Saturday, 16 July 2016

Colombia - Day 15 (January 31, 2015): Jardín area, Cauca Valley

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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The Yellow-eared Parrot formerly occurred in all three ranges of the Andes throughout Colombia and into northern Ecuador. Favoring wax palms for roosting, feeding and nesting, the species inhabited native montane forest, elfin forest, and partially cleared areas. Due to a combination of factors, predominately the fragmentation of native forest that it requires but also illegal hunting, Yellow-eared Parrots have steadily declined until there were only 81 known birds remaining in the year 1999. Due to strong conservation efforts the population has slowly increased, and population estimates now show around 1,100 birds remaining in the wild, including 212 mature individuals (source: birdlife.org). They have likely been extirpated from northwest Ecuador and much of their former range in Colombia, now being found only in a few areas in central Colombia.

One of the strongholds of Yellow-eared Parrots is the landscape surrounding Jardín, and this area has remained a reliable spot for visiting birders to observe this Endangered species.

We were up again before dawn, making the relatively short drive to the Ventanas area south of Jardín where Yellow-eared Parrots are often observed flying by and feeding in the wax palms.

It was a relatively cool but calm start to our day as we walked to a good vantage area in an open area characterized by partially cleared land with scattered wax palms. It was a stunningly beautiful morning, and it was hard to resist snapping a few landscape shots in the dawn light.

Yellow-eared Parrot spot - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

Yellow-eared Parrot spot - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

While we waited, a local farm dog came over to check us out, barking vigorously at first but eventually becoming somewhat accustomed to our presence.

Yellow-eared Parrot spot - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

The still morning was broken by the calls of some distant parrots, competing for our attention against the dog, barking occasionally. We finally got on them - they were indeed our target bird! We watched a pair of Yellow-eared Parrots fly past us, the distinctive yellow "ears" of the birds standing out even at a distance.

Throughout the next hour or so we watched a few pairs of Yellow-eared Parrots fly by while hearing other distant individuals. We estimated that we observed 16 birds. It was a fantastic experience with such a rare species!

Yellow-eared Parrot - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

The parrots were not the only attraction here, as we also observed our first Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, heard a Chestnut-naped Antpitta calling from a nearby patch of forest, and identified a few Chestnut-collared Swifts flying overhead.

After watching the parrots for a while, we left our vantage point and drove to a nearby area where the road traveled through a relatively extensive patch of montane forest. But first, we were going to visit a friend of William's; a family that had a few hummingbird feeders set up. It was a pretty good setup - birders can stop by, pay a few dollars and enjoy some hot chocolate while watching the hummingbird feeders. It sounded pretty good to us!

Watching the feeders, we were ecstatic when a hummingbird with a ridiculously long bill briefly dropped in to feed among the numerous Buff-tailed Coronets. We all quickly got on it - our first Sword-billed Hummingbird! Endowed with the longest bill to body ratio of any bird, it is specially adapted to feed on flowers with long corollas which other species can not reach. The bill is so long and heavy that the hummingbirds have to perch with their heads tilted upwards.

Sword-billed Hummingbird - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

It was a fascinating study and we were treated with a few repeat performances over the course of our visit. If only it had decided to choose a more natural looking perch...

Sword-billed Hummingbird - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

Sword-billed Hummingbird - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

I photographed a few of the other species of hummingbirds present as well, including Collared Inca, Tourmaline Sunangel and Buff-tailed Coronet.

Tourmaline Sunangel - Yepa Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

Finishing our hot chocolates, we settled up and continued on in the Grand Vitara towards our intended birding area. We embarked and spent a few hours walking along the road, keeping an ear open  for new species as we walked along, while William followed us with the vehicle.

Yepa Road area - Antioquia Province, Colombia

It was a productive morning as we added a few new species, including Blackish Tapaculo, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, and a heard-only Undulated Antpitta. Chestnut-crested Cotingas are sometimes sighted along this road and despite our best efforts they eluded us.

We headed back in to Jardín to eat a proper breakfast and buy a few supplies, including some of the irresistible grenadillas. Like many towns in this part of Colombia, Jardín still retains the colonial architecture and white-washed buildings complete with colourful doors and balconies. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception looms over the main downtown square, a building that was declared a National Monument in 1980. The square itself is also a National Monument.

vendors in Jardín, Antioquia Province, Colombia

Basilica of the Immaculate Conception - Jardín, Antioquia Province, Colombia

We soon hit the road as we had a five hour drive ahead of us before reaching our next destination, Río Blanco. Why is it that every drive in the Andes is at least 5 hours in length?

It turned out that to save time and limit the amount of time driving through the mountains, we would drive north from Jardín for an hour towards the Cuaca River Valley, before turning off onto a main highway which would take us back south, eventually reaching Río Blanco via the city of Manazales. By avoiding the mounts, this route happened to take us into the range of two endemic species that I did not think we had a chance at - Grayish Piculet, and the recently described Antioquia Wren.

Along the drive, I spotted a few roosting Colombian Chachalacas along the edge of a river - a fairly common species within certain parts of their range, but an endemic none-the-less, and one that we had missed earlier in the trip.

We drove through the heat of the day with the temperatures climbing well into the mid-30s by the time we stopped for lunch in the Cauca River valley. William happened to know the location of the road where the Antioquia Wren could be found (evidently he had taken other birders here in the past), and so once we finished lunch we drove over to the spot. It was now early afternoon and the hot tropical sun was shining down, combining with the oppressing humidity to stifle bird activity. We got out to search however, and we were birding for only a few minutes before Dave was able to call in an Antioquia Wren from the roadside!

Antioquia Wren - Pueblorrico Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

The Antioquia Wren was first discovered in 2003 and was described as a new species in 2010. It is somewhat related to Rufous-and-White Wren and Niceforo's Wren and is an uncommon species in dry forest along the Cauca River. We were pretty excited to cross paths with this rare species, especially considering that it was the heat of the afternoon!

Dave wasn't done yet as he played the call for Grayish Piculet, not really expecting a response (bird song was pretty quiet). Almost immediately, a couple of piculets flew in, providing great views. Yet another life bird and Colombian endemic! This random stop was paying dividends.

Grayish Piculet - Pueblorrico Road, Antioquia Province, Colombia

A small flock of Spectacled Parrotlets were found, feeding quietly and unobtrusively in the thorny vegetation. We also found our first Golden-crowned Warbler of the trip before continuing on our way.

The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful, and after having some trouble finding the road to Río Blanco, we navigated the city of Manizales unscathed. We drove up into the protected forest above Manizales to the reserve and checked into the lodge at Rio Blanco. We were shown our rooms then  served dinner alongside a couple of birders from Panama, including Beny Wilson Altamiranda, an outgoing and well-known birder within the Panama birding scene. After dinner we tried calling in a few nocturnal birds from outside of the main lodge, lucking into a White-throated Screech-Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, and Band-winged Nightjar, though all were heard only.

We hit the hay by 9:00 PM once again, excited for a full day of birding in the forests of Río Blanco, and hoping to lay eyes on a few species of antpitta in the morning.

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