Friday, September 19, 2014

Birds of Colombia: Secretive Skulkers

The feeder birds are as easy in Colombia as anywhere else.  But maybe you came for the tough birds--the 'birder's birds.' 

Well if you read the previous post, then you’ve already seen examples from one of the most notorious of mossy undergrowth skulkers, the Antpittas.  

Unless you go someplace where they’ve been conditioned Pavlov-style to associate humans with free worms they’re near impossible to get a good look at, even when blasting obnoxious amounts of playback.  We found one exception to this rule in the paramo where Tawny Antpittas apparently sit up on fence posts to sing!

Tawny Antpitta, Los Nevados National park
Oddly, the normally invisible Sedge Wren (though this flavor will almost certainly be split out eventually), exhibits similar behavior in this area.

Sedge Wren, Los Nevados National Park

In addition to the aforementioned antpittas, other birds that come to feeders have relatives who do not and can be really tough to see.  Even the bright and in-your-face tanager family contains some timid undergrowth species.   

Black-backed Bush Tanager, Los Nevados National Park
This Black-backed Bush Tanager (aka Black-backed Bush Finch, the only member of the genus Urothraupis) was unusually cooperative. Usually they stay hidden.
And hummingbirds, when they aren't after nectar, hide ocassionally as well…

Greenish Puffleg nest, Tatama National Park

…like when they’re sitting on eggs!

But the point of this point is introduce some of the tougher brownish and blackish birds that exist only in the neotropics and often get outshown by the colorful and conspicuous.  Two large groups comprise the bulk of the diversity: 1) the thamnophilids, popularly known as Antbirds (or “ant-things,” as Will likes to call them since they include antbirds, antwrens and antshrikes); and 2) the Furnariids, sometimes called “ovenbirds,” despite the fact that only one small subgroup actually constructs ovens.  

We saw 13 species of Antbirds, but unfortunately the most cooperative one was also the most boring, the well-named Uniform Antshrike.

Uniform Antshrike, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve
The rest stayed true to form and avoided camera lenses and sunshine.

Summing all our woodcreepers, spinetails, foliage-gleaners, treerunners, et al. yields 29 furnariid species for the trip.  The foliage-gleaners usually aren’t much higher than eye level, but this Buff-fronted sat out in the sub-canopy where it went to work on some sort of insect larva. 

Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

Spinetails are generally hard to see at all, but we got a few great looks at these Azara’s.

Azara's Spinetails, Valle de Cauca

Once again up at 3500 meters altitude in the paramo where the vegetation gets sparse some of these birds get a lot easier.  

Stout-billed Cinclodes, Los Nevados National Park
This Stout-billed Cinclodes didn’t seem to care about much of anything but sitting on this fence post. 

Another difficult group familiar to us northerners are, of course, the owls.  Normally I have terrible luck with tropical owls, but on this trip we had some of the best owling I’ve ever experiences anywhere. 
As a group we saw (yes, with our eyes!)  five owl species: Tropical Screech-owl, White-throated Screech-Owl, Colombian Screech-Owl…

Stygian Owl, Chetnut-capped Piha Reserve

…and this Stygian Owl, which was among our favorite encounters of the trip.  

The Stygian Owl was right outside the lodge at the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve, unfortunately Mark was sequestered away laundering his socks.  We couldn’t find him and so he missed it—tragic, given his love for owls, as demonstrated by his owl conservation work in North Carolina for New Hope Audubon Society. 

Not 15 minutes after getting over Stygian Owl euphoria, we stumbled upon this Mottled Owl…

Mottled Owl, Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve

…which I was thrilled to be able to remove from my ‘heard-only’ list.

We’ll end this post and this Colombia series with a bird group that in the modal human consciousness is probably most-associated with the tropics: parrots!

“But wait!” you’re thinking. “Parrots are brightly colored and don’t skulk and hide.”   Yes, but they’re brightly colored green.  It isn’t an accident that green is also the color of leaves!  So they are either: 1) surprisingly well camouflaged in the canopy, or 2) silhouettes screeching and flying high overhead identifiable only to genus level unless you can sort out their screech notes.  While we recorded perhaps a dozen psittacid species, the number that gave soul-satisfying views could almost fit on one hand.  
We were lucky in that among the handful that cooperated were some real gems:

Golden-Plumed Parakeet, Vulnerable Colombian endemic, Rio Blanco Reserve
Golden-plumed Parakeets are notoriously difficult and this was a lifer even for Natalia who has spent extensive time in appropriate Andean habitat. 

Another parrot, the Rufous-fronted Parakeet, a Vulnerable Colombian endemic, was one of our primary targets for our trip to the paramo of Los Nevados.  After an unsuccessful morning of searching we were ready to call it a miss. Fortunately Jacob had gotten into the habit of skipping lunch to beat for the bush for extra birds and in this instance his fast paid off for the whole group. When he came sprinted up the road screaming about parrots everybody ditched their café y huevos con pancito and tore after him.  

Rufous-fronted Parakeet, Los Nevados National Park
It was well worth letting breakfast and coffee get cold to see a flock of nine of these odd, cute parakeets!

This will be my last Colombia post until the next trip (in case you missed the last two: part 1 and part 2) and I’ve still just scratched the surface, really.

So many awesome things had to be left out, like the Black-billed Mountain-Toucan; or the vagrant Near-Threatened Orinoco Goose that we found at the Sonso wetland two Andean cordilleras west of its expected range; or this awesome skulking Tody Motmot that Jacob finally found for us after an hour of unsuccessful searching for the source of the vocalization.  

Tody Motmot, Antioquia

Well I guess that last one made it in!  

 It’s been a few weeks now, but I’m still feeling the effects of withdrawal.  Hopefully some fall migrants this weekend can shake off the post-neotropical birding funk.


  1. Wow...such crush on the Black-backed Bush made we weep softly for a little while.

    Well, I hope ABA birding isn't too much bread crusts and dingy water after all that : )

    1. Thanks Laurence! Yeah that Bush Tanager is probably the best bird photo I've ever managed to capture...

      Birding today ended up being pretty crusty and dingy. I saw about 10 times more people than warblers and set a record high count for paddle boarders (22) and sail boats (11) at Jordan Lake. At least I got my first Chatham County Forster's Tern and Northern Shoveler