We begin with the highlight of the trip for me – a screech owl! Ok, so, i have seen screech-owls before (cough, cough) but the so-called Santa Marta Screech Owl was particularly exciting because you won’t find this owl on any taxonomic list... by that i mean that this species was only discovered recently and is still awaiting description. I am actually somewhat surprised that i managed to hold the camera steady when i saw a pair to take photos of this male. Most interesting about this owl to me were the very long wings and the large size, even larger than other high-elevation screech owls. This owl is one of the 18 or so bird species that are endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a small range independent of the main Andean chain in northernmost Colombia with spectacular views of permanently snow-capped peaks and the Caribbean ocean below. A really extraordinary birding location that i would recommend to anyone, and probably one where more discoveries are yet to be made. In addition to the endemic species there are many endemic subspecies, some of which are slated for the splitting board. As it so happens, this photo was taken on my very first night in Santa Marta and it rained for long periods every other night.
That was the story almost every night for me in Colombia, as it turns out that October and November are the wettest months of the year (or so i was told). Alas, therefore, owling was extremely tough and usually involved getting up at 3am when the rain subsided and trying to find nightbirds before dawn. I got a few lifers this way like the Rufous-banded Owl whose back i photographed but who refused to turn their head, but others like the Crested Owl that i have so long dreamt of seeing were heard only (i nearly convinced myself to swim the raging torrent to get to the other side to try to find their calling location). So, there will be only one other owl in this email, a “real” Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I say “real” because there is very convincing evidence that the taxon called Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in North and Central America should be treated as a distinct species, Ridgway’s Pygmy Owl Glaucidium ridgwayi, although the AOU hasn’t split them yet.
This Band-winged Nightjar was one of the very few nightbirds i found at dusk on a rare evening when the rain didn’t begin until after 7pm.
This Common Potoo seemed to have a fondness for a particular fence post and so, even though i didn’t get a photo at first, a little patience brought a second opportunity a few hours later. I guess you can tell that i “fixed” the red-eye effect in this photo – potoos have a phenomenal eye shine and in open country can be spotted at large distances. Potoos have a fondness for the full moon and on just one night it was actually bright enough that i got to hear the spooky, human-like potoo song… love it!
I got to see a few new families (for me) in Colombia, one of them being the Oilbird – monotypic family and the only frugivorous nocturnal species in the world. They roost and nest in caves, as shown in this photo, and fly out at night to feed on fruit which they pluck on the wing while hovering (sort-of). The cave entrance was knee deep in running water but well worth the wade and watching them fly around pre-dawn was also thrilling (they’re huge!).
Before this trip i had never seen an antpitta, but of course my love of the Asian pittas made me super keen to track some down. After all, i was finally in a place with a reasonable chance of finding one of these elusive ground-dwellers. As luck would have it i saw eight species in Colombia – a damn decent debut even if i say so myself. Like the pittas, the antpittas are suboscine passerines and occupy a similar ecological niche. They may not have the electric colours of the Asian pittas (their brown, black and rufous plumage making them even tougher to spot on the dark forest floor) but look at this exquisite Chestnut-crowned Antpitta – the combination of colour and crypsis is… well… beautiful!
Brown-banded Antpitta is a Colombian endemic and listed by Birdlife International as globally endangered. Yep, rare, small, camouflaged, ground-dwelling, secretive… the type of bird that birders lose their sanity over... until you get a view like this!
The story behind the next photo of a Chestnut-naped Antpitta involved creeping quickly but quietly along a narrow track under the cloud forest at dawn looking for shapes or movement around every bend. Asian birders call this technique a “pitta walk”. The idea is to capitalize on the fact that ground birds come out to feed on trails in the very early morning but since most are sensitive to ground vibration you have to walk quickly (and of course quietly) to try to surprise one around a corner. You would see more birds by lingering at the forest edge in the dim light of dawn but, if you want to see some of the super secretive ground birds, you have to make the choice to forego quantity.
Tawny Antpitta is a páramo dweller and easier to see than the forest antpittas but there is a story behind this sighting too. I only had one morning at this super high elevation site around 4000m asl and it was so foggy i couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone any birds. Soon it began to rain and in desperation i ran to a covered terrace at the park headquarters. Well, who should hop out from right underneath the terrace but this antpitta. allowing me a few foggy shots.
The antbirds are related to antpittas (though now often placed in a different family) and many of them are myrmecophiles, i.e. they follow army ant swarms to feed on any bugs scared up by the ants – some facultative, some obligate – nicknamed the “professional antbirds” (apologies to those who know that this is not the correct usage of the term myrmecophile, but they do love ants). Since time was short and i chose to concentrate on the Andes, I didn’t get to any really pristine or extensive lowland forest sites where i might find big army ant swarms and their followers; however, at one site i did find a small ant swarm by the entrance road and boy was i excited to watch Bicolored Antbirds hop about on the ground or less then a metre off it. They were so intent on catching bugs that they seemed oblivious to the not-so-hairy mammal with camera nearby (actually i was pretty hairy at that point).
Another beauty is this male Chestnut-backed Antbird who was kind enough to respond to my silly imitative whistle with gringo accent to hop out of the undergrowth into the sun-dappled trailside shrubs.
The antshrikes probably get their name from the shrike-like hook on the tip of upper mandible in some genera (like the shrike-vireo in the previous email). They are fairly large, shy birds of dense thickets in less forested habitats and are well camouflaged in the earthy tones of those habitats, yet at the same time stylishly dressed in classic black, brown and white. This female Black-crested Antshrike (male inserted into lower right of photo) gave me better looks than any others. If anyone can tell me why this species is called Sakesphorus canadensis, please send me an email.
Moving to a deeper shade of rufous, we continue with a different group of South American suboscine passerines, the woodcreepers. This combined image of Straight-billed and Montane Woodcreepers shoes just some of the variety in the woodcreepers, a group that have woodpecker like habits and a range of bill-shapes for a variety of different probing strategies.
The Funariidae, sometimes included in the same family as the woodcreepers, here represented by the beautiful Pearled Treerunner, are often called “ovenbirds” and get their name from the habit of just a few of their members of making oven-like mud nests with a side entrance, e.g. the horneros (“horno” is the Spanish word for oven and cognate to English “furnace”… Spanish has a habit of converting Latin “f” to “h” unless protected by “r” or “l”). These ovenbirds are not at all related to the North American Ovenbird, which is a wood-warbler of course, and also builds a closed nest with site entrance but not from mud.
Tyrant flycatchers are suboscines too - the only ones that were able to drift north in the Great American Interchange (when North and South America joined 3.5 million years ago) and undergo a major radiation at northern temperate latitudes. Part of their success in North America lies in the adoption of migratory habits and a largely insectivorous lifestyle — we don’t have enough fruit trees here to support the likes of cotingas; however, you might be surprised to find some familiar species like Eastern Kingbird feeding on fruit on their South American wintering grounds – a glimpse into the plasticity that made their conquest of North America possible. So we end this email where we began with another Santa Marta endemic, the globally endangered Santa Marta Bush Tyrant, showing off their lovely cinnamon costume, and showing how tough some high elevation foliage must be to perch on the tips like this.
What a wonderful world…