The jungle town of Mitu, a small remote settlement in Amazonian Colombia found along the Vaupes River is only accessible by plane or boat. International tourists rarely (if ever) come here and when they do, ALL of whom I suspect are birders, they must pay the indigenous people an entrance fee to walk the trails. I may not need to describe it as I’m sure many images come to mind when you hear things like “remote village”, “indigenous people”, and “only accessible by plane.” I’ve been travelling throughout South America enough to know how little creature comforts would be waiting for me when I arrived. I was picturing the absolute bare minimum. Why would I want to go here? Why would I want to stay a week here and not be able to leave? What on earth kind of living arrangements will I find when I get there? Ross really didn’t have any answers to those questions either so imagine our surprise when we arrived in this town to find there were actually sidewalks on the paved streets, several little restaurants and a clean hotel! And imagine our surprise when we walk into our room to find a king sized bed and a Jacuzzi! There’s no hot water and no Wifi or cell phone service, but already it was looking like it would be a lot better than I had imagined.
Ross and I literally just finished moving our belongings out of our condo the week before we left for this trip. We brought the last of our things home with us to Pittsburgh and it was on May 6th from PIT that we flew to HOU for our connecting flight to BOG. In the Bogota airport we met Jon Gallagher, who was to be our companion for this trip. Jon has seen over 8,000 species of birds but there were some in this area that he needed for his list and he responded to Ross’s BirdForum invite and wanted to join. From Bogota, the three of us took a small plane over to the remote town of Mitu. We arrived midday on May 7th and immediately were greeted by the police force at the airport. There are more police than necessary in this tiny town, but I guess they are taking extra precautions to prevent the events of 1998 from ever happening again. On that day nineteen years ago, 60 policemen and 10 civilians were murdered when the FARC guerillas raided the town and attempted to seize control. It was a massive amount of bloodshed and ever since then the police are constantly patrolling everywhere, but we didn’t really mind and often speculated that this was now the “safest town in Colombia.”
We met up with our “guide” Nacho at the airport and he introduced us to our driver Wilson. Nacho had helped with the planning of the trip in setting us up with Wilson and his 4×4 vehicle and apparently made an itinerary for the 10 days we were to be spending with him. In his itinerary he didn’t plan on us getting out birding the day we arrived, but he quickly realized that Ross was not going to sit idly when there were new birds to find. We dropped our bags in our surprisingly comfortable room and headed out! Nacho is not much of a bird guide at all, although he charges 35 USD per day for “expert bird guiding” per his contract.
Regardless, he was a very nice trail guide and scope porter for the trip, and I think, overall, we were happy to have his help because until Ross puts out his trip report, there weren’t many GPS coordinates for the specific trails and Nacho was able to direct us where to go. (FYI, Ross may say otherwise and by day 6 was ready to get rid of him and Wilson altogether, but more on that later.)
We arrived at 3pm to the bridge outside of Urania and had tracked down our first few targets in the form of Black-chinned Antbird, Amazonian Tyrannulet, and Cherrie’s Antwren. It was only a short day out but we didn’t mind as we needed to prepare for the long days that were to come. We walked the bridge and had several new birds, but the absolute highlight were views of a pair of one of the more difficult to see birds found in this region, Spotted Puffbird. At the same time we also had great views of a pair of Amazonian Unbrellabirds¸ a species we had surprisingly missed multiple times on previous visits to the Amazon. We went back to town, ate dinner and finished the night with a cold shower before bed with plans to spend all of the next day out in the field.
Our first full day in Mitu included a lot of white sand forest—a rare and unique type of subtropical rainforest found in certain parts of South America and the main reason we were visiting the area. Certain species are white sand specialists, found only in this habitat and they were what we had come to see. We started the day in Mitu Cachivera, and walked along the sandy trail looking for bird flocks. We had a fairly productive morning with Cherrie’s Antwren, Plumbeous Euphonia, Imeri Warbling-Antbird, Fuscous Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Manakin, and a few good mixed flocks. We birded this trail until we got to a bridge crossing a stream. From there we turned around because we weren’t ready to get out of the habitat just yet and felt more of our targets could be found along the first part of the trail. That afternoon we made our first of many visits to Bocatoma trail. We enjoyed coming to this location because there was no fee to enter, but did find that it always seemed dead in the heat of the afternoons. Today was no exception. The birding was slow on day 1, but we did manage great views of Orinoco Piculet, a life bird for each of us and one of the main targets in the region.
The next day, May 9th, we woke up super early to make our way to Pueblo Nuevo, a relatively new “birding spot” for Mitu. Originally birders would make the 2 hour journey to MCH, a hydro-electric plant, to bird terra firme habitat, meaning dry land that does not get flooded by the Amazon or its tributaries. All of the birds from MCH can also be found at Pueblo Nuevo which is closer and only requires a 1 hour drive to get there. We left our hotel at 4AM and after one hour, arrived at our destination. We walked along the trail and soon had excellent views of Chestnut-crested Antbird with its seemingly large eyes this bird was a favorite for sure! We spent the morning out on the trail searching amongst the vibrant green on all sides of us and other highlights from the morning included Tawney-tufted Toucanet, Scarlet Macaw, Great Jacamar, Yellow-throated Antwren, and Rufous-capped Antthursh. On the walk back I flushed two Great Tinamous and was able to watch them as they walked away. With rain threatening, the three of us made our way to the small house near the entrance of the trail to wait out the downpour. It continued to rain but Ross and Jon decided to go back into the forest. I wisely stayed behind as they didn’t find a single new bird. We opted to leave Pueblo Nuevo relatively early and make our way back to town as the rain didn’t seem to be letting up. Oddly, this single afternoon of birding was the only time we lost due to rain for the trip.
The following day, May 10th, we arranged for Nacho to pick us up outside of our hotel at 4:30AM and made our way to Ceima Cachivera, a known site for Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock at a lek. It was sprinkling when we arrived but the rain was light and didn’t prevent us from going out. Soon it stopped and we started along a different trail looking for the lek site. Either Nacho didn’t know the site or the birds weren’t around, the latter being what we presumed to be the case, as the two sites he said they were at were empty with not even a nest to be seen along the rocks. The only Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock that we saw for the day was a nice male who was flushed when Ross went into the forest to record a calling Western Striped Manakin. The stunning orange bird perched in the open allowing for great views and for Ross to get a few photos and recordings before he made his way off deeper into the jungle. This is a bird birders and non-birders alike could appreciate with the most vibrant orange plumage contrasted against the green surroundings. We continued along one of the trails looking for flocks as we made our way up to the first “Cerro” (hill) of the trip. It’s not often that you can stand on any kind of a peak in the Amazon and look out into the forest below but that’s where we found ourselves, standing on top of a large rock face looking out with green as far as the eye could see. We were a bit late in the day otherwise this would have been a great vantage point to scan for cotingas perched up on the trees. Ross and I hiked up to the very top and enjoyed the 360 degree views of the Amazon below. We did find a few birds including a Plumbeous Kite harassing an Ornate Hawk-Eagle before making our way back down. As always, returning is much faster but we did stop along the way when we ran into flocks. The afternoon was quite birdy and other highlights from the day included a large flock of birds containing White-fronted Nunbird, Grayish Mourner, Rufous-tailed Antwren, Olive-backed Foliage-gleaner, and Pink-throated Becard.
On May 11th we had a 5AM start, which considering the last few days could be argued as sleeping in. Regardless, we were up before light and on our way to Bocotoma Trail, a white-sand site close to town that we had visited once prior. The morning started off fantastic as we all had great looks at a Gray-headed Attila, that Ross first heard, located the exact tree it was singing from and then somehow spotted the bird perched high up, a bird frequently heard but very rarely seen. We had scope views as we watched it belting out its tune and then continued on our way. Mornings are always the busiest time of day and we had Amazonian Antshrike, Spot-backed Antbird, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant, and surprisingly another Gray-headed Attila, but easily the highlight was excellent views of five Pompadour Cotingas and a Screaming Piha in a single tree!
We continued along the white trail remarking that walking this trail was very easy, being that it was a flat and sandy trail and we didn’t have to focus on where we were putting our feet which meant we could focus our gaze to the sky. The trail weaved through the white sand before we finally came to an open area full of grass, we looked extensively but found no White-naped Seedeaters (a bird that has all but disappeared from Mitu), before weaving through some secondary growth. This secondary growth habitat was supposed to be good for Black Bushbird, but we didn’t see any on our walk through or back. Eventually we made our way into terra firme, aka land that never floods when the Amazonian rivers reach their high point. We continued walking, made several stream crossings requiring traversing fallen trees as if they were balance beams, and eventually stopped around 11, ate lunch and turned around. We had several ant swarms during the morning and picked up a few new trip birds including White-cheeked Antbird and White-plumed Antbird, but not many lifers. Needless to say, by the end of the day we were all exhausted. Overall we tallied 114 birds for the day bringing the trip list up to around 170.