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.