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.

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
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 (of 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 ....

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