April 26 – May 3, 2015
The Serranía del Perijá straddles the border of Colombia and Venezuela well north of the main eastern Cordillera of the Andes. The Perijá range is separated from the main Andes chain by the Catatumbo lowlands, a broad, hot, and dry valley. This separation has led to a high degree of endemism; a number of species are restricted to this small area.
Until about 10 years ago, the entire area was quite inaccessible due guerilla activity and narcotics production. In 2006 the Colombia military started restoring order in parts of the Perijá, including the area above Manaure known as Sabana Rubia. Since then, birders have started investigating the area and a couple of ornithological expeditions have been undertaken. Recently, ProAves, with the support of Rainforest Trust and others, acquired a large amount of land (1,850 acres) protecting primary and regenerating secondary forest from about 2400 – 2900 m. This new reserve, called the Perijá Thistletail Reserve or “Reserva Natural de las Aves – Chamicero del Perijá”, protects all but one of the known and described Perijá endemic bird species. The one species not yet found in the reserve is the Perijá/Todd’s Parakeet.
At the moment, only three of the endemic bird taxa are fully recognized as species, but several others are already split and just awaiting adoption into SACC (South American Checklist Committee) and Clements Taxonomy (and with that, eBird), several more are in the process of being split, and several are obviously different but no work has been done yet. Below are the endemic taxa that are known to occur in the Serranía del Perijá:
Perijá Metaltail (Metallura iracunda)
Perijá Thistletail (Asthenes perijana)
Perijá Tapaculo (Scytalopus perijanus) – Recently formally described, this distinctive Tapaculo already has a placeholder entry in eBird and should be in mainstream taxonomy soon.
Perijá (Rufous) Antpitta (Grallaria (rufula) saltuensis) – Rufous Antpitta consists of some widely differing subspecies and a paper and proposed split is coming soon. The Perijá and Santa Marta forms, among others, should almost certainly be elevated to species status.
Perijá/Phelps’s Brush-Finch (Arremon perijanus) – A bit about the name of this species later.
Perijá Brush-Finch (Atlapetes nigrifrons) – Widely recognized as a distinct species but not yet officially split by the SACC (and thus Clements and most other authorities, who still list it as part of Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch, which used to be called Rufous-naped Brush-Finch.) Notice that this has the same common name as the Arremon Brush-Finch above? More on that below.
Perijá Starfrontlet (Coelinga (bonapartei) consita) – To date not much work has been done on this distinct form, but it appears at least as distinct from the nominate Golden-bellied Starfrontlet (Coelinga bonapartei) as Golden-tailed Starfrontlet (Coelinga eos) of the Venezuelan Andes is, which is already recognized as a distinct species. Many hummingbirds species boundaries depend heavily on morphological features and geological separation, i.e. the recently split Blue-bearded, Green-bearded, White-bearded and Buffy Helmetcrest and the proposed-for-split of Santa Marta and Andean Blossomcrown. Following such a yardstick, it’s pretty reasonable to expect that the Perijá Starfrontlet will be split in the future.
Perijá (Todd’s) Parakeet (Pyrrhura caeruleiceps) – The Painted Parakeet is a taxonomic mess, consisting of a huge number of subspecies spread out over most of the neotropics from Panamá south, in varying habitats and showing immense variation. Several distinct subspecies were recently split off, but several forms were not split due to lack of data. Several of these are very distinct and obviously geographically isolated forms that are almost certainly distinct species but are still left as lumped with Painted Parakeet by the SACC and Clements. The Perijá Parakeet (also called Todd’s Parakeet), the critically endangered Sinú Parakeet of central Colombia, and the Azuero Parakeet of Panamá are currently not fully recognized as distinct species but almost certainly will be in the future. While the Perijá Parakeet occurs in the Perijá range, they are not yet known to occur within the reserve boundaries, and are generally known from lower elevations.
As well there are as many as 35 subspecies that have yet to be studied, but which various authors and many birders have noticed are distinct enough to draw attention. Among these are subspecies of Rufous Spinetail, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, and Common Chlorospingus.
As if that is not enough in the way of interesting endemic species and species to be, there is perhaps a new species still waiting to be found and described in the Perijá. A specimen of a Cranioleuca Spinetail was collected near Zunia, at about 700m, not far from Sabana Rubia across the border in Venezuela, and attributed to Streak-capped Spinetail (Cranioleuca hellmayri), which is otherwise a Santa Marta endemic. However, there is a division of opinions over what species this specimen may represent. We have not seen the specimen and wouldn’t be the qualified authorities to judge its taxonomic status anyways, but it’s a bit of a curious story. We have heard second hand accounts that Streak-capped Spinetail has been reliably recorded in Venezuela in the Perijá, which would potentially resolved this, but many do not believe that the specimen collected was really a Streak-capped Spinetail. It is hard to say with certainty what this Cranioleuca sp. really is, or what its range may be, but it is probably still out there in the Perijá!
One last taxonomic/naming issue; getting back to the two Brush-Finch species mentioned above. Colombian taxonomy and the new ProAves published McMullan and Donegan guide recognize Atlapetes nigrifrons as separate from Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch and give it the name Perijá Brush-Finch. They also recognize Arremon perijanus as separate from Arremon torquatus, and give it the name Phelps’s Brush-Finch. However, the SACC has thus far recognized the Arremon torquatus split but NOT yet the Atlapetes latinuchus split. Despite the fact that the name Perijá Brush-Finch is already in use in Colombia for Atlapetes nigrifrons, they gave the common name Perijá Brush-Finch to Arremon perijanus, which has been picked up in Clements taxonomy. So you have two species called Perijá Brush-Finch, the one in Clements and eBird is the Arremon species, the one in the Colombian field guide is the Atlapetes species. The Arremon species also goes by the name Phelps’s Brush-Finch, and the Atlepetes is still lumped with Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch (Atlapetes latinuchus) by Clements and thus eBird. Can you say confusing? Whatever names you use, they both are clearly valid species, the Atlapetes is widespread and abundant in the Perijá, and the Arremon is distinctly less common and trickier to find.
All of the taxonomy of the various species and species-to-be aside, the birding is nothing short of fantastic and except for the Critically-Endangered Perijá/Todd’s Parakeet, which is only known from three tiny forest patches, all of the endemics and many more fantastic birds are readily encountered in the Perijás.
ProAves has recently constructed a small lodge at the Chamicero del Perijá reserve, at 2600 m in the middle of beautiful forest. The reserve and lodge should be ready for visitors soon and has everything you need including hot showers, but in the meanwhile we were fortunate to visit and spent a week camped in the reserve doing some birding, recording, and trying to help out with a couple projects. Some good but basic information regarding the area is already in print in Jurgen Beckers’ and Pablo Florez’s excellent new “Birdwatching in Colombia.” As well, a paper describing the results of a pair of ornithological expeditions in 2008 and 2009 by Lopez et al. (2014) is very informative and can be found online here.
The birding in the Perijá basically breaks down into 5 sections:
- The shade coffee and cacao zone above Manaure up to about 1200 m.
- The lower forest patches with slightly drier forest and the bit of shade coffee from about 1600 m up to San Antonio at 2000 m.
- The cloud forest and scrubbier hillsides from San Antonio to El Cinco.
- The cloud forest from El Cinco up past the lodge to about 2800 m and the scrubbier elfin forest above it.
- The paramo of Sabana Rubia starting at about 2900 m and the few forest patches contained within the paramo.
- The shade coffee and cacao zone above Manaure has a good variety of mature trees, lots of thickets, lots of scrubby second growth hillsides, and generally holds a lot of birds. We found one of the endemic species here among the generally more common birds, but it was a good one – the Perijá Brush-Finch (Arremon perijanus). This was recently split from Stripe-headed Brush-Finch and, like most of the Arremon torquatus complex, is a fairly uncommon bird that skulks in thick vegetation from about 800 – 2000 m (our estimated elevation range, based on our observations and those of others).
We found a single Perijá Brush-Finch by chance at about 850 m in a thicket just above Manaure. We also heard this species in a thicketed gully in the shade coffee at about 1700 m. Friends of ours saw it in a very small forest patch in a wet gully at about 1750 m as well. Given that most of the intervening hillsides are denuded, leaving it in two separated pockets around 1000m and around 1700m, and given that this species is relatively uncommon and quite furtive, it is one of the harder of the endemics in the area. If you don’t find it in the forest patches below San Antonio, some stops in thickly vegetated gullies in the coffee/cacao zone above Manaure could produce this species. As well, the coffee/cacao zone from about 800-1200 m holds many more common species such as Greenish Elaenia, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Swallow Tanager, Golden-headed Manakin, Whooping Motmot, Golden-crowned and Rufous-capped Warblers, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Swallow Tanager, lots of Saltators, Rufous-and-white Wren, Scrub Greenlet, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and the like – widespread species of lower foothills and lowlands that can tolerate some disturbance. The coffee and cacoa zone is very good birding and we easily logged 60+ species in a small area in about 2 hours in the late morning.
- The lower forest patches starting at 1600 m and heading up to San Antonio definitely hold good birds, most notably the Perijá Brush-Finch (Arremon perijanus), Lazuline Sabrewing, Highland Tinamou, Lined Quail-Dove, Perijá Tapaculo, Klages’s Antbird, Black-fronted Wood-Quail, Rufous-shafted Woodstar, and Coppery Emerald. The Lazuline Sabrewing can be found lekking in the tiny forest patch in a wet gully at 1740 m (10.36392, -73.00490). Knowing the lekking song of the Sabrewing will make it pretty easy to track down perched near the Heliconia here. Friends of ours found the Arremon Brush-Finch here as well. The Klages’s Antbird is a newly minted species resulting from a four-way split of Long-tailed Antbird. We and others have found it in thickets in the forest patches between 1800-1950 m. We found ours in the thick Chusquea bamboo in the forest patch that is along the steep concrete-paved bit of road in the middle of San Antonio.
Other good birds in these forest patches below and around San Antonio can include Fulvous-headed Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Oleaginous Hemispingus, Gray-throated Warbler, and Rusty Flowerpiercer. Here, you will also pick up your first of many Black-crested Warblers. They are very common from the forest patches around San Antonio up to the Paramo. As well, Hook-billed Kite appears to be reliable in this area. We saw the same dark-morph and gray-morph pair and a juvenile numerous times around the coffee at 1700 m as well as an adult dark morph around 2000 m that was likely a different individual. In San Antonio we found some flowering trees in some of the cattle paddocks that were absolutely swarming with Rusty Flowerpiercers and Hummingbirds, including Steely-vented, Speckled, Coppery Emerald, and Booted Racket-Tail. We also found a perhaps somewhat out-of-range Green-bellied Hummingbird here.
- Above San Antonio and up to El Cinco, you will encounter a mix of good forest patches and moist gullies interspersed with some scrubbier areas and drier hillsides. Good species found here include Perijá Tapaculo, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Long-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-Tail, Highland Tinamou, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Lined Quail-Dove, Golden-headed Quetzal, Plushcap, Fulvous-headed Tanager, Andean Solitaire, Mountain Wren, Golden-breasted Fruiteater and Brown-billed Scythebill.
About halfway between San Antonio and El Cinco you will encounter Finca La Esperanza with junipers pruned into odd shapes. The flowering trees and blackberries here are excellent for hummingbirds – Speckled, Long-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-Tail, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, and more. Just past Finca La Esperanza is a great humid forest patch where we found several Plushcaps and Fulvous-headed Tanagers. Scaly-naped Parrot is common and Black-and-Chestnut Eagle is regular from here higher and fly-overs of both species are regular throughout from about 2000m up.
- The best forest of all occurs from just above El Cinco up to about 2750 m and again in patches up to about 2950 m an around the lodge. Just above El Cinco Streak-capped Treehunter can be found. It probably occurs in other areas as well but we had a pair above El Cinco and later a single bird in a short stretch from about 2450 – 2500 m. Of the endemics, Perijá Tapaculo and the Perijá Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch (Atlepetes (latinuchus) nigrifrons) are both very common. We saw the Tapaculo readily with brief playback when it was singing close to the road in a place where we could call it in to a dark shady spot that still allowed visibility. After that, we ended up seeing it again without even trying; it really is a pretty easy Tapaculo. It is fairly common from about 1800 – 2200 m and downright abundant from about 2200 – 3000 m. Many other interesting birds are readily found in this zone – Golden-headed Quetzal, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyran, Common Chlorospingus (Ponsi subspecies), Andean Pygmy-Owl, White-throated Screech-Owl, Long-tailed Sylph, Highland Tinamou, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Plain-breasted (Sharp-shinned) Hawk, Black, Bluish and White-sided Flowerpiercers, an endemic subspecies of Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Oleaginous Hemispingus, Yellow-billed Cacique, Masked Trogon, White-browed Spinetail, the endemic subspecies of Rufous Spinetail, an endemic form of Emerald Toucanet, and Paramo Seedeater. As is the case with many Tinamous, seeing Highland Tinamou is very difficult. We estimated that we heard 4-5 different individuals over the course of our stay and twice had them calling very close to the road, but they would never come close enough to be seen and we didn’t luck into any crossing the road for us, despite hiding ourselves a bit and waiting patiently when they were close to the road.
Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, Plushcap, Andean and Band-tailed Guans, Red-crested Cotinga, Perijá (Golden-bellied) Starfrontlet, Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, and Red-billed Parrot are less common but are definitely around in the area from El Cinco up to 2900 m. Crested Quetzal, Wattled Guan and Variegated Bristle-Tyrant are apparently not uncommon though we did not see them in several days in the appropriate elevations. There is at least one record of Orange-throated Sunangel though it is probably pretty rare in the Perijá. Up to about 2500 m Golden-breasted Fruiteater is relatively common. However, starting around 2500 m and going up to the paramo, Barred Fruiteater replaces the prior species. For us, it was relatively common during April/May. Others have not yet reported Barred Fruiteater here that we are aware of, but we heard it numerous times and saw the species at least three times, leading us to believe it is at least seasonally common.
The endemic (and probably soon to be split) subspecies of Rufous Antpitta occurs from about 2800 m up. It seems to prefer heavy thickets of Chusquea bamboo in humid forest. The antpitta may occur a bit lower but we spent a good bit of time looking without turning up a single Perijá Rufous Antpitta in any of the lower elevation forest patches.
We first encountered the antpitta around 2850 m in an area with Chusquea bamboo. Here, we heard at least three Perijá Rufous Antpittas and saw one of the three individuals. On a second morning, we saw a Perijá Rufous Antipitta foraging in the middle of the road at the same location at 5:20 am. We had really nice views for a minute or two without use of playback, always a wonderful thing with an Antpitta!Around the lodge, sightings of Black Flowerpiercer, Tyrian Metaltail, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Green Violetear, Mountain Velvetbreast, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, Slaty Brush-Finch and Great Thrush and are fairly guaranteed at the feeders. Black-fronted Wood-Quail has come to the feeders at least once thus far, and we heard them one evening very close by, hopefully they will come to the feeders more reliably with time!
- The paramo and forest patches from 2850 – 3100 m hold some really good birds. The forest patches within the paramo contain many of the species mentioned above, including Barred Fruiteater, but this area is where we had our one and only Perijá (Golden-bellied) Starfrontlet. Notably, this subspecies differs from the nominate in having a strong, obvious buff wing band in both sexes in all ages. It is split by some and may well be more widely recognized as a separate species in the future. We also heard a Perijá Rufous Antpitta calling from one of these patches, though a good ways from the road and pretty inaccessible. In the paramo itself, you can find one of the most exciting endemics, as well as one of the most confusing endemics. The exciting and thrilling bird up in the paramo is the Perijá Thistletail.
If you reach the open paramo areas early enough in the morning, it shouldn’t be too hard to find this species singing. We arrived at the first patch of paramo, where a few obscure dirt double tracks intersect the main dirt road, around 2870 m, at about 5:30 am. By 5:40 am we heard a Perijá Thistletail singing. Without using playback, we were able to readily make our way through the open habitat and get in front of the bird’s line of travel. It remained mostly hidden in the low vegetation but seemed unconcerned by our presence and passed within just a few meters of us as it foraged and sang. We were able to record and photograph the bird while a second sang in the distance. After it passed we made a wide loop and got in front of it again, and again the Thistletail passed very close to us, allowing us to make excellent recordings of this little known species! By about 6:10 am both individuals quit singing and we did not hear or see them again the entire day. The Perijá Thistletail is difficult to find when not singing, but perhaps it may not be that uncommon in the paramo. We would certainly recommend being up at the paramo by 5:30 am (leaving the lodge by 4:30-4:45 depending on how fast you want to walk) to maximize your chances of connecting with this bird. Despite what the new guidebook may say, in our experience this species remained exclusively in the low (~1m) grassy and brushy paramo areas and avoided the wooded areas.
The other key bird in the Paramo is the Perijá Metaltail. This species is confoundingly similar to the local race of Tyrian Metaltail. Theoretically it ranges from 2700 m up into the paramo. Some guidebooks suggest that it is restricted to paramo, while others suggest that it also can be found in wooded areas in and near the paramo. Some suggest that it is fairly common in the paramo, while others suggest that it is rare and restricted to rocky paramo gullies and hillsides. In our experience, we felt that it was reasonably common, exclusively in paramo areas, and certainly overlapped with Tyrian Metaltail such that habitat was NOT a good clue for identification of individuals. But this is based only on two days spent observing individuals for a total of about 10 hours between 2850 – 3050 m along one dirt track. As well, no matter how much you want to be 100% confident of your IDs in the field, the birds in the following gallery could well be mis-identified! We welcome any and all feedback on the identification of Perijá Metaltail, as well as on our identification of the following individuals!
Various guidebooks illustrate the species differently and point out different criteria for separating Perijá Metaltail from Tyrian Metaltail. In our experience, the Tyrian Metailtail in the Perijá shows a distinct bluish tint to the tail when the tail is seen refracting in good light. As well, the tail reaches roughly the wingtips on a perched bird, though this feature is extremely hard to judge as it varies dramatically with the posture of the perched bird. The female theoretically shows more extensive rufous below (extending further down the breast), and pale/buffy tips to the outer retrices. We saw what we felt were female Tyrian Metaltails (birds with shorter tails with distinctly blue iridescence) that showed obvious pale tips to the tail that did not just appear to be an artifact of wear, and that showed varying amounts of rufous on the breast. Hence pale tail tips may not be a good characteristic for separating the females. Among the males, the gorget, breast and back colors, to us, seemed too similar and too overlapping to allow any judgement to be made, at least based upon binocular views. It may be possible that male Perijá Metaltails can show a subtle rufous/tawny wash across the throat, between the gorget and the breast, but we would not yet suggest this as a feature to be used for identification. This was just our observation that appeared to be consistent based upon many individuals seen, but consistency is very hard to ascertain when so few of the birds could be absolutely ID’d to species based upon brief views. For both the males and the females, we felt that the best single field mark was the length and color of the tail when seen refracting well in good light. The tail of the Perijá Metaltail shines a deep burgundy color – heading torwards purple but still on the red/chestnut side of purple. The tail of the Tyrian Metaltail that occurs in the Perijá shines a clearly bluer shade of purple when seen in good light. The Perijá Metaltail is also certainly larger, but this is very hard to judge in the field, the difference is not tremendous, so again the tail, when seen well, seemed to us to be the best fieldmark. We also felt that, particularly when viewed in photos, the longer and larger tail of the Perijá Metaltail was definitely apparent versus the length and size of the tail of the Tyrian Metaltail, but we felt that tail size was much harder to judge on a bird tucked into the paramo and foraging 20 m up a hillside that provides only brief views. It is certainly worth studying the abundant Tyrian Metaltails at lower elevations well to help prepare for the definitely not straightforward identification of the overlapping Metaltails that occur in the paramo. The paper linked above by Lopez et. al. contains some very helpful photos of the two species in the hand, illustrating the subtle but definitive differences in the tail.As well as these two endemics, the paramo areas hold a few other great species. We found Streak-backed Canastero readily in a few different locations, and the possibilities for raptors up here are excellent. Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Andean Condor, Black-and-chestnut Eagle, Plain-breasted Hawk, and White-rumped Hawk are all regular. All of these species except the Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle are also regularly seen from the lodge area as well.
In terms of getting to the lodge, first you need to make arrangements with ProAves for your visit. The lodge will have everything you need including hot showers and three meals a day. If you are getting to the reserve on your own, first get yourself to Valledupar. From Valledupar, exit to the south towards La Paz (erroneously labeled as “Robles” on several GPS applications/devices). In La Paz, you’ll come into town, go through a sweeping left turn where another road comes in from the right, then just a few blocks further along watch for a brown tourist-site information sign that reads “San Jose del Oriente” and indicates a right turn. This is a very short block past a plaza (also on the right). Make a right turn at this sign. There is only one real road intersection between La Paz and Manaure, where a signed right turn leads to San Jose del Oriente. Keep straight here instead of turning right and continue to Manaure. It is about 40 minutes on this paved road to Manaure. Coming into Manaure, you will come to a fork as the first real decision to be made, keep right, which puts you on Carrera 8 (which is labeled). Go ahead a few blocks to the largest street, Calle 2, which has a center divide, and turn left here. Drive uphill a few blocks on Calle 2 until you reach the bottom right corner of the very large main plaza. Here at the bottom corner turn right on Calle 6a. Head slightly downhill until the road twists a bit, crosses a bridge (next to the Hotel Danta, where we camped on our way down), and then continues uphill. If you don’t find your way through Manaure, just ask for Hotel Danta or for the road to El Cinco. From here, basically just keep heading ever up.
The road is paved for a ways, then a good dirt road, then eventually gets pretty bad. 4WD is probably not mandatory but a truck with clearance is certainly necessary to get up to the lodge, and 4WD is probably a very good idea (we used ours, including low-range, and it is very helpful to make the descent easier on the brakes). On the way up you’ll encounter few cross roads or points of confusion. If in doubt, always head uphill. From above Manaure until about 1200 m you pass through pretty good shade coffee. From about 1200 -1600 m you pass through a denuded, cutover wasteland of cattle pasture. Starting around 1600 m the first forest patches appear. Better forest patches start at 1800 m, and at 2000 m you will pass through the village of San Antonio. Above San Antonio the forest gets better and better, then there is a bit of a scrubbier area and a bunch of Eucalyptus just before El Cinco. Keep right at the little road junction in El Cinco (again uphill) and enter terrific forest from here all the way up to the lodge at 2600 m. The road continues above the lodge on to the paramo of Sabana Rubia at about 2850-2900 m and eventually on into Venezuela.