Wednesday 30 March 2022

Inírida - White-naped Seedeaters And Other White Sand Specialties At Caño Vitina

Laura and I met Mario before dawn on January 31 but were surprised when he picked us up in a tuk-tuk as opposed to his trusty van. He informed us that the van was out of commission and would be in the shop for a few days as it needed a new part which would be shipped in from Bogotá. We didn't mind riding along in the tuk-tuk, feeling the cool morning breeze and hearing a few birds as we drove across the savannahs to the community of Caño Vitina. 

Pierella hyalinus - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Upon arrival we met with the chief of the community - Jaime - who would be our escort for the day. The total cost was 20,000 pesos per person plus a 60,000 guiding fee for Jaime, for a total of 100,000 pesos. We really enjoyed Jaime's company and found him to be quite knowledgable of the local flora and fauna. He allowed us to return in the afternoon for a second walk at Caño Vitina without having to pay any extra, since our fee was good for the whole day. 

Sunrise at Caño Vitina - Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Caño Vitiña consists of a sandy track that passes through high-quality white-sand scrubby woodland interspersed with natural savannahs. It is an excellent location to search for cotingas as evidenced by our luck in the morning with 3 Spangled, 1 Purple-breasted, and 1 Pompadour Cotinga. 

Spangled Cotinga - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

My main bird target for the morning was the White-naped Seedeater. This white-sand specialist is only known from a handful of sites in northwest Amazonia. Indeed, Inírida is one of the better places in the world to seek it out. Unfortunately, we struck out with this species but we enjoyed many other birds throughout the morning including several new ones for us: Short-billed Honeycreeper, Imeri Warbling-Antbird (heard-only), Orange-cheeked Parrot and Yellow-throated Flycatcher. 

Yellow-throated Flycatcher - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

A small flock of Plumbeous Euphonias alighted on a distant tree. It was only the second time that we have encountered this localized species. We observed a few Epaulet Orioles and Red-shouldered Tanagers near the edge of a flooded area, while some solar-powered dragonflies rested around the perimeter of the wetland.

Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Diastatops sp. - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Soon, we reached the periphery of a large, natural savannah. The pleasant songs of Wedge-tailed Grass-Finches rang out all around us. 

Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We crossed the savannah to reach forest patches on the far side. 

Though the mid-morning sun burned, we could not help but linger to observe and photograph some of the fantastic plants that grow in this amazing place. I could only imagine the excitement that a proper botanist would experience here, but even to my untrained eye the diversity was breathtaking. 

Two plant species stood out amongst the rest, and they were spectacular. These species are found in the family Rapateaceae which is related to the sedges and grasses, and both are iconic Inírida species since they are not known from anywhere else in the world.

Schoenocephalium teretifolium - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Schoenocephalium teretifolium - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Guacamaya superba - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We crossed the sun-scorched savannah - stopping briefly to check out a seemingly out-of-place Collared Plover - and entered the relatively cool forest where we were met by a pair of White-eyed Tody-Tyrants. 

White-eyed Tody-Tyrant - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The birding was pretty good in the white-sand forest even though the ascending temperatures had quieted most bird-song. We quickly tallied some Golden-headed Manakins and a Rufous-tailed Flatbill. 

Rufous-tailed Flatbill - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Golden-headed Manakin - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We entered a small clearing and stumbled across two great birds. First, we heard a very distant Brown-banded Puffbird singing its distinctive song. But before we could backtrack from the clearing to search for it, a raptor blasted into the clearing and perched in a nearby tree. It wasn't just a small hawk, but it was in fact a Tiny Hawk! 

Tiny Hawk - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

This raptor is in the genus Accipiter, the same as the Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawk, familiar species from back home in Canada. The Tiny Hawk feeds on hummingbirds as well as other small birds, reptiles and large insects. Laura and I have been lucky with this rare species and this was our third encounter in a few months, having seen individuals in Panama last October and in San Cipriano, Colombia earlier in January. 

We had our fill of the Tiny Hawk and backtracked to the place where the Brown-banded Puffbird was calling from. At the next clearing we were a little closer but the bird was still quite distant and it refused to come any closer. I had to be happy with a few poor recordings, unfortunately. Luckily, we would have more chances with this range-restricted species since it also occurs in Mitú, a site that we had plans to visit later in February. 

Varzea altamazonica (tentative ID) - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

One of our last memorable discoveries for the morning's walk was a quartet of Opal-rumped Tanagers that obliged us by flitting around in the lower levels of a tree. Typically, these beauties reside high up in the canopy. 

Opal-rumped Tanager - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Feeling a little parched from our morning hike, we found a small shop to purchase refreshments. I befriended a chicken in the process. 

Following a midday siesta, Mario picked us up for our return visit to Caño Vitina. Though the afternoon was far less birdy than the morning had been, we picked up a few interesting species of note.

Red-legged Honeycreeper - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

White-browed Purpletuft - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The savannah that produced many Wedge-tailed Grass-Finches in the morning was the setting for a new bird vocalization ringing out from the grasses: a Russet-crowned Crake. Despite a solid effort we were unable to actually lay eyes on it, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about crakes and their behaviour. 

Versicolored Emerald - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

A little while later, two Black-throated Antbirds darted across the path and skulked deep within a shrub. This was a new species for us, though we would obtain much more satisfying views a month later in Mitú. 

The sun sank lower in the sky as we slowly birded our way back to the beginning of the trail. But then, I heard it: the song of a White-naped Seedeater! Seconds later we were staring at our very first one, perched up in a shrub and singing his heart out. 

White-naped Seedeater - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

What a way to cap off an excellent day at Caño Vitina. A couple of local people walked by as we had the seedeater teed up in the scope, so we offered them a view. They were surprised at how beautiful it was and interested to hear a little bit about this species' life history. 

White-naped Seedeater - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The White-naped Seedeater is an enigmatic species. For a time it was placed in the monotypic genus Dolospingus, but for now it is considered a member of Sporophila. It inhabits low scrubby savannahs and woodland on sandy soils in a narrow band from southeast Colombia to northwest Brazil, while an isolated population has also been discovered in southern Guyana. Much of the behaviour and ecology of this scarce species remains unknown. 

White-naped Seedeater - Caño Vitina, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We enjoyed our "walk-away views" of the White-naped Seedeater and headed back to Mario's tuk-tuk for the return trip to Inírida. It had been an excellent day. 

Tuesday 29 March 2022

Inírida - A Rare Surprise At Sabanitas

January 30, 2022

Birding in Inírida is not as straightforward as simply visiting a trail and going for a walk. With a few exceptions, most of the great birding sites are located near small Indigenous communities located outside of the town of Inírida. These communities charge entrance fees of varying amounts, while most also require that a member of the community escort the birding group. Sometimes, this has to be arranged in advance. 

Amazonian Antshrike - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

For our first full day in Inírida we opted to visit the community of Sabanitas. A footpath leaves the main community area and traverses an area of open savannah before entering the forest for several kilometers. This path is used by locals to travel to clusters of houses further away from the main community, but it passes through high quality forest and is a popular spot for birding. 

We made the short drive over in Mario's van and parked beside a pedestrian bridge used to access the community on the far bank of the river. A Sunbittern right at the bridge was a nice surprise. It wasn't concerned at all with our presence, allowing me to take some nice photos of it. 

Sunbittern - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We met the leader of the Sabanitas community and he chose to escort us for the walk. Before discussing the day's sightings, a brief note on our experience with visiting Sabanitas...

Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Birders wishing to visit Sabanitas should expect to pay through the nose for the privilege of hiking their trails. We were charged 80,000 pesos each (around 27 Canadian dollars) which included lunch, and at the end of the trip the chief tried to extract another 80,000 pesos to pay for Mario's entrance fee, even though normally he wouldn't be charged to join us. If we had known ahead of time, we would have asked Mario to stay behind. Some of the other communities that we visited had more reasonable rates, such as Matraca which charged 20,000 pesos per person. We felt conflicted. On the one hand, it is great that these local communities can receive some extra income from ecotourism, and we are grateful that they are willing to open their trails to foreign visitors. But on the other hand, we felt that we were being gouged price-wise. It seemed like it was just a money grab and nowhere else in Colombia were we charged so much to hike a trail.

Turkey Vulture - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Laura and I also saw fewer birds at Sabanitas because the chief insisted on joining us. He spent most of the hike loudly talking and continually coughing; Laura and I at least managed to hang back so we could still see a few birds here and there. But, enough of the negatives. The birding here was phenomenal!

LaFresnaye's Piculet - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The first stretch of the trail passed through a natural savannah. We noted a wide variety of species including our first Yellow-crowned Manakin, a bird with a disjunct range in northern Amazonia which is often found in seasonally flooded white-sand forests. Other early species in our walk included Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Sulphury Flycatcher and a heard-only Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch. 

Birding (and eBirding) at Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The trail passed close to the forest's edge and we encountered a little mixed flock. Included with the lot were our first Cherrie's Antwrens, another localized species that can be common in the right areas at Inírida. 

Cherrie's Antwren - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Chestnut-fronted Macaw - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Despite it being barely 7 AM, the morning sun had crested the scrubby trees ringing the savannah, and was scorching us. We eagerly entered the forest, taking refuge in the relatively cool environs of the mature trees. Of course there was a tradeoff as we now had to deal with biting insects. Being Canadian, a few measly mosquitoes did not faze us at all. I insist that nothing can compare with June mosquitoes in a Canadian bog. 

 Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The birding was quiet at first in the forest, but it was a matter of quality, not quantity. First up was a handsome Ivory-billed Aracari in the canopy. 

Ivory-billed Aracari - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

I stopped for my first White-lored Tyrannulet, followed shortly by a small group of Velvet-fronted Grackles moving through the mid-story of the forest. 

Velvet-fronted Grackle - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

And then, the biggest surprise of the whole Inírida trip happened. Laura and I were hanging back from the other two, listening to the forest, when we heard a commotion that sounded like birds harassing something. The chipping and scolding notes sounded closer and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a huge raptor soaring through the canopy over our path. Laura had also briefly seen the bird, and we wondered out loud what it could be. I said to her, half-seriously, that it kind of reminded me of a Crested Eagle. We stood peering into the canopy and suddenly Laura let out a burst of profanities. She had found the bird! Through a tiny window in the canopy there, in all its glory, was an adult Crested Eagle. We were dumbfounded! 

Crested Eagle - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

During the commotion I only managed a couple of photos that were properly exposed, and it was facing away for these. We only observed the bird for 15 or 20 seconds in total before it lifted off and vanished from sight. If I did not have the photographic proof the whole encounter would have seemed dream-like and too good to be true. But there, on the back of my camera screen, was an adult Crested Eagle. 

This is one of those holy-grail species that few birders have seen away from active nests. Laura and I had visited several Crested Eagle nests over the years but had not connected with this species, and finding one on our own in the forest was so much more satisfying. What a bird. We wished that the encounter was a little longer, but beggars can't be choosers when it comes to Crested Eagles!

Needless to say, the rest of the hike was a bit of a blur as we were still on cloud nine. The birding remained good and we added a few more lifers - Ocellated Woodcreeper, Black-bellied Cuckoo and White-browed Purpletuft. 

White-browed Purpletuft - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Black-bellied Cuckoo - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Though the eagle stole the show, it was an excellent day for cotingas as well. We noted seven species (not counting the purpletufts which are no longer in the cotinga family). A male Pompadour Cotinga was a huge highlight for us; a lifer for Laura, and the first time I had seen a perched individual.

Pompadour Cotinga - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Surely there are not many birds in the world that have the colour of a Pompadour Cotinga!

Pompadour Cotinga - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

For many birders visiting Inírida, high up their target list is one of the strangest cotingas in the world: the Capuchinbird. Laura and I had seen them previously in Guyana but were keen on another view of them, especially since this would be Laura's first encounter since switching to the dark side and calling herself a birder. We heard the other-worldly call of a Capuchinbird on a few occasions - some say it sounds like a mooing cow, others say it resembles a distant lawnmower - and we eventually saw one not far off the trail. Its physical appearance is even stranger than the odd vocalizations that it produces. 

Capuchinbird - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

The birding slowed as the morning progressed, causing me to shift focus to insects. 

Orange Banner (Temenis laothoe) - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Heliconius antiochus - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

We were trudging a little bit on the walk back until we stumbled across a small understory flock which contained White-flanked and Gray Antwrens and Black-chinned Antbirds. 

White-flanked Antwren - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Black-chinned Antbird - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Just as we left the forest behind, we heard the distinctive calls of several Yellow-crowned Manakins. We tracked one down for great looks and photos. 

Yellow-crowned Manakin - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Tired and hungry from our walk, we enjoyed a delicious dinner that was cooked for us by several women in the community. This fish is related to the piranhas, and boy did it go down well.

Lunch - Sabanitas, Inírida, Guainía, Colombia

Our visit to Sabanitas might have been much more expensive than we had hoped, but it was a very birdy day with quite a few highlights!