Birding the Lima Coast and Central Highway

A Little Adventure around Lima – 2-7 September 2002

By David Chantler, with input from Peter Bono and Hugh Buck

Our small group consisted of the intrepid Peter Bono (USA), who organized this whole affair; Dave Chantler (USA), who provided bad humor; and the near great Hugh Buck (Cyprus by way of Scotland—or is it the other way around?).  Our leader was none other than the redoubtable Barry Walker, who is probably the best birder in Peru, and who, on the side, owns Manu Expeditions, providing all sorts of birding and nature tours. His website can be found at the end of this tome.

Day 1 – Sept. 2 – Lima to Paracas

At our quaint little Hotel Castellana in the heart of Miraflores, we were met on the morning of September 2 by Barry and our driver.  We proceeded south along the Pan Am highway, stopping at the Villa Marshes near Pucusana for whatever we could scrape up.  This included White-tufted, Pied-billed, and Great Grebes; Peruvian Booby; Neotropic Cormorant; Andean Duck; White-cheeked Pintail; Cinnamon Teal; the usual group of Herons; Puna Ibis; the omnipresent Black and Turkey Vultures; Osprey; Kestrel; Cinereous Harrier; Harris’ (Bay-winged) and Variable (Red-backed) Hawks; Plumbeous Rail; the rather recently noted (for this area) Andean or Slate-colored Coot; plus Common Moorhen, of course, and several standard peeps.  Peruvian Thick-knees were in evidence and several gull species—including Black-tailed (Belcher’s), Gray, Kelp, Gray-headed and Franklin’s—were in the area.  Lastly, in the marshes we saw many Wren-like Rushbirds and the striking Many-colored Rush-Tyrant.  Along the beach area we sighted several Vermilion Flycatchers of the melanistic race—quite a change from the usual stoplight birds we are used to seeing elsewhere. These birds seem to inhabit this local region only.  Also in the area were Yellow-hooded Blackbirds (introduced), Peruvian Meadowlarks, and Shiny Cowbirds.

Pacific Doves, Croaking and Plain-breasted Ground Doves were seen at various points, including the Caneta Valley side road as we traveled south towards Pisco and our hotel at Paracas.  Many Lesser Nighthawks inhabited the dry washes along the roadside.  The only hummer of the day was Amazilia.  Coastal Miners were seen at several sites.  Other birds of the dry coastal bushes that were seen well included Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant, Bran-colored Flycatcher of the ‘rufescens’ race, Short-tailed Field-Tyrant, Long-tailed Mockingbird, Blue-and-White and Chestnut-collared Swallows, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Cinereous Conebill, Collared Warbling-Finch, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Blue-black Grassquit, and Drab and Chestnut-throated Seedeaters. 

Our star of the day was to be the Slender-billed Finch, whose range reaches its northern-most point along this coast.  Nearly all of the usual haunts of this bird have been destroyed with clearing, and we were feeling a little down on our luck until Barry suggested, at the last moment just as we were nearing Pisco, to check out one of the islands of dense brush—which is the preferred habitat—in a field alongside the gravel road. Voilà!  We h it the jackpot, and we subsequently found more than one individual in several of the nearby dense-bush-islands as well, surrounded by a sea of sand. 

Inca TernWhen we finally arrived at the hotel, we walked out onto the boat dock and surveyed the harbor.  Peruvian Boobies, Peruvian Pelicans, and Peruvian Terns were diving and feeding all around us.  Also present was one of the world’s most beautiful birds—the fabulous Inca Tern.  This is elegance personified.  This writer never tires of seeing them. 

These late afternoon successes gave us more than enough energy to down more than our share of “Grande” Pisco Sours at the luxurious Hotel Paracas.  Good food and good wine finished our first day.

Day 2 – Sept. 3 – Humboldt Current, the Ballestas Islands, and the Paracas Peninsula


We hired a fast boat and the best “captain”—Julian.  This man knows the sea birds very well, and we have much to thank him for his ability not only to steer us on a good course, but also to see birds in the distance that our combined eyes were incapable of sighting.  He is to be sought out if you plan on going to this area; ask at the Hotel Paracas front desk.  The extra cost of the private boat trip more than paid off, because we not only saw several lifers, including two for our guide, Barry.

Our boat ventured well south, then back to St. Gallen Island, and then to the Islas Ballestas, where we got our lifer Humboldt Penguins and Guanay Cormorants (thousands).  On the way out of the harbor, we saw a number of dainty Peruvian Terns and Inca Terns flew over our boat. While in the Humboldt Current, we added such gems as one long distance Waved Albatross, one Southern (Antarctic) Giant Petrel, numerous beautiful Cape Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, and at least 8 Peruvian Diving Petrels—these latter birds are really special because their numbers have declined so dramatically in recent years.  This writer remembers seeing them easily from the beach south of Lima in 1986.  No more: one is lucky to see them at all and only off-shore.  A single Wilson’s Storm Petrel and good numbers of White-vented Storm Petrels were sighted, but no Wedge-rumped on this day.  Peruvian Booby were common, and both Brown and Peruvian Pelicans were seen well. 

A few Red-legged Cormorants were in close on the rocks and the courting and nesting Inca Terns were everywhere—two great looking seabirds that are right up there on the glamour scale.  Red (Gray) Phalaropes were in evidence throughout, and we saw both American and Blackish Oystercatchers on the rocks. Three South Polar Skuas were a special treat and a lifer for a couple of us, including Barry.  We also got good looks at Southern Sea Lion and Southern Fur Seal colonies.




One of the highlight birds of the day had to be the Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes, a very handsome creature for sure, which we saw exploring the vegetation at the tidal line on one of the offshore islands.

After a morning at sea, we imbibed at bit at the dockside while having a leisurely lunch—all of which helped cure the lingering effects of the sea voyage.  In the PM, we drove south to the other side of the Paracas Peninsula, checking out various habitats, including a beach area with over 100 Chilean Flamingos.  We encountered more of the same Gulls and one South American Tern, which was a lifer for all along with a single Sandwich Tern.  There were also a pair of Peruvian Seaside Cinclodes, which gave a closer view than the individual we saw in the morning.  A Chilean Skua, with its rusty plumage and jaunty black cap, flew past giving a fleeting view before it disappeared up the coast.  The beautifully rugged desert seacoast of Paracas is stunning and well worth the drive alone.  We saw a couple more Seaside Cinclodes and at the end of the day, we ventured out along the cliffs to a Southern Fur-Seal colony in search of possible Andean Condors, that at times visit these coastal areas.  None were seen on our walk this day, however.

Day 3 – September 4 – Return to Lima with stops along the way

We took a drive up a paved road, whose destination would have been Ayacucho, but we found little to justify further time spent, and we returned along the Pan Am highway toward Lima with stops along the way.

The only birds of note that had not been seen previously were an Andean Swift and Chiguanco Thrush about 60kms up the valley and a Black-necked Stilt at the Villa Marshes.  In Lima, we stayed in a different Hotel, the Manhattan, near the airport and on the north side of the city—a departure point more convenient for our next day’s adventure.

Day 4 – September 5 - Lomas de Lachay and then to Santa Eulalia

We got an early morning start to drive north to the Lomas de Lachay Preserve (about 1 ½ hours along the coastal highway).  Our principal purpose was to check the dry canyons inland from the Preserve.  We left the main highway and proceeded a few kilometers inland and walked into the canyons at several spots—our primary target was Cactus Canastero.  Despite spending several hours tromping up and down the sandy hills, the bird unfortunately eluded us.  It did not respond to tape and it was not singing. It was the only time that Barry could remember not seeing this bird, and it was most frustrating since its range is quite small.  Barry speculated that the fact that it was greener than normal in the area might have contributed to its moving to a different habitat—but this is an untested hypothesis.  Anyway, in spite of this one disappointment, we did saw several more Peruvian Thick-knees, two Grayish Miner, four Coastal Miner of the deserticolor race—plus an unusual sighting of a Band-winged Nightjar of the decussatus race—both races are possible splits.

Having exhausted the dry canyons—or perhaps it was that they exhausted us—we traveled a little farther northward towards the coast and entered the Lomas de Lachay reserve—above the coastal plain.  It is amazing to see the transformation from bone-dry desert to lush, fog-enshrouded hills with so many different habitats and different birds.  Many Least Seedsnipes were seen along the road—along with Chiguanco Thrush and Yellowish Pipit, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Peruvian Meadowlarks, and our special prize after a little hike along a wet and steep trail—the Thick-billed Miner sighted in a fog so dense that we thought we would never see the bird.  However, it obliged by coming nearly to our feet for us to enjoy.  Yip, yip!

We then headed back down the highway toward Lima and skirted the east side, driving up into the hills on the Central Highway, turning off at Chosica, and staying at the pleasant Santa Eulalia Gardens, a pleasant small hotel in the town of Santa Eulalia.  Good food and a little wine, and we forgot the long day.

Day 5 – September 6 - Santa Eulalia Valley to Casta and return

It was a good thing we left before dawn to venture up the Santa Eulalia road, so we didn’t have to look down—because it is one of the airiest roads anywhere—not for the faint of heart.  Steep chasms, narrow tracks, and no guard rails!  Eventually, we crossed the river and proceeded up towards the community of Casta (between 2300-3000m).  At least twice, we all saw Andean Tinamou.  One Peruvian Pygmy Owl was responsive.  Plenty of Andean Swifts were in evidence here in the high mountains.  The hummer department was well represented by Sparkling Violet-ear, Oasis, Giant, and a couple of really dazzlers—the Bronze-tailed Comet and Peruvian Sheartail, along with Purple-collared Woodstar.  A pair of Black-necked Woodpeckers showed themselves well.  We encountered other good birds such as Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, Canyon Canastero, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Pied-crested and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrants, White-browed Chat-Tyrant and Streak-throated Bush Tyrant and the rather plain looking Spot-billed Ground Tyrant. A lone Brown-bellied Swallow showed up briefly, and there were quite a number of Hooded Siskins. The tanager department was represented by Blue-and-Yellow only, but the finch family was well filled by Mourning and Band-tailed Sierra-Finches, a rare and local Rufous-breasted Warbling Finch, and a superb Great Inca-Finch.  A dozen Bare-faced Ground-Doves joined small groups of Black-winged Ground-Dove at the Inca-Finch bridge site.  Band-tailed Seedeaters and Black-throated Flower-piercers were present along with Golden-bellied Grosbeaks and a Golden-billed Saltator.  A few Peruvian Meadowlarks and some Scrub Blackbirds rounded out the assemblage.  We returned to our hotel in Santa Eulalia in the late afternoon very satisfied with our day.

Day 6 – September 7 - Marcopomacocha and the Central Highway

After another very early start, we were interrupted by numerous lengthy stops due to paving on the main highway.  This aggravation finally over, we reached the high country and turned off toward Marcopomacocha—arriving at 4800 meters or 16,000 feet—it sounds much higher when using the English system!  This area of cushion bogs is home to some of the rarest and most sought after birds in South America, but, unfortunately, it is also being devastated by those who are harvesting the cushion plants for home nurseries.  At the top, we were greeted by a few herds of llamas and magnificent High Andes scenery.

 “Well,” says Barry, “we get to walk DOWN from where we parked the van to the nearest boggy area.”  This seems easy until one tries to walk ANYWHERE at all (up or down!) at 16,000 feet.  However, the task at hand was too important to complain about, even though the writer was suffering mightily from intestinal distress.  Nevertheless, we fanned out in search of the fabled Diademed Sandpiper-Plover and the mythical White-bellied Cinclodes (the population of this bird is infinitesimally small).  We saw both well—only one pair of the plovers, out of the known four pair in the area, and six individuals of the cinclodes. Peter also got a brief but good look at D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, while the others were watching the cinclodes.

The other treats for us were Mountain Caracara, a big flock of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (50 at least), Olivaceous Thornbill, and high altitude furnarids galore, including Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Common, Dark-winged and Slender-billed Miners, and Cordilleran and Streak-throated Canasteros. In the tyrant department were Puna, Plain-capped, Cinereous, White-fronted and Ochre-naped Ground Tyrants.  A Black Siskin was spotted by Peter and Hugh and Peter got a glimpse of a Junin Canastero, which then refused to reveal itself for the others.  Finches were well represented by the handsome Peruvian Sierra Finch, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, White-winged Diuca-Finch, and Bright-rumped Yellow-Finch.  There were Andean Flickers and Andean Goose in the area as well. 

After an exhausting hike back up the hill to the vehicle, we encountered our last great bird of the high country, on the hillsides near the junction with the main road—the fabulous Black-breasted Hillstar.  A few last notables include Andean Lapwing and Gray-breasted Seedsnipe, the latter bringing the total to three of this marvelous family we saw in a week—not bad, because the remaining fourth member of the family is found thousands of miles away—in Tierra del Fuego.  Later and further down near Santa Eulalia, we had a fly-by of about 40 Scarlet-fronted Parakeets. 

Returning to Lima, we stayed again at the Hotel Manhattan near the airport and awaited the arrival of others with whom we were to spend the next three weeks in the North of Peru on a Field Guides tour—and more great birds to be sure.  Our 6-day pre-trip turned out better than any of us had expected—we certainly saw more birds than we had planned for and much of it was due to the exceptional leadership of Barry Walker.  This little adventure is highly recommended, even for veterans of South American and Peru travel, because it offers the opportunity to see a number of birds that are overlooked on longer tours or that are awkward to fit into those longer tours.

Peter’s Complete Trip List:

Manu Expeditions website: