Scouting Trip to the Bolivian Lowlands, Chaco and Inter-Andean Valleys, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba
18 August – 5 September 2013
By Eduardo Ormaeche
Red-fronted Macaw (photo Ken Logan)
This was a very special trip for Birding Ecotours, because it allowed us to explore Bolivia for the first time during a customized private scouting trip. Bolivia is the fifth country with the largest number of birds, about 1426, after Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador. Also it is certainly one of the more diverse landlocked countries in the world. After a year of planning visiting southwest Brazil, we decided to make this extravagant adventure, driving from famous Cuiabá in Brazil, the gateway to the Pantanal, to Santa Cruz del la Sierra in Bolivia.
It took two days of driving through the remote Bolivian Pantanal to Santa Cruz, staying overnight at the charming San Ignacio de Velasco. From Santa Cruz we explored the Chiquitania woodlands around Santa Cruz and the dense Chaco south of Camiri. Camiri's "Chaco" Ecosystem encompasses subtropical dry forests with low canopy, and intense xerophilic overgrowth with a large diversity of wildlife. Here you can find some Chaco species that are hard to get in other countries, like the most wanted Black-legged Seriema. Bolivia is the home of two endemic macaws, and on this trip we had magnificent views of the Red-fronted Macaw.
Bolivia holds about 24 endemic birds and some that are shared only with NW Argentina and Paraguay and SE Peru. We recorded 350 species in less than 17 days of birding, not a bad number at all, considering we had to do a lot of driving coming from Brazil, and we also missed a full day in Cochabamba, courtesy of the Bolivian government. We didn’t have time to explore the High Andes or the cloudforest north of La Paz. This trip also didn’t allow us to explore the Beni department around Trinidad, which is home to the endemic Blue-throated Macaw.
Santa Cruz is a great gateway to start a visit to Bolivia. The international airport receives flights from many countries, and with an elevation of 400 meters above sea level (1365 feet) it is an excellent opportunity for gradual and slow acclimatization to the lack of oxygen in the high Andes of Bolivia. Santa Cruz is a comfortable and modern town, so you have all kind of choices for accommodation and food. Our hotel Cortez was the best in town and a great base for the days we spent there. They have a good restaurant, where the king is the surubí fish.
Even today Bolivia is still a remote country, and its touristic infrastructure is limited. In some remote areas you have to be prepared to stay at basic accommodations, where even the problem of a lack of a hot shower may occur. We did not have any problems with the Bolivian roads, however, despite all the bad things one hears. The whole loop we did from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba on the old road and from Cochabamba to the Chapare Province and Santa Cruz on the new road was good, and the roads were very adequate in other parts. But there are no places with hummingbird feeders as yet, so all our hummer searches were in the bush.
Just to name a few birds we saw in the Bolivian Pantanal before our official tour started: Plumbeous Ibis, Buff-necked Ibis, White Woodpecker, Southern Crested Caracara, Black-collared Hawk, Red-legged Seriema, and Greater Rhea. All these sightings were mostly from the vehicle, but this is an area that certainly would deserve further birding scouting and research.
We went to the Santa Cruz Botanical Garden, a place that holds excellent dense Chiquitano dry forest, where after a few minutes we scored immediately with the endemic Bolivian Slaty Antshrike. Other sightings here included Guira Tanager, Fawn-breasted Wren, Blue-crowned Trogon, and Green-cheeked Parakeet. Thanks to one of our participants we also managed to see an adult brown-throated sloth.
We had an incredible trip to the Chaco ecosystem. We left Santa Cruz towards Camiri, which allows access to several Chaco specialists and without doubt us one of the best places for the sought-after and most-wanted Black-legged Seriema. We had great views of a number of birds before reaching the Chaco, including Pale-breasted Spinetail, Toco Toucan, Golden-collared Macaw, Blue-crowned Parakeet, and Brushland Tinamou.
We arrived in Camiri and decided to explore the south in the afternoon, so we drove to Boyuibe. We found Suiriri Flycatcher, Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Cinereous Tyrant, Plush-crested Jay, Chaco Chachalaca, and two individuals of Crowned Solitary Eagle, one bird perched in front of the vehicle and another soaring low along the road. Our introduction to the Chaco could not have be better. This eagle is rare everywhere, and we just had been lucky. We spent a night in the JR Hotel in Camiri, which is the best option in town, with adequate rooms and restaurant service
Crowned Solitary Eagle (photo Ken Logan)
We had a predawn start again, and we drove back to Boyuibe to try to get as many targets as possible in the morning, before the temperature rises to 38°C at midday. The morning was glorious, and one of the best of the scouting trip for me. We scored with several specialists, like Many-colored Chaco Finch, Short-billed Canastero, Lark-like Brushrunner, Crested Hornero, Little Thornbird, and Chaco Earthcreeper.
Other birds included Great Antshrike, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Bolivian Slaty Antshrike, and Chaco Chachalaca. Suddenly we spotted at least four different Black-legged Seriemas crossing the track, and then at least three others not far from the road. Great stuff!
Great Antshrike (photo Christopher Calonje)
After our days in the Chaco we returned to Santa Cruz for an overnight. The following day we left Santa Cruz towards our next port of call, the Refugio Los Volcanes lodge, located 80km from Santa Cruz at the edge of Amboró National Park. The location is truly amazing, with impressive giant red stone cliffs surrounded by lush montane forest. We spent two nights here, but unfortunately the weather didn’t play well for us. We had strong, cold winds during our stay here. Normally these cold winds occur during the austral winter and blow toward the southern part of South America, reaching even SE Peru and the Amazon rainforest of Manú National Park.
Despite the cold weather and the fact that several birds were very quiet, we managed to find some interesting species like Grey-throated Leaftosser, Ochre-cheeked Spinetail, Slaty Gnateater, Red-necked Woodpecker, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Black-goggled Tanager, Blue-browed Tanager, Barred Becard, Black-streaked Puffbird, Yungas Dove, Sclater’s Tyrannulet, Plain Antvireo, a female Yungas Manakin, White-backed Fire-eye, Sunbittern, Andean Condor, and more. After a final morning birding at Los Volcanes we continue our trip to the Samaipata area, where we spent a night.
Sunbittern (photo Christopher Calonje)
Above Samaipata we found species like Ocellated Piculet, Cream-backed Woodpecker, White-eared Puffbird, Sparkling Violetear, Hooded Siskin, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, and Rufous-capped Antshrike and we heard our first Giant Antshrike, which, however, despite our attention and efforts, just eluded us this time
We explored other inter-Andean valleys like the area around Vallegrande, which is not far from a few good patches of Tucuman forest, a special habitat found only in NW Argentina and in this part of Bolivia. Here we got the range-restricted Dot-fronted Woodpecker and the impressive Dusky-legged Guan and Spot-breasted Thornbird. Also on the way back to Vallegrande we checked a small freshwater pond, where we found a female Masked Duck. Due the long distances to be covered and the lack of accommodation near the forest we didn’t have enough time to explore this forest and find other specialties like Tucuman Parrot and Red-faced Guan. Vallegrande is a small town, where accommodation and restaurant options are very limited and not good if you are looking for something fancy
Then we went to explore the Saipina area, which is famous for holding the largest population of the endemic and endangered Red-fronted Macaw. We booked a night at the recently build Red-fronted Macaw Lodge, which is run by a Bolivian NGO, Armonia, which is dedicated to the conservation of birds and their natural habitats. On the way to the lodge we found Black-capped Warbling Finch, the endemic Bolivian Earthcreeper, the endemic Bolivian Blackbird, and our only Giant Antshrike of the tour
Red-fronted Macaw Lodge and view of the macaw cliff from the lodge (photo Vin Lovell)
Once at the lodge we saw several White-fronted Woodpeckers, which are common in the cacti around the lodge, and also Grey-crested Finch, several “Cliff Parakeets” (a potential split from Monk Parakeet), and Striped Woodpecker. In the afternoon we were amazed to be able to enjoy a number of Red-fronted Macaw flying above of us and perched in their roosting cliffs. What a great experience for everybody!
Red-fronted Macaw cliff, view from the lodge entrance (photo Vin Lovell)
The following day our adventure took us to explore the Comarapa and Siberia slope. During our first morning we found the impressive Red-tailed Comet and had great views of Olive-crowned Crescentchest, which was the last crescentchest we needed to have seen them all. We also had nice views of Ringed Warbling Finch, Bolivian Warbling Finch, Fulvous-headed Brush Finch, Grey-hooded Parakeet, Plain-breasted Hawk, and brief views of Trilling Tapaculo.
Another morning at Siberia provided the endemic Black-hooded Sunbeam, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Tyrian Metaltail, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Mountain Tanager, and the boliviensis subspecies of Common Bush Tanager, which is sometimes called Brown-headed Bush Tanager. Later we climbed up to the mountains, where we found some slopes covered by small Polylepis woodland and shrubs, which yielded the endemic Black-throated Thistletail and Thick-billed Siskin. As we climbed up higher into the Andes we found Rusty-vented Canastero and the secretive Darwin’s Nothura. After a long day birding in the Andes we reached Cochabamba, where we spent three nights based in the comfortable Hotel Regina.
Blue-winged Mountain Tanager (photo Christopher Calonje)
Cerro Tunari holds a great number of Andean specialists, and it is relatively easy to get there from the city. We had great views of Cochabamba Mountain Finch, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Andean Tinamou, Black-hooded Sierra Finch, Rock Earthcreeper, Maquis Canastero, and Rufous-bellied Saltator, among others.
We were supposed to spend a full day birding in the cloudforest of Chapare, but, since it the Bolivian national day of the pedestrian, no vehicles were allow to drive anywhere in the country for 24 hours. In other words we were stuck in Cochabamba. We decided to have a late start, enjoying our first breakfast buffet at the hotel, and then walked to Laguna Alalay in Cochabamba, where we saw Rosy-billed Pochard, Cinnamon Teal, Yellow-winged Blackbird, and Wren-like Rushbird.
The next day we went to the Chapare area in the lush montane forest. Here we had good views of Light-crowned Spinetail, White-eared Solitaire, Masked Trogon, Mountain Wren, and Band-tailed Fruiteater, but despite our best efforts we could not find the most-wanted Orange-browed Hemispingus. At much lower elevations we found Blue-banded Toucanet, Yellow-rumped Antwren, Crested Quetzal, Versicolored Barbet, and fly-by views of Black-winged Parrot. We then reached Villa Tunari, where we spent the night.
Crested Quetzal (photo Christopher Calonje)
On our last morning we explored the areas around Villa Tunari, where we found White-necked Puffbird, Broad-billed Motmot, Southern Chestnut-tailed Antbird, and Southern Nightingale-Wren. We then drove back to Santa Cruz, where we had a memorable dinner, with our favorite surubí fish and some cold beer to toast our successful trip.
Day 1, August 18th
Long drive from Cuiabá, Brazil, to San Ignacio de Velasco in Bolivia. We crossed the border at San Matías and passed through some nice Bolivian Pantanal habitat. Overnight Hotel La Misión
Day 2, August 19th
Long drive from San Ignacio de Velasco to Santa Cruz. Overnight Hotel Cortez
Day 3, August 20th
We explored the Santa Cruz Botanical Garden in the morning and the Santa Cruz airport fields in the afternoon. Overnight Hotel Cortez
Day 4, August 21st
We drove south of Santa Cruz to Camiri, birding along the main road. In the afternoon we explored Boyuibe. Overnight JR Hotel
Day 5, August 22nd
We explored the Boyuibe area and Villazón track on the way to the Paraguayan border. Overnight JR Hotel
Day 6, August 23rd
Drive back to Santa Cruz, birding along the main road and around Cabezas. Overnight Hotel Cortez
Day 7, August 24th
We drove to the edge of the Amboró National Park. Overnight Refugio Los Volcanes
Day 8, August 25th
Full day at Refugio Los Volcanes
Day 9, August 26th
We explored Laguna Volcán and drove to Samaipata. Overnight La Víspera
Day 10, August 27th
We explored areas above Samaipata and the edge of the Tucuman forest. Overnight Vallegrande
Day 11, August 28th
We explored the Samaipata valley. Overnight Red-fronted Macaw Lodge
Day 12, August 29th
We drove to Comarapa and explored the lowest parts of Siberia. Overnight Hotel Paraiso
Day 13, August 30th
Full day at the Siberia slopes. Overnight Hotel Paraiso
Day 14, August 31st
We drove towards Cochabamba, exploring Siberia and some remnants of Polylepis forest.. Overnight Hotel Regina
Day 15, September 1st
Explored the Cerro Tunari above Cochabamba city and the Laguna Alalay. Overnight Hotel Regina
Day 16, September 2nd
Explored the Chapare road. Overnight Hotel Regina
Day 17, September 3rd
Explored the lowest parts of the Chapare road, including San José. Overnight Villa Tunari
Day 18, September 4th
Explored the Villa Tunari area and drove to Santa Cruz. Overnight Hotel Cortez
Day 19, September 5th
Transferred to the airport and connected to our international flights.
BOLIVIA SYSTEMATIC LIST, AUGUST – SEPTEMBER 2013
Taxonomy: IOC, International Ornithological Congress, 4.1
(H) Heard only
(E) Country endemic
(LO) Leader only
Brown Tinamou (H) Crypturellus obsoletus Unfortunately heard only at Refugio Los Volcanes
Undulated Tinamou (H) Crypturellus undulatus Heard at the Santa Cruz Botanical Garden
Brushland Tinamou Nothoprocta cinerascens We got great views of this species on the way to the Chaco. A range-restricted species
Andean Tinamou Nothoprocta pentlandii Seen on the way to Cochabamba
Darwin’s Nothura Nothura darwinii Brief views of one individual crossing the track and then was flushed at the high pass on the way to Cochabamba
Greater Rhea Rhea americana Seen on the way to San Ignacio and around the Santa Cruz airport. Listed as Near-threatened
Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata Seen on the way to San Ignacio de Velasco in the Bolivian Pantanal
Brazilian Teal Amazonetta brasiliensis Seen in the ponds south of Camiri and on the way to San Ignacio
Ringed Teal Callonetta leucophrys A flock of birds in the pond south of Camiri
Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera Seen at the Laguna Alalay
Rosy-billed Pochard Netta peposaca Seen at the Laguna Alalay in Cochabamba city
Masked Duck Nomonyx dominicus A female was seen well in the pond on the way to Monteagudo.
Chaco Chachalaca Ortalis canicollis Excellent views of this range-restricted species in the Chaco south of Boyuibe
Andean Guan Penelope montagnii Seen in the cloudforest
Dusky-legged Guan Penelope obscura Two individuals were seen on the way to Comarapa.
Least Grebe Tachybaptus dominicus Seen well in the pond on the way to Monteagudo
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps Seen at the Laguna Volcán
White-tufted Grebe Rollandia rolland One individual seen at the Laguna Alalay
Jabiru Jabiru mycteria Seen on the way to San Ignacio
Plumbeous Ibis Theristicus caerulescens Seen well on the way to San Ignacio
Buff-necked Ibis Theristicus caudatus Seen well on the way to San Ignacio
Green Ibis Mesembrinibis cayennensis Seen well on the way to San Ignacio
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus Seen well on the way to San Ignacio
Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi Seen at higher elevations and near Saipina
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax Seen at the Laguna Alalay and on the way to Santa Cruz
Striated Heron Butorides striata Seen on paddy fields on the way to Santa Cruz
Western Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Common
Cocoi Heron Ardea cocoi Seen on paddy fields on the way to Santa Cruz
Great Egret Ardea alba Seen throughout the trip
Capped Heron Pilherodius pileatus One seen well on the way to Santa Cruz
Whistling Heron Syrigma sibilatrix Two birds seen very well at the shores of Laguna El Volcán
Little-blue Heron Egretta caerulea Seen on paddy fields on the way to Santa Cruz
Snowy Egret Egretta thula Common
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax brasilianus Seen along the Bolivian Pantanal on the way to San Ignacio
Anhinga Anhinga anhinga One seen well on the way to San Ignacio. The word anhinga comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird.
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura Common
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus Seen on the way to San Ignacio
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus Common
Andean Condor Vultur gryphus Three individuals were seen soaring distantly above Refugio Los Volcanes. Classified as Near-threatened
White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus Beautiful views of one bird on the way to San Ignacio
Pearl Kite Gampsonyx swainsonii Seen on the way to San Ignacio
Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus One of the most beautiful Neotropical raptors was seen well in Chapare.
Crowned Solitary Eagle Buteogallus coronatus Stunning! One individual was seen well, soaring above the Chaco, and then another bird perched along the Boyuibe road. This is a endangered, increasingly rare species and hard to see. Range-restricted. One of the best birds of the trip. Classified as Endangered
Plain-breasted Hawk Accipiter ventralis One bird was seen well flying above Siberia, and then it perched close to some of us. Accipiter striatus, Sharp-shinned Hawk, was treated as four species in Sibley & Monroe (1990), Thiollay (1994), and Ridgely & Greenfield (2001): velox of North America, chionogaster of Middle America, ventralis of the Andes, and erythronemius of lowland southern South America. IOC basically follows this taxonomic treatment, except that they consider velox a subspecies of striatus.
Black-collared Hawk Busarellus nigricollis Seen on the way to San Ignacio