Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Birding in Lambayeque: Cerro Chalpon, Great Inca-finch

The second in my series of site descriptions: Cerro Chalpon and the big surprise of Great Inca-finch in Lambayeque. On April 9th, 2011, Andre Burnier and I set out from Motupe to see what the giant hill north of town was like. We walked all the way from Motupe (~5km), but it is far easier to get a collectivo/moto from the town – they leave next to the cars to Olmos about a block from the market. The location you want to go to is Zapote (which is the name of a native fruit in the genus Capparis). When you arrive you will be met with a very long staircase… filled with vendors of religious paraphernalia.

The first Great Inca-finch found in Lambayeque, 9-Apr-11

On this first visit, we had no idea what this was about, but I will fill you in. The most sacred site in Lambayeque is a shrine located about halfway up this hill, where villagers found a tree in the shape of a cross (clearly divine intervention in tree growth, right?). Several years later, the tree was stolen! After it was recovered, they made the site a guarded sanctuary (open 7-6 daily, if I recall correctly). The peregrination of climbing these steps is made by thousands every year, young and old. And preyed upon by hundreds of vendors selling items from chicha to photographs with llamas to rosary beads and baths in the “sacred” water coming down the hill. You ought to hike up the first bit without birding, simply to get beyond the headache of the town of Zapote.

Tropical (Tumbes) Pewees are very easy to find here and often very obliging
Once it starts to open up, put your ears to work – listen especially for Elegant Crescentchest, Tropical (Tumbes) Pewee, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Andean Tinamou, Black-and-white Becard, and enigmatically, Ash-breasted Sierra-finch – a bird which Fernando and I know of few other records in Lambayeque, but is common here, especially higher. Keep you eyes out for raptors: Black-chested Buzzard-eagles, Variable Hawks and Peregrine Falcons are fairly common and the only Aplomado Falcon I have ever seen in Lambayeque was near this hill.

Great Inca-finch, Incaspiza pulchra, 13-March-12

As you climb, you will notice the vegetation getting sparser and more rocky, eventually you will reach a vertical rock face with lots of bromeliads. This is where to begin looking for the Inca-finch as well as White-headed Brush-finch (I found two nests in epiphytes), Ash-breasted Sierra-finch and with some luck, Tumbes Hummingbird. You will reach the official sanctuary, with a metal gate and some really garish yellow stairs. It was on these stairs that I saw the finch the first time, picking at crumbs. The second time, we located it above the actual cross, another few flights of stairs higher. Note that at the cross, you need to be respectful of the pilgrims (don’t go on a weekend!), and technically photography is not allowed – but the guard lets us take pictures of the birds.

The crazy staircase that you must climb to get to the top (of the trail, not the hill).
They leave the lights on here all night, which attracts tons of moths, leading to some very fat and happy pewees, which are practically tame. Also in the mix up here are the tamest Baird’s Flycatchers I have ever seen. From this spot, you can ask the guard if he has seen the bird with the yellow legs and the yellow beak or just wait. Keep your eyes on the skies, too: a condor nest was found on this hill in the nineties, though the older guard when asked remembers only seeing a condor once here. 

As I said, the Pewees are obliging.
The view from the trail. Vendors on both sides and just obscured by the hill on the right is the city of Motupe.

The vendors in this section deal in holy water that washes down the hill. Don't drink it.

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