Birding the Choco Lowlands, Colombia: El Valle and Utria National Park

Situated along the wild Colombian Pacific coast, the village of El Valle and nearby Utria National Park (or the longer name of Parque Nacional Natural Ensenada de Utria) offer high quality birding for the Choco lowlands in a safe and stunningly beautiful area. The area hosts a good number of range-restricted species. Foremost, it is possible to see the endemic Baudo Oropendola, plus a host of other Choco endemics, including Baudo Guan, Dusky Pigeon, Black-tipped Cotinga, Blue-whiskered Tanager and many more. Brown Wood-Rail is also one of the main targets here. The primary forest in the national park is also a good spot to catch up with the monotypic Sapayoa. The only drawback is that the area lacks extensive or easily accessible trails into primary forest and the costs, especially to reach and stay in the national park, are relatively high. Before we get to the exciting birds lets figure out some of the logistics first.

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The El Valle River and village Photo Stephan Lorenz

Getting There:

It is possible to fly with Satena direct from Medellin to Bahia Solano (daily), a short hop of about 40 minutes. Also, ADA airlines flies to Bahia Solona. It would also be possible to fly to Nuqui and reach Utria NP and El Valle via boat, but would take longer. The Satena roundtrip cost about 300,000 COP and leaves from Medellin’s smaller, local airport. The flights were on time and we had no issues with the luggage restrictions. In Bahia Solana it is easy to catch a Tuk-tuk (45 minutes) or taxi (30 minutes) to El Valle and both cost 15,000 COP. The majority of quality birding sites lie around El Valle and can be either reached on foot, by Tuk-tuk, or boat in case of the national park.

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Stubfoot toad Photo Stephan Lorenz

Accommodation:

El Valle offers a wide variety of accommodation, some of them quite expensive by Colombian standards. We stayed at Hotel Kipara (Rubiela Gomez  <hotel_kipara@hotmail.com>) (GPS 06.06.110, 077.25.781) as it was recommended in the book and paid 100,000 COP per night for a large, comfortable room. The hotel price could be higher though for other times of the year. The restaurant area overlooks the Pacific and a clean swimming pool was refreshing. We explored the area a bit for other accommodation opportunities, but even the Humpback Turtle Hostel at the end of the Almejal beach was pricey with 35,000 COP for a dorm bed and 120,000 for a double private room (the hostel did not look particularly nice). The cheapest option is likely to stay in town where it is possible to find a room for 50,000 COP. It is also possible to stay at a biological station halfway along the El Valle-Utria trail, but we didn’t check that option. The cost to spend the night in the national park bungalows was very high (180,000 per person including 3 meals), but after seeing the setting we thought it maybe worth to spend the money.

Guide:

Balmes (or Valmes) is the best and essentially only local bird guide in the area. He knows the birds very well, including where to find most of the specialties. He works at the hostel or Rubiela at Hotel Kipara can contact him (or just ask around in the village). We had him help us and accompany us for the day trip to Utria National Park. Since a guide is mandatory in the national park it is best to go with Balmes as he will be able to take one to the best spots. He also accompanied me during one morning along the main road after the boat failed to show and we had to reschedule for the next day and he took me to the best spot for Rose-faced Parrot and other species.

Birding Sites:

El Valle-Utria Trail

This trail starts (06.05.879, 077.25.107) just across the main bridge in town (06.06.010, 077.25.347) and goes nearly straight for 9 kms through secondary and finally primary forest. Overall it offered the most promising birding opportunities and in my opinion, given enough time, all the specialties are likely to be found here. The trail starts at the final houses in the village after crossing the suspension bridge and is broad and easy to follow for most of the way. There are also a few signs along the way and one or two side trails that may be worth exploring. I found it to be mostly dry, but it could be very muddy (rubber boots) after extended rains. The first 5 kms pass through relatively disturbed secondary forest with several pastures and clearings, but still offered excellent birding. I found the clearings to be productive for canopy species that are more difficult to see in closed forest and good species included Blue-and-yellow and Great Green Macaws, plus many Mealy, Red-lored, and Blue-headed Parrots. Toucans and aracaris were abundant with both Yellow-throated (yelping) and Choco (croaking) Toucans being vocal and hence easy to identify. Purple-throated Fruitcrows were very common, White-tailed Trogons unbelievably thick (throughout the El Valle area), and the dense undergrowth held Black-headed Antthrushes (easily seen twice) (06.04.081, 077.22.908) and Streak-chested (06.04.406, 077.23.154 and 06.05.266, 077.24.259) and Thicket Antpittas (heard but not seen).

In general, I did not encounter too many understory feeding flocks and surprisingly few furnarriids although Plain-brown Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops were seen, with possible Northern Barred Woodcreeper also and Black-striped Woodcreeper along the road. Also Tawny-crested Tanagers and Dusky-faced Tanagers were common in the understory. The edges did offer good tanager flocks and Scarlet-browed Tanagers were frequent, Rufous-winged Tanagers regular, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Purple Honeycreeper all relatively common. I also found a pair of Pacific Antwrens and a Dot-winged Antwren moving with a flock through a clearing.

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The incredibly small Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant proved to be relatively common Photo Stephan Lorenz

The edges also offered good opportunities to see canopy flycatchers like Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. During the final day I managed to find White-ringed Flycatchers (4 vocal birds) and a pair of the scarce Choco Sirystes (06.05.043, 077.23.954) in one of the clearings with the birds eventually moving down from the canopy, offering great views.

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Choco Sirystes is a relatively scarce canopy species Photo Stephan Lorenz

After the second bridge (06.03.325, 077.22.247) the forest is unbroken and generally taller. A larger bridge at about 8 kms marks the entrance to the national park and the trail climbs a hill before dropping down to the bay and some mangroves (06.03.271, 077.21.784). This marks the end of the trail, but at low tide it would be possible to walk to the right along the shore to connect to the Cocalitos trail across from the national park bungalows and visitor center. It would probably be worth it to spend one morning trying to get to this area of primary forest as soon a possible. During the afternoon I only managed to see Lemon-spectacled Tanagers here and displaying Red-capped Manakins on top of the hill, but think that this area would offer the best shot at Sapayoa aside from the Cocalitos trail itself. 

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Choco Toucans are very common alongside the similar Yellow-throated Toucan, but both species are very vocal and thus easily identified (Choco-croaking, Yellow-throated-yelping) Photo Stephan Lorenz

En route the thick understory holds Chestnut-backed Antbirds (common), Scaly-breasted Wrens (common by voice), White-breasted Wood-Wrens (uncommon), Black-crowned Antshrikes (abundant) and Spotted Antbirds (fairly common). Another skulker I lucked into was an Olive-backed Quail-Dove that perched in full view for several minutes after I had walked off the trail to unsuccessfully track down a calling Thicket Antpitta. Towards the far end of the trail I managed to find a responsive, male Stub-tailed Antbird that showed really well as it bounced around the dense undergrowth near a tree fall gap (06.03.555, 077.22.489).

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I had exceptionally good views of an Olive-backed Quail-Dove when I ventured off trail for a few minutes Photo Stephan Lorenz

 One of the best birds of the visit though I found first thing in the morning during the first full day. I started to walk down the trail before sunrise to cover some ground in the dark and get to the better forest early. A Common Pauraque flushed in front of me at dusk and I carefully shone my flashlight to get a better view. The bird flew off the trail, but I picked up the weak eye shine of something else on the edge of the path just a few meters further. I thought at first they were small mammals, but was stunned to see three Tawny-faced Quail in the light of the flashlight. The birds proceeded to walk into the middle of the trail for fantastic views of two males and one female of this shy forest quail (06.05.389, 077.24.420). Once the light improved I managed to lure a male across the trail twice for pointblank views (no photos though).

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Black-crowned Antshrikes were really abundant throughout the El Valle area, I had never been to an area were a particular antshrike species as so common Photo Stephan Lorenz

The area is also one of the better spots for Baudo Oropendola, but I only managed the briefest glimpse (06.04.670, 077.23.534) of one flying and didn’t try too hard after having seen the species so well in Santa Cecilia. Chestnut-headed and Crested Oropendolas are frequent, but one should pay close attention to all oropendolas to have a chance for the endemic Baudo.

In retrospect, I wish I would have spend more time on the trail since I eventually managed to find more and more birds each time I went. During the final morning I found several Gray-headed Chachalacas and a pair of (rare?) Crested Guans. After speaking to a local, I also think Baudo Guans are present along this trail and could be found with more time. In addition, a side trail (06.04.492, 077. 23.232) looked promising, but I am uncertain how far it goes. Incidentally right at the turn-off a group of three Black-breasted Puffbirds were excavating a nesting hole in a termite nest about 3 meters off the ground.

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Black-breasted Puffbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

The small stand of mangroves at the end of the trail held a few calling Blue-chested Hummingbirds and the only Prothonotary Warbler of the trip.

El Valle-Bahia Solana Road

The main road between Bahia Solano and El Valle (now paved most of the way) is the other prime and easily accessible birding spot in the area. The road is about 19 kms long, but some of the better sites lie about 7 kms from El Valle. I found an area of good forest on both sides of the road as the road climbs the side of a small hill through several sharp curves (06.08.626, 077.24.144). Also, before reaching the area of curves there is a small hill (06.08.047, 077.24.293) in a pasture that provides an excellent overlook and this is where I saw Rose-faced Parrot and several Black-tipped Cotingas, plus a bonus Tiny Hawk that perched in full view and was observed chasing a small passerine (nemesis no more!). The open areas along the road predictably held several common species of pastures and farm land including Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Red-breasted Meadowlark, Blue-black Grassquit, Wattled Jacana, White-throated Crakes (heard only) and others.

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White-tailed Trogons are abundant in the El Valle area and curiously were the only trogon species observed Photo Stephan Lorenz

The forest alongside the road around 7 kms held several feeding flocks during the first day I birded the area. The highlights included two Blue-whiskered Tanagers seen briefly (apparently the species is not all that common) (06.08.291, 077.24.315), Rufous-winged Tanagers, a male Scarlet-and-white Tanager scoped, and Plain-colored Tanagers. One larger feeding flock that I observed for a long time eventually yielded a single Slate-throated Gnatcatcher which typically for that species disappeared all too fast after a few fleeting views.

I was also surprised to find several White-thighed Swallows perched on the wires and foraging above an open area (06.08.358, 077.24.191). I assume the species is fairly regular in the area. Beyond this point, where the forest ends, I managed to see another Tiny Hawk this one perched very distantly.

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Rufous-tailed Jacamars are common Photo Stephan Lorenz

Several streams cross the road that are lined with heliconias and Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits flitted past, Band-tailed Barbthroats were present and with more time spent I assume White-tipped Sicklebill and White-whiskered Hermit could be found. 

The best way to reach the birding area about 7 kms from town is by Tuk-tuk, although be aware that it may be difficult to find a ride very early in the morning. Not too far from El Valle (1.5 kms) the main road crosses the Rio Tundo and this seemed also like a nice spot to bird. I did see one male Black-tipped Cotinga here very well from the bridge and this is apparently a regular area. The Rio Tundo Trail is easy to find just past the house with the small waterfall, but I did not explore it, but Yellow-eared Toucanet and Semiplumbeous Hawk are apparently possible.

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Rufous Motmot Photo Stephan Lorenz

Utria National Park

This park is amazingly beautiful and would be worth a visit even without the excellent birds. The main drawback is that the park is expensive to reach (we paid 300,000 Cop for the boat for the entire day, crazy expensive), the entrance fee is 44,500 COP for foreigners (Why?), and in addition a guide is required. Yet, the scenery of primary rainforest spilling down steep mountains and drawing a wild green edge with the crashing Pacific is simply unique. All around, the hills and ridges are covered with unbroken forest. The shallow areas in the bay are covered with some of the healthiest, tallest mangrove forest I have ever seen and best of all a well-constructed boardwalk leads into the heart of some of the best mangroves.

We arrived about 6:15 am after leaving the beach at Hotel Kipara about 5:40 am with the boat. Smooth conditions resulted in a relatively fast boat ride, but I would recommend leaving even earlier if the tides make it possible. We quickly walked the short trail paralleling the beach from the bungalows as Brown Wood-Rail apparently regularly feeds on the path in the morning. We had no luck so started playing the tape around the cabanas and along the start of the mangrove boardwalk. Eventually a bird responded close to the boardwalk and we saw it well crossing underneath the boardwalk twice and also walking in the forest. Note that the bird was not found in the mangroves themselves, but rather the thick woodland before reaching the mangroves.

*I need to add a side note on wood-rails in the El Valle area here. One afternoon I walked the start of the El Valle-Utria trail after some heavy downpours and stumbled onto two wood-rails in the middle of the path. I was at first excited and at the same time disappointed since they clearly were Gray-cowled Wood-Rails; I was able to study one bird very closely as it walked towards me unconcerned to within two meters. I was surprised to find no records in eBird for the immediate area although when I talked to Balmes he was sure both species of wood-rails occur. Although Gray-cowled and Brown Wood-Rails are vocally fairly distinct, I would urge birders to exercise caution when counting heard only wood-rails in the area (not automatically assuming that they should be Brown Wood-Rail). To make matters more complicated during my final full day on the El Valle-Utria trail I had one wood-rail run across the path quickly and from the glimpse I had I suspect it was a Brown Wood-Rail although some speculative playback never elicited a response. For birders wanting to avoid the costly boat trip to Utria NP it may be possible to find Brown Wood-Rail along the trail or even around the Rio Tundo area with systematic playback (and luck).

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The mangrove boardwalk in Utria National Park

Alright lets get back to the day in the park. After the swift success with the wood-rail we walked the remainder of the mangrove boardwalk and quickly saw Blue Cotinga and Black-breasted Puffbird. Guans calling in the distance were most likely Baudo and apparently this spot is excellent for the species very early or very late in the day. Luckily a guan decided to perch on a bare snag right within view a few minutes later and showed to be the rare, near-endemic Baudo Guan, a real lucky sighting (our boat driver in the meantime had a Great Currasow in a tree right next to the visitor center).

After the mangrove boardwalk we took the boat across the small bay to the start of the Cocalitos Trails, which starts next to the dilapidated old visitor center and begins with a set of wooden stairs. The trail is only 1 km long, following a small stream, and crossing a low ridge to a small beach. We only explored the first 500 meters or so and it was generally quiet. We were on the hunt for the Sapayoa, this is apparently on of the better spots, and despite finding a small feeding flock with White-flanked Antwren, Spot-crowed Antvireo, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Blue-crowned Manakin and Pacific Flatbill, we never saw the Sapayoa (luckily I had one in Panama).

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Humboldt’s Sapphire Photo Stephan Lorenz

We crossed the bay again and spend more time on the mangrove boardwalk until about 1 pm, finding a Humboldt’s Sapphire at the very last moment, a male that suddenly just sat there in full view right as we were about to leave. We cooled off snorkeling a bit along the beach in front of the cabanas and then went to a nearby island for lunch. The restaurant here (apparently not always open) served the predictable fish. We walked to a small beach on the other side of the island and did more snorkeling, which can only be described as mediocre, but the setting and landscape were spectacular. Around 4 pm we started the boat trip back, seeing two species of dolphins right alongside the beach, and arrived at Hotel Kipara by 5 pm.

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Dolphins during the boat trip back Photo Stephan Lorenz

If time and money permits I would recommend two nights in the national park to maximize chances of seeing some of the tougher birds. Our full day outing was a bit rushed.

Areas further afield

I spoke with Balmes and he stated that in order to find Berlepsch’s Tinamou it is necessary to go further up the El Valle River and explore short trails in that area. Apparently it is also possible to find Lita and Choco Woodpeckers, but more time would be required. In general the area holds lots of potential and extra time and effort could turn up some other specialties.

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El Valle beach Photo Stephan Lorenz

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elston J Hill on February 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Hi Stephan,

    Love your newsletter. Have you upgraded your camera? I have a couple extra original 7D cameras that I am ready to give to someone. If you are interested, would be happy to send you when we return from Alberta at the end of the month.

    >

    Reply

  2. Posted by Bruce N Berman on February 7, 2017 at 12:08 am

    Hi Stephan,
    Finally visited your blog. Really enjoyable and full of info. Leslie and I have put Colombia high on our “to bird” list.

    Reply

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