In January I like to put together a post about the birding highlights of the previous year. This time around it has been a bit slow in coming. Somehow it’s hard to get excited about a year spent mostly at home under the spectre of a pandemic.
With trips lined up to Colombia and Argentina, and with a cottage booked for two weeks next to Point Pelee, I had been harbouring wild thoughts that if all went well I might see 1000 species of birds in 2020. And it started out so well…
However, the point of this blog is to focus on the positive, and when I thought about it in those terms I started to see that there had been a few good things amidst the bad. (Spoiler alert – I had to set the bar fairly low. Not everything here would make the cut in a normal year 😊). Here’s the first installment.
A new year means a new year list. For birders, that is the incentive that gets us out on the land when the days are short and the weather is less than optimal. If you have been in this game for a while you probably keep lists, and the advantage of a year list is that it starts at zero. So while new birds for my Ontario life list are very hard to come by, starting another year list means that even the humble Starling and House Sparrow become new sightings.
In a normal year I would expect to see about 50 or 60 bird species in January – 50 or so in the local area and another 6-8 from the annual winter pilgrimage to Algonquin Park. However in 2020 a combination of good luck, persistence and a few extended twitches bumped that number upwards.
Early in the month I heard some intriguing reports on the grapevine of a covey of Grey Partridge near Ottawa. I had seen this species a few times in the UK but it would make a nice addition to my Ontario list. So the first twitch of the year was a round trip through Nepean, Carleton Place and Ault Island near Morrisburg. This pleasant drive in the country netted the partridges as well as a Northern Hawk Owl and a Harris’s Sparrow. So far, so good.
Twitch #2 followed rapidly, as Erwin and I hunted down a Mountain Bluebird near Pickering and a Purple Sandpiper at Presqu’ile, with an incidental find of Iceland Gull enroute.
I had agreed to lead a KFN field trip to Algonquin Park in mid-January and that worked out very well. We nabbed all the winter finches including both species of crossbill, plus the obligatory Canada Jays, and by virtue of a slight detour picked up the long-staying Varied Thrush at Bark Lake – a lifer for most of the party.
2020 Part 1
So the upshot is that by the time I left for Colombia on the 25th I had already set a personal best for January in Ontario with 77 species. That 1000 species goal was well on its way. Or so it seemed…
After a long, hot and bird-filled journey we rolled into the lodge in the late afternoon. Our options were: (a) have a well-deserved siesta, relax and await dinner, or (b) bird the local area. A difficult dilemma, one might imagine. So by dinnertime Pale-headed Jacamar, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant among others had found their way onto the trip list.
After thoroughly sampling the full Amazonia experience, our next key target in the 2020 Colombia expedition was the Llanos – a huge grassland plain that stretches over eastern Colombia and Venezuela. About 500km of driving lay ahead of us from Bogotá. Obviously we had to look for Eastern Andes endemic birds along the way, so several days were to pass before we reached our jumping-off point in Paz de Ariporo.
We spent some time working the forests near Santa María, Boyacá, and then another couple of days climbing up into the foothills near Monterrey. I will just mention a few highlights from these stops before we get to the main event.
This is a small town (less than 5,000 inhabitants) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Andes. It had a short period of growth during the construction of the La Esmaralda dam and power plant, but has now lapsed back into small-scale agriculture and torpor, enlivened by a bit of eco-tourism. It seems that Santa María is a hotbed for arachnid species, though we did not encounter any spider tourism groups during our stay.
Development is not permitted in the forested hills surrounding the reservoir, so they are home to a large variety of birds. We managed to add three new entries to the birds-whose-names-start-with ant category, the smart-looking Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-and-White Wren, Crested Spinetail and the enigmatic and highly prized Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. A evening of owling was quite productive. And I also saw more Cerulean Warblers in three days than I have seen in ten years in their breeding range. Photos of the more cooperative species are below.
This is the second part of a trip report on our recent visit to Mitú. Part 1 is here.
Note: if are reading this on a cell phone you are getting the light version, and the images and video may be a bit wonky. If you are connected to WiFi or have a robust data plan I suggest you click on the title, which should connect you to the actual website.
Mitú Day 4 – Pueblo Nuevo
Even by birding standards it was a painfully early start, but we had a long, bumpy road to traverse on our way to Pueblo Nuevo. So after a quick coffee we were on the road at 0500. The sun came up as we rolled into the village and linked up with Florencio, a native guide from the local area. Like Miguel he is a crack bird-finder, and with the two of them working in tandem we were looking for an epic day.
Pueblo Nuevo, BTW, is remote enough to make Mitú appear cosmopolitan. Landlines and cellular signals are non-existent, though electrical power is available courtesy of a nearby hydro power plant . But between their gardens, free-range chickens and small agricultural plots cleared in the forest the people seemed to be well fed and healthy.
So we plunged off down a narrow forest trail and immediately started clocking new birds. The area is rich in ant specialists and over the course of a long morning we found four species of antshrike, two of antwrens and nine(!) antbird species. And Black Bushbird, a close relative which for some reason doesn’t have a name starting with ant.
More Antbird Photos!
On the non-ant side of the ledger, we startled a pair of Marbled Wood-Quail – a very tough bird to spot but we clocked them as they sped off at high speed. We also managed a quick glimpse of a skulking Pectoral Sparrow. A good assortment of toucans, jacamars, parakeets and woodpeckers were spotted, with a background soundtrack provided by the aptly-named Screaming Piha. So with 72 species in the bag it had to rate as a great morning of rain forest birding.
It was after 1330 when we got back to the village so lunch and a snooze were in order. We crashed in the village hall for an hour and then headed back out. Did I mention that Pueblo Nuevo does not have a Starbucks? At that point it seemed like a serious oversight. So we forged on, coffeeless.
It was a sultry afternoon – one of the hottest of the trip. The birds were a bit sluggish and so were we. We did end up tracking down a few new species for the trip list, including a nice male Blue-crowned Manakin, but we eventually called off the hunt and bumped our way back to Mitú, arriving late and hungry but happy.
Day 4 life birds: 26
Day 5 – The Jungle has its Revenge
Our fifth day started very early again as we needed to go beyond Pueblo Nuevo to the end of the road. We picked up Florencio enroute and arrived at the right bridge at the right time.
Fiery Topaz is a highly desirable and hard-to-find hummingbird, but those in the know knew that they often rested below a certain bridge at dawn before zipping off for the day. So there we were and there, eventually, it was too. But the idea that we might get a decent shot of a perched bird was not to be. The male spent ten minutes or so swooping around in the gloom before speeding away.
Photographing fast-moving birds in the half-light is… something other than fun. Even with good equipment there is always a trade-off involved. Set a wide-open aperture, engage super-high ISO, choose the slowest shutter speed you can get away with, and then try to achieve and hold focus. It’s a recipe for frustration.
However in a highly improbable combination of good luck and good camera management I did manage to snap the bird at the moment when it stopped to hover. The resulting photo has not resulted in a call from the National Geographic, but I am somewhat pleased all the same.
We then set off down a narrow forest trail. Interesting birds were calling and needed to be tracked down. But other winged denizens of the forest were also out foraging…
It had crossed our minds that the Amazon rain forest might have a few pesky insects, so we came prepared with the full arsenal of chemical defences. However the effect of tropical temperatures and high humidity was that even the best bug repellent was rapidly sweated off. And birding involves a lot of standing motionless. Not a good combination. There had been some mosquito and sweat fly action on the previous days, but on Day 5 we paid the full price. Our tormentors were:
Mosquitoes. There seemed to be at least two sizes: small nimble ones that left a typical somewhat itchy bite, and a larger type – perhaps an African killer mosquito or a mutant developed by the CIA – that left a large, very itchy and long-lasting welt. This type was our constant companion that morning.
No-see-ums. These were not exactly like the scarce Ontario bug of the same name, but more akin to small Black Flies. Their bite is like a needle stick, but doesn’t do any lasting damage.
Sweat flies. A variety of small flies that swarm around your face trying to drink your sweat. Harmless, but their persistence makes them supremely irritating.
Horse fly relatives. I have been unable to identify these beasts, but picture an extra large, red fly with the malevolent intent and near-indestructability of a Tsetse Fly. Whack these things and they just shake their heads and resume trying to bite. The locals hate them so much they catch them out of the air, pull off one wing and drop them on the ground. Harsh, but understandable.
Chiggers. The worst of all. I was emotionally scarred by my first, 400-bite experience of chiggers. If I had known they were in the area I would have taken extreme precautions. At the time of writing all but two of my 14 or so chigger bites have stopped itching. The bites were two months ago. Grrr.
So anyway we got bitten pretty thoroughly that day. But the birding was good, so it was a fair trade-off.
… and Birds
In the murky and bug-infested forest we spotted a couple of highly desirable skulkers. Musician Wren is one of those heard-but-not-seen birds that proliferate in the rain forest but after half an hour of standing motionless like a mosquito smorgasbord we spotted the beast peering out of the darkest tangle of scrub available. Photography was not an option but we had decent views .
The same patch of woods also housed a lovely Rufous-capped Antthrush. This particular individual’s superpower was ensuring that there was always a branch or leaf between camera and bird, but eventually it showed itself briefly and deigned to be photographed.
A few woodcreepers, our first Green Oropendola, Curve-billed Scythebill and some White-fronted Nunbirds rounded out the list, and we left the trail of insect perdition and headed for our lunch spot.
The road to nowhere actually ends at a good-sized hydro power plant on the Vaupés River. We had lunch at the cafeteria for the plant workers, and then while my compañeros snoozed I wandered down to the river and spied on a large roost of herons and egrets.
Stalking the Cock-of-the-Rock
Our mission for the afternoon was to try and find a Guianan Cock of the Rock. These beasts are one of the most colourful and bizarre of neotropical birds, close cousins of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock we saw in Jardin last year. They are mostly found in Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname but extreme western end of their range overlaps the Colombian border. So it was a necessary bird to see.
One male bird had been observed recently along a forest path, but we square-searched the area to no avail. So the remaining option was a long, hot scramble up a rock massif.
After checking every crevasse and valley we eventually found the charismatic orange bird in its lurking area. Then we rested on our laurels for a while at the top of the rock, with a view towards the hills that mark the border with Brazil.
A good variety of avians passed by, including a couple of needed-for-the-trip birds like Red-fan Parrot and Lemon-throated Barbet and our best view of a Scarlet Macaw. Eventually and with some regret we clambered down, bade farewell to Florencio, and headed back to town for our last night in Mitú.
Day 5 life birds: 16
Day 6 – Adiós Mitú
We had a plane to catch in the afternoon, but an excruciatingly early start allowed us to get another five hours of birding in. At that point we had seen most of our target birds but we did manage to find a couple of new additions , as well as practice some birds-in-flight photography on low-flying vultures. Then back to town for lunch, the usual excess formalities at the airport and we were on our way back to Bogotá.
So that’s the story of our great Amazon adventure. Five days and a bit, 133 life birds, a bit of beautiful scenery and a look into a remote and fascinating part of the world. If you’re interested in neotropical birds you may someday find yourself drawn to Mitú, so I hope this has given you a flavour of what’s in store.
If you would like to see more (and better!) images of the birds mentioned here, you can enter the species name under the Explore Species tab in E-Bird. But note that this is an American site so they use American spelling rules. So for “grey” you have to use the inelegant spelling “gray”. 😉
E-Bird tells me I saw 665 bird species last year, a new personal best. Many excellent birds went into this list: gaudy tropical beasts like Motmots, skulking antbirds, and glorious migrant warblers. But what stands out most in my memory are the bird experiences – those special birding moments where everything comes together to make a truly memorable sighting. Herewith are my top ten birding moments in chronological order.
January 26, Amherst Island, Ontario
I was out looking for winter birds with Bruce Kirkland and Rachel Sa. We were stopped by the side of the road to look at a flock of Redpolls when Rachel saw something that looked like an owl fly into a tree. We got the scope out and sure enough we could see a small owl head peering out of the bush. High fives were in order – Short-eared Owls are not an easy bird to see in Ontario. Then a Bald Eagle passed over and all hell broke loose. Nineteen(!) Short-eared Owls exploded out of the tree and swirled madly around for a couple of minutes before settling down, each one to its own fencepost. It turns out there were over 50 Short-ears on the island, feasting on the plentiful voles, but to see nineteen at once was a special birding moment.
20 March, Ecolodge la Minga, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
The first stop on our Colombian expedition was this homey lodge in the foothills of the Western Andes. We spent the morning walking the entrance road and saw plenty of great birds, but then we arrived at the lodge. All thoughts of lunch were quickly pushed to the side as we drank in the hordes of avian jewels feasting on the flowering plants and fruit that the owners had provided. Within minutes I had seen my target bird for the whole trip – Multicolored Tanager, so everything after that was gravy. And very tasty gravy at that!
21 March, Bosque de San Antonio/Km 18, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
Sometimes great birding moments come in retrospect. We had heard Nariño Tapaculos calling at Ecolodge La Minga, but Tapaculos are small, dark, mouse-like skulking birds of the undergrowth so one rarely gets the chance to actually see them. But at this legendary birding site I managed to catch a quick glimpse of a calling bird. Not a big deal in itself, but the great birding moment came at my desk at home, when I worked out that this was life bird #1500 for me.
22 March, RN Laguna de Sonso, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
A great day at this very birdy marsh was capped off by a brief but clear look at a Sungrebe as it snuck across a short channel and disappeared into the reedbed. Sungrebes are uncommon and extraordinarily shy. Ken Edwards is a much more experienced tropical birder than I, and Daniel Uribe Restrepo is an ornithologist and full-time guide who has spent his entire life in Colombia, and yet this was a life bird for all three of us. Happiness abounded.
28 March, PNN Los Nevados, Caldas, Colombia
When I was studying field guides for my first trip to Colombia the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle caught my eye, and I added it to my mental most-desired list. In 2017 we spent some time in the right habitat, but no Buzzard Eagles were forthcoming. Cut to this year and we are 14,000 feet up in the Central Andes, waiting for a Buffy Helmetcrest to show up. In the far distance we spot two large raptors soaring. Scope views allow us to ID them as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, but after a while it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving any closer.
So it’s a solid “tick” but a better view is needed to quench my Buzzard Eagle longings. Maybe next year. Or maybe later that day! Just before quitting time we were scanning the paramo looking for small seedeaters and looked up in time to see two majestic buzzard eagles silently cruising by about 20 feet above our heads. Gob-smacked we were. A great finish to that day’s excursion.
1 April, road from Riosucio to Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia
This was not a fun day as Montezuma was busy having his revenge on me. I tried to keep my whimpering to a minimum as we clambered up a steep mountain trail in the company of Doña Lucía, a local farmer. Years of patient work had allowed her to convince some Antpittas that she was a reliable and non-threatening source of their favourite delicacy: earthworms. So we got to the right spot, she called, and after a bit a couple of Chestnut-naped Antpittas emerged. Antpittas are proper unicorn birds, and any sighting is great, but to see them hopping onto peoples’ hands to nab worms was epic. Sadly I could not participate in the actual feeding as I needed to be able to dash into the bushes at a moment’s notice, but I got some really great still and video images, and even better memories.
1 April, Jardin
Later that day we made our way into the city of Jardin to visit a Cock of the Rock lek. This did not exactly test our birding skills – we went to the house, paid our entrance fee, and wandered down to the lekking trees. But the sight of those bizarrely gorgeous birds hopping, bowing, squawking and shrieking, all in hopes of impressing the ladies, was truly fine.
9 May, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario
The great Reverse Migration. A truly epic experience as thousands of birds, fleeing an incoming storm, streamed by on their way back to the US. Photos and the full story are here. I can envision a day twenty years from now where a group of birders encounter a gruff, grizzled bloke with weather-faded gear and a thousand-yard stare. They will say in hushed voices – “he was at the reverse migration of 2019”. 😊
4 July, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland
For my first trip to Newfoundland I was strongly advised to visit the Northern Gannet colony at Cape St Mary’s. It was a bit of a hike, but I am quite partial to Gannets so it seemed worth checking out. So after doing a bit of whale and Puffin watching in Witless Bay we headed south to the end of the road. Cape St Mary’s lived up to its billing as the best site anywhere for viewing Gannets at close range. Over 20,000 pairs nest on the sea stack and surrounding cliffs, and they are supremely not bothered by people staring at them from 30m away. Also crammed onto every available ledge were thousands of Guillemots and many hundreds of Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
And as it turns out, also one lone Thick-billed Murre, at the far southernmost end of its breeding range. I saw a slightly odd-looking Guillemot and suspected that it might be a ringer Knowing that Thick-billed Murre was possible, I decided to wait until the sleeping bird raised its head from under its wing so I could see the diagnostic mark on the bill. For a full 45 minutes the pesky creature didn’t budge, but finally it took a look around and revealed its thick-billedness. So a day that started with Humpback Whales and Puffins and ended with epic views of Gannets and their pelagic friends was capped off by a new life bird. Not to mention a tasty lunch at St Bride’s.
31 December, Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario
For reasons that are not entirely clear I have an inordinate fondness for Purple Sandpipers. Perhaps it’s because they are scarce and a bit elusive; perhaps because my first sighting was special. We were on a very pleasant driving tour through Scotland and I stepped out of the B&B on Islay to see two of the blighters playing in the kelp on the other side of the road. In any case I like them and was keen to add them to my Ontario (and Canada) list.
Typically that means wading out to Gull Island in late November in the hopes that this is the one day when a small southbound flock will stop for a snack. This year there were tantalizing reports of a trio hanging out at Owen Point. Family and social responsibilities kept me away, but finally on the last day of the year I decided to give it a shot. I arrived to a bleak and windswept scene populated by five long-tailed ducks and a Herring Gull. I scanned the area thoroughly with no luck. Then a snow squall kicked in. With melting snow starting to infiltrate my pricey camera equipment, and no reasonable prospect of success I considered packing it in.
Then fate intervened in the guise of one Kyle Horner, who had seen the birds earlier in the morning and posted a report on the OntBirds bird alert site. Knowing that they were likely still around, I redoubled my efforts and soon spotted small bird-like heads popping up and down behind an algae berm. Shortly thereafter the birds emerged and good views were had. After snapping off a number of shots I took a deep breath, remembered my own advice, and set a shutter speed fast enough to capture them as they frenetically dashed about. The results are below in all their rain-spattered glory. And just to cap off this tale, the Purple Sandpipers were the 300th bird species I have seen in Ontario.
So for all the great birds I was privileged to see last year, it is these birding moments that will remain clearest in my memory. Thanks to the birds, and thanks to the companions who shared the moments with me.