Wednesday, 10 July 2013


Whilst in Boyacá Department we paid a visit to the nature reserve of Rogitama, near to Arcabuco. This small private reserve of 29 hectares provides inspiration to those who would like to restore wildlife to Colombia. It is also a great place to see several species of rare hummingbird.

View of SFF Iguaque in the mountains and the back of Rogitama on the extreme left

The reserve is at 2500m above sea level in the green valleys in the north of Boyacá. Roberto Chavarro and his family have been working since 1982 on the reforestation and restoration of a former cattle farm which had become eroded. Trees were planted to stabilize and protect the water sources. Hedges were established to increase habitat connectivity. They are improving the fertility and health of the soils using composting and worm farming.

As a result of this hard work there is now much more healthy undergrowth with moss, lichens and epiphytes in the trees which all store moisture and release it slowly which helps keep the streams running steadily. This means less erosive flash floods and fewer periods with a lack of water. Many species of insects are recolonizing the reserve.

They have also planted many flowering plants and bushes on the reserve which attract 19 different species of hummingbirds as well as flowerpiercers and other birds. Although it can get very cold at night, it is seldom below freezing and there are flowers year-round. With so much natural nectar, there is no need for artificial feeders.

Black Inca
Birders coming to Colombia from around the world are visiting the reserve to see a few harder to find species. Roberto is especially proud of the population of Black Inca (Coeligena prunellei) an endemic species classified as Vulnerable to extinction and only present in the Eastern Andes of Colombia. The population on the reserve seems to be healthy and they are easy to see. (They are also present in good numbers in the ProAves reserve Reinita Cielo Azul in Santander see my previous post).

Lazuline Sabrewing
Another rare species that is easy to see by the house is the Lazuline Sabrewing (Camplyopterus falcatus). I got this photo from the balcony just outside our room. They look much more blue in the right light!

It is possible to see other harder to find species including Golden-bellied Starfrontlet (Coeligena bonapartei), Mountain Velvetbreast (Lafresnaya lafresnayi) and Short-tailed Emerald (Chlorostilbon poortmani). You can get great opportunities as well to photograph commoner higher-altitude species like this Speckled Hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys) which sat just feet away.

Speckled Hummingbird
But there is more ....Rogitama achieved some fame at the end of 2011 after several unidentified hummingbirds were photographed and filmed.  There is a picture here and you can see some youtube video here  and here. Apparently there are/were at least 3 individual birds and they come and go somewhat, so I didn't get a chance to see them.

Initially it was thought they might be Bogotá Sunangel (Heliangelus zusii) an enigmatic species only known from a 1909 skin marked "Bogotá" and never seen since. The rediscovery of this species would be sensational. Later, some theories emerged that this "Rogitama Sunangel" was a new species, a hybrid, or possibly a new sub-species or colour morph of the Long-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi). DNA testing would resolve the debate. Feather samples were taken and sent to the University of the Andes in Bogotá to be tested. However, since then, no results have been released, so the mystery continues!

A Long-tailed Sylph from Santander. They like blackberry bushes!
Whatever the outcome it is fantastic that the hard work gone into restoring the habitat and encouraging the hummingbirds at Rogitama has been rewarded by the discovery of a very interesting bird as well as the presence of many others that are in decline elsewhere.

If you want to see hummingbirds in their more natural environment rather than at feeders, this is a great place to come.

Monday, 8 July 2013

SFF Iguaque

In the north of Boyacá Department, near to the tourist town of Villa de Leyva is the Flora and Fauna Sanctuary of Iguaque (SFF Iguaque in Spanish) a protected area of forest and paramo in the eastern cordillera of the Andes mountains. Having been to the area last year, we decided to stay in the wooden cabins in the reserve.

After parking lower down and a steep 15 minute walk, there are several large and well-maintained cabins with 6 or 8 bunk beds and bathrooms. It's not often fully occupied and you might get a cabin to yourself, but it's not guaranteed. The food is very good, but at around 2900m up, it does get very cold at night and, as they did not light the fire in the restaurant cabin, the only option was to get warm under the many blankets in the bunkrooms. The accommodation costs around 38,000 pesos per night per person (around 13 GBP). They also charge for parking and entry to the park - extra if you are a foreigner!

The forest is large and there are plenty of birds. We were very lucky to find a nest of Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia (Chlorophonia pyrrhophys), given away by the noise of the chicks begging for food. These are beautiful but not common birds and this area is not in their range according to  Cornell Neotropical Birds. However, many birds are under-recorded in Colombia and are more widespread than books or other sources will suggest. I managed a few shots of the male at the nest, but sadly the poor light and my shoddy camera work did not do their fantastic colours justice. Google an image and you'll see what I mean.

I was also very pleased to see a new hummingbird for me, the Amethyst-throated Sunangel (Heliangelus amethysticollis). This little gem was very close, but we didn't have the camera. When the light catches its gorget, the throat-patch, you can really appreciate the amethyst colour. There were lots of other highland hummingbirds around , but you need patience to get to see them well.

Andean Guan (Penelope montagnii) are common and easy to see here, but these were new to me. Other new birds included Blue-and-black Tanager (Tangara vassorii), Black-banded Woodcreeper (Dendrocolaptes picumnus) and Black-crested Warbler (Basileuterus nigrocristatus). Photographing them in the forest is a challenge though! At night I could hear several distant White-throated Screech Owls (Megascops albogularis), but little chance to see them.

Most people stay only one night at SFF Iguaque in order to make an early start for a hike up to the Laguna de Iguaque, and small mountain lake in the paramo at around 3700m - around 12,000 feet. The hike is only around 4 km, but fairly rough and steep.

Climbing up at this altitude you can feel the thinner air and your heart pounds readily. I guess those that live at higher altitudes like in Bogotá or around Boyacá are better adapted than us! It is best to take plenty of warm clothes and sun-block too.

The lake is very picturesque. There are 6 or 7 other lakes in the area which can, apparently be hiked in a single day, but you'd need to be in good shape to do that. I didn't see much of the birdlife higher up - only Black-chested Buzzard-eagles (Geranoaetus melanoleucus) and a few others I'd seen before. The local name is Paramo Eagle which is apposite. The views from here were spectacular in between the clouds. The only slight problem was that Elena slipped and rolled on the rocks on the way down, but luckily with no serious injury and we got down OK.

As the first night was very clear and dark, I got an amazing view of the stars from the cabins. It reminded me how impoverished is the night sky in Britain.