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…

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