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.
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).|
|Wouldn't advise drinking the water here ....|
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.|
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.
"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 |
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.
|Iguana feeder? Do you think it'll catch on?|
|I have cardinals on my feeders at home, but not this species.|
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.|
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 ....