I awoke at 4.30am to my last day in Colombia and doubly excited as we were headed for the mountains and the wide open spaces of the paramo. No more forest birding but habitat that I felt much more at home in. The other reason to be excited? I was going home to my loved ones tonight.
We duly loaded the 4x4 for the last time and set off in the dark through Bogota. The streets were almost deserted, just policemen in twos walked the streets we were driving down as this part of town was too dangerous for just a single policeman. I noticed even at this early hour on a Saturday that the buses and trams coming into the city were already crammed with people. Juan told me that many people work on a Saturday and that work in Bogota, maybe the whole of Colombia starts around 7am. I watched as taxis and buses ignored red lights and drove at speed around people on pedestrian crossings, so just a normal day on the roads of Colombia then. Dawn had broken as we came to the road toll booths where several ladies were standing in the middle of the road, each with a thermos of coffee and plastic cups to offer refreshment to early morning drivers as they slowed and stopped for the toll. This is quite normal in Colombia and any opportunity to make some money to subsist wherever and whenever, no matter how small the reward, is seized with enthusiasm.
We followed the road as it headed upwards and the city was left behind. A different landscape of farms and pasture was now becoming apparent and the mountains were closing in, all with a grey blanket of cloud shrouding their tops. The temperature was also dropping and there was now an intimation of frost as we rose yet higher and into the paramo. We left the tarmac road and carried on along a dirt road rising steadily higher all the time. The landscape was now bleak,wild and open for miles, covered in thousands of the strange, alien looking Fraijelons, a distant relative of sunflowers while in the far distance huge mountains loomed in a series of peaks on the horizon.
It was now, according to the 4x4's external temperature gauge, minus one degree celsius outside. I was glad I had my fleece on but would it be enough, as the early morning sun looked like it was going to be obliterated by encroaching low clouds, so it would be cold. We were now at around 4000m elevation and had just entered the park proper.
Juan stopped the vehicle and this was where we got out and birded the road with the paramo stretching endlessly away to our left and a rocky scree slope rising up to a ridge high to our right.
The road up through the paramo which we birded looking back down from where
we had come
I felt familiar with this landscape of barren rocks and wild moor albeit with a very different flora. Not too dissimilar to Sutherland and Caithness in my ancestral home of northern Scotland, Sumapaz Paramo National Park in the Cundiboyacense Mountain Range is considered to be the largest paramo ecosystem to be found anywhere in the world, comprising 178,000 hectares and was established in 1977. Paramo de Sumapaz translates as 'Utterly peaceful moorland' which seems reasonably appropriate but is maybe a trifle misleading as it also has a cold inhospitable climate with temperatures ranging from minus ten degrees to plus seventeen degrees celsius with quick changes from warm to freezing cold. The ground is wet and covered by shallow bodies of water and sticky mud called Chupaderos, often hidden under dense flat vegetation and a trap for the unwary visitor. An estimated 1200 families live in the Sumapaz Paramo, most of them existing below the poverty line, living on less than $1.25 per day and without schools or sanitation, with the consequence that just to survive they have to indulge in illegal logging and grazing of cattle which impacts on the Park.
As I got out of the car my body involuntarily shivered as a bitterly cold wind blew directly down the road into my face. It was not going to be pleasant and my fleece felt totally inadequate for the conditions currently facing me. The only thing for it was to keep moving. A quick cup of strong, black Colombian coffee and an energy bar and we were off birding the road on either side. Thankfully the cloud was lifting so at least there was a weak sun to begin warming us slightly but it was still very early and it would be a while until it got warm enough to make me feel truly comfortable. At this time in the morning despite it being Saturday we had the place to ourselves.
I knew we would only see a comparative few species today, however the birds we would see here would all be new and there would be some really good endemics amongst them but really, the one I wanted most of all to see was the Green bearded Helmetcrest, a scarce chunky hummingbird that lived at this high altitude. What could be better than that?
The first bird we saw was another hummer, a Bronze tailed Thornbill and new for us, but it did not hang around and I just managed a brief view of it feeding frantically at a flower before it flew off at high speed. The second bird we saw was so brief I did not even see it, only Paul did and yes, it was a Green bearded Helmetcrest. Yeaaggh! There was so much habitat for it to hide in that my heart sank. Where on earth would we find another one?
We carried on up the road and found another good new bird in the form of a Rufous browed Conebill but this too was not hanging around and was gone all too quickly into the scrub.
The paramo to our left, dotted with countless numbers of the weird Frailejons was below the level of the road and we could get to it by scrambling down a small rocky slope. Paul 'went in' to seek out an Apolinar's Wren whilst we stood at the upper edge of the slope and watched him. A wren soon showed itself and we too walked down to get a closer look. I noticed that once down below the level of the road the wind strength was much less, especially in the lee of the slope and began to feel, well not warm but certainly not cold. I figured if we felt this, so too would the birds and maybe it would be better to bird down here rather than from the road.
We drove further up the road and leaving the vehicle we again stood at the edge of the slope and surveyed the paramo. A Great Thrush flew far away across the endless paramo but then a Green bearded Helmetcrest appeared, quite close, zipping around amongst the Frailejons and then it perched on one, distantly, its buff plumage blending nicely with the wrinkled dead leaves and stems of the Frailejon. There was little hesitation on all our parts and we were down the slope immediately in an effort to get closer views but the helmetcrest had other ideas and kept moving from perch to perch as we approached. We followed but it was always one perch too far ahead of us and distant until I noticed that it had definite favourite perches which were in the lee of the wind close to the slope. I also noticed there was one Frailejon in particular it always tried to come back to but we were too close to it so it would not settle there.
Green bearded Helmetcrest perched on its favoured Frailejon
Paul and Chris were by now some way off but I said to Hernan who was standing with me 'The helmetcrest wants to perch on that Frailejon but we are too close. Let's just back off a bit and it will come in and we will get really good views of it and the opportunity of great shots for our cameras.' Hernan agreed and we retreated so we were partially hidden by another seven foot high Frailejon. Bingo! In just a few minutes the helmetcrest, a superb male shot in and perched on its favourite Frailejon.
Green bearded Helmetcrest- male
Our cameras went into overdrive as we fired off in close proximity to this little beauty and in between just watched it constantly moving on its perch with that restless, ceaseless vitality that all hummingbirds seem to be imbued with. Occasionally the helmetcrest would fly off to feed but always came back to this particular perch. A female was also around, although she did not come as near and I think maybe we had inadvertently stumbled into their territory as both of them remained in the close vicinity for at least the hour we were there. The male was quite superb, a chunky fawn coloured hummingbird with a dark chocolate and cream striped face, topped off with a shaggy white and brown 'mohican' crest but the supreme glory was his 'beard' of elongated pointed feathers hanging down from his chin and throat that shone at certain angles like emerald green satin in the sunlight. The female was much the same colouration and patterning as the male although a bit less strongly marked but did not have such a prominent crest and did not have the elongated green beard just some vestigial longer buff feathers running down from her chin.
Green bearded Helmetcrest- female
The superlatives rolled from my tongue as all those long months of waiting to come to Colombia, poring over this bird's image countless times in the Colombian Bird Guide at home, imagining and hoping that I would be lucky enough to see this charismatic little bird in its inhospitable but romantic habitat came to fruition in this moment, and in a far better way than I could ever have imagined, as here I was almost face to face with it. Even Hernan never had better views and like me was elated. Life felt really good at this particular moment, believe me.
I called to Paul and Chris nearby and as there was only room for two people in our place by the Frailejon I suggested to Hernan that we make way for Paul so he could get some photos just like ours. I told Paul of our success and pointed out where to stand and it worked like a charm for him too so everyone was happy. Brilliant. Any birder in a group will tell you it is always much more satisfactory when everyone gets to see and enjoy a particular bird.
Reluctantly leaving the helmetcrests we climbed back up the small rocky slope onto the road. A Black chested Buzzard Eagle soared in the blue sky above the rocky scree slope to our right and a Plain capped Ground Tyrant bounced around like a wheatear, perfectly camouflaged on the grey rocks of the same slope.
Plain capped Ground Tyrant
Juan then drove a long way up the road and stopped at a view point with a lake, looking very much like a Scottish loch on our right, and below the viewpoint on the other side of the road, a sloping drop down to a wet boggy area. Paul spotted a Tawny Antpitta which slipped away into the undergrowth as we pulled up in the 4x4. We looked down the slope to the edge of the boggy area where there were some scraggy bushes and a tiny stream, no more than a ditch really, presumably running from the lake on the other side of the road. In the damp muddy area beside the bushes another Tawny Antpitta was collecting worms presumably to feed its young somewhere in a nest nearby. It disappeared and we waited for it to come back. A small brown form came hesitantly out of the bushes but it was not the antpitta. It was an endemic Bogota Rail.
Although we had seen one earlier on the trip it was good to see this very rare bird again and we decided to try and get closer to it. We dropped down from the viewpoint and following the grassy slope used various bushes and Frailejons to conceal our approach and got relatively close to the rail without causing it to flee. We got some good pictures and forgive me if I repeat myself but it does look awfully like our Water Rail. The only differences I could discern were the wax red legs and feet, the bright rufous wing coverts and less barring on the flanks. So I did not get quite the same frisson you get when you see a rare bird, that apart from being rare looks very different to anything one can see in Britain. Maybe I am being too demanding.
After thirty minutes of watching and photographing the rail it retreated back into the bushes so we explored along the edge of the swampy area that consisted of lime yellow, spongy sphagnum. It did not look safe to walk on so we stayed on the adjacent drier sloping area of long coarse grass and small bushes.
As we separately walked this area a large bird flew up before me as did another in front of Paul. They were snipe but they were huge, almost Woodcock size and did not fly away calling harshly in alarm and zig zagging into eternity but flew low and dropped down into cover again very quickly. Another rose before me and the same thing was happening to Paul. Never flying far the snipe came down to earth in seconds and all I can remember noting as they briefly flew was their large size and long bill as well as much chestnut in the tail. What on earth? Then it dawned on me. They were Noble Snipe. Totally unexpected and a definite bonus. We estimated there must have been at least a dozen scattered around in this small area.
We walked back up the slope to the vehicle and crossed the road to the cold barren looking lake on which there were some ducks and a grebe. The ducks were Andean Teal and Ruddy Ducks and the grebe was a Pied Billed Grebe. We then drove a short way further to where the road cut through some rocks and passed a very small lake. Hernan said this would be a good place to find a Chestnut winged Cinclodes but there was little sign of any when we got out to look. We scanned the near edge of the small lake and found another Tawny Antpitta feeding on the mud at the water's edge. Whilst watching the antpitta my eye was caught by another passerine further away, also feeding under the overhanging bank. Hernan checked it and confirmed that here was our Chestnut winged Cinclodes, in fact there was a pair which then obligingly flew much closer allowing great photo and viewing opportunities.
Chestnut winged Cinclodes
It was at this point that we encountered the Colombian equivalent of the annoying passerby. Up to now we had been entirely alone but a bus full of 'locals' had drawn up by the lake. A group of Colombians presumably on a day out and the first we had seen all morning stopped to watch our somewhat eccentric behaviour as we scrambled about to get a good position to photo the cinclodes. One guy in particular was yelling at us in Spanish but I had no idea what he was saying although got the impression it was not that complementary. Hernan ignored him as did we but he still did not get the message. He seemed to think better of it however when five Colombian Special Forces soldiers, on patrol, came walking down the road and stopped to see what all the commotion was about and also curious as to what we were doing. The soldiers watched us, greeted us civilly and then went on their way. It was our time to go also and we got back into the 4x4 and drove back down the road we had come up, leaving this wonderful desolate area probably, in my case, for the first and last time.
Hernan instructed Juan to make one more stop when we were back on the tarmac road to look for another endemic bird, a Silvery throated Spinetail. It took forever to find one, driving and/or walking to location after location beside the road playing the tape and looking countless times for the spinetail. After at least two hours we finally found a pair that showed as well as can be expected for a spinetail, which is never still for a second, and that was it.
Now we headed for lunch at Bogota airport where the plan was to meet up with Pablo for the last time. Juan drove us back across the usual chaotic Bogota roads and came to rest in the airport car park. We unloaded all our bags, and there and then on the warm tarmac we sorted ourselves out, packing away the cameras and optics and checking everything was secure in the right suitcase or backpack for the long journey home.
We had our farewell lunch in a packed restaurant in the Terminal and then it was farewells and embraces with Pablo, Hernan and Juan and they left.
The three of us changed into clean clothes for the flight home but we had a six to seven hour wait for our flight. We managed to check our bags in immediately which was a relief, then cleared immigration and bought gifts and in my case just relaxed and sat watching the world go by in Bogota Airport before saying goodbye to Chris who was going home on a different, earlier flight via the USA.
The time finally came for us to go to our gate so Paul and myself took the travelator, passing posters of birds of Colombia advertising what a wonderful country it was.
Paul started identifying each bird.
'Paul. It's OK. They are only posters. You can stop now. It's over. We're going home.'
Birds seen on Day Twenty Nine
(h) heard only
Andean Teal; Ruddy Duck; Pied billed Grebe; Cattle Egret; Black chested Buzzard Eagle; Bogota Rail; Southern Lapwing; Greater Yellowlegs; Noble Snipe; Speckled Hummingbird; Purple backed Thornbill; Bronze tailed Thornbill; Green-bearded Helmetcrest; Tyrian Metaltail; Chestnut crowned Antpitta (h); Tawny Antpitta; Chestnut winged Cinclodes; Silvery throated Spinetail; Azara's Spinetail; White throated Tyrannulet; Plain capped Ground Tyrant; Brown backed Chat Tyrant; Blue and White Swallow; Pale footed Swallow; House Wren; Apolinar's Wren; Great Thrush; Buff breasted Mountain Tanager; Rufous browed Conebill; Black Flowerpiercer; Plumbeous Sierra Finch; Plain coloured Seedeater; Pale naped Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Andean Siskin
Over 29 days birding in Colombia I personally saw or heard 731 species of bird (35 were heard only)
I saw 72 species of hummingbird and 68 endemic species