Saturday, November 21, 2015

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Taking it Easy in Cochabamba

September 25, 2015

I saw two lifebirds today, my only ones on the tour. The first was at a wetlands not far from our hotel, where Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant had been reported in the past couple of years by my friends. I didn’t have high hopes, as it’s supposedly only a wintering bird here (migrating back south to breed), and I didn’t have any specific locations. But there it was. I got a bad photo.
Gray-bellied Shrike-Tyrant

At these same wetlands we found a very lost Maguari Stork, normally found in the lowlands.
Maguari Stork

Wren-like Rushbirds were everywhere, often walking out in the open on floating mats of algae, so I’m surprised I didn’t get a better photo. This is a furnariid that has evolved an amazingly similar size, color, pattern, and behavior to Marsh Wren though the two don’t occur together. Is there something about these characters that make them suitable for surviving in rushes and cattails, did they once co-occur and evolve under some sort of social-dominance mimicry selection, or is it total coincidence?
Wren-like Rushbird

On the other hand consider this unique Many-colored Rush-Tyrant. It is never quite as common as the rushbird, but usually not hard to find in the same habitat. No other tyrannid is so colorful, nor with the same habits. Its internal morphology and now genetics are known to be distinctive enough that the latest analysis has proposed that it be placed alone in its own family, Tachurididae. (Jan I. Ohlson, Martin Irestedt, Per G. P. Ericson, and Jon Fjeldså̊. 2013. Phylogeny and classification of the New World suboscines (Aves, Passeriformes). Zootaxa 3613 (1): 001–035.)
Many-colored Rush-Tyrant

One last bird we found here was this Brown-backed Mockingbird.
Brown-backed Mockingbird

We then headed to Laguna Alalay in the middle of the city. It was full of water birds, and this is where I finally saw my lifer Red-fronted Coot. It took a lot of searching, but we eventually saw a few (three or four years ago my friends were reporting dozens). Seeing these Puna Ibis together White-faced Ibis was a treat. Notice how the latter (a rare bird here) has longer legs and longer, thinner neck and bill. It was this sighting that caused me to reevaluate the ibis we had seen north of Camiri in the lowlands; I had assumed they were White-faced, but our photos show the characteristics of Puna. Migrants to the lowlands? (Other birds in the photo include Common Gallinule, Greater Yellowlegs, and Black-necked Stilt.)
Puna Ibis, White-faced Ibis

Another special mix of birds were these Red Shovelers (rarish here), White-cheeked Pintail, and Puna Teal.
Red Shovelers, White-cheeked Pintail, Puna Teal

Due to popular demand, we made a stop at the Mercado San Antonio before our final lunch, packing, and departure by flight to Santa Cruz. We had hoped for some fine knitted alpaca garments and especially for some spun alpaca yarn for knitting, but Bolivia hasn’t quite figured out this wide open market. Apparently on Wednesdays and Saturdays there is one woman who has a sidewalk stand where she sells her own hand-spun yarn, but you have to ask five people before you find out that she even exists, and today is Friday.
Mercado San Antonio

I’m looking forward to 10 days at home, but it’s going to fly by. I have a first aid/CPR recertification class, a day of birding with my friend Doug Futuyma, a half day of guiding a couple around the Tucson area, and several lunch and dinner plans with dear friends, as well as a last planning meeting with Keith and Patty before I meet up with them in Southeastern Brazil for a scouting trip at the end of the month.

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Cerro Tunari Revisited – Cinco Canasteros and Landscapes of a Tropical Tundra

September 24, 2015

Today we returned to Cerro Tunari, this time heading directly to the higher slopes to beat the frequent mid-day fog or thunderstorms (often with snow) and to take advantage of heightened bird song activity. Here’s the view looking down onto the city of Cochabamba from the near the point where we started birding.

We first targeted canasteros today, and we scored big, with five species. There aren’t many places where you can see five of these often skulking furnariids in a single morning. They are members of a radiation of largely southern temperate ovenbirds including thornbirds and tit-spinetails that make complex nests of sticks; this genus’ name comes from the Spanish word canasta, which means basket. Canastero means basket maker, referring to their nests.

The common and not-so-shy Creamy-breasted Canastero was found easily from the bus as we drove up, and we had seen them well two days ago. Then in the uppermost scrubby Polylepis groves we coaxed out a Maquis Canastero, with its especially long tail almost more like the related tit-spinetails. In this same habitat we spotted this Red-crested Cotinga displaying at another, unseen bird. I’ve seen the crest raised like this only a few times; usually one asks why it would be called “red-crested” when no such crest is visible.
Red-crested Cotinga

Higher up in the lower bunch grass we located a Puna Canastero that came in quite close. Just a bit higher up we found Scribble-tailed Canastero, which I’ve had here only a couple times, and which we dipped on two days ago. It seems that early morning is important to catch them singing. I got one photo that barely shows its namesake.
Scribble-tailed Canastero

Our final species was Cordilleran Canastero, found in the highest elevations, free of shrubs and bunchgrass, where it scurries amongst boulders instead.
Cordilleran Canastero

We didn’t see many other species at this elevation, the highest point we reached being 14,860 feet (4530 meters) above sea level. But the scenery was fabulous.

And the plants fascinating. An Anemone sp.

A cushion cactus probably pollinated by Andean Hillstar.

A Viola sp.

This isn’t the best season for butterflies, but we saw a few sulphurs (probably Colias species), and my eyes caught the movement of this rarely seen Itylos titicaca, Titicaca Blue.
Itylos titicaca, Titicaca Blue

And of course there are some birds here, some specialists in this habitat. This is the widespread Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch.
Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch

This Slender-billed Miner responded to my recorded song by doing an extended display flight like a lark above us.
Slender-billed Miner

We found just these two White-fronted Ground-Tyrants on a flat resembling a putting green.
White-fronted Ground-Tyrants

White-winged Diuca-Finches are found only in this high tundra-like habitat as well.
White-winged Diuca-Finches

Back in town in the late afternoon we made a stop at a house that was flying a small white flag at the end of a long stick overhanging the side of the road. This indicated they were selling Chicha Cochabambina, a corn beer made with corn meal, water, sugar, and environmental yeast. It’s slightly sour, and it tastes like cross between beer and champagne. If you bring in an empty liter water bottle, they’ll fill it for about $1 US.

This sign indicates what is for sale in this tiny neighborhood store – bread, milk, white cheese, coca leaves, and beer (the brand Paceña, from La Paz). I had bought a small bag of coca leaves elsewhere on the tour for our participants to try – but only two or three dared try this harmless herb. Cocaine is made from it but is present only in minute quantities and must be refined with huge amounts of leaves and chemicals. Putting 20 leaves in your mouth and adding some legia to release the alkaloids does produce a numbing sensation in the tongue and gums, and using more is said to suppress appetite, fatigue, and altitude sickness, but I’ve never noticed anything other than the numbness. One certainly does not get any sort of “buzz” from it, any more than one would get high from someone smoking a marijuana joint at the far end of a football field.

Tomorrow is our last day here, but with a late evening flight, we actually have virtually all day. We did really well at Cerro Tunari, and we still have a chance to see some new things in the wetlands around the city, so we’ll be taking it easy after what has been a tiring but fun itinerary.

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: The Chapare Road

September 23, 2015

The highway from Cochabamba (in a semi-dry, temperate interior valley) to Villa Tunari (in the tropical and wet Amazonian lowlands) drops through several life zones, and we have time to visit only a couple spots today, as it is not so close to our hotel. Weather is always an issue here too, as warm, most air rising from the lowlands frequently creates fog and rain even in the absence of any sort of weather system.

Indeed we had fog at our first birding location, though we did get good looks at a Rufous-bellied Bush-Tyrant and White-eared Solitaire after breakfast. We then moved down to a seldom-traveled side road at lower elevation that has had some great birds in the past. This is the San Miguelito subtation road, a narrow track with lush vegetation along the the sides that I’ve been visiting since 2000. Instead we found a widened gravel road with recently cleared vegetation, and further down the road noisy construction as the widening was in process. It seems they are preparing to build a dam in the valley below, and this will be one of their main access roads for equipment. It’s probably not going to be such a great birding spot in the future, and so now options are even more limited along the Chapare highway.

Still, we saw some stuff,  just not as much as we has hoped. This roadkilled Chironius sp. snake, for example, was a casualty of the increased traffic.

We did have one good mixed flock, and this gorgeous Crimson-mantled Woodpecker performed very nicely for us.
Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

We spent some time unsuccesfully trying to see the calling Yungas Manakins and to find a Yungas Pygmy-Tyrant, but in the process we got great looks at the often furtive Ochre-faced Tody-Flycatcher. At the same time we spotted this Lymanopoda acraeida, the Acraeine-mimic Satyr.
Lymanopoda acraeida, Acraeine-mimic Satyr

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Cerro Tunari Day 1

September 22, 2015

Today’s plan was a straightforward visit up Cerro Tunari, a mountain just outside of Cochabamba. Our hotel is on this side of the city, so it’s a quick drive to the nice habitat on the lower brushy slopes where we looked for several specialties. I have just a couple of photos of birds we saw. One was of a flock of Andean Parakeets in some roadside shrubs.
Andean Parakeet

Another was this cooperative Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch, the most abundant of the Poospiza here. We also saw several of the local Cochabamba Mountain-Finch.
Rufous-sided Warbling-Finch

After enjoying a Yungas Pygmy-Owl, we stopped for this Junonia vestina, Andean Buckeye, one of few butterflies flying today.
Junonia vestina, Andean Buckeye

We eventually reached the dry tundra-like habitat above about 12,000 feet elevation where we had several target species. In this particular place we found the very local and scarce Short-tailed Finch.

Other species we saw here included many Bright-rumped Yellow-Finches…
Bright-rumped Yellow-Finch

...and this Buff-breasted Earthcreeper. This is a member of the suboscine family Furnariidae, distantly related to other suboscines such as antbirds and tyrant flycatchers, but its size, shape, and behavior are very reminiscent of the thrashers back home.
Buff-breasted Earthcreeper

The last birds we stopped for before heading back down the mountain were these Torrent Ducks on a flood control structure.
Torrent Duck

We made one last panic stop on the way down for what would be our only Bolivian Warbling-Finch that flew across the road in front of the van. After we got out, I pished a bit, the bird sat up, and all got brief but good looks at it before it vanished.

Tomorrow we drop down in elevation to bird some cloud forest habitats on the moist slope of the Andes.

Peak of Diversity WINGS Bolivia Tour: Comarapa to Cochabamba

September 21, 2015

A very long, bumpy dirt road to Cochabamba was our itinerary for the day. But it passes through some very nice patches of habitat, so we left early this morning to take advantage of the morning hours. It was worth it.

We first had to retrace our steps from yesterday up the Serrania de Siberia, but we went a bit farther before picnic breakfast, this time passing by the town actually called Siberia. They may get the occasional frost after the passage of a cold front, and it’s never very warm here, but it’s not like the Russian namesake.

Our first stop was in the highest elevations on the road, in short, mossy forest where we saw our third species of Scytalopus, a Diademed Tapaculo that scurried like a mouse (as they all do) between stunted bushes, suddenly popped up from behind a mossy clump on the ground and nearly sat on my iPod. Other good birds we had here were a singing Undulated Antpitta and the Bolivian endemic Black-chinned Thistletail at the utter southern edge of their ranges.

The flowers of this moss- and epiphyte-laden tree were quite showy; my guess was family Solanaceae, but I haven’t found the genus.

We then made a couple more stops lower down in patches of humid cloud forest that drape down protected draws. This Hooded Mountain-Toucan was a huge surprise at such a stop. I hadn’t seen one in Bolivia in years; the usual favorite spots on the Chapare road aren’t as productive any more.
Hooded Mountain-Toucan

Another stop didn’t have so many birds, but this Passiflora pilosicorona was a nice find.
Passiflora pilosicorona

We made an unplanned stop in a drier location near Pongo when I looked out and saw an Andean Condor soaring over this nearby hill.

Turns out there were two, sometimes landing on the slopes of the hill, then flying around, giving us all angles, no farther than 300 meters away.
Andean Condor

Andean Condor

Then someone noticed this male Red-tailed Comet perched only 20 meters away in a Eucalyptus tree. It was still very windy everywhere, so it was hard to get a photo of it actually in the frame as its perch swayed up and down.
Red-tailed Comet

Looking down to the right from where we were standing I noticed this White-bellied Hummingbird at even closer range, but hiding in a clump of bushes sheltered from the wind. What with the condors and the comet putting on such a show, I couldn’t convince anyone to have a look.
White-bellied Hummingbird

Here’s the happy group watching the Andean Condors.

One last stop was for our picnic lunch in semi-sheltered draw where Rufous-bellied Saltators, Fulvous-headed Brush-Finches, and this band-winged grasshopper were highlights.

We’ve arrived at our hotel in the outskirts of Cochabamba, ready for four full days of birding using this as a home base.