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Bolivia’s Big Day for Birders

By Shalynn Pack

The Big Day – it’s the World Cup of birding, the day in which birders around the world spend all day trekking through the rain, snow, heat, and insects to try to document as many bird species as possible in just 24 hours.

Bolivia started participating in the Big Day only recently, and just last year, came in at 5th place globally, a high ranking that mirrors its incredible biodiversity. With 1435 bird species within its borders, Bolivia is the 6th richest country in the world for bird diversity, and considering only landlocked nations, it’s the most bird diverse country in the world. This diversity is found through a stunning variety of ecosystems. Situated in the heart of South America, Bolivia is home to Amazon rainforest, the high Andes mountains (reaching elevations of up to 21,200 feet!), the arid forests of the Chaco, and the grasslands of the Cerrado. Despite this richness of life, however, ecotourism and especially birding tourism are just getting started in Bolivia.

On May 4, 2019, over 32,000 birders participated in the Big Day, reporting 6,826 bird species globally. Biologist Vincent Vos led the competition in Riberalta, Bolivia. Vincent – a Dutchman – moved to Bolivia with his wife and works as a rural development coordinator, and contributes his expertise to Sustainable Bolivia and the Aquicuana Reserve. Vincent promotes the sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products (think Brazil nut, acai, and cacao), ecotourism, agroforestry, and women’s and indigenous rights in rural communities. He’s an avid naturalist (he’s even documented a new bird species for Bolivia!), wildlife photographer, and due to his collaboration in international studies on tropical ecology and climate change, is currently the most cited researcher in Bolivia!

Vincent Vos, local biologist in Riberalta and collaborator with Sustainable Bolivia.
Wing-barred seedeater, the new species Vincent documented for Bolivia. Photo by Vincent Vos.

Here at Pisatahua we’re honored to interview Vincent about his efforts in Bolivia’s Big Day.

Welcome Vincent! So tell us, how did you become a birder?

I’ve enjoyed watching birds from my childhood in the Netherlands, but it was only 8 years ago I started taking some pictures of birds in the area surrounding Riberalta. At this stage I once came across a site called “birding-pal” and I decided to inscribe myself as a possible local guide for professional birders that would like to bird in the Bolivian Amazon. I had a visit from a guy called Jason Fidorra and I showed him around, while looking for the Masked Antpitta, an endangered and endemic bird here in Riberalta. This experience (which I also described in a magazine I published a few years ago (https://issuu.com/vincentvos/docs/enfoqueamazonico_n__1) got me hooked, and I ‘ve been birding (and later also herping (looking for reptiles and amphibians) and bugging) ever since.

What makes Riberalta special for biodiversity, especially birds?

Riberalta is located in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon, which is known for its incredible biodiversity – during Big Day I think I saw more species of birds in one day here than I could have in a whole year in The Netherlands. There are more species of fish in any Amazonian lake than there are in the whole of Europe. There are more species of frogs, snakes and bats in my backyard, than there are in the whole of the Netherlands… One tree in the Amazon will hold more species of insects than in the whole of Europe… the list goes on!

The nice thing about birds is, that you see them relatively easily. During a trip to the natural surroundings, they make up at least 90% of the wildlife you see. And with hundreds of species, there is always something new. Riberalta is special in that it is the only known home to the rare Masked Antpitta (Hylopezus auricularis), which survives with an estimated 250 to 500 individuals.

The Masked Antpitta, endemic to Riberalta, Bolivia. Photo by Vincent Vos.

Why is Bolivia’s involvement in the Big Day important?

Bolivia only recently started to participate. Not as much as to try and win the title, but more so to show the enormous bird-diversity here, to stress its need for protection, and to show the potential for tourism. And I think we’ve managed to reach these goals. With a fourth place last October and the 5th place in the Big Day of 2019, we put Bolivia on the birding charts. While we managed to organize the birding community in Bolivia itself, we also managed to get attention from the press, the general public and – not least – the national and local authorities.

What was the Day like? How did it go?

It was a great trip! We started in the afternoon the day before, and after a difficult ride through muddy roads, we got to the forest where a fallen tree inhibited us from entering any further. We camped right on that road and started birding really early the next day. Unluckily there was a small drizzle in the early morning that kept bird activity really low, but after a few hours in the forest and a few additional hours of birding in the savannahs, we already passed the first 100 species. One of the best observations was a pair of Chaco Eagles, which is an exiting new sighting for the area.

By then things were getting tough – I’d been stung by 2 bees, bitten by a carpenter bee, and was harassed by hundreds of mosquitoes and japutame (a kind of mite), my head was hurting from the sun and the dehydration, but with some water, some nuts and cookies we carried on. We did some more birding along the Yata River and in the forests near Aquicuana Reserve, and didn’t stop after registering our last night-herons at the shore of the Beni river near Riberalta at around 10:30 that night.

Sebastian Herzog, author of “Birds of Bolivia,” sights Chaco Eagles on the Big Day with Vincent.

What are your hopes for bird conservation, research, and/or sustainable development in Riberalta? How are you hoping Sustainable Bolivia and the Aquicuana Reserve can help with this?

I hope these activities help to show this region isn’t only very rich in birds, but also in biodiversity in general, and also help create more conservation ethic amongst the general public and local authorities. I believe the best way to conserve this biodiversity is by promoting sustainable development, instead of production activities with many negative environmental impacts. Birding and other ecotourism is one of these options.

Sustainable Bolivia is one of the few concrete initiatives in the area focused on ecotourism. Their volunteers are helping to construct these options for sustainable development. Aquicuana Reserve is one of the best examples. The area itself had been recognized as “biological station San Jose” earlier, but this was mainly on paper, without any budget nor coordination with the locals. Sustainable Bolivia is not only trying to expand and formalize this protected area, but also plays a very important role by involving the local communities in this activity, which provides new development opportunities through tourism.

We at Sustainable Bolivia hope to continue collaborating with Vincent in the coming year, to promote conservation and community development initiatives in Riberalta and Aquicuana Reserve. And, perhaps we can help bring Bolivia a few more species in the Big Year 2020!

 

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