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.

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