Exotic encounters in Manu: A birder’s paradise

Birding can be a rewarding experience wherever you might be, but when that location is Peru, it’s nothing short of thrilling, says author and birder Neil Glenn. This article was first published for Bird Watching Magazine.


Is there anything better than birding from a boat? Even by the standard of previous memorable boating trips, a morning’s outing along the Manu River, Peru, is something special. It started at dawn, the orange sky glinting off the fast-flowing surface, with macaws and parrots squawking above, as they moved from one area of rainforest to another. We sped north-west up the Manu, breakfast in hand (including delicious fresh, hot corn provided by our own personal chef!) and were joined by hundreds of Sand-coloured Nightjars darting alongside and over the boat, looking for one last mothy-meal before settling to roost on the many sandbanks in the river. Muscovy Ducks waddled away from the water’s edge as we approached, joined by Pied Lapwings and Collared Plovers. Parrots, macaws and parakeets continued to drift nosily over the river and we paused to admire Black Caimans, Jabiru and Wood Storks, Black Vultures and a handful of Orinoco Geese. About two hours into the ride, a glowing rainbow arced over the forest.


I was already in a state of serenity, but now my senses went into overload. Nature was once again proving the ultimate mind healer, stripping away cares and worries, like a storm strips away deadwood from an ancient forest. Several religions strive for a state of enlightenment and I am pretty sure I can touch it from here if I stretch; here on my little boat in the midst of this wilderness.

Local specialities
After the cathartic boating adventure, we moored up and then made a short trek through the forest to transfer to a punted raft along a deserted oxbow river. More serenity in the shape of Hoatzins – a strange prehistoric-looking bird that feeds on leaves but has to sit around waiting for its poorly-developed digestive system to work on the food - evocative calls of Screaming Pihas and yet more parakeets flying over. I am in Peru, by invitation of PromPeru and the Crees Foundation, to sample the delights of what the southern part of the country has to offer. And, boy, does it produce the goods! Any trip to Peru will start in Lima. It is worth taking a day or two in this sprawling city to see the sights and also visit a few birding spots where you can find species you won’t see anywhere else on your holiday. Our bird guide for the day was Fabiana Huaman, who first led us to Árboles de Olivio, an urban park where we saw local specialities such as Long-billed Mockingbird, Pacific Parrotlet, Scrub Blackbird, Amazilia Hummingbird and the gorgeous dark morph variety of Vermillion Flycatcher; all in an environment where the birds are used to noisy people, so get your cameras ready!

Image credit: Bethan John.

About an hour south of central Lima is the bustling fishing village of Pucusana. From here, it is possible to take a thrilling boat ride around a seabird nesting island where you’ll be overwhelmed by legions of birds such as Inca Terns, Peruvian Pelicans, Peruvian Boobies, Guanay and Red-legged Cormorants, a few Humboldt Penguins, as well as South American Sealions. In the harbour and its surrounding rocky shoreline, you should see Surf Cinclodes – an endemic to this coast – Blackish Oystercatchers, Grey, Belcher’s, Grey-hooded and Kelp Gulls and ubiquitous Turnstones.


For a bit of variety, drop in at Pantanos de Villa, a superb marshland not far from Pucusana. Here, the reeds hold Manycoloured Rush-Tyrants (as striking as the name would suggest), Wren-like Rushbirds, Least Bitterns and Peruvian Meadowlarks while the ponds are home to Cinnamon Teal, Andean Coot, the spectacular Great Grebe and many more sought-after goodies. To get to Manu, it is best to fly to Cusco and access the forests from there via minibus and boat.


This also offers the chance to break your trip with a visit to the oneveryone’s-bucket-list Inca site of Machu Picchu. While gawping at the scale of this World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World sites, you may also encounter Inca Wren, Sclater’s Tyrannulet and Highland Elaenia, with Torrent Ducks and Giant Hummingbirds almost guaranteed from the train (or the Machu Picchu Choo-choo as I like to call it) on your way up there. It was in Cusco that we met our wildlife guide at Manu: Jose Padilla.


A day’s slow, birdy drive later, we were in the Manu National Park: a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a long day ‘in the saddle’ but meant we were in the heart of the cloud forest ready for an early start for one of the highlights of the whole trip. At dawn the next day, we excitedly made the short drive to a covered platform in the forest.

Before we even reached the viewpoint, we could hear the strange, otherworldly calls of our target bird deep in the forest: Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. For the next hour, I was privileged to watch at least seven males of this iconic orange/red and black cotinga as they hopped from one moss-covered branch to the next, cocking their heads in display, trying to attract the hidden females.

This is the national bird of Peru and is extremely striking. Image credit: Will Nicholls.

We walked back to the lodge from the lek and were nearly overwhelmed with wildlife sightings. There were Whitecapped Dippers and Sunbitterns on the fast-flowing river; there were Goldenheaded and Crested Quetzals perched in trees; Rusty-backed Oropéndolas gave their wonderfully evocative calls from nest trees by the side of the road; there was a family group of Woolly Monkeys high in the treetops above the road and many species of colourful butterflies fluttered by – including species such as Manu Oressinoma, Rusty-tipped Page, Humboldt and Blue Perisamas and many Red-banded Altinotes.


Breakfast back at the lodge was no quieter, but no one was complaining. Food was interrupted several times by sightings of a Torrent Duck on the river, Booted Raquet-tail and Violet-fronted Brilliant hummingbirds on the feeders and a few species of tanagers in the trees. Our stay here was all too brief, but we had a lot more of Manu Park to explore!


Manu National Park covers in excess of 1.7 million hectares and has three designations of protection: completely protected, a buffer zone – where some agriculture and sustainable logging is allowed and encouraged – and unprotected areas. Unfortunately, illegal mining and logging takes place in the buffer zone, as enforcement is rather lax.


The next port of call was in the buffer zone, where we stayed at the Crees Foundation’s Manu Learning Centre (MLC). Crees stands for Conservation, Research and Environmental Education towards Sustainability.


Our arrival was greeted with dazzling wildlife. Rather rudely, after a thrilling three-hour motorised canoe journey along the Madre de Dios River, we almost brushed past the official welcoming party, choosing instead to gawp at glittering Rufous-crested Coquette, Rufous-webbed Brilliant and Blue-tailed Emerald hummingbirds.


Image credit: Bertie Gregory

MLC is situated in an area of regenerating secondary forest. It was truly amazing to witness just how fast the habitat had recovered since it was clear-felled just 20 years ago. My time at MLC was spent squelching along the muddy trails looking for wildlife, or stalking hummingbirds and butterflies in the garden during ‘rest periods’ (though there really is no rest in such a biodiverse habitat as a rainforest!).

We were also treated to a dawn boat ride to witness a parrot lick. The diet of parrots and macaws is a toxic one and these birds have to visit a clay-lick every day or so to take on-board some clay, which lines their stomachs and helps protect against poisoning. Our best efforts were thwarted by a majestic, but unwelcome, Great Black-Hawk that unhelpfully perched below the cliff face.


Understandably, the parrots and macaws didn’t come down to ‘feed’, though we managed to tick off nine species of Psittacidae.


It was time to move on. The next section of this whistlestop tour of south-eastern Peru was at Crees’s Romero Rainforest Lodge, scene of the cathartic morning boat ride along the Manu River described earlier. Our arrival was no less exciting than at MLC – we were greeted by the sight of Andean Saddle-back Tamarins and the incredible-looking Emperor Tamarin, feeding on bananas.


Saddleback tamarinds in Romero, Manu National Park. Image credit: Eilidh Munro.

The trip ended at another lodge on the Madre de Dios River: the Manu Wildlife Centre. This luxurious rainforest lodge was the scene of a night trek to try to see a tapir. A sleeping platform, complete with mosquito nets, has been set up overlooking a clay-lick. Just like parrots, some mammals have to partake of life-saving clay to neutralise a toxic diet.


Unfortunately, a tapir didn’t show for us on our last night and it was a disappointed, weary, sweaty but philosophical group that trudged back to the main accommodation in the dark with Amazonian Pygmy-owl calls ringing in our ears.


Fatigue and lack of sleep didn’t prevent us from flopping into the bar to toast a truly astonishing, wildlife-packed trip into ‘Deepest, Darkest Peru’.


Looking back, there are plenty of reasons to return to Peru. Tapir is one, of course, but there’s also Harpy Eagle, many snakes, frogs and lizards, hundreds of butterflies and quite a few species of skulking antwrens, antbirds, antpittas and antshrikes, not to mention ants.


And Paddington Bear: we didn’t find Paddington Bear...

Further reading