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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

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

2019 Narrative

In Brief: You can’t help but marvel at Bolivia’s diversity of birds, but it’s not a surprise when you experience the extreme variety of landscapes and habitats as we did on our inaugural tour of the northern departments of La Paz and Beni. We saw so many wonderful species (488, plus another 42 heard), it might come as a surprise that just three birds made to the top of most participant’s favorites, but they were really special birds. The undescribed “San Pedro Tanager” has been seen by only very few people, while just the day before we had a marvelous experience with a pair of Swallow-tailed Cotingas, which in time may be split as the distinctive Palkachupa Cotinga. Finally, seeing a small group of the highly endangered Blue-throated Macaw was like a dream come true for many.

In Detail: We started the tour at Lake Titicaca, which provided us with easy and delightful families of the flightless Titicaca Grebe, a pair of Puna Teal with ducklings, and Andean Flickers. After lunch we took the side trip to the Sorata Valley where the extremely range-restricted Berlepsch’s Canastero reluctantly showed itself, but all birds seemed to disappear when we realized an Apolomado Falcon had flown in and perched in a nearby tree. We took a chilly stroll in the fog to check a lake where the highlight was Giant Coot, but the fog eventually won out. We had one last chance to scan Lake Titicaca before we entered the high Andes, tallying huge numbers of Slate-colored Coot, many more Titicaca Grebes, and seeing some Many-colored Rush-Tyrants carrying food to a nest, but it was a bold Plumbeous Rail that stole the show, walking out in the open at very close range. The trip over the high Andes then began, first with our drivers’ hard work to make sure we had enough fuel for the trip, and we were then set for an adventure. Bird highlights on the way over the pass included Slender-billed Miner, a pair of Andean Goose on a cliff, some very close Andean Flickers, and beautiful roadside Mountain Caracaras.

The next day we had early start to descend the Charazani valley to get to some nice cloud forest habitat by breakfast, but we had to make an emergency stop when a nightjar flushed off the road. We all got out, and with a bit of patience and a lot of luck, a fantastic male Scissor-tailed Nightjar fluttered in the spotlight right over our heads. A skunk (Molina’s Hog-nosed is the only species here) was also seen by a few during the drive as it nearly ran under our car. Birds came fast and furious in the wonderful cloud forest habitat, highlights at our breakfast stop including Golden-collared Toucanet and Upland Antshrike. As we worked our way up and over a couple more ridges we made a few stops that netted us two surprise Amazonian Umbrellabirds, many Cinnamon Flycatchers, handsome Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers, and a Western Striolated-Puffbird (which we call the Obama-bird after its namesake). We made one last stop in the open country close to our destination of Apolo where a very cooperative Cinereous-breasted Spinetail was a good find.

We had some truly incredible experiences with world-class birds during our time in the Apolo-Atén areas. Finding a pair of the endemic “Palkachupa” subspecies of Swallow-tailed Cotinga at our breakfast location was a bit of a surprise, as we hadn’t yet driven to the location where we were supposed to start looking for them. We enjoyed them for a long time, watching them come and go from where they were building a nest, and also seeing some interesting interactions when a third bird appeared. A Yellow-crested Tanager in a mixed flock was a nice surprise, and while we eventually did find the rare and little-known Green-capped Tanager, in our quest we came across Round-tailed Manakin, a very tame pair of Red-stained Woodpeckers, and a Southern Emerald-Toucanet right outside the van window. Mottle-backed Elaenia, with it’s punk hair-do, was a favorite from our lunch spot, not to mention the lunch spot itself, a very welcoming private back yard in Atén. The drive to and from Atén wasn’t birdless, highlights being Burrowing Owl and a very close American Golden-Plover, and some very fine butterflies were puddling at a streamside, including a satyr described to science from the Peruvian border only earlier this year.

On our second day out of Apolo we entered Madidi National Park along the Machariapo River. An exciting moment came when we found the “San Pedro Tanager,” a bird that few people have seen, as its precise distribution and migratory behavior have yet to be fully determined, and it doesn’t even have a real name yet. First discovered by Dan Lane and Gary Rosenberg while they were leading a WINGS tour in Peru in 2000, they saw it again in 2003, and that was the last time a birding group like ours had seen one until now. Rumor has that the final manuscript with the species description may be published within a year. We saw several other wonderful birds on this day, including Inambari Woodcreeper, Broad-billed Motmot, Ocellated Piculet, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, and Black-bellied Antwren. The normally passed-over Purplish Jay got a vote for favorite bird of the day, as we got to really enjoy them at close range, and the very rare and local Ashy Antwren – a lifer for everyone including the leader – just barely made it to the trip list at our very last afternoon stop.

We took two days to retrace our path back to La Paz, giving us a chance to bird the cloud forests and high Andean puna once again. On the way up we had both Striped Treehunter and Striped Woodhaunter, Bronze-green Euphonia, Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, and Golden-eared Tanager in the cloud forests. The long drive up the valley was actually quite a scenic delight, and the stretch that we had passed by in the dark a few days earlier gave us Fasciated Tiger-Heron, many Torrent Ducks, and White-capped Dipper. The next day, the high puna was exhilarating after an all-night rain that lingered a bit into the morning and delivered snow to the pass – an extremely late date for such a cold front to pass through. Andean Hillstar, Puna Tapaculo, Variable Hawk, Andean Flicker, and Chiguanco Thrush were at the early stops, while up in the snow a flock of Baird’s Sandpipers and Gray-breasted Seedsnipe were good finds. One of the vans got lucky to see Puna Snipe by the roadside, and our final stop at the pass resulted in several Silver Grebe families on a small lake.

Next came our time at the lovely Sadiri Lodge, with its wonderful food, delightfully hospitable staff, and super competent birding guides, where we experienced a mix of Amazonian and Andean foothill specialties over two days. On the way there, Double-collared Seedeaters appeared as we waited at the Beni River for our ferry, and they were followed by a quick roadside stop where Hoatzin and Sungrebe were nice to see. Highlights on the trails, along the road, and at the lodge were many. A Crested Owl was seen by some on its day roost, Band-bellied Owl came in at night, and Sharpbill and Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak appeared in a mixed flocks along with Slender-footed Tyrannulet and several tanagers. One flock of tanagers came into mobbing sounds and perched up in the top of a tree down the slope, so at eye-level we watched many Paradise Tanagers, along with Bay-headed Tanager, Purple Honeycreeper, Masked Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, and Black-faced Dacnis, for a concentration of color not usually seen outside a Crayola box. Another memorable highlight was a pair of Hairy-crested Antbirds that darted silently and initially unidentified across the road; some fortuitous playback revealed their identity and brought them in close. Among the many other species mentioned as highlights during our two full days there were  Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Riverbank Warbler, Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Amazonian Pygmy-Owl, Brownish-headed Antbird, Pink-throated Becard (at a nest), Lemon-throated Barbet, Spangled Cotinga, Golden-bellied Warbler, Military Macaw, White-winged Shrike-Tanager, Curl-crested Aracari, Pink-throated Becard, and Rufous-crested Coquette. A few tireless birders kept on trying for the scarce Yungas Tyrannulet and managed to finally connect with a pair on the difficult ridge trail across the road from the lodge.

As we departed Sadiri, Carmiol’s Tanagers sang their evocative whistled songs from the undergrowth near the lodge, while a later morning stop for a nesting Great Potoo was particularly delightful. Along the drive to Santa Rosa de Yacuma we paused for many birds including Brazilian Teal and Rufescent Tiger-Heron, and after a short flight before lunch we were at our destination. Greater Rheas were spotted from the planes as we arrived, and during our stay we were able to see a few more. Our group was the first birding tour to visit the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, with its recently improved cabins, though the new dining hall was a good bit away from being finished. We saw our first Blue-throated Macaws the afternoon of our arrival, eventually seeing a flock of seven of these highly endangered birds. A Red-winged Tinamou walked in the open for a bit in the late afternoon, and other highlights from this first afternoon here were White-throated Kingbird and Campo Flicker, but the real highlight was seeing a close Blue-throated Macaw, which later joined a small group that flew over at close range on its way to a distant night roost.

The birding here was terrifically fun, especially along the marshes of the Omi River that runs through the property – Long-winged Harrier, Black-collared Hawk, Rusty-collared Seedeater, Maguari Stork (a single bird that was present in the same area every day), Streamer-tailed Tyrant, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Least Bittern, Sungrebe, and Ash-throated Crake were favorites in the wet meadows and open water. We were also lucky to glimpse a rare Yellow-breasted Crake that was chased off by the Ash-throated Crake. The ungrazed and unburned expanses of seasonally flooded savanna were home to some very scarce birds, such as Cock-tailed Tyrant, where we watched one do its astonishing flight display at a female (but only after slogging through knee-deep water in places, thanks to an early heavy rain a few days earlier). Other favorite birds in the grasslands there as well as along the runway were Black-masked Finch and Sharp-tailed Tyrant, and a White-tailed Hawk perched in one of the few shrubs was quite regal. A Small-billed Tinamou was coaxed out into the open in a late afternoon not long before we had to retreat from an approaching tropical downpour. We took one longer hike to the short grass meadows where we had great views of Guira Cuckoo, Chimango Caracara, and Nacunda Nighthawks that flushed from our feet, unseen before they took flight. Right around the lodge were Narrow-billed Woodcreepers, Red-capped and Red-crested Cardinals, Orange-backed Troupials, and gigantic Jabirus. We also saw a good variety of mammals, highlights being a Black-and-gold Howler Monkey grunting in a palm over the trail, a Six-banded Armadillo crossing the airstrip, and a Giant Anteater galloping across a the short grass meadow.

After a slightly longer flight to Trinidad, a pair of Blue-winged Parrotlets investigating an old hornero nest greeted us airport, and in the afternoon we birded an area of forest north of the city where Velvet-fronted Grackles, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, and Slate-colored Hawk were highlights. An incredibly birdy morning south of town started with a Red-billed Scythebill at close range, a Little Cuckoo even closer, Scarlet-headed Blackbirds on a power line, and a Vermilion Flycatcher competing for redness. The bonus bird here was a greenlet that is currently considered an undescribed subspecies of Gray-eyed Greenlet, though this very isolated population has dark eyes (therefore looking more like Rufous-capped Greenlet) and may eventually be described as a separate species. We then birded an area north of the city, seeing Capped Heron Limpkin on the way.

 A family of Plain Softtail were fun to watch (and noticeably different from birds farther north), and a pair of Chestnut-backed Antshrike were very cooperative. A huge group of seedeaters had one immature male Dark-throated Seedeater which upon reconsideration looked more likely to be an Ibera Seedeater, a recently described species unknown away from its northern Argentinean breeding grounds. Our tour finished with our evening flight back to civilization and a wonderful farewell dinner in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Rich Hoyer

December 2018

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