ABOUT BOLIVIA BIRDING
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CLIMATE & SEASONS
The climate of Bolivia varies greatly depending on altitude. The north can be quite warm and humid while the high mountains and plateaus can be cold. The dry season is from May through November though rainfall begins increasing in October and is more so in November. Rainy season is from December to April. The best time for birding is during dry season up until December. Roads can become impassable in the rainy season, especially in the north where rainfall is generally heavier and some roads are unpaved. Many farmers burn their fields in September, making parts of the interior quite smoky during that month, especially around Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. One of the key target species is Inti Tanager, which is a seasonal migrant and only present in Bolivia from about mid-October to late March, so this affects tour timing for those wishing to see it in the Apolo Region.
Bolivia consists primarily of six geographical regions, the Andes Mountains, the altiplano, the Yungas, highland valleys, the gran chaco, and tropical lowlands. The Andes Mountains divide into two major branches. One starts north of Lake Titicaca on the Bolivia-Peru border and extends generally southward and southeast to Argentina. The other branch makes up the western border of Bolivia with Chile and consists of isolated, mainly volcanic, summits. The mountains reach an altitude of 21,300ft on the highest summit and average 17-19,000ft.
The high peaks of the Andes provide a scenic backdrop to birding tours in Bolivia. The highest peak is Mount Sajama, reaching an altitude of 6542m (21,463 ft). Below the snow zone, high elevation paramo and puna is home to a number of high elevation birds. These are accessible at a number of birding sites, especially Cerro Tunari outside Cochabamba.
Altiplano means high plain, but in fact the region is not flat and consists of valleys and small hills along with salt flats, volcanos, rivers, and lakes. It's located between the two branches of the Andes mountains. Vegetation is generally sparse, tough scrub with some scattered native trees. It covers an area of some 154,000 SqKm in western Bolivia. It extends approximately from the Apolo Region north of La Paz southward nearly to Argentina parallel with border with Chile.
The Yungas region is on the eastern slope of the eastern branch of the Andes. It's a rainy, forested belt of deep valleys and gorges separated by steep ridges. The climate is mainly humid and subtropical. Much of the region is moist broadleaf forest with cloud forest at higher elevations. It lies at an elevation of 400-3500m. It's located northeast of Lima and north of Cochabamba. The main cities are Coroico and Chulumani. The main birding site is the Coroico Road.
This Highland Valleys region lies east and southeast of the Yungas region. It has the most hospitable climate and is heavily populated. It's a region of rolling hills, valleys, and basins in the Central Cordillera. The largest city in the region is Cochabamba, and several important birding sites are near that city. These include Cerro Tunari and Chapare Road as well as Tablas Monte, Miguelito, and Carrasco National Park Road.
The Gran Chaco is in the southeastern corner of Bolivia south of Santa Cruz de la Sierra bordering Argentina and Paraguay. It extends into western Paraguay, northwestern Argentina, and southwestern Brazil, covering some 647,500 SqKm. Lomas de Arena, literally hills of sand, Municipal Park in Santa Cruz is at the northern extent of the Chaco. The Bolivian Chaco is very dry and very hot. The region was once the second largest extent of forest on Earth, second only to the Amazon, but it is now the most deforested place on Earth. Much of the previous forest and present deforestation is in Argentina. There are few roads in the Bolivian Chaco and driving conditions are difficult. There are very few settlements and towns due to the harsh conditions. Birding sites are mainly two hours or more south of Santa Cruz though Lomas de Arena in Santa Cruz is a taste of the Chaco. The true Chaco is rarely visited by birders and never by commercial tours.
The tropical lowlands are in two major basins, the upper Amazon basin in the north and east and the Parana in the far southeast. The north includes vast savannas, dense rainforest, and broad rivers of the Beni, Pando, and La Paz departments. The eastern Parana features grasslands and dense lowland forest. The latter is very east of Santa Cruz and not visited by commercial birding tours. The former is only included on month-long birding tours or tour extensions to standard tours.
Birding sites in Bolivia can be conveniently separated into six main regions. These are Santa Cruz in the center of the country, Cochabamba between Santa Cruz and La Paz, La Paz in the west, the Apolo region northeast of La Paz, the Rurrenabaque area, and Beni in the north. Birding in each of these regions will be described below with mention of the most important birding sites in each.
Santa Cruz Region
The city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the usual place where typical birding tours start in Bolivia. The city is located toward the western edge of the very large Santa Cruz Department in central Bolivia. This department extends all the way to the border with Brazil and includes everything from the foothills of the Andes to the lowlands of the east. Typical tours begin with a visit to the Lomas de Arena Municipal Park within the city of Santa Cruz. This park consists of sandy hills, ponds, and wetlands. to bird it properly it requires a 4x4 vehicle. The park and also near the airport is a good place for Red-legged Seriema. The other main birding site in Santa Cruz is the botanical gardens. The most important species there is Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike.
The birding route from Santa Cruz mainly follows the old road to Comarapa, with birding sites at Los Volcanes, Samaipata, the Red-fronted Macaw Reserve, and Siberia. Los Volcanes is a scenic canyonlands area that completely lacks any volcanos. Andean Condors are often seen there. The most important species there is Bolivian Recurvebill, which requires good bamboo stands and is not present if the bamboo isn't doing well. Samaipata is the gateway to the Quirusillas highlands, best place for Tucuman Parrot and is also good for Red-fronted Guan, Dot-fronted Woodpecker, and Slaty Elaenia, the latter migratory and only present from September to March. The Red-fronted Macaw Reserve near Perereta is home to that critically endangered species. Comarapa is gateway to good cloud forest in the highlands of Siberia Yungas Forest. Key species there include the difficult Rufous-faced Antpitta as well as several other target species.
There are also birding sites in the dry, exceedingly hot Chaco habitat some 6+ hours south of the Santa Cruz, which are normally skipped on typical birding tours. The main sites in that area are the Lagunilla del Chaco and the Boyiube Chaco.
The department of Cochabamba is situated in the geographical center of Bolivia. The city of Cochabamba is located in a fertile valley that was once the bread basket of Bolivia. Though in a valley, the city is in the highlands at an elevation of about 2600m. Much of the valley is now farmland and industrial parks. There is good birding at Lake Alalay in the city center and in Polylepis forest in San Miguel near Quillacollo. Many of the key Bolivian endemics are found in the Cochabamba Region. Important birding sites for finding them are in the Chapare Yungas (cloud forest) and along the Chapare Road, which starts at an altitude of 3800m outside the city and drops to a mere 500m over a distance of 100km at Villa Tunari. Hence the road transects upper montane, middle montane, upper tropical, hill tropical, and lower tropical altitudinal zones.
La Paz Region
The capital city of La Paz does not offer especially good birding itself with the exception of nearby Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is located northwest of the city and is considered the highest navigable lake in the world at an elevation of 12,500ft. It's home to the flightless endemic Titicaca Grebe. The surrounding region at lower elevation north and east of La Paz offers very good birding. Nearby Sorata at the lower elevation of 8800ft is the best place to see the endemic Berlepsch's Canastero. The Coroico Road connecting La Paz to the city of Coroico offers stunning scenery and good birding. It descends from an elevation of some 11,900ft at La Paz to 5000ft at Coroico. The birding begins at an elevation of about 9700ft. The Old Coroico Road begins about 2/3 of the way to Coroico and is carved out of a cliff face. It is narrow and treacherous. Before the new road was built, a couple hundred people died each year by going off the old road in the fog or from landslides, giving the old road it's nickname of "Death Road". The upper and lower stretches can be reached from the new road without traversing the old road itself very far but birding groups sometimes travel the entire road. A mojor target species along the Upper Coroico Road is Scimitar-winged Piha, sometimes seen, sometimes missed. The main target species along the Lower Coroico Road is the endangered Yellow-rumped Antwren. The South Yungas Road to Chulumani leads to the Apa-Apa Reserve, an excellent middle elevation birding site. It's the best place in Bolivia to see Scimitar-winged Piha.
The Apolo Region northeast of La Paz in La Paz department features the only Bolivian Andean Cerrado in the world. The main birding sites are the Bolivian Andean Cerrado to the south, the Machariapo Valley to the north, and the Apolo Yungas to the southwest. The cerrado is home to the Palkachupa Cotinga, a likely future split from Swallow-tailed Cotinga that is already recognized as a separate endangered species by some authorities. It was first collected in 1902 and described as a subspecies of Swallow-tailed Cotinga in 1930. It was rediscovered in 2000 after 9800 years with no new records. Another key species is the recently described Inti Tanager, a seasonal migrant occasionally seen in October but most likely seen from November-March. The Machariapo Valley is also the best place in the world to actually see the super secretive Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.
Rurrenabaque is the gateway to the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia. It's located at the junction between the last Andes foothills and the beginning of the vast tropical rainforest and pampas of the Bolivian lowlands northeast of La Paz. The area around the town of Rurrenabaque is mostly disturbed second growth forest offering little of birding interest. There is good tropical forest north of the city. Sadiri Lodge is located to the northwest of Rurrenabaque within the boundary of Madidi Integrated Management Area and National Park, directly north of La Paz. The area around the lodge is very good for viewing mixed species flocks and other canopy birds from the road along a ridge overlooking the forest. The key target species is the very range restricted and vulnerable Yungas Tyrannulet. Also of interest there is Ash-throated Gnateater, which has a very limited range in Bolivia.
The Beni Region encompasses north-central Bolivia. It features three main habitats, the Beni Tropical Savannah Endemic Bird Area, Bolivian Cerrado, and Beni Tropical Forest. The Santa Rosa Beni Savanna is located a few hours outside the town of Rurrenabaque.Some 7 hours by vehicle east of the town of Rurrenabaque lies the city of Trinidad. Gallery forest outside Trinidad offers worthwhile birding. Hacienda El Cutal, a working cattle ranch, is 2½ hours beyond Trinidad. It's the most accessible place to find the critically endangered Blue-throated Macaw. Mid-way between Rurrenabgque and Trinidad but farther north is Reserva Barba Azul, established to protect the main breeding and roosting site of Blue-throated Macaw. Barba Azul protects the only remaining ungrazed savanna in Bolivia. It is mainly accessible via chartered flights. Getting there by vehicle is very difficult and only possible between June and September.
The town of Riberalta is located in the far north of Bolivia, not far from the border with Brazil. Habitat around Riberalta is cerrado forest and lowland tropical rainforest. Riberalta is home to the endemic Masked Antpitta, which can be found in nearby Puerto Hamburgo or Mariguisal and in cerrado forest a couple hours outside town. The infrequently visited Aquicuana Reserve is located 20km north of Riberalta and protects Amazonian rainforest. There is good rainforest to the northwest near Cachuela close to the border with Brazil and a small area of dry cerrado grassland near Riberalta called Pampa de San Lorenzo. The key species at San Lorenzo is Rufous-sided Pygmy-Tyrant.