Choquetanga Valley

by Lawrence Rubeyand A. Bennett Hennessey

The Choquetanga Valley provides a glimpse at the diversity of the High Andes before intensive human habitation. The valley holds a remnant Polylepis forest, one of the closest to La Paz. The species, Polylepis racemosa, is suited to semi-humid area and somewhat rarer than the Polylepis species in Sajama National Park and San Miguel in Cochabamba. While the Polylepisforest above Pongo is somewhat disturbed and, as is often the case, more scrub than forest, it still attracts of variety of Polylepis specialties. Starting at an altitude of just under 3700 meters, the 225 meter climb to the Polylepisforest can be strenuous. Make sure you are reasonably well acclimated to the altitude before attempting it. The path is quite good, if a bit steep. Even if La Paz temperatures are warm, be prepared for cold, foggy weather. Bring adequate clothing and rain gear.

The key attraction in the forest is the Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant. An endangered and rare Polylepisspecialty known from a handful of sites in Peru, for years the only Bolivian record was a 1935 specimen. Yet in 1993, SjoerdMeyer, a Dutch ornithologist, discovered and sound recorded a small flock of Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrants in the Choquetanga Valley. They appear to be resident and, based on about a half-dozen visits,they are likely to be seen on over two-thirds of all visits. With their white tail feathers and tendency to travel in small family groups, they are fairly conspicuous.

Other species found in the valley, some of which are at least partially Polylepis-dependent, include: OlivaceousThornbill, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Tawny Tit-Spinetail, Line-fronted Canastero, Giant Conebill (occasionally- also seen flying away over the tops of the ridges), Stripe-headed Antpitta, Puna (Andean) Tapaculo, Brown-bellied Swallow and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Plain-colored Seedeater. Andean Hillstar and Great Sapphirewingcan be found feeding when flowers are in bloom, especially near the stunted Gynoxys trees. A walk through the bunch grass at the perimeter of the forest will likely flush a Scribble-tailed Canastero. Cinereous Ground-Tyrant is likely on the way up or down. Finally, even Andean Condor has been seen soaring overhead on rare occasions.

Unfortunately, the Polylepisforest in the Choquetanga valley is under severe threat. Evidence of cattle grazing is everywhere. However, cattle do not seem to penetrate the boulder fields where Polylepishave established as stronghold. Burning of the hillside grasslands also threaten the small patch of forest. AsociacionArmoniais working with the local community of Pongoto protect the area. The community havedeclared that they will no longer burn the grass in the area, and will create a protective wall around the forest. In 2006, Armonía will begin a reforestation project and try attemptto develop a tourism structure in the area. If you want to help the effort, after your birding adventure, celebrate with a Pongofarm raised fresh trout lunch or dinner in the stalls- and declare loudly that you are tourists who came to enjoy the Choquetangaforest.

Located in the valley just below the food stalls on the paved highway, Pongo town itself can have some interesting species in the exotic plantations and flowering bushes. White-browed Conebilland Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant are notable.

Logistics: Pongois a small town just off the Coroicoroad. Townspeople operate a number of food stalls which line the Coroicoroad and provide a convenient place to park. At the La Cumbre (see Site 5 above) re-set your odometer to zero ( 0.0 km). Continue down the Coroico road until you see the Pongofood stalls on your right ( 14.5 km from the Cumbre). Park your car (or get off the bus) at the food stalls. From the parking area in front of food stalls, orient yourselfto the north. Head back up the road 50 meters or so, cross the paved road and begin a steep climb (north) into the Choquetanga valley on the small path that parallels the left-side of the waterfall. After 10 minutes or so, reach the "first level" with a small pond and beautiful views of a second, larger waterfall to the north. The sheer cliff face of the second waterfall makes a direct assault impractical. Facing the second waterfall, look to the right and you can see a path running along side of the valley which will serpentine your way up and eventually to the "second level" area that is just above this second waterfall. As you surmount the "second level," the second waterfall will be on your left. You may find the path blocked with rocks; the rocks are to prevent animals grazing in grasslands further up the path from wandering too far. Once you arrive above the waterfall (you will pass it on your left as you climb the trail), walk due north for a couple hundred meters until you reach the Polylepisforest at the base of a large boulder field. Smaller remnant Polylepisis also found further up on a "third level." The total climb from food stalls to the forest is about an hour without birding or rest stops. Charles Hessewrote, "I found the Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrants on the tiny patch on the 3rd level. Here I found Line-fronted Canastero and Giant Conebillat the same time. Great place, especially the second time I went there and it didn't rain so much."

GPS reading at Pongofood stalls (roadside parking area): S 16 19.443 W 67 57.216
GPS reading at the Polylepis forest: S 16 19.501 W 67 57.247