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Sunbird – Itinerary

Bolivia: The Chaco, Valle Zone and Central Andes

Tuesday 20 September to Tuesday 4 October 2022
with Rich Hoyer as leader

Maximum group size: 8 with 1 leader.

Price Pending

The Many-colored Rush Tyrant may soon be placed in a monotypic family of its own. The Tachuridae. Photo: Rich Hoyer

With high mountains and plains dominating the west, the Amazonian Basin in the north, the Pantanal wetlands in the far east, and the Chaco in the south, the large country of Bolivia contains more diverse biomes than any other on the ‘bird’ continent, making it also the ‘birdiest’ landlocked country in the world. A native woodland type - the Chiquitania - and isolated interior dry valleys add to the diversity, even harboring some endemics and many other species not seen so easily anywhere else. 

The stereotype of Bolivian political instability is long outdated, but the country is still mentioned only infrequently in the mainstream media and tourism literature, keeping it low on most birders’ radar. Those who have been there, however, rave about Bolivia’s unparalleled biological diversity, long list of exciting birds, relative ease of travel, and friendly people. With a low population density, Bolivia offers roadside birding as good as it gets. Our tours here in recent years have amassed a total of over 900 species, and while no tour of moderate length can sample all the habitats, we visit a surprising variety, taking in some of Bolivia’s most famous sights along the way. 

This tour can be taken in conjunction with Bolivia: Northern Andes, Madidi National Park and Barba Azul.

Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Night in Santa Cruz. 

Day 2: Our first day of birding will be on the outskirts of town, in a reserve of mixed grasslands and semi-deciduous forest. The entrance drive may yield Red-winged Tinamou and perhaps even Red-legged Seriema and Greater Rhea, some of the most spectacular birds of South America. We’ll be on the look out for such interesting species as Small-billed Tinamou, Whistling Heron, the long-tailed and colourful Chotoy Spinetail, the furtive Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, and Grassland Sparrow. Night in Santa Cruz. 

Day 3:  We’ll leave early this morning for the drive south to new habitats. Thanks to the newly paved highway connecting Bolivia to Argentina, the drive to the Bolivian Chaco is not as arduous as it was only a decade ago, and we’ll have time for roadside stops. We’ll pass through a range of habitat transitions: the tall, dry forests are home to the near-endemic Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike and the loud and strikingly coloured Striped-backed Antbird, while the more humid Andean foothill woodlands are inhabited by Blue-fronted Parrot, lively Green-cheeked Parakeets, and Plush-crested Jay. Night in Camiri. 

Days 4–5: Bolivia shares with Paraguay and Argentina the mix of thorn forest, scrub, and savanna habitats called Chaco, which supports several endemic species. We’ll spend all of one day driving roads through this area, stopping whenever we see activity, and we’re certain to find many species not possible anywhere else on the tour. One of the primary targets is Black-legged Seriema, seen more easily on this tour than on any other itinerary. Other characteristic birds are the well-named Many-colored Chaco-Finch, the delightful Larklike Brushrunner, and the jay-like Brown Cacholote. The Crested Hornero, a clever variation on the ubiquitous Rufous Hornero, is scarcer but certainly possible, as are the subtle Cinereous Tyrant and the striking Black-crowned Monjita, a tyrant flycatcher that sits on open perches. White-barred Piculet and Checkered Woodpecker are certainly possible, and we can always hope for Black-bodied Woodpecker. 

Another day we’ll turn the other direction and look for birds amongst some foothill woodlands not far from town. The brushy roadsides along the way will be teeming with flocks of Black-capped Warbling-Finches, Red-crested Finches, Red-crested Cardinals, and Golden-billed Saltators. Closer inspection of denser vegetation could yield skulking Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher and Saffron-billed Sparrow, and we’ll have to keep our heads up to catch sight of Dusky-legged Guan and Ocellated Piculet, one of three species of piculet possible on this tour. We’ll pass through the historic village of Lagunillas on the way to a series of wetlands where we could see Comb Duck, Ringed and Brazilian Teals, Spot-flanked Gallinule, and Southern Screamer. Even though we’re still in the lowlands, the nearby cliffs of the outermost Andean foothills are home to Andean Condor, the very rare and local Military Macaw, and Solitary Eagle. In short, it should be a bird-packed day. By mid-afternoon we’ll return to our hotel. Nights in Camiri. 

Day 6: We’ll make the drive to our next destination, stopping for some brief birding and a lunch along the way. A pause at Laguna Tatarenda could result in Black-necked Stilts (the southern form with a white back that actually may be a different species), migrant Wilson’s Phalaropes and Lesser Yellowlegs, and perhaps other waterbirds. White Woodpecker, Burrowing Owl, and White Monjita are some birds by the roadside that may cause us to stop from time to time. By mid-afternoon we’ll arrive at the gate of our home for the next two nights. Night at Refugio Los Volcanes. 

Day 7: Refugio Los Volcanes, a privately owned nature preserve, is in an idyllic, isolated valley on the edge of Amboró National Park. We’ll spend a full day here birding the preserve’s trails at a relaxed pace. One trail crosses a meandering, rocky stream through the forest, where Blue-throated Piping-Guan and Sunbittern are often seen. Gray-throated Leaftosser may be found working the leaf litter, and colourful Blue-naped Chlorophonias are possible in fruiting trees. Another trail takes us to a scenic waterfall and deep swimming hole, while a third leads up a narrow canyon that almost always has some active feeding flocks. Bolivian Recurvebill, a rare and unusual near-endemic, has been sighted here, and flocks along this trail can include Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Ocellated and Black-banded Woodcreepers, Black-capped Antwren, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, and Black-goggled Tanager. We’ll also bird the entrance road, where the very attractive Chestnut-backed Antshrike, White-winged Tanager, White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, and elusive Slaty Gnateater can sometimes be found. If we’re very lucky, we’ll see the secretive Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail, Short-tailed Antthrush, or Gray Tinamou. 

Time spent relaxing around the refuge buildings can also be productive. A fruiting tree at the edge of the clearing could host a bonanza of species such as Cinereous Conebill, Blue-browed Tanager, and Pale-vented Pigeon (or maybe a troop of Brown Capuchins), and we’ll keep a watchful eye on the sky in the late morning for Andean Condor, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, or even Solitary Eagle. Channel-billed Toucan and Bat Falcon perch on exposed snags, and noisy flocks of Mitred Parakeets are commonplace. 

Since we’re located in the middle of prime birding habitat, some night birding will be possible. On a private tour here we discovered that the long-presumed Spectacled Owls near the rooms were in fact the much rarer Band-bellied Owl, while Ocellated Poorwill is at the southern edge of its range here. Night at Refugio Los Volcanes. 

Day 8: We’ll have the first few hours of the day to bird the entrance road of Refugio Los Volcanes before we continue on for lunch in the historic town of Samaipata. After lunch we’ll continue to our next destination, and we’ll find the changing landscapes and plant life fascinating – several species of endemic cactus grow by the roadsides, trees become covered in several species of epiphytic bromeliads and spiny thickets are formed by terrestrial bromeliads. We’ll be tempted to make at least a stop or two, perhaps finding our first Gray-crested Finches or Glittering-bellied Emerald along the way. Night in Comarapa.

Days 9–10: One full day in the Valle Zone and another in the nearby cloud forest of Siberia should give us plenty of time to pry out most of the wonderful birds found in this uniquely Bolivian ecoregion, a series of north-south valleys protected by the Andes from Amazonian weather systems. This zone is much like the deciduous thorn forests of Mexico, but the species makeup is very different here in the South American tropics. Pepper trees are native here, as are many species of giant columnar cacti — but the birds that inhabit this area are wildly different from anything found in North America. The most spectacular endemic is the Red-fronted Macaw, and finding it will be a priority for us. Also endemic to this region are the Cliff Parakeet (quite different from, yet still considered conspecific with, the more southerly Monk Parakeet), Bolivian Blackbird, and Bolivian Earthcreeper. 

Above the town of Comarapa is a patch of cloud forest in the Serranía de Siberia — though it is never really as cold as its namesake. Here the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta is quite common (though never easy to see), and other forest inhabitants include Andean Guan, Black-winged Parrot, Violet-throated Starfrontlet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Golden-headed Quetzal, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Buff-banded Tyrannulet, Pale-footed Swallow, Pale-legged Warbler, and the endemic Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer. 

The semi-humid transition zone between the cloud forest and the drier valleys is where the lovely warbling-finches reach the peak of their diversity. Ringed Warbling-Finches can be common in roadside flocks, while finding Black-and-Chestnut and Rusty-browed may take a little more effort. Bolivian Warbling-Finch is also a possibility here, and we’ll make an effort for Spot-breasted Thornbird and Giant Antshrike as well. The beautiful Olive-crowned Crescentchest (now in a tiny family with just three other species) is yet another of our targets here, while Cream-backed Woodpecker, a large crested woodpecker, will be a lucky find. Nights in Comarapa. 

Day 11: We’ll have one last morning in the Siberia cloud forests before we continue westward up and down rain-shadowed valleys, mostly in the lee side of the outer Andean ridge. Hooded Siskin, Purple-throated Euphonia, and Blue-and-yellow Tanager are sometimes common roadside birds, while patches of Polylepis might have the very local Thick-billed Siskin, skulking Rufous Antpitta or Black-hooded Sunbeam. After our longest drive on a bumpy road, we’ll arrive at our country hotel in a suburb of Cochabamba. Night in Tiquipaya. 

Days 12–13: The Cochabamba Valley, one of Bolivia’s population centers, is at the nexus of three habitats: the dry interior Valle Zone reaches its highest elevation here, merging with the open puna of the high Andes, while the influence of the wet cloud forests of the Amazonian slope seeps over into local canyons. As a result, our next three days will bring a interesting change in habitat and birdlife as we explore these higher and drier woodlands, semi-humid scrub, tundra-like habitat, and moist treeline cloud forest. Polylepis patches and woodland on the road up Cerro Tunari, the small range of rugged, towering peaks north of town, are home to the Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, which occupies one of the narrowest ranges of any of Bolivia’s endemics. The lovely and petite Gray-headed Parakeet forages in roadside weeds like a sparrow, the spectacular Red-tailed Comet is relatively common at blooming shrubs, and the nearly endemic Wedge-tailed Hillstar is a possibility. On the drier slopes we’ll search for birds such as Brown-backed Mockingbird, Plain-breasted Earthcreeper, Andean Swift, Creamy-breasted Canastero, Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail, and Andean Hillstar (the endemic subspecies), among many others. The rushing stream below often has Torrent Duck. 

Roadside birding at the highest elevations may reveal several species of furnariid, such as Slender-billed Miner and Cordilleran Canastero, foraging among the boulders and grass tufts, while many kinds of ground-tyrants, such as Cinnamon-bellied, Rufous-naped, Taczanowski’s, Ochre-naped, and Cinereous, are possible on the grassy flats. Additional birds of interest include the subtle White-winged Diuca-Finch, the simple yet enigmatic Short-tailed Finch (usually requiring a hike), and Black-winged Ground-Dove. 

If it remains sunny into the warmer afternoon at the highest elevations (for it often fogs over), there are some little-known butterflies – skippers, satyrs, hairstreaks, and yellows – that will become active and visit the tiny cushion flowers in the tundra. Nights in Cochabamba. 

Day 14: We’ll have a last day to bird wetland habitats in the valley around Cochabamba, in search of Wren-like Rushbird and Many-colored Rush-Tyrant in the cattails, while open water may harbour Speckled and Puna Teals, Yellow-billed Pintail, Rosy-billed Pochard, Andean Duck, and Silvery Grebe. White-tipped Plantcutter is common in the scrub around lakes. In the early evening we’ll take the 45-minute evening flight back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Night in Santa Cruz. *

Day 15: The tour ends this morning with transfers to Viru Viru International Airport in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

*If you are continuing on to the second tour, Bolivia: Northern Andes, Madidi National Park and Barba Azul, in the afternoon of Day 14 you will fly instead to La Paz and spend the night in La Paz.

Updated: 17 November 2020