Friday, October 9, 2015

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: A Day in the Chaco

September 14, 2015

We drove for about 45 minutes south of our hotel on the main highway towards Argentina, and then just before we left the department of Santa Cruz at the border of Chuquisaca, we turned east through the town of Boyuibe. From here a dirt track ostensibly leads through cattle ranches all the way to Paraguay, but I’ve never been more than about 50 miles down it. I was first here in 2001 on an exploratory trip with two friends, and as the first birders to ever come here, we were very thrilled with how many chaco specialties we were able to find. Most exciting was our discovery of Black-legged Seriemas. By now many guides and birding tour companies have brought their groups here for the most reliable and accessible Black-legged Seriemas anywhere. This was only my fifth time to this area of sandy soils,  dry scrub, and thorny woodland known as the Chaco.

Tropical Parula is one of the most abundant birds here, and any amount of pishing and owl imitations will bring in at least a pair.

Lark-like Brushrunner is not as common but very conspicuous as they run along the sides of the road and, well, amongst the brush. There are so many unique members of the furnariid family that names have been coined for each of them. This is the only brushrunner, and there’s only one streamcreeper, one firewood-gatherer, one chilia, one rushbird, one reedhaunter, one wiretail, etc.

There are several canasteros, however, in the same family. Short-billed Canastero is not rare here either, but much less conspicuous, and I used a bit of playback to get this bird to sit up.

Yet another member of Furnariidae is this Chaco Earthcreeper, one of the most secretive members of the group. It took us quite a while to see one well. It and its close relative the Bolivian Earthcreeper are not really much like other earthcreepers and should have been called bromeliad-creepers, as they only occur where there are dense thickets of spiny, terrestrial bromeliads.

Finally, after hearing a few of these, we connected with a trio of Black-legged Seriemas crossing the road. Then they were everywhere. I estimated that we saw at least 11 and heard at least 9 more today. This and the much more common and widespread Red-legged are not only the sole members of the family Cariamidae, they are now convincingly the only members of the entire order Cariamiformes, a sister group to the falcons and parrots. I don’t know what line of evidence originally placed them in the order Gruiformes with the cranes, trumpeters, rails, Limpkin, finfoots, and flufftails, but it must have been pretty speculative.

A scarce bird here is the Checkered Woodpecker, amazingly similar in habitat, behavior, and voice to our Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

We have nothing in North America that resembles the Crested Gallito, a tapaculo and the only member of its genus. Considering its dense habitat and very secretive nature, maybe the Australian scrub-birds are a parallel. We were extremely lucky finally to find a bird that sat up long enough for a binocular view, let alone long enough for me to get this photo. I’ve heard it here before, but never saw one so well.

Here’s the group birding on the Boyuibe road while Carlos and Benita are preparing lunch in the back.

At lunch was this Battus polydamas, Polydamas Swallowtail, laying eggs on an Aristolochia that wasn’t in bloom.

The same butterfly also went up for nectar in this orange-flowering bush, which as close as I can tell seems to be a Cestrum sp.

The chaco of Bolivia is the only place where I’ve seen this Callicore sorana, Zigzag Eighty-eight.

On our way back to Boyuibe we stopped by some ponds, pretty much the best activity in the heat of the day. (The cold from two days ago is a dim memory, and the forecast for tomorrow says the temps are already supposed to reach 102°F).

A migrant Baird's Sandpiper was at one pond.

A common bird in captivity (and sometimes showing up in North America as an escaped bird), Ringed Teal is much more attractive as a wild bird.

We had two surprise raptors for the day. One was a Zone-tailed Hawk that was doing very well in passing as a Turkey Vulture, and the other was this Aplomado Falcon that flew in front of the bus. Amazingly, it perched long enough for everyone to get out and enjoy it.

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Heading South

September 13, 2015

After an early departure from Santa Cruz, we drove until we came to a side road I had staked out for a picnic breakfast and some fun early morning birding. On this tour we have a bus driver, Carlos, and his sister Benita, a cook we are borrowing from her regular job as cook and manager at Refugio Los Volcanes. A hot cooked breakfast every day is quite a luxury.

We heard Red-legged Seriemas again here, but couldn’t get close enough to see. White-tipped Doves were everywhere and several species of parrots were leaving their roosts to go feed somewhere for the day. The fanciest one, and one that was cooperative enough to perch for spotting scope views was this Yellow-collared Macaw.

Another sign of a wet winter was this bignoniaceous vine in full bloom.

As we continued south on the main highway we stopped for our first Green-cheeked Parakeets and this Toco Toucan perched next to the road.

Another birding stop along the way was Rio Seco, a well-named, broad, sandy river bed that must flow only during a short time after heavy rains in the foothills to the west.

I don’t usually encounter too many butterflies at this season; as with the Pantanal, it’s been dry and sometimes cold with the passage of cold fronts, and their populations are at their annual low. I’ve been here in February and March, when butterflies are everywhere.  This metalmark therefore stood out. I think it is Emesis diogenia.

This skipper is the widespread Polythrix caunus, Four-spotted Longtail.

We had made good time, so it was nice to get to spend a while checking out the marshy edges of Laguna Tatarenda. Here were these Black-necked Stilts, formerly split as White-backed Stilt. They not only look obviously different, but they have much lower and more nasal calls than our northern birds. I’d be surprised if there really were much intergradation, and I suspect a re-split is in order.

I had called out a group of White-faced Ibis, which I photographed, then we concentrated on looking at other birds. I later looked at my photos and realized that these looked like Puna Ibis, a bird I wouldn’t have expected at this low elevation. But these are probably wintering birds from much farther south. Note the thicker and shorter neck and thicker, redder bill.

This small puddle party of sulphurs contains five species – most on the right are Phoebis argante, Apricot Sulphur; second in from right is a Phoebis sennae, Cloudless Sulphur; the white one front-center is Aphrissa statira, Statira Sulphur; the giant greenish one second from left is Anteos clorinde, White Angled-Sulphur; and the one on the far left and behind the Anteos is Phoebis neocypris, Tailed Sulphur.

We birded another road not far from here that went a bit into the foothills, covered in a semihumid forest that is difficult to characterize. In it we found Two-banded Warblers and White-bellied Hummingbird to be common, while some of us glimpsed a Saffron-billed Sparrow and a White-backed Fire-eye.

This huge, super dense nest of silk webbing, seemingly anchoring the tree to the ground, appears to belong to a tent caterpillar, presumably a moth in the family Lasiocampidae.

We arrived in the late afternoon at our hotel for the next three nights, right on the outskirts of Camiri.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Starting in Santa Cruz

September 12, 2015

To the south of the city of Santa Cruz in the center of Bolivia is Lomas de Arena regional park, a perfect place to see some interesting birds at the start of our tour. The dregs of a late cold front that passed through yesterday (windy and hours of drizzle) persist this morning as a light overcast and delightfully cool temperatures. It can be really sunny and hot here, and bird activity remained high.

This White-banded Mockingbird just barely shows its namesake in this frontal shot.

It didn’t seem warm enough for butterflies, but this metalmark Melanis aegates, the White-spotted Pixie, was abundant on road, getting moisture and minerals from fresh cow dung.

This is Danaus erippus, the Southern Monarch, formerly considered the same species as our migratory one. It appeared to be warming up in the mid-morning sun.

A few participants were lucky to see a pair of Red-winged Tinamous cross the sandy road, but I think everyone saw this small deer Mazama gouazoubira, the South American Brown Brocket, before it dashed away.

It had clearly been a wet dry season. It can be rather parched and dry this time of year – early spring, but well before the summer rains start. A sign of the wet winter was this blooming Aristolochia sp., a pipevine or dutchman’s pipe – the host plant for some species of Battus swallowtail.

We only heard distant Red-legged Seriema and saw a White-bellied Nothura in flight, but it was already time to leave for lunch in the city. This Whistling Heron was seen from the bus as we left the area.

We spent a rather quiet afternoon at the Santa Cruz Botanical Gardens just east of the city. It was once a rather quiet place, little visited, and overgrown with great birding trails. Things have “improved” over the years, and we actually had to pay an entrance fee and share a parking lot with many others, then walk the opposite direction of a wedding party.

One of the highlights from the day was this Buff-throated Woodcreeper, which at this moment had just finished swallowing a lizard that it had been whacking to death against the tree trunk.

My First Visit to Apa Apa Ecological Reserve

September 10, 2015

I’m in Bolivia for the first time in five years. In the previous eleven years I had averaged one trip per year, and so this has been the longest I’ve been away from this amazing country since 2000.

I’ve always wanted to check out the Apa Apa Reserve, a private patch of foothill cloud forest famous for its frequent reports of the nearly mythical Scimitar-winged Piha, among others.  I only knew it was somewhere down the east slope of the Andes below La Paz, but never had really looked into specifics. When it came time for the WINGS office to buy my air ticket for the Bolivia tour this year, I just requested to go two days early, with a first stop in La Paz, rather than going directly to Santa Cruz. It turned out that two of the tour’s participants were also going early, also going to La Paz, and didn’t know what they were going to do there. So I invited Bill and Mabel to join me for the short exploratory trip. At the very least it I thought it would be good to share the costs of the transportation.

Apa Apa turns out to be a four-hour drive from La Paz, up and over the pass towards the famous “Death Road” that leads to Coroico, but turning off towards Chulumani before you get there. The scenery is wonderful.

We passed this very out-of-place castle-like building, apparently once a restaurant, and now in the process of being remodeled.

We entered a semi-dry valley in a rain shadow, and I had to make one quick roadside stop when I saw these blooming Hippeastrum sp., a native species of what one would call an “amaryllis” in the North American garden trade.

We finally got to Apa Apa in the mid-afternoon for our first birding. Much of the reserve is accessible along a very narrow two-track road that leads to a distant village.

Amazingly, the first bird we actually saw was this Black-and-chestnut Eagle. I’d only seen this a couple of times in SE Peru before and never in Bolivia.

From here you can look down onto the town of Chulumani, the largest town in the area, and where we would spend the two nights in two different hotels.

We returned here two more times, the next two mornings, with an afternoon exploring the private reserve above the owners’ hotel (which is also being remodeled).

One of the commonest birds here, and the most likely candidate to respond to pishing is the endemic Bolivian Brush-Finch.

This male Booted Racket-tail was perched amazingly close to me. There are no feeders here (or anywhere else in Bolivia, as far as I can determine), so there’s a niche waiting to be exploited.

I’ve seen a similar Bejaria sp. as this one at the Acjanaco Pass in SE Peru. It doesn’t look like it at first glance, but it’s a member of the Ericaceae family, though it does have a vague resemblance to an azalea, genus Rhododendron.

I was amazed by this bright yellow skipper and had little difficulty finding a name for this distinctive creature: Falga farina. It’s probably endemic to Bolivia, if not this valley.

This tiger moth, Pantherodes unciaria, was at our hotel in Chulumani. It’s an amazingly widespread species; I’ve seen it in northern Mexico and Costa Rica as well.

I’ve seen this satyr, Parataygetis albinotata, only once before, and that was in Bolivia.

I turned over a rock to find this sleeping toad. I might have gone unidentified, except for the Guía Fotografica del los Anfibios de la Región de los Yungas, Bolivia by Mauricio Pacheco Suarez, which just appeared as a downloadable pdf, covering this precise region. It appears to be Rhinella leptoscelis, with a distinctively rounded snout; a discrete, round paratoid gland; and a row of hard, conical warts down the side.

On our way back to La Paz we had a little time to bird the upper elevation cloud forests before we had to turn the car in and for my evening flight to Santa Cruz. Our best find was a scarce Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, which I recognized from its call, and then brought in for us to see with iPod. The previous ones I had seen in Bolivia were along streams with mossy boulders, but here’s a view of the simple culvert where this bird was living.

A nice mixed flock came through, with Buff-banded Tyrannulets, Saffron-crowned Tanagers, and many others, but only this Blue-capped Tanager sat still enough for photos.

On my way to the airport, I took this photo of the stunningly beautiful Illimani volcano from the highway leading out of the La Paz canyon. The aerial tram is a new tourist attraction built since I was last in La Paz.