November 7, 2019
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock male on lek
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock male on lek
We are trailing the ambulance, our little two-vehicle caravan halfway into the six hour drive up the spectacularly precipitous Manu Road back to Cusco.  Justo is at the wheel, face impassive as usual, his aggressive, heart stopping mountain driving skills thankfully thwarted because the medical intern driving the ambulance ahead is totally inexperienced with this rough, cobble and dirt road up out of the Amazon basin over the crest of the Andes.

Steven, uncharacteristically silent, sits in the back in deference to my propensity for motion sickness.  Riding shotgun, dozing fitfully, I imagine what the ride would be like for Deva, strapped in the back of the ambulance, were Justo driving the lead vehicle while obsessing over the exigencies of a medical emergency.

As we jolt over a boulder, I come wide awake and glance across our driver out into the void to our left where the road drops off into eternity.  Justo is local, a birder of sorts too, with excellent spotting skills, and he has driven this road so many times he knows what species are expected at which elevations.  The three of us see the huge raptor simultaneously, soft expletives in English, Spanish, and Spanglish filling the van.  As a credit to his humanity and his professionalism, so intent is Justo on arriving at the hospital in Cusco with the ambulance, his foot never leaves the accelerator.

The bird is massive, and as it rises vertically up the forested cliff face we are seeing the dorsal surface of its full wingspread.  My first thought is Harpy Eagle, but I immediately realize we can’t be that lucky.  Can we?  Then Steven begins parsing the impressive Andean birdlist on the rolodex of his mind--“two surfboards with a tail in between,” and a short, stubby tail it is.  The primaries are all the same length which gives the wings a slab-like appearance with no curvature, the only comparable thing in North America being Common Black-Hawk.

But this is no Black-Hawk.  It looks a third again as large as Arizona’s arguably most beautiful raptor, though the illusion of great size is enhanced by its proximity to the road cut and our eye-level vantage point.  It is a Solitary Eagle, an immature, probably save for Harpy Eagle the most impressive and rarest raptor in Latin America and, given the switchbacks and the elevation gain in the road, we are witnessing the entire show as the bird begins to circle the spiral staircase of an early morning thermal.

This will be the bird of the trip, trumping our views the previous afternoon of the sensational male Andean Cocks-of-the Rock on their lek.  Steven and I glance at one another in elation and resignation.  The cameras are packed away, and of course no one is suggesting we stop anyway.  We are in the midst of the ultimate ambulance chase with far more important things on our mind than images of a legendary bird.

I make no claims to clairvoyance, nor do I actively seek omens, but those of us for whom birding has been a pathway to nature often notice signs that intertwine our journey with the mysterious and inscrutable rhythms of something greater than ourselves.  Deva’s fraught ordeal ends happily, and the Andes beckon us back, though I doubt I will ever photograph a Solitary Eagle, or even see one again.  It is the way of the natural world.