Sunday, 3 August 2014

COLOMBIA 2014: Mitu (27 July-3 August)

27 July.  The second stage of the trip started with an early morning visit to La Florida where we birded an area of reeds and pools around the edge of the golf course.  Pablo now had a more balanced group of six with Nick, myself and Wim (into his fourth week with Pablo) being joined by Dick, Peter and Hans (more keen Dutch birders who had been with Pablo previously).  We found Apolinar’s Wren and several Subtropical Doraditos and a rather elusive Silver-throated Spinetail but Bogota Rail was only heard distantly by Pablo (failing to put the extreme disappointment of not visiting Guasca behind me).  We were then taken to the airport where we caught our late morning Satena flight to Mitu, on the Vaupes River in the Amazon basin.  I was sitting next to Pablo and asked him about Collared Puffbird, something mentioned for Mitu on his website that I was very keen to see (having missed one that Nick saw at Limoncocha in Ecuador in 1986).  Pablo did not sound that confident, not what I wanted to hear, but did say he knew of two territories which I took some comfort from.  Arriving at Mitu early afternoon we had to check in with the police and then were taken to our hotel, the Los Paisas, by tut-tut convoy passing a wrecked plane that had overshot the runway in 2010.  Diego Calderon had arrived on the same flight as us with two elderly (even older than me!) American clients and they were staying at the Los Paisas too.  After checking in and lunch we headed for Urania for the afternoon, piling into the only 4WD available for hire (and one of the most awkward to actually get into or out of).  We birded along a section of road where a superb Spotted Puffbird was one of the first birds seen.  We then crossed a covered footbridge and walked through the village to a forest viewpoint.  Other new birds for me were Speckled Chachalaca, Green-tailed Goldenthroat, Amazonian Antshrike, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant and Azure-naped Jay and I also saw Many-banded Aracari, Gilded Barbet and Green Oropendola and heard a distant Thrush-like Antpitta.  Mitu was very hot but it was a dry heat that was quite bearable out of the sun although we were pleased that our hotel room had good (and quiet) air conditioning.  We kept it on all night.
arrival at Mitu

Spotted Puffbird, one of the first birds we saw at Mitu and definitely one of the best.  This image was digiscoped through Nick's 'travel' Nikon.
another through the Nikon.  Not having tried it beforehand it didn't seem to produce as sharp an image as I had hoped
I then tried through Peter's new Swarovski which was clearer and brighter, if somewhat harder to align my camera too.  Unfortunately the bird had moved a bit and become more obscured.
sharper but even more obscured through the Swarovski
Peter got even better results with his Canon SX50 (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
it really was a superb bird and an excellent start to our visit (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

Urania village house - electricity, satellite dish, water butt and washing line, what more do you need?
Urania village hall?
Black Caracara (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Pablo at the viewpoint
Nick, Pablo, me (somewhat distracted), Dick, Hans and Win (photo: Peter van Scheepen)

Rio Vaupes - the forest appeared to stretch for miles

28 July.  We left the Hotel Los Paisas at 04:25 in the ‘Toyota Rancing Development’ 4WD heading for Santa Cruz.  One of the vehicle’s rear wheels decided to come loose as it was getting light and it soon became apparent that it needed a mechanic and more tools than our driver had to fix it.  Apparently the wheel had recently been replaced and it seemed had not been refitted properly causing the retaining bolts to shear.  Fortunately we were fairly close to the forest edge and able to start birding down a track into it.  Help was summoned from Mitu to fix the Toyota and Pablo arranged for 3 tut-tuts to come and take us to a better area for birding.  The tut-tuts arrived after an hour or so and took us Ceima Cachivera, it transpired the track we were walking down did not lead there after all so it was fortunate the tut-tuts came to the rescue.  They were then sent back to Mitu, confident that the 4WD would be fixed in time to pick us up.  At Ceima Cachivera we picked up a local guide, crossed a river and headed into the most mosquito infested patch of forest I can remember.  My repellent was no match for them and I had the added problem of them being able to bite trough my shirt.  I was bitten so much that I started to feel weak and shivery with heartburn.  Fortunately we did not have far to go to reach an area of large slabs of rocks and boulders although I found the last part, which was uphill, quite a struggle and was pleased to sit down when we got there - a Guainan Cock-of-the Rock lek.  At least 5 males were present although most were just sitting around squawking loudly.  I’d seen them in Venezuela over 30 years before but nothing like as good as this.  Briefly three were jumping around in the same tree - surprisingly they are silent at the lek - although if any females were watching I did not see them.  Other good birds seen were Yellow-billed, Bronzy and Great Jacamars, Blackish-Grey Antshrike and Yellow-browed and Black-throated Antbirds.  We returned to the village and after a short wait our 4WD arrived.  I was still feeling weak and happy just to sit in the shade but once back in Mitu I was quickly revived by an ice-cream.  We then headed back to Urania spending most of the time on the covered footbridge sheltering from some very heavy downpours.  When not raining a lot of birds were in evidence and we saw Scarlet Macaw, Amazon Pygmy Kingfisher, Scale-breasted Woodpecker, Cherrie’s Antwren, Amazonian Inezia and what was eventually identified as a White-lored Tyrannulet.  I washed out some clothes and they dried overnight thanks to the a/c.

Nick, Pablo, Hans, Wim, Dick (hidden) and Peter before it became clear we were going no further
our driver examining the sheared retaining bolts and concluding he needed to call for help to fix it
3 tut-tuts to the rescue
except we'd been walking down the wrong track so a quick U-turn was required
arrival at Ceima Chachivera
digiscoped Speckled Chachalaca
Swallow-winged Puffbird
Yellow-billed Jacamar (something I'd missed in Venezuela in 1983)

Peter got superb images with the Canon SX50  (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
this one I like even more (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
blue morpho - they always take my breath away
Guainan Cock-of-the-Rock
a bizarre bird in many respects
its tiny feet were notable for a bird that spends most of its time perching
the forward facing crest covering the bill as strange too
as were the wispy feathers on the back/coverts
these were two of the three males lekking which seemed to involve silently jumping around

much sharper and brighter images with the Canon SX50 (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
even from these superb images it was hard to work out what the wispy paler orange feathers were (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
it was close to Bird-of-Paradise, just rather let down by its display (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
showing its tiny witch-like feet  (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
captive Red-fan Parrot at our lunch stop
incomplete road improvement works
the bridge to Urania
excellent shelter from a very heavy downpour

Nick in reflective mood
Cherrie's Antwren soon appeared when the rain stopped

White-throated Toucan at dusk
another where my efforts were completely eclipsed by Peter (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
29 July.  All day at Mitu Cachivera on trails in the white sand forest.  We left the Hotel Los Paisas at 04:45 in 3 tut-tuts for the short (10-15 minute) drive to Mitu Cachivera where excellent local guide Miguel was waiting for us.  We headed off through the village and along a little used forest trail to a small clearing.  Here we had breakfast and spent some time (too long in my view) trying for White-naped Seedeater before continuing along the trail.  A distant thunder storm was heading our way and we quickly made for the shelter of a very large over hanging rock, arriving just ahead of a torrential rain storm which lasted for two hours.  When the rain stopped we continued on, reaching a large clearing for lunch.  It was an ideal place to have it as proceedings were overseen by an unconcerned Great Potoo drying out in the sun nearby, brilliant.  We were out until dusk when the tut-tuts were waiting to take us back to the hotel.  Highlights of an excellent day were the potoo, White-throated Toucan, Spot-winged, Amazonian and Cinereous Antshrikes, Grey-bellied Antbird, Cinnamon Manakin-Tyrant, Pompadour and Spangled Cotingas, White-browed Purpletuft, White-bearded, Blue-crowned, Golden-headed and Black Manakin, Azure-naped Jay, Olive Oropendola and Paradise, Masked and Opal-rumped Tanagers.  The only disappointment being untickable views of Collared Gnatwren.  That evening we discovered that Diego had pre-booked the 4WD for the next couple of days and so we were restricted to visiting sites in tut-tut range.  We would still be able to get to Pueblo Nuevo and Santa Cruz but not until our last days at Mitu.  A return to Mitu Cachivera in the morning would give us another chance at Collared Gnatwren (another go for White-naped Seedeater was less inspiring!) and in the afternoon take a boat-trip across the river to another trail.
Mitu Cachivera, not to be outdone in the Satellite dish stakes
female Pompadour Cotinga
female or immature male Black Manakin
Dusky-chested Flychatcher

sheltering from the rain, me swotting up (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
still sheltering, Miguel (far right) with large poncho (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
the first time I've seen a waterfall on a tree trunk!
Great Potoo drying out in the clearing, back view digiscoped through Peter's Swarovski
view from below, looking left

head on
back in the clearing it had turned around somewhat
zooming in (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
brilliant  (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

walking back (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

30 July.  We met Miguel again at Mitu Cachivera at dawn and he took us on a different trail around the village before heading to the seedeater clearing.  I soon got fed up with more unsuccessful playback attempts and wandered off to the area nearby where we had encountered the Collared Gnatwren.  This time it gave excellent views, a superb bird.  We birded the white sand forest for the rest of the morning before heading back into town.  Pablo went to check on the boat while we were having lunch but soon returned somewhat distraught.  The boatman was drunk (apparently having spent all of Pablo’s rather large deposit) and his boat not big enough for our number despite promises that it was.  Pablo quickly switched to plan B, a return to Mitu Cachivera where Miguel would take us down the Bocatoma pipeline trail.  Back in the tut-tuts, we stopped on the way at a site near the school for Point-tailed Palmcreeper.  One responded immediately to playback, singing vigorously from an overhead wire.  The forest trails were a bit quiet but still good.  Birds seen included a superb flock of 8 Scarlet Macaws, Black-headed Parrot, Mealy Amazon, Green-backed Trogon, Many-banded Aracari, White-throated Toucan, Orinoco Piculet, Amazonian Antshrike, Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, Pompadour and Spangled Cotingas, Amazonian Umbrellabird, White-bearded, Golden-headed and Black Manakin, Guianan Gnatcatcher, Azure-naped Jay, Olive Oropendola, Plumbeous Euphonia and Opal-rumped Tanagers.  That evening Pablo told us he’d found two Landcruisers to take us to Pueblo Nuevo the following day.

the wrecked Satena Embraer 145 that overshot the runway in May 2010
none of the 41 on board were injured but the plane was a write-off
it apparently approached the runway too high and landed too far down it
Point-tailed Palmcreeper
not just a good name!
singing its head off in response to a recording 
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Black-headed Parrot

what it should look like (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Orinoco Piculet
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

Dusky-chested Flycatcher
Spangled Cotinga (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
White-tailed Trogon (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

31 July.  We left Hotel Las Paisas soon after 04:30 in two Landcruisers and arrived at Pueblo Nuevo at about 05:45.  We spent all day birding a long trail to a river and back.  Most of the time we were in good forest but there were a number of clearings not very far off it and we could easily have been walking down a wide forested corridor.  At the river Pablo heard a Brown-breasted Puffbird calling from some distance away and tried taping it.  It appeared not to be responding, which was disappointing as it was a scarce species (and I’m very keen on Puffbirds) but five minutes later appeared in a tree above us.  It gave good views but I was too slow in thinking to take photos and it flew off as I was getting my camera.  Highlights were Fiery Topaz, Brown-banded Puffbird, Lettered Aracari, Tawny-tufted Toucanet, White-throated Toucan, Rufous-tailed Xenops, Yellow-throated Antwren, Reddish-winged Bare-eye, Black Bushbird, Black-headed, White-plumed, White-cheeked and Chestnut-crested Antbirds and Western Striped Manakin.  We also saw a juvenile Forest Falcon that our literature at the time suggested might have been Buckley’s but now an unbarred juvenile Barred seems most likely.  We left Pueblo Nuevo at 17:50 as it was getting dark and arrived back in Mitu at 18:55.  I was in the lead vehicle and saw 7 Pauraques and a Blackish Nightjar on the road after dark.  A long but very enjoyable day.

Olive Oropendola (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

Tawny-tufted Toucanet

the best I could manage
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Black-banded Woodcreeper (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
presumed unbarred juvenile Barred Forest Falcon, not the identification we originally reached using the pocket guide (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
female White-crowned Manakin (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

1 August.  It was our turn with the 4WD and we left again at 04:30 and headed back to Pueblo Nuevo where we arrived at 05:45.  This time we crossed a large grassy clearing and tried another trail which weaved through damp forest crossing several shallow streams on logs.  Wellingtons, which we’d been wearing pretty much non-stop, were certainly order of the day.  Even more than yesterday I got the impression that we were in a forest corridor skirting around cleared areas that we sometimes ventured into.  It seemed little wonder that the larger Amazonian species (Currasows to which the area had given the Latin name Mitu and Trumpeters) had been extirpated from the area.  I was lagging behind as we entered one clearing and saw a Chestnut-capped Puffbird nearby on the forest edge.  It was my most wanted bird after Collared Puffbird but quickly disappeared into the forest before the others could get back.  Taping appeared to have no effect but 5-10 minutes later it appeared in a tree above Nick and we all got prolonged views.  On our way back a heavy shower had us sheltering just short of the clearing for an hour (never be without an umbrella in the rainforest!) and when it eased off at about 15:00 we returned to road and drove on for 15 minutes to another patch of forest.  We stayed until just after 17:00 and were back in Mitu at 18:30.  Highlights were Ruddy Quail-Doves, Orange-cheeked and Black-headed Parrots, Fiery Topaz, Pavonine Quetzal, Great Jacamar, Rusty-breasted Nunlet, Chestnut-capped Puffbird, Orinoco Piculet, Golden-Green Woodpecker and Spot-backed (superb) and Grey Antbirds.  We also saw an Antwren grovelling on the ground that Pablo was adamant was Ornate although it seemed well out of range and I thought the very similar Stipple-throated was more likely (a pity as Ornate would have been new).  We also encountered a Rufous-capped Ant-thrush but I only saw it poorly I flight.  Another long but satisfying day but time was running out as we only had one full day and a morning left.  I again asked Pablo about Collared Puffbird and it transpired that his two territories equated to him having seen a single bird at different locations on two of his nine previous visits to Mitu.  He’d tried taping at them but our experience of Brown-breasted and Chestnut-capped suggested that we would not necessarily have known if a bird was in the area as they’d flown in silently some minutes later.  I was now resigned to Pablo’s success rate falling to 10% (and mine staying on zero).

White-fronted Nunbird (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Orange-cheeked Parrots

(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
me and Pablo on the trail, another day it was good to have Wellingtons (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
we were looking for this Rusty-breasted Nunlet (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Great Jacamar (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Fork-tailed Woodnymph (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Chestnut-capped Puffbird

another great bird
forest trail, me lagging behind, as usual

2 August.  We left Hotel Los Paisas at 04:35, picked up our local guide at Pablo Nuevo and arrived at Santa Cruz at 06:00.  We birded the road for two hours.  It had forest on one side with a wide clearing cut for power cables on the other making it a good place to see a range of species.  Frustratingly one or two hummingbirds were seen too briefly to identify at a particularly good looking patch of red flowers.  We returned three times during the day but did not see them again.  We then headed down a forest trail where we had lunch before returning to the road.  We were about to head down another trail when a heavy shower had us diverting to shelter on the porch of a deserted house but fortunately it only lasted 15 minutes.  The shower had made birds more active so we stayed on the road.  I found another Chestnut-capped Puffbird and spending longer watching it than the others was lagging a bit behind and went in for a Thrush-like Antpiita that had started calling from the adjacent forest.  I attracted it quite close with playback but probably did not chose my position carefully enough and I suspect it saw me and retreated – very frustrating.  With defective stereo hearing I found it hard to be sure which direction it was coming from, and such birds are always further away than they seem.  I then run out of time before being able to try again (it was still calling although from further away) as I heard the 4WD coming past.  We left at 17:00 and got back to the hotel at 19:00.  Missing the antpitta rather took the shine off what had been a reasonable day, although the number of new birds for me had dried up considerably with just Ivory-billed Aracari and Imeri Warbling Antbird.  Other highlights were Scarlet Macaw, Black-eared Fairy, Paradise and Bronzy Jacamars, Blue-crowned Trogon, Curve-billed Scythebill, Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, Fasciated and Spot-winged Antshrikes, Western Striped, White-crowned and Golden-headed  Manakins and Masked and Paradise Tanagers.  Nick and I also failed to see White-bellied Dacnis, for what seemed like the third or fourth time we only got onto a male Black-faced Dacnis (or scepticism not helped by the pocked guide showing them looking very similar, contra other literature).  Back in Mitu we learned that Diego and his two American clients had seen 2 Red-billed Ground Cuckoos at an antswarm on the Bocatoma pipeline trail with Miguel, an area we had been in three days previously.  Game, set and match Diego but we would try first thing in the morning although the odds did not seem great.  At least antswarms bivouac at night and if anybody could refind them it would be Miguel.  We would have until 11:00 when we needed to check out and head for the airport.  I packed that evening.

Toyota 'Rancing' Development on the Santa Cruz road
distant Scarlet Macaws
Paradise Jacamar (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Paradise Tanager
a bird coloured in a primary school (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Squirrel Cuckoo

Amazon Barred Woodcreeper (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
Bronzy Jacamar

this one was exceptionally obliging
(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

(photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

White-fronted Nunbird
Ivory-billed Aracari
much better when zoomed in on (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)

Chestnut-capped Puffbird
another that did not digiscope as well as I had hoped

even Peter's images were not as sharp as usual (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
still a very nice bird (photo: Peter Van Scheepen)
3 August.  We had our usual early start and had breakfast at the forest edge before it got light.  Miguel took us to the pipeline road as it was getting light.  After a couple of hours of searching we found an ant swarm and spent half an hour or so with it, but it was apparently much smaller than yesterday’s.  We looked a bit more but that was about it, we saw Amazonian and Pearly Antshrikes, White-plumed and Scale-backed Antbirds, Ringed Antpipit, Citron-bellied Atilla, Pompadour Cotinga and Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin.  We called it a day and left the area at 10:00 to return to the hotel, left at 11:45 and checked in at the airport at 12:00.  It had been an enjoyable visit to Mitu (much more so than my first week) with a good variety of birds and we had not lost too much time due to heavy rain but I felt somewhat disappointed not to see Collared Puffbird (the species that I had been most keen to see was clearly not as regular as I’d been led to believe) or being sharp enough with the Thrush-like Antpitta.  The Ground Cuckoo was less of a disappointment as it had never been on my radar but it was still frustrating to have been close.  Our flight back to Bogota left at 13:40 and we were back in Bogota at 15:50.  Pablo was flying on to Medellin while the rest of us retuned to the Casona del Patio where I was able to send an email home.

Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin, not showing its crest
searching for ants, lots of them
leaving Mitu

over the town
Rio Vaupes

the Amazon basin
flooded forest
looking back to Mitu and the Rio Vaupes, the landing strip is clearly visible
Andean strata
Bogota valley
Bogota Airport
very modern bus stop - more like a tube station

Many thanks to Peter Van Scheepen for allowing me the liberal use of his excellent images. They have seriously made me rethink what sort of camera I should be using.

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