This morning we were going up into the Cloud Forest to follow a trail through the forest. Now let me make a confession. Wonderful though it is to hike through the forest this is not my favourite kind of birding. It is true there are many wonderful birds to see there but often there is nothing and then when you do come across a bird or a flock of birds they are often right at the top of the huge trees, moving around rapidly amongst the foliage and often no more than silhouettes against whatever open sky is showing through the leafy canopy. Personally I find it difficult to locate these tiny birds amongst all that foliage but admit that is my problem and others, such as Paul and Chris my two colleagues, are much better at it than myself and I thank them and our various guides for their tolerance when it sometimes took me an age to get onto a particular bird.
Also, walking through the Cloud Forest is not like going for a casual stroll. It is hard work and often you are climbing and clambering up and down on a narrow trail that is steep, rocky, muddy, unstable and uneven. There are roots, slippery leaves and wet rocks all waiting to trip you or cause a fall. With a camera, heavy lens and binoculars slung round your neck your balance is also affected and can make negotiating the more narrow, precipitous parts of the trail decidedly tricky and, if it is at altitude, it's worse as you are deprived of oxygen and your body slows down and becomes less efficient. The heat and humidity do not help either and it is not long before every item of clothing is stuck to your body and sweat is pouring from your brow and you feel thoroughly uncomfortable. It is however a right of passage and challenge, one which I am proud to say I survived and in retrospect enjoyed in a perverse sort of way.
All the hardships are forgotten when you have a chance encounter with a beautiful or rare bird or are just swept away by the sheer bounteous profusion of myriads of plants from orchids, epiphytyes and mosses to huge ferns, palms and bromeliads, all growing under the enormous trees that turn the forest floor into a cathedral of green diffused light. So, despite my feelings I resolved to give it my best, spurred on by the fact that I knew I would see something to make my spirits soar, be it bird, mammal or insect.
The Las Tangaras Lodge is, unfortunately, situated some distance from the actual ProAves reserve and it requires a forty five minute drive with a 4x4 on a rough road up into the mountains to get to the reserve, so we left Juan's pickup which did not have four wheel drive at the Lodge and a 4x4 and driver duly arrived at the Lodge before dawn to collect us after breakfast and take us up into the forest.
It was a rough old ride up the road in a very basic Willy's jeep but we finally got to our destination and started to bird the road, with the attendant jeep coming to catch us up every so often. The jeep took on added importance as it was carrying the water and snacks!
The sheer profusion of botanical life is impossible to describe adequately or at least it is for me. You are just overwhelmed by the abundance of plants of gargantuan proportions and the sheer beauty of a forest that has remained virtually untouched for centuries. It has an atmosphere and sense of majesty that is powerful, humbling and moving. You look out through the trees when you can to miles and miles of similar forest that seems to go on forever into the distance.
Cloud Forest trail
At this time in the morning, just after dawn, a lot of birds seem to be at their most active. As we followed the road down we discovered various birds. A Golden winged Warbler was a welcome surprise, as were an Indigo Flowerpiercer, Black Flowerpiercer and Chestnut breasted Chlorophonia and so was a Golden headed Quetzal, which Juan got in his scope so you could actually see the gold on the head of the bird, not always an easy thing to accomplish, as it sat in the morning sun.
Chestnut breasted Chlorophonia
A Beautiful Jay, and yes they really are beautiful, could also be seen distantly but never came any nearer to us. Maybe tomorrow.
We stopped for some coffee and snacks from the jeep at a little shelter with a bench to sit on and then left the road and started climbing up on the trail through the forest. The difference between the forest that is preserved in the reserve and the cleared area we had to walk through in order to get to the forest was marked and an ominous portent of what will happen if the clearing of the forest continues, but at least the forest we were about to enter is safe now for all time. Colombia, because of its problematic and violent past is still relatively well forested but wherever we went it was obvious that the increased feeling of security has and is encouraging rampant economic development with the result that much of Colombia's forests are now under severe threat from both legal and illegal felling and burning of trees.
Our first good find, just as we were about to enter the forest through a gate, were a couple of White headed Wrens which were fussing around in a big tree. They did not really look like wrens or indeed sound like a wren, being treble the size of the wren we get in the UK and with their long tail and bill, white head and underparts certainly did not display the usual barred brown combination we are so used to in the UK. Their call is harsh and very un-wrenlike
White headed Wren
We entered the forest proper and just followed the narrow earthy trail up and down, weaving through giant trees and plants of every shade of green imaginable.
The trail through the forest
Huge, brilliant butterflies glided through the glades, their breathtaking colours flashing as they flew but extinguished the minute they settled and their wings closed to camouflage them from predators. The familiar sweet, damp smell of rotting leaves and loam that I came to know so well in the forests of Ecuador came to me again on the warm air as the trail wound upwards, sometimes very steeply, and as we got higher the ground to our left dropped away for hundreds of feet but was hidden and obscured by an abundance of plantlife. We came to a waterfall and crossed it on a tiny bridge with a none too secure rickety, moss festooned handrail and walked onwards, finding various birds as we went.
An Olivaceous Piha and Andean Solitaire were good birds to see. Ornate Flycatchers were particularly noticeable as they prefer to remain well under the canopy and I watched one preening after having a bath. I always look at the two white marks, one each side of their forehead and think of headlights.
We came to an open rocky area, with the track narrowing across it. One slip and it would be disaster as the drop was hundreds of feet. We took a break here, sitting and looking downwards to the tops of the trees below and the mountains beyond.
Moving on we came to a steep and muddy descent down the trail and as we did came across a very good bird indeed in the form of a Golden ringed Tanager, another of our target endemic species and a hard bird to see and find. Juan, who was fast becoming legendary with his uncanny ability to find birds in his scope, managed through all the tangle of vines, leaves and branches to get it in his scope so we all saw it really well. Then it flew up into a large fruiting tree by the trail and although we could hear it above us in the tree we just could not see it in all the mess of moss. fungus and ephiphtyes, you name it, clinging in profusion to the tree trunk.
In this situation you just have to train the bins on a likely looking spot and hope. Ninety nine percent of the time it is futile but sometimes it pays off and it did here for me, as with my neck muscles complaining I got it briefly in my bins through a tangle of twigs and branches sitting with a berry in its bill. It was facing me and I could clearly see its gold and black face markings and then it was gone again back into the tangle. We never managed to see it again although an Orange breasted Fruiteater was another good find in the same tree.
Satisfied with this we commenced walking back along the trail and came once more to the open rocky area and sat there once again. The cloud was now creeping up the valley, moving like a silent ghostly shroud to slowly envelop the forest and us. Some Gray rumped Swifts flew in and out of the cloud as it ascended inexorably up the mountainside and above us to the very top.
The sun was gone now but not the heat and humidity. We walked back across the open area of rocks and into a very different feeling forest to earlier. Everything was made colourless or darker by the cloud which moved in gentle swirls, like steam, through the forest creating an oppressive gloom. The forest was also very quiet. Then the cloud brought on a gentle rain, warm and pattering against the infinite number of leaves above us. We sought shelter in one of the 'miradors' that were along the trail. A mirador usually consists of a rudimentary bench with a little roof where you can shelter, rest and admire the view if there is one. A man from Las Tangaras came with our lunch and fruit juice carrying it all on his shoulders in a huge and unbelievably heavy container. We were several kilometres from the road and I could hardly believe he had come all this way through the forest carrying such a heavy load but he had and very welcome he was too. After we had finished he cleared everything up, bade us farewell and took it back to the road. I felt humbled.
Later on the trail, Juan and myself had become separated from Paul and Chris and walking with Juan he suddenly announced 'Lanceolated Monklet!'. He had heard one calling and then his amazing ability with both his eyes and the scope meant he actually got it in the scope. How he saw it is beyond me as it was almost obscured by the cloud in the tree tops but he did. We went to find the other two and told them about this and they came with us to see if they could see it. Naturally it had moved by then so I did my thing with the bins again, just pointing them in the general direction more in hope than expectation and by some miracle there it was sitting on a crossways branch high above us but closer and much more visible than before. It was great to be able to see its plumage in detail as the only other one I saw, in Ecuador, was only briefly and distant.
The rain eventually abated and many other birds had now become active and were coming through the trees in roving flocks. More White headed Wrens, a Pacific Tufted Cheek, and a variety of tanagers; Gold, Saffron Crowned, Rufous throated, Glistening green, Golden and Black chinned Mountain Tanagers, all put in a cameo appearance.
Time was moving on so we slowly followed the trail back through the forest to the road and the waiting 4x4. The driver told Juan about a Lyre tailed Nightjar that he had seen roosting in a tree just a little way down the road so we walked down to have a look and found a female fast asleep on a branch jutting out from the bank above our heads. We could not find the more spectacular male but the female was good enough for me.
Lyre tailed Nightjar-female
Then it was back in the jeep and retracing our way along the road until we came to a location where there were some feeders put out for the hummingbirds. It required a little walk uphill and then we came to an open area among the trees and some benches that were set out in front of the feeders where we could sit and watch the coming and goings of 'the hummers'.
I can recall seeing the following: Violet tailed Sylph, Long tailed Sylph, Greenish Puffleg, Brown Inca, Velvet Purple Coronet, surely one of the most beautiful of hummingbirds, Booted racket Tail and Empress Brilliant, amongst others. It was the usual frenetic feeding frenzy, as hummingbirds do nothing in slow motion or even normal speed. Occasionally a bird would whizz so close to your head as it sped off you thought it would surely collide with you and you involuntarily ducked but they always avoided any contact.
After an hour we left them to it and returned down the road in the jeep and made an impromptu stop at a small concrete bridge under which ran a stream. The stream was coming down the side of the mountain and the surrounding banks were thickly vegetated, so much so you could not see the stream. Paul considered this a good spot for the reclusive Olive Finch so we played the tapes and managed to attract two. Seeing them however was another matter. We could see the leaves moving as they passed through and under them and could hear the birds calling but the finches were never in view. Just very brief views of a dark outline was all we could get but we kept at it and finally we got to see them as they moved out of the leaf cover and into some twigs and branches under an overhanging bank but still never really in the open. The only noticeable feature of their dark olive plumage was their chestnut crowns. True skulkers.
Now it was back to the luxury of Las Tangaras, a quick hot shower which was bliss and then we sat down for dinner, again wonderfully well cooked by the lady chef, and then the checklist and bed. Tomorrow we would bird the road again but not go up on the forest trail.
Birds seen on Day Fifteen
(h) heard only
Chestnut Wood Quail (h); Black Vulture; Roadside Hawk; Broad winged Hawk; Band tailed Pigeon; Ruddy Pigeon; Common Pauraque; Lyre tailed Nightjar; Gray rumped Swift; Violet tailed Sylph; Greenish Puffleg; Brown Inca; Velvet Purple Coronet; Booted Racket Tail; White tailed Hillstar; Purple bibbed Hillstar; Empress Brilliant; Golden headed Quetzal; Masked Trogon; Andean Motmot; Lanceolated Monklet; Spot crowned Barbet; Red headed Barbet; Golden green Woodpecker; Golden olive Woodpecker; Rufous rumped Antwren; Yellow breasted Antwren; Yellow breasted Antpitta (h); Plain backed Antpitta; Nariño Tapaculo (h); Alto Pisones Tapaculo (h); Choco Tapaculo (h); Spotted Woodpecker; Streaked Xenops; Buff fronted Foliage Gleaner; Scaly throated Foliage Gleaner; Uniform Treehunter; Red faced Spinetail; Azara's Spinetail (h); White banded Tyrannulet (h); Streak necked Flycatcher; Golden faced Tyrannulet; Ornate Flycatcher; Bronze Olive Pygmy Tyrant ; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Smoke colored Pewee; Black Phoebe; Slaty backed Chat Tyrant (h); Orange breasted Fruiteater; Olivaceous Piha; Beautiful Jay; Blue and White Swallow; White headed Wren; Sharpes Wren; Gray breasted Wood Wren; Andean Solitaire ; Swainsons Thrush; Black Solitaire; Blackburnian Warbler; Three striped Warbler; Canada Warbler; Golden winged Warbler; Golden fronted Whitestart; Black and Gold Tanager; Gold ringed Tanager; Black chinned Mountain Tanager; Glistening green Tanager; Scrub Tanager; Rufous throated Tanager; Beryl spangled Tanager ; Saffron Crowned Tanager; Golden Tanager; Black Flowerpiercer; Indigo Flowerpiercer; Black winged Saltator; Olive Finch; Tricolored Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Dusky Chlorospingus; Chestnut breasted Chlorophonia
to be continued