7-14 May 2015.
Most people visit these reserves on guided trips, but it is possible to visit the reserves on your own, whether it be by car, bus, or moto taxi. However, one thing that you quickly learn about driving around Colombia is that it can take forever to get anywhere. Generally speaking, the roads are in great condition compared to some Latin countries, but hilly terrain and heavy truck traffic can mean that you average no more than about 20 mph driving down the highway. Heading up the hills behind heavy trucks leaves you crawling uphill at 5-7 mph and passing on the twisty roads can take time especially for the more timid. Others however seem to have no qualms about passing on blind corners to get past the slow trucks, much to our amazement.
We have found that destinations that are 30-50 km apart as the crow flies can be 200 km apart as the roads go, and 200 km can easily turn into a 6-10 hour drive if you are unlucky, such that we have generally started trying to be on the road by mid-morning in order to arrive by nightfall, as navigating remote areas only gets harder in the dark and there are fewer people about to ask directions after the sun sets!
RNA Hormiguero de Torcoroma (Recurve-billed Bushbird Reserve)
The Recurve-billed Bushbird Reserve is located outside of Ocaña in Norte de Santander. The star attraction here is of course the Bushbird and what a bird it is. Recurve-billed Bushbirds have a monster bill that is recurved, as the name implies, which they use like a can-opener to get into bamboo stalks to eat the critters they find inside. We were super eager to see this crazy bird and thankfully they are not too hard to see at the Bushbird Reserve. We parked at the ProAves sign and headed up the road where we encountered a fair amount of activity and plenty of good birds including a variety of hummingbirds and Tanagers, Moustached Brush-Finch and the common Golden-faced Tryannulet. Just a bit up the road there is a trail on the left that takes you into the forest. In the forest we heard a distant Klages’s Antbird singing and spotted Gray-throated Warbler, Rufous-naped Greenlet, Band-tailed Guan, and after a little looking and time spent in the bamboo-laden areas, we came across the prized bird, the Recurve-billed Bushbird! We watched it foraging in the bamboo and even got a video of him singing his little heart out.
At a little clearing with a little shelter we also came across a female Short-tailed Emerald. Short-tailed, Narrow-tailed, and Red-billed Emeralds are a little challenging to tell apart. Red-billed Emeralds can be distinguished from Short-tailed or Narrow-tailed Emeralds by tail color, if you can see it. Short-tailed and Narrow-tailed Emeralds have a green tail and Red-billed Emeralds have a blue tail. Short-tailed Emerald does, as the name states, have a slightly shorter tail but this is very hard to judge in the field as a bird’s posture greatly effects the apparent wing/tail projection. Assuming the bird you see has a green tail, separating Short-tailed from Narrow-tailed Emeralds is a little trickier. The male Narrow-tailed Emerald has darker green outer tail feathers and a longer tail (two field marks that can be difficult to see in the field). Separating the females, however is even harder and Hilty and Brown (A Guide to the Birds of Colombia) suggests that the females may not be separated in the field although female Narrow-tailed Emeralds have blue central tail feathers instead of the green central tail feathers on the female Short-tailed Emerald. The Narrow-tailed Emerald does not have a narrower tail, but rather narrower tail feathers. This is readily apparent in the hand but essentially impossible to judge in the field without good photos of the tail, preferably spread. We ultimately settled on Short-tailed Emerald for the female we saw based on range, the amount of green we could see on the tail, and the apparent width of the outer retrices from a few poor photos we were able to take. Narrow-tailed Emerald hasn’t been reported from the reserve, but it’s close enough to the range of the Narrow-tailed Emerald that care should be taken with identification there!
After hiking the trails for a while we decided to head back to the road and bird the road up. Here we came across Golden Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, King Vulture, Speckled Tanager, and more. As we were heading back to the van the fruiting tree near where we parked was covered in Thrushes. In one tree we saw Spectacled Thrush, White-necked Thrush, and Yellow-legged Thrush, quite the thrush convention.
After a quick lunch we headed back down the road with one quick stop that yielded Burnished-Buff Tanager. Our complete eBird list for the reserve is here.
If you are headed out to the reserve make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to get to Ocaña. The road from Aguachica to Ocaña is long, windy, and steep (and was subject to construction delays on our visit). We stayed at Hotel El Principe near the main square (Calle 10, #10-49). They have parking and nice new rooms with luke warm showers. The value is not great and there may be a better option in town but El Principe is certainly ok. It is about 7 km from the hotel to the reserve and the staff at the hotel can help with directions. Many people seemed aware of the reserve but if you find yourself in need of directions ask to get pointed to the Sanctuario de la Virgen, then just follow that road uphill, past the Sanctuario a few km until you see the reserve sign on the left where a (currently not passable by vehicles) dirt road forks uphill and left.
RNA Reinita Cielo Azul (Cerulean Warbler Reserve)
Next up on the list was the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, located west of Bucaramanga near the town of San Vicente de Chucuri. The reserve is actually in the Serrania de Yariguies, a slightly separate mountain range of the Eastern Andes. The bird list at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve is out of control. Four-hundred and twenty-two species have been recorded at the reserve thus far in eBird alone! The lodge sits in the foothills at 1300 m amid shade coffee and cacao plantations and small farms. Birding is good in the shade coffee but the better birding is up in the forest which is about an hour’s hike from the lodge. From the lodge you wind your way up through fields and pastures (less interesting, bird-wise) until you finally reach the forest. Warning, there are chiggers in the tall grasses along the trail so either sulfur up or tuck your pants into your socks and be sure to get a hot shower at the end of each day. Following the trail from the lodge is pretty easy as the trail follows the old Lengerke cobblestone route that was built in 1840 to connect the communities of San Vicente de Chucuri and Zapatoca. The only spot where you need to pay attention is near the top of the pastures. Here the path forks and while the cobblestone path is not obvious here, look for the large rocks embedded in the road and take the right fork. Soon enough you will see the cobblestones again indicating that you are on the correct path. After a short ways you will reach the forest and here is where the birding really begins. The main cobblestone path through the forest is obvious but there is also a short side trail that leads to hummingbird and corn feeders before the last gate and about 100 m before the main cobblestone trail into the forest. The feeders in the forest attract a wide array of hummingbirds. We saw Buff-tailed Coronet, Black Inca, Andean Emerald, Crowned Woodnymph, Speckled Hummingbird, Booted Racket-Tail, Green-crowned Brilliant, Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, and Gorgeted Woodstar (at the feeders nonetheless – we’ve never seen a woodstar at a feeder before). Besides the hummingbirds the main attraction is the corn feeding station for the Gorgeted Wood-Quail. The wood-quail normally do visit the feeding station at dawn but apparently have not been coming to the feeders lately. We heard the Gorgeted Wood-Quail very close to the feeding station, but they did not visit the feeder on our watch and we were not lucky enough to seem them from the trail. We also heard the wood-quail along the main forest trail, but again they remained out of sight.
The cobblestone path through the forest is simply great birding but it is also extremely slippery, so watch your step! As soon as we entered the forest we were rewarded with our first Ornate Flycatcher, a species which is fairly common at the reserve. Shortly after, a Booted Racket-tail buzzed by us and the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants started their little pinking calls. Both species are quite common in the reserve; in one day we logged at least 10 Booted Racket-tails! That’s one that I will never get tired of seeing. Further along we came across our first mixed-species flock of the day and boy was it a good one. Ash-browed Spinetails were mixed in with Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Montane, Olive-backed and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Slaty Antwren, Barred Becard, Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet, Golden Tanager, Rufous-rumped Antwren, and Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner. Not long after that we came across a silent pair of Uniform Antshrikes who allowed amazing looks, a silent and skulky Black-winged Saltator, and a pair of Golden-winged Manakins. Then we heard a loud, seemingly familiar sound that we did not immediately recognize and spent an embarrassingly long time trying to figure out that we were hearing Scarlet-rumped Cacique. I don’t know how many times they have stumped us in the past but they did it again. Maybe this time we will remember their peculiar sounds. But in the process of trying to track down our “mystery bird” we saw three White-mantled Barbets. The last bird of the day was the Yarriguies subspecies of the Magdalena Tapaculo. The Magdalena Tapaculo, also called the Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, is endemic to Colombia and occurs in two disjunct populations, one in the Yarriguies and one in the Upper Magdalena Valley proper.
One thing that is interesting about birding in the tropics is that if you bird the same place twice your bird list will almost never be the same. The first day in the forest we did not have any tanager flocks to speak of and instead were treated to a nice mixed-species flock with a lot of furnarids. The second time we birded the area we had three great mixed-flocks but this time with a lot of tanager species. Among the mixed-species tanager flocks we had Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Golden Tanager, Black-capped Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, Streaked Xenops, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, and Ashy-throated Cholorspingus. Another surprise for us was a Flavescent Flycatcher that we picked up in other mixed-species flock past the border between the reserve and the Yarigues National Park. In the park we also, by luck or by patience, saw a White-bellied Antpitta without using playback and it was not evening singing. We heard rustling on the forest floor and started scanning the forest floor when to my surprise a White-bellied Antpitta landed in my binoculars! I was shocked and super happy to have seen another Antpitta.
Nearing the end of the day, we found ourselves at the mirador (lookout) where the trail really starts to degrade and were rewarded with Azara’s Spinetail (a common enough species we tried to look for in the Perijás but only ended up getting responses from Rufous Spinetail). With that we headed back down to the forest feeders for another attempt at the Gorgeted Wood-Quail. We stayed until dusk set in, but no wood-quails came near so we shouldered our packs and turned on our headlamps for the hike down to the lodge in the dark.
The fields and surrounding coffee plantations are good birding as well. Here you will be rewarded with Scrub Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Flame-rumped Tanager, Bar-crested Antshrike, Black-faced Dacnis, Turquoise Dacnis, Striped Cuckoo, White-lined Tanager, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Spectacled Parrotlet, Spectacled Thrush, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and more (eBird list). The largest tree in the forest patch right next to the lodge is the place to watch early in the morning from sunrise until about 6:30 am when the Turquoise Dacnis seems to come in like clockwork. The Bar-crested Antshrike also hangs out in this forest patch as well as along the lower portion of the Lengerke Trail where there are thickets. We found the birding to be better along the road rather than the lower portion of the Lengerke Trail. The lower trail passes through mostly cutover areas and is lined with tall bunch grass limiting visibility. Several houses are along the trail, where barking dogs can get rather annoying. The road both above and below the reserve holds more interesting birds, offers more diversity of habitat, better visibility, and fewer dogs. We hiked down from the lodge on the road until we found a wet, steep gully with some mature trees along the road. Here we saw two Black-headed Brush-Finches skulking down in the shady undergrowth. Good birding can also be had on the road that heads past the lodge. Along this road we found the endemic Niceforo’s Wren in a thickety edge between coffee and a regenerating scrubby pasture. We also had Slaty Spinetail here and apparently Guira Tanager occurs in this area though we did not see it. Also of note, on the way up to the reserve we stopped once briefly around 1100 m and one of the first birds we saw was Double-banded Graytail! This interesting little furnarid looks more like a Tyrannulet and is somewhat uncommon and local so it was a pleasant surprise to see it there.
The hummingbird feeders at the lodge are a riot! Hummingbirds whiz past at full speed bouncing between feeders and frequently come within a meter to check you out. We had Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Hermit, Andean Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Black-throated Mango, White-necked Jacobin, Short-tailed Emerald, Long-billed Starthroat, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Gorgeted Woodstar. Interestingly the woodstar visited the lodge feeders and the forest feeders in the afternoon; it is definitely worth keeping your eyes on the feeders in the afternoon and evening for the Gorgeted Woodstar.
While it isn’t any secret, the birding at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve is truly excellent and we highly recommend this site be added to your Colombian itinerary. For a complete list of species seen check our eBird lists for day 1, day 2, and day 3.
To get to the reserve from Bucaramanga, take highway 66 heading east towards Giron and Lebrija. Several kilometers after Lebrija look for the large green Bio-max gas station on your right. Turn left approximately one kilometer after the gas station, where a sign on the road points you towards San Viciente de Chucuri. There are a few forks along the road (and currently a bit of construction) but it is signed and not too hard to follow. Once in San Vicinte de Chucuri, at the first fork you encounter keep left and wind around for a km or two until you see small store on your right called El Gaumito. If you look carefully there is a faded sign for the reserve here. Turn left at El Gaumito and head on up. From this point on you’ll need some ground clearance and the road is steep in sections, though 4WD shouldn’t be necessary. There are a few smaller dirt tracks that veer off the main road, but always stay on the main track and continue to head uphill until you reach the reserve. There is one spot where the main road makes a very sharp turn to the right and continues uphill, do not be tempted by the road that descends to the left. There are two other spots that are a bit more ambiguous, where both options appear equal and both head more or less uphill, at both of these spots, keep left. When in doubt, all the locals know of the reserve and can point you in the right direction, we asked a couple times!
RNA Pauxi Pauxi (Northern Helmeted Curassow Reserve)
The Northern Helmeted Curassow Reserve, despite its name, is not known to still support the Northern Helmeted Curassow. Historic records exist for the area but unfortunately this now very endangered species was extirpated from the area some time ago. Curassows or not, this reserve is well worth a visit. This is an excellent place to see Saffron-headed Parrot, Sooty Ant-Tanager, and Magdalena Antbird. Other great birds here include Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird, Gorgeted Woodstar, Wattled Guan, Scaly-breasted Wren (aka Southern Nightingale Wren), Black-bellied Wren, Marbled Wood-Quail, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, Purple-crowned Fairy, Black-faced Dacnis, Slaty-winged Foliage-Gleaner, the Magdalena Valley subspecies of Plumbeous Pigeon, and White-bibbed Manakin. The reserve sits across the valley from the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, and ranges from 900-1300 m elevation. The reserve is seemingly in the middle of nowhere; at least that is how we felt when we tried to get there. We use three different mapping applications to help us navigate during our travels and not one of the applications displayed the roads we drove on to get to the reserve. Thanks to the many locals we asked for directions, we made it to the reserve with no wrong turns. When you are traveling “off the map,” asking directions is interesting. You don’t ask people how far something is, rather you ask them how long it takes to get there. And you won’t get straightforward left/right/straight directions, you’ll be told to go up or down, with some nebulous hand waiving (though this is not relative to the slope of the roads, it is more just relative to whatever the person is referring to). When we asked the first person we saw how long it takes to get to Palmira, the first little village en-route to the reserve, we were told 2 hours. Two hours, are you kidding me, it’s just across the valley. The next person we asked said the same thing. We guessed we were in for a long, bumpy ride. Thankfully, there clearly was something lost in translation as we arrived in Palmira within about twenty minutes and an hour later we were at the reserve!
To get to the reserve from Bucaramanga, take highway 66 heading east towards Giron and Lebrija. Several kilometers after Lebrija look for the large green Bio-max station on your right. Turn left approximately one kilometer after the gas station. There is a sign on the road pointing towards San Viciente de Chucuri. Take the road to San Vicinte de Chucuri. Once in San Viciente de Chucuri take the “ring road” around the valley, by veering left at the first fork, avoiding downtown. You will pass the little store called El Guamito where the turn to the Cerulean Warbler Reserve is. It takes quite a while to make it all the way around town via the ring road. The road you are looking for is not labeled but is called the Via Barranca (aka the ring road). You’ll have to ask locals, but it’s a major intersection after descending down into a valley a ways, interestingly with a large sign that says something to the tune of “Bienvenidos en San Vicente de Chucuri,” even though you are leaving town. Turn right onto the Via Barranca, and ask after you’ve turned if you are on the Via Barranca and headed for Palmira. The road starts off paved but soon turns into a good dirt road (decent enough for buses to pass). The first tiny town you come to is Palmira. There is not much there, just a crossroads, a school, a store or two and a few homes. In Palmira, veer right towards the uphill fork, which heads for Palestina. (As a side note, from this point upwards you don’t need 4WD but a bit of ground clearance is necessary). It might not hurt to ask that you are in fact in Palmira and which way to Palestina to be sure before heading off to nowhere. The road is a mixture of dirt and sections of concrete paved two-track up through coffee plantations. The first fork you come to, the concrete tracks continue around a left hand bend, and a good dirt road leaves to the right, take this dirt road to the right. Follow this ever up, passing a tiny community of Palestina (again just a few houses and a school). After Palestina there are two forks off to the right, take the larger, left fork each time which will bring you to Barro Amarillo (basically one house, painted yellow, in the midst of a cacao plantation, and then later a small school and another house or two below the road to the right). From Barro Amarillo continue along the road, passing the school, and on a few km until you reach a ranch house with a cattle pen on the right, and shade-cloth nursery on the left. You will need to park here. Ask permission to park from the folks in the house and let them show you where to park, as people turn around here in front of the house in the small amount of space available. The reserve is a five-minute walk up through the nursery. Odds are, having coordinated your arrival with ProAves, the reserve manager, Arturo, will probably meet you here at the road.
The reserve is rather new and has limited infrastructure. There is a house where the reserve guard and his family live, that you can stay in. There is drinking water, electricity, a shared bathroom (cold shower but just fine at this elevation) and they can provide meals. The rooms are very basic (a couple of bunks with some very tired mattresses). Bed linens are provided, however you will need your own towel.
The hummingbird feeders around the house are good for a few hours of entertainment. We staked out the feeders when we first arrived as it was early afternoon and midday heat was in full swing. We found Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph, Green-crowned Brilliant, White-vented Plumeleteer, Brown Violetear, Sparkling Violetear, White-necked Jacobin, Indigo-capped Hummingbird, and Andean Emerald. Among the numerous Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, a distinctly different looking hummingbird came to visit the flowers in the garden and sure enough it was the endemic Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird. If you’re looking for this species and aren’t sure of identification and are trying to turn Rufous-tailed Hummers into Chestnut-bellied, be assured it is quite different and you’ll know when you actually see it. The chestnut belly is very cleanly broken from the green throat and upper breast, the rump is pale gray, and the bill is bicolored and not nearly as pure red as a Rufous-tailed, making identification fairly obvious from all angles.
In the late afternoons, Saffron-headed Parrots frequently come to feed in the fields above the house. We headed up to the field to try to catch them coming in to feed, but that evening they passed on the clearing and we instead had pretty good views of them flying overhead several times. However, on a subsequent morning we saw four Saffron-headed Parrots perched in a snag in the field from a mere 15 meters. It is definitely worth birding in the field in the late afternoons or early-mid mornings to watch for Saffron-headed Parrots flying over and hopefully coming into the trees in the field. After hiking miles in Parque Nacional Darién in Panamá for a week and only hearing this species once, having them perched in a snag with a clean view was a delight, it’s a really sharp looking bird!
To access the reserve there is a trail that leaves the house (past the small pond) and first heads through some second growth where we encountered White-bearded Manakin, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, Buff-rumped Warbler (aka Riverside Warbler), and more. After the second growth patch you arrive in the open field where you should look for the Saffron-headed Parrots. The trail meanders up the clearing. As the trail nears the right side of the clearing, watch for a gate on the right. Be careful if you get closer to the farm house above the gate, as there are 3 very aggressive dogs that will bark endlessly and we thought might do worse (and we are dog lovers who have managed to make friends with almost every dog we’ve met on the trip). Follow the trail along the bottom edge of the coffee for a short ways, until it enters second growth forest and crosses a small creek. Shortly after the creek there are hummingbird feeders and a corn feeder (we did not see many birds visiting them but we did not spend much time at the feeders). From here the trail ascends through great humid forest, crossing a few creeks and passing a few small side trails that are signed private. The trail is very easy to follow. Eventually you will come to a more prominent fork in the trail, with a ruined bench decomposing on the ground if you look carefully. If you go left, the trail will take you up to the ridge towards some communications towers. The birding is excellent up to the ridge, and gets quickly less interesting after that. If you go right (signed private but the trail is open and you are free to bird it), the trail will take you uphill to another junction. Right leads to a mirador and left continues a long, long ways through good forest, eventually reaching another reserve if we understood correctly, although it is not clear what is along the way. We did not take the right fork towards the mirador so we cannot comment about the birding in that direction but the forest looks great and should be productive. If you do take the main, left fork here, towards the towers, we highly recommend that you bird up to the ridgeline or perhaps a touch further but then return the same way you came. Do not continue to make a loop of it. Once on the ridge, the trail continues through much less productive, scrubby forest and then descends very steeply into an hour or two of hiking through chigger-infested cattle pastures that are hard to navigate (essentially you must have Arturo guide you through the pastures, as he did for us). Unless you’re really into a couple of hours of cows, chiggers and common open country birds, you’re better off staying in the good forest.
Anyways, getting back to birding in the forest, the birding is very good! After turning out of the clearing and passing through the gate, just at the edge of the coffee and the second growth we found Black-headed Brush-Finch. Once you’re in the forest, just past the feeders, at the second stream crossing we heard Magdalena Antbird singing, although seeing this guy well was not that easy. We managed a passable view in the dark forest understory, but not much beyond that. Further along we also heard White-crowned Tapaculo and again, with patience, managed a fleeting look. In the dense patches all along the trail we had Striped Manakins and Black Antshrikes. Further up the trail we came across a couple of excellent mixed-species flocks. The bird that tipped us off that there was a flock around was the noisy, endemic, and striking Sooty Ant-Tanager! In one flock we had Plain Xenops, Checker-throated Antwren, White-flanked Antwren, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Green Honeycreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, and more. Later flocks included Purple Honeycreeper, Guira Tanager, Speckled Tanager, Slaty-winged Foliage-Gleaner, and Plain Antvireo. Throughout our time in the reserve, we also heard Channel-billed Toucans and occasionally Crimson-rumped Toucanets calling, however it wasn’t until the second morning that we actually managed to see the toucans although we missed the toucanets. Similarly the Magdalena Valley subspecies of Plumbeous Pigeon can be heard all throughout the forest. This species’ call varies regionally and in the Magdalena Valley it is three parted and lower pitched than the similar Ruddy Pigeon. However, seeing one is a bit trickier as they are frequently perched high in a distant tree. Oddly enough, we had excellent up close views of two Plumbeous Pigeons gorging themselves in plain sight on a low fruiting tree in one of the cattle pastures. We saw one female Gorgeted Woodstar in a treefall gap in the forest, where many hummingbirds were active. As far as we know it is not coming to the feeders here as it is at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, but it is definitely in the forest.
The Pauxi Pauxi Reserve is said to be a great place to see the Wattled Guan as they are reportedly fairly common. Arturo says he hears them almost every day. We, however, did not hear a single Wattled Guan during two mornings of birding the forest. I heard one very distant Wattled Guan from the house at 5:00 in the morning while we were getting ready to head out, but we did not hear a single one after that.
Despite the handful of road directions to navigate, it’s not too hard to get to Pauxi Pauxi, and if you are coming from the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, the lower elevation of this site will add many different birds to your list (eBird list day 1 and day 2). To visit the reserve contact ProAves at Tel.: (57-1) 3403229 / 3403261 / 2455134 or contact Ecotours at mobile (57) (1) 245-5134 and (57) (1) 340-3285, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.