29 August – 9 September 2015.
Montezuma Road winds sinuously up into Tatamá National Park, located in the foothills and subtropics of the Chocó and is the only practical way to access the park. Montezuma Road is also famous among birding circles as THE place to see the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager as well as 10 other endemic species. In other words, a must go for anybody birding in Colombia. But this road is also famous for its jarring ride along a narrow road that frequently washes away leaving you gripping the edge of your seat (or as some people say, the oh shit handle). We headed up in our monster van, not really knowing how far we could really get given the condition of the road. Not too far after the Clarita River a small section of the road had washed away. We started inching our way along, trying to keep as far away from the washed out drop off as we could, but the van started to slide a little as we pushed up against the inside bank. I started to panic thinking for sure that the tire would slide down the gaping hole in the road. Josh, of course was much calmer than I and after getting out and double checking, we barely and I mean barely, though safely, squeezed through. Whew! But, before my heart stopped racing, we came to a spot where the road crested a rise then dropped steeply down the other side, tilted a good bit off angle. It was impossible for Josh see down the other side. Yikes! Josh got out of the van to see where the road actually went and decided it was just fine! I held my breath as we crested the rise, as the van tilted towards the roaring river below, and we crept down until we were safely down the other side. The road seemed to get a bit better, but was still super bumpy and very slow going. Eventually, around 1700 m, we reached a tight turn in the road that was washed out on one side over a nice cliff. The combination of the narrowness of the road and the tightness of the turn did not look inspiring, and the drop here was a lot further than the prior tight spots. Not really confidence inspiring. Taking a bit of precaution we decided not to attempt to get the van around that turn. We parked just below the turn and walked up the road instead. We needed the exercise anyway, and we were more or less in the elevation range we wanted to be for our most-wanted birds! Most people drive most of the road to access higher sections and the chance to see Tanager Finch and Munchique Wood-Wren, but having already seen those two species (at La “M” aka RNA Gorrion Andivina), we didn’t need to go up about 2000-2100 m for our targets – Black Solitaire, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Gold-ringed Tanager, and Beautiful Jay.
On our first day we birded from about 1650 to 2100 m elevation. We got a bit of a late start birding due to the slow drive up the road but the birding was still great, despite sunny conditions. Frequently, a sunny day in cloud forest means very little activity and birding can be painfully slow. Clouds with a bit of mist or light rain usually makes for perfect birding weather in the cloud forest. The sun definitely slowed things down for us and we had very few mixed flocks but what we did see was pretty awesome! We had one nice mixed flock with Fulvous-dotted Treerunner (a Chocó endemic that is decidedly uncommon), Glistening-green Tanager, Dusky Chlorospingus, Olive Finch, and Scaly-throated Foliage-Gleaner. Around 2000 m at the area known as Cajones we had amazing looks at Orange-breasted Fruiteater and the prized Gold-ringed Tanager. It seems that the Bangsia tanagers like steep slopes with second-growth or otherwise shrubby vegetation; thus far every Bangsia that we have seen has been in these sorts of areas. The good news is that this usually makes them pretty easy to see! This area around Cajones is also one of the best places to look for the rare Black Solitaire. We missed this bird at RNA Las Tangaras so we were really hoping to see this guy at Montezuma Road. We spent a lot of time working the area where it typically hangs out but we were not hearing anything at all, and it’s not too common to find a Solitaire by sight alone. While our guide (Leopoldina was our guide for the day – guiding is mandatory on Montezuma Rd) was just about to sit down to have a snack she said she thought she had seen a Black Solitaire move in some Cecropias further ahead. We both jogged to the area and started scanning. Josh caught sight of a Black Solitaire and had a brief but excellent look at the perched bird, but I missed it entirely, ugh! We must have spent another hour looking for the Black Solitaire but it never came back. I admit, I was a little bummed to have missed the Solitaire but I was hopeful that we would see it another day. However, the views of the Tatamá Mountains from this area are enough to cheer anyone up and after all I was birding along the famous Montezuma Road!
Even on our slow sunny day we still picked up Tri-colored Brush-Finch, Yellow-collared Chlorophonia (now that’s some sunshine for you), Black Hawk-Eagle, Uniform Treehunter, Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant, and more (eBird list). Late in the day found us on the hunt for what we thought was a Black Solitaire that we were hearing. We couldn’t find it and couldn’t find it and couldn’t find it and then the bird flew up onto a ridge and hid itself very well. We were trying to angle for a view up the ridge when we saw what we thought was the Solitaire fly back down and perch in view on an open branch. Bringing our binoculars up, however, we were very surprised as we were looking at a Semicollared Hawk! Now that is an amazing way to end a day! Semicollared Hawk is categorized as near threatened, and is yet another very secretive raptor that is very infrequently seen. It does seem, though, that a lot of Colombian sightings of this species come from Montezuma Rd.
Early the next morning we heard a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl calling at around 1800 m elevation. With the help of a little playback we managed to find a little window through some foliage to see the Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl. Just after we found the owl I heard Beautiful Jays calling and as luck would have it two of them flew right in and we finally got a chance to see this gorgeous species – another not too common near-endemic. And as I am sure you can guess the jay is rather beautiful! A few minutes later Luis Urueña from Manakin Tours showed up with his clients and though the Jays had moved on, he found the owl perched up with a perfect view in less than 5 minutes. Let’s just say it took us a little longer than that to find the owl!
Since I missed the Black Solitaire the previous day we went back to the stake out spot at Cajones and paced back and forth hoping one would miraculously fly in. We looked at every Great Thrush that passed by about 8 times. Eventually, however, persistence paid off when a dark bird perched in a nearby snag, ah ha! The Black Solitaire! Unfortunately the bird did not stay for long. I got great looks at it this time but Josh only saw it in passing. With the last of our main targets in the bag (we didn’t find Great Scythebill – no great surprise there!) we started back down the road to see what else we could turn up a bit lower. Right along the road, we saw a tiny thing dart through the understory. We thought it was going to be a Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant or something but it turned out to be a family of Ochre-breasted Antpittas!
As we worked our way back down we also stopped to bird around Quebrada La Clarita and Rio Claro to attempt to find the very rare and little known Yellow-Green Chlorospingus which has been reported in the area. We spent about 6 hours in the area but came up empty handed which really isn’t too surprising given it’s rarity. The Yellow-green Chlorospingus ranges from southwestern Colombia to northern Ecuador and is only known from a few locations, and even in these locations it is still uncommon to rare. We did however come across a few good birds in the lower section of Montezuma Rd including Ochre-breasted Tanager, Golden-bellied Warbler (aka Choco Warbler – this is inexplicably lumped with a wildly different sounding warbler that is found near Cuzco, Peru!), Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant, Crested Ant-Tanager, and more. We also spent some time looking for the Club-winged Manakin to no avail. If they are not calling or displaying these guys can be very difficult to find. Even lower down, closer to the lodge, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner is common in the second growth forest edges.
The birding along Montezuma Road is truly excellent. To go birding along Montezuma Road you need to be accompanied by a local guide. The family who owns and operates the rustic lodge at the park’s entrance provides guiding services but you must arrange your own transportation, and 4WD is mandatory. To make arrangements call Leopoldina at 317-684-1034 or 318-780-4900.
South of Montezuma Road in upper Cauca valley, nestled up against the base of the the western Andes, is Laguna de Sonsa. Unfortunately the Laguna (or lake) is not much of a lake anymore thanks to an invasive and super aggressive aquatic plant that has blanketed the lake almost completely to the point that no open water remains visible. This site used to be good for migrant waterfowl and other aquatic species, but with little open water remaining (despite efforts to control the invasive species), open water birds have been pushed out. Laguna de Sonsa is not frequently visited by birders but the birding is pretty good and it is a great place to see Jet Antbird and Dwarf Cukcoo. The reserve manager can also show you a roosting Common Potoo.
The area around the lake is a mix of scrubby second growth, thorn forest, and wetlands. Working the low thorny bushes near the edge of the lake, we finally managed to find Dwarf Cuckoo, a species we have been looking for for quite some time. In fact we found three and watched a pair in the scope for over 10 minutes as they perched in the open!
We were also a bit surprised to come across a pair of Orange-crowned Euphonias, which are rather uncommon in the Cauca Valley. Jet Antbirds appear to be fairly common in the scrubby second growth and Spectacled Parrotlets are EVERYWHERE! In a scrubby field with seeding grasses and forbs we logged at least 75 Spectacled Parrotlets who were feeding and swirling around in low flocks as if they were Starlings or Dickcissels. Yellow-hooded Blackbirds were also partaking in the feeding frenzy in large numbers, and we found a Dark-billed Cuckoo quietly lurking in the mayhem as well. It was quite a sight to see! In just three hours we logged 63 species, see our eBird list for our complete list.
Another famous birding destination in the western Andes is Anchicayá Valley also known as the Old Buenaventura Road. The Anchicayá Valley is simply put, absolutely beautiful! Tropical foothill forests blanket the hill sides while a cloudy mist rises from the forest. It is incredibly scenic and being in the foothills of the Chocó, in one of the wettest areas on earth, the biodiversity and the birding are out of this world.
Thankfully the Old Buenaventura Road is not nearly as rough as Montezuma Road and thankfully it still receives almost zero traffic. Instead of bone jarring bumps, the road is lined with waterfalls including one that you have to drive under! The birding is good anywhere along the road, but we concentrated on the area from the town of Danubio to the waterfall that cascades onto the road. We spent two days birding this stretch and saw some great birds. The first morning we were torn between chasing all of the great birds we were hearing; we had to let Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail go to chase a calling Trogon. Many Trogons, at least for us, can be tricky to tell apart vocally – some have distinctive voices but several are very similar and many will respond to playback of other species. We were on the lookout for the near endemic Blue-tailed Trogon so we listened to our recording of Blue-tailed Trogon and of the one calling up the hill and we still were not certain who was calling. We couldn’t find it calling in the trees either, hmmm. After about an hour we came back to the same spot, where now there were two Trogons calling and much closer. Josh finally managed to find one perched and it was indeed a Blue-tailed Trogon. I also got a really nice recording. Shortly after the trogon Josh got on another flock and soon called out that he had a woodpecker and we went jogging to get a better view. But this wasn’t just any woodpecker it was a Lita Woodpecker! Lita Woodpecker is yet another Chocó endemic and a rather uncommon and local one. According to records in eBird, Lita Woodpecker has only been documented at five locations in Colombia. The good birds didn’t spot there however, White-whiskered Hermit, Golden-chested Tanager, Esmeraldas Antbird, Gray-and-Gold Tanager, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Dusky-faced Tanager, Blue-whiskered Tanager, Emerald Tanager, and so many more (eBird list). The second day of birding here added Purple-chested Hummingbird, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, Sapayoa, and White-whiskered Puffbird to our already awesome list. The list of possible species that can be seen along the road is incredible, with excellent birding all the way from Aguaclara at 60 m elevation up to about 1600 m elevation below Queremal! We only saw a small fraction of what is possible and it would be fantastic to have more time here. This is also a site with regular reports of Long-wattled Umbrellabird and the super rare Banded Ground-cuckoo, though we dipped on both of those.
If you are going to bird the Old Buenaventura Road we suggest that you inquire about security before blindly heading down the road. Security in the region is improving and it was safe when we were there but it is always a good idea to ask. In general it is also a good idea to avoid parking or birding next to houses along the road because birders in the past have been hassled. We did not have any problems though and actually found the locals to be very friendly. Smiling and waving is one way to earn some goodwill. Only one gentleman who we met along the road told us that we needed to be guided by a local, but he let us be after we told him we were just driving to Buenaventura. This is not a site that you can arrive at, bird, and leave in a day, so you’ll want to plan several days and stay in Danubio. There you can stay at the simple but clean and nice hotel which is located next to bridge to the hydroelectric plant. The very kind owner allowed us to park and camp behind the hotel and use the bathrooms and only wanted 5,000COP for the use of the restrooms – we paid him 10,000COP and still felt like it was too little.
Even after passing Aguaclara, there are nice forest patches all the way down to the outskirts of Buenaventura, but we unfortunately did not have time to bird the lower section. From Buenaventura you can then head to San Cipriano along the new Buenaventura road (or vice versa). Beware though that getting around the outskirts of Buenaventura can be challenging. We were using a navigation app to navigate around the edge of town to pick up the new highway but there was a protest in the streets which blocked the road. We were quickly rerouted only to end up on a narrow road that was also closed to construction. We sat in the road trying to figure out how we were going to get out of town when a very kind gentleman asked us where we wanted to go and told us to follow him. It is a good thing we did! He took us around town on dirt roads, through a backyard, the wrong way down a street or two, and eventually out to the highway. I would have never imagined that there was a route through where he took us, but we were very thankful! After just a few minutes of navigating the back roads we made it to the highway and were on our way to San Cipriano.
San Cipriano is a small community that adjoins a nice lowland rainforest reserve in the Chocó. Besides the birds, part of the thrill of going to San Cipriano is riding the brujitas or little witches. A bruijta is a wooden platform with a bench, about the size of a pallet, attached to a motorcycle that is then placed on a railway track. These little burijtas whisk you along through the jungle at a pretty good clip to San Cipriano. The ride is quite enjoyable, if bumpy, and gets interesting when the brujitas meet oncoming traffic. When you encounter oncoming traffic the person with fewer riders must lift their motorcycle and cart off the track to let the other pass.
When you arrive in town you have to pay an entrance fee ($2,000 per person). The forest reserve is reached by walking to the end of town and continuing into the forest. The birding is along the main trail and a few side trails that head down to the river. We arrived in the late afternoon and headed straight out. We were on the lookout for four birds – Five-colored Barbet, Stub-tailed Antbird, Rose-faced Parrot, and Choco Poorwill. San Cipriano is known as a good place to see all four but we were not really certain how easy they would be to see. We headed into the forest a few hundred meters until we found some activity. We had been told that Five-colored Barbets are common everywhere, so we opportunistically tried playback and got an immediate response. It took a while to find him perched in the canopy 30 m up, but sure enough, there was a Five-colored Barbet! We continued down the trail, hearing Uniform Crake along the way, to the little area of wooden shacks/restaurants (perhaps 1 km from the end of town). A Thicket Antpitta was calling from the dense thickets behind the restaurants. We put in a little bit of effort to try and see the Thicket Antpitta, but it was calling from a very dense area and hence was not a great place to see it. Just then, however, a group of four Rose-faced Parrots went streaking overhead, but luck was on our side and they actually perched and we located them in a nearby tree! Awesome! Soon we heard Stub-tailed Antbird and quickly coaxed it into view. That makes three! We only had one target bird left on our list, the Choco Poorwill. We birded around a bit until dusk, hearing another Uniform Crake and a Pallid Dove, and then started looking for the Poorwill. A few Short-tailed Nighthawks flew overhead while we waited for it to get a little darker. We tried the area near the shacks, and walked a short distance using playback to see if we could get any bites, but we did not get any no responses. We made our way back to the shacks and as we were standing in the middle of the trail trying to decide how much longer we were going to try for the poorwill because we were starving. However, we couldn’t debate long, as a Choco Poorwill called right next to the road. We played the song briefly and it came in closer, but remained hidden and calling. There was still just enough natural light left to see so we weren’t trying to spotlight it as that is a good way to scare off a bird if you don’t actually know where it is perched. Time stretched on and it was getting almost too dark to see motion when we got our final miracle of the day – Josh saw the Poorwill fly and saw exactly where it perched. He called me over and told me to stand behind him and look over his right shoulder and he turned on the light and there it was in plain view! All too often we miss nocturnal birds because miss them as they fly and can never seem to find them perched in the dark. What a good find by Josh! Four not-too-easy birds in three hours, not bad, time for dinner!
While the forest in the reserve is amazing, the town of San Cipriano is honestly a bit run down and, well, not very charming. Folks in town were, for the most part, kind of sullen, which was distinctly out of place in comparison with the always fantastic and friendly receptions we have found elsewhere in Colombia. Hence we decided to leave early in the morning to get to our next destination. Upon a recommendation, we opted to stay at Hotel Ivancar, but I would definitely not recommend staying there. The owner was very rude and while not terribly expensive, it is twice the price of the much friendlier Hotel David. I would recommend that anyone visiting San Cipriano stay and eat at Hotel David and avoid Hotel Ivancar. We ate dinner at Hotel David, where they were happy to make us a veggie dinner which was quite good. As well, for arriving to San Cipriano, as soon as you show up in Cordoba you are a target of the brujita drivers and it might be a trick to avoid having to pay for a private brujita. Even if you do, it’s not terribly expensive, but the standard rate should be about 5,000 COP/person to ride either direction. We were also told that we would have to pay a fairly high rate for parking. A random guy was produced who was the “guard.” He wanted to know exactly when we would be back, we told him multiple times we weren’t sure, and he told us the rate for parking was per day no matter what part of the day and we would have to pay him a tip too. Not surprisingly, when we did get back to the van, the “guard” was nowhere to be found. We don’t want to sound like fussy, ungrateful tourists in a poor region, but our experience in San Cipriano was so unlike everything else we have experienced in Colombia that it really stood out!