I awoke with the dawn and one year older. Yes it was my birthday but no one seemed particularly impressed apart from Pablo our guide who was kind enough to offer me congratulations.
We had breakfast and then embarked on the 7km walk back down to El Chuscal with Harnen following on a little later with the horses. We saw no less than three Fenwick's Antpittas on the trail as we followed it out of the reserve plus a bonus in the form of a Long tailed Antbird.
It was then a steady slog back down to El Chuscal through the pasture lands, encountering a Sharp Shinned Hawk on the way and finally making our rendezvous with Norelli and the 4x4. Harnen unloaded the bags and cases from the horse and Norelli put them on the roof rack of the 4x4.
Saying a final and fond farewell to the ever cheerful Harnen we drove off down the dusty road, retracing our route back to Urrao, following the uneven road which only changed to tarmac once we were in the town proper, and crossing the town once again we headed out the other side. Then, following a long and winding route up and down through the Andes mountains we passed through huge areas of coffee plantations, the cultivated hillsides so steep you wondered how anyone could walk upright amongst the bushes to harvest the beans without falling to their death. Insubstantial single storey homes were built precariously along the road, their fronts facing directly onto the road and the rears confronted with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet almost by the back door. The skyline was dominated by mountains of all shapes and sizes, some like a child's drawing, with sharp and pointed summits others squat and conical, extinct volcanoes still managing to exude a sinister and malevolent presence on the hazy distant horizon. After a couple of hours or so we descended into the rising heat and humidity of the Cauca Valley where we were going to make one final attempt to find our bogey bird, the elusive Greyish Piculet. It was lunchtime so we made a stop once again at La Marjoria for something to eat. The heat pressed down, heavy and uncomfortable and I had no real appetite and wished we were back in the mountains where it was cooler. I sat in the shade and moved as little as possible yet my clothes were still welded to me by sweat.
Pablo had a couple of sites in mind that he thought might prove successful in our quest for the Greyish Piculet but we were really pressed for time. It was going to be now or never and had to be quick. The first dry dusty road we drove up yielded nothing. We moved on to the second, another dirt road leading upwards to a place where we stopped by some trees baked by the sun. One large tree stood by the roadside. We looked and there was a Greyish Piculet sat upright on a branch, close enough that we could see its speckled black cap on its otherwise featureless plumage. Thank God! We had done it with literally the last throw of the metaphorical dice. It remained sat on the branch for a few minutes and then flew across the road and was gone from sight.
Time was now tight and we had to get going which was fine by me as the 4x4 had air conditioning and I would be out of the searing heat. We were headed for Medellin and then would embark on a four hour journey to another ProAves Reserve - the Chestnut Piha Reserve. Pablo suggested yet another small diversion to a place called La Romera which is a small reserve in Sabanita which as far as I could see was a suburb of Medellin, in the hope we could find a Yellow headed Manakin. We spent an hour here but the only success was Paul gaining a one second view of one before it was gone and we never saw it or another again.
Now it was time for the long haul to our next destination. Our diversion to La Romera meant we were going to cross Medellin in the rush hour. Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of 2.5 million. Its fearsome reputation as a lawless city controlled by the infamous drug cartel of Pablo Escobar is thankfully now a distant memory. Medellin in the rush hour was needless to say complete chaos as cars, motorbikes, buses and huge trucks all jostled for position on the road, everyone and every vehicle giving no quarter, motorbikes like angry swarms of insects weaving in and out amongst the cars, trucks and buses, the motorbike riders risking their lives as they squeezed through impossibly small gaps between vehicles and veered wildly from one lane to another to gain a perceived advantage. The roads were a raging tide of metal and rubber, the whole lot regularly coming to a grinding halt at intersections, roundabouts and the road toll booths where the fumes from diesel pollution were so bad that the police and other persons directing the chaotic jumble of vehicles all wore masks.
Medellin, at an elevation of 1490m is sprawled north to south across the Aburra Valley, spreading out across it between the all encompassing mountain ranges. The centre is dominated by many high rise buildings whilst the distinctive pinkish red bricks used to build the outlying houses in the suburbs creates a monotone terracotta wash that laps up the lower sides of the mountains on all sides in row upon row of uniformly coloured terraced buildings. Above this, hung like a pall, was a blue grey haze of heat and fumes.
Secure in the 4x4 I thanked my stars that it wasn't me doing the driving and left it to the more than capable Norelli to navigate us through this maelstrom and out of Medellin. Eventually we left the busier roads and settled onto a quieter road running down a valley, unremarkable in itself but not so the river which ran beside the road and was so polluted with detergent that the water was invisible under a mass of white frothy bubbles.Through the open car window you could even smell the detergent. The river was like a giant washing machine spewing white froth onto its banks as it flowed along its polluted course. Who or what was responsible for this outrageous degradation was uncertain although it seems it was well known and no one had as yet done anything about it. Norelli told us that sometimes the frothy bubbles were pink. How nice!
Dusk fell and we made a meal stop at a large open fronted cafe which seemed very popular. Trucks, private cars, motorbikes were ranged outside and even the police were eating there. A television screen was relaying a local football match, the volume cranked up to deafening proportions. The local side scored and the commentator howled GOALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL! for several ear splitting seconds.
As it was my birthday I indulged myself with something that was more traditional from home, in the form of sausage and chips, although the sausages were Chorizo (very popular in Colombia). I also had a local beer and for afterwards Pablo treated me to an ice cream. A somewhat muted birthday celebration but I appreciated the gesture from Pablo. The cafe also had Wifi so I managed to access birthday greetings from my wife, daughter and sister which made me feel a whole lot better. For much of our trip Wifi was inaccessible so we just logged on when and where we could.
Then it was back in the 4x4 and off into the night, turning eventually onto another unsurfaced road and driving in the dark past little communities of shack like wooden homes, often consisting of no more than two rooms, as always built right on the road. These communities each had their own little bar exuding pulsing Salsa music and often the bars, brightly lit, were entirely devoid of customers but the owners still kept them open in the hope of someone patronising them. Driving at night like this on a rural road you often get an intimate view of people's lives as you pass the lit windows and doors of the tiny homes, thrown open to let the cooler night air into the house. A man sat on his bed removing his shirt preparing for sleep, a lady was folding clothes in another home, similar domestic cameos came and went as we passed, making me feel like a voyeur.
Norelli, a Colombian version of 'Del boy' seemed to know everyone and we progressed noisily up the road and through the various communities with Norelli honking the car horn and shouting greetings out of the open window to anyone and everyone, all of whom seemed to know him or recognise his distinctive red 4x4.
We arrived to a warm welcome at the ProAves Lodge and even better the welcome news that we had a room each to ourselves so I could spread out and, joy of joys, later take a hot shower. So well done once again to ProAves. Just after I had put everything into my room Paul lured a Tropical Screech Owl into a tree by the entrance to the Lodge and by the illumination from our various torches I took its photo.
Tropical Screech Owl
Making my way to my room I glanced at the illuminated outside wall of the Lodge and saw it was festooned with moths of all shapes and sizes. No need for a moth trap here.
Birds seen on Day Nineteen
(h) heard only
Black Vulture; White tailed Kite; Sharp shinned Hawk; Roadside Hawk; Southern Lapwing; Band tailed Pigeon; Eared Dove; Tropical Screech Owl; Mottled Owl (h); Green Violetear; Sparkling Violetear; Tourmaline Sunangel; Emerald Toucanet; Greyish Piculet; Spot breasted Woodpecker; Northern Crested Caracara; American Kestrel; Streak headed Antbird; Streaked Xenops; Black headed Tody Flycatcher; Acadian Flycatcher; Tropical Kingbird; Brown capped Vireo; Rufous naped Greenlet; Southern Rough winged Swallow; Gray breasted Wood Wren (h); Andean Solitaire (h); Black billed Thrush; Great Thrush; Tropical Mockingbird; Black and White Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler; Russett crowned Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Blue gray Tanager; Golden hooded Tanager; Rufous collared Sparrow
Our usual early start found us having a breakfast of mango, papaya and scrambled eggs at 5.30am and the free coffee urn was doing brisk business as we brought body and soul together and the dawn rose.
Everything I need to start the day. The tropical birders breakfast!
Bins, camera, torch. scrambled eggs, toast, tea, mango juice and papaya
Today we would be taking a 5km trail rising through the forest and up onto a ridge along which we planned to walk for another 1km in search of the endemic Chestnut capped Piha.
I confess to not feeling at my best today but nonetheless set off down the dirt road with my colleagues in search of another rarely seen bird that was calling from the trees by the road. It was a Pavonine Cuckoo and would be a really good bird to see but despite us taping it and it persistently calling, the cuckoo never even seemed likely to come closer and finally stopped calling. Then we tried a suitable spot for a Crested Ant Tanager but failed there also. It was not going well.
We did however lure out a pair of the endemic Parker's Antbird just by the entrance to the Lodge with the female being particularly showy
Parker's Antbird - female
We took the forest trail which rose up steeply from the road. A narrow switchback, rising and falling through the lush vegetation and below huge trees that obscured much of the light and cast a green luminosity to the forest floor, Continuously ascending, the trail gradually took us up through the primary forest. It was getting hot and humid and I was struggling. What it was that was slowing me I have no idea but maybe it was an accumulation of all the early starts and constant physical exercise in extreme climatic conditions but I was definitely out of sorts.
We stopped fairly often looking for various birds and the Chestnut capped Piha in particular but it was hard going and there was not a sign of the piha although we could hear one calling far off in the distance. Perhaps the best bird, well for me anyway, that we saw on the way up was a Rufous browed Tyrannulet.
The camera and lens hung around my shoulders felt extra heavy today and the constant climbing upwards was getting to be more and more irksome. We finally made the ridge and commenced walking the narrow path along it which contrary to expectations was not level but yet another switchback. Hot, sweaty and with my clothes stuck to my body I was confronted with yet another steep incline and I knew I had reached my limit when the backs of my knees began to tremble as my leg muscles rebelled. I quietly told Paul that I had reached my limit and I would make my way back to the Lodge and see them there. I was now faced with another 5km walk back to The Lodge, a 10km round trip. It would be no Chestnut capped Piha for me but I was so exhausted I was past caring.
I walked back slowly, stopping regularly to rest and seriously worried if I would make it. There was no hurry and if there was there would be nothing I could do to speed my progress. Jose from the Lodge met me as he was bringing lunch to us and had carried it all the way up the trail. Yet another amazing feat of both strength and service. I did not want to eat but drank a large amount of the juice he was carrying, having forgotten to bring any water with me. I felt much better for this and thanked Jose who then carried on to find the others whilst I continued on the trail back towards The Lodge. I stopped at a huge fruiting tree which had attracted a lot of birds and gave me an excuse for another rest. Most of the birds zipping around in the upper branches were tanagers; Golden, Bay headed, Speckled, Blue necked and Black capped Tanagers were all feasting on the berries plus the marvellously named Beryl spangled Tanager but best of all was a scarce White winged Tanager, a male, all raspberry pink with two huge white bars on its black wings. A really striking bird. Other birds were also in the tree such as the ubiquitous Blackburnian Warbler, a smart male Black and White Warbler and another bird that intrigued me for a while. It was larger than a tanager and was sitting absolutely still with its back to me high in the tree. Eventually it turned and revealed a scarlet head and breast. It was a Red headed Barbet.
Other 'rest' stops on my way back down revealed a female Collared Trogon sitting silently in a tree, not so showy as the male but still a pleasing harmony of subtle colours and benign aspect. Further on a Sickle winged Guan played 'peek a boo' high in the tree tops, running incongruously for such a large bird along the branches in the tree tops and crashing away noisily through the leafy branches.
Collared Trogon - female
I got back to the Lodge and with relief sat with a cup of tea and my feet up on the patio watching a Bay headed Tanager and a Tennessee Warbler coming to feed on the bananas and the hummingbirds buzzing around their feeders.
Bay headed Tanager
The patio where we had our meals
The Lodge garden and hummingbird feeders
The entrance to The Lodge
The Lodge as seen from the entrance gate
The ubiquitous motorbikes
The excellent Lodge garden with the Cloud Forest beyond
The Pavonine Cuckoo was calling again from close to the Lodge but try as I might I just could not see it through the mass of trees and bushes below the Lodge and without Pablo's tapes there was not the opportunity to try and tempt it to come closer. A Turkey Vulture was a surprise lurking in a tree close to the chicken run as I searched for the cuckoo.
The cloud was slowly enveloping everything in a grey swirl and Norelli, who I discovered lived at the Lodge, suggested he take me and Jose up the road in his 4x4 to see if we could lure out a Chestnut capped Piha with Jose's tapes. We stopped at a couple of likely places as the cloud swirled around us in ever more dense patches but we failed to attract the Chestnut capped Piha, only a Buff breasted Foliage Gleaner came to investigate. A final stop at a marsh by the road also ended in failure as we played the tape of a Blackish Rail and got plenty of response in the form of calling but not a chance of one coming into the open.
Never mind, one has to be philosophical about such things and this just was not my day. Paul, Chris and Pablo returned and told me they had managed to see a Chestnut capped Piha as well as another endemic in the form of a White mantled Barbet. I still managed to remain philosophical regardless!
Tomorrow we would be leaving with Norelli and Pablo to make the long drive to Medellin where we would take a domestic flight to Giron which is on the coast and promised to be hot and humid
Birds seen on Day Twenty
(h) heard only
Colombian Chachalaca; Sickle winged Guan; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Blackish Rail (h); Band tailed Pigeon; Pavonine Cuckoo (h); Smooth billed Ani; Tropical Screech Owl; Green fronted Lancebill; Greenish Puffleg; Green crowned Brilliant; Crowned Woodnymph; Andean Emerald; Collared Trogon; Andean Motmot; Red headed Barbet; Northern crested Caracara; Bat Falcon (h); Blue fronted Parrotlet (h); Slaty Antwren; Parker's Antbird; Chestnut crowned Antpitta (h); Plain Xenops; Buff fronted Foliage Gleaner; Lineated Foliage Gleaner; Red faced Spinetail; Azara's Spinetail (h); Marble faced Bristle Tyrant; Rufous browed Tyrannulet; Golden faced Tyrannulet; Southern Bentbill (h); Black headed Tody Flycatcher (h); Cinnamon Flycatcher; Smoke colored Pewee; Pale edged Flycatcher; Rusty margined Flycatcher; Golden crowned Flycatcher; Scaled Fruiteater (h); Chestnut capped Piha (h); Golden winged Manakin; Rufous naped Greenlet; Green Jay (h); Blue and White Swallow; Sooty headed Wren; Gray breasted Wood Wren (h); Long billed Gnatwren (h); Andean Solitaire (h); Black and White Warbler; Tennessee Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler; Three striped Warbler; Black and Gold Tanager; Blue winged Mountain Tanager; Glistening Green Tanager; Blue gray Tanager; Black capped Tanager; Blue necked Tanager; Speckled Tanager; Beryl spangled Tanager; Bay headed Tanager; Golden Tanager; Bananaquit; Black winged Saltator; Chestnut capped Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Yellow throated Chlorospingus; White winged Tanager; Red bellied Grackle; Orange bellied Euphonia
to be continued