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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Bolivia: Northern Andes, Madidi National Park, and Barba Azul

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The second of our two Bolivia tours took us to some stunningly beautiful and remote areas, and the fabulous birds and landscapes made for a memorable and enjoyable trip, even if the first few days were sometimes tortuously long. It was also wonderful that everyone was interested in pausing for fascinating flowers, showy butterflies, damselflies at 15,000 feet elevation, and of course the Maned Wolf on our last morning at Barba Azul. We had two excellent drivers with the Lijerón brothers Herman and Carlos, who treated us very well with their long hours on difficult roads and busy La Paz traffic, and we certainly enjoyed their refined picnic breakfast and lunch skills. It was a trip highlight to have such wonderful views of Blue-throated Macaw at Reserva Barba Azul. It wasn’t our only target bird there, but it did garner the highest score in our favorite birds of the tour. The name of the reserve is the local name for the bird, after all, and it is one of the rarest parrots of the world. We had to cross the Rio Omi by boat to see them, but on our last morning a small group chased a Hook-billed Kite halfway across the river, and we could see them from the dining hall. The second ranking highlight of the tour, also at Barba Azul, was our morning experience with the fabulous Cock-tailed Tyrants of the tall, old-growth grasslands. We watched one male courting a female at close range, when he then switched to hawking insects, and then interacted with another male, while in the far distance, yet another male could be seen displaying. A close encounter with a Tropical Screech-Owl at Barba Azul was also among the tour favorites. Our time in the Andes was also spectacular. We spent a fair amount of time in the valley above Sorata where we finally managed to connect with the super local endemic Berlepsch’s Canastero. The highest elevations were exhilarating, and here we had amazing views of nesting Giant Coots, Silvery Grebes, charming Andean Geese, and several ground-tyrants, among many others. The eastern slope of the Andes offered something new at every stop, with tanagers in mixed flocks and butterflies puddling in the road. On our return after dark, we were flagged down by a young Dutch birding couple who alerted us to a group of Oilbirds coming to a roadside hot spring. Seeing and hearing them in our lights overhead was an unforgettable experience. On our way down the east slope we stopped at a bridge over a side creek and were delighted by an amazingly cooperative Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. At the lower elevations near Apolo we scored big on our day in the Atén area, with Swallow-tailed Cotinga being one of the first birds of the day. Even the difficult Green-capped Tanager showed well. It was a special day to see two of South America’s most range-restricted birds in the same location.

IN DETAIL: We had a bit of a lie-in after almost too many pre-dawn departures on the first tour, and it was nice to take advantage of our very comfortable rooms in our La Paz hotel. We were lucky to have just missed road closures due to a workers’ strike as we departed the city and made our way out onto the Altiplano. Arriving at Lake Titicaca for lunch (after a brief stop that mostly featured butterflies such as Titicaca Blue), we spent time scanning the waters and nearby reeds. Several Yellow-winged Blackbirds flew back and forth, and one sang from nearby. A single Wren-like Rushbird came out and foraged in the open. Countless Slate-colored Coot dotted the lake’s surface, some feeding chicks right by the dock, and we finally spotted a few pair of Titicaca Grebes, mostly quite distant but also very distinctive. After lunch we headed towards the Sorata valley, getting our best views of Andean Flicker after several brief and distant birds.  At the pass was a large group of lovely Mountain Caracaras, but farther down the mountain a single bird perched close to our vans was a much better experience. Down in the valley we found that it was one of those afternoons where little wanted to respond to playback. Black-throated Flowerpiercers were active enough, but canasteros called only very distantly and were not being territorial.

Being canastero-less suggested our best plan for the next morning was a return to the Sorata valley, and before long we were looking at a very confiding Streak-backed Canastero. It wasn’t the one we were looking for, though always a nice find. But then after a lot of patience we finally found a Berlepsch’s Canastero, and we even were able to get scope views of this distinctive and extremely local endemic with one of the smallest ranges of any bird in the world. While looking for it, we finally located the source of an odd sound – two Aplomado Falcons interacting with Mountain Caracaras far overhead. We had time to check the lake below the pass, finding our first Giant Coots, before we continued towards our next town, Charazani. Lunch was at the last overview of Lake Titicaca where one could have spent hours counting grebes and coots, but we wandered down to the shore where we had good views of Many-colored Rush-Tyrants and several Wren-like Rushbirds, and a nice surprise was when a small group of Baird’s Sandpipers flew in, circled around us several times, and landed only a few feet away. We didn’t have that much time to bird the higher elevations, which were rather quiet in the afternoon anyway, but we did add Common Miners and had memorable views of stately Andean Goose.

In order to bird the rich cloudforests below Charazani, we had one of our many pre-dawn departures, which gave us a chance to stop at a known spot and see a lovely Sicssor-tailed Nightjar fly over our heads. As it dawned, we noticed far too much bird activity outside the windows to just keep driving, and at our first stop a very confiding Yellow-browed Sparrow singing out in the open was a sure sign that we were in a different habitat and that many more birds were awaiting us. A few fruiting trees were attracting many birds, but it was the Paradise Tanagers that cooperated the most, and one bird in particular offered the best photo ops of all. A bridge over side stream coming in from the steep slopes on the left seemed like it might be good for birds. Indeed, this is where we spotted a White-capped Dipper flying upstream and stopping where we could watch it search for food in the shallows. The habitat looked right for Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, and sure enough one appeared within moments of our first attempt, and it sang at length on an open branch. We added many species in the cloud forest, not to mention a growing number of butterflies, and a very confiding pair of Upland Antshrikes were one of the highlights. We were also mesmerized by constant movement of swifts, dominated by White-throated but also including Chestnut-collared, racing by at a very low elevation.

Based out of the town of Apolo, we first birded the drier and open interior valleys towards Atén. A small side road that led to a local community was our first stop, and while Herman and Carlos searched for a breakfast pullout, we spotted our first Swallow-tailed Cotinga perched in a treetop. That was fortunate, as the locals decided to try to charge us for using the road, so we simply and happily moved on to a better picnic spot on a road they couldn’t make any claims to. We ended up with two more views of this extremely range-restricted and splittable subspecies near our breakfast spot as we walked through the grassy slopes, also having great views of Grassland Sparrow and very cooperative Wedge-tailed Grass-Finches. The scenery was spectacular as we scanned for birds perching up and flying around, the latter represented by many migrant Cliff Swallows from North America. But the best bird sighting happened when an elusive Green-capped Tanager flew in and perched at length, showing only when it turned its straw-colored head that there was indeed a fugitive green sheen. We were later to spot two more in a mob responding to a mix tape. At that same mob were two more memorable birds, a White-winged Becard and a pair of Spotted Tanagers, both hinting at the Amazonian influence in these oddly-vegetated Andean foothills. We were very close to a singing Ocellated Crake, but we never caught even the slightest glimpse of motion.

Our second day took us into a lower drainage in the opposite direction from Apolo – the Machariapo Valley and into the human-influenced fringes of Madidi National Park. One of our most wanted birds here would be the Inti Tanager, but while they were apparently present, the recent bout of dry weather had left them perhaps a bit less willing to defend territories than might be the case farther into the rainy season. We certainly put in the effort, but we’d have to be happy with hearing one (and thanks to Dutch couple Rob and Romy, whom we met the previous day and who had camped here), and our experiences with many other fine birds in the valley were worth it. The very local White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant was not hard to find, and we finally got a good view of Alder Flycatcher. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar appeared in our search for the tanager as did Magpie Tanager and the distinctive local subspecies of Moss-backed Sparrow. As we began our departure from the valley, four King Vultures perched in a tree made us stop for a quick view. A Common Pauraques were final additions to the day as we returned for a very late dinner.

As we worked our way back to Charazani as a stopover towards La Paz, we struggled to tear ourselves away from the constantly rewarding cloud forest section of the road. Bird activity was high even before we got to the first patch of real forest, where a quick stop resulted in Greater Thornbird. Species piled on, though the several Cinnamon Flycatchers early on made a lasting impression. Amazonian Umbrellabird was another great find, with one seen well in fruiting trees below the road. We coaxed a Pectoral Sparrow to offer us very close views, and a pair of  Long-tailed Tyrants populated a small clearing with a lone dead tree. We were already set for a rather late arrival at Ruth’s hotel when a traffic jam in a tiny town added a half-hour to our drive. But we walked passed the clot of buses and cars only to have a wonderful experience with a very close Bar-breasted Piculet. Then of course as it got dark, we were compelled to make several pauses for the eye shine of nightjars, one of which perched close enough for photos to confirm it as a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar. As if we hadn’t been delayed enough and had seen so many amazing birds, we ran into our Dutch friends Rob and Romy for a third day in a row, and this time they flagged us to witness the most amazing sight of some 15 (or maybe may more) Oilbirds flying overhead and making odd clicking noises, very different from the scratchy hisses they give in their caves. These birds were apparently coming to a mineral-rich seep of hot water by the side of the road, a spot known by just a few but in such a remote spot seen by only a tiny handful of birders. Though we were tired and hungry on our return, we had some wonderful experiences to show for it.

The day’s return to La Paz allowed us some leisurely time at the highest elevations between Charazani and Titicaca, a region we drove through rather quickly on our first pass through. A singing Hellmayr’s Pipit right above town was rather a surprise, and we finally had better views of Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches as they flushed from the roadside. We made several stops as we saw bird activity along the road, and one of the first revealed a Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, while farther up the road were several Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches. We walked around a boggy area by a small reservoir where Puna Ibis and Andean Geese walked around, and we spotted some Titicaca Blues, rarely seen Inca Fritillaries, and Titicaca Damselflies. Yet another short stop revealed a cooperative pair of Buff-breasted Earthcreepers. We spent some time at a large lake down a side road which was teeming with water birds, most memorable among them breeding Giant Coots and several Silvery Grebes of the Andean subspecies, surely to be split from the lowland ones we saw on the first tour. Vicuñas grazed on the slope nearby while several Andean Lapwings were on the flats where we also had great views of an Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrant. It was then time to head onward to La Paz for the rest of the afternoon.

Our morning flight to Trinidad and then our charter planes to Barba Azul went without a hitch, and just as we began walking towards the lodge from the airstrip, super adorable Sharp-tailed Tyrants distracted us in the tall grass. After lunch and a bit of confusion in getting to our correct rooms, we were boated across the Omi River by park ranger Miguel for a walk in the palm island. Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Barba Negra) were easy to spot, but before long we located our first pair of Blue-throated Macaws (Barba Azul). They didn’t sit long, but we didn’t have to walk far to find more on a very good perch. Along the way we were distracted by a mixed flock of passerines that included Large-billed Antwren and a pair of Rusty-backed Antwrens. Back along the Omi River, Roseate Spoonbills flew by, and an Amazon Kingfisher perched near the shore.

On our first full day at Barba Azul we walked along the shore of the Omi River where Bran-colored Flycatcher, Rufous Cacholote, and Black-capped Donacobius were highlights, the latter performing its marvelous duetting dance. At our farthest point on the short grass flats, we spotted our first Six-banded Armadillo, some foraging Plumbeous Ibis at close range, and a pair of Aplomado Falcons. Back at our rooms for a break after lunch, some got to see a Greater Rhea walk by along the same path we had taken in the morning. In the afternoon we walked the opposite direction where the receding Omi had created some wonderful shorebird habitat, home to Pectoral Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, several Pantanal Snipe, and a White-headed Marsh Tyrant. A pair of Streamer-tailed Tyrants were a nice addition, and in the tall grass we saw our friend the Sharp-tailed Tyrant again. A lovely Long-winged Harrier cruised by a couple of times during out walk. At the farthest point we had Black-capped Donacobius again, and in a mob we spotted a fabulous Swallow-tailed Hummingbird. On the way back we enjoyed watching a White-rumped Monjita hawking for insects near the marsh vegetation.

On our second full day we took an early morning boat ride across the Omi and hiked north into the vast tall grasslands. At the farthest point we found our primary target, the bizarre Cock-tailed Tyrant. At first, we had great views of a male doing some incredible display flights directed towards a nearby female, while later we watched him at length perform some almost-as-acrobatic foraging maneuvers. At least two other males were also in the area. We had great views of a “Pampas” Grass Wren, brief views of a Black-masked Finch, and flushed a flock of Tawny-bellied Seedeaters. As we walked back through the forest island, we had more excellent time with a pair of Blue-throated Macaws in a fig tree. In the afternoon we first walked though some cerrado-like scrubby habitat not far from the lodge where we flushed a group of adorable Long-tailed Ground Doves. It was fun to arrive back at the lodge to be greeted by noisy Yellow-rumped Caciques mimicking many of the birds we had just seen – as well as several others that weren’t even around this time of year. In the later afternoon, Miguel motored and paddled us around the big bay in the Omi, where we had great view of Hoatzins, enjoyed huge gatherings of Wattled Jacanas, and spotted rare Azure Gallinule and Least Bittern.

On our final full day at Barba Azul, we started with a morning walk out to the runway where we soon met up with a raucous, duetting pair of White-rumped Tanagers. We turned our backs on them when Ocellated Crake started calling nearby, and we were super lucky to have a spot where one bird made itself visible with several passes by the speaker. Sharp-tailed Tyrant once again made it to the list of the day’s favorites, and we saw quite a few in the grasslands. On our way back, a pair of Orinoco Goose flew in, and they remained visible from near our rooms or at the shorebird flats for the rest of our stay. Weather changed in the afternoon with an approaching cold front, creating a good downpour followed by intermittent showers alternating with a steady, light drizzle. The change brought out an emergence of winged termites and a burst of bird activity. Amidst all the flycatchers and other birds hawking the termites were a rather lazy group of Smooth-billed Anis which clustered in a group at the branch tips where the termite cloud was densest, and they just reached out without even flying to snag their snacks from the air. In the marsh, we managed to coax a Rufous-sided Crake to show for some, and a migrant Yellow-browed Tyrant was a nice surprise.

We were still missing good views of Black-masked Finch, so on our last early morning at Barba Azul we returned to the grasslands beyond the far end of the airstrip. Getting there at dawn was the trick, and we finally located a singing pair of this handsome tanager. Getting there early was what certainly allowed us to see an Ash-throated Crake cross the track at the far end of the airstrip as well, and of course the Maned Wolf that sauntered onto the near end of the airstrip as we were heading back probably wouldn’t have happened much later in the morning either. It was an odd sight to see a motionless Cocoi Heron with its bill and face buried in the mud next to the road, but it soon became clear what had been going on when the bird pulled up its head an extracted an eel from the drying-up puddle (it would turn out to be the Marbled Swamp Eel, which can hide in a deep mud burrow during the dry season). We then continued birding after our short flight back to Trinidad, where Carlos met us for a day and a half of birding. “Beni” Gray-eyed Greenlets, Scarlet-headed Blackbird, several shorebirds, and a Brazilian Porcupine were the highlights from the early afternoon south of Trinidad. Late afternoon saw us on a short forest trail north of town, where Velvet-fronted Grackles and Plain Softtails were almost too easy. We were lucky to come across a very keyed-up Pheasant Cuckoo, and a small understory pool enticed a stunning male Band-tailed Manakin to bathe.

We had one last morning in the river bottomlands north of Trinidad, and we might have even glimpsed the elusive Unicolored Thrush. Unable to confirm it, we proceeded to add Red-and-green Macaw, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, and Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher on a walk through the forest. A Ruddy Pigeon might have remained invisible in the canopy, but they are suckers for a whistled imitation of their “kick the poodle” song. A male Band-tailed Antbird singing from a dense thicket at first seemed like it would be impossible to see, so we were quite unprepared to have it respond to playback by coming in to an open branch and fanning its tail and wings in a super aggressive challenge to the invisible intruder. As it was nearing time to return to town for our afternoon flight back to Santa Cruz, we were witness to a most astonishing concert of wrens, with pairs of Fawn-breasted and Moustached Wrens loudly duetting with their respective partners at the same time.

-Rich Hoyer

Created: 19 January 2023