco Mountain Pass and from then on down, the eastern side of the Andes Mountain Range, to the Acjanaco Control Post, the Andean gateway into the Manú National Park.
With a dramatically deep vertical slope ranging from 13,800 to 380 f.a.s.l., and a unique location between the Andes Mountain Range and the western frontier of the Amazon Basin, the Manú National Park is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. In the higher elevations where the Elfin forest is found, lives the Andean Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium jardinii,) a very small owl 6 3/4 – 7 inches in size with a large rounded head. It has an altitudinal range of 4,920 – 11,811 f.a.s.l., and is the only pygmy owl that exists in the upper limits of that range.
Travelling down the eastern side of the Andes, and in the humid montane forest, there are display leks, where one can find the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola peruvianus), a very large and striking Andean cotinga. It is 12 1/4 – 13 inches in length. The male has bright orange-red feathers with black and grey wings, and the female is dull brown all over. Their courtship display is quite a dance: “bowing and jumping whilst flapping their wings and bill snapping” as described in The Birds of Machu Picchu and the Cusco Region Field Guide.
At around 4,920 f.a.s.l., still in the humid montane forest, one can find the Many-spotted Hummingbird (Taphrospilus hypostictus,) a medium to large hummingbird 4 1/2 – 4 3/4 inches long, that is mainly found in the forest interior.
One final example of a species in the humid montane forest is the Masked Trogon (Trogon personatus.) It is immediately recognizable due to its bright colours and habit of perching for extended periods of time, even in the face of intruders nearby. It is 9 3/4 – 10 1/4 inches in length, smaller than the Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola peruvianus) but larger that the Andean Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium jardinii.)
Continuing on down to the Port of Atalaya on the Alto Madre de Dios River, and a 20 minute boat ride away, is the tropical lowland rainforest. Here there are birds such as the Rufous-crested Coquette (Lophornis delattrei,) tiny at 2 3/4 – 3 inches long, but in the case of the male, enormous in terms of its unique appearance: a crest of bright orange feathers longer that its head and a glittering green gorget.
And then there is the unmistakable Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin,) common in swampy areas by lakes or rivers, however, anything but common. Looking straight out of prehistoric times, it has blue skin and blood-red eyes. And at 24 – 27 inches, it is quite large, and easy to spot.
And from there on, Manú Road continues, deeper into the rainforest. Or, one can take a rest here and continue one’s Manú Road journey another time.