Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Hummingbirds and the Bogota Rail

A Spontaneous Trip to Bogota

At the end of my Santa Marta trip I was a little unsettled.  A hurricane that was threatening Miami had pushed me, at the airline's suggestion, into delaying my trip home and extending my stay an extra day in Barranquilla.  With no plans there though, I was at a loss as to what exactly I was going to do.  I pondered this dilemma over dinner with Daniel Uribe-Restrepo one night, and in the end decided that I was being way too literal and changed my plans completely.  I cancelled my flight to the US and booked a one way ticket to Bogota, asking Daniel if he knew guides there who might potentially be able to take me out for a day of birding.  He said he did and made some calls, and I jumped on the Marriott BONVoY app and booked a room at the W Hotel.  That was pretty much the extent of my planning for this trip ... sometimes it's good to be spontaneous.

Monday, September 2 - Bogota

Absolutely no plans today other than to relax and spoil myself.  I flew to Bogota and checked into the W Hotel, which was very trendy and quite fancy truth be told.  I had three main goals for the day ... pampering (gym and hot shower), good food/wine, and good sleep.  All three, I'm happy to report, were easily met either at the hotel or through the good offices of their concierge.

I literally laughed out loud when I saw this in my hotel room ...
Tuesday, September 3 - The Andes around Bogota

So after my mini vacation, it was time to get back to work.  Daniel had made good on his promise and introduced me to a local guide named Diana Alcázar-Niño who had arranged for a driver and a day of birding in the mountains surrounding the city.  I set the alarm for some ungodly hour and met Diana, who turned out to be perhaps the warmest and most charming bird guide I think I've ever birded with, and the driver at the hotel lobby.  Then off, weaving through the dark pre-dawn streets of Bogota and out through the suburbs and up into the hills.

First stop was a site for a bird that I'd long been curious to see, the BOGOTA RAIL.   Not long after dawn we stopped in an area of dairy farms with lush green pastures full of friesian cows that would have been totally reminiscent of my home in Wales but for the colonial architecture of the farm buildings.  We had coffee and bread rolls, then hopped a gate and went through a farm field (Diana had permission) to a small pond and marshy area near a farm yard.  The grass was wet and as we got closer we flushed Grassland and Stripe-tailed Yellow-Finches and Eastern Meadowlarks from underfoot.  Then, as the ground got wetter still, we flushed a couple of Noble Snipe, signaling time to stop and scan for the rails in the marsh.  In the end, it didn't turn out to be a tough bird to see, and what we first picked up as a shadow creeping through the marsh vegetation eventually crossed an open space and revealed itself to be an over-sized Virginia-type Rail with a bright red bill and legs.  Scope views, and I was a very happy Welshman.

Bogota Rail habitat, and Bogota Rail. 

Well that was easy.  So back in the car and a fairly long drive through a confusing maze of farm roads brought us to site number two, the entrance road to PNN Chingaza.  We weren't going to have time to go into the park proper, and certainly not to really bird it, but looking at my target list it seemed that there were five (maybe 6) potential life birds that could be found along the entrance road.  So for the rest of the morning we worked our way up and down the first mile or two of road, birding pretty hard in search of our targets.

We started out really well with Purple-backed Thornbill and Glowing Puffleg feeding roadside at the second stop and a group of Silvery-Throated Spinetails working through the hedges just a little further on.  After that, it took only a couple more stops to hit target number four when we caught a glimpse of a small rufous bird flying across the road and were able to relocate it and identify a Rufous-browed Conebill.  At this rate I though we could maybe squeeze in a couple of extra sites but then, as so often happens, it took us a good two hours of patient searching to get a decent view of the fifth target the Pale-bellied Tapaculo.  It was worth it though, I love tapaculos.

Black-tailed Trainbearer and Glowing Puffleg
(Puffleg photo was later at a feeder, we saw 'wild ones' in the park)

So, after lunch, time for one final stop and we headed over to the famous Observatory de Colibries.  I have to say, I was a bit suspicious that this sounded a bit like a tourist trap, and it did indeed have a gift shop and a place to get coffee and take a break from watching the 50+ hummingbird feeders spread through the beautiful gardens of a large house.  Ten minutes later however, I was hooked.  The place positively swarmed with hundred of hummingbirds of 13 species.  Finding them all, getting good looks and getting some photos was totally absorbing and quite enthralling.  Much more fun that I thought it would be.

Blue-throated Starfrontlet, yes it's real ...
Coppery-bellied Puffleg, subtle only by comparison to the Starfrontlet ...
Among the throng of Sparkling and Lesser Violetears, Tyrain Metaltails, Black-tailed and Green-tailed Trainbearers were smaller numbers of rarer species, two of which were life birds for me.  The Blue-throated Starfrontlet, a confection of irridescent pinks, greens, purples, blues, and golds, was just so colorful as to seem almost unreal.  In the end I think the subtlety of the copper/green/blue Coppery-bellied Emerald became my favorite but perhaps it was because it was shyer and harder to track down.

Sword-billed Hummingbird, yes, that's real too ...
Great Sapphirewing, the second largest of all the world's hummingbirds.
Among the other treats were more personal favorites.  I absolutely never tire of watching Sword-billed Hummingbirds, they simply leave me standing in awe, no matter how many times I get to see them.  The Great Sapphirewing has also become a personal favorite; a giant among hummingbirds, an spectacular in it's own right.

After finding the single Mountain Velvetbreast, we ended up turning our attention to the tiny bee-like woodstars.  Most seemed to be White-bellied Woodstars and it took us a good hour of careful searching to find the one Gorgeted Woodstar that had been reported there.



White-bellied and Gorgeted Woodstars

And so the day came to an end, and we needed to fight our way back through traffic to get me back to my hotel.  A wonderful day of birding, and an all too short visit to the Central Andes.  I will be back ...

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Town Called Los Flamencos

Birding along the Caribbean Coast of Colombia

I knew that Colombia has a Caribbean Coast, but if I was honest my knowledge of it probably began and ended with Cartagena, the colonial era trading town turned tourist mecca where so many of my friends had vacationed.  So I really wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up for a couple of birding spots along the coast as bookends to a trip to the Santa Marta highlands.  Flying into Barranquilla certainly didn't feel like arriving at a resort area; the town was clearly hopping with lots of signs of recent development and booming economic activity, but charming it wasn't.  Nevertheless it was a good place to start, with direct flights from Miami and, after a quick visit to the university grounds to tick the local Chestnut-winged Chachalacas and get acclimatized to the local birdlife, decent food and a comfortable place to stay.  I had connected with my regular Colombia birding guide and friend, the legendary Daniel Uribe-Restrepo, the godfather of Colombian birding, who had everything planned out for me.  He'd also hired several drivers, and an assortment of local guides along the way ... all I was going to have to do was look at birds.

Brown-throated Parakeet and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant


Monday, August 26 - Driving East from Barranquilla to Santa Marta

Today was going to be a long day and a long drive connecting a number of birding spots while covering the coast road to Santa Marta and then Minca before nightfall.  The habitats started as farmland and freshwater marshes then transitioned to mangroves (a good percentage destroyed by recent development) and saltwater lagoons by the afternoon.   I had a number of target species which we planned to look for but we were also just planning to enjoy the birds and break up a long drive.

Limpkin
First stop was the famous "Palermo-Camino Km4" road, which started as a dirt road through fields and pasture then connected to a series of tracks and pathways through some very extensive freshwater marshes.  It was clearly a very birdy place, it was also hot and humid, so much so in fact that my bins and camera fogged up the moment we got out of the air conditioned car and it took both them and I quite a while to adapt to the humidity.  We'd stopped and picked up a local guide on the way (definitely advisable in these communities where a known face can greatly improve your experience with the locals ... birders have been robbed here so the friendly greetings of a local guide were a big help ensuring a warm welcome from the farm workers we encountered) and set off in search of the special birds along this famous road.

As we warmed up and started to get used to the birds, the number of species started to add up and we ended up listing 69 species just along this stretch of road and tracks.  The star bird here was the Northern Screamer, a lifer for me, and although we only got distant scope views after a long search, one I was very happy to get (completes the set of 3 screamers).   Less expected, and quite a thrill was a Dwarf Cuckoo, another lifer that briefly sat up on the roadside wires along with Russet-throated Puffbirds and various kingbirds.  There were also lots of marsh birds of various sorts; Limpkins, Ibises, Whistling Ducks, and terns, including a scarce Gull-billed Tern (a lifer for the local guide) among the more common Large-billed Terns.  A really neat spot, although by the time we left mid-morning, it was quiet seriously hot out there in the marshes and early starts are definitely advised.

Dwarf Cuckoo and Russet-throated Puffbird

 Next up were a series of stops along Ruta-Nacional 90 where we looked for and found Sapphire-bellied and Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds.  We spent a lot of time on these two very similar species and our local guide had been surveying them for years and was expert at the ID.  Are they good species (that's the current official status)?  Or just color morphs of the same species (as some suspect)? ... To be honest I'm not sure, but we saw them and I'll let finer minds that I sort of the bigger questions, besides I was much too preoccupied with safely navigating the very home-made 'pull yourself' ferries we had to use to cross the canals between the farm fields.  A little bit of an unexpected adventure but we all survived to bird another day.

Daniel Uribe and local guide cross a canal (I hadn't anticipated this little adventure).
Then onward to the colorful mangroves of Parc Isla de Salamanca where we added Panama Flycatcher and spent some pleasant time wandering the trails through the mangrove lagoons with their vividly colored water (the product of acidity, algae and peculiar local alchemy apparently).

Wouldn't advise drinking the water here ....
After lunch at a local restaurant we had to cover some distance in the afternoon but made a few stops for shorebirds (at least a dozen species), loafing terns and various wading birds in the coastal lagoons.    Then we passed Santa Marta and headed up into the foot hills of the highlands to stay overnight at the town of Minca (the type of backpacker tourist, yoga, tofu, bead store kind of place you can find in mountains all over the world).  The town may be been hipster central but at least the hotel was fine and there was good food to be had, so a welcome rest after a long day.

This thread continues with a visit to the Santa Marta highlands and resumes when we came back to the coastal lowlands.

Friday, August 30 - Drive to Los Flamencos

I still wasn't feeling well and the long drive down from the mountains and out onto the dry Guajira Peninsular hadn't really helped much.  The good news was that, once out of the highlands, the road was straight, and flat.  In fact the country here was dry, flat and arid with dusty farm fields, scattered thorn scrub and eventually a series of coastal lagoons that formed the core of a protected area.  "Protected" is a relative term though, the lagoons may have been designated a preserve but the country around was quite heavily farmed and had been absolutely stripped clean by the abundant goats that we encountered everywhere.  Goats can eat anything, and in numbers they'll eat everything.  What was left was a world of dusty ground with scattered thorn trees (stripped bare up to maximum goat height) and no understory or regeneration whatsoever.  It was also very, very hot and quite humid.  "I hope the birds are good" I told Daniel "because I don't like this place".  "Don't worry" he replied "they are".

Double-striped Thick-knee, perhaps the bird I was most excited to see here.
As it turns out, I got a lifer before we got to the hotel.  I'd seen Double-striped Thick-knee, one of a global family of weird, mostly nocturnal, dry country shorebirds, on the bird list and Daniel had told me to watch the farm fields as we drove in.   So I watched the farm fields, and after about an hour of watching them, a Thick-knee flashed through my field of vision as we zoomed by.  I yelled, the car turned and, after an awkward couple of minutes when we couldn't find the Thick-knee again, but did see several Southern Lapwings (I knew I hadn't made a mistake that awful ... I was sick, not dead!) we found it again, right where I said it would be.   I've always found these birds fascinating (and weird) and remember cycling from Cambridge up to Norfolk to see (what we then called) Stone-Curlews in my college days.  Now I've seen 6 of the 10 species that occur globally,  but I would like to see all 10, they are strange looking creatures and quite charismatic in their own way.

Eventually we made it to the hotel where I really just wanted to sleep but was actually feeling well enough to consider eating for the first time in 24 hours.  The hotel was basic, and the temperature in my room (hut) was 100-degrees (F) or more until they managed to fix the A/C.  But with that fixed, a cold shower (appropriate and welcome for once) and some local sea-food to pick at I re-grouped and got ready to start birding seriously again the next morning.

Not what I'd have chosen for my return to solid food, but the seafood was
hyper local and very fresh ... the deep-fried plantains though, they ended up with the goats.
Saturday, August 31 - Los Flamencos

"I'm back baby!".  I woke up feeling just fine, and well slept, and ready to bird.  The land we were going to bird was part of a Native American reservation and so we had hired a local guide who was a member of the community and, as it turns out, quite an excellent birder.  He arrived right at dawn, and off we went into the thorn scrub where I had 8 life birds before breakfast!

Orinocan Saltator and White-whiskered Spinetail

5 inches long and colorful.  Not your grandmother's
grasshopper
There's nothing like diving into an unfamiliar bird community and while, many of the species here were familiar, the mix and composition was different and there were a bunch of new species to be seen.  Crested Bobwhite scurried underfoot while Vermillion Cardinals ornamented the trees.  We had some Orinocan Saltators, another milestone for me, my 10th (or 10) species of Saltator, and spent time tracking down diminutive Pale-tipped and Slender-billed Tyrannulets.  Of all the birds here though, perhaps the most fascinating was the White-whiskered Spinetail ... not your typical spinetail, more like an antbird of some sort in terms of looks and habits.  It was a very birdy morning in a way that only mornings in desert-like habitats can be, reminding me of early trips to Arizona where the birds just kept coming and by the time breakfast was ready I felt like I'd had a really good day of birding.

With the rest of the day ahead and temperatures rising, I expected the birding to die off fairly quickly but we had time for another couple of stops after breakfast before the sun made it impossible to bird at around 11am.  We visited a small fazenda where the owner kept an array of hummingbird feeders and watch the local Buffy Hummingbirds jockey for space at the, mostly home-made, feeders.  This is a really good bird for Colombia and occurs only in this area, when I said I'd seen it before in Venezuela the guides looked visible deflated having expected me to be more excited to see them, so I felt guilty for hours afterwards and tried to make up for it by taking lots of photos.

Buffy Hummingbird
There was also a fruit feeder at the fazenda and the owner graciously re-filled it when we arrived starting a stampede, not of birds, but of iguanas that dropped from the trees onto the feeder to chow down on fresh papaya.

Iguana feeder?  Do you think it'll catch on?
I have cardinals on my feeders at home, but not this species.
With the heat rising we tried one more area of thorn scrub and when Daniel heard a Black-backed Antshrike we spent some time tracking them down.  This splendid looking antshrike with striking pied plumage was our last bird of the morning before retreating out of the withering sun.  Time to chill by the beach, have lunch, take a siesta, then start again .... not a bad life.

Black-backed Antshrike
Mid afternoon, trying to convince ourselves that it had cooled down a little (it hadn't), we headed out again with a specific list of targets in mind.  Rufous-vented Chachalaca called loudly as soon as we got out of the car (thank you!) but it took us a fair bit of time to lure a Tocuyo Sparrow out into the open (where I still failed to get an in-focus photo).  On the way back to the car, Orange-crowned Oriole became the last lifer of the day for me.  What a day of birding.  Yes, Daniel was right, the birds were worth it ....

Saturday, September 1 - Los Flamencos back to Barranquilla 

We had another morning to bird the same areas but with most of the target birds already in the bag we could relax and just see what we saw.  We did manage to add a Trinidad Euphonia and set out on a 'snipe hunt' playing tape for the (hard to find and low density) Gray-capped Cuckoo.  No-one really expected the cuckoo to show up, but after and hour of wandering trails and playing tape ... one responded!  The bird then came and sat up next to us, even staying long enough for us to flag down other passing birders and have them see it too.

Gray-capped Cuckoo, a very good bird anywhere in it's range.
Soon enough though it was time to leave and we headed back to the hotel for lunch near the beach.  I'd been wondering if we would indeed see the flamingos that gave Los Flamencos it's name (and were the reason for the protected status) and Daniel had said we could check some of the lagoons on the way out.  Not 20 minutes later, someone shouted "Flamencos!" and we all leapt up to look out to sea and at a flock of passing American Flamingos.  There was a problem though, Daniel, the driver, and the local guide were clearly seeing flamingos and estimating their numbers to be 400-500 birds flying right.  I couldn't see any flamingos .... I was standing next to three people who were watching 500 large pink birds fly by .... and I couldn't see them (!).  I was to say the least, confused and I even began to wonder if they were pranking me.  It was only when I took my bins down that I got the joke.  I am a good foot taller than the average Colombia and from my height the huge flock of flamingos passing by out to sea were totally obscured by a thatched roof covering the dining area that the others were short enough to be looking under.  I dropped to my knees and there they were!  I guess I don't have to give up birding and retire quite yet ...

After lunch it was time to go, and we headed out to make the long drive back to Barranquilla and flights home.  There was a hurricane supposed to be clipping Miami though and I'd been worried about my flights so had delayed them a day to miss it.  I wondered what I was going to do in Barranquilla for a day an then just decided to throw plans to the wind, cancelled my flight and booked  a ticket to Bogota.  I wasn't done birding yet, I wanted more birds ....




Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Santa Marta Highlands of Colombia ... Finally!

A Few Days Looking for the Santa Marta Endemics

If you bird long enough and have enough birding friends, it starts to feel like someone you know has been to more or less every birding destination of earth.  Certain trips are very popular with birders and many of your friends will no doubt have taken them over the years.  Given my quirky travel schedules, there are actually quite a few popular places ... Madagascar, the Galapagos, New Guinea ... that many of my friends have been too but which I have yet to see.  Of all these places though, one stood out for me; it felt like everyone I know has at some point been to the Santa Marta Highlands of Colombia ... everyone that is except me.  This was a trip I had considered multiple times of the last 30 years but had never managed to get organized to do.  So 2019 was going to be the year I finally got there.

Tuesday, August 27 - RNA El Dorado Lodge

Well I finally made it happen.  I got to Santa Marta and, after some birding around Barranquilla, started to head up into the mountains along with legendary Colombia birding guide Daniel Uribe- Restrepo (know to the other guides as Don Daniel) and a local guide driving a beast of a high clearance 4x4 Toyota Landcruiser.  The car was a must given that the roads were awful, especially while construction of a new road forced traffic onto a diversion that was little more than a muddy farm track.  At times we pushed on through roads covered in liquid mud, thankful that we were deep in rutted tire tracks because they seemed to be the only thing separating us from the worryingly steep slope that started inches from the road.  It was a long morning of bouncing around in the back of a car that slowly inched it's way up the mountains.  So each time we made brief stops in promising birding areas, and had a chance to get out of the car, I was a very relieved and happy birder.

The Team for the Santa Marta Highlands
Birders come to Santa Marta for the endemics.  A large cluster of bird species found nowhere else but on these isolated highlands in the North of Colombia.  Separated from the Andes and surrounded by low, dry country, the forests of Santa Marta are a true island and things here have taken their own direction.  Not all of the endemics were going to be accessibly to us, The Santa Marta Sabrewing is a seldom-seen legend, and both the Santa Marta Wren and the Blue-bearded Hemletcrest live way up on the tundra-like habitats on top of the mountain (and the required 4 days trip by mule was not going to be a part of the trip).  That still left me with around 30 target birds to focus on though, more than enough for a three day trip.

The life birds started rolling-in on the way up.  A couple of stops not far above Minca produced skulking Golden-winged Sparrows, shy Santa Marta Antbirds and an even shyer Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner.  These were all great birds, and new for me, but I was clearly going to have to up my photo game if I was going to have souvenirs to take home as all three stayed largely hidden in dense cover, affording only brief views and 'record shots' rather than portraits.  As we got closer to the lodge though, one of the endemics did cooperate beautifully when a SANTA MARTA BLOSSOMCROWN sat out on a twig in light rain and allowed for some clear, if grainy, photographs.

Santa Marta Blossomcrown, this is a famous individual, that has a favorite
twig close to a trail.  Many birders have seen this individual.
By the time we made it to the lodge, I was exhausted from the car ride.  The lodge was very pleasant with a common area overlooking a big feeder set-up and cabins scattered through the forested grounds with amazing views down to the Caribbean Sea miles behind us.  My first thought was to nap but I was thwarted by Daniel who woke me as soon as I'd dozed off and dragged me back to the lodge to see a White-tipped Quetzal and a Black-hooded Thrush.  I was a little grumpy about being woken up, surely we'd see more of these species ... but in the end we didn't, so I was glad that Daniel persisted and forced me up to see them.

Once up, it made sense to spend time with the hummingbird feeders and the hundreds of hummingbirds, of a dozen or so species, that thronged the yard.  Three species of violetear  dominated but among them were some real star hummingbirds that were lifers for me.  White-tailed Starfrontlet and Lazuline Sabrewing were both amazing creatures in a country with so many great hummingbirds.  Even though it was raining for most of the rest of the day, I opted to stay outdoors and watch the 'hummers' until it was time for a shower and for dinner.

White-tailed Starfrontlet
Lazuline Sabrewing
Exhausting as the day was, we weren't done yet though, and a brief nocturnal excursion after dinner produced two Kinkajous, a Gray-handed Night-Monkey but no screech-owls.  I slept very well that night.

The view from my cabin in the evening before dinner (in one of the rare breaks from the rain).
Wednesday, August 28 - Cuchilla San Lorenzo

So today was the big day.  We planned to climb further up hill and spend the morning in an area where some of the most sought after endemics could be seen.  I'd assumed that many of the star birds would be easy to get once you got to the habitat, but apparently we were going to need some luck and were going to have to put in some effort to get them.  I've since heard from friends who missed one or other of the endemics at this spot, but today at least, the birding gods were smiling and we were on a roll.

Santa Marta Parakeet
First up, as we arrived at the observation tower area where we planned to have breakfast, were SANTA MARTA PARAKEETS.   There were a group of them sitting around on palm stumps close to the road, which was pretty much what I had expected, but greatly excited the guides who were thrilled to have a major target so quickly (this bird can be missed I've since learned).  Then, as soon as we moved past the parakeets a Santa Marta Warbler started singing along with Hermit Wood-Wren and Santa Marta Antpitta.  Where to start?  In the end it was none of these as a BLACK-BACKED THORNBILL flew past, stopping to feed on roadside flowers ... another seldom seen and hard to get bird.  For a few minutes I wasn't sure where to look.

Santa Marta Warbler
Before breakfast, we had tracked down the birds one by one, and added a few more local stars including Brown-rumped Tapaculo and Yellow-crowned Redstart.  The morning was a whirlwind with 9 life birds before coffee, not a bad way to start the day and the guides were definitely looking releived that so many of the targets had surrendered so easily.  With hours to spare though, we pushed on up the road in search of two other possible endemics, quickly getting Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager but striking out on the brush-tyrant.

Yellow-crowned Redstart and White-lored Warbler, also both endemic
to Santa Marta.  Any mountain with three species of endemic warbler
is pretty special.


For some reason I had a very wrong search image in my mind for the bush-tyrant.  I'm not sure how I got confused, having seen other species of bush-tyrant in the Andes, but I had an image of a small bird sitting up on bushes close the the ground.  In reality the SANTA MARTA BUSH-TYRANT is a thrush-sized bird more likely to be found on the tree tops.  Either way though, it didn't really matter as we couldn't find one, and Daniel managed my expectations saying that this species (along with the Thornbill and the Parakeet were often missed on single day trips).  After birding the trail for a few hours, the time had come to leave and to head back down to the lodge.  Oh well, you can't see everything I thought ... and then, there it was, sitting silently in a tree top above us on the trail (Daniel spotted it).  A perfect end to an amazing birding stop.  Eleven life birds and now I felt that I'd really been to Santa Marta.

Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, not in a bush ...
Oh, but the lifers weren't over yet, and on the way down to the lodge the local guide stopped the car, and led us off into the forest to an overlook where we could look into the canopy of some evergreen trees.  There, tucked into the foliage were a pair of SANTA MARTA SCREECH-OWLS, a species only relatively recently discovered and one I had expected to have to look for with a light at night.

Montagne Woodcreeper
Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant
After lunch and a siesta it was time to go birding again but the list of potential new birds was significantly diminished after the morning session.  The lodge area was hopping as usual but there wasn't really a lot of add there other than two birds that were reputed to come to the feeders and compost heap occasionally ... the Lined Quail-Dove and the Black-fronted Wood-Quail.  So we staked out the compost heap and stood still in the light rain hoping that one or other species might make an appearance ... ah the romance of birding.  The compost heap turned out to be pretty active with many Band-tailed Guans, a Sickle-winged Guan and even a Strong-billed Woodcreeper sharing the choicest morels with a Black Agouti.  Of our target birds however, there was no sign.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Eventually we got bored and decided to wander up the road a bit playing tape for Wood-Quail.  A little while later when we were busy scanning the forest floor and listening for the telltale sounds of rustling leaves, I happened to turn and look behind us and there was a Lined Quail-Dove, just walking down the trail thirty meters from where we stood.  The bird was coming towards us but noticed the two apes standing in the trail a split second after we saw it, taking an abrupt right turn and heading off the trail into the forest.  We looked, but never saw it again.

While we were congratulating ourselves and walking back to the lodge, I heard a thin, high 'seeeee' note coming from the canopy.  It didn't register the first few times but the third time it called, the penny dropped, and I shouted 'fruiteater!'.  Now all we had to do was find it, no doubt sitting still high in the canopy.  In the end it was Daniel's sharp eyes that picked it out and we got great looks and even a few mediocre photos of what is surely one of the most stunning of the canopy birds here, the Golden-breasted Fruiteater.

Golden-breasted Fruiteater


Thursday, August 29 - RNA El Dorado Lodge

Today was "mop-up" day, a spare day to chase the things we hadn't yet managed to catch up with.  There was a last endemic life bird to find, and we picked up the Santa Marta Woodstar relatively easily helped by expert local knowledge and the bird's habit of sitting high on dead trees in the open.  We also managed to hear, but not see the Black-fronted Wood-Quail further down slope and I got my life Groove-billed Toucanets along the same trail where we stopped to re-visit the Santa Marta Blossomcrown.  A very pleasant, low pressure, day of birding.

Groove-billed Toucanet
So the trip was going perfectly, I'd seen almost all my target birds and a few I hadn't expected to see.   I was having a terrific time and really looking forward to a cold beer and a great dinner at the lodge ... and then it all went horribly wrong.  After a warm shower, that cold beer at the lodge was going to be the perfect end to the day but somehow it tasted off and I found that I wasn't enjoying it the way I thought I would.  By the time the soup course came, the soup was tasting funny too, and in fact I was starting to realize that I was not feeling right at all.  When the main course hit the table I had to excuse myself and, after an unseemly scramble across the dining room, made it to the bathroom just in time.  The thin bathroom door would not have spared the other occupants of the dining room from the rather gruesome, and I"m sure meal-ruining, sound effects of a middle-aged Welshman throwing up with great enthusiasm.  Whatever it was, bug or food poisoning, it hit me like a truck and I spent the night mostly in the bathroom of my cabin praying for death.  Not a good experience and a bit of a surprise as I'm usually a bit of a goat (I can eat almost anything with no apparently ill effects) but it would seem that my digestive system failed me royally that night.


Friday, August 30 - Santa Marta

By morning I did not feel appreciably better and skipped breakfast as, having just emptied my digestive system I was loathe to put anything new in there.  The good news was that a we had already seen almost all the target species.  The bad news was that today was mostly going to be a long and bumpy ride down the mountain followed by a long drive to the next birding destination.  I prepared myself to just endure, and spent most of the day dozing and groaning in the back of the Landcrusier, dutifully getting out when told to look at birds, then collapsing back on the seat.

I think this is a photo of a Red Howler-Monkey but it might well have been a photo of me that day.
It's certainly how I felt.
 I did finally connect with Whooping Motmot, one of those birds that you can't imagine you haven't seen already but somehow didn't make it onto your life list before now.  There were also a few other decent birds to be seen but my heart was just not in it and while I forced myself to look, the fun of the experience was lost for me.  In my mind I just had to survive until the next hotel when I could sleep.  A rough end to an amazing trip and looking back, a tough contrast between one of the best days of birding I've had in recent years, so quickly followed by a day of feeling pretty awful.  Still, these things happen, albeit rarely, and in the end I had no complaints.  We saw amazing birds, and I had finally joined the ranks of the birders with the Santa Marta endemics on my list ... I've very glad I went.



Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Cuvier's Beaked-Whales and Pelagic Seabirds in New York

A way offshore pelagic from Brooklyn in July

Looking back at the blog, I seem to have stopped writing about my local birding and natural history adventures.  I guess the world-birder-travel stuff seems so much more exciting, and the local trips perhaps seems repetitive year-to-year.  But I still get out locally most weekends when I'm in New York, so here's something from closer to home.

Monday, July 22 - 130 miles South of Brooklyn

For most of my 28 years living in New York, pelagic trips were an exercise in futility.  The gulf stream, warm water, and most interesting birds are a very long way from shore in New York.  In North Carolina you can be looking at a wide range of pelagic species an hour from the dock, but in New York you have to steam for 8 hours overnight to get into good water and stand a decent chance of seeing good birds.  For years, folks tried to see things closer in ... I chartered a few boats myself with mixed results ... and then an enterprising chap called Paul Guris got it all properly worked out.

Paul (and his better half, the lovely Anita) is a sea-birding impresario who puts together pelagic trips along the East Coast, mostly in New York and New Jersey.  In my opinion, he single-handedly turned New York pelagic birding from futile to productive over the course of the last five or six years.  Boats now get regularly filled, get out to good waters for decent amounts of time, and see excellent birds.  Indeed over the last few years, Paul's "Paulagics" have turned up Fea's Petrel, Trinidade Petrel and made previously mega birds like White-faced and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and Black-capped Petrel into regular, gettable birds in New York.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels
This year the boat captains have been making things difficult but when the opportunity to sail on a July 'Paulagic' came up, I signed up quickly.

I should say straight up, I am not a good sailor.  I have been seasick on pelagic boats all over the world, and may unfortunately be semi-famous for it.  I have never been on a Brian Patteson trip in North Carolina without contributing to the chum line and have even failed to hold it together on the relatively placid waters of Monterey Bay.  But 'you don't look, you don't see' so I keep going, keep optimistically taking my dramamine (which unfortunately usually puts me to sleep for half of the trip) and keep soldiering on.  Sea-birds are important ... and cetaceans are even better.

So 9pm Sunday night and off we go again (how do you spend your Sunday nights?).  There's a certain amount of socializing on these trips as they gather together a broad group of New York birders who don't get to see each other every week, but I tend to try to find a quiet bench and spread my sleeping bag early.  Once I've taken my dramamine I'm down for the count, and sleep most of the night, but this time I was vaguely aware that it wasn't the smoothest passage out to the deep water.  Turns out we passed through several thunder storms and took a detour around others, but by dawn we were out where we wanted to be ... over 7,000 feet of water, 130 miles South of New York City.

As the sun came up, the steel gray waters were choppy and the smell of diesel and chum permeated everything on the boat.  I frankly felt somewhat queasy all morning, even passing on the egg and cheese sandwiches that they cooked up in the galley (and I love egg and cheese sandwiches).  But there's something special about dawn on a pelagic trip and, no matter how awful you feel, the excitement of being out there in the deep water takes over and we all staggered to the railing, ready to bird.

Leach's Petrels only show up close to dawn.  It's a strange fact and I'm not sure it applies everywhere, but on New York pelagic trips, the Leach's Petrels are typically seen early in the low light, and then vanish mysteriously.  I'm not sure why, or where they go, but for veteran pelagic birders, the first half hour on the chum slick is Leach's Petrel time and sure enough, they showed up on cue that morning.  A few Band-rumped Petrels showed up too so we got a quick reminder on ID by 'jiz' with the bouncing flight of the Leach's contrasting with the purposeful direct fight of the Band-rumped.

Leach's Petrel
Then, over the next few hours we slowly filled out the list of pelagic birds.  The numbers weren't big, but we got most of the species we expected.  There were a few Great Shearwaters, a couple of Cory's Shearwaters and Audubon's Shearwaters along with a single Manx Shearwater surprisingly far offshore.  An hour or so in I picked up a fast moving back and white bird and called it, but blanked on the name, even though I knew what it was ... Black-capped Petrel.  This species used to be a 'mega' for New York but it's now seen regularly and annually on these trips so we've all gotten a little blasé about them.  Still, in global terms, a very rare bird and they are always fun to watch.  We looked out for it's even rarer cousins too, but it didn't happen that day.

Black-capped Petrel (old photo from N. Carolina)
Beyond the birds, today turned out to be a great day for cetaceans.  First up were a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, a good contrast to a later pod of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins.  The stars of the day, from a dolphin perspective, though were undoubtedly a large pod of Risso's Dolphins that stayed close to the boat for a long time and gave great views.

Risso's Dolphins


I also got a New York State life cetacean, a species I'd seen several times in North Carolina but nowhere else, when we bumped into a pod of CUVIER'S BEAKED-WHALES.  This species is a true oddity, with their white heads and goose-like 'beaks', they just look ... well, odd.  They are also famous as the deepest diving mammal species in any ocean (deeper then Sperm Whales, or even Elephant Seals).  That diving ability means that views are typically brief as when these guys dive, they are gone for a while, maybe 40 minutes before they surface again.  We were lucky then to get a decent view on the surface before they headed down to the depths.  A very cool species.

Cuvier's Beaked Whales
All too soon however, it was time to start making the long run back to shore with a plan to be back at the dock around 9pm.  They way in is often dull.  The die-hard birders persevere and may add a few things (a hammerhead shark sp. and a sea-turtle sp. in this case) but it's generally pretty birdless.  Being a cynical old birder, and high on dramamine, I usually sleep most of the way back in and that was pretty much the case that day.  When we got close to shore though, the weather started to look a little challenging.  We'd been avoiding thunder storms all through the trip, but as we got back closer to Brooklyn,  it was obvious that we were going to have to pass though one in order to get home.

Ahead of us was a wall of black.  The seas were blue and the skies were clear where we were, but we were going to have to go through some very dark and scary looking waters.  As we got closer everyone made their way down to the cabin and when we hit the edge of the storm, all hell broke loose.  From relatively calm seas the waters turned to ugly boiling churn with waves breaking over the bow and thumping down against the sides of the cabin.  It quite literally went dark, from day to night, and as the captain labored to keep the bow into the waves, our progress slowed to a crawl.  Then things got really ugly, a brush from a water-spout slammed the side of the boat and several of the large (12 foot by 3 foot) plastic windows on the boat cabin exploded out of their frames and crashed into the cabin with wind and waves blasting in behind them.  Scenes from the end of the Titanic movies came to mind, and there was me without my dinner jacket.  We did remain surprisingly calm though and I found myself pressed up against a window with other passengers trying to keep the remaining panels in their frames.  Everyone was soaked and a bit rattled but after a very tense 15 minutes or so, the maelstrom started to subside, the sky slowly lightened, and we passed out of the roaring waters and back to calmer seas.  Phew!  'Cheated Death Once Again' as my old friend Steve Howell is fond of saying on pelagic trips.  Definitely an experience ... but let's not do that again please.

So back at the dock and safely home an hour later.  While the trips can be a bit of a slog, the distances long, and the birding time short, you do get to see really good species.  Every time I get off the boat I think that I won't do another for a while.  Then the email goes out announcing a new trip, and I inevitably sign up ready for a new adventure ... who knows what we might see out there next time.