Saturday 31 December 2022

Farewell 2022

Tomorrow is another year. Remarkable, where has it gone? Quickly is how it has gone. This is my final post of the year, a mighty 75th, and tomorrow the clock resets and we start again. I'll be staying local I think, possibly very local if the weather is as filthy as today has been. There is really no need to get cold and wet in order to tick Blue Tit again is there? Dry January beckons as well, this Christmas period has been ridiculous and there needs to be a pause. Hard I expect, but I will be fine. 

It has been a fun year - not a long of long-haul travel, but a fair few European trips including Spain, Portugal, France, Turkey and Bulgaria. Colombia easily takes any and all prizes for the best birding experience, but I also enjoyed visiting California again. Closer to home I saw two new birds in Wanstead, Merlin and Tree Sparrow, both massively unexpected. There was no way I was going to get anywhere near my 2021 total, but a tried to see what I could and ended on a respectable 115 which is my fourth highest total. I didn't manage to get to Shetland this year, but I did spend a lot of time in Fife and grew that list a little bit along the way. I'm hoping to get up there frequently in 2023 as well - the normalisation of working remotely makes this a lot easier. 

Anyway, thanks for reading, apologies the output has been a little patchy, and see you next year.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Colombia - Day 5 - Hacienda el Bosque and Los Nevados

Hacienda el Bosque

We left Rio Blanco in the dark, normal service resumed. Our destination was Hacienda el Bosque, a speciality site added to the itinerary specifically guessed it, more Antpittas. The drive took about an hour and a half, and it was getting light as we arrived for breakfast. The hacienda is a dairy farm with a side-line in birding, and we were taken to quite a swish little restaurant high up the hill. You can stay here too, in rather nice looking huts. Breakfast was excellent, the best hot chocolate yet, and a Barn Swallow flew over. The main course lay below us, two Antpitta feeding stations - Equatorial Antpitta and Crescent-faced Antpitta.

We picked our way down to the former, hearing but not seeing Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan, and getting some good views of White-browed Spinetail. The Antpitta stage was a little awkward, especially as a photographer had joined us and was stood exactly where I would have liked Juli (for that was its name) to pose. And then he used a flash and got told off, hey ho. This is what stupidly high ISO and a monopod are for - 6400 yet again in this case, oh for a more modern camera.

Equatorial Antpitta

We did not stay long as feeding time for the Crescent-faced Antpitta was approaching. We hurried back up the hill via a Barred Fruiteater, a Red-crested Cotinga , and some scope views of Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan to the next set of hides. The feeding station was on a steep slope, with the bird calling from some way down it. Unlike the others which were largely slam dunks, this one was allegedly a lot trickier. Whether it was possible to dip or not I have no idea, but the encounter was tense and extremely brief, with the bird popping into view only momentarily before doing a runner. My one photo is extremely unsatisfactory, but such is life - the 8th one of the trip - hardly possible you would think but there it was.

Crescent-faced Antpitta

The Hummingbird feeders right next to the Antpitta were far more enjoyable. I clawed back Sword-billed Hummingbird that the others had seen on the previous day, and new for the trip were Tyrian Metaltail, Purple-backed Thornbill, Shining Sunbeam and Buff-winged Starfrontlet. The names are just so evocative!

Tourmaline Sunangel

Shining Sunbeam. All the good stuff is on its back....

Time was pressing - any time spent at the Hacienda was time we would then not have at Los Nevados, and we had agreed with Alejandro that we had to leave by 9am once we had seen the key species here. Los Nevados was only an hour or so away, and as we increased altitude we began to see some new birds. At a mountain pasture covered with Great Thrushes we also got Stout-billed Cinclodes and Band-tailed Seedeater, and then we were into the clouds as we climbed to the Brisas Visitor Centre at 4138m. Things were noticely harder here, scurrying for a bew bird resulted in heavy breathing, and holding the camera steady took masses of effort. 

Stout-billed Cinclodes

We had the most amazing views of Buffy Helmetcrest imaginable, a male feeding on native Paramo flowers at what seemed like point blank range. In fact they were all over the place, with at least five zipping around through the mist. Good views of Viridian Metaltail as well, amazing that tiny Hummingbirds live up here. But it is not only Hummingbirds that live in this seemingly inhospitable environment, there is also an Antpitta up here. Not skulking in deep cover, not singing invisibly from a slope, but running around mountain paths - Tawny Antpitta. It seemed crazy that there would be such a bird up here, but this is the habitat, and sure enough we maintained our daily Antpitta hatrick with one seen briefly close the centre.

Buffy Helmetcrest - male

Buffy Helmetcrest - female

Viridian Metailtail

Tawny Antpitta

Plumbeous Sierra Finch

We made our way down to the Laguna Negra to look for birds that preferred a slightly lower altitude and less fog. On the lake itself we found several Andean Ducks (like a Ruddy Duck) and half a dozen Andean Teal. Andean Tit Spinetails fed in bushes by the roadside, and although it took a while we got some conclusive scope views of Many-striped Canastero. By now we had all begun to develop dull headaches due to the altitude but there is little you can do about this other than descend and wait for things to return to normal. 

Paramo habitat, with the tall Espeletia

We birded our way down the road, amazingly getting views of a Paramo Tapaculo that was unusually cooperative, and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant. Lower still we came across a memorable spot where many birds were concentrated. Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Golded-breasted Puffleg were new Hummingbirds, but Alejandro was far more excited by Masked Mountain Tanager feeding young, a very rare bird in the area and one that most people have not seen here. Get a photograph he implored! We also had Scarlet-breasted Mountain Tanager here, and Blue-backed Conebill. This concluded birding for the day, we had another longish drive ahead of us, back through Manizales to Pereira and then south-east to La Florida, ready to bird Otun Quimbaya Reserve the next morning.

Masked Mountain Tanager

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Colombia - Day 4 - Rio Blanco

Manizales from Rio Blanco

Finally a day when we didn't have to travel anywhere! Although the distances we had to cover between Medellin and Pereira were not long in terms of miles, the mountain roads were in generally abysmal condition, with many landslides and other collapses, and a seemingly endless succession of contraflows and outright halts, sometimes for 20 minutes or more. Some of these roadworks were so establised that marketplaces had sprung up around them, with enterprising locals sellings tamales, arepas, other snacks and cold drinks as you waited. Some of our transfers ended up being well over three hours - we tried to do some of these before first light,  others during the middle of the day, but they nonetheless ate up a good portion of the trip. I am quite stupid in that I don't stop birding during the hottest part of the day, and push on regardless. In Costa Rica there were enforced halts after lunch at the lodges, but rather than take a siesta I would toddle off with my camera to some feeders. If I don't come back shattered from a trip I have not been doing it properly!

Anyway, this morning all we had to do was wake up at a sensible time and start birding immediately. In a neotropical paradise. Life is tough sometimes. After a quick breakfast it was time for the first Antpitta site, very close to the lodge. Miguel was our local guide for the day, and along with Alejandro and the gang we filed into the forest in what was a now familiar routine. I honestly cannot remember if the Bicoloured Antpitta had a name or not, but as with the others it was rather a star and came in more or less immediately.

Bicoloured Antpitta

We did not spend a great deal of time here, the bird would come in and take the worm and disappear with it straight away. Perhaps feeding young nearby? We carried on up the track to the next delicacy. This time the Antpittas couldn't even wait, and had come out of the forest to ask what the hell was going on, why we were so slow, and that they were hungry and could we just get on with it. Always nice to get assaulted by a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta first thing. These were fantastic birds (Pancho and Pancha), and for photography it was the best yet, nicely open and with good light. In addition to insatiably scoffing down worms, Pancho found a massive beetle and smashed it to bits on a branch until all the innards leaked out - nice to see at least some natural behaviour. 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

The rest of the morning was spent slowly walking up the track deeper into the reserve, though in truth we barely penetrated it in the time we had. At the top where it splits we hit a bird wave - this is one of the most exciting things that happens when birding in the tropics, but also the most stressful when you have little idea what you are looking. It was a case of just try and get onto the birds one by one as Alejandro and Miguel called them out. I cannot recall the full list, but there were several Pearled Treerunner, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Capped Conebill, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Cinammon Flycatcher and Barred Becard. It was non-stop, and although it felt like about half an hour I suspect it was a lot shorter than this.

Golden-plumed Parakeet

Tyrannine Woodcreeper

Once we had calmed down and recorded everything we had just seen, we turned right and past the finca. This is where Jazmin and her family lived. Through the gate and ane of the first birds we saw was Golden-plumed Parakeet, a small noisy group feeding close to the track - not something we had expected to get good views of. We also got decent views of Bar-bellied Woodpecker near here, and further on, also Crimson-mantled Woodpecker. It was all rather spectacular, and we only really scratched thr surface - other than the mixed flocks you can go for long periods seeing and hearing very little. Naturally we wasted ages trying to see Tapaculos. I think Dave managed a brief glimpse of Ash-coloured Tapaculo through a tiny window, the rest of us saw nothing. And the less said about Occelated Tapaculos the better, looking back it seems half the trip was spent hearing this bird call from a steep slope.

Brown-banded Antpitta

We came back to the lodge for late morning, this was the appointed time for humans to turn up with worms for a Brown-banded Antpitta. This bird was a new entrant to Team Antpitta, only on the roster for a few months and as such quite shy. Still, our sixth Antpitta of the trip which already felt incredible. 

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager

Rio Blanco Lodge

After lunch we took a short pause - our first siesta! Not me though - around the back of the lodge were some fruit feeders, and I pulled up a chair..... Luckily there was also a shelter, a corrugated roof, as it soon began to hammer down. A lot of my photos have significant streaks of rain in them! I saw 16 species from my seat during the hour and half I spent here, including superb views of Blue-capped Tanager and Blue-winged Mountain Tanager. Eventually the rain eased and we regrouped to go back up the track for another fruitless go at Occ Tap. The rain didn't stay away for long though, and it was not long before we were sheltering under some trees. I say sheltering, there is very little you can actually do in rain this intense, particularly without an umbrella - note to self; a small umbrella is a crucial bit of neotropical kit!

Slaty Brushfinch

Great Thrush

Blue-capped Tanager

Lesser Violetear

Speckled Hummingbird

Just like bird feeders the world over. Colombia is not immune from the scourge.

We made our way back to the Finca for some proper shelter to find the family playing "Rana" (Frog!) under the veranda. This is a game a bit like hoopla or shove ha'penny, but thowing coins or rings into slots which have different values. Dona Jazmin and Don Carlos were there with other members of the family, and of course Ernie was involved too! We were kindly given some coffee and were able to dry out a bit. Eventually the rain eased sufficiently to go back into the forest, but it was quite quiet, even the Occelated Tapaculo had given up! We tried for Nighthawks at a cleared area, hearing one distantly but only once. We came back in the dark, a long day, but a very satisfying one despite the rain check. Frustratingly a large Owl species flew across the track that we were not able to identify.

Rained off

Monday 26 December 2022

Colombia - Day 3 - The Cauca Valley and Rio Blanco

We were up early again, this time with luggage as we were moving sites. Jeeps abandoned, we were back in the comfort of Ernie's van, headed for Manizales and the reserve of Rio Blanco. But first there were some lowland specialities to try and find. 

After breakfast at La Mayoria, Penalisa, which itself had a decent selection of birds, we took the road towards Quibdo (RN 60) for a few kilometers. Our targets here were some classic endemic  or near-endemic lowland birds - Greyish Piculet, Apical Flycatcher, and the highly sought-after Antioquia Wren. We drove along slowly until Alejandro heard one out of the window - yes, this is how birding goes somehow - and we all piled out. The Wren was an absolute bugger to see, seemingly right in front of us yet completely invisible. It must have had Tapaculo genes. We got there eventually, getting some good views. This bird was only discovered in 2010, and described in 2012 as a split from Rufous-and-White Wren. Needless to say I was unable to get any photos of it. 

Striped Cuckoo

Greyish Piculet

We stayed birding on this short stretch of road for about an hour as it seemed highly productive. Not only did we also get the Piculet and the Flycatcher, but also Squirrel and Striped Cuckoos, Black-crowned Antshrike, both Caracara, Yellow-backed Oriole, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Slate-headed Tody Flycatcher, Streak-headed Woodpecker and various Warblers and Tanagers. A Blue-headed Parrot flew over there were some more Colombian Chachalacas in some roadside trees. We had cleaned up and it was not even 9am.

This being the case Alejandro suggested we advance the itinerary and depart for Manizales in order to have some of the afternoon birding Rio Blanco. I was actually against this as there were so many new birds for me in this habitat and the original plan had been to bird for at least half the day here. However there were no endemics, and as the others had seen most of what was on offer in other South American countries on previous visits their preference was to move on. A shame if you ask me, but majority rules I suppose. It was a long drive, over three hours to Manizales. We had lunch just before we reached the town, at a restaurant overlooking the valley. More birds here, including lots of White-collared Swift, our first Rusty-margined Flycatcher, and a Golden-faced Tyrannulet

Choco Daggerbill

Speckled Hummingbird

Rio Blanco sits in the watershed above the town, and was set aside to preserve the water supply. At the main gate is a waterworks, and this was our first stop. The flowering bushes here held plenty of Hummingbirds, including the main target of White-billed (aka Choco) Daggerbill. There were also White-bellied Woodstar, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, an Andean Emerald and Buff-tailed Coronets. We also had good views of Chestnut-bellied Chat-Tyrant, a species that we had heard but not seen the previous day.

Andean Emerald

Long-tailed Sylph

Lesser Violetear

Andean Guan (NB this is diagonal!)

It was about half an hour up to the Lodge, a birders paradise by any measure. There were ten species of Hummer at the feeders here, with Mountain Velvetbreast, Tourmaline Sunangel and Bronzy Inca all being new. Brown-bellied Swallows were nesting under the eaves, and Lacrimose Mountain Tanager and Blue-and-Black Tanager were around the fruit feeders. A short trip further up the trail did not produce a great deal, but we did see our one and only Andean Guan by the side of the road. After a great dinner prepared by Jazmin we hit the sack. We would be going further into the reserve tomorrow. Oh, and there were some Antpitta feeders... would they deliver as the previous ones had?

Saturday 24 December 2022

Colombia - Day 2 - Alto de Ventanas

The jeeps arrived for us at about 4.30am. This would happen frequently on this trip - a drive in the dark to get to the best birding spot for first light. In this case Alejandro wanted to be at a certain spot in order to witness the morning commute of the rare Yellow-eared Parrot. This meant bumping up a track for about an hour and a half to get a view point. I say a track, but actually this was the minor road between Jardin and Riosucio, and was a vital transport link for many people who live and farm in the region. We may have found it tough going in 4x4s, but a large and ancient bus regularly makes the journey, blaring out Andean music all the way - La Chiva!

We were slightly delayed arriving at the spot by some Antpitta excitement, a Chami Antpitta on the track ahead our [lead] jeep. It bounded away quite quickly but we all saw it, including Dave and Richard in the rear jeep. I can only imagine the scenes! At a more open area we stopped and got out to stretch our legs and start birding properly. It was in semi-coud, with the visible distance being quite variable. It was not long before the first Parrots flew over - very distinctive and a near-endemic if not now totally endemic given how much the range has shrunk with the clearing of their essential Wax Palms (Ceroxylon). They were only rediscovered here in 1999, having been thought extinct. Also here was a Tyrian Metaltail, a Broad-winged Hawk, and several Great Thrushes. Even more excitement was to come though, with Alejandro's keen ears picking out a Slate-crowned Antpitta. This gave excellent if brief views by the roadside a short while later. We could scarcely believe that we had seen two Antpittas in the wild in the first hour of the day! On the other side of the road we saw our first Sharpe's Wrens, fabulous rufous birds, as well as Lacrimose and Hooded Mountain Tanagers. Around here we also had our first experience of heard-only-no-matter-how-hard-you-try Tapaculos.

Golden-fronted Redstart

Breakfast beckoned - a declicious mixture of eggs, arepa, cheese and fruit at a roadside restaurant, in fact the first building we had seen since getting up into the cloud forest.  There were already a number of western birders there, presumably for the same reason we were, and invigorated we moved onto the main course - Antpittas! We were here because a large number of Antpittas had been enticed out of the jungle with the promise of worms and trained to parade in front on birders. We followed Martin, Antpitta Whisperer and carrier of worms, up a tiny track into deep forest. I had never visited an Antpitta feeding station before and was not sure what to expect. In a clearing we found a small number of benches for people and small number of mossy logs for Antpittas. We assembled in hushed silence, the moment was upon us. Shhhhh, quiet now.



You what? You mean you can give an Antpitta a name and call it in? Martin continued calling and whistling whilst flinging worms onto mossy logs. Yes, yes you can. Before we knew it a Chami Antpitta was on the log stuffing worms into its face. This was Linda. Then another one arrived, also called Linda. Hey, this is 2022, a male Antpitta has every right to be known as Linda if it wants. Belleza, a Chestnut-naped Antpitta, was playing hard to get, but eventually the lure of the worm proved too much and he/she/it also hopped into the clearing. We were not done yet though, a Slate-crowned Antpitta, sadly anonynous, also came in, but was immediately chased away by Belleza. There is apparently a hierarchy amongst Antpittas. Shy and retiring, very difficult to see, elusive, and hopping around our feet. Astonishing.

Chami Antpitta "Linda"
Chestnut-naped Antpitta "Belleza"

Slate-crowned Antpitta

By now it was lunchtime, and so we went to Martin's house a little further up the hill. Overlooking the range, the place was pure paradise. Hummingbird feeders, fruit on branches, millions of perches, and birds everywhere. Rain was setting in, cloud covering the moutainside. Further birding in the forest wasn't possible, but there was so much activity chez Martin that it didn't matter. I have no idea how many photos I took - too many. And with the cruddy light and misty conditions a lot of them required a fair amount of work to bring them up.

Masked Flowerpiercer

Green Jay

Great Thrush

Sparkling Violetear

Buff-tailed Coronet

Speckled Hummingbird

Long-tailed Sylph

Collared Inca

Buff-tailed Coronet

Martin and Lucia

Dave contemplates one arepa too many

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and piled back into the jeeps to head back down to Jardin. Fortunately at lower altitudes the clouds cleared and we were able to resume birding and not see some more Tapaculos. The list of birds from the day is long and glorious, and includes a load more Tanagers, Furnarids, Flowerpiercers, a Plushcap, Golden-fronted Redstart and so many more that are etched in my mind. Such is birding in a rainforest that I got photos of barely any of them, but I can still remember them all as if it were yesterday.

Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant

Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant