Thursday, 18 February 2016

A Tarantula in my Suitcase Part 2 January 2016


Day 5

I am getting into a routine now of waking before dawn, getting dressed half asleep and finding my way in the dark to wherever the vehicle is. Everything I need is laid out the night before so I do not need to tax my befuddled brain in the morning. After the now customary pre-dawn coffee to fire us up we checked out of the Hotel Minca and drove a little way up an unmade road to look for a really hard to find endemic  bird called  a Rosy thrush Tanager. Many groups fail to even hear it let alone see it. We walked up a hilly track where it had been recorded before but standing under a bamboo clump as high as a three storey building we failed both to hear and see it. One just has to be philosophical about such things as with such an ambitious itinerary as ours, aiming to see as many endemic species as possible, we were bound to come up short overall. This was just one of those occurrences and annoying as it was we had to move on both mentally and physically.

I noticed I was losing weight which was unsurprising considering the almost daily rigorous schedule of walking up steep hillside tracks in high heat and humidity that I was subjecting my body to. The heat also took away my appetite so I ate little during the day. Sometimes I was so tired it was difficult to recall all that happened and I must confess my diary is a little vague about today so I am having to revert to memory which in itself is not always reliable. I can recall walking for a long time up a track and eventually we came to a little homestead with the usual assortment of dogs and chickens wandering around. Dogs in Colombia appear to be well cared for. We only occasionally saw the more expected half starved homeless mutt that seems so prevalent in other similar parts of the world and most dogs we met in Colombia seemed to have an owner.

The highlight I remember from this morning was finding our first antpitta. These most secretive of birds are hard work, skulking as they do on the ground or just above it in deep forest undergrowth. It is often impossible to find and see them even by tape luring, as the vegetation can be so thick they are impossible to see even when virtually standing next to you. Well, maybe I exaggerate slightly but you surely get my drift?

Anyway after a few unsuccessful attempts at luring out an antpitta we heard a Rusty breasted Antpitta calling from a steep slope of impenetrable trees and assorted tropical foliage. We  played a tape of its call and it came closer and closer still. We stood on the track and it was obvious if we were to have any chance of seeing it we would have to 'go in'. This required jumping a ditch and clambering up a grass bank before insinuating ourselves into the minefield of tangled branches, twigs and vines confronting us and forcing a passage into the tangle of vegetation. No easy task in searing heat, standing insecurely on a steeply angled slope with virtually no toe hold yet at the same time trying to remain quiet and not crack any twigs or rustle leaves .

Roger our guide and myself, once in position just inside the tangle stood and waited but little if anything happened. It was not looking good. We could see about two metres around us, possibly less as the vegetation was so thick. After some minutes we knew the antpitta was somewhere very near by from the close proximity of its calls which were  coming from above us but Paul and Chris lost patience and decided they needed to go further into the tangle. They made such a noise forcing their way upwards and inwards that I thought there was no way any antpitta would hang around but I was wrong. I remained with Roger in our original position as I really did not have the energy or will to follow the other two and my natural instinct is to stand quietly and wait and not try to force the issue. A few minutes passed with no sound of the antpitta then Roger quietly whispered 'It's here, right in front of us'. I looked but could not see it and Roger said, 'No, you are looking too far it's there, only two feet in front of us!' I looked down and so it was. This most sought after of Neotropical bird families had brought us a feathered pot of gold as it  perched a few inches above the ground on those incredibly long, needle thin legs that antpittas have for running around at ground level and with a dumpy, characteristically tailless body it looked at us with a bright dark eye. Like all antpittas it was a harmony of various shades of brown and yes, it did have a rusty breast. We had found an antpitta the hard way, by which I mean it was not being artificially fed to persuade it to turn up on cue. It was a wild bird that we had found quite naturally. I mock whispered to Paul and Chris that we were watching the antpitta and to get back down to join us and they came quickly, nor I should say too quietly in their haste and the antpitta thankfully did not take alarm but only moved a few metres away and still remained viewable for the other two. So everyone was happy.

After this excitement we walked on and came to another little homestead with a small shop attached where we purchased some drinks and snacks and sat for a while in the shade. There was a small shrine to Mary of  Magdalen in the garden. Similar shrines  appeared all over the parts of Colombia we visited and could be in the gardens of houses and shops, in cities or just stuck out in seemingly random rural areas miles from any habitation. They invariably contained the figure of Mary of Magdalen.

An extensive flowering bank opposite was attracting butterflies and hummingbirds and of the latter, one very good one in the form of the endemic Santa Marta Blossomcrown, so named because of its orange and pink coloured crown feathers.

Santa Marta Blossomcrown
In the late morning we drove to our next destination where we would spend three nights. El Dorado is a ProAves Lodge, built onto the hillside at around 2000m elevation and with spectacular views across the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. It is also a mecca for serious lone birders, world listers and birding groups alike as the Santa Marta Mountains hold so many endemic species. Whilst we were there a Swedish world lister with over 9000 species of bird on his list and with perhaps more money than sense, arrived with his wife and specially hired guide to see just the one species he needed from this area. We checked in to El Dorado and were given some papya juice to quench our thirst and then a three course buffet lunch of excellent quality. Fruit was always available and the kitchen staff would even peel and cut up a mango or whatever fruit took your fancy from the table and put it on a plate for you to eat at any time of the day. A nice touch. 

In fact all the ProAves Lodges we stayed at were excellent, with helpful staff and clean rooms of a good standard and cooking to match, although El Dorado was easily the best of them. For a Lodge, El Dorado was quite sophisticated, better than some hotels I have stayed in and the young couple who had just taken over administering it could not have been more helpful or friendly. Free tea, coffee and  sterilised water was also  available at any time as it was at most ProAves Lodges. 
So well done ProAves. 

El Dorado Lodge from both above and below
There were also hummingbird feeders on the terrace  just below the Lodge where you could virtually walk up to the hummingbirds and touch them as they were so familiar with close human presence. Hummingbirds new to us here  were Sooty capped Hermit, Brown Violetear, the endemic Black backed Thornbill and White tailed Starfrontlet, as well as Red billed Emerald and Crowned Woodnymph.  The bird table, liberally stocked with bananas was attracting Black capped and Bay headed Tanagers plus a constant stream of Blue naped Chlorophonia's and in the evening was visited by Band tailed Guans. 

Black capped Tanager-male

Blue naped Chlorophonia and female Black capped Tanager
Bay headed Tanager

Blue naped Chlorophonia

Band tailed Guan
The waste vegetables, fruit, eggshells and any other organic matter were put to good use, sited  in a midden below the terrace to attract Sickle winged Guans and even a Black Aguti (like a very large Guinea Pig but with longer legs) visited it on occasions. 

Sickle-winged Guan
A veritable  birding paradise was on our doorstep. Just to one side of the Lodge and slightly hidden away was a feeding station where we were told Black fronted Wood Quail would come but there was no sign of them today although we did hear them..

Green Violetear
Brown Violetear
Black backed Thornbill

Crowned Woodnymph

White tailed Starfrontlet
In the early afternoon we just messed around photographing the hummingbirds coming and going  at the feeders and then walked down a trail to view a Santa Marta Screech Owl roosting high in a tree. Then later, after the heat of the day was dying away we made a short drive down the inevitable rutted and bumpy track to a well kept area of cultivated flower and plant gardens located on a steep hillside.

The Gardens
It was a riot of colour and here was a very special bird indeed, the endemic Santa Marta Woodstar, a delicate little hummingbird. In fact there was only one, a female and eventually we found it perched as 'hummers' often do right at the very tip of a twig where it could survey all below and around it. 

The garden itself was a work of art, lovingly tended by one man and we spent a happy couple of hours here birding but saw nothing else unusual apart from a Sooty capped Hermit.

Santa Marta Woodstar 
Then it was back to the Lodge, where the entire family helped us take our bags to our rooms which were a very long way from the Lodge and required crossing a shaky but firmly suspended bridge made of ropes and planks strung over a deep gorge but when we got to our rooms the hike was well worth it. 

The Bridge
The room I shared with Chris was in the form of a circular building with half of it comprising just windows from floor to ceiling, looking down, out and across, about two thousand metres above Santa Marta, visible away in the distance below. We could clearly see the contour of the land where we had birded the mangroves yesterday and the narrow strip of land that the road had followed to Salamanca Island but the rest of the view was just of Cloud Forest and the Santa Marta Mountains. 

The view at dusk from our room with the narrow strip of land  we crossed
yesterday  and Santa Marta visible in the mid distance surrounded by the
Caribbean Sea
It was such a pleasant surprise to have so spectacular a view from our room. We left our cases, freshened up and returned to the Lodge for dinner where we found the Canadian birding group had arrived and then after dinner with our checklists completed and torches in hand we headed back to our rooms in the darkness of a tropical night, serenaded by countless cicadas, frogs and other invertebrates of the night as fireflies winked mysteriously in the trees. It was quite an experience bouncing our way over the bridge in the dark and walking up the dark tracks listening for owls. When we got to our room we looked out and there far away and  below was Santa Marta, now just a faint constellation of orange lights in an overwhelming darkness. The rest of the sky was pin pricked with a myriad of  eternal stars watching over the world.

Birds seen on Day Six

(h) heard only

Band tailed Guan; Sickle winged Guan; Black fronted Wood Quail (h); Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Broad winged Hawk (h); Scaled Pigeon; White tipped Dove; Santa Marta Screech Owl; Sooty capped Hermit; Brown Violetear; Green Violetear; Santa Marta Blossomcrown; Black backed Thornbill; White tailed Starfrontlet; Santa Marta Woodstar; Red billed Emerald; White vented Plumeleteer; Crowned Woodnymph; Steely vented Hummingbird; Masked Trogon (h); Keel billed Toucan; Golden olive Woodpecker; Crimson crested Woodpecker; Red billed Parrot; Blue headed Parrot; Scarlet fronted Parakeet; Santa Marta Antbird; Rusty breasted Antpitta; Santa Marta Tapaculo; Cocoa Woodcreeper; Montane Woodcreeper; Santa Marta Foliage Gleaner; Pale eyed Pygmy Tyrant (h); Cinnamon Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee; Golden breasted Fruiteater; Black chested Jay; Bang's Wood Wren; Slaty backed Nightingale Thrush; Yellow legged Thrush; Pale breasted Thrush; Tennessee Warbler; American Redstart; Blackburnian Warbler; White lored Warbler; Rufous capped Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Crimson backed Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; Swallow Tanager; White sided Flowerpiercer; Plain colored Seedeater; Buff throated Saltator; Golden winged Sparrow; Sierra Nevada Brush Finch; Santa Marta Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Summer Tanager; Yellow Oriole; Crested Orependola; Thick billed Euphonia;

Mammals seen

Black Aguti
Andean Squirrel

Day 7

This morning we had to get up at 3.30am our earliest start yet. It was a  struggle, a real struggle but motivated by the others and the fact that we were getting up early to really set about seeing a good number of the endemic species of the Santa Marta Mountains, was enough to keep me going. We had to drive for an hour, possibly more, over a road come track from hell to get to a spot high on the Santa Marta Mountains before dawn to await the arrival of the endemic Santa Marta Parakeet which flies in to a particular tree just after dawn.

First we had to stumble our way to the Lodge in the pitch black of night and get loaded up in the vehicle. The Canadian group were also coming in three other vehicles and Paul was getting very anxious that we should be the first away and chivvied us to hurry up.  I remained calm and we were the first vehicle away and then ensued a car journey like no other. At first the unmade road was just the usual rutted track but very soon it became increasingly uneven to the extent that the track consisted of just enormous great potholes, huge rutted tracks scored into the ground and cambers that tilted the vehicle alarmingly to one side or the other. Our speed was down to about 2mph as the 4x4 struggled to cope with the obstacles. What this track come road must be like after rain does not bear thinking about, probably impassable but today the ground was rock solid on account of the drought currently affecting Colombia, so I suppose we should have been thankful for that. No one spoke as we were thrown around in the vehicle and I hung on to the door handle to keep myself at least upright in my seat. Sudden unexpected lurches would crack my head against the door window as we drove through the pitch dark heading upwards into the mountains. Even the 4x4 was struggling and on one occasion I thought we would not make it but, in a procession of four vehicles, we made our painfully slow progress onwards and upwards. The headlights gave a glimpse of the horrors  that we had to drive over or around and I was always conscious of the huge drop off to our left side. Four Crab eating Foxes ran across through our headlight beams and then were gone like grey ghosts. Our stop start progress seemed to go on forever but was maybe two hours at the most, I cannot really tell or remember. Tired, dishevelled and wondering at my sanity in embarking on this I clung on in the knowledge that all nightmares come to an end eventually.

The track became even narrower and then finally we stopped as the vehicles could go no further and we all disembarked.

The end of 'the road'
The track continued gently upwards as a narrow path certainly not wide enough for a vehicle. We were now at an elevation of around 3000m. Then the noise levels rose as the Canadians having left their vehicles started chatting loudly amongst themselves as our guides and drivers got out the coffee and snacks. The noise to our mind was not good as it is bad birding etiquette. We needed to be quiet and await the parakeets. The dawn rose above the mountains and we distanced ourselves slightly from our noisy companions.

Dawn rising over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains
The Santa Marta Parakeets landed in the Palm Tree on the left
The light improved rapidly and then the Santa Marta Parakeets arrived, as always calling excitedly and landed in the tree and we had our first endemic species of the morning. They did not stop long and soon flew further up the mountainside but now the nightmare drive was forgotten having seen our first really good endemic species of the day.

Looking back down the way we had driven in the dark
Despite our concerns about the Canadians the advantage of having so many birders in one place came to the fore when they found the next endemic and were kind enough to put us onto it. This  was one we really wanted to see, a Santa Marta Bush Tyrant.

Santa Marta Bush Tyrant
We thought this bird would be really hard to find but not a bit of it as it sat boldly at the top of a dead branch on the ridge and the soft light of the early morning sun illuminated its buff plumage. We watched it for ten minutes or so. Very nice, so what is next, we asked ourselves? We walked up the track whilst the Canadians by mutual consent went the other way with all of us promising to alert each other if anything good should come our respective ways. Our next endemic was a pair of Santa Marta Warblers which led me a merry dance trying to follow them as they flitted through the dense foliage but I saw them well in the end.

There was a flurry of calls from above us and a group of tanagers pitched in a bare tree but these were not just any tanagers, these were endemic Santa Marta Mountain Tanagers. They were, as is usual for tanagers, highly active and excitable and after a couple of minutes were gone. Mountain Tanagers are big, about small thrush size and with few exceptions the most colourful of the tanagers and are always good to see. A very satisfying bird indeed. I was feeling good!

Santa Marta Mountain Tanager

We moved up the track to a known spot for a Santa Marta  Antpitta and tried the tape but got absolutely no response. We tried and tried but nothing responded. This was really disappointing so with the tapes we tried to persuade a Brown rumped Tapaculo to show itself which it did briefly but adequately. We gave up on the antpitta and carried on up the track finding various woodcreepers and parrots, a Yellow crowned Whitestart, another endemic was a good bird to find and more excitement came in the form of a female White tipped Quetzal which just sat and looked at us, occasionally moving to another perch as it pursued its typically slow and methodical search for food. By now the Canadians had returned and we repaid their kindness of earlier this morning by directing them to the quetzal. As we carried on back down the track to the vehicle a noisy group of parakeets landed in a bare tree. It was a group of Santa Marta Parakeets and this time with the light so much better we could really see some plumage detail and watched them with some of our Canadian friends until they eventually moved out of sight.

Santa Marta Parakeets

White tipped Quetzal
Streak- headed Woodcreeper

We had some breakfast at the vehicle and then walked the track downwards still with the Santa Marta Antpitta on our minds. First however, we made a short diversion off the track and found a male Paramo Seedeater and then on regaining the track we found a Streak throated Bush Tyrant, the close relative of the Santa Marta Bush Tyrant, enabling us to compare their differences but then it was back to antpitta action.

We walked on and played the tape and indeed got a response but it was way too distant. We were confined on a ridge and there was no way we could leave the track safely as we would plunge several hundred feet downwards to oblivion. We heard Chestnut crowned and Rufous Antpittas calling in the distance.  Antpitta calls consist of whistles and notes of varying tones and purity that travel considerable distances and are always an evocation of their secret, gloomy habitat on the forest floor. Eventually we found another Santa Marta Antpitta calling relatively close to us and at a place where we could see down into the vegetation further than a few metres. We played the tape and it responded by coming closer. Frustratingly it ended up clearly right below us but impossible to see in the dense foliage. So near and yet so far and there was nothing we could do to change the situation. So, so frustrating! This was our last chance but we had done pretty well with the endemics of the Santa Marta Mountains.

It was then the ride of death back to the Lodge. Another hour plus of jolting and jarring in an unforgiving vehicle but finally we made it and I  collapsed into the Lodge and revived myself with some tea and awaited lunch. The very early start and subsequent exertions had tired me more than usual so I took it easy, sitting in a chair on the terrace right next to the hummingbird feeders and watching the constant comings and goings, fights and pursuits of the feathered jewels. Despite assurances that the woodquails would show up there was still no sign of them and Paul was becoming decidedly twitchy as he had never seen this species.

Our plan was to take it easy and then later in the afternoon return to the garden we had visited yesterday, further down the mountainside, to try and see another good hummingbird the Canadians had told us they had seen there, a Coppery Emerald. They also told us that the gardener had told them that he had seen some Black fronted Wood Quails there the night before.

So it was back to the garden, enduring not quite such a severe bone shaking drive as this morning. We did the same as before, separating and just wandering around. I found three or four Yellow billed Toucanets, a somewhat contentious split from Groove billed Toucanet, feeding on fruits high in a huge tree and alerted the others.

Yellow billed Toucanet
There seems to be a tremendous variation in the bill colours of these birds and this was apparent in the four birds here as we watched them. All a bit confusing if you ask me. We then dispersed again with the others going off looking for the Black fronted Wood Quail. I found another endemic Santa Marta Brush Finch skulking in the flowering bushes and the Sooty capped Hermit put in another appearance but there was no sign of the Coppery Emerald.

Santa Marta Brush Finch
I stationed myself by the bird table, sitting on a low wall. The female Santa Marta Woodstar perched nearby for five minutes in the late afternoon sunshine and a Cinnamon Flycatcher fed its two young in a crevice in a tree trunk. The others meanwhile had heard a wood quail so I joined them but despite trying until almost dusk we failed to see any.

Cinnamon Flycatcher
Then it was more bone jarring in the 4x4 before we arrived back at the Lodge for dinner. The Canadians came up to us and told us they had been watching the Black fronted Wood Quail going to roost just yards up the track from the Lodge. We put dinner on hold and all of us, including both guides headed back out to try and locate the roosting quail. It was now pitch black but we all had torches  and when we got to the spot indicated by our Canadian friends we illuminated the trees above us and down the slope before us. Nothing was evident. Certainly no roosting quail. Paul and Roger our guide went under the fence and deeper into the trees and vegetation trying to locate the quail. The quail had obviously moved since the Canadians watched them but I confess I was a little unhappy about  people with lights crashing around in the trees trying to locate the quail. The birds were roosting and surely this kind of disturbance was not beneficial to their welfare?

So it was a failure that ended the day and we returned somewhat chastened to have our dinner and chat with the Canadians. Tomorrow we could have a bit of a lie in until 6am as we were going to remain around the Lodge until we left for the Hotel Minca for lunch and then move on to Santa Marta Airport. After dinner and completing the checklist Chris and myself headed back to our room. Walking up the track through the wood an Owl flew past us illuminated by our torchlights. We both agreed it was a Mottled Owl and added another species to the trip list.

Birds seen on Day Seven   

(h) heard only

Band tailed Guan; Sickle winged Guan; Black fronted Wood Quail; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; White tipped Dove; Santa Marta Screech Owl (h); Mottled Owl ; White collard Swift; Sooty capped Hermit; Brown Violetear; Green Violetear; Santa Marta Blossomcrown; Black backed Thornbill; Tyrian Metaltail; White tailed Starfrontlet; Santa Marta Woodstar; White vented Plumeleteer; Crowned  Woodnymph; Steely vented Hummingbird; White tipped Quetzal; Yellow billed Toucanet; Groove billed Toucanet; Red billed Parrot; Blue headed Parrot; Santa Marta Parakeet; Scarlet fronted Parakeet; Chestnut crowned Antpitta (h); Rufous Antpitta (h); Brown rumped Tapaculo; Andean Leaftosser(h); Strong billed Woodcreeper; Streak headed Woodcreeper; Montane Woodcreeper; Santa Marta Foliage Gleaner;  Streak capped Spinetail; Rusty headed Spinetail (h); White throated Tyrannulet; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Streak throated Bush Tyrant; Santa Marta Bush Tyrant; Yellow bellied Chat Tyrant; Great Kiskadee; Golden crowned Flycatcher; Golden breasted Fruiteater(h); Black chested Jay(h); Santa Marta Wood Wren; Slaty backed Nightingale Thrush; Yellow legged Thrush; Pale breasted Thrush; Great Thrush; Tennessee Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler;  Santa Marta Warbler; Rufous capped Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Yellow crowned Whitestart; Santa Marta Mountain Tanager; Black capped Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; White sided Flowerpiercer; Rusty Flowerpiercer; Paramo Seedeater; Santa Marta Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Russet backed Orependola

Mammals seen

Crab eating Fox
Black Aguti

Day 8

This morning we hung around the Lodge hoping for a sighting of the elusive Black fronted Wood Quail but to no avail. We walked up the track to where the quail had been seen to go to roost last night but there seemed to be no sign. Chris looking down the steep bank below us suddenly announced he could see one but no sooner had he done so than it disappeared into a tangle of branches and twigs on the ground and was not seen again. I carried on looking for about twenty minutes at the same spot and then I too caught a fleeting glimpse of one but it too did a disappearing trick and was gone. We waited but there was no more sign and in the end we gave up and returned to the terrace outside the Lodge. Time was passing quickly now and we would soon have to go back to Hotel Minca for lunch and  from there we would leave Roger and be driven to Santa Marta airport for our onward journey via Bogota to a place called Pereira.

Paul was getting very frustrated about the quails but just as all was being given up for lost Roger came and beckoned us urgently. The Black fronted Wood Quail had at the very last moment decided to visit the feeder by the Lodge.

Black fronted Wood Quail
Normally very shy these were not a bit intimidated by our presence and allowed us to approach closely presumably because they were used to people being nearby every day. Probably these were the individuals Chris and I had seen a little earlier. There were at least four initially but two were driven off by another so we were left with two but that was more than enough and Paul was very happy as indeed were Chris and myself. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat at the very last moment is always nice to savour.

Now we had to go, fast, well not so fast as we had to negotiate the rutted track first but once on the tarmac we made good speed and arrived at the Hotel Minca in time for lunch and a cooling drink. 

We settled into our chairs but then I noticed what I thought was a butterfly fluttering against the window pane. I went over to catch and release it through the open doorway but found it was instead a hummingbird. I caught it up in my hand and was amazed at how tiny its feet and legs were. I released it on the balcony by the feeders and it flew off like a bullet, obviously unharmed. After a quick lunch we bade farewell to Roger and headed off for Santa Marta airport located right by the Caribbean. 

Once we were checked in we went through the minimal security and took our places in the almost empty departure lounge to await our flight in two hours time.Slowly the lounge filled up with other travellers, the vast majority Colombians. There was no air conditioning but just a huge fan blowing air around. It was hot but it was not unpleasant. I sat and looked around. A football match, the game being just as much an obsession here as anywhere else, was being relayed on a large screen. I thought about the UK where football matches were also being played today and reflected that here I was  on a Saturday afternoon, sitting in a tiny airport  literally by the side of the Caribbean surrounded by Colombians with all their colour and vibrancy and with the sun shining down outside, whilst thousands of miles away in an undoubtedly  drab, cold and grey UK a very different Saturday was being experienced by my fellow countrymen. I  realised I had been in Colombia a week now.

Our flight was delayed and with a connection to make in Bogota to fly onwards to Pereira we were none too certain about when we would get to our destination. I went to check at the desk where a couple of Avianca ground staff were doing their best to placate worried passengers. In the end I was given three revised tickets for the three of us and told not to worry, our checked bags would go all the way through to Periera and we would just get a later flight that evening. It worked out as they said and after a brief stop at Bogota airport, where we managed to get something to eat, we made a second short flight to Pereira, our bags turned up as promised and we were met by Juan who was going to be our driver for the next few days. He quickly loaded our cases on the roof and our backpacks went into the rear of his huge Mitsubishi 4x4. The dash board was a wealth of high tech Satnav's and other gizmo's and we left the airport and went into the heart of Pereira. It was Saturday night and the town was buzzing, the usual chaotic traffic with couples whizzing around and between the cars on motorbikes or people just standing outside cafes and bars drinking and eating in the warm night. Salsa music blared out from bars, homes and cafes alike. In all our travels around Colombia we never heard any western music of any kind, it was always Salsa and you know, it was kind of refreshing with its infectious rhythms seeming to reflect the very pulse of the country. 

We now had another one hour drive to the Otun Quimbaya Reserve, located on the western slope of the central Andes, covering 1208 acres and ranging between 1600-2225m. The reserve was set up to protect the Cauca Guan, thought in 1990 to be extinct but now relatively easy to see in the reserve. This was, apart from Ibague, as far south as we would go in Colombia. We would spend one night at Otun and then we would drive north again. Before heading for the reserve  we had to collect our next guide, Hernan who was waiting for us somewhere in Pereira. We duly made a rendezvous with him at either a bus stop or layby, I never was quite sure which, on the outskirts of the town. Juan checked everything was secured on the roof, we made our introductions with Hernan and then we took off into the night. Juan is a professional driver and knew what he was doing and we always felt safe with him. He did not hang about and drove rapidly through the back streets of Pereira and then we left the street lights behind and joined the darkness of the Colombian night and an empty road to the reserve.

We arrived late at night but there was someone to meet us with keys to our rooms and I collapsed into bed after yet another very full day.

Birds seen on Day Eight

(h) heard only

Band tailed Guan; Sickle winged Guan; Black fronted Wood Quail; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; White tipped Dove; Santa Marta Screech Owl (h); Black and White Owl (h); White necked Jacobin; Sooty capped Hermit; Wedge billed Hummingbird; Brown Violetear; Green Violetear; Santa Marta Blossomcrown; Tyrian Metaltail; Viridian Metaltail; White tailed Starfrontlet; White vented Plumeleteer; Crowned Woodnymph; Steely vented Hummingbird; Masked Trogon; Whooping Motmot; Crimson crested Woodpecker; Scarlet fronted Parakeet; Chestnut crowned Antpitta (h); Rufous Antpitta (h); Brown rumped Tapaculo;  Gray throated Leaftosser; Streak capped Spinetail; Rusty headed Spinetail; Streak necked Flycatcher; Black throated Tody Tyrant; Golden breasted Fruiteater(h); Black chested Jay(h); Santa Marta Wood Wren(h); Slaty backed Nightingale Thrush; Tennessee Warbler; Crimson backed Tanager; Black capped Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; White sided Flowerpiercer; Santa Marta Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Russet backed Orependola; Blue naped Chlorophonia

Day 9

Another 5.30am start heralded our only day at Otun Quimbaya. This time we had a proper breakfast in the Lodge although at this time in the morning I found I had little appetite for much food but did manage some scrambled eggs. Normally I do not drink coffee but have found I am becoming more and more appreciative of the strong Colombian coffee that is always available.

Otun Quimbaya Lodge
We left the Lodge and turning right drove a few kilometres further up the road to a dead end which signalled the start of the Ucamari Nature Park. Hernan told us we needed to be here early as this is a favoured spot for tourists and locals who come here from the town. There was a run down café (closed) and an ablution block and from here you can walk and bike various trails through the forest There were some young people camping and just getting up as we arrived.

Leaving Juan with the vehicle we walked a little way back down the road we had just driven up and beat our way through the vegetation into the forest and opted for the 'tapaculo experience' and by some miracle managed to entice a Stile's Tapaculo, our only one of the trip to show itself for a few brief moments deep in the luxuriant foliage. The day was already beginning to become very warm an hour after dawn.

The road and forest we birded

We then returned to the road and walked back to the vehicle and took a track that led through the forest with a white water river running close by. It was all very scenic and due to being here early we currently had the place to ourselves. We had two main targets here; Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and the Cauca Guan. In no time at all we saw a pair of fruitcrows, a pleasing combination of shiny blue black upperparts, crimson breast and dull orange underparts. Very smart. We followed Hernan along the trail identifying various birds as we went. I kept checking the river for Torrent Ducks but with no success.

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow
Along the trail we found several new species for the trip that we were not to see again. Common and Ashy throated Chlorospingus were two and examining the various multi species flocks that passed through the trees above us Paul found a much desired Multicolored Tanager but unfortunately it was an immature, so not quite displaying all its multi colours but nevertheless we were all happy to have at least seen one. A Rufous breasted Flycatcher posed nicely in the sun and we did well with North American migrants finding a smart male Canada Warbler, Black and White and Blackburnian Warblers amongst the fast moving roving feeding flocks. A Neotropical Pygmy Squirrel, a very long name for such a small creature, ran nervously through the trees before us.

Rufous breasted Flycatcher
Neotropical Pygmy Squirrel
A pair of White capped Dippers were on the river as we walked back and a pair of Green Jays showed themselves really well in the riverside trees.

Green Jay
A man on a horse with a child clinging on to his back passed us on the trail and we encountered the first hikers walking the trail up into the mountains. The rest of the world was waking up.

As we got back to the vehicle we found there were cars, mountain bikers and a lot more activity around the now open café. Juan spread out some snacks and drinks on the vehicle's bonnet for us to revive ourselves.

It was maybe time to go but not before we saw a pair of Lesser Goldfinches perched on some wires. The day was now hot, very hot and I was drinking a lot of water and sweating profusely.

We returned to the Lodge and I sat in the shade as we learnt from Hernan that we were required to attend a ten minute talk about the reserve and that this would take place at 2pm but until then we could have lunch and then our time was our own. I spoke to another lady birder who told me she had seen Cauca Guans in the reserve over the road. For some unaccountable reason we were told by a man who took his job very seriously that we were not allowed in there but I never quite understood why we could not go in.

No matter, for at that moment there was a strident and unmusical yelp and two large birds blundered through the boughs of the huge trees by the road. They were Cauca Guans so we had seen both our target birds by lunchtime.

Cauca Guans
After lunch I wandered around the grounds birding on my own and of course Cauca Guans were now everywhere. I found one perched low in a tree and unafraid of me so I took its picture.I wandered further and found another Red-ruffed Fruitcrow.

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow showing how it got its name
Then I followed a trail and encountered various hummingbirds feeding naturally on flowering bushes. One of these had a very long bill, not outrageously long enough to  be a Sword billed Hummingbird but long enough to be a Green fronted Lancebill. I felt very pleased with myself but was now feeling the heat again so retreated back to the Lodge and some shade, finding on my way a Black billed Thrush and a Pale edged Flycatcher in the same tree.  

Pale edged Flycatcher
Black billed Thrush
I encountered Chris and told him about the Cauca Guan and directed him to where it was. Chris not having seen one yet headed off quickly and was successful as the guan had not moved from the tree

Cauca Guan
We met for the ten minute presentation and after it was over decided to bird along the road we had driven along in the morning. We encountered yet another group of noisy Cauca Guans and a Red-ruffed Fruitcrow but the highlight for me was not a bird but a mammal. Two volunteer wardens standing by the road attracted my attention and told me there was a sloth high in a Cecropia Tree. They pointed it out and there was the sloth about 70 feet up the tree, fast asleep lying on its back  in the dappled shade, supported by a fork in the branches. It was an image of utter contentment. I watched it for quite some time and it barely moved apart from some hardly perceptible adjustments to its position in the branches. After referring to a book I learnt its full name  was Hoffmann's Two toed Sloth.

Hoffman's Two toed Sloth
Further down the road a Collared Trogon sat quietly on a bough below the canopy of the huge trees towering above us, its head moving around ever so slowly as it looked for prey and a Grey throated Toucanet, looking for fruit much higher in another tree was a new species for the trip

Masked Trogon
We carried on down the road with Juan following in the 4x4 and eventually we drove back to the dead end and the café which was now closing for the day. One of the colourful local Chiva buses was collecting hikers and other visitors. These buses are very cheap and basic with just wooden benches inside to sit  on and a roof rack which will also take  people as well as luggage or anything else you fancy. The buses are used for traversing the incredibly rough rural roads in Colombia and are very robust and invariably painted in bright colours with murals and all kinds of images and patterns adorning the bodywork.

Frankly there was little birdlife to interest us on this late afternoon so it was back to the Lodge for an evening meal and then we tried to find some owls along the road but it was deadly quiet on the road also, so it was back to the Lodge and bed for tomorrow's inevitable early start.

Birds seen on Day Nine

(h) heard only

Cauca Guan; Sickle winged Guan; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Roadside Hawk; Broad winged Hawk; Southern Lapwing; Plumbeous Pigeon; White tipped Dove; White collared Swift; Green Hermit; Sooty capped Hermit; Green fronted Lancebill; Booted racket Tail; White vented Plumeleteer; Rufous tailed Hummingbird;  Masked Trogon; Andean Motmot; Grey throated Toucanet; Golden olive Woodpecker; Speckle faced Parrot; Golden plumed Parakeet; Bar crested Antshrike; Stile's Tapaculo; Strong billed Woodcreeper; Montane Woodcreeper; Azara's Spinetail (h); Torrent Tyrannulet; Rufous breasted Flycatcher; Variegated Bristle Tyrant; Marble faced Bristle Tyrant; Sooty headed Tyrannulet; Plumbeous crowned Tyrannulet; Golden faced Tyrannulet; Bronze olive Pygmy Tyrant; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Acadian Flycatcher(h); Black Phoebe; Pale edged Flycatcher; Red ruffed Fruitcrow; Rufous naped Greenlet; Green Jay; Blue and White Swallow; Gray breasted Wood Wren; Chestnut breasted Wren; White capped Dipper; Andean Solitaire (h); Orange billed Nightingale Thrush (h); Swainson's Thrush; Black billed Thrush; Glossy black Thrush; Black and White Warbler; Tropical Parula; Blackburnian Warbler; Russet crowned Warbler; Three striped Warbler; Canada Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Flame rumped Tanager; Multicolored Tanager; Blue Gray Tanager; Blue necked Tanager; Blue and Black Tanager; Beryl spangled Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; Golden Tanager; Chestnut capped Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Common Chlorospingus; Ashy throated Chlorospingus; Hepatic Tanager; Orange bellied Euphonia; Lesser Goldfinch.

Mammals seen

Hoffmann's Two toed Sloth
Neotropical Pygmy Squirrel

Chiva Bus

to be continued


  1. Excellent! Looking forward to the next instalment!