18-20 April 2015
The Guajira peninsula is a located in the north-east part of Colombia and is the driest region in Colombia. It’s hard to imagine a desert in a such a verdant, tropical country but the Guajira receives an average of 21 inches of rain annually and is covered with cactus and acacia species.
This area is also home to the Wayuu people who manage to eek out a living in this stark, hot, and dry landscape. Because access to some of the birding areas is via networks of Wayuu trails and watering holes hiring a guide is almost essential. The best guide in the area is Jose Luis. He knows where to find all of the Guajira specialties and is super passionate about birding. He can be contacted by phone at 310 701 2276 or 315 375 8491. Jose Luis does not speak English but he does know the English names of all the birds. You can bird the roads in the area without a guide, but given the poverty and environmental damage in the region, hiring a guide helps the community and supports conservation in the region. We birded with Luis for one morning as he had other obligations.
The Guajira specialties include Vermilion Cardinal, Tocuyo Sparrow, Buffy Hummingbird, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, Pileated Finch, White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero (Caribbean subspecies), Bare-eyed Pigeon, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Northern-scrub Flycatcher, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, and Glaucous Tanager. The good news is that most of the specialties are relatively common and for the most part easy to see, no neck-craning involved J. Only the Tocuyo Sparrow and Buffy Hummingbird can take a little more time to find, but in two days of birding they should be easily found, especially if you are out birding with Jose Luis.
The majority of Guajira specialties can be found in 2-3 locations near Los Flamencos/Camarones. The first place we stopped was the road to the Wayuu community of Cari Cari. The dirt road (11.306938, -73.12084) leaves the highway west of the village of Perico and is marked with a yellow tire on the north side of the road (on the left if coming from Santa Marta). We arrived in the early afternoon and stopped merely to check out the area for a few minutes thinking that birding would be slow given the heat. Surprisingly we saw a fair number of good birds and in just 2 hours saw 11, of the Guajira specialties including Gluacous Tanager, White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero, Pileated Finch, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, Bare-eyed Pigeon, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, and Green-rumped Parrotlet (eBird list). The Cari Cari road is also the best place in the area to see the Tocuyo Sparrow. We thought we heard it and perhaps had a very fleeting look, but in the afternoon heat birds were neither very active nor very vocal and in the end we didn’t see enough of whatever bird it was to be certain it was the sparrow.
Before we arrived in the Guajira, we had been a bit worried about being able to distinguish the Glaucous Tanager from the similar Blue-Gray Tanager (which is more common) and the Pale-tipped Tyrannulet from the Slender-billed Tyrannulet. However, in the field and away from the plates in your field guide, once you actually see the bird, the Glaucous Tanager is obviously very different from the extremely familiar Blue-Gray Tanager. The head and nape color of the Glaucous are much grayer, the blue on the breast is a duskier, darker shade of blue than the Blue-Gray. Moreover, the breast is nearly concolorous with the back and wings, making the Glaucous Tanager almost appear darker overall and gray-headed. In comparison, the Blue-Gray Tanager’s instant impression is powder blue with contrasting sky blue wings. Suffice it to say, when you see the Glaucaous Tanager, you will know it. The Pale-tipped Tyrannulet is also fairly easy to distinguish from the Slender-billed Tyrannulet, particularly as they are almost always calling. The songs of the two species are quite different and a quick study of their songs (and of the call of the Pale-tipped, which it gives more than its song) will easily separate them. However, if you happen upon a silent tyrannulet, the Pale-tipped Tyrannulet appeared to us to be more readily identifiable by paler face, pale eye if visible, white lores, and duskier wing-bars than the pale tips on the tail. If you get a good look at the underside of the tail you can see pale-tips but we found the face and wing-bars to be better field marks.
The second key birding destination is Old Camarones Road. Old Camarones Road passes through desert scrub and passes over several washes, only one or two of which seem to reliably hold water throughout the year. The southernmost bridge (furthest from Camarones, closest to the highway) with water is an excellent place to catch up with a number of the specialties. Here we found Vermilion Cardinal, Slender-billed Tyrannulet (which Jose Luis called una plaga, aka a trash bird), Rufous-vented Chachalaca, White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero, Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, and Orinocan Saltator (eBird list 1 and 2).
The other birding destination if you miss Vermilion Cardinal is the pozo (water hole) near Los Flamencos/El Remanso that Jose Luis will take you to. On our brief morning out with Jose Luis, he took us on a tour of the area near El Remanso del Santuario (a restaurant that is well signed from the road), navigating the trails through the village and around the pozo. Vermilion Cardinals are plentiful around El Remanso and the pozo. If you are out early you will easily see several males perched up singing their little hearts out, and in the morning you can’t miss that red color. The females with their punk rock hair-dos are lookers too so don’t forget to look for them. However, once mid-morning heat sets in, they shut up and tuck into the scrub and you wouldn’t know they were ever there. Other good birds to look for around the area include the feisty little Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant and Black-faced Grassquit. We also watched a Green-rumped Parrotlet feast on cactus fruits from just a few meters distance. While not a terribly uncommon bird, it was pretty awesome to see a Parrotlet so close and to watch it eating rather than just have a glimpse in a distant tree or see a pair of microscopic missiles wing overhead.
Around El Remanso you will also find the majority of specialties except the Tocuyo Sparrow which does not occur there (see our eBird list). But you may also find a few surprises around the area. We were really surprised to find Rufous-tailed Jacamar in such a dry area, and we were surprised to find White-tipped Dove in such a dry area as well. We are used to seeing them in more tropical and wet forest, but there are a fair number of the Jacamar around, and the dove is as common as dirt out there. Another oddity that you will encounter around El Remanso in particular is the House Sparrow. This was a surprise for us, we hadn’t realized they had made it south of Panamá but apparently they are still getting around as they are also turning up in the Darién with increasing frequency. (We had originally seen our first Panamian House Sparrow inside a grocery store in the city of David several years back!).
The Guajira is a desert, more specifically Guajira-Barranquilla Xeric Scrub. It goes without saying that the Guajira is dry, but it was particularly dry when we visited. The lagoons were nearly dried up as were the local watering holes (pozos).
Hence shorebirds and waterbirds were in short supply and there were no Scarlet Ibis around. At Boca de Camarones (the lagoon mouth and the beginning of Los Flamencos sanctuary proper), we only saw a small handful of distant American Flamingos, White Ibis, Reddish Egret, Royal Terns, Common Terns, Semi-palmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gulls, and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls (although a vagrant Lesser Black-backed Gulls are expanding and are being seen with more regularity wintering throughout the Caribbean). The lack of water also meant that flowers were in short supply, making it more difficult to track down the Buffy Hummingbird (it appears, as well, that Buffy Hummingbird may be easier in areas of Northern Venezuela, I guess we will find out in a few years when we make it there). Frequently the Buffy Hummingbird is seen around the pozo near El Remanso, but with the extreme lack of water its preferred flowers were not to be found, and neither was it. We saw two hummingbirds go winging by at full tilt but we never managed to get a make or model on them. We staked out what few flowers we could find but not one hummingbird ever came by. Jose Luis gave us the tip that the other good spot for the Buffy Hummingbird is along the Old Camarones Road, again at the first bridge with water. He mentioned that he sometimes hears it there early in the morning. We tried it again in the late afternoon and while there were actually a good number of flowers, still no hummingbirds were around.
Having seen all of the Guajira birds except the Buffy Hummingbird and Tocuyo Sparrow, we set off early on our final day to try to clean up. We pulled up to the bridge just after 6:00 am, did a quick scan of the flowers, and set ourselves up in two strategic spots to have the best view of as many of the flowers as possible. After about 5 minutes we heard the Buffy Hummingbird. It is not actually all that often that knowing the song of a hummingbird is the key to seeing it, but this time it sure paid off. We both instantly recognized the song and began searching for the hummingbird, but couldn’t turn it up. Josh tried a Pygmy-Owl whistle, which frequently brings in hummingbirds, but no dice. After a few more minutes we heard it again, and played the song once. Sure enough it came out of hiding right in front of us and there it was right below the bridge giving us terrific views! At this point we have grown accustomed to hummingbirds frequently being far more difficult than field guides would have you believe, and we have devoted a lot of time to some successful searches (White-crested Coquette, Bumblebee Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and recently the Santa Marta Woodstar), and a lot of time to some unsuccessful searches (we got skunked on both Beautiful and Lucifer in Mexico despite prolonged time in their ranges, we searched in vain for Glow-throated in Panamá, and we recently spent two days failing to see the Black-backed Thornbill). We have kind of grown weary of Hummingbird searches as they can feel so futile, so it really was rewarding to not miss a species that, truthfully, is not actually all that rare.
Now it was time to go search for the Tocuyo Sparrow before the morning warmed up too much. We scooted back to the Cari Cari road and spent some time slowly walking along the area where we thought we might have heard the sparrow previously. An hour passed and no sign at all of the sparrow in the approximately ¼ mile stretch of the road just before the community of Cari Cari that we very thoroughly covered. We decided to continue past the community and try the next likely patch of thicker scrub. Within just a few minutes we heard the high-pitched, distinctive seet calls of a sparrow in the thicket and soon enough we saw a pair of the prized Tocuyo Sparrow. These guys are actually quite the lookers and we thought they showed more obviously contrasting, sharper stripes on his head than depicted in field guides. We took in the sparrows for several minutes until they continued on their way and were super happy that we saw all of our target birds in the region.
Most people stay in Riohacha when they visit the Los Flamencos area, but it also possible to stay closer to the birding destinations. We camped out at the El Remanso del Santuario Restaurant and Hotel (11.43278, -73.08577) to be right in the center of the action. They let us camp for $10,000 COP per person per night, which included bathrooms and primitive showers (which were awesome after a dusty hot day in the scrub!). They also have two modest hotel rooms. The restaurant serves up seafood galore, but as we eat vegetarian unless there is no other option, we cooked for ourselves and cannot say just how good it is. Judging by the crowds though it must be pretty good; they were extremely busy on the weekend.