Thursday, 21 November 2013

A surprise farewell visitor

Sadly, at the end of October we had to leave Colombia for a while to return to the UK. The wildlife and especially the birding have left a big impression - leaving will create a hole in my life that will be hard to fill.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird 
Since putting up the hummingbird feeders, and attracting many Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl) I had dreamed it might be possible to attract something unusual like a Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia castaneiventris). Some of the Rufous-tailed are rather grey below and I sometimes imagined they looked a little like the endangered Chestnut-belled, which is of course chestnut-brown below.

Although this dream was somewhat fanciful, one had been photographed at a country-club to the north of Piedecuesta. That is only something like 15 km from our apartment.

To my great surprise, just 3 days before vacating the apartment, a magnificent little visitor arrived out of the blue and landed on the balcony - a young Amazilia hummer, but very light brown coloured.

 It seemed to be an immature bird - moulting, it could not fly strongly and its tail-feathers appeared to be still growing. Furthermore it was incredibly tame. I was able to approach it and gently touch it with my fingertips whilst it remained perched on the balcony railing. I could have easily picked it up in my cupped hands. I got the macro-lens on the camera, got plenty of close-ups with the lens was touching its beak at one point. It hung around all day, and the next, was feeding regularly, and it appeared to be healthy. It was lucky not to be harassed by other hummers, but it could hop over to visit to neighbouring balconies whose owners have hung out feeders after seeing the success of mine.

At first I thought it must be a juvenile Rufous-tailed.Posting the shots to Facebook, a local birder suggested it looked alot like the Chestnut-bellied. Not trying to get too excited, I sent the shots to a Colombian expert who has previously studied this species - one of the world's authorities - Oswaldo Cortés. He rapidly confirmed that it was indeed a Chesntut-bellied, but he was rather surprised it was perched on my balcony!
The wonderfully vibrant chestnut-bellied hummingbird has a glittering golden-green throat and chest, and bronze-green upperparts. As its common name suggests, the belly is a chestnut colour that extends to the tail, and fades to buff on the rump. This small hummingbird has a straight, medium-sized, blackish bill, with a red base, while inconspicuous white feathers give the legs a ‘fluffy’ appearance. The female is similar to the male, but somewhat duller, with a paler belly and barring on the upper throat feathers. Juveniles lack the bright colouration ..

Like the Indigo-capped, these hummingbirds are endemic to Colombia. They are classified as ENDANGERED and population estimates are 600-1700 mature individuals. Their core range is in the Chicamocha, Suarez and Chucuri valleys. Locally to Bucaramanga, they are seen often below the Mesa de los Santos, also in the Umpala valley, Cañon de los Iguanas and a few near San Vicente de Chucuri close to the ProAves Cerulean Warbler reserve. I saw my first on a small shade coffee plantation at 1700m overlooking the Chicamocha to the south of Aratoca and I think that shade-coffee habitat also suits them.

 It is suggested they might migrate locally, but little is known about their movements. They're a little small for current tracker technology! They seem to like semi-arid areas, so it was a surprise to turn up in north-east Bucaramanga which is more humid.

What a fantastic surprise and privilege to get this bird on our balcony. Even more fortunate that it arrived only days before I had to take down the feeder and leave for the UK. Luckily it could continue to feed at the other balcony feeders in our apartment block and I hope it's doing well. To get so close to such an amazing bird is a dream come true.

Birding is Colombia is amazing. I can't wait to go back!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Best places to go birding near Bucaramanga

As we're nearing the end of our current stay in Bucaramanga, I've been musing about the best places to go birding in and around the city.
Despite the huge rush of development and high density housing, the geography of the area means there are still green spaces around.  However, many are inaccessible and/or insecure which is good for the birds, but not so good for birdwatchers! So here's a short guide to give you an idea of where to go birding and what you might see.

1. Parque La Flora.

Guira Tanager
The 10.5 Hectares of park in a small valley in the east of the city is an excellent and safe place for a morning's birding. I've seen 81 species and the local bird society, something like 100 which is not at all bad for an urban park.

Black-bellied Wren (Pheugopedius fasciatoventris), Red-rumped Woodpecker (Veniliornis kirkii) and Guira Tanager (Hemithraupis guira) are resident though take a little searching. There are many tyrant flycatchers to challenge your ID skills - learn the calls and behaviour! The park is good for migrants warblers and thrushes. Protonothary warblers (Protonotaria citrea) are easy to see at the right time of year on the banana feeders put out by the salpicon (fruit salad) vendors just by the entrance. Because the park is in a small valley, it's easier to see the canopy and spot birds that might otherwise be missed. I've had some more unusual migrants too - Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea), Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi) and Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea).

There is the odd 3-toed Sloth in the park, though despite many visits I've only seen one once. There are also Coral snakes - I've seen Micrurus dumerilii and I've been told that the endemic M. Sangilensis has also been recorded. Both are highly venomous but not aggressive.

2. Finca La Esperanza & Montifiore

On the eastern edge of Floridablanca, this sloping area of woodland belongs to the CDMB and is popular with walkers at weekends. However, it's a good place to spend time with woodpeckers, tanagers and hummingbirds near the waterfalls.

If you continue up from La Esperanza you reach a road to the Cerro La Judea. This is a large protected area and an Important Bird Area but access is not so straightforward. However, in a few hours you can walk (or drive!) up to the Montefiori hotel/restaurant and its nearbly waterfalls. Here I've seen Golden-naped (Tangara ruficervix), Lemon-rumped (Ramphocelus icteronotus icteronotus) and Black-capped Tanagers (Tangara heinei) amongst others as well as White-naped Brush Finch (Atlapetes albinucha).

3. Jardín Botánico Eloy Valenzuela (Floridablanca)

Botanic Gardens in Floridablanca
The botantic gardens in Floridablanca are very pleasant. There are sloths, squirrels, tortoises and terrapins as well as a few birds. There are many heliconias attracting hummingbirds. For a while, just outside the gardens a pair of Black & White Owl (Strix nigrolineata) were roosting in some bamboo providing great photo opportunities.

Black and White Owls
Further afield:

4. Finca El Carajo & Caragua

Finca El Carajo and Bucaramanga Airport beyond
Finca El Carajo has a restaurant serving excellent trout, with accommodation and camping as well as walking trails around forest located at about 2000m ASL just off the road from Bucaramanga to Cúcuta. It can be annoying with loud music playing as in many parts of Colombia. However, there are some very nice birds here too - trogons, Golden-headed Quetzals (Pharomachrus auriceps), with many tanagers including Saffron-crowned (Tangara xanthocephala) and Fawn-breasted (Pipraeidea melanonota), forest species like Montane Woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes lacrymiger) and Streaked Tuftedcheek (Pseudocolaptes boissonneautii) and skulkers like Blackish Tapaculo (Scytalopus latrans). Interestingly, there are a few Rufous-tailed Tyrant (Knipolegus poecilurus) here and they're easy to see. Just near the restaurant is a field of blackberries which attracts Long-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi) and Booted Rackettail(Ocreatus underwoodii) hummingbirds - the males of both species have spectacularly long tail-feathers and provide a good photo opportunity. I have heard White-throated Screech-Owl (Megascops albogularis) here.

Saffron-crowned Tanager
Band-tailed Guan
Just to the north and below El Carajo is Vereda Caragua. ( A vereda is a small administrative sub-division). An old road runs from the paved main road to Tona to La Corcova on the main road to Cúcuta, but being blocked to vehicles by a landslide, there is no traffic. It runs through forest and is excellent birding including species like Band-tailed Guan (Penelope argyrotis), woodcreepers and many hummers. I've seen a flock of 9 different tanagers here.

5. Picacho & Km 39

Picacho at dawn
Picacho is the 3200m peak that overlooks Bucaramanga to the east and houses many antennas as well as a toll-booth on the main road to Cúcuta and Venezuela. Below this is a valley and a road signposted to Sevilla and eventually leading to Piedecuesta. The upper end of this valley has patches of woodland and birding from the road is excellent. Black-billed Mountain Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris), Black-eared Hemispingus (Hemispingus melanotis), Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) and Blue-throated Starfrontlet (Coeligena helianthea), Buff-breasted Mountain Tanager (Dubusia taeniata) and Slaty Brush-Finch (Atlapetes schistaceus). I've also seen (I think) Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet (Mecocerculus minor) of which there are very few photos on the web.

Slaty Brush-Finch
Buff-breasted Mountain Tanager
There are small patches of Roble (Oak) which even supports the Mountain Grackle (Macroagelaius subalaris) - an endemic bird which is endangered because it favours the shrinking fragmented Roble habitats of the eastern Cordillera.

6. Road to Llano de Palmas

To the west of Rio Negro is a plateau on which sits Llano de Palmas amongst other places. There are still patches of forest along this road at around 1000m or so ASL. This gives a good chance to find species such as Western Slaty Antshrike (Thamnophilus atrinucha) and Slaty-Antwren (Myrmotherula schisticolor), but in particular is good for finding the punk looking Sooty Ant-Tanager (Habia gutturalis), a near-threatened endemic species. I've had good views of White-bibbed (Corapipo leucorrhoa) and Golden-headed Manakin (Ceratopipra erythrocephala) here and seen my first Black-hawk Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus).

My apartment in Los Pinos, Bucaramanga proved to have pretty good birding and I have recorded 87 species with 4 others heard. The hummingbird feeders have been an amazing success with large numbers of 5 different species - many neighbours have bought feeders after seeing the swarms around mine. The balcony proved a great spot for watching migrant raptors in late October and this year I've seen over 1500 Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura meridionalis) passing over in 2 days as well as other migrant Buteos. Sadly, as I won't be here shortly, I can't invite other birders, but I hope this short guide to Bucaramanga birding is useful.

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.