For the Birds

<< Back to Robb Report, August 2014

The Peruvian Amazon proves the perfect setting for the Super Bowl of Birding.

There was something surreal about the scene in the Peruvian rain forest, where a dozen men were peering intently into the darkness as if summoning the dawn. It would not be long before the group—laden with binoculars, scopes, cameras, and GPS and digital sound devices—would disperse into the wilderness. 

Some would venture into a dense jungle laced with footbridges swaying 100 feet above the forest floor; others would head by boat into swamps and creeks. In a few days their quest would conclude amid the mountainside ruins of an ancient civilization. Along the way, they might encounter a mysterious masked fruiteater, an elegant lyre-tailed nightjar, or a jaunty Andean cock-of-the-rock. Whatever the discoveries, the week was bound to be filled with excitement, as the Birding Rally Challenge—known to the cognoscenti as the Super Bowl of Birding—was about to begin.

Birding, as the rally’s competitors were quick to point out, is not to be confused with the more common pastime of bird-watching. “Bird-watching is a hobby; birding is an obsession,” said James Currie, the host of Birding Adventures TV and a consultant on the 2011 birding movie The Big Year, as he sipped a bracing cup of esencia del café, the tar-like coffee libation Peruvians take diluted with warm water. “You rise before dawn and keep going until after dark, through wilderness and desert and mud. It’s grueling. It takes you places you might otherwise never go, and you get to know people you might normally never meet.”

This would be especially true of the Birding Rally Challenge Southern Peru 2013, which had drawn some of the world’s most distinguished birders from such disparate locations as the United States, Great Britain, South Africa, and Colombia to the Amazon basin to compete for the coveted title of birding’s best. The first few days of the challenge would revolve around the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, a more than 40,000-acre private ecological preserve with a striking timber luxury lodge built entirely by hand. “There was no machinery involved at all; we built this place with machetes and axes,” said José Koechlin von Stein, the Peruvian ecotourism impresario whose other properties include the elegant Inkaterra La Casona in Cuzco, Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción near Lake Sandoval, and the posh Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, where, five days hence, the rally would end amid much jubilation and numerous rounds of pisco sours. 

“Our properties are designed to open the wonders of the Peruvian Amazon to luxury travelers while respecting the local ecosystems and cultures,” said Koechlin. “The Amazon is a marvelous learning experience.”

It is also a marvelous place for a birding competition. Peru’s varied ecosystems—from lush wetlands to vibrant cloud forests—are home to no fewer than 1,836 avian species, one-fifth of all the known varieties in the world. The country ranks second in the world for bird diversity and, according to the experts, is the best for observable birds. “There is always something new to see,” said Dan Lane, a coauthor of Birds of Peru and a competitor in the 2013 challenge. “In the 1960s we thought all the bird species had been found, but we’ve found 15 more species this year alone.” 

Continued on next page