Saturday, 24 August 2013

Amazing Amazonas 1 - Mammals

We decided to take the opportunity to visit the Amazon region of Colombia, a dream of mine since I was young. We stayed two nights in Leticia, the sizable and only major Colombian town on the River Amazon. Then we traveled to the excellent Yoi Eco-lodge (Yoi Ecotours) on the Amacayacu River just outside the Amacayacu National Park for three nights before returning to Leticia for the last two nights.

After catching a speedy scheduled river launch from Leticia to the Amacayacu Park headquarters we were taken up the small Rio Matamata to see the new home of the Maikuchiga Foundation, a rehabilitation centre for primates and other Amazonian animals.

Although laws are strict in Colombia, there are still major problems with an illegal wildlife trade and widespread and often indiscriminate hunting which is threatening many animal species. The foundation has recently had to relocate its facility but it was well worth a visit to get close up to the residents and understand more about their work. The monkeys present seemed to have been rescued pets - local people are still taking young monkeys to keep in their homes. The resident monkeys were able to come and go into the forest as they pleased, but no-doubt rehabilitation of primates back to the wild is not easy as they are highly social animals.

Many tourists go to the "Isla de los Micos", a river island where a number of monkeys have been "relocated", and, of course they cannot leave. If you're visiting this area, give this Monkey Island a miss and support Maikuchiga instead.

This female Monk Saki (Pithecia monachus)  has a badly injured arm and was very friendly. She was very keen to be scratched, perhaps because of her surprisingly long coat. Her tail was also very fluffy, but not prehensile like some other species. Sadly they are hunted, but there is virtually no meat under all that fur. Their tails are used as dusters which is a terrible waste for such a marvelous animal. Although she was fairly passive, we later on saw other wild Monk Saki in the forest living up to their Spanish name of Flying Monkeys. We were very pleased as Elena could identify them without help from the guide!

Although we didn't manage to see one elsewhere, this Wooley Monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha) made a big impression. Her prehensile tail was really strong and easily supported her weight. She was a little overly aggressive with Elena though, pulling her hair and trying to bite her.

Later on, near the Amacayacu river we got a few glimpses of several  Titi monkeys (Callicebus sp)  and also Black-manted Tamarin (Saguinus nigricollis) and much better views of a large group of Common Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri sciureus).

Later on, after returning to Leticia, we saw a small family group of three Lucifer Titi (Callicebus lucifer). I don't know why they have that name, but their hands stand out with a yellow colour.

Bats were of course plentiful, but as usual extremely hard to get any idea of which species they might be. Most noticeable were the large numbers heading out very low over the River Amazon at sunset. Our guide pointed out a number of Long-nosed Bats roosting on a tree by the Rio Matamata (I'm not really sure if this is the right species). Colombia has a huge number of bat species and I'd be surprised if there aren't a few more waiting to be discovered.

Dolphins are always great to see, and we had no problems seeing both species present in the Amazon. In the River Amazon itself, opposite Puerto Nariño, the small Tucuxi or Grey River Dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis) stayed a little distant from our boat but did jump clear of the water and show a blue-grey colour with shape similar to bottlenose dolphin. In the same spot several Boto or Pink River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis geoffrensis) came much closer and even passed under the boat blowing bubbles. They were much larger and slower when surfacing. The dorsal fin is very long  and on a few occasions I could see the head and long-neck which makes them look very different. Apparently they favour the main channel of the Amazon during the dry periods (like in August when we visited), but spread-out into the flooded forest during the wet season.

We did a night-walk near the lodge and our guide Ray, an indiginous Ticuna and former hunter with amazing eyesight,  spotted what he called a night-monkey high in the canopy. In the torch-light it moved slowly and looked more like a cat but was actually a Kinkajou (Potos flavus). These are neither monkeys nor cats but related to the Raccoons and the similar-looking Olingos. By co-incidence, just a few days before, a related new species was "discovered" or more accurately announced, the Olinguito  (Bassaricyon neblina) in Colombia.

On another daylight walk in the forest, Elena spotted a "mouse" moving near a fallen trunk across the path. It appears to be a young Anderson's Four-eyed Opossum (Philander andersoni). It was still breathing and moving but seemed to be in a bad-way. Perhaps it was stunned having just fallen from the canopy? Or perhaps it was "playing possum"?

Of course there are many other fantastic mammal species in the Amazon, but hunting and habitat loss has had a big impact and unfortunately many are no longer easy to see.  Overall we saw at least 10 species of mammals (plus all the unidentified bats of course). I was pleasantly surprised and much credit goes to our guide Ray and Yoi Ecotours without whom we'd have seen far less.  

More trip sightings coming soon!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Top Reasons to Love Birding in Colombia

1.   The challenge.

It might seem strange to put this as #1 but birding in Colombia is challenging in the best ways. Although there are some species that are unmistakable and obvious, if you are trying to find birds yourself (rather than rely on a guide), identification can often be really tough. Groups such as the Tyrant Flycatchers, with 203 species especially provide a lot of head-scratching even with excellent views. I'll admit that I just give up on some of them as just too tough for now until I have more experience.

There is no doubt I've had to improve my observation skills a great deal. It has sometimes taken 3 or 4 good sightings for me to be confident in my ID and I have many "probables" that won't make it to my list.

I'm much more reliant on taking decent notes though I've still not mastered writing neatly in the field! The need for comprehensive and accurate descriptions of birds rather than just pictures is much more apparent to me here. Hopefully they'll publish books like Hilty & Brown electronically one day to avoid the problems of traveling with such heavy books!

The need to learn the calls and songs is more obvious here as well, with so many to master it takes time and patience even using online resources like Xeno-Canto and a decent mobile phone in the field. I'm still a little uncomfortable using playback of calls sometimes but it's often the best way to see some skulking birds, of which there are many in Colombia! Of course, you have to have ID'd the bird first to use playback.

I´ve learned the value of photos as record shots here - although it is often very hard to find comparison photos of some species on the web! The large number of subspecies can also provide a challenge for some species.

Azara´s Spinetail - Synallaxis azarae - Often heard but hard to see and photograph
Apical Flycatcher (Myiarchus apicalis) - a Colombian endemic best identified by its call. 
Overall, despite still being a novice neotropical birder, I feel I've improved my skills immensely since coming to Colombia 18 months ago and that gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

2.    The surprises

Although there can be quieter moments, there is always a great possibility of seeing something unexpected. Many of the birds here are very local. Of course the amazingly varied geography and local micro-climates have lead to great diversity of species in this country. Also, sadly, many of the mountain habitats here are fragmented but that does lead to some common species having very patchy distribution. You can find even endangered species turning up in new places. (Post-script - like the endangered endemic Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird that turned up on our balcony just before we left)

With very few birders and a huge area to cover it's inevitable that many species are under-recorded and even excellent tools like the Cornell Neotropical Birds distribution maps will not be totally reliable.

Add to that the fantastic array of migrants that arrive in Colombia each year. It is a real treat to be in the wintering area of these species and during passage, when who knows what might turn up anywhere.

Russet-throated Puffbird (Hypnelus ruficollis) - sat perched for easy photos

Rufous-tailed Tyrant (Knipolegus poecilurus)

It's a wonderful experience to discover so many birds myself, and quite different from my birding in the UK where it´s much harder to find a real surprise.

3.    The colours

Drab birds can be very pleasing too but Colombia has some spectacularly colourful families of birds. My favourites are the tanagers. In one flock you can get 7 or 8 species, each with bright colours.

The toucans too are stunning birds and a great range of colours with 22 species. The Keel-billed Toucan has just amazing colours in the beak.

Highland Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis)
Collared Trogon - female (Trogon collaris)
Parrots, Trogons, Woodpeckers, Motmots, Barbets and Manakins all add bright colours which definitely makes seeing a new bird really special.

4.    Hummers

I can't deny I've developed a huge fondness for hummingbirds. They´re often challenging to see well but highly rewarding to study, especially for their acrobatics and feistiness. With 162 species there are plenty to choose from, but I still find the common ones fun to watch. They seem to pop-up in all kinds of places too, so great for brightening up a dull day. To see one in the gardening section of the DIY store in the centre of Bucaramanga is a treat.

Green-fronted Lancebill (Doryfera ludovicae)
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia Tzacatl) - posing on our balcony 

5.    Birds everywhere
 Colombia has more bird species than any other country (more than 1800 species). But also there are still large numbers of birds, even in more developed areas. It's always worth keeping your eyes open wherever you go. In the mountains, agriculture is not often very intensive and there is space left for birds and other wildlife. Of course, much habitat has been lost, and many species have suffered significant declines, but many still remain in good numbers. 

As much of the country has a warmer climate year-round, the open-air living allows you to do more birding and also see birds whilst doing other things. I've seen 83 + species from my balcony, many interesting birds from restaurants and even a few nice ones whilst I've been swimming in the open-air pools.

Here's my recommendations to help your birding if you come from a temperate region like the UK to Colombia for an extended period.

Get a decent book:
  • A Guide to the Birds of Colombia by  Hilty and Brown is the bible, but is awaiting a new issue.
  • Birds of Northern South America by Restall etc in 2 volumes is also very good. 
  • Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia published by ProAves is very useful in the field
  • Birdwatching in Colombia: - Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Florez - a site-guide for Colombia to be published in Nov 2013.
and copies of free publications like these. I can send you a copy of these.
  • Travel guide to Birdwatching Sites in Colombia
  • Guia de las Especies Migratorias de la Biodiversidad en Colombia, Vol 1 (Guide to the Migratory Species of Colombia). In Spanish but very useful.
Make use of  internet resources like Cornell Neotropical Birds is good for descriptions and distribution maps, The Internet Bird Collection is very good for comparison photos. Birdforum Q & A can help with some photo IDs.

Learn as many calls as you can with Xeno Canto and download them to a smartphone.

Take plenty of fieldnotes. A recorder app on a phone might be a good idea to save trying to write the notes in a rush. Try to get record shots, though it can sometimes get in the way of taking proper notes.

Many Colombian birders use Facebook and it's a good way to see photos of local birds.

Don't forget to learn those latin names if you're going to communicate with local birders. There are often many different names for the same species in Spanish.

And finally, use suncream ;-)