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This is the third post about birding in Cajamarca. This time we will explore the mountains above 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) around the Cajamarca valley. Above 3,000 meters the vegetation is largely dominated by Andean grassland (mostly Calamagrostis sp.), temperatures are cold, the patches of remaining forests are dominated by Alder trees, and there are still a few patches of Polylepis trees. Unfortunately, plantations of introduced species like Pine and Eucaliptus are quite common.
The peculiar habitats that can be found at high elevations are home to peculiar bird species. Some of these species are the endemic Plain-tailed Warbling-finch (Poospiza alticola), the rare White-tailed Shrike-tyrant (Agriornis albicauda), and the widespread and beautiful Stripe-headed Antpitta (Grallaria andicolus).
A few places are easy to reach from the city of Cajamarca, and the birding experience can be really rewarding:
Leaving the valley before dawn is the best option to increase the chances of enjoying the bird diversity of the high elevation habitats. El Gavilán mountain pass is located at an elevation of about 3,050 meters (10,000 feet). It can be reached by some 20 minutes’ drive on the road towards the Pacific coast (basically, this is the main road that connects the Cajamarca valley with the rest of the country). There is parking space on a side road at the pass itself. Walking on this side road is the best way to explore the area. The habitat is basically grassland with dense scrub along a narrow creek on the west slope of the pass. There are also a few Alder trees, and a small plantation of Eucaliptus trees.
The short scrub among the grasses produce small tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds like Tyrian Metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina), Black Metaltail (Metallura phoebe), Giant Hummingbird (Patagona gigas), and Purple-throated Sunangel (Heliangelus viola). The dense scrub and tress long the creek are home of birds like Rusty-crowned Tit-spinetail (Leptasthenura pileata), Black-crested Warbler (Myiothlypis nigrocristata), Northern Andean Flicker (Colaptes cinereicapillus), Black-throated Flowerpiercer (Diglossa brunneiventris), and some others. But, the main attraction here is the endemic and not so common Rufous-backed Inca-finch (Incaspiza personata). Inca-finches are a group of five species of tanagers in the genus Incaspiza, all of them endemic to Peru.
After the pass (on the western slope), the habitat has been severely altered by Eucaliptus plantations, but the few creeks running on the mountain slopes still preserve their natural vegetation of short and dense scrub. Is in this scrub that another special bird has made his home, the north Peru endemic Unicolored Tapaculo (Scytalopus unicolor). Tapaculos are small, secretive birds, most of them look pretty similar and can be told apart only by voice.
Now, going west of the valley, there is an archaeological site known as Cumbemayo, at 3,500 meters of elevation (11,480 feet). The site is quite popular among locals and visitors, and has become the most visited touristic site near the city of Cajamarca. The road trip to the archaeological site takes about one hour on a dirt road, with not really interesting birding places to stop. It is better to drive straight to the archaeological site.
The landscape here is dominated by grassland and rocky outcrops. The first birding stop in the area is at the parking lot, where, among the short grasses, it is possible to find Slender-billed Miner (Geositta tenuirostris), Chestnut-naped Ground-tyrant (Muscisaxicola occipitalis), or Spot-billed Ground-tyrant (Muscisaxicola maculirostris).
Once inside the archaeological site, worth the try to get out of the main path and enter the rocky area where the bushes are home good bird species like Green-head Hillstar (Oreotrochilus stolzmanni), Stripe-headed Antpitta (Grallaria andicolus), Rusty-crowned Tit-spinetail (Leptasthenura pileata), D’Orbigny’s Chat-tyrant (Ochthoeca oenanthoides), and Green-mantled Tanager (Pipraeidea darwinii). Occasionally, raptors like Cinereous Harrier (Circus cinereus), Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma), or Black-chested Buzzard-eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus) can be seen furrowing the sky.
The grassland is usually bursting with bird activity, with Andean Lapwing (Vanellus resplendens), Cream-winged Cinclodes (Cinclodes albiventris), Many-striped Canastero (Asthenes flammulata), Streak-throated Canastero (Asthenes humilis), Bright-rumped Yellow-finch (Sicalis uropigyalis), and Peruvian Sierra-finch (Phrygilus punensis), among the most common species. A couple of hours should be enough to find all the interesting bird species.
Plain-tailed Warbling-finch (Poospiza alticola) is one of the most beautiful and most sought after bird species in Cajamarca. The birds is quite difficult to find, and it seems it is closely associated to Polylepis patches, which, unfortunately, are disappearing.
A few months ago, we discovered a small but well preserved patch of Polylepis forest some 60 minutes’ drive east of the city of Cajamarca. This place, known as La Masma, is located at an elevation of 3,500 meters (11,480 feet), and it’s easily accessible by road from the town of Namora. Once there, some playback of the bird’s song is necessary to attract the bird, just make sure you don’t overplay the song! this species is very responsive to playback and get easily altered.
Some extra birding can be done along the road to La Masma at lake Qillwacocha, where Andean Gull (Larus serranus), Andean Duck (Oxyura ferruginea), Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), and Striated Earthcreeper (Geocerthia serrana) are quite common.
Finally, another interesting high elevation birding place near the Cajamarca valley is a patch of Alder trees known as El Rejo. The place is located some 60 minutes from the city of Cajamarca, on the road to Celendín. This is a private property, and a permit is necessary to visit the area.
El Rejo is probably the larger patch of Alder forest remaining in the vicinity of the city of Cajamarca. The highest part of the property is dominated by grassland, with typical species like Puna Snipe (Gallinago andina), Many-striped Canastero (Asthenes flammulata), Shining Sunbeam (Aglaeactis cupripennis), Ash-breasted Sierra-finch (Geospizopsis plebejus), or Rufous-webbed Bush-tyrant (Polioxolmis rufipennis).
Interesting species in the Alder forest are Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria rufula ssp cajamarcae), Red-crested Cotinga (Ampelion rubrocristatus), Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager (Anisognathus lunulatus), White-banded Tyrannulet (Mecocerculus stictopterus), Jelski’s Chat-tyrant (Silvicultrix jelskii), Northern Mountain Cacique (Cacicus leucoramphus), Blue-and-black Tanager (Tangara vassorii), White-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia chionogaster), and Rainbow Starfrontlet (Coeligena iris).
A full day is recommended to explore the whole area.
As we can see, the high mountains above 3,000 meters in Cajamarca are fantastic birding places. Do not be affray of altitude sickness and dare to visit https://greentours.com.pe/2018/04/27/the-endemics-paradise-central-and-northeastern-andes-of-peru/ to book for your next birding adventure.
Bird names according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. https://www.hbw.com April 2019.