Thursday, 9 January 2020

Monterredondo: Quest for an Antpitta and a Bonus Snake

Laura and I traveled southeast of Bogotá for our next day of exploration. We were up early and enjoyed the initial lack of traffic on the roads south of the city, but it picked up as we joined the main highway leading southeast towards the lowlands and the city of Villavicencio.

Our plan was to explore the hills above the small town of Monterredondo, hills that are home to the Cundinamarca Antpitta. This species was only first discovered in 1989 by Peter Kaestner, a well-known birder and ornithologist, in a mountainous region east of Bogotá. The species is now known to inhabit a few other nearby hills but its population is estimated to be under 800 individuals according to IUCN. The gravel road leading up from Monterredondo is one of the main accessible areas where the species can be encountered, and that was where we were headed!

It took us three tries before we finally found the correct road leading off of the busy highway. Note to others who wish to attempt this - do not trust Google Maps (a common theme when traveling in South America). The actual entrance to the road is at 4.2562, -73.8260. But soon we were rumbling up the gravel road, dodging potholes and trying to avoid bottoming out our low-clearance Kia. We made it from around 1500 m in elevation to 1950 or so until we had to park the car during a particularly sketchy section of road. The antpittas are usually heard at 2200 m or higher so we had a good walk ahead of us!

Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

Luckily the scenery was beautiful and the birds were frequent as we ascended by foot. I heard a Schwartz's Antthrush and a flock of Brown-breasted Parakeets, we found our first Ochre-headed Brushfinchs and we picked through several mixed flocks of tanagers. At one point we even flushed three Black-fronted Wood-Quails off the road!

Unfortunately extensive deforestation poses a very real threat to the survival of the Cundinamarca Antpitta. While driving and walking up the road, this is evident - large forest patches on this particular hill and on nearby ones have been cleared for livestock grazing and agriculture.

 Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

 Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

Butterflies were easy to see on this beautiful sunny day and we found many unique species.

Unidentified - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

This one was my absolute favourite, a type of hairstreak known as Rhamma familiaris. The top side of its wings was electric blue, but like any good hairstreak it refused to open its wings when perched. A pretty spectacular butterfly!

Rhamma familiaris - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

This is the local flavour of Pedaliodes, a common genus of (mostly) Andean butterflies. This particular species is Pedaliodes phaea.

Pedaliodes phaea - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

At around 2270 m in elevation, the gravel path temporarily left behind the cleared sections of land and entered good quality forest. It is here that most birders find the antpitta, though I became a little worried as the minutes ticked by and not a bird was heard. The shenanigans of the morning combined with the long hike meant that we were arriving to the critical area during the late morning - earlier would have been much better! But these worries were temporarily forgotten when I noticed an odd, snake-shaped piece of grass lying on the road. I casually mentioned this to Laura and we both chuckled about how this particular piece of grass bore a striking resemblance to a snake. A few steps later, it turned its head and we realized it was indeed a snake!

Mountain Sipo (Chironius monticola) - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

I was fairly sure that it was a species of Sipo or Whipsnake, (Chironius), a genus that is known not only for its speed but also for its propensity to bite when handled (I later identified it as Chironius monticola). It noticed us from a distance - they are diurnal hunters and have good vision - but in the end I was a little quicker and managed to snag the serpent. It gave me one quick nip but was otherwise docile enough!

Josh with the Chironius monticola - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

Laura with the Chironius monticola - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

With a little extra spring in our step we continued up the road to see what other goodies were around. Some rustling in a nearby tree alerted us to a pair of South American Coatis. We watched one rip into a bromeliad for a while.

South American Coati - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

South American Coati - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

The literature states that the Cundinamarca Antpitta is generally found from 1800-2300 m in elevation, or thereabouts. We were already past 2300 m but we continued on. The forest was silent but we were hoping for a miracle. Eventually we had to admit defeat as we passed 2400 m in elevation. We decided to walk to the next corner in the road before turning around. I listened one more time for the bird. Sometimes miracles happen, and this one was in the form of a Cundinamarca Antpitta, singing from down the slope! I excitedly called Laura over and we both heard the bird singing - I even managed a recording. The bird was a little too far down the slope for us to bushwhack to try for a visual, but we were happy to have just heard it!

Erateina sp. - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

We made the long walk back down to the car, stopping only a few times along the way. It had been a successful day! We enjoyed a ghetto trunk lunch, a standard meal for us.

Ghetto trunk lunch - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

 Before leaving for our hotel in Villavicencio, we parked the car near a flowering tree close to the highway that appeared to be quite popular with the local birds. Green-bellied Hummingbird - a near-endemic shared with Venezuela - apparently like these flowers and we picked one out among the violetears. We also observed Burnished-buff Tanager, Giant Cowbird, Crested and Russet-backed Oropendola and several other species feeding in this tree.

Giant Cowbird - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

Our final and 83rd species for the location was a single Bare-faced Ibis perching on a roadside rock.

Bare-faced Ibis - Monterredondo, Cundinamarca, Colombia

And with that, we were off to Villavicencio. Our plan the next morning would be to explore El Bosque Bavaria, a lowland forest just outside of town.

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