Saturday, 9 August 2014

COLOMBIA 2014: Utria NP (4-9 August)

4 August.  Bahia Solano is on the Pacific Coast and the gateway to Utria National Park.  It appears to be in range for a number of mouth-watering species and Pablo’s pre-trip publicity was enough to convince Nick that it would be a good place to go and even inspired him to book us an extra day there.  I was less convinced as there was a fair overlap with birds seen in Panama in 1985 and the only trip report I could find on the internet did not greatly inspire me.  We left the Casona del Patio before dawn, our Dutch friends were headed for El Paujil and I was rather wishing I was going with them.  Of our group just Wim remained (into his 5th and final week in Colombia and very keen to get the trip list to 1000 species, by any means) and we were joined by four Americans – Rose and Mary-Lou from Texas and Frank and Debs from upstate New York.  We flew to Medellin where we had a couple of hours to wait (the car park area gave photographic opportunities for some commoner species).  We were joined by Pablo who had een home for a couple of days and then flew on to Bahia Solano, arriving a bit late at 13:30.  It is not accessible by road and we flew over impressive looking swathes of forest right up to the coast.  The airport was very basic, to say the least, and baggage had to be checked by the police before being released.  It took ages to unload what was a small plane (a Satena ATR 42).  Waiting for us was a colourful old truck with wooden bench seats that transported us for an hour to the coast.  Sections of the road were birding sites but we made few stops so as not to delay our arrival at Eco Lodge El Almejal further.  A perched King Vulture was the most notable bird seen on the journey.  Our arrival coincided with a heavy rainstorm which did not diminish until late afternoon.  We then headed up a nature trail where there were supposed to be viewpoints from which one could scan for cotingas.  Those we found only had very limited viewing, and mostly out to sea.  I saw White-tailed Trogon, Black-chested Jay and Scarlet-browed and Lemon-rumped Tanagers with a couple of Hump-backed Whales blowing offshore.  The lodge owner was very keen on whales and followed diner with a slide show that we soon ducked out of.  Not a very auspicious start.

Bogotá Airport
Bogotá suburbs through a dirty window
Black-billed Thrush outside Medellin airport

Saffron Finch

Ruddy Ground Dove
Eared Dove
not so Vermillion Flycatcher ...
.. and Big Yellow Taxi
arrival at Bahia Solano, leaving was not to prove so straight forward
our transport, Pablo, Wim, Nick and Frank
King Vulture
Blue-chested Hummingbird
5 August.  We were up before dawn and spent the morning on the Utria trail, sheltering in an empty shack for an hour at one point as a heavy shower slowly passed over.  Highlights were single pairs of Blue & Yellow Macaws and Rose-faced Parrots, Choco Toucan, a female White-tipped Cotinga, 4 Purple-throated Fruitcrows and a superb Spotted Antbird.  A good start but deteriorating weather had us returning, on the way frustratingly hearing a Black-headed Antthrush that probably was not as close as it sounded.  When the rain eased we spent the late afternoon birding the roadside a few kms back towards Bahia Solano.  This was disappointing although we eventually found a Rufous-winged Tanager and, as the light was beginning to go, two distant Baudo Oropendolas.  Our local guide Valmes had very sharp eyes, and ears, but some birds were proving difficult and the weather conditions were certainly not helping.  We were getting a boat to Utria in the morning although not as early as we had hoped due to the tides.  Even so we packed everything up ready to go to allow time to bird the road again.

Blue and Yellow Macaws on the Utria trail
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
the large Helicopter Damselfly

it had a slow flight
Willet in the rain, on the beach by the lodge

good fishing though
Crimson-backed Tanager at El Almejal
Red-legged Honeycreeper

Spotted Sandpiper by the lodge entrance

Brown Pelican

6 August.  Heavy overnight rain cleared just after dawn when two Short-tailed Nighthawks were flying around the lodge.  Our transport was a bit late arriving, Bahia time seemed that way, and we birded along the road to 10:00 but saw little of particular note with Tiny Hawk, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Pied Puffbird and another, closer, Baudo Oropendola best.  A Thicket Antpitta was calling from an inaccessible area which added to our frustration.  Valmos was very keen and knowledgeable but we suspected that the nature of the area meant that although he knew where birds had been seen (irregularly) there were no reliable sites for most as they failed to appear.  Back at El Valle we loaded our gear and took a very bumpy boat ride to Utria.  Three Humpbacked Whales, one a youngster, were seen in the bay but soon slipped away.  We arrived in time for lunch but more heavy rain soon followed and lasted for most of the afternoon.  This restricted birding to the mangrove boardwalk (all I glimpsed was an unidentified hummingbird) and the beach (Yellow-crowned Night Heron and a superb Bay Wren).  As the light started to go we returned to the boardwalk hoping to see Uniform Crake.  Both it and Brown Wood Rail were calling but being torn between the two I managed to see neither although Nick glimpsed the head of the former.  A very disappointing day with the area rather living up to my worst fears.  After dark I had a swim/neck deep paddle in the inlet – very refreshing although the shelving beach caught me out of my depth once or twice (not ideal for a weak swimmer).

juvenile Double-toothed Kite along the road

Spotted Sandpiper 
showing wing pattern
American Black Vultures
tug of fish
our boat to Utria
sailing past El Valle football pitch - match abandoned due to high tide
Utria National Park
a safe haven for Humpbacked Whales

approaching Utria HQ
unloading the boat by wheelbarrow
mangrove boardwalk
tree-climbing crab

7 August.  My Sloop John B day, although it started well.  We had an early breakfast which lingered after dawn.  I left early and headed to the boardwalk, where we were going first, hoping for better fortune with Uniform Crake.  Nothing and after 20 minutes or so Nick came to find me saying Pablo had decided to go along a trail the other way from the headquarters and they’d found a pair of Brown Wood Rails.  Fortunately I made it before they were disturbed and had excellent views – superb birds but the incident did little to show that Pablo had much concern for his punters.  We then got a boat across the narrow inlet to the Cocalito Trail.  The was a good site for Sapayoa, my most wanted bird on this part of the trip despite having identified one in Ecuador in 1986 – it wasn’t an aberrant Broadbill then!  Few birds were in evidence on the trail, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Chestnut-backed Antbird and Lemon-spectacled Tanager being best, until Nick went ahead and saw a Sapayoa.  He called but I was at the back of the group (effectively 9th on the trail).  The others did not react to his call, despite being no more than 100m away, and I got there first but in turning away from the bird Nick had lost it and we could not refind it.  Bummer.  It got worse when the others rejoined us and I discovered they all appeared to have seen it or another - thanks for the call guys!!  I spent another hour in the area while the others went on a short distance without further success for any of us.  With few birds seen Pablo decided to try somewhere else but I was keen to stay looking for the Sapayoa and had a lively discussion with him trying to dissuade me, first there was enough petrol for the boat to come back for me (it was all of half a km!), then a promise that we’d revisit the area in the morning (not something I felt I could rely on) and finally it was dangerous.  They left promising to pick me up at 17:00 when we would return to try for Uniform Crake.  On one occasion I heard what I thought was a Sapayoa calling but with defective hearing wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from, until a likely bird flew up and landed on a branch, but was flying off when I got my bins onto it.  That was the closest I came.  The others did not appear until 18:00, another hour I could have spent looking for Sapayoa, not that the outcome would have been any different.  They’d got caught out by the tide in some mangroves and seen a male Black-tipped Cotinga and Humboldt’s Sapphire (which would have been a new hummer for me).  Best I had managed was a male Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.  We returned to the headquarters and as the light was starting to go got a response from a Uniform Crake near the trail.  Pablo set the tape to auto repeat on the opposite side of the trail and we retreated.  After a false start when only Nick saw it the crake walked across the trail to investigate and then crossed back. Superb views with its very bright reddish-pink legs really standing out.  Two excellent birds had been sandwiched by intense disappointment that another moonlight swim was unable to shift.  I wanna go home, let me go home, this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

Utria sound
across the bay
the end of the Cocalito trail, another birdless beach
returning to the start of the Cocalito Trail

waiting to be picked up
Utria Sound

8 August.  I was disappointed but not surprised that we didn’t head back to the Cocalito Trail after breakfast.  Instead we went up the Watertank Trail seeing one of the previous morning’s Brown Wood Rails on the way.  The short trail, which was the areas Tsunami Evacuation route, was mainly a stream bed but we did see Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Bay Wren and Orange-billed Sparrow.  I had time for two quick walks down the mangrove boardwalk before we left seeing Sapphire-throated Hummingbird the first time and returning with Nick to see a male Black-tipped Cotinga where they had done so the previous day.  The crossing back to El Valle was much less bumpy although the river mouth took more careful navigation.  Pablo and some of the others were leaving that day and were now a bit pressed for time (the tide had not allowed for an earlier return) so the vehicle that met us did not have time to take us back to El Almejal.  Frank, Debs, Nick and I were dropped on the roadside for a couple of hours birding while the others were taken to the airport.  Midday was hot with little moving although we did see King Vulture, male Golden-collared Manakin and Slate-coloured Seedeater.  We returned to El Almejal and although Pablo had suggested more roadside birding Valmos told us he’d seen a Black-breasted Puffbird the previous day 3-4 kms down the Utria Trail.  We decided to go for it, much to our van driver’s disappointment as he’d brought his wife along for the trip which now only went to the edge of the village.  A short distance down the trail a Pied Puffbird provided a moment of short-lived.  We hoped we had finished with the heavy rain, not having had any for a day or so, but it returned and Frank and Debs soon gave up on the twitch as we were seeing little (Choco Toucan and Purple-throated Fruitcrow were about it).  We continued and the site, when we eventually reached it was less than a km further than we’d got on the trail on our previous visit.  Valmos played the tape and the puff bird immediately flew in, superb and at least out extra day had produced something.  We disturbed a Crested Guan on the way back but otherwise it was head down and we just made it back to the van before dark.

Utria NP

low tide

fish from the mangrove boardwalk
Debs, Frank, Nick and our van having just crossed a bridge in need of repair
sheets of rice drying in El Valle
rice being turned
proud owner of a new fridge
back at El Almejal a gecko in our room ...
... was rather outdone by the Vine Snake in Frank & Debs
Basilik (Jesus Christ) Lizard near the beach
it was over a metre long

9 August.  It rained from dawn to 07:30 when we birded the road for three hours seeing King Vulture, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Laughing Falcon, male and female Black-tipped Cotingas (Nick saw a Blue Cotinga briefly) and Rufous-winged Tanager (but not the hoped for Blue-whiskered).  We did not have time to follow up a calling Thicket Antpitta, possibly in a less inaccessible area, as we had to be at the airport by 11:00 for our 12:00 flight.  This was an internal flight Pablo had failed to provide us with an e-ticket for, saying all we needed were our passports.  In fairness this had been the case elsewhere but Bahia Solano airport was so basic that I was not convinced it had regular electricity let alone internet.  We were dropped off but the ADA ‘desk’ where we were to present our passports was all locked up and there was no 12:00 flight.  The lady on the adjoining TAC desk took great pleasure in telling us she had no idea when the ADA flight might be.  After an hour or so Frank and Debs got on the TAC flight on standby despite none of our names being in the school exercise book which seemed to be the passenger manifest.  Two ADA people eventually arrived and told us we were not on that afternoon’s flight, at 14:00.  Manana, maybe.  We were beginning to wonder if Pablo had actually remembered to book our flights, which would explain why he’d not come up with e-tickets despite Nick having asked for them periodically for several months?   Nick phoned Pablo and he contacted Valmes who returned to help us get sorted out, our Spanish not being well understood ditto us with theirs. Initially it was a shake of the head and we were beginning to wonder if plan B was sleeping in the airport.  Finally after a very stressful hour we were told we were on the flight.   The plane, a Jetstream 32, arrived 30 minutes late and we finally ‘escaped’ from Bahia Solano at 14:45 - on a plane that had 5 empty seats!  So much for needing to be at the airport by 11:00 and more time we could have been birding, although maybe without seeing anything else.  Pablo met us at Aeropuerto Enrique Olaya Herrera in Medellin and put us in a taxi for the 45 minute journey to Jose Maria Cordova International Airport where we were reunited with Frank and Debs who had flown to Medellin via Quibdo but still arrived well ahead of us.  Apparently the ‘mix up’ had been the airlines fault and Pablo wouldn’t be using ADA again although we couldn’t help thinking our asking for our e-tickets should have prompted him to make doubly sure there were no issues with the flight and at least get the time right.   We were flying to Bogota and then after transferring terminals to Santa Marta. These were Avianca flights and left on time although we half an hour late getting into Santa Marta.  We were met at Santa Marta and driven an hour or so to Minca arriving close to midnight.  A long and very stressful day.

Ringed Kingfisher
Variable Seedeater

Laughing Falcon
Frank and Debs make their escape from Bahia Solano
our plane arrives

all aboard, with some of the 5 empty seats
coming in to land at Medellin

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