Friday 25 February 2022

Urabá In Colombia's Northwest: Day 2

 January 20, 2022

One of my main reasons for visiting the Urabá region was to have a chance to explore high quality, lowland or foothill Chocó forest. I had my eye set on two locations, both of which were represented by eBird hotspots listing well over 350 species: the Titi Cabeciblanco ProAves Reserve, and Reserva La Bonga. Both of these areas are not easily visited. They have no websites, and you can’t just show up and book accommodations or hike trails. Carlos informed us that the Titi reserve was not taking foreign visitors at the moment due to the security situation in the area. Carlos has had the opportunity to visit this reserve, as recently as in 2019, but it would not be in the cards for Laura and I. That left Reserva La Bonga. 

Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Reserva La Bonga is a tract of lowland and foothill forest east of Mutatá, accessed by a muddy and rocky footpath. There are no reserve buildings, but there is a woman, Leanor, who lives in a finca at the edge of the reserve. Carlos affectionately referred to her as Abuela (grandmother in Spanish) and called her up to see if she would be ok with Laura and I, along with himself, visiting for a night. She was happy to accommodate us and so early on January 20 we headed out on foot, eager for a day of exploration. 

Andinobates victimatus - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

My main target birds were the two Baudos: the Baudo Guan, and the Baudo Oropendola. Both are restricted to the Chocó bioregion. The guan ranges to northwestern Ecuador, while the oropendola is only found in a small area of western Colombia. Luckily, we did not have to wait too long to find both species. A Baudo Oropendola flew past us just after we began our hike, while Carlos spotted a Baudo Oropendola in a roadside cecropia just as we turned off the main road onto the footpath leading to Reserva La Bonga. The Baudo Guan looks very similar to the Crested Guan, but it is a little smaller and browner and lacks a big crest.

Baudo Guan - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

For the first few hours of the morning we passed through pasture and interspersed with woodlots. These disturbed habitats are always quite birdy with common species and we had soon reached 80 birds for our eBird checklist. Early highlights included a Common Pauraque nest, a Spot-crowned Barbet, a Great Antshrike, several Pacific Antwrens and another flyover Baudo Oropendola.

Great Antshrike - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Common Pauraque nest - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Eastern Meadowlark - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Several eye-catching grasshoppers perched on vegetation beside the trail. 

I believe that it was Laura who came through with this discovery (it usually is her!) – a neat anole called Boulenger's Green Anole (Anolis chloris). 

Anolis chloris - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

We entered the forest and the bird list continued to grow, with additions such as Striolated Manakin, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Scarlet-browed Tanager. We heard Little Tinamous and Thicket Antpittas, found our first Pale-vented Thrush for Colombia, and observed a Southern Bentbill at arm’s reach. Species #100 was added to the list before 10 AM. 

Southern Bentbill - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

One of the special species at La Bonga is a type of poison frog called Andinobates victimatus. It is a recently described species found only in this part of Colombia, and it was named in honour of the many victims from the war. This species proved to be relatively common during daylight hours, especially once you learned their distinctive call. 

Andinobates victimatus - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

We rounded a bend and heard the telltale call of several Baudo Oropendolas. They were close! With a bit of stealth we approached, taking care not to crunch too many leaves on the path. Luckily, they tolerated our presence and we enjoyed a spectacular show as several individuals foraged and vocalized. Oropendolas are fascinating birds, and getting to spend quality time with them is always enjoyable. Especially when the species in question is only found in one small corner of the world!

Baudo Oropendola - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Baudo Oropendola - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Lucky for us, the overcast conditions continued and the birding remained steady. Double-toothed Kite, Purple-crowned Fairy, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Slate-colored Grosbeak and Golden-headed Manakin made their way onto the list. 

Crimson-crested Woodpecker - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

We kept our eyes peeled for smaller critters and came through with various insects and spiders. We even caught an anole so that we could inspect its dewlap, which is a key way to differentiate the various species. 

Anolis tropidogaster? - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Laura's sharp eyes noticed an irregular pattern in the leaf litter. It was our first snake at La Bonga, a beautiful little Fer-de-lance coiled up under some overhanging plants. As you will read in my next blog post this would not be our only snake encounter at Reserva La Bonga.

Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

We were approaching mid-day and still had a good distance to hike. With growling stomachs and the threat of rain looming, we made decent time the rest of the way. Arriving at the finca, two soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagles welcomed us. 

Ornate Hawk-Eagle - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Leanor invited us into her home to join her for lunch. We scarfed down the delicious lentil soup, rice and ripe fried plantains. It hit the spot after over seven hours of hiking.

Leonor's finca

We moved to the second floor of the house, an open area with hammocks covered by an aluminum roof. It acted as a canopy tower of sorts, overlooking the farm and the forested hillsides beyond. A large fruiting tree grew beside the house, giving us eye level views of the various tanagers, warblers and much more that came in waves to feed on the fruit. 

Rufous-winged Tanager - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Yellow-olive Flycatcher - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

And for the rest of the afternoon we parked ourselves up there and watched the bird action.

Birding from the "canopy tower" - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

I considered exploring the nearby forest on foot but the birding was just too good to leave the fruiting tree! An early highlight was a pair of Double-banded Graytails which inspected every leaf tangle, clump of moss and bromeliad for insects to eat. We had seen this range-restricted species just once before (in Darién province in Panama) and it was a treat to improve on these views. 

Double-banded Graytail - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Double-banded Graytail - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

The Double-banded Graytail is a strange little bird, appearing almost tanager or warbler-like. It is actually in the family Furnariidae alongside spinetails, woodcreepers and other ovenbirds. 

Double-banded Graytail - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Double-banded Graytail - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

The other major highlight was a Blue-whiskered Tanager that dropped in for a few minutes. Laura and I had seen this Chocó endemic briefly in San Cipriano a week earlier, but these views were much better. Laura was napping in the hammock when the Blue-whiskered came around and I did not have the heart to wake her (she agreed that I made the right decision, luckily).

Blue-whiskered Tanager - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Blue-whiskered Tanager - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

The Blue-whiskered is not only quite beautiful, but it is another scarce species that has a limited global range. As with all Chocó endemic species, habitat loss is by far the most critical threat facing it.

Blue-whiskered Tanager - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

Our day had been quite productive from a birding perspective with nearly 140 species. As afternoon blended into evening we readied our gear for a night hike in the nearby forest. I also set up my moth light from the "canopy tower" where we had spent the afternoon.

Gliding Leaf Frog (Agalychnis spurrelli) - Reserva La Bonga, Antioquia, Colombia

But these tales will have to wait for the next blog post since we found so much during a highly successful evening. Stay tuned. 

Sunday 6 February 2022

Urabá In Colombia's Northwest: Introduction And Day 1

The Sooty-capped Puffbird is a bird that I have wanted to see for quite a while. This Colombian endemic species has a limited global range, only finding habitat in the far northwest of the country near the Panama border. This is an area that, until recently, has been off-limits as far as travel is concerned. The war devastated this region, worse than in most other locations in Colombia. Nearly every resident has been affected in tangible ways and many have lost loved ones.

Andinobates victimatus

Now that relative stability has returned to this land, tourism is possible once again. In addition to having a chance to search for the puffbird, I was keen on visiting the Urabá area for other reasons. Despite high levels of deforestation, good quality Chocó lowland and foothill forest can still be found in some areas, home to tantalizing bird species like the Blue-whiskered Tanager, Baudo Guan and Viridian Dacnis, among others. The diversity of reptiles and amphibians is especially high in these forests.  The bizarre and super-endemic Baudo Oropendola can be discovered in Urabá. And, I love visiting areas that are far off the beaten tourist path and the sense of adventure that comes with it. 

Southern Bentbill

My friend Luis Urueña from Manakin Tours put me in touch with Carlos Bran. Carlos is a driven conservationist and ecologist living in Urabá who happens to be a top-notch nature guide as well. He is passionate about reptiles and amphibians and educating the people in his region about these oft-maligned species, and he is involved in conservation projects as well. Carlos was free for four days and was willing to guide Laura and I for our time in Urabá. 

Black-capped Donacobius

While Laura and I generally like traveling independently (mainly to save money!), in Urabá having someone like Carlos is essential. The area is a little difficult to navigate on your own, and many of the places we visited would not be possible without having a local contact to organize logistics. Additionally, we were happy to support someone like Carlos who does so much good work with education and conservation in Urabá. His prices were reasonable enough for budget travelers like us. Please, if anyone is planning a visit here, Carlos can take care of you. He is a top-notch guide, excellent at planning logistics, and is just a great guy to hang out with! Carlos can be found on Facebook at Urabá Nature Tours. 

Gliding Leaf Frog (Agalychnis spurrelli)

We arrived in the Urabá region during the late afternoon and took a taxi to our hotel in the bustling town of Carepa. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the Hotel Cedros Plaza. A beautiful room, fully equipped with everything we needed including AC and wifi. The staff here were wonderful. They were even willing to deliver a delicious hot breakfast to our room at 5 AM each morning!

That evening we met with Carlos and formulated a plan for the coming days. Carlos seemed pretty excited too, especially once he learned of our passion for reptiles and amphibians.

Pseudoboa neuwiedii

Our plan for Day 1 was to search for the Sooty-capped Puffbird in the morning, then stop by a Dusky-backed Jacamar location around noon, then drive south to Mutatá that afternoon. Day 2 would see us hike deep into Reserva La Bonga and stay at a small finca in the reserve (searching for the Baudo Oropendola, Baudo Guan and other Chocó specialties) followed by a night-hike. On Day 3 we would explore the reserve some more and hike back out to Mutatá. And on Day 4, we would visit another area to target the Viridian Dacnis and Rufous-crowned Antpitta. It would be a busy few days, but we were excited!


January 19, 2022

Carlos had arranged 4x4 transportation for the day and we were off bright and early on our first full day. We drove north past the airport and disembarked at a small port, where we transferred into a small boat to reach the Sooty-capped Puffbird spot. 

Dawn broke as we boated over to the location. Upon arrival, the scrubby fields and woodland edges were alive with bird song! We put our rubber boots to good use as the muddy conditions were exacerbated by the grazing cattle's probing footsteps into the sodden earth. 

Amazon Sapphirewing - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

For several hours we put in work for the puffbird at the edge of a cattle pasture and into the nearby forest. This area used to be more heavily treed but, unfortunately, some local guys were clearing the land while we walked along. While this site is protected (in theory), in actuality this is rarely enforced in this part of Colombia. Carlos was almost brought to tears as he bore witness to this scene. His extreme frustration at the situation was palpable. 

 Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Despite the setback, we observed a number of species including this hummingbird which strikes a resemblance to the Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird, a bird of mangroves along a narrow stretch of the north Colombian coastline. Some authorities think that the Sapphire-bellied is a colour morph of the widespread Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, while others think it is a valid species. For now, it is still considered by the powers that be as a legitimate species, but time will tell. This individual looked like a Sapphire-throated, but it was not found in mangroves and was a little distance away from the known range of that "species". Who knows!

Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird? - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

We found numerous Russet-throated Puffbirds but the Sooty-capped refused to play ball. No doubt, the active land clearing had something to do with that. At least there were other birds to feast our eyes on, including this Dwarf Cuckoo. I had heard this species on one occasion before but this was the first time seeing it, while it was a lifer for Laura. 

Dwarf Cuckoo - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Other birds of interest included Striped Cuckoo, Pale-bellied Hermit, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Black Antshrike and a heard-only Northern Screamer. 

White-winged Swallow - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

But with the day warming quickly, we bailed on the area and took the boat to another of Carlos's sites for the Sooty-capped Puffbird. We were met on arrival by a Pied Water-Tyrant along the canal and five Northern Screamers perched in a distant tree. 

Unfortunately, the puffbird refused to cooperate here as well. We heard an interesting song that may have been our main target, but playback did not entice it closer and we could not confirm its identity. This was not going as planned.

Black-capped Donacobius - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

A pair of Black-capped Donacobius kept us entertained with their antics, allowing Carlos and I to obtain some great photos of the amorous couple. 

Black-capped Donacobius pair - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Black-capped Donacobius pair - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Black-capped Donacobius pair - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Eventually, we had to concede defeat. We boated back out and returned to the docks, photographing this leggy Savanna Hawk along the way. 

Savanna Hawk - Apartadó area, Antioquia, Colombia

A cold drink was required upon arriving back at the docks. I’ve never had a 10 AM beer that was as delicious as this one! Feeling refreshed, we made good time driving to our next destination, the Dusky-capped Jacamar spot. The 4x4 was a good call as the entrance road was quite rough in areas. 

Carlos had accidentally discovered this species a few years earlier while completing some biological surveys. Back in the autumn, Laura and I had successfully targeted this range-restricted species in Darién province, Panama, but we were keen to search for it here in Colombia, at one of the few known locations on this side of the border. We put our boots to good use one again as a creek crossing was necessary to reach the site. 

Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

We stopped to photograph a confiding Capped Heron along the creek. This is one of my favourite herons, and this individual was looking sharp.

Capped Heron - Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Luckily, the jacamar was not too difficult to find, despite the time of day. We encountered a pair of them and enjoyed a solid half hour with this interesting species. 

Dusky-backed Jacamar - Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Dusky-backed Jacamar - Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

Dusky-backed Jacamars - Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

On the drive out, we paused at a roadside pool to watch this handsome male Yellow-hooded Blackbird. 

Yellow-hooded Blackbird - Chigorodó area, Antioquia, Colombia

We drove back out to the main road, happy to be on pavement once again. Continuing south to Mutatá, the last few hours of the day were spent birding some of the pastures and roadside forest patches in hopes of connecting with the Baudo Oropendola. Unfortunately, this was not to be but we added many more species including a photogenic Great Black Hawk consuming a crab. We finished the day with around 120 bird species – not a bad start.

Great Black Hawk - Mutatá area, Antioquia, Colombia

That evening, we overnighted in a small roadside hotel located conveniently near the trail that leads into Reserva La Bonga. At 30,000 pesos a night (around 10 Canadian dollars), the price was right as well. For the first time since arriving in Colombia I set up my moth light, choosing a location in the back yard of the hotel. The numbers and diversity didn’t blow us away or anything, but there were more than enough interesting insects to keep us occupied. But all too soon, it was time for bed as we had an early start planned for the next day.