Tuesday, 28 November 2017

BOLIVIA 2017: Oruro to the Death Road (24-28 November)

This is the fourth 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 had just had a disappointing couple of days around Cochabamba and we/Pepe had some long drives ahead of us ....

24 November 2017. We were up at 04:45 and departed at 05:00, still no working coffee machine at the hotel to delay those needing it. It was a long drive west to Oruro although we had time for a few stops on the way, supposedly to target a few species missed although appearing to me at least somewhat random. Whether precise sites or random stops we didn’t see a lot, Bolivian Blackbirds that we’d already seen and a brief moment of hope when a female Andean Hillstar was seen at a stop in suitable habitat for Wedge-tailed Hillstar. We continued gaining altitude and started seeing commoner high altitude species, most of which were new or the trip. At Oruro we drove around the city’s ‘by-pass’ to a mainly dried-up lake on its outskirts. It was a pretty grim and muddy area with lots of rubbish lying around - about as far as it was possible to be from my faded memories of Andean lakes. Mike was reacting very badly to the altitude and really struggling despite us not being much over 3700m. Most obvious were lots of Chilean Flamingos amongst which we soon found a number of Andean (including one with a ring) and a few James’s. There were also a number of mostly distant Baird’s Sandpipers and a flock of very distant Andean Avocets. Further from town there appeared to be a lot of birds around a reed-fringed lagoons behind a rocky hill. The road went in that direction and we drove as close as we could, to the opposite side of the hill. We walked one way around to approach the biggest lagoon, Mike not being up to joining us. A couple of locals told us we couldn’t go that way as they were blowing something up although it was hard to imagine what. We walked around the other side being careful not to go too far although we never heard any explosions. There were a lot of flamingos and although in a much nicer setting they were no more approachable although the Andean Avocets gave somewhat better views. That is until 3 large wild looking dogs ran through the lagoon flushing everything and bring one flamingo down, fortunately something I didn’t witness. We kept a warry eye on them but fortunately they gave us a wide birth and headed back towards town – the rocks we’d collected might have had something to do with it. We finished birding at 18:00, walked back to the bus and drove into Oruro. It was only 10km but took almost 2hours as the city was completely gridlocked and we were unfortunately right in the heart of it. Another unappreciat 3* hotel that we arrived at well after dark and would be leaving well before dawn.

Cochabamba-Oruro highway
Andean Hillstar

the local women always had something to do
more roadworks
roadside vendors, although I couldn't work out what they (and the several identical looking 'stalls') were selling?
as we headed west the landscape became drier

shepherd's lunch break
White-winged Cinclodes (another I misidentified as Cream-winged, thanks again to Paul for correcting me)
the wing not very obvious
until it flies
Puna Miner
church at Lequepalca
Lequepalca graveyard
White-winged Cinclodes at Lequepalca
near Ouruo
Oruro town
Baird's Sandpiper

White-backed Stilt and Baird's Sandpiper
Chilean Flamingo at Oruro
ringed Andean and red-kneed Chilean Flamingos
it had been ringed at Laguna Colorada on sourthern Bolivia but I don't know when

Puna Flamingo
Puna and Chilean Flamingos
our bus at Oruro
Many-coloured Rush-Tyrant

Yellow-billed Pintail
Rufous-naped Ground Tyrant
Puna Teal
White-tufted Grebe

Andean Avocet and other wetland birds about to be flushed by rampaging dogs

Crested Duck

Puna Ibis
still working on their synchronised feeding
Wren-like Rushbird
in very poor light
Oruro main square from our hotel window, we never saw it in daylight
25 November 2017. We were up at 02:45 and left at 03:15 driving almost continually to 21:30 with 3-4 half hour stops along the way. Epic from Pepe as only the first part was on tarmac. After that it was dusty dirt, hairpins and steep drops as we climbed high into the mountains over successive ridges and into valleys. Our first stop was supposed to be “a bushy canyon where we'll look for the endemic Black-hooded Sunbeam … as well as the endemic Iquico Canstero which is common”. Clearly Richard didn’t know where this was and it became clear we had overshot it by some margin and were too low for the sunbeam. We insisted on returning, driving back up the hill for 15 minutes and stopped in a scrubby area just below Pongo. It wasn’t the site, which I suspected was above the village, but the habitat looked better. We wandered off in different directions checking flowers and after 10-15 minutes I heard a shout. Mike had found a male Black-hooded Sunbeam and fortunately it stayed, giving good if somewhat distant views for a few minutes before shooting off. The lack of ‘common’ Canasteros, which we never saw, was disappointing but we didn’t have time to try to find the site higher up. Next on the agenda was the relatively recently discovered Bolivian Spinetail below Inquisivi and fortunately Paul had done his homework and knew exactly where to look. Once there Richard soon taped in three but that was basically it birdwise for the day. It was then a very long drive that seemed as if we would never arrive at Chulumani. We eventually did, well after dark. The next morning we were headed to the Apa Apa reserve. It was apparently only 15 minutes drive and Richard wanted to have breakfast at 06:00. We persuaded him to bring it forward half an hour earlier and leave at 06:00 although even then we’d arrive 45 minutes after dawn.

Red-crested Cotinga
roadside stop

White-winged Black Tyrant
Bolivian Spinetail below Inquisivi

flower and vegetable market, maybe at Licoma

views from the long road to Chulimani

 26 November 2017. We got away by 06:00 but the drive to Apa Apa took 65 minutes and we arrived just after 07:00. We’d hoped to find Scimitar-winged Piha and Chestnut-crested Cotinga but failed, seeing little despite birding the road until noon in decent weather. Blue-banded Toucanet, Yungas Manakin, White-eared Solitaire, Black-eared Hemispingus and Yungas Warbler were the most notable birds. We left for Coroico, another long drive on dirt roads. It looked as if we might arrive at 18:00 and see the hotel in daylight but in the town we were misdirected and had dropped down into the valley bellow before realising it. This unnecessary detour took an hour and we finally made the hotel at 19:15. Not our best day.
Blue-banded Toucanet at Apa Apa

another long road, this time to Coroico

Malcolm and Duncan on a snack break
easy to see which vehicle had been travelling for two days on dusty roads
still an hour to go, we thought ...
we ended up dropping down into the valley to look for our hotel
we found it an hour later, a couple of kms from where we'd started
 27 November 2017. We had breakfast at 04:00 and departed at 04:30 and for once we arrived at a birding site at dawn. We walked a good track across the river and alongside it before starting to climb through decent forest. The track was just about wide enough for all of us and once away from the river noise we started to hear and then see birds including a couple of fast moving flocks. We continued walking but mid-morning it started raining and we turned around. The rain became heavier and the track quite wet. A small stream we’d crossed on the way without wet feet was now several inches deep, although my feet were wet by then anyway as I’d not thought to wear my Wellingtons. Back in the village the others found a café for lunch and I sat outside for a while until the rain started to ease off. I then walked back to the bridge and was delighted to see a White-capped Dipper on the river. The rain stopped and we went back to the original track on the other side of the river but it was too noisy and still very wet underfoot. A trail following the river downstream was very noisy, but did produce three Torrent Ducks before we gave up on it. We returned to the village and found an ancient paved hiking trail that went steeply uphill before contouring into second growth. It was quiet and we turned back seeing a male Rufous-booted Racket-tail on our return which made the effort worthwhile. We ended up walking down the road through reasonable forest and high enough above the river for the noise not to be an issue. Four Black-throated Toucanets were nice as was a male Cock-of-the-Rock that flew across in front of me. We were back at the hotel for sunset - it looked a nice place. A decent day.

Swallow Tanager
forest trail at El Chairo
Golden-Olive Woodpecker
returning for lunch
White-capped Dipper

Torrent Duck

old Inca highway

Corioco in the distance
Green-eared Parakeet
Rufous-booted Racket-tail
Black-throated Toucanet
Plumbeous Kite

more Torrent Ducks

forest clearing 
best not to enquire what is being harvested although it is legal up to a certain amount
Speckled Chachalaca
local laundrette
back at Corioco
28 November 2017. We had a quick breakfast at 03:00 and departed at 03:20 heading for the Death Road. We had decided the previous evening that as Hooded Mountain Toucan was easily the most important bird we’d not seen it would be our priority and we’d aim to be at a site for them on the Death Road for dawn. It meant driving through some good habitat in the dark but we felt it worth that sacrifice. Amazingly we arrived at dawn, stopping at the edge of a very steep but narrow valley. We tried playback and heard some very distant calls from the other side of the valley that may have been one but they were too far away and distorted to tell. I heard a very close Rufous-faced Antpitta but the terain was too steep to see it. I was very pleased top have had good views at Siberia the previus week. We walked the road there and then on the opposite side of the valley for an hour seeing very little. The cloud then rolled in reducing visibility to a matter of metres and making birding impossible. After a while it cleared but was almost immediately replaced by heavy rain. Another massive disappointment in superb looking cloud forest but at least on this occasion we had tried our best. We drove to the start of the Death Road but saw virtually no birds and after a brief look around a more open area with little success joined the main road and continued northwards stopping at a roadside café for lunch. It was still drizzling but I opted to wander around finding a Black-throated Flowerpiercer in nearby scrub. We tried a turning to Unduavi where I had read that a Rockjumper tour had seen the mountain toucan on a track nearby but directions were vague and Richard hadn’t found anything about it on ebird. We parked at the top of the road, Pepe concerned he’d not get back up despite it being wide and cobbled at this point. We walked down for about half a km in poor weather and not really finding decent habitat (it looked better further down) although did see a Black-hooded Sunbeam before giving up. When back home and with internet access I did look on ebird and the record of it and some other nice birds were listed there, it appeared the track was another km or so down the road. Very annoying. We continued and made a couple of stops on the way up to La Cumbre. The first was for Scribble-tailed Canastero, a smart bird which we found without too much trouble but other than a couple of Vischachas the second stop produced little and not the hoped for Short-tailed Finch despite Paul checking a scree slope more diligently than appeared sensible from a distance! We crossed the pass and dropped down into La Paz where we stopped on what seemed to be the La Paz ring road and Richard/Pepe found a taxi for Marc who wasn’t coming to Apolo with us. He had a hotel booked that night, although on arrival they denied all knowledge of it, and flew home the next morning. For the rest of us had the outskirts of La Paz to negotiate and then an hours run to our hotel at Lake Titicaca. It was 15:10 and I was confident we would arrive at the lake in daylight, perhaps our only change to see it as such, and hopefully see Short-winged Grebe. As it was it took over two hours to negotiate our way through rather than round La Paz. Twice we hired a taxi to follow to guide us through back streets despite Richard and Duncan having perfectly decent maps on their phones. In his defence Pepe had been driving for over 12 hours at this point! The first taxi appeared to take us into town rather than skirting it and the second, to avoid a bottleneck near the airport took us on a very bizarre route around three sides of it and into what looked like an empty dirt lorry-park adjoining the road we wanted but separated from it by a big ditch. It provided nice photo-opportunities of Andean Gull but didn’t seem to have been the best route. The taxi took off after directing Pepe back out of the lorry park to a muddy track that allowed us to join the road. We then sped NE arriving at the lake at 18:00, just in time to scope 3 Short-winged Grebes before the light went. We were reunited with Barry who had flown back from Peru to oversee the final part of our trip. Pity he hadn't been with us the whole time as we would have doubtless been a bit more successful.
Death Road

a journey didn't end well for someone
cloud appearing, timed 08:54
it's coming, 08:58
Malcolm on the Death Road at 09:03, no mountain toucans from this viewpoint (or anywhere, very bad dip)
an hour later low cloud had given way to heavy rain

we couldn't work out why it was best to keep left on the Death Road in a right-hand drive country and when the drop for those going down, presumably the direction most cyclists went, was on the left

Black Siskin in the rain during our lunch stop
Black-throated Flowerpiercer

showing its black throat
Great Thrush

Puna Tapaculo

approaching La Cumbre
watching Scribble-tailed Canastero, or not ...
Scribble-tailed Canastero

La Cumbre
Andean Goose

Plumbeous Sierra-Finch

La Paz

climbing out of La Paz


Andean Gull near El Alto airport

Lake Titicaca and still just enough light ...

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