If you blinked last week, you may have missed an outrageous birding competition—certainly the strangest, most wonderful I have ever attended—called the Birding Rally Challenge: an eight-day-long, no-holds-barred torneo June 11-18 across the deserts and jungles of northern Peru. The rally’s organizers call it birding’s World Cup, and, while I might liken the event more to a grueling Iditarod or Dakar Rally, it’s an apt comparison. Never before have birders been treated so much like celebrity athletes.
Consider this scene from Day One: Six teams of birders from five countries (four members per team, each in its own bus with dedicated driver and guide) roll along a dusty road near Bosque de Pómac in northwest Peru, searching for such delectible arid-desert specialties as Peruvian Plantcutter and Rufous Flycatcher. Suddenly, the convoy turns a corner to find hundreds of schoolchildren lining both sides of the street, cheering and waving flags of each of the countries represented by the birding teams. It’s a greeting fit for heroes or royalty. I later catch some of the birders actually signing autographs.
Altogether, including drivers, guides, organizers, dignitaries, press, full-time police escorts, a staffed ambulance (just in case), two official judges, and the six international teams of birders, more than 100 people in our group trace a 1,500-kilometer birding route, from coast to Amazon rainforest, in one intense eight-day blitz, traveling in more than a dozen vehicles. Everything is perfectly planned and executed. We stay in the best hotels (for instance, the Cajamarca Inca Baths, where thermal water is piped into every room), rise at 4:00 am every morning, and hit all the juiciest birding spots to soak up species. There is barely time to appreciate northern Peru’s remarkable scenery, which rises from sea level to the top of the Andes and then falls away into humid, green forest stretching to Brazil. Though we all follow the same itinerary, each of the birding teams is free to stop where it wants, which rewards good strategy and scouting.
Competitive birding is nothing new (think “The Big Year”), but Peru has taken the concept to its logical extreme. Last November, the PromPeru Peruvian tourism board and Inkaterra hotel association hosted the first Birding Rally Challenge in an ambitious attempt to promote national ecotourism. If the world’s best birders could compete against one another, they reasoned, attention would focus on the playing field—for its natural riches, Peru is painfully underbirded—and, perhaps, more tourists would begin booking plane tickets to the tropics. They invited well-known birders from the U.S., U.K., Spain, Brazil, and South Africa to spend six days touring the Machu Picchu region, and that first event was such a success that its organizers didn’t even wait a year to do it again, this time expanding to an eight-day route across northern Peru. Current plans are to host the rally twice each year, switching between the two different regions.
José Koechlin, chairman and CEO of Inkaterra and longtime conservationist, tells me that the idea for a birdwatching competition first occurred to him decades ago, around the same time that he helped with Werner Herzog’s 1972 film, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” set in the jungles of eastern Peru. “We had this great group of people on the film,” Koechlin says, some of whom then helped him build his first lodge in a remote region of Madre de Dios, using just machetes and axes—and then worked on Herzog’s next film, “Fitzcarraldo,” which Koechlin also helped envision and produce.
Today, Inkaterra hosts many tens of thousands of travelers each year, and Koechlin’s unusual birding rally idea has been realized. He sees the event not only as a contest, but as a rapid-assessment scientific expedition, with teams of experts creating a catalogue of bird species present. When the birds are known and scouted, he hopes, birders will follow.
Part of the rally’s mission is to promote environmental awareness within the country, so we make several meet-and-greet stops at key pueblos, presenting local councils with Spanish field guides, grand speeches, and general good will. Birders can’t solve the world’s problems, of course; three days after we visit Cruz Conga,
where the government plans a controversial gold mine, more than 4,000 villagers
stage a mass protest nearby. But I hope that, in our own way, our merry band of
birders helps show that birds are worth preserving.
Peru’s diversity is staggering on any scale. Its national parks alone add up to four times the size of Costa Rica. Peru vies with Colombia for the highest overall bird list of any country, and its infrastructure is sufficient for tourists to take full advantage while still feeling a raw sense of adventure. The number of birders visiting the country remains pitifully small—full new species are still being discovered—a lingering effect of political troubles in past decades and a government preoccupied with social issues. Where some other tropical countries (Costa Rica) have already capitalized on their natural attractions, Peru is just getting started. All of which makes the country an exciting place to visit now: A groundbreaking field guide, published in 2007 and updated in 2010, has paved the way for a new wave of birders, and recently developed tours and lodges make the place more accessible than ever.
At the end of the rally, Dan Lane, one of the authors of that field guide, leads three graduate students from Louisiana State University to victory by recording an impressive 636 species of birds in eight days, beating out the second-place U.K. team by a comfortable 35 species. Combined, the six teams find 835 species, including 34 Peruvian endemics. The Peruvian Minister of Tourism presents the winners with a trophy molded as the endemic Ash-throated Antwren, and addresses a crowd with a speech: “This is an extraordinary opportunity to show the world the amazing places we have,” the minister says. “I’m proud that Peru is starting to be known as a destination for birders.” Encouraging words, indeed.
At the afterparty, while waiters circulate with platters of free beer and pisco, birders from each team exchange war stories from the adventure, staying up late into the night. We are all massively sleep deprived. But we discover that our flight to Lima doesn’t leave until lunchtime the following day, and plans are hatched. Marshall Iliff, who had accompanied another team from the U.S., manages to
arrange a couple of buses. The next morning, although the official event is over, almost all of us are up again at 4:30 am, off to the cloud forest, looking for birds.
Noah Strycker is Associate Editor of Birding magazine.