Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Colombia - Day 6 (January 22, 2015): Minca, drive to the desert and La Guajira

Introduction
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

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We were up dark and early for one last shot at the dry forest specialties we were missing around Minca before heading back down the mountain. Our plan was to be picked up by our driver in Minca around noon, who would then be with us for the next couple of days as we planned to explore the northeast region of the country- the arid Guajira desert. 

But first things first - our morning around Minca. We walked from our hotel through the dry streets before dawn while the first few bird species started vocalizing, signalizing the imminent arrival of another new day. Most interesting to me was the Rufous Nightjar calling from somewhere near the hotel grounds. Our goal was to hike a trail near town that accessed some nice dry forest habitat while also having a great view of a nearby valley where it is sometimes possible to see Military Macaws flying to their feeding grounds from their roosting areas early in the morning, and back again in the evening. Those who have birded with me in the tropics know my disdain for parrots - most of them are all green (or occasionally with a small bit of orange, blue, yellow, red etc mixed in), they all sound the same (a loud, irritating squawk), and most sightings are of individuals flying by at rapid speed, often backlit, so that it is impossible to pick out the unique orange/blue/yellow/red bit that identifies them. And to make matters worse, I can never remember which parrot species I have seen, as they are all named Blue-head this, or Red-lored that, or Yellow-crowned something else. But macaws, despite unfortunately being related to the other psitticines, I find somewhat more interesting, and Military Macaws are actually pretty cool.

But I digress - back to the morning at hand. Our progress towards where the good dry forest habitat started was briefly impeded by the discovery of a little lizard on the trail, which I still need to work out the ID of. 

lizard sp. - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

It was a typical morning weather wise - warm, humid, with the temperatures increasing quickly once the sun appeared. The dry forest around us came alive with birdsong - mostly common species like the ubiquitous Tropical Kingbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Pale-breasted Thrush, but also a few other interesting species including Rufous-and-white Wren, which has one of my favorite bird songs. While walking along, a couple of Yellow-headed Caracaras kept us company.

Yellow-headed Caracara - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We lucked out with one of our main targets as we had two separate Black-backed Antshrikes. A surprise Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant was nice to see as well, as they can be a difficult species in this part of Colombia. I snapped this photo of a Smooth-billed Ani, a species familiar to anyone who birds regularly in the Caribbean, southern Central America or South America. What a prehistoric looking bird...

Smooth-billed Ani - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

As we were walking along the trail overlooking the valley just after sunrise, we suddenly heard the unmistakable loud squawking of macaws somewhere in the valley below us. Military Macaws! We frantically scanned for the birds, and eventually they burst through an opening in the foliage - a pair flying together, their green and blue plumage lit up in the morning sun. Almost as quickly as they appeared they were gone again, out of view due to the foliage surrounding us.

We were treated to a few more flybys of Military Macaw pairs - whether they were the same birds, or different ones, we could not say for sure. I did not bother trying for photos however, as the birds were quite distant and I wanted to enjoy the brief views through binoculars that we had. The birds were often flying way down below us in the valley, more often heard than seen, so that our hillside and its respective vegetation blocked out the view..

We stopped at the hotel for breakfast, adding White-lined Tanager and Baltimore Oriole to the trip list as we watched the hummingbirds and tanagers coming to the feeders. What a view!

Steely-vented Hummingbird - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

After breakfast we continued on foot through the town of Minca and towards a waterfall just up the road - evidently a popular spot for the backpackers frequenting Minca as well as the locals. Our interest lay not with falling water, but with the birds in this section of dry forest. We did quite well despite the diminished bird activity at this hour (around 9:00 AM), adding a few new trip birds or lifers, all which are fairly widespread in Central or South America. Swallow Tanager is one of the more unique tanagers; as their name implies they sometimes act like swallows, perching on horizontal branches or hydro wires, and excavating nests in muddy banks. Despite occurring frequently throughout much of South America, it was a species I was quite happy to see and photograph!

Swallow Tanager - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

This Gray-capped Cuckoo was yet another lifer that appeared in some scrub along the side of the road. Black-capped Tyrannulet was also new, though we would see many more in the Andes later in the trip. Purple Honeycreeper and Black-and-white Seedeater, my last two lifers of the morning, happened to be the only individuals of these species that we would encounter on this trip. A few new trip birds were also seen here - Sooty-capped Tyrannulet, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Barred Antshrike and Tropical Pewee among them.

Gray-capped Cuckoo - Minca, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The birding was good but the sun was now high in the sky and we had a ride to catch, so we hurried back down the road towards town, eventually meeting up with our driver in the parking lot at the Hotel Minca.

We were a little surprised by his vehicle, a tiny four-door compact car, and fitting all of our gear inside (mainly Steve's gear - the rest of us just had a single pack) was a bit difficult, but with a bit of crafty maneuvering we made it work and were on our way. To the desert!

It was hot in the mountains, but the lowlands were really cooking and we kept the windows open the whole time as we drove, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of rural Colombia. The landscape transitioned from dry forest to farmland, to coastal mangrove interspersed with small towns, to mature dry forest, to thorny woodland and finally to sparsely vegetated desert.

We stopped for lunch near the Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona, an area of mature dry forest which we would be visiting the following evening and subsequent day. The restaurant was along the bank of a lazy river, where a few new trip birds awaited - Little Blue Heron, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Green Kingfisher and my first Carib Grackles.

We finally entered the Guajira Peninsula, and the change in the landscape was immediately apparent - it was very dry, with vegetation consisting mainly of patches of thorny trees. We added some new birds, including Scaled Dove and Pale-legged Hornero, both common species in this part of the world. Despite it being mid-day, we hoped to see at least some of the specialty birds of the region even if they are much easier to find early in the morning.



Taking a small sideroad off of the main road we were excited to see some new birds for the trip, including our first of the Guajira specialties - an Orinocan Saltator. Gray Kingbird was also surprisingly a lifer for me.

This Russet-throated Puffbird perched obligingly at close range. While not a Guajira specialty, the  Russet-throated Puffbird can only be found in northern Colombia and northern Venezuela reliably.

Russet-throated Puffbird - Casa Blanca area, La Guajira Province, Colombia

We continued the long drive after our brief diversion, arriving at Sanctuaria de Fauna y Flora Los Flamencos. Part of the protected land includes a large wetland set at the edge of the Caribbean. One of the most important wetlands in northern coastal Colombia, it hosts an impressive number of wading birds, shorebirds, and gulls. Of course all the Guajira specialty birds can be found within or very near to SFF Los Flamencos.

It was late in the day when we finally pulled up to the refuge. Out here, the only tourists that visit are the occasional group of birders, and it was pretty cool to be at an area that felt so far out of the way of the usual tourist traffic. As we scanned the shorebirds and spoonbills with our scopes, a group of local school-aged kids played soccer nearby, while other people living in the village headed out to the shallow waters to harvest crabs.

Roseate Spoonbill and Snowy Egret - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

We did not have too much time before sunset, but we successfully found both Kelp and Herring Gulls among all the Laughing Gulls. Both of these species are pretty rare in Colombia, though this spot has become somewhat reliable for them in recent years.

I was also happy to spot my first Scarlet Ibis here among a flock of White Ibises, along with several hybridy looking individuals that were not as bright red as they should be.

As this was our first time on the coast, a variety of species were new trip birds, including many which are common at times in Ontario! Great Egret, Sanderling, Great Blue Heron, American Golden-Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Black-bellied Plover, etc all made appearances.

That evening we drove east to the town of Riohacha where we planned to spend the night. The following morning we would be back at SFF Los Flamencos, to meet up with our local guide for the day and hopefully see most of the bird specialties of La Guajira. Stay tuned!

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