Sunday, September 4, 2022

Back to the Colombian Andes

 August 2021: A return to birding as COVID seemed to be ebbing

After nearly 18 months with no real travel, the Summer of 2021 seemed at the time to be something of a return to normal  The first waves of COVID appeared to be subsiding, most people I knew had been vaccinated, and it felt like perhaps the worst was over.  In the birding world there were signs of life; people we starting to travel again and certain birding destinations were 'opening up' for business and restrictions of travel were generally easing.  In that context I decided to take a trip to Colombia, a country that some of my friends had successfully visited earlier in the Summer and so planned a two week private trip with the great Daniel Uribe focussed mainly on some target birds I needed in the Northern Andes and the Magdalena Valley.

Tuesday, August 24 - Arrival in Bogota

Traffic in Bogota is legendarily bad.  Tonight it was worse.  I'd arrived at the airport after a hassle-free flight from New York, met up with Daniel and we'd hopped in a cab for what should have been a relatively quick ride to our hotel.  The traffic just wasn't cooperating though, and so when we came to a complete stop a quarter of a mile from our destination, we decided that we'd get out and walk to the hotel.  A few minutes later we arrived but had to detour around police tape and parked police cars that were blocking our way.  On the street in front of the hotel entrance was a dead body lying sprawled in a large pool of blood.  It seems that there had been a traffic accident and a motorcyclist had been hit and killed right there in front of the hotel.  No-one seemed in any rush to move the body, no ambulance was on the scene, and no-one had covered the body in any way, so to access the hotel we had to step gingerly around the blood and scuttle up the steps.  Welcome to Bogota.

Wednesday, August 25 - Laguna de Pedro Palo / Parque Natural Chicaque

Putting thoughts of last night aside, we got up early to avoid traffic and headed out to chase some specific targets close to Bogota.  First stop was Laguna de Pedro Palo where we birded along a dirt track through a mix of fields and woodland edges up to the lake and surrounding forest.  After 18 months with no Neotropical birding, this was my gentle re-entry to unfamiliar birds, so we took it slow and build up a nice list of mixed field and forest edge birds, making the time to see the Spinetails (Slaty, Striped-breasted and Ash-browed) and get back in the swing of the Neotropical birds.  

The target here was a low probability but Daniel had previously had Turquoise Dacnis in the canopy of some trees near the lake.  We thought it unlikely that the bird would be there again but found a nice vantage point where we could look down on the trees from the road, set up the scope, and started to scan.  A half hour later, Daniel did come up with the dacnis, almost exactly where he'd seen it the prior year.  A neat, colorful little bird, a Colombian endemic, and a good one to get on the list.  Not a bad start to the trip.

Contrasts ... Plain Antvireo and Golden-bellied Starfrontlet

Despite our fear of traffic, after lunch we plunged in again and skirted around Bogota to get to PN Chicaque, a small park with a hummingbird feeder and hopefully a life hummingbird for me.  The weather wasn't great when we arrived, the feeders looked somewhat neglected, and so we decided to go into the restaurant for the first of what would become innumerable cups of strong black Colombian coffee consumed on this trip.  Thus fortified we came back out into the cold and resumed our hummingbird vigil, enjoying Tourmaline Sunangels, Sparkling and Lesser Violetears, and Collared Incas before the star bird, the Golden-bellied Starfrontlet swept in to make an appearance.  Found only in Colombia and Venezuela, this bird really does have a golden belly, it looks like it has gilded chain-mail on it's bottom half.  This bird was coming infrequently to the feeders though so after a couple of visits and some decent views we decided that it we'd call it a day and head back to the hotel for a hot meal and some sleep.  No point rushing things, there were plenty of birds ahead of us.

Thursday/Friday, August 26/27 - PNN Chingaza

I'd birded Chingaza before, in fact I'd birded the entrance road, but a quick look at my needs lists showed that there were still a handful of species that justified a repeat visit.  So we spent another day in the first few miles of the park road and enjoyed a huge variety of species.  The vegetation is low here so birds are relatively visible and by slowly working up and down the road all day we got to grips with the various tanagers, conebills, flowerpiercers, hummingbirds, and brushfinches that dominate the habitat.  

Golden-crowned Tanager and Black-headed Hemispingus

Three of the 'tanagers' were life birds ... Golden-crowned Tanager, Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, and Black-headed Hemispingus and, after a fair amount of searching, we managed to get all three.  That left us free to focus on my other target, Bronze-tailed Thornbill, which eventually surrendered on day 2, and to focus on some specific locations for Ochre-breasted Brushfinch and the rare Brown-breasted Parakeet.  Basically, everything fell into place over the course of the two days; a tribute to Daniel's knowledge and persistence, and we were able to move on, on schedule, for the next target birds.

Habitat shot ... lots of Thornbills here ... probably

Saturday, August 28 - Laguna de Fuquene / Reserva Rogitama

The next day's target was one I was really looking forward to.  Apolinar's Wren is another localized Colombian endemic that lives in reed beds surrounding Andean lakes and while it looks a bit like a sedge wren it has all the cachet if a localized endemic and so was high on the list of birds I wanted to see.  We had a date with them at Laguna de Fuquene and the plan was to scan the reeds from a convenient hotel parking lot, grabbing the bird then moving on quickly.  The problem of course was that the birds had other plans, and so it seems did the local residents ... there simply were no accessible reed beds that we could view from the shore of the lake as they'd all been cut down.  Never daunted though, Daniel negotiated with some local boatmen and in no time at all we were off across the lake in a small fishing boat, heading for intact reed beds and wrens.

Apolinar's Wren (autofocus hates reed beds)

With the wrens seen well and photographed poorly it was back on the road for an early arrival at the charming private Reserva Rogitama where the owner and his family welcomed us, fed us, and got me three life birds in the garden of the house.  Black Inca came to the feeders on the terrace, Short-tailed Emerald came to the flower gardens but we had to walk literally yards down the driveway for Moustached Brushfinch.  In addition we got some good local intel for the next day, so a quick change of plans, and drifted off the sleep with dreams of grackles.

Black Inca and Moustached Brushfinch

Sunday, August 29 - Paramo la Rusia 

While we were at Rogitama we got some really useful information that prompted a bit of a change of plan.  Mountain Grackle is a difficult bird, a nomad that wanders through the high altitude oak forests looking for seasonally available food.  Every now and then though they stop to breed and the locals had a lead on a group that was breeding and thus potentially a lot easier for us to see.  So next morning we climbed up to the oak forests and made our way to an area of mixed woodland and farms where we connected with researchers who confirmed that the birds were still in the area.

Now all we had to do was find the birds and it took an hour or so of patient wandering through the oaks before we started to hear them and were able to work down the valley to get a look at the group.   Grackles in the US are not exactly star birds (I have a hate-hate relationship with the hordes of Common Grackles that pillage my feeders) and these, apart from a small chestnut patch on the wings, were pretty much generic grackles.  Their rarity made them special though, and their unusual habitat.  So definitely a bird we were happy to see.

With the grackles in the bag and no other plans for the day we decided to keep climbing higher and look for Green-bearded Helmetcrest, a high altitude hummingbird I still needed for my list.  Here too the habitat was the star, with weird and very alien looking vegetation dominating the high altitude paramo it really did feel like another world.  Eventually, after a lot of scanning, we found a helmetcrest and got some decent scope views.  Then time to work our way back and retreat to more civilized altitudes.  Certainly a memorable day in the Andes though.

Monday, August 30 - Soata

We'd arrived in Soata the night before, climbed the steep narrow stairs to the hotel (hotels are often above store fronts in small towns, visible only as a sign and a gate at street level) and had a decent meal at a local pizza restaurant.  Soata is not exactly a garden spot but being here gave us the whole day to track down three local specialty birds, Nicifero's Wren, Apical Flycatcher and Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird.  

As it turned out though, we really didn't need a whole day and managed all three within an hour or so along a road through local farm country.  The wren was easily called to tape from a scrubby ravine full of thorn bushes while the flycatcher and the hummingbird were both readily found in roadside trees.

Nicifero's Wren

Suddenly we found ourselves basically a day ahead of schedule and, rather than flog some low probability options nearby, decided to adjust the schedule to squeeze in a side-trip to Tolima and made calls to shuffle our hotels for the next few nights.  We ended the day in San Francisco de Sales and, after stopping by the Jardin Encantado to pick up Indigo-capped Hummingbird for the list, took a quiet night to take stock of the new plan.

Indigo-capped Hummingbird

Tuesday, August 31 - Laguna El Tabacal

We spent the morning in the forests around Laguna El Tabacal and, while we racked up a nice selection of species, bombed on our target birds.  After everything thus far performing so well, it was actually a bit of a let down to not get targets where and when we expected them to be, a indication perhaps of how spoiled we'd been so far.  The afternoon was quiet also, adding a few more species, but nothing too memorable, and making our way onwards to fresh forests for the next day.

Wednesday, September 1 - RN Bellavista

After the slow day on Tuesday, Wednesday looked very promising.   We had a list of target birds possible at the park and came in with a very optimistic sense that we were going to see good things.  The day stated well with several singing Magdalena Antbirds and then we got really lucky with the Colombia endemic White-mantled Barbet, all from the entrance road to the park.  The forest trails themselves yielded White-bibbed Manakin and Sooty Ant-Tanager along with a family group of White-footed Tamarins, one of the very few mammals we saw on the trip.  Then we spent some time at the edge of the park and added Beautiful Woodpecker for a fifth life bird.  Not a bad day at all.

Sooty Ant-Tanager

So, really at this point the Andes part of the trip was officially over and from here were were originally planning to drop into the Magdalena Valley to look for some very special birds I had long wanted to see.  With spare time in the schedule though we had the opportunity to make a side-trip and so from here planned to jig over into Tolima Province to look for three special endemics before heading down to the valley.  The trip thus far had been very much a run of specific, often endemic, target birds and we'd seen almost all of them fairly easily, a real tribute to Daniel and his local knowledge.  We still had a lot of energy for a few more though so we excited for what was ahead.

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