Santa Rosa Beni Savannas

by Bennett Hennessey

The Beni flooded savannas should far surpass the popularity of the Pantanal of Brazil. Bolivia's savannas are phenomenal for ease of observation and sheer bird abundances. The habitat holds around two hundred species. The area is vast, but three main spots stand out as the best places to visit this habitat, 1) The Barba Azul Nature Reserve, which protects the Blue-throated Macaw population strong hold, 2) the Beni Savannas around Trinidad, and 3) the Santa Rosa Beni Savannas. Outside of the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, you will not see the Blue-throated Macaw unless specifically guided to a rare roosting site or nesting tree.

The Santa Rosa Beni Savanna offers an excellent alternative within easy access from Rurrenabaque to bountiful savannas. The savannas have some of the highest bird abundances in Bolivia.  You will probably never see another place with such a high bird biomass. My one day car trip from Reyes to Santa Rosa ended with such ridiculous numbers as; 100 Cocoi Herons, 40 Plumbeous Ibis', 40 Southern Screamers, 45 Jabirus, 37 Snail Kites, 300 Limpkins etc. The Savanna is most likely where your biggest birding day will be, usually around 120 birds, and almost all the birds can be found in the small Collin's Birds of Southern South America field guide (see birdwatching guide).  The savanna is also a favorite area for bird photographers with lots of tame big birds in good light. But plan accordingly because this habitat is high abundance/ low diversity, so though day 1 will bring you hundreds of lifers, day four might not bring you any.

Savanna birding begins along the road to Santa Rosa just a few Km outside of the town of Reyes.  The road is very quiet with little traffic, but also few places to stop for cold drinks until you get to the town of Santa Rosa, 67 Km from Reyes.  The road passes large and small marsh areas, dry savannas, wet savannas and gallery forest.  In the open areas pick up your Herons, Ibises, Screamers, Ducks, Storks and Hawks but don't neglect the forest patches and river edge forest for savannas adapted Ovenbirds, Antbirds and Flycatchers like Chotoy Spinetail, Rufous Cacholote, Great Antshrike, Mato Grosso Antbird, White-crested Tyrannulet, and White, White-rumped and Grey Monjita.  And keep an eye out for the Bolivian savannas subspecies of the Plain Softtail and Velvet-fronted Grackle, both being under scientific investigation as to their full endemic species status.  We recommend that you think like the birds looking at the many variable habitats and microhabitats within the general name "savannas".  Try to spend sometime in each of these habitat types: wet marsh, dry marsh, open small lake, river, river edge forest, open forest, forest Island, large forest, thick road edge scrub, dry grassland, wet grassland and even the towns of Santa Rosa and Reyes are habitat types.  By birding and driving your way to Santa Rosa, spending one or two nights in Santa Rosa, and then birding and driving the return trip.

Logistics:  Rurrenabaque is not your large city, or developed town like in other parts. It still has a very rough tropical feel and will be a bit more complicated. There is no rent a car company. For short trips, you can rent a motorbike. Just ask the motortaxi men for a rental- the price last year was 15 Bolivianos an hour. There are 4x4 that can be rented with the driver. You can negotiate a price for a trip from Rurrenabaque to Santa Rosa for a number of days. The driver will always be with the vehicle. We recommend asking the hotel for a recommended driver- someone they know. It costs around 100 USD a day. One possibility is to rent a taxi with a driver or a motorbike in Rurrenabaque.  Another option would be to ask a reputable tourism agency for a vehicle and driver for a trip. A very nice trip would be to spend the day driving and stopping the 67 Km between Reyes and Santa Rosa, pass two nights in Santa Rosa birding further up the road to the large lake on day two, and spending the third day backtracking the adventure to Rurrenabaque.  Beware though, a rainy day may force the road to be closed for up to several hours.  The entire road is good birding and we recommend you make many stops, and keep in mind habitat types mentioned above. 

Another option would be to tag along on a tour run by a tour operator in Rurrenabaque.  These agencies usually sell a trip along the Yacuma river, where tourists can see Pink River Dolphin, Capybara, Caiman and large congregations of river edge birds like Egrets.  For the birder, such a trip is not nearly as productive as a walk along the road anywhere between Reyes and Santa Rosa. But if you have a group, many of these eco-tourism agencies are quiet flexible and could custom design a birding tour to include various stops along the road.