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part 1 of the great bolivian parrot tour: peachfront sees and photographs the peachfront

2011-04-25 - 7:26 a.m.

Note: The first photograph I ever took of a peachfront conure is no longer hosted publically, so it has been removed from this page.

So my claim to fame is that I'm the first person in the entire history of the world to do this tour and see all three of Bolivia's critically endangered Macaws in the wild during the course of a single tour. The rest of you may try to copy my style, but I'll always be the first, tee hee. Someday, when birders and photographers are making the trek on a regular basis, I'll look back and smile, when I think of hiking the paths and scouting the birds completely on my own, just me and my personal guide there to tote the scope. Hey. A person could get real used to this...

I didn't start out to make history or even to make a solo tour. I had a tourist visa for Bolivia, thanks to the great Bolivian bird of prey adventure in October 2009. I had a plan to get the Peachfront Conure on my birdlist before I turned 50 except, oops, didn't quite make it. Then I had a plan to at least get it on my list before the babies that I bred got old enough to gamble in a casino with the ace of spades in one claw and a pomegranate martini in the other. With Courtney and Ronnie reaching age 21 around April 16, I might not make that goal either. But one thing I knew for sure: I was never going to be any younger than I was right now, and I might never again have both this much available time and be this healthy. Not that I have any money, but I was also beginning to suspect that we might never again have this much money, thanks to the great disappearing poker economy and what not. So...The time to boldly go into the outback to seek out strange new Peachfronts was n-o-w. The part about going where no tourist has ever gone before just kind of happened.

Aratinga aurea is not a rare bird. However, I have the impression, rightly or wrongly, that it's in hard-to-reach areas of Argentina and Brazil. I have figured for a long time that my best chance to get the bird was to go to the right part of Bolivia. I'd hoped to come across it by chance during the Bird of Prey tour, but I see now that we mostly weren't in the right area, and when we were in the right area, we just didn't come across it. This time, I wanted to be sure.

So I contacted the Bolivian parrot guy, and I soon got the idea that it wouldn't be too hard to set up that part of the trip. In fact, seeing the Peachfront Conure was one of those things that just kind of automatically happens if you go to the right area. It would be silly to just fly down, tag the bird, and then zip home, especially since Bolivia is such a bird-rich place, with over 1,300 (1,400?) species and counting. Hmmm. I had the perfect excuse to chase more species.

"What else would you like to do? Where have you been already?" Parrot Guy asked, and I gave him the itinerary from my last trip, stating that since I'd just been to Los Volcanes in October 2009 and Bolivia is a big place, I'd rather go somewhere else unless there were other people in the tour who expected to go there. This is not a slam against Los Volcanes, which is spectacular -- it's more that it's so spectacular that it's considered an "expected" part of Bolivia tours and I was eager to see something different.

"You're the whole tour," was the reply. "Want to rent a Cessna and fly out to see the Hyacinth Macaw?"

Is that the kind of question where the answer is ever no?

So it was that on the morning of Sunday, April 10, DH had to drive me to the airport. There has been endless construction ever since Katrina, badly needed construction no doubt but still a bit of a nuisance, and we discovered that we couldn't take the interstate. Therefore, as a humor element, I found myself riding down Veterans Hwy, where we passed the rather bizarre public sculpture of the 13 Toco Toucans. I do not know why the corner of Clearview and Vets requires a sculpture of 13 Toco Toucans, but I figured I'd take it as a good omen for my upcoming trip.

I bought a business class ticket on American Airlines, because it wasn't much more expensive, and I don't have any status there. If business class tickets were always this fairly priced, I'd probably always fly business. It didn't even seem worth trying to use my miles. I'll save them for another trip, when the airline is not fighting with Orbitz and can go back to offering more extortionist prices. However, my first impression of AA's first class product wasn't great. No lounge in the New Orleans airport, no pre-flight cocktail on AA 486 MSY-MIA. Once they got in the air, they did serve drinks quickly and efficiently though, apologizing for the lack of real glassware. They had to use plastic cups from economy because of some issue with catering. So I'm guessing that the lack of pre-flight service stemmed from the same catering issue, rather than being any indication that they would routinely try to stiff first class pax on a cocktail.

There was a lounge at Miami, where I took a much-needed shower and washed my hair. They gave me some drink coupons, but it wasn't clear why, since I could get free drinks anyway just by tipping the bartender a buck. The food was mostly sugar cookies, although once they got energetic and put out some carrots and celery sticks. That's OK. I like sugar cookies. I certainly ate more than I needed.

I tried to use their free computers but the computer told me to "ask your mom and dad" before I could visit my own website. Oh brother. I had another glass of wine and two sugar cookies instead. Maybe it was four sugar cookies.

Finally, it was time to board AA 922 MIA-LPZ-VVI. They offered pre-flight champagne and I lifted a glass to my upcoming trip.

The flight leaves around 10:30 or 11 P.M. at night or so. This time, it was scheduled for 10:30 and pretty much got out on time. I'm not used to eating such a late dinner, so I was little silly by the time the soup and (very nice) steak came around.

The worst problem with the flight? You get what you pay for. It may be business class, but they don't have lie-flat seats. They don't have footrests. The seats are no different from a first class domestic seat. I did sleep, but I always feel like I'm not well-rested if I sleep sitting up. It had to be better than the almost-full cattle car back in economy, though. Also, I ended up tossing my sugar cookies. I don't know if it was one of my motion sickness episodes or if I can no longer tolerate that much sugar but I felt almost instantly well after tossing said cookies and drinking a Coke, so it was a minor incident either way.

We had a nice pink sunrise coming into La Paz. Some people got off, and the commuters from La Paz to Santa Cruz hopped onto the bus, and then we headed off again. I could see snow, and I could also see some actual glaciers, or at least they looked like graciers to this Louisiana chica. The flight down the Andes to the lowlands of Santa Cruz didn't take long, and sooner than you'd think, I was stumbling out of the airplane.

My bag was priority tagged to be off-loaded before the cattle bags, and they put it out first of all. It's good to be the king.

In my haste to be Numero Uno out of the airport, I didn't notice that the kindly baggage handlers of American Airlines had pretty much slashed the handle to pieces. Grrrr. By the time I did realize, we were already out of VVI and at El Trompillo airport, so it was too late to go back and complain. I don't think they worry about slashed bags anyway. They only compensate for slashed contents, and the contents were fine. It actually looked as if someone suspected that I'd concealed something between the inner and outer lining of the bag and deliberately cut into it around the handle, to see if I had anything hidden in there. Who knows? Maybe they thought I was the first tourist to try to smuggle cocaine into Bolivia. In any case, it was a cheap bag from Chinatown, so I'm over it.

Even though I was first out the door, my guide and driver were already there to meet me with one of those little signs. We all introduced ourselves, and then we were off. It was Monday morning, April 11, by now. A sign warned us to watch out for Greater Rheas crossing the road. I saw no Rheas at the airport this time but did get two perched Burrowing Owls.

We had a bit of a wait at El Trompillo Airport. You know that airport in Madagascar where they had the chalkboard? No chalkboard. That would be telling. They kinda, sorta don't wanna be committed to departing at any particular time. So we waited around, eating some kind of empenada and watching the other planes, and finally they decided that a plane would be coming and we could check in and all that good happy stuff. That's the exterior of our plane in the above photo, with our bags being loaded.

There was security, but it was sketchy. The X-ray didn't appear to be working, and a guy just had to open the bags to have a look. I was wearing a photo vest with pockets stuffed full of supplies, and he didn't bother to check it out. Pretty sensible, really, although you're not allowed to use your common sense in America. But think about it: I doubt it's worth worrying about terrorists taking down a flight which, as it turned out, had all of seven passengers on it anyway. The plane itself was so small that you couldn't have a flight attendant; instead, they handed you a bottle of water BEFORE you got on the plane. It wouldn't have been physically possible to do it onboard. No, really, that wasn't a joke. It was a description. You had to crouch going down the aisle, what aisle there was, but at least everyone had a window seat. There weren't any aisle seats, much less middle seats, because the plane wasn't big enough. There was no place to store your carry-on. Just prop your feet on it and hope for the best. No one coming by to tell you to put on your seatbelt. No room for a flight attendant, remember? There may or may not have been a safety announcement, or maybe the pilot was just telling people that they'd better not smoke on his aircraft, and then we were off. English may be the language of aviation but not at El Trompillo, bunky.

A driver met me and my guide. There was some hoo-hah because the hotel had lost our reservation, but the driver already knew about it. The guide did stop at the first hotel and try to see if they could work it out, but they'd already booked someone else in our rooms, so whatever. We went to a different hotel where we seemed to be the only guests.

You may think that I've had a pretty long day already, since I've now flown from New Orleans to Miami to La Paz to Santa Cruz to Trinidad. But wait, there's more. I can't remember if we had lunch or not -- we probably did, as I was soon to learn that Bolivians eat just as much as Argentines -- but soon enough, we met back up with the driver and headed out to bird around just outside of Trinidad. As we headed down the road, scanning the fields to either side, the guide told me that we were at the end of rainy season and that I was his first tourist of the year. Moments later, we saw his first Rheas of the year -- heh, my first Rheas since 2009. Let the birding begin!

Yeah, so, the very first stop, we had a pair of Peachfront Conures right in front of us. They were near an old termite nest, which I'm told is where the Peachfronts themselves like to nest. No nesting at the moment, just good strong pair bonds. I noticed almost right away that whenever you saw one Peachfront, you always saw another. They never liked to be apart for more than a few moments. Their affection for each other really touched the heart. The suspense was over. No worries, no pressures. I'd done it. Just like that. In less than an hour of birding. I had the Peachfront Conure. I. Had. The. Peachfront. Conure.

It was open, grassland country, a little moist because it was the end of the rainy season. I was getting life birds right and left -- including dramatic species like Southern Screamer and White Woodpecker. The bird list will tell the tale, but I can't resist noting down a few special moments:

  • A Barred Forest-Falcon emerges and gives us a good look, even though we didn't call it with a tape recording -- only to be rewarded by a mob of highly indignant Tropical Kingbirds. I've never, ever seen a Forest-Falcon so easily. Well, Roger and I had Collared Forest-Falcon "easily" in Veracruz in October 1998, but we were total noobs then and had no clue what had just happened when the bird flew up to perch on the wooden fence directly in front of Roger.* I saw the Forest-Falcon fly in and stared, wondering if I was high on lack of sleep. Could I have damaged my brain when I tossed those sugar cookies? You know, you become a lady of a certain age, and you wonder if you're getting a bit funny. And the guide was getting something else in the scope at the moment, so he didn't see right away. It can't be...but it is...just like that? No tape? No effort? Just like that? Seriously, I actually stood there open-mouthed, not calling the bird and not saying a word, in case I'd just gone crazy. Fortunately, the guide and the kingbirds caught on within seconds, and then I knew that I couldn't be hallucinating, or, if I was, it must be a group hallucination, because everyone saw it. Eventually, reluctantly, the bird moved on, but not until we'd all had great looks. Not that Mr. Tropical Kingbird wants all that great of a look, but the rest of us enjoyed it.
  • A Roadside Hawk goes for a bare tree where several Dusky-Headed Parakeets are perching -- but only catches a mouthful of "missed it" and an earful of squawk.
  • A perfectly well-grown, big enough to catch his own food, juvenile Black-Collared Hawk was crying like a little baby for food gifts that never came. I guess American Airlines told him to "ask your Mom and Dad," but Mom and Dad think he's big enough to handle life on his own. The basement is closed for repairs.
  • Our first sighting of White Woodpecker was breathtaking, since a pair flew over us, made a little circle giving us great views, and then perched to be examined in the scope.

    The List

    What a day. Thanks to just me, the guide, and the scope, I got 16 life birds -- almost all of them high quality sightings. There was one "better view desired," the Amazon Kingfisher, but I was to get a much more spectacular view of that one, so I really had the perfect day. My bird list here is slightly different from the guide's, since his list is for the actual birding tour around Trinidad only, while I'm including the birds seen at both VVI and the other two smaller airports. New life birds will be in bold.

    1. Greater Rhea
    2. Southern Screamer
    3. Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck
    4. Striated Heron
    5. Cocoi Heron
    6. Great Egret
    7. Capped Heron
    8. Snowy Egret
    9. Bare-Faced Ibis
    10. Buff-Necked Ibis
    11. Roseate Spoonbill
    12. Maguari Stork
    13. Jabiru
    14. Wood Stork
    15. Limpkin
    16. Turkey Vulture
    17. Black Vulture
    18. Snail Kite
    19. Savannah Hawk
    20. Black-collared Hawk
    21. Roadside Hawk
    22. Southern Crested Caracara
    23. Barred Forest-Falcon
    24. Wattled Jacana
    25. Southern Lapwing
    26. Large-Billed Tern
    27. Rock Dove
    28. Ruddy Ground-Dove
    29. Gray-Fronted Dove
    30. Chestnut-Fronted Macaw
    31. Dusky-Headed Parakeet
    32. Peach-fronted Parakeet
    33. Blue-Winged Parrotlet
    34. Yellow-Chevroned Parakeet
    35. Cobalt-Winged Parakeet
    36. Blue-Headed Parrot
    37. Squirrel Cuckoo
    38. Smooth-Billed Ani
    39. Guira Cuckoo
    40. Burrowing Owl -- VVI airport, Santa Cruz
    41. Ringed Kingfisher
    42. Amazon Kingfisher
    43. White Woodpecker
    44. Yellow-Tufted Woodpecker
    45. Little Woodpecker
    46. Ocellated Woodcreeper
    47. Rufous Hornero
    48. Great Antshrike
    49. Black-Backed Water-Tyrant
    50. Cattle Tyrant
    51. Great Kiskadee
    52. Tropical Kingbird
    53. Black-Tailed Tityra
    54. Masked Tityra
    55. Purplish Jay
    56. Silver-Beaked Tanager
    57. Sayaca Tanager
    58. Palm Tanager
    59. Yellow-Browed Sparrow
    60. Red-Crested Cardinal
    61. Red-Capped Cardinal
    62. Crested Oropendula
    63. Yellow-Rumped Cacique
    64. Velvet-Fronted Grackle
    65. Chopi Blackbird -- Trinidad airport
    66. Bay-Winged Cowbird
    67. Giant Cowbird

    * So, the famous sighting of the locally rare Collared Forest-Falcon in rural Veracruz state, Mexico in early October, 1998. The three of us who knew the least about birds somehow (fortunately!) ended up with the guide who knew the most, an artist as well as an ornithologist with great eyes and visual memory -- the guy who could see a dot on a telephone pole and call, Peregrine Falcon, and you think, no way he can call that bird from that distance and eventually you drive past the telephone pole, and it's Peregrine Falcon, all right. Anyway, we're lucky that he kept close to us, stuck with the three noobs as he was, and in flies the Collared Forest-Falcon, almost close enough for Roger to touch. There's pretty much random pandemonium as J. calls the bird, and it then realizes that it's being Observed, and so it flies, and only Roger, me, the guide, and the other completely inexperienced birder saw it. And that, friends and neighbors, was my only previous "easy" sighting of a forest falcon.

    Peachfront's Note: The story continues in part 2 of the great Bolivian parrot adventure.

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