Thursday, 23 November 2017

BOLIVIA 2017: Valle Grande and Cochabamba (18-23 November)

This is the third of five blogs giving my perspective of a birding trip to Bolivia. Our guide Richard Amable, Marc Brew, Duncan Brooks, Mike Catsis, Brian Foster, Paul Noakes, Malcolm Oxlade and I had been driven by Pepe to Valle Grande from Los Volcanes. Most of us were just over a week into the trip ....

18 November 2017. We’d planned to leave at 04:30 for an hour drive up to Loma Larga at about 2500m to look for Red-faced Guan but the hotel providing early coffee delayed us and the journey took longer than anticipated (a common theme of the trip) meaning we arrived on site at 06:00, well after dawn. Fortunately Mike soon heard a guan calling from further down the road and we headed in its direction and soon saw it sitting out, the first of several seen in the area. Perhaps a dawn arrival wasn’t so necessary. We continued birding in the area seeing a superb male Red-tailed Comet, Golden-billed Saltator and 20 Tucuman Amazons but it was generally rather quiet and we moved on to the lower Campo Casa road and finished in some decent scrub on the edge of town seeing Variable Antshrike, White-tipped Plantcutter and Sclater’s Tyrannulet. We returned to the Hotel Plaza Pueblo at dusk and later walked down to the main square for free wi-fi and something to eat although I decided against a steak house and didn’t see any street food that caught my fancy preferring biscuits of which I had plenty.
Golden-billed Saltator at Loma Larga

Red-tailed Comet, note its tiny feet, typical of most hummingbirds. Nice if unexceptional, until it turned around ...
absolutely stunning

Highland Elaenia at Loma Larga

White-throated Tyrannulet (thanks to Paul for correcting my misidentification)
Rufous-bellied Thrush at Campa Casa
Tucuman Amazon at Campo Casa
roadside birding, Mike, Pepe in the bus, Brain, Malcolm, Duncan and Marc with Paul in the distance photographing something
Black-banded Woodcreeper at Campo Casa
Green-cheeked Parakeet

female Band-tailed Seedeater near Valle Grande
Greater Kiskadee near Valle Grande
Valle Grande main square

19 November 2017. We had breakfast at 05:00 and got away at 05:45 to drive to Comarapa. First stop was a good track at Muyurina that Paul had seen reference to in a trip report. Here we eventually had good views of Bolivian Earthcreeper but for me Ochre-faced Tody Tyrant stole the show. White-fronted Woodpeckers, Rufous-capped Antthrush, Narrow-billed Woodcreepers and a Black & Rufous Warbling Finch were also nice but subsequent stops were less successful. We stopped in San Isidro for lunch where I opted for a very inexpensive chicken and chips in a local cafe rather than the side-of-the-road red meat and fish fry up the others went for. I wandered around the village and found some breeding Southern Martins, a new bird for me, while they were finishing what looked like enough food to last several days. We continued towards Comarapa stopping to try several areas of dry scrub. They were generally disappointing, not helped by appearing to have been recently fenced in and heavily grazed by cattle, although a Comb Duck flew over at one and we saw Greater Wagtail Tyrants at another. Seven Red-fronted Macaws flew over at dusk offering silhouette views. They would be our main target in the morning and we’d need a lot better views then. We arrived in Comarapa after dark where we stayed in the Hotel Paraiso. It had a very unassuming entrance, through a very busy cafe, but the basic rooms, around a flowered courtyard, were more than adequate and the friendly staff amenable to early starts. Ideal birder’s accommodation and Comarapa felt like the real Bolivia with women in long dresses and bowler hats.
Black-backed Grosbeak at Muyurina
White-fronted Woodpecker
the excellent Ochre-faced Tody Flycatcher at Muyurina
Black and Rufous Warbling Finch at Muyurina
Andean Condor overhead at Muyurina
poorly focused and rather obscured Stripe-crowned Spinetail at Saipina
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet

Duncan and Brian at Saipina
Narrow-billed Woodcreeper at Saipina

Rufous-capped Antshrike remaining well hidden
Blue and White Swallow at Comarapa
very different forest at Comarapa
very much to the liking of White-fronted Woodpeckers

Crowned Slaty Flycatcher
but not the habitat I was expecting to see Cliff Flycatcher
I felt there should have been a hummingbird feeding on these flowers
there wasn't
20 November 2017. An early start with tea/coffee and rolls provided at 04:00 we were able to leave at 04:15, perhaps our most efficient get-away to date. We drove to the Rio Misque at Saipina for the dawn fly over of Red-fronted Macaws and saw four just about tickably as soon as we arrived at 06:00. The area was nothing like I had imagined/hoped, the edge of some noisy gravel workings by the side of the river with some low cliffs on the other side and various bits of rubbish blowing around. I was beginning to think we might have been too late for most of the macaws when two more flew over high and finally five gave good flight views before dropping down behind the gravel works. We drove then walked around to where we thought they had gone – an area of fields surrounded by tall thick hedges - and found up to ten in an obscured maize field. Unfortunately most were out of sight in the nearest part of the field and almost immediately they all flew although three landed in the far hedge and gave decent if rather distant views. Not the views I’d hoped for but most tour groups get point blank views by visiting a macaw lodge where they breed. We drove to another section of the river where there were more cliffs, our focus now on finding Cliff Parakeet, but 3 kms short were stopped by roadworks and were only allowed to proceed on foot. It was very hot with little shade but worthwhile as we saw a few different birds including Grey-hooded and Cliff Parakeets (5 on the cliffs and 22 almost back at the bus), Green-barred Woodpeckers and the local race of Azara’s Spinetail. We returned to Saipina for an early lunch although I didn’t fancy it and sat in the square. We then drove to some dry hills on the way back towards San Isidro finding a track up to some gravel workings to do with the road works. It was good dry forest with lots of birds including Bicoloured Hawk, Chaco Puffbird, Striped Woodpecker, Bolivian Earthcreeper and White-tipped Plantcutter. Our final stop was halted by a very muddy stream crossing by a narrow bridge. We didn’t risk the bus becoming stuck and the bridge was too narrow so we disembarked and continued on foot. We had not gone far when a small heavily laden car passed in the opposite direction and choosing the mud rather than bridge became stuck. We didn’t return to help and could hear its engine revving for a while until the next vehicle passing pulled it out. We walked for a couple of kms seeing very little and finishing as we’d started, with 4 just about tickable Red-fronted Macaws flying over. We returned to Comarapa to find there was no diesel in town. Pepe joined a queue at the only petrol station as some was expected later (he finally filled up after 21:00) and we had a decent meal in what was my favourite Bolivian hotel.

Red-fronted Macaw near the Misque River, flying before I could focus on it
fortunately three landed in view in the back hedge, this is one of them
another Red-fronted Macaw
nice through a telescope but I had hoped for closer views
Blue-crowned Parakeet near the Misque River

a brighter Black and Rufous Warbling Finch
Cliff  Parakeet

Glittering-bellied Emerald
White-tipped Plantcutter at Saipina

female White-tipped Plantcutter, an interesting rather than spectacular bird
Bolivian Earthcreeper

White-bellied Hummingbird
Roadside Hawk
Passion Flower
White-fronted Woodpecker

another male White-tipped Plantcutter
Greater Wagtail Tyrant

21 November 2017. A long and important day. Again we had a light breakfast at 04:00 and departed at 04:15 to drive to Siberia, our first cloud forest site. We arrived at 05:45, our best start of the trip, soon after dawn and to the sound of a Rufous-faced Antpitta calling a little way further along the road. We approached and it appeared to be just inside the forest. Paul recorded it and in response to playback of its own call it appeared several times just inside the forest giving excellent if somewhat brief views. Perhaps the most tricky of my top targets, I was well satisfied despite no pics. We continued to walk the highest section of the old road seeing amongst others Giant Antshrike, Trilling Tapaculo, Light-crowned Spinetail and Bolivian Brushfinch. We returned to the new road and continued to another lower side road although this was much quieter with Grey-bellied and Masked Flowerpiercers, Andean Lapwing and Puna Ibis. Time was against us and we pressed on stopping a little lower in an area that looked suitable for Olive-crowned Crescentchest. Walking the road we soon heard one but it was not responding from an inaccessible area. A determined effort for a second bird calling from above a side track was eventually very successful as it came halfway to check us out. We also saw Rufous-bellied Saltator, now considered to be a mountain tanager, the only one I was to see. We now headed for a site for Citron-headed Yellow Finch were disappointed rather than surprised to find the area was in the process of being flattened as part of extensive roadworks we had been encountering all morning. Bummer. We continued past and up to the head of the valley where we were able to pull off the road and bird some dry fields and hedges. Scanning fields and inadvertently flushing passerines from hedges reminded me of birding at Jomson in Nepal in my youth (1979 and 1982). We saw pretty much all we’d hoped for with Andean Tinamou, Rock Earthcreeper, Brown-capped Tit Spinetail, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-sided Warbling Finch and Citron-headed Yellow Finch. We dragged ourselves away at 17:30 for the three hour drive to Cochabamba. The last hour was driving through to the centre of the city and the Hotel Regina 3*. What was Barry thinking when he booked us into this place? In many ways the cost was a minor issue, albeit we were wasting money for three nights on a place we never saw in daylight. It was very hot in the rooms which had no aircon or fans and ineffective mosquito screens. If one opened the windows mosquitoes came into the room. Sweat or be bitten, great choice. Worse they were totally inflexible about serving any sort of breakfast before 07:00 (the only place we stayed where we didn’t manage to arrange an early breakfast) and although there was a coffee machine in the lobby for those who wanted it, it was broken. Even the water fountain was out of order after the first night. I skipped the evening meal but it was put to Richard that as we couldn’t have an early start the following morning (to give Pepe a bit of respite after the day’s long drive) we would be better going to the nearer dry scrubby area and save the cloud forest where the weather was more critical and the birds more important to the following day when we could start early but he was insistent that we stick to the itinerary.

Mike and Paul walking the old road near the pass at Siberia

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Cinnamon Flycatcher

forest at Siberia

leaving the forest at Siberia
Andean Condor overhead
Olive-crowned Crescentchest leaving Siberia

Bertha had time for some pedicure outside Hotel San Miguel

roadworks and heavy traffic made the road very dusty
Black-hooded Sierra Finch near Pojo
22 November 2017. According to our itinerary we had an “Early start for the temperate forest of the Yungas (cloud forest) of Chapare”. Nice if that had been the reality. Dawn was 05:30, breakfast 07:00 and we left at 07:40. It then took an hour to drive back east through the city on the road we had come in on the previous evening before turning off north. From there it was almost another hour to the pass and the birding track at Tablas Montes. Only four hours after dawn and, as it turned out, only 10 minutes before low cloud rolled in and it started raining. We walked the track seeing little and soon retreated to the bus for a while when the rain was at its heaviest. As soon as it started to ease up we continued slowly walking through good forest for a couple of hours before turning back. Visibility was rarely more than 100m, sometimes less, and the rain never really stopped. Despite this we did manage to see White-throated Quail Dove, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Black-throated Thistletail, Kalinowski’s Chat Tyrant, a male Band-tailed Fruiteater and Orange-browed Hemispingus. We briefly heard our main target Hooded Mountain Toucan, making a quiet call above us but could see nothing in the gloom until a shape shot across the track. My view didn’t rule out anything of about that size. Very disappointing. Also very disappointing was no Chestnut-crested Cotinga and poor flight views of Black-winged Parrot in the mist. With the weather showing no sign of improving we returned to the bus and continued for 40 minutes down the main road towards San Miguel. Pepe knew exactly where to stop for Green-throated Tanager, having driven other tours, and almost immediately a male responded. We had an enjoyable hour in the area seeing more tanagers, Blue-banded Toucanet and Bolivian Tyrannulet before driving back up. We left at 17:00 but any hopes the weather might have improved were soon dashed. At it was it was 20:00 before we were back in our worst hotel in Bolivia.

Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager at Tablas Montes, one of the few birds seen before the weather closed in
Violet-throated Starfrontlet in the rain at Tablas Montes
not ideal birding conditions, oh to have been here a few hours earlier
23 November 2017. We left the hotel at 04:30 and stopped at a street stall for a take-away breakfast - chicken and chips in a bun - as the hotel was unwilling to provide or even leave anything out. We headed up into dry hills soon after it was light and stopped frequently as we slowly climbed through fields, scrubby hillsides and some polylepis on steep hillsides. We continued above the tree line to 4200m walking sections of the road and checking some boulder fields before turning around and making a few more stops on the way down. We saw Cochabamba Mountain Finches which made the visit worthwhile but it was slim pickings otherwise as far as targets went with just Paul and I seeing a single Bolivian Warbling Finch and only Paul seeing a flyby Wedge-tailed Hillstar. Other birds seen included another Olive-crowned Crescentchest, Red-tailed Comet, Giant Hummingbird, Andean Parakeet, Red-crested Cotinga and Rufous-browed Warbling Finch. We left the area at 16:45 somewhat disappointed with what we’d seen and not greatly convinced the early start had really been necessary (c.f. the previous day’s debacle).
man and dog kipping out in BancoSol Valle Grande, not sure our hotel was much better ...
at least an early breakfast wasn't a problem here

fields on the San Miguel Road
an Olive-crowned Crescentchest was in the nearer hedge
Brian, Duncan and Marc birding in the fields

Cochabamba Mountain Finches were a little further up the road
they were about the only good thing about Cochabamba ...

very juvenile Tufted Tit Tyrant, lying as much as sitting on a branch
an out of focus adult was much harder to photograph
climbing the San Miguel Road
looking back down to Cochabamba

this was about as far as we went
heading back to Cochabamba
this seemed a good hummingbird stake-out but it wasn't

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