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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bolivia: The Chaco, Valle Zone, and Central Andes

2015 Tour Narrative

In Brief: The amazing variety of habitats and the corresponding variety of fabulous birds once again proved what a fun place Bolivia is to bird. The Chaco region was as interesting as ever, this year providing abundant Black-legged Seriemas as well as a Crested Gallito that perched up for photos. Further highlights voted as favorites as we continued from dry to humid, back to dry, and back to humid included Subtropical Pygmy-Owl and Red-necked Woodpecker at Refugio Los Volcanes; Scarlet-fronted Macaw, Bolivian Recurvebill, and Cream-backed Woodpecker in the Valle Zone; Andean Condor, Red-tailed Comet, Olive-crowned Crescentchest, and Hooded Mountain-Toucan in the Siberia area; Yungas Manakin and Blue-banded Toucanet in the Chapare cloud forest; and Torrent Duck, Red-crested Cotinga, and Yungas Pygmy-Owl at Cerro Tunari. More than ever, it was really hard to choose favorites.

In Detail: We started the tour just to the south of the city of Santa Cruz at Lomas de Arena regional park. The dregs of a late cold front that passed through the day before (when it was windy with a persistent drizzle) lingered this morning as a light overcast and delightfully cool temperatures. It can be really sunny and hot here, but today’s bird activity remained high. White-banded Mockingbird, Plush-crested Jay, a confiding Peach-fronted Parakeet, noisy Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, and a Buff-bellied Hermit were some of the highlights here. Some who were looking in the right directions caught a glimpse of Red-winged Tinamou crossing the road as well as a White-bellied Nothura in flight. It didn’t seem warm enough for butterflies, but we saw loads of the metalmark Melanis aegates, the White-spotted Pixie, as well as Danaus erippus, the Southern Monarch. Another non-bird highlight was a South American Brown Brocket (a deer) dashing across the road. We caught up with the final participant at lunch before heading to the rather quiet Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens just east of the city. Here we found the regional specialty Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike. One of the highlights from the day was a Buff-throated Woodcreeper that we watched as it swallowed a lizard that it had been whacking to death against the tree trunk.

After an early departure from Santa Cruz, we drove until we came to a side road for a picnic breakfast and some fun early morning birding. Carlos and his sister Benita impressed us with their first of our many hot cooked breakfasts. We heard Red-legged Seriemas but couldn’t get close enough to see them. White-tipped Doves were everywhere, and several species of parrots were leaving their roosts to go feed somewhere for the day. The fanciest and one that was cooperative enough to perch for spotting scope views was a Yellow-collared Macaw. As we continued south on the main highway we stopped for our first Green-cheeked Parakeets and a Toco Toucan perched next to the road. We made a short birding stop along the way at Rio Seco, seeing lovely Blue-and-yellow Tanagers on the way in and a Spot-backed Puffbird, a Great Rufous Woodcreeper, more Bolivian Slaty-Antshrikes, and migrant Yellow-browed Tyrants farther in. We had made good time, so it was nice to get to spend a while checking out the marshy edges of Laguna Tatarenda. Here we saw Black-necked Stilts (formerly split as White-backed Stilt; they not only look obviously different, but they have much lower and more nasal calls than our northern birds). I had called out a group of White-faced Ibis, which I photographed then we concentrated on looking at other birds. I later looked at my photos and realized that these looked like Puna Ibis, a bird no one would have expected at this low elevation. These may very well be wintering birds from much farther south; it just goes to show how little is known about bird distribution and seasonal movements in this region. Most of us had decent views of Rufous-sided Crake, and some of us paused to photograph a puddle party of sulphurs containing five species. We birded another road not far from there that went a bit into the foothills covered in a semihumid forest that is difficult to characterize. In it we found Two-banded Warblers and White-bellied Hummingbird to be common, while some of us glimpsed a Saffron-billed Sparrow and a White-backed Fire-eye. The highlight for some from here was a Streaked Xenops that was apparently going to a nest, while Gilded Hummingbird and Red-crested Finches were also memorable.

To reach the heart of the Chaco, we drove for about 45 minutes south of our hotel on the main highway towards Argentina, and then just before the highway leaves the department of Santa Cruz at the border of Chuquisaca, we turned east through the town of Boyuibe and followed a dirt track that leads through cattle ranches all the way to Paraguay. Tropical Parula was one of the most abundant birds here, and any amount of pishing and owl imitations brought in at least a pair. Lark-like Brushrunners were conspicuous as they ran along the sides of the road and amongst the brush. Green-backed Becard was rather a surprise near our breakfast spot, and we ended up seeing it very well. Short-billed Canastero appeared several times easily while Chaco Earthcreeper took us quite a while to see well. Finally, after hearing a few, we connected with a trio of Black-legged Seriemas crossing the road. Then they were everywhere. I estimated that we saw at least 11 and heard at least 9 more today. Near our lunch stop we connected with the scarce Checkered Woodpecker, amazingly similar in habitat, behavior, and voice to our Ladder-backed Woodpecker. A Crested Gallito teased us for some time, showing well only for a couple of us, but then across the road we were extremely lucky finally to find another individual that sat up long enough for a binocular views as well as some quick photos.  On our way back to Boyuibe we stopped by a farm where we finally found Crested Hornero and then looked at some ponds, where we found a migrant Baird’s Sandpiper and a gorgeous Ringed Teal. We had two surprise raptors for the day – one was a Zone-tailed Hawk that was doing very well in passing as a Turkey Vulture, and the other an Aplomado Falcon that flew in front of the bus. Amazingly, it perched long enough for everyone to get out and enjoy it.

We had added day to the old itinerary in order to bird the foothills and interior valley of Lagunillas, a sleepy little town visited by few people other than travelers interested in the story of Che Guevara. This is where he formed his band and began his final journey before being killed in Vallegrande northwest of here. The northern road into the valley crosses some hills still covered in intact forest, a rarity in much of Latin America, but not uncommon in sparsely-populated Bolivia. Before breakfast we saw Sclater’s Tyrannulet, Dot-fronted Woodpecker, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. After breakfast we continued to bird along the road, where I heard and finally recognized the song of Southern Antpipit. No published information indicated species would be remotely possible here, so it was quite a surprise. A bit of playback worked wonders, and everyone got great views of it. We continued into the valley of Lagunillas, the northern end of which is a huge cattail marsh and lake just starting to come alive in the early spring. We saw several Southern Screamers, many ducks and shorebirds, and a Great Black Hawk. At our picnic lunch spot we flushed a flock of Grayish Baywings (a recent name change with the Bay-winged Cowbird being split into two species) with two black cowbirds. Up until now we had seen plenty of Shiny Cowbirds, and with some brief playback we confirmed them as Screaming Cowbirds, very similar visually as adults. Their primary host is this Grayish Baywing, and the juvenile Screaming Cowbirds look nearly identical to this species. We returned to the Chaco this evening on a different side road in search for owls; Tropical Screech-Owl and Little Nightjar were our nocturnal prizes, but before dark we finally lucked into the elusive Many-colored Chaco-Finch.

For our travel day back north we started right behind our hotel in Camiri, where just-arrived (or perhaps still southbound) Southern Martins and Tawny-headed Swallows were a highlight. Always puzzling in this region are the piculets, where the presumed species Ocellated (Andean), White-wedged (Brazilian and Bolivian dry woodland), and White-barred (Chaco) all meet. Despite our being out of the immediate Andean foothills and theoretically in the Chaco, the photos show that the one we had here was an Ocellated. Our major birding stop this morning was at some small lakes in Ipati (not to be confused with the town just to the north named Ipitá). There were lots of goodies, including Brazilian Teal, Masked Duck, Solitary Sandpiper, and White-winged Coot with juveniles (so they apparently bred here). The huge mesquites here were draped in a rope-like epiphytic cactus, Lepismium lumbricoides. We completed the long drive in time to take two hours to walk the very steep 3-kilometer entrance driveway into Refugio Los Volcanes. We actually saw a Short-tailed Antthrush (usually a heard-only bird) and the very local White-bellied Tody-Tyrant, but a rare Bicolored Hawk was undoubtedly the highlight of the walk.

Our time at Los Volcanes was delightful. A Crested Oropendola colony was in an isolated tree right next to our rooms, and we watched them while waiting for raptors to soar during the right hours. It wasn’t quite as windy as had been reported in the previous days, but the rapidly moving thin clouds above the peaks did indicate that this annoying weather system hadn’t completely disappeared. The only raptor that eventually appeared was Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, and we eventually did see our first exciting Andean Condors. Plush-crested Jay was common around the buildings, and the characteristic sound in the early morning and afternoon were flocks of Mitred Parakeets, which we eventually got to see perched. We birded a few trails, seeing such fine birds as Slaty Gnateater and Bolivian Tapaculo, but the wind kept flock activity down, and we never did connect with a good mixed flock of tanagers. Perhaps our best find here, as there are few places it can be seen, was a Subtropical Pygmy-Owl, which I whistled in from hundreds of meters away. On our hike along the stream we mostly avoided the unprecedented abundance of quicksand, but a handsome Sunbittern was worth the effort. On the morning we left we connected again with Short-tailed Antthrush, but the biggest coup by far was the Bolivian Recurvebill trolled in from across the canyon, almost exactly as I had done years before.

A travel day to Comarapa wasn’t all lost, as a quick roadside potty stop resulted in a number of fun birds, such as Gray-crested Finch. Then Carlos spotted a Cream-backed Woodpecker, one of the more exciting roadside finds of the tour. We made a final stop to look for Bolivian Earthcreeper, instead spotting an unseasonal Barn Swallow, followed by an amazing fly-over of Red-fronted Macaws headed from who-knows-where to a distant roost, probably in the next valley to the north.

Our full day in the heart of Bolivia’s “Valle Zone,” to the Mizque River valley, was a bit more relaxed, thanks to our sighting of the macaws the afternoon before. We started with a picnic breakfast in the cactus forest on our way to Saipina, where Spot-backed Puffbird, White-fronted Woodpecker, Striped Woodpecker, and White-tipped Plantcutter were good finds. We succeeded in finding just one pair of Red-fronted Macaws that perched where we watched them at length through the spotting scope. One of the other two parrots we also looked for, and saw very well, were the Monk Parakeets that look, sound, and nest differently from the Monk Parakeets found in the lowland Chaco region and southward. These most certainly should be split and called Cliff Parakeets. The same might be said about the Blue-crowned Parakeets, currently regarded only as subspecies neumanni, but also quite distinct, isolated from lowland birds and yet another tick on our “escrow” lists. We had lunch in the shade of a large mesquite tree, and by tooting like a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl I brought in quite a mob that included Brown-capped Redstart and Masked Gnatcatcher, among several other species. Finally, a couple birds we saw on our drive back to Camiri were a migrant Crowned Slaty Flycatcher right below the road and our final endemic of the day, Bolivian Earthcreeper.

We had a full day in the cloud forest and adjacent drier scrub of the slightly isolated mountains of Siberia. We had work for our birds with brutal winds persisting from a very unusual weather pattern (a recurring theme globally, these days). Few draws seemed to have any shelter from it at all. Wind was a bit better than dense fog or heavy rain, but it appeared to keep mixed flock activity low. Right at dawn we lucked into a flurry of activity that included Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet, Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager, and Red-crested Cotinga. We heard a distant Rufous-faced Antpitta and tried playback without any success. A Trilling Tapaculo was equally unresponsive, but we eventually had one that appeared furtively a few times, and despite a lack of patience everyone managed to see it. We found a cooperative Giant Antshrike down a side road after having enjoyed the effortless gliding of a Swallow-tailed Kite then finally found another mixed flock with Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager. We made more unsuccessful attempts for the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta, finally seeing one perched in a very dense bush right below the road. We could see it only by crouching and peering through one little hole to see it perched only a couple feet away. Another fun sighting was of a flock of about 15-20 Pale-footed Swallows which had found the only wind-sheltered 50-meter stretch of road and circled back and forth over and between us at times. We returned to Comarapa with stops in the drier, lower slopes, which revealed few birds in the gusty winds. Thanks to a tip from Carlos, we found a responsive Olive-crowned Crescentchest and had amazing views of it.

A very long, bumpy dirt road to Cochabamba was perfectly interrupted by some fabulous birding. Our first stop was in the highest elevations on the road in short, mossy forest where we saw our third species of Scytalopus, a Diademed Tapaculo that scurried like a mouse between stunted bushes, suddenly popped up from behind a mossy clump on the ground, and nearly sat on my iPod. Other good birds we had here were a singing Undulated Antpitta and the Bolivian endemic Black-chinned Thistletail, both at the utter southern edge of their ranges. A pair of Hooded Mountain-Toucans was a huge surprise at a stop in a patch of humid cloud forest that draped down a protected draws, while we had excellent views of the endemic but more expected Black-hooded Sunbeam here. We made an unplanned stop in a drier location near Pongo when I looked out the bus window and saw an Andean Condor soaring over a nearby hill. There were two, sometimes landing on the slopes of the hill, then flying around, giving us all angles, no farther than 300 meters away. Then someone noticed a male Red-tailed Comet perched only 20 meters away in a Eucalyptus tree, its branch swaying wildly in the wind. Both species remained observable for many minutes. One last stop was for our picnic lunch in semi-sheltered draw where Rufous-bellied Saltators and Fulvous-headed Brush-Finches were highlights.

A straightforward visit up Cerro Tunari started with a cooperative catch-up Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch, followed by a flock of Andean Parakeets in some roadside shrubs. Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch was the most abundant of the Poospiza here, but we easily saw several of the local Cochabamba Mountain-Finches. Rock Earthcreeper was cooperative, and we eventually found a Tawny Tit-Spinetail in the Polylepis trees. A Torrent Duck way down in rapids in the valley below was a good sighting. After enjoying several Giant Hummingbirds, close Andean Swifts, and a Yungas Pygmy-Owl, we continued to the dry tundra-like habitat above about 12,000 feet elevation where we had several target species. We found the very local and scarce Short-tailed Finch amongst the boulders, a Puna Tapaculo hopping about in the open, many Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches, and a Buff-breasted Earthcreeper. We had another two Torrent Ducks on a flood control structure at much closer range before heading back down the mountain. We made one last panic stop on the way down for what would be our only Bolivian Warbling-Finch that flew across the road in front of the van. After we got out, I pished a bit, the bird sat up, and all got brief but good looks at it before it vanished.

We had fog at our first birding location on the Chapare Road, though we did get good looks at a Rufous-bellied Bush-Tyrant and White-eared Solitaire after breakfast. We then moved down to what used to be a seldom-traveled side road at lower elevation that has had some great birds in the past. The San Miguelito substation road used to be a narrow track with lush vegetation along the sides but this time we found a widened gravel road with recently cleared vegetation and further down the road noisy construction as the widening was in process. It seems they are preparing to build a dam in the valley below, and this will be one of their main access roads for equipment. Still, we saw some good birds, but not as much as we had hoped. A good mixed flock at the beginning of the road was really impressive, including a gorgeous Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and a Blue-banded Toucanet, and farther down the road we had great views of a closer Ochre-faced Tody-Tyrant. One last stop at higher elevation where the fog had cleared we had more views of stunning Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers and compared Highland and Sierran Elaenias.

We returned to Cerro Tunari for another day, this time heading directly to the higher slopes to beat the frequent mid-day fog or thunderstorms (often with snow) and to take advantage of heightened bird song activity. We first targeted canasteros today, and we scored big, with five species. There aren’t many places where you can see five of these often skulking furnariids in a single morning. The common and not-so shy Creamy-breasted Canastero was found easily from the bus as we drove up. Then in the uppermost scrubby Polylepis groves we coaxed out a Maquis Canastero, with its especially long tail almost more like the related tit-spinetails. In this same habitat we spotted a Red-crested Cotinga displaying at another, unseen bird. Higher up in the lower bunch grass we located a Puna Canastero that came in quite close. Just a bit higher up we found Scribble-tailed Canastero. Our final species was Cordilleran Canastero, found in the highest elevations, free of shrubs and bunchgrass, where it scurries amongst boulders instead. We didn’t see many other species at this elevation, the highest point we reached being 14,860 feet (4530 meters) above sea level. But the scenery was fabulous and the plants fascinating. We even saw a butterfly, the rarely seen Itylos titicaca, Titicaca Blue. A Slender-billed Miner responded to my playback doing an extended display flight like a lark above us. Ground-tyrants presented their usual difficulties, but we finally settled on two White-fronted Ground-Tyrants, one very clear Ochre-naped, and several Taczanowski’s. Our only White-winged Diuca-Finches were in this high tundra-like habitat.

We started our final day with a visit to a wetland not far from our hotel, where Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant had been reported in the past couple of years. Amazingly there was one along a ditch where we were trying to get better access to the main marsh. At these same wetlands we found a very lost Maguari Stork, normally found in the lowlands. Wren-like Rushbirds were everywhere, often walking out in the open on floating mats of algae, and the unique Many-colored Rush-Tyrant (soon to be placed in its own monotypic family) showed well too. One last bird we found here was a Brown-backed Mockingbird before we dropped off Jan at the airport and headed to Laguna Alalay in the middle of the city. It was full of water birds, and this is where we finally found Red-fronted Coot. It took a lot of searching, but we eventually saw a few (three or four years ago birders were reporting dozens). Seeing Puna Ibis together White-faced Ibis was a treat and another special mix of birds were Red Shovelers, White-cheeked Pintail, and Puna Teal. Due to popular demand, we made a stop at the Mercado San Antonio before our final lunch, packing, and departure by flight to Santa Cruz. We had hoped for some fine knitted alpaca garments and especially for some spun alpaca yarn for knitting, but Bolivia hasn’t quite figured out this wide open market.

- Rich Hoyer

Updated: February 2016