ULTIMATE BOLIVIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Note: Our 2019 itinerary differs very slightly from the below, which is for 2020.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 1 Our tour starts this morning at Santa Cruz airport, from where we will take a flight to the remote town of Riberalta in northeastern Bolivia for a two nights stay. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 2 Riberalta, located on the east bank of the mighty Beni river in eastern Bolivia, sits at the junction of the cerrado and the Amazonian rainforests. The latter, which here shows strong affinities with the avifauna of the Madeira-Tapajos interfluvium, will allowing us to add a substantial number of Amazonian species to our list.
This morning we will head to some short-stature woodlands where we shall focus on finding the very localized Masked Antpitta (only discovered here very recently by Schoerd Mayer). This very poorly known area could also turn up some surprises, which could include Rusty-necked Piculet and the spectacular Fiery-capped Manakin.
While exploring rainforest sites in the Riberalta area of Bolivia, we should also come across a wide range of commoner species including Spix’s Guan, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Grey-fronted Dove, Yellow-crowned and Mealy Amazons, Pheasant Cuckoo, Amazonian Pygmy Kingfisher, Black-fronted Nunbird, Blue-crowned and Black-tailed Trogons, Striolated Puffbird, Bar-breasted Piculet, Little, Green-barred, Chestnut and Cream-coloured Woodpeckers, Lettered Aracari, Yellow-ridged and White-throated Toucans, Johannis’s Tody-Tyrant, Grey-crowned Flycatcher, Black-tailed Tityra, Varzea Schiffornis, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Band-tailed and Red-headed Manakins, Masked Tityra, Buff-throated and Chestnut-crowned Foliage-gleaners, Wedge-billed, Buff-throated and Straight-billed Woodcreepers, White-shouldered Antshrike, Amazonian Streaked, Grey Antwren, Grey, Blackish, White-browed and Black-faced Antbirds, Black-billed and Hauxwell’s Thrushes, and Yellow-backed, Grey-headed, White-shouldered, Flame-crested, Turquoise, Paradise and Green-and-gold Tanagers.
We shall also visit a superb area of cerrado to the east of town where we will be on the look out for the very poorly known Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant and the retiring Ocellated Crake.
We shall also explore the wider Riberalta area and try and find such species as Capped Heron, Mississippi Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Ash-throated Crake, Azure Gallinule, Upland Sandpiper, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Ringed Kingfisher, Greater Ani, Band-tailed Nighthawk, the pretty Spot-tailed Nightjar, Plain-crested Elaenia, Pale-legged Hornero and Rufous Cachalote, along with the rare White-rumped Tanager (and with luck White-banded Tanager).
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 3 After some final birding around Riberalta we will take a flight to Trinidad, situated in the huge province of Beni, for a three nights stay. We will have time for some initial birding this afternoon.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Days 4-5 Our main reason for visiting the wide watery plains of the Llanos de los Moxos in eastern Bolivia is the occurrence of the very rare and famous Blue-throated Macaw. Until 1992 this species was only known from museum specimens and from cage birds that occasionally turned up in the international pet trade, but nobody really knew where these birds originated from. In 1992 Charles Munn, a scientist with the New York Zoological Society discovered its breeding haunts in the vast, virtually uninhabited palm savanna and gallery woodland mosaic in the centre of the department of Beni. The last census indicates there may be fewer than 100 pairs in the wild, but nobody really knows. This species, which resembles the much more common and widespread Blue-and-yellow Macaw, seems to require the presence of the palm Attalea phalerata, which is locally abundant here. With the help of local biologists we should be able to admire this superb macaw, and compare it to other members of its tribe, including Blue-and-yellow, Red-and-green, Golden-collared and Chestnut-fronted Macaws.
The grasslands and seasonally flooded woodlands of this region of Bolivia are reminiscent of the more open parts of the famous Brazilian Pantanal or of the Venezuelan llanos and harbour the same rich and spectacular variety of birds. The open habitat makes for easy viewing and during our stay here we should amass a splendid list. Many of the birds of the marshes, oxbow lakes, open meadows and pastures are widespread in the Neotropics, but we will of course be concentrating on the local specialities, and in particular the rare Orinoco Goose and the rare Hudson’s Black-Tyrant (a migrant from central Argentina). There is even a chance for the rare American Crowned Eagle.
Among the numerous other species we are likely to see during our visit are the stately Greater Rhea, Undulated Tinamou, Anhinga, Cocoi, Whistling, Capped and Striated Herons, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, Bare-faced, Plumbeous, Buff-necked and Green Ibises, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, the huge Jabiru, the remarkable Southern Screamer, Black-bellied and White-faced Whistling-Ducks, Brazilian Teal, Muscovy Duck, Osprey, Snail Kite, the attractive Long-winged Harrier, Crane, Rufous-thighed (uncommon), Harris’s, Savanna, Grey and Black-collared Hawks, Great Black-Hawk, Speckled Chachalaca (a species that produces an amazing dawn chorus), the impressive Blue-throated Piping-Guan, the retiring Razor-billed Curassow, the skulking Ash-throated Crake, Pied Lapwing, Collared Plover, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilt, Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns, Black Skimmer, Pale-vented Pigeon, Plain-breasted and Ruddy Ground-Doves, Peach-fronted, Dusky-headed and Cobalt-winged Parakeets, Blue-headed Parrot, Ash-coloured and Striped Cuckoos, Little and Dark-billed Cuckoos, Great Horned Owl, Great and Common Potoos, Pauraque, Little Nightjar, White-tailed Goldenthroat, Blue-tailed Emerald, the marvellous Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, Gilded Hummingbird, Blue-crowned Motmot, Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers, Black-fronted Nunbird, Green-backed Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White, Yellow-tufted, Little and Golden-green Woodpeckers, and Campo Flicker.
Passerines include the spectacular Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Chotoy and Plain-crowned Spinetails, Rufous-fronted and Greater Thornbirds, the huge Grey-crested Cacholote, Great and Barred Antshrikes, the localized Rusty-backed Antwren, Yellow and Mouse-coloured Tyrannulets, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Rusty-fronted Tody-Flycatcher, Short-crested Flycatcher, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Spectacled, Yellow-browed and Cattle Tyrants, White, Grey and White-rumped Monjitas, Tawny-headed, White-winged and White-rumped Swallows, Black-capped Donacobius, Masked Gnatcatcher, Creamy-bellied Thrush, Purplish and Plush-crested Jays, Great Pampa-Finch, White-bellied, Rufous-rumped and Rusty-collared Seedeaters, Greyish Saltator, Lesser Seed-Finch, Long-tailed Reed-Finch, Red-crested and Red-capped Cardinals, Scarlet-headed and Unicoloured Blackbirds, and Bay-winged Cowbird.
In the gallery forests bordering the nearby rivers we will go in search of two local specialities, the localized but vocal Plain Softtail (here of the endemic nominate race) and Velvet-fronted Grackle (here of the endemic form boliviensis), as well as Black-tailed Trogon, the incredible Toco Toucan (with its bright blue eye), White-wedged Piculet, handsome Pale-crested and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Red-billed Scythebill, Mato Grosso Antbird, Euler’s Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, White-eyed Attila, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Rufous-crowned Greenlet, Orange-headed and Grey-headed Tanagers, Silver-beaked Tanager, Chestnut-vented Conebill, Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-crowned Warbler.
With a modicum of luck we will locate one of the following species: Least Bittern, the enigmatic Pheasant Cuckoo or Subtropical Doradito. Common Zorro (or Crab-eating Fox), Brown Brocket Deer and many Capybaras should also be encountered.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 6 Today we will return by road to Santa Cruz for an overnight stay. The day is essentially a travel day, but we will make a few roadside stops.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 7 Despite being Bolivia’s fastest-growing town, Santa Cruz retains a pleasant, colonial-style centre. A curious mix of old and new, where horse-drawn carts are passed by innumerable Land Cruisers and Mercedes and Colonial red tile buildings stand side by side with glass and concrete designer outlets and futuristic skyscrapers. It lies at the great meeting point between the Amazonian rainforests to the north and the dry chaco to the south, the Andes and semi-humid cloud-forests to the west and open savannas to the east. As a result an unparalleled variety of different natural habitats lie within easy reach of Santa Cruz.
Nearby lie grassy savannas interspersed with areas of bushy scrub and dotted with pools, reminiscent of Brazil’s cerrado. Here the rhythmic whistling of Red-winged Tinamous and the raucous calls of Campo Flickers and Rufous Horneros break the silence, while Greater Rheas quietly feed in their extended family groups. Red-legged Seriema is not uncommon here and we shall make every effort to track down their unearthly calls to the source. Squabbling flocks of Blue-crowned Parakeets and Blue-winged Parrotlets cross the skies as Limpkins and Wattled Jacanas line the rush-fringed ponds. We shall diligently search any weedy areas for the localized White-bellied Nothura, which often explodes partridge-like from the grass at our feet. The local form of White-bellied Seedeater (often treated as a full species: the Bicoloured Seedeater) also like these weedy edges, along with Dark-throated, Tawny-bellied and Rufous-rumped Seedeaters.
The scrubby marshes often hold the magnificent Southern Screamer, both Scarlet-hooded and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds, and Orange-backed Troupial.
For the flycatcher fanatic this is a most rewarding area, as many migrant species visit the region whilst escaping from the austral winter. Here we should encounter Suiriri and Vermillion Flycatchers, Lesser Elaenia, Mouse-coloured, White-bellied and White-crested Tyrannulets, the diminutive Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Black-backed Water-Tyrant (split from Pied), White-rumped Monjita, Spectacled, Yellow-browed and Cattle Tyrants, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird and with luck the migratory Hudson’s Black Tyrant.
In addition to this confusion of wing-bars and supercilia, the savanna areas in the vicinity of Santa Cruz have much more to offer and we may well encounter such species as Whistling Heron, Western Cattle Egret, Brazilian Duck, Black and Turkey Vultures, White-tailed and Snail Kites, Savanna and Roadside Hawks, Long-winged Harrier, Southern Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Nacunda and Lesser Nighthawks, Purple Gallinule, Southern Lapwing, Eared and White-tipped Doves, Picui Ground-Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Striped Cuckoo, the garrulous Guira Cuckoo, Short-tailed Swift, Glittering-bellied Emerald, Pale-crested Woodpecker, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Rufous-fronted and Greater Thornbirds, Barred Antshrike, Grey-breasted Martin, the enormous Thrush-like Wren, the near-endemic Fawn-breasted Wren, Masked Gnatcatcher, Creamy-bellied Thrush, Chalk-browed and White-banded Mockingbirds, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellowish Pipit, Saffron Finch, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Red-crested Finch, Black-backed and Ultramarine Grosbeaks, Black-faced, Sayaca and Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, Tropical Parula, White-browed and Chopi Blackbirds, and Shiny Cowbird.
In the late afternoon we work our way up into the foothills for a two nights stay at Los Volcanes; situated in a spectacular basin surrounded by towering red sandstone cliffs. While staying at this magical location (probably one of the most spectacularly situated lodges anywhere) we shall head out into surrounding forests to do some night birding in search of Rufescent Screech-Owl, the impressive Band-bellied Owl, Pauraque, the elusive Rufous Nightjar and Ocellated Poorwill. If we are very fortunate we will also find the rare Subtropical Pygmy-Owl.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 8 During our stay at Los Volcanes we will be birding beneath the sheer red sandstone cliffs of several immense sugarloaf domes that encircle the lodge clearing. Here, a constant lookout may well be rewarded with great views of the resident King Vultures or spectacular Andean Condors as they sail along the cliffs. If we are really lucky we will see Solitary Eagle or a flock of the increasingly rare Military Macaw.
At the base of the sheer cliffs there are extensive semi-humid cloudforests through which pass a number of pleasant trails to which we shall devote some time as we search for a number of infrequently seen species. These include the very rarely seen Bolivian Recurvebill, Grey-throated Leaftosser, the rather shy Slaty Gnateater and the diminutive Bolivian Tapaculo. We shall also try to get a good look at the splendid Yungas Manakin which, although being quite common, can be tricky to see well.
Walking the trails, we should also see a good variety of commoner and more widespread species including White-tipped Dove, Blue-headed and Red-billed Parrots, Grey-rumped, Chestnut-collared and White-collared Swifts, Green and Sparkling Violetears, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, the pretty White-eared Puffbird, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Lineated and Red-necked Woodpeckers, Black-banded and Tschudi’s Woodcreepers, Plain Antvireo, White-backed Fire-eye, Sepia-capped and Slaty-capped Flycatchers, and the shy White-necked Thrush. Mixed flocks may well produce Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Whitestart, Guira, Black-goggled, White-winged, and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and Thick-billed and Golden-rumped Euphonias. If we are lucky we will also see the rare Blue-browed Tanager.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 9 Today we climb up to some higher elevation forests in search of the elusive Short-tailed Antthrush, devoting some time to obtaining good views of this beautifully marked species. After our final birding at Los Volcanes we will head for a beautiful crater lake, surrounded by dense reed beds, that usually holds one or two family parties of Masked Duck, as well as Least and Pied-billed Grebes. We then continue on our way to the small town of Valle Grande for a two night stay.
On our way we will explore a picturesque valley, occupied by a typical Andean farming community that has created a mosaic of cultivated and fallow fields together with a mix of scrub and taller deciduous woodland. We are fortunate that a few good trails follow the contours through this woodland, enabling us to enter this very birdy area and find a variety of species with a limited distribution. In the late morning we should see the increasingly rare Mitred Parakeet heading off to the hills after raiding the cornfields. We shall also be on the lookout for Ocellated Piculet, Ochre-cheeked Spinetail, Black-capped Antwren and Black-and-chestnut Warbling-Finch.
Some of the more widespread species we may well encounter include Short-tailed Hawk, Green-cheeked Parakeet, Scaly-headed Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Planalto Hermit, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Sooty-fronted Spinetail, the huge Giant Antshrike, Variable, Chestnut-backed and Bolivian Slaty Antshrikes, the Andean form of the Rufous-capped Antshrike (sometimes split as Marcapata Antshrike), Southern Beardless and Sclater’s Tyrannulets, Highland Elaenia, Yellow-olive, Bran-coloured and Cliff Flycatchers, the delightful Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher, the lovely Rufous Casiornis, Blue-and-white Swallow, Moustached Wren, Rufous-bellied Thrush, the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow, Black-capped Warbling-Finch, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Golden-billed Saltator, Two-banded Warbler and, if we are lucky, the uncommon Dull-coloured Grassquit.
As we continue towards Valle Grande we cross a low pass where we have a reasonable chance of seeing the huge Dusky-legged Guan (the Andean form surely deserving of specific status), the beautiful Cream-backed Woodpecker and the noisy Spot-backed Puffbird (the local form is sometimes split as Chaco Puffbird).
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 10 Departing early this morning, we cross a number of deeply incised valleys on our way to remnant patch of Podocarpus forest at Loma Larga. Our primary goal here is seeing the Alder Parrot, an increasingly rare species found only here and in north-west Argentina. Also present is the equally rare and infrequently seen Red-faced Guan. Exploring these forests and enjoying the splendid vistas over unending forests ridges stretching away to the south and east will make for a very enjoyable morning. In addition to those species already mentioned, we will also hope to see Masked Trogon, Golden-olive Woodpecker, the rare Blue-capped Puffleg, Buff-browed Foliage-Gleaner, the near-endemic Buff-banded Tyrannulet, Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulet, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Highland and Sierra Elaenias, the localised Andean Tyrant, the shy Andean Slaty-Thrush, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and the somewhat uncommon Golden-winged Cacique. In the past we have seen the lovely Straw-backed Tanager here and we shall certainly be on the look out for this rather elusive species.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 11 After a morning near Valle Grande, during which we may return to Loma Larga or explore another valley nearby, we will head for the broad floodplain of the Rio Misque where we will stay overnight at Saipina. During the journey we shall make a concerted effort to find the range-restricted Dot-fronted Woodpecker and we will also have another opportunity to see the formidable Giant Antshrike. In the open scrubby areas with rolling hills we have an opportunity to look for the confiding Olive-crowned Crescentchest, the endemic Bolivian Warbling-Finch and the elusive Huayco Tinamou (although we will count ourselves very lucky if we see the latter). As we continue through the dry valleys, we will be keeping an eye on the skies as in the past we have seen good numbers of Andean Condors here. We should arrive in time for some initial birding along the Rio Misque valley.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 12 This tranquil valley is home to one of the most stunning parrots, the now rare Red-fronted Macaw. This large macaw, another Bolivian endemic, can be seen as it crosses the valley en route between its feeding and roosting areas. We will make a special effort to get good looks at this spectacular bird in one of its favoured feeding sites. Getting close to these spectacular creatures, only around 3000 of which remain in the wild, will be an undoubted highlight of the trip. The curious White-tipped Plantcutter is a taxonomic anomaly (and currently placed with the cotingas) and can be found here uttering its rasping call or using its serrated bill to dismember a flower.
Other species we may well encounter include the remarkable Cliff Parakeet (split from the much duller-looking Monk Parakeet) at its nesting site, the rather Budgerigar-like Grey-hooded Parakeet, White-bellied Hummingbird, White-fronted, Striped and Golden-breasted Woodpeckers, the rare Cream-backed Woodpecker, Narrow-billed Woodcreeper, Stripe-crowned Spinetail, Streak-fronted Thornbird, the delicate but vociferous Greater Wagtail-Tyrant, Chiguanco Thrush, the localized Grey-crested Finch, Ringed Warbling-Finch, Highland Hepatic-Tanager, Purple-throated Euphonia, Rusty Flower-piercer, Southern Yellowthroat and Bay-winged Cowbird.
After lunch we will head for Comarapa for a two nights stay. This provincial town, nestled beneath the mighty Siberia massif, enjoys the balmy climate of the inter-montane valleys but is within easy reach of some of the finest cloudforests in Bolivia, protected within the famous Amboro National Park. We may arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 13 Comarapa and nearby Tambo are surrounded by semi-desert, with cultivation restricted to the flood plains of the rivers that descend from the surrounding high, forest-clad ridges. In the early morning and evening these fields can be full of birds taking advantage of the comparatively easy pickings. Deep red and orange canyons bisect the surrounding cactus-covered hills. These are the home of the endemic Bolivian Earthcreeper which, as its name suggests, can be found hugging the canyon walls. In the evening we will go in search of one of South America’s most impressive nightbirds, the remarkable Scissor-tailed Nightjar, as well as the more common Tropical Screech-Owl.
During our stay in this area we shall also visit the Siberia cloudforest, which lies on the high ridge which marks the boundary between the departments of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. Here, in complete contrast to arid Comarapa and Tambo, tall, epiphyte-laden trees tower over a thick undergrowth of bamboo and flowering shrubs. Often clear in the mornings, when there are wonderful views over the surrounding hills, it is a rare day when swirling cloud does not envelop all by the afternoon, leaving us to chase disappearing flocks in the mist.
Here, the haunting whistles of the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta and the endless trills of the mouse-like Trilling Tapaculo taunt us from the densest undergrowth (though with a bit of luck we will eventually encounter both). The flowering roadside bushes attract such evocatively named hummingbirds as Violet-throated Starfrontlet and Tyrian Metaltail. Perusing the denser foliage are Bar-bellied Woodpecker, Montane Woodcreeper, the near-endemic Light-crowned Spinetail (here of the buff-crowned race) and the beautiful Pearled Treerunner. More easily seen are the canopy foragers such as Common Bush-Tanager, Blue-winged and Chestnut-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, and Brown-capped and Spectacled Whitestarts.
Amongst the many other birds we may well find here are Broad-winged and Variable Hawks, Mountain Caracara, Andean Guan, Azara’s Spinetail, the pretty Barred Becard, White-throated, Tawny-rumped and Mottle-cheeked Tyrannulets, Rufous-breasted and White-browed Chat-Tyrants, Smoke-coloured Peewee, Mountain Wren, Grey-breasted Wood-Wren, Great Thrush, Bolivian (split from Rufous-naped) and Fulvous-headed Brush-Finches, White-browed Brush-Finch (formerly part of the Stripe-headed Brush-Finch complex), Blue-backed Conebill and Pale-legged Warbler.
On our descent we shall search an area of low bushes for Grey-bellied Flowerpiercer, a species which has become a Bolivian endemic following the splitting off of the other components of the Carbonated Flower-piercer complex. Here we should also encounter the fabulous Red-tailed Comet, Freckle-breasted Thornbird, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, the restricted-range Bolivian Warbling-Finch, Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, Great Pampa-Finch and Band-tailed Seedeater.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 14 Leaving early, we shall cross the Siberia watershed in the dark, entering a series of dry valleys on the road to Cochabamba. Here the true majesty of the Andes becomes apparent, as does the tranquil life of the Quechua-speaking Indians who have created a stunning landscape in this impressive environment. We shall have time to search several small gullies filled with Polylepis scrub as well as a larger cultivated valley.
Our main targets today are one little known Bolivian endemic and several near-endemics, and we shall make a concerted effort to locate all of these scarce birds. The superb Black-hooded Sunbeam may not look much in the shadows, yet when the sun strikes its back it is transformed into one of the most beautiful of all hummingbirds, a kaleidoscope of iridescent turquoise and velvety black. Several other species found in the drier valleys of this region and just over the border in Argentina will also take up much of our time today. These include the stunning Wedge-tailed Hillstar, the pretty Citron-headed Yellow-Finch and Rufous-bellied Saltator, and they can all be found here more easily than elsewhere.
Other species we may encounter today include Cinereous Harrier, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, the handsome Tawny-throated Dotterel, Bare-faced Ground-Dove, Giant Hummingbird, Slender-billed Miner, Cream-winged Cinclodes, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail, Creamy-breasted Canastero, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-webbed Bush-Tyrant (with its unusual hovering feeding technique), Brown-bellied Swallow, Rusty-browed Warbling-Finch and Greenish Yellow-Finch. After a long and rewarding day the bright lights of Cochabamba beckon and a pleasant three nights stay in a comfortable hotel awaits us.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Days 15-16 Cochabamba is one of Bolivia’s largest cities. Founded in 1574, it still retains many attractive historic buildings. The rich soil and pleasant climate of the surrounding valley allow the production of copious quantities of wheat and maize, which were used to feed the silver miners in their heyday.
During our first full day in the Cochabamba region we drive through the Cochabamba valley at 2600m and soon start to ascend the Quillacolla road. A series of hairpin bends along this rough track take us rapidly higher, from one breathtaking vista to another. Sheer cliffs tower above us, crowned by snow-capped peaks (including Cerro Tunari, at 5035m the highest peak in Bolivia east of the altiplano).
We shall make several stops along this road in order to acclimatize and also to search for some highly localized birds. Foremost amongst these is the attractive endemic Cochabamba Mountain-Finch. We also have another opportunity to see the Wedge-tailed Hillstar, a species which was thought to be extinct until rediscovered here a few years ago. We shall also visit a stand of Polylepis trees, a high altitude species now rarely encountered as it has been frequently cut down for firewood throughout the Andes. Here we shall look for the beautiful Rufous-rumped Bush-Tyrant, have another look for Rufous-bellied Saltator and hopefully see the nuthatch-like Giant Conebill, which specializes in finding insects amongst the flaky red bark which characterizes Polylepis.
Nearing the pass at 4000m, we shall search a roadside boulder field where we may well see Andean Flicker, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, Black-hooded, Mourning, Plumbeous and Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches, and White-winged Diuca-Finch. A search of the surrounding crags may reveal an Andean Condor drifting across the azure skies.
Other birds we will look for along the Quillacolla road include Darwin’s Nothura, Grey-breasted Seedsnipe, Andean Swift, Sparkling Violetear, Andean Hillstar, Rock Earthcreeper, Tawny Tit-Spinetail (another Polylepis specialist), the near-endemic Maquis (or Iquico) Canastero, Streak-throated Canastero, Puna Tapaculo, D’Orbigny’s Chat-Tyrant, Spot-billed, Puna, Taczanowski’s, Cinereous and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, Black-billed and possibly Grey-bellied Shrike-Tyrants, Plain-coloured Seedeater and Bright-rumped Yellow-Finch. If we are lucky we will come across the secretive Andean Tinamou or the localized Boulder (or Short-tailed) Finch.
In the late afternoon we will visit a lake that should turn up White-tufted and Silvery Grebes, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Neotropic Cormorant, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Red Shoveler, Yellow-billed and White-cheeked Pintails, Puna and Cinnamon Teals, Rosy-billed Pochard, Andean Duck, maybe a Peregrine Falcon, Common Gallinule, Slate-coloured Coot, Andean Lapwing, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least, Baird’s, Pectoral and Stilt Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Golden Plover, Andean Gull and Wren-like Rushbird.
The Chapare Road, which we will explore during our second full day, has few rivals in South America and is a must for the visiting birder. Climbing out of the Cochabamba valley, it soon reaches the puna zone, from where, in a comparatively short distance, it drops through virtually untouched elfin, temperate and subtropical forests on its way to the distant Amazonian lowlands.
Several trails facilitate exploration of these various forest types. We will explore the stunted mossy underworld of the elfin forest looking for the endemic Black-throated Thistletail, which creeps through the tangled vegetation like an arboreal mouse. Losing altitude, we shall search the bromeliad-encrusted temperate forest for the diminutive, Bolivian Tyrannulet before entering the warm humid world of the subtropical forest with its silvery Cecropia trees and multicoloured mixed feeding flocks of birds.
Some of the least common Andean species occur along this road and we shall keep a sharp eye out for such highly-desired specialities as Black-winged Parrot, Blue-banded Toucanet, the spectacular Hooded Mountain-Toucan (with its amazing voice), the near-endemic Band-tailed Fruiteater, the gorgeous Chestnut-crested Cotinga, White-eared Solitaire, the uncommon Straw-backed Tanager and Pale-footed Swallow. If we are fortunate and the birds are singing, we shall also try to see the shy White-throated Antpitta at one of our sites.
Other species we may encounter today, or on the return journey to Cochabamba, include Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Band-tailed and Plumbeous Pigeons, Red-billed, Plum-crowned (or Speckle-faced), Blue-headed and Scaly-naped Parrots, White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts, Green Violetear, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Crested and Golden-headed Quetzals, Yellow-ridged Toucan, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Azara’s Spinetail, the endearing Rufous Antpitta, Torrent Tyrannulet, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Black Phoebe, Sierran and White-crested Elaenias, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, the uncommon Rufous-bellied Bush-Tyrant, Plumbeous Tyrant, Red-crested Cotinga, Barred Fruiteater, the strange but impressive Amazonian Umbrellabird, the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, White-capped Dipper, Glossy-black Thrush, Magpie, Rust-and-yellow, Palm, Blue-capped, Saffron-crowned, Blue-necked and Blue-and-black Tanagers, Hooded and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Masked Flower-piercer, Slate-throated Whitestart, Three-striped Warbler, Dusky-green and Russet-backed Oropendolas, Yellow-rumped and Mountain Caciques, Giant Cowbird and Olivaceous Siskin. If we are lucky we will find the remarkable Torrent Duck and the extraordinary Sword-billed Hummingbird.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 17 Heading west from Cochabamba, we climb steadily onto the altiplano, a large flat plain at 3700m which extends from western Bolivia into southern Peru. Our destination is the town of Oruro, where we will stay overnight. Our first stop will be close to Cochabamba, where Bolivian Blackbirds are usually to be found singing in introduced eucalyptus trees. These virtually all-black birds with a subtle flash of brown on the primaries are endemic to the Cochabamba valley and belong to a monotypic genus. We will also be on the lookout for the range-restricted Brown-backed Mockingbird.
Later we climb through red-walled canyons and high puna grasslands, an area nearly devoid of human habitation. Other birds we may well encounter today include Ornate Tinamou, Aplomado Falcon, Black-winged and Golden-spotted Ground-Doves, Mountain Parakeet, Rufous-banded and White-winged Cinclodes, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, Cordilleran Canastero, Andean Swallow and Puna Yellow-Finch.
Later in the day we will visit Lake Uru-Uru. This shallow, reed-fringed wetland near the town of Oruro was at one time connected to Lake Titicaca. All three species of South American flamingo, Chilean, Andean and Puna (or James’s), can be seen here, although their presence or absence is very dependent on the water level. Andean Geese can usually be found by the dozen and we will all admire the handsome Andean Avocets. Other birds that are normally present include Puna Ibis, Yellow-billed Teal, Crested Duck, Puna Plover, White-backed Stilt, Baird’s Sandpiper, Puna and South American Snipes, Least Seedsnipe, Spot-winged Pigeon, Cinnamon-bellied and Rufous-naped Ground-Tyrants, Andean Negrito and Yellow-winged Blackbird.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 18 We will start very early today and drive to the remote town of Inquisivi, one of only two known sites for the critically-endangered endemic Bolivian Spinetail. Luckily the species is still quite easy to find in the dry forest near the town. Apart from the endemic spinetail, there is also a newly described form of Green-cheeked Parakeet along with a good selection of dry country and woodland species. We also have another chance to see the fabulous Black-hooded Sunbeam should we have missed it earlier. Later we will retrace our steps to the altiplano and continue our journey to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, for an overnight stay.
La Paz, which lies at 3600m, is the highest capital city on earth. As we enter La Paz, the suburbs initially conceal the huge natural amphitheatre nearly five kilometres wide and up to 400 metres deep in which the main city lies. Above it all rises the impressive, snow-clad peak of Mount Illimani.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 19 Today we will work our way down the Coroico Road to El Chairo for an overnight stay. Few roads bisect the impressive mountains that divide La Paz from the lowlands, but surely the most remarkable is the famous Coroico Road, often described as the most spectacular highway in South America: in a short distance it drops from a high puna pass at 4600m through rich cloudforest and into verdant subtropical forest, reaching an elevation of only 500m in under 80 kilometres (50 miles)!
Interesting birds to be found at higher elevations include Great Sapphirewing, Greenish Puffleg, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Slender-billed Miner, White-fronted and White-browed Ground-Tyrants, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Olive-backed (or Peruvian) Sierra-Finch, Black-throated Flower-piercer and White-browed Conebill.
We will spend much of the day exploring middle elevation Yungas forest where we will be looking in particular for Long-tailed Antbird, Hazel-fronted Pygmy-Tyrant, Olive Flycatcher and the uncommon Scimitar-winged Piha. The latter species was thought to be endemic to Bolivia until discovered in extreme southeast Peru, but we will need a bit of luck to find this shy denizen of the subtropics. We shall also make a concerted effort to observe the little-known Diademed Tapaculo, a distinctive member of this secretive family which was only discovered as late as 1992. We will also hope for a lucky break that allows us to see as well as hear the secretive but vocal Hooded Tinamou, a species that occurs here in good numbers.
Amongst the many other birds we may well encounter in this exciting area are White-throated Quail-Dove, White-eyed Parakeet, White-tipped Swift, Speckled Hummingbird, Collared Inca (of the handsome orange-collared race, sometimes split as Gould’s Inca), Booted Racket-tail, Long-tailed Sylph, Masked Trogon, the magnificent Versicoloured Barbet, Smoky-brown and Lineated Woodpeckers, Scribble-tailed Canastero, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Striped Treehunter, Buff-banded and White-banded Tyrannulets, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Ochraceous-breasted, Cinnamon, Dusky-capped, Piratic and Variegated Flycatchers, Yungas Manakin, Fulvous Wren, Andean Solitaire, the attractive White-collared Jay, Red-eyed Vireo, Plush-capped Finch, Orange-browed, Superciliaried, Black-eared and Three-striped Hemispinguses, the amazing Golden-collared Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, the exquisite Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Blue Dacnis, Rusty and Moustached Flower-piercers, Swallow-Tanager, Bananaquit, Citrine Warbler and Yellow-bellied Siskin.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 20 Today we will work our way back up through the verdant cloudforests to the town of Sorata in the La Paz region for a two nights stay. Early in the day our principal targets will be a selection of species restricted to the upper tropical zone, including Cabanis’s Spinetail, Upland Antshrike, the unobtrusive, near-endemic Yungas Tody-Tyrant and the pretty little White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant. There is likely to be a substantial supporting cast in this life zone, including Dusky-green and Crested Oropendolas.
We will surely need to spend some more time exploring the middle and upper elevation habitats and so it will not be long before we begin to retrace our steps up the Coroico road. In addition to looking for any species that we have missed yesterday, we shall be exploring a side valley in search of Scribble-tailed Canastero, Puna Tapaculo, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Puna, Ochre-naped and White-fronted Ground-Tyrants, the rare Boulder (or Short-tailed) Finch and Black Siskin. Amongst the bogs and stony slopes near the La Cumbre pass at an altitude of 4,700m our main target will be the attractive Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, which can often be found foraging in a sheltered spot in this seemingly inhospitable environment.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 21 This morning we shall visit famous Lake Titicaca. This deep turquoise lake, which straddles the Peruvian border, lies in the heart of the altiplano. When we see its still waters and the distant ring of snow-capped peaks it is easy to understand how the first people to inhabit its shores believed that Titicaca was the mother of all creation. The bird we shall be targeting here is the localized Titicaca (or Short-winged) Grebe. We should find several of these attractive chestnut-and-white waterbirds swimming quietly along a reed-edge or showing off their spectacular display. In addition, we should also see Plumbeous Rail, Puna Snipe, Puna Miner, the striking Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant, Short-billed Pipit, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Grassland Yellow-Finch and Black Siskin.
Later we will drive along the base of the imposing Illampa mountains to a lovely Andean village. In the dry valley surrounding this little haven the highly localized, endemic Berlepsch’s Canastero can be found. Its huge stick nests are built in the taller eucalypts and we should be able to study this interesting endemic in detail. Other birds likely in this area include Green-tailed Trainbearer and Cinereous Conebill. On the return journey we will visit a high altitude lake which usually holds a small colony of the bizarre Giant Coot, along with numerous pairs of Silvery Grebes.
Ultimate Bolivia Birding Tour: Day 22 You will be transferred to La Paz airport this morning, where the main section of our tour ends.
PALKACHUPA COTINGA & APOLO EXTENSION
Palkachupa Cotinga & Apolo Extension: Day 1 Today we will depart early and drive to the small town of Atén in the Apolo valley, where we will stay for four nights.
Palkachupa Cotinga & Apolo Extension: Days 2-4 The Apolo region of Bolivia lies in the heart of the isolated Bolivian Andean cerrado. We will begin our exploration of this dry and rather unique area located along the otherwise humid eastern flank of the Andes searching the drier forest-edge habitats. This relict area of ’cerrado’ has evolved in splendid isolation in a single rain shadow catchment and is, as a consequence, very limited in extent. In itself this poses an immediate problem for the endemic fauna and flora found here, as the habitat has been largely cleared for farming and cattle ranching. However, as we work the fragments of woodland and scrub we should be able to encounter the lovely Palkachupa Cotinga. Also present in the dry scrubby habitat is the rare Green-capped Tanager, a species previously only known from Sandia in the department of Puno in neighbouring Peru.
We shall also explore more humid Yungas forests in the Machariapo valley. This area gives us the opportunity to find the rarely seen Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo, Yungas Antwren and the very local Rough-legged Tyrannulet at a site where they seem to be more regular than elsewhere. At Cerro Asunta Pata we may even find the rare Yungas Tyrannulet, a recently described tyrannid considered rare and very local in the foothills and adjacent lowlands. This remote area is also very good for the increasingly rare Military Macaw, the localized White-browed Hermit and a new taxon within the Fuscous Flycatcher complex.
Other interesting species recorded from this splendid area which we will certainly be on the look out for include the shy Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail, Montane Solitary Eagle, Black-and-chestnut Eagle, the localised White-throated Hawk, Striped Owl, Rufous Nightjar, Plum-crowned Parrot, Rufous-crested Coquette, the uncommon Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Black-bellied Antwren and Yungas Manakin. If we are very lucky we might find the rare Peruvian Treehunter, White-throated Antpitta, Hazel-fronted Pygmy Tyrant or the stunning Chestnut-crested Cotinga.
As this is a very poorly known part of Bolivia, we will undoubtedly make some interesting discoveries! There is even a slim chance of encountering the very poorly known, highly distinctive, yet still undescribed ‘San Pedro Tanager’!
Palkachupa Cotinga & Apolo Extension: Day 5 Today we will drive back to Sorata, where we will spend the night.
Palkachupa Cotinga & Apolo Extension: Day 6 The tour ends this morning with a transfer to La Paz airport.