2-5 April 2015
We enjoyed our time in Cartagena but we were also itching to see some BIRDS! Because we were still waiting for the van we could not venture too far from Cartagena. Salamanca National Park is only 2 hours north of Cartagena along the coast and is accessible by bus. Many birders head here to look for the endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird. The Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird occurs only in coastal mangroves along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with most records being in Parque Nacional Isla de Salamanca and the adjacent Ciénaga Grande. However, Sapphire-bellied Hummingbirds have also been found near Turbo. Finding one of these guys can be tricky, but identifying them can be even more so, as they look very similar to the closely related Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, which also occurs in the same area. The primary difference is that the Sapphire-bellied has blue/sapphire coloration all the way down the belly while the blue/sapphire color is restricted to the throat on the Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, though it still has an extensive throat patch. Because physical appearance of the two hummingbirds is similar, some consider the Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird to be a race of the Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. Given that the Sapphire-bellied has a tiny range and is considered Critically Endangered, it is certainly better regarded as an independent species until absolutely proven otherwise. Regardless of the taxonomic status we were keen to see this very range-restricted and very rare hummingbird. Fortunately, our arrival in Cartagena put us here at the right time because the mangroves were just starting to bloom (the preferred nectar).
We took and early taxi from Barranquilla and asked them to drop us off at Los Cocos (the administrative buildings for the park). The signed entrance is about 9 kilometers past the little town of Palermo (a collection of roadside stops for snacks and cold drinks and little else). The park opens at 8:00 but the gates were open when we arrived at 7:30 and they were happy to let us in. The best birding areas is on the north side of the highway (on the left if you are coming from Baranquilla). There is a bridge under the freeway to access the trails on the other side if you don’t want to play frogger.
We spent the morning slowly meandering the trails following all the sounds we are learning and some we have yet to learn. It is amazing what a few months away from tropical birds can do to you. Luckily our memory isn’t completely awful and working together we are getting back on top of our game as well as learning some new songs. Practically the first bird we saw was the quite boisterous and vocal Yellow-chinned Spinetail. All of the other spinetails we’ve seen in Central America were shy little skulkers but not this guy. We also tracked down a Chestnut Piculet (near Colombian endemic), Bicolored Conebill, a family of Striated Herons, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Black-crested Antshrike, Crane Hawk, Great Black Hawk, Golden-green Woodpecker, Russet-throated Puffbird, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Bronzed Cowbird (this local Bronze-brown subspecies is pointed out as a potential split by many guides), and Yellow-headed Blackbird. We enjoyed a couple of North American migrants as well. The mangroves lining the southern Caribbean are one of the primary wintering grounds for Prothonotary Warblers. The birding at Salamanca was good but of course we were on the lookout for hummingbirds. We spotted one hummingbird but only got fleeting looks. Later we twice heard a hummer in a particularly area and finally saw it briefly. Instead of moving on we decided to stake out the tree because frequently hummingbirds will return to their perch, which indeed this little guy did. He returned to his perch several times allowing us some pretty good looks, but…. We still spent the next hour debating how much blue we actually saw. Finally we chased it to a lower perch and decided that the hummingbird was a Sapphire-throated Hummingbird because we could see a change in color from the throat down to the breast and the breast color clearly shifted to green above the legs. We continued to bird around the area until we ran into the park guards, who gave us a little tip. They said the hummingbird was recently seen in the flowering mangroves closest to the buildings. A few minutes later we had 3 hummingbirds buzzing around and found one that indeed showed sapphire blue all the way down his belly; a Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird. We thought that Salamanca was quite birdy with nice diversity for a mangrove forest, and it is certainly the best site for Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird. Even without the Hummingbird, it merits a few hours or a morning’s effort! (Our complete eBird list is here)
Another great place to stop along the road is back towards Barranquilla, at Km 4 which is essentially the south edge of the town of Palermo. We easily hailed a taxi roadside in front of Los Cocos and paid 10,000 COP. We asked him to drop us in Palermo where we had a quick arepa and cold drink then set out to walk the dirt road on a windy afternoon. The road is on the south side of the highway (on the right if coming from Barranquilla), and is just after a large pedestrian bridge that receives zero use. The road essentially follows a dike out into the a huge marsh, first passing through houses and scrub and then on to fincas and water buffaloes in ever more open marsh. Despite the late afternoon and very windy conditions we saw 62 species (eBird list).
The highlight of our afternoon was spotting a Northern Screamer in the marsh. What a cool bird! And talk about legs! Northern Screamer is a huge bird, and has proportionately very large legs, like Harpy Eagle legs on a black and white marsh turkey. Perhaps we can rename it the Pied Marsh-Harpy-Turkey. They may not be the rarest bird out there but it is always cool to get a first of a totally new group of birds! In the same pond we also spotted White-faced Whistling Ducks and Fulvous Whistling Ducks. Bare-faced Ibis are also hanging out in the marshes by the hundreds! Huge flocks flew overhead throughout the afternoon. Other highlights along the road include Black-collared Hawk, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Blue-winged Parrotlet (with amazing looks), White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Pied Water-Tyrant, Bicolored Wren, and Russet-throated Puffbird. Seeing the Russet-throated Puffbird in the open is another one of those strange things because all of the other Puffbirds we’ve seen have been tucked in the forest. We smiled every time we saw a Russet-throated Puffbird sallying out in the open or perching on a fence post.
With this little taste of the birds in Colombia, we wanted more and decided to head up to Tayrona National Park. Normally heading to Tayrona is not a problem however we were unfortunately going during Semana Santa (holy week) when everybody in Latin America travels and I mean everybody. We headed down to the bus station in Barranquilla to catch a bus to Tayrona only to learn that there were no buses on good Friday, despite having called the day prior and having been told that there would be plenty of busses. Determined to go, we found a taxi to share and while a bit expense it wasn’t actually too bad and we arrived at our destination. We stayed at Hotel Finca La Gordita at Km 22 along the highway. The hotel is 2 km east of the town of Calabazo and the Pueblito entrance to the park and 8 km west of the main entrance at Cañaveral. This is a good place to base yourself from if you are looking for reasonably priced accommodations outside of the park. Flagging down a bus or a taxi from here is pretty easy as well, and for what it’s worth, we saw quite a few birds just around the Finca including Golden-winged Sparrow, plenty of common but still awesome birds like Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Whooping Motmot, Lance-tailed Manakin, Cinerous Becard, One-colored Becard, Red-billed Emerald, White-throated Sapphire, a surprise Coppery Emerald a bit below it’s typical elevation range, and a lot more Saltators, Vireos, Flycatchers and Wrens that were still fun to get re-acquainted with after our hiatus. Our eBird lists for Finca La Gordita are here.
Originally we had planned on hiking into Pueblito from the park entrance in Calabazo early in the morning to search for the Blue-billed Curassow (a Colombian endemic and unfortunately a critically endangered species that only occurs at a handful of sites any more), but after talking to the park guard we decided to try the main entrance. The guard told us that the Blue-billed Currasow is more frequently seen early in the morning around Cañaveral and EcoHabs. Even though we knew the park would be busy we optimistically figured that most people would already be in the park and perhaps the forest trails would be a bit quiet, so we headed to the main entrance as early as we could. When we arrived there was a line into the streets! Seeing a Curassow with this many people did not bode well, but there were other birds to see. We took a shuttle to Cañaveral to get to the Curassow area as soon as possible, but there were just too many people and it was already 7:30 when we arrived.
Despite the hordes of people we had a nice time birding in the park. If you want to see either Lance-tailed Manakin or Buff-breasted Wren, Tayrona is the place to be. These guys are everywhere! Birding was a bit slow due to the number of people but we did see two new birds, White-bearded Manakin, and Dull-colored Grassquit. Dull-colored Grassquits can be difficult to identify simply because they have no stand out characteristics, but we felt confident with our identification after noting the pale lower mandible and finch shaped bill (as opposed to the arched mandible of a Seedeater) and the overall dull brown color with slightly darker wings. Another good “soft” (as in not definitive but a good clue) fieldmark is seeing a group of drab apparently female-plumaged gray-brown seedeater/grassquit type birds without any obvious males.
Getting back to Cartagena on Sunday to retrieve our van proved to be quite interesting, but after 13 hours of the joys of traveling on Easter as the Semana Santa hordes were headed home, we finally made it back to Cartagena. If you are planning to go to Tayrona, avoid the high season December – February and avoid going during Semana Santa. Lesson learned, next year wherever we are in Latin America for Semana Santa, we will find a very remote area and hide out!
More details and maps on birding at Isla de Salamanca and Tayrona National park can be found in the excellent new birdfinding guide, Birdwatching in Colombia by Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Florez.