Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Otún Quimbaya wildlife

From Nevado del Ruiz volcano we drove around through the city of Pereira to the nearby SFF Otún Quimbaya (fauna and flora sanctuary). This small area, at 1800m above sea level, is just below the eastern side of the Los Nevados park and protects some vulnerable Colombian wildlife. It was once a cattle ranch and then became a training centre for an environment agency.  The original Villa Amparo of the ranch is preserved and the large training facility buildings now provide basic but clean and comfortable accommodation for visitors to the sanctuary. Although the park is administered by the National Parks Authority, ecotourism is run by the local community. The garden area is very pleasant with plenty of peace and quiet, a commodity in short supply in Colombia!

 The forest runs alongside the small and fast-flowing river Otún and is a mix of old-growth Andean forest with some more recently planted trees, including non-natives. The area supports a wide variety of bird species, especially some that are rare elsewhere. Some are hard to see in the thick foliage and it was worthwhile to spend a few hours in the early morning with a local guide, Diego, and to learn a little from his impressive knowledge of the many different bird calls.

 The Cauca Guan (Penelope perspicax) might not look spectacular but is an endangered species endemic to Colombia, with perhaps only around 1000 birds left. This is possibly the only area where it is doing well, and they are easy to see in the trees around the reserve.

 Much more common are the large Red-ruffed Fruitcrow (Pyroderus scutatus) which make plenty of noise with their hooting calls heard all around the forest.

 Emerald Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) are sometimes in the plentiful Yarumo trees (Cecropia telenitida) which are common in this area and attract lots of fruit-eating birds. A number of parrot species are often seen overhead, including Speckle-faced Parrot (Pionus tumultuosus) and even the Golden-plumed Parakeet (Leptosittaca branickii) which is classified as vulnerable.

 I got good views of this female Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris) and managed to get a few glimpses of noisy Golden-headed Quetzal (Pharomachrus auriceps) as well. These latter seem to frequent some of the very tall fruiting Wax Palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) which grow in the area.

There are a number of brightly colored tanagers around which often form mixed flocks. This is a Blue-winged Mountain Tanager (Anisognathus somptuosus). There are also many Flame-rumped Tanager (Ramphocelus flammigerus), a close relative of the Lemon-rumped which I've seen in Santander. Metallic Green , Golden and the uncommon endemic Multicolored Tanager are also present, though sadly I didn't see that last one!

Andean Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis) are very easy to see in the reserve and very approachable. They leave piles of snail shells in the road and paths.

Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), a type of nightjar, are very vocal around the accommodation area garden. I've been trying to see one of these that lives near our apartment in Bucaramanga for months, but as they are only really active after dark, it's proved fruitless. They tend to call whilst sat on the ground in the open. In Otún Quimbaya I was almost tripping over them and they sometimes would stay in a torch beam long enough to let me get a good look. I heard what seemed to be other nightjar species calling frequently which I think were Swallow-tailed Nightjar (Uropsalis segmentata) but I didn't see them.

I picked up a few other very good lifers including male Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (Ocreatus underwoodii) a tiny bird with a very long tail tipped with rackets which makes it unique in Colombia. I also saw a number of very colorful Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii), Sickle-winged Guan (Chamaepetes goudotii), Rufous-breasted Flycatcher (Leptopogon rufipectus). In the river there were several pairs of White-capped Dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus) and after some searching I located a pair of Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) further downstream.

There are a few mammal species in the reserve including Puma and Ocelot. The groups of Red Howler Monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) make plenty of noise which can sound like the wind in the distance. Apparently night monkeys are also in the reserve. I got good views of a small Crab-eating Fox (Cerdocyon thous) around the accommodation buildings one night, but sadly my camera flash failed to go off. The grass area seemed to have plenty of holes which I was told were dug by groups of Coatis searching for worms.

Overall it was a very enjoyable stay in the reserve and there was plenty more to see. I'd recommend Otún Quimbaya to anyone wanting to see more of Colombia´s fantastic wildlife.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Nevado del Ruiz

We decided to spend a few days in the Coffee Region (Eje Cafetero) and around the Los Nevados National Natural Park. After a 10 hour drive from Bucaramanga we arrived at the city of Manizales. In the central Bolivar Square is an attractive cathedral (complete with Peregrine Falcons) and a not so attractive statue. Apparently it is a hybrid of Simon Bolivar and a condor!

Early the next day we set off to visit the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano. The volcano stands some 5320m above sea level and has been active last year. Now the activity has died down, it is possible to visit the lower parts of the mountain again but only for a short period, and so we were lucky to get a chance to see it.

The volcano is the highest of the five located inside the Los Nevados park and the top is covered with glaciers and snow. Many Colombians like to go to see the snow, but after recent eruptions the white snow is covered with volcanic ash and the top sections are off-limits for safety reasons. This caution is fully justified since the lahars (volcanic mud-flows) that resulted from the 1985 eruption of this volcano killed more than 23,000 people in the Armero tragedy.

Driving up into the park you pass the small Laguna Negra lake at 3760m. This is the lower part of the Páramo - the cold mountain eco-system that is above the tree-line. This part looks rather similar to upland parts of Britain.

However, as you pass higher up you can see the true Páramo vegetation is very different from Britain! It is dominated by Frailejón plants and includes many beautiful small flowers. Some of these plants are found no-where else in the world making it a priceless habitat. It also protects the water-supply for about 2 million people in the region.

The highest altitude we were permitted to go was the Valle de las Tumbas at around 4300m. This is around the limit for any vegetation. There are just a few small plants clinging to the bare rocks. I think this is the highest I've ever been on a mountain. This area is overlooked by a smaller crater (La Olleta) of the main volcanic cone(Arenas) of Nevado del Ruiz. Sadly the main peak was covered with cloud. It was cold at that height, and the air thin enough to notice, but the sunlight was very strong, so a hat and suncream were important to avoid burning from the UV.

On the way up we saw a pair of large Black-chested Buzzard-eagles (Geranoaetus melanoleucus). The local guides along the road also suggested we would get a chance to see the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) and sure enough, we got a great fly-past from one of these magnificent birds, the symbol of the Andes.

About 16 birds were re-introduced to the Los Nevados area some 10 years ago and they are breeding in the park. However, they reproduce very slowly so it will take a long time for them to build up their numbers. It seems there is a feeding platform with cattle carcasses left out for them in this area of the park, so it's a good place to see them if the sky is clear enough.

For me a dream come true to see the flight of the condor......

Monday, 7 January 2013

Summer in the mountains

The end of December until the beginning of March is supposed to be summer here in Santander. That means it should be a little hotter and drier although global warming has had a very real impact on the climate patterns in Colombia in recent years and it is less predictable than in the past.

As it was a clear day which promised to be hot, we set off driving up the road to the east, route 66, which climbs the eastern cordillera and leads to Cucuta and the Venezuelan border. Being a Sunday there were almost no heavy vehicles (mulas) which make the road tediously slow during the week. There are major improvement works going on in the lower sections to make this road into a dual carriageway. At least some sections should be open in 2013.

After about 50km of climbing (after starting at 1000m above sea level) we reached Picacho, at around 3200m, where the road levels out onto a plateau on which sits the small town of Berlin, known for its tasty potatoes and 'spring' onions. The air was very fresh and the temperature about 10 C, but the sun was bright and strong. Here there are a number of very large radio towers.

Unlike the previous times we've been up, the sky was very clear and almost cloudless. Visibility must have been over 80 km and to the west I could see way past Bucaramanga to the Serrania de Yariguíes ridges beyond. In the other direction the view was just as impressive.

A short distance from the toll booths at Picacho is the start of a Camino Real, an ancient track which leads down the slopes to Bucaramanga. We walked just a short distance down the track through steep mountain pastures with small trees and bushes. At this altitude all the birdlife is different to that of the city below and I immediately saw many species that were new to me.

Golden-fronted Whitestart (Myioborus ornatus)

Black Flowerpiercer (Diglossa humeralis) were fairly obvious stealing nectar from the numerous flowers. The subspecies that occurs here in the Eastern Andes are hard to distinguish from the Glossy Flowerpiercer.

White-throated Tyrannulet (Mecocerculus leucophrys) seem common and I think also the less common Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet (Mecocerculus minor) occur here, though I wasn't sure of my ID on that.

Many of the birds came very close and I got good views of this Pearled Treerunner (Maragarornis sqamiger). I also added two new hummingbirds, the impressively large Shining Sunbeam (Aglaeactis cupripennis) and Tyrian Metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina). These mountain hummers perch more often than their lowland cousins to save energy, which helps with the ID's!

Skulking in the bushes were Pale-naped Brush-finch (Atlapetes pallidinucha) and perching on top were Brown-backed Chat-tyrant (Ochthoeca fumicolor). No doubt there were quite a few other birds which are new to me up there, but it can be a challenge to identify them at first.

The mountain flowers are really beautiful, though I have no idea of the names!

We finished off the trip with a lunch of a nice fried trout, a speciality in the mountains, at a roadside restaurant.