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 Bogotรก. 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.    

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