Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Colombia - Part 1

Just back from Colombia, generally recognised as having more bird species than any other country in the world – 1,883 according to Howard & Moore - but in recent times unfortunately little visited by birdwatchers. Serious internal armed conflict, with rebel groups funded by the trade in cocaine and heroin, has deterred tourists from visiting, but things are changing rapidly, thanks to improvements in security resulting from President Álvaro Uribe's "democratic security" strategy.

Significant increases in military strength and police presence throughout the country have pushed the rebels further away from the major cities, highways and tourist sites. As a result, the British Foreign Office and the US Department of State have revised their advice on travel to Colombia and the country is now receiving more than a million tourists every year. As the Colombian Tourist Office puts it: “el riesgo es que te quieras quedar” or “the only risk (now) is wanting to stay”.

Our trip began with flights from London to Madrid with Iberia and then with the very good Colombian national airline, Avianca, from Madrid to Bogotá and Bogotá to Medellín.

The following morning we flew again, this time to Bahía Solano on the Pacific coast in the Department of Chocó. On the way from the small airport to El Almejal Lodge at last we were birding. In fact, two King Vultures and a pair of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were seen even before we left the airport! Along the road, among the many species seen were Rose-faced, Mealy, Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrots. We were well and truly in the tropics!

Our transport to El Almejal Lodge

The lodge is situated right on the coast with Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds flying by regularly and various gulls, terns and boobies passing offshore. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Palm, Blue-grey and Lemon-rumped Tanagers were coming to a feeder outside the dining room and an Eastern Long-tailed Hermit flashed by from time to time. From elevated platforms on the hillside above the lodge we enjoyed wonderful views to the ocean and in spite of the rain saw a succession of tanagers, euphonias and more.

Lemon-rumped Tanager

Palm Tanager

This Common Basilisk was one of the highlights of the afternoon walk

From the viewing platform

The rain became heavier overnight and at breakfast time (5.15am) it was still pouring down; it was clear that we were in for a very wet day if we went ahead with our plan to walk the trail towards the nearby Ensenada de Utría National Park. However, although this was not intended to be a trip to see rare or endemic species, there were those in our group who were very keen to try and see Baudó Oropendola, a bird with a very small range and recent records from only two locations, one of them just a few kilometres away.

And so, after a short drive, we set out on foot along an increasingly wet and muddy forest trail that at times resembled a shallow linear pond. Fortunately, the local guide knew exactly where to take us and, although most of us were literally soaked to the skin when we got there, we did get good views of the target birds (or as good as you can get through binoculars in heavy rain). We stood almost directly below the palm tree in which there were several hanging nests typical of the genus Psarocolius. Baudó Oropendola is a black and chestnut, crow-like bird that has a bright yellow tail with blackish central tail-feathers. Its long, black, conical bill is tipped orange-red and it has a bare pink cheek patch.

Now that we'd seen the endemic oropendola our mood on the walk back was much brighter and although the trail was even wetter and muddier, the rain eventually stopped and by mid morning there was even some sunshine. Amongst the birds seen White-tailed Trogon and Cinnamon Woodpecker were among the highlights but a Grey-capped Cuckoo proved to be bird of the day for at least some of us, eclipsing even the Baudó Oropendolas. It had obviously (like us) had a good soaking and was perched on a power cable, drying out in the sun. Even in its wet and somewhat bedraggled state it was a very attractive bird!

After lunch the rain started again and further birding was delayed for a while but eventually we walked a stretch of the road between the lodge and the airport. Some of us still had on our wet clothes from the morning, hoping they would dry while we were wearing them! Among a long list of species seen were Lineated Woodpecker, Stripe-billed Araçari, Chestnut-mandibled and Chocó Toucans but the most popular was a striking male Golden-collared Manakin.

In spite of the weather our first full day of birding had been excellent and it was a shame that our schedule didn't allow for a longer stay at El Almejal Lodge.

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