19 March 2017

The Escape (to Colombia)

It happened again.  There was a last minute opening on one of our Field Guides tours and I jumped at the chance.  It wasn't to somewhere in the states like Texas or Arizona... no, it was to Colombia!  More specifically, it was the Santa Marta Escape tour (seen here on our website).

I'm sure not everyone reading this knows exactly where the Santa Marta area is in Colombia so here's a pin for reference:
As you can see, it's near the northern tip of the country and, interestingly I was farther north there than most places in Costa Rica.

It wasn't a very lengthy trip, just 8 days or so.  But given the diversity of habitats in a small area, we still managed to tally more than 300 species of birds.

So, without further ado, here's a random collection of my photos from the tour.

We started the tour by seeing some CHESTNUT-WINGED CHACHALACAS our first morning in Barranquilla.  These garrulous denizens of thick, dry brush are only found in the lowlands of NW Colombia.  Our first Colombian endemic, boom.

After that, we started our drive to the northeast.  We stopped and birded at Isla Salamanca for a bit and managed to see the mysterious hummingbirds that are present there.  Without going into too much detail, these may be the rare, endemic, and endangered SAPPHIRE-BELLIED HUMMINGBIRDS:
I don't consider myself too much of an expert with these though and I wonder about the chance that they might be hybrids with the similar SAPPHIRE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS.  Either way, we saw whatever they were!  And saw them well:
Rather common in that area were the RUSSET-THROATED PUFFBIRDS and, as I say, it's hard to go wrong with a puffbird:
You have to pay more attention to vultures there; not everything that looks like a Turkey Vulture is a Turkey Vulture.  Here's a LESSER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE doing a close fly-by:
We continued to the northeast to the La Guajira Peninsula.  The landscape turned into more dry, scrubby stuff but thankfully that's what we wanted.  You see, this peninsula is home to a variety of specialties found there and in neighboring Venezuela (and considering Venezuela isn't being birded much these days by Americans, we were happy to see these species). 

The dry forests there are home to a little brown woodpecker found only in northern Colombia and western Venezuela, the CHESTNUT PICULET:
The PALE-LEGGED HORNERO, although more wide-ranging in South America, can still be tricky to see well.  We spied this one cruising around on the ground behind us:
A species we focused on was the ORINOCAN SALTATOR which is found mostly in Venezuela but barely comes into Colombia.  In the end we had smashing success in not only seeing this local species, but seeing it REALLY well.  Here's a digiscoped photo:
Another one of the main targets of the La Guajila area was this bright red beauty:
This is a VERMILION CARDINAL and it's limited to a few areas in northern Venezuela and a tiny sliver in northern Colombia.  Although somewhat similar to "our" Northern Cardinal, it lacks the black face mask and has a much taller crest:
There is a shift when you leave the moister parts of Colombia and venture up into the dry scrub.  For example, Blue-gray Tanagers are swapped out by GLAUCOUS TANAGERS, a species only found in Venezuela and northern Colombia:
One of our stops up north provided a surprise visit by this incredible critter, a RED-BILLED SCYTHEBILL:
If you are lucky to be eating lunch next to a river, like we were, you might have a chance to look down on an AMAZON KINGFISHER perched right below you:
Being so close to the ocean, we made several stops focusing on shorebirds and other waterbirds.  Mixed in with the many ROYAL TERNS, COMMON TERNS, and SANDWICH TERNS was this "Cayenne" subspecies/morph of Sandwich Tern; look for the smaller tern with an all-yellow bill:
One perk to birding at that lagoon until dusk was the stunning sunset.  It's hard to beat a view like that at your back while you're watching flamingos and hundreds of shorebirds:
Eventually leaving the lowlands, we made our way up to Minca.  We enjoyed watching the feeders there where WHITE-NECKED JACOBINS were common:
Probably the most common hummer there were the small but feisty STEELY-VENTED HUMMINGBIRDS:
In the meantime, the fruit feeders were hosting BUFF-THROATED SALTATORS, PALE-BREASTED THRUSHES, and, luckily, GOLDEN-WINGED SPARROWS:
This species, like others mentioned, is limited to northern Colombia and Venezuela.  They're also pretty tough to see when you want to so we were happy for this view.

The middle elevations around there hosted a few other nice finds like this SCALED PICULET, another species found only in Colombia and Venezuela:
While we're talking about birds with "scaled" in the name, there were also a few SCALED PIGEONS around:
Another middle-elevation species we saw once or twice was the BLACK-HEADED TANAGER, a specialty of northern South America (and my first ever):
The main feature of the tour was the El Dorado Eco Lodge high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, an isolated mountain range with peaks reaching 19,000 feet.  This lodge, although not nearly that high, put us in prime country to see a selection of species not found anywhere else on the planet.  The birding right near the lodge is impressive.  Here is some of our group birding from the patio:
What might you see from the patio?  Well, let's start off with some color, shall we?  Here's a BLUE-NAPED CHLOROPHONIA:
If that doesn't do it for you, maybe this hummingbird will.  It's a CROWNED WOODNYMPH (and they were utterly abundant):
The lodge grounds were home to BAND-TAILED GUANS and at least one SICKLE-WINGED GUAN.  Here's the latter digging through the compost pile:
We actually managed to see LINED QUAIL-DOVES a couple of times.  However, the ubiquitous WHITE-TIPPED DOVES proved to be more photogenic:
From the lodge, we ventured 1-2 hours farther up the long and bumpy 4x4 path to the San Lorenzo Ridge.  Besides being very scenic, we had a whole mess of endemics up there too.  One of my favorites was this BLACK-CHEEKED MOUNTAIN-TANAGER (sometimes known as Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager):
And yes, this species is only found in the Santa Marta region in Colombia.

Along the same lines, here are two more species with "Santa Marta" in their names.  First, the SANTA MARTA BRUSHFINCH:
These were probably one of the easiest of the endemics to see... they were everywhere including around our picnic breakfast where they munched on our crumbs.

This little dude is a SANTA MARTA WARBLER and it is also endemic to those mountains:
The ridge was hosting a myriad of other species too including this PARAMO SEEDEATER... eating seeds.  Go figure.
The SCARLET-FRONTED PARAKEETS were exceptionally photogenic up on top.  Here's a digiscoped photo I took with my phone:
If you've birded the tropics, you're probably well aware that RUFOUS-COLLARED SPARROWS are ubiquitous.  They were up on the ridge as well (and still a handsome bird):
Some folks might recognize this warbler right away; it's a BLACKBURNIAN WARBLER and it will be migrating north into North America in the next month or two:
Switching gears for a second or two, here's our group birding one of the paths up along the ridge:
We birded down the road between the ridge and the lodge sometimes too.  For example, although not a species I've spent much time around yet (despite them ranging south to Peru), this BLACK-CAPPED TYRANNULET posed one day.  It's a neat bird too, one of about a dozen species in the Phyllomyias genus:
This BLACK-THROATED TODY-TYRANT was a fun find one afternoon on our way down the mountain:
Although this Andean species ranges south to Bolivia, this was a first for me.

This female MOUNTAIN VELVETBREAST put on a brief show too... which was a good thing because we didn't see many of them:
Another Andean species we saw on the way down was this YELLOW-BELLIED CHAT-TYRANT, a tiny and sharply-marked flycatcher:
However, perhaps THE star of the show was this SANTA MARTA ANTPITTA:
You see, we were the first group of birders to witness a local resident who has trained this bird to come in to eat (in just a matter of 2 weeks).  We couldn't have been more thrilled to watch this secretive and little-known species come out of the forest for a quick snack.

Anyway, in closing, I really did have a blast on this tour and the birds were just part of it.  We had a fun group of folks and some amazing scenery too.  Speaking of which, I mentioned the view from the ridge... and man, it was nice!

Next up... Costa Rica!  In fact, I'm already there.  :-)  I'm sure I'll work on posting some photos from the coming days so stay tuned.

02 March 2017

Oaxaca is that? Red-tailed?

This seems to be the norm now; realizing I haven't posted any updates about my last trip until I'm very nearly gone on my next one!  In the same fashion, here's a quick rundown of a Field Guides trip to Oaxaca, Mexico that I recently led alongside Dan Lane.

For starters... Oaxaca is a state of Mexico (like Missouri is a state of the US).  The capital city of Oaxaca is also called Oaxaca but is sometimes called Oaxaca City to eliminate confusion (this is similar to how New York adds the word "city" to become New York City... even though New York is a state.  Ha, with me so far?

This is where Oaxaca is situated within Mexico:
Secondly, the pronunciation of the word "Oaxaca" stumps some people.  Let me help.  It sounds like "wuh-HA-kuh".

Allllrighty then, we're off and running....

Our first stop on Day 1 was rather scenic, if you ask me.  The bright morning light at my back made for very long shadows of all of us.  And yes, that's a hot-air balloon on the rise:
You can see that this is rather dry country.  Although the city of Oaxaca is at an elevation higher than Denver, the landscape is very dry and desert-like.

One of the many fun aspects of this week-long tour were the species we saw that are limited to Mexico (endemic, as they're called); we saw nearly two dozen of these specialties.  Some are seriously hard to find, some are flat out abundant.  For example, this WHITE-THROATED TOWHEE was probably the easiest of the endemics to see; they were around our hotel and at many of our stops:
The COLLARED TOWHEE, however, was a bit more difficult.  Although we had decent looks, my photos were pretty grim.  Here you can see the bold head pattern as one popped up out of the ravine:
One of our first stops on Day 1 yielded another endemic, the very attractive BRIDLED SPARROW.  Although the photo doesn't do it justice, you can see it's not your average brown streaky thing:
Even worse of a photo, this is a OAXACA SPARROW:
Yes, sure, it doesn't look too exciting.  However, this is one of the most range-restricted species we saw on the entire trip.  Not only is endemic to Mexico, it's very nearly endemic just to the state of Oaxaca!

Yet another Mexican endemic that we saw almost right away was one that I was especially eager to see, the GRAY-BREASTED WOODPECKER.  Although this species shares a genus with many of ours from the US, it looks quite different!
As one would expect being in the tropics, we ended up seeing a variety of flycatchers.  Included was the cinnamon-colored TUFTED FLYCATCHER, a cute and crested species:
Avert your eyes.  We saw several empids as well; DUSKY FLYCATCHERS were the most numerous:
Here's something brighter.  The VERMILION FLYCATCHER was one of the most widespread species on our tour.  If red is your favorite color, this should do it for you:
The vireos on tour were especially rewarding.  The Oaxaca area hosts several endemic specialties in this family including some visually-stunning ones.  This CHESTNUT-SIDED SHRIKE-VIREO was one of my favorites:
This GOLDEN VIREO is only found in Mexico (and it's a nice splash of color, too!):
Our trip snagged a few more endemic vireos too including the tricky DWARF VIREO and, another favorite of mine, the SLATY VIREO:
Most of the raptors we saw were familiar to us ABA birders.  The most common were CRESTED CARACARAS that dotted the countryside but RED-TAILED HAWKS and WHITE-TAILED KITES were pretty widespread as well.  Here's the latter:
Not to be confused with the previous species, we saw a few WHITE-TAILED HAWKS hunting in the open country as well.  Here's one hovering, watching below for prey:
More of a surprise was this GRAY HAWK, a rare wintering species that was a first-ever for our Oaxaca tours:
Warblers.  Many people love them for their bright colors and whatnot.  We ended up with quite the collection of about 20 species, some wintering in Oaxaca and some that are resident there.  The RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS were a common sight:
Higher up in the mountains, we ran across PAINTED REDSTARTS from time to time.  This black, red, and white, warbler was always a welcome sight:
But most people were waiting for THE warbler, the RED WARBLER:
What a nice looking bird, eh?!   If you've seen one in the wild, that means you've been to the mountains of Mexico.  It's found nowhere else.

Although maybe not as flashy as those warblers, the selection of wrens on this trip was still interesting (we ended up with 8 different kinds).  Included was this Mexican endemic BOUCARD'S WREN:
These large guys are quite similar to our Cactus Wrens from the the desert regions of the SW United States.  However, the Boucard's is limited to a small region of southern Mexico.

Another wren that's in the same genus as Cactus and Boucard's is the GRAY-BARRED WREN.  Interestingly, this species is highly arboreal and is almost always up in the tops of trees.  Additionally, this species isn't found in the dry, scrubby lowland areas; it's found high up the mountains in pine forests:
We had two subspecies of HOUSE WRENS on our trip:  the migrant "Northern" ones (that breed commonly in the U.S.) and the "Brown-throated" subspecies that prefer mountainous areas of SE Arizona and Mexico.  Here's the latter:
We were lucky to spend time around three different species of woodcreepers on this trip.  Although the Mexican endemic WHITE-STRIPED WOODCREEPER was seen briefly, I didn't manage a photo of it.  However, the SPOT-CROWNED WOODCREEPER performed pretty well.  This species ranges from Mexico south to Panama:
One of the grand-daddies of the woodcreepers, the very-large STRONG-BILLED WOODCREEPER was also spotted briefly:
Interestingly, the birds on Cerro San Felipe north of Oaxaca sound drastically different from the Strong-billeds found other places.  Perhaps it deserves a split?

One of the highlights for me personally was a small, dark blue bird that came in high overhead.  In fact, my only photo of it is extremely bad:
But what is it?  It's a jay, actually.  A DWARF JAY.  A what now?  This species of jay is in fact the smallest member of the entire Corvid family.  But why is it special?  The Dwarf Jay is endemic to mountains of southeast Mexico, from southern Veracruz to northern Oaxaca.  In other words, a TINY area.  In fact, the mountain that we saw it on, Cerro San Felipe, is the best place in the world to hope to see this poorly-understood species.

Although most of the gnatcatchers we were around were the common BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS, our group saw some WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHERS on one of our days.  Turns out this was a new one for me too:
Our group ended up seeing nine different varieties of hummingbirds despite the very dry year and dearth of flowering banks that we hoped for.  This GREEN-FRONTED HUMMINGBIRD was a nice find from the lower elevations towards the Pacific Coast (not present in the Oaxaca Valley):
This adult PLAIN-CAPPED STARTHROAT was feeding a youngster at the ruins of Mitla on our walk through:
We saw other hummers like BERYLLINE, MAGNIFICENT, BLUE-THROATED, the hard-to-find BEAUTIFUL, and this WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD:
One of the evenings we had a picnic dinner at about 10,000 feet on Cerro San Felipe.  Although way chillier than you'd imagine the tropics being, we had a blast as we looked for nightbirds on our way down the mountain.  For starters, we saw the mysterious FULVOUS OWLS:
Why mysterious?  Because birders weren't even sure what species this was until recently.  Were they Mexican Barred Owls?  Or Fulvous Owls from farther south?  Turns out, they're the latter.

We also had nice looks at a WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL and even this FLAMMULATED OWL:
I was especially happy about this sighting; these can be tricky little devils to see when you actually want to.  In fact, I think this was only my 2nd ever visual of this species despite them ranging through much of the western U.S.

We had more than owls on our owling trip though; we found several MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILLS at one of our stops.  You're basically looking for a clump of gray and brown leaves with eyeshine:
While we're on the topic of nightbirds, we saw another owl on our trip (but this one hunts during the day).  The "Mountain" subspecies of NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL was seen exceptionally well on our last day:
Since I'm sure you're wondering, they DO have roadrunners in this part of Mexico.  It took us a day or two of looking for the tricky-to-see LESSER ROADRUNNER but we eventually struck gold and found a couple.  Here's one that's buried back in some brush:
We had a nice variety of orioles on tour, actually.  We ended up seeing 7 different species which is something that's not likely to happen on any United States tour.  One of the species we saw was this AUDUBON'S ORIOLE:
This subspecies, Icterus graduacauda dickeyae (the "Dickey's" subspecies), is found only in Mexico.

Earlier this year I was in Costa Rica where the ROSE-THROATED BECARDS don't actually have rose-colored throats.  In Mexico, however.....
We have BUSHTITS here in the U.S... but they sure don't look like the ones in Oaxaca!  Get a load of this thing.  Miniature shrike, anyone?
I don't think I expressed it all that much in my body language BUT I was actually really pumped to finally see a BLACK-HEADED SISKIN!  This species ranges from Mexico south to Nicaragua.  I didn't crush it but managed just a few documentation shots from a distance:
Also there in the higher elevations, we chanced into a small flock of RED CROSSBILLS:
At times, they were perched next to this species, the GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHER:
It was tough... which do you focus the scope on?!  Honestly, I probably paid more attention to the silkies.  :-)

Ooh, our trip was NOT without a motmot sighting!  The RUSSET-CROWNED MOTMOT was a specialty that we snagged on our only venture down in elevation towards the coast:
Most of us are familiar with motmots being in lush habitats of the tropics.  But THIS is the habitat of the Russet-crowned!
Pretty dry and "deserty", right?

A family of birds that specialize in the dry and desert regions are the thrashers.  We saw a few species including CURVE-BILLED THRASHER and, the crowning jewel, the OCELLATED THRASHER:
This thrasher, although it doesn't look like much in the above photo, is a MAJOR skulker and can be almost impossible to see.  Not only did we eventually get looks of this range-restricted Mexican endemic, it was singing in view for half an hour!  A spectacular show.

Besides the birding, Oaxaca is known for amazing food and some world renowned archaeological sites.  Our schedule allowed us to visit several of these sites including Mitla, Yagul, and of course Monte Alban.  Now, I'm not much of a historian but seeing such old structures and hearing about the ancient cultures dating back thousands of years... it was fascinating!

Here's a building at Mitla:
Inside, the walls had way more detail than I was expecting:
This rock art, some of it original and dating back thousands of years, was too cool:

Nothing topped the incredible view from the top of Monte Alban though.  I'll leave with that panorama:
After it was all said and done, our successful trip netted more than 180 species and all within close proximity to Oaxaca City.  Heck, we even stayed in the same hotel every night on tour.  I am slated to help with this tour again in 2018 and I'm already looking forward to it!

But for now, my eyes are ahead to my next destination... tomorrow I make my way towards Colombia.  See you on the other side....