Monday, 8 February 2016

A Tarantula in my Suitcase Part 1 January 2016

Well not quite a Tarantula but certainly the spider that crawled from my suitcase, carelessly left open one night in a remote part of Colombia, was big and furry enough to come close and ensure that the case remained firmly shut from then on, especially at night and only opened when required.

Let us however go back to the beginning and the reason why I was worrying about strange creatures inhabiting my suitcase in a foreign land. Some nine months ago I was contacted by Paul who wanted to make up a party of four birders to spend a month chasing endemic and rare species of birds mainly in and around the Andes in the northern part of Colombia. I took little persuading and agreed to join him and over the ensuing period Paul, in conjunction with Pablo Florez, owner and director of Multicolorbirding in Colombia drew up a detailed itinerary that would allow us to target many endemic Colombian species as well as other rare and desirable birds. Our itinerary would take us to many of the top birding sites in Colombia, ranging from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains in the North, to the Central, Western and Eastern Cordilleras (which is Spanish for mountain ranges) of the Andes and the Magdalena Valley, lying in the Andes between the Central and Eastern Cordilleras.

So the 8th January 2016 found me on a grey and miserable winter's afternoon standing alone on the platform of Kingham Station watching the gulls flying overhead to their roost at Farmoor Reservoir whilst I awaited the train to Oxford. From there I would take the Express Bus directly to Heathrow Airport and in less than twenty four hours would be on the other side of the world in an environment and culture that promised to be very different to my own.

It is fair to say that Colombia has developed an unfortunate reputation for lawlessness based on the cocaine drug smuggling activities of Pablo Escobar, various parts of the country being controlled by paramilitaries and the existence of  FARC, armed Marxist rebels who want to overthrow the democratically elected Government and are not adverse to kidnapping for ransom. For half a century Colombia has been in a state of civil war and 'the armed struggle' as it is known locally has killed a quarter of a million people, retarded development and discouraged most tourists.

All this has virtually disappeared now and only FARC persist in the extreme south east of the country and they are now in peace talks with the Colombian Government in Cuba.

It is a remarkable transformation and with the increased stability over the last ten years Colombia has become an attractive destination for tourists and birders alike. With a variety of habitats from the Amazon to the Andes and a bird species list of over 1900 it is little wonder that Colombia is now very much desired as a place to visit by birders from the world over. The major bird conservation organisation in Colombia is ProAves which was founded in 1999 and is non profit making. It has an impressive record with currently 24 reserves protecting over 75000 acres of threatened habitat and perpetually protecting 12% of the world's bird species. As peace and stability has come to Colombia so has economic pressure increased to exploit its natural resources and, as with virtually every other South American country, its rain and cloud forests are coming under increasing threat. ProAves is in the front line of resisting this onslaught.

Unlike Britain, hit by endless rain and wind, Colombia has been experiencing almost two years of drought. Normally, heavy rain can come virtually any day but we had no proper rain on our visit until the afternoon of the penultimate day. This sounds ideal but from a birding point of view it is not so good as when it is hot and sunny the birds become much less active and just sit around.When it rains or just after, the birds are much more active and easier to locate in the vast forests. Undoubtedly the weather conditions affected our success in finding birds and the guides had to work hard on occasions to produce results but all in all, considering the conditions, we and they did really well.

This then is my tale of four weeks in Colombia and the birds, mammals, reptiles and insects I saw but just as importantly, also my impressions and personal feelings about Colombia and the experiences it brought me. I plan to recount my story in sections as I was gone for such a long time.

I met Paul at Heathrow in the late evening and we journeyed together to Bogota overnight, courtesy of their national airline, Avianca. The flight was eleven weary hours and we arrived in Bogota at 5am local time the next morning where we were met by David and his partner Michelle who were to be our guides for the next two days, and joined up with Chris who had travelled independently from Scotland via the USA to join us. Unfortunately the fourth member of our party could not come due to his wife being very ill.

Day 1

It was straight from the plane onto our minibus and up into the foothills to the Pedro Palo Forest. It all seemed such a whirl after the all night flight and stress of immigration and customs formalities at Bogota so it took a little while for mind and body to catch up but soon I was into birding mode.

The first three birds I saw in Colombia were all North American migrants, Swainson's Thrush, Tennessee Warbler and Blackburnian Warbler but soon we found some more local birds and one of my favourite group of birds, tanagers. I  was having my identification skills being put to the test and found sorely lacking. Fortunately Paul, vastly more experienced than myself was up to the task and made life easier by identifying the fast moving, colourful but secretive tanagers. We saw in all eight species of tanagers: Crimson backed, Fawn breasted, Blue Gray, Palm, Black capped, Blue necked, Metallic Green and Bay headed Tanagers.

A Sharp shinned Hawk flew across above us or was it? For now it has been suggested that the Colombian race of this species should be split into a new species called Plain breasted Hawk. Two Broad Winged Hawks,  common migrants from North America, thermalled in the clear blue sky joining the ubiquitous Black Vultures.

We walked the track for a mile or so and met a Tarantula making its steadfast way along the verge 

but there was not much more to see so we moved on to another area and stopped at a roadside shop cum garage with a garden. Here we found a very good hummingbird in the form of a Short tailed Emerald that eventually performed well for us. 

Short tailed Emerald
We drove on and walked another track where we had some success with a pair of Rusty Crowned Warblers putting on a show, to be followed by  a male Bar crested Antshrike which was much less co-operative. Other birds appearing here were a pair of Spectacled Parrotlets, a Western Wood Pewee and a Yellow backed Oriole.

Rusty crowned Warbler
Bar crested Antshrike
Walking further we passed through some gates and found a male Vermilion Flycatcher, Thick billed Euphonia and Pied Water Tyrant amongst others but a friendly security guard approached us and informed us we were trespassing although he was in no hurry to make us leave. I have often found in these situations that if you are courteous and explain what you are doing it often results in permission being granted to carry on and often the person expresses an interest in what you are doing.

It was becoming increasingly hot so we made our way back to the vehicle to move on to the Chicaque Natural Park, 244 hectares of Cloud Forest at an elevation of up to 2700m. The main attraction here were the hummingbird feeders located right by the restaurant where we were to have lunch. The feeders did not disappoint and we were treated to the sight of a variety of species of hummingbird such as Golden bellied Starfrontlet, which rapidly became my favourite due to its beautiful plumage, Green Violetear, Black throated Mango, Collared Inca, White bellied and Gorgeted Woodstars. The woodstars are real charmers, tiny, only slightly larger than a bumblebee they seem to float etherelly in front of you, moving backwards and forwards, up and down on wings that whirrr so fast they are almost invisible and all the while making a distinctive buzzing sound just like a bee. They rarely settled, although I am sure they must, but seemed to regard the airspace as their natural habitat. 

Both Paul and myself took many photos, endeavouring to get images of the 'hummers' perched on natural twigs rather than the aesthetically less pleasing pink and rather garish plastic feeders. All the hummingbirds we encountered showed little fear of humans and would allow very close approach so much so that you could often feel the breath of air from the fast whirring wings caressing your face. The audible bbbrrrrrng of their wings would often herald their arrival seconds before you saw them. The speed at which they enact their lives is incredible, as they constantly whizz around either fighting, chasing a rival or shooting off like bullets into the surrounding foliage or forest after feeding. Sometimes they come to rest for a brief time and this is when the photo opportunities arise.

Golden bellied Starfrontlet - male
One of the most beautiful plumaged hummingbirds I have seen
Golden bellied Starfrontlet - female
Collared Inca - male
White bellied Woodstar - female
Green Violetear - male
Eventually, sated with hummingbird action we walked a  short way up the road looking for other species. By now the sun had been obscured by low cloud which came creeping up the mountainside and filled the forest in wraith like whispers of white. The only bird of note we found by playing a tape was a Blackish Tapaculo. Speaking personally, looking for tapaculos is not for the impatient or faint hearted. They are supreme skulkers which scuttle along, on or just above the ground, always in deep cover. Your only chance of seeing one is as it crosses a gap in the vegetation or briefly perches for a second or two before disappearing again. The Blackish Tapaculo duly obliged, granting seconds only views and then three Rufous Capped Warblers entertained us more satisfactorily for a while before it became dead as far as birds were concerned, as the cloud forest lived up to its name. So we headed back to Bogota and our hotel

I was still trying to come to terms with Colombia and as we drove back to the Casona del Patio, our hotel in Bogota for the next two nights, I just looked out of the vehicle and endeavoured to absorb the sights and sounds bombarding my already overloaded senses. Bogota is a huge city of over 8 million people lying on the eastern slope of the Andes at an elevation of 2600m but it was the little personal cameos that gave me a sense of the city and Colombia as we drove to the hotel. The colour and sheer vibrancy of life in a hot climate brings a whole different dimension to the way life is conducted. A young man juggling at the traffic lights of a busy road intersection to persuade the temporarily static motorists to part with a few pesos, wide grassy boulevards in better parts of the city, huge Colombian flags hung over the road, a mixture of affluence and extreme poverty often in close proximity, men in countless bars and cafes on back streets, sitting outside in timeless fashion drinking coffee or beer and watching the world pass by, buildings and houses all with flat roofs to keep the heat out, planes turning in the blue sky above the city, like sharks in an ocean, to land at the airport and most of all the completely chaotic traffic. These, apart from the birds were some of the impressions from my first day in Colombia.

After checking in to our hotel we went for something to eat. We found a very nice Sushi restaurant, Restaurant Wok, a few blocks away and here, over a convivial meal and a beer we completed our first checklist of birds seen that day - 86 species no less. Next morning it was a 5am start, so it was early to bed. It gets dark at around six in Colombia so by eight we were in bed but it was a bit of an eventful night for me as I was awoken by a woman sobbing uncontrollably in the courtyard outside my room at well after midnight. Eventually she went into the room next to mine still crying as I could hear her through the thin walls but there was little I could do so tried to shut it out and sleep.

Birds seen on Day One

(h) heard only

Bare faced Ibis; Black Vulture; Sharp shinned Hawk; Roadside Hawk; Broad winged Hawk; Ruddy Ground Dove; White tipped Dove; Eared Dove; Squirrel Cuckoo; Smooth billed Ani; Andean Pygmy Owl (h); Chestnut collared Swift; Green Violetear; Black throated Mango; Tourmaline Sunangel; Glowing Puffleg; Collared Inca; Golden bellied Starfrontlet; Mountain Velvetbreast; Buff tailed Coronet; White bellied Woodstar; Gorgeted Woodstar; Short tailed Emerald; White vented Plumeleteer; Steely vented Hummingbird; Moustached Puffbird (h); Red headed Barbet; Red crowned Woodpecker; Smoky brown Woodpecker; Spectacled Parrotlet; Bar crested Antshrike; Chestnut  crowned Antpitta (h); Ash coloured Tapaculo (h); Blackish Tapaculo; Montane Foliage Gleaner; Ash browed Spinetail; Yellow bellied Elainea; Sooty headed Tyrannulet; Black capped Tyrannulet (h); Golden faced Tyrannulet; Western Wood Pewee; Acadian Flycatcher (h); Black Phoebe;  Vermilion Flycatcher; Pied Water Tyrant; Great Kiskadee; Social Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Brown capped Vireo; Blue and White Swallow; Brown bellied Swallow; Barn Swallow; House Wren;  Gray breasted Wood Wren (h); Swainson's Thrush;   Black billed Thrush; Great Thrush; Tennessee Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler; Yellow Warbler; Black crested Warbler; Rufous capped Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Crimson backed Tanager; Golden crowned Tanager; Blue gray Tanager; Palm Tanager; Black capped Tanager; Blue necked Tanager; Metallic Green Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; White sided Flowerpiercer; Masked Flowerpiercer; Saffron Finch; Ruddy breasted Seedeater; Bananaquit; Streaked Saltator; Chestnut capped Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Eastern Meadowlark; Yellow backed Oriole; Thick billed Euphonia; Lesser Goldfinch

Day 2

We set off for the Chingaza National Park, stopping for an early morning breakfast at a bakery in Juasca, a mountainside village situated under the huge presence of the Andes rising above the early morning clouds. We were at 2400m and it was cold enough for fleeces to be worn although the rising sun promised to warm things up later. Our driver, who owned the vehicle and was constantly on the phone arranging other business, dropped us off on the road higher up out of town which we then walked downhill and birded for forty or so minutes.

It is quite acceptable, even on main roads, to walk alongside them or even on them as the traffic is so light, often non existent on occasions in the more isolated areas and many Colombians use the roads to walk along anyway. A Black chested Buzzard Eagle soared across the road and two Great Sapphirewing Hummingbirds had a scrap high above us before disappearing into the scrub on the mountainside.

This was all well and good but two prize birds were very much on our minds, in the form of the near endemic Pale bellied Tapaculo and the endemic Brown breasted Parakeet.Neither were here. Our driver who followed at a discrete distance down the road collected us and after descending on the winding road we turned off the tarmac and onto a rough dirt road which took us ever further up through cattle grasslands full of small yellow butterflies whichour guide David, a butterfly expert, said were related to the Clouded Yellows we get in the UK.

We passed a single Andean Teal nuzzling about at the edge of a small pond and the shell of a long deceased Armadillo hung from a fence post as we lurched along. The sun bore down relentlessly and we eventually stopped on a shaded part of the dirt road under some trees and by a steep, tangled vegetated bank rising up into the trees. This apparently was home for the Pale bellied Tapaculo. The tape was played to lure it near and we lined up at any available gap in the vegetation, peering into the stygian depths to catch a micro second glimpse of a rare tapaculo species. I saw it, just, for two seconds as it perched within feet of me before slipping through the tangle. The others saw it too. There was no sign of any parakeets which was the species we were after, although often visiting birders do not see them at all and we compensated ourselves by sorting out various tanagers and flycatchers in a large tree someway down the slope on the other side of the road. An American Kestrel perched prominently on a topmost bare branch and a Scarlet bellied Mountain Tanager gave some good photo opportunities as it fed on a fruiting tree nearby but no parakeets or even a sound like a parakeet came to enthuse us.

Scarlet bellied Mountain Tanager
It looked like we too had drawn a blank as far as the parakeets were concerned. David, meanwhile, had walked up the dirt road to where the forest stopped and just isolated trees stood in a large field. He called to us, 'Parrots!!' No second bidding was necessary and we rapidly joined him to be guided onto two small parakeets, Brown breasted Parakeets no less, which were feeding in the top of a tree. As we watched them Chris noted there were others in the tree and in the end we came to a figure of eleven. There was a wire fence separating the road from the field but we were soon under this and stalked ever closer to the tree. The parakeets showed little concern and continued doing what parakeets do which seems to involve a lot of mutual preening, sidling along branches and generally being ever so cute. Finally we went one step too far and they burst from the tree calling excitedly and flew to the next area of forest. This really was a great find and we congratulated ourselves on our luck. Chingaza National Park was set up to help preserve this parakeet which is endangered mainly due to the de-forestation of its habitat in the Eastern Andes. Relatively little is known about their ecology apart from the food they eat and that they are found between 1800-3000m.

Brown cheeked Parakeets
We walked further on looking at the awesome scenery stretching  away, seemingly forever into the blue distance to our left and stopped in the shade of some huge trees. Chris found a hummingbird, a resting female Blue throated Starfrontlet and we watched it for some time before it departed. I applied another layer of sun lotion and continued drinking water to replace that lost from sweating profusely in the heat.

One of the highlights of forest birding is finding a mixed feeding flock and after some thirty minutes we were lucky enough to encounter one. At one moment the huge trees are silent, there is nothing, no movement or sound apart from the cicadas and then you are suddenly confronted by birds flitting everywhere and your colleagues calling out the names of each new find as the birds, constantly active and usually high in the trees test your neck muscles and anxiety levels. In this flock we identified Pearl Tree Runner; Scarlet breasted Mountain Tanager; Crimson mantled Woodpecker; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Masked Flowerpiercer; White throated Tyrranulet; White banded Tyrannulet; Black capped Tyrranulet; Blue backed Conebill; Golden fronted Whitestart; Rufous backed Chat Tyrant; Blackburnian and Black and White Warbler and Streak necked Flycatcher. Then suddenly it is all over and the flock has moved on, just a few sounds and then silence descends on the forest trees again.

Another flock of eleven Brown cheeked Parakeets flew rapidly over us calling loudly. I wonder if they were the same ones we saw earlier?

We drove a short way to a place called Bioandina where there were some hummingbird feeders and we thought we would see a Coppery bellied Puffleg. We waited a long time and even had our lunch here which we had purchased earlier that morning at the bakery in Juasca. The Coppery bellied Puffleg never showed up and we learnt later that it had not been seen that day so it was a bit of a waste of time, if you consider sitting in the warm shade, watching hummingbirds in an unspoilt rural corner of Colombia wasting time.

We eventually accepted defeat and drove back the way we had come, leaving the dirt road and joining the tarmac road once again. We ascended higher and ever higher and at the summit passed some kids with what looked like skateboards. A bit odd? We drove on and stopped by the road. This was passing through an area of Paramo, which is a unique ecosystem that occurs above the forest line and below the permanent snowline and is only found in Neotropical regions. It consists of vegetation composed mainly of giant rosette like plants, various shrubs and grasses and was meant to be really good for birding but sadly not today. The best we could raise was an elusive White chinned Thistletail which was gracious enough to give us a few minutes of its time before disappearing into the vastness of the Paramo. We were now at around 3000m, standing by the road, when we heard a curious rattling, rushing sound and the next minute, from round a bend the kids we had seen at the summit came hurtling down the road in single file and appropriately spaced apart, on skateboards! I kid you not. They must have been going at around 50km per hour and the road descended in looping curves forever so how on earth they would stop and where is anybody's guess. They had obviously done it before and wore crash helmets but it certainly was a bizarre and totally unexpected sight.

Disappointed with the lack of birds we drove on and came to the spot where we had birded the road that morning. We tried again but could only come up with some brush finches, flowerpiercers and a Blue backed Conebill. Back in the van and one last stop was to be made at a place called the Guasca Wetland which is a series of small gravel pits, now long abandoned and overgrown with reeds and riparian vegetation. This was home to another much desired endemic, Bogota Rail, which only occurs between 2200-3000m and is now very rare, due to loss of habitat and has a population not much above 3500 individuals. Like all rails it is a skulker and we needed to tape it out if we were going to see it. We tried one likely looking area but failed to get one to show itself, only flushing two Wilson's Snipe instead. Sadly they were not big enough to be Noble Snipe although some visiting birders apparently convince themselves that they have seen one when in fact they have not. We moved on to another more reedy pool and employed the tape again. Paul thought he saw some movement and then finally Chris and myself saw movement deep in the reeds and managed to just about discern parts of a Bogota Rail amongst the tangle. It showed little sign of coming closer but eventually gave us brief but adequate views as it sloped across a more open area before disappearing once again. We walked on examining the other pools, flushing  a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks, small flocks of Blue winged Teal and causing Southern Lapwings to rise in noisy protest at our approach.

Eastern  Meadowlark
There was one last pool to check and on this was a Spot flanked Gallinule which fled for cover before I could get to see it but there would be other opportunities. I checked the reeds on the far side of the pool just in case and had the good fortune to find another Bogota Rail wandering alongside the reeds right out in the open and giving great views. This was much more satisfactory.

Now forgive me but the Bogota Rail may be very rare and it was great to see it but frankly it is a bit of a disappointment as it looks remarkably similar to our Water Rail and apart from the plain rufous feathering of the wing coverts and red legs is a dead ringer for our species.

Finally it was back to the van and we descended in the dark to Bogota. The single carriageway road carrying us downwards was a huge traffic jam and as we moved slowly downwards I marvelled at the myriad ramshackle shops opening right onto the road and the huge variety of goods they had for sale. The whole road was lined with these tiny, open fronted stores, even homes, all trying to make a few pesos. The reason for the jam became clear when we came to a vast chaotic assemblage of motorbikes and cars piled into a huge layby, and looking out and down beyond, there, hundreds of metres below, lit up like some stellar constellation was the whole of Bogota. People had come on this Sunday to look at the view and eat and drink from the opportunist food vendors who were also littered around the viewpoint. Police were on hand but seemed little inclined to do anything except blow the occasional whistle. These viewpoints came at regular intervals on the way down so the jam continued as we progressed and passed the crazy eclectic mass of sightseers crammed into each viewpoint. Finally we passed the last viewpoint and then it was full speed into Bogota and the endlessly chaotic traffic.

Cars are very expensive in Colombia so many people have a small motorbike which they use to get around. These bikes swarm like flies around the cars, buses and huge trucks that also use the roads and I have seen up to four people on one bike including tiny babies and infants being carried along, even a dog! No quarter is given or asked on the road. Nobody gives way and cars and motorbikes just drive out from a side road regardless of what is coming. Motorcyclists are required to wear a crash helmet with their motorbike's registration displayed on the back of it, not that a crash helmet brings much sense of security as there is no driving test in Colombia. You just pass a medical and then you are free to go on the road. The only other form of transport apart from cars and bikes are local buses which drive with reckless abandon at lethal speeds and taxis of which there are 120,000 in Bogota alone and are similarly cavalier in their approach to driving. There are no railways in Colombia so everything and everyone has to go by road. The driving is truly appalling with taxis and buses regularly running red lights, cars and motorbikes ignoring people on pedestrian crossings and lane discipline is an alien concept but somehow, through the resultant chaos and white knuckle driving, it seems to work - just.

We were dropped at our hotel at around 6.30pm and made another visit to the nearby Sushi Restaurant before another early night, as tomorrow we are to fly to Riohacha which lies on the Caribbean coast in the extreme north of Colombia.

Birds seen on Day Two

(h) heard only

Blue winged Teal; Andean Teal; Cattle Egret; Striated Heron; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Black chested Buzzard Eagle; Bogota Rail; Southern Lapwing; Solitary Sandpiper; Wilson's Snipe; Eared Dove; White collared Swift; Tyrian Metaltail; Glowing Pufeg; Blue throated Starfrontlet; Mountain Velvetbreast; Great Sapphirewing; Crimson mantled Woodpecker; American Kestrel; Brown breasted ParakeetPale bellied Tapaculo; Pearled Treerunner; White chinned Thistletail; White banded Tyrannulet; White throated Tyrannulet; Mountain Elaenia; Streak necked Flycatcher; Black capped Tyrannulet; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Streak throated Bush Tyrant; Rufous breasted Bush Tyrant; Tropical Kingbird; Blue and White Swallow; Brown bellied Swallow; Sedge Wren (h); Gray breasted Wood Wren (h); Great Thrush; Tropical Mockingbird; Blackburnian Warbler; Black crested Warbler (h); Golden fronted Whitestart; Superciliared Hemispingus; Scarlet bellied Mountain Tanager; Blue backed Conebill; Masked Flowerpiercer; Plushcap; Grassland Yellow Finch; Pale naped Brush Finch; Slaty Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Eastern Meadowlark; Mountain Cacique (h); Andean Siskin

Day 3

On our third day, before our flight, we had time to visit La Florida Golf Course which lies not far from Bogota Airport and more importantly abuts some very nice marshland and stretches of water. Here we hoped to see Apolinar's Wren, Silvery throated Spinetail and the intriguingly named Subtropical Doradito. We went to the appointed spot but the tapes failed to raise any of the three which was a huge disappointment. We had a chance of the first two at other locations later but this was our only chance of the Doradito. Never mind this was bound to happen on any birding trip so we resigned ourselves to failure and just enjoyed the hordes of Blue winged Teal and American Coot floating on the waters. A Northern Waterthrush became very alarmed at our presence as I finally caught up with a couple of Spot flanked Gallinule and a male Andean Siskin obligingly dropped in to feed on some seeding sedges, whilst a White tailed Kite flew distantly over the marsh and Cattle Egrets stalked the fairways. Our plane was due to fly in a couple of hours however so we had to leave.

A huge Hawk Moth species was resting conspicuously on one of the hedges near the clubhouse as we left.

Back in the van we headed for the airport, passing Black Phoebe's flycatching from the perimeter fence, just as news of David Bowie's death came over the internet. The small domestic part of Bogota airport was crammed with people as today was a public holiday and a lot of people were on the move. We had some breakfast in the busy terminal and then went to get our plane and take the hour and a half flight north to Riohacha. 

The flight took us up above the clouds and as we approached our destination the incredible sight of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, their highest peak Pico Christobel Colon at 5700m still capped with snow came into view away to the left of the plane. Soon we would be visiting this range of mountains although not going above 4000m, as many endemic birds lived there, but for now we were descending for our landing at Riohacha where we would be met by Gabo our guide and his driver Luis. We descended over an azure Caribbean sea lapping at miles of sand and mangroves. The plane touched down and I could not help but notice the complete contrast between the large area of decrepit wooden huts forming a shanty town of homes just metres from the runway and adjacent to the small modern airy terminal building and planes costing millions of dollars. Two very different worlds, physically just metres apart but in all other ways never to meet.

Our bags quickly arrived, introductions were made and we were off into Riohacha and our hotel for the night. Now at sea level, the humidity had increased considerably and the air conditioning in our room was turned up full. A quick sort out and then we went into town for lunch passing hordes of street vendors all apparently selling the same items, colourful bags and hats. 

I cannot say how delightful it was to sit on an open upper floor of the restaurant and look across the road to the palm fringed beach and the open Caribbean and feel the warm air on my face. A Tropical Mockingbird bounced around on an adjacent roof top whilst Magnificent Frigatebirds and a couple of Royal Terns flew along the shoreline just as a squadron of Brown Pelicans headed the other way. 

Brown Pelicans
It was absolute bliss and I longed to wander along the beach and feel the surf and sand through my toes but we were birding and there was no time for allowing senses to idle or be diverted. After lunch it was back to the hotel, stock up with more water and wait until the heat of the day had subsided slightly.Then we drove out some miles to what appeared to be the old road into Riohacha and birded this now traffic free highway with the 4x4 following at a distance behind us.

It was full of good birds and soon we were being tested to our limits. In about two hours of thirsty work examining the thorn scrub on each side of the road, playing the relevant tapes of bird calls and finally stopping at a river crossing we found the following:

White whiskered Spinetail; Trinidad Euphonia; Northern Waterthrush; Solitary Sandpiper; Scaled Dove; Bare eyed Pigeon; Common Ground Dove; Ruddy Ground Dove; White-tipped Dove; Chestnut Piculet (male and female); Red crowned Woodpecker; Black crested Antshrike (male and female); White flanked Antwren; White fringed Antwren; Straight billed Woodcreeper;  Slender billed Tyrannulet; Vermilion Flycatcher; Pied Water Tyrant; Tropical Kingbird; Tropical Mockingbird; Pileated Finch; Vermillion Cardinal (male and female) and Northern crested Caracara whilst a Lesser Yellow billed Vulture was different from the normal Black and Turkey Vultures.

Chestnut Piculet
Scaled Doves
Black crested Antshrike-female
Northern Crested Caracara
Gabo then suggested we drive some way further along the main road to another spot he knew that was good for birds. The land around us was totally flat for miles and appeared to be mainly cattle ranches  and the road ran dead straight for as far as one could see. There was, as per usual, no crash barrier separating you from the opposite approaching carriageway, just two yellow lines which everyone ignored and vehicles can and do approach at frightening speeds, often overtaking with little time to get out of your path but that is how it is in Colombia. We drove just as fast as anyone else and as we were hurtling along Paul suddenly cried out 'Stop Stop!' We came to a halt and enquired what was going on. 'I think I have just seen some Double striped Thick Knees but I could be wrong and maybe they were Southern Lapwing'. We reversed back up the virtually traffic free road and there, sure enough, Paul's incredible concentration and identification skills had not let him or us down. Three Double striped Thick Knees stood motionless in a flat field by the road regarding us with caution. We zipped over the road and took their photo.

Double striped Thick Knee
After this excitement we soon arrived at our next destination, a small area of mixed woodland bordering a river and the first bird we came across perched by the road was one of my favourites, a puffbird. This one was a Russet-throated Puffbird. Thick set and often motionless for extended periods they have the curious habit of puffing themselves into contortions while they await the chance of their next meal.

Russett throated Puffbird

Eventually it was joined by another, by which time the others had moved on down the track and scanning a huge tree found a couple of tanagers, one of which was a common Blue Gray Tanager but the other was a Glaucous Tanager, not easily found and a new bird for me.

We walked to a bridge over a river and stood there as the evening closed in. There was the chance of getting to see some Rufous Chachalaca's (pronounced shasherlakka) but although we heard them crashing around in the dense vegetation they always gave us the slip, being very shy due to being regularly hunted. They are large wary birds adept at running along branches through vegetation and for their size are masters of concealment. We walked down a track which frustratingly they had just flown across as our backs were turned and we had missed them but a Rufous tailed Jacamar, always a nice bird to see gave us some very close views

Rufous tailed Jacamar
Finally, just as we were about to give up and the light was fading fast the Chachalaca's showed themselves ever so briefly before fleeing back into the densest vegetation they could find. Then it was back in the 4x4 and a return to the hotel before going out on the town for something to eat at a very nice seafood restaurant. I say out on the town but inevitably as we needed to be up before dawn and our destination was some two hours drive away the following morning we were in bed by 8pm.This was a pattern we followed throughout our stay, as any birder will tell you the first four hours after dawn are the best for seeing birds and our tight schedule demanded this anyway.

Birds seen on the Day Three

(h) heard only

Blue winged Teal; Ruddy Duck; Rufous vented Chachalaca; Wood Stork; Magnificent Frigatebird; Neotropic Cormorant; Brown Pelican; Great Egret; Cattle Egret; Striated Heron; Bare faced Ibis; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Lesser Yellow headed Vulture; White tailed Kite; Roadside Hawk; Broad winged Hawk; Short tailed Hawk; Zone tailed Hawk; Northern crested Caracara; Bogota Rail (h); Common Gallinule; Spot flanked Gallinule; American Coot; Double striped Thick Knee; Southern Lapwing; Solitary Sandpiper; Greater Yellowlegs; Royal Tern; Scaled Pigeon; Bare eyed Pigeon; Common Ground Dove; Ruddy Ground Dove; Scaled Dove; White tipped Dove; White collared Swift; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Shining Green Hummingbird; Russet throated Puffbird; Rufous tailed Jacamar; Chestnut Piculet; Red crowned Woodpecker; Brown throated Parakeet; Blue crowned Parrot; Black crested Antshrike; White flanked Antwren; White fringed Antwren; Straight billed Woodcreeper; White whiskered Spinetail; Northern Scrub Flycatcher; Slender billed Tyrannnulet; Black headed Tody Flycatcher; Black Phoebe; Vermilion Flycatcher; Pied Water Tyrant; Great Kiskadee; Tropical Kingbird; Gray Kingbird; Scrub Greenlet; Brown chested Martin; House Wren; Buff breasted Wren (h); Tropical Gnatcatcher; Great Thrush; Tropical Mockingbird; Yellow Warbler; Blue Gray Tanager; Glaucous Tanager; Black Flowerpiercer; Gray Seedeater; Rufous Collared Sparrow; Vermilion Cardinal; Great tailed Grackle; Baltimore Oriole; Trinidad Euphonia; Andean Siskin.

Day 4

Our fourth day found us checking out of our hotel and heading for Los Flamencos National Park and a place called Los Camarones which is by the sea. 

Here we would be joined by Jose, a bird guide from the local Wayuu Indigenous people. When we arrived there was no sign of Jose so we parked on a sandy track by a lagoon just as dawn was breaking. 

A couple of Willets and some American Flamingos were discernible on the lagoons by the road as the light improved. We followed a sandy track a little way into some open acacia scrubland and came to another small lagoon full of birds, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Scarlet Ibis, Snowy Egret, a Whistling Heron, Great and Lesser Yellowlegs and Carib Grackles were all around the periphery feeding or preening as a couple of Wood Storks flew over us.

White and Scarlet Ibis and Snowy Egret
Roseate Spoonbill
Whistling Heron
Carib Grackle
An increasingly common species in the north of Colombia
One of our main targets here was a hummingbird, a Buffy Hummingbird, which while not endemic has a very restricted Colombian distribution, being only found here in the north, and perhaps almost as importantly to Paul, who is a world lister, he had never seen one. Jose arrived to  help us find the hummingbird and the area's other specialities. A local lady also joined us to do her washing and laundry in the lake as we continued to bird around the lake and soon we found a Buffy Hummingbird feeding alone at the top of a large bush while a partially concealed Squirrel Cuckoo eyed us from another bush. 

Squirrel Cuckoo
The hummingbird was not 'a looker' as they say, being a dull pinkish buff underneath and greyer brown above. However in the early morning sunlight it had an understated charm all of its own and we watched it for some minutes as it fed and perched on its favoured bush. 

Buffy Hummingbird
There were, however, other birds we needed to find and Jose with his local knowledge and skill endeavoured to find them for us, chief of which was another localised species, Orinocan Saltator. Jose heard one singing and we tracked it down through the scrub but it flew before we could get adequate views but then another three decided to have a sing off, perched high in a small tree and we stalked them by using the bushes as cover and got great views. 

Orinocan Saltator
The final target bird, although we were happy to see anything else, was Crested Bobwhite but although we heard some they failed to respond to our tape but Jose said he knew of another spot where we had an opportunity to see them. As we walked through the scrub a chance and close encounter with a fearless Ferruginous Pygmy Owl perched openly and brazenly above us was well worth the effort.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Other birds also made themselves apparent; a Pale legged Hornero, about Mistle Thrush size and with bright rufous upperparts led us a merry dance through the scrub before we pinned it down. A Pileated Finch, a  Dickcissel, another scarce North American migrant and a Slender billed Inezia were also nice finds as was yet another Russet throated Puffbird displaying to good effect its powerful bill.

Pileated Finch
Slender billed Inezia
Russet throated Puffbird
We went back to the 4x4 for some breakfast taking in the small lake again which now seemed to have become a focal point for Scarlet and White Ibis. The former looking an absolute picture in the early morning sun 

Scarlet and White Ibis
There is now some discussion as to whether these should be classed as
separate species and whether they are instead just one polymorphic species
As every morning was a pre-dawn start, the various guides and drivers over the month we were with them,  would load the vehicle each morning with water, juice, exotic fruit of various kinds, snacks and a small packed picnic breakfast to keep us going. We would also do the same with lunch to save time, rather than find a restaurant, as often we needed the time to accomplish the drives between locations and on occasions our birding location would be nowhere near any place of refreshment.

Gabo and Jose our bird guides
We clambered back aboard the 4x4 and rejoined the tarmac road. By the lagoons which had been deserted on our earlier arrival there was now a film crew, a rack of high fashion dresses by the roadside and a waif thin blonde girl who presumably would be donning the high fashion items for the photo shoot. The contrast between this conspicuous example of human excess and the woman we had encountered earlier who was so impoverished she had to do her laundry and washing in the local lake could not have been more graphic.

We headed for what turned out to be a somewhat primitive village in an idyllic location by a huge lagoon just inside a sand bar separating it from the sea. 

I looked out over the water and saw a number of seabirds, waders and herons resting  in a large assemblage offshore. We stood on the shore and identifications came thick and fast. Brown Pelicans, Great White Egrets, then the first real  highlight, three Black Skimmers doing their thing across the water. Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns flew around in good numbers  but the most abundant species present was Laughing Gull, and then came a literally huge and welcome surprise. A large black backed gull towering above the other birds and keeping very much to itself was confidently identified as an adult Kelp Gull. I think this was the first record for this location and it is only very recently that it has been recorded as a visitor to the Caribbean coast. To all extents its plumage was that of an adult Greater Black backed Gull but the pale green legs and slightly blob ended, heavy yellow bill confirmed the ID. Further along was another slightly smaller immature gull which we tentatively identified as a Lesser black backed Gull but I am not so sure about this now and have sought expert advice. Two or three Reddish Egrets flew around above the gulls and White Ibis, Marbled Godwits, a Hudsonian Whimbrel, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Willets and a Roseate Spoonbill added to the variety. I could have remained here for quite some time and am sure we would have found more species but time was pressing and Jose wanted to take us to another area to look for more good birds.

Black Skimmers

Kelp Gull
So it was back in the 4x4 and a fairly long drive, negotiating yet another of the frequent police road checks, brought us to a turnoff which led onto the usual unmade road which we drove down. It was now very hot, dusty and humid and I could feel the sun burning my face and arms so it was yet more sunblock to apply and yet more water to drink. We stopped on the dry rutted road at regular intervals and walked a stretch of the road looking for birds before the vehicle would pick us up and drive us further. We had two main targets, the elusive Crested Bobwhite and another very secretive species, Tocuyo Sparrow, a near endemic and only found in the extreme north of Colombia. It was going to be tough but in our continued searches we did get close views of yet another Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, again perched openly in a bare tree being mobbed by a pair of Trinidad Euphonias and a pair of Tropical Gnatcatchers as well as getting close to some Brown throated Parakeets.

Brown throated Parakeet
Trinidad Euphonia
Our success finally came with the quail after yet another hot and exhausting walk down the unmade road when one rocketed up from the scrub and disappeared over the road at high speed and was gone. Jose then spotted three more on the ground but only Paul managed to see one of these for seconds before it ran off and the other two flew off as fast as the previous one. It was now getting a bit attritional and any thoughts of seeking the sparrow were almost given up but Jose had other ideas. He called us back up the road and told us to slip under the barbed wire fence while he held it apart. He had heard the sparrow calling. We walked into the tinder dry scrub, the dead, dry leaves crunching under our feet. I tried to avoid making any noise or cracking dried sticks underfoot in my best 'wild west' tracker fashion as we walked further into the scrub and the sparrow called again. We followed the sound and eventually Gabo and Jose by some miracle of eyesight found it shuffling along on the ground  under the scraggy trees and bushes, a tiny rare sparrow just about visible amongst the dead leaves and broken twigs on the parched ground. We all saw it well but briefly before it flew further into the scrub and our will to follow it dissolved in the baking sun. It was time to go but we were triumphant.

Tokyu Sparrow
Now we had seen all that was required, another drive took us eventually to a river, the Rio Dondiego where we boarded a small boat for a short trip upriver to Taironaka Ecological Park, located in beautiful landscaped gardens and with forest all around. 

As we sailed along we passed a Little Blue Heron on the rocks and a large fierce looking lizard was sunning itself on a branch. 

Little Blue Heron

On both sides of the river huge forest and trees rose high above us. It was beautiful and awe inspiring to say the least and good to feel the coolness of the water. 

We stopped after a short journey and disembarked at a rudimentary landing stage and walked up to the lodge passing a couple of Pygmy Squirrels on the way, playing peek a boo around a palm tree trunk. We sat in the shade at the Lodge, drank lemonade and had lunch. What a relief to just sit and relax after such a strenuous morning.

I was feeling my years, being 14 years older than my two colleagues and operating in extreme conditions of heat and humidity meant I had to call on all my reserves of physical strength. I thanked my stars that I had kept up my regular visits to the gym in Chipping Norton as now it was paying back the dividend of all that exercise. After lunch it was off into the forest for yet more birding, our pace was relentless. I think I just saw a Lined Quail Dove before it disappeared over a ridge and we spent an age tracking down a White bellied Antbird but finally found it and watched this elusive bird for some minutes. Then we walked back to the Lodge noting other good birds in the form of a Southern Bentbill and watched an Orange crowned Oriole feeding upside down in the canopy and a Bicolored Wren playing hide and seek in a Coconut Palm. We had another rest at the Lodge before getting the boat back down the river and then it was back into the vehicle, dropping off Jose on the way and making the drive back to Minca where we were to stay for the night.

Hotel Minca had a nice row of hummingbird feeders on its balcony so we entertained ourselves watching the comings and goings of these sprites which still remained endlessly active until it was too dark to see. 

Hotel Minca
Hummingbird feeders
White necked Jacobin

Rufous tailed Hummingbird
Rufous breasted Hermit
Once darkness fell we walked the short distance into Minca village to a small open air restaurant with a bar below and eating area above. The village was fairly buzzing with backpackers all either coming from or preparing to walk the trails on the Santa Marta mountains. I ordered a medium sized pizza which when it finally arrived threatened to take over the table. It was huge and I  could only manage half of it yet they also offered a large size! I also had a really neat drink that seems to be a speciality of Colombia where they mix a single fruit or herb with lemonade and produce a viscous concoction somewhat similar to a milk shake but much more refreshing and tasty. I had the mint one this time and it was superb.

Inevitably, after doing the checklist it was back to the hotel for the early night to prepare for a pre-dawn departure tomorrow as we had to be on a road near Santa Marta airport well before dawn to hopefully await the arrival of the endemic Chestnut winged Chachalaca's as they left their roost.

Birds seen Day Four

(h) heard only

Crested Bobwhite; American Flamingo; Wood Stork; Magnificent Frigatebird; Neotropic Cormorant; Brown Pelican; Great Egret; Snowy Egret; Little Blue Heron; Reddish Egret;  White Ibis; Scarlet Ibis; Roseate Spoonbill; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Lesser Yellow headed Vulture; Osprey; Southern Lapwing; Solitary Sandpiper; Greater Yellowlegs; Willet; Lesser Yellowlegs; Semi palmated Sandpiper; Laughing Gull: Caspian Tern; Royal Tern; Sandwich Tern; Black Skimmmer; Ruddy Ground Dove; Scaled Dove; Ruddy Quail Dove; White tipped Dove; Squirrel Cuckoo; Groove billed Ani; Ferruginous Pygmy Owl; White necked Jacobin; Rufous breasted Hermit; Pale bellied Hermit; White vented Plumeleteer; Buffy Hummingbird; Steely vented Hummingbird; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Gartered Trogon; American Pygmy Kingfisher; Russet throated Puffbird; Rufous tailed Jacamar; Red crowned Woodpecker; Yellow headed Caracara; Orange chinned Parakeet; Green rumped Parrotlet; Brown throated Parakeet; Black backed Antshrike; White bellied Antbird; Pale legged Hornero; White whiskered Spinetail; Northern Scrub Flycatcher; Slender billed Tyrranulet; Southern Bentbill; Pearly vented Tody Tyrant; Common Tody Flycatcher; Yellow breasted Flycatcher;  Tropical Pewee; Venezuelan Flycatcher; Panama Flycatcher; Great crested Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee; Rusty margined Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Gray Kingbird; Lance tailed Manakin; Scrub Greenlet; Black chested Jay; Southern rough winged Swallow; House Wren; Bicolored Wren; Tropical Gnatcatcher; Pale breasted Thrush; Tropical Kingbird; \American Redstart; Yellow Warbler; Northern Waterthrush; Chestnut sided Warbler; Crimson backed Tanager; Blue Gray Tanager; Palm Tanager;  Purple Honeycreeper; Red legged Honeycreeper; Pileated Finch; Black faced Grassquit; Buff throated Saltator; Orinocan Saltator; Tocuyo Sparrow; Black striped Sparrow; Dickcissel; Great tailed Grackle; Carib Grackle; Shiny Cowbird; Orange  crowned Oriole; Yellow Oriole; Trinidad Euphonia

Mammal seen

Neotropical Pygmy Squirrel

Day 5

Ugh, it took some effort to raise myself for our earliest departure yet. Tired, mentally and physically exhausted and half awake you have to try and remember to take everything you need, water, bins, camera, wallet and passport are the priorities.There is no going back once on the road as the others certainly would not be pleased if you forgot anything.

We drove through the dead town and along empty roads but already there was a police roadblock set up. I was so tired I cannot recall on this occasion if they stopped us or not but unfailingly the Colombian police were always polite when they stopped us on our travels, which was relatively frequent and on a couple of occasions even shook our hands. Their main purpose apparently was to stop the smuggling of petrol and drugs so when they saw a 4x4 full of foreign birders presumably they relaxed a little.

On arriving at the 'chachalaca road' in darkness we found it was not the quiet road we were expecting as at regular intervals huge trucks, bigger than any I have seen on UK roads came thundering along the unlit road in both directions. We cowered on the verge whilst these leviathans roared past us and Gabo listened for any sign of the chachalacas in between the noise of trucks passing. The darkness began to dissipate and Gabo heard one calling further down the road and motioned to us urgently. We rushed down to join him and eventually one of these much desired birds flew across the road but it was just a shape and it was too dark to discern any plumage detail. As the light improved another three flew into a large tree by the road and ran up the huge boughs to the top and with the light now rapidly improving we could now see what they looked like. They are large birds something akin to a small turkey with longish tails and reptilian heads. Soon these flew off too and we only saw one or two more and then decided that we had seen enough. As we left a Crab Eating Fox ran across the road.

I was grateful to get away from the road and its continual procession of huge trucks and we headed off into the morning traffic of Santa Marta. It was the usual chaos of motorbikes, trucks and cars although thankfully, as we were going out of Santa Marta, most of the traffic was going the other way. We stopped at a small cafĂ© for Gabo to buy us some breakfast which to save time we took with us and ate whilst driving along. The road was typical of any urban Colombian road with countless open fronted shacks right on the road selling everything you could possibly want but mainly food. What a food health inspector would make of some of the cooking conditions is anybody's guess but no one seemed to mind. I could not help noticing that Chorizo sausages seemed very popular with strings of them hanging above the outside barbeques. You could take your choice from dozens of these places and some of the trucks and cars obviously did as they just stopped wherever they fancied, parking slightly off the road as there are no pavements, just earth, which also serves as a walkway for pedestrians.

We stopped to pay our fee at the toll booth, another regular feature guarding the better maintained and surfaced Colombian roads, taking our place behind a truck load of pigs and a huge petrol tanker. A quick exchange of money and a gracias with the lady in the booth and we were on our way again. Our destination this time was the Salamanca Island Road Park, so named because the road from Santa Marta to Barranquilla passes through the park which was created in 1964 to protect the beaches, mangroves, marshes and tropical forest that combine to form a unique habitat.

The Boardwalk

Gabo our guide and Luis our driver
It was a longish drive out of Santa Marta and then the land narrowed to just a mere strip carrying the road. The Caribbean was immediately on our right and mangroves to our left, then after a number of kilometres travelling this corridor the land widened again and soon after we turned off into the park. We had it to ourselves, no one else was about in the deserted car park  and we commenced looking for the speciality of this area, the Sapphire bellied Hummingbird. We could see no sign of the hummingbird but a Prothonotary Warbler showed up, a sulphur yellow almost luminescent jewel of a bird and I was a happy man as I have always wanted to see this most spectacular of North American Warblers.
Prothonotary Warbler
We walked towards the boardwalk that would take us through the atmospheric tangle of mangroves, their huge extended roots exposed like the bent and twisted bones of long dead dinosaurs in the dank waterlogged surroundings. Another Prothonotary Warbler shone like a bright golden flower amongst the dark roots by the water. Unlike most warblers they spend most of their time almost at ground level searching for food and their bright plumage makes them very conspicuous amongst the darkness of the mangroves. Just before we got to the boardwalk Gabo located a Lesser Nighthawk roosting on a dead branch just above head height. Photo opportunity!

Lesser Nighthawk
We followed the boardwalk out into the mangroves finding a Bat Hawk and a Bare throated Tiger Heron but little else. We met another birder who told us we had no chance with the hummingbird as the trees it needed to feed from were not in flower. This was a real disappointment as this was our only chance to see the hummingbird but at least it would save us wasting time looking for it in vain. We had a quick snack and then moved on to some wetlands that Gabo knew of where there was a chance to see another target bird, Bronze-Brown Cowbird.

We turned off the main road and onto the inevitable unmade road and entered another world that time seemed to have forgot. 

This was far from the sophistications of Santa Marta although the latter was clearly visible in the distance. The whole vast area of wet paddies on both sides of the track we drove down was for water buffalo and as such provided a haven for countless wetland birds. A herd of young water buffalo was driven past our vehicle before we stopped at a collection of chaotic farm buildings and  random machinery.

Gabo knew the farmer and we were readily given permission to follow a central Causeway far out into the paddies which although devoid of water buffalo were full of birds. 

We left the vehicle under a shade tree in the farmyard and commenced some serious birding. Limpkins, Bare faced Ibis, a Rufescent Tiger Heron, Black crowned Night Heron, Snail Kites and a Black collared Hawk were all seen around the farmyard as was a vociferous Stripe-backed Wren and a family of Wattled Jacana's got very agitated at our arrival.

Wattled Jacana and chick

Snail Kite

Rufescent Tiger Heron
Stripe-backed Wren
Then it was out onto the Causeway, where there were herons, egrets, ibis and ducks everywhere you looked with large flocks of Blue winged Teal flying off in alarm as we progressed down the Causeway.

The Causeway
We did manage to find some cowbirds, Shiny Cowbirds, but failed to find any Brown Bronze Cowbirds which are at best only seen occasionally so we were hardly surprised at our lack of success. Many of the birds, especially the ducks were very wary due to being regularly hunted here. Rather than go through a list of every bird we saw I will just recount the highlights for me which were a Dwarf Cuckoo, a hard to see bird under any circumstances which flew from bush to bush before us as we walked out, a Large billed Tern cruising over the wet fields, a small flock of Yellow hooded Blackbirds, a White headed Marsh Tyrant frequenting a waterlogged ditch and  a large Iguana balanced incongruously on some reeds was a surprise. Best of all however was the discovery of a pair of Northern Screamers, originally seen in the distance which took off as we got nearer and landed in a large paddy full of egrets, ducks and waders. Huge birds, with a combination of goose and gamebird looks and showing conspicuous spurs at the bend of their wings they lived up to their name, one of them calling loudly and raucously as they flew past us.

White headed Marsh Tyrant
Pied Water Tyrant

Northern Screamers
We turned back after about a mile as it was now getting very hot and were joined by a young lad from the farm, who, we learnt from Gabo, was showing a great interest in birds and Gabo, by way of encouragement, had given him The Birds of Colombia so he could learn to identify all the birds he saw.

A brief stop back at the farmyard for  much needed water and some snacks and then it was a long drive back to the Hotel at Minca where we relaxed, watched the hummingbirds and an obliging near endemic Golden Winged Sparrow and a Bicolored Wren both of which entertained us at the bird feeder, before having dinner, this time at the hotel, in the company of another group of mainly Canadian birders who would eventually be following us to El Dorado in the Santa Marta mountains.

Golden winged Sparrow
Bicolored Wren
Gabo and our driver Luis also left us at this point and we were joined by our new guide Roger and his driver for the next couple of days. The evening followed its usual course, dinner, checklist and then we broke our routine by not going to bed but chatting to the Canadian group's bird guide, a friendly Colombian and shared information about what birds we had seen and where

Birds seen on Day Five

(h) heard only

Northern Screamer; Black bellied Whistling Duck; Fulvous Whistling Duck; Blue winged Teal; Chestnut winged Chachalaca; Magnificent Frigatebird; Neotropic Cormorant; Rufescent Tiger Heron; Bare throated Tiger Heron; Great Blue Heron; Cocoi Heron; Great Egret, Snowy Egret; Little Blue Heron; Tri-colored Heron; Black crowned Night Heron; Bare faced Ibis; Glossy Ibis; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Lesser Yellow headed Vulture; Osprey; Black collared Hawk; Snail Kite; Broad winged Hawk; Purple Gallinule; Common Gallinule; Wattled Jacana; Limpkin; Black necked Stilt; Southern Lapwing; Spotted Sandpiper; Solitary Sandpiper; Greater Yellowlegs; Large billed Tern; Bare eyed Pigeon; Common Ground Dove; Ruddy Ground Dove; White tipped Dove; Dwarf Cuckoo; Squirrel Cuckoo; Groove billed Ani; Lesser Nighthawk; Common Pauraque (h); White necked Jacobin; Rufous breasted Hermit; White vented Plumeleteer; Steely vented Hummingbird; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Sapphire throated Hummingbird; Gartered Trogon (h); Whooping Motmot; Ringed Kingfisher; Amazon Kingfisher; Pied Puffbird; Russet-throated Puffbird; Rufous tailed Jacamar; Scaled Piculet; Red crowned Woodpecker; Red  rumped Woodpecker; Crested Caracara; Yellow headed Caracara; Bat Falcon; Orange chinned Parrot; Brown throated Parakeet; Scarlet fronted Parakeet; Black crested Antshrike; Cocoa Woodcreeper; Streak headed Woodcreeper; Santa Marta Foliage Gleaner; Yellow chinned Spinetail; Ochre bellied Flycatcher; Sooty headed Tyrannulet; Coopman's Tyrannulet; Pale eyed Pygmy Tyrant; Pied Water Tyrant; White headed Marsh Tyrant; Cattle Tyrant; Dusky capped Flycatcher; Panama Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee; Rusty margined Flycatcher; Sulphur bellied Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Gray Kingbird; White bibbed Manakin(h); Yellow green Vireo; Golden fronted Greenlet; Black chested Jay(h); Bank Swallow; House Wren; Stripe backed Wren; Bicolored Wren; Rufous breasted Wren; Rufous and White Wren; Swainson's Thrush; Pale breasted Thrush; Tropical Mockingbird; Black and White Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Tennessee Warbler; American Redstart; Rufous capped Warbler; Northern Waterthrush; Crimson backed Tanager; Blue gray Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; Swallow Tanager; Purple Honeycreeper; Bananaquit; Buff throated Saltator; Streaked Saltator; Golden winged Sparrow; Scarlet Tanager; Rose breasted Grosbeak; Blue black Grosbeak; Red breasted Blackbird; Great tailed Grackle; Carib Grackle; Yellow hooded Blackbird; Shiny Cowbird; Thick billed Euphonia; 

Mammal seen

Crab eating Fox

Corinna Daggerwing

to be continued


  1. This is awesome Ewan. I'm looking forward to the rest! Catch up soon!

    1. Thanks Andy.It was certainly an epic trip.Yes hope to see you soon also
      Best wishes

  2. Lovely! We're off to Panama in December, so hoping for some similar sightings!