Friday, May 29, 2015

Cock-of-the-Rock and some others

Entering the foothills of the Andes was a change from the plains I had become accustomed to. The bird assemblage naturally changed too, with numerous species I had not seen for some time, such as Swallow-winged Puffbird, Black-tailed and Black-crowned Tityra, Turqouise and White-shouldered Tanagers, White-collared Swift and two new species, Blue-crowned Motmot and displaying (lekking) male White-bearded Manakins. I was still missing a lot, many birds went unidentified or were simply to fast for me to get a good look at. Much to my surprise, I also saw a pair of White-banded Swallows gliding over the waters of a tranquil stream. These are rather beautiful swallows with a dark glossy blue plumage, deeply forked tail, and a white band across the chest - elegant indeed!

Rising above the plains.

A river in the foothills of the Andes on the way to Santa Maria.

The midday temperature and humidity was also higher here than in the plains, so I took to a stream to cool off in some deep pools. Some locals were doing the same so I was not the only one searching for a cool and watery microclimate. Cycling further into the hills while gaining altitude ensured a reasonable temperature drop, but the start of serious mountain climbs. I was heading for Santa Maria, and the road continued to wind its way up. Some sheer cliffs on the way produced two pairs of Cliff Flycatcher and a handsome Bat Falcon, perched atop a dead tree. With night nearly upon me, and having no idea how far I still had to go to reach Santa Maria, I ended up making an emergency stop-over for the night beside the road. An unmistakable silhouette flashed passed me in the dim light. I knew what it was despite the brief view, nothing else has a tail like a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar! What a bird, with surely the longest tail I have even seen on anything with two wings (the tail can reach a length of over half a metre). Next morning I was up early to enjoy the forest birding, and had a brief chat with a group of mountain bikers racing their way to the top; I had no hopes of keeping up with their pace! 

Group of cyclists near Santa Maria.

Lots of American migrants were about, such as Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Swainson’s Thrush, Canada Warbler, Golden-crowed Warbler, Summer Tanager, some unidentified species, and a Cerulean Warbler. I had a glimpse of the latter a couple months earlier, but did not expect to see one again. So it was a delight to find out that they appeared to be rather common in the area. Just before entering the town, I had views of a Pectoral Sparrow and a Masked Tityra. The bird life seemed so good that I decided to spend the night in Santa Maria and do some birding in the nearby forest the next morning. While taking a stroll through the town, distantly familiar calls drew my attention to a group of Thrush-like Wren, foraging close to the ground in the town’s main square.  

The striking male Canada Warbler.

A Cerulean Warbler gleaning leaves.
View over Santa Maria.
One bird I was not going to tick off!

The morning birding was good but slow, or perhaps I was slow…I still struggled to identify the hummingbirds I was seeing. I managed to nail one down to being a Mango species (not the fruit!), but no further. Definite identifications included some usuals such as Blue-necked Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Thick-billed Euphonia, Russet-backed Oropendola, Golden-faced Tyrannulet and Purple Honeycreeper. Some pleasant surprises were a pair of Bay-headed Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and a Plain Antvireo. I was tempted to stay another day but decided to move on, as I wanted to reach Bogotá before the weekend. 

A male Bay-headed Tanager.

A male Blue-naped Chlorophonia.

Despite being rather common, the Purple Honeycreeper is an exquisite bird.

From Santa Maria the road past through a rather nice valley with excellent forest. It must have been excellent because it did not take too much effort to spot my first male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, calling from a tree canopy beside the road! Though the views were brief, I was very satisfied with the find; a stunning bird in a stunning location. All too quick to get a photo though, and I was still in a rush to move on. After passing through some tunnels, the day passed to night, and so I was soon looking for a camping spot. At a house not far off I met some lovely Colombian folk who offered their backyard for camping. After chomping my through a few arepas for dinner, I was ready for bed. Early the next morning I took to the nearby Emerald Walking Trail, and found a couple lifers while admiring the surrounding mountain slopes; Golden-olive Woodpecker and Ochre-breasted Brushfinch. Loads of tanagers were about, and again, some more unidentified hummingbirds.    

Mind the wildlife, a sign just north of Santa Maria.
There were a number of tunnels on the way north from Santa Maria.

The start of the Emerald trail, an easy and scenic walk.

View over the Chivor Dam.

Freshly made sugar cane juice is irresistible.

Can't help yourself liking it, can you?

I had taken a rather scenic route to get back to Bogota, via the towns of Quateque and Guasca. Though there was not much time left for birding, I still managed to see the regulars such as Inca Jay, Band-tailed pigeon, Tropical Parula, Magpie Tanager, Slate-throated Whitestart, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch, Yellow-backed Oriole, Andean Siskin, and White-tailed Kite. Closer to Guasca I stopped at the De Tomine Dam to see if there was anything interesting lurking in the aquatic vegetation. Standing well above the vegetation were two birds I was not expecting to see at this altitude, namely Whistling Herons. Sure, common in the Llanos and lower eastern slopes of the Andes, but what on earth were they doing here so close to Bogotá? Still much to learn about Neotropical bird life! Though there was not much else about, I did see Speckled teal, Spot-flanked Gallinule, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, and a Peregrine swooping past.

A street in Guateque.
Countryside along the way from Quateque to Guasca.

View over the western corner of the De Tomine Dam near Guasca.
Colombian cyclists on the road near Guasca.

That afternoon, rather late, I made the final descent from the mountain with stunning views over Bogotá bathed in golden rays from the setting sun. While admiring the scene from beside the road, I was offered a free drink by a restaurant waiter (!); a refreshing drink before hitting the rush hour traffic! My plan was to stay a short while in Bogota to get some bike repairs done, but instead I had my first taste of would it would be like to actually live there…    

Making it back to Bogota in good shape.

Late afternoon view over Bogota, enjoyed by Colombians.

Notes for birders:

Two sites near Santa Maria are worth mentioning, the first being the forest at Santa Maria itself, and the second the valley to the north. Perhaps it is no surprise, but the forest at Santa Maria seemed to be a good spot for Cerulean Warbler. I found this species just a little above the town (at 4.864299, -73.258622) and further along the road, together with a host of other North America summer migrants.

To the north of Santa Maria the road passes through a forested valley where I had the sighting of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (at 4.878442, -73.270745). I could be mistaken, but it seemed to me the forest here is worth exploring. If I had more time I would have camped here for a night to get a better impression of the bird life. Santa Maria is close by so it would be an ideal base to bird from.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mani beats all expectations

I spent a few days in Mani, camping at a hotel near the banks of the Cusiana River. My stay coincided with a carnival of sorts, and hence the town was crowded with locals and visitors flocking to witness the festivities. While I enjoyed wandering the streets to see the celebrations for myself, I spend most of my time birding the riparian forest. The eastern bank of the river, both north and south of the Mani bridge, became my stomping ground during my stay.

Colombians enjoying the river at Mani during the festivities.

Festivities on the river at Mani.

A dear-shaped bench in Mani. Other animals were also represented.

Locals watching fireworks from the bridge at Mani.

Again, with too many species to mention here, I should perhaps stick to the most noteworthy sightings – we all would like to get some sleep at some point! Most notable was the diversity of woodpeckers, with Little, Spot-breasted, Red-crowned, Yellow-tufted and the larger Lineated and Crimson-crested Woodpecker making appearances from time to time. While Yellow-rumped Casique flocks were common, I am sure I stumbled upon a pair of shy Solitary Casiques, only to see them disappear over the canopies and onto my ‘not ticked off’ list. An exciting sighting that did not get away and gave rather good views, was a single Venezuelan Troupial. I was rather surprised to find the species so far into Colombia judging from the distribution map in my field guide, but then a little reading elsewhere revealed that they do frequent the area. Pairs of White-bearded Flycatcher were also seen in the riverine woodland south of the Mani bridge, but I was still missing Pale-headed Jacamar (I figured it was maybe just too far south for them). Grey-breasted Martins swooped back and forth over and under the bridge, from which I occasionally had the pleasure of seeing Black Skimmers gliding by on their somewhat stiff wings. 

A Spot-breasted Woodpecker, one of six woodpecker species noted.

An elegant Black Skimmer; there were at least two pairs along the river at Mani.

Further upstream and away from the crowds gathered at the bridge, I enjoyed the tranquil scene of slow flowing waters and wide sandbanks. Collared Plover, Pied Plover, and small flocks of Least Sandpiper patrolled the waters edge here, while Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns cruised by. Where the river’s waters met with the riparian trees, pairs of Lesser Kiskadee and Drab Water-tyrant were adept at hawking insects.
The river north of Mani

A Whistling Heron, enjoying the tranquility as much as I was.

A Collared Plover foraging on the sandbanks at the river confluence.

Amongst the usual species found in the scrub below the open woodland on the edge of town, I saw my first Black-capped Donacobius; A rather striking species with dark upperparts and washed with a pale yellow below. I also got my first confirmed Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, a common species I have had in my binocular sights before, but had trouble being sure what it was. Being uncertain about the identity of a species had become routine for me!  

A small river near Mani, favoured by Sunbittern.

I left Mani with the aim of visiting an area just to the south west, which, on Google Maps, appeared as open grassland with small wetlands scattered about. I figured the area may support some nice wetland birds. The area turned out to be better than I expected. The first surprise came in the form of a Yellow-browed Tyrant, another species which seemed way out of range according to my field guide. A plethora of birds followed, including all the heron species, large and small, the six ibis species, and the four species of kingfishers, ranging from the diminutive American Pygmy to the massive Ringed Kingfisher.

A Little Blue Heron making short work of its lunch.

The Snowy Egret, very similar to Little Egrets of African and Asia.

An Amazon Kingfisher, the second largest kingfisher in South America.

A Wood Stork on the wing.

Five Scarlet Ibises and a single Bare-faced Ibis.

The flooded roadside ditches held various waders, Solitary Sandpiper, Black-necked Stilt, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs; the latter being a new one for me. Other lifers followed with Roseate Spoonbill, Azure and American Purple Gallinule, and Brazilian Teal. The biggest surprise was a solitary Magurai Stork, a species I had hoped to see further north in the Llanos. Behind it was an equally massive Jabiru, battling to swallow a very large fish or eel of sorts that it had caught. As far raptors are concerned, Aplomado Falcon, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracara were all present and gave good views.

Black-necked Stilt, Wattled Jacana, Southern Lapwing and Brazilian Teal.

A Greater Yellowlegs, larger and stockier that the lesser variety.
A pair of Brazilian Teals, with the male on the left.

Roseate Spoonbill was a great surprise, and turned out to be common.

An Anhinga drying its wings after fishing for breakfast.

The Magurai Stork (left) and Jabiru; the latter trying to swallow a hefty meal.

An Aplomado Falcon perched beside the road.

The stunning Crested Caracara, a favourite of mine.

Caimans were common, but usually rather small; this was a big one!

The flooded roadside was productive for birding.

After an exhilarating morning of birding and photography, I continued further along the unsurfaced road in the direction of Monterrey. Red-breasted Blackbird, Shiny Cowbird, Carib Grackle and Grassland Sparrow were some of the more common passerines see along the way. A Southern Yellowthroat showed itself unexpectedly in an area dominated by tall shrub, while Wedge-tailed Grassfinch seemed abundant where the grass was tall and dense.
A Wedge-tailed Grassfinch.

As I approached the end of the extensive plains of the Llanos, Burrowing Owls suddenly began to appear out of nowhere. These peculiar owls seem to be rather common in the right habitat, mainly short grasslands and not necessarily far from human presence or influence. I had three sightings of this species in only an hour or two before I made it to the main road that would take me back to Bogotá. Time to bid the Llanos farewell…

A pair of Burrowing Owls at their burrow.

The last stretch through the Llanos, before reaching the distant Andes.

Notes for birders:

Mani turned out to be a big surprise, so I am very pleased I followed the advice I was given. While being as scenic as anticipated, it was also a great birding spot, for me at least. The are three main areas worth mentioning, the banks of the Cusiana River, the smaller river wedged between the Cusiana and the town of Mani, and the wetlands to the south west of Mani. 

The eastern bank of the Cusiana River to the north of the bridge just outside the town of Mani (starting at 4.817826, -72.291188; copy and paste into Google Maps), had some pristine-looking forest inhabited by Howler Monkeys and Hoatzins. The forest was accessible via a path running parallel to the river bank; I explored it as far at the confluence (4.821418, -72.302067) of the Cusiana and a smaller river, but I guess one could go further.

The small side river between the Cusiana River and the town of Mani (centred at 4.813251, -72.286274), was good for Sunbittern. Since there was little water in this river, I could walk in the dry sandy/muddy riverbed and explore the woodland on both sides, where I saw White-bearded Flycatcher amongst a host of other species.

The wetlands to the south west of Mani were the highlight. To get there, take the road out of Mani which crosses the bridge over the Cusiana River (bridge centred at 4.816020, -72.291815) and continue to the first junction (4.801846, -72.311009). Take the left road at this fork and the magic begins almost instantly. You will pass through one security check-point further down the road, so make sure you have the vehicle papers with you if you are travelling by car. If you are on a bike, be prepared to answer many questions about your travels! The entire road is great for birding, with the best stretch from the junction mentioned above, for some 25 km down the road (to about 4.638776, -72.433876). After that the road is still interesting but perhaps not as exciting.

It is worth noting that I was here in the dry season, which stretches from December to April, and hence birds would be concentrated around the remaining waters. I suspect in the wet season birds would be more dispersed, so birding may perhaps be less rewarding at this time.