Tuesday, 20 November 2012


I'm not the only one who has come to enjoy Colombia recently. As well as the many species of resident birds, their are quite a few migrants who come here in the Autumn (or should I say fall!) after breeding in North America. 

There are many warblers in the trees and bushes around the city. From our balcony I now see Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) nearly every day.

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)
I've seen Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) a few times. They feed by running up and down the tree trunks very like a Treecreeper in Britain. Like all the warblers, they're hard to digiscope at a distance because they move all the time.

Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)
Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) are also frequent at the moment, but they are a little less distinctive.

Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina)

I've also seen Bay-breasted Warbler (Setophaga castanea) from the balcony, and there are lots of Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca) around the city too. Many warblers present something of a challenge to ID here as many are not in their bright summer plumage. In addition, they are not singing at all, so I'll have to improve my ID skills.
Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) seem to be plentiful. Whilst looking at one, I noticed these malar stripes, which means it is in fact a Black-whiskered Vireo (Vireo altiloquus). I don't think they're often seen here on migration, but it was around for a week or more and I was lucky to get this shot.
Black-whiskered Vireo (Vireo altiloquus)
There are a few other larger migrant birds. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) are common, both bright red (male) and dull yellow (females/juveniles).

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) female
I've also seen one Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) and Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) on a few occasions.

Last, but not least, on 29th October, late in the afternoon, I saw about 2000 Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) spread across the sky, circling and all moving south, high over the city. These vultures are a common sight in and around Bucaramanga, but as you usually see only a handful in one place, I had no doubt these were migrant birds and not residents.

migrating Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura)

I found this website Turkey Vulture Migration Project which gives details of some GPS tagged North American Turkey Vultures. It seems some migrate from western Canada migrate to winter in the llanos of Venezuela, and, based on those tracks, I suspect the birds I saw may have been coming from there. If they want to go east of here to Venezuela, I'm not sure how they are crossing the high Eastern Cordillera of the Andes. Apparently over 100,000 Turkey Vultures cross the Darien Gap into Colombia in the Autumn, I'd love to see that, as well of some of the other migrating raptors. Perhaps there is still time for a few more sightings of migrants here this year?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Reinita Cielo Azul

 We took a trip to the excellent Proaves Reserva Reinita Cielo Azul near San Vincente de Chucuri in Santander. The drive from Bucaramanga to San Vincente (3 hours) is long and tiring but the scenery is very interesting. On the way we saw some kind of stoat or weasel (probably a Long-tailed Weasel) and what I think was a Grey Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) also crossing the road.

Proaves is a Colombian NGO dedicated to the study and conservation of birds. They set up this reserve to help protect the migrant Cerulean Warbler (Reinita Cielo Azul, Setophaga cerulea) a bird of the Andes which breeds in Eastern North America. The reserves visitor's centre is a 5km drive up a very rough, and in parts very steep, track from San Vincente, but it was worth the drive.

The vistor's centre is surrounded by coffee, cocao and banana plantations and has many feeders, including numerous hummingbird and fruit feeders. They attract orioles & lots of tanagers including this Lemon-rumped Tanager (Ramphocelus icteronotus).

Although I didn't see any of the real rarities of the reserve, I did see two new species here including Yellow-backed Oriole (Icterus chrysater) and Green Hermit (Phaethornis guy). The hummingbird feeders attract many Indigo-capped, Rufous-tailed, Black-throated Mango and White-necked Jacobins all of which are frequent on our balcony feeder at home. They also get Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) like this one below.

There are many Andean Emerald (Amazilia franciae) which seem to be very common in parts of Santander, but I've never seen one at our home feeder.

There was also this superb little lizard posing on the Proaves sign.

The walk up from the visitors centre to the forest reserve follows the old Lenguerke trail which leads to Zapatoca. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the reserve with not so much to see as it is mostly open grazing. I did notice these Cattle Tyrants (Machetornis rixosa). They're common but I've not seen them doing this before!

The reserve is thickly forested and, except for the birds, it is very quiet. There reserve is inside the Yariguíes National Park.  It seems to be alive with the buzzing of hummingbirds. Elena and I were both delighted to see a Black Inca (Coeligena prunellei) at very close quarters. This vulnerable but distinctive hummer is endemic to Colombia and restricted to the Eastern  Andes (and Yariguíes). We were told that a few years ago they were not often seen, but now, with feeders placed at lower part of the reserve, they are seen quite frequently here.

I'm not used to neotropical birding in such a place and without knowing many of the bird calls, it is tough to identify species I've not seen before. I did manage to add distinctive Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas) and Ornate Flycatcher (Myiotriccus ornatus) to my list. There were many other probables / possibles too, but I don't like to add things to my list until I can be sure I can ID them correctly myself.

In the forest are many butterflies, grasshoppers and this dragonfly/large damselfly.

Sadly we had all to little time in the reserve and we had to go before dusk at 5.30 pm. On our way out, Carlos, one of the guides from San Vincente, kindly showed us a nearby location for the endangered endemic Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia castaneiventris). Apparently there are only 3 or so around this area, and  as they are much easier to see in the morning, we'll have to return another day for this one.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Cerro la Judía

The mountains just to the east of of Floridablanca rise steeply up to about 2500m and are known as the Cerro La Judía. There are some areas of intact forest higher up and some fantastic waterfalls. You can walk up about 7km or drive the rough road which starts near "Limoncito" bus stop.

The birdwatching is excellent. Insects and spiders are also abundant and eye-catching. No doubt there are many hard to see mammals up there in the forest, but the slopes are very steep!

Some parts of the area have some level of protection via a "Regional natural park" designation but there are some ideas to develop an "Ecopark" here (Ecoparque Cerro del Santísimo), something like Panachi. I'm not sure I like the proposed idea of a cable-car and any associated tourism development.

Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivaceus).

There is a lot else to see such as Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Black and White Seedeater, Yellow-bellied Siskin and many colorful tanagers including at least Blue and Grey, Palm, Scrub, Crimson-backed, Lemon-rumped, Bay-headed, Golden, Golden-naped, Black-capped and Blue-necked. No doubt there are quite a few more tanagers there I haven't seen yet.

More trips soon....

Thursday, 20 September 2012

San Vincente Lenguerke trail.

I wanted to visit the Reinita Azul (Cerulean Warbler) reserve of ProAves near San Vincente de Chucuri in Santander as it is not so far from Bucaramanga. We set out early one Saturday morning. San Vincente is a town very close to the Serranía de los Yariguíes national park. The Serranía is an isolated part of the Eastern Andes and contains some fantastic wildlife.

It took more than 2 hours to reach San Vincente by car from Bucaramanga. Once off the main road, there is 48km of narrow and twisty gravel roads. Some of this route will be diverted once the nearby large dam "HidroSogamoso" floods the valley in the next year or two. There are lots of construction works going on at the moment. The countryside along the road looks rich and very green, and it will be a big shame to lose that land to a large lake.

 San Vincente de Chucuri

San Vincente is a fairly large town and quite hot as it is only around 600m ASL. It is the cocoa capital of Colombia, an accolade which once meant it was wealthy, but in recent years cocoa prices have dropped dramatically.

Petroglyph in San Vincente

There are a number of petroglyphs and other archaeological remains around the town. These were left by the Yariguí people who were slowly exterminated after European colonization.

The Lenguerke trail between Zapatoca and SanVincente has recently been restored as part of Proyecto YARÉ which is run through the Conservation Leadership Programme. The project is aimed at conservation of the Serranía de los Yariguíes.

Lenguerke Trail Sign in San Vincente

The old trail starts at the "top" of San Vincente and climbs steeply. For the first few km it is drivable by 4wd and motorbikes as far as  the school at La Germania. Then the trail leaves the road and becomes very narrow but the rocks used to construct it mean it is not slippery.
Lenguerke trail at La Germania

The trail passes through many shade Cocoa plantations


Further up the trail passes the ProAves reserve and continues up over the ridge of the Yariguíes. In total is supposed to take 2 days. We thought (incorrectly as it turned out) we could get from San Vincente to the ProAves reserve in an hour or two, but after only a short distance but climbing 600m in hot conditions we called it a day. Getting down was much easier! No doubt it is best to set out early when it's cooler. We'll try driving up to the reserve next time as it is an arduous walk to get there via the trail.

I didn't see that many birds on the way up in the cocoa plantations, though Blue-necked and Bay-headed Tanagers were plentiful. Near to Finca Oré was a georgeous Yellow-tufted Dacnis (Dacnis egregia). I love colourful birds like these as they are a very easy to identify when you first see them. Google this bird and you'll see what I mean! Again I was too slow with the camera, but will get a photo next time. I also picked up Black-winged Saltator (Saltator atripennis) and Band-backed Wren (Campylorhynchus zonatus) and there were several species of hummer and flycatcher that I didn't identify. No doubt there are lots of other gems waiting further up the trail.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Monkeys at last

Our trip to Tayrona and Minca near Santa Marta in the north of Colombia was excellent for seeing spectacular wildlife. Best of all for me was finally getting to see monkeys in the wild. There are some species (I don't know what) on the in-laws farm, but I've not seen them there yet. We saw Red Howler Monkeys, the loudest land animal on Earth, in Tayrona National Park, near to the main trail. They were fairly calm and obliging and I had enough time to get the tripod sorted and get some digiscoped shots. I also took a short video of one individual which you can see on this link. Red Howler on Youtube. We also saw Red Howlers in the Proaves El Dorado bird reserve.

In Tayrona we got great views of the critically endangered Cotton-top Tamarin monkey (called Mono Tití in Colombia), a species endemic to Colombia. They were very curious and came quite close but sadly without the 'scope, the pictures were useless.

Near the hammocks where we stayed the night in the park were a family of Collared Aracari. My first ever toucan. I also saw my first Jacamar, the Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and my first Manakin, a hard to identify Lance-tailed Manakin (hard because it was a juvenile bird).

There were several herons on the beach, including this Little Blue Heron. I also had a few other new species in the woods near the beaches such as the spectacular Crimson-crested Woodpecker and the less spectacular Plain-brown Woodcreeper!

There were many colorful, but very quick lizards near the beach, some very large toads, and some giant grasshoppers as well as this huge millipede on the trail.

Minca was great for hummingbirds, some of which like this White-vented Plumeleteer were new to me. I was also well pleased with good views of the fantastic Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Oropendola and Black-chested Jays which were all new to me. The only problem was the horrible biting sandflies, which drew plenty of blood on our legs as we'd forgotten to put on repellent.

Also a great new bird to see was the Whooping Motmot, on the fruit feeders at Hotel Minca, where they also have many hummers on their feeders (when they've filled them!). Sadly I didn't get better shots of these birds.  

El Dorado reserve was fantastic. It was empty of people because we were "out of season" but it is packed with endemic species all year round. There is no doubt it is one of the best sites in Colombia if not the world for endemic birding - 19 species that only occur in this area. Sadly, the weather didn't help the birding or taking pictures but I did see amongst other birds the endemic Santa Marta Brush-finch (easy to see there), Colombian Brush-finch (on the compost heap), White-tailed Starfrontlet & Santa Marta Woodstar hummers and White-lored Warblers as well as other colorful "megas" like Emerald Toucanet, Masked Trogon and Strong-billed Woodcreeper. I felt very happy despite just a few hours on the reserve in poor weather. No doubt you could add dozens more great birds with a longer visit. The road is terrible though, it takes nearly 2 bone-shaking hours to get there from Minca. Probably best to stay at the lodge which looked excellent, and the food was great. 

Overall it was a fantastic trip with the monkeys and over 50 new species of birds for me. The only really problem was lack of time! 


We spent a fantastic week of holidays up on the Caribbean coast of Colombia; Cartagena, Parque Tayrona and the Santa Marta Mountains. The drive from Bucaramanga to Cartagena is very long and hot; about 12 hours, mostly around 30C, and although some of the roadside towns aren't very attractive, the countryside is really pleasant.

Cartagena de Indias is a large city with several faces; the old city, the modern skyscrapers lining the shore, and a busy commercial area inland. The walled old city is a UNESCO world heritage centre and you can see why it's popular with cruise ship visitors. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and cafés, and most of the old buildings restored to good condition in bright colours. We visited the museum in the Casa de la Inquisición, which upstairs had some excellent displays explaining of the history of the original (exterminated) indigenous inhabitants, the slave trade, as well the colonial Spanish aspects of the city and it's fight for independence.

We also visited the iconic Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress which overlooks the city. The statue is of Don Blas de Lezo, who looks like a classic peg-leg pirate, but was in fact the Spanish Admiral and governor of the city who led the successful defense against the major British attack on the in 1741. The city was well fortified and the British fleet, led by Admiral Vernon suffered a crushing defeat, despite their overwhelming force.

We then drove along the coast past Barranquilla, through the narrow strip of land between the sea and the huge Cienaga (Swamp) of Santa Marta, to the entrance of the beautiful Tayrona National Park. The park is situated on the coast and just below the Santa Marta mountains, and has fantastic sandy beaches as well as protecting coastal forests. Parking at Cañaveral, we walked about 1 hour to Arecifes where we rented comfortable hammocks for the night at about 5 pounds each. They had no mosquito nets, but fortunately I brought my own, so no bites at all for a change. Some of the parks facilities leave something to be desired, but it was well worth it. There were plenty of people on the path into the park, but they spread out, so it didn't feel crowded.

We took a great morning swim in the warm sea at "La Piscina" a beach where it's safe to swim & snorkel because of the surrounding reef. Other beaches have strong rip-tides and many people have drowned. It was a shame we only had 1 day in the park.

From Tayrona, we drove a short while to the small town of Minca, about 650m up in the Santa Marta mountains and about 15km from the city of Santa Marta. The town has a fresher climate than the coast, is surrounded by forests and small shade-coffee plantations and is making big efforts to become a major eco-tourism centre with reasonable quality accommodation, and good food. It has a friendly feel and is very peaceful compared to the big cities. It also has a several great waterfalls to visit. 

Driving up from Minca to the El Dorado bird reserve higher up in the mountains is an experience in itself; the road is the roughest I´ve ever driven, but our little 4x4 made it. The reserve lodge was very nice, with great food, but we missed out on any views of the mountains because of cloud and rain. We walked up towards the San Lorenzo ridge, but didn't have time to make it to the top. From there, if you are very lucky with the clouds, you can see Pico Bolivar and Pico Colon, the highest points in Colombia at around 5800m, covered with year-round snow. It was a great experience to visit the mountains, and again I wish we'd had more time there, though the weather was not always good. Apparently Dec-Feb is the best time to visit, with much more chance of clear, dry weather, but with global warming, Colombia's climate is much less predictable.

Of course the trip was great for animals and birds, and I'll put some pictures of those in the next blog entry.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


We decided to spend a few days in Boyacá, the neighboring department to the south of Santander. The drive from Bucaramanga is interesting, but takes some time due to the winding mountain roads. We split our time between historic points of interest and trying to see more of the nature. Boyacá has many towns higher in the mountains with a cool climate and it has some stunning scenery which looks a little different to Santander.

We stayed in Paipa, a small, pleasant town with many hotels offering thermal baths from the natural hot springs and it has a nice lake. At 2500m altitude it was a little chilly at night. It was good to walk around the lake and see the odd waterbird like Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot which I´ve not seen in Santander. The cooler climate and better roads of Boyacá mean that road cycling and running are popular. Paipa looks like a good base for some training, though I think the lake maybe too cold for comfortable open-water swimming.

Just outside the town is the stunningly restored Casona del Salitre, a national monument and also a hotel. It was very quiet when we visited and is a superb place to relax with a glass of wine. I'd highly recommend this place.

A few km from Paipa is the Pantano de Vargas (Vargas Swamp). This was famous for one of the last battles, in 1819, of the war of independence from Spain. It was led by Simon Bolivar and other famous leaders such as General Santander. There is a very large monument to the 14 lancers whose heroic actions helped win the battle. Several hundred men of the so-called British Legions; Brits and Irish fighting for Bolivar, also fought bravely in this battle. They were led by Col James Rooke, their half British and half Irish commander, and they too played a crucial role in the victory. They went on a bayonet charge up a hill against the Spanish positions. Rooke was seriously wounded, losing his arm, and he later died and was buried nearby. There is a statue to Rooke in the main square in Paipa which is named Jaime Rook park in his honour. There is also a battalion of the Colombian army named after him, and a plaque at Boyacá bridge memorial so the British & Irish role is not forgotten. We visited on the anniversary of the battle, and there was a ceremony going on with flags, mounted troops and marching bands on this huge monument.

We popped into Tunja, the main city of Boyacá. It has an enormous main square with, of course, the statue of Bolivar.

Not far outside of Tunja, on the main road to Bogotá is the Puente de Boyacá (Boyacá bridge). This was the site of the key 1819 battle which consolidated independence for Gran Colombia, and is the location of an important national monument. The current (more recent) bridge is tiny as the river is not wide, but the location was strategic as it formed the route from the eastern plains to the capital, Santa Fé de Bogotá. There is, of course, a large statue of Simon Bolivar on the hill. He´s surrounding by 5 women who represent the five nations of S America which he helped to liberate. (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia). There are several other monuments on the site too. It is very well maintained and being surrounded by green hills, it has a pleasant feel about it.

The nearby colonial town of Villa de Leyva  is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colombia. It was home to important figures such as Antonio Nariño, who on reading the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen in books imported from France, thought it would be good idea to publish them in Spanish and disseminate them in Colombia. He also was a key leader in the struggle for independence, and he was imprisoned by the Spanish four times. The main square is large and feels a little empty, but there are many other pleasant places in the surrounding cobbled streets.

Near to Villa de Leyva is Iguaque, a national park. We briefly visited the Iguaque Wildlife Sanctuary which was very good and I saw a few new species like the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and Rufous Wren. Within the reserve, you can hike to a number of mountain lakes, but you must start before 10 am and we were too late. There are also some large and decent looking cabins to stay in lower down in the forest.

Despite on-and-off drizzle, we drove around Lago de Tota,  the largest lake in Colombia which being about 3000 m above sea level, was cold. The road around the lake is mostly in good condition and is being improved to form a tourist circuit. There were a few wilder areas around the shore, but much was inaccessible apart from the beach on the western side. Many of the flatter areas are being cultivated for spring onions, but there are still a few marshy areas for the birds like that below. With the poor weather, the only new bird I saw was a Large-billed Tern.

After the lake, we continued driving up higher to the Paramo de Siscunsí (Paramo refers to a high mountain moorland above the treeline) which looked interesting, but there was sadly no chance to see it properly in the rain. There is a watchpoint for Andean Condors here (at 33km from Sogamosa on the road to Aguazul) though you have to walk about 4km from the road. With the thick clouds and heavy rain, we didn't even think about trying this, but as a number of these rare birds were re-introduced from captivity in this area some years ago, it maybe worth a look in clear conditions.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Underground Zapatoca

 It was yet another holiday in Colombia on Monday and we decided to go back to Zaptoca. It's a small town sitting at about 1500 m between the River Sogamoso and the mountains and national park of the Serrania de los Yariguies. It's only 30km sw of Bucaramanga, but the journey takes nearly two hours even without traffic. Most of the road is paved; good in some places, not so good in others. From Bucaramanga and Girón you have to cross the Sogamoso canyon by descending 500m to the bridge via 15 or so hairpin bends, and then climb even more on the other side!

  The town is pleasantly warm, with typical colonial architecture, such as the Museo Cosmos in the Casa de Ejercicios which has a good restaurant apparently.

  About a mile outside of the town is the Cueva del Nitro, a system of caves that runs for at least 38km. For a small fee you can borrow a head torch and explore on your own. Alternatively you can hire a guide to show you around, which I'd recommend.

 The tunnels are challenging in places, and to see some parts you need to be reasonably fit, agile and not to mention thin! It was warm inside, but muddy and very slippery in places. We got very dirty and collected a few bumps and bruises, especially during the 50m or so crawling on hands and knees. A hard hat would have been a big advantage.

 We asked the guide to show us the cave fish, a trip which takes about 3 hours in total. There are two species of fish, which are supposedly unique to this cave system. I understood they were blind, but they seemed to react to the head-torches. Nearer the cave entrance were cave crickets with enormous antennae which chirped occasionally. It is possible they are unique to these caves too. In addition there was a small tarantula spider and several large bats hanging from the cave roof.

 There are plenty of stalactites, pillars, curtains etc to see, as well as some very attractive crystal covered tunnels.

 The caving was great fun though we were relieved to get back in the open air. On our way out, dirty, sweaty and tired, I came across this small snake (about 25 cm long). At the time, I wasn't at all sure if this is a highly venomous coral snake or a harmless mimic false coral. Since then I've learned the "rule" that all venomous coral snakes have odd numbers of black bands in their pattern, that is, one or three black bands repeated. Most false corals have two or four repeated. Some false corals though do look very similar to real corals. So according to this rule, this snake with two black bands repeated is a false coral. As there are at least 24 species of real coral snakes in Colombia, it pays to be careful and avoid them all anyway.

 After a big steak lunch in El Rancho, a local restaurant with a great view, we finished off our trip by taking a quick visit to the Pozo Ahogado, a popular swimming hole on the other side of town. This is where the 28km Sendero de Lengerke path from Zapatoca to San Vincente starts. We plan to do this walk another time.