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Okinawa: A Rail, Robin, and Woodpecker plus some confusing Owls in tropical Japan

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The distinctive, flightless Okinawa Rail is endemic to the island and although somewhat skittish during the day I found this individual on a night roost Photo Stephan Lorenz

March 15th, 2018

Finally, our internal Japan flight left actually on time, but we were much delayed during the process of getting our rental car. We didn’t leave Naha until 7:45 pm, but the Okinawa Express Way and general lack of traffic made getting to the north of the island a relatively quick trip (about 120 kms). We arrived at the Benoki Dam picnic site (26.788711, 128.257262) around 9:30 pm so the drive took around 2 hours. I still had some energy for some owling and heard many Ryukyu Scops-Owls and saw one briefly, Okinawa Rails were also calling in the dark forest. We camped for the night, but torrential rain in the early morning hours made getting sleep difficult.

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Ryukyu Scops-Owls are very common in the Yanbaru Forest of northern Okinawa and up to two dozen can be heard per night, but they utter up to six different vocalizations and care must be taken when listening and looking for the much rarer Japanese Scops-Owl Photo Stephan Lorenz

March 16th, 2018

I woke up before sunrise with Ryukyu Scops-Owls still calling outside the tent. At dawn, we worked our way along the road curving around the reservoir, hearing many Ryukyu Robins and flushed several Pale Thrushes, which are very common on Okinawa during the winter. One spot was particularly productive (26.789018, 128.260028) and I was surprised and thrilled to hear Japanese Wood-Pigeons and we ended up with great views of at least two that perched in full view with another seen in flight plus one more heard. Apparently this species is sometimes fairly common and sometimes rare on Okinawa, depending on the year. We were definitely in luck as we easily found the species during two days. Almost immediately after the success with the pigeon, I heard the sharp call of the Okinawa Woodpecker. Initially we saw a shy male and female, but eventually four birds showed very well, with three males noisily chasing each other, offering great views. We found another three later in the day and heard drumming of several more at a distance. The first Ryukyu Robin also showed in a ravine nearby and this Ryukyu Islands endemic proved to be common in forest habitats.

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The Ryukyu Robin was common in forest habitats especially along the boardwalk trail (Yoner Course) at the Yandaru Discovery Center Photo Stephan Lorenz

Next we moved on to the Ada Pig Farm area (26.776366, 128.314533) where we found high bird activity with the most exciting sighting being a responsive Okinawa Rail that crossed the road twice right in front of me. Walking a bit around the pig farm and checking the brushy edges revealed two Little Buntings, apparently a very rare bird on Okinawa. Other birds seen during the day included Gray-faced Buzzard, Pygmy Woodpecker, Ryukyu Minivet, Varied Tit, Japanese Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese Bush Warbler, Zitting Cisticola (in the grassy area around the pig farm), Japanese White-eye, Blue Rock-Thrush, Black-faced Bunting, Eurasian Tree Sparrow with most of these common throughout the area.

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The Okinawa Woodpecker is considered to be the rarest woodpecker in the world with the entire population restricted to the northern part of Okinawa where it remains critically endangered abd estimated at less than 500 birds Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Japanese White-eyes are very common on Okinawa Photo Stephan Lorenz

March 17th, 2018

We had spent the night at the dormitory at the Yanbaru Discovery Center, although a bit expensive, it is an ideal location with Okinawa Rails at the doorstep, plus owls at night, and a fantastic Goemon bath available to relax and just enjoy the incredible view. I started before sunrise and located an Okinawa Rail on a night roost at the edge of the nearby clearing (26.739231, 128.259580). Then I proceeded to find a Ryukyu Scops-Owl on a day roost after hearing several enraged white-eyes and bulbus.

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The small size and yellow eyes are obvious with this day roosting Ryukyu Scops-Owl Photo Stephan Lorenz

I returned to the education center midmorning and while hanging out on the balcony of the room saw a female Whistling Green-Pigeon fly past for good views. Surprisingly this was the only one seen during three days of birding in the area, definitely an uncommon bird during our visit. Afterwards, we proceeded to do some leisurely birding along the nearby boardwalk (called the Yonner Course) and this trail was thick with Ryukyu Robins and we had another view of a female Okinawa Woodpecker. Rails were calling everywhere, but Claudia had to wait until the next day when we finally saw one from the balcony of our room. Ryukyu Minivets were also regular around the discovery center clearing, Pacific Swallow circled above and one the stunning Blue Rock-Thrushe was a main feature on the lawn (along with a Dusky Thrush). A male Siberian Rubythroat in rank grasses along one of the side roads near the center was a new Japan bird for me.

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Ryukyu Mininet is a striking Japan endemic and easy to see on Okinawa Photo Stephan Lorenz

In the evening, I went owling again, but it started to rain almost immidiately and then just started to pour. I persisted, ending with brief but good views of a Japanese Scops-Owl, here the reddish pryeri ssp., and I saw a further two Ryukyu Scops-Owls with many more heard. In general this particular side road (6.737999, 128.234068) had lots of owls each night. Near the Benoki dam, I found a woodcock in the middle of the road, which was most likely Eurasian (apparently the expectd species here with Amami very rare).

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Pale Thrushes are abundant Photo Stephan Lorenz

March 18th, 2018

I started very early again and while I did manage to find a calling Northern Boobook at the Ada Graden Hotel, it was too distant to see. I did see more Ryukyu Scops-Owls here with one perched on the telephone wires and another woodcock flying over, again likely Eurasian. After returning to the lodge we birded a bit around the center and then did some exploration of beaches on Kouri Island. In the open, coastal habitats we added Pacific Reef-Heron, Osprey, and Light-vented Bulbul, which are genrally common in settled areas, i.e. most of Okinawa.

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Varied Tit carrying nesting material along the boardwalk trail Photo Stephan Lorenz

A night outing held a woodcock on the lawn right at the discovery center and after it was farily quiet we finally found some owls around the Benoki Dam picnic site. Here Claudia finally had good views of Ryukyu Scops-Owls and a pair of Northern Boobooks showed really well.

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Usually not a difficult species, but we had to search a bit before we had good views of Northern Boobook Photo Stephan Lorenz

March 19th, 2018

Kin Rice paddy area was fairly quiet.

March 21st, 2018

Before heading to the airport we spent thirty minutes at what is known as the Triangle Pond about ten minutes from the airport. This small, trash-filled pond held a surprsing variety of birds, including Garganey (breeding plumaged male), Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Green-winged Teal, Gray Heron, Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Black-faced Spoonbill, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot,
Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed, Long-toed Stint, Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper, Common Redshank, Common Kingfisher.

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Black-faced Spoonbill front left photographed with Eurasian Spoonbills on Kyushu Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Birding in the Andaman Islands, India

 

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Andaman Drongo by Stephan Lorenz

The Andaman Islands belong politically to India, but biogeographically are part of southeast Asia, lying much closer to Myanmar than the Indian mainland. About twenty endemic bird species are the main lure for international birders and anybody serious about their India list could also add to that (i.e. White-breasted Woodswallow). They are tropical islands, bathed by the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Abundant rainfall and relatively low population size means that large tracts are still covered in healthy rain forest. Certain areas have been set aside as indigenous reserves and are not accessible to visitors, but all endemics and specialties can be found within one hour of the capital Port Blair. One of the most interesting islands is North Sentinel Island which is home to the Sentinelese, one of the last remaining uncontacted people on the planet.

Beyond the Andaman Islands access becomes much more difficult and the Nicobar Islands are essentially off-limits to visitors. For birders with an adventurous spirit and money to spare it is theoretically possible to charter a boat to Narcondam Island where hornbills could be seen without landing on the off-limit island. We just stuck to the logistically easy main route on the Andaman Islands.

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Getting there

There are regular, non-stop flights from Chennai (2 hrs) and Bengaluru (3 hrs) to Port Blair and booking well in advance and outside the local holiday season means tickets are relatively affordable. It is also possible to travel be slow ferry from the Indian mainland if you have 3-4 days to spare for the one-way trip. I think flying is recommended. On arrival, visitors must fill out a restricted area permit, which is just a five-minute formality.

Accommodations

Lots of hotels of varying quality in Port Blair, but nothing really cheap. We found the Seaview Residency pretty good value with comfortable and clean rooms, conveniently located near the Bombooflat ferry to go to Mount Harriet, but not so convenient for Chidiyatapu, since we had to cross all of Port Blair to get there. It may be best to spend two nights right at Chidiyatapu (Wild Grass Resort for example) and then spend two nights in Port Blair. We just stayed in Port Blair for five nights

Getting around

Taxis and tuk-tuks will take one anywhere, but for pretty inflated prices. I recommend renting a scooter (or two-wheeler as they are locally called) and despite what other sources may say it is still easily arranged for less than $10/day! That way it’s easy to zip back and forth between birding locations and especially stay out at night as long as needed. Local buses (super cheap) are also available and go nearly everywhere, but stop too early in the day to really allow for night outings. The driving is a bit exciting, but generally not too bad.

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Our trusty scooter among many.

Food

Milky Way offered pretty good pizzas for a break from Indian fare and Annapurna Kitchen had some delicious thalis and other Indian food. Lots of local places too, so no shortage of possibilities.

Birding Locations

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Chidiyatapu or Chidiya Tappu

This is one of the two premier birding locations near Port Blair and easily reached along the road heading south from the capital. Good forest starts about 4 kms before (11.523325, 92.720753) reaching the village and coast and the birding here is good. A small dam and some dead trees are a regular stake-out for Andaman Woodpecker (11.510117, 92.706635). A good amount of traffic does get annoying though and we found the birding to be even better inside the Biological Park past the village and teashops on the coast, entrance to park here (11.503004, 92.700633). The park consists of a few animal enclosures of mainly native mammals and offers a good network of trails through tall forest. It is much quieter here and offers good birding. We recorded several of the endemics here with Andaman Flowerpecker seen well along the main road and a feeding flock there held the first Andaman Treepies, which were relatively skulky in dense, lower growth. Andaman Drongos were common and inside the biological park we followed a muddy trail across from the pig enclosure that held a vocal pair of Andman Cuckooshrikes, according to some trip reports this can be a tricky species, but was easily found by us here and again Mount Harriet. Andaman Green-Pigeons sat out in the open after a heavy shower. I tried several times for Andaman Crake and heard them in at least four different locations, so fairly common here, but only glimpsed them twice. They apparently come out to the edges of enclosures sometime in the evenings. Without a doubt the best birds here we four Andaman Wood-Pigeons that fed relatively low in a fruiting tree just past the pig enclosures. The birds showed very well and then flew onto open perches in some of the taller trees, this is a really tricky species and we did well to find them. In addition, the edge of the biological park was also the only location we observed Andaman Serpent-Eagle during our entire visit with a vocal pair seen outside of the park along the road that goes past the main entrance station.

Night birding at Chidiyatapu

The Chidiyatapu area provides the most accessible night birding in the Port Blair area with almost all specialties present. The two endemic booboks or hawk-owls are easy to see with Hume’s Boobok hunting at the edge or even in the fields right around the small village near the end of the road. We saw several without much effort and spotlighting some of the bare branches, power lines, or dead trees around the paddy fields should reveal one. The Andaman Boobok was very responsive and flew into a tree right next to the road, plus several more were heard in the forest between 1 and 3 kms from the village.

The Oriental Scops-Owl, a distinct subspecies here known as O. s. modestus (Walden’s Scops-Owl), was also common in the forest especially by voice with up to five individuals heard at the same time. We saw one briefly, but well, during our first morning at the start of the good forest around 4 kms from the village (11.522630, 92.719217). This species is likely present in numbers in any decent forest. The smaller Andaman Scops-Owl proved also relatively common in taller forest, but difficult to see. I encountered up to five very vocal individuals per night, but although the birds would come close they remained out of sight high in the canopy. Finally, I found one calling in more open forest near the beginning of the good forest on the way to Chidiyatapu and working my way directly underneath the calling bird I was finally able to spot it very high up. The views were reasonable, but it was a tiny scops-owl right in the canopy. Interestingly, the species appears also common in the forest at Mount Harriet where I even heard it during the day, but I didn’t try at night there. I would recommend Mount Harriet as a backup location in case the owl doesn’t show at Chidiyatapu.

The Andaman Nightjar proved very difficult with not even a peep during the first two nights. I finally heard a bird calling from the mangroves along the shoreline on the edge of the village (approximate location in mangroves here 11.509129, 92.699161). Getting to the bird proved difficult and I first had to cross a small coconut plantation and then work my way through thick mud into the mangroves, fortunately it was low tide. The mangroves here are incredibly tall and healthy with a dense network of roots that I had to climb over. The bird was calling loudly from the sub-canopy and moved twice before I finally laid eyes on it after crawling across roots and being stuck in mud, definitely took some work, but I had lengthy, close views.

The uncommon Andaman Masked-Owl is best seen in and around Port Blair. Various school buildings and government buildings provide a chance.

Mount Harriet National Park

Mount Harriet was much better than Chidiyatapu in my opinion with excellent feeding flocks right from the start. It is easily reached from Port Blair via the ferry to Bombooflat (yes correct spelling) and the ferries start around 5:30 am, best to check locally though. Mount Harriet is a national park and a fee is payable at the entrance station, which officially doesn’t open until 8:00 am or so, but it is possible to walk in past the gate any time. Googlemaps shows two roads to the top of Mount Harriet, but the western one is the foot trail and the eastern one swings around and then leads to the top via a narrow but paved road. We walked from the entrance gate for about 2 kms and the birding was good during our first visit and a bit less so the second time. We mainly came to look for the missing Andaman Cuckoo-Dove and after diligent searching we had a cooperative pair about 2 kms from the entrance gate. A bit further up the trail right at the km 2 sign we also found a pair of Andaman Crakes that showed really well. One or two flocks plus some fruiting trees, held some of the other endemics, including Andaman Green-Pigeon, Andaman Coucal, Andaman Scops-Owl (heard), Freckle-breasted Woodpecker (ssp. D. a. andamanensis), Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Cuckooshrike, Andaman Drongo, Andaman Treepie, Andaman Shama, White-headed Starling, and Andaman Flowerpecker. While waiting at the vehicle ferry on the Port Blair side, I noted Plume-toed Swiftlets and White-nest Swiftlets nesting underneath the pier.

Kalatang Reserve

This site lies about 1.5 hours from Port Blair and offers good forest birding, although during our afternoon visit it was very quiet. We did have a cooperative Blue-eared Kingfisher along the small river here and Pale-footed Bush Warbler is supposedly possible, but we only had Thick-billed Warbler. This site is not as convenient, but could be a backup in case some endemics are still missing. The start of the trail is here (11.796095, 92.711310) off route 10 and leads for about 400 meters through open forest until it ends.

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Andaman Flowerpecker by Stephan Lorenz

Ograbraj Wetlands

This location is about 45 minutes from Port Blair and currently offers the most reliable site for Andaman Teal since they are no longer present at Sippighat. A gravel track wanders through the wetlands and we had good sightings here (11.657251, 92.658260), including the first group of teals seen right from the main road. Apparently Blue-eared Kingfisher is also present occasionally plus shorebirds and other waders at low tide.

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Andaman Teal by Stephan Lorenz

List of Endemics and Specialties:

Andaman Teal – Ograbraj where two small flocks observed

Andaman Serpent-Eagle – Chidiyatapu in the biological park only

Andaman Crake – Chidiyatapu common in the biological park, but best seen Mount Harriet

Andaman Wood-Pigeon – Chidiyatapu, apparently also present at Kalatang and Mount Harriet

Andaman Cuckoo-Dove – Mount Harriet, but can be seen at Chidiyatapu

Andaman Green-Pigeon – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Coucal – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Masked-Owl – Chidiyatapu, can be seen at various school building Port Blair

Andaman Scops-Owl – Chidiyatapu, but Mount Harriet may be better at night

Oriental Scops-Owl – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Boobook – Chidiyatapu

Hume’s Boobook – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Nightjar – Chidiyatapu

Blue-eared Kingfisher – Kalatang

Freckle-breasted Woodpecker – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Woodpecker – Chidiyatapu and Mount Harriet

Long-tailed Parakeet – Chidiyatapu where common and noisy

Andaman Cuckooshrike – Chidiyatapu and again seen well in feeding flocks Mount Harriet

Andaman Drongo – Chidiyatapu, common

Andaman Treepie – Chidiyatapu and Mount Harriet fairly common

Andaman Bulbul – Chidiyatapu

Pale-footed Bush Warbler – Sippighat wetlands

Andaman Shama – Chidiyatapu

White-headed Starling – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Flowerpecker – Chidiyatapu

Spring in Alaska: The Vagrant Hotspots of Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell deliver during the High Lonesome BirdTours Trips 2017

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This juvenile White-tailed Eagle was one of the highlights during our visit to St. Paul Island, but little did we know things would even get better Photo Stephan Lorenz

What a fantastic year for rarities in western Alaska and every time time we thought it couldn’t get any better, it certainly did! Each of the High Lonesome BirdTours trips this season connected with a smattering of vagrants, some truly rare and others present in unprecedented numbers. I thought we had an exceptional spring last year (see here), but this season actually topped any of the years I have spent in western Alaska. Combining the Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell tours we found an amazing 20 species of Asiatic vagrants, best of all, the rarities were seen well by our groups. What was even more amazing were the incredible moments when the numbers of rarities just kept increasing or that mega-rarity just popped up in front of us.

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Bramblings, Bramblings everywhere , we counted more than 150 in one day on Adak this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

Some of the most memorable moments included flocks of Bramblings on Adak that just built and built during our stay until reaching a grand total of 160 for a one day count, a record number in the central Aleutians. On St. Paul Island we wandered out among the dunes looking for a Wood Sandpiper and minutes later stood in awe as a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, flapping heavily in the rising winds, flew right over us, allowing for hundreds of close photos to be taken. The following day we couldn’t believe our eyes when we counted three Red-necked Stints in a melt pool, but within minutes five more flew in right in front of us (plus the Wood Sandpiper materialized)!

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Usually just one of these stunning Red-necked Stints will be a highlight, but we counted a dozen in a day this year on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

On Gambell we thought we had notched up the mega-rarity of the season when we connected with a Common “Siberian” Chiffchaff found by Paul Lehman. The bird cooperated well, offering exceptional views, but the following day our group found a male Pallas’s Bunting, which after the majority of birders on island got to see it was voted best bird of the spring.

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This Common Chiffchaff was not only rare, but also very cooperative, delighting our group with exceptional views Photo Stephan Lorenz

Let me summarize our three trips to the famous vagrant hotspots of western Alaska (Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell) and share some of the excitement and exciting finds of the season. I mainly focus on rarities here, but we of course also notched up a large number of specialties, including nearly all Bering Sea alcids, five species of loons, jaegers, Red-legged Kittiwake and more.

Things started off very well in Adak when the first evening of our visit produced a small flock of Bramblings and the winds continued flowing from the west. With high hopes we set forth during our first full day and while carefully checking a small stand of spruce trees we found an Eye-browed Thrush (later we would discover a second individual), this is a very rare vagrant to Adak. In the wetlands we discovered a pair of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, the Asiatic subspecies, and Common Snipes were displaying overhead. While we did manage to find a White Wagtail that had been sighted by others, it did take us two days of looking to finally relocate the Rustic Bunting that had been seen, but then we had exceptional views.

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This Rustic Bunting eventually showed very well for us after searching for two days and this was one of the rarer sightings among a slew of vagrants on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Adak hosted two Eye-browed Thrushes, a very good bird in the central Aleutians Photo Stephan Lorenz

The rarity hunt continued on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs and between admiring the seabird spectacle, chasing and finding vagrants, we had very little time for sleep. The first evening started off very well, when we found yet more Eye-browed Thrushes (with a day count of 8 eventually), but it was an Olive-backed Pipit that paraded around in front of us that stole the show. Oh yes, I almost forgot, Bramblings were also present in numbers.

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Olive-backed Pipit Photo Stephan Lorenz

The majority of vagrants for the season so far had been passerines, but on St. Paul Island the tone changed and shorebirds had clearly started moving. During our short three-night stay we managed to notch up goodies like Red-necked Stint (a dozen!), Lesser Sand-Plover (likely 2), Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper (2), Gray-tailed Tattler (2), and a white-morph Ruff during the final 20 minutes of birding. Now it is obvious why we had little time for meals, but those were just the shorebirds and the rare passerines continued to flood in. After a leisurely morning photographing auklets and puffins, we rushed to the north end of the island to find the Gray Wagtail that had been sighted and after some serious searching, returning after dinner even, we secured good views of this mega-rarity with less than 10 records total for St. Paul Island. The final evening check of Hutchinson’s Hill held yet another surprise in the form of a tame Hawfinch. Of course we will never forget the White-tailed Eagle right overhead and a bonus Black-headed Gull fluttering above Salt Lagoon.

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This female Hawfinch was seen well during our last evening on Hutchinson’s Hill Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Black-headed Gull Salt Lagoon St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was going to be difficult to top the experiences on Adak and St. Paul Island, but Gambell lived up to its reputation and delivered… see photo below:

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This male Pallas’s Bunting marked the first ever spring record for Gambell on one of less than 10 records in total for the ABA area Photo Stephan Lorenz

After arriving on Gambell, we didn’t have much time to relax, but headed out right away to chase a Common Greenshank and bumping into a Gray-tailed Tattler along the way. The Common Greenshank cooperated and so did Lesser Sand-Plovers, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint for another great selection of rare shorebirds.

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Gambell hosted two of the most cooperative Gray-tailed Tattlers this spring Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yet again the passerine rarities stole the show. We had a gentle introduction with yet more Bramblings, up to four Hawfinches, and an Eye-browed Thrush that remained for our entire stay. The headliners were of course the Common Chiffchaff that was seen well and the aforementioned Pallas’s Bunting that was seen exceedingly well for such a shy bird by our group. Other good finds included good numbers of trans-Beringian migrants like Buethroats, Red-throated Pipits, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and Northern Wheatears. The White Wagtails and Common Ringed Plovers were nesting again this year, while Slaty-backed Gulls were present as usual. Join us next season at either Adak, St. Paul Island, or Gambell or better yet all to see what rarities we can turn up.

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Eastern Yellow Wagtail on Adak where very rare Photo Stephan Lorenz

Update to Birding the Guajira Peninsula Camarones, Colombia

Birding in the Guajira Peninsula, Colombia has been well-covered in many trip reports and is also described in the Colombia Birding Site Guide by Beckers and Florez. I just want to provide a brief update for birders that plan to travel to the area independently. The Guajira Peninsula in northeast Colombia provides easy access for several range-restricted species, many of which are only shared with Venezuela.

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The White-whiskered Spinetail is a striking species and luckily fairly common in the Guajira area Photo Stephan Lorenz

The regional endemics and dry forest specialties include: Vermilion Cardinal, Tocuyo Sparrow, Buffy Hummingbird, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, Pileated Finch, White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero, Bare-eyed Pigeon, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Northern-scrub Flycatcher, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, and Glaucous Tanager.

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Bare-eyed Pigeon Photo Stephan Lorenz

Fortunately the birding here is relatively easy and most of the specialties are readily found, although I did miss one of the easier ones. I had originally planned to have a full day and one full morning for birding in the area, but our bus to Santa Marta we so slow and delayed that we did not have time to reach Rioacha. After spending an unplanned night in Santa Marta I eventually continued towards Rioacha around midmorning. It was easy to catch a taxi to the gas station along the main highway from where minivans and buses head east nearly constantly. Of course I ended up on a bus that waited for another 45 minutes before leaving.

I did not go all the way to Rioacha, but got off the bus at the intersection to Camarones (just tell the driver you are headed to Camarones). The bus trip from Santa Marta to Camarones took about 2:45 hours. At the intersection I hopped on a mototaxi, which took me to a hotel in town (1,000 COP, 2 minutes). There is a brand-new hotel in town, right across from the police station, and I got a clean room with air-conditioning (30,000 COP). I also saw a hostel just across the street, so there are accommodation options in Camarones and I think it is way more practical to stay here, although food choices seemed somewhat limited. 

With great luck it could be possible to see all target species during one long morning, but I would recommend at least two nights in the area. After I dropped off my gear I immediately started walking towards the Old Camerones Road, easily accessed from the far end of town. This road of potholes and broken pavement goes through decent scrub and dry forest habitat, including passing some waterholes and crossing small streams before ending at the main highway. There was quite a bit of local traffic on this road, mainly people by motorcycles and on foot, plus a few kids with slingshots! The vegetation was still lush and waterholes still relatively full, since unusual amounts of rain had fallen a few months prior. Theoretically it should be possible to see nearly all specialties along this short stretch of road, but it could be difficult.

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Russet-throated Puffbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

I initially struggled a bit, but eventually pieced together a decent list for the first afternoon with Slender-billed Tyrannulet (common), Bare-eyed Pigeon, White-whiskered Spinetail, Tropical Gnatcatcher (dirt common), and I even managed to get onto a Chestnut Piculet. The Guide the Birdwatching in Colombia (Beckers&Florez) for some reason states that Chestnut Piculet and Tocuyo Sparrow are not present in the vicinity of Camarones, but they actually are! I saw the piculet several times and there is an excellent spot for the sparrow just across the highway.

While birding near one of the bridges a local on a motorcycle stopped to talk to me. I explained that I was birdwatching and he asked me if I was interested in seeing a Buffy Humming? Well, of course yes. He said he had to drop somebody off and would return in an hour. I said I would be birding along the road and see him later. I saw a few more birds but things slowed down. My new guide showed back up and I hopped onto the motorbike. We headed back towards town, but took the left turn towards the river mouth.

We stopped along the road and entered first along a sandy path. There were paths everywhere and it seems very advisable to go with a local guide, since it supports the birding in the area and also allows access to some of the village area of the Wayuu, the local indigenous group. 

We walked some distance, seeing more Chestnut Piculets, and eventually my guide pointed out a calling Buffy Hummingbird. We tracked down the calling individual for some amazing views and heard another close by. It appeared to be some sort of lekking area for the species. With one of the trickier species in the bag we rushed to another location before sunset and promptly found Vermillion Cardinal, a male that sat up briefly. Buffy Hummingbird also called in this area.

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Great views of Buffy Hummingbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

We returned to the hotel and decided on a 5:30 am meeting time. The next morning saw me trapped in the hotel with all doors locked and noone around. I managed to find a narrow window and climbed out, fortunately the police across the street was still asleep. My guide showed up promptly and we set off for one of the other main targets of the area, the Tocuyo Sparrow. Luckily my friend Ross Gallardy had found a location within five minutes of Camarones and by motorcycle we were at the start of the trail right at sunrise. (See post here: https://budgetbirders.com/2017/01/28/birding-colombia-the-caribbean-coast-minca/) We flushed a covey of roosting Crested Bobwhite and I was able to spotlight one for great views. It took about five minutes before we heard the soft ticking of a Tocuyo Sparrow and eventually had one on top of a tree singing his heart out for thirty minutes. It was even a new location for the guide and with other sparrows heard nearby seems potentially reliable.

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Tocuyo Sparrow singing in the weak morning light Photo Stephan Lorenz

I also saw the only Pale-tipped Inezia here. From here we rushed back to the area we had birded during the previous afternoon looking for Orinoco Saltator (briefly seen in flight and perched partly obscured), We also managed better views of Crested Bobwhite, a nice pair of Vermilion Cardinal, more Buffy Hummingbirds. A short stop at the river mouth to scan for shorebirds was largely unproductive.

 We searched far and wide for Glaucous Tanager, but to no avail. Driving back to the Old Camarones Road we went off trail and explored a larger wetland, which held many Limpkins, Wattled Jacanas, and Common Gallinules. A Russet-throated Puffbird perched very close. We even went to the Perico Sector where we saw American Flamingos in the lagoon, but try as we might not a single tanager showed. I later learned that the cemetery just on the edge of Camarones (we passed it several times) is reliable for Glaucous Tanagers.

I returned to the hotel by 11:00 am and found myself on a bus heading back to Santa Marta just around noon. Overall I found the birding in the Guajira Peninsula very enjoyable and productive and wouldn’t mind returning to get the Glaucous Tanager. Kathi Borgmann has also an excellent post about birding in the area: https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/birding-in-the-guajira-peninsula/

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Search for the rarest hummingbird in the world: The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest

The late afternoon had been foggy with dense clouds drifting across the steep ridges, enveloping us in gray mist. Bird life had been scarce in the heavily grazed and burnt grasslands, but despite the lack of distractions, our progress had been slow above 3000 meters with the air noticeably thinner. In the evening, we reached our camp by the second lagoon and I quickly set up the tent. The fog and clouds finally lifted, revealing a shimmering tarn at the base of near vertical, rocky cliffs with a gentler rise behind camp. This wetter area near camp still harbored a patch of good habitat with a diversity of low trees, shrubs, and flowers. In the waning evening light I set out, exploring the edge of the small woodland, hearing the endemic Brown-rumped Tapaculo and the first of the critically endangered Santa Marta Wren. While I failed to see the wren, I saw a flash of a bird fly onto the top of the tallest tree at quite a distance. I could not believe it, was it really the recently rediscovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, the target bird of this trek, revealing itself after only a few minutes of searching. During previous visits to the site the endangered hummingbird had only ever been seen a bit higher up, along the edges of the third and fourth lagoons, including the most recent expedition in December 2016. I rushed up the slope, arriving in a small clearing completely out of breath due to the excitement and sparse air, and a careful scan revealed the bird flying among low bushes. Eventually it flew close and perched within a few meters, revealing its mottled underparts, gray collar, and greenish upperparts. It was indeed a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, a bird that had previously been seen by only a dozen birders.

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The first Blue-bearded Helmetcrest of the trip was a female bird during the first evening that came very close Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest was discovered in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as early as 1880 and was recorded for the last time in 1946 before disappearing for nearly 70 years. The species was lumped with three other distinct subspecies (now species) known as Bearded Helmetcrest, but has now been split with Blue-bearded, Green-bearded, and Buffy helmestcrests all being endemic to Colombia, plus the White-bearded Helmetcrest which is endemic to Venezuela. This rare species was feared to be extinct since several searches between 1999 and 2011 failed to locate any birds. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by ornithologists working for Proaves in March 2015 at high elevations in a remote section of the sierra. 

The IUCN and Birdlife International classify the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest as critically endangered. The population is estimated to be between 50-249 individuals, but further surveys are needed to gain a better understanding of actual population numbers. Currently, the species is only known from a single location in an area extending about 10 ha surrounded by heavily degraded habitat. Frequent fires, grazing by cattle and rooting by pigs, and potentially cutting of vegetation threaten the small patches of remaining habitat even further. The higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are also the homeland of the Kogi and Arhuacos, which compete with the endemic bird species for living space, resulting in a complicated conservation situation. 

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Hanging on by a thread, the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest may be the most endangered hummingbird in the world, here an immature male we found during the morning of the third day Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 20th, 2017 Travel from Santa Marta to San Pedro

Our trip started in Santa Marta around three in the afternoon where we met Sebastian Ballesteros (fotonatural@live.com) who would accompany us for the next six days. After some minor errands, we finally headed out of town along the built-up coast of Roradero. We stopped outside Cienega to check a good location for the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, but were disappointed to discover that most of the habitat had recently been bulldozed. Not surprisingly we moved on without seeing any chachalacas, an unfortunate miss of the trip and not a good sign as to what is happening to the natural habitats in the region.

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Habitat alteration and degradation is widespread, here recent burns at middle elevations in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Photo Stephan Lorenz

We turned off the main highway about an hour later and started along the steep road into the mountains. Initially the road was paved, but quickly turned into a steep, winding track of gravel and dust. The views improved with each turn and we passed through some promising looking sections of dry forest. 

In the tiny village of El Mico I was surprised to find a makeshift toll gate (a piece of string and chain across the road), but apparently the small fee is used to maintain the road further up. The brief stop was also a good excuse to buy some cups of delicious mango juice. We could see the mango plantations on the low ridges and slopes all around us. 

The rough road had some difficult sections and high clearance was definitely needed. Around dusk we reached the Village of San Pedro, a series of houses stretched along a narrow ridge. The drive took a little bit more than three hours from Santa Marta. We checked into the only hotel in town and had to make do with a basement room that could have used a couple of whiffs of fresh air, but since it was the only choice in town we didn’t complain. We sorted some of our gear and went to find a restaurant that still served dinner. 

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The town of San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 21st Hike from San Pedro (1,500 m) to First Farm Camp (2,600 m) 

We woke up very early to pack up our stuff with hopes of starting to load up by seven am. We organized our gear quickly and left the hotel to wait at the main corner in town. Our local guide and mule driver was delayed and did not arrive until 7:30 am. Finally by 8:00 am we were on the trail, or the road at this point, and started the long walk from 1,500 m to our first camp at 2,600 m. The birding started off literally a stone’s throw from town with endemic Santa Marta Brushfinches rummaging through piles of trash. The species proved to be abundant in the lower parts of the trek with up to thirty recorded in a day. Also within the first few hundred meters we heard and saw a pair of Santa Marta Antbirds (split of Long-tailed Antbird) that came in very close and allowed great views, seemingly a slightly less skulky Drymophila. A few steps further (where we ever going to make progress on the trek?) we saw a Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner very well foraging among epiphytes in loose association with White-lored Warblers, also endemic. Four Santa Marta endemics seen and we had scarcely walked a hundred yards. A bit of patient waiting and staring into a dark ravine yielded views of the bangsii subspecies of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, likely a future split and another Santa Marta endemic, Bang’s Wood-Wren.

We followed the road for the first hour and just before reaching the trail saw a Barred Forest-falcon flash through an open area. A second individual was calling close by, but never revealed itself. As we stood on the road attempting to locate the forest-falcon a small raptor flew directly above us, disappearing behind some trees, both of us exclaimed simultaneously “Tiny Hawk”. The Tiny Hawk actually perched in plain view right above the road, but before we realized that all we saw was the bird dropping from a branch and disappearing again, an excellent start to the morning.

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Following the worn mule trail higher into the mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

The trail started in earnest as we followed a steep mule path gauged out of the sandy slope. The track wound its way up a narrow ridge, alternately fringed by pasture and low ferny growth with a few patches of forest. Bird activity was very high and remained so throughout the day. Additional Santa Marta endemics recorded during the day included Yellow-crowned Redstart and Rusty-headed Spinetail. Santa Marta Antpittas were frequently heard with one briefly glimpsed in the bamboo-choked stretches of forest. Taller forest held Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, a range-restricted species.

We reached the highest point along the ridge and the traditional route drops down to a small river from here before climbing up to an abandoned farm. Our local guide and mule (and horse) wrangler, Rey Rojas, suggested an alternative route along the ridge towards another farm. It would avoid the descent and ascent, following a sweeping ridge towards the paramo. We agreed readily to the change since it would allow us to complete a loop. Along the final stretch for the day we added yet another Santa Marta endemic in the form of two male White-tailed Starfrontlets that showed briefly feeding on some bromeliads.

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The endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet Photo Stephan Lorenz

Once we reached camp we quickly set up our tents with the remaining light while Scaly-naped Parrots and Scarlet-fronted Parakeets screeched through the valley. The views of the steep green ridges and clouds funneling far below were astounding. After a quick dinner, Sebastian and I set off uphill for a few minutes hoping to locate a Santa Marta Screech-Owl (not officially described yet) and within minutes located a bird silently sitting in a bare, lichen-covered tree. We had great views and photographic opportunities. Apparently, Santa Marta Screech-Owls are present in nearly every patch of forest in the area and are much easier to see here than along the San Lorenzo Ridge. Full list see here (List Day 1).

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Santa Marta Screech-Owl Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 22nd Hike from Farm Camp (2,600 m) along ridge into paramo and to camp at 2nd lagoon (3,800 m)

We packed up quickly, ate a small breakfast, and hit the trail by 7 am. We climbed back up a short stretch and turned right, following a well-worn trail on top of a sweeping ridge that curved right towards the higher reaches and paramo. Not too far from camp we met three Kogis descending the trail, a man and two boys. The man stopped us and asked us many questions, where were we from, where were we going, and how many days? We assured him that we had permission and local guides, satisfied he eventually let us continue. After much scanning and listening, we finally located a pair of Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants with the birds showing close and well. This is another species that is much more difficult along the San Lorenzo ridge area, but seemed fairly common along the stunted ridge top forest along the trek. We found another individual in similar habitat further up.

Since we had some distance and, more importantly, elevation gain to cover we birded sporadically. Passing some clear-cut areas and a Kogi farm, we entered better forest where more Santa Marta Anpittas were calling. We thought we heard a Santa Marta Parakeet and after some searching located an individual perching very close and allowing several minutes of photographing the bird. We emerged from the forest onto a barren ridge and before the trail climbed higher made a brief lunch stop. Here we saw in quick succession a White-rumped Hawk soaring over the forest followed by a juvenile Black-and-chestnut Eagle that flew leisurely above us then stooped to chase a bird. Both raptors offered great views and this trek is particular excellent for birds of prey with a locally rare Cooper’s Hawk seen later.

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There are many excellent raptor watching spots along the way Photo Stephan Lorenz

The ascent started in earnest along a rocky path snaking through low shrub and bamboo thickets. The main highlights were a “Santa Marta” Rufous Antpitta (likely future split) that hopped into the trail and a pair of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens (recent split) that appeared in a small window among the dense bamboo. Once we reached the paramo at about 3000 m our progress slowed a bit. The trail was not particularly steep but wound up and down through dun-colored grasslands. Bird life was nearly absent in this overgrazed and burnt landscape except for a single Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

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Santa Marta Wood-Wrens are quite common and noisy above 2000 m Photo Stephan Lorenz

We descended to a larger stream, filled our water bottles, and then climbed a high ridge in front of us. Skirting a steep hill we finally spotted the first lagoon and soon thereafter the second lagoon, our camp for the next two nights.

The night was clear and very cold, making sleep difficult. I twisted and turned in my sleeping bag waiting for morning to come. (List Day 2)

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The camp at the 2nd lagoon is incredibly beautiful Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 23rd Birding around camp at 2nd lagoon and hike to 3rd and 4th lagoons, including staking out flowering tree on far end of 3rd lagoon

This was going to be our full day in Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest habitat. With the helmetcrest already under the belt from the previous evening I was eager to get a good look at the wren. I emerged from the tent around 6:00 am and it was still bitter cold, I had shivered most of the night, twisting and turned between several body heat conserving positions without success. A few moments later we heard some wrens just behind camp and I rushed up the slope, finally getting the first glimpse of a bird that hitched up a bare tree, allowing great looks. I tracked a pair up the slope, getting repeated great views and a few photos. 

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Likely just as rare as the helmetcrest, the Santa Marta Wren makes an appearance Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a modest breakfast we were ready to hike to the 3rd lagoon by 8:00 am and started walking through the woodland, following a trail that climbed past the creek to the next higher area. Sebastian flushed a snipe from a muddy area among brush and it called as it flew right over me, based on call and its large, dark appearance it was a Jameson’s Snipe, a surprise but welcome addition to the list. A few steps further and we found the first helmetcrest of the day, an immature male that briefly perched close to us. Wow, quick success and I thought it was good sign of things to come.

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An immature male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest perched relatively close Photo Stephan Lorenz

We climbed higher and walked through a flatter area with scattered trees. Here a territorial, female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest charged us briefly by hovering right in front of us, buffy tail flared. This is a behavior that had also been noted during previous expeditions. The female perched on a rock for a moment and then shot off downhill and out if sight, two helmetcrests already without doing any serious searching.

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Lagoon Photo Stephan Lorenz

We made our way along the edge of the 3rd lagoon and the trail disappeared among a jumble of boulders and denser vegetation, slowing us down a lot. We eventually reached the far side, without any further sightings of helmetcrests, but many sightings of Santa Marta Wrens which appeared relatively common. Throughout the day, the wrens were easily visible, readily climbing into bare trees, perching on exposed rocks, or calling from the top of low shrubs. The species was not shy at all, called nearly continuously (a monotonous hummingbird-like chirping or low, scratchy call), and seemed to forage at all levels, including on the ground and on bare rock faces (almost like a Canyon Wren). I estimated between 8-10 pairs or family groups in the entire area.

We staked out a flowering tree, growing close to a creek emptying into the 3rd lagoon. Sebastian and my friend Ross Gallardy (see here for his excellent blog) had seen up to three helmetcrests feeding here as recently as December 2016. We waited awhile without any sign of the birds and I decided to explore the edge of the 4th lagoon. I climbed the steep, vegetated slope first and saw nothing and then continued to the 4th and smallest lagoon. There was some habitat, but it did not look too promising. In a marshy area I flushed a Wilson’s Snipe, clearly brighter with typical call compared to what we saw earlier. I found several more cooperative Santa Marta Wrens, but no hummingbirds. Returning to the stake-out I saw that Claudia had her binoculars up and seemed to be looking at something. I searched the tree and noticed a hummingbird feeding along the shady edge. Sebastian stood close to the hummingbird, furiously taking pictures. From the glimpse I had it seemed to be a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. I ran downhill, slid down a rocky slope, and dropped another two meters into dense vegetation from which I crawled out camera ready. Luckily the bird stayed for several minutes, methodically probing the small pink flowers while perching on leaves and twigs. I worked my way slowly to the side that the bird was favoring and soon had a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding unconcerned at less than two meters in front of me. I knew the earlier sightings had been a good sign.

After the bird left the area we waited for another two hours, but a female and the male came back only briefly, and did not actually feed on the flowers. Elated we eventually packed up and started the long walk back to camp. While the Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest were the clear highlights of the day these were by no means the only birds around. Other high elevation specialties, some of them represented here by subspecies endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, included Andean Tit-Spinetail, Streak-backed Canastero, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-browed Conebill, Black Flowerpiercer, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Andean Siskin. Once we returned to camp we took a short break before staking out another area that held many flowers for the evening. No hummingbirds showed but the alpenglow on the steep cliffs and the lagoon reflecting the purple light were absolutely beautiful. (List Day 3)

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Sunset Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 24th, 2017 Birding in patch near camp and the  downhill hike to farm camp

The night had been milder and I had actually slept through most of it. We woke up right around sunrise and quickly made our way to a good vantage point near camp, overlooking most of the best habitat. Having seen all the target birds the previous day, we were mainly interested in adding some behavioral observation of this essentially unknown hummingbird and maybe getting better photographic opportunities. Nothing happened for some time until I spotted a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding on reddish flowers growing on the ground along a steeper section of the slope. The bird moved quickly between the scattered flowers and came close once in response to a flight call. Suddenly another Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, presumably the immature male from the previous day, shot in and a short chase ensued. The female flew off a long way and was lost from sight as was the other helmetcrest. It appeared as if the birds held relatively large territories, foraged over long distances, and definitely only made sporadic appearances. 

We saw nothing else despite an hour of waiting. I walked the circumference of the 2nd lagoon to look for snipes without success. We packed up all our gear and were ready to head down by 11:00 am. The walk back towards the farm took the remainder of the day with some of the steeper sections tough on our tired legs. Some of the other highlights of the day included a Brown-rumped Tapaculo that I saw very well near camp, more Santa Marta Wrens, three Andean Condors that soared above the paramo as we descended (the highest number Sebastian had seen), and  views of a Santa Marta Parakeet. We reached camp around 17:00 with an immense flock of Scaly-naped Parrots circling above. We enjoyed a large dinner and then went to bed early despite having hearing a Santa Marta Screech-Owl calling nearby. (List Day 4)

February 25th Hike from farm camp back to San Pedro and drive back to Santa Marta

The final day of the trek and we all seemed reluctant to leave the tranquility of the mountains. We started slowly, eating breakfast, packing gear, and taking photos of a female White-tailed Starfrontlet that visited a flowering bush outside he kitchen house. The wish list for the day was very short and we soon had excellent views of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens. As we climbed down we ran into a good variety of Santa Marta endemics, but despite hearing many Santa Marta Antpittas, we did not get any photo opportunities.

New species for the trek included a noisy pair of White-tipped Quetzals, Spotted Barbtail, brief but good views of a Santa Marta Warbler, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, and three circling Sharp-shinned “Plain-breasted” Hawks. Similar to the climb up a few days before, bird activity remained high throughout the day. We reached San Pedro before 16:00 and after unloading the mule and horse we ate a quick late lunch at a local restaurant. During the drive down we saw a Striped Cuckoo and Common Paraque and reached Santa Marta all too quickly where the adventure ended. (List Day 5)

A huge thanks to Sebastian Ballesteros and Rey Rojas for making the trip very successful and their skilled guiding got us to the right spots and birds. Also many thanks to our trusty pack horse, Pinocho and equally trusty pack mule, Cocuyo.

More Reading

Collar, N. J.; Salaman, P. 2013. The taxonomic and conservation status of the Oxypogon helmetcrests. Conservación Colombiana 19: 31-38. Available at: http://www.proaves.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/The-taxonomic-and-conservation-status-of-the-Oxypogon-helmetcrests.pdf

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N. and Sharpe, C.J. 2014. Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. and de Juana, E. (eds), Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

IUCN. 2016. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-3. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. (Accessed: 07 December 2016).

Luna, J. C.; Quevedo, A. 2012. Primera fotografía en su habitat y nuevo avistamiento del Cucarachero de Santa Marta Troglodytes monticola, especie en peligro crítico. Conservacion Colombiana 17: 31-32.

Rojas, C.J. and Vasquez, C. 2015. Rediscovery of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest Oxypogon cyanolaemus, a hummingbird lost for almost 70 years. Conservación Colombiana 22(Marzo): 4-7.

Strewe, R.; Navarro, C. 2004. The threatened birds of the río Frío Valley, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Cotinga 22: 47-55.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia: Southeast Asia’s Ultimate Wetland Haven

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Black-headed Ibis in flight Photo Stephan Lorenz

As soon as we entered the boundary of the reserve birdlife burgeoned, first in twos and threes, then small flocks to hundreds, and with each successive turn of the channel the water birds amassed as if our boat was slowly drifting back in time. The count of Spot-billed Pelicans, enormous fish gobblers, rose from singles to small gangs that churned the water as they took flight from our approach. The namesake fine speckling on the bill clearly visible, their pale-eyed look stuck between annoyance and surprise.

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Spot-billed Pelicans are still very numerous in the Prek Toal Reserve Photo Stephan Lorenz

After an especially sharp corner in the stream, an enormous Greater Adjutant looked up from its reading of the waters and sagely pondered our presence with glaring eyes like a prehistoric beast. The bird decided to take flight, with its broad, black wings beating deeply in the cool morning air and its massive, naked head plus monster bill seemingly dragging it down. Even the largest fish in these waters must live in constant fear, given the size of the adjutant’s bill. I wondered how any fish survived these stabbing implements punching the water’s surface in a furious feeding frenzy.

The Greater Adjutant lumbered to a tree and landed next to a Lesser Adjutant, a closely related stork that alone would stand out by size, but next to its rarer and larger cousin, the appropriately named Lesser Adjutant looked actually small. I wanted to take another picture, but the boat drifted on, relentlessly deeper into a wildlife spectacle. Around the next bend stood a half-dozen Greater Adjutants, reaching nearly five feet, they towered over us as we sat in the boat. We were outnumbered and the birds, sizing up the situation, stood their ground as we passed. The next few hours passed among numbers of birds I have rarely seen anywhere else in the world, comparable to Argentina’s Iberia Marshes or perhaps the Pantanal in Brazil. Prek Toal is Southeast Asia’s last remaining stronghold for large water birds. I stared in amazement and thought that this is what it must have been like hundreds of years ago.

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Greater Adjutant is one of the specialties at Prek Toal Reserve and is a very rare species in Southeast Asia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Cambodia’s Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve offers the final chance for several endangered birds in the country and larger region, including the Spot-billed Pelican, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, both adjutants, Black-headed Ibis, and Oriental Darter. It is also a haven for more widespread waterbirds, harbors great plant diversity, and many other aquatic animals, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The reserve is located in the northwestern section of the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. This seasonally inundated lake captures floodwaters from the mighty Mekong along the Tonle Sap River, which flows into the basin, filling the lake during the monsoon season, and streams in reverse during the dry season, returning the waters to the Mekong River.

The extent and flood levels of the lake vary dramatically with the changing seasons and birds have adapted to take advantage of the high concentrations of food, nesting in large rookeries when the channels narrow and fish become concentrated in receding marshes. People have also adjusted, migrating about the lake in literal floating villages, profiting on the density of fish. In addition to the fishermen and their families living on the lake, several million people depend on it for water, food, and transportation. The lake and the surrounding provinces have been decreed as the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve and the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve was declared a RAMSAR site, officially establishing its status as a wetland of international importance.

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Painted Storks (pictured) are common and the rarer Milky Stork can be found Photo Stephan Lorenz

We witnessed this importance firsthand as our narrow boat slowly motored along the twisting channel, deeper into the ancient swamp. The previous day we had crossed wide expanses of open water after we left the main dock at Chong Kneas. The boat stuttered across flat water, first along a murky channel busy with other vessels and then past scattered, floating houses. Birdlife was nearly absent on the open lake and we only glimpsed the occasional Whiskered Tern. By the time we arrived in the Prek Toal floating village is was already after dark.

The following day we woke up well before sunrise and after a quick breakfast in the floating village, motored in suffused dawn light towards the entrance of the reserve. Our narrow boat, captained by a local fisherman and with directions of an expert guide from the Sam Veasna Center we entered the reserve, unceremoniously crossing a weir of bamboo and sand, but immediately drifting into an aqueous landscape with a primordial heartbeat. Dense reed beds and thickets bordered the margins of the stream and higher ground supported stands of dipterocarp forest. A low fog hugged the winding stream, extending misty fingers along oxbows choked with floating vegetation.

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Egrets, egrets everywhere like this Intermediate Egret Photo Stephan Lorenz

Widespread herons and egrets were incredibly numerous, with the short-necked Intermediate Egret being most common, but Great and Little egrets were also present to round out the trio of blanched waders. Colorful Purple Herons and the plainer Gray Herons stood vigil along the edge of the channel, occasionally jabbing with lighting-speed at invisible prey. The smaller Striated Herons and Chinese Pond-Herons hugged the well-vegetated sections and flushed in alarm as we passed. Catching a glimpse of the small bitterns that call the lake home required more serendipity than skill, since Yellow, Cinnamon, and even Black bitterns flushed at random from dense reed beds and if our eyes weren’t affixed to the right spot at the right moment, the birds were gone as soon as someone called them out.

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A rare Milky Stork (right) next to its more common cousin the Painted Stork (left) Photo Stephan Lorenz

While the massive adjutants commanded most of our attention, there were various other stork species too. We watched a near constant procession of Asian Openbills flying overhead and in a few swampy corners we found flocks feeding among floating vegetation. These medium-sized, black and white storks have an odd bill that appears permanently stuck in mid-sentence with the lower mandible bent to leave a gap. This bill shape apparently aids in cracking snail shells, the preferred food of the species. While the majority of storks stuck to the traditional black and white dress, the Painted Stork wore splashes of rose-colored feathers and a crimson head with yellow bill. We watched several flush from the shallow water and jostle for perches in the scattered trees. Sharp eyes picked out a stork that looked like a washed out version of the former, but this was not a faded individual, but the much rarer Milky Stork that still occurs within the reserve.

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Gray-headed Fish Eagles are numerous Photo Stephan Lorenz

Three species of cormorants, Indian, Great, and Little rounded out the larger piscivores, and mobs of them dove for fish in the deeper sections of the channel. The snake-like heads and necks of Oriental Darters popped up every hundred feet and White-throated, Black-capped, and Common Kingfisher finished off the smaller fish, diving head first from low branches overhanging the water.  

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Oriental Darter Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was not all about gangly legs and lengthy bills since a variety of raptors and songbirds thrive in the protected area, most notably the Gray-headed Fish-Eagle. We spotted a handful of these powerful raptors scrutinizing the water from tall perches, their formidable talons flexed to strike any fish that miraculously survived the labyrinth of gulping pouches and dagger-like bills downstream. Our knowledgeable guide was eager to show us nesting Buffy Fish-Owls, which are very rare in Cambodia and we watched two birds stare back at us indifferently. When the channel narrowed to a cul-de-sac we checked some trees and added a nice mix of passerines, including Malaysian Pied Fantail, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, and Plain-throated Sunbird.

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Buffy Fish-Owl was only recently discovered at the Prek Toal Reserve Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Sam Veasna Center organizes birding trips to the preserve and this non-profit organization not only does an excellent job showing visiting birders Cambodia’s avifauna, but can also be credited with saving and protecting populations of  some of the most endangered birds in the world. Percentages of the proceeds from tours flow back into communities and help safeguard threatened birds. It is best to visit the Prek Toal Reserve during the dry season, when narrowing waterways concentrate fish and predators, making the water birds easier to find. The ideal time to bird in Prek Toal is from December to April.

It is possible to spend the night in the Prek Toal floating village, but accommodations will invariably be basic in every sense of the word. We stayed on terra firma, at least during the dry season, in the government environmental center, a large, concrete rectangle set on twenty foot tall pylons on the edge of the village. The rooms came with free rodents and suspicious holes in the ceiling. There was running water in the bathrooms, although most of it just flowed across the floor. In other words, if visitors like a bit more creature comforts it is advisable to stay in Siem Riep, Cambodia’s tourism capital due to Angkor Wat, which offers a wide variety of accommodations. The advantage of staying in the floating village of Prek Toal is that it enables birders to enter the reserve at the crack of dawn. This allowed us to serenely float past hundreds of birds that had not been disturbed by other visitors yet. Meals are available at a community restaurant in the village and it would be a good idea to purchase some of the local handicrafts to support the community.

Prek Toal Preserve may represents Southeast Asia’s “ultimate” water bird paradise for its significant populations of endangered storks, pelicans, and herons, but it is also the “ultimate” chance to rescue something that has been lost in other parts of the region. We have an obligation to preserve these places. Areas that allow glimpses of the past and reminders of what has already been lost.

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Lesser (left) and Greater Adjutants perched together, revealing the noticeable size difference Photo Stephan Lorenz

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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