Blue-headed Macaw, Tambopata
During all my 25+ years guiding birding trips and doing field work, I’ve been asked countless times whether the birding is better in Manu or the Tambopata lowlands. The truth is that unless you are doing the Manu Road together with a trip to the lowlands of Manu, the options, in terms of birds are quite similar. BAM! There it is my birding friends, the cold, hard truth. However, there are important differences in trip logistics, time and cost that I’ll dive into here in hopes that this is helpful as you consider planning your next birding adventure to Southeastern Peru.
It is important to mention that this article compares the options of seeing birds in the lowlands of Tambopata and Manu in comparable areas of elevation and similar habitats. The foothills area and the transition area with the lowlands are not being considered, much less the Manu road, which will be covered in a separate article with these other areas..
For many years, Manu was considered “the mecca” of birding in southeastern Peru and there was no lack of reason for it because for many years the work carried out by Dr. John Therborgh and his Duke University team of students at the biological station of Cocha. Cashu, produced new discoveries in neotropical ecology including the description and rediscovery of new species of birds which began to generate the attention of the first groups of bird watchers from companies like Victor Emanuel Nature Tours that started bringing birders to this area. With the establishment of the Manu Lodge on the lowlands of the Manu River and the Cloud Forest Lodge at the foothills, the ideal conditions were found to start operating tourism in this area.
Over the years other lodges appeared in the lowlands area of the Madre de Dios River that offer birding trips and are precisely subject of comparison in this article.
In addition, the richness of flora and fauna at Manu is spectacular, which greatly enhances the experience if one makes the trip by land from Cusco. As if this were not enough, Manu is one of the first national parks of Peru and is recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
For these reasons, Tambopata remained eclipsed by Manu for many years and very few companies ventured to bring tourists to this area despite the fact that the offers of flora and fauna were comparable. There were very few lodges in the area, perhaps the most influential in the area were, Explorer’s Inn, the legendary lodge that was established as a hunting reserve for a while, until few years later, when the change of international regulations on flora and fauna put a banned on trophy hunting, forcing them to become the first natural history lodge in the Tambopata area. Then in 1989 when the Tambopata Research Center was established as headquarters of the macaws project several hours (7 hours) upstream near the largest macaw collpa known to man and in a totally pristine area, is that the region began to generate a little more attention, to the point that in 1992 was the basis of an evaluation of RAP team of Conservation International that produced very interesting results and began to attract a little more attention. Besides these lodges at Tambopata, there were a few more also at the Madre de Dios river.
It is important to note that Peru for many years was under a very complicated political situation, on the verge of civil war by a group of Maoist terrorists which kept tourism away. The situation improved markedly from 1992 with the dismantling of the dome which produced a remarkable change in the economy and stabilization of the country.
In order to discuss pros/cons of each place, I have decided to write about to three points, which I think are the most relevant. These are: access, attractions and bird species that are considered “Southeastern Peru Specialties”
Orinoco Goose, Tambopata river
Maybe this is the most decisive point to make a decision on which of these two destinations to choose since to go to Manu, the logistics is much more complicated, it takes much more time and the cost is higher. To go to Tambopata, the process is much more direct and simple.
Below, I detail a little more the operations to access each site.
To go to Manu there are two options:
Option 1. You fly from Lima to Cusco and from there, enter by land from Cusco in trip that might take between 5 hours (to 8 hours including a few selected stops) to reach one of one of the lodges at the cloud forest where you will spend the night and visit a cock of the rocks lek in the afternoon or early before leaving for the port of Atalaya. After leaving, it will take 45 minutes from the cloud forest lodge to reach the port of Atalaya where you take a boat and from there 6 to 8 hours down the river until you reach Manu Wildlife Center or Tambo Blanquillo.
Personally it is a torture to make this trip directly knowing all the potential that exists in
the Manu road, because of that, it is important to do a trip JUST to bird the Manu road!
Option 2. You fly to Puerto Maldonado, then you have to travel by land approximately 4 and a half hours by land to get to Boca Colorado and take a boat for about 4-5 hours and from there take the boat trip to Manu Wildlife Center or another of the lodges nearby.
In both options it is recommended to spend at least one night in Puerto Maldonado. Before leaving to Manu and back to fly to Lima the next day.
In short, it takes at least a day and a half to two of a trip to get to one of the lodges and start birding. In addition of that, to at least one day in Puerto Maldonado to return to Lima and take international connections.
To go to Tambopata one flies from Lima in a commercial plane that has several departures a day and arrives directly at Puerto Maldonado from where there are many good options to start seeing birds. For example, in the area of the Tambopata River there are lodges such as the legendary Explorer’s Inn and Posada Amazonas Lodge about two hours upstream. A little further up the river you can reach the Tambopata Research Center, which is located in a very pristine area with no human presence and where there are very good possibilities to appreciate spectacular fauna.
On the other hand, there are other options in the Madre de Dios river, such as CICRA and Las Piedras Lodge, which are accessible from Puerto Maldonado. Personally, I like to combine my trips with an extension to look for Rufous Twistwing and Acre Tody-Tyrant in addition to other species.
In summary, the access is direct and simple and in the same day one arrives at the destination that one wants to make birding. Less time in boats and in general the logistics is much more direct.
Both in Manu and in Tambopata there are several options that offer comparable alternatives of comfort and service for lodging as well as structures that will enhance your birding experience: plenty of trails for different habitats, oxbow lakes with catamarans, canopy towers, and clay licks (collpas) of mammals and psittacines.
It is precisely in the macaw clay licks where there are more notorious differences
between Tambopata and Manu. One of the biggest differences with the Manu clay licks is
with respect to the difference of species.
A very important detail is the seasonality that exists in this activity. During certain times of the year, the concentration of different species of psittacines that visit the clay licks varies. Also, the activity is sensitive to rain and cold fronts (friajes)
One of the most visited clay licks in Manu is the Blanquillo clay lick, after payment and coordination with the managers of Tambo Blanquillo Lodge. It is important to mention alsthat you must pay for each time you plan to go to observe the activity of the macaws.
The trip from Manu Wildlife Center takes 30-45 minutes by boat and usually leaves very early to arrive in time to the blind from where all the activity will be observed about 200 meters away.
The activity takes all the morning and breakfast is served at the blind while watching this amazing natural history show(this must be one of the best places to have breakfast in the world!) It is also important to mention that there are toilets in this blind, which can make your life easy
In terms of species you can see on average about 6 species of psittacines among which Red-and-Green and Chestnut-fronted Macaw stand out; Yellow-crowned, Mealy, Blue-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots; Dusky-headed Parakeets and sometimes Toui Parakeets. Also, I know that at Manu Wildlife Center they have been working with Scarlet Macaws to use a collpa in the vicinity of the lodge with success.
Blanquillo Claylick, Manu
To visit the Tambopata Research Center collpa implies to take a 5 minutes boat ride from the river port and a short hike to a designated area from where you can observe the activity. You must stay in this spot from the beginning until the end of the activity. Once it finishes, you take the boat back to the lodge to have breakfast and continue with the activities. Unlike Manu, the visits to the collpa are not subject of extra charge and one can come back as many times as desired. In this collpa there are registered 16 species of psittacines and on average it is possible to see up to 12 species in a span of 2 hours. Depending on the season it is possible to see: Red-and-Green, Scarlet, Blue-and-Yellow, Chestnut-fronted, Red-bellied and the rare Blue-headed Macaw; Mealy, Yellow-crowned, Blue-headed, Orange-cheeked and White-bellied Parrots; White-eyed and Dusky-headed Parakeets!
For many years,this claylick was the largest known by men and most spectacular! Until quite a few years ago when the river’s dynamics changed and the vegetation started to colonized it. This collpa has been the subject of many wildlife film and photography productions from organizations such as National Geographic, BBC Natural History Unit among others.
El Chuncho claylick, Tambopata
At the Chuncho (Elias Aguirre) River, there is another claylick known as the Chuncho collpa, which is the most visited collpa currently in the region and with an impressive activity where the three species predominate of large macaws (Red-and-Green, Scarlet, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw) that are not seen in the Manu clay licks.
To visit it you must stay at some of the lodges nearby from where you will leave early in the morning until reaching the area where it is and after a short hike arrive to the designated area to watch the birds. Be aware that the boat ride from your lodge will vary depending where this is located along the Tambopata river.
Very close to Puerto Maldonado, there is also a small collpa (known as Collpa La Cachuela) which can be accessed by the road from the city. Be aware that you have to ask for permission to the family who lives there to go across their property to reach the area where you can see the birds . One of the “common” species in that collpa is precisely the Blue-headed Macaws and can be visited in a morning before going to the airport.
Also, around the Piedras River, there is another collpa with good activity of psittacines where the Red-and-Green Macaws also predominate.
In summary, the most diverse clay licks are in Tambopata.
SPECIES OF INTEREST
It is important to mention that there are some factors that affect the activity of birds. So for example we have that between the months of May and August the strong winds of the Patagonia arrive at the plain Amazonia lowering the temperature dramatically which has an impact on wildlife. Also, there are two well-marked seasons in this part of the
Amazonia The dry season (May – October), on which, especially in the warmer months, activity tends to be very slow. And the rainy season where is very good activity in general, as long as it does not rain there are very good chances to score great birds.
Many of these species can also be seen in the adjacent areas of Brazil and Bolivia, but access from Peru is much easier and the conservation of the forest is much better besides having much more offers of lodges.
Both Tambopata and Manu offer great opportunities to see this group of
birds that are a “must see” specialty of Southeastern Peru. In the Tambopata Research Center is where Andrew Kratter of LSU made his PhD study in bamboo birds. The bamboo forest is quite productive and you can see almost all the lowland and high terrace species that occur. At Manu there are also several options where to find the bamboo specialists.
Rediscovered by the legendary Ted Parker in Cocha Cashu, Manu, this species of formicarid was considered for some years a Peruvian endemic, until it was also found in the adjacent regions of Brazil and Bolivia, however it is still considered one of the ” must see species “in Peru and there is much better chance of seeing it here.
Both Tambopata and Manu offer good possibilities to see it, however, it is in Tambopata where there are greater options and territories of this species. On a trip I made to the Iñapari area on the border with Brazil, I was surprised at how common this species was!
It is a little more predictable to see in Manu, although I have always seen it in some places of the Madre de Dios River near Puerto Maldonado like CICRA and Las Pierdas Lodge, the transoceanic highway and there are even reports around the city of Puerto Maldonado.
At Manu area, this species is much more common near the foothills, however there are reports of some of the lodges in the lowlands, however in the Tambopata Research Center it is quite predictable in the right habitat.
This species is accessible at several of the sites to visit in Manu. In the same way in Tambopata, where it can even be seen around the city of Puerto Maldonado.
Best opportunities in the Tambopata area. For example, it is a common bird in the CICRA clearing and on one of the trails of the Tambopata Research Center. It is also quite common in some points of Puerto Maldonado.
Harpy eagle, Tambopata
Although this is not a highly predictable species, there is a good chance of seeing this species in the Tambopata River area. For many years around the community of Infierno and Posada Amazonas Lodge were monitoring active nests of Harpy Ealges and recently in the grounds of Refugio Amazonas Lodge there is a couple that has been nesting consistently in recent years. Surprisingly in Manu this species is seldom seen.
In addition to these species, both Tambopata and Manu harbor healthy populations of many other species such as Blue-throated Guan Piping, Spix’s Guan, Razor-billed Curassow, Orinoco Goose, up to 16 species of psittacines among which, it is important to mention the Blue-headed Macaw and Amazonian Parrotlet; Pale-winged Trumpeters, Black, Black-and-White, Ornate Hawk-Eagle and Harpy Eagle and many others.
It is important to mention that in both locations, unlike many other parts of the Amazon, there are also populations of very stable and healthy mammals that improve the overall experience. There are very good possibilities to see mammals such as Jaguar, Puma, Jaguarundi, Ocelot, Tapir, Giant River Otters, Capybaras, and up to 12 species of monkeys in Manu and 8 in Tambopata.
To choose a trip to Tambopata or Manu there are many operators who claim that their itineraries and visited sites are better than the competition, that they have better options to see more and better species and things of that type. There are also those that offer accommodation with 5 star services however the forest that surrounds them is not in good condition and you will not see important species. Be aware that many operators in Manu, tend to inflate what they sell by including birds and mammals in the cloud forest that you will not see at the lodges that this article focuses on, that is, lowlands lodges.
Manu is a great destination but to get there, it means you must have the time to invest for the traveling days. If you have the time, I will encourage you to do the whole Manu trip, starting by land from Cusco all the way down through the cloud forest and finally to reach the lowlands lodge. Have on mind that for this type of trip you will need at least 15 days in order to take your time and bird properly at the different elevations as well as the foothills and of course, the lowlands.
If you don’t have a lot of time and want to bird only the lowlands, then Tambopata will be your better choice because offers you the best possibility to maximize your birding experience and boost your birding list without the hassle of long traveling distances and missing any species.
Finally, the most important thing is to know that the comparison of species does not have very dramatic variations but rather the logistics and the time that can be spent in the field to look for the birds that one needs.
If you want to know more information please do not hesitate to send me an email.
Stay strong, be healthy and bird a lot!