27 June – 2 July 2015.
With Bogotá finally in our rear-view mirror and renewed visas in hand, we were finally ready to explore new sights. We’ve already been in Colombia for three months and have another three months before our visas expire for good and we must move on towards Ecuador. Colombia is such an expansive and diverse country it really is hard to see everything in six months, but we are giving it our best. Up next on the list was a quick visit to La Victoria to search for the endemic White-bibbed Manakin which we only heard at RNA Pauxi Pauxi.
After a week in Bogotá, where it was “winter,” with cool, mountain temperatures and the rainy season in full swing, we drove down to the Mid-Magdalena valley and straight into summer. We had no idea! While we were expecting warmer temperatures based on elevation, we had no idea it would actually be summer (in the tropics, summer is the hot and dry season, regardless of what month it is). Almost everywhere else in Colombia (and the neotropics north of the equator), the dry season is sort of December through February, give or take. Unfortunately summer conditions in the Magdalena Valley meant hot, dry, windy, and dead. The forest at La Victoria felt virtually birdless! In a couple of hours in the afternoon we only logged 12 species! And most of those were open-country species. Nothing, absolutely nothing was calling or visibly moving.
The wind howled all night long, enough so that we slept with the van’s pop-top down for fear that gusts of winds would damage it. We woke to more wind and crossed our fingers that we would at least come across some birds. The forest was still extremely quiet, unfortunately. We were thinking to ourselves that we should have tried harder to see the White-bibbed Manakin at Pauxi Pauxi. We resorted to using playback in areas described in “Birdwatching in Colombia” where White-bibbed Manakins have been seen in the past. Thankfully a female White-bibbed Manakin popped up, but no males. Who needs to see the male anyway, right? Girls with their subtle plumage are always better 😉 Not much else stood out for us at La Victoria (eBird list) but several good birds have been recorded here during the winter months and it is generally considered to be a good birding destination.
Perhaps one of the better-known birding destinations in the Mid-Magdalena Valley is El Paujil, another ProAves Reserve. The reserve is named after the enigmatic Blue-billed Curassow (El Paujil). This awesome and unfortunately now very rare Curassow is endangered due to overhunting in the past and habitat loss. Thankfully most of the hunting pressures have subsided but there are only a few places left to see this turkey. Blue-billed Curassows call Tayrona National Park, El Paujil, and Los Besotes Reserve home but Curassows are rarely easy to see and a range-restricted, rare Curassow is, not surprisingly, pretty hard to see! Fortunately, however, El Paujil has a feeder which has made them quite regular near the lodge. But the feeder is not the only thing enticing them to visit the lodge area. ProAves also has a large outdoor enclosure with four Blue-billed Curassows (one male and three females), and this seems to also attract the wild birds to come say hi and hang out. These birds were rescued as chicks, so ProAves attempted a captive breeding program. The females would lay eggs but unfortunately the eggs also quickly became lunch. I believe the hope is to eventually reintroduce the Curassows.
We missed the Blue-billed Curassows at both Tayrona and Los Besotes, so Paujil was pretty much our last chance to see them. I was really excited at the possibilities of seeing a wild Blue-billed Curassow and was really hoping for a good look. I got a good look but it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. As soon as we stepped off the trail toward the enclosure I saw the male perched up on his post and let me tell you watching him and the other three females was magnificent! But the birds in the cage don’t “count” because they are captive birds, so we waited around the cage for the “wild” ones to appear. When the wild and thus “countable” bird finally showed up, we saw it standing on the roof of the captive birds’ enclosure. I just said Oh, there she is. Don’t get me wrong, they are magnificent birds and I am happy to have seen them but I really wish I could have seen them away from the feeders. Or maybe I would feel differently if I hadn’t seen the captive birds first? I’ve been thinking a lot about feeding stations lately and have several thoughts winding through my head, especially as we are about to approach our first antpitta feeding station in the coming weeks…
Feeding stations and Blue-billed Curassows aside, El Paujil is a great birding spot with tons of great birds being reported. However, the dry summer months when we visited again meant quiet forests. The first morning we worked the areas from the lodge towards the tower and hummingbird feeders. Throughout the morning we logged a good number of birds but we had to work for them, spontaneous song was very low and we encountered no mixed flocks (apparently mixed flocks are pretty scarce there no matter the season). Highlights included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Yellow-backed Tanager, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-billed Flycatcher, One-colored Becard, Sooty Ant-Tanager, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Broad-billed Motmot, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-bellied Wren, and Shining-green Hummingbird (For our full list see e-Bird). The next morning we decided to try our luck on the other side of the river. The bridge is still out but the dry conditions meant that it was easy to cross in our rubber boots. Bird activity was still slow and we encountered most of the same species as the previous day with a few nice additions, Olivaceous Piculet, Beautiful Woodpecker, Bare-crowned Antbird (just across the river), and White-tailed Trogon (complete list here). The birding at El Paujil is really rather good and it is definitely one of the top spots in the Mid-Magdalena Valley.
The next big birding destination in the Mid-Magdalena Valley is Cañon del Rio Claro on the road between Bogotá and Medellín, just above Doradal. The star attractions at Cañon del Rio Claro are the endemic Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant and the odd and mysterious Oilbird. Of course plenty of other good birds occur at Rio Claro but those are the prized birds. Mulata Creek trail is the place to go for the Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant, while the Oilbird can be found at Manantial Beach at the end of the main trail (about 15 minutes from the visitor center). We headed up the Mulata Creek trail at the crack of dawn to try out luck with the Bristle-Tyrant. Not too far up the trail we came across our first mixed-species flock, the ticket for Antioquia Bristle-Tyrants as they are frequently found in mixed-species flocks. After a couple of glances at Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Olivaceous Flatbill, and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, we had an Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant in our sights. We were not really sure what to expect this little guy to look like despite studying the field guides, as the subtleties of color, structure, and posture of flycatchers seem to be hard to really learn from field guides. However, we knew it when we saw it, the Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant is quite distinct from other tyrant flycatchers in the region, with a quite bright yellow breast and chin, and yellow wing-margins with white on the tertials. I’d have to say that was about one of the easiest endemic flycatchers I’ve ever seen. With the pressure off we enjoyed a nice relaxed day of birding as we headed further up the canyon where we encountered Bare-crowned Antbird (at least 5 in one morning without use of playback, this has to be the best place to see this bird!), Sooty Ant-Tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Dusky-faced Tanager, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo, Black-faced Dacnis, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-faced Antthrush, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Cinnamon Becard, and more (eBird list).
At Cañon del Rio Claro, we also thoroughly confused ourselves with the Tolmomyias flycatchers, that is the Yellow-olive (Tolmomyias sulphurescens) and Yellow-margined Flycatchers (Tolmomyias assimilis), both of which occur there. In Middle America, Yellow-olive Flycatcher (T. sulphurescens) has a distinct pale iris and gives a rather harsh raspy call note which readily distinguishes it from the Yellow-margined Flycatchers (T. assimilis) of the region. There are habitat differences a lot of the time as well, with Yellow-margined (T. assimilis) usually remaining within forest and Yellow-olive (T. sulphurescens) being more of an edge bird (although these are not strictly definitive and ID cannot be made on habitat alone). However the Tolmomyias group, it turns out, is not that straightforward and it gets really messy when you get to South America. What is currently considered the Yellow-olive Flycatcher (T. sulphurescens) is composed of approximately 15 distinct subspecies/populations, many of which are vocally distinct and which probably represent anywhere from 3-12 species. To add to the confusion, many of the South American Yellow-olive Flycatchers (T. sulphurescens) lack the pale iris which is a good field mark for adult Yellow-olive Flycatchers in Central America. In cases where the pale iris is present in South American populations, it can be nearly impossible to see in the field. But the most confusing part is that the voice of the confusus subspecies of Yellow-olive Flycatcher (T. sulphurescens confusus) in northern Colombia and Venezuela (and thus the variety encountered in Rio Claro) sounds nothing like its Central American brethren and instead sounds remarkably similar to Yellow-margined Flycatcher (T. assimilis; at least to our untrained ears). A good study is necessary to distinguish between Yellow-olive and Yellow-margined where T. sulphurescens confusus occurs. The song of the confusus Yellow-olive is generally slower and a note or two shorter than Yellow-margined (T. assimilis), but it is best to really study these songs before birding this region! Again there are theoretically habitat differences but we have seen what are absolutely Yellow-margined Flycatchers (T. assimilis) in northern Colombia in gardens and quite disturbed habitat and we have seen what are certainly Yellow-olive Flycatchers (T. sulphurescens) in the canopy of good forest, so this is only a very soft identification tool. In this region, however, there is one other very good field mark that can be used if you can see it. Yellow-margined Flycatcher (T. assimilis) has a distinct wing check or speculum at the base of the primaries that is obvious if you can see the bird from the correct angle. This doesn’t hold over for other areas of South America where the speculum is missing from various subspecies of Yellow-margined Flycatchers (T. assimilis).
As one further bit of confusion to add to the Tolmomyias mess, Yellow-margined Flycatcher are almost certainly at least two different species (Tolmomyias assimilis, sometimes called “Zimmer’s Flycatcher” in the Amazon and Tolmomyias assimilis flavotectus from Central America through the Chocó and Magdalena in Colombia). Despite having heard several Yellow-margined Flycatchers throughout Central America on first day of birding in Mitu we were stumped by odd calls from a small flycatcher. Having spent weeks studying exotic and new species it had escaped our attention to study the vocalizations of Amazonian Yellow-margined Flycatchers and they are nothing at all like those of the birds north and west of the Andes.
In addition to confusing Tolmomyias flycatchers, Cañon del Rio Claro is full of Buff-rumped Warblers (AKA Riverside Warblers) swaying their little yellow butts back and forth up and down the river. And it’s never too early to learn how to shake it because even the tailless, freshly-fledged juveniles were giving it their all, a rather funny sight to see.
In the evening we walked to Manantial Beach to wait for the Oilbirds. We got there plenty early to be sure we did not miss them and spent a good 45 minutes waiting for night to settle in. As we waited we could hear raucous, otherworldly screams coming from inside the cave. If you did not know what was in there you would genuinely think there was a monster inside the cave! Their calls really are from monster land. Soon enough, however, one Oilbird came out to check out the scene but quickly went back in the cave deciding that it was still much too bright outside. This continued on and off until, finally, at about 6:45 in the evening Oilbirds started streaming out one by one giving their monstrous screams. Oilbirds are the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world. They eat palm fruit which they pluck off the trees in flight and gobble it down whole. Oilbirds can fly up to 25 km or more each night in search this palm fruit delicacy. Oilbirds get their name from the large amount of fat content the juveniles have as a result of eating large amounts of palm fruit. Early settlers would often capture oilbirds to extract oil from their bodies. It’s perhaps one of the the most unique birds in the world and beyond just seeing them day roosting in a cave, it is definitely worth staking out a cave entrance at dusk to see the spectacle of the oilbirds leaving!
If you go:
La Victoria: There is no lodging at the reserve but there are hotel options not far away in the town of Victoria. They kindly let us camp in front of the guard’s house, with use of the bathrooms, for free. Directions to La Victoria are located in “Birdwatching in Colombia”
El Paujil: Getting to El Paujil on your own takes some time and the turns into the reserve are not all that clear. First you need to get to Puerto Boyacá located on Highway 45 along the Magdalena River. South of Puerto Boyacá take highway 60 heading east. Turn left onto a dirt road at 5.9544772, -74.4753174. There is a small ProAves sign on the side of the road. Follow this dirt road for nearly two hours until you reach Puerto Pinzon (not signed, but it’s the only town you come to). Follow the main road through town and near the far end of town turn right heading uphill at 6.06694204, -74.26584271. There is a very old ProAves sign here that is barely noticeable, we missed it on our first try! Follow this road a few km to a signed left turn that descends to the reserve. Beware that this final km or two down to the lodge is very steep and, in places, in poor condition. A truck with clearance is mandatory and 4wd is a good idea. The reserve has excellent infrastructure with nice rooms, a/c, and nice cold water showers (It is hot in El Paujil so a hot shower is not really what you want and the cold water shower hits the spot after a long day of birding).
Cañon del Rio Claro has several options for places to stay. There are several different sets of cabins in the park to choose from and you can also tent and car camp at the reserve entrance with access to bathrooms and cold water showers for 15,000 COP per person per night (includes reserve entrance).