The next stop on my world tour of great birding sites is Hato la Aurora. I posted about this site a few months ago, so I won’t repeat all the detail – you can read about it here. Suffice it to say that the Llanos region of Colombia and Venezuela is a must-see for world birders. And why take just my word for it? The Colombian newspaper El Espectador recently rated the site as one of their seven top places to see birds in Colombia.Continue reading Top Ten Birding Sites – Hato la Aurora
When we last saw our heroes, they were being bird-bedazzled during the long march into the grassland plains of the Llanos…
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.Continue reading Birding Colombia’s Llanos – Hato la Aurora
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.Continue reading Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March
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”. 😉
In January and February of this year I took (yet) another birding trip to Colombia. Ken Edwards and I linked up with Daniel Uribe Restrepo for an extended foray that took us to Amazonia, the Llanos and the eastern foothills of the Andes. Rather than writing a 5,000 word tome on the whole trip I’m going to break it into parts, starting with the wonderful world of Mitú.
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.
…is a small city in the Amazonia region. It’s in the deep eastern part of Colombia, near the border with Brazil, and thus about 250km beyond the end of the road network. To get there you can either fly from Bogotá with SATENA, or… not go to Mitú. But if you’re a birder you would want to go, for its remote location in the midst of a vast, trackless and undeveloped rain forest makes it one of the few viable places to access the wild and eccentric avian life of the Amazon basin.
So off we went aboard a shiny-new Embraer 170, which looked a bit out of place as it rolled into the grandly-named but rather rustic Aeropuerto Fabio Alberto León Bentley. After some tedious formalities where we had to provide our full particulars to both the tourism agency and the police, we checked into the hotel and headed off for a quick exploratory visit to the village of Urania.
Or at least that was the plan. But as soon as we hit outskirts of the town great birds started to pop up. A short roadside stop yielded ten species – not too big a number but six of them were life birds for me, including the highly desirable Paradise Jacamar, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Yellow-browed Sparrow and Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch. This was going to be good!
We managed to tear ourselves away and eventually reached Urania, but to get to the village we had to cross a covered bridge. And the bushes and trees on both sides of the bridge were alive with good birds: Moustached Antwren, Cherrie’s Antwren, White-browed Purpletuft, Swainson’s Flycatcher, Bronzy Jacamar and a host of others. One of my most wanted birds for the trip was the Swallow-winged Puffbird, and there were lots of them perched on telephone wires in full view. Hummingbirds zipped by while Yellow-headed Vultures (Lesser and Greater) soared overhead.
The upshot of this cornucopia of creatures is that we didn’t actually get to Urania. We spent almost two hours on the covered bridge without even reaching the halfway point, before the sun set and we had to head back to town. So Urania would have to wait for another day, but after collecting 27 lifers in an afternoon one was… contented. 😊
Day 2 – Cachivera
The Amazon rain forest is a vast area with a few tracks and trails radiating out from towns and villages. Birding the area involves walking these trails, accompanied by a member of the first nations that collectively own the land. We were very fortunate to have Miguel as our guide – or rather we were fortunate that Daniel knows who the best guides are and made sure that we got Miguel. Aside from having uncannily good hearing and an amazing ability to spot small, far-away birds, Miguel is a really pleasant person and very determined to ensure that every member of the group has a good look at all the birds.
The mission for Day 2 was to walk a long trail that leads into the terra firme forest. Terra firme refers to a relatively small percentage of the Amazon basin rain forest that does not experience seasonal flooding. As a result the trees are much taller than in seasonally-flooded (varzea) forest and there is greater biodiversity. More biodiversity translates into greater bird diversity, so we were hoping to spot some bird species that are endemic to the white sand terra firme forests around Mitú.
So off we went for a short drive at the crack of dawn, and as the sun rose we were walking through a village, across another bird-infested bridge and on into the forest.
The Birding Experience in Mitú
The program for the day, and for most of the days at Mitú, was to slowly walk along a track scanning for sounds and movement in the treetops and deep in the forest, and then try and zero in on any birds that we found. While not truly strenuous, it was hard work in birding terms. Bird sounds were everywhere but catching sight of the pesky beasts took time and patience. Most species were either high up in the canopy or skulking in dark tangles of scrub.
This made photography particularly challenging: I have lots of dodgy, highly-cropped photographs of far-away birds. Fortunately the Nikon D500 has outstanding capability in low light, but I had to master the changes needed to rapidly switch between bird-on-top-of-a tree-in-bright-tropical-sunlight and bird -creeping-along-the-dark-forest-floor.
Moreover, like every day we spent in the area, the sun was beating down, the daytime high was in the mid thirties, and the humidity felt like about 99%. There were also a reasonable number of pesky insects, but more about them later.
By the way lest this be interpreted as whining, I want to be clear that I was in Mitú at my own request, and we had a fabulous time. But for those might want to go birding in the remote Amazon I thought I would give you an idea of what to expect.
Back to Day 2
After a few hours, despite having seen some great birds we were starting to feel a mite fatigued. But then our fearless leader’s wisdom in telling us to bring a bathing suit was revealed. Cachivera translates as “pool”, but in local usage it refers rapids in a river or stream. But these particular rapids ended in a pleasant-looking pool, so in we went.
Lolling around in the cool water was refreshing indeed, and reinvigorated we pressed on. Shortly thereafter we came upon a mixed flock high up in the canopy and managed to clock a few highly desirable species including Flame-crested, Paradise, Fulvous-crested and Turquoise Tanagers.
In the end we covered about nine km in six and a half hours that morning before retreating to town for lunch. Later on, after a much-needed siesta, we went for a stroll down the old pipeline trail, adding the much-wanted Thrush-like Antpitta, Coraya Wren, Green-backed Trogon and Yellow-billed Jacamar to our tally.
Life birds on Day 2: 37
Day 3 – A festival of Antcreatures
One of the reasons birders flock to Amazonia (groan!) is to gorge (metaphorically) on the huge variety of “antcreatures”: Antbirds, Antshrikes, and Antwrens. No, gentle reader, these birds don’t eat ants. But their favourite feeding strategy is to follow an army ant swarm, feasting on invertebrates as they try to flee the advancing ants.
These bird species are the kind of thing that hard-core birders really like: hard to find, hard to get a good look at, hard to tell apart and of course, hard to photograph. Antbirds and antshrikes are particularly cryptic: a range of small grey birds with semi-distinctive differences in the small white spots on their wings and back.
As we walked the new pipeline trail that morning we lucked upon an ant swarm with its accompanying suite of birds. Of course the ants don’t waltz down the middle of the road. They were in the forest and we needed to get ahead of them to catch the birds. This meant crossing the swarm.
I had somehow imagined army ants as large fearsome beasts, but the ones we saw that day looked like ordinary, medium-sized black ants. In vast numbers. And fast-moving too – if we stopped for even a moment we would find 40 or 50 ants racing up our legs with mayhem in mind. But it was worth the risk because when antbirds are near a swarm they are absolutely focused on feeding and you can get fairly good views without startling them.
So the ants generously provided us with a number of additions to the morning’s list, including Mouse-coloured Antshrike, and Dusky, Grey, Black-faced, White-cheeked, Chestnut-crested, Spot-backed and Scale-backed Antbirds. Or if you prefer, a bunch of LGJs (little grey jobs).
After lunch we returned to Urania/Mitusueño, and this time made it across the bridge and through the village. We piled up a good list in short order, starring Black-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a handful of flycatcher species and Azure-naped Jay. But the star bird was Blackish Nightjar. Nightjars and their kin are hard birds to see as they hide motionless during the day and only come out to hunt after dark. They breed in the area of Urania so we hoped to catch a bird or two flying over in the last moments before nightfall.
What I did not expect is to have one creep out of the bushes so close to us that I had to back away to get it in focus! We marched back to the pick-up point that evening with another 23 bird species added to my life list. A celebration was called for, and achieved after a thorough search of the town turned up a friendly ice cream vendor.
So that’s the story of our first three days in Mitú . Stay tuned for the next installment.
 Servicio Aéreo a Territorios Nacionales, a national airline operated by the Colombian Air Force, with the mission of connecting remote communities that commercial airlines decline to serve.
 Also known as Mituseño.
I recently started teaching a Birding 101 course at the Seniors’ Centre in Kingston. Since the students are like me – late-onset birders – one of the points I wanted to focus on is how to accelerate their acquisition of birding skills and knowledge.
Most of my birding friends have been “in the game” since childhood, and they have often lived in the same area for many years, so their knowledge of everything bird-related is vast. They know all the calls, squeaks and squawks of birds both common and scarce, they know where and when to look, and their skills at identifying birds are honed by many years in the field.
Every time I go out birding with these people I learn something new. But how does someone become a good birder if they haven’t yet become friends with one of the Jedi Masters?
The obvious answers are (1) do your homework (study bird books, listen to tapes), and (2) spend a lot of time in the field. But I am a firm believer in my #3 recommendation: find a good birding guide and join some of their trips. I think this is one of the best and fastest ways to improve your knowledge and birding skills.
Think of birding guides as the personal trainers of the birding world. You wouldn’t start golfing without a few lessons and tips from the golf pro, nor would you take up skiing by reading a few books and watching YouTube videos. So why wouldn’t you take advantage of expertise in the birding world?
For overseas trips, this is a no-brainer. Local guides know where to go, recognize calls and habits, plan for food and accommodation, provide a vehicle, know how to drive in the environment, know the history and current events of the country, and non-trivially, recognize warning signs and know where not to go.
The advent of E-Bird and other bird-finding services means that you could travel to foreign lands without local knowledge, and some folks do. If your group includes a couple of burly and fairly menacing lads, so much the better. But when you look at the cost of flights, living expenses, and vehicle rental, and then calculate that you are likely to see twice as many species if you have a guide, to me the extra outlay makes sense. If I were 25 and had a full lifetime ahead of me I might think about this differently. But I have more money than I did when I was 25 and fewer years ahead in which to enjoy it, so guided trips are the way forward.
Closer to home…
Many people happily attend birding trips in their local areas organized by nature clubs, but I often get a puzzled look when I suggest that they should also consider working with a professional guide – as if “guide” has to exist in the context of travel to exotic lands. But for the beginning or intermediate birder, many of the same benefits that come from using professional guides apply equally to birding trips in their home province.
Guides have extensive knowledge of where to go and when to go there to maximize opportunities. With guides I have visited a number of little-known but productive sites for hard-to-find bird species in Ontario, and these trips were scheduled to coincide with the times when the bird was most likely to be seen.
Good guides also have an uncanny ability to recognize that an important bird is nearby, and great skills at locating it. Equally importantly, a good guide will ensure that everyone in the group has a chance to see the birds. This is not always the case in non-commercial birding trips, where beginners in particular may be frustrated by the tendency of the expert birders to speed by the more common species in search of more interesting fare.
The best guides are true “bird nerds”, and are willing to share their knowledge of all aspects of avian ecology, including feeding habits, breeding behaviour, and migration patterns. I have learned a lot about birds from people whose obsession is even greater than mine.
Finding a guide
So how to find a good guide? Personal recommendations are the most reliable method and I will give you a few of mine in a moment. But failing that, as with all things, Google is your friend. Search terms like “birding Ontario” or “Puerto Rico bird guides” should get you on the right track.
The websites of good guides and guiding organizations tend to contain the same sorts of information. You should expect to see specifics on their tours (dates, itinerary, costs). There should also trip reports from previous tours, ideally with trip lists (lists of species seen). You can also check the web for ratings, bearing in mind the usual caveat that some people are very hard to please.
I tend to favour guides from the country I am visiting, if for no other reason than the fact that their overhead costs are lower: when you bird with one of the large American or British companies you are paying for a leader’s flights and living expenses, and then they will often rely on the services of a local guide. If you can find that local guide you can cut out the middleman.
At the end of your search you have to make a leap of faith that your guide will be a good one, but I know of only a few cases where people were seriously disappointed. A poor guide will not last long in a competitive business. And part of the reason that the large global birding companies – operations such as Field Guides and Birdquest – are popular is that the likelihood of a poor experience is very low.
Let me save you some searching effort by suggesting these people, all of whom I have birded with and highly recommend. (And note that I do not receive any benefit for listing them here – though I am open to any free birding trips that might be offered. 😉)
Daniel Uribe Restrepo – Birding Tours Colombia
Daniel is my guy in Colombia. I have been birding with him on four trips for a total of about eight weeks. Expert birder, safe driver, super organized and good company. My Colombia life list of 882 species speaks for itself.
Jon Ruddy – Eastern Ontario Birding
Jon is young, keen, has a vast knowledge of birds and incredibly sensitive hearing. He is also very pleasant to work with. Highly recommended.
Melody Kehl – Melody’s Birding
On a trip to Tucson I had only one day to dedicate to birding. Melody led me on a fast-paced adventure to see a large number of Arizona specialties. Expert birder, safe driver… do you detect a theme here?
Spain, Morocco and Cuba:
Josele J Sais of Boletas Birdwatching Centre
Josele was an outstanding guide but sadly I have just learned that for health reasons he has had to stop leading tours. This is a great loss. I believe he still operates his guest house in the Pyrenees where a number of great birds can be seen.
Joseph Meducane – Predators Safari Club
Predators was the local subcontractor for our trip to Tanzania, and they planned and executed a great trip. Joseph was one of our driver-guides and if you decide to go with Predators you should ask for him. Expert in all types of wildlife in the area, but he definitely has an eye for birds
And finally two that I haven’t tried personally…
Mike and Ken Burrell – Burrell Birding
I have not birded with the Burrell brothers (Mike and Ken) but they are expert birders and good folk so I am very confident that their trips would be excellent. They are co-authors of the recent book Best Places to Bird in Ontario.
Jim Palmer is a young biologist just starting out in the guiding business. I have good reports about him. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
And a few more photos of great 2019 birds…
In April 2019 Ken Edwards and I headed to Colombia for a tour focused on the endemic species of the Central and Western Andes. After a few adventures we arrived in Cali to be met by Daniel Uribe Restrepo, Executive Director of Birding Tours Colombia. We piled into his new 4X4 and headed into town for a late dinner and an early morning start.
Our first port of call was La Minga Ecolodge, in the foothills of the Western Andes. Walking the mountain roads around the lodge produced some excellent finds including Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Solitaire, a handful of foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers and treehunters, and the rather scarce Spotted Barbtail. At the lodge the feeders and gardens were buzzing with bird life. Hummingbirds included the charismatic Booted Racket-tail, Long-tailed Sylph and Andean Emerald, and there was a fine selection of tanagers. Multicoloured Tanager, my most-wanted bird of the trip, was in the bag by noon.
We continued our explorations in the afternoon, then went out in the evening for a spot of owling. The gardens at the lodge were quite accommodating – while sneaking up on a roosting Common Potoo we flushed a Common Pauraque, and later we listened in on a territorial discussion between Mottled Owls.
After a quick morning stroll along the roads (Chestnut Wood-Quail, White-throated Quail-Dove), we headed off for Buga. Along the way we visited Finca Alejandria, where pouring rain did not dissuade a range of birds from showing off. Key birds included Red-headed Barbet and our first-of-many Andean Motmots, but the star was the hard-to-find Blue-headed Sapphire. Further down the road we visited Bosque de San Antonio, where we had great views of an unusually confiding Colombian Chachalaca, the scarce Rufous-tailed Tyrant, as well as a handful of tanagers and flycatchers and a nice White-naped Brushfinch.
After a good breakfast accompanied by Buff-necked Ibises and Blue-headed Parrots at the hotel in Buga, we moved to the conservation area at Sonso Marsh. This is a great area of ponds, wetlands and dry forest, and we spent a pleasant three hours ticking off 65 species therein. The bird of the day was definitely the shy and skulking Sungrebe, which gave us a full five seconds of view as it scuttled across an opening and disappeared into the reeds. It was a life bird for all of us, and a round of high-fives ensued.
Other great birds included Anhingas, two of which we spotted soaring in a kettle of Black Vultures; seven species of herons; a smattering of warblers; showy Jet Antbirds; Snail Kites and about one zillion (or 60+ anyway) Spectacled Parrotlets who were nesting in the bamboo roofs of the buildings. Our next site was the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge on the Pacific slope of the Western Andes, so a long road move was in the cards. We stopped for breaks at a couple of small but bird-full wetlands along the way, passed through Pueblo Rico (which is not really a village and certainly not rich), and finally rolled into the lodge at dinnertime.
PNN Tatamá / Cerro Montezuma
The Lodge is in the heart of the Tatamá National Park, about 52,000 hectares of almost undisturbed rainforest. Birding is done along a rough track that leads up towards the summit of Cerro Montezuma (Montezuma Peak). On our first day at the lodge we girded our loins and departed in the wee hours for the long bumpy ride to the top.
The early start was necessary to have a shot at the skulking Munchique Wood-Wren. The birding gods were in good mood that day and we soon heard the beasts, and shortly after had decent views of a pair. Thus fortified we carried on to the top, where the lodge staff keep a set of well-attended hummingbird feeders. We gorged (metaphorically) on Empress Brilliants, Violet-tailed Sylphs and Rufous-gaped Hillstars, as well as our first sightings of the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet. However, the stars were a pair of rare endemic species: the endangered Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and the critically endangered Dusky Starfrontlet. The latter hummingbird was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in 2004. These birds continue to cling onto life as their favoured habitat disappears, so it was both exciting and sad to see this brilliant bird at close range.
Cerro Montezuma – Day 2
The next day we worked the middle portion of the road, feasting (again, metaphorically – no birds were hurt in the making of this report) on such beauties as Buffy Tuftedcheek, Rufous Spinetail, Tricolored Brushfinch, and the epic Crested Ant-Tanager (sort of like a Northern Cardinal on meth). During one of the periodic downpours (there’s a reason they call it rainforest) we took shelter in the vehicle. Only to protect the camera equipment you understand. An extended nap ensued.
Lunch back at the lodge meant more hummingbird watching, with Tawny-bellied Hermits, Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymphs, White-necked Jacobins and Purple-bibbed Whitetips buzzing past our ears. Then back up the mountain road for Lanceolated Monklet, Zeledon’s Antbird, Ornate Flycatcher, White-throated Spadebill, Choco Warbler and other treats.
On Day Six we had another walk up the road, adding a number of goodies to our list including Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Slaty Spinetail, Parker’s Antbird, Black-headed Brushfinch and Greyish Piculet. Then it was back on the road, heading east to the Central Andes, enlivened by a stop where we bagged Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper.
Our next stay was at the lodge at the Otún-Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary. An old stand of beech woods, it hosts several much-in-demand bird species including the rare Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and endemic Cauca Guan. Until recently, the Guan was thought to be extinct, but there is a healthy population in the small reserve. We rolled up and saw both species before dinner, doubtless due to our superior bird-finding skills, though a cynic might have noted that both species roost in trees and bushes on the grounds of the lodge. After a good meal we off in search of owls, and were rewarded by a good look at a Colombian Screech-Owl (recently lumped with Rufescent Screech-Owl).
In the wee hours of the next day we headed down the forest road on a mission to find antpittas. Three species of these furtive, skulking forest birds are known to haunt the reserve, and we hoped to catch a glimpse or two. What we did not expect was to see a Moustached Antpitta, the most skulking of the bunch, standing idly by the side of the road. We all goggled at it for a few seconds until, tiring of the glow of our headlights, it vanished into the undergrowth. Shortly thereafter, in a deep and very dark glade, we spotted a Hooded Antpitta. In the days of film a photograph would have been impossible, but I cranked the Nikon up to ISO 12,800 and got what we can charitably call a record shot.
We spent a bit more time patrolling the sanctuary, and added a number of good birds to the trip list including Wattled Guan, White-naped Brushfinch and Variegated Bristle-tyrant. Then it was time to head off to the next port of call, Manizales. Our route included a stop at the Cameguadua Marsh, which is actually a sewage lagoon and a rather good one at that. In just under two hours we spotted 66 species, including some highly desirable ones: Blackish Rail, Great Antshrike and Pale-breasted Spinetail. Herons and waders were well-represented, and Vermillion Flycatchers abundant. In the afternoon we visited Rio Claro near the town of Chinchiná, where we saw a male & female endemic Turquoise Dacnis.
In the wee hours we headed up into the Central Andes aiming for Los Nevados national park, home of several high-altitude bird species. On the way up we saw Paramo Seedeater, Grey-browed Brushfinch, a showy Paramo Tapaculo, and on the hummingbird side added the highly colourful Purple-backed Thornbill, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Shining Sunbeam. Probably the best find was a flock of the endemic & endangered Rufous-fronted Parakeet, seen by scope on a distant cliff face.
We stopped for a snack and some coca tea at Laguna Negra, while a very friendly Stout-billed Cinclodes showed off for us. Coca tea, by the way, is used by the locals to combat altitude sickness. Tasty stuff, but I decided that if I brought some back with me there would likely be a scene with the customs officials so I reluctantly let it go.
The Visitor Centre at Los Nevados sits at 4,200m, which is 13,800 feet in old money and the highest I have been without being surrounded by an airplane. The target bird was an endemic hummingbird known as the Buffy Helmetcrest, a beast that apparently does not need oxygen to survive. We lowlanders do need oxygen, and there was precious little in evidence. Nonetheless, while moving about very slowly we managed to spot the beast. Slow high-fives were exchanged, then we fled back down to the air zone.
On our way back we stopped in at the Hotel Termales del Ruiz, a nice hotel with thermal baths. And hummingbirds. Stacks of them. There are bird feeders throughout the grounds and they attract a stunning array of hummingbirds and tanagers. Of the 12 species of hummingbirds, four were lifers for me: Mountain Velvetbreast, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, near-endemic Black-thighed Puffleg and near-endemic Golden-breasted Puffleg. We also saw four species of mountain tanagers, of which Lachrymose and Scarlet-bellied were new to me. So all in all, not bad for 90 minutes work that also included lunch!
Our next stop was the lodge at Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco. Just a short hop from Manizales, this reserve in the cloud forest is particularly noted as a hotspot for antpittas. We arrived at the crack of dawn to ensure we were in place when the rangers feed the shy Bicoloured Antpitta.
The Bicoloured is a small antpitta and can be bullied by the others, so they have their own feeding “theatre.” Just after dawn our ranger-guide led us to the spot and in the gloom a small bird appeared to get its meal. We then went to another spot where the procedure was repeated and both endemic Brown-banded and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas came to feast. It was a fascinating experience and also a great test of camera-handling: fast-moving birds in low light are tricky enough, and one has to bear in mind that antpittas have very long legs and toes. Some of my otherwise best images are marred by missing toes!
After the antpitta-fest we had a good breakfast and started exploring the rest of the reserve. Over a long day and a half of hill-walking we found really good numbers of birds, with flycatchers, guans, wrens and furnarids particularly well represented. A nighttime excursion netted White-throated Screech-Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and the charismatic Lyre-tailed Nightjar. And needless to say, hordes of hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders at the lodge.
The lodge itself was very comfortable, with good food and friendly staff. This seems to be a theme – we ate well and slept well at all the birding lodges we visited.
After a final bit of cloud forest birding we set off for the short trip to Hotel Tinamú, a private reserve and lodge where we hoped to find a few key birds. Tinamous, of course, would top the list, but these skulkers are very rarely seen. True to form we didn’t see any – though I strongly suspect that the vaguely chicken-shaped bird that scooted across the trail in front of me was a Little Tinamou. But we were consoled by a lot of other good sightings: Green Hermits at a lek, Golden-collared Manakin, Blue-lored Antbird and our target bird the Grey-headed Dove.
My compañeros were too fatigued to go owling in the evening but I went out with the head guide and we spent an hour or so patrolling the reserve. We were rewarded with good looks at Tropical Screech-Owls – a bird I had previously seen but had not been able to photograph. So all was well.
In the morning after a fine breakfast we had another good look around, enabling me to renew acquaintances with Clay-coloured Thrush, a species that I first saw in Costa Rica. Then it was “on-on”, with a long drive ahead before we would come to rest in Jardin.
On the way through Manizales we picked up Daniel’s daughter Laura, who is learning the ropes of the birding business. This clever and charming young lady was a welcome addition, as her presence immediately raised the standard of conversation above the usual masculine grunting noises.
Western Andes – Riosucio and Jardin
The mountain road that winds between Riosucio and Jardin is home to some special birds, most notably the endemic & endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Once on the verge of extinction, with a total wild population of 81 birds, this parrot has benefited from an intensive conservation effort and is now on the rebound. There are over 1400 of these colourful, large and noisy parrots screeching around the area, and we had no problem spotting groups of up to 30 birds. While poking around we also discovered the endemic Yellow-headed Brushfinch and beautiful Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, the latter being one of Ken’s key targets.
After a night in Jardin we headed back up the mountain road to link up with Doña Lucía, a local antpitta-whisperer, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so observing and feeding Chestnut-naped Antpittas. A lone Slate-crowned Antpitta observed the proceedings from a safe spot but was disinclined to join in the festivities.
There were doubtless many more birds that could have been found, but we had to head back to Jardin in time to see the Cock-of-the-Rock spectacle. On a riverside lot in downtown Jardin there is a copse of trees that Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks have deemed to be appropriate for their mating displays.
These are striking birds to look at, with their neon-red plumage and bizarre shape, but their idea of how to win a lady’s heart is truly spectacular. The birds bob, shake their wings, perform deep bows and push-ups and hop around, all the while emitting a cacophony of squawks, croaks and beak-clapping. It’s equally astonishing and amusing. Visiting a Cock-of-the-Rock lek was one of my key wishes for this trip and I was not disappointed.
The next morning we made a final foray up the mountain road, adding Scarlet-rumped Cacique to our list but dipping on Red-bellied Grackle, another bird on Ken’s wish list. We still hoped to find one, and the omens were good, as we were now headed to the legendary Las Tangaras lodge, the final stop on our tour.
Las Tangaras is a flagship reserve of ProAves, the most important NGO working to preserve the birdlife of Colombia. The reserve is located within the Choco region of the Western Andes, and consists of tropical forest with an elevation ranging from 1250 to 3400m. E-bird lists 454 bird species that have been seen at the reserve.
The lodge was quite comfortable and offered excellent food. Most of the key species are not found on the grounds of the lodge, but on a high mountain road that winds southwards. We arrived at lunchtime and immediately made our first foray up the road. For about four hours of effort we ended up with 42 species, highlighted by Toucan Barbet, endemic Tatama Tapaculo, Uniform Antshrike, eight flycatcher species and the endemic Black-and-gold Tanager, as well as a good assortment of hummingbirds.
The next morning we headed back up, and though low cloud and intermittent rain made viewing conditions less than optimal, we still managed a good haul. Both Rufous-rumped and Yellow-breasted Antwrens were seen, along with Choco Vireo, Crested Ant-Tanager and a few new-for-the-trip furnarids. Several Yellow-breasted Antpittas were heard at close range but they refused to show themselves. A lone Olivaceous Piha was spotted lurking in the forest at close range, and despite the cloud and dense undergrowth I managed to get a decent image.
Fortunately we had better weather the next day, as it would be our last shot at a few target birds. Much searching was needed but we did eventually find two Beautiful Jays and a couple of Red-bellied Grackles, as well as a pair of White-headed Wrens. A good assortment of tanagers and furnarids rounded out the list, with a surprise addition of Long-billed Starthroat at lunch – our 51st hummingbird species of the trip. Then we were back on the road, heading for Medellin, with a couple of new species added during short stops along the way.
Goodbyes were said, vast plates of grilled chicken were dispatched, and finally we were at an airport hotel awaiting an early flight through Panama City bound for Kingston. Given that we were primarily looking for scarce endemics, a final trip list of 481 species (456 seen, 25 heard-only) was quite respectable. When we add in the birds I saw in the Eastern Andes with Daniel my Colombia life list sits at 651. Plans are already being hatched for the next excursion to Colombia, the Mecca of Birding.
 Showy for a tapaculo, that is. Still a fairly skulking bird.