High & low ’fowling in western South America
By Gary Kramer
In more than 35 years as an outdoor journalist and photographer I have traveled to 57 countries, with many of the trips specifically for wingshooting. So when I came across a booth at the Safari Club International Convention advertising waterfowling in a destination I had never visited, I had to stop. It was a duck and goose hunt in Peru that included a high-altitude hunt for several exotic species plus hot-barreled shooting for teal and pintails over decoys. It was intriguing, to say the least.
Two years later, in August 2016, my buddy Fritz Reid and I flew from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and then took a nine-hour red-eye from LA to Lima, Peru. We were a bit bleary-eyed as we stepped off the airplane, cleared customs and walked into the crowded greeting area. Thankfully it took only seconds for Angelo Tavera, our guide and outfitter, to pick us out of the crowd, and soon we were on our way.
We began driving east from Lima toward the towering Andes. In a short time we had left the sea-level high-rises and city traffic and entered the barren rock- and sand-covered foothills. Occasionally we passed valleys and plateaus where crops were growing and rivers were providing water for irrigation. Eventually we reached a hunting lodge at 8,500 feet where we spent the night. The stone building, which contained a sitting room with a fireplace, a kitchen and three bedrooms, had been built in the early 1900s. It had been a small general store and residence until the late 1980s, when Angelo’s father purchased it and converted it to a quaint but somewhat Spartan hunting lodge.
CLICK IMAGES TO EXPAND
A road sign indicating 15,682 feet above sea level; puna teal (with blue bills) and Andean teal near the water’s edge; an Andean goose grazing on the flat; and an alpine plateau dotted with wetlands and ringed by peaks.
The next morning after a breakfast we joined Angelo for the ride to the higher-elevation hunting areas. Our gear consisted of shotguns, shells and an essential piece of equipment: a pair of binoculars. We were headed for the plateaus and alpine lakes of the high Andes on a hunt for several waterfowl species found few other places in the world. This would not be high-volume shooting, as the allowable limit was one pair of each species per hunter.
A gravel road traversed a steep landscape dotted with terraces where grain and other crops were grown. About an hour into the journey and still heading uphill, I was getting a bit fidgety. I asked Angelo when we might start seeing birds. “When we reach the first plateau, at about 12,000 feet,” he said. I looked at Fritz, and we both raised our eyebrows.
A half-hour later we topped a ridge, and Angelo stopped the vehicle. Ahead was a picturesque vista: a broad plateau with scattered wetlands ringed with rugged peaks. In the distance were several white forms, which through the binoculars were identified as llamas and alpacas, long domesticated by the indigenous people of the region.
While we were still looking at the llamas, Angelo said, “Look about 200 yards out near the pond on the east side of the road.” We quickly spotted a pair of Andean geese grazing. After some discussion, Angelo determined that we could circle around the far side of the wetland using the terrain to stay out of sight. Our plan was to get within 50 yards and ambush the birds as we came over a low ridge adjacent to the wetland. We grabbed shotguns and shells and followed Angelo single file along the base of a hill. The thin air took hold almost immediately, and both Fritz and I were a bit winded after covering the first 100 yards at a fast walk.
We had agreed that I would take the first shot, so as we topped the hill, I switched off my safety. The surprised birds took flight, and I was able to drop one goose as it lifted off and the other as it was gaining altitude. Our first pair of exotic waterfowl was in the bag.
It turns out that Andean geese are heavy-built, whitish birds with blackish lower backs and tails and small bills. They are about the same size as snow geese. The species is restricted to the high Andes from Peru through Bolivia south to northern Chile and Argentina; however, the only area with organized hunting is in Peru.
After admiring our prizes we headed down the road, stopping along the way to glass more meadows and wetlands. Eventually we arrived at a high mountain pass and the highest point of the road, which was marked by a sign that read: “Abra Antajirca, Altura 4,780 m.s.n.m.” (15,682 feet above sea level!).
Soon we came upon a pond that held a pair of crested ducks and a pair of Andean teal. The larger crested ducks are found in several regions of South America, with the high Andes and the Falkland Islands being their favored locations. The smaller Andean teal is a high-altitude bird that is slightly larger and lighter-colored than the more common speckled teal—a duck often encountered on Argentine duck hunts. A successful stalk resulted in us collecting three of the four birds.
Still on our list of birds to bag was the Puna teal, named after the high-elevation Puna grasslands of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and northern Argentina. The Puna teal is an individual species that formerly was regarded as a subspecies of the silver teal. It didn’t take long for Angelo to locate a half-dozen birds in a wetland about a quarter-mile from the road. By now the elevation had taken its toll and altitude sickness was setting in. I had a constant headache that aspirin didn’t phase, and Fritz was a bit queasy. But we had traveled a long way, so feeling “under the weather” wasn’t about to deter us.
This was another spot-and-stalk opportunity, but it required even more hiking. Just before our final approach, though, a hawk flew over and flushed the ducks. So it was back to the vehicle for more glassing, and it took two more attempts before we shot a pair of Puna teal.
Our quest lasted two days, and both Fritz and I managed to bag a pair of birds of each legal species: Andean geese, crested ducks, Andean teal and Puna teal. Although we saw Andean ruddy ducks and torrent ducks, the hunting for both closed in 2014.
For the second leg of our trip we headed back toward the coast north of Lima, where agricultural runoff and mountain streams meet the sea to form brackish lagoons. These wetlands are home to large flocks of cinnamon teal, a subspecies of cinnamons that are slightly larger and darker than their North American cousins. Mixed with the teal are white-cheeked pintails and a few yellow-billed pintails.
The first night off of the mountain we stayed at a lodge near Huaral. The dwelling doubles as a lodge for hunting clients and is the home of Angelo’s parents when they are staying on the farm that surrounds the lodge. The farm grows specialty crops, including chives, lettuce, arugula, mint, basil, rosemary and other herbs, for export to the US.
At dinner we had a chance to learn more about Angelo. He was 32 and, though born in Texas, had attended school in Peru. When he was 18, he returned to the US and enrolled in community college. He transferred to Texas A&M and earned a BS in marine engineering. He worked in Texas for several years, and in 2008 returned to Peru to start his hunting business: Chaku Peru. In addition to waterfowling he offers hunts for doves, perdiz, deer and feral sheep. He also books and guides big-game hunts in Chile, Mexico, Australia, France and Spain.
CLICK IMAGES TO EXPAND
The second leg of the trip involved staying in a lodge on an agricultural farm and enjoying higher-volume shooting for cinnamon teal and white-cheeked pintails.
The next morning’s wake-up call came early and, following a light breakfast, we made the one-hour drive to a wetland near the coastal village of Huacho. Located just west of the Pan American Highway, the brackish lagoon was fed by freshwater streams and received saltwater from the Pacific Ocean at high tide. It was dark when Fritz and I pulled on our waders, grabbed our shotguns and met our bird boy, Adrian. With a nod in our direction, Adrian grabbed a bag of decoys and two stools, and we followed him about 150 yards into the marsh. There he stopped and set out the decoys while Fritz and I found a place to hide in the low vegetation. Light was just illuminating the mountains, and birds were beginning to stir.
Adrian had just set out the last decoy and was heading our way when a trio of teal appeared on the horizon. I yelled and motioned at him to get down. In seconds the birds were at 25 yards over the decoys, and Fritz and I each dropped one and missed the third. The morning continued at a fast pace, with the bag being mostly cinnamon teal and several white-cheeked pintails. After having spent a couple of days hunting for select species and taking only a few shots each day, being able to fire away at decoying ducks was a treat. By the end of the morning we were just shy of our legal limit of 20 birds each, and we were all smiles as we grabbed the ducks and headed back to the truck.
The final leg of our trip was a five-hour drive north of Lima to the coastal town of Chimbote. The quarry was still cinnamon teal and pintails, but we hunted a freshwater marsh the first day and a brackish lagoon the second. The wetlands here were larger, covering several thousand acres, and were used primarily as resting areas after the ducks fed in nearby ricefields. Most feeding was done at night, and in the mornings we were ready, with decoys set, when the birds returned. The flights began just before dawn and held up for a couple of hours. In addition to teal and white-cheeked pintails, we were happy to add a few yellow-billed pintails to the bag. We stayed in a local motel and ate at local restaurants, giving us a better feel for everyday Peruvian life along the coast.
On the drive back to Lima, Fritz and I joked about how we first had reacted poorly to the high altitude, but we were glad to have collected several unique birds and to have been able to finish the trip with hot-barreled action over decoys. The bonus was that we had been able to do it all in new and interesting surroundings.
Peru’s duck season runs from May through November, but Chaku Peru offers hunts only from May to August. By August the rice harvest is finished, and many of the birds move out of the area. Additionally, the wetlands shrink or dry up until the rains return in December and January.