Riberalta, Beni, Bolivia

by Sjoerd Mayer

Also, see the trip reports about Riberalta on the "front page", and Pictures of sites near Riberalta by John and Nollie van der Woude.

Photo 1. Riberalta town. Rio Beni waterfront from the air. The central square is to the right of the photograph, and out of sight. Lois Jammes.

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Hamburgo is the place for Masked Antpitta Hylopezus auricularis (click the small picture on the right to see a large photo, and there are recordings of song and calls on Some Bird Sounds from Bolivia).

 Jon Hornbuckle In March 1994, I went birding with my friends Bernard Geling and Douglas Knapp to Riberalta. I don't really remember why exactly Riberalta, but I think it was because Bernard knew friends living there. Anyway, we ended up birding for two and a half weeks! I found it a fantastic place, not only because the birding was excellent, but most of all I think because our rented motorbikes made birding very pleasant. No more long, hot and thirsty walks back to town after a long morning of birding, but a fast ride with the cool wind through your hair! My enthusiasm was not even dampened by a rather bloody fall on the rough gravel when a dog crossed the road at night in front of me!

Anyway, while birding alone one late afternoon just outside town in a low-lying area called Hamburgo, in the most heavily disturbed habitat imaginable, my attention was drawn by a loud song which was obviously made by an Antbird. It much resembled the song of Amazonian Antshrike, but the strange thing was that it didn't come in after playback, whereas Amazonian Antshrike always flies in to come singing almost on top of your head!

That afternoon I didn't see the bird, even though it responded well to playback by coming close and singing even more loudly. If I remember well, it was only two days later that I drove a bird to such utter desperation by endless playback (poor bird!, please don't do this again), that at last it came to sing on a branch only two meters over my head! What I saw was a "Spotted Antpitta with a black mask".

Some weeks later I wrote about this to the renowned Antbirds experts Mort and Phyllis Isler. They soon wrote me back telling me that I had probably found the auricularis race of Spotted Antpitta. But they also asked me if I was certain that the recording I sent them was really made by the Antpitta, so utterly different was the song from the songs of the other races of Spotted Antpitta!

It turned out that the auricularis race is only known from this area. It was first collected by Alfonso M. Olalla in 1937 on the other side of the river (between the rivers Beni and Madre de Dios), less than 10 km away from Hamburgo, and since then only J. V. Remsen had seen it at Tumichucua, less than 20 km sw of Riberalta (see map).

So that was all great news. A dream come true! A distinctive-looking race of an Antpitta with a completely different song, very different habitat (muddy ground near the river, instead of high forest like the other races), and a tiny (known) distribution. And an endemic for Bolivia to boot! So I got a little note published in the most respected ornithological journal: The Auk! ("Rediscovery of Hylopezus (macularius) auricularis: Distinctive Song and Habitat Indicate Species Rank", The Auk 115(4):1072-1073, 1998.)

Please read John Hornbuckle's and Barry Wright's trip reports about how they found the Masked Antpittas at Hamburgo (see list of trip reports on the front page).

Hamburgo, by the way, also has many other "good" birds: Band-tailed Nighthawks start flying around at dusk (in April at least), Purus Jacamars sit on the wires along the road, the fuscicauda race of Blackish Antbird (still considered a race in the "official" books, but obviously a distinct species with its completely different song), Amazonian Tyrannulet (formerly Pale-tipped T.), and Lesser Kiskadee.

And see below for the story of how Hamburgo got its name.

Photo 2. Brick making in the Hamburgo area, between Riberalta town and the Rio Beni, with habitat of Masked Antpitta Hylopezus auricularis in the background. Jon Hornbuckle.

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When searching the web about what more I could find about "Hamburgo", I encountered the explanation of where the place got its name in the "Hamburger Abendblatt". Unfortunately they removed the page from their website, but here is the translation:

"Bolivia: 1860 came a Mr. Winkelmann

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, or more precisely: in the far north of Bolivia, is Puerto Hamburgo (...).

The last house of the former settlement Puerto Hamburgo in Bolivia: a little maize farm.
That was until 1970, when the last inhabitants left, after the Rio Beni again inundated the whole place. It was then 110 years ago that a German immigrant called Winkelmann settled in this godforsaken place at ten kilometers from the little town of Riberalta, and founded a plantation. Why he called the place Hamburgo, nobody knows.
The wide, brown Rio Beni is still crossed by a ferry, but the hand full of people still in Hamburgo now make a living burning tiles. The soil is clay because of the inundations by the Rio Beni, and that makes that the quality of tiles made here is unsurpassed in Bolivia. They are the hallmark of the whole area. ....."

Photo 3. Rio Beni. Lois Jammes.

The map is shown at 50% of its size (click to see it at 100%).

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