Saturday, 16 August 2014

COLOMBIA 2014: Santa Marta (10-16 August)

10 August.  Our final week in Colombia started with breakfast at the Sierra’s Sound Hotel in Minca.  We had just finished, rather uncertain what was happening next and when, when the 4WD that had dropped us off the night before returned.  It had come up from Santa Marta with our guide Gabriel (Gabbo) Utria.  We soon headed out of town and up into the low hills stopping to bird a section of dry roadside scrub by the track to Pozo Azul.  Here a Rosy Thrush-Tanager was calling from up on an impenetrable bank but it could not be enticed into view.  Four Golden–winged Sparrows were some recompense, as was our first endemic, Santa Marta Foliage-Gleaner - they were a much better bird than I was expecting, behaving like an Asian Laughtingthrush, albeit a rather dull one.  A stop in some bamboo along a track a little further up the road produced Santa Marta Tapaculo, Santa Marta Antbird (a recent split from Long-tailed) and Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta Brush-Finches.  Higher again and a Rusty-breasted Antpitta responded to tape although our vehicle chose that moment to catch up and park right by where it was calling from.  It was not deterred and Gabbo soon located it at the back of a tangle where it gave good views for a couple of minutes – it was superb.  We climbed further entering damper forest and Gabbo took us along a narrow trail to a flowering tree where we had excellent views of two Blossomcrowns.  It had been a brilliant morning with every stop producing something good - quite a contrast with most of the other birding I had done in Colombia!  We arrived at the purpose built El Dorado lodge at noon, unfortunately just as heavy rain started.  Undeterred we spent most of the afternoon on the balcony watching the feeders and compost heaps with White-tailed Starfrontlet, Lazuline Sabrewing and some superb Blue-naped Chlorophonias on the former and three Black-fronted Wood-Quail visiting the latter.  A White-lored Warbler, another endemic, moved through the garden where more brush-finches skulked.  It was the most enjoyable day of the trip so far and I saw twelve new birds, as many as I’d managed in six days at Utria.  The weather did not let up after dark which rather put paid to our attempts to see, or even hear, Santa Marta Screech Owl and a very close lightning strike took out all the lodge’s lights.  I wrote up my notes by candle/head-torchlight and regretted having produced a species grid in such small print.

Rusty-breasted Antpitta on the way up to El  Dorado.  Sadly few antpittas were as obliging as this one


Black-fronted Wood -Quail on one of the El Dorado compost heaps

11 August.  We were up an hour before dawn in anticipation of going up to the top of the mountain but it soon became apparent that our driver could not get the 4WD started.  The lodge’s electricity was not back on either although that was a minor inconvenience.  We took advantage of some early dry weather to walk some of the trails around the lodge but it soon started drizzling and I was hearing more than I was seeing which is always frustrating, although happily White-tipped Quetzal and Grey-throated Leaftosser bucked that trend.  My particular bug-bear was Santa Marta Antpitta, although it started well with the first one we heard responding from down in a valley and for a while getting closer before it held its position well out of sight.  On the walk back to the lodge we heard another closer bird in a more accessible area and followed it up, to find it was day-trippers playing a tape.  They had brought a bird closer and I got brief antpitta sp. views as it hopped away rather quicker than I could keep up with.  We decided two groups chasing it probably wasn’t going to be successful and left to return to the lodge.  Perhaps a mistake but we had encountered two responsive birds in our first foray which seemed encouraging.  Gabby had drummed up a replacement vehicle which could take us part way up the mountain and we headed up for the rest of the morning.  We drove up to below the radio station where the road was substantially worse and birded a section of it on foot.  We soon encountered the endemic Yellow-crowned Whitestart and Santa Marta Mountain Tanager which occurred at this higher elevation.  We also heard two more Santa Marta Antpittas, one of which I glimpsed very briefly seeing just a shape.  We walked down the road to the Research Station seeing a displaying Black-throated Tody-Tyrant on the way.  It made an amazing whirring noise as it jumped up and down, a performance some Birds of Paradise would have been proud of.  It was all too soon time to head back down for lunch but with the plan then to spend more time on the trails around the lodge and perhaps the road below it I decided to skip lunch and retrace our steps a bit before walking back to the lodge to give me more chance of seeing Santa Marta Antpitta.  Nice plan but unfortunately it did not work.  I heard at least 3 more antpittas, a couple plus one of the earlier ones came very close but none showed themselves despite my best efforts.  I tried sitting and waiting, and trying to creep up to them, playing recordings quietly and louder, playing recordings of other birds or playing back their own song, setting the recorder to repeat and retreating in the hope the bird might cross the track or work its way past me to get to it.  Nothing worked and I finished the day having heard at least 7 and glimpsed 2, very disappointing.  I got back to the lodge at about 16:00 by which time the rain had become more persistent.  Lined Quail-Dove and a male Golden-breasted Fruiteater were the best birds I saw all afternoon but the others had not fared much better although the Wood-Quail had been performing well.  The rain eased somewhat and I did a circuit of the trails, returning as the light was going having seen 2 Sickle-winged Guans preparing to roost.  Fortunately the lodge’s stove ran on bottled gas as the electricity was still out.  We ate by candle-light and headed out soon after to look for Santa Marta Screech Owl while it was still dry.  One responded from just below the lodge but Frank slipped as we moved closer and we heard no more.  It seemed rather typical of what had been a poor day but our 4WD had been fixed so better was expected of the morrow. 

early morning near El Dorado






White-tipped Quetzal





looking up to the upper radio station that should have (almost) been our morning's destination


Tyrian Metaltail

12 August.  Another early start saw us heading up the road/track at 04:30.  We arrived on the ridge above the lower radio station as it was getting light and had our packed breakfast while watching Santa Marta Warblers and Rusty-headed Spinetails.  We wandered the section of road and soon found a flock of eight Santa Marta Parakeets, something Nick had missed on his previous visit, Scaly-naped Parrot, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, Yellow-crowned Whitestart, Santa Marta Mountain Tanager and Plushcap.  We took a narrow trail through some bamboo where we heard a couple of Rufous Antpittas and I saw one briefly through binoculars.  A calling Santa Marta Antpitta was not as obliging, moving past unseen.  We walked down the road to the radio station where we hoped to see Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant but only managed one of the common, and much more widespread, Stripe-throated.  On the way everyone else saw a singing Brown-throated Tapaculo that I was wrongly positioned for, very annoying, but fortunately a little lower down a juvenile gave good views and later I saw one briefly crossing a ravine.  At the radio station  the others decided to return for lunch but as it was not raining I was keen to walk back down, hoping to see Santa Marta Antpitta on the way.  I heard at least seven, five of which seemed to come very close but then sat tight unseen.  I had not even managed to glimpse one and was left wondering if my original views were countable (seen an antpitta, calling like Santa Marta) but it is the sort of bird that deserves better.  It rained, usually lightly, for much of the afternoon and another Sickle-winged Guan was my best sighting. I under-estimated the time it took to get back down and was still well short of El Dorado and the light was starting to go (not helped by the rain getting heavier) when I met Nick and Gabbo coming up to look for me.  We got back to EL Dorado at 18:30.  A long day best described as a good morning and frustrating afternoon, but an improvement on the day before.  I was working out what time I would have to leave El Dorado in the morning in time to walk up to the nearest antpitta area for first light when Gabbo told us that we would be heading down to Palo Alto first thing in the morning as Santa Marta Woodstar was best seen early.  Disappointing not to have a final chance at the antpitta but at least I would not be further frustrated by it.

view from above the lower radio station
we really felt on top of the world
with good reason as these were Colombia's highest peaks, with snowy caps all year round



the track to the upper radio station.  The army had a base there and it was best not to go too close
Scaly-naped Amazon







Strong-billed Woodcreeper catching the morning rays
a more typical pose
the endemic Yellow-fronted Whitestart
Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, the closest we came to finding the endemic Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant that occurs in the area
Debs, Frank, Nick and me
X-rated butterflies
back into Santa Marta Antpitta wind-up territory
sunset above El Dorado









13 August.  We were up before dawn for breakfast, packed and drove the fifteen minutes to Palo Alto where we were welcomed by the garden owner, flushing a Lined Quail-Dove from the road on the way.  It was a superb place, full of flowers and feeders, and we spent a couple of hours there.  We had just arrived and were standing too close to one of the feeders when a male Santa Marta Woodstar flew in, saw us and bolted.  We then saw another in the top of a distant tree displaying to a female and were just thinking of trying to get closer when the female flew towards us and started feeding on some nearby flowers.  Amazing although by the time I had thought to get my camera out if was moving on.  Two Santa Marta Toucanets were also around the garden and we saw a distant Keel-billed Toucan.  We headed slowly down to Minca making several short stops and seeing another pair of Santa Marta Woodstars, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and yellow-billed Grove-billed Toucans. , We arriving at Minca by 11:00 and made a couple of stops below it for Black-backed Antshrike.  The first produced two Long-billed Gnatwrens (completing a clean sweep of gnatwrens for the trip) and Golden-fronted Greenlet and we were just about to give up on the antshrike when Nick saw a track where he remembered seeing them on his previous visit and we quickly saw a male.  We started the long drive to Riohacha stopping at the Restaurant Las Acacias for lunch.  It was excellently located by the main road but overlooking a wide partially wooded river.  I don’t recall much about lunch, I might have had some chips or an omelette, but the birding was great with Orange-crowned Oriole (new for me), Orange-chinned Parakeet, Green and Amazon Kingfishers and Red-crowned Woodpecker.  As we drove north and entered the department of Guajira the area became hotter, dryer and flatter and farmland predominated.  After about 90 minutes we stopped by a large roadside field to see three Double-striped Thick-knees and an Aplomado Falcon flew over.  A little way further north we took a dusty track into thorny forest where we spent the rest of the day.  This was brilliant with Chestnut Piculet, the equally superb White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero, female Black-crested Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Slender-billed Inezia, Northern Scrub and Venezuelan Flycatchers and Pileated Finch.  As we were walking back to the 4WD we disturbed a covey of 12-14 Crested Bobwhites, most of which I failed to see, finally getting on to five before they ran off.  Our final stop was a more overgrown area by a small river where Rufous-vented Chachalacas roosted.  We saw at least ten as well as Laughing Falcon, Green-rumped Parrotlet and Glaucous Tanager.  At dusk we drove into Riohacha and the Hotel Barbacua.  A very enjoyable day with no major frustrations!

Santa Marta Toucanet at Palo Alto
a generally recognised split from Emerald
Palo Alto, its owner and superb garden
 




distant Santa Marta Woodstar from Palo Alto, I failed to get images of the closer ones that came into the garden - too busy watching their bee-like behaviour!
almost as distant, but considerably larger Yellow-backed Oriole from Palo Alto
Groove-billed Toucanet of the Yellow-billed race, considered by some to be a separate species
distant football match
Rufous-capped Warbler
in a shaded coffee plantation
Red Howler monkeys
howling loudly
and looking very disapproving of us
a hazy view to the coast from the lower foothills above Minca
Black-backed Antshrike

view from restaurant Las Acacias
juvenile Great-tailed Grackle
Orange-crowned Oriole in a fruiting tree right by the restaurant veranda



Orange-chinned Parakeet
several were in the same tree
the orange chin just about visible in this image ...
... but not the easiest feature to see


Red-crowned Woodpecker




the Caribbean coast
our transport, 'FOUR WHEL DRIVER' not in evidence


White-whiskered Spinetail, one of the best funarids I have seen - but clearly camera shy


only when it had retreated to its nest did it deign to glance back at me
Venezuela Flycatcher
Rufous-vented Chachalaca
or Loch Ness Monster
Laughing Falcon with a hernia or large parasite
14 August.  After our success the previous evening we started the day with four main targets and drove to Camarones, a nearby village, where Gabby had lined up a local guide to assist us.  We arrived soon after dawn and in quick succession had seen Vermillion Cardinal, Orinoco Saltator and Buffy Hummingbird.  Three down and one to go but Tocuyo Sparrow proved more elusive and we tried three areas without success although I did see Crested Bobwhite, Shining-Green Hummingbird, Straight-billed Woodcreeper and male Black-crested Antshrike.  A pair of Russet-throated Puffbirds was more than adequate compensation although we were called away when our guide heard the sparrow.  Still no luck and the puffbirds had moved on when I went back to try to photograph them.  By now it was warming up considerably and we headed for the coast where a tidal lagoon at Los Flamencos held an impressive selection of wading birds.  I quickly added 20 species to my trip list, the highlights being an adult Reddish Egret (I’d only seen two before), American Flamingoes (no surprise there), Wilson’s, Collared and Semipalmated Plovers, Least, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, five Stilt Sandpipers, Cabot’s and Royal Terns and Black Skimmers.  We had lunch at a restaurant on the beach although our table was near to where some decorating was being done and the smell of paint wafting across to us was rather off-putting.  A cold drink was welcome though, as was a quick paddle in the Caribbean, although it was extremely hot crossing the white sand to get to the shore – it would be a good place to train for walking on embers!  Our only Sanderling of the trip were running along the shore, just like being at home, except for the temperature!  A number of doves were drinking at a puddle by an overflow and were joined by a very tatty Vermillion Cardinal.  After lunch we revisited the first, best Tocuyo Sparrow site and soon after arriving our guide, who had wandered ahead, heard one calling from a tree above the track.  Just as we got to him it dropped out of the tree and dived into a thick patch of bushes the other side of a fence.  We scanned hard and I had a reasonable view of it on the ground inside the bushes but of the others only Nick was able to get onto it.  We reluctantly left Guajira and started the long drive back to Minca.  Another stop at Las Acacias produced a juvenile Reddish Egret on the river while an Orange-crowned Oriole was still in residence.  Another excellent day, we arrived back at the Sierra’s Sound Hotel in Minca as the light was fading. 


Vermillion Cardinal, about as bright as one gets
Orinoco Saltator
Buffy Hummingbird
subtly brilliant




the daily water run
Slender-billed Inezia
Glistening-Green Hummingbird
glistening in the sun
Crested Bobwhite




the lagoon at Los Flamencos
Wilson's Plover on he beach at Los Flamencos
Southern Lapwing
Cattle Tyrant battling into a strong wind


Collared Plover
American Flamingo, Reddish Egret and Willet


Short-billed Dowitcher and American White Ibis
Willet
Greater Yellowlegs
Short-billed Dowitcher


Tricoloured Heron
Short-billed Dowitcher, Snowy Egret, Least Sandpiper, Willet and Great White Egret where a creek flowed into the lagon
Reddish Egret







juvenile Wilson's Plover




Laughing Gulls and Cabot's (Sandwich) Tern
Black-necked Stilts
stilts, skimmers and terns


Black Skimmer, Laughing Gull and Cabot's and Royal Terns
Black Skimmer, Black-necked Stilt and Cabot's and Royal Terns
Semipalmated Plover, not quite showing its palmations
Collared Plover
Snowy Egret
Southern Lapwing


Tropical Mockingbird
Crested Caracara
Tropical Gnatcatcher




Great-tailed Grackle
eyeing up something
I'm not sure it was edible
Carib Grackle, pretending to be a parotia


this iguana would have been truly terrifying if it had been twice the size


the rather tatty Vermillion Cardinal from our lunch stop
poor thing looked to be in a bit of a state
and that was before I realised I was seeing its good side
Scaled Doves were coming down to drink at the overflow puddle
as were Common Ground Doves








Common Ground Dove showing red underwing
juvenile Great-tailed Grackle
giving a Carib Grackle the evil eye
a dog and a few waders on the beach at Los Flamencos
kids on the beach at Los Flamencos
juvenile Reddish Egret with assorted plastic friends at Las Acacias

15 August.  We had a morning’s birding before needing to return to Santa Marta airport for our flight back to Bogota.  My suggestion of getting up at 02:00 and driving up to the nearest Santa Marta Antpitta site was not taken seriously (when am I not serious when birding is concerned?), instead we walked and birded sections of the road up to the Pozo Azul track.  We again heard Rosy Thrush-Tanager, on the opposite side of the road to previously.  This time from closer and below us but we still did not manage to even glimpse it.  Perhaps it flies across the road occasionally but what odds one would be looking the wrong way when it did so, not that it is a species where flight views would be satisfactory.  We were looking hard for roosting Black & White Owls but none were apparent, unfortunately our owl voodoo for the trip continuing almost unabated to the bitter end.  An adult and juvenile Whooping Motmot were some compensation, the nearest I came to a new bird as it had been split from Blue-crowned since I had seen them in 1985.  Otherwise Laughing Falcon and Keel-billed Toucans flew across the valley, a Rufous & White Wren flew across the road and we had excellent views of White-bearded Manakin.  We were driven to Santa Marta Airport where we said goodbye to Gabby - he had been a really excellent guide.  We flew back to Bogota and returned to the Casona del Patio as it was getting dark.  I was able to send an email home and later got a reply - everyone was OK and Josh had passed his driving test which was excellent news.
above Minca
looking down on Santa Marta and the Caribbean from above Minca
Blue-Grey Tanager

Golden-faced Tyrannulet
Crested Oropendola
Whooping Motmot
this one we thought was a juvenile without a full tail
a more typically tailed adult
tourist hotel along the coast from Santa Marta
coal/gas terminal

16 August.  On our final morning we were picked up from the Casona del Patio at 05:00 and driven to Guasco where we arrived just before 06:00.  It was a damp morning with low cloud hanging over the valley.  We were driven down a track to a gate  into a grassy field and could just about see the marsh in a dip on the other side of it.  We quickly headed for it but it soon became apparent that Frank and Debs were not behind us – the grass was long and wet and without wellies they had turned back.  Nick and I easily saw at least 5 Bogota Rails, putting right the outrageous decision not to stop when passing within a km previously.  We also saw Andean Teal, Spot-flanked Gallinule, Noble Snipe, Solitary Sandpiper and a wandering Large-billed Tern.  Back at the vehicle Debs was clearly gripped by the rails and I lent her my boots so she could go back.  Frank had seen them before and was looking a bit cold so did not take up Nick’s offer of his, instead Nick took Debs back while I birded the road in Frank’s trainers (mine being packed away in the back).  The rails were harder to find but they eventually found one and we headed into town.  We were on a tight timetable but the quick breakfast I’d hoped we would grab to eat on the road turned into a sit down affair that I opted out of although a wander to the edge of town was unproductive and not pleasant when it started drizzling.  We eventually got on the road again and headed up to the paramo but were soon in the cloud and barely able to see across the road.  Strong wind made attempting to bird very unpleasant, if not impossible, and we tried higher up hoping to get above the cloud.  We stopped when the road started to drop, although it might have been a false summit, and Nick and I took advantage of a slight improvement in visibility to follow a track along the sheltered side of the mountain.  It led to a radio station where barking dogs had a lady coming out of a hut to see who we were.  She seemed a bit taken aback to see two smiling westerners come out of the clouds claiming to be watching birds!  The track soon petered out which might have been just as well as we weren’t entirely sure we’d not been told it was private.  At least the dogs had not been set upon us!  I was determined to stay out until we saw something and a pair of Plumbeous Sierra Finches duly obliged.  We had to leave the area at 11:30 to be sure of getting back to the airport for 14:15 and decided to spend our last half hour or so trying our luck lower down.  We walked sections of the road when breaks in the cloud allowed but the wind had not dropped which did not help.  A pair of Great Sapphirewings were excellent, and new for the trip as was Superciliaried Hemispingus.  I also saw 3 Golden-crowned Tanagers (always brilliant), Pale-naped and Slaty Brush-Finches and Black-crested Warbler but that was it.  Birding over.  We drove back to the airport arriving at 13:30, our contingency for heavy traffic was not needed although at one stage we felt it might be when what seemed like the entire population of Bogota motorbikes (including the police’s) passed going the other way.  Nick and my TAP flight was due to leave at 17:15 but a look at the arrivals board showed it to likely be two hours late arriving.  We could have had longer birding after all, more so as Frank and Debs were not departing until evening.  Nick and I were flying to Lisbon via Panama City and then had 90 minutes before our flight to London.  It was going to be a very tight connection.  We queued at check-in, after a while were told to join another queue for departure tax exemption and then returned to check-in.  It was an incredibly slow queue and we would have been in danger of missing the flight had it been on time.  We had just reached the front of the queue when we were instructed to wait at one side so other passengers could be checked-in while our London connection was ‘checked’.  There were only a few of us in this position so it seemed unlikely that the Lisbon-London flight would be held for us.  After another wait the TAP representative came over and said they were trying to get us on an Avianca flight but their computers were currently down.  This flight left at 22:00, almost five hours later, but was direct and actually arrived at Heathrow an hour earlier than our scheduled TAP connection.  Impressive work from TAP’s representative and we were well pleased with the outcome, especially as the Avianca flight was on time.  I got a tube to Victoria where I had to wait for a couple of hours before being able to use my cheap rail ticket.  I got into Shoreham-by-Sea at 20:30 to find Josh waiting to pick me up, a nice surprise.

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