Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Amazing Amazonas 4

We flew from Bucaramanga to Leticia via Bogotá. The flights were good value and only cost around 100 GBP each return taking about 2 hours from Bogotá. Leticia airport has at least 2 major flights a day and is only a few km from the town centre. You can get there by river as well from Iquitos (Perú) or even Manaus (Brazil) but the trip is long.

Leticia itself is a bustling town of about 40,000 people. We found the roads busy at peak hours, especially with motorbikes. It's a safe town - there are many Colombian military and police based there. You can walk across the border to the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, and there was no-one checking passports at the time we crossed (though they might). It didn't seem much different on the other side though of course the shop signs changed to Portuguese. Across the Amazon river from Leticia is Perú, where a few things like petrol seem to be cheaper.

We found Leticia untidy with limited tourist facilities, but it does make a good base or stopover for the rest of the Colombian "trapezium" on the Amazon.  The town does have some reasonable places to stay - we stayed in the Hotel Amazon B & B which proved a good choice. There are a few decent places to eat, but they take a little finding.  The local docks are far from picturesque, with lots of rubbish strewn around but you can find a variety of boats to take you where you want to go for the right price!

Leticia river dock -  not pretty

Fast Amazon river launch - cramped but quick
In contrast the small town of Puerto Nariño 70km or so upstream  has a much more pleasant feel, perhaps because its not choked with vehicles (since it has no road in or out!). There's a tall water tower on the hill that has been converted into a watchpoint for tourists and gives good views of the town and the River Amazon behind.
View of the Amazon river from Puerto Nariño water tower

We went in August but it is worth understanding a little about the state of the Amazon River at different times of year. June through November is low water, with the main river well below the banks and exposed muddy areas in many places. Although a vast distance from the sea, even at low water the river is impressively wide at this part - perhaps 2km across in places. There are many islands and generally a smooth but fast current. The water was a muddy brown colour with snags, floating logs and small floating islands of vegetation. No doubt it can be a tricky place to navigate a large boat at times. The levels in the smaller rivers can fall very low at this time of year and this can cause problems getting around even in smaller launches. Between December and May the river floods over the banks inundating many areas including into lower lying forest (called Varzea). Many of the river islands are totally inundated and I imagine the place looks very different.

Amazon sunset
There were many small boats chugging along the main channel, but at this time we saw no big ships. I learned in school that the river is navigable upstream for ocean going vessels as far as Iquitos in Peru so I was disappointed not to see any. Although you can often hear the small boat engines and sometimes very loud music being "broadcast" by the scattered riverside communities, the river was often peaceful and it was a magical place at sunset.

Surprisingly, the climate when we visited was not unpleasant (for us at least). The daytime maximum was around 28-30C and many nights I was actually cold and needed a cover on the bed. The mosquitoes were not bad in most places but no doubt you need to use plenty of repellent and a mosquito net on the bed too. We saw several large spiders, including at least one that will give a very unpleasant bite so check your boots before you put them on! There are other hazards such as mites and ticks. Long sleeves/trousers and Wellington (rubber) boots are not a bad idea if you are going walking in the forest. We were warned by many Colombians about the huge numbers of venomous snakes in the Amazon, but we saw none. However, I know there are plenty of dangerous snakes in many parts of Colombia (I even saw a young but deadly Coral Snake in the park in Bucaramanga recently) so caution is wise wherever you are.

Tropical diseases are certainly present and are a very real threat. Near Amacayacu, a recent outbreak of malaria affected many locals.  Make sure you take your anti-malarial tablets.  Get a vaccination for Yellow Fever at least (they might ask for your certificate of vaccination as it's a legal requirement). Hep A and Typhoid jabs might also be advisable. We didn't drink any tap-water and were careful not to eat salads or uncooked vegetables. We had no health problems at all.

Here's a few of our other photos. Hope you like them.

My first Piranha - we threw it back of course
Green frog in our cabin roof
Whip spider - harmless but scary
Buttress root of an enormous forest Ceiba tree 
Cashapona or Walking Palm roots (its a myth that they can walk)
Many caterpillars have irritating protective hairs.
Blue Doctor (Rhetus periander) - one of many stunning butterflies

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Amazing Amazonas 3 - Birding near Amacayacu

The Amacayacu National Natural Park (PNN Amacayacu) is a huge area of protected forest bordering the Amazon river in Colombia. It is located about 70 km upstream from the main town of Leticia, so it takes about 90 mins by fast launch to get there. The park accommodation itself has been closed for some time due to flooding. We stayed at Yoi Ecolodge, a great choice located next to the park and on the River Amacayacu, near the indigenous Ticuna community of San Martin.

With a launch and knowledgeable local guides (Ray and James) at our disposal, I was able to see a few of the more conspicuous species of birds in the area. Over 500 species have been recorded in and around the park, though many are far from conspicuous!

Birds of prey seemed far more numerous than I've experienced in other parts of Colombia. Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis) are especially easy to see perched by the rivers - they mainly eat fish. We also saw another fishing specialist, an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) which would be a very early arrival if the bird was a migrant from the north.
Black-collared Hawk
Traveling along the rivers gives you a chance to cover a big area, and we saw a number of other raptors including Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea), Black Caracara (Daptrius ater), Slate-coloured Hawk (Buteogallus schistaceus), Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) and Great Black-Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga).
Great Black-Hawk, juvenile
On a river island near to Mocagua, we came across a small owl which turned out to be a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). These are common in the Americas, but are supposed to be absent from the Amazon basin. I have since found out that there have been a few odd sightings in cleared areas or on succession (ie new open ) river islands.
Burrowing Owl
Other birds along the river included plentiful Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) as well as Amazon and Green varieties. Overhead on the River Amacayacu we got what turned out to be our only Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao). They're popular here because they have the colours of the Colombian flag! Black-fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons) are easy to see as are Swallow-winged Puffbird (Chelidoptera tenebrosa).
Swallow-winged Puffbird
Although not in big numbers, there were a few individual herons including this superb juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma lineatum).
Juvenile Rufescent Tiger-Heron
The lodge area was very productive and provided great opportunities for me to see tanagers feeding in a fruiting tree. Most pleasing was the Paradise Tanager (Tangara chilensis), which was a target species of mine - in Colombia it is only found in Amazonas. There were also Green-and-Gold Tanager (Tangara schrankii), Opal-rumped Tanager (Tangara velia), Yellow-bellied Dacnis (Dacnis flaviventer) , Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana) and Black-faced Dacnis (Dacnis lineata spp lineata) a subspecies which has no yellow bits like the ones in Santander. Nearby we found a pair of Slate-Coloured Grosbeak (Saltator grossus) and in a clearing nearer to San Martin village, a Fulvous Shrike-Tanager (Lanio fulvus). No doubt there are plenty more tanagers to be found.

Around the cabin area is a very noisy colony of Russet-backed Oropendula (Psarocolius angustifrons) with their large nests hanging from a tree with Yellow-rumped Cacique (Cacicus cela) mixed in. It was a surprise to me how numerous both these two bird species were in this area and in Leticia.

Although not as common as in the mountains, there were still hummingbirds to be seen. I picked up Reddish Hermit (Phaethornis ruber) around the lodge and just outside our cabin what I think may be a female Blue-tailed Emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus) - please comment if you think this is wrong.
Blue-tailed Emerald ?? - female

On our trips I saw both Ivory-billed Aracari (Pteroglossus azara) and Chestnut-eared Aracari (Pteroglossus castanotis). I did  hear and get a glimpse of other larger toucans but I'm not certain of my ID.
Chestnut-eared Aracari
Similarly colourful but not confidently ID'd were a number of Trogons - probably both Black-tailed and Green-backed. I did add a Yellow-tufted Woodpecker (Melanerpes cruentatus) but missed at least two other new species of woodpecker. It was clear there were plenty of Manakins around but I only managed some quick views of the duller females, so didn't manage to identify the species.

Several birds were heard only. I'm familiar with Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) a type of nightjar, and they were highly vocal around the lodge in the evenings. A Tropical Screech-Owl (Megascops choliba) was calling regularly during the night, but I still haven't caught even a glimpse of one as this one flew off before I got a look (they sometimes roost near to our apartment). We heard larger forest birds like Guans, Horned Screamer and flushed a Tinamou all without getting a decent look.

With so many other things to see and do, there was not nearly enough time for birding. Overall, it was very satisfying from a birding perspective, and no doubt it is a great location for seeing many forest and river species.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Amazing Amazonas 2 - Birding in and around Leticia

Leticia is a large Colombian town of about 40,000 people on the Amazon River that is the focus for the region and the main airport for visitors. I´ll say more about it and our travel arrangements in another blog entry.

Santander Park
We stayed several nights in Leticia, very close to Santander Park. The park is well laid-out with lots of trees and a small church on one side. What makes it special is the evening arrivals of an estimated 30,000 Canary-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolurus). These very noisy birds arrive from all directions in small groups before sunset to roost safely in the trees. By the time darkness has fallen around 6.30 pm, the branches are packed. You can, for a small donation, view the arrival from up in the church tower. Down below it formed a spectacular flock though the smell resulting from the droppings is very strong. 

Canary-winged Parakeets - about 700 in this shot alone

When we arrived (August 14), joining the parakeets in the roost were many thousands of Purple Martin (Progne subis). They also packed themselves tight onto the branches. In the poor light of sunset, it wasn't easy to identify them - there were mixed males, females and juveniles in different stages of moulting, but their behaviour was characteristic. Large groups arrived high over the town and on approaching the park, the birds went into a steep fast dive into the trees. I understand that Purple Martin are migrants from North America which "winter" in Colombia. Perhaps that means the martin roost in Leticia is highly seasonal? Of course there could be other parrots and swallows in the roost, but picking them out is something of a challenge!

Purple Martins
The parakeets and purple martins were harrassed  and often "put-up" by circling Zone-tailed Hawks (Buteo albonotatus) and by Bat Falcons (Falco rufigularis). In the confusing swirl of thousands of birds, these raptors must have a hard time picking out individual targets. 

Near the park, in a vacant lot, I was lucky enough to get a good view of a Thrush-like Wren (Campylorhynchus turdinus). 
Thrush-like Wren
A short-walk out of Leticia takes you to the airport with open grasslands and wet areas. There is good birding there, but the roads around are fairly busy at times with construction work going on, and much of it is surrounded by military, who might not appreciate birders hanging around with binocular & cameras, but I had no problems except for a polite request to move on. I saw a few species new to me there Red-capped Cardinal (Paroaria gularis), Chestnut-bellied Seedeater(Sporophila castaneiventris), Silver-beaked Tanager (Ramphocelus carbo) and one Giant Cowbird(Molothrus oryzivorus). Later on, at the ponds near the Tercel plant, I saw my first Limpkin (Aramus guarauna). 

The only Colombian road out of Leticia - locally called "the kilometers"  goes past the airport and is well paved at least up to km 13. Buses go to km 11 every 20 minutes or so, but much less frequently to km 22. The areas along the road near to Leticia are farmed but there are turnings off with more trees. We walked along km 11 from the main road to the river Tacana. There are several eco-lodges/hostels in this area. Although we found plenty of wildlife, it's far from virgin forest!

Parrots were always around on our trip, and being noisy birds, fairly easy to spot. However, being up in the tree-tops often in bad light, they aren't always so easy to identify. I picked up Marroon-tailed Parakeet (Pyrrhura melanura) and Short-tailed Parrot (Graydidascalus brachyurus) and later White-eyed Parakeet (Aratinga leucophthalma) here at least. There are plenty of clearings and tanagers are common including Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana). 

Turquoise Tanager
One morning we walked to the local port and negotiated a 70,000 COP (about 25 GB Pounds) boat trip to the nearby river islands. This was our first experience of the actual river and very impressive it was. During our visit (mid-August) the river was low, but when the river is high (December to May) no doubt it takes on a different character.  

Some islands, such as Isla Ronda, about 1 hour or so from Leticia, have extensive mud patches attracting migrant waders such as Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) and Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). Collared Plover (Charadrius collaris) were common and approachable. There are lots of grassy and wooded areas too, but these islands are flooded for many months each year and getting around on foot is not easy. I was pleased to see Lesser Hornero (Furnarius minor), a bird which specializes in Amazon river islands. I also added some very easy to identify species on the islands like White-headed Marsh Tyrant (Arundinicola leucocephala), Oriole Blackbird (Gymnomystax mexicanus) and Yellow-billed Tern (Sternula superciliaris). 

Oriole Blackbirds bathing in the Amazon
Mudflats of Isla Ronda
A most surprising birding aspect of the river and its islands was the sparsity of herons and egrets. I had expected to see huge numbers gathering together as you often see in the River Magdelena cienagas, but perhaps they are much more spread out in the Amazon or maybe the season has a big effect. As everywhere, local knowledge is key and a good local guide would no-doubt find many more interesting and unusual species around Leticia and the nearby river islands, but for my first trip to the area I was very pleased with more common and conspicuous birds.