I went over to Caleta de Velez hoping to see the reported Icelandic Gull which had been seen regularly around the fishing harbour for a few weeks now. I wondered if I would recognize it amongst all the other gulls which include Black-headed, Yellow-legged, Lesser Black-backed, Mediterranean, and a few Audouins. In the event I needn't have worried, it was quite different in appearance from any of them and easy to spot as it sat on the beach amongst a group of mainly Yellow-legged Gulls.
I had to photograph it through a heavy steel wire fence which obscured some of the light coming into the lens, but the results are ok as record shots of a very unusual visitor to the shores of Andalucia. This bird breeds in the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland and normally only Winters in the North Atlantic, sometimes as far south as the shores of Britain and N E United States, so it is a very unexpected visitor here, one worth recording.
It differs quite substantially in appearance from the other Gulls around, very pale plumage with white wings & no black anywhere except on the tip of the bill. The bill is small and narrow giving the bird a slightly dove-like appearance. As gulls go it is quite attractive.
I imagine the exceptionally cold winter this year has something to do with its presence in Andalucia. We have experienced some extremely cold winds from the North all across Europe and the Atlantic, so it is likely to be the reason for this very unusual but welcome visitor.I wonder how long it will remain but think it might get a bit too warm for it quite soon. Personally, I hope so.
Due to physical health issues I only spent three days birding in Columbia. I am an independant birder, I don't go on expensive birding tours but try to do it myself. No doubt I would have much longer lists from a tour with full time guides, but it's the independant element that makes it fun for me, plus I have a healthier bank balance as a result. Of the sixty or so birds that I remember positively identifying more than thirty were lifers, they are the ones in bold type below.
I came to Columbia to see my daughter Louise, her husband Wade, and my Grandson Arlo. They were here having a break from the severe Canadian winter. I thoroughly enjoyed my week with them, highlights being a five hour bike tour of old Bogota and a couple of days in an old colonial town called Villa de Lerva, where we went horse riding, and quite interestingly came across Jeremy Clarkson looking a bit grumpy and scruffy as he wandered into the main square with his film crew in tow.
As the week progressed I started to become very tired and just a bit unwell. As it happens this had nothing to do with Columbia, it was caused by some dermatology treatment I had been prescribed in Spain just before departing for Bogota. Unbeknown to me the cream I was applying (Zyclara/Imiquimod) has quite severe side effects which were accumulating as I continued to apply it.during my holiday. By the time I left the family to go birding I was very definitely not well and was getting getting progressively worse, but I thought it was temporary & continued on with my plans.
Columbia has more bird species than any other Country and should be a birder's paradise. However it is a big place and the birding hotspots are widely separated and often difficult to access. In the event I decided to focus my efforts on just one location, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I took a short flight from Bogota to the Caribbean resort of Santa Marta & made my way by shared taxi up to the small backpackers town of Minca in the foothills of the mountain range.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain range separated from the main Andean chains that run through Columbia. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m just 42 km from the Caribbean coast it is is one of the world's highest coastal ranges. It is a compact group, relatively small in area and completely surrounded by lands with elevations below 200 m. Because of its isolation it is rich in endemic species which have evolved separately from those found in the main Andean Mountains. I stayed in Minca for a couple of nights & did some birding around the place, but my final destination was much higher, at the legendary eco lodge of El Dorado..
The drive up to El Dorado can only be undertaken in a serious 4x4 and to call it a road would be a misnomer, it's more of a protracted gap in the jungle, and is not for the faint-hearted taking 2.5 hours to cover about 15 kms. I was picked up at 6 am and at 8:30 we arrived and I went straight out with my guide for the day looking for those endemic species.
My main target here was the White-tipped Quetzal, a handsome member of the Trogon family which is endemic to just this area and a small nearby section of Northern Venezuela. We got lucky, within a hour we had a handsome male perched quite still in a tree fairly close, what a bird!
Later that day we had equally good views of a female Quetzal. She lacks the bright shiny green head and breast plumage and the pointed tail extensions of the male, but a stunning bird nonetheless.
There were other spectacular birds to be seen. The Strong-billed Woodcreeper for example is one of the largest and heaviest of the Woodcreepers, and there are many. It is perhaps three times the size of the Montane Woodcreeper which was also foraging in the same tree giving a great comparison.
Here is a very attractive bird, the Golden-breasted Fruiteater is another species endemic to this area of Northern Columbia and a small part of neighbouring Venezuela. I had photographed a similar species in Ecuador, the Orange-breasted Fruiteater but this one is different, having evolved separately in this isolated Sierra.
The Crimson-crested Woodpecker is a very large campephilus which makes an imposing sight when seen close at hand. It is about the same size as the Powerful Woodpecker which I had photographed in Ecuador. It is slightly larger than the Lineated Woodpecker with which it can be confused in its range, but the white lines on the back clearly meet in a "V" formation so this is definitely Crimson-crested. Another lifer!
The Red-billed Parrot is a fairly common Andean species and this one sat rock still in its hole for some time, watching us and assessing whether we posed a threat or not. Eventually it and its mate flew off with much loud squawking.
More Santa Marta Endemics
Although I was only here for a very short time I picked up quite a few of the species endemic to this area. Here are some examples.
These two are fully endemic species, the Santa Marta Mountain Tanager and the Santa Marta Brush Finch. They only exist in this relatively small area and cannot be seen anywhere else. I was fortunate to get good views of both.
And another endemic species, the Yellow-crowned Whitestart. Again it only exists here in this small mountainous region of Northern Columbia. Not a particularly imposing or distinctive bird but one only seen by visitors to this rather inaccessible place.
I have seen quite a few Emerald Toucanets previously, but the Santa Marta Emerald Toucanet is a separate species endemic to just these mountains of Northern Columbia. It is a form of White-throated Toucanet - (aulacorhynchus albivitta) but is classed as a separate species (a lautus)
Black-chested Jays are very vocal and are not welcomed by birders as they tend to scare off other more interesting species, such as the Quetzal and Masked Trogon. However they are quite a handsome bird with bright white eyes & strong black and white plumage.
There are two Guan species very common around El Dorado, the Band-tailed Guan and the Sickle-winged Guan. For some reason I failed to get a shot of the Sickle-winged, they were just so easy that I didn't bother, silly as now it's too late.
I like Tanagers, they are generally colourful birds and about 240 species have been described although some are being reassigned to other families as DNA studies progress. They are all New World birds and 60% live in South America, many in the Andes. One could spend a lifetime watching Tanagers, similarly there are people who want to see every type of hummingbird. They each hold a certain fascination and one can see why.
At El Dorado I was pleased to pick up a few new species from each family. Above is a nice Bay-headed Tanager, and below is a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. Very colourful examples of each genus.
The Hummingbird below is a Brown Violetear, not one of the most colourful varieties perhaps but it's not gaudy or too bright, the violet patches contrast well with the more subdued browns.
Here are two new Tanager species that I have not seen before. The first is a Black-capped Tanager. I particularly like the metallic sheen on those breast feathers, reminiscent of chain-mail armour on knights of old.
The next one is a Blue-headed Tanager. I had to ask for an ID on Facebook for this one as the illustration in my Field Guide is absolutely terrible, looks nothing like the real thing. Quite a stunner. It was one of the few birds that came down to the fruit feeder at the Lodge and I was quite fascinated to see those fancy yellow trousers. This is a relatively large Tanager and one that is quite distinctive, strange I couldn't ID it from the Field Guide (Birds of Ecuador) but that illustration has to be the worst I've ever seen.
The Blue-naped Chlorophonia is a very colourful little bird that is widely distributed around but not within the Amazon Basin. Clorophonias were once thought to be related to Tanagers but science now places them as true finches, ie Fringillidae.
Black Hooded Thrushes were fairly common around El Dorado, but lower down the mountain, in Minca, they were completely absent. They live above 800 meters and up to 2600 m.
In Minca it's the Pale-breasted Thrush that is the common one. Up at the higher reaches however they are entirely absent.
Here's an interesting species that I photographed on a bird watching walk with "Jungle Jim's" Tours in Minca. This was a three hour walk around and above the village, starting at 6 and finishing at around 9 am in time for breakfast. The Black-backed Antshrike was definitely the best bird of the walk. The one below is a nice shot of a female
And here we see it with its breakfast, a nice juicy flying insect.
The male Black-backed Antshrike is more striking than the female with a jet black head with black & white wing coverts and white flanks.This is another species that is only found on the Caribbean Slopes of Columbia and NW Venezuela, so I was very pleased to pick this one up.
Here's another small, mainly black species but this time a much more widespread and common bird, the Black Phoebe. This is one of the sub-species known as the White-winged Black Phoebe which has considerably less white on the undersides and is sometimes considered a separate species from the nominate form.
The Bi-coloured Wren below is very common around Minca, in fact I photographed this one in the grounds of the Hostal I was staying in, the "Hotel" Minca. I use speechmarks as this place calls itself a hotel but is in fact just another backpackers hostal, grossly overpriced and pretentious. Anyway the Bi-coloured Wren has a very sweet song which was a delight to hear.
Here's another bird I photographed in the village of Minca. This is a Red-Crowned Woodpecker which was foraging in a tree in the main street. A young girl asked me what I was looking at with my binoculars so I let her try them. She liked the experience and we spent a pleasant half-hour watching birds together. It's nice when a young person shows an interest in the World around them and the living things that share this planet. I hope she has a good life.
The next two are also birds that I saw in and around Minca, on the morning walk with Joe as I recall. The first is a Rufous-capped Warbler, an attractive little warbler indeed.
The next is a Yellow Oriole. I showed Joe this shot and he seemed quite surprised that I had seen and photographed it, I think he was a little peeved that he had missed it himself. Anyway it's the only one I saw in my brief sojourn in Columbia.
The Social Flycatcher is a very common but I am assured that this one is a Vermillion-crowned Flycatcher. Something about it being a southern variety having been split into a separate species from the nominate Social Flycatcher. It looks exactly the same to me. Before scientists started analyzing DNA etc birding was much simpler. A great Grey Shrike for example was just that, now look at it, Great Grey, Southern Grey, Iberian Grey and others. They are all just Grey Shrikes to me. Just as this is just a Social Flycatcher.
Here is another Flycatcher, the Olive-crowned variety, but I prefer it's alternative name, the Olive-crowned Fruit Tyrant. Quite a mouthful. This one was taken near El Dorado on the road up through the mountains from the Lodge.
Sometimes it proves impossible to identify a bird that one has photographed well. here's a little brown job with no real distinguishing features except for that colourful and clearly striped bill. I have checked every Finch, every Seedeater and every other bird that might remotely answer this conundrum, but I cannot find anything like it. So it remains a UFO.
The Rufous-tailed Foilage Gleaner is not a particularly uncommon species, but like all Foilage Gleaners it is hard to photograph, being inconspicuous and highly active. Orange-chinned Parakeets are a very widespread South American species which I have photographed before.
This is a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. A very widespread and common hummingbird but worthy of inclusion as it's not a bad photo.
And this one is a Steely-vented Hummingbird, another common species.
This I believe is a Mountain Violetear, otherwise known as a Lesser Violetear . However I am not 100% sure of this, there are so many hummingbirds, but it just seems the most likely candidate as I scrutinise the Field Guide to birds of the area..
This Thick-billed Euphonia was taken near El Dorado but it could have been anywhere really, quite a common and widespread species.
The Black-capped Tyrannulet on the other hand is a little Flycatcher which inhabits forest edges above 1800 meters in elevation. I include this poor photograph for the record, it was identified for me by my guide. Also for the record a very poor shot of a Black-throated Tody Tyrant, included as it was another lifer and because it is relatively quite rare, again only found above altitudes over 1800m.
The Lesser Goldfinch photo below was taken in the Botanical Gardens in Bogota.
As was the Rufous-collared Sparrow. Very common birds but not if you live in Europe.
Also in the Botanical Gardens I came across this chap foraging around the edges of one of the ponds. It's obviously a Moorhen or related species but I can't pin it down. It doesn't appear to conform with any description of birds of this family found in Columbia. Perhaps it is a feral or imported bird, I just have no idea.
Retired seafarer living in Frigiliana, a white village in Malaga Province in southern Spain. Married to Elena. Keen bird and wildlife watchers.
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