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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bolivia: The Chaco, Valle Zone, and Central Andes

2022 Narrative

With a great group and nearly perfect weather from start to finish, the first of our two Bolivia tours couldn’t have gone much better. We saw and heard nearly 460 species of birds, framed in a wonderful array of habitat types and landscapes. The Olive-crowned Crescentchest that finally showed after our failed attempts at several reluctant birds barely got the most votes as favorite bird, but we worked hard for it, and in the end we were stunned by its beauty and tameness. But a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch two male Yungas Manakins displaying for a female was just one point short of a tie with the crescentchest. This rarely seen phenomenon rivals that of the birds-of-paradise, and it seems that this may be the first time a video has ever been made of this species displaying. Ranking farther down the list but still the top birds for some were Black-legged Seriema, Slaty Gnateater, Grass Wren (which may eventually be split at Tucuman Wren), and the endemic Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer. Four other endemics were worth special mention: the fabulous Black-hooded Sunbeam, Red-fronted Macaw, Bolivian Blackbird, and Cochabamba Mountain-Finch. We actually saw four species of tapaculos, but the antics of a Puna Tapaculo on an open branch were especially memorable. A Flavescent Warbler jumped out at us, adorable Tufted Tit-Tyrants came very close, Slender-billed Miners in the highest elevations showed well, a Yungas Pygmy-Owl was just perfect in the mossy branches of the cloud forest, and the sounds made by Crested Oropendolas right by our rooms at Refugio Los Volcanes created an unforgettable atmosphere in addition to the scenic beauty of the place.

IN DETAIL: Our first day around Santa Cruz could have been unbearably hot, or annoyingly windy, but it was neither, instead being calm and relatively cool. And so we were able to bird comfortably through the mid-day hours. Starting at Lomas de Arena with our first of many picnic breakfasts, Greater Thornbirds, Chotoy Spinetail, and Narrow-billed Woodcreeper were our introductions to the family of Furnariids, which we would get to know well. We overlooked a pair of Red-legged Seriemas while being distracted by White-wedged Piculets, a Golden-green Woodpecker, and adorable Cobalt-rumped Parrotlets, but Herman drove us back to where he and Anita had seen them, and they were still there, as were Vermilion Flycatcher and Burrowing Owl. As we departed, a Crested Becard was a very good find, probably a migrant on its way to southern Bolivia or Argentina. After lunch we continued directly to the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens, now an island of habitat, but still good for birds. In the parking lot we spied two Three-toed Sloths, one with a baby. The Chestnut-fronted Macaws here landed in trees, and we had excellent views of a normally very skulky Great Antshrike and a Hudson’s Black-Tyrant, and it had warmed up just enough for some nice butterfly activity.

Heading south toward the Chaco, we stopped for picnic breakfast in a transition area where the winter had clearly been very dry. A chorus of some seven Tataupa Tinamous during a very brief morning window was the only evidence that we’d have that they even existed. A Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet, part of one small mobbing mix, came in very close, as did a Red-billed Scythebill. We flushed one large group of Red-crested Finches feeding on roadside weeds, and hint that we were getting closer to the Chaco were two Many-colored Chaco-Finches with them, which ended up being the only ones we saw on the tour. We paused on the highway for two Red-legged Seriemas in a field and were lucky to witness their deafening, bugling duet at close range. Another pre-lunch exploration down a side road might have been most interesting for the botanical finds but for a soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, a very unusual find. After a lunch stop, we looked into a small pond to see some lovely Ringed Teal. A sudden stop for a perched Great Black Hawk was followed by a very close pair of handsome Black-capped Warbling-Finches, which were then followed by an unexpected fly-by of two Military Macaws. We then descended from the highway to check the shores of Tatarenda Lake, where we first flushed a Crane Hawk in the short trees. A Common Gallinule skulked along the edge of the bullrushes where we eventually spotted a female Spectacled Tyrant, probably a migrant heading south. We scanned through flocks of Baird’s Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalaopes, and Black-necked Stilts, but the rarest bird was the most obvious of all – a lone Andean Flamingo standing out in the distant shallows of the lake. Normally restricted to the high Altiplano, this would represent the first extralimital record of this species anywhere in Bolivia.

Our day in the Chaco east of Boyuibe was delightful. Somehow a cold front had passed without producing rain or even much wind, and the temperatures remained mild all day. A Plumbeous Ibis at breakfast was a nice write-in, and big and noisy flocks of Turquoise-fronted Parrots defined the location. We came across multiple Checkered Woodpeckers, though it was the White-fronted Woodpeckers that made the more lasting impression. Birds with crests were in evidence, with Crested Hornero unusually easy to see, and a pair of Crested Gallitos walking along the shoulder of the road defied their promised skulking nature. A pair of adorable Lark-like Brushrunners finally appeared only when we reached the easternmost point in the road. Another normally shy bird that was super easy to see was a Chaco Earthcreeper that sang at length from a close perch. We pished up several flocks with delightful Stripe-crowned Spinetails, Greater Wagtail-Tyrants, and various tyrant-flycatchers, but Masked Gnatcatchers were always the ones front and center. Black-legged Seriemas are often just a by-product of driving on the road, but we had to work for them this day, eventually getting our best views of one crossing the road in the distance. We were back at the hotel in time for a bit of a break, and flying over the front of the hotel before we headed for dinner in town was a Peregrine Falcon, presumably here for the winter.

We did the entire Lagunillas loop on our fourth day, though the usual vast marshes were said to be mostly dry, thanks to an unusually dry winter following a very poor rainy season. The foothills were indeed exceedingly dry and quiet as well, though we managed to find a trio of Cream-backed Woodpeckers as well as two Lineated Woodpeckers before breakfast. Moss-backed Sparrow was also a nice find, and an Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher responded unusually well to playback. At the usual soaring hour, it wasn’t a huge surprise to spot a Short-tailed Hawk or even the three Swallow-tailed Kites, but a total of eight Andean Condors flying down the ridge and then forming a kettle of their own was an amazing sight. We thought we might be seeing even more condors farther down the road, but something wasn’t quite right, and we eventually figured out that an astronomcally high flotilla of huge birds were Southern Screamers, many of which came in to land at what little remaining marsh there was. At lunch the main attraction was the seep of water across the road that harbored several interesting insects, including a Cyna Blue and a pretty little damselfly that has been dubbed the Blue-sided Mountain Coral. Green-cheeked Parakeets came in a large flock to visit the water just as we were leaving our lunch spot. We made a brief stop in the quaint and very quiet town of Lagunillas, and stops north of town netted us White Monjitas and our second White-winged Black-Tyrant on a close fence post. Every seriema we stopped for on this day turned out to be Red-legged, one of the few areas where they occur alongside Black-legged.

Though our next day was largely to be a travel day to our next lodge, we had a wonderful morning of birding at a new location just a few kilometers off the main highway. Thanks to a tip from a birding friend, we arrived at Laguna Kaukaya to have our picnic breakfast where Rosy-billed Pochards were swimming, and many other water birds kept us busy. Coscoroba Swans and “Patagonian” Silvery Grebes are still considered vagrants in Bolivia, but the former obviously bred here this year for the first time, perhaps forced north from drought conditions in Argentina. A rare Spot-flanked Gallinule was distant but eventually seen by all. Purple-throated Euphonias glowed in the morning sun, and Yellow-chinned Spinetails popped out of the marsh vegetation when we asked them to. As we departed the lake, we found two Black-legged Seriemas right next to the road, a nice farewell from the Chaco. Our picnic lunch of leftover mediocre pizza was convenient and quick, but it was also quite productive from a birding perspective, with Streaked Xenops, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Black-capped Antwren, and Flavescent Warbler (alongside Two-banded Warbler) being excellent additions.

Though we had arrived at Refugio Los Volcanes in the daylight the previous day, the morning’s vista from outside our rooms was still breathtaking and hard to really take in. The noise of flocks of Mitred Parakeets was almost matched by the occasional flyover of Military Macaws, though our best of both were later in the afternoon from the steepest section of a trail, as we looked down on these marvelous birds. A male Crested Oropendola’s song echoed in the valley as his harem of females continuously came and went with nesting material. The previously mentioned Yungas Manakins displaying was a highlight, though we couldn’t have imagined a better morning already having seen a pair of Slaty Gnateaters at arm’s length, a Bolivian Tapaculo perched on a tree’s buttresses, and a Gray-throated Leaftosser that sang from an open perch. Later in the day we watched a pair of fearless Riverbank Warblers in the shallows of the stream, and a mixed flock on the steep trail had Blue-browed Tanager and Orange-headed Tanager, both our only ones on the tour. A surprising find was a Gray Tinamou by the stream’s edge, seen as we were scanning for Sunbittern, which would have been far more likely but remained in absentia. A night walk didn’t result in any owls or potoos, but a Banded Cat-eyed Snake by some army ants was a splendid consolation.

The morning we had to depart Los Volcanes had some nice surprises, with low-elevation Dusky-green Oropendolas in the valley below, a mixed flock with a very close Sepia-capped Flycatcher, and lovely Mitred Parakeets feeding in the trees rather than just blasting by in their noisy flocks. We were ready to depart following an early morning kettle of raptors that included several Plumbeous and Double-toothed Kites as well as two more Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles. After lunch in Samaipata we checked in on a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet nest woven perfectly in a pendant clump of Spanish Moss bromeliads on the town square. Later in the afternoon we made a planned roadside stretch stop, normally only a few minutes, but it ended up lasting nearly an hour as we had our first Brown-capped Redstart, then heard Bolivian Earthcreeper (which we eventually saw), and were very surprised by a fly-over of eight Red-fronted Macaws, presumably off to a distant roost at the very edge of their known range. On the way to the hotel we had to make a quick pause on the highway to gawk at the unlikely sight of thirty-five Yungas Guans in a vacant corral.

We arrived early at the Perereta macaw cliffs for picnic breakfast, hoping to avoid missing an early morning departure of roosting birds. We soon spotted some distant Red-fronted Macaws on the opposite side of the canyon and had satisfying views of them, but they remained there all morning, and the nearby cliffs were vacant. We had already seen many Cliff Parakeets, Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Ringed Warbling-Finch, and endemic Bolivian Blackbirds, but we were just about ready to leave when a small group of macaws flew over our heads from upriver and landed close to where we had been standing for a long time. Herman convinced us they were just arriving, so we walked all the way back and were treated to a wonderful sighting of a family of three birds and super close range. Birding back down the river valley, we stopped for Striped Woodpecker and a nice mix of birds, including Masked Gnatcatcher and White-tipped Plantcutter. On the way to a picnic lunch spot, we paused for a Spot-backed Puffbird with a huge katydid lodged halfway down its throat. At lunch we had great views of White-fronted Woodpecker and a female Blue-tufted Starthroat. A later afternoon stop for our first Andean Gull occurred when we could see the threat of an approaching cold front, and on the shoulder of the road we took the time to watch a scurrying sunspider or solfugid in the oddly named family Mummuciidae, normally found active at night. We had time in the late afternoon to check the lower slopes of the Serrania de Siberia in the growing wind, only hearing a distant Giant Antshrike but getting good views of Ocellated Piculet and a few other birds.

The cold front passed overnight, with wind and rain resulting in a low, heavy overcast that portended fog at the higher elevations. But with rain or wind over by morning, the lower slopes were worth another visit, and we saw lots of fun birds. A pair of Spot-breasted Thornbirds and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant were at the first few stops, and we finally spotted the Giant Antshrike. Sometimes sounding only 20 yards away, other times a mile away, then latter guess was more accurate as it popped out in the open but at the top of the ridge of above us – good enough for scope views. Olive-crowned Crescentchests were common and vocal but very uncooperative, until that last one, which appeared just as we needed to head to lunch. Perhaps the higher elevations were fog free? Well, they weren’t but it wasn’t windy, and more importantly it wasn’t super sunny and dead as it can by by mid-day. Instead, birds were very active, and both Red-faced Antpitta and Trilling Tapaculo were vocalizing spontaneously right across from where we chose to make lunch. Amazingly, within minutes both birds were in sight, the tapaculo actually perching on the speaker when we first noticed it. An active mixed flock just down the road had a bold Mountain Wren, Spectacled Redstart, and our first Bolivian Brushfinches, among several others. We tried the higher elevations, but the “backwash” of the cold front led to a big switch in the winds and suddenly we were dealing with a blowing northly gale of mist-fog. Nevertheless, we huddled in the lee of some bushes and spotted at very close range our first Black-throated Thistletail, a special endemic of the highest treeline scrub.

The start to our day on the long drive to Cochabamba didn’t look so auspicious. It looked as if the cold front was still holding sway, and while the lower curves were visited by an occasional, mist, we passed by our antpitta and tapaculo spot in dense morning fog. But as we reached the highest elevations, we broke above the fog and found a stunning sunrise above a blanket of fog below us and expanses of treeline cloud forest on a calm and chilly morning. White-browed Conebills were right by our breakfast pullout as was a pair of “Tucuman” Grass Wrens on top of the grassy knoll nearby. We walked back down the road to hear mostly distant tapaculos of both kinds, Trilling and Diademed, finally finding a bamboo-filled draw where the latter came down close to the speaker. Two singing Undulated Anpittas sounded as if they should be visible, but the only other good bird we managed to see here was the Yungas Pygmy-Owl, a very good bid indeed, and we saw it well. Not far down the road we stopped in a slightly drier cloud forest, and as we stepped out of the bus a bunch of new birds greeted us, including the very local and scarce Rufous-bellied Mountain-Tanager (formerly Salator) and the endemic Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer. An endemic Bolivian Antpitta calling up the slope seemed hopelessly far across the draw, but magically it came all the way to the speaker and we saw it very well. We had picnic lunch where Pale-footed Swallows flew over the cloud forest and a Pale-legged Warbler came in very close. Another couple of stretching stops were good for Red-tailed Comet, White-browed Chat-Tyrant, and Giant Hummingbird.

Fabulous weather greeted us again for our day birding the mid- to upper-elevation cloud forests of the Chapare Road. Before we even arrived at our breakfast spot we had to make a stop for a burst of activity right on the highway, where several Andean Guans, a flock of Green Jays, and a pair of Three-banded Warblers distracted us. We noted how different the songs of these warblers were compared to birds from central Peru northward, commenting how they will eventually be split. Just a month later that came true, and these birds are now known as Yungas Warblers. We ended up having breakfast and lunch at the same location, and it was consistently the birdiest spot on the road. We did get our best views of near-endemic Yungas Tody-Tyrant farther down the road, but at the picnic spot we had Crested Quetzal, Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, and Green-throated Tanager, among many others. Butterfly activity was excellent here as well, and a light-blue, almost holographic morpho was especially memorable (which turned out to be the Aurora Morpho). We birded the afternoon at higher elevations, trying to beat the approaching fog. We caught up with a very skulky Golden-browed Chat-Tyrant; were teased by a mixed flock that had Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Citrine Warbler, and Rust-and-yellow Tanager, and a few others; and finally came across a very obliging pair of Hooded Mountain-Toucans, accompanied by White-collared Jays. One final memorable bird from the day was the Great Kiskadee of the unusual, pale subspecies endemic to the Cochabamba area, at our gas station stop in Colomi.

We spent our last full day up the Cerro Tunari road, enjoying a slightly later departure than usual, as it is very close to Cochabamba. Getting there early was good, as we surprised an Andean Tinamou walking out in the open, our only second seen tinamou. We stopped for a flurry of parakeet activity to find not only the common Gray-hooded Parakeet but also the much more rarely seen Andean Parakeets. Another pocket of activity contained our only Cochabamba Mountain-Finches, a pair that came in very close, while at the same spot were adorable Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Rock Earthcreeper, and our first of a few Gray-bellied Flowerpiercers. Not far up the road we stopped for a flock of Greenish Yellow-Finches, and as the habitat looked right, we brought in a Maquis Canastero – our first of five species of canasteros this day, perhaps the only road in the world where this is possible. Near our lunch spot was a pair of adorable Tawny Tit-Spinetails and a cheeky Puna Tapaculo that sang at length from an open branch. Then it came time to head to the higher elevations, quick stops netting us Puna and Scribble-tailed Canasteros before we embarked on a pleasant walk in a broad valley to look for Boulder Finch. They did not cooperate, but we were instead treated to a large flock of lovely Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches, as well as several migrant White-browed Ground-Tyrants and resident Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrants. We finished the day with a jot up to the highest point on the road, which looked at first to be birdless but in reality was home to a Cordilleran Canastero and a pair of smart Slender-billed Miners. A quick check of the small lake near the top yielded Crested Duck, Puna Ibis, and a rather out-of-place Stilt Sandpiper, while the grassy flats had a few more ground-tyrants, including Cinereous and Ochre-naped.

We finished the tour with a final early morning at the treeline scrub amidst potato fields. We arrived just as Red-crested Cotingas were finishing their dawn displays with their crazy crests all flared out. When they disappeared, we concentrated on some mixed flock activity as the fog came and went, finding White-browed Conebill and Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, while Black-chinned Thistletail and Bolivian Brushfinch foraged in the bushes right where Herman and Anita prepared our delicious breakfast. We soon found our main target, a stunning Black-hooded Sunbeam, defending its Mutisia lanata flowers nearby, but a walk up the road would net us a total of about nine individuals, as well as a huge Great Sapphirewing feeding from terrestrial Puya bromeliads. We heard both endemic Rufous-faced and Bolivian Antpittas nearby, but since we had already seen them so well, we concentrated on a third antpitta – Undulated Antpitta – that was even closer. We never quite saw the thing perched, but we were all prepared for the second time that it flew across the track, a monster of an antpitta. Our last special bird here was a pair of Line-fronted Canasteros, our seventh canastero, and a species with very records this far south. Our last bit of birding after lunch was a stop at Laguna Alalay, where we scanned through many migrant sandpipers, local Black-necked Stilts, Andean Avocets, and a single Collared Plover to also spy Plumbeous Rail and a pair of Red Shovelers. We arrived with some time to spare at the airport, bid farewell to both Peter and Anita, and flew to La Paz for the second tour.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 19 January 2023