Friday 11 March 2016

A Tarantula in my Suitcase Part 7 January 2016

Day 17

We rose before dawn and met Pablo and his driver Norelli who had arrived together late in the night. We stowed  our suitcases and backpacks in our latest 4x4 and then had some breakfast until it was light enough to search for the tanager. To cut a long story short it was a complete waste of time so we gave up and said farewell to the excellent Las Tangaras. We made a short detour up the road to look at  some other likely spots for the tanager, they like wet areas with thick foliage usually beside a stream, but to no avail.

We did not have too much time for birding as we had a very long drive to get to our next destination, El Chuscal, which lies a short way outside of the town of Urrao, where we would be dropped off by Norelli and would then make a ninety minute horseback ride up into the mountains to another ProAves Reserve - Colibri del Sol which would be our home for the next two nights. The reserve was established in 2005 and is located on the eastern slope of the Paramo del Sol Massif and covers 2850 hectares ranging from 2800m-4060m asl.

We set off and to break the journey it was decided we would stop to bird certain areas by the road where suitable, and if time allowed. Soon we were leaving the tarmac road and were back onto the usual unsurfaced, uneven dusty road. We made a stop at a town called Carmen Atrata for Norelli to drop something off and pick up some provisions for the journey, then carried on out of the town and back onto a dirt road, stopping to see if we could tease out a Crested Ant Tanager at  a couple of likely looking places, but again we had no luck. We  were headed for Urrao where we would have lunch but first we had to get there. The dirt road wound along a valley with the Rio Atrato running and tumbling over its rocky bed below us. We drove through a copper mine-literally right through the middle, with the offices on one side and the mine on the other as that was where the dirt road went, although to me it was a little uncertain but Norelli seemed supremely confident. Most of the hillsides here were deforested with just vestigial bits of forest by the narrow river. Large flocks of Band tailed Pigeons were about all we saw apart from one stop, where we found a Slaty backed Chat Tyrant 

Further out we started to climb out of the valley, winding our way upwards and the roadside became more forested. We made another stop and had a bit of success when we managed to tape lure a pair of  endemic Munchique Wood Wrens out of the undergrowth by the road. Like all wrens they were elusive and hard to see, never still for a moment. You would see a shape in the undergrowth and focus on it but inevitably you were just too late as the bird zipped further through the leaves and stems. They shot across the road at speed and started working their way towards us on the other side of the road and then for about thirty seconds one stopped, and clinging low down  to a thick plant stem relatively in the open, regarded us, confused by the tape and the supposed interloper on its territory. I pointed the camera at it and just fired with, for once, a reasonable result. In a trice it and its mate were off again, playing will o' the wisp in the stems holding up the huge leaves.

Munchique Wren
There are, arguably, thirty five wren species in Colombia and virtually all are inveterate skulkers in the darker recesses of the undergrowth and therefore hard to see. Some are quite large and un-wren like in appearance whilst others are small and typical looking wrens, just like our wren in Britain. The wrens in Colombia are very responsive to tapes of their calls so it is possible to lure them out but often it is only for a very few seconds before they dive for deep cover again. Some of them have exceedingly beautiful songs which are both loud and melodic.

After our wren excitement we were back in the vehicle and the only other occurrence of note was very unfortunate. Norelli, our slightly eccentric and excitable driver did not see a large green snake crossing the road and drove over it. We had to stop to put it out of its misery which was not very pleasant. Subsequent research when I got back to Britain revealed it was a non venomous Parrot Snake.

Then it was onwards to the large town of Urrao, (1800m asl) which is approached along a very straight road down a wide valley of flat fields and pasture with the hillsides all around completely deforested. All very depressing and unsettling and I found myself missing the isolation and peace of the Cloud Forest and Las Tangaras. We drove into town along a dusty unsurfaced street lined by the usual manifestations of urban human life; shack like homes, garages, car lots and factories, small businesses of all shapes and sizes and  un-enticing cafes, before getting to the town centre where we turned down a paved street and stopped outside an open fronted café. This was our lunch stop. A pleasant and unprepossessing establishment, we sat at one of the cafe's tables looking out onto the road and were served the traditional meal of soup followed by a main course, which for me consisted of fried trout. I also indulged in a Diet Coke.

Glancing  around at the other tables, all occupied by Colombians, I was met with the depressing sight of every one staring gormlessly at their mobile phones. What the hell did we do before these things arrived and how has it come to this that we are enslaved by the cursed things now?  A television screen blared in the top corner opposite us and although it was all in Spanish it was quite obviously the same dross you get on rolling news in Britain. Conversation amongst the occupants of the café was at a minimum as everyone gazed blindly at their phone and/or the TV. Please get me out of here!

We were finished with lunch in less than an hour, and back on the road, we crossed Urrao in five minutes and leaving the tarmac road headed off upwards on yet another dirt road  leading out of the town. This looked to be the wrong end of Urrao as every window and door of homes and businesses alike were protected by iron bars and some of the houses looked pretty decrepit. As we left the urban sprawl the land on both sides was given over to cultivation, growing passion fruit, mangoes, tomatoes, sweet corn and other fruit I just could not identify. Small homes were still scattered along the road and although the occupants were obviously poor their houses were embellished in an effort to make them more of a home, with numerous pots and hanging baskets of exotic plants and colourful flowers. These were stood on the walls supporting  the verandahs and/or hanging from the same verandahs, that shaded each dwelling. Some of the houses even had mosaics and pictures ranging from religious depictions to just landscapes hung on the outside walls under the verandahs.

We carried on for 5km until the road ran out and  we could go no further. El Chuscal  consisted as far as I could see of a small single story house and a large shed. There were three horses waiting for us here as well as Harnen who looks after the reserve, and beyond was a dusty trail rising up
through cattle grazing pasture towards the huge forested mountains of the Paramo del Sol volcanic massif in the distance and the Colibri del Sol Reserve. This is where it became adventurous once again.

Stopping in a cloud of dust we got out of the air conditioned 4x4 and into the hot sun. Our bags and suitcases were unloaded from the vehicle and all loaded by Harnen onto one unfortunate horse. Chris and myself elected to ride the other two equally unfortunate horses whilst Paul volunteered to walk.

Our horses await!
Pablo and Norelli unload our cases at El Chuscal

Paul and Chris checking out our new mode of transport
Without further ado the horses set off in single file along the track with Harnen keeping an eye on things and chivvying the horses if they started to lag. I have not been on a horse for a long time and I had forgotten how uncomfortable it was but it was bearable and novel so we meandered along, crossing a river and started to climb slowly through fields full of cows. The horses knew the way having done this journey countless times, so gaining in confidence Chris and I let them have their heads and all was well. After an hour we reached the start of the reserve marked by a gate and a sign and here we stopped and dismounted for a rest. 

Twenty minutes rest and then it was back in the saddle and into the forest and now a much steeper twisting route required negotiating but, again after some uncertainty, I let my horse have its head and we picked our way through rocks and stones, across another almost dry river bed and finally up a very steep track to the Lodge.

With relief I got down and patted my trusty steed. Harnen unloaded our bags and Paul, Chris and myself went to view the hummingbird feeders situated right by the Lodge in front of a bank of fuschia bushes and roses.

Hummingbird Feeders

View from the Lodge down the valley

The Lodge Rose Garden
I should add the Lodge was fairly basic, consisting of one small building which contained the kitchen and eating area combined with a toilet and two guest bedrooms plus another room for Harnen, his wife and child. Chris and myself were in an adjacent bunkhouse next door. All without frills but perfectly acceptable.

The hummingbird feeders were alive with visiting hummers which as usual were flying around at high speed either feeding or in conflict with other hummingbirds. Many would perch, after feeding, in the fuschia bushes around the feeders or in a tree behind. 

Tourmaline Sunangel
Long tailed Sylph
The highlight for me was the arrival fairly late on of a female Sword billed Hummingbird. I had seen pictures and marvelled at the length of its bill but they cannot quite prepare you for the outlandish real thing. A fairly large hummingbird with a bill longer than itself, it arrived and distinctively, hovered much further back from the feeders than the other hummingbirds due to the extraordinary length of its bill and then, when it had finished feeding, perched low in the bushes holding its bill up at an angle as if 'en garde'. 

Sword billed Hummingbird-female
The other highlight for me were the tiny White bellied Woodstars, their small rotund bodies dwarfed by the other hummingbirds.Their wings move so fast in flight that they are nigh on invisible which makes them appear as if they are floating in the air. Then, after feeding they would fly to perch at the very tip of a twig on the tree behind the feeder, sitting there for ages, seemingly quite content to be out of the way of the other larger hummingbirds.

White bellied Woodstar-males
White bellied Woodstar-female
White bellied Woodstar-male and female
All too soon dusk came and we fell into the usual routine of sitting down for dinner, this time excellently prepared by Harnen's wife and then doing the checklist before retiring to bed. As I walked to our room I noticed huge moths had arrived, attracted by the outside lights and were clinging to the yellow and white walls of the Lodge.

Birds seen on Day 17

(h) heard only

Tawny breasted Tinamou (h); Cattle Egret; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Roadside Hawk; Broad winged Hawk; Southern Lapwing; Band tailed Pigeon; Smooth billed Ani; White collared Swift; Tawny bellied Hermit; Green Violetear; Sparkling Violetear; Tourmaline Sunangel; Speckled Hummingbird; Long tailed Sylph; Tyrian Metaltail; Collared Inca; Mountain Velvetbreast; Sword billed Hummingbird; Buff tailed Coronet; White tailed Hillstar; White bellied Woodstar; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Golden headed Quetzal (h); Black billed Mountain Toucan (h); Red crowned Woodpecker; American Kestrel; Yellow breasted Antpitta (h); Narino Tapaculo (h); Spotted Barbtail; Pearled Treerunner; Red faced Spinetail; Azara's Spinetail; Marble faced Bristle Tyrant; Ashy headed Tyrannulet; Black throated Tody Tyrant; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Smoke colored Pewee; Black Phoebe; Slaty backed Chat Tyrant; Green and Black Fruiteater; Barred Becard ; Brown capped Vireo; Green Jay (h); Blue and White Swallow; House Wren; Munchique Wood Wren; Black billed Thrush; Great Thrush; Tropical Mockingbird; Blackburnian Warbler; Slate throated Whitestart; Golden throated Whitestart; Flame rumped Tanager; Black and Gold Tanager; Blue winged Mountain Tanager; Purplish mantled Tanager; Glistening green Tanager; Scrub Tanager; Beryl spangled Tanager; Black Flowerpiercer; Olive Finch (h); Slaty Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow; Red bellied Grackle; Yellow backed Oriole; Mountain Cacique; Russet backed Orependola.


Day 18

Today was going to be a long day with a lot of activity so we were up before dawn, had a quick breakfast and then, leaving the Lodge on foot we crossed the river on what looked and turned out to be a very insecure wooden plank bridge and took a trail for a short way up and along the side of the opposite mountain, arriving at a little shelter with a seat looking across the narrow trail to a small cleared area on the opposite side. This was the stage for the latest of our antpitta experiences. 

The Bridge. The handrails moved as you held them!

The almost dry riverbed due to the lack of rain
The trail - with antpitta viewing area to the left and bench to the right
Harnen had a bucket of worms so no prizes for guessing it was antpitta time and a very rare and threatened antpitta it was too, in the form of Fenwick's Antpitta. This bird has an interesting and controversial background in that it was only discovered in 2007 on what is now the reserve and added as a new species to the Colombian Checklist in 2009.

The bird was named after George Fenwick who at the time it was discovered was President of The American Bird Conservancy which assisted in purchasing the land that is now the Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve. The controversy, which is still ongoing, arose out of a spat between ProAves and the birders who originally trapped the bird and submitted a description, both claiming they should be credited. The bird is currently called Fenwick's Antpitta by ProAves  and Urrao Antpitta by the original finders and as a placatory gesture to both parties the name Antioquia Antpitta has been suggested, as the entire known range of the species is entirely found within the Antioquia Department of Colombia. Not that the bird itself could give a monkey's about all the kerfuffle and grandstanding around its discovery but that's birding politics for you.

Much more important than worrying about who found the bird and whom should be credited is the fact that the bird is listed by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as Critically Endangered due to much of its habitat having been extensively cleared for pasture and the fact the area it inhabits is also rich in minerals which many are keen to exploit. The estimated population is between 57-156 territories and the only protection the species currently has is for those pairs nesting within the Colibri del Sol Reserve. This takes on even more significance as searches of similar habitat in the region outside the reserve have so far failed to find any pairs. 

We sat on the bench and eagerly awaited the arrival of Fenwick's Antpitta. It was not long before two arrived out of the bamboo undergrowth and despite its controversial celebrity and rarity the reality was a trifle deflating. It was a typical antpitta, standing upright on long legs that supported a plump tailess rounded body and a largish head. Overall the colour was  dull olive above and grey below. However it was an antpitta and no antpitta is worth dismissing, especially one so rare, so we happily watched it, for twenty or so minutes, alternately feeding on the worms and retreating into the undergrowth, before it came no more.

Fenwick's Antpitta
It was then back to the Lodge and into the saddle as we were going another 500m up the mountain on the back of the horses.

Harnan prepares the horses. Note the large container of water hung on the saddle
This ride was much more scary than yesterday as the horses picked their way on an ascending steep, narrow, and winding stone track up the mountainside, often feet from a sheer drop, their hooves slipping on the loose stones. My worries were of course of my own making as the horses had obviously done this many times before and slowly after an initial concern, my confidence in my steed grew and I settled in the saddle to almost enjoy the ride. For some reason the Frank Sinatra song 'Come fly with me' came to mind. There is a line where he sings 'Up there where the air is rarified.'  At this precise moment sat on a horse at a dizzying angle I felt I knew precisely what he meant!

Ready to go!
As we progressed up the mountain the air was getting noticeably thinner and above us the sky was a bright heavenly blue but still the forested mountains towered many metres above us. The scenery around us was sensational, slivers of white cloud rising like steam over the forested gaps between the mountain tops, the gigantic fraijelones, dominating the alpine scrub, standing in stark outline against the mountainsides.

We carried on until the horses could go no further as the trail narrowed significantly to just a sliver up the mountainside. Then it was time to dismount and to continue to walk ever upwards, our destination being a set of distant hummingbird feeders. I was now struggling with the altitude, my lungs straining to inhale enough oxygen from the rarified air as they tried to power my muscles and my legs began feeling heavier and likely to give way if I did not stop. I am fit, very fit for my age but I had no option but to concede to the years and the inevitable decline in my physical powers. Both Paul and Chris are fourteen years younger than me so I felt no great shame when I told them to go on and then continued to make my own much slower progress up the interminable steps leading to the row of feeders. Finally I made the welcome sanctuary of level ground at the feeders, joining the others, my heart palpitating wildly, to sit gasping on a bench, my head spinning but content in another minor triumph of mind over matter. 

The feeders brought disappointment as there was little bird activity so then it was another trial of mind and body as we negotiated another spiralling set of  steps winding steeply up the mountain to a second set of feeders located in an open area of paramo at around 3500m, Here there was a watchtower and a couple of benches to sit or in my case, collapse on. I made this too but only because we had stopped half way up on the ascent to scan a feeding flock of birds containing amongst others a couple of Golden crowned Tanagers, but now my body was screaming at me to stop. Thankfully we did and viewed the couple of feeders which were, frankly just as disappointing as the ones lower down,  but we could hear there were birds round about in the bushes and we had a target hummingbird to search for in the form of the highly endangered and endemic Dusky Starfrontlet or Glittering Starfrontlet as it is now called in Birds of Colombia. When first discovered some seventy years ago it was only an immature specimen that was collected and its appearance was dull and lacking colour hence it was given the name Dusky Starfrontlet but on being rediscovered the bird was seen in its full glory and it was quite rightly re-named Glittering Starfrontlet.

This large hummingbird is only found at high altitudes and for a long while it was only known from a specimen collected in 1951 but it was rediscovered in 2004 in what is now the Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve. At first it was thought there was no need for concern about its welfare but it became clear it was very close to extinction, with only around 1000 individuals left alive. To counter the threat of extinction The Colibri del Sol Reserve (translating as 'Hummingbird of the sun') was created in 2005 to protect over 11,000 acres of humid montane forest and paramo from exploitation of the many minerals, especially gold,that are found in the mountains and in 2007 the starfrontlet was placed by the IUCN on its Red List as Critically Endangered and that is still the situation today. 

There was no sign of any starfrontlet when we initially got to the second set of feeders but then a male put in a very brief appearance, appearing as a dark featureless hummingbird shape, before zooming off and frustratingly not returning.

Another good bird we found here was the endemic Chestnut bellied Flowerpiecer along with four other species of flowerpiercer, Masked, Black, Black-throated and White-sided. I was also pleased to see a male Sword billed Hummingbird coming to dip its preposterous bill in a bowl of sugar water.

Sword billed Hummingbird-male
Black throated Flowerpiercer
Masked Flowerpiercer
We had our breakfast and then the others decided to go on further up the trail to the very top but I declined as I knew I would not make it and did not want to embarrass myself by holding up the others. Even if I did make the effort I would be in no position to look at anything. No, it would be just as nice to sit here in solitude with a view to die for (really-no pun intended!), the peace and quiet of the paramo to sooth me and just wait and see what turned up at the feeders. Maybe the Glittering Starfrontlet would make a return appearance?

Scenes around the paramo at the second set of feeders 3500m asl
The Sword billed Hummingbird returned and so did the Masked and Black-throated Flowerpiercers as well as the male Glittering Starfrontlet but again, so frustratingly, it was only present for the briefest of moments. 

I had however, enough bird action to keep me interested. The others returned having seen very little and we sat waiting to see if the male Glittering Starfrontlet would make another visit. After quite a wait the male returned and I was lucky enough to capture it displaying to a female, flying in front of her, swaying from one side to the other in a frenzy of passion and displaying his colours to their best effect whilst fanning his tail. Initially the male looked very dark but as it moved in its display it caught the light and its dark body transformed to a metallic bluish green sheen, each feather outlined by the thinnest of black margins. But that was not all as, like some giant firefly the feathers of its rump and breast and belly turned to golden yellow- an exotic flash of added colour only to be extinguished in an instant as the bird moved. Glittering indeed and I could well understand and appreciate why its dull sounding name of Dusky Starfrontlet had been superceded by Glittering Starfrontlet. A far more appropiate name for this rare and beautiful hummingbird.

The female seemed totally unimpressed with the male's display, in fact she seemed a bit annoyed about all this fuss and the male gave it up as a bad job and flew off, leaving the female perched quietly on a lichen encrusted twig. I watched her, realising what a privilege it was to be looking at yet another exceedingly rare and endangered bird. I was at that moment too tired from all my physical efforts to properly appreciate what a momentous occasion this was but I knew that back at the lodge and rested and then in the years to come  I would recall this time with immense satisfaction and pleasure, realising how privileged I have been to see this tiny gem of a bird in its mountainous home. 

Dusky Starfrontlet-female

Dusky Starfrontlet-male displaying to the female
All too soon it was time to descend and so we set off. The target now was to try and find a Paramillo Tapaculo and possibly also an Ocellated Tapaculo which I was personally very keen to see, but we could raise neither despite numerous attempts with the tapes. We came to a stop at an altitude where below there would be no more chance of the Paramillo Tapaculo and Paul and Chris decided they wanted to go back up and try one more time for the tapaculo. I took one look at the track going back upwards and my body said 'No way'. So I was given instructions by Pablo to just follow the track downwards and I would come to a place where the track joined another and to wait there and the others would rendezvous with me, bringing the horses with them.

I set off, walking gently and quietly through the forest, following the trail as it descended  and then came to a set of steps cut in the steep hillside  leading downwards. I carried on following the steps and eventually stopped for a rest and to drink some water as I was very hot. As I sat on the steps and drank the last of my water I could hear a bird or animal walking over the dry leaves about thirty metres to my right in the forest. I listened and it sounded like a bird walking slowly over the crackling dry leaves. The sound stopped and I waited but nothing more could be heard. I walked further down the steps and just on the off chance stopped to listen once more. There it was again, the same steady light tread of  a bird walking over dry leaves. The sound stopped as before. I scanned through the thin tree trunks, random leaves and dead branches and spotted, silhouetted, just above ground level between two tree trunks, a bird's head listening. It looked pigeon like but then it came to me it was a tinamou and not just any tinamou but a Tawny breasted Tinamou. This was a minor triumph as most tinamous are virtually impossible to see on the ground. You can hear them calling without much problem but seeing them is usually just sheer luck and here it was. I knew the others would be sceptical so tried to get an image of the bird and managed one reasonably clear image of its head and part of its breast. Not the greatest shot I agree but it would do. After five minutes the tinamou obviously decided that it had shown far too much of itself to me and walked further into the dry forest and out of my sight.

Tawny breasted Tinamou
Cheered immensely by this I progressed down the steps and eventually came to where they met the other track. I waited here for an hour but there was no sign of the others. I watched a Great Thrush bringing food to its young in a nest. Was I in the right place? My water was finished. It was  decision time. I did not want to be stuck on the mountain with no water and reasoned if I carried on downwards it must lead to the Lodge. So that is what I did, leaving a note at a Mirador (viewpoint) in case the others wondered where I had got to.

I arrived back at The Lodge and sat by the hummingbird feeders to await the return of Paul and Chris Sadly they informed me that their tapaculo search had gone unrewarded so I gave them my news about the tinamou, feeling a little guilty but what can you do? It was surely the fact I was on my own that had given me the chance encounter with the tinamou and it was not as if I had planned this. Paul and Chris were, to give them their due, magnanimous in their congratulations.

The three of us watched the hummingbirds for another hour and then it was dinner time.Tomorrow we would descend the 7km back to El Chuscal, either on horseback or walking. Harnan was going to bring the horses anyway as one was needed to bring the bags back down and the other two would be available should myself, Paul or Chris feel the need. I decided that I would walk all the way. It was virtually all downhill  and I was distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect of getting on a horse again.

So it was back to an early bed but not before packing everything in readiness for a dawn start tomorrow. No change there then.

Birds seen on Day 18

(h) heard only

Tawny breasted Tinamou; Cattle Egret; Black Vulture; Band tailed Pigeon; Green Violetear; Sparkling Violetear; Tourmaline Sunangel; Long tailed Sylph; Purple backed Thornbill; Tyrian Metaltail; Glowing Puffleg; Collared Inca; Glittering Starfrontlet; Mountain Velvetbreast; Sword billed Hummingbird; Buff tailed Coronet; White-bellied Woodstar; Rusty faced Parrot (h); Scaly naped Parrot (h); Streak headed Antbird (h); Fenwick's Antpitta; Spillmann's Tapaculo (h); Streaked Tufted-cheek; White browed Spinetail; White banded Tyrannulet; White throated Tyrannulet; Blue and White Swallow; Mountain Wren (h); Gray breasted Wood Wren (h); Great Thrush; Flame rumped Tanager; Lacrimose Mountain Tanager; Golden crowned Tanager; Chestnut bellied Flowerpiercer; Black Flowerpiercer; Black-throated Flowerpiercer; White-sided Flowerpiercer; Masked Flowerpiercer; Slaty Brush Finch; Rufous collared Sparrow.  

to be continued

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