San Miguel Polylepis Forest

by Lawrence Rubey and A. Bennett Hennessey

The San Miguel polylepis forest, lying in the shadow of the Tunari cordillera that dominates the city of Cochabamba to the north, is one of the premier birding sites in Cochabamba. The attractions are an abundance of endemic species, as well as easy access from Cochabamba. At an altitude of about 3200 meters, San Miguel (often known as the community of Jankho Khala) is 58 kilometers by road from Cochabamba and 43 kilometers from Quillacollo (a lower-income neighbor of Cochabamba).

While trees of the genus Polylepis are in general decline and often found only in areas with difficult access, the San Miguel forest is a pleasant exception. Due to strong traditions and community restrictions on cutting, the forest (Polylepis besseri) remains in relatively good shape. Studies have shown high densities of Polylepis (160 Polylepis trees per hectare). And, over the past couple years, conservation projects have aided the community in construction of a nursery for Polylepis seedlings and helped the community improve their management and conservation of the forested areas. The area is rather arid, with between 600 and 1000 millimeters of rain each year, and characterized by steep ravines and several streams. In addition to Polylepis besseri, key tree species include Citharexylum punctatum and Escallonia resinosa.

Unlike many other areas, it is not essential to arrive at first light. Unless it is quite hot, birds are often active all day long. Temperatures are usually pleasant, although the occasional birder falls victim to windy conditions. Ideally, San Miguel should be visited on two separate occasions to compensate for the fact that some of the key species have large wandering ranges.

The birding begins soon after leaving Quillacollo on the stone paved road. As the road begins climbing, look for flowering plants that may hold a variety of hummingbirds including Giant Hummingbird, Red-tailed Comet, and the endemic Wedge-tailed Hillstar. On the way up, a stop at the turn for Liriuni is also worthwhile as a few Bolivian Blackbirds often seem to be around where the road forks or close to the Liriuni hot springs. A group of Bolivian Blackbirds live, and likely breed, in the valley formed by the bare cliff. They are often seen foraging as a group on the ground.

Continuing straight on the road to Morochata, travelling up a serpentine road. As the road makes a turn to the right and crosses a small stream, look for evidence of an old washed out concrete bridge. This area is the best spot for a number of Polylepis specialists including Giant Conebill, Cochabamba Mountain-Finch, and Rufous-bellied Saltator. The left hillside has an excellent Polylepis grove, though it is interspersed with potato plots. The forest is open enough that one can wander through out the area with little problem, though the steep slopes and somewhat high altitude might necessitate a slower pace. Other birds of interest are Bolivian Warbling-Finch, Gray-bellied Flowerpiercer, Maquis Canastero, and Tawny-Tit Spinetail. Rufous-bellied Saltators respond well to persistent pishing. The Giant Conebills are noted for their nuthatch-like behaviour, so it is worthwhile to carefully scan the trunks of the Polylepis trees.

The Polylepis trees are close enough to the road that by scrambling up the hillside, one can easily reach the edge of the forest. A slightly more strenuous, but rewarding option, is to seek out the trail that runs along the small irrigation aqueduct 50 or 60 meters up the hillside. To reach the aqueduct, carefully follow the rock-filled stream bed up-river until you reach a small stone dam. The aqueduct caries water off to the left and provides a level trail for birding the forest. More Polylepis lies further up the Morachata road, especially in the deep ravines and on steep inaccessible slopes. At 27 kilometers, the road makes a sharp hairpin turn to the right. To the left, there is a good view of the ravine and a small trail that leads to the edge of the main ravine. Torrent Duck, White-capped Dipper, Streak-fronted Thornbird, D'Orbigny's Chat-Tyrant, Brown-capped Tit-Spinetail are all rather common here. Travelling further up the road will eventually take you to a large area of high altitude puna and over a dozen small lagunas. At 42 km along this road (about 400 meters) there are interesting wet bogs that are best explored by foot. Many of the more common high Andean species can be found here including: Andean Gull, White-winged Diuca-Finch, Yellow-billed Pintail, Crested Duck, Bar-winged Cinclodes and Bright-rumped yellow-Finch. Although Short-billed Finch and Diademed Sandpiper-Plover have been recorded from this area, they are probably easier to see elsewhere.

The nearby Liriuni hot springs area is not as interesting as San Miguel, but does have a few species not yet recorded further up in the Polylepis forest, in particular Olive-crowned Crescentchest. The Liriuni balinero (or bathhouse) at the hot springs is quite run-down and the "hotel" is quite seedy. But the area can be rewarding, especially in the afternoon, for dry valley species such as Giant Hummingbird, Red-tailed Comet, Andean Flicker, Maquis Canastero, Tawny Tit-Spinetail, and Grey-hooded Parakeet.

Logistics: From the central plaza in Cochabamba travel west two blocks to Avenida Heroinas. Follow Avenida Heriones as it changes name to General Blancos still travelling west (this is also the main road leading to La Paz). Continue travelling west passing several footbridges across the road. This is a fairly built up area and there are several gas stations along the way. Watch for a large green statue of a man with a small boy. Turn right at the second street after this statue, a poorly signposted turn for the town of Morachata. Set your odometer to zero at this point and continue straight, passing through a small outdoor market. This road, known as the "old road" to Morochata, changes from asphalt, to one paved with stone, and eventually to dirt. You may note a small sign that says Morochata 62 km, Buena Vista 8 km.

Pass through Buena Vista and then at 12 km arrive at a fork in the road. The left fork travels to an excellent Polylepis forest and eventually to the Morachata puna zone. The right fork travels to the Liriuni dry valley. Taking the left fork, follow the road up and around many curves. The river will be on your right. At around 21 km (3500 meters) the road makes a tight turn to the right to cross the river. Before the river crossing, one can see the remnants of an old washed out concrete bridge. Park here on the side of the road. Facing uphill, most of the hillsides to the left are covered with Polylepis.

GPS reading at the "washed out bridge," just below San Miguel Polylepis forest: S 17 16.588' W 68 19.776'