Birding Colombia: Ocana and the Cerulean Warbler Reserve

The trip to Ocana started out as expected–I boarded the night bus at 2100 in Santa Marta and started on my 7 ½ hour trip to Ocana. I was awake as the bus neared Ocana and made its first stop at the edge of town. The terminal (as shown on a map) was at the other end of town and I figured it’d be best to get off at the terminal. At this point I was debating whether I should try and find a hotel to store my things or just take all my gear with me on my birding adventure to the ProAves reserve located just outside of town. As I was sitting there half asleep thinking about what option I should do, I quickly realized that the bus had blown past the terminal and was continuing on to the next town. Uh oh. I walked to the front of the bus and asked the driver why he didn’t stop, but of course, everything was lost in translation. Apparently they don’t stop directly at the terminal and there was no way of turning around now. The next small town, Abrego was about 25 minutes away and was my next chance to get off the bus. The driver stopped in the small town super early in the morning (around 0450) and I got off the bus. There weren’t any taxis in sight, but there were a decent amount of people walking around and they all were carrying plastic lawn chairs. I stopped an older gentleman and asked about a taxi or collectivo for Ocana as well as why everyone had these chairs. He told me there was a festival in the plaza and that was also the place for the taxi. I followed him to the town’s plaza a few blocks away and entered into some scene from a quaint Christmas movie. The plaza was completely decked out in Christmas decorations and there were already about 100 people gathered watching a group performing music and singing Christmas carols. Had I not been in such a hurry to move along to Ocana, it would have been quite nice to stay and watch for a while.

I made my way to a shared taxi and after picking up a few other people, we were soon on our way back to Ocana. We arrived just as it was getting light and I quickly found another taxi in the plaza to take me to the ProAves Recurve-billed Bushbird Reserve. The reserve, located about 7 km outside of town, is home to a very interesting near endemic specialty. The Recurve-billed Bushbird has a very unique curved bill that allows it to specialize in opening bamboo as it searches for insects. I arrived at the reserve shortly after 0630, but it was still very dark due to low clouds and fog. Luckily you don’t actually have to enter the reserve to find the birds and instead I ventured off down a mule trail opposite the ProAves sign. I had read in a trip report about the bushbirds being seen on this track and a friend recently sent me info saying there was still a responsive pair along it.

Entrance to the Recurve-billed Bushbird

Entrance to the Recurve-billed Bushbird

Since the debacle of missing my bus stop had set me back a while, I had made the decision not to find a hotel and instead had all my gear with me, but before I could start birding, I needed to find a place to store my big backpack so that I wouldn’t have to carry it all around. Normally you wouldn’t think this would be hard to do, but the side of the road and trail were both very steep. I started down the mule trail and eventually found an area that I could hide my bag out of sight, but as I placed my bag in the vegetation, it slipped from my hands and continued to roll about 100 feet further down a steep bank. Great. Now that my bag was now VERY well hidden, I ventured down the trail to look for my target birds for the morning. I quickly heard a pair of Klages’s Antbirds calling from a small stand of bamboo and also heard Stripe-breasted Spinetails calling from the undergrowth. Sadly, not much else was calling. It was still very foggy and bird activity was low. About 2 hours into the search, I found a nice mixed flock that contained a Red-billed Scythebill! Although I’ve traveled to the tropics a few times, this was actually my first scythebill ever and I was very excited to find it. Another bird with a very crazy bill! The weather started to improve some and eventually I found a male Recurve-billed Bushbird at around 0930. Although it never called and I was unable to get a recording, I was able to get amazing views and some nice pictures. Not needing to leave for a little while longer, I continued along the mule trail and then walked the main road finding a few additional highlights including Moustached Brushfinch, Short-tailed Emerald, Black Hawk-Eagle, Scrub Tanager, and Speckled Tanager. At around 1100 I climbed down the steep bank, retrieved my backpack, hiked back up to the trail, and started on the long walk back to town. I was hoping that I’d be able to hitch a ride at some point during the hike and luckily it only took five minutes of walking before two guys in a truck gave me a lift down to the collectivo station in town.

The van ride from Ocana to Bucaramanga was only supposed to take 4 ½-5 hours but due to traffic it took almost 6. I arrived at 1750 to the terminal and found out that the bus to San Vicente left in just 10 minutes! I quickly bought my ticket and soon was on the next bus ride. Luckily this trip only took 2 ½ hours (although the driver told me it would take 4, who knows). I made my way to a hotel at the edge of the plaza and ventured out to find a motorcycle to give me a lift to the ProAves Cerulean Warbler Reserve the next morning. Although the reserve is only 7 km away, it is a VERY steep climb and wouldn’t have been much fun to do prior to sunrise. Fortunately I was able to find a driver willing to depart at 0400, but it definitely took some time to find. I arrived in the plaza at 0400 the next morning, but my driver was nowhere to be found. I wasn’t too surprised (it was Christmas Eve after all), but I was surprised that there were tons of people already awake and at the Church. With lots of people around I figured it’d only take a minute to find someone to take me up the hill, but most people were very hesitant to drive up the road. Luckily my original driver finally showed at 0430 and we started on the trip up to the lodge. It took about 45 minutes and we arrived around 0515. From the lodge you need to take a trail uphill and walk for another 30-45 minutes (2.5 km) before you actually reach the forest. My original plan was to do this hike in the dark and continue hiking up through the forest so that I could make it to the 5th bench (2000m) by first light to look for Mountain Grackle. Since my driver was late, it was getting light just as I entered the forest, but this worked to my advantage as I was lucky enough to hear the quiet feeding calls of wood-quails next to the trail. I stopped and played the tape for the wood-quail and quickly received an explosive loud response for a covey of Gorgeted Wood-Quail. They quickly made their way off into the woods, but I was able to get nice views as they disappeared back into the dark. From here I tried to hurry to make my way up to the 5th bench (about 5 km more), but often got distracted by mixed flocks. I finally made it to the 5th bench by 0830 and started my search for the grackles. I spent 5 hours in the area, but sadly I could not find my main target. Luckily there was plenty of other interesting species to keep me entertained, including great looks at a White-bellied Antpitta, Moustached Puffbird, Smoke-colored Pewee, a number of tanagers in the form of Blue-winged Mountain, Flame-faced, Black-capped, and Saffron-crowned, and some more Moustached Brushfinches. I eventually admitted defeat with the Mountain Grackle (luckily there’s another spot, Onzaga road, it’s just really far away) and started birding my way down through the forest. During this time I started to focus on the specialty birds that most people come here for and quickly found Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, Parker’s Antbird, Yellow-throated Spadebill, and Black Inca. I made the decent back down to the lodge at around 1600 and stopped to talk to the lodge folks about birding the reserve (technically I didn’t have permission for that morning, but since it was early when I arrived I figured it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission). Prior to visiting Colombia, I had contacted ProAves to figure out about visiting these reserves and the lady told me she’d need to get back to me, but that it shouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t others staying there (which over the holidays they don’t take reservations). Unfortunately, the staff at ProAves is extremely inadequate and the lady never got back to me, despite me asking multiple times over 2 months!

 

Merry Christmas. Being the holiday, I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to get a ride to the reserve from San Vicente and because the 7 kilometer road is VERY steep in parts, I didn’t really want to walk it either. I had coordinated a ride the night prior, but not surprisingly, my driver was a no show at 0430 that morning. Luckily there were still a ton of people awake from partying on Christmas Eve so after a lot of asking and talking with the locals, I finally found a guy who offered to take me up the road. We headed off up the road and not five minutes later, the chain popped off his motorbike! Darn! At this point, I gave up hope and decided I’d have to hike my way up to the birding area. I only walked for about 5 minutes when a very beat up taxi drove by. I flagged down the driver, and although he demanded 50,000 pesos (way overpriced, but still only $15) I finally had a ride up to my destination. I still managed to arrive just as it was getting light and luckily today I was birding the lower areas and didn’t need to do the 45 minute walk up to the forest.

Turquoise Dacnis

Turquoise Dacnis

I started the morning watching the largest trees behind the ProAves lodge, which is a known stakeout for Turquoise Dacnis. Just like clockwork, a pair of Turquoise Dacnis flew into the tree just after 0600 and my first target of the morning had been found. From here I started walking downhill though the plantations seeing Niceforo’s Wren in the first gully and Black-headed Brushfinch in the second gully. From here I headed back uphill and stopped by some hummingbird feeders in the middle of the plantation. The feeders were very busy with Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Emerald, White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Green-crowned Brillant, and Andean Emerald but my target Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird was nowhere to be found. Since it was still only 1000, I decided to head back up to the forest to see if I could find the Long-tailed Tapaculo that I had only heard the day prior.

After the long hike back up to the forest, I spent the afternoon birding the first section from the entrance to the 2nd bench. Although I was unable to find any Long-tailed Tapaculos, I still managed to see a lot of birds including White-mantled Barbet, Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, Parker’s Antbird, and Rufous-rumped Antwren, as well as a few familiar ones from back home such as Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers. Since it was still early afternoon, I decided that I’d hike down and try to make it back to the edge of town to try for two targets that I had originally planned to look for the next morning, Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo and Double-banded Graytail. The hike down took longer than expected and I reached the right spot (~1000m elevation) just after 1700. I started playing tape for the Shirke-Vireo, but soon found myself amongst a large mixed flock. I started searching through the birds and couldn’t believe it when I came across a tiny grey bird quietly searching through dead clumps of leaves high up in the tree, a Double-banded Graytail! I really didn’t expect to find this bird as it is very difficult throughout its entire range and has only been seen a handful of times at this location. After watching it for about 5 minutes (and getting a few crappy pics) I lost it as the flock moved on. I decided to once again start searching for the Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo and after no more than 5 minutes had one responding to the tape and flying in close! I was amazed that I had found these two birds in the last 30 minutes of light. My Christmas present I guess. I finished the day with 133 species and caught a ride back down to the plaza. By this time it was 1800, and although I didn’t need to go birding here again in the morning, I figured I wouldn’t be able to get a ride out of town that night. I was surprised to find out that there was a bus leaving at 1900 so after a quick shower and phone call to Melissa wishing her a Merry Christmas, I boarded a bus to Bucaramanga and started on what would turn out to be a whirlwind tour of central Colombia.

Double-banded Graytail!

Double-banded Graytail!

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