Saturday 9 July 2016

Colombia - Day 13 (January 29, 2015): Montezuma Road

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


The western Andes are the most biologically diverse of the three ranges in Colombia, as they also contain species found in the wet Choco region to the west. They also receive the highest amount of rainfall, something we were hoping to avoid during our visit. Unlike the central and eastern ranges of the Andes, the western Andes are still mostly forested - they are some of the most diverse forests on earth.

Montezuma Road is a very rough road that cuts through lush tropical forest in the western Andes, winding up from the Choco lowlands into the higher elevations of Parque Nacional Natural Tatamá. Diversity is outstanding here, and it is THE place to go to see the iconic Gold-ringed Tanager, along with around 10 other endemic species. In addition to the endemics, a whole suite of species found in only in the western Andes can be found here, many of them near-endemics; Black Solitaire, Beautiful Jay, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, and Orange-breasted Fruiteater are just a few of the range-restricted bird species found along Montezuma Road.

entrance to PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

We drove through the mountains all afternoon and after a little bit of difficulty we located the unsigned, steep dirt road that led towards the entrance of the park, and the location of Montezuma Lodge where we were booked for two nights. Even the entrance road was a bit difficult for William's SUV, and we bottomed out a few times on the drive in. Occasionally we would all get out to reduce the weight so William could drive through some particularly hairy sections. However, these conditions would be nothing like what we would encounter along the higher elevations of the road deep inside the park.

beginning of Montezuma Road, PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

We arrived by 5:30 PM and introduced ourselves to the owner, Leopoldina, who along with several generations of her family, operated the lodge. Her boyfriend (can't recall his name) was a birder from Ajax, Ontario of all places, and as an avid birder, decided to stay. I couldn't blame him as he was living in one of the best birding locations in the world! Lucky guy...

As we were chatting we could not help but notice the excellent feeder setup that they had set up in front of the lodge, and even in the pre-dusk lighting we were able to identify twelve species of hummingbirds including five new species to us. They had awesome names such as Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, and Purple-throated Woodstar, all western Andean specialties, most being near-endemics.

Purple-throated Woodstar - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Violet-tailed Sylph - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

White-tailed Hillstar - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

White-tailed Hillstar - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia
Purple-throated Woodstar - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

While making plans for the following morning, the owners of the lodge determined that William's SUV was not capable of making it up the road to the higher elevations where we were hoping to start the morning. Fortunately for us, they called up a guy in the nearby village who had a 4x4 Land Cruiser with high clearance and we arranged for him to pick us up dark and early the next morning. Leopoldina's daughter Yessenia would also be coming with, as you are not allowed to bird Montezuma Road without a guide.

There was a bit of rain overnight but lucky for us it had cleared up by the time we were up and ready to go at 4 AM the following morning. Our driver soon appeared, and we all jumped into the covered bed of the truck, disappearing up the road into the darkness.

The drive up the road was relatively uneventful as far as wildlife sightings go, though that was likely due to the fact that we had to hold on for dear life for all two hours of the bone-jarring drive. The Land Cruiser powered over boulders and through washouts, and it was easy to see how William's SUV would have been no match for this "road"!

Finally, as dawn broke, we reached our destination at an elevation above 2,300 m. Yessenia had packed us breakfast, including a thermos of hot chocolate. It certainly went down well, especially with this sort of view:

 PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

 PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Our driver with his truck - the HDR went a bit wonky on this one...

There is so much to say about our full day on Montezuma Road, as we cleaned up with the bird sightings - I ended up with 42 (!) life birds on the day. In total we had 113 species, and we walked about 20-25 kilometers. I won't cover everything, but hopefully the following paragraphs show most of the highlights.

We began in the high elevation near the end of the road where we were under the careful watch of some soldiers patrolling the area. There are some communications towers up here, and apparently this area was an important base during some of the conflicts with the FARC that occurred in the last few decades. It was a little unnerving when we came around a bend in the road to see a solider with an automatic rifle standing on a ridge, watching us intently. We were warned not to point our cameras or binoculars in their direction, but it was totally fine to bird the area near where the soldiers were.

Two huge targets of ours fell early in the morning - Munchique Wood-Wren, and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer. The Critically Endangered Munchique Wood-Wren was first described in 2003 and is limited to a small area in the western Andes, while the Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer is an Endangered species, thought to be extinct for 40 years but recently discovered in parts of the western Andes in Colombia. Needless to say we were off to a good start! We heard a bunch of the currently undescribed Alto Pisones Tapaculo, yet another endemic (once it gets described!). We played the call of an Andean Pygmy-Owl to attract songbirds, and it worked. This Rufous Spinetail was particularly inquisitive, but a Munchique Wood-Wren also checked in on the action and Dave was able to get some decent photos as it skulked among the low vegetation, occasionally popping out into the open. The calls were irresistible to a nearby Andean Pygmy-Owl which flew in too. Soon the smaller birds had the real deal to swarm after.

Rufous Spinetail - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Meanwhile, overhead we sighted Broad-winged Hawk and Swallow-tailed Kite catching some thermals.

Broad-winged Hawk - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Swallow-tailed Kite - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Dusky Chlorospingus and Yellow-breasted Antpitta, both near-endemics, were added to the list, as well as our first Sharpe's Wren, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, and Tourmaline Sunangel (another awesomely named hummingbird!). Occasionally we would hear tapaculos, and throughout the course of the day we found three species (Alto Pisones, Nariño, and Spillman's). We did not find Chocó Tapaculo, but this was a species that David, Steve and I had observed the previous year in the Darién Province of eastern Panama.

female Green-and-Black Fruiteater - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Birds were not the only thing keeping us entertained - we also marveled at the diversity of plants, beetles, spiders, and butterflies.

Hypanartia sp. - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Aspicela sp. - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

The views were incredible throughout the morning, in particular wherever there was a gap in the vegetation. Who knows what biological secrets can be found in these forests...

 PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

 PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Not only was Yessenia an excellent birder, but she had a knack for finding hummingbird nests, locating three or four of them throughout the day including some with chicks inside.

hummingbird nest - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

By late morning we finally struck gold (ringed), when we observed our first Gold-ringed Tanager of the trip! This is another iconic Colombian endemic, and we were glad to finally catch up with one. Steve was up the road at the time and missed it, but luckily we encountered a few more throughout the morning, some of them at a lower elevation than what the field guides mention.

Gold-ringed Tanager - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Gold-ringed Tanager - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Gold-ringed Tanager excitement - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia (photo by Steve Pike)

Luckily for us around this time, the sun disappeared behind some clouds, helping to keep the temperatures reasonable and extending the morning so to speak, making it easier to keep birding through the late morning and early afternoon.

birding Montezuma Road - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Following our first Gold-ringed Tanager we had a little run of finding new birds, and within an hour or so we had added four more near-endemic species: Black Solitaire, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager and Glistening-Green Tanager, along with our first Barred Fruiteater and Red-faced Spinetail. Just an incredible day of birding!

Barred Fruiteater - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Another nice run of birds in the early afternoon included Beautiful Jay, Rufous-throated Tanager, Brown Inca, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, a heard-only Golden-headed Quetzal, and the other endemic Bangsia tanager - Black-and-gold Tanager. I was particularly happy to photograph the Beautiful Jay as it can be a secretive species, as well as obtain some good photographs of the Brown Inca, instead of just record shots like most of my photos had been up to that point in the day.

Beautiful Jay - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Brown Inca - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Rufous-throated Tanager - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

We found our first snake of the trip around this time as well! I believe it is a Tantilla melanocephala.

likley Tantilla melanocephala - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

likely Tantilla melanocephala - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

(photo by Steve Pike)

A Squirrel Cuckoo provided an excellent photo subject as it perched at eye level in the mid-branches of a tree, with the lush mountainside in the background.

Squirrel Cuckoo - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

This Masked Trogon perched nicely alongside the trail, after we had finished obtaining good looks at our first Olivaceous Piha and Golden-winged Manakin. A Purplish-mantled Tanager also made a brief appearance - great looks at yet another iconic species.

Masked Trogon - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

By mid to late afternoon the birding continued to be excellent as it had completely clouded over, but fortunately the rain held off. We came across new species one by one: Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Ornate Flycatcher, Pearled Treerunner, Olive Finch, Tricolored Brush-Finch.

Ornate Flycatcher - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Even in the final hour or two of our walk we kept adding species. It helped that we were constantly in new habitats with the flora and resulting bird life changing gradually with each drop in elevation. Our last endemic species of the day was a noisy little flock of Crested Ant-Tanagers, calling and moving along a creek that bisected the road.

We heard our first Toucan Barbets and Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks, two colorful species that are much less satisfying to have on our "heard only" lists than say a tapaculo or tyrannulet. Our plan the following day was to check out an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek near the town of Jardín, so hopefully we would then have excellent looks at that distinctive species.

Violet-tailed Sylph - PNN Tatamá, Risaralda province, Colombia

Bicolored Antvireo and Ochre-breasted Tanager were our last new additions, two near-endemics to add to the tally. It was incredible to be seeing so many iconic species, all in one day. I don't think I've ever experienced anything like this before, and it was a little overwhelming!

The last few kilometers of the walk certainly seemed to take a lot longer than the first couple, and finally by 5:30 PM we were back at the lodge. It was an exhausting day but easily our best day in the field so far, as we had connected with a wide variety of west Andean species including most of our targets! Luckily, the weather cooperated - getting rained out is a frequent occurrence at Montezuma Road.

Our meal sure tasted good after walking over 20 kms throughout the day!


marke said...

Honestly, this is so fantastic. We weren't able to get her last time, because we had limited time, and young kids who don't do well with twisty roads. Next time for sure we are hitting Montezuma and Jardín. Have you followed the butterfly work of Kim Garwood and Juan Guillermo Jaramillo, as well as the trips by David Geale in this area? In case you missed it, here is their photographic guide for the butterflies on Montezuma: and all the other hotspots (many of which you have hit on your trip) here: . I am loving this series Josh! Thanks for sharing.

marke said...

I should have mentioned that Kim Garwood is very active on Facebook, and shares great photos there from her travels. She is currently in Peru taking great butterfly photos. I know your focus here is birds and herps, but it is hard not to love all the great critters in these amazing countries.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks for the links, Marke - I was not aware of their webpage. The PDFs look pretty comprehensive! Glad you are enjoying the posts :)

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. My focus is on birds and herps since those are the groups I am most familiar with, but I am certainly interested in all other manner of flora and fauna as well! On a brief two-week trip it is hard to search for everything...there is only so much time and my brain can only take in so much information... I will definitely check out Kim's Facebook page!