Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Carolina Bird Club Field Trip to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia

Twelve brave souls ventured out of the Carolinas and across the Caribbean Sea to embark on a week-long birding tour of Colombia’s northern coast led by conservation biologist, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela and Carolina Birder, Scott Winton (the author).  We collectively observed more than 285 species including about 30 endemics or near-endemics and more than 40 neotropical migrants.  Lifers were added constantly and some participants saw more than 200 new birds!  

Our trip started and ended at the beautiful , historic city of Cartagena, a UNESCO world heritage site.  While the birdlife here is outshone by the city’s ramparts and colonial architecture, the Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown-throated Parakeets ever-present overhead set the tropical tone. 
Brown-throated Parakeet, common along the Caribbean coast

The first major birding stop was made for a boat ride through the mangroves of Salamanca National Park.  While being poled through creeks and pools we spotted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, American Pygmy Kingfishers, Golden-green Woodpecker, and the mangrove specialist, near-threatened Bicolored Conebill. 

Boat Ride at Salamanca National Park

After a night in Santa Marta we headed up the side of the Sierra Nevada toward El Dorado, a lodge and reserve set high in the cloud forest.  The road up the mountain was very rough, but lead us to exciting and easy birding right from the lodge. The hummingbird and banana feeders were abuzz with Green Violetears, Purple-crowned Woodnymphs, Blue-naped Chlorophonias and Black-capped Tanagers.   

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, El Dorado

Blue-naped Chlorophonia, El Dorado

Occasional visits by the endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet and endemic Black-backed Thornbill were thrilling.   
Black-backed Thornbill (with Violet-Crowned Woodnymphs), El Dorado
 The lodge’s compost pile attracted both endemic Brush-Finch species (Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada)...

Santa Marta Brush-Finch, El Dorado
Sierra Nevada Brush-Finch, El Dorado
 ...and a flock of 13 of the endemic Black-fronted Wood-Quail.  

Black-faced Wood-Quail, El Dorado
The yet-to-be-described Santa Marta Screech-Owl could be viewed roosting two minutes away from the dining room.

Santa Marta Screech-Owl, El Dorado

Our first morning at El Dorado we set off an hour before dawn along another very bumpy road to 2500 meters elevation.  We were rewarded immediately by endemic Santa Marta Parakeets at dawn, endemic Yellow-crowned Whitestarts singing away...

Yellow-crowned Whitestart, El Dorado

...and spectacular views and even photos of the elusive, difficult endemic Santa Marta Warbler, a frequently missed species.   

Santa Marta Warbler, El Dorado

We also enjoyed scope views of the endemic Santa Marta Toucanet... 

Santa Marta Emerald Toucanet, El Dorado
...and the endemic White-tipped Quetzal, which was for many the bird of the trip. 

White-tipped Quetzal, El Dorado

After ticking a couple endemic spinetails, Buff-breasted and Santa Marta Mountain-Tanagers, and failing to scare a Rufous Antpitta or Brown-rumped Tapaculo into view, we made our way back downslope during the afternoon lull. 

Our knowledgeable local guide, Lorenzo, had us stop midway at a spot known for having Golden-breasted Fruiteater.  We heard it calling quickly enough, but then it went silent and I could see that Lorenzo was worried.  The looming figure of a Black-and-Chestnut Eagle (listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN) swooping overhead proved to be the issue!  After some patience the fruiteater began to vocalize again and somehow I caught a glimpse of it as it landed in the canopy where it cooperatively sat for 15 minutes so all could view it in the scope.  Lorenzo said that many birders leave thinking they’ve seen the fruiteater when they were just looking at a leaf—not us! 

That evening we enjoyed spectacular views of several Band-tailed and Sickle-winged Guans feeding on flower buds in some trees hanging over deck outside the lodge dinning room.

Band-tailed Guan, El Dorado

As anticipated, the birds at El Dorado were the trip highlights, not to mention the views of the Caribbean Sea in one direction and Colombia’s highest snow-capped peaks in the other.  
view of the Caribbean Sea and Cienega Grande from El Dorado

I think we all wanted to stay and bird the reserve more, but after two nights it was time to bump our way back downhill.  Birding stops on the trip down yielded Barred Forest-Falcon, Keel-billed Toucan, fantastic views of the Santa Marta subspecies of Red-billed Parrot, a Mourning Warbler, and the endemic Santa Marta Antbird.  

Santa Marta Red-billed Parrot, Bolivar

We stayed a night in the foothill town of Minca at a hotel by the same name.  Its hummingbird feeders hosted a new array of species, such as Rufous-tailed Hummingbird...

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Minca
...and Steely-vented Hummingbird.

Steely-vented Hummingbird, Minca

The next morning we birded the road up from Minca, with some of the crowd favorites being Golden-winged Sparrow, Swallow Tanager, Scaled Piculet and White-bearded Manakin.   

Golden-winged Sparrow, Bolivar

After lunch we said goodbye to Lorenzo who had been our faithful guide for three days and resumed our journey northward along the coast.  

After rough roads and cold early mornings up in the Sierra Nevada, the idyllic beachfront splendor of El Matuy resort is just what the group needed.  While the setting demanded relaxation, that didn’t stop us from birding!  It was well worth the early wake-up in order to get to our desert birding spot early.  We immediately found one of the key targets here in a very cooperative male Vermillion Cardinal.  Other exciting finds were Caribbean Pale-legged Hornero, White-whiskered Spinetail, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet...
Chestnut Piculet, Guajira

...and Black-crested Antshrike.
Black-crested Antshrike, Guajira

By the time we got to the lagoon at Los Flamencos it was midday and blazing hot with the namesake flamingoes nowhere in sight.  We decided taking a boat out under the sun for two hours would be a bad idea.  The flamingos were not worth heat stroke and we had already seen three in a roadside pond anyway.  

American Flamingos in a roadside pond near Cartagena

While scoping the lagoon from shore I noticed a black-backed, white-headed gull looming over a large flock of Royal, Common and Sandwich Terns.  I told the group it was a Great Black-backed Gull, but later realized I had been looking at a Belcher’s Gull, not quite as rare a bird for Colombia, but way out of range on the Caribbean Coast.  This was probably the most unusual bird we observed on the trip and I managed to misidentify it—a classic gringo mistake!

The evening after Los Flamencos I came down with a nasty stomach bug that put me out of commission for the next 24 hours.  I expected somebody to get sick on the trip I just didn’t think it would be me!  I think I may have had better birding luck sitting at the van than walking the road on our final morning, picking up a flyover Pearl Kite and a couple Golden-fronted Greenlets.  Fortunately one of the latter stuck around for the group to see when they returned. 

Golden-fronted Greenlet, Bolivar

In an effort to spend down our budget surplus we dined at the fanciest of Cartagena’s restaurants, Don Juan, for our final trip dinner. While we couldn’t manage to break the bank (even the best food in Cartagena is reasonably priced) it was an excellent spot to celebrate all the lifers and reminisce over a fantastic week of birding.  
The Group
Anybody who watches the news can't help but have the idea that Colombia is a good place to visit if you want to be kidnapped or murdered.  In our case, the cheesy slogan penned by the ministry of tourism, "the only risk is wanting to stay," proved to be spot on.  There are still the 1600 or so Colombian species we missed out there and we can't wait to return to see some of them!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Birds of Colombia's Llanos and Catching the Highway Duck

With three Andean cordilleras, two long coasts and a considerable chunk of Amazon rainforest getting all the attention, the Llanos is probably the most poorly known region of Colombia.  Few birders travel to its seasonally flooded savannas because the flat topography means there are no endemic species, and the alpha species diversity lags behind other South American hotspots.  This is a shame, because it happens to be a phenomenal place to see birds.

The dry season (roughly November to March in a typical year) is the time to visit.  The inundated landscape desiccates forcing wildlife to concentrate at depressions, called esteros, where water persists.

Llanos wildlife, Casanare, Colombia

I’ve yet to visit Brazil’s famed Pantanal, but I know of no other place where one can go and expect to see six ibis species in a day…

Buff-necked Ibises, Casanare, Colombia
…or Horned Screamers wandering around pastures like Turkeys.

Horned Screamer, Casanare, Colombia

And it was at one of these llanos esteros where I finally saw my first Jabiru, a massive stork that stands about 4-and-a-half feet tall. 

Jabirus in flight, Casanare, Colombia
The default raptor in this region is the beautful and fearsome Savanna Hawk.

Savanna Hawk
But this trip was about a science project; the birding was just a bonus.  I tagged along to help world-famous conservation biologist, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela, affix satellite geolocators to a couple Orinico Geese.  El “Pato Carreterra” (or “highway duck”), as the geese are referred to by locals, belongs to the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily, Tadorninae.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia
Most of the population breeds in the llanos of Colombia during the dry season, but where these geese go once the rainy season begins is a mystery.  Improvements in remote tracking technology have led to an opportunity for Natalia and her collaborator, Duke University’s Lisa Davenport, to track the movement of a couple geese for up to three years.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia

All we had to do was catch a couple geese and attach the transmitters.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia

Fortunately these geese will wander dazedly toward a bright flashlight at night.  They are quick and strong though, and will bolt if they sense danger.  Arturo and his skill with throwing a weighted fishing net (“ataraya”) proved to be essential. 

Natalia attaching a transmitter an Orinoco Goose - photo by Lourdes Penuela

Natalia attached transmitters to one male and one female following US Geological Society methods. 
Data is flowing in from the male, but the female has not transmitted since shortly after she was released.  We fear she may have been eaten by the foxes that where prowling the estero where we captured her. 

Male Orinoco Goose wearing a satellite geolocator

This is a small tragedy for the loss of life of the goose and loss of equipment, but is part of the risk of doing any scientific field investigation and life in the wilds of the llanos. 

It will be months before we know where the male decides to go for the rainy season and probably years before the results are published (funds for more transmitters and geese will probably be needed), but it was a thrill to be part of this investigation and get to experience such a distinctive wetland landscape and appreciate its birds hands-on.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 Birds of 2013

This new year finds me in the tropical bird paradise of Colombia.  

The birding has been nothing short of spectacular and I’ll be sure to cover some of the highlights shortly.  

My travel schedule has put me in a bit of a quandary for my top 10 list.  How many of the 56 lifers I’ve seen in the last few days should I try to cram in?  And which of the US birds I’ve carefully accumulated during 98 percent of the year get displaced?

Ultimately I decided to just include the one Colombian species I got to hold, which brings us to…

#10 Orinoco Goose

What Natalia and I did with Orinoco Geese is a tale unto itself, but yes we did catch some (for scientific purposes of course!). Post coming soon...

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia

#9 Snowy Owl

I normally don’t like to include “chased” birds in these kinds of lists, but for this stunning bird I’ll make an exception!  It has been a phenomenal winter for Snowy Owls in NC and the reports keep coming in, but I think we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 documented occurrences as of Dec. 31. See the original post...

Snowy Owl, Cape Hatteras, NC

#8 Williamson's Sapsucker

I don't know Southern California birds well enough to appreciate the significance of seeing a Williamson's Sapsucker in Los Angeles, but it was an unexpected lifer that contributed to a Sapsucker Sweep. See the original post...

Williamson's Sapsucker, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar, California

#7 Island Scrub-Jay

It was well worth the trip out to Santa Cruz Island to see this beautiful endemic jay even though it looks a lot like its mainland cousin. This is the only passerine to make this year's list.  See original post...

Island Scrub-Jay

#6 Atlantic Puffin

The alcids that show up occasionally off the outer banks in winter aren't exceptionally pretty, but Atlantic Puffin is still an excellent bird to see in North Carolina.  I guess I'll have to visit a breeding colony some day to see them in their garish finery. See original post...

Atlantic Puffin, Hatteras pelagic trip, NC

#5 Northern Saw-whet Owl

The last North Carolina breeding species I had yet to see.  This one took some work to track down, but it was definitely worth the effort!  Thanks to Mark K. for sharing the photo.  See original post...

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Roan Mountain, NC (photo by Mark K.)

#4 Magnificent Frigatebird

An invasion of frigatebirds made for an excellent consolation for a weathered-out pelagic.  Two of these in  the same frame in North Carolina is pretty absurd!  See original post...

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Frisco, NC

#3 Trindade Petrel

It's always a good pelagic trip when you see a gadfly petrel that isn't a Black-capped Petrel and this was the first for me!  See original post...

Trindade Petrel, Hatteras pelagic trip, NC

#2 Blue-footed Booby

I'm not much of an ABA area birder, but Blue-footed Booby is a code 12 or something (see, I'm really pretty oblivious to ABA minutiae), which means it's very rare to find one anywhere in the US.  There was some sort of irruption of boobies into Southern California this fall.  See original post...

Blue-footed Booby, Playa del Rey, California

#1 White-faced Ibis

While this bird isn't as pretty as the Scarlet or Buff-necked Ibises I just saw for the first time, it is significant for being the third record for this species in North Carolina and is possibly the "best" bird I've ever self-found.  See original post...

White-faced Ibis, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
What a year! 

I should end this post with some bird targets for 2014.  I usually come up with five, but for now I've just got 3 in mind:

1. Harpy Eagle
2. Pompadour Cotinga
3. Agami Heron

I'll sort out #4 and #5 when I get back stateside. 

Happy 2014 to all!