Birding Without Borders

Day 48: Finding the Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager (and Some Trouble)

Another dead battery and other mishaps make for a scramble to the airport.

February 17, 2015, Huanuco, Peru — Mid-morning found Gunnar, Glenn and me 15 miles up a rough dirt road at a place called Unchog. Our van was mired in mud with a dead battery and two flat tires, and our flight to northern Peru was scheduled to depart in a couple of hours. Just another day in Peru!

We got up this morning at 2:45 a.m. to be at Unchog, with access to elfin cloud forest, at dawn. It’s not an easy place to get to, and birders make this pilgrimage for one reason: To see the Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager, a spectacular and rare creature known from only five remote sites in central Peru. On arrival, Gunnar got our two-wheel drive Hyundai van stuck while trying to park, and then we discovered that the entire rear bumper assembly had dropped off somewhere (more a reflection of the road condition than Gunnar’s driving). We figured we’d push the bumperless van out later, and went looking for Unchog’s marquis bird.

It took just an hour and a half to strike gold with eye-level views of a mountain-tanager across a small canyon. Fist pumps! Not much could dampen our spirits after that, not even when Glenn stepped into a bog (trying to find a Puna Snipe) and went in up to his thighs.

Plans unraveled from there. First the van wouldn’t start, then we noticed that both right tires were hissing with rock punctures, and we couldn’t push it out. Three strikes! Other than two farmers who materialized with a shovel and pickaxe to help deal with the mud, nobody was around. With an imminent flight to catch, Gunnar, Glenn and I packed our stuff and started walking.

After about a mile we came across a group of Quechua-speaking Andean potato farmers who, after they got over the surprise of seeing three gringos carrying luggage down their road, saddled up three dirt bikes to carry us down the mountain. I rode with a reticent 17-year-old named Rolando who has seven siblings and lives by a potato field. Gunnar called Manuel, our driver from a couple days ago, who arrived and spent all afternoon dealing with the thrashed van (poor guy) while Gunnar, Glenn and I took a taxi the rest of the way to the tiny Huanulco airport.

Glenn contemplates the mired van at Unchog. Photo: Noah Strycker

We needn’t have hurried, as the flight was delayed for several hours for opaque reasons, then finally canceled until tomorrow. The airline put us up in a hotel downtown with free dinner and a power outage (I'm using my headlamp in my room). As Gunnar likes to say, when in Peru, the best plan is to stay flexible!

New birds today: 17

Year list: 1127

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