Monday, May 28, 2018

Cajamarca and the Río Marañón endemics

By Wilson Diaz

Peru has been blessed with unique environmental and geographical conditions that allow the existence of an exceptional set of endemic bird species. According to the updated list of HBW/BirdLife International Peru has 136 endemic bird species, much of them very easy to find, and at locations with good access for tourism.

Northern Peru is a major hotspot for endemic species. With 16 Peruvian endemics, the surroundings of the Andean city of Cajamarca are just perfect for a short birding getaway. Cajamarca is easily accessed by taking one of the four daily flights from Lima, and there are several options for lodging, from small hostels to 4-stars hotels.

The main birding areas around Cajamarca to look for endemic species are:

The Río Chonta valley, located some 15 Km northeast of the city. The site is a narrow valley surrounded by semi-humid scrub and cliffs covered with bromeliads, this vegetation holds 6 Peruvian endemics, along with another 40 species that have been recorded in the area.

View of the Río Chonta valley

The main target here is the Grey-bellied Comet, a rare and endangered hummingbird whose distribution range is currently restricted to this small area of the Río Chonta valley. Research is being carried out looking for other places with similar habitat that might hold the species, but so far with very little success.

Grey-bellied Comet
Another interesting endemic hummingbird in the area is the Black Metaltail, which has a much wider distribution, but it seems that the Río Chonta valley is the most reliable and accessible place to find the species.

Black Metaltail
The other easy-to-find endemic of the area is the Rusty-crowned Tit-Spinetail, a small furnarid usually seen gleaning for insects in the bushes by the road.

Rusty-crowned Spintetail. Photo by Manuel Roncal
Less common endemic species in the area are Striated Earthcreeper, Rufous-backed Inca-Finch, and the very rare Rufous-breasted Warbling-Finch, which has been recorded here only once.

El Gavilán mountain pass, found some 20-minutes’ drive southeast of the city of Cajamarca. This is the best place around Cajamarca to look for Rufous-backed Inca-Finch. Inca-Finches are a set of 5 species of the genus Incaspiza, all of them endemic to Peru, easily recognisable by its bright yellow legs and bill, and black mask.

Rufous-backed Inca-Finch
The other target here is the Unicolored Tapaculo, officially considered as “least concern” and fairly common species by HBW/BirdLife, but has become really hard to find in the last years. The species will probably be considered as “vulnerable” in the short term.

Unicolored Tapaculo. Photo by Manuel Roncal
San Nicolás, an Andean lake located 15 Km east from the city centre.

View of lake San Nicolás
The lake itself and the dry scrub in the surroundings are home of some special birds like Great Spinetail, a very rare Peruvian endemic found at very few specific locations in northern Peru.

Great Spinetail. Photo by Manuel Roncal
Also, the scrub near the lake is good to look for Black-necked Woodpecker, a good looking woodpecker easy to find in several places in northern Peru.

Black-necked Woodpecker
A couple of fairly common endemics around the lake are Marañon Gnatcatcher, recent split from the widely distributed Tropical Gnatcatcher; and Spot-throated Hummingbird, a drab hummingbird exclusive of the Marañon valley.

Spot-throated Hummingbird
Marañon Gnatchatcher
San Marcos and Loma de las Perdices. Some of the endemic birds around San Nicolas are not easy to find, so it worth the trip for another 35 Km pass the lake to the site of San Marcos, specially to try to get the Great Spinetail, this species is quite shy and does not show easily. The San Marcos area has drier habitats than the sites mentioned before, this means there are some new birds (but not necessarily endemics) for the trip like Fasciated Wren, Black-lored Yellowthroad, Striped Cuckoo, Dull-colored Grassquit, just to mention a few.

Not far from the San Marcos site is the “Loma de las Perdices” private reserve, where the White-rumped Black-Tyrant is particularly abundant. This species is a recent split from the more common and widespread White-winged Black-Tyrant, but “White-rumped” is endemic and restricted to this small area of northern Peru.

White-rumped Black-Tyrant
“Loma de las Perdices” also holds another 4 Peruvian endemics: Black-necked Woodpecker, Spot-throated Hummingbird, Buff-bridled Inca-Finch, and Chestnut-back Thornbird (although the last 2 species are not common in the area).

Hacienda El Limón. This site requires a longer trip from Cajamarca. The best way to do it is to move to the city of Celendín (100 Km northeast from the city of Cajamarca) for at least one night, and explore the area from there.

View of Hacienda El Limón
El Limón is located near the Marañon river and is well known for being the most reliable place to find some special endemic birds of the Río Marañon valley. One of the most important species here is the Grey-winged Inca-Finch, this is the only accessible place where this species can be found, nevertheless, the species do not show up very easily.

The other special bird here is the Chestnut-backed Thornbird, a restricted range furnarid that, a few years ago, was fairly common in the right habitat, but in the recent years has become quite difficult to find, mainly because of habitat loss.

Chestnut-backed Thornbird. Photo by Manuel Roncal
Other relatively common birds in the area are Marañon Thrush, Marañon Gnatcatcher, Andean Emerald, Buff-bellied Tanager, and Marañon Streaked Saltator.

Chacanto and Balzas. Below Hacienda El Limón the road goes across a drier habitat with thorny scrub and cacti, ideal habitat for another Inca-Finch (this makes 3 out of 5 Inca-Finches for the trip!): Buff-bridled Inca-Finch. The bird can be usually seen on the ground or on top of columnar cacti while singing defending their territories.

Buff-bridled Inca-Finch
Chacanto and Balzas are two small villages on the banks of the Marañon river, surrounded mostly by agricultural fields. Despite the strong human influence, the area is one of the best places to look for the endemic Yellow-faced Parrotlet, where small flocks can be seen flying among the Mango trees.

Yellow-faced Parrotlet. Photo by Manuel Roncal
Of course, there are some of other species restricted to the Marañon valley but are not Peruvian endemics because they are also present in Ecuador like Peruvian Pigeon, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, or Ecuadorian Ground-Dove.

So, are you ready for your next birding adventure? Just send us an email to and ask for a personalized tour.

I would like to thank to my friend Manuel Roncal for allowing me to use some of his pictures.

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