Thursday, 30 November 2017

Jon and Rod's ill-fated Bolivia trip

This trip like several in recent years started for me when Jon Hornbuckle asked if I would be interested in a small low-cost private trip to Bolivia. Rod Martins had seen his old friend Barry Walker at the Birdfair and persuaded him to put on a private cost-price Bolivia trip for friends using Barry's Manu Expeditions expertise. I was very interested but timing wasn't great for me as Jon had a reason to go in late November/early December which is my busiest time at work (most tours go in September/October when weathewr is generally better). Jon brought the trip forward a few days to sort of accommodate me, starting in La Paz on 9 November and departing on 3 December. Still not ideal but I could just about manage the whole trip and cleared the time off work by agreeing to go in some extra days on my return to catch up. Soon there were six of us with Brian, Duncan and Nick coming too. News of the trip spread and pretty much everyone Jon mentioned it too wanted to come. Soon Lori, Malcolm, Mike, Neil and Paul were on board making a rather uncomfortable 11. So much for it being a small trip! The trip was a topic of conversation in Mongolia for those of us there, probably much to the amusement of those who were not going, with concerns raised over escalating costs but most of us decided to proceed, some indeed, myself included, having already booked non-refundable flights. Lori and Nick then dropped out for cost/work related reasons, Nick when his School became an Academy and refused him the time off he'd assumed he could have. He wasn't close enough to a comfortable retirement to press the issue, took a hit on the flight and went to Amazonian Brazil and Paraguay with Birdquest in the summer instead! We paid Jon a deposit which he sent on to Barry then almost immediately Neil dropped out for work reasons. Jon recruited Marc to replace of him and things stabilised with a group of 9. That is until disaster struck and Jon was involved in a serious car accident in the South of France which left him with complete and seemingly irreversible memory loss and worse. His part in this and any other trip was very sadly over. It came as a great shock to all of us fortunate enough to have travelled with him in the past - absolutely tragic.

There was still a question of paying Barry a final balance and refunding Neil his deposit. I took over the 'admin' side of the trip liaising with Barry. I collected monies, sent Barry £17500 and then had a couple of sleepless nights when it wasn't delivered - Barry hadn't realised his account details had changed. TransferWise allowed one redirection and after a couple of days it arrived in his account, much to our relief. There were now eight of us going, six (Brian, Duncan, Mike, Paul, Rod and me) for the whole trip, Marc who wasn't staying for the last part (Apolo) and Malcolm whom was joining three days in (after) Riberalta.

Four of us were flying out with Avianca and had 17 hours in Bogota between flights. I tried to arrange some birding but was unable to find a guide with vehicle who was available and prepared to help us at a reasonably price. It soon became clear that my preferred option (Monterredondo) wasn't really feasible. At least the time at Bogota airport could be usefully devoted to last minute reading of reports. A week or so before departure Duncan and I received an email from Avianca, in Spanish, telling us not to be concerned because they were making every effort to mitigate the effects of a long running pilots strike! This only served to increase stress levels although monitoring flight departures showed all relevant flights the previous week had gone and none were more than 4 hours late. That our Ecojet La Paz to Riberalta flight had been put back gave us 8 hours to make that connection.

On the evening of 7 December I met Brian, Duncan and Rod at Heathrow's Terminal 2 to check in for our Avianca flight. It was on the board and scheduled to be on time so everything was looking good. That is until Rod was refused check in. His passport had a corner of its clear cover to the photograph page coming away by about 5mm. It seemed amazingly trivial but apparently a passenger with similar had been let on the flight a couple of weeks earlier but was refused entry into Bolivia, turned back and Avianca fined £2000. Rod was understandably incredibly dejected, and we were all pretty shell shocked by the triviality of it and felt greatly for him. A trip lost for a stick of glue, although having been spotted by the airline staff representing a 'mended' passport was unlikely to have worked. Rod caught a coach to Victoria and present himself at the Passport Office nearby the next morning hoping to obtain a new 24 hours passport so he could join us in Trinidad with Malcolm, only missing 3 days of the trip. At the Passport Office he encountered further mindless
 bureaucracy (or another ultimate jobsworth) as he had to provide 'justification' for his damaged passport (it's been used a lot and wasn't made well enough to stand it?) significantly delaying the process and very sadly he did not make it. We all missed his company.

Brian, Duncan and I were now the only survivors of the original line-up with both the main instigators of the trip not making it. Very sad but what could we do? We boarded our flight, 10 hours to Bogota. Our 17 hour wait there was spent in (and around) the airport, reading reports and studying the Field Guide. As the layover was more than 12 hours Avianca were not allowed to check our bags all the way through to La Paz (for most airlines it is 24) so in some ways it was just as well we;'d no birding arranged as we would have had the hassle of having all our luggage with us. We arrived in La Paz at 03:30 after a 3 hour flight, collected our bags, changed some $ (the airport being our best opportunity to do so) and mistakenly (in my view) paid for a few hours in an airport Sleep Box Hotel. It was expensive and excessively hot and stuffy and I wish I'd slept on airport seats as originally planned. Only a slight concern that my bag might be stolen while I slept prevented me from doing so.

Postings with photos from the trip will follow in due course. Here is one to be getting on with:

Blue-throated Macaws near Trinidad, 12 November 2017

BOLIVIA 2017: Apolo and home (29 November to 3 December)

This is the final blog giving my perspective of a birding trip to Bolivia. Duncan Brooks, Mike Catsis, Brian Foster, Paul Noakes, Malcolm Oxlade and I had left Marc Brew in La Paz and Barry Walker, who had flown in from Cuzco to join us, was back in control of the trip with Richard Amable as his bag man. We left Pepe and the bus at Lake Titicaca and would be travelling to Apolo, my final destination, in three 4WDs.

29 November. The hotel put on an early breakfast and we departed in a convoy of three 4WDs at 04:30. We drove parallel to the eastern side of the lake and soon after dawn turned northeast away from the Peruvian border and starting to climb. We stopped in a bleak windswept village where the drivers had breakfast at a roadside stall, a big meal for them. Some of us went for a second breakfast but meat or fish soup didn’t appeal to me and I concentrated on taking photos of Bright-rumped Yellow Finches which were hoping around in the street. Mike was suffering as we continued climbing to over 4700m, at times with snow right down to below the road giving some spectacular views The road dropped below the snowline and passed a couple of small lakes but the county was very bleak. We dropped into a valley and followed a river for some distance seeing a Fasciated Tiger Heron, too late for our vehicle to stop, and good numbers of Torrent Duck (I counted 11). Barry was on the lookout for suitable habitat with a view to seeing some of the birds we had missed but without success. The road crossed a couple of ridges, one of which was forested, but at only 1600m was not high enough for Mountain Toucans or Cotingas. We stopped at a roadside cafĂ© and an impressive waterfall and walked a short section of road through reasonable habitat without seeing anything noteworthy but by now we were at a relatively low altitude and it was quite hot. Our vehicle had a puncture and we walked to a bridge over a small river while it was being changed. It turned out to be fortuitous providing my only new bird of the day, a Mottle-backed Elaenia found by Barry. Not what I was hoping for but better than nothing, and OK as elaenias go. We arrived in Apolo mid-afternoon, tried and failed to fill up with petrol (a delivery was expected that evening) and after enquiring in the main square were directed to our accommodation nearby – the excellent Hospederia del Monasterio Nuestra Senora de Nazareth. We dumped our bags in clean basic rooms that were perfect for our needs and headed out for two hours birding along the upper Madiri valley before dark. It was very poor, surprisingly so with very little activity at all. We returned to the Monastery where an excellent meal had been prepared for us. The lack of fuel in town was a concern although seeing a La Paz bus parked in an alley near the main square suggested a possible escape route if no fuel materialised. Talk of a Rockjumper trip being stuck without fuel in Apolo for a couple of days wasn’t encouraging and once we had been dropped at the monastery our drivers joined a queue at the only garage …

Bright-rumped Yellow Finch at 'second breakfast'

Bolivian Altiplano on the way to Apolo

terraced hillsides
dropping into a deep valley
Richard and Duncan admiring the waterfall

unbroken forest on the way to Apolo

30 November. Today we were hoping to see one of the main birds of the trip, Palkachupa Cotinga, and prior to departure from the Monastery I tied my telescope onto the broken tripod head with a bootlace in the hope of burning views. We were up at 04:00 and quite relieved when our vehicles arrived fully fuelled. The monastery had put out coffee for those wanting it and we departed at 04:15 with local guide William. We drove to Murri where we arrived soon after dawn and were introduced to the local farmer who was waiting for us and on whose land the cotingas were breeding. There was then a period of pointing in various directions where I assume he was telling William where recent sightings had been. As he pointed in pretty much every direction, apart from the way we had come, I wasn’t terribly reassured. We set off down the track towards the nearest forest patch, scanning exposed dead branches in the hope one might be sitting out. As it was a cold, dull morning with some light drizzle this didn’t seem very likely and we had no success. We were told it was too early to visit the nest site and continued walking. It was somehow typical of this trip that this should be the case on a rare occasion when we were in the field at or soon after dawn. A fly by Burnished-Buff Tanager gave brief hope it might be something more interesting (Green-capped) but sadly not. Our anxiety was making itself apparent to our guide and we were told it was just over the next hill or around the next corner several times, us being conscious of a cloud bank rolling down the hillside behind us. We were now in a more open area with scattered bushes rather than forest patches in gullies. Barry, Paul and I were a little behind when Richard started waiving. We hurried on, arriving just as a male dropped from view. A female was still on view and rather smart, but not the stunner we had hoped for. The low cloud then rolled in leaving us very unimpressed with proceedings. William wandered off and after what seemed like an age, but was probably less than ten minutes, called us over – he’d found another pair. They were in the mist but fortunately it slowly cleared leaving us with excellent scope views in improving visibility. I was very glad to have my telescope with me but was regretting having left my small digiscoping camera behind, not that I’d had much success with it. We spent a couple of hours with the cotingas seeing 4-5 including a male on a nest. We started to drive back to Apolo but had only gone a few kms, if that, when we saw another two cotingas by the track. More superb scope views of a brilliant bird. We stopped a couple of times on our return to Apolo seeing White-eared Puffbird, Dark-throated Seedeater and Burrowing Owl. Back in Apolo the others had lunch in town while I walked to a nearby river. I mistimed my return assuming they would take the usual hour but it was nearer two, not that there was much to keep my by the river but it had been more pleasant than an Apolo street. We returned to the upper Madiri Valley but it was as birdless as the previous afternoon with the exception of a superb White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant. We also saw a distant pair of Black and White Hawk Eagles entirely due to Malcolm’s persistence. He pointed them out on the far side of the valley unsure of what they were. I dismissed them as Swallow-tailed Kites, Paul did likewise and none of us thought it worth getting out a scope to be sure. Brian took a photo and when zoomed in it showed what they really were, but by now we had moved on. Fortunately they hadn’t moved when we returned and scope views confirmed what they were. Well done Malcolm, I’d completely under-estimated the distance involved. Another excellent evening meal in the monastery finished the day well.
just over that hill, anxiously looking for cotingas
male and female Palkachupa Cotinga in the mist
fortunately it soon cleared revealing how spectacular they were
Malcolm and Paul in Palkachupa habitat
another pair

but not for long
old Palkachupa nest
male on a nest
zoomed in


how different the bill shape appears

White-eared Puffbird
Dark-throated Seedeater, much nicer than its name suggests
Burrowing Owl
Ruddy Ground Doves

Crested Oropendola
Chestnut-eared Aracari
Coral Snake
very distant and greatly magnified Black & White Hawk Eagles, full marks to Malcolm for not dismissing them as Swallow-tailed Kites
1 December. Not that I had realised it at the time but today was to be the day that the timing of the trip had been planned around. The trip’s timing was not, as I had been led to believe, to give us the best chance of seeing Pulkachupa Cotinga as that could be seen anytime from September onwards. It was to see a new species that has not yet been formally described but is widely known about in certain circles. I resisted looking at photos Barry had of it not wanting to spoil the surprise. With this in mind we were up at 04:15 and departed at 04:30 to drive to the site. We arrived at a river crossing at 06:00 on a dull morning with low threatening clouds. The river was quite high and stories of others being stuck for 2-3 days before being able to cross were not welcome. William waded across and it was not as deep as we feared – little more than knee high. All three 4WDs crossed with no trouble and it was then a 45 minute drive to the main site. We started walking the road but Barry soon became concerned at not hearing any song from our target. It was supposed to be common and very vocal here in early December. After half an hour of seeing little it started raining quite heavily. William wasn’t too concerned about the rain affecting the river level and we decided to try a higher area further along the road in the hope that it might be above the clouds. We started climbing but after a while the gravel road gave way to mud and our vehicle, in the lead at this point, started slipping badly even in 4WD. We carefully turned around and returned to the original site but by now the rain was torrential and William was starting to worry about our getting back across the river. We couldn’t risk it and drove back feeling very dejected at our failure and somewhat anxious about the river. An anxious 45 minutes later we were back at the river and thankfully it didn’t seem any higher than when we’d crossed it earlier. It was still raining hard and the site wasn’t close enough to return to and try again. Barry told us there had been a few sightings on the Apolo side of the river and we reluctantly crossed back. We spent the rest of the day birding along sections of the road as the weather improved. It was slightly better than previous afternoons with Amazonian Motmot, Umbrellabird and a Bat Falcon my only trip birds although I later discovered I was again in the wrong car having missed Chestnut-headed Crake and a tinamou crossing the road. Communication between cars was virtually not existent, not that it would have helped this time. We were back at the monastery late afternoon and some of us birded the grounds without seeing much. After another excellent meal I was rather sorry to be leaving.
crossing the river (outbound)
Oropendola nests but not much else
river crossing (return)
despondent birders
the Bat Falcon didn't look any happier with the weather
Crimson-crested Woodpecker
Roadside Hawk
Amazonian Motmot, always against the light
Blue Morpho
nice to see it with its wings open even if they were a bit tatty
Pale-breasted Thrush
Pale-vented Pigeon, quite colourful by South American standards
the monastery, an excellent place to stay
 2 December. We left Apolo at 04:30 for the drive back to Lake Titicaca stopping at an area of decent forest soon after dawn and walking a section of the road. A Riverbank Warbler hopping along the roadside was a good start but the site provided nothing else noteworthy. Our next stop added an unexpected Cabanis’s Spinetail and we continued to a rest-stop used by the La Paz buses. It was about half-way and had a restaurant, shop and down some steps a basic toilet. Most male bus passengers didn’t use the toilet preferring the roadside, no surprise there, but the chemicals left behind attracted some impressive butterflies even if the smell when photographing them wasn’t pleasant. We followed the valley up above the tree line seeing fewer Torrent Ducks on the way, just 3 males for me. At one stage the vehicle in front of us stopped to look at something. I was just about to get out and ask what it was when they drove off. It turned out to be another Fasciated Tiger Heron which they thought we could see. Unfortunately not, as it would have been nice to get photos. We continued up onto the Altiplano where we made a few stops with Mike again being increasingly affected by the altitude. At one of the first I caught up with Rufous-webbed Bush Tyrant, something I had been disappointed to have been in the wrong vehicle for on the way to Apolo. Two were on the hillside above us at one stop but soon flew off. At another stop Barry taped in a Puna Canastero while we stopped at a small lake to see Giant Coots not from a moving vehicle. We tried likely habitat for Golden-spotted Ground Dove with no success before driving back down to Lake Titicaca. We arrived at the hotel at 18:00 with the light much better than on our previous visit. We scoped the lakeside from the veranda seeing Short-winged and White-eared Grebes, Many-coloured Bush Tyrant and a female Cinereous Harrier. A nice finish to the trip for Duncan and I. Brian, Malcolm, Paul and Mike (if he was sufficiently recovered) had another day to look for Berlepsch's Canastero.
lowland forest soon after dawn
Riverside Warbler

Yellow-tufted Woodpecker
Russet-backed Oropendola
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)
nice from above too
Rusty-tipped Page (Siproeta epaphus)
Erotia Sister (Adelpha erotia)

Charanzi with football pitch taking centre stage
Rufous-webbed Bush Tyrant habitat
Buff-breasted Earthcreeper

responded well to tape, this one had aspirations to be a roadrunner
on the Altiplano

roadside stop
our leader
Giant Coot
Andean Flicker

Puna Canastero

Yellow-billed Teal
working the fields looked very hard
Altiplano village
another Andean Flicker
Lake Titicaca

view from our hotel patio

3 December. It was Election day and no vehicles were allowed on the roads between towns without a permit. Fortunately we had ours and Duncan and I left with Barry and Richard in two vehicles to drive to El Alto. We were on the same flight to Cuzco but Barry was adamant it left at 09:40 whereas our tickets said 10:40. It was prudent to assume the former. We were up at 05:00 had breakfast and departed at 05:30 soon after dawn. The others did likewise for their trip to Sorata but Mike was still feeling very bad and didn’t go and so missed the canastero which they found quite easily. With no traffic on the road a journey that could have taken 90 minutes took us 50. We arrived just before 06:30 and I was not surprised to find our flight was at 10:40 (Barry was apparently still on Peruvian time which was an hour behind). It would have been nice to have that hour birding around the lake but it is unlikely we would have seen anything we hadn’t already. Our flight was more or less on time. We said goodbye to Barry and Richard in Cuzco where Duncan and I had a six hour wait. We wandered around the airport and ventured into the car park sitting on some steps for a while, some distant flyover Andean Gulls the only notebook entry. We then flew to Bogota where another three hour wait before flying to London where Duncan and I parted and after a short wait I caught a bus home.
over El Alto
leaving Bolivia, Titicaca and the Peruvian border in the far distance
approaching Cuzco

leaving Cuzco
It had been an enjoyable trip with a good bunch of people although both Jon and Rod were sorely missed, at least by those of us who had travelled with them regularly. I was glad I had gone, having had some initial misgivings most of which proved groundless or in the event didn’t materialise. Bolivia was a great if somewhat tiring country to travel around with excellent birds, some spectacular scenery and friendly people and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it. That said our trip could have been a lot more successful and with birding that is often what a trip is measured by. One expected Jon’s targets to take priority but compromises seemed much greater this time. The size of the group was less of an issue than at one stage when 11 were coming and most of the time the group was manageable although having a bus took longer to travel to and between sites. A smaller group in two 4WDs would have been better although communication between them might have been an issue. It seemed it was within the bus, the first Mike and I knew of 2 Chestnut-crested Cotingas (one of our top priority birds) being seen from it was when we read the trip report the following month. Why did we not stop? The main compromise on the trip was probably its timing - to be at Apolo on 1 December which ironically turned out to be too early anyway. Going late in the season as we did had caused Nick to drop out while Marc had to leave early to be back by the start of December. I also had early December work commitments and would have had to leave early had I not been close enough to the end of my career to insist. I would not recommend November as we were in Bolivia at the start of the wet season - the bad weather we encountered in the cloud forest rather confirmed this - when a lot of birds had established territories and were too busy breeding to react to playback. It was a high a price to pay to look for an undescribed species that didn’t feature too near the top of most of our priority lists. Even higher when we were probably the first birders to go and not see it! The timing might not have been so serious had we been guided by someone that knew all the sites or at least had researched them thoroughly beforehand rather than relying on what often seemed like a quick look at ebird the night before. Jon had apparently turned down Barry’s most experienced guide as being too expensive. That seemed like a false economy to most of us, pleasant as Richard was …

Thanks to Brian, Duncan, Malcolm, Marc, Mike and Paul for excellent companionship, some good finds and making the trip enjoyable. Jon and Rod had the original idea, just very sad they didn't make it and that I'll likely never do another trip with Jon. Thanks to Jon for putting the group together and Barry for organising it. Barry’s knowledge of South American birds and their vocalisations was truly impressive and added a lot to the trip in the short time he was with us. Richard was cheerful, good to travel with and tried but was clearly out of his depth at times, not having visited many of the key sites before. Fortunately Paul’s meticulous research gave us a few key species that would otherwise have been added to an already too large ‘missed’ list. Paul also rushed his lunch at Los Volcanes to take me back to where they'd seen a responsive Slaty Gnateater. Much to my relief it was still in the area ...