The Peruvian Highlands – Part Two

The magnificent Machu Picchu is certainly the highlight of a visit to the Peruvian high land. Well, as a birder I am also interested in the changing habitats and the birds found at each elevation and in each vegetative community. The bird book for Peru is 656 pages long with more than 1800 species represented. Actually there is a second book, Birds of the High Andes, which adds another 870 pages to the field ornithologists backpack. Much of Peru is low and humid or riparian. A great deal is montane forest and then at high elevation there are grasslands, savanna, puna, and paramo. Each of these has its own vegetation and suite of wildlife. A bird trip here should be at least three weeks in length and even then there will be hundreds of species that are not listed. I will show a bit of these high elevations in the next couple blogs which feature the condor country of Ecuador. For the moment lets look at a few of the Peruvian places and features that have not been mentioned.

Above, Flat David smiles back at the camera as he visits Machu Picchu. Below he is a bit awestruck by the  rustic beauty and sheer volume of work that the agricultural terraces represent.

First of all I have to introduce Flat David. Flat David is a smallish depiction of Fran’s daughter ‘s (Melissa) son David; not me. The kids in his second grade class made these little characters and then passed them around to relatives to be photographed as the various relatives did things. Well, Flat David has been on the road with me. He has been to Australia, New Zealand (three islands), Peru, and Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands. Not bad for a second grade cutout. He is light to carry and eats nothing and it gave me a reason to keep the camera ready.

I have introduced Flat David here as he is likely to appear in any of the following blog pages. In some cases he is in the only good image and in other cases he offers a sense of scale.

Another bit of information that I probably should have mentioned sometime during the past couple years of sporadic blogging: I travel for Smithsonian Journeys. The travel program of the Smithsonian Institution offers broad cultural trips to dozens of locations around the world and I have had the good fortune to participate in many of these outings. My first Smithsonian trip was to Costa Rica in about 1978 (as a boy). I did the African safaris for many years and my next trip (Southern Africa this autumn) will be about the 35th time I have been to that spectacular continent. The trips are grand, the destinations inclusive, and the educational content exceeds other offerings. I don’t get to do enough photography or birding but that isn’t a complaint! The trips are very special and the blog pages usually represent a Smithsonian Journeys tour. Take a look at http://www.smithsonianjourneys.org 
and plan your next outing.


The Spanish often took the existing religious sites of the native people and built their church on this important ground; a sign of power and domination at the time; seen as arrogant and devoid of compassion today. This was the case in Peru as well as throughout Latin America. These perfect walls shown above were part of a building used by the Inca and then buried and/or incorporated in the church built by the conquerors. In some cases, especially in cities, the ancient stone work has been uncovered and even restored in special cases.

Perhaps there needs to be an explanation of why the 169 Spaniards were able to defeat the Inca. The Inca people may have numbered to 16,000,000 and the armies that had mustered during this time (for   the civil war) consisted of tens of thousands of fighting men. How could they lose? The reasons are complex of course but the easy answers are enough for now. The Inca had never seen horses and first thought the riders and the horses were a single being; one that could divide itself at will and have two bodies with a total of six legs. The Inca had never seen shoes or boot before and they thought these magical people could remove their  feet whenever they wanted. The impact of these cultural surprises was significant and kept the Inca on the defensive. They never seemed to take the offensive. The Spaniards also brought armor, horses, and “modern” weaponry to the battle field; and that is also part of the story, but there is more.

Francisco Pizarro made three trips to Peru between 1526 and 1528. On the third trip he had permission to conquer Peru. The Spaniards had brought disease, specifically smallpox, with them in the first two visits and the (possibly already declining) Inca people were being ravaged by sickness. But, they were also deeply involved with a war of succession, a civil war that divided the Inca. The Spaniards utilized this division and essentially had a huge army of Inca dissidents at their service. They were not real allies though, as the Spaniards eventually decimated this group as well. The warfare between the two Inca sides included battles with 30,000 soldiers on each side. From 1528 to 1544 there was warfare, relocation, and back-stabbing. After a brief lull in warfare the Spaniards relocated all the people to the city of San Francisco de la Victoria de Vilcabamba abandoning the Inca city of Vilcabamba.

One of the must thought-provoking sites is the great amphitheater called Saqsaywaman (or any of a dozen other spellings). The stones here are as large as a soccer-mom’s van. They are arranged around a  central plaza. However, it is thought that the main purpose of the original layout of this site, much larger than what remains, was defensive. The old writings mention that this was a labyrinth of buildings, walls, terraces, and storage buildings. It is located above Cusco with a nice view down the valley and was thus well known to many peoples and groups including the invading Spanish. 
The city of Cusco was built by the Spanish with stone that was taken from this site. The great fortress-city was largely demolished right after the Spanish arrived. Only the large and immovable stone remain. The stones below are more than twelve feet tall. (Can you spot Flat David?)


The valleys of the Andes were the source of Inca success. The excess food was wealth. The agriculture allowed for cities to be built and diversity of economy to develop. These regions had artisans, priests, farmers, and administrators. Today it is usual to see artichokes and potatoes growing large and profuse at 12,000 feet. As I mentioned in the last blog page, snow is very rare until you are above 16,000 feet in the equatorial mountains.
I just had to include one more image from the ruins at Machu Picchu. The Urubamba River and a couple slivers of the switchback road to the ruins are seen in the lower part of the picture. The train ride in to Aguas Calientes is along the river. This river moves fast and could carry heavy debris with it. It is mostly encased in rock and has scoured the bed pretty clean. there isn’t much vegetative debris in the river as the forest isn’t lush nor subject to collapse. There is a specialized duck that lives along these mountain river; the aptly named Torrent Duck. The habitat is very busy and the food stuffs the ducks live on; invertebrates, mostly aquatic insect larvae, are also (now) sought after by introduced fish species, especially trout. I have no images of the Torrent Duck but I saw about 16 on the train ride to machu Picchu and most of the travelers saw the birds as well.

The bird shown above is one of South America’s most widely established native birds; the Rufous-collared Sparrow. This sparrow is common and visible (audible also) in open areas in the mountains. It also drops down to lower elevations in many places. It feeds on the ground like many sparrows and the song can be heard throughout the day. I am working when I am in the places and simply don’t have the time to set up and try to get hummingbird pictures. The quick snap below is a female with a solid and slightly curved bill. The patch of light behind the eye and the streaky sides to the face and light belly might make one think it is a female White-bellied hummingbird – but frankly I have no idea. Some day Fran will join me after a tour and we will spend a few weeks birding the Peruvian countryside.

I have no idea what this flower is – but it was pretty and seems like a nice image to finish this blog page.

See you in Ecuador – soon.

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