19 – 20 May 2015 and 27 – 28 May 2015.
Though most birders associate northern and/or north-eastern Colombia with the endemic birds of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Guajira Peninsula, and perhaps the Perijá Mountains, there are a couple of really cool, highly endangered, highly localized endemic species in the northern extents of Colombia’s eastern Andes that simply cannot be passed up! While at first glance (and perhaps at second, and third, and, well, fourth glance) the concept of hunting for a nomadic, endangered Grackle may not sound mind-blowingly cool in comparison to looking for, say, Horned Guan, Tufted Jay, or Ocellated Quail, the Mountain Grackle really is an incredibly cool bird! And the Gorgeted Wood-Quail is actually kind of splashy for a Wood-Quail, which are basically little, dark, earth-tone lumps that scurry furtively on the forest floor. Other cool NE Andean endemics lurk out there as well, including the very striking Black Inca. Nearby, the Chichamocha Valley adds in a couple more endemics, the Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird and Niceforo’s Wren (a lovely songster that will sound familiar to fans of the more widespread Rufous-and-white Wren). As well some of the broader East Andean endemics are of course around, but really, the main targets between Bogotá and the Perijá are the Mountain Grackle and the Gorgeted Wood-Quail.
There are three major sites to look for both species: Reserva de la Reinita Cielo Azul (The Cerulean Warbler Reserve), Onzaga Rd, and Reserva Biologica Cachalú. Far more people visit the Cerulean Warbler Reserve than Onzaga Rd, and we just submitted the first eBird lists for Cachalú! The Gorgeted Wood-Quail is easy at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve if it is coming to the corn feeder, but if not it is very hard to see – on our visit there seemed to be only one covey in the area, the forest is thick and steep with poor visibility of the ground, and they seemed to us to be very unresponsive to playback, probably as a result of the number of people that go there to try to see them! A few records exist for the wood-quail on Onzaga Rd but they would be very hard to see in the area where they occur there, due to the steep terrain. However at Cachalú they are quite a bit more common, and are more easily seen.
Mountain Grackles do occur at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, but it is probably the hardest of the three sites to see them at, as you have to hike to the very end of the trail to get to the highest accessible area, and then you only have a little bit of overgrown trail to work for a nomadic species. Onzaga Rd is the most traditional site to see the Grackles, where they occur in reasonably open oak forest patches along a very quiet dirt road with good visibility. Apparently they are regular in the breeding season (Dec/Jan) and pretty easily seen, but we struck out completely in May. We spent two ½ days searching for the grackle to no avail. On the flip side, the Grackles while they might be harder to actually spot at Cachalú, given the nature of the habitat, they were vocal and active and easily seen during our visit.
We’ve already written about our visit to the Cerulean Warbler Reserve and after only hearing the Gorgeted Wood-Quail and not having any sign of the Grackle, we decided Onzaga Rd was clearly in the cards. We naïvely set out from San Gil to take the back way to Onzaga. Our maps showed a direct route over the pass towards Soata, so we thought sure it looks easy and short. Boy, were we wrong about that! Dirt roads of varying quality twisted and turned over the mountain, but we eventually found our way, with quite a bit of direction asking and second guessing, from Onzaga towards Soatá and into the area where the Grackles occur.
The summit straddles the departmental boundary between Santander and Boyacá. The Onzaga side of the summit, which is still in Santander, has a couple of kilometers of good, humid forest from about 2800 – 3000 m interrupted by a few clearings. The Soatá side of the summit, which is in Boyacá, is much drier, with patchier blocks of drier oak forest from about 2700 – 3000 m. This drier oak forest has a more open understory and overall seems to hold far fewer birds and host far less diversity of species, but this is the area where the Mountain Grackles are traditionally seen. Birdwatching in Colombia contains a good overview of the area, indicating where the Grackles have been traditionally seen during the breeding season, near a couple of large hairpin turns around 2700 – 2750 m. This area contains oak forest backing onto cleared pasture areas. In our time spent here, we logged depressingly few birds. We saw a group of Rusty-faced Parrots in flight, we crossed paths with a few Green Jays and there were a few of the ever present Brown-capped Vireos and Golden-fronted Redstarts, but very little else. Higher up, above the larger clearings and the two larger fincas, some of the gullies are a touch moister. At an area at about 2850 m where a small waterfall is just off the side of the road in a gully, we found a few more birds, including Mountain Cacique, Streaked Xenops, Capped Conebill, Montane Woodcreeper, Black-capped Tanager, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. The local Sanabria family, who own the couple of fincas and the forest here, told us that the Grackles hadn’t been seen much lately but occasionally visited this waterfall area in the evenings. They said that they seemed to be mostly higher up in the forest, away from the road. Following this suggestion, we birded the area around the pass and a couple of trails that head uphill from there (one is an old dirt road that leaves immediately from the pass, the other is a trail that leaves from the back corner of the marshy pasture just downhill on the Santander/Onzaga side of the summit).
This area was good for hummingbirds and was birdier overall, but we still found no trace of the grackles. We did, however, log Undulated (heard only) and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas, Pale-bellied Tapaculo, Mountain Cacique, Red-crested Cotinga, Rusty-faced Parrot, Scarlet-bellied and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanagers, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Silvery-throated and Azara’s Spinetail, Pale-naped Brush-Finch, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Mountain Velvetbreast, Amethyst-throated Sunangel and White-bellied Woodstar. Further downhill on the Santander/Onzaga side we logged most of the above species again, as well as White-throated Screech-Owl, Collared Inca, Scaly-naped Parrot, Andean Guan, a variety of Flowerpiercers, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Plain-breasted (Sharp-shinned) Hawk, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Smoke-colored Pewee, Strong-billed Woodcreeper and Gray-headed Bush Tanager. The few records of Gorgeted Wood-Quail have been in the wetter, mixed forest in the area below the summit on the Santander/Onzaga side. We trolled for them a good bit with playback but never heard a peep. Overall, Onzaga Rd is a mixed bag. If the Grackles are around, they are purportedly pretty easy. However, if they’re not around, the birding is really, really slow in the areas where you look for them. The pass area itself and the back side of the pass offer much better birding, but apparently there are far fewer records of the Grackles on this side.
Getting to Onzaga Rd: From the Soatá side, it’s pretty easy to find the road and asking around will help make sure you get pointed the right way. From Soatá, head uphill (to the west) to the highest main street and make a right turn that heads north and further uphill. You will pass a larger hotel and then the road will sweep around to the left, turn to dirt, and pass some new development. There are plenty of people around to ask directions if you get lost or need confirmation. As you climb up the road, there are a couple of forks in the road, go left at both of them and you’ll find your way into the oak forest in about 40 minutes to an hour. From the Onzaga side, it is more complicated. Most people will advise you to drive south from Onzaga to connect with the main Duitama – Soatá Rd, then drive back north to Soatá. We received erroneous directions a couple times and at one point were told that the road over the mountains was impassable to vehicles. However, with more questioning, we eventually found our way. On the bottom side Onzaga (E side, a bit S of the square), just north of the single gas station, is a road that leaves town to the east, soon crosses the creek, forks immediately (keep left on the obviously more traveled main road), and climbs uphill. There should be people here to confirm that you are on the correct road towards Soatá. At the first summit, the road forks, keep right and stay on the obviously more traveled road as it wraps around to the back side of the hill you just climbed. As you descend, keep your eyes peeled for the first fork and here take the smaller, less traveled right hand fork. This is a much narrower road and soon gets grassy, you end up feeling like you’re on someone’s driveway for several miles. However it keeps going, descends and crosses a creek, then ascends the far side of the valley, hitting the first forest patches around 2500 m and getting into a good forest a bit higher, before reaching the summit and descending towards Soatá.
After the Cerulean Warbler Reserve and Onzaga Rd, we were 0 for 2 on the Mountain Grackle and had only heard the Gorgeted Wood-Quail, so we made arrangements to check out Reserva Biologica Cachalú. The reserve protects 1300 hectares of primary and secondary cloud forest from about 1900 – 2700 m. It adjoins the 10,400 hectare Santuario de Flora y Fauna Rio Fonce. Together the two make one of the largest remaining tracks of oak-based cloud forest in the Eastern Andes (though not as large as the PN Yariguies) and are critical for the conservation of Mountain Grackle, Gorgeted Wood-Quail, Black Inca, and many other birds, animals, and plants. A frog that was previously thought extinct was recently re-discovered in the reserve, which is wonderful news. The trails in the reserve are hard to find and at times hard to follow, the footing can be slick, the terrain is steep and rocky, and the forest is tall and dense. All of this makes for challenging birding, and means that you need to have Jose Maria, the reserve manager, guide you on at least your first outing or two, or else you won’t even find the trails that head into the forest. However, we saw Mountain Grackle within minutes of entering the forest and found them again on several occasions. We didn’t get great looks but at least we finally found them.
The Gorgeted Wood-Quail is relatively common at Cachalú. We heard at least two-three different coveys and they can be found throughout the reserve. Fortunately, they seem most common in the second growth forest with more open understory closest to the lodge. Seeing them in the primary forest would be really challenging, so this is a blessing! We were able to see them with a bit of patience by being out early in the morning and working the area. We found that they did not call in the evenings but did call quite a bit in the mornings.
Beyond those two key species, there is a stake out for nesting Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and we found two males and a female in the middle of the afternoon, as well as hearing and seeing them later again at various points throughout the reserve. The forest near the Cock-of-the-Rock nesting area is some of the most gorgeous primary cloud forest we have ever seen. Just being in the forest is worth the effort of getting to the reserve! Given the challenges of birding in tall, thickly forest steep terrain with, at times, poor footing, we didn’t spend a ton of time on mixed flocks or other birds, but again our focus was on finding the wood-quail. However, the habitat at Cachalú is really, truly, excellent and we found some good species including White-bellied Antpitta, Spotted Barbtail, Wattled Guan, White-throated Spadebill, Black Inca, Greenish Puffleg, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Blackish Tapaculo, and Moustached Puffbird. Though not rare, the endemic Colombian Chachalaca are common and easily seen in the scrubbier second growth areas closer to the lodging. There are certainly far, far more great species hiding in the forest here and birders who don’t mind the steep terrain, a longer visit should turn up some great birds!
As far as logistics go, Spanish is necessary to make arrangements and get to the reserve. Contact Clara Solano email@example.com, 310 679 0950, to make arrangements. She will put you in touch with Jose-Maria Martinez, 314 434 9042, who is the reserve manager. After making arrangements, you need to get to San Rafael, which is really just a couple of fincas located about 30 minutes from Encino. The easiest way to get to Encino is directly from Duitama rather than from Belen. This road is shown on some gps mapping applications and in Google Maps, at least in part. You can also get to Encino from Belen or from Charala. No matter which route you take, it will be a few hours on dirt roads (2.5 – 3 hours from either Belen or Duitama, and perhaps 1.5-2 hours from Charala), and you’ll need to ask directions a few times but it’s pretty easy. From Encino, ask directions to San Rafael, which involves descending to the river and crossing it, then forking immediately left. After about 30 minutes on this road you come to a fork (a bit past, and across the river, from where GPS apps seem to label San Rafael), where the road continues straight but gets much rockier and grassier, or curves right on a more traveled road. Continue straight on the grassier/rockier track a couple hundred meters until the road peters out. The finca here at the end of this road is owned by a very friendly man, Raul, with whom we arranged to park and who kept an eye on our vehicle (give him a small tip for watching your vehicle when you leave). Jose Maria came down from the reserve and met us here with a horse to carry our gear up. It is about 1.5-2 hours hike up unless you can hike as fast as the locals, who claim it’s under an hour. Rubber boots are mandatory for the mud and for the numerous creek crossings. As well you will be hiking through a lot of cattle pastures and chiggers are everywhere, but ice cold showers at the end of every day will help, we got a few chiggers but they were not too bad.
The reserve lodging is a 100+ year old farm building, thus it is very rustic but there are beds and bedding, a simple kitchen, and clean bathrooms with cold water. You’ll want to bring up all of your own food. There may or may not be electricity from a solar panel and batteries for lights in the evening and charging electric devices, so plan accordingly and bring headlamps. On our visit we were charged 10,000 COP/person for reserve entry, 15,000 COP person/night for lodging, and Jose Maria told us he wouldn’t charge us for the use of the horse since we brought so little gear. He also said that the fee for his guiding was up to us, so we gave him a large tip. All in all a visit to Cachalú was a very inexpensive visit to a gorgeous location with some amazing birds.
One more point of interest in visiting the reserve is that coming from either Belen or Duitama, you will cross large expanses of pristine paramo (this is the Paramo de Rusia, we think that is what it is called anyway), and some great elfin forest patches in and below the paramo. You could easily spend a day birding this habitat and could readily camp in the paramo here. We stopped briefly for a mixed flock in elfin forest above Belen that included Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, Black-headed Hemispingus, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Pearled Treerunner, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Glossy Flowerpiercer, and Rufous-browed Conebill. While birding this flock we also found a White-chinned Thistletail and other common paramo species. We didn’t look for it, but Green-bearded Helmetcrest should occur in the Espeltia up here, particularly if they are blooming, and the other E Andean Paramo species should all be found here based upon how good the habitat looked.