Tuesday 5 April 2016

Colombia - Day 2 (January 18, 2015): Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge

January 17, 2015 - Isla de Salamanca, Minca, El Dorado lodge
January 18, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 19, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 20 and 21, 2015 - El Dorado lodge to Minca
January 22, 2015 - Minca, drive to La Guajira Desert
January 23, 2015 - La Guajira Desert
January 24, 2015 - PNN Tayrona, fly to Andes
January 25, 2015 - Bogotá area: PNN Chingaza, Siecha wetlands
January 26, 2015 - Laguna de Pedro Palo, Payande area
January 27, 2015 - Cañón del Río Combeima, SFF Otún Quimbaya
January 28, 2015 - SFF Otún Quimbaya, drive to Montezuma Road
January 29, 2015 - Montezuma Road
January 30, 2015 - Montezuma Road, drive to Jardín
January 31, 2015 - Jardín area, Cauca Valley
February 1, 2015 - Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco
February 2, 2015 - Páramo del Ruiz near PNN Los Nevados


The Cuchilla de San Lorenzo is a mountain ridge located in the northwest slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, accessible via a boulder-strewn dirt road that slowly zig-zags its way up the side of the mountain. The elevation along the top of the ridge is approximately 2,800 m. In the grand scheme of things this is much lower than the highest, snow-capped peaks in these mountains, reaching over 5,700 m in elevation, but the vast majority of the endemic birds can be found along the San Lorenzo ridge.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, at least 22 endemic bird species are confined to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. When the screech owl gets described, and several subspecies are elevated to species status, there is the potential for at least six more. Two of the endemic species, the Santa Marta Wren and the recently re-discovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, are limited to the high elevation paramo and timberline edge (3,600 to 4,200 m), places that are practically inaccessible for birders. A third, the Santa Marta Sabrewing, is a near-mythical altitudinal migrant that breeds in the high paramo and winters in lower elevations, namely the southeast slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It is extremely rare in the part of the mountains that we would be visiting, and is a species so rarely seen by birders that there are not any accepted eBird records yet.

No doubt many future splits will occur with subspecies found in the highest elevations; it is just so difficult for research to be conducted there at this time due to access issues. Eventually there could be over 30 "good" species recognized as being endemic to the area.

The other 19 or so currently recognized endemics can be found in lower elevations, in Santa Marta montane and cloud forest ecotypes. The San Lorenzo ridge is one of the only relatively easy way to visit the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, providing access to cloud forests frequented by most of the endemics.

view from la Cuchilla San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Well before dawn, the four of us loaded into Pedro's 4x4 and we embarked on the long, bumpy road up the side of the ridge. The drive up was fairly uneventful and we arrived at our destination as the last vocalizations from Band-winged Nightjars and a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl echoed from somewhere down the mountain side.

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The morning started off slow, but one by one we added species. It was a completely new habitat for all of us and it took a bit of time to learn all the common species of the elevation, many of which were lifers. Eventually some of the specialty birds of the San Lorenzo ridge showed themselves - a small flock of Santa Marta Parakeets flying over, vocalizing Brown-rumped Tapaculos and "anachoreta" Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, and our only Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants of the entire trip. Santa Marta Brushfinches proved to be quite common, and as it turns out, a couple of them were more than willing to partake in our breakfast with us...

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Santa Marta Brushfinch - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The views from the ridge were absolutely fantastic, and it was a bit of a sensory overload to take it all in as the sun crested distant mountain peaks while fog filled in the valleys. We were treated to gorgeous views from both sides of the ridge, but one couldn't stand mouth-agape at the scenery for too long as a few chip calls from nearby shrubbery would signal another potential new bird species or two, waiting to be seen.

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

view from la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Several mixed-species flocks were productive and soon we had seen all three endemic warbler species, including great looks at a couple of Santa Marta Warblers. Hummingbirds were also highlights of the morning and I was fortunate to spot a female Santa Marta Woodstar, a species that can be somewhat difficult at times. A female White-tailed Starfrontlet was yet another endemic seen, but the phrase "better views desired" seemed appropriate following the sighting - fortunately this would be rectified later in the day. This Mountain Velvetbreast however provided great views.

Mountain Velvetbreast - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The birding remained excellent all morning, and excitement levels were high with so many potential super-endemic species around every corner. Spinetails proved to be rather common, though certainly difficult to see at times. Both species we encountered along the ridge, Streak-capped and Rusty-headed, are endemic to the Santa Marta mountains. We noticed a nest under construction by a pair of Streak-capped Spinetails at one point.

Streak-capped Spinetail - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

My first White-rumped Hawk provided a jolt of adrenaline as it coursed right over our heads.

White-rumped Hawk - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Birding the mixed-species flocks along the ridge:

birding la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

While tanagers are not as diverse in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta when compared to the Andes, there are a few gems, including the endemic Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager which we found a dozen of. As well, I was particularly pleased to spot a Plushcap, one of the most unique tanagers that until recently was considered the sole member of the family Caramblyrhynchidae.

What could be lurking within the depths of these bushes?

As anyone who has birded and tried to photograph birds in the tropics can tell you, photography can be quite difficult in the thick understorey due to low light levels, quick movements from the small songbirds, and tangles of branches getting in the way of a clean shot. I focused more on just trying to have a really good look at each species. Sometimes you may only have 2-3 seconds in total of time to see a bird well before it darts back into thick cover or flies down the side of the mountain with part of its foraging flock, and it may be the only individual you find of that species. It can be tough to resist the urge to grab the camera sitting on my hip, but in the end I do not want to be fiddling with camera settings with the hope of taking a blurry, noisy, backlit photo of the bird as opposed to soaking in face-melting views through my binoculars, even if the views are for just a few seconds. After all, I do want to see these birds more than I want to photograph them, if only slightly more. I think I mostly succeeded with this venture and while I did not photograph many of the endemics, good views were had of most of them! Besides, we had another full day planned at the ridge tomorrow.

lunch break at  la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Dan Wylie (left) and Steve Pike (right) resting at la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

After a quick lunch break we came up with a game plan for the rest of the day. Instead of riding back down the mountain in Pedro's 4x4 we opted on walking back down to the El Dorado lodge.

It was hard to ignore the scores of butterflies along the road, appearing after the sun burned through several layers of clouds and fog.

Cinnamon Flycatchers also cemented their position as one of the most visible and easily photographable bird along the roadside. A common Neotropical bird perhaps, but an exciting lifer all the same!

Cinnamon Flycatcher - la Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The walk down to El Dorado consisted of relatively birdless periods interspersed with brief flashes of activity. We added few new birds compared to the exciting morning, but I do recall my first Brown-capped Vireo, Black Flowerpiercer and Golden-breasted Fruiteater. I believe this is where we first encountered Black-fronted Wood-Quail, a range-restricted species that is found primarily in the Santa Marta and Perija ranges.

Back at the lodge, we ordered some beers and settled in to watch the excellent hummingbird setup. It really is quite the place; see for yourself...

El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Among the seven or so species of hummingbirds, the main highlight was a male Black-backed Thornbill, an Endangered species which visited the feeders frequently throughout the evening. This endemic species is often missed by visiting birders as other than occasional sightings at the lodge's feeders there is no reliable spot to observe it during this time of year. It is an altitudinal migrant that usually does not leave its high-elevation paramo habitat until May or June.

Black-backed Thornbill - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We were treated to incredible views of Tyrian Metaltail and Whte-tailed Starfrontlet as well, and I was particularly impressed with the endemic starfrontlet. What a bird!

White-tailed Starfrontlet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

White-tailed Starfrontlet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Tyrian Metaltail - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

As if that wasn't enough colour for us, a small troupe of Blue-naped Chlorophonias were feeding on bananas set out on a tray feeder.

Blue-naped Chlorophonia - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Just birding around the lodge's hummingbird setup, compost pile and forest edges proved to be quite productive. The highlight at the compost heap was a Sierra Nevada Brushfinch, while Band-tailed Guans entertained us in the open areas around the lodge. They would follow us around, presumably hoping for handouts, but in general just getting in the way! It was pretty amusing and many (relatively) humorous videos were made of them. While several Band-tailed Guans had taken over the lodge at the moment, it can be a difficult species to find at other times and I know of several birding groups who have missed it in these mountains.

I am not sure if this is the one we nicknamed Juan the Guan, the individual that took a liking to me and followed me around occasionally (including into the indoor dining area at one time!).

Band-tailed Guan - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Several herps could easily be found around the lodge, and in addition to the Savage's Salamanders residing in the bromeliads, anoles were also frequently seen. This Solitaire Anole is an endemic species to the Santa Marta mountains.

Solitaire Anole (Anolis solitaries) - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

With an hour or two before sunset, I ventured off by myself on a trail down the hillside from the lodge, with a couple species on my mind. Several individuals of my first target, the Santa Marta Antpitta, were heard but I was never able to get a visual of this skulker. I also came across a few Emerald Toucanets of the local race. When the mess that is currently the Emerald Toucanet taxonomy gets sorted, this may be yet another endemic bird for the Santa Marta region. My evening hike finished off with a bonus Gray-throated Leaftosser, tossing away in the fading light of the understorey.

"Santa Marta" Emerald Toucanet - El Dorado lodge, Magdalena Province, Colombia

It was another long and tiring day, but absolutely exhilarating to find everything that we did. I ended up with 43 life birds for the day, and almost all of the endemics of the area we had discovered. Our night hike that evening was fairly abbreviated as we wanted to catch some sleep before another 4:00 AM wakeup call, to travel back to the San Lorenzo ridge for a second straight day.

Pristimantis carmelitae

Bolitoglossa savagei

Anolis solitarius

Anolis solitarius

Pristimantis sanctaemartae

 Bolitoglossa savagei

Bolitoglossa savagei

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