Thursday, 26 March 2020

Colombian Endemic Cleanup: The Blue-billed Curassow Reserve

It was the hottest part of the day as I cut across the Magdalena River valley. The roads were smooth and I listened to a few podcasts to help the time pass by.

For those reading this who wish to independently visit the town of Puerto Pinzón and Reserva Natural de las Aves El Paujil (Blue-billed Curassow Reserve), DO NOT follow the directions that Google Maps provides. Instead, take Highway 60 east, from just south of Puerto Boyaca. At 5.954403, -74.475392, turn left and head northeast on the dirt track. Follow this road for several hours until you reach the town of Puerto Pinzón (note that it is called Guineal on Google Maps, the labelled Puerto Pinzón is somewhere else). This road takes between 2-3 hours to traverse, depending on how much you beat up your rental vehicle. It took me about 2.5 hours each way. While I made it easily with my sedan, a vehicle with high clearance is preferred. But the road can be navigated with a low-clearance vehicle like mine. I fully expected to get a flat tire given how many hours I was driving along the gravel road, but luck was on my side.

Because of the scorching temperatures I did not make too many birding stops. But there is good potential along this road. Some of the wetlands referenced in other trip reports were dry, though I eventually managed to find a Northern Screamer at a river crossing about 1.5 hours into my drive. This was a long-overdue lifer for me.

Northern Screamer - entrance road to Puerto Pinzón, Boyacá, Colombia

Other interesting birds seen along the gravel road included Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Savannah Hawk, Anhinga, Least Grebe and Yellow-chinned Spinetail, plus the usual assortment of wading birds and open country birds.

Least Grebe - entrance road to Puerto Pinzón, Boyacá, Colombia

Magdalena River Turtle (Podocnemis lewyana) - entrance road to Puerto Pinzón, Boyacá, Colombia

By late afternoon I arrived in the town of Puerto Pinzón. A previous trip report mentioned a hotel at 6.067351, -74.265781, but when I drove by the little building it looked closed without any people in sight. I figured that I would continue on to the reserve and plan to sleep in my car near the entrance.

I followed the gravel road up to the reserve, bottoming out on a few occasions, but arriving without any issues. I was becoming a veteran at navigating potholed, steep gravel roads in a low-clearance, 2WD car!

Entrance - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

I waited for dusk to fall, and hopefully, the temperatures along with it. In the meantime, the calls of a few birds pierced through the very still, humid air. Two species of macaws flew over - Blue-and-yellow, and Chestnut-fronted - while I also watched a pair of Yellow-backed Tanagers. Sometime after 5 PM I heard a motorcycle rumbling up the entrance road to the reserve. It was one of the rangers, leaving for the night. I had a nice chat with him and I inquired about the possibility of visiting the reserve in the morning, which he said that I could do for the price of 50,000 pesos (around $17 CAD). He also told me about the "hotel" in town which I had driven past before, and he offered to help me get set up there for the night.

Long story short, I was able to get a room in the "hotel" but I had to talk to five different people to sort it out! It involved tracking down someone with a key who could open the building for me. But for 15000 pesos (around $5 CAD), I had a private room with a bathroom, though the water only worked in the evening and not the following morning. It was the most basic hotel room that I had ever rented, but it did the trick and I was not fussy. There was a much needed fan in the room as well. It sure beat sleeping in my car in humid, 30 degree weather. I found the one restaurant in town that was open, enjoyed a hearty meal of fried beef, rice, beans, salad and lemonade, and had an early bedtime.

Before 6 AM the next morning I was walking down the entrance road into the Blue-billed Curassow Reserve, listening to the forest waking up. Marbled Wood-Quails, two species of tinamous, Sepia-capped Flycatchers and Black Antshrikes were identified by call early on, and it wasn't until around my 25th species that I actually saw my first bird of the morning.

I hurried down to the main lodge area since the star attraction, the Blue-billed Curassows, are often reported around the lodge buildings. It did not take long to find them...

Blue-billed Curassows - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Apparently the lodge feeds these curassows at the moment which means that they are incredibly easy to find. I could have added this species to my touch list if I was so inclined! At least seven females and three males were around, foraging at very close range and sometimes getting in the way. Crazy!

Blue-billed Curassow - El Paujil Bird Reserve, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-billed Curassow - El Paujil Bird Reserve, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-billed Curassow - El Paujil Bird Reserve, Boyacá, Colombia

The Blue-billed Curassow is a range-restricted species, being endemic to northern Colombia and only finding habitat in a few humid lowland forests. As is the case with so many other natural habitats in tropical regions around the world, the lowland tropical forests of the Magdalena Valley have been decimated in recent decades and 98% of the original forest cover is gone. The population level of the Blue-billed Curassow has followed suit and only an estimated 2,200 individuals of this species remain in the wild. Its low population estimate and rapid decline has led to its status as Critically Endangered by IUCN.

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

The El Paujil Bird Reserve (Blue-billed Curassow Reserve) was set up to strategically protect some of the remaining lowland tropical forest in the Magdalena Valley. At the moment, the reserve protects 3,983 hectares of forest. The population of Blue-billed Curassows has rebounded slightly in the reserve, but the levels still have a way to go.

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

I had my fill of the curassows and continued on to explore some of the trails around the lodge.

My main goal was to connect with the Black-billed Flycatcher, another range-restricted species that is often reported at El Paujil. I heard one, but was unable to actually see it. I also heard a Beautiful Woodpecker from across the river; it too remained out of sight. But there were many other interesting species around. These included Chestnut Woodpecker, Black Antshrike, One-colored and White-winged Becards, Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Gray-cowled Wood-Rail.

Cinnamon Woodpecker - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-and-yellow Macaw - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Some rustling next to the river alerted me to a Common Basilisk, the first individual of that species I had seen before. Check out that crazy crest on its head; a feature shown by adult males.

Western Basilisk (Basiliscus galeritus) - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

A huge number of Urania Swallowtail Moths must have emerged in recent days since there were literally thousands of them around.

Urania Swallowtail Moth (Urania fulgens) - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

I birded the trails for a few hours and then returned to the lodge to settle up my bill and to spend a few more minutes with the curassows. The day was becoming quite warm and bird song had diminished. The usual crew of curassows were still hanging around the lodge but I also found two females in the nearby grassy edge and adjacent forest, carting around youngsters!

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

Blue-billed Curassow - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

After running into the park wardens and settling up the fee, one of them asked me if I wanted to see night monkeys. That is a question in which I have never responded with "no"!

Three of them sat up in a tree, curiously watching us from their perch - a broken off trunk. This species is the Gray-handed Night Monkey (Aotus griseimembra), which ranges from northern Colombia into northwestern Venezuela.

Gray-handed Night Monkey - RNA El Paujil, Boyacá, Colombia

The morning at El Paujil had gone quite well, even if I only heard Beautiful Woodpecker and Black-billed Flycatcher. While it was a bit weird to observe such a rare species in the Blue-billed Curassow acting like tame chickens, it was still an incredible Bucket List moment!

As the sun rose high in the sky, I hopped in my trusty car and hit the long dusty road out of Puerto Pinzón. The Ocaña area and the Recurve-billed Bushbird Reserve beckoned.

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