Monday, 30 March 2020

Colombian Endemic Cleanup: The Cerulean Warbler Reserve

By mid-day on February 15 I rolled into the town of San Vicente de Chucurí, located at the base of a steep, gravel road leading to the Cerulean Warbler Reserve. My original plan was to stay in a hotel in San Vicente and arrange for a motorbike to take me up the rough road to the reserve the next morning. But with five hours of daylight remaining, I gave it a shot to scout out the road. Who knows, maybe it would be navigable by car.

This turned out to be a good decision. The beginning of the road is quite steep but certain sections are reinforced with concrete, making it possible to drive up. Eventually the concrete ends and the road transitions to very rough, sharp gravel as you pass through mostly farmland with some small forest patches. With care I was able to navigate my car through these sections, managing to avoid any flat tires. A success. 

Common Tody-Flycatcher - entrance road to RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Reserva Natural de las Aves Reinita Cielo Azul (the Cerulean Warbler Reserve) has been set up in part to protect the wintering grounds of its flagship species, the Cerulean Warbler. The plight of the Cerulean Warbler is well known to those of us birders from the eastern United States or southern Canada, as the species has declined drastically over the last few decades. Indeed, Cerulean Warblers appear to be quite numerous at the reserve as I easily encountered individuals in most mixed flocks. 

Apart from the Cerulean Warbler, there are many other interesting and unique species that draw birders here. I arranged a list of eleven target species, of which four were Colombian endemics. Quite a few other Colombian endemic species occur here (Mountain Grackle, Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Colombian Chachalaca, Black Inca, Turqouise Dacnis, Parker's Antbird, etc) but I had seen these previously. 

Endemics Others
Gorgeted Wood-Quail
Russet-crowned Crake
Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird
Ash-throated Crake
Magdelena Tapaculo
Cinnamon Screech-Owl
Niceforo's Wren
Double-banded Graytail

Yellow-throated Spadebill
Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo

Black-headed Brushfinch

 Entrance road to RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

The afternoon birding was incredibly productive given the time of day. In the lower section of road I heard a Russet-crowned Crake singing from one of the fields. I searched some areas where the shrike-vireo and the graytail are often reported, but struck out with those. However, I located a few nice mixed flocks to sort through, which contained species such as Guira Tanager, Cerulean and Mourning Warblers, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Rufous-naped Greenlet and much more. Bar-crested Antshrikes and Pale-breasted Spinetails sang from the roadside thickets. A Plain Antvireo's song rang out. Two Spot-breasted Woodpeckers worked a dead snag right beside the road. And a few flocks of White-tipped Swifts whizzed past. Everywhere I looked, there were birds!

Niceforo's Wren - entrance road to RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Eventually, I heard the beautiful song of a Niceforo's Wren and I managed to track it down for photos (see above). This species actually ended up being quite common along the road, especially in the upper half before you come to the ProAves Lodge. I heard at least five that afternoon. In the same area I came across a few Black-headed Brushfinches.

Yellow-legged Thrush - entrance road to RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

As the afternoon turned to evening the thrushes came out of the woodwork and I finally managed a decent(ish) photo of a Yellow-legged Thrush. A few Buff-rumped Warblers were working a dark gulley and one allowed me to take its photo. 

Buff-rumped Warbler - entrance road to RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Since the birding had been so good, I stayed until sunset and revised my plans. I had located a perfect spot to tuck my car off of the road and so I decided to sleep in my car overnight. That would liberate me the cost of a hotel room and a motorcycle ride the next day, while also saving me some driving time. Luckily I had enough food and water in my car to last me until the next day. 

Sleeping in my car proved to be a great decision. The elevation where I was situated (around 1400 m) was perfect for creating optimal sleeping temperatures. But even better, a Cinnamon Screech-Owl sang off and on from somewhere up the hillside! I tried to seek it out (unsuccessfully) before calling it a night. Common Pauraques and a pair of Tropical Screech-Owls vocalized occasionally through the wee hours, infiltrating my dreams. 

Common Pauraque - Pipeline Road, Colón, Panama (January 11, 2010)

My alarm went off at 4:20 AM. I had slept well for around seven hours and felt refreshed and alert as I began to make my way up the road by foot, my flashlight illuminating the path. The reason for my early rise was that I wanted to be in the forest as early as possible (a good hour of uphill hiking remains before one reaches the forest of the Cerulean Warbler Reserve). I passed the driveway for the ProAves Lodge, found the path that winds through the pastures and hoofed it uphill towards the forest. 

The Rufous-collared Sparrows (who else?) were awake and singing at this early hour but few other birds were, other than the occasional Common Pauraque and one Mottled Owl. Every time that I wake before dawn to go birding I realize how much I love this time of the day. One of my favourite experiences is to hear the world come alive in the morning, one bird species at a time. 

I discovered one surprise on the walk through the pastures - an Ash-throated Crake "purring" from deep within the pastures. Soon, the promised sun was lightening the sky and the Tropical Kingbirds, Tropical Mockingbirds and Pale-breasted Spinetails added their voices to the dawn chorus. 

I arrived at the forest edge and immediately heard one of my main bird targets for the day. A pair of Gorgeted Wood-Quails, their rollicking song echoing from a distant valley. As is usually the case for this species I did not see them, but just in case I made sure that my footsteps were quiet as I navigated the forest trail. 

RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Soon, the first rays of the sun were cutting through the damp leaves of the forest. I encountered another one of my main target species - the Magdalena Tapaculo - and listed to two or three individuals belting out their songs. I managed to coax one in a bit closer but try as I might, it remained out of sight. Photos would have to wait but at least I walked away with some good recordings. 

Euptychiina (tribe) sp. - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

There are benches placed at regular intervals along the forest trail and I stopped at Bench #2 for a while. Sitting still in high quality forest is a great way to see birds that would otherwise remain hidden due to the sound of your footsteps. A Lined Quail-Dove walked past me, a Black Inca hovered in the nearby midstory, and a few minutes later, a Wattled Guan landed on the path! 

Wattled Guans have a peculiar vocalization that bears a striking resemblance to someone cutting a 2x4 on a table saw. While hearing them is easy, observing them is another matter and this was my first sighting of the species, ever. The huge guan noticed me rather quickly and flew up into the trees where it joined a second individual. But I managed a few poor record photos before it and its presumed mate flew off into the canopy. Awesome! This species is named for its odd yellow wattle, which is barely visible in my photo below.

Wattled Guan - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

My day list slowly but steadily rose throughout the morning, even though the Yellow-throated Spadebills remained unaccounted for. I eventually found a nice mixed flock which contained gems such as Bluish Flowerpiercer, Metallic-green Tanager, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet. Some other great species unfortunately remained heard-only - these included Long-tailed Tapaculo, Highland Tinamou, White-bellied Antpitta and White-mantled Barbet.

Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

The first few hours of the morning were bright and sunny but the clouds eventually came in. This did not dampen the birding, as activity levels remained high. I tried for the spadebills once again at a side-trail near Bench #2 on my way back out of the forest, but had no luck.

 RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

At this point I had encountered quite a few of my target species, including most of the forest ones (other than the spadebill). I still "needed" the Double-banded Graytail, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo and Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird, species that are most easily seen in the secondary growth and farmland habitats further down the hillside. That is where I focused my time in the late morning and early afternoon.

Upon exiting the forest the clouds had rolled in, along with a band of fog. I surprised a Crab-eating Fox on the path alongside the forest edge. It slipped away into the mist.

Crab-eating Fox (Cerdocyon thous) - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

The diversity in patterns and colours of Orbweaver Spiders (family Araneidae) is almost infinite. This particular individual was on a fencepost next to the path when I passed by its location in the pasture. I have yet to identify it.

Orbweaver sp. - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Near the bottom of the pasture, several flowering trees had attracted hummingbirds. One of the first individuals I got on was a Chestnut-bellied, at 6.8628, -73.3820. An Indigo-capped Hummingbird and a Crowned Wood-nymph were both nearby.
Smooth-billed Ani - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

The walk back down to the car was a lot easier than the walk up as I lost the ~ 500 m of elevation that I had gained earlier in the day. Now that I was out of the forest, my day list shot up with many open-country and secondary forest bird species. Some of these were new Colombia birds for me, like Golden-winged Warbler, Olivaceous Woodcreeper and Yellow-tailed Oriole. I reached my car, still parked at the camping spot along the road, and watched a few Black-winged Saltators while I rehydrated.

Black-winged Saltator - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

Black-winged Saltator - RNA Reinita Cielo Azul, Santander, Colombia

I slowly made my way back down the road by car, stopping periodically to troll and listen for the Double-banded Graytail and Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo. They remained off my life list, joining the Yellow-throated Spadebill from earlier. Oh well, you can't get them all. And as they say, 8 out of 11 ain't bad!

I decided to depart the area since I had found almost all of my target birds and there was a lot of ground to cover in the upcoming days. I really enjoyed my time at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve as it was certainly the most "birdy" of all the locations I visited, with some quality species mixed in. In 27 hours I had found nearly 170 bird species. 

I pointed my car west and began the long drive to the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve for the next adventure. 

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