Northern Peru is packed with unique treasures – cultural, archaeological and natural. Blessed with few tourists and better coastal weather than either Lima or the south, the area encompasses city oases along the coast, secluded villages in the Andes – where you may well be the first foreigner to pass through for years – and is brimming over with imposing and important pre-Inca sites, some of them only discovered in the last decade or two. Furthermore, of Peru’s 106 endemic bird species, a quarter are to be found exclusively in the north, along with more widespread endemics and many of the Tumbesian endemics that occur only in Northwestern Peru and Southwestern Ecuador.
The Bosque de Pomac Historical Sanctuary, 35 miles northeast of Chiclayo, comprises over twenty pre-Inca temple pyramids within one corner of what extends to the largest dry forest in the Americas. Part of the beauty of this site derives from its situation at the heart of an ancient forest, dominated by Prosopis alba trees, spreading out over some 33,000 acres, a veritable oasis in the middle of the desert landscape. Over ninety percent of Peru’s ancient gold artefacts are believed to have come from here. Avian gold comes in the fluttering form of Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Necklaced Spinetail, Tumbes Tyrant, Rufous Flycatcher, Peruvian Plantcutter, White-tailed Jay, Tumbes Swallow, Superciliated Wren, Cinerous Finch and Grey-and-gold Warbler.
35 miles to the southeast, Chaparrí became Peru’s first privately owned reserve in 1999, and is an inspiring example of a community-run project making great strides in protecting communal land and changing attitudes on the value of conservation. Set in over 84,000 acres of land owned by the local community, Chaparrí is a birders paradise, with over 250 species to be found within its boundaries, including 70 endemics. One can expect to see White-winged Guan (reintroduced and quite habituated around the lodge), Elegant Crescentchest, Tumbes Sparrow, Sulphur-throated Finch and hummers including Tumbes and Oasis Hummingbirds, Little, Purple-collared and Short-tailed Woodstars and Peruvian Sheartail. You could kill a morning purely within the vicinity of the lodge.
Among various terrestrial inhabitants, the stars are the Spectacled Bears, reintroduced to the region here in the reserve, and although most of the population is scattered a day’s hike or more away, it is possible to see some in the recuperation area where rescued bears are prepared for reintroduction into the wild. For the really persistent and lucky, there are a few Puma and Ocelot around, although they are seen mostly by the local camera traps. The dainty Sechuran Fox and Collared Peccaries are more likely visitors at mealtimes. Accommodation is available in luxurious rustic cabins with adobe walls and bamboo ceilings. A stay of a few nights is simply the best way to enjoy the peace and beauty of Peru’s least-known ecosystem. Be aware when you use the sink – I had a scorpion in mine.
An hour’s drive north of Chaparrí brings you to the bird-rich mountain village of Casupe where you may wander up a wide track looking for Ecuadorian Piculet, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Henna-hooded and Rufous-necked Foliage-gleaners, Chapman’s Antshrike, Grey-breasted Flycatcher, Speckle-breasted Wren and Three-banded Warbler. Heading five hours drive northeast to the city of Jaén, the road climbs for the first time to 2,140 metres at Abra de Porculla, before descending into the arid Marañon-Chinchipe valleys. The lofty heights of the former hold Line-cheeked Spinetail, Piura Chat-Tyrant, Bay-crowned Brush-Finch and Black-cowled Saltator. The latter have majestic scenery and birds to boot such as Marañón Spinetail, Collared Antshrike, Northern Slaty-Antshrike, Marañón Crescentchest, Marañón Thrush, Buff-bellied Tanager, Little Inca-Finch and Black-capped Sparrow.
Almost a hundred miles to the west, the gearshift is sudden and spectacular. Near the village of Pomacochas is the Huembo reserve and the Centro de Interpretacion Colibri Maravilloso. If you think that’s a mouthful, the star attraction here is an eyeful. The endemic Marvellous Spatuletail is arguably the most astonishing hummingbird on the planet. Seen here at feeders, mostly in the early morning, it is the most memorable bird I have ever seen. The species is unique in that it has only four tail feathers, all of which can be moved independently. These ‘spatules’ are frantically waved by the male as he attempts to impress a female during his hovering display flight. A respectable hummer support cast includes Fawn-breasted Brilliant and White-bellied Woodstar amongst others.
The nearby Rio Chido trail can provide sightings of high-altitude species namely Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Russet-mantled Softtail, Pale-billed, Rusty-tinged and Rusty-breasted Antpittas, Chestnut-crested Cotinga, Plain-tailed Wren (schulenbergi), Capped Conebill, Deep-blue Flowerpiercer and tanagers including Grass-green, Flame-faced, White-capped and Red-hooded.
You would be quite within reason to say that the Marvellous Spatuletail is the highlight of Northern Peru. However, the sheer multitude and diversity of species at Abra Patricia Owlet Lodge, another 25 miles to the northeast, is staggering. Amongst the east Andean slope are cloud forests chockfull of bird flocks. By now, one has climbed the Andes again and is topping out at 2,300 metres. You could easily spend a week at Abra Patricia enjoying the tower, trails and hummingbird feeders. Over 400 bird species have been recorded here and the nearby Fundo Alta Nieva. Highlights include Long-whiskered Owlet (at its only known site and never reliable after a long, testing trek), Royal Sunangel, Crested and Golden-headed Quetzals, Black-mandibled Toucan, Johnson’s Tody-Flycatcher, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and dozens of species of multi-coloured tanagers including Yellow-scarfed and Paradise. Yellow-tailed Monkey is also possible here. Moths put on an impressive show after dusk.
Descending the mighty Andes once more and heading fifty or so miles southeast brings one to Yacumama resort and a whole host of new species including Buckley’s Forest-Falcon, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Swallow-wing, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, Little Woodpecker, Fiery-capped Manakin, Black-billed Thrush, Burnished-buff Tanager, Orange-backed Troupial and White-vented Euphonia. Twenty miles further east is the Waqanki Orchid Reserve at Quebrada Mishquiyacu near Moyobamba. Here, the familiar combination of tower, trails and hummingbird feeders (which attract over twenty species including Rufous-crested Coquette and Golden-tailed Sapphire) allow various possibilities to connect with Russet-crowned Crake, Spot-winged Parrotlet, Band-bellied and Black-banded Owls, Buff-tailed Sicklebill (not at feeders), Bluish-fronted Jacamar, Mishana Tyrannulet, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, Black-and-white and Rusty-fronted Tody-Flycatchers, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Wing-barred Manakin and Várzea Thrush. The accommodation is basic but comfortable in bird-rich surroundings.
Seventy miles to the southeast brings one to your final destination of Tarapoto. En route, the Oilbird colony at the Quiscarrumi Bridge is unmissable in order to see these extraordinary nocturnal, echo-locating, fruit-eating troglodytes. Once in the Tarapoto area, various sites allow opportunities to see Koepcke’s Hermit (on feeders at Aconabikh), Gould’s Jewelfront, Curl-crested Aracari, Sulphur-bellied Tyrant-Manakin and Dotted Tanager. By now, it should have impressed upon you why nearly one fifth of the world’s bird species have been recorded in Peru. If not, turn round and do it again.
Ed would like to thank Mirna Ipanaqué from PROMPERÚ (www.peru.travel/en-uk) and Wilson Díaz from Green Tours (www.greentours.com.pe) for their attentive and generous hosting. The latter should be your first port of call with regards organised tours. June, before the peak of the dry season in mid-July, is a good time for birding, as is the period September to mid-December. Late September to early October is usually the best time to seek Spectacled Bear.