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).    

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