Sunday, January 25, 2009

Colombia - Sombre & Subtle

Ok, so “subtle and somber” isn’t exactly a colour either… maybe my colour theme idea wasn’t as solid as i first thought. Anyway, this is a chance to show off some species whose beauty is more subtle. Sometimes, we dismiss some of these are LBJs (little brown jobs) and don’t always pay them the attention they deserve. Yes, i’m guilty too but maybe this email will balance things out a little. I must be honest though, the birds shown here all have a lot of character.

We begin with, you guessed it, a tyrant flycatcher (family Tyrannidae), famous for subtle plumage and many almost unidentifiable species… and you wouldn’t be expecting a whole lot of colour from a bird called Mouse-coloured Tyrannulet, but still this denizen of the dry forest region near the Caribbean coast is very attractive.

The Pale-eyed Pygmy Tyrant shows a similar colour scheme but those huge pale eyes make them instantly identifiable.

The Torrent Tyrannulet calls fast-flowing Andean rivers home and has a soft grey, black and white plumage to match the boulders (not also the concealed crown patch found in many of this family).

Next, a bird that caused me some difficulty in identification. This Northern Scrub Flycatcher has a pattern that is extremely similar to some flycatchers in other genera such as Myiarchus.

Although difficult to see as they skulk in the undergrowth, Attila are an interesting genus of large Tyrant flycatchers with a hook on the tip of the upper mandible (hooks are a very useful tool) but otherwise such a big-eyed gentle expression that you wonder what they did to deserve to be called “Attila the Tyrant”. This one is an unusually cooperative Bright-rumped Attila, a species which i have seen in Mexico but never as well as this before (i hope their band code is not “BRAT”).

Sticking with the tyrants, the tiny Black-throated Tody-Tyrant is a delightful chubby little bird that really doesn’t deserve the name tyrant.

Speaking of tiny, how about this pair of Scaled Piculets - at only 8.5cm long they’re little more than half the size of a Downy Woodpecker but that doesn’t stop them from partaking of the time-honoured tree-whacking tradition! That’s the male on the left with the yellow crown. You’ll also notice they lack the pointed central tail feathers of most woodpeckers and are often seen “walking” underneath slender twigs. In northern South America, their persistent tapping on fence posts (looking for wood-boring bugs) with a syncopated rhythm has earned them the nickname of “telegrafistas”.

The Eared Dove is extremely common in Colombia even in urban areas and has an exceptional altitudinal range of 0 – 3500m. This species is in the same genus as Mourning Dove and White-winged Dove.

The next photo represents a moment of great excitement for me as my first view of a new family, the puffbirds. This is a Russet-throated Puffbird, a species which i thought i had missed in the dry forest near Santa Marta but then showed up at the last minute just outside town. The local nickname for puffbirds is “pájaro bobo” (“stupid bird”) for their habit of sitting still for long period of time and their supposed reluctance to fly away when approached. I took advantage of that fact to get this photo

This adorable Pied Puffbird was building their nest in a termite nest in the mangroves and periodically catching dragonflies – only my second puffbird and absolutely fascinating to watch.

The Three-striped Warbler is one of the many members of the genus Basileuterus. This genus is largely Neotropical with only a few species like Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warbler creeping their way north of the Tropic of Cancer. Most are yellow or yellowish and skulk in the understorey.

The Santa Marta Brush Finch is another of those Santa Marta endemic species. This one was kind enough to come feeding on moths under the lights outside the lodge at dawn allowing for a good photo op (brush finches are usually tough to photograph).

The ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow, like the Eared Dove has an extraordinary altitudinal range (~500m – 4000m) and is disturbance adapted, and found in urban areas as well as clearings in otherwise relatively intact forest. This species belongs to the genus Zonotrichia but unlike the 4 other member of this genus, all of which are Nearctic migrants, this one is strictly Neotropical.

The soft grey plumage of the Plumbeous Sierra Finch is catching but actually what i like most about this photo is the extraordinarily beautiful “mat” of vegetation over the rock this bird is perched on. The spacing between each plant seems so mathematically regular… like the prairies, the páramo has some subtle beauty!

Last in this series, one more tanager, this one with a soft blue-grey plumage, the Scrub Tanager.

More photos from Colombia are viewable on my website (



  1. Great series of photos. However, the "Panama Flycatcher" looks suspiciously like a Northern Scrub Flycatcher, while in the previous post the "Shining-green Hummingbird" looks like a Blue-tailed Emerald and the "Purple-crowned Fairy" like an Andean Emerald.

  2. Hi Rasmus,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to make these comments - it just goes to show how careful one needs to be. So, I went back to my photos and notes and the field guides and consulted a few people such as Jurgen Beckers.

    As to the flycatcher, this is definately NOT a Northern Scrub Flycatcher - the gizz is all wrong and the bill too large plus the supercilium is missing especially behind the eye (Scrub flycatchers would have a clear supercilium which this bird lacks.. here I have the benefit of multiple photos which I didn't post here so you haven't had the chance to see). As to my ID of Panama Flycatcher, Jurgen cast some doubt on this but he also quickly concurred that Northern Scrub Flycatcher could easily be ruled out.

    Of course you are right about the Andean Emerald - my error - thank you!

    After reviewing the Lepidopyga hummingbird I have to stick to my original ID of Shining-green Hummingbird. All the features match. Note also that this photo was taken in dry forest near Santa Marta so Blue-tailed Emerald is automatically ruled out by range, elevation and habitat.

    Again, thank you very much - it is always worth reviewing one's IDs and a good way to revisit and improve!


  3. Hi Christian,

    Considering that the Northern Scrub Flycatcher is a species I know very well, I have to disagree (I have no idea how many I've seen, but hundreds - at least). Jizz is 100% perfect. Its supercilium usually does not extent clearly past the eye (in a few it does, but in most not). So, while I certainly do understand the confusion, this is without any doubts a standard Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and not a Myiarchus, e.g. bill is far too small, too small-headed, and whitish supraloral bordered below by the dark lores

    This (and the other Sublegatus) are quite distinctive once learned, but utterly confusing until then. Here's a few other Northern SC's:


    Regarding the hummingbird: While I fully understand the idea of excluding species by range, this should be done with great care in South America. I have primarily dealt with Brazilian birds recently, and have, just since New Years, taken part in confirming two new state records there. I should, however, perhaps have pointed out that I followed the ”broad taxonomy” in this case, i.e. Chlorostilbon mellisugus sensu lato (incl. Red-billed, Western, etc), as it would have been near-impossible to separate the various sub-groups based on the photo (and in any case the taxonomy of the entire complex needs a review). While the version of the photo that has been uploaded to this blog is quite small, there is enought visible on the photo to exclude Shinging-green, at least assuming the generally quoted features are correct. First, the crissum: In the Shining-green, this is green with whitish edging (not to be confused with the white tufts near the legs found in many hummingbirds, incl. Lepidopyga and Chlorostilbon). Due to the angle, this is best visible on the illustration in Birds of South America - Non-Passerines by Rodriguez Mata et al, but, despite a side-view of the hummingbird, it can also be hinted on the illustration in the Birds of Colombia (where it also is described in detail in the text, and mentioned as one of the main features). Likewise, the distal ~2/3 of the lower mandible of the Shining-green is very light pinkish, again not matching the hummingbird on the photo. So, unless both these features are incorrect (and/or the small size of the photo is fooling me), the bird on your photo is not a Shining-green. However, contrary to the Northern Scrub Flycatcher which I know very well, I do not have enough experiance with the Shining-green Hummingbird to confirm the validity of various quoted features (and a google search for photos only resulted in a single photo, which appears to support the colour of the bill at least: ), but can say that the amount of blue to the throat, also suggested as a feature, easily misleads (if not familiar with Chlorostilbon mellisugus, a fast google photo search for its English name easily confirms this). Anyhow, to sum it up: The flycatcher is definitely a Northern Scrub, and the hummingbird looks like a fairly standard member of the Chlorostilbon mellisugus superspecies, but the small photo and/or possible validity of commonly quoted features could be fooling me there.

  4. Hi again Rasmus, unfortunately your view on the flycather is contradicted by several others with much more experience of Northern Scrub Flycatcher than I have and looking at references and photos you suggested I remain unconvinced. If you send me your email we can continue this discussion further rather than using this space + I can send you more images and larger files if you are interested. I do appreciate the time you have taken to work on these IDs. Thank you very much!


  5. The fourth photo is a Sublegatus arenarum.


  6. Sorry, I should have read the last comments before I commented but it is definitely still the Sublegatus.


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