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

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