Saturday, July 30, 2011

Urrao, 6/20-21/11

After a couple days at the great Piha reserve, we had to head back to Medellín, and off to Urrao. We arrived in the north bus terminal in Medellín, and had to head out of the south terminal, a highly inferior terminal in the fact that it didn't have a Dunkin Donuts, our equivalent of the American embassy wherever we went. Today was a solid day of travel, from 6am at the Piha reserve until after dark when we arrived in Urrao. The drive was interesting in that it went through valley after valley that had been denuded of all vegetation to grow coffee. It was a rather shocking illustration of why you should buy shade-grown coffee, the difference in ecological impact is huge.

However, the most notable part of the drive was when we rounded a corner to see a ~50 foot stretch of road that was covered in mud, with more coming down from the bare slope above the road every moment. Rain came down the entire drive to Urrao, so this was something that had happened recently and was still happening. It was mildly unnerving looking upslope and seeing small stones rolling down, and also trickles of watery mud adding to the stuff already on the road. We made a go for it through the mud, but we couldn't get up enough speed to combat the slight upwards angle of the road, and had to retreat back to solid ground. After sitting there for about 40 minutes, the resourceful driver paid a construction worker to drive the tractor that was sitting on the side of the road, and he promptly bulldozed the mud out of the road, and we were on our way - it could have been much worse.

Long-tailed Sylph

Once at the town of Urrao, we went to the hotel we were planning to stay at, which turned out to be one of the best hotels I've ever stayed at in Latin America. The water pressure was so high that the drain had trouble keeping up, the water was hot, internet fast, beds soft, and they gave you free drinking water. What more could you ask for? Up early the next morning we hopped in a 4WD pickup to go to the starting point for our hike to the next spot: the Colibrí del Sol reserve, a place I'll just call it the Urrao reserve from here on out. The Urrao reserve is unique in that it hosts at least 4 species that are pretty much un-seeable anywhere else: the Urrao/Fenwick's Antpitta (a species that still isn't officially described), Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, Paramillo Tapaculo, and Dusky Starfrontlet, the latter being the bird that the reserve is named for, the "Sun Hummingbird". I say at least 4 species, because there are subspecies of Rusty-faced Parrot and Black-throated Flowerpiercer that are possibly future splits, only time will tell. Getting to the reserve requires multiple hours of walking, or you can pay a small fee to ride a horse instead of walking. Andrew and I opted to walk, and after a couple hours of uphill hiking at over 2500m of elevation, we were pretty beat. Of course, what option did we have except to hike 2km more with hundreds of meters more of elevational gain? So thats what we did, after devouring a much needed breakfast at the lodge and dropping our packs off.

Dusky Starfrontlet

In this first afternoon we managed every single target bird at this location, and so we shortened our stay by a day, heading out the next morning rather than spending two nights there. The paramo was beautiful here, with many frailejones, a really interesting local plant that is in the sunflower family, and grows close to head height with impressive thick stalks with yellowish flower clumps at the top, and was quite abundant above treeline here. The forest guard here was very impressive in his local knowledge and service, much like all the other reserves that we visited. He showed us spots for multiple birds where we got them almost instantly, always a good thing.
The always amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird

After our afternoon of getting everything, we had a good evening downing cups of hot chocolate and talking with another traveler there from Georgia, always nice to have a conversation with birds in English with another person while traveling. The next morning we got up to watch the feeding of the Urrao/Fenwick's Antpittas, which was a treat as it always rocks to see antpittas. Almost more notable than the antpittas at the feeding station was an Undulated Antpitta that hopped up onto an exposed branch on the side of the path as we headed back to the lodge! A rarely seen antpitta, this was my first one seen, despite having heard many. Our walk back down was mostly uneventful, despite a fruitless couple hour vigil at the mouth of a forested valley hoping for flyover Rusty-faced Parrots. With an extra day that we didn't expect, we did nothing but hung around in the hotel on the internet for about 24 hours, uploading photos and recordings and talking with people back in the states. Next stop is Las Tanagaras reserve - and thats where I'll pick this up!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Medellín, Arrierito Antioqueño Reserve 6/15-6/18

Bus to Piha reserve

After our sojourn in the Amazon, it was a mild relief, at least for myself, to be back in the highlands with the cool temperatures that elevation brings. Our next destination was the fantastically named Arrierito Antioqueño Reserve, named for a rare and local species called Chestnut-capped Piha, or called Arrierito Antioqueño by locals. We stuck with "the Piha reserve", but the true name is much more intriguing as far as I'm concerned.

Masked Trogon, Piha Reserve

The Piha reserve is located near Medellín, a few hours away by bus. Of course, Medellín is 13 hours away from Bogotá, so off we went. Now, by this point in time I had spent over 250 hours on buses in Latin America, over 10 days of my life. Andrew was somewhere up around 5 weeks of his life on buses, so he had me beat by a long shot. However, both of us were mildly horrified by the driver of our bus to Medellín. The drive takes you down the west slope of the eastern range of the Andes in Colombia, and then across the dry Magdalena Valley, and back up the east slope of the western range of the Andes, where Medellín sits. Our driver was relatively tame on the initial descent, not going too fast, but once we hit the flat land and straightaways of the valley, all bets were off. Most of the next 5-6 hours were spent in excess of 80 miles an hour, with the speedometer of the bus maxed out at 130kph. The best part is that buses are required by law to have a speed limiter where they can't exceed 80 kilometers an hour, so of course they all just disable the limiter somehow! The limiter is a black box with a digital readout that all the passengers can see, that sits above the rear view mirror. During out trip, some limiters would just be unplugged and be hanging loosely from wires, some would permanently read zero, and some worked, but just let the bus go over 80kph anyways.

Andean Emerald, Piha Reserve

Anyways, we reached Medellín at 11pm, alive, and asked a taxi driver for a good but cheap hotel, where we were soon asleep. Next morning back to the bus terminal early, where we hopped on our bus to the Piha reserve. The Piha reserve was a great place, with good trails, food, and accommodations. The time of year that we were there seemed like it might have been a low point for song activity, most of our targets seemed conspicuously silent, either never heard singing spontaneously, or in the case of the piha itself, heard only once. My personal favorite bird of this location was a stunning male Multicolored Tanager, our only target bird left on our last morning there, and we lucked into one in a flock when we were heading back down from the ridge trail. We had the most birding luck along the ridge trail, especially with mixed flocks. Other highlights included Red-bellied Grackle, the Chestnut-capped Piha, amazing encounters with Purplish-mantled Tanager, Parker's Antbird, and Black-and-Gold Tanagers.

After a couple days there we had to retrace our steps back to Medellín, and then hop on another bus to Urrao, a town where we would base out of to go to the Colibrí del Sol reserve, and where I will be writing about next.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mitú 6/7-6/14

White-naped Seedeater, Mitú

After leaving the bountiful hummingbird feeders of Acua Monte we descended into Bogotá, heading to the airport to meet our friend Nick Athanas who would be joining us for the next part of our trip: Mitú, deep in the Amazon. We made it to the airport and met Nick without a hitch, and after Andrew and Nick had a burger at allegedly the best burger place in Colombia, we headed to the gate for our flight to Mitú, where our flight was only delayed by about 40 minutes if I remember correctly, not too bad for South American local travel.

White-browed Purpletuft, Mitú

Now the place we were heading, Mitú, is a pretty special and unique place. The type of habitat it supports there, white-sands forest, has only one other relatively accessible place in this part of the Amazon, and that spot (São Gabriel) is across the border in Brazil. There are a fairly large number of species that only are findable in these two locations, and those were our primary targets on this trip. Mitú is also known as a spot where in 1998 over 1,900 FARC guerilla members attacked the town, killing about 70 people, destroying part of the town, and taking hostages as they retreated after they were repulsed by the Colombian military.

Swallow-winged Puffbird, Mitú

13 years later when we were there, the only sign that anything such as that ever happened is the very robust military presence in the area, with thousands of soldiers around, including patrolmen and guys standing on corners at many intersections, just casual observers, yet obviously armed. Despite, or perhaps partially because of, this military posturing, I personally never felt remotely in danger in our time there, which is always a good thing.

Gray-bellied Antbird, Mitú

Upon landing in the small one runway airport of Mitú, we got out into the stifling mid-afternoon heat and made our way to the tiny terminal. The first sign that we were in a place most tourists don't visit was when we were pulled aside by a high ranking police officer and questioned about our stay, as well as having photographs of us taken next to our passports. Luckily at this point we had found the local guide we had arranged for during our stay there, a guy who went by the name of Nacho. After a few minutes of explaining ourselves, with Nacho's help, we hopped in the back of a converted motorcycle that had a small truck bed, and headed off to our hotel. Nacho's services would prove invaluable during our time there, especially when interfacing with the local tribes and communities in the area, places where he seemed to know everyone. In fact, Nacho just knew everyone in general. He claimed at one point to have been the former chief of police in Mitú, and we don't really know whether or not it was true!

Lettered Aracari, Mitú

Our standard day in Mitú was up before dawn, hop on motorcycles that Nacho would arrange to take us to our birding destination for the day (when they showed up anyways), bird until 4-5pm, come back, shower, buy food and water for the next day, eat, crash. The birding was fantastic, with many rare and local species, and we found almost every single target in our time there. Some of the highlights for the group included getting what are likely the first photos ever of Gray-bellied Antbird, and possibly the best photos taken of a few other species, including Chestnut-crested Antbird, Orinoco Piculet, Brown-headed Greenlet, and White-naped Seedeater. Also on the recording front, Nick and Andrew got the first recordings of Orinoco Piculet, and multiple likely best recordings of other species.

Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Mitú

All in all it was a fantastic place, and I would recommend it as a birding destination, but only if you're up for some pretty hardcore birding, with no creature comforts, lots of walking, and lots of reward for your effort. Nick wrote a great trip report, much more bird oriented of course, but a good read for sure: His trip report details all sorts of logistics as well, for people interested in traveling there themselves.

After Mitú we headed back to Bogotá, parted ways with Nick, who was back off to Ecuador, and then will be going to Medellín next. As always, pictures from the trip can be seen at:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Parque Nacional Chingaza, Acua Monte 6/5-6/7

Golden-fronted Whitestart (of the white-faced population), Chingaza National Park

After Laguna Pedropalo, we found ourselves back at the bus station in Bogotá with two options for where to go next. Either we could head to a place called Monterredondo for the very localized and rare Cundinamarca Antpitta, but not much else there, or we could go to Parque Nacional Chingaza, a high elevation spot with elfin forest and paramo. Unsure of which alternative was best, we gave Diego Calderón, a local expert guide, a call. Diego was a huge help and gave us lots of information about both locations, both logistical and bird related, and we decided to go to Chingaza, basing out of the town of La Calera, a town that mostly caters to weekend vacationers from Bogotá.

One bus later we were in La Calera, and the town was completely packed with people, almost certainly due to the fact that it was a Sunday, and a beautiful one at that. Luckily there was still space left at what seemed to be the only hotel in town, and it was a hotel with wifi to boot! The big thing about Chingaza is that it isn't accessible by public transport, so we had to find some form of private transportation for the following day. By asking the hotel owner, an interesting man who spoke Arabic and some English, we arranged to be driven by his cousin the following day, in what ended up being a small truck-like vehicle.

Chingaza was a fantastic place, we were the only people up there for almost the entire day, and the birding was great. Lots of near-endemic species to Colombia occur from that area to just over the border with Venezuela, and Chingaza is the most accessible spot in the world for many of them. Highlights included Brown-breasted Parakeet, Matorral Tapaculo, Bronze-tailed Thornbill, and Blue-throated Starfrontlet (a female carrying nest material - cool!).

The most unfortunate part of the day for me was missing Bearded Helmetcrest, one of my most wanted birds for the whole trip. This species of hummingbird likes to feed on a certain kind of flowers, locally called frailejones, and I found a large patch of those that I thought looked good, and decided to stake them out. After a little while of waiting, Andrew walked off to go record the local subspecies of Tawny Antpitta, a different sounding and looking race, quite interesting. While he was trying to find the antpitta, of course he sees two female helmetcrests, while I'm sitting at the big flower flower patch, without any trace of helmets or crests. So after that, I knew they were out there, and I hadn't had them yet, and that made it all the more frustrating. To cut an even longer story relatively short, I walked for about an hour across multiple ridges and valleys, all through perfect habitat, and never saw one. Ah well, can't win them all. At this point in the day it started to rain, and so we had to cut short our time at this great place.

Back in La Calera, our plans for the next morning were to head to a nearby spot with hummingbird feeders, particularly to see Blue-throated Starfrontlet, an absolutely stunning hummingbird. We had luckily seen a female the day before, but we were hoping to see males at this location, thanks once again to the info given to us by Diego. We had a great time in our morning there at Acua Monte, seeing multiple starfrontlets and a good overall hummingbird show. Some pictures can be seen below from the feeders there.

Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Acua Monte feeders

Great Sapphirewing, Acua Monte feeders

Glowing Puffleg, Acua Monte feeders

Next stop is into the Amazon, and Mitú!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bogotá, Laguna Pedropalo 6/3-6/5

Saffron Finch, Laguna Pedropalo

I arrived in Bogotá in the early afternoon of the 3rd, after easy and seamless flights from Boston through Miami. A taxi ride across town to the hotel we were planning on staying at introduced me to the number one theme on the roads of Bogotá: traffic. A close second place for most prevalent road sight would be construction; it seems as though every road with more than one lane has something being fixed or built on it. Andrew arrived sometime after 11pm at the hotel, and I was soon asleep after that.

The next morning found us attempting to get simcards for our Blackberries, something that I had begun to investigate the day before. By getting the simcard of a local company (Comcel), and just paying them, it was orders of magnitude cheaper than paying Verizon for international data. After a couple hours of multiple Comcel technicians fussing over our phones, we were once more on our way, this time armed with the power of the internet in our pockets, something that I have become shamefully reliant on. En route to the Comcel store we happened to see an amusing sight in a small store window: Duff beer! Straight out of the Simpsons, a company in Colombia makes this novelty beer, and sells it at some stores in big cities. Left with no choice, we had to buy one, a picture of which can be seen below. Quite funny.

Duff! There was also a sign at the store that said roughly: "Duff beer, it exists!"

After getting our phones squared away, we headed to the bus station and hopped on a bus west to a small town near Laguna Pedropalo, our birding stop for the next morning. We didn't have that much information to go on for Pedropalo, and that combined with the fact that we were denied access to the trails around the lake, due to bureaucratic problems, led us to miss a couple of our target birds there. It was still a nice day though, mainly walking on dirt roads through farmland with patches of forest. Some highlights included Moustached Brush-Finch, Bar-crested Antshrike, and endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird.

Moustached Brush-Finch, Laguna Pedropalo

After the morning of birding at Pedropalo we picked up our bags and hopped back on a bus to Bogotá, with our next destination being La Calera, a town just east of Bogotá that is the jump-off point for Parque Nacional Chingaza, where we are next headed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Colombia - June 3-July 3 2011

Las Tangaras Reserve, Chocó department, Colombia

It has been a long time since I have even thought of blogging! However, I just got back from a one month long trip to Colombia with my friend Andrew Spencer, and my dad has been trying to get me to write some posts about the trip, and why not.

Since the last time I wrote here, about Peru and Chile, I have successfully been through my first two semesters at college, and also had a ~3 week trip to Ecuador with a few people over the winter, spending a couple days with my parents and then the rest of the time traveling around on buses, something that tends to happen quite often in South America. The focus of the moment is on Colombia though, and I hope to produce 7 or 8 posts in total about the various parts of the trip.

Colombia was a great country, with your standard stunning Andean scenery, cheap overall living, very nice and helpful people, and exceptional birding and natural experiences. Our time there took us across much of the central portion of the country, going east into the Amazon, north to the Medellín area, and west to the western foothills of the Andes in the Chocó department: the humid western lowlands.

In all we had a little over 600 species of birds during our trip, of which slightly over 100 were life birds for me, not a bad total. I believe Andrew got over 50 lifers as well, which is pretty impressive, this being his third trip to the country. Despite Colombia having a bad rap for safety, we never felt in danger in our time in country. There was a large military presence in some locations we visited, especially Mitú, but it always seemed as if they were there to preclude any possible nastiness, rather than there because of a regular need to respond.

Our trip started in Bogotá, the capital of the country: a land of Dunkin Donuts and lots of traffic, and that is where I'll start in the next post.