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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bolivia: The Chaco, Valle Zone, and Central Andes

2019 Narrative

In Brief: The first of our two back-to-back Bolivia tours was a breeze, thanks to wonderful support from our multi-talented driver Herman, our ground agent Ruth, a small group of just three participants, and birds everywhere. The great showing of Red-fronted Macaws in the Rio Mizque Valley earned it favorite bird of the trip, but there was otherwise very little overlap in the many memorable sightings. Rufescent Screech-Owl put on a great show at Refugio Los Volcanes, as did a Many-colored Chaco-Finch on our day east of Boyuibe. Campo Flicker was another favored bird from the lowlands, but our time in the Andes provided the most memorable birds. White-eared Solitaire, Andean Guan, Band-tailed Fruiteater, Rufous Antpitta, Cream-backed Woodpecker, Red-necked Woodpecker, Black-hooded Sunbeam, and Grass-green Tanager made the top of the list. Other highlights of note on the tour included a Brown Vinesnake, several species of exquisite passionflowers, and the wonderful picnic breakfasts and lunches provided by Herman.

In Detail: Our first day of birding might have been hampered by the strong NW winds and tropical heat, but one wouldn’t know it from our list of over 100 species, which included our taking a mid-day break. Our first stop at Lomas de Arena just south of town was hopping with activity, such as Chotoy Spinetail, Campo Flicker, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Small-billed Elaenia, and several tyrannulets in roadside vegetation. We spent some quality time with a White-wedged Piculet, saw both White-eared and Spot-backed Puffbird within a very short distance of each other, and marveled at the scenery of sand dunes blowing in the wind. In the afternoon, we managed to see a few more birds at the botanical gardens, such as a very close and surprisingly colorful Fawn-breasted Wren, a Black-banded Woodcreeper carrying nesting material to its cavity, and a large Yellow-footed Tortoise feeding on the side of the trail (which we probably saved from some kids that tried taking it home in a sack).

Our first travel day to the Chaco region wasn’t birdless by any means. At our picnic breakfast spot we were teased by singing Red-legged Seriemas, but all birds were topped in quality by a Brown Vinesnake doing an excellent rope imitation on the roadside. After breakfast we paused by the side of the highway for close Red-legged Seriemas and a pond with some very handsome Ringed Teal and Brazilian Teal. A short pause for roadwork was fortuitous, as our only White Woodpeckers were flying over just then. A side trip up the Rio Seco was very birdy, where we had our first Bolivian Slaty-Antshrikes, among many other birds. Highlights at Laguna Tatarenda were numbers of shorebirds, especially Black-necked (White-backed) Stilts, being harassed by a Peregrine. Thanks to Herman’s sharp eyes we had our first Black-legged Seriemas even before getting to our Camiri Hotel, at the same place becoming familiar with our first Greater Wagtail-Tyrants.

Deep in the Chaco, it was clear that spring was just beginning. Many plants were starting to leaf out, the paloverdes were in their full yellow splendor, and many of the winter flocks of birds had already begun to divide up into breeding pairs. Black-legged Seriema was a main target, despite our having already seen them, and we were pleased to have tallied a total of 12. A Blue-tufted Starthroat was feeding over the road on our way east of Boyuibe, and we later caught up with one feeding from a patch of tree tobacco as predicted. Surprisingly easy was a pair of Crested Hornero at our breakfast spot, while Little Thornbird, Short-billed Canastero, Cinereous Tyrant appeared in short order. The skulky Stripe-backed Antbird and Chaco Earthcreeper took a bit more work, but we eventually got great views. Woodpeckers showed well later in the day, including Checkered, Cream-backed Woodpecker, and White-fronted, the latter perched up on a cactus just as the scientific name says it should. A pair of Great Rufous Woodcreepers were in the more forested hilly part of the drive, while we had to reach the wide open flats to catch up with Lark-like Brushrunner and Many-colored Chaco Finch, and we also found a pair of Crested Gallitos that sat up in a bush. On the way back we made a short stop to observe a very close Greater Rhea on the opposite side of a hedgerow.

Our day through the lovely Lagunillas Valley began with some rich birding in the Chaco Serrano habitat, a fascinating seasonally dry woodland in the foothills that was alive with birds. Cream-backed and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers were highlights before breakfast, while we had our best views of Fuscous Flycatcher here as well, singing its distinctive whistle song. Scarce birds that we were lucky to find here included Green-winged Saltator, Green-backed Becard, Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, and Dot-fronted Woodpecker, but the most cherished sighting this morning was of a Tropical Screech-Owl that Herman located for us after we had given up on it as invisibly buried in the vegetation. Swallow-tailed Kites sailing overhead was also a nice find before lunch by the huge marsh, which was followed by our attempt to fathom the amazing numbers of White-faced Ibis and especially the Southern Screamers. We also scanned for rarities and came up with quite a few, including Silver Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and American Golden-Plover, while the smaller marsh near the town had a very rare Red-fronted Coot, White-winged Coot, and a Spot-flanked Gallinule, as well as two more Silver Teal and plenty of lovely Ringed Teal.

We squeezed in some last birding in the Chaco Serrano on the morning of our travel day back northward, still recording over 80 species in a short time. New for the list was an amazingly cooperative Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and Rufous-thighed Kite (possibly a migrant), while a distant heard Olive-backed Crescentchest was at the outermost limits of its distribution here. Dusky-legged Guans were along the road – a good sign that hunting is probably not a big problem here. We stopped again at Laguna Tatarenda where we had good views of Yellowish Pipit. Upon arriving at Refugio Los Volcanes, a lone Dusky-green Oropendola fed in a blooming Erythrina tree, and we arrived in time to watch a Blue-throated Piping-Guan heading off to roost somewhere. Taking advantage of good weather, we did a bit of owling up the road, having superb success with a Rufescent Screech-Owl, and further highlights were a lancehead (genus Bothrops but even the experts aren’t sure which species it should be, and it might even be undescribed), and a lovely large treefrog, Phyllomedusa boliviana.

Two nights at Refugio Los Volcanes didn’t seem like enough time – one could spend a week here just relaxing and soaking in the atmosphere. We made the most of our one full day, which started with hearing distant Rufous Nightjars, the awesome sight of hundreds of Mitred Parakeets moving to their morning feeding areas, up to eight Blue-throated Piping-Guans in the trees, and a troop of five Channel-billed Toucans cavorting up the slopes. In the woods, a Bolivian Tapaculo made itself very visible, alongside a Slaty Gnateater and Gray-throated Leaftosser at the same location. We scanned the skies mid-morning for soaring birds, seeing Andean Condor from our rooms. A few Military Macaws flew over early in the morning, but as the day progressed they became more and more evident, and we had amazing views of these magnificent parrots, tallying at least 40. On the return walk from being dropped off up the entrance road, we surprised a pair of Brown Tinamous, one of which oddly walked into the open road rather off into the dense undergrowth. Other highlights were a pair of huge and lovely Red-necked Woodpeckers and a mixed flock that contained the astonishingly red White-winged Tanager. A short after dinner owling walk made short work of seeing a pair of Band-bellied Owls, never a guarantee.

A final morning walk resulted in the sighting of a Masked Trogon at the lower end of its elevational limit. As we made the steep drive out of the valley, we made a short stop and had our best views of Military Macaws yet. A White-throated Quail-Dove was a nice surprise as it casually walked across the road in front of the vehicle and continued in sight in the very open understory. We had a surprisingly delightful and abundant lunch at Luna Verde before continuing the long drive to Comarapa. Two very brief stops were still quite productive, providing our first Brown-capped Redstart and White-tipped Plantcutter.

We departed very early for the Rio Mizque valley, making a quick stop when we flushed a Scissor-tailed Nightjar from the roadside, eventually seeing it well. Red-fronted Macaw was our primary target today, and we were not disappointed. A few pairs were flying around, and one in particular eventually perched at very close range. Up and down the cliffs and visiting their huge nests were the distinctive subspecies of Monk Parakeet, surely to be split as Cliff Parakeet in the future. We birded some of the dry forest on the way back, getting some amazing views of Blue-and-yellow Tanager at close range as well as even better views of the strange White-tipped Plantcutter. In the afternoon we were nearly defeated by a relentless wind, but working farther up the road we eventually found some bird activity, where Fulvous-headed Brushfinch, Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch, and a gorgeous Olive-crowned Crescentchest were well worth the effort.

Our second full day based out of Comarapa was spent up at the Serrania de Siberia cloud forest. We stopped just short of the fog line and encountered some great flock activity, highlights being a Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager. The fog lifted for much of the morning, and we enjoyed seeing many Bolivian Brushfinches and brought in a Trilling Tapaculo for views, but the many singing Rufous-faced Antpittas wouldn’t cooperate. Fog rose to fill the valley by lunch, which was delicious fresh fried chicken and potatoes. We were just close enough to a Crested Quetzal to see some color in the fog. We moved on to the south slope to escape the fog, finding more mixed flock activity, including an amazingly cooperative Azara’s Spinetail, not always seen that well, and a stupidly confiding pair of Andean Guans.

The long drive from Comarapa to Cochabamba was broken up by several birding stops and some very good birds. Fog and road construction dictated where we could make our first stop, but it was highlighted by a Yungas Pygmy-Owl that flew in for great views. A later stop had an Andean Tinamou walking across a slope completely exposed, and just across the road a Rufous Antpitta was coaxed into view in roadside vegetation. Rufous-bellied Mountain-Tanager (formerly thought to be a saltator) was in the same area, showing well. We didn’t know what was in store for us a couple days later, so we put in some time at a likely spot for Black-hooded Sunbeam and eventually had great views of one defending its favorite red Mutisia flowers. Gray-hooded Parakeets, Sedge Wren (apparently a range extension for the Puna group), and blooming columnar cactuses were further highlights along the highway before we had to make a beeline for Cochabamba.

The lower slopes of Cerro Tunari were very good to us, and we made quick work of Bolivian Warbling-Finch and Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, finishing the list of possibilities of this group of lovely birds. An Andean Swift cruised amazingly close along the road, and a Giant Hummingbird posed on its cactus-top nest. Scanning the river below was met with success in finding Torrent Duck, and while trying to refind a White-winged Cinclodes we spotted a pair of White-capped Dipper. Higher up the road a Puna Tapaculo came out of its mossy boulder hiding spots and sang out in the open, while a juvenile Maquis Canastero provided for a good ID challenge. We managed to find Cinereous and Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrants at the highest elevations, but it was the sighting of Andean Condor in such a classic setting that was most memorable from there.

The cloud forests of the Chapare Road lured us away from the high mountains on our second day out of Cochabamba, and we ended up spending the whole morning on the Miguelito Substation road. The early morning rain made for a slow birding start, but the weather improved quickly, and we found some good bird activity that included Upland Antshrike, Stripe-chested Antwren, Long-tailed Sylph, and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, among many others. Another busy mixed flock had a single rare Green-throated Tanager for a nice prize before we headed to lunch at a local trout farm. Along the way we stopped on the highway for a family group of Green Jays. One last afternoon stop finally resulted in a couple sightings of the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta.

We had one last morning, and the closest bit of treeline cloud forest beckoned. Black-hooded Sunbeams were in force at our first stop, with several males acting as if on a lek, and we had the best views ever of this unbelievably beautiful endemic hummingbird. Black-chinned Thistletail and  White-browed Conebill were in the same area, and after picnic breakfast we had to settle for a heard only Undulated Antpitta. A Diademed Tapaculo was visible for some for a few full seconds, but the constant traffic on the little back road finally drove us away, though the locals were extremely friendly and we enjoyed talking about birds with a young mother. We were met by persistent fog lower down on a quieter road, but a Grass-green Tanager emerged to show its colors at close range before we had to go back to the hotel. One last birding stop at Laguna Alalay on the way to the airport was successful in the search for Red Shoveler, and some very handsome Puna Teal were another fine addition to a spectacular list of birds, critters, and plants we observed over the previous 12 days.

Rich Hoyer

December 2018


Created: 28 January 2019