Monday, 27 January 2020

Arcabuco Birding and Butterflying

Laura and I changed course from our original itinerary only two hours after leaving Duitama. Our plan had been to visit the Soatá area for a night – home to the Mountain Grackle but also two other endemic species (the Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird and Niceforo’s Wren). But we were having a hard time finding a place to stay. Both AirBnB properties we inquired with that would be suitable turned us down and we could not find anything else online. And on top of that, the drive would be a lot longer than we had originally anticipated due to the winding roads with frequent construction. And so, we changed course and turned the car south, aiming for the town of Arcabuco. Besides, I had already seen the Mountain Grackle and I would hopefully have a chance to search for the other two target species later on at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve. 

Lazuline Sabrewing - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

We stayed at a property called Rogitama Birding. The property had formerly consisted of pasture fields but in 1982 the family which purchased the property began a decades long conservation initiative that is still ongoing. They replaced a lot of the soil, introduced earthworms and planted a wide range of tree species. While still surrounded by pastures, the property is lush and beautiful with many native species thriving in this environment. Among birders, this property is well-known as one of the easiest locations to see the range-restricted and Endangered Black Inca. 

Black Inca - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

We enjoyed two nights at Rogitama. It was a perfect base to explore the surrounding areas, with trails, a beautiful wrap-around porch containing over a dozen hummingbird feeders, and Colombian hospitality from the family that owns the property. The price was right as well. 

Black Inca - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

We encountered about a dozen hummingbird species on the property. Top of the list was, of course, the Black Inca. But we also viewed Lazuline Sabrewing and Short-tailed Emerald here for the first time. I think the Lazuline Sabrewings were my favourite! What a stunning hummingbird. 

Lazuline Sabrewing - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

Short-tailed Emerald - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

Birding was a little slower in the forest away from the lodge but with patience we found a few things of interest. Territorial Black Incas and Lazuline Sabrewings topped the list. But we also enjoyed Moustached Brushfinches, Pale-bellied Tapaculos, Yellow-backed Orioles and a bunch of tanagers and warblers. 

Summer Tanager - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

The nearby fields held Eastern Meadowlarks and White-tailed Kites, while a close stream produced Torrent Tyrannulet, Black Phoebe and Solitary Sandpiper. 

White-tailed Kite - Rogitama Birding, Aracbuco, Boyacá, Colombia

Most people who visit this part of Colombia for “nature reasons” check out Iguaque National Park. However, the entrance fees for foreigners were prohibitive (over 20$ pp to enter) and so we made alternative arrangements. I had heard about a trail known as Sendero El Peligro from Dorian Anderson’s excellent blog/site guide. Located about 10 minutes from Rogitama, this trail cuts through a swath of different habitats, but mostly, montane forest. Laura and I visited for a full day and came away very impressed! Please check out Dorian’s page for information on directions, maps, etc. 

 Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Portions of the trail passed over bedrock. Along with the shrubby vegetation and cool morning temperatures, it brought back memories of hiking in the Canadian Shield region. The only thing missing were the Massasaugas.

 Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

 Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

The trail was in good condition and while there were a few elevation changes, for the most part it was relatively flat. This meant that more time could be focused on wildlife-finding and not on watching our feet. It is the dry season at the moment and we managed just fine with our hiking boots, but in the wet season rubber boots may be mandatory for certain sections. Our favourite part about the hike (other than the gorgeous scenery and excellent birding) was that we did not encounter a single human all day long! Bliss.

 Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Sendero El Peligro is located at a fairly high elevation and so the bird life was not nearly as diverse as lower altitudes. But we had an awesome day of birding with perfect weather. Despite not arriving until close to 7:30 AM we still racked up 54 species. 

Golden-bellied Starfrontlets were occasionally noted. To think I made sure that we visited Chicaque near Bogotá, when the hummingbird is just as easy here! We also noted Glowing Puffleg, Short-tailed Emerald and Lazuline Sabrewing among our eight hummingbird species. 

Golen-bellied Starfrontlet - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Mixed flocks were frequent, keeping us on our toes. We enjoyed a nice selection of birds in these flocks including Cerulean Warbler, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Golden-fronted Redstart, Brown-capped Vireo, Mountain Elaenia, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Blue-and-black Tanager and Bluish Flowerpiercer. We frequently heard Chestnut-crowned Antpittas, Blackish Tapaculos and Pale-bellied Tapaculos. A little flock of Yellow-breasted Brushfinches appeared and we had flyover Andean Siskins, White-collared Swifts and Chestnut-collared Swifts. We had great views of many species and it was certainly an enjoyable day out!

Symbolanthus sp. - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

The sun was out for most of the day which powered up many insects. The butterfly show was never ending and gave us something to marvel at whenever the birding was slow.

Adelpha corcyra - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Unidentified - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Unidentified leafhopper - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Corades enyo - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Dione glycera - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Pronophila epidipnis - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

One of the more spectacular butterflies was Morpho sulkowskyi, a species that we had noted a few previous times when hiking at this elevation in the Colombian Andes. The underside of the wings is a pale yellow but the upperside is spectacular – an iridescent, powdery blue. 

Morpho sulkowskyi - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Later on, we stumbled across an individual that had seen better days. But this provided us with a great opportunity to see the colouration and iridescence up close. Incredible!

Morpho sulkowskyi - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

Morpho sulkowskyi - Sendero El Peligro, Boyacá, Colombia

We enjoyed our time at Rogitama and along Sendero El Peligro. The Boyacá province in Colombia is filled with many hidden gems that are not on the “typical” birding circuit, and these places are two of them! 

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

The Duitama Area - Excellent Hiking and Mountain Grackles

We left Santa Maria behind and headed west and then north, arriving in the city of Duitama by mid-afternoon. This city held nothing special for us – it appeared to be a standard, big South American city – but it was close by to some nice natural areas. When planning our big loop with the rental car we were not really sure where we would go after Santa Maria. We still had nearly a week before we had to return to Bogotá and information was scant regarding natural areas north of here. We did not want to drive all the way to the Cerulean Warbler reserve or the Bucaramanga area. But there are three endemic bird species found in the northern part of the east Colombian Andes that I thought we had a shot for. The Chestnut-bellied Hummigbird, Niceforo’s Wren and best of all, the Endangered Mountain Grackle. These species are often reported near the town of Soatá and Duitama was a nice halfway point between Santa Maria and Soatá. 

 Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

While searching online, Laura had discovered a trail outside of Duitama called La Zarza Ecological Trail. It began at approximately 2600 m in elevation and climbed to around 3100 m, passing beside a meandering river, through farmland and rising sharply into páramo. It sounded like something right up our alley.

Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

We packed lunch and hit the trail shortly after 7 AM while the sun slowly warmed the alpine landscape. Birds were frequent and people were few during the first hour and we enjoyed watching a Smoky-brown Woodpecker, some Mountain Caciques, a quartet of Yellow-billed Caciques and several Glowing Pufflegs. White-throated Tyrannulets were common, their pip-pip-pip-pip calls accompanying us on the walk. 

White-throated Tyrannulet - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Soon, a variety of butterflies and other insects appeared, yearning for the sun’s rays.

Unidentified - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Adelpha corcyra - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Steremnia pronophila - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Spread-wing Damselfly (Lestidae sp.) - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Semiotus regalus - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

The city of Duitama has evidently ensured that the trail is maintained at a high level, and they were also responsible for installing regular interpretive signs. We passed one advertising the Crab-eating Fox and I had to take a second look at the sign. It appeared eerily familiar.

Stolen Crab-eating Fox photo - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia 

Indeed, the Crab-eating Fox photo was one that I had taken a few years earlier in Guyana! Below is the original photo. Part of me was a little annoyed that they stole my photo, but at the same time it was being used for a “good cause”, so to speak. They could have at least emailed me to ask for permission which I would have of course granted. I guess they figured that the photographer would never likely see this photo on their sign in a part of Colombia well off the beaten tourist track!

Crab-eating Fox - Karanambu Reserve, Rupununi, Guyana

As the morning wore on the crowds of people appeared, everyone out to enjoy the beautiful day and amazing views. It was strange to see so many kids on the trail during mid-morning on a Tuesday in mid-January. Maybe it was a holiday? But we continued to enjoy the hike as the scenery was spectacular. 

 Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

Herps had been elusive during our walk but we finally lucked into one near as we descended to around 2700 m. A beautiful anole which we have since identified as Anolis heterodermus. This species is endemic to mountainous regions of Colombia. 

Anolis heterodermus - Sendero Ecológico La Zarza, Boyacá, Colombia

We were a little tired but feeling good when we returned to the car in the early afternoon. It had been a great hike! We were feeling a little restless still and after a brief siesta at the hotel we drove south to the town of Paipa. A beautiful lake is the focal point of this area and we enjoyed a few hours before sunset checking out the waterbirds. 

Lago Sochagota, Boyacá, Colombia

Highlights among our 27 bird species were Andean Duck, four species of shorebirds, several Apolinar’s Wrens and a singing Silvery-throated Spinetail. A fine way to close out a fine day. 

Solitary Sandpiper - Lago Sochagota, Boyacá, Colombia

The next day we planned to drive north to the town of Soatá so we could search for the three endemic target birds – the grackle, wren and hummingbird. However, looking on eBird, there had been no recent sightings of the grackles along the road climbing into the mountains west of Soatá and I knew from several birding blogs that they can be quite tricky here at times. Interestingly, a different road just outside of Duitama held a number of recent sightings. The trouble was that sections of that road are a bit difficult to navigate with a car but I was game to try anyways.

Laura decided to sleep in and I left shortly after 5 AM, hoping to get to the grackle area by 6 or 6:30 AM. The first part of the drive up was relatively smooth; I even added a few year birds in Band-winged Nightjar and Golden-fronted Redstart. 

 Road northwest of Duitama, Boyacá, Colombia

Eventually I hit the really rough section of road but my car was able to navigate it without bottoming out (too often). It was slow going! On a hunch and needing to stretch my legs, I stopped in the first area where the grackles had been reported, though all of the recent sightings were much further along the road. And suddenly I heard a couple of grackles!!

They were a little distant but I could appreciate their long tails, sleek black plumage and distinctive calls. Luckily, two of them flew back towards the road and settled in some trees above me. I could even see the reddish axillary feathers when they flew. 

Mountain Grackle - Road northwest of Duitama, Boyacá, Colombia

Mountain Grackles are reliant on the oak forests in these relatively dry, mountainous areas. In recent decades several new populations have been found but the species is thought to number between 600 and 1700 individuals (according to the IUCN). It is currently listed as Endangered. The population is decreasing, in conjunction with forest clearing. 

Mountain Grackle - Road northwest of Duitama, Boyacá, Colombia

I stayed with the grackles for about 20 minutes, watching their interactions and enjoying their varied calls. With a little spring in my step, I left my car at the roadside and birded my way west for about half a kilometer. The sun had now crested over the mountains, finally warming the countryside. Birds were active and I picked through a mixed flock, while also watching a Rusty-faced Parrot fly past (a new species for me). I even found a single Mountain Grackle in a different area and watched it for a little while. 

Eventually I returned to my car, stopping one final time to photograph a Pale-naped Brushfinch. I braved the rough road once more on the drive back to the hotel in Duitama and fortunately escaped without any apparent damage to the car. A successful morning!

Pale-naped Brushfinch - Road northwest of Duitama, Boyacá, Colombia

Monday, 20 January 2020

Night Life in Santa Maria

Eibar joined us for the afternoon/evening during both of our full days at Santa Maria. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we visited Sector Cachipay on the first day. As dusk fell we waited by the entrance to the military base. Eibar had seen two species of owls right here in the past - Black-and-white Owl and Band-bellied Owl. Black-and-white is somewhat widespread in Centra America and northern South America, though it is one that Laura and I had only ever heard before. And Band-bellied is found in the foothills of the eastern Andes but it can be scarce in parts of its range. We had not even heard this species before. 

We were in luck and a Black-and-white Owl began to call shortly after dark. The military base turned on their spotlight for us as the owl apparently likes to hunt (for moths, presumably?) near the light. With minimal effort we spotted the individual, and later a second one. 

Black-and-white Owl - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Black-and-white Owl - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

We soon heard a pair of Band-bellied fire up as well! They have a really unique song that is sung in tandem. It is a pulsating series of low hoots, with the second owl starting up a second after the first, at a slightly higher pitch. The guys at the military base let us in to search for the owls near one of their bunkers, the location where the sound appeared to originate from.

Military base at Sector Cachipay - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Unfortunately the owls stopped vocalizing when we arrived. But on our way back out, as we began backtracking down the road towards our car, we spotted one more owl in a roadside tree. This one was a young Band-bellied! Compared to a Black-and-white, note the thick lines across the belly, and the broad, brownish band across the upper chest.

young Band-bellied Owl - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

We kept an eye out for snakes and frogs on the return walk but herps were in low abundance. The dry weather certainly wasn't helping. Of course there were many cool insects and arachnids to point our flashlights at.

Pristimantis frater - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Orb-weaver - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Edessa sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Sundarus sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Edessinae sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Pyrgus sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

At first i thought this was a type of stick insect but it is in fact a species of stick grasshopper (family Proscopiidae).

Stick grasshopper (Proscopiidae sp.) - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Stick grasshopper (Proscopiidae sp.) - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Unidentified leafhopper - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia


The following afternoon/evening we visited a river island/finca near the town of Santa Maria, staying until after dark. We poked around the river for an hour once night fell, finding a few frogs here and there. 

Boana boans - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Rhinella marina - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Laura pointed out this Saddleback Caterpillar (Acharia sp.), a widespread genus that even has a representative species back home in Ontario.

Acharia sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

We drove a short distance back towards Santa Maria and got out beside a creek. Since the water levels were low we were able to easily walk along the creek, and the relatively flat topography in the area afforded an easy walk. 

Leptodactylus colombiensis

Frogs were well-represented and we identified six species, as well as a couple of additional ones that I haven't figured out yet.

Rulyrana flavopunctata - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Boana boans - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Pristimantis medemi - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Rulyrana flavopunctata (tentative ID) - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Pristimantis medemi - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Boana boans - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Boana lanciformis - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

This leafhopper was pretty spectacular! It is Abana horvathi, quite a variable species morphologically.

Abana horvathi - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Curtain-web spider (Dipluridae sp.) - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Zale sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

At one point we stumbled across a Black Phoebe roosting above the creek.

Black Phoebe - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

A large branch fallen across the watercourse had been repurposed as a leaf-cutter ant highway. It was at chest height, giving me a good opportunity to practice leaf-cutter ant photography.

Atta sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Atta sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Atta sp. - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Two sphinx moths were accounted for during our creek-walk. The first had seen better days, as it was dead, in the clutches of a spider. 

Laura spotted the second roosting on an overhead branch. It was incredible! A friend of mine, Michael Butler, has identified this one as Oryba kadeni.

Oryba kadeni - Santa Maria, Boyacá, Colombia

Near the end of the hike my flashlight beam picked up a massive stick insect, easily the largest I have seen in the new world (and only rivalled by one monster I found in Borneo).

And so concludes my posts from Santa Maria. Next up - high elevation mountainous areas near the city of Duitama.