Bolivia: Endemic Macaws & More Part I Oct 01—14, 2016

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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Part I of our 2016 tour to Bolivia provided sensational birding, with no less than 434 species of birds and 13 mammals. This magical country is truly a well-kept secret, even though it’s a birder’s paradise! Combined with the 275 bird species seen on Bolivia Part II (with little overlap) people on both Bolivia tours saw an incredible total of 635 bird species and 15 mammals!  We enjoyed spectacular studies of both rare endemic macaws—the truly gorgeous Red-fronted and the breathtaking endangered Blue-throated; a Black-legged Seriema that paraded around our bus; a pair of enormous Cream-backed Woodpeckers; and an endearing roosting Great Potoo with its chick. This top five gives you an idea of the high quality of this delightful trip to this friendly country. However, the fantastic birds combined with the remarkable array of different habitats (mostly unexplored and intact) that we were lucky enough to enjoy visiting makes Bolivia stand out as a supreme destination. Our action- packed two weeks included an incredible diversity of habitats including wide open, dry “Chaco” and taller Chiquitania forest; semi-desert inter-Andean valleys; lush “Yungas” cloudforests; grasslands; gallery forest; and vast marshes with palm-islands—each with its own unique and fascinating birds for us to enjoy.

Black-legged Seriema

Black-legged Seriema— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Furthermore, making this wonderful country a more popular birding destination is the release of the FIRST ever “BIRDS OF BOLIVIA Field Guide” filled with terrific illustrations and excellent maps, all in a convenient and portable format, making it real fun sorting through the tremendous diversity of birds. Combined with the great governmental strides forward over the past two decades socially and economically, as well as improved roads and accommodations, Bolivia will quickly become a well-known birding mecca.

We began our exploration from the bustling capital of Santa Cruz with visits to the botanical gardens and Lomas de Arena Park, which rewarded us with stellar views of Toco Toucan, Turquoise-fronted (Blue-fronted) Parrot, Campo Flicker, Chaco Puffbirds, the delightful Chotoy Spinetail, and even a confiding Dark-billed Cuckoo filling up on caterpillars. However, the highlight was the lone poorly-known White-chested Swift I found amongst a flock of Rothschild’s, with the photos representing the first documented records for the country! Certainly a good start for the first full day of birding of the trip. Heading southwest, our destination was the odd Chiquitania forest and wide, rolling, dry thorny forests of the birdy “Chaco” with its fascinating columnar cactus and ponds filled with spinning Wilson’s Phalaropes and flocks—yes, flocks— of the sought after Ringed Teal, and much more! 

One of our prime targets here, which we nailed, was the unusual Black-legged Seriema, and what a show one put on for us, as he walked close to the bus and then proceeded to jump up onto a fence post and deafen us with his odd, loud raucous voice! Highlights came thick and fast with crippling scope studies of Yellow-(Golden) collared Macaw; Blue-crowned Parakeet; a trio of cool woodpeckers—Checkered, White-fronted, and the massive Creamy-backed; Chaco Chachalaca; Stripe-backed Antbird; Black-bellied Antwren; small parties of the odd Lark-like Brushfinch; Chaco Earthcreeper; Crested Hornero; Crested Gallito (what a voice); Little Thornbird; recently described Straneck’s Tyranulet; Black-crested Finch; the magical Many-colored Chaco Finch; and many more!

Greater Wagtail-Tyrant

Greater Wagtail-Tyrant— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Retracing our steps, we drove into what must be one of the most scenically beautiful lodges I have ever visited, Refugio Los Volcanes (see photo). Here we enjoyed ice cold beers on the veranda as birds appeared around the forested clearing, with a panoramic view to die for! 

The lush “Yungas” forest offered magical orchid-festooned trails, crystal-clear streams, and traffic-free roads for us to enjoy some truly stellar birding. 

We managed great looks at the mythical endemic Bolivian Recurvebill, Tschudi’s Woodcreeper, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Slaty Gnateater, Red-necked Woodpecker, Ocellated Piculet, Short-tailed Antthrush, Two-banded Warbler, and blazing Yungas Manakin to name a few. Vivid colorful birds around our lodge clearing included Military Macaw, Mitred Parakeet, Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Channel-billed Toucan, White-winged Tanager, Dusky-green Oropendola, and both Plush-crested and Purplish jays, while a King Vulture soared above.         

We were all sad to leave this paradise; however, many more exciting birds still awaited us! Climbing in elevation, we followed a lush river valley as the terrain progressively became drier, until we emerged into the stark interior rain shadow valley, almost desert-like, and to a dramatic change in birdlife. Home to one of the tour’s “most wanted,” the following day I screamed “WOW” as I put the scope on a flock and we all feasted over the exquisite Red-fronted Macaw—its orange underwings so striking in flight, making it even more spectacular than any of us had ever imagined. WOW! We drooled over a feeding flock for a long time, getting closer and closer.

Red-fronted Macaws

Red-fronted Macaws— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Expertly led in this rich agricultural valley, we tracked down one after another of this region’s gems including the cool-looking budgerigar-like Gray-hooded Parakeet; the endemic Cliff Parakeet (recent split from Monk); dazzling male Blue-tufted Starthroat; low-flying Andean Swifts; Striped Woodpecker; endemic Bolivia Earthcreeper; Giant Antshrike; the odd White-tipped Plantcutter; Ultramarine and Black-backed grosbeaks; near-endemic Gray-crested Finch and Bolivian Warbling-Finch; plus endemic Bolivian Blackbird.

To round off a fantastic day, the delightful gardens at our lodge produced a real show with one of South America’s most fragrant and spectacular orchids, the Noble Cattleya (Cattleya nobilior) in full bloom, and some even had fly-by Red-fronted Macaw!

I must admit, I quickly fell in love with the lush cloud forests of Sierra de Siberia, one of the most southerly cloud forests in the Andes and a truly remarkable birding paradise simply dripping with flowering orchids, bromeliads, mosses, and amazing views. Birding along the almost traffic-free road was sheer bliss! Our first stop, despite slight rain, had us spinning around with excitement with one lifer after another: Red-crested Cotinga, Light-crowned Spinetail, endemic Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, and endemic Bolivian Brush-Finch. We then tracked down the endemic Rufous-faced Antpitta (sadly, seen well by only a few); however, later in the day a very obliging Rufous Antpitta (distinct cochobambae subspecies) gave us all a great show. Afternoon birding following our picnic rewarded us with a stunning pair of very responsive Band-tailed Fruiteaters, a Trilling Tapaculo that hopped onto my Bluetooth speaker on a log and pecked it, a glorious Crested Quetzal, and a hard to find Yungas Pygmy-Owl.

Band-tailed Fruiteater, female

Band-tailed Fruiteater, female— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Returning to Santa Cruz birding en route, we nailed the amazing Olive-crowned Crescentchest before moving on to our next biome, the world-famous Pantanal. After a short domestic flight we arrived in Beni state and the bustling capital of Trinidad. Our quaint lodge was neatly set in the countryside next to a rich lake fringed with flowering water hyacinths and teeming with birds and one of the best displays (I have ever seen) of flowering giant Royal Water lilies, which filled the lodge’s lovely pool. We had an action-packed few days here with a mind-blowing variety of birds that was simply staggering. Another trip highlight was our visit to a private ranch allowing us the great privilege to enjoy time with several fantastic endemic Blue-throated Macaws; here we were able to compare their differences with the similar Blue-and-yellows. To think there are only an estimated 250–350 of these magnificent macaws known; we were blessed to see 7 different birds! The significant entrance fee VENT paid for our group visit helps the owner conserve this vital breeding and feeding area for this iconic species. Thanks must go to Armonia (the Bolivian conservation organization) for its essential conservation work with the local land owner and for their successful nest box scheme.

Nearby birdy gallery forest yielded Slender-billed, Snail, and Hook-billed Kites; Chestnut-fronted and Scarlet macaws; Blue-crowned Trogon; humongous-billed Toco Toucan and Great Rufous Woodcreeper; White-wedged Piculet; Plain Softtail (endemic nominate form); Mato Grosso Antbird; an inquisitive Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant; a colorful Band-tailed Manakin; and flocks of Velvet-fronted Grackles.

Great Potoo with chick

Great Potoo with chick— Photo: Andrew Whittaker







A charming adult Great Potoo was roosting on its nest (if you can call it that) with its half-grown youngster. The meandering river even produced Pink River Dolphins! The super diverse region dominated by rich marshes around our hotel produced a non-stop procession of birds and yielded in excess of 130 species one day. These included many highlights such as Jabiru and  Maguari Stork; Rufescent Tiger-Heron; the prehistoric-looking Plumbeous Ibis; cool-looking Whistling Heron; flocks of enormous Greater Rheas and Southern Screamers; Black-collared Hawk; White-tailed Goldenthroat; Gray-crested Cacholote; Greater Thornbird; great looks at the amazing Red-billed Scythebill; Great Antshrike; Rusty-backed Antwren; White-headed Marsh-Tyrant; White-rumped Monjita; Red-capped (Bolivian) Cardinal; Scarlet-headed Blackbird; Variable Oriole; striking Venezuelan (Orange-backed) Troupial; and much more.    

You were a wonderful group, and it was our pleasure to be able to share so many special Bolivian moments with you all! I do hope we passed on some of our immense passion, enthusiasm, and understanding of this truly magical country, certainly one of my favorites. I’m already looking ahead to my return! I do hope I see all of you again on one of the many exciting VENT adventures I lead. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy reading this report and, of course, as always, happy birding!