Neotropical Birding, Nº 18, 2016

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Field Guide to the Birds of Machu Picchu and the Cusco Region, Peru by Barry Walker, 2015. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions & Buteo Books: Arrington, VA. 243 pp, 165 colour plates, 2 maps. Softback. ISBN 978-84-96553-97-2. €26.00 (approx. $30 / UK£20).

The Cusco region of Peru is renowned for its archaeological importance, the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu being a World Heritage Site, a fact that—quite apart from any birds the area might host—puts it on the itinerary of many a visiting birder. But there are special and unique birds here too. As guest-writers Jon Fjeldså and Huw Lloyd explain in their useful introductory chapters, the avifauna of Machu Picchu is rather special, being a unique product of the interplay of topography and climate. During the Pleistocene (11,700–2.5 million years ago), the Andean ranges shielded this area from the worst of the buffeting South Polar winds, creating a refugium in which formerly widespread species were able to survive climatic instability as relict populations which are now endemic to the region.

Who better to write a guide to the birds of this area than Barry Walker? An expert on the birds of Peru, Barry has lived in Cusco for more than three decades. Indeed, he had already acquired his reputation as an expert when I first met him in Cusco’s Cross Keys Pub in 1988. Barry has long been associated with the Neotropical Bird Club, leading Club tours that raised funds for the Conservation Awards and supporting the Club through corporate membership of his company, Manu Expeditions. Readers with long memories may recall that Barry has already produced a guide to the birds of Machu Picchu and the Cusco region, illustrated by Jon Fjeldså and published in 2005, but this new field guide is an entirely new product, with fresh texts and illustrations.

An oft-heard lament of birders who grew up without the pleasures of shouldering a Nagra reel-to-reel recorder, brass telescope, metal tripod or paving-stone sized handbooks to our region’s avifauna, is the weight of literature they are required to carry in order to identify birds. On this count, users of Walker’s new book will be pleased. This is a true field guide that will fit in a coat pocket yet nevertheless includes almost 500 species, each illustrated by one or two paintings and accompanied by snappy texts on the facing page. The artwork is very good overall. For polytypic species the local subspecies is illustrated. However, there was probably no need to include breeding dress of Arctic-nesting shorebirds such as Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos, since these are unlikely to be the plumages encountered in Peru. (In passing, the same double-page-spread specifies that the “long wings” of Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii “extend slightly beyond the tail unlike others of the genus”, although White-rumped Sandpiper C. fuscicollis does of course share this character.)

In the descriptive text, behaviour is noted where it helps with identification, so Greenfronted Lancebill Doryfera ludovicae “usually sits with long thin bill upturned”. Altitudinal ranges are given and chief vocalisations described. Together with the illustrations this is probably enough to identify the majority of species.

As expected, the text is replete with the sort of local detail that can only be amassed through years of field experience. Brown Tinamou Crypturellus obsoletus, we learn, “can be heard and seen on the slopes of Wayna Picchu near Machu Picchu ruins”. Vilcabamba Tapaculo Scytalopus urubambae, we read, “can be readily seen around the Salkantay massif and along the Inca Trail between Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca”. Inca Flycatcher Leptopogon taczanowskii is “best looked for along the railway track between Puente Ruinas and the Mandor Valley”.

Such information is of great value to the visiting birder, and is complemented by two particularly useful appendices. The first is a handy, 14-page bird-finding guide with information on sites and species, accompanied by photographs of vital road junctions. (As an aside, I can find no clear demarcation of the region covered by the guide, but all of the key birding areas seem to be mentioned.) The second is a 19-page checklist with information on endemism, habitat, elevational range and status. As well as providing an excellent quick reference this can, of course, be used to tick off species seen, for those so minded!

So who is this book for—and what gap in the market does it fill? With an excellent national field guide (Schulenberg et al. 2010) and a highly detailed bird-finding guide (Valqui 2004), existing literature already caters well for visiting birders. With its local knowledge, Walker’s guide will be a welcome addition for use in the Machu Picchu section of any birding itinerary, providing a regional focus to identification and an expert update to Valqui’s site guides. It will also particularly serve those birders whose trip is limited to Cusco and environs.

Finally, this new book should find a worthy market amongst lay visitors to the area who wish to find out, for example, which bird is singing from bamboo breaks as they walk around the famed ruins. (The answers is probably Inca Wren Pheugopediues eisenmanni, whose “song is one of the characteristic sounds of the Machu Picchu ruins”.) If Barry Walker’s guide opens the eyes and ears of the ruins’ many non-birding visitors to Cusco’s feathered riches, it will have served its avian subjects mightily well.

Christopher J. Sharpe

REFERENCES

  • Schulenberg, T. S., Stolz, D. F., Lane, D. F., O’Neill, J. P. & Parker, T. A. (2010) Birds of Peru, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Valqui, T. (2004) Where to watch birds in Peru. Lima: Grafica Nañez S.A.