14-22 July 2015.
We have had the great fortune to volunteer for ProAves at a couple of their newest reserves, conducting bird surveys and searching for rare and key species. First we spent eight fantastic days in the Perijá Mountains, in the amazing new Reserva Chamicero del Perijá (Perija Thistletail Reserve). Most recently we spent a bit over a week at another fantastic new site in the northern Chocó lowlands, the Reserva Titi Cabeciblanco (Cottontop Tamarin Reserve). The Cottontop Tamarin Reserve was established in 2013 to protect the Cottontop Tamarin, a critically endangered monkey that occurs in only a few places in Colombia, and the endemic Baudo Oropendola. This excellent new reserve is still relatively unexplored ornithologically. During our time we documented 146 species, 45 of which were new species that had yet to be found at the reserve. Certainly there are many more fantastic species out there, waiting to be found!
The lowlands of the Chocó of western Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, and a small adjoining area of eastern Panamá (the Darién) are some of the wettest and most biodiverse forests on earth and the birding rivals anything, anywhere. Within this lowland area there are some really spectacular birds, including a suite of regionally endemic species as well as a handful of species that are endemic to tiny little areas within this already small ecosystem. Beyond this, there are some more wide-ranging species that are easiest to encounter in this region. The quality and diversity of habitat in this rather large reserve is excellent and it is a great place to find the Baudo endemics as well as many fantastic Chocó species. A list of the endemics and specialties thus far recorded at the reserve is pretty mouthwatering:
Four species of Macaw (Chestnut-fronted, Blue-and-yellow, Scarlet, Red-and-Green)
With so little birding having been done here it is clear that more excellent birds lurk in the forest. Speckled Mourner, Blue Cotinga, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, Sapayoa, Rufous-crowned Antpitta, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, and White-tipped Sicklebill have all been recorded nearby and can all be reasonably expected to occur. Additionally, Chocó Tinamou might occur in the reserve as there are steep, densely forested and very wet ravines at about 200-250 m elevation which would be a good spot to look for this species. Many other Chocó species whose ranges are not well-known in this area could also occur in the reserve. For example, it would not be surprising, to us, to find Chocó Poorwill, Esmeraldas Antbird, Choco Woodpecker, Lita Woodpecker, Thicket Antpitta or other even more interesting species here!
The reserve is nearly 1000 ha (2,400 acres) in size and has an extensive trail system (best navigated with the reserve manager as there are quite a maze of trails that are not yet signed). Nearest the lodge and river are a couple of small areas of scrubby regenerating second growth. This area attracts the expected common species that frequent such habitat, but the edges of this also provide opportunity to see some of the forest species more easily as well. Immediately adjoining these areas you enter fairly advanced secondary forests. Deeper into the reserve (30-60 minutes walk, depending on the trails you use) you reach primary forest. While the forest has been selectively logged in the past, it is still fairly intact and we found a fairly full suite of primary forest birds, indicating the quality of the site.
Around the lodge and in the regenerating clearings nearby, we logged a very standard list of expected species for this habitat, but there are some great birds that are seen in this area as well. Baudo Oropendola, along with being regular in the forest, visits the snags above the lodge from time to time and is seen flying over the clearings daily. Cottontop Tamarins regularly visit the trees right next to the lodge. Little Cuckoo is resident in the scrubby second growth along the entrance road, about 200m before the bridge to the reserve. We saw Black-tipped Cotinga several times perching in and flying over the clearing just above the lodge. Though we didn’t cross paths with them, Baudo Guan is regularly seen at the edges of these regenerating clearings. Saffron-headed Parrots, Chestnut-fronted Macaws, Red-lored Parrots, Mealy Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, and Orange-chinned Parakeets all fly over with regularity and we saw all of these species perched from the lodge at one point or another. Brown-hooded Parrots have also been seen with regularity around the lodge. Pacific Antwren is particularly common here. We’ve never heard or seen so many in our life; they are in the garden, in the clearings, along the forest edges, all along the river, simply everywhere outside of primary forest! Black-throated Mango, Band-tailed Barbthroat and Pale-bellied Hermit are regular in the regenerating clearings and the garden itself. The feeders are swarming with Blue-chested and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. At the time of our visit at least one pair of Rufous-breasted Hermits were nesting in the garden as well. Other species regularly seen and worth noting around the lodge include White-bearded Manakin, Gray-capped Flycatcher, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Wren, Chocó Toucan, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Fulvous-vented and White-vented Euphonias, Golden-hooded Tanager, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Chestnut-headed and Crested Oropendolas, King Vulture, Black-chested Jay, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and Spot-crowned Barbet.
Swifts are common over the clearings and lodge. The most common swifts were Chaetura species that were either Band-tailed or Gray-rumped swifts, but swifts being what they are, in a week we never got definitive looks at them, we always saw them in the afternoon ahead of the rains, when we seemingly always had them at poor angles and against brutally harsh light. However, obvious among the unidentified Band-tailed/Gray-rumped swifts were numerous Short-tailed Swifts, a handful of White-collared Swifts and we saw Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift twice.
The further you get into the forest, however, the better the birding gets. The trails through secondary forest are very birdy, and the secondary forest is old enough, with a few clearings here and there in varying states of regeneration, that the result is a great mixture of mature forest species as well as some edge species. Common species in the secondary forests included Dusky Pigeon (much easier to see in the second growth areas in the eastern part of the reserve than in the primary forest!), Blue-black Grosbeak, Plain-brown and Black-striped Woodcreepers, Gray-chested Dove, Royal Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Tanager, Black-bellied Wren, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Rufous Motmot, Southern Bentbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (very common here, we’ve never heard or seen so many of this species in one day!), Bay Wren, Chestnut-mandibled (Black-mandibled) Toucan, Collared Aracari, Blue-crowned, Golden-headed, and Striped Manakins, Black-crowned Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Dot-winged Antwren, Brown-capped Tyrannulet (also remarkably common here), Cinnamon and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, White-tailed, Black-tailed, and Gartered Trogons and Gray-headed Chachalaca.
But beyond the common species, we picked up some distinctly less common gems in these areas, notably the Pacific Flatbill (not necessarily rare in appropriate habitat, but Rynchocyclus Flatbills are generally somewhat uncommon, not terribly vocal, and generally inconspicuous), Uniform Crake, and Long-tailed Woodcreeper. On the topic of Long-tailed Woodcreeper, there are two very distinct forms of this bird that are almost certainly separate species. The form found to the west of the Andes (subspecies darienensis in the Chocó, typica of western Panamá and Costa Rica, and minor of the Magdalena Valley) are nothing like the Amazonian form from a vocal perspective, and physically are distinctly smaller and have subtle but definitive plumage differences, most notably being more spotted below. The Central American and Chocó form of Long-tailed Woodcreeper seems to be at least quite uncommon, fairly local, and not very vocal, meaning that when and if it gets split, it will instantly be one of the specialty birds of this region, and not an easy one!
With a bit more hiking, you reach the areas of primary forest, where some of the rarest and, arguably, best birds can be found. The lowland rainforest of the Chocó is truly something to behold. With 300-500” of rain evenly distributed through the year, this is incredibly humid forest. Even in the lowlands epiphytes cover every inch of every tree around; except for the heat and humidity it almost starts to feel like cloud forest and not lowland rainforest! The trails here are muddy and the canopy flocks are despairingly far overhead, but the avian rewards of patiently birding primary Chocó forest are fantastic! We spent two full days and a morning in the primary forest, logging many elusive and sought after species. We called in and had amazing looks at a Plumbeous Hawk, a rarely encountered Chocó forest raptor and later heard a Semiplumbeous Hawk. We heard Tawny-faced Quail three times and eventually managed a great look at this incredibly secretive species along the perimeter ridge of the reserve. We were able to get great audio recordings and very nearly managed photos, but not quite! Berlepsch’s Tinamou, another hard to find species, occurs at the reserve but this one went down on our heard only list.
In the primary forest, we heard or saw Baudo Oropendola, Chocó Toucan, Dusky Pigeon, Red-throated Caracara, Red-capped Manakin, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, and Marbled Wood-Quail daily. We logged Blue-whiskered Tanager, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Brownish Twisting, Royal Flycatcher, Stripe-throated Wren, Golden-crowned Spadebill, White-ringed Flycatcher, Black-tipped Cotinga, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated Antbirds, Great Tinamou, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet-winged Schiffornis, Northern-barred Woodcreeper, Rufous Mourner, Rufous Piha, and Crested Guan multiple times. In the primary forest you also have a chance to see more Cottontop Tamarins and Venezuelan Red Howler Monkeys.
This is a site where rubber boots are mandatory and a full day on the trails will leave you tired. Relative to some other sites in Panamá and the Colombian Chocó, the reserve is relatively accessible and an easy site to see some amazing endemics and specialties, but it still requires some hiking and sure-footedness in goopy mud.
The reserve is located near the town of Mutatá, in the department of Chocó. Access to the reserve is currently via an old dilapidated bridge that requires a bit of steadiness and confidence to cross, but not to worry a secure method to cross the creek will be in place before the lodge opens. The lodge is basic but very comfortable with air conditioning in each of the rooms, cold showers that feel wonderful at the end of each day, and a very birdy garden.
The Cottontop Tamarin Reserve promises to be a fantastic option for lowland birding in the Chocó when it opens to general visitors!