Saturday, February 21, 2015

More mountains and birds

My first stop after leaving Bucaramanga was the Chicamocha Canyon some 60 km to the south. This canyon reaches an impressive depth of about 2000 m and was even nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world in 2009. From the river crossing at the bottom of the canyon it took a good four hours to reach the top. I stopped frequently to take a break from the searing heat, which sapped my energy rather quickly and mercilessly. I was also green with envy at the Colombian cyclists who made it look so easy - I even had one pull up beside me, share a great chat, and then take off again in a hurry to complete the remaining 40 km to San Gil before nightfall! Sure, they are not carrying the load that I am, but still! Closer to the top of the canyon was an amusement park of sorts, with countless Colombians enjoying the activities and incredible view over the canyon.

Tackling the Chicamocha Canyon in the heat of the day; great view though!
Traffic on the road while ascending Chicamocha.
I was glad the road did not go through there!

Colombian family enjoying lunch at Chicamocha Park.

Chicamocha Canyon before sunset.

As I headed on towards San Gil, I added Scrub Tanager, Golden-rumped Euphonia, White-tipped Swift, Band-tailed Pigeon, and the common but striking Vermillion Flycatcher to my list. Since I did not have a copy of the book ‘The non-passerines of South America’ (I had accidentally left it on a bus in Venezuela!), I had a hard time identifying the hummingbirds I was seeing. I would later discover that even with a field guide, hummingbirds were still the most challenging group of birds to identify! I did however get to confirm Gorgeted Woodstar and White-necked Jacobin from some photos I had managed to take of these active little critters.

Bananaquits are found just about anywhere.

Coffee beans enjoying the sunshine.

View over yet more mountains.

After San Gil I took the back road via Mogetes to Onzaga through a series of mountain climbs. Not sure why I wanted to subject myself to such mental and physical punishment, but it turned out to be well worth it. Closer to Onzaga I was hoping to see two Colombian endemics, Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird and Colombian Mountain Grackle; the odds were low as I did not really know precisely where to look for these species within their limited ranges. Beyond Mogetes the road was unsurfaced, slowing me down a little. The birding certainly did not slow down, with some good forest delivering a host of new species, most notably various beautifully marked tanagers, such as Beryl-spangled, Metallic-green, Black-capped, and Golden Tanager. A male Canada Warbler gave fleeting glimpses as it moved through the dense forest understory.
The road over the mountains from San Gil to Onzaga.

Down, down and down the other side.

As I closed in on Onzaga, the road passed through a picturesque valley, complete with a mountain stream and large flowering trees. Flowering trees? I had to pull myself away from admiring the scenery to pay more attention to what was unfolding around the trees. It was not long before I spotted a hummingbird that looked suspiciously like the chestnut-bellied variety. With a rush of excitement, I came to conclusion that it was indeed a Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird! A few photographs later to secure the proof I needed, I was off looking for a camping spot for the night. Next day I was rather surprised to find that the hummingbirds were fairly common in the valley and had several more sightings before I started the long and final ascend. The climb seemed to last forever, with the early stages producing more lifers such as Tropical Parula and Yellow-faced Grassquit amongst the regulars, Smooth-billed Ani, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Slate-throated Whitestart, Yellow-backed Oriole, and Scrub Tanager. With increasing altitude, I was closing in on another exciting lifer. Crossing a small mountain stream I couldn't help but think that it was perfect habitat for dipper. My thoughts were still lingering when a brown blur wizzed by – a White-capped Dipper! Some stealth stalking was required to relocate the bird a little further upstream and to get a better glimpse of this brown and white gem. Dippers are always worth watching, best of all when they make those seemingly impossible ‘swims’ underwater when foraging. 

Valley near Onzaga, with stream and flowering trees.

A Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird hovering over flowers. Where are the wings?

Onzaga, situated within a valley.
The stream where I found my first White-capped Dipper.

View across the valley towards Onzaga.

A house on the way up; its easy for me to imagine living here...

My hopes of seeing Mountain Grackle began to wane as I approached the ridge of the mountain pass, just as the woodland was progressively reduced to shrubland and finally alpine heathland. A patch of forest provided consolation prizes in the form of Black-headed Hemispingus and Grass-green Tanager. A potential Capped Conebill gave a far too fleeting glimpse, before vanishing from view. The alpine scene that greeted me at the top of the pass was breath-taking; well worth the effort it had taken to get there. I was content even though no new species revealed themselves.

Top of the mountain pass - was I glad to see it was downhill from here!

A peculiar plant, the Espeletia, or commonly known as Frailejón, was abundant here – this was typical Páramo habitat I figured. A leisurely cycle through the open terrain brought me to the main road that would take me to Bogotá. A bird party moving through some scrub beside the road drew my attention to a few more lifers, Brown-backed Chat-tyrant, Many-striped Canastero and Rusty Flowerpiercer.

Espeletia (Frailejon) near the top of the mountain pass.

Frailejon, as seen from the top.

Sorry, but I can't help sharing all these scenery shots.

Can't forget to put in a photo of my bike.

Once on the main road I made an effort to close the distance between myself and the capital. With birding taking a back-seat, I passed the centres of Belen, Duitama and Tunja on my way south. I still added a couple lifers such as Andean Siskin and Black-backed Grosbeak, amongst the common roadside birds such as Tropical Kingbird, Tropical Mockingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, and Southern Lapwing. Near Tunja I took a break at Puente de Boyacá (The Bridge of Boyacá), where the historical battle of 1819 (Battle of Boyacá) ensured Colombia's independence. A midday nap on the extensive lawns was in order!

The Von Miller Monument at Puente de Boyacá, depicting Simón Bolivar.

A close up, showing Simón Bolivar, surrounded by other figures.

I reached Bogotá in good time, and upon entering this massive city, realized how fortunate I was to have a place to stay. Marcela, a friend of a friend back in South Africa, kindly hosted me for two days until I got my bearings. While my plan was to head straight away for Ecuador, reality had something else in mind. After meeting more friendly and hospitable Colombians, I could not help but stay a little longer, happily at the expense of birding...

The road to Bogotá through typical countryside scenery.

This lovable kitten followed me for a short distance, after camping at its owner's.

The ever-present Tropical Kingbird.
Massive pumpkins for sale - I had no intention of taking one with!
My cycling route through Colombia, from Cucuta (A) to Bogotá (B).

Notes for birders:

There were essentially two well-known birding sites that I passed between Bucaramanga and Bogotá. The first, which I never really got close to as it was a bit out of the way, was the Cerulean Warbler Bird Reserve ( This ProAves reserve is situated south west of Bucaramanga near the town of San Vicente de Chucuri, and supports a variety of sought-after species including the Cerulean Warbler, Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird and Colombian Mountain Grackle.

Another popular birding site is Soata, some 300 km on Road 55 northwest of Bogotá. After passing through Onzaga, which is just to the west of Soata, I ran out of time to visit the latter to try for Colombian Mountain Grackle. The outskirts of Soata are good for Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird, while the grackle can be found on a road that connects Soata directly to Onzaga (if I had known about this road I would have taken it!). The grackles are found at high elevations, so when leaving Soata on the road to Onzaga, its necessary to get above 2500 m and into oak woodland to have any luck at seeing this uncommon species. And it seems like one needs a lot of luck!

There is a great book on where to watch birds in Colombia, which was published in 2013. I will give a brief review of it in the next post. The book is a must if you intend visiting Colombia for birding, as it details the sites mentioned above and so much more, something in the order of 130 sites across the country. More later…

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Crossing over to Colombia

Crossing the border from San Antonio in Venezuela to Cúcuta in Colombia was a new experience. To say the border crossing was busy would be an understatement; the bridge over the Táchira River was packed like a sardine tin with motorcyclists and pedestrians making the crossing in both directions. It took a good while to worm my way through on the bike. Once in Colombia it was not long before I was invited by a stranger, who had been cycling next to me, to follow him home for a cup of coffee and refile my bottles with cold water. I got the feeling this would not be the first time I would experience Colombian hospitality. This encounter left me wondering how it can be that locals are so hospitable towards strangers, especially since Colombia has been through dark times, of which remnants still remain.

Filled with gratitude, I left Gregory's home with a bag full of Spanish lime fruit and a block of panela. I was soon to develop a mild addiction for panela, which is essentially unrefined cane sugar in solid form. It’s a great helping hand when tackling tough rides that seem to go on forever over mountains - I was to discover that this would become common practice while cycling through the Andes!

Countryside near Cucuta in north-eastern Colombia.

A handful of Spanish lime fruit. Juicy and delicious, with a slight tangy taste.

A Black Vulture, a seemingly abundant species in the Neotropics.

My first night of wild camping in Colombia was somewhere south of Cúcuta, in a patch of dry thorny woodland, reminding me a little of Africa. Being a newbie in Colombia, I couldn't help but wonder whether it was a good idea to camp only metres from a main road, with only a few bushes providing cover from passbyers - I was desperate for a place to camp as the sun was about to set. Remembering my friendly encounter with Gregory earlier that day made any concerns dissipate, and I was in for a peaceful sleep. Next morning I was greeted by a pair of Northern White-fringed Antwrens, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher and a spinetail species which I could not identify. Should have been rather easy but I just could not clinch it for some reason; this would not be the first time a species would go unidentified…many more were to follow. Birding in the Neotropics was already beginning to feel like a different game, a game that would be hard to master!

Two extremes, bamboo on left and a tree covered in beard lichen on right.

A male Saffron Finch, an abundant species practically everywhere.

I was heading for the capital, Bogotá, and had set aside a few weeks to close the distance. As I headed into the Andes, the landscape changed rapidly, with the scenery becoming progressively greener. Well, it was pretty much green everywhere, but perhaps it can be best described as a different shade of green. Lots of lifers awaited, mainly common species, including Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Northern Waterthrush, Burnished-buff Tanager, Swallow Tanager, Cattle Tyrant, and  several seedeaters such as Grey, Yellow-bellied, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, as well as Lesser Goldfinch. Before I reached too high an altitude, I had the chance of seeing Common Basilisks, also know as the Jesus Lizard because of their ability to run over water. While I did not get to see them in action, but just lounging about on river rocks and logs, they were a rather unusual sighting for me.

Heading for Pamplona in the high mountains, I was faced with a continuous uphill climb. Wishing for a downhill stretch was futile, though the spectacular scenery made up for the effort it took to plod along. Cycling uphill for long stretches is not as painful as it may seem, as I cheat gravity by having rather small front sprockets (20, 30 and 40 teeth), which I find ideal for the pace at which I cycle. Instead, it is the monotony of having to keep peddling to prevent regressive or no movement at all. Painless fatigue naturally also sets in at some point, but then that's why there are substances like panela! 

Mountain scenery on the way up to Pamplona. Did I just come up from down there!

The streets of Pamplona; really quiet on a Sunday!

Vegetables on sale in Pamplona.

The view from my hammock, on the outskirts of Pamplona.

A two-day stop over at Pamplona was needed after the nearly endless uphill cycle. Taking rest in this quaint town also gave me a chance to experience Colombian culture, and naturally test the street food ranging from delicious oatmeal drinks to Colombian-style arepas and empanadas. Back on the road, more species awaited with Pale-naped Brushfinch, the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, Golden-fronted Whitestart and Blackburnian Warbler. The latter is a common summer migrant from North America. I also saw my first Great Thrush, significantly larger than any of its close relatives – I had to look twice to make sure I was not dreaming. While it turned out they were very common, I also had more first-encounters with Brown-bellied Swallow, both Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercer, Black-crested Warbler, Slaty and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. I saw other species that could have made it onto my life list, but with so many similar species I dared not take a chance to assume the identify of a species – I figured I’d see them all eventually, or so I hoped…

Seeing is believing. The Great Thrush is a relatively large bird compared to relatives.
Mountain fog was fairly common.
Pardon, another foggy photo.

Rolling hills on the way to Berlin. Chilly weather though!

The habitat was changing almost continuously, depending on the altitude. From what looked like oak woodland to open alpine heathland, and to everything in between, I did not tire of the scenery. I was hoping to reach Berlin (no, not that Berlin in Germany) by the end of the day, but was delayed by yet another long winding climb to reach the mountain plateau at 3000 m. Failing to find two trees to hang my hammock (was that asking for too much!), I was forced to complete the final stretch well after sunset and in the drenching rain - I must have look like a sad sight to motorists. Too lazy to dig out my cold-weather gloves, I only realised the price of laziness when I arrived in Berlin. The first digit of two of my fingers on my left hand had a blue-purple tinge to them; the chill factor was obviously not so noticeable while cycling uphill. I figured my fingers would be ok, but it took a good four days for them to restore to default. Lesson learnt - keep those gloves handy!

The road to Berlin, situated on a high mountain plateau.

While I could have stayed longer in Berlin to enjoy the tranquility of this small and far-off town, the cold and wet weather nudged me down the other side of the mountain to the city of Bucaramanga. What a breath-taking descend that was, until I hit the fog line. It was one of those 'now you see it, now you don't' situations. I did manage to get a few new birds along the way including Yellow-bellied and Slaty-backed Chat-tyrants, and a White-browed Spinetail. During my few days in the city, I managed to visit Parque Ecológico La Flora, a well-wooded park surrounded by suburbia. Birds were in abundance with no shortage of lifers, including Streaked Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet, Boat-billed flycatcher (huge bill indeed!), Thick-billed Euphonia, Buff-throated Saltator, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Bay-headed Tanager and more North American migrants such as Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow Warbler and the striking Black-and-White Warbler.

The Rufous-collared Sparrow, a very common species in any highland habitat.

Forest on the way down to Bucaramanga.

View over Bucaramanga. Civilisation, here I come!

While staying at the hostel in Bucaramanga, I was invited to join a group of young musicians on their musical affair on a city bus. They split into four pairs, with the first pair boarding a bus at the end of the line, and kicking off with a simple drum beat. At each successive bus stop, another pair would board to join the others, adding more instruments to the musical piece. I did not join in, as the only instrument I can play is the vuvuzela… By the time the last group boarded, the music was going full throttle, and continued for several more bus stops until we were in walking distance of the hostel. The commuters gave a heart-warming applause, followed by much cheering. I was beginning to enjoy the Colombian vibe, one can't help but succumb to its magic...

Notes for birders:

Colombia is reputed to be an awesome country for birding, and boasts over 1900 species, with the list still growing. That's more species than any other country in the world! This impressive list can be attributed to the diversity in habitats, ranging from the Amazonas to the Andes.

For identifying birds, I use two field guides that cover the entire continent (since I am crossing several countries and want to save on bulk and weight). For the passerines, I have a copy of 'Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: The Passerines', by Robert S. Ridgely and Guy Tudor, published by Texas University (same content also publish by Helm Field Guides). One can't really fault this book, the illustrations are superb, the text is detailed enough to assist identification when in doubt (e.g. details regarding the preferred altitude for most species is provided), while the distribution maps are large and clear (though perhaps not always that accurate for some species I found). In a nutshell, I can't imagine birding in South America without this book, its an absolute must-have. Do note however that some 500 species are not illustrated, though are described in the text (the text follows the plates). I rarely found this to be a problem; it just means that if one can't find the illustration in the plates, one needs to look at similar looking species, then at the distribution maps, and finally, read up on the description. I have always found the description spot-on for species that are not illustrated.

For the non-passerines, one cant get anything more compact than 'Birds of South America: Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers', by Francisco Erize, Jorge R. Rodriguez Mata, & Maurice Rumboll, published by Princeton University Press. Being compact, this guide naturally has to sacrifice on some features, and hence the distribution maps are rather small while there is limited descriptive text per species. This should, however, not distract from the usefulness of this guide. The illustrations are rather good, and large, making it easy to page through when under pressure to identify a species! However, for some groups, such as the woodpeckers for example, the colours can be misleading. At first glance it may appear that the species is not illustrated, but upon closer inspection of the plates and characteristic features of a particular species, one will usually spot the subject of interest. Whether it is just my birding skills or the accuracy of the plates, I find the hummingbirds the hardest to identify using this book - I sometime wish I had another resource to turn to in times of need. Hummingbirds are a real challenge for me, mostly because views are relatively brief and blurry as they buzz by. Added to that, there are heaps of features one needs to look out for in order to separate similar-looking species (take a look at the 'emeralds' for example). That said, the books is still extremely valuable and certainly worth taking along on a trip to any South American country, even just as back-up to your favourite country guide, just because it is so compact. 

Now that I have just made this blog post even longer by briefly reviewing these two books, instead of just suggesting you read the reviews on, let me say a little about the one birding site I did managed to visit. Parque Ecológico La Flora in Bucaramanga is a real little gem with over 100 species recorded. Well wooded and safe for birders, it offers a nice location for casual birding if you happen to find yourself in the city (just type the park's name in the search bar in Google Maps and you're there). Just make sure to avoid the busy times on weekends and late afternoons when joggers and families take to the pathways. There are also other sites around Bucaramanaga worth visiting (, though I did not visit any of the these.