Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Llanos awaits...

From Medina it was a short cycle to the western edge of the Llanos. I had finally arrived! It was certainly flat like it should be, but did not quite look like the version I saw from the bus window in Venezuela. Never mind, at least I am here I thought!

Mind the Giant Anteaters. I unfortunately did not see one.

Wall painting in Villanueava on my way to Yopal. One chance to guess who this is!

One of many rivers flowing from the Andes to the Llanos plains.

Stopping for road works along the way. Note the plantain dangling from the roof.

With the flat terrain I was able to make good progress northwards towards Yopal, the capital of the Llanos region. It had been a while since I was able to cycle so freely; it felt like there was no longer a ball-and-chain tied to the bike. I also got a few lifers along the way, including Grassland Sparrow (had to search hard for this one in a small bush), Grey-necked Wood Rail, White-tailed Hawk, Red-capped Cardinal, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and Scarlet Ibis. The latter was a particularly pleasing find, as I only had a mere glimpse of the species from the Venezuelan bus. 

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, present wherever there was standing water.

My destination was a finca (farm/ranch) near Paz De Ariporo further to the north, were I had arranged to spend some days birdwatching. After stocking up with food in Paz De Ariporo I headed out to the finca just before sunset. It was later than I had hoped, and so ended up completing the final two hours in the dark negotiating a rather bumpy unsurfaced road. I would later learn that the locals call such a road a ‘la trocha’ in Spanish, with a humorous ring to it. I am sure by day it would not have been a problem to cycle, but with limited visibility at night it was a different story altogether. I was somewhat exhausted but relieved when I finally arrived, guided to the homestead by a single light in the distance – around here there is no power grid, so lights are used sparingly. Alberto, my host, had been waiting for me, and prepared a tasty dinner, I think he knew I would need it after cycling the la trocha at night! While communication was somewhat of a challenge, we got by rather well under the circumstances (my Spanish was less than minimal). Having arrived in the dark, I was completely disorientated, and it was not until the next morning that I realize I was in paradise. 

A sunrise on the way. One of the perks of living on a finca.

With my first views of the surroundings at sunrise, I realized why the Llanos here did not resemble what I had seen in Venezuela. The reason being the absence of water…it was now the dry season, with water being limited to the deepest bogs. There were two such wetlands in close proximity to the homestead. And there was no shortage of birds… Birds were moving back and forth between the wetlands, and cruising overhead at higher altitudes while making long-distance flights between other wetlands. The flocks were particularly impressive in the early mornings and late afternoons when mostly ibises undertook their daily commuting.

Red-footed Tortoise, seen on a few occasions.

Smooth-billed Anis were common, more so than the larger Greater Ani.

Birding involved rising at 5 am, and taking a stroll around the homestead (with a coffee interlude at 6 am), followed by brief excursions to the wetlands and some riparian forest nearby. Breakfast was served at 8 am so I did not want to stray too far! Alberto made a traditional breakfast locally known as Caldo de Costilla, a soup with sliced potatoes and meat. A nice alternative to my usual breakfast concoctions. For dinner, crisp fried fish was served up, another dish I had never had the pleasure of enjoying. The fish is so crisp that even the bones can be eaten without a problem!

Crisp fried fish, another novelty for my taste buds.

The area was so productive that by breakfast I had already identified over 60 species between the homestead and the wetlands alone. However, the birding slowed down thereafter, adding only another 20 to 30 species before sunset. With far too many species seen to mention here, perhaps it is best to list the most memorable ones. One of my highlights was to hear a pair of Horned Screamers perform their unmelodious duet from the edge of the wetland at sunrise. Though they did not call again until sunset, their massive statures made them easily detectable as they slowly waded through the tall grassland. A pair of gigantic storks, named Jabiru, also made an appearance on the first day, but were not seen again. The list of birds goes on, with the wetlands holding Rufescent Tiger-heron, Striated Heron, Little Blue Heron and Cocoi Heron, while Wattled Jacanas in their dozens trotted over floating vegetation. 

The pair of Horned Screamers heard at dawn and dusk.

Cocoi Herons look very similar to Grey Herons found outside the Neotropics.
The number of ibis species was impressive, with Buff-necked, Sharp-tailed, Scarlet, Green, and Bare-faced all seen easily, with only one potential White Ibis (juvenile) not making it onto the list. Smaller species associated with the wetlands included the striking White-headed Marsh-tyrant, Pied Water-tyrant and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. I was hoping for a White-tailed Goldenthroat in the scrub surrounding a third wetland a little further afield, but failed to identify any of the hummingbird species noted! Somehow this bird group still remains my nemesis!

 A Bare-faced Ibis (left) beside the much larger Sharp-tailed Ibis.

A Buff-necked Ibis, they were mostly seen in pairs.
A male White-headed Marsh-tyrant surveying his territory.

A Great Egret looking for a meal before sunset.

A Great Black Hawk also gave a good show one afternoon by hunting over the reed beds, occasionally dropping out of sight as it lunged for prey. Other raptors included the pair of American Kestrels taking comfort in being around the homestead, while Savanna Hawk and Aplomado Falcon kept a watching eye over the nearby grasslands. Black, Turkey and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture were regularly seen soaring with their characteristic shaky-style, particularly in the afternoons when the wind strength increased by a few knots. 

Brown-throated Parakeets were always present in large flocks.

Tropical Mockingbird, a common species and no stranger to the Llanos.

A small river passing through dense riparian forest delivered a number of surprises, including Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Russet-throated Puffbird, Black-crested Antshrike, Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant, Rufous-and-white Wren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and best of all, the near-mystical Sunbittern. The Sunbittern is a rather elegant bird, as it quietly and unobtrusively forages along the muddy banks of the shaded streams. At the other extreme, a family group of the bizarre and prehistoric-looking Hoatzin noisily made its way through the forest canopy, announcing their unhappiness with my presence. I also spent considerable time just sitting in the forest, quietly, watching the odd bird flit or hop by – mostly Fuscous Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wren and Grey-necked Wood Rail. I also had a glimpse of a tinamou species, but lost sight of this ground-dwelling bird as it disappeared into the forest undergrowth.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar, jem of the forest.

A male Black-crested Antshrike, regularly seen in the riparian forest.

Grey-necked Wood Rails were often seen walking through the forest.

I easily found one of my target birds for the Llanos, the White-bearded Flycatcher. A pair of birds occupied the patch of trees behind the homestead, so were seen and heard daily. What I missed was Pale-headed Jacamar, but perhaps I was unlucky or it had something to do with the time of year. Other species common around the homestead included Orange-fronted Yellow-finch, Yellow-browed Sparrow, Oriole Blackbird, Violaceous Jay, Spectacled Parrotlet and the very vocal family groups of Plain Thornbirds. I was amazed at the size of some of the twigs used by thornbirds for building their bulky nests; they must be some of the more serious heavy-weight lifters in the bird world. 

White-bearded Flycatcher, an endemic to the Llanos of northern South America.

Oriole Blackbirds frequently forage on the ground, usually in groups or mixed flocks.
Yellow-browed Sparrows are common in the Llanos.
Plain Thornbirds build bulky nests, using surprisingly large twigs.

Having spent five glorious days in the lap of luxury, amidst beautiful surroundings with a tranquil atmosphere, it was time to bid my generous host goodbye. Alberto had once gain demonstrated how hospitable Colombians are, even in the most far-flung corners of the country. I could easily have stayed longer, but the clock was ticking, and so I was ambling my way down the ‘la trocha’ yet again. Once on the main road things speeded up as I returned to Yopal, where believe it or not, I was invited yet again to stay over with another Colombian family! Can it get better than this… perhaps. 

Looking back at the mountains across Llanos plains.

Notes for birders:

Anyone interested in birding at Alberto’s finca in the Llanos can contact Fernando at to arrange a visit. Its one of the most accessible sites from Yopal for getting the Llanos ‘specials’. The finca supports a variety of habitats, including the wetlands, their associated grasslands and riparian forest bordering a small river/stream, which is only a short stroll from the homestead. Birding around the homestead itself is productive with all sorts of Llanos species feeling at home here and being rather easy to see.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When the hunger hits

After an emotionally-charged farewell to Carmen, who had hosted me for two days, I took to completing the mountain ascent. Unable to stop thinking about the humbling experience staying at Carmen’s, I somehow missed the next milestone, Santa Elena. In so doing I also missed the turn-off to Medina, my gateway to the Llanos. Here’s another good reason why living in the moment is important - opportunities are less likely to be missed! I had gone too far to turn back so took my only other option, straight ahead! Fortunately some good birds made up for the minor inconvenience, such as Golden-faced and Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Montane Woodcreeper (finally ticked, after a number of previous doubtful sightings) and the striking Inca Jay. I met with a few groups of this exquisite species, which were rather common and usually located by their characteristic calls. 

View over the Del Guavio Dam on the way to Gachala.

Pastures and the Del Guavio Dam on the way to Gachala.

Conserve the Black-and-chestnut Eagle, it says.

Still unknown to me, I had taken a rather unconventional route. At the very top of a mountain pass I encountered some roadworks; they were laying a large concrete slab across a narrow stretch of the road with sheer sides. Bugger! I was for sure not going to turn back. Fortunately some of the workers carried my bike across the wet, freshly-poured concrete, and so was soon on my way again. However, I should have guessed from the looks I got that I would be in for a fun ride down the other side of the mountain… 

Freshly-poured concrete, an obstacle for only a minute.

Forest everywhere!

The road snaked its way through pristine forest covering the mountains and valleys beyond - magnificent beyond words! I camped a little further downhill hoping to do some forest birding the next morning, anticipating that the rain would abate by then. All started well at sunrise, with several new species making appearances, such as Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Pearled Treerunner, Three-striped Warbler, Rufous-crowned Tody-flycatcher, and Azara’s Spinetail. Then the rain resumed, and continued uninterrupted for some time as I continued the descent in a rather soggy state. Trying to keep my binoculars from fogging up was a challenge, as usual under such conditions. When the rain finally trickled off giving way to some sunshine, I used the opportunity to dry the essentials, my hammock and sleeping bag. My first pair of Streak-throated Bushtyrants passed by not longer after. Then the unexpected happened rather unexpectedly…

A Burnished-buff Tanager, a rather common species.

The road gradually began to dwindle into a trail, with the descents becoming steeper and more rugged. It then became clear to me that the route I had taken was not a regular road at all. I was in the middle of nowhere, and there was absolutely no-one else about. I had no idea how far I was from the nearest town, with the magnificent forest still stretching in all directions. By now I had run out of food (my worst nightmare!), and started to feel the first of the hunger pangs. For now the forest began to look more intimidating than inviting. I was caught between trying to enjoy the forest birding, while also trying to make progress to get to the nearest shop stocked with something edible. Added to that, cycling became risky on the trail, so I eventually resorted to pushing my bike. I ended up walking alongside my bike for more than half a day, as it was several kilometers before it was safe enough to cycle again. I was absolutely ravenous by now.

Despite the deprivation, the birding was rather good towards the mid-slopes of the mountains, with Red-headed Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Russet-backed Oropendola, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Warbler, Scaled Piculet, Magpie Tanager and Long-tailed Tyrant providing short-term relief from the hunger. I also had brief but convincing views of an unmistakable Cerulean Warbler while it gleaned branches in the canopy above me. The Cerulean Warbler is said to be the fastest declining Neotropical songbird species, and faces numerous threats - one being the dwindling winter habitat in the Northern Andes. The Cerulean Warbler Bird Reserve near Bucaramanga is the first of its kind to protect such habitat.

A Sooty-capped Hermit singing persistently from the same spot.

Once I reached the lower slopes, I got acquainted with more lifers including Giant Cowbird, Sooty-capped Hermit, Thrush-like Wren, Chestnut-eared Araҫari, and Yellow-billed Nunbird. And it was not until the next afternoon that I found something to graze at a roadside shop, having survived the past two days on half a cup of rice and an onion! Fortunately I had my camping stove handy, so I was able to conjure the most amazing rice dish I have ever made! Everything always tastes better when one is hungry! Another lesson learnt; always keep something edible and non-perishable stashed in a pannier for emergencies!

A stream flowing through the foothills.

I reached the foot of the mountains where a small river meandered its way through a spectacular valley. Here I spotted Little Blue Heron and Whistling Heron rather quickly, two species I would see regularly during my visit to the Llanos. It was essentially my first glimpse of the bird life of the Llanos. The valley also produced White-chinned Jacamar, Rufous-breasted Wren, Speckled Chachalaca, Red-breasted Blackbird and Black-faced Tanager, amongst others. 

Woodland and river on the way to San Pedro De Jagua.

Cattle Egrets were seen together with Little Blue and Whistling Herons.

More country side scenery nearing Medina.

Peculiar hills on the way to Medina.

After passing through the small town of San Pedro De Jagua, I finally reached Medina. It had felt like I had done a round-trip to get here! I spent a night and a day in this quaint town to get some urgent laundry done. Believe me, it was about time! And just when I thought I was on my way again, I was waved to a halt by Maximiliano who was sitting on his porch. And so it was that I ended up spending another two nights in Medina, and had the privilege of getting to know another Colombia family. I also learnt a few important phrases in Colombian Spanish, most notably: ‘Tinto con pan’ (black coffee with bread), something we enjoyed sharing frequently.  And so I got to spend more time in the company of fine Colombians, and an earnest invitation to spend Christmas with the family…

A tantalizing glimpse of the Llanos painted on a wall.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bogotá and beyond

I had the good fortune of meeting Viviana and her family, who kindly put me up for a week in the city while I caught up with lagging tasks. I was also invited to join them and Tito, a close family friend, at their home in Tabio on the outskirts of Bogotá, where I enjoyed more true Colombian hospitality. Besides the excellent company, the traditional Colombian meals, a family dinner at a local restaurant, and a cycle ride through the countryside all contributed to making it a memorable week. Added to that, I managed to tick off a few birds including two hummingbird species, Sparkling Violetear and Green-tailed Trainbearer (yes, they are bird names!), Grassland Yellow-finch, Black Flowerpiercer, and the common but endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail, Rufous-browed Conebill and Spot-flanked Gallinule. 

This Sparkling Violetear spent a lot of time singing to declare its territory.

Black Flowerpiercer, with a bill designed for piercing flowers for nectar.

Just a leaf, nothing more.
It goes by a lot of names, but I like Inca berry since its native to Peru to Colombia.

Upon returning to Bogotá, Tito and I embarked on a long-weekend cycle tour to the popular town of Villa De Leyva. Driving part of the way there, and cycling the rest, we completed a 200 km round trip on our bikes. We had a hard time trying to stay on the intended route, somehow always ending up on another road despite regularly scrutinizing the map. At one point we were on a serious back-road, which made the ride so much more entertaining, not to mention the spectacular scenery. The delays were time-consuming and literally left us with only enough time to enjoy a beer in Villa De Leyva’s main square! Nonetheless, it was a memorable weekend thanks to the great scenery and Tito’s fine company.
Roadside scenery on the way. That's not my bike!

Taking some serious back-roads after repeatedly missing the main road.

Camping near Ráquira on the way to Villa De Leyva.

The streets of Ráquira.

The main square in Villa De Leyva. The mountains reminded me of South Africa.

Restaurants and pubs bordering the main square in Villa De Leyva.

Before leaving Bogotá (and I though I would never return…) I spend a day birding at La Florida, a popular birding site near the airport. Arriving early morning, I was hoping for Bogotá Rail more than anything else. My wish was granted far easier that I had imagined when I saw a pair within five minutes of arriving. A little patience while watching a gap in the dense reeds goes a long way to finding seemingly elusive birds! Several other lifers were also about, including Bare-faced Ibis, American Coot, Andean Duck and Blue-winged Teal, and Yellow-hooded Blackbird - all common species generally associated with wetlands. A Smoky-brown Woodpecker and White-throated Tyrannulet provided some distraction from the wetland birding. I also made an afternoon visit to another wetland, Humedal La Conejera, but had rather little time to explore it sufficiently. The marsh areas seemed rather productive, delivering Lesser Yellowlegs, South American Snipe, and several species seen earlier at La Florida.

A male Andean Duck, seen both at La Florida and Humedal Conejera.

A male Blue-winged Teal being spooked by what I think is a Brazilian Guinea Pig.

The endemic and localised Spot-flanked Gallinule.
A Northern Waterthrush seen at Humedal Conejera.

I left Bogotá with the plan to visit the Llanos, the extensive plains that separate the Andes from the Amazonas. Getting there would mean crossing the Eastern Andes. I had seen the Llanos in Venezuela but only through the window of a moving bus; a vast mosaic of open green plains interspersed with shallow blue waters, stretching into infinity. I was eager to really experience it, to live it, even if only for a few days. So off I was into the mountains yet again, taking the road from Bogotá to Gacheta. My hopes of birding the top of the first high mountain pass were dashed when I arrived at sunset in the fog and rain. The wet weather persisted throughout the night, surpassed the muted dawn chorus and continued well into the late morning as I started the descent. No new lifers, and I had been hoping to reap them in by the dozen. A pair of parakeets calling from the fog made me think that I could very well be missing some good species; the endemic and localised Brown-breasted Parakeet reportedly occurs in the area.

View over Bogota at sunset, the day I though I was departing for good.

Fog high in the mountains near Guasca - it was 3 Degrees Celsius at night!

Passing through Gacheta and starting the next ascent, I was invited by Carmen to join her for lunch at her house. She had just been attending to her two cows, so I followed her home. To cut a long story short, I ended up staying two nights at Carmen’s. It was a small peek into the lives of the good folk living in rural Colombia. I tried my best at giving a helping hand with the daily tasks, chores that I soon realized were essential for these folk to make an existence in the mountains. I learnt about how stubborn cows can be when trying to move them from one grazing pasture to another, and that even a home-grown pumpkin is a source of income. I was again reminded of how privileged I was doing what I like to do; which helps to keep me grounded and humbled. We really do have a lot to be grateful for…

Walking the cows to the pasture in the mornings.

Later afternoon shades and highlights.

Who can resist cycling such a road!

Notes for birders:

Parque La Florida near Bogotá’s airport is a well-known wetland birding site, and well-worth the visit if you find yourself in the capital. During my morning visit I found it easy to see Bogotá Rail along the path (centred at 4.725570, -74.141417) skirting the northern edge of an extensive wetland referred to as Humedal Jaboque. Various other wetland species can be also be found here including Spot-flanked Gallinule and Noble Snipe (which I did not see or hear, but is reputed to occur from time to time).  

The open waters of the main lake area of La Florida may deliver waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal and Andean Duck, which can be observed from the road that passes to the north (4.732672, -74.150070). I did not have access to the rest of the area (mainly used for picnics) which was closed at the time.    

Humedal La Conejera, another wetland some kilometers to the northeast of La Florida, is also worth visiting. From the entrance gate (4.760397, -74.106227), there is a trail that follows the length of the wetland with several spots providing good views over the water and marshy bits. While I explored this area in the afternoon, it will naturally be best to do so in the mornings when more species will be about. The thickets that border the wetland, and through which the trails passes, looks like it has the potential to hold some interesting species.

The best site guide for Colombia is most certainly ‘Birdwatching in Colombia’ by Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Florez, published in 2013. This practical guide details 127 birding sites across 12 eco-regions in Colombia, with 85 colour maps, while also covering the logistics involved in getting to each site and where to stay. This book will help in finding more than 70% of Colombia’s bird species, and is an absolute must-have if you intend visiting the country, whether on your own or with a guide. You can read more detailed reviews on the book at and The later review has a few photographs showing some of the pages. Please make sure that you don’t arrive in Colombia without this book! If you can’t get a copy on Amazon or NHBS before your arrival, you can always get a copy from the Bioweb webpage ( or visit the Bioweb store in Bogotá (that’s what I did).