Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Hunt for the Royal Cinclodes

Five Days Chasing Endemics in Cuzco, Peru

Sunday, August 6th - (near) Cuzco

This was a bit of a spontaneous trip.  It actually started with a restaurant reservation of all things.  Like many birders I keep lists, and one of my most obsessive is the World's Fifty Best Restaurants list (I'm a bit of a foodie too).  So when I scored a reservation at Central Restaurant in Lima (currently #5 in the World / #1 in Latin America) I started to put together a Peru trip.  Dinner in Lima morphed into a foodie weekend in Lima, adding meals at Maido (#8 in the World) and Astrid y Gaston (#33 in the World).  Then, seeing as I was coming all this way, why not add in some birding too?  So I reached out to Barry Walker of Manu Expeditions and fast forward a few weeks I was waiting in the lobby of the Palacio del Inka Hotel in Cuzco for Gustavo Bautista (a very talented hot-shot young Peruvian birder) who was going to be my guide for a few days chasing endemic birds in the Andes around Cuzco.  It's not tough to be me, what can I say ...

The birding part of the trip actually started with a fairly "dudie" (easy, not terribly serious) kind of trip to Mirador del Condor which provided a chance to get used to the altitude (3,000 - 4,000 meters) and to get some of the local birds.   While the birding was low key, I did add some local endemic life birds; Rusty-fronted Canastero, Creamy-crested Spinetail, and Apurimac Brushfinch were all endemics, while some surprise Andean Parakeets were also a lifer for me.  Oh, and yes, we saw some Andean Condors, but then again, we also saw them on each of the next three days.

Two juvenile Andean Condors at the overlook, we subsequently saw another
five condors on the next three days for a total of seven individuals.
Accommodation that night was a strange little yoga hotel/lodge tucked in the middle of nowhere, and run by an interesting German lady who served us surprisingly good vegetarian food, all of which was grown on the property.  I am NOT a vegetarian, but I had to admit that the food was good, and the Peruvian Pygmy-Owl and Koepke's Screech-Owls we had on the property before and after dinner made it a memorable experience.

Koepke's Screech-Owls
Monday, August 7th - Soraypampa

A bit of a travel day but with some very high quality birding on the road up to Soraypampa .... a winding, often scary, unpaved switchback road that went through great habitat but frayed my nerves somewhat.  To be fair, we only had to get out and push the van once (with the help some strapping local octogenarian farmers who frankly were a lot stronger than me) but I definitely felt like I needed some dramamine and really tried hard not to look out of the windows as we wound our way up and down the road.  Having said that, the birding was great and birds on the way up included Andean Tinamou in the road, Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch, Undulated Antpitta and Red-crested Cotinga.  It also provided a major milestone for me when APURIMAC SPINETAIL became my 4,000th species in eBird!  My life-list is a mess, and I've been trying to reconstruct it in eBird based on old paper trip lists.  I know I don't have everything in (missing multiple trips to India and Africa) but this year I decided just to give up and start again with what I had in the eBird database.  So my fist major milestone of my new listing era .... feels worryingly good .....

Red-crested Cotinga and Apurimac Spinetail

At the top of the road we also made a stop for Vilcabamba Tapaculo - I have a huge soft spot for Scytalopus Tapaculos, especially ones that allow themselves to be seen and photographed.  For a travel day, we had good birds, and ended up in a nice tourist hotel in Ollantaytambo which offered good Alpaca Steaks, decent Peruvian red wine, and a surprise meeting with Jesse Fagan and the Field Guides Machu Pichu & Abra Malaga Tour ... definitely not slumming it on this trip.

Vilcabamba Tapaculo poking it's head out of a crevice in the mossy rocks.
August 8th / 9th - Abra Malaga

So this was the real focus of the trip.  Abra Malaga, a high pass with access to some very high altitude Paramo and Polylepis habitat (>4,000m) and some endemic-rich forests at lower elevations.  During our two days here we racked up a whole bunch of life birds for me, mostly Peruvian endemics, including Blue-mantled Thornbill, Stripe-headed Antpitta, White-browed Tit-Spinetail, Line-fronted, Junin and Streak-Throated Canasteros, Ash-breasted and Unstreaked Tit-Tyrants, Marcapata Spinetail, Inca Wren, Puna Thistletail, and Cuzco Brushfinch.

Northern Viscacha and Striped-headed Antpitta

The one bird I most wanted to see here though was the ultra-rare (less than 250 individuals left in the world) ROYAL CINCLODES, and even though I knew we'd have to do some serious hiking up and down steep trails at altitude to have a chance of getting it, we made it the main focus of our stay.  First we hiked (and literally crawled at one point) up into some promising looking polylepis forest at the pass .... nada.  Next we hiked down (knowing we had to hike back up) to some rock-jumbles where a friend of Gustavo has seen the bird that year before ... nada.  So then we hiked up into the 'Royal Cinclodes' reserve which involved climbing up a ridge, working down a very steep hill in polylepis forest, hiking up a steep valley, then walking down and out at the bottom .... 6 hours of leg exercise that would make the most sadistic gym-trainer proud, and ..... nada.

Unfortunately the Royal Cinclodes did not hang out under this sign.  This was the hike up to
the top of the valley that we had to descend into to look for the bird.  And this was the valley we
hiked down into, up, across, back out of, etc....

Seemed like the Royal Cinclodes were simply not on their traditional territories yet, but undeterred, we did it all again the next day and ..... nada.  Some birds are not meant to happen I guess, but in this case, at least not for lack of trying.  This species is very rare and, even though this location is probably the best and most reliable/accessible site for the species, there is perhaps only a single pair (maybe two) present seasonally.  We were probably there just a week or two too early for the birds to be back on territory.  Frustrating, but that's life chasing rare birds. Gustavo worked his ass off trying to get me the bird, and put up with my wheezing and grumbling up and down trails while he bounded ahead gazelle-like to scout extra Polylepis patches for cinclodes.  In the end though, we had to save this bird for another trip.

Thursday, August 10th - Laguna Huarcarpay

A morning of 'filler' adding a lot of birds to my Peru list and my (World) Year list but only one life bird - Bearded Mountaineer.  Still, my year list is actually pretty respectable this year ....

After that the tip changed pace and tone and let's just say I added a lot of things to my life food list.  Wonderful dining experiences and some nice cultural things.  Overall, a great trip, and the birding had been good too, with 28 life bids, most very local endemics.  Still plenty of things to see in Peru though, and who knows .... maybe I'll be back for another crack at that Cinclodes .....

Hard to capture an amazing foodie weekend in one photo ....

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Colombia (Part 2 - Caldas Province)

A day trip to PNN Los Nevados and a few days at Reserva Ecológico Río Blanco

Monday, July 17 - PNN Los Nevados

After leaving Risalda Province for the first time we drove up to the city of Manizales, perched precariously along a ridge with steep drops, and roads, on either side.  After a night in a hotel and the national coffee growers trade association headquarters (hot water!) we headed up for a full day in PNN Los Nevados.  The weather initially looked worrying, and while the morning was freezing cold, and dogged by drifting fog and low clouds, we did manage to get some serious birding in nevertheless.

The drive up looked promising and indeed we made several very productive stops for Paramo Seedeater, Paramo Tapaculo and Golden-breasted Puffleg.

Visibility came and went but we still saw some good birds like
Golden-breasted Puffleg.

We had a specific target bird in mind through so pushed up past the tree-line and soon were in the Paramo habitat proper (when we could see it between the drifting clouds that blotted out all visibility on regular intervals).  The birds here changed too, with Stout-billed Cinclodes, Many-striped Canastero and Tawny Antpittas joining the mix.

Many-striped Canastero
By the time we reached the park HQ, a small cluster of buildings high in the treeless Paramo habitat, it was quite cold, and very cloudy.  Visibility was pretty much limited to 20-30 feet around us, and sensing that this would make it hard to see our target, we went indoors and enjoyed a restorative local hot sugar cane drink ... not sure what it was called, but it was really good on a cold day.  Fortified by all the hot sugar we set up on the back deck of the HQ, and about twenty minutes later, just as we were starting to shiver again, our target, the BUFFY HELMETCREST zipped into view.  This is one of a group of closely related and recently split hummingbirds, all of which have tiny ranges in high mountain areas.  Definitely the star bird of the day.

Buffy Helmetcrest
The excitement wasn't over though as Daniel wanted to make another stop on the way down, to follow up on a recent report of a bird that would be very rare for Caldas Province.  As we birded along a road, Daniel suddenly locked on to a bird, and shouted at me to "take photos of that bird while I go and get my camera"!  The bird in question was a BLACK-THROATED FLOWERPIERCER, the first record for Caldas Province and a significant range expansion for the species.  I did get some bad photos before Daniel, who is a professional photographer brough his (very superior) camera and lenses from the car and got much better ones.  Quite a moment of excitement though.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer
The rest of the day was more mellow; a nice lunch of trout at a hotel with natural hot springs and very good hummingbird feeders, then a slow birdy drive down a forested valley and back to Manizales.  Definitely a nice day trip to the mountains though.

Shining Sunbeam and Rainbow-beared Thornbill

July 18 - 19Reserva Ecológico Río Blanco

Another famous reserve that I'd really been looking forward to visiting and with two full days, and a bunch of target (life) birds to chase, so good birding was hopefully ahead of us as we arrived on Tuesday morning.

Rio Blanco is famous for Antpittas, not just any old antpittas though, but rather several rare species of antpitta that have been painstakingly habituated to come to 'feeding stations' to eat worms placed out by the lodge staff.  Within minutes of arriving, we were joined by a local guide/volunteer and accompanied her on the daily routine of feeding the antpittas.  First up, the near endemic Bicolored Antpitta  which eventually appeared in a shady clearing under a tree after a good five minutes of whistling and quietly waiting.  These birds didn't just pop up for their lunch, they remained mostly cautious and quite wild.  The Slate-crowned Antpitta and the endemic Brown-banded Antpitta were similarly cautious, but the more common Chestnut-crowned Antpittas were positively tame and hopped around our feet while waiting for their worms, one even allowing me to feed it by hand (!).  I gather this method of habituating birds has its critics .... I'm not really going to comment on it, but I did have a lot of fun seeing very close antpittas ....

The super tame Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the somewhat shyer
Slate-crowned Antpitta

The endemic Brown-banded Antpitta
With the antpitta show done, we turned our attention to the mixed flocks along the road and enjoyed a good range of species, interspersed with several target birds like the endemic Golden-plumed Parakeet, White-capped TanagerBlack-billed Mountain-Toucan, Buff-breasted Mountain-TanagerOcellated Tapaculo, and a quick visit from the spectacular, local and very rare MASKED SALTATOR.

Not a perfect photo, but my first ever photo of Ocellated Tapaculo.
Hummingbirds were also very much a thing at Rio Blanco with at least a dozen species at the two sets of feeders.  A vigil at the lower gate was rewarded with good views of a Wedge-billed Hummingbird and at other times just sitting by the lodge feeders produced a busy mix of hundreds of individual birds.  Long-tailed Sylphs, Bronzy and Collared Incas, Lesser and Sparkling Violetears, Tourmaline Sunangels, Buff-tailed Coronets, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, White-bellied Woodstars, Speckled Hummingbirds, all condensed into a small area and fury of activity.  As I write this I'm watching my own feeder in New York and - I have one species of hummingbird, Ruby-throated, and perhaps four individual birds visiting - and feeling very nostalgic of the tropics.

We also did a little night-birding one day, but had nothing terribly rare to report - just White-throated Screech-Owls and Rufous-banded Owls.  Later we made a quick one-night stop at Hotel Tinamou, adding a few additional species to make the total for Caldas Province a very respectable 262 species for a few days of birding.

Bronzy Inca and White-bellied Woodstar

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Colombia (Part 1 - Risaralda Province)

Some birding at Otún Quimbaya and Montezuma / PNN Tatamá

July 14-16 - Otún Quimbaya

On Friday, July 14th I flew to Bogota and then on to Pereira in the Colombia Andes where I was met by Daniel Uribe for a week of private guided birding around some of Colombia's best birding spots.  Daniel is a very well known guide and has an eBird map for Colombia that made me very jealous, having seen 1,363 species in the country.  Before this trip, with one brief stop in Bogota to my name, long before the days of eBird, I had zero species for Colombia (!), but I was pretty sure that was going to change during the week.

Our first stop for the week was Otún Quimbaya, where we pulled up to the lodge not long before dusk.  Still, we did have a few moments for birding and the endemic CAUCA GUANS (a species once thought to be extinct before being rediscovered here a few years ago) performed nicely for us, getting my Colombia list and adventure underway in style.

Cauca Guan
The next two days followed similar patterns, birding along the main road which, while pretty rough in places, allowed us to follow the river valley up into the park through a mix of old plantations and native forest.  The undisputed target bird here is HOODED ANTPITTA (a bird reliably found only here and at one site in Venezuela) which we managed to see in the second day after a long search.  While working the road though, we also saw dozens of other species that ranged from common to endemic and provided me with a good introduction to the Colombia Andes, and a bunch of life birds.

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow - another specialty bird, perhaps easier here that anywhere
else in the World, and needless to say, a life bird for me.
Among other highlights were the endemic Grayish Piculet and Whiskered Wrens around the lodge.  The near-endemic Bar-crested Antshrike called constantly from the slopes around us, while we also heard multiple calling Moustached Antpittas, a bird I'd encountered as a rarity in Ecuador some 20 years ago.  Chestnut Wood-Quails were another treat, calling like crazy then rushing across the road in front of us, and of course there were great mixed flocks with some very nice treats including Rusty-winged Barbtail and Streak-capped Treehunter mixed in with more common species.

The first night there we went out to try for Colombian Screech-Owl but came up short so, we ended up trying again.  That second evening started off much better with a pair of calling  Rufous-bellied Nighthawks hawking over us at dusk.  The Screech-Owl also popped up into a nearby giving us some decent, if brief, views before vanishing into the night.

The highlight of the visit also occurred at night, although more specifically as we drove out along the road before dawn.  We had seen a couple of Crab-eating Foxes driving along the road the night before and saw another one that day.  Then another set of 'eye-shine' appeared down the road before us, but flipping the headlights to bright revealed not another fox, but a cat!  The cat in question, a small spotted cat native to the cloud forests called an ONCILLA, dropped down low on it's belly and slunk off into the forest looking a bit sheepish about being spotted.  I never see cats, I have terrible cat karma and had seen only Jaguarundis in South America before (no Jaguar, no Puma, no Ocelot, no Margay, etc.) so I was thrilled and buzzed for hours afterwards.  A very, very cool moment.

Red Howler-Monkey and Rufous-bellied Nighthawk

The lodge itself at Otún Quimbaya was very serviceable even though I couldn't work out how to get a hot shower - cold showers are character-building I suppose.  I also got an introduction to Colombian food, which tends to be a protein and three 'carbs' (plantain, rice and potatoes for dinner) and the inevitable 'aripa' (a corn pancake) for breakfast.  Aripas I learned are much better with butter and salt on them, I think I ate one each day for breakfast 9 days in a row.  Good hearty food if you've been out in the field all day, or are about to go out all day.

All to soon though it was time to move on, and we spent the next 5 days in Caldas Province before returning to Riseralda.

Fawn-breasted Tanager and Chestnut-breasted Wren

July 20-22 - Montezuma / PNN Tatamá

After a couple of sites in Caldas Province (another blog post) we came back to Risaralda for our final stop, the legendary Montezuma Lodge in Tatamá National Park.  I'd heard a lot about this place and over the next 2+ days I got to see at least some of it in the company of Daniel and the owner/manager of the Montezuma lodge, the wonderful and impressive Michelle.

With two full days here we opted to drive up to the higher altitudes (a rough road but passable with a four-wheel-drive vehicle) on the first day, then bird the mid and low altitudes the second.  Two days couldn't possibly do justice to this place but we focussed on the specialities and determined to bird pretty hard while we had the chance.

Tawny-breasted Tinamou ready for it's close-up
and the endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer

Our targets at high altitude were the endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and Munchique Wood-Wren which we saw relatively easily with a little effort.  The star bird at the top though turned out to be something else entirely.  Michelle got us on to a Tawny-breasted Tinamou, that most secretive and rarely seen of birds which, while trying to sneak quietly away from us unseen, had gotten itself trapped on a steep bank ... it couldn't go up, and wouldn't come down as that meant walking towards us.  So for five minutes we had a captive tinamou in the open for a photo op .... this just doesn't happen often, a rare treat.

The joy of Tatamá though is the range and quality of it's mixed flocks and during our birding day there we saw a huge variety of very cool birds.  Tanagers, Barbets, Flycatchers, Antshrikes, Warblers, Wrens, Jays, Woodcreepers, Fruiteaters, etc. just super high quality birding.  Among the birds that stood out, the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Bicolored Antvireo, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, and many many more.

Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and the very local Olive Finch

Bicolored Antvireo and the endemic Crested Ant-Tanager

There were also good birds away from the flocks, a lek of Club-winged Manikins was a treat, as was a brooding Cloud Forest Pygmy-Owl.  A small group of Beautiful Jays, found just up hill from us by a bunch of Australian birders resulted in a quick scramble, but also a broad agreement that yes, this indeed a beautiful jay.

The endemic Gold-ringed Tanager and the Beautiful Jay 

Club-winged Manikin and the common but photogenic Cinnamon Flycater

Hummingbirds were also a abundant and spectacular, with feeders at the lodge, and at several places along the trail bringing in such superstars are Empress Brilliant, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, along with more common but spectacular Violet-tailed Sylphs and Andean Emeralds.

White-tailed Hillstar and Purple-bibbed Whitetip 

All in all, just a spectacular two days of birding with 233 species seen in Risaralda province just in these few days at two sites.  Definitely want to go back ... who knows what we'll see next time ....