Saturday, February 16, 2019

Post #152 - Some recent shorebird flight work with some shooting suggestions

Man, it feels like it might never stop raining here in the Bay Area! We certainly need it, but the constantly cloudy skies have really put the kibosh on photography for the first six weeks of the year. Sun really helps bring out the subtle colors of the shorebirds and waterfowl on which my local photography relies, so I rarely bother shooting in flat light knowing the results won't rival those captured in warm light. I've managed sporadic results, and I am going to use this post to share a few of those with you. All of these shots came from San Mateo County.

But first! There are still 3 spots left on the Colombia Photo-Birding Extravaganza I'm leading for Alvaro's Adventures in June. Don't be scared off by the 'photo' designation. This is a traditional birding tour; we've just included a few photographically productive areas in addition to the pure birding spots. Here is a gallery of Colombian birds to motivate you! Please contact me at if interested. 

Let's start with this Western Sandpiper, an ironically flat light frame. Though the frame lacks the color and contrast a sunny day would have imbued, the eye-level view, and feather detail, and fully swept wings kept this frame from the editing room floor. When shooting in flat light, understand you'll have to push the ISO to keep you shutter speed up. For speedy birds like these, I'm looking for a shutter of 1/3200 or faster.

Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 1000

Next up is this winter plumage Short-billed Dowitcher. The sun really brings out the color on the water and bird but creates a concurrent problem not visible in this shot: shadows. Shadows are always a problem with sun but can be minimized by shooting lens-level birds (i.e not overhead) in the two hours after sunrise and before sunset. As beautiful as wings are, they perpetrate shadows in proportion to their extension above or below the body plane, and there's no real way to combat them other than to shoot through them; you have to crack off enough frames to get one where the wings are extended in exactly the right way. Flat wings rarely cast shadows but generally make for the least interesting frames (at least in profile), so keep that in mind. 

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Of all flight shots, bank frames are among the most prized. Not only do they show both wings in full extension, but they are hard to capture because they require the photographer to track the bird into the turn and through the often erratic banking action. Most of my bank shots are fortuitous; the bird just happens to wheel while I'm tracking it. The best way to get bank shots is therefore to master tracking, a task easier said than done when wielding large lenses. For this Willet, I actually raised my lens high above my head as the bird flew past my position. That sudden movement caused him to alter his course, and I was fast enough bring the lens down, square him up in the viewfinder, and crack off a few frames while he wheeled. The birds will bank spontaneously, but it's nice to motivate a bank so you know when it's going to happen. 

Willet - Tringa semipalmata
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1, ISO 640

OK, I'll close with this Black-bellied Plover, admittedly from the end of 2018. I've mentioned shooting at eye-level before but it cannot be overstated. Every shot in this post is at least 50% preparation, and finding ways to meet birds at eye-level is the single most important consideration in my pre-shot routine. Shooting eye-level birds makes obtaining direct eye contact easier, and eye contact facilitates engagement between subject and viewer once the shot hits the computer screen. 

Black-bellied Plover - Pluvialis squatarola
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 320

So there's what I've been up between raindrops. The tides are perfect this week (only happens 3 out of every 14 days), so hopefully I'll be able to do some damage if the sun comes out. Still looking for that elusive Red Knot flight frame!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

#Post 151: Introduced birds and vagrants: To count or not?

Some silly and mostly ridiculous thought from the bike the other day.....

I see the introduced European Starling on just about every Bay Area birding outing. The species is so widespread and abundant I think of it as a native species. I count it on my ABA list and my Bay Area bike list - the only two lists I care about. I eBird starling without hesitation.

In contrast, I see the introduced Red-masked Parakeet on some of my San Francisco birding outings. I know the species is introduced and treat it differently than native species. It is not on any of my lists, and I don't even bother to eBird it since I don't want it 'contaminating' my species totals (and yes, I realize I'm selectively skewing the data by doing that. But who cares, its Red-Masked Parakeet).

The introduced European Starling

Both the starling and the parakeet are introduced, so why do I consciously draw a distinction between them for listing purposes? It is because the starling is so comparatively widespread? Is it because the ABA deems the starling a countable species? It is because there is some unspoken agreement among birders letting us treat the starling one way and the parakeet another?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know some ultra-pure listers ignore all introduced species, presumably to avoid drawing the sorts of arbitrary designations I've highlighted above. Those strictest listers will often quote their various lists with the caveat 'NIB' - non-introduced birds - attached. Though I don't adhere to this convention, I understand it and think it makes general sense.

The introduced Rock Dove

Or does it? All of the introduced species I've mentioned in this article are infinitely more a part of the North American avifauna than, say, the continuing Red-flanked Bluetail in Los Angeles. From an ecological or demographic standpoint, the Bluetail is irrelevant; it's nothing more than a statistical anomaly. If we're so concerned about birds that are naturally North American, then the Bluetail should be the last bird on our collective mind, right?

I obviously ask this question rhetorically; if I could have biked to the Bluetail, I would have been the first one in line to see it. I suspect most folks feel vagrants arrive via their own - albeit disoriented - volition while introduced species have been translocated and aided by humans. That also makes sense, but how should we consider climate change moving forward? If we agree it's mostly human caused (and if we don't, then please never talk to me again), then any vagrancy or population shift influenced by climate change would be unnatural, right? It would be as impossible to prove that any rarity didn't wander because of climate change as it would to prove that a foreign vagrant didn't ride a boat or ship to our shores (and I realize trying to prove a negative is futile anyway).

On a boat....
(Thanks to Paul Reinstein for the Bluetail photo!)

I present these musings mostly to elicit opinions/comments from those of you who haven't fallen asleep by this point. I'm as certain as anyone the Bluetail is a natural vagrant, but I think our treatment of 'natural' might need to shift moving forward. The same for introduced birds that outstrip native species. Birds like Whooping Crane and California Condor present other sorts of intrigue; humans rescued those species from human-created population crashes. Should that mean anything for countability? Listing is fun but the whole process can feel like a black box. I particularly feel for folks on records committees; trying to sort out what should count and what shouldn't seems like trying to run the 100-yard dash in a 90-yard gym. Photography sometimes seems so much simpler. Here's a native bird to close, later.....

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
San Mateo County, California
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

Monday, January 14, 2019

Post #150 - The 5-Mile Radius and another biking Big Year!

I've recently been thinking more about the 5-Mile Radius (5MR), an initiative encouraging birders to explore habitats within 5 miles of their homes. 5MR birding seeks to minimize driving and to disperse birders into highly individualized and usually under-explored spaces. Twenty individual birders driving long distances to the same hotspot produce significant carbon emissions, and they generate mostly redundant eBird data since they're mostly looking at the same birds. Birding closer to home will lead to less driving and it will help diversify the data set by increasing coverage outside of those most popular hotspots. I don't expect everyone to give up driving or avoid productive hotspots, but it might be fun to try 5MR birding one weekend a month.

A 'rare' Rock Wren from my 5MR (Foster City)
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Had the camera on the bike this day!

I've largely ignored the 5MR because I usually like to bike longer distances than the 5MR suggests. Coyote Point Park, for example, is a great birding spot just a mile from my apartment, but I rarely bird it because riding there and back won't burn significant donuts or ice cream. However, I've decided to make more dedicated forays within my 5MR when I don't have the time for longer rides. It will be fun to try to explore new areas and see how many species I can find close to home. 

Below are two views of my 5MR, wide (left) and zoomed (right). My home is indicated by the blue dot on the right hand view. Because my 'Actual 5MR' is 50% open water, I've taken some liberty and shifted it slightly southwest to include more birdable land. The shift captures a bonus sliver of higher elevation habitat on the bayside of the coastal mountains (i.e. Skylawn Cemetery off Highway 92), but I don't think I've altered it so egregiously to distort the meaning or spirit of the 5MR game. From here forward, 5MR will refer to the Shifted permutation. 

Cross-referencing my eBird data and my memory, I realize I've seen 201 species in my 5MR, 199 of which have been observed using my bike (I've never driven to bird in my 5MR, extra 2 were observed when I drove to photograph). I'm exceptionally lucky my 5MR contains a lot of different habitats - open water, shorelines, marshes, neighborhoods, chaparral, oak woodlands, and even a bit of coniferous forest - and I imagine I've far from exhausted the birds I can find within its bounds. Hell, 253 species have been eBirded from Coyote Point, so I should be able to find a bunch of additional species in my 5MR given enough time. 

Incidently, I've found a couple really good 5MR birds - Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Yellow-headed Blackbird - while walking my dog along the bay. In each instance, I ran home, grabbed my bike and camera, rode back, and relocated the county rarity for photos. The best bird I have in my 5MR is the Old World Dusky Warbler. I didn't find that great bird; I poached it from Logan Kahle and Bob Tolino.

Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Yellow-headed Blackbird
I'm curious to hear if any of you play around with the 5MR, so please feel free to leave me a comment with your experiences and exploits I'd be very curious to know how high species totals in the 5MR can be pushed. I'm sure many - and particularly those with ocean - will crush my number!

Lastly, I want to mention the Green Big Year my friend Gregg Severson is currently undertaking in Minnesota. He'll travel exclusively by bicycle - a particularly impressive feat considering Minneapolis temperatures will top out at 34 degrees this week - and he'll be blogging about his adventures as he progresses. He's home-based, so he'll use will the same hub-and-spoke (i.e. out-and-back) model I use for my Bay Area bike-birding. I'll be keeping tabs on him, and I'm sure he be stoked if you did as well! Best of luck, Gregg!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Post #149 - 2018 Photo Review

Happy New Year, and welcome to the fifth year of The Speckled Hatchback! Here is a quick post to get 2019 started off right. Since I've already put together a gallery of my 23 favorite photos from 2018 on my photo website, I'll use this entry to highlight my five favorites frames from this past year. I present them in no particular order. Here we go!

Let's start with this Marbled Godwit I captured at my local shorebird spot on San Francisco Bay. I visit this location a couple afternoons each week from October to April (it's 5 minutes from my apartment), and I've learned how wintering shorebirds behave on every tide. That knowledge has translated into lots of interesting shots, and I'm really proud of the understanding I've cultivated. Shooting at feeder arrays or from permanent blinds is super fun but often less than challenging, and the photographers I respect most are those who can go into the habitat and generate beautiful images under completely natural conditions. This frame was collected just as the sun set, and I was lucky the bird was high enough off the water to give me the smooth and deep blue background. I was even luckier the soft out-of-focus breakers framed the bird so nicely!

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

Next up is this Brandt's Cormorant from San Diego. I am a huge fan of super-detailed headshots, and this was my favorite portrait from 2018 (check out this gallery for all my headshots). It takes a really close look at this species to reveal the stunning blue eye and gular puch, so I was stoked when this bird stretched and squawked right in front of me. Cormorants are often overlooked in favor of flashier species, so I was really happy I could display this beautiful individual so well.

Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 800

Moving along, I present this Tricolored Heron from South Padre Island in Texas. Most of my shots are front lit and composed in predictable ways, so it felt really good to break out of my usual mold with this wider-angle silhouette. I was laying chest-down in about a foot of water, and I put my lens right on the surface of the Laguna Madre to get a thin plan of focus and maximize foreground and background blur. Getting soaked was totally worth it!

Tricolored Heron - Egretta tricolor
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Birds of prey are a weak point in my portfolio, so I could hardly contain myself as I inched my vehicle forward to photograph this roadside Merlin in Southern California. She tolerated very close approach, and I took nearly 300 frames of her in the 5 minutes it took her to eat breakfast. Nature can be beautiful and brutal in the same moment, and I was incredibly thankful I was able to capture those conflicting sentiments in this frame. Taken on December 28, this frame barely made the December 31 deadline!

Merlin - Falco columbaris
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 640

Lastly, I'll leave you with this pair of Spectacled Parrotlets from Colombia. With the perfectly clean background, this shot looks suspiciously like a set-up - a shot where wild birds are lured onto the perfect perch with food - but this was 100% natural. I spotted these birds from an elevated porch on the visitor's center at Rio Sonso outside Cali, and I leaned way out over the edge to get the perfect angle on them. The bamboo pole against which I braced myself nearly gave way, but I survived to get the shot and tell the tale. The left bird is the male, and it was really cute to watch him tenderly preen his female mate. Their interaction was photographic gold!

Spectacled Parrotlets - Forpus conspicillatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

So that's it! The curtain closes on my photo review and the year that was 2018. Thanks for hanging in through the fourth year of The Speckled Hatchback. I'm not sure what 2019 will hold, but I expect my upcoming trip to New Zealand will be a highlight regardless. Once again, I'll remind you to check out the full gallery of my 23 favorite photos from this year on my website. I'd love to hear which of those shots you particularly like!

Happy New Years! Good birding and shooting in 2019!

Big Ugly at Sumapaz NP, high above Bogotá, Colombia

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Post #148 - 2018 Bike-birding recap!

Real quick - if any of you are thinking about trying bike-birding, have a look at this article from my Seattle friend Bryony Angell. She offers some nice tips to get you started. Now on with the recap!

I haven't written much about bike-birding since my April Big Day, so this is the perfect time to recap my self-powered exploits from 2018. This was my first full calendar year in the Bay Area, and these most recent 12 months were a strong continuation of the bike-birding momentum I built in the second half of 2017 (after moving from Los Angeles). Comparing 2018 to 2017, I ventured into many new areas in my home San Mateo County, and I spent more time exploring neighboring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties. I also crossed the bay - via the Dumbarton Bridge - to bird Alameda County for the first time this year. Though I didn't keep track of mileage last year, careful accounting revealed I cranked out 1,950 miles of bird-motivated biking in 2018. As it's exactly 800 driving miles on Interstate 5 from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border, I traversed the length of the Golden State more than twice!

Half Moon Bay and Pillar Point

Golden Gate from the Presidio

As far as birds are concerned, I started 2018 with 209 species on my cumulative Bay Area bike list and ended with 271. Among the 62 species I added this year, Tufted Duck on Nob Hill Pond in San Mateo, Ruff at Don Edwards at the bottom of the bay, and a Broad-billed Hummingbird in downtown San Francisco were the most notable. Eastern strays included Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Palm Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Swamp Sparrow. Seawatching yielded Northern Fulmar, Black-vented Shearwater, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Pomarine Jaeger. Outside of those, a hodgepodge of Long-tailed Duck, Prairie Falcon, Lewis's Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, and Northern Saw-whet Owl (heard only) rounded out the year's highlights. 

Note added Dec 29 - Just found Lapland Longspur out on the bay for #272!

Note added Dec 30 - Successful 52-mile round trip Orchard Oriole chase to SF for #273!

Totals for individual counties

Looking ahead, my main goal is to push my cumulative Bay Area total towards 300 species. I don't think I stand a chance in hell of reaching that plateau in 2019, but I hope to make some ground towards that benchmark. The ideal scenario is for new birds to show up near where I live, but I know I am going to have to do a lot of riding to add new species from more distant areas to approach 300. Just for fun, here are the 20 most likely new species for me along the coast (using San Mateo as a proxy). 

Most of the species are offshore pelagics, but I should be able to find Red Phalarope, Black-legged Kittiwake and maybe Cassin's Auklet with seawatching. Black Swift nests at Año Nuevo and will require 2 days (with overnight in Pigeon Point hostel) to collect. Northern Pygmy-Owl will require an overnight in Half Moon Bay since I cannot ride over Route 92 in the dark. Wilson's Phalarope I can find at the bottom of the Bay (Santa Clara) in August. Dipper is sometimes around, but is far from common in either San Mateo or Santa Clara.

The Dumbarton Bridge from Don Edwards NWR

Most productive will be spending time inland and east. The catch is those trips will need to be multi-day since I cannot reach to the eastern edge of Santa Clara (or Stanislaus) and return home in the same day. The best trip I could do would be the below, probably sometime in early May. It would take 4 full days (~220 miles out and back) but give me chances for Swainson's Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Phainopepla, Roadrunner, Common Poorwill, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, Costa's Hummingbird, Bell's Sparrow, Canyon Wren, and other dry habitat specialists. It's a lot of riding, but I think Mines Road and Highway 130 would be great birding in a beautiful setting. Company would be great - if you've got the legs!

OK, you get the idea. Returns have really diminished, and I am going to have to work very hard to add new species. Outside of those species goals, I'd like to spend some time birding in Marin since it's relatively close. The pipe dream trip would be to take 12-14 days to ride to the eastern side of Sierras in June or July. That journey would take me to areas of the state I haven't visited (even by car) and give me the chance to find 20+ species I'll never find where I live. 

That's it for now. I will try to put together a post on this year's photo highlights, so please stay tuned for that!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Post #147 - Rescuing Brown Pelicans on the Texas Coast!

Why am I holding a Brown Pelican in Texas in the rain? Read on to find out why and to learn a bit about Brown Pelican conservation!

The Brown Pelican has experienced a tumultuous conservation history. Hunted for feathers in the early 20th century, the species suffered additional and near-terminal declines in the 1950s and 1960s at the hands of the insecticide DDT. When concentrated up the food chain and into carnivores such as falcons, eagles, and pelicans, the toxic compound blocked calcium metabolism and caused female birds to lay brittle eggs that cracked and died when incubated. The species was listed an Endangered in 1970 but recovered steadily once DDT was banned in 1972. Since then, the species has experienced a robust expansion and was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009.

Brown Pelican, San Diego, CA
Taken with my Old Skool Rebel xTi in 2011!

Populations of Brown Pelicans are currently healthy, but individual birds still face a number of human-created challenges. Like many seabirds, pelicans routinely ingest ocean plastics they mistake for food. Those cause all sorts of internal problems, and tangles with fishing tackle and lures often leave the birds with external injuries. Collisions with cars can also be a problem, and it was against particular danger that I volunteered my efforts on the afternoon of November 9, 2018.

Brown Pelican, Half Moon Bay, California, Nov 2017
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400, Handheld from kayak

We'll need some background to get started. Below is a map of Texas (left) and a detailed view of Highway 48 between Brownsville and Port Isabel (right). Let's focus on the right map. Each morning, thousands of pelicans depart the Roosting Area and fly southeast across Highway 48 to the reach the Feeding Area. They spend the day eating and return to the Roosting Area late in the afternoon. The pelicans have no issues moving between the two areas on most (~98%) days, but the return trip can turn deadly when storm fronts pass through the region. To understand how, we need to talk a bit about wind. What follows is a bit confusing, but the important thing to take away is that storms cause big problems for pelicans.

The prevailing wind on the Texas Coast blows from the southeast (orange arrow, right map above); those usual breezes are weak in the morning and strengthen as the afternoon progresses. That default situation - southeast winds building over the day - is not a problem for pelicans. There's little morning headwind to impede their flight to the Feeding Area, and a stronger afternoon tailwind speeds their return flight to the Roosting Area. However, when low-pressure storm systems move onto the Texas Coast, the wind invariably switches to blow from the northwest. That change creates challenge for the pelicans as they must make the afternoon flight to the Roosting Area into those potentially strong northwestern headwinds. And it's there that an unlikely danger presents.

Wait, what the hell? Am I saying pelicans can't fly into the wind? Pelicans have been flying into the wind for millions of years, so what gives?

Stormy view down Highway 48

It's all about the highway; more specifically, it's all about the two 3-foot high concrete barriers, one that divides the highway and the other protecting the north side of the road from bay spray. Whenever strong, storm-associated northwest winds sweep across the bay and strike those barriers, they create an unidentified sort of air turbulence. That aerodynamic irregularity causes some fraction of pelicans crossing the road in the upwind direction - towards the Roosting Area on stormy afternoons - to lose loft and crash onto the highway where they are struck by cars. We don't understand the precise mechanism, but it's clear sustained headwinds of 20 MPH really affect the birds. When winds push 30 MPH, upwards of 50 or 60 pelicans might be killed by cars. Biologists/Convserationists know the concrete barriers are to blame since wind tunnel experiments have revealed more porous barriers do not create equivalent turbulence. Strong southeast winds cause identical turbulence on most afternoons, but it doesn't affect the pelicans since the birds cross the road and barriers in the downwind direction en route to the Roosting Area. Again, just know storms and NW winds give pelicans problems.

Pelicans crossing Highway 48 into 
afternoon NW headwinds.

Since the pelicans only have problems on the rare occasions with strong, storm-associated NW winds, locals watch the weather and spring into action when those conditions present. Police drive slowly to create 'rolling roadblocks' from 3pm to 6pmon those afternoons, and biologists and conservationists line the shoulder to scoop up whatever pelicans crash onto the highway. It's a highly coordinated effort and has significantly cut pelican mortality in the last few years. As the specified conditions only present ~6 times a year, mostly between December and February, the community has been very understanding of the protective measures whenever it storms.

Rolling rockblock on Highway 48.

For better or worse, the specified conditions presented while I was attending the Rio Grande Birding Festival in South Texas earlier this month. I volunteered to help rescue pelican, and that's how this blogpost came to be. Our group ended up rescuing around 15 pelicans that afternoon. Sadly, there were at least 3 carcasses on the road the following morning. Those presumably belonged to straggling birds that hit the roadway after the rolling roadblocks ended and volunteers departed. Below are a few of the birds we saved.

Pelicans on Highway 48. The lowest
flying birds usually ended up on the road.
Once on the road, they can't take off.

Volunteers scoop a pelican up and carry it
across the road. My phone died before they let it
go on the other aide of the barrier! The birds
are totally fine once safely over the second of
the two barries 

Biologists Stephanie Bilodeau and Jessica Something
holding rescued Brown Pelicans

As awful as the situation was, I was happy to lend a hand and learn something about the rescue efforts. Everything humans do has a consequence for wildlife, and objects as seemingly insignificant as concrete road dividers can have unanticipated and deleterious effects on the animals with which we share the world. However, efforts such as those described above show there are people who care enough to help the birds on such days. Highway administrators are apparently open to the possibility of replacing the concrete barriers, so maybe the situation will improve in the future. It's a government bureaucracy and will take time, but it's a step in the right protective direction.

That's it for now, cheers!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Post #146 - Colombia - Southwestern Andes - Nariño

Quick note - This is meant more as a permanent online reference than it is a quick blogpost, so it is very long and detailed. This account - as well as summaries from all the places I've visited, Colombian or other - will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner header of this blog. I hope you will use that resource to plan your own birding adventures!


Nariño Introduction

Nariño Logistics
Getting there
When to visit
Where to stay

Key Nariño birds
Colombian endemics
Chocó endemics

Nariño birding sites
Páramo Bordoncillo
Laguna La Concha
Laguna Cumbal
La Planada
Río Nambi
Kilometer 42 and Finca Maragricola
Around Tumaco

Tyrian Metaltail is found at higher Nariño elevations
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Nariño is a wild and mostly unexplored department in Southwestern Colombia, right on the border with Ecuador. Though is was for a long time an active conflict area and stronghold for the FARC guerillas, the department - mirroring Colombia as a whole - has recently stabilized and opened to international tourists. Nariño encompasses habitats from Andean páramo to lowland rainforest, and more than 1,200 species of birds have been recorded in the department, a municipality about the size of Maryland. However, Nariño's great birding doesn't come easily, and extra planning is required to overcome challenges stemming from a general lack of infrastructure. This post will highlight the areas I visited in the summer of 2018, and I hope the accounts of my travels will streamline logistics for future Nariño visitors. I'd also suggest visiting the Birding Nariño Facebook Page (run by Nariño birder Cristian Flórez-Paí). It has some additional information and offers a forum for visitors to connect with local birders.

To fully understand Nariño, we must first understand something about the Andes. Almost everyone knows the Andes run north through Chile and along the western reaches of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. What fewer know is the range trifurcates into 3 distinct cordilleras soon after crossing into Colombia. That unusual geography - coupled with Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast - has facilitated a very high degree of localized speciation in the Colombian mountains. That all but a few of Colombia's 78 endemic bird species are confined to the mountains (Andes or Santa Martas) or the valleys they define speaks to this phenomenon. 

As good as Nariño's birding is, it's not a good place to look for those endemics for two reasons - one arbitrary and one geographic. First, human drawn lines have juxtaposed Nariño and Ecuador, so Nariño shares virtually all of its birds with that neighboring country. Second, the Andes haven't trifurcated in Nariño, so the region hasn't experienced the same high degree of speciation as have other mountainous areas in Colombia. The single cordillera that will split to yield the Western and Central branches is labeled as 'WestCentral Andes' on the above map (the eastern branch splits off farther northeast, in Huila). However, what Nariño lacks in Colombian endemics it more than redeems with Chocó Bioregion endemics, regionally specialized species inhabiting the Pacific slopes of Colombia and Ecuador. Accessing Nariño's Pacific slope is fairly straightforward (with a few caveats), so it's as good a place as any to observe Chocó birds. I'll have more to say about the Chocó in the 'Key Nariño birds' section below.

Nariño Logistics
Getting there
Nariño is best visited in conjunction with Valle and Cauca, the departments just to the north, for several reasons. First, Pasto's airport doesn't handle international traffic and will require a connecting flight to reach. Second, rental cars aren't available at Pasto's airport; individual people or couples who want to explore Nariño without joining a tour or hiring a driver will have a hard time doing so from a Pasto arrival point. Third, there is dynamite birding in Valle and Cauca, and visitors to Southwestern Colombia are going to want to spend some time in those departments. Cali has a great airport, and it's easy for birders to rent cars at that international gateway. My suggestion would be to spend 6-7 days around Valle/Cali (Post #144) before heading south to Cauca/Popayán (Post #145) for 3-4 days. From there it would be easy to continue south into Nariño/Pasto for an additional 4-5 days of birding. 

While renting a car in Cali is a totally viable option, many visitors hire a driver with his own vehicle instead. The daily rate varies with the size of of the vehicle and includes the gas and the driver's lodging and food since he'll be traveling with you. It might sound expensive, but it's hardly more than renting a car. Contact Jovani Flórez at Solutions in Colombia (, Whatsapp +57 311 227 1259 or +57 320 835 9104). They are the 'go-to' for Colombian birding transportation and have experience carting birders all around the country. 

When to Visit: 
Short Answer: December through February, July and August 
Long Answer: Rainfall is the primary consideration when planning a visit to Cauca, Colombia, or anywhere in the tropics, and the graphs below show the average monthly rainfall in Pasto (2,500 meters, 8,300 feet) and Tumaco (sea level). This data was obtained from this website. It's actually really cool, so check it out for more information.

You can see rainfall patterns are very similar in the mountains and on the coast. This is nice as you don't have to play elevations against one another during your visit. The paramo at 11,000 feet (nearly 3,000 feet above Pasto) will probably be driest December-February (during the true Andean summer), so that's one consideration. Also remember that Nariño will probably be visited in conjunction with Valle and Cauca, and those are best visited December-February. They are also nice July-August, but weather at very high (páramo) elevations is more variable July-August than it is December-February. Beyond those considerations, two others factors need be considered. First, the inter-Andean valleys in Valle and Cauca are hottest during July-August, so that might dissuade some travelers from visiting in that window. Second, the North American neotropical migrants are present October through April, so total trip lists will be higher December-February than they will in July-August. 

Where to stay
Pasto is a modern city and has many suitable accommodations, but lodging options decline steeply from that central point. There are some decent beach hotels in Tumaco, but that incredibly poor and run-down city offers visitors nothing beyond lodging. La Planada - perfectly positioned halfway down the Nariño's Pacific slope - is a very minimal ecolodge requiring travelers to make significant comfort sacrifices (more on this later). Rather than present all the lodging options here, I'll cover them in the context of the birding sites discussed below. 

At writing, there are no local birding Guides in Pasto, but that will surely change as demand for them increases. The Audubon Society is working to train locals to serve as guides as you read this. For now, it would be easy to hire a Cali-based guide and have him/her accompany you south to Nariño after time in Valle and Cauca. I've worked extensively with Ibagué-based Hernan Arias and highly recommend him. He knows all the birds, had amazing ears, is familiar with the entire country, speaks English fluently, and is an all around great guy. You can contact him at or at +57 318 385 3676.

Violet-tailed Sylph is a Chocó endemic found in Pacific Nariño
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/400 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Key Nariño Birds
As Narino has been historically under-birded, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of the the distribution of birds in the department. There is some coverage in eBird, but not so much to know what's surely present versus surely absent at most sites. I've done my best to synthesize information from eBird and various field guides, but what I present here is far from infallible!

Though Nariño hosts some Colombia endemics on edges of their usually more interior ranges (Colombian Chachalaca, Apical Flycatcher, e.g.), birders should not focus on endemics in Nariño; any Colombian endemic found in the department will be more easily found in Valle or Cauca anyway. Beyond a handful of high elevation páramo species that can be found outside Pasto (see Páramo Bordoncillo below), birders should concentrate on the many Chocó endemics inhabiting Nariño's Pacific slope.

The Chocó claims 70-some endemic bird species, and at least 50 of those occur in Nariño, many of which overlap with those found on Valle's Pacific Slope at Anchicaya: Dusky Pigeon, White-whiskered Hermit, Long-tailed Sylph, Velvet-purple Coronet, Hoary Puffleg, Toucan Barbet, Rose-faced Parrot, Nariño Tapaculo, Pacific Flatbill, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Club-winged Manakin, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Moss-backed Tanager, Rufous-throated Tanager, and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia. However, Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Orange-fronted Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Plumbeous Forest-Falcon, Ochraceous Atilla, and Scarlet-breasted Dacnis do not reach as far north as Valle, and special effort should be made to find those mostly-Ecuadorian species in Nariño.

Dusky Chlorospingus - a Chocó endemic
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/4, ISO 2000 

Nariño Birding Sites
Páramo Bordoncillo (eBird Hotspot)
An hour above Pasto and right on the Nariño-Putamayo border, Páramo Bordoncillio (3,200 meters, 10,500 feet) offers great high-elevation birding - with a few access caveats. Road 10 is in great shape, and birders can just pull off at the trailhead (which is frustratingly unsigned). From there, a rudimentary and dreadfully maintained track leads through some cow pastures before assuming a pitch so steep that only those birders in very good shape will be able to continue, especially with the very thin air at that elevation. There are certainly birds on the lowest reaches of the trail, but climbing higher into the habitat will increase the chances for Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Glowing Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Tawny Antpitta, 5 species of tapaculos (Ash-colored, Spillman's, Blackish, Páramo, and Ocellated), White-chinned Thistletail, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Pale-naped and Slaty Brushfinches, Golden-crowned Tanager, Blue-backed Conebill, and Scarlet-bellied, Hooded, Lacrimose, and Buff-Breasted Mountain-Tanagers. Most prized at Bordoncillo are Chestnut-bellied Cotinga and Masked Mountain-Tanager, two species with very restricted ranges within the mountains of Colombia and Ecuador. Bordoncillo is technically private and there is supposedly an entry fee, but I'm not sure how one contacts the people who run/own it. There is a very small dwelling at the trailhead, so maybe by knocking on the door (better know Spanish)?!?! These are the sorts of organizational challenges Nariño presents, particularly as many of the best birding sites are on private land owned by people without modern communications (cell phones, webpages, emails).

Laguna de La Concha (eBird Hotspot)
Just down the hill from Bordoncillo at 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) is Laguna de La Concha, a great place to add a few water birds to your Colombia list. I'd recommend focusing on the northern shore. Birders will find a road (Via Laguna de la Concha) that runs through Puerto del Encanto (photo below) and out into the marsh. Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Duck, Slate-colored Coot, and Andean Gull, Grassland Yellow-Finch are always in the area. It's also possible to hire a boat for a ride, but it's doubtful that will add many birds that can't be seen from shore. Likewise, a quick visit to the Santuario de Flora Isla Corota might be fun but is more for the experience than for any specific birds. Pastures and secondary woodlands surrounding the lake hold Andean Guan, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Azara's Spinetail, Sierran Elaenia, Red-crested Cotinga, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Slaty Brushfinch, and a variety of other High Andean birds. Birding-wise, the lake is worth 3-4 hours, at most. Overnight stays will be more geared to relaxation.

There are a number of lodging options around the north end of the lake, but Waira (Facebook pageAirbnb listing) is great for groups of 2-4 people. Jorge (photo below) is quite the character. He is super friendly, speaks English fluently, and is a ton of fun. He even has his own boat to run guests around the lake. From Puerto El Encanto, his place requires 25 minutes on a bumpy dirt road, but that could be done in a standard car at a slow speed.

Laguna Cumbal (eBird Hotspot)
Cumbal is 2.5 hours southwest of Pasto and less than 5 miles from the Ecuadorian border. Though it's quite small, there is at least one basic - but decent - hotel in town, and from that base birders can explore Laguna Cumbal (3,400 meters, 11,150 feet) in the shadows of Volcan Cumbal (4,700 meters, 15,400 feet). Given its remote proximity, Cumbal hasn't received much coverage, so it's difficult to know exactly what birds are present. Regardless, the small and undeveloped lake is really beautiful and worth hiring a boat to explore. A 15-minute ride will carry visitors to Santuario de Capotes (fun video), a small environmental facility from which the páramo can be intimately explored via a series of hiking trails. Birders might find Shining Sunbeam, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Purple-backed Thornbill, Viridian Metaltail, Cinereous Harrier, Tawny Antpitta, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Cinereous Conebill, Black-crested Warbler, or Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. There is lodging at the facility, but it's very basic and probably best suited to the most adventurous. It's also possible to bird some of the rural roads to the south and west of the lake. Those run mostly through pastures and secondary habitat and offer a nice complement to the birding right at the lake.

View of Laguna Cumbal from west, Cumbal Páramo at Capotes

The FARC is gone from Cumbal, but not forgotten...

Reserva La Planada (eBird Hotspot, website)
La Planada was my favorite place I visited in Nariño, but it comes with a few caveats. Importantly the birding isn't one of those, and nearly 300 species have been eBirded from the expansive reserve at 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) on Nariño's Pacific Slope.

Resident Chocó birds include Violet-tailed Sylph, Hoary Puffleg, Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Dusky Pigeon, Nariño Tapaculo, Pacific Flatbill, Club-winged Manakin, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Glistening-green Tanager, and Dusky Chlorospingus. Scarcer and most prized are Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Plumbeous Forest-Falcon, and Fulvous-dotted Treerunner. Beyond those and other Chocó specialties, a wide variety of mid-elevation species will keep birders occupied from dawn til dusk. It would be easy to spend 2 or 3 full days at La Planada, and it's here that the caveats must be mentioned.

There is lodging at La Planada, but it is very basic. My room had only a bed, pillow/blankets, and a light bulb. I didn't care as I am a minimalist by design, but at least one of my travel companions remarked at the lack of curtains/privacy. The bathrooms are separated from the bunkhouse and require clothes and shoes to reach, a particular headache in the middle of the night. The bunkhouse also requires a 400-yard walk down a rather rough trail - with luggage. I was fine with my backpack, but access will a pain for anyone with a rolling suitcase. There is a very basic 'restaurant', but guests eat whatever the staff is having (eggs/chicken, rice, plantains, and not much else). The access road is also steep and in pretty poor shape, and I suspect that reaching the reserve/lodge would impossible without high-clearance and very difficult without 4-wheel drive.

Yes, the accommodations at La Planada are basic, but visitors will be rewarded with wonderful habitat and birds. I really like minimal places like this, but I realize it may not be for everyone. I just want people to know what to expect before they arrive.

Río Nambi (eBird Hotspot)
Just 25 Km down/west on Highway 10 and 600 vertical meters (2,000 feet) below La Planada is Río Nambi (1,200 meters, 3,900 feet). There's not much to it, just a rather poorly-maintained trail leading into the habitat from the roadside. There's no visitor's center or information kiosk at the trailhead, but there is a fun mural on the side of a shed showing some of the reserve's birds, Toucan Barbet and Indigo Flowerpiercer among them. The trail leaves from that spot.

Other residents include White-whiskered Hermit, Velvet-purple Coronet, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Moss-backed Tanager, and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, all Chocó endemics. Beyond those, birders might encounter more widespread species such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Zeledon's Antbird, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Golden-winged Manakin, Dusky Chlorospingus, Common Chlorospingus, and nearly 300 others.

The Nambi trail was very muddy and slippery when I visited, but it was wide and easy to follow. It's 3Km (I think) to the research station at the top of the reserve, but I'd suggest birders stick to the lower reaches. The facility/restaurant at the top isn't a 'must-see', and there's no great view from it as there is from La Planada. So, if you have the time and energy it might make a nice - but long - walk. Otherwise bird to the first rest hut and then turn around.

Cristian Flórez-Paí, the Nariño birder who runs Birding Nariño Facebook Page, is currently constructing a small ecolodge, Aves y Flores ('Birds and Flowers'), just down the road from Río Nambi. When completed, it will be a great place from which to explore Nambi, La Planada, and sites lower on the Pacific Slope. Cristian is a really good resource, and I know he would be happy to answer whatever Nariño birding questions you might post on the Facebook page (brush up your Spanish!).

Kilometer 42 / Pueblo Nuevo 
This spot and the next (Finca Maragrícola) are private properties very low on the Pacific Slope (basically at sea level) that are just opening to foreign birders. There is frustratingly little information as to how to access either spot, so I am going to provide what information I have. The locations of both spots, as well as La Planada and Río Nambi, are shown on the map below.

Km 42 is just a dirt road running west off of Highway 10, just before you pass through the small town of Pueblo Nuevo en route to Tumaco. The road is in decent shape and runs ~6-7Km southwest until it dead ends into a river. The habitat is mostly cecropia-dominated secondary growth, and we found all sorts of great birds as we made our early-morning way along the dirt track with a mix of walking and driving. Highlights included Gray-headed Chachalaca, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Hook-billed Kite, White-necked and Pied Puffbirds, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Cinnamon Becard, and Black-faced Dacnis. Bird of the morning on my visit was Orange-fronted Barbet, a Chocó endemic that just makes it over the Ecuadorian border into Nariño.

As there isn't an eBird hotspot for the area, here is a link to my full checklist. Despite repeated attempts to track down the identity of the owner, I have only unearthed a phone number with no name to put to it, +57 315 765 9949 or +57 323 456 1782. The birding at Km 42 was really good, but these are the sorts of frustrations one routinely experiences on Nariño's Pacific slope. Nothing is organized or easy. Those interested can also try to contact Cristian though the Facebook Page. So, yeah, you really have to want to bird the area to make all the logistics worthwhile. Hopefully this will improve moving forward, but it is what it is for now.

Finca Maragrícola (eBird Hotspot)
This site offers similar low elevation birding to Km 42 but is slightly better organized, probably because the land is minimally administered by some university. It too is a dirt road leading away from the Highway 10 roadside and into some habitat, and nearly 260 species have been eBirded along its ~3Km length. My visit yielded Little Tinamou, Greater Ani, Pacific Parrotlet, Pale-legged Hornero, Masked Water-Tyrant, and White-bearded Manakin. The back reaches of the road explore some watery impoundments, and on those we found White-cheeked Pintail, Purple Gallinule, White-throated Crake, Wattled Jacana, and a nice mix of waders and shorebirds. Angel Guevara (+57 317 758 9154) is the contact person for Maragrícola if you want to arrange a visit. The birding at Maragrícola is really good, and - assuming you can get permission and the logistics squared away - is super easy to reach from Tumaco (20 mins). NOTE: Maragrícola and Km 42 (Pueblo Nuevo) get very hot and humid by late-morning, so ideally they should be visited on consecutive mornings from a Tumaco base.

Without sugar coating it, Tumaco is incredibly poor and will be of zero interest to birders. Because of a general lack of tourism infrastructure everywhere on the Nariño's Pacific Slope, the city is a necessary stopover if you want to visit the coastal reaches of the department. I'd suggest overnighting at the Hotel Los Corales on the beach. It's a bit of a pain as you will need traverse the entire city to get into or out of town, but there just aren't other options.

Staying on the beach will offer at least some diversionary birding in the time between visiting Km 42 and Maragrícola. We found Royal Tern, Blue-footed Booby, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Ringed Kingfisher, and a few others waterbirds in front of the hotel. The Tumaco airport isn't far away and offers chances for Chestnut-throated Seedeater and Peruvian Meadowlark, two species that barely make it into Colombia/Nariño from Ecuador and countries south. I would bird Nariño's Pacific slope as a one-way endeavor and fly out of Tumaco to get back to Cali or Bogotá.

Chestnut-throated Seedeater in Tumaco
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

So, that's what I have to offer on Nariño at this time. It should be clear to everyone that Nariño presents great birding but logistical challenges to match. Those hurdles will be lowered as more people visit the department, and birders who visit in the meantime will provide the economic incentive to make those improvements. As I said, I'd couple 4-5 days in Nariño to 10-12 days in Valle and Cauca. That would make for a wonderful sampling of Southwestern Colombia and easily net between 300-400 birds, depending on enthusiasm levels.

This concludes this series of Colombia posts. I may put together a combined Huila/Tolima post at some point, but I have some other writing that is more pressing at this time! Please share this around. I think it's a really good resource, and I hope people will find it useful!