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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bolivia: The Chaco, Valle Zone and Central Andes

Tour Narrative

Please note that our 2010 tour followed a somewhat different route from Rich’s forthcoming Bolivia tour.

Every one of the distinct ecosystems we visited on this year’s Bolivia tour produced some unforgettable highlights. Over just 17 days of birding we amassed a list of 476 species, making it difficult to name the most memorable ones. In the Chaco, it was hands-down the Black-legged Seriema that ran across the road to join its mate, their duet reverberating across the small valley. Also in the south, an Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, adorable both visually and in name, showed superbly at our feet. Here, too, and into the Valle Zone and Siberia area, it was nearly daily Andean Condors, stupidly confiding Andean Tinamous, a gorgeous Olive-crowned Crescentchest, charming Light-crowned Spinetails, and the experience of watching Red-fronted Macaws and Monk (Cliff) Parakeets at their nesting cliff. Our time sampling Amazonian birds was short, but the pair of Chestnut-backed Antshrikes behind our hotel and the Blue-throated Piping-Guan sustained us on the way to birding the Andean cloud forests. We spent time watching Dusky-green Oropendola antics, soaked up the primary colors of a male Versicolored Barbet, and marveled at our luck witha pair of Blue-banded Toucanets. Finally, the high Andes near Cochabamba were the pinnacle of the tour, with grand vistas, an exhilarating hike through boulder fields, and a herd of llamas capturing our attention. Cooperative Many-colored Rush-Tyrants and several cute Tufted Tit-Tyrants were eclipsed by the bird of the tour, a Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, one of few records for the country.

The sandy savanna and woodlots of Lomas de Arena park was a great place to start the tour. The Red-legged Seriema pair that has become accustomed to being fed outside the hotel kitchen put on a great show, and we had superb mixed flock activity with the recently recognized Straneck’s Tyrannulet,  Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-backed Grosbeak, and Black-capped Warbling-Finches among many others. Flushing White-bellied Nothura and Red-winged Tinamou gave us the best views we would have of these species, while flocks of hundreds of White-eyed Parakeets, some perched Yellow-collared Macaws, rainbow-billed Toco Toucans, and a cooperative pair of White-wedged Piculets afforded much better looks. The open grasslands had nice Chotoy Spinetails and Grassland Sparrow singing from the ground near our feet, while the woodlands farther down the road had a particularly memorable Blue-and-yellow Tanager in the morning sun and a family group of handsome Plush-crested Jays. We then headed south to the Chaco region , making stops for Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike and Gilded Hummingbird in the dry forests, and saw numbers of Black-necked Stilts and migrant shorebirds (Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, and Wilson’s Phalaropes) before the birdlife started to change.

Things were indeed different our first morning in the Chaco. A total of twelve Black-legged Seriemas made it onto the day’s list. Most exciting was a huge Great Rufous Woodcreeper that flew in cooperatively. Chaco Chachalacas were everywhere, and we were among very few birders to have seen ibirds such as Crested Hornero, Short-billed Canastero, Chaco Earthcreeper, Checkered Woodpecker, and Lark-like Brushrunner n Bolivia. We lucked into our second species of piculet in two days, White-barred, and enjoyed the lowland form of Green-barred Woodpecker, many Masked Gnatcatchers, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, and a secretive White-tipped Plantcutter. Blue-tufted Starthroat was also a good bird for Bolivia: we watched a flowering tree with several, including a gorgeous male.

On leaving Camiri the next morning, we were distracted by a fantastic roadside show of Blue-fronted Parrots and Blue-crowned Parakeets, along with flocks with abundant Black-capped Warbling-Finches, Golden-billed Saltators, Red-crested Finches, Red-crested Cardinals, Utramarine Grosbeaks, and our third species of piculet, Ocellated. Further delaying our progress were Spot-backed Puffbird on the powerlines, White Mojitas and White-banded Mockingbird, a displaying Screaming Cowbird, a teasing Stripe-backed Antbird, Aplomado Falcons, and a pair of distant Solitary Eagles. Finally it was time to have lunch, which ended up being in a most memorable spot, what with the noisy flocks of Mitred Parakeets (later flushed by a pair of zooming Peregrine Falcons), a cliff with masses of wasp nests (mostly dormant, it seemed), and a field with 260 Southern Screamers.

Refugio Los Volcanes was a dreamy, relaxed place to bird. We managed to pick up most all of the specialties here, including mutiple Slaty Gnateaters, the tamest Two-banded Warblers in the world (around every corner, it seemed), Black-capped Antwren, Bolivian Tapaculo (seen well!), Sclater’s Tyrannulet, singing Yungas Manakins, countless Green-cheeked Parakeets, and Ochre-cheeked Spinetail. We had amazing views of Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail, a rare (at this elevation) Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, a blooming Inga tree with three species of violet-ears, includng a rare White-vented and a low-elevation Sparkling, a furtive Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, and a Barred Forest-Falcon right overhead. Although common and seen every day, the Crested Oropendolas were an essential part of our experience here, their compical displays and sounds never failing to elicit a giggle. And on our last day, a rare Bolivian Recurvebill did the most unexpected, flying across the canyon from the safety of its bamboo thickets to our side. Our short visit to Laguna Volcan nearby was fruitful with several Masked Ducks, many Least Grebes, and three Rufous-sided Crakes, including one that hopped right out into the open for several long seconds.

The Valle Zone was very good to us. The highlight was our visit to the cliffs where Red-fronted Macaws and the soon-to-be-split (from Monk) Cliff Parakeets nest. The whole area was extremely birdy, especially from our picnic breakfast spot by the river bed, where all sorts of birds came to bathe and forage, among them a Tawny-headed Swallow, White-tipped Plantcutter, Green Kingfisher, White-fronted Woodpecker, and Cliff Flycatcher. A low, perched Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle was memorable, and flocks of Bolivian Blackbirds meant that we wouldn’t have to look so hard for them near Cochabamba. The Andean Tinamous at our picnic lunch spot were also unforgettable, one freezing as if it was certain we couldn’t see it. We finished birding the dry area with a Bolivian Earthcreeper, followed by a puzzling butterfly that represents either the first Bolivian record of the little-known metalmark Zabuella tenellus or an undescribed second species of what is otherwise known as a monotypic genus. We also made a quick visit to the cloud forest of Siberia, where we had surprising success at seeing Trilling Tapaculo, Light-crowned Spinetail, Pale-legged Warbler, Pearled Treerunner, Montane Woodcreeper, Mountain Wren, the amazing Olive-crowned Crescentchest, Fulvous-headed Brush-Finch, and a handsome Black-and-rufous Warbling-Finch.

Our transition to the Amazonian lowlands started with some birding by our hotel north of Santa Cruz, where a Green Ibis foraged on the lawn, Collared Arcaris and Chestnut-fronted Macaws foraged in the trees, a pair of Whistling Herons adorned the office building, and a pair of Chestnut-backed Antshrikes boldly came out of the undergrowth. Another highlight here was a troupe of active Black-tailed Marmosets scurrying down cecropia branches. A short stop at a wetland netted us some close Hoatzins, Orange-backed Troupial, and a surprise flock of Velvet-fronted Grackles. One roadside stop resulted in our only Black-caped Donacobius, while another was a chance to compare Rusty-margined Flycatcher with Social; we also had our best views of Plain Tyrannlulet and our only Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet and Southern Scrub-Flycatcher.

The lower foothills around Villa Tunari provided some difficult but rewarding birding. A Mottle-backed Elaenia on the way to the Oilbird cave was a bonus, and of course the Oilbirds were the star of the day. We also squeaked out two different Amazonian Umbrellabirds, a pair of Buff-banded Tyrannulets at their lowest elevational occurrence, Flammulated Pygmy-Tyrant, a very cooperative Pectoral Sparrow, Upland Antshrike, White-bellied and Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrants, and gobs of oropendolas of four species.

Working our way up to the cloud forests of the Chapare road increased our bird list tremendously. Here we found White-eared Solitaire, Versicolored Barbet, Blue-banded Toucanet, and mixed flocks with colorful Spectacled Redstarts, Grass-green Tanagers, Blue-capped Tanagers,  and Scarlet-belled Mountain-Tanagers. Our morning on a side road at treeline was a spectacular success, with fantastic views of Black-hooded Sunbeams fighting over a Mutisia bloom, a Violet-throated Starfrontlet going into full-drive territoriality, confiding Black-throated Thistletails, many Gray-bellied Flowerpierces, a Puna Tapaculo singing on an exposed perch, a Stripe-faced Wood-Quail that eventually scampered across an understory clearing, Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanager, easy Rufous-naped Brush-Finches, and a Rufous-faced Antpitta that showed itself to all. That made for a five-endemic morning.

The final birding destination of Cerro Tunari lived up to its repuation, and after two days of our attention, the site relinquished not only almost everything it has to offer but also a dandy surprise in the form of the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover, a species known here from only one other record. We were abundantly pleased, too, with easy Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, a Bolivian Warbling-Finch (a clean sweep of the warbling-finches!), good looks at Red-tailed Comet, Wedge-tailed Hillstar, Andean Hillstar, Giant Hummingbird, and a scarce Giant Conebill. Furnariids were good, too, including Brown-capped and Tanwy Tit-Spinetails, confiding Rock Earthcreepers, a lone Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, and Cordilleran, Puna, Maquis, Creamy-breasted, and Scribble-tailed Canasteros. Migrant ground-tyrants were abundant, especially the Ochre-napeds, and we refound what was probably the same pair of Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrants where one had been a year earlier. Our boulderfield walk also resulted in a surprise Black Siskin. We had a productive morning in town at Laguna Alalay with extemely confiding Many-colored Rush-Tyrants, a vagrant Sick’s Swift (highest elevational record and first for the department of Cochabamba), a pair of skulking Puna Snipe (another lifer for the leader), and a treasure trove of  list-padding waterfowl and shorebirds.

After what must have been the smoothest and quickest check-in and airport exit ever for our flight back to Santa Cruz, we had a rushed hour of cool-down birding with yet more highlights, such as a flock of Blue-winged Parrotlets, a Greater Thornbird, a field with two Greater Rheas, a surprise Capped Heron, Snail Kite, Savanna Hawk, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and Red-capped Cardinal nicely set against the lilac blossoms of a Jacaranda tree.

- Rich Hoyer

Created: 22 November 2010