Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Last day in Bogotá and then back to Blightly

We arrived home late last night from Bogotá via Frankfurt. The flights were all ok, except two of our cases did not make it home from Frankfurt and were delivered today. Big thanks to my cousin Khaled for picking us sp from Birmingham Airport.

We managed an afternoon of site-seeing in Bogotá with Margarita Bedoya (info@drivingcolombia.com) who was great, taking us to a brilliant Crepe Restaurant where Birdgirl enjoyed two big and sweet pancakes, followed by a visit to the gold museum. It was full of mainly pre-Hispanic gold objects used for religious offerings and jewellery for chieftains.

Trying to get sorted today and ready for Birdgirl's birthday party at the weekend. Birdgirl had a double piano lesson and tap today, more lessons during the next two weeks and a catch-up on home education. Is it possible to fit 6 weeks work into 2??

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Our last birding day in Colombia

Now in a hotel in Neiva, which is in the Upper Magdalena Valley (South) and at just under 500 metres. Just been for a Mexican meal and back to our city centre (and a little noisy as it is Saturday night) hotel.

We flew into Neiva yesterday morning and then had a beautiful drive south along the Magdalena Valley before driving up into the Central Cordilleras to San Agustin. We arrived at 3.30 pm in time to see the endemic Dusky-Headed Brush-Finch, our last target endemic of the trip! San Agustin is also a pre-Colombian archaeological site with amazing stone carvings dating back to 2000 BC. The whole site had been dug out and flattened before being used for burial chambers with the stones guarding them and is set in the mountains. More home education for Birdgirl.

Today was a travel day back to Neiva, with some birding before breakfast and a few short birding stops. Our first day of the trip with no trip tricks. Almost ran out of petrol on the top of the Eastern Cordilleras, which would have been interesting, but found a place to buy a gallon of petrol. Our drive north this afternoon was one of our most beautiful of the trip, surrounded by mountains with the most amazing light.

Our flight back to Bogotá is at lunchtime tomorrow, leaving time for our first proper lie-in of the trip – breakfast at 8.30 am! We are the squeezing in an afternoon site-seeing in Bogotá before catching our evening flight home.

Trevor has done well keeping us motivated today, as we are all a bit jaded and birded –out. It has been an amazing trip but we are ready to get home now and chill before our Bolivia trip. We will however be sad to say goodbye to Trevor, who has been a great guide as well as fun company.

Final bird numbers for our trip – 61 endemics seen and 1 heard only out of a possible 66. 766 birds seen (by at least one of us) and 26 more heard only. New birds for our world bird lists – Chris 192, me 260 and Birdgirl 382. Our trip was targeting endemic species rather than just a high trip list and so the number of species seen has far exceeded our expectations.

Birdgirl says “hi” to all her friends and says she is looking forward to coming into school on Tuesday at lunchtime to see them all. She also says “hi” to her big sister and little niece.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Pacific Coast and the last leg of Colombia

Just arrived in another lovely hotel but this time in Bogotá. We have just returned via Medellin from Bahia Solano on the Pacific Coast, having had an amazing five days staying at an eco-resort on the beach called El Almejal. The forest reaches from the hills all the way to the beach, so the hotel had sandy beach at the front and forest leading from the garden. We flew in a small twin engine plane out of the airport right in the middle of Medellin, flying low over the city and the Andes. The airport at Bahia Solano is just an airstrip cut into the jungle, just a mile in from the sea.

The whole area is completely under developed with only a few lodges set back unobtrusively along the beach. The village looked like I imagine the poor south of America to have looked in the 40's, wooden houses in rows raised up in case of flooding.

The area is majority afro-Colombian with some indigenous people living remotely. The afro-Colombians are said to be descendents of slave boat shipwrecks all along the pacific coast, who came ashore and lived in remote freedom high in the hills along the western coast.

The area has not been birded by many people in recent years, but hopefully this is changing. For those interested, we saw the endemic Baudo Oropendola as well as Choco Tinanou (walking across a path -my first Tinamou!). Other good birds included Plumbeous Hawk, Tiny Hawk, Red-Capped Manakin, Golden-Collared Manakin, Lemon-Spectacled Tanager, Dusky-Faced Tanager, Scarlet and White Tanager, Scarlet-Thighed Dacnis, Rufous-Winged Tanager, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, Tawny-Crested Tanager, Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, Black-Tipped Cotinga, White-Ringed Flycatcher, Black-Headed Ant-Thrush, Ocellated Antbird, Dot-winged Antwren, Moustached Antwren, Pacifc Antwren, Spot-Crowned Antvireo, Russet Antshike, Choco Toucan, Spot-Crowned Barbet, Black-Breasted Puffbird, Tooth-Billed Hummingbird, Saffron-Headed Parrot, Dusky Pigeon and Stilt Sandpiper.

We had time for swimming in the very warm ocean with Birdgirl, who also spent time relaxing in the hammock on our veranda.

The last few days have been tiring but we have all come back to Bogotá feeling that we have had a relaxing break with sun, sand and sea.

We fly to Neiva in the morning and then travel to San Agustin, in the southern part of the Central Andes. This is an archaeological site with hundreds of ancient stone carvings as well as having our last target endemic species.

We will be back to Bogotá on Sunday for our flight back to Birmingham and will be home Monday night.

Birdgirl says “hi” to all her friends.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

In the lap of luxury in Medellin, Colombia

We are now in our very lovely hotel in Medellin...compete with tasteful art on the walls and our own separate bedroom. Had out first hot shower in a while and feel almost human again. If I shut the door, we could just about imagine that we are having a romantic night away from home, forgetting the small gently snoring person in the next room!

We left El Dorado Lodge high in the coastal mountains two days ago, on Thursday morning. We bid our sad farewell to Digby, who was returning home via Bogotá, as it is his oldest son's first communion on Sunday. We have our fingers crossed that he gets home in time. He left with his driver "Super Mario" who was under strict instructions to go into the terminal and ensure that Digby was able to check-in OK. Mario was in his early fifties and had a wife in the mountains near the Lodge. However, he now had a girlfriend in Santa Marta and tried to find excuses to see her whenever he could. Therefore the risk of Digby being abandoned in the airport car park was high!

We are going to miss Digby: keeping us entertained with his stories; acting as mediator in our quarrels; painting and sketching with Birdgirl as well as overseeing her English schooling and being generally good company. I'm sure he went home sick to teeth of us, but I did warn him at the start! We met Digby Munns on a Naturetrek tour to Venezuela in 2008 and since then have visited Digby, his wife Aga and their two boys many times in Norfolk.

On the way down from El Dorado, we stopped at Minca again for lunch. Just above Minca, we bumped into a huge army ant swarm. It was the first time Birdgirl and I had experienced something like this. The main swarm of ants moved on the ground and made it look as though it was moving. Any kind of small living creature in the way ran for their lives, scattering in all directions. Many could not escape as the swarm had large ants that came after the escaping prey. We saw a large spider try and escape but being dragged back by the ants. Something that did try and escape was a large scorpion.

Ant swarms are great for birds, as they flock to the area to eat the insects and spiders. Even though the birding was great, Birdgirl and I didn't like being near the swarm and were constantly swiping ants that had climbed up our legs. I am embarrassed to say that we were a bit wussy about it all! Chris also managed to have brief views of the endemic hummingbird, Santa Marta Woodstar close to the swarm. Unfortunately neither Birdgirl nor I had a chance to see it.

After lunch, we travelled down to the coast and west to La Guajirá.  Here we birded in hot thorn scrub resembling Australia and a lagoon opening into the sea. Chris and I have birded in Venezuela before, where many of the birds overlap - but these were new for Birdgirl and she amassed a huge 28 new birds today, taking her total of new birds seen to about 330.

We stayed overnight at a beach front hotel in Rioacha, complete with large bedrooms and air conditioning. It was lovely to be able to dry all our things and sleep in a dry environment after so many days - pure bliss!

More birding this morning, including a 10 minute visit to a remote beach, complete with fishermen and palm trees in the distance. Birdgirl got as far as putting her hands into the Caribbean Sea, which was warm. Saw some Magnificent Frigatebirds, but no Brown Pelicans.

We flew from Rioacha bound for Bogotá, where were connecting with a flight to Medellin. However, due to bad weather our flight was diverted to Medellin. This was good news for us, but very bad news for Miles, who was due to be leaving us in Bogotá, and Trevor our new guide who was joining us in Bogotá. Miles kindly got off the plane with us at Medellin and organised everything for us (including Dunkin Donuts for Birdgirl). We had a great farewell meal together at a genuine Italian restaurant in the upmarket area of Medellin, where our hotel is based and then said goodbye. Miles was staying with an uncle close by and was catching the coach back to Bogotá in the morning. Miles McMullan produced the new Colombia bird field guide book and knows Andreas, who guided us in Ecuador in 2010. Miles is about the same age as us and has lived in South America since he was 19. His laidback Irish ways had stood in good stead in dealing with my mad tantrums. Always a sign of an excellent guide. Thanks again Miles.

Trevor's flight from Bogotá is delayed and he should be arriving at the hotel shortly. We are trying for a Manakin species in the morning and then catching a 11.30 am flight to the pacific coast to Bahia Solano. It is due west from Urrao, close to the Dusky Starfrontlet reserve, but the area inbetween is not fully safe. We heard last week that there were soldiers and Farc killed further wst along the same road from Las Tangaras towards Quibdo not long after our visit. Suddenly the army post above the Lodge seemed reassuring! The area where the trouble occurred is known not to be safe and so not somewhere we would have entered.

Few birders have been to Bahia Solano and so we are quite excited to be exploring the area and have some downtime on the beach (hopefully!)...

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Northern Mountains, Colombia

We travelled up to El Dorado Lodge the day before yesterday. It is set in the mountains high above Santa Marta, looking down towards the Caribbean Sea in the distance. Yesterday was another very early start, going up the mountain to see the many endemic birds up there. Birdgirl and I missed three, which left Birdgirl frustrated and tired and me fuming (because obviously the fact that I didn’t see them was all Chris' fault!). We therefore made an even earlier start this morning, hoping to catch up with two.  We still missed one but did at least got some great views of an endemic tapaculo (a small brown and skulky bird).

We then spent a couple of hours scouring the forests near the lodge for the endemic Blue-Billed Curassow (remember that from 14 hours of searching in hot and humid Paujil??), but no joy. The bird has only been seen here the last few months and on our first evening we met a lovely East German couple, here to take wildlife photos who saw the Curassows that day as they were strolling around - no idea what they had stumbled upon. I think they would have swapped it for a glass frog (an endemic frog) if I had seen it to swap.

We then went looking for an endemic owl again, though only Chris and Miles saw it. Will be trying again tonight...

We did see a first for us last night though - a miniature tarantula sitting in a little plant. It was about 2 inches in diameter and didn't seem at all scary (so long as it didn't move), though I did hear some whimpering from Birdgirl - who can blame her?

Birdgirl says "hi" to her friends.

WIFI in a lodge - fantastic!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A pet Red Macaw, From Birdgirl in Colombia

Yesterday, Birdgirl took a plane to Santa-Marta. It's really hot here and she's struggling to cope!

Now she is staying at to hotel in Minca. Here there is a pet Red Macaw which is a type of parrot and it's enormous. It's quite intimidating and has been known to bite people especially ones wearing red.

The Carabbean Coast, Colombia

We left the Western Andes yesterday morning to get a flight from Medellin to Santa Marta, at the northern Caribbean coast. Our driver was worried that a section of the road might be closed due to landslide, so we were in a rush. However, a gap wide enough for single line traffic had been cleared by the time we got there, with an entrepreneurial Colombian with a stop/go sign waving traffic through in exchange for a few coins.

Medellin Airport was modern and very efficient, making it a refreshing surprise for a South American airport. We spent the afternoon birding near the sea, which was pretty hot. We ended the day with the endemic Chestnut-Winged Chacalaca before heading up the mountain to Minca, a small cooler town overlooking Santa Marta.

The Hotel Minca is a converted monastery with beautiful cloisters and bare rooms, set in amazing gardens in the hills. I'd love to own it and have money to throw at it.

I have managed to lose my I-phone, so am hoping it will turn up in the pick-up from yesterday when the drivers arrive to move us on to the next stop.

This morning we spent birding close to the hotel, before we head on to El Dorada, the birding lodge in subtropical temperate forest in the Sierra Nevada, the Mountain above Santa Marta.

I had hip, back and foot pain and then realised that I had been wearing my shoe insoles the wrong way around for 5 days - no wonder.

Birdgirl is lying in a hammock reading her kindle and probably now time to make a move....

Sunday, 8 April 2012

A partying place and an exciting ride! From Birdgirl in Colombia

At the moment Birdgirl is really enjoying herself.  She was riding horses earlier in the week. Her mum was screaming the whole way down because her horse was taking her down steep banks. At the other extreme, her dad’s horse refused to move and so was forced down the mountain by the owner! Birdgirl herself was having a brilliant time. Her horse was speeding down the hill, but unfortunately she had no control over the animal. So the riding session ended painfully for Birdgirl, with her sore bum, but she did enjoy herself.

In the town Jardin,( pronounced Hardeeen) the people seem to party all night! Every night, not that this bothers bird girl! For her sleep is sleep, and you can't waste it on a bird tour! But outside there are loud speakers and these nearly woke up Birdgirl! Nearly.  Does that show you how loud they are?

Birdgirl gets up at 06:00 am tomorrow, a lie in at last! Bye for now. Will hopefully write again soon.

P.S. Birdgirl is missing her friends!!!

First Pizza of the trip in Jardin, Colombia

We were up at 4.15 am this morning for a 4.45 am pick up by a jeep to be taken up the mountain to 2,500 m to see the endemic Yellow-Eared Parrot and Munchique Wren and then back to Jardin for a pizza in a great place owned by German guy. It made a change from egg and chips or rice and cheese!

Then we managed to fit in a Cock-of-the-Rock lek just outside of town, which is always great to see.

We are about to go for dinner, but are all exhausted having not got much sleep last night, due to Easter celebrations in the town square all night. There were still some hardcore drinkers up when we were going out this morning!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Wild West of the Andes, Colombia

I have totally lost count of what day we are on now. From Medellin on 3rd April (which is in the Central cordillera of the Andes) we drove down into the Cauca Valley. This is the second biggest river in Colombia and runs down and north to the Caribbean coast. Unlike the Magdalena Valley, the Cauca Valley is narrow with the Andes reaching up high on both sides.

We then drive up to the top of the Western Cordillera and were meant to carry on down the western side in our mini bus but had news of heavy rain and landslides. Our jeeps therefore met us early and much higher up the road. Having piled our suitcases into one, the second jeep arrived together with two young ladies. This was going to make things a little full, so Miles our guide, insisted that they sat in the back section. Instead they sat on the roof rack, giggling every time the jeep hit a bump, until an army road block insisted that they got down. I am sure this was more so that the soldiers could chat then up than for their own safety. The journey was slow with numerous land slides across the road, some very recent. It was there after dark when we arrived at Las Tangaras, our next lodge.

We had a great day's birding the next day, seeing all the Colombian endemics in the area, which is part of the Choco. The main endemics were Gold-Ringed Tanager, Choco Vireo and Alto Pisones Tapaculo, which was so recently discovered that it is yet to be described! Birdgirl made friends with the lodge managers two sons, Andres and Manuel, the best that they could with little language in common.

It was not until the next morning that we saw the full beauty of the lodge, set in a valley with a river on three sides and surrounded my mountains. We managed to see another endemic, Crested Ant-Tanager before heavy rain set in, giving us a good soak before having to set off for our next destination.

The very heavy rain continued as we travelled across very muddy and hole filled roads back up and over the Western Cordillera. We stopped for another endemic bird on enroute, but strangely it did not want to show itself in the rain.

Our drivers were very concerned that we would get stuck between landslides and so hurried us along, but not before we sent a soaking and shaking Miles back to the jeep to warm up. We had several more hours soaking and cold before arriving in Urrao for a late lunch. We soon cheered with egg and chips with hot chocolate all around, before another 45 minutes in the jeeps to meet our horses.

At the bottom of a big hillside, already high up in the Central Andes, we were met by Luis, the forest guard from the Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve. All on our horses, we set off. At first Digby's horse lead, then it was Birdgirl's horse all the way up the mountainside. This was real Wild West riding as I imagined it. No riding hats, stirrups made from metal and big metal knobs on the front of the saddles to hold on to when going down a steep bit. We all loved it but Birdgirl was in her element, laughing all the way up, along steep tracks, across grassy hillsides and across fast flowing streams. The lodge itself was set in the most amazing surroundings, high in the mountains.

The next day we again took the horses to get up to the top of the tree-line and "Paramo" habitat. These were extremely narrow, rocky and steep mountain trails and I was not looking forward to the decent by horseback. We had to walk up the final part of the trail to 3,300 m, which I found hard due to the altitude, feeling sick and unfit. We saw many more endemics: Fenwick's Antpitta (or various other names - but that is a long story), Dusky Starfrontlet, Paramillo Tapaculo (which Birdgirl missed the first but saw another with a lot of perseverance) and Chestnut-Bellied Flowerpiercer. The return down was as exhilarating! Birdgirl lead the way, her horse taking shortcuts down the mountainside did not phase her and she was laughing with pleasure. I, meanwhile, had less faith in my horse, whose eagerness to avoid mud seemed to take it to drops which made me shout out as we descended. Lorna, you would have been proud of me!

No satisfied with a full morning, we spent the afternoon walking through a very steep and muddy mountain forest trail, being rewarded with Rusty-Faced Parrot at the top. The walk up the final stretch was chest-bursting, every few steps at that altitude burning. This was our favourite lodge, sharing the same building as Luis, his wife Flora and 9 year old son. Birdgirl was their first child guest and they were all very welcoming. Again, Birdgirl made a friend!

The next morning, we could not go far birding as there had been heavy rain overnight. The river that we had crossed the previous day was now a raging torrent. Giving up on much chance of birding, we left early, again on horseback. Much one handed horse-riding went on, full wild west style, down the mountainside. Birdgirl did at one point show off with no hands and Digby did lots of holding on to the front of his saddle, other arm out straight, whilst his horse went down steep bits. Lots of fun was had by all and we are agreed that we will all be going to Tynings Stables on our return.

Smiling is so uncool!
The next morning, we could not go far birding as there had been heavy rain overnight. The river that we had crossed the previous day was now a raging torrent. Giving up on much chance of birding, we left early, again on horseback. Much one handed horse-riding went on, full Wild West style, down the mountainside. Birdgirl did at one point show off with no hands and Digby did lots of holding on to the front of his saddle, other arm out straight, whilst his horse went down steep bits. Lots of fun was had by all and we are agreed that we will all be going to Tynings Stables on our return.

We were then met by jeeps to be taken back to Urrao, where we met out mini bus and driver, Carlos and taken to Jardin in the Central Andes, via the endemic Greyish Piculet.

Jardin is a beautiful old Spanish town, complete with old square and buildings around it. Our hotel is on the main square, with an old balcony overlooking the square and original features everywhere.

Birdgirl caught up with e-mails from all her friends tonight and said this evening that she is missing them all and home, as well as her sister and little niece....

4.45 am start tomorrow.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Hi, from Birdgirl in Colombia

Birdgirl says hi, but she will be out of contact for a bit.

She misses her friends, but is having the time of her life.


More than half way through Colombia trip

We are now on day 17 of our 5 and a half week birding trip to Colombia and are in Medellin.

After Ibague we drove over the central cordillera and then into valley on the western slope of the central cordillera and then to the reserve of Otum Quinbaya at 1500m, near La Suiza village. Then to Rio Blanca lodge at 2,500m. Then after two days, we went to Los Nevados National Park at 4050m on the western side of the central cordelleras.

We then drove of top of central cordelleras and winded down the eastern side heading north. We then drove into the Magdalena Valley, which was very wide.

We then spent the night at Rio Clara Lodge, which had a room with one side open to the elements and an interesting bug life. We then had a great walk along a stream the next morning and saw the endemic Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant and some Oilbirds in a cave.
We then travelled onto Paujil reserve on the eastern side of Magdalena Valley, west of Villa de Layva and a little north. Three hours in a jeep followed by a half hour boat ride with a groucho complete with gun sling and gun!

We then spent 2 days walking in a steep rain forest not finding the elusive Blue-Billed Curassow. 14 hours of searching in total… We saw the endemic Beautiful Woodpecker, Sooty Ant-Tanager and White-Mantled Barbet.  However, sadly no currasow.

Then we were off to the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, where I managed to log on last time. The lodge is at 1400m and we climbed up to 1950m after a hard walk up, missing many of our target birds. For one of the key endemics, we climbed off the track down a mountainside but was still only seen by Chris, causing much disappointment. Birdgirl did very well to keep up.

We had a better second day and met Trevor Ellery with a tour group of Scots arrived including Richard Schofield, ex Birdquest guide known by Digby. We had a good night celebrating Birdgirl’s 2000th bird species with them and she amazed us all with some brilliant poetry that she wrote that afternoon.

Next we went to the Piha Reserve for 2 days which was at 1450m on the eastern slope of the northern central Andes. The next day was Avery's 24th birthday, just a couple of years older than our oldest daughter!

Here we had 7 more endemics, as well as 1000 Mississippi Kites migrating north!

We are now travelling to Las Tangaras Reserve on the western slope of the western cordilleras of the Andes. We have said goodbye to Avery and hello to Miles McCullan, our new guide.

I am sure it will be another week before we have internet again. We have a day of travelling today, to rest those weary legs, and I have managed to have a café stop with wifi.