Monday, 28 May 2012

The first 3 weeks of birding in Bolivia

So, after 21 days of birding, we have seen 486 birds and heard 22 more, giving a total of 508 birds recorded.  Adding in the birds recorded by our guide only, this takes our total to well over the 514 recorded by Birdquest in their August 2010 tour, which also included a fair number of migrants.  Not that I am competitive, but it is good to know that we are doing OK so far.   We have also seen 10 SACC endemics out of a possible 10 targeted and will try for the remaining 5 during the rest of the trip.

The trip so far has been pretty easy birding and walking wise, but was tough insect wise in Beni.  The mosquitoes seem to have been forgotten as all signs have faded.  Wish the same could be said for chiggers!  Overall we are all less tired than in Colombia and far more relaxed, probably because we are pacing ourselves better and less stressed about missing birds (unless they are endemics of course!).  The food has been pretty good and Herman making our camp breakfasts and lunches has worked out much better for us veggies and fussy eaters.  I think that the High Andes will be much tougher, but probably for the best as I need to walk off the Snickers Bars before we get home.

Sand dunes outside of Santa Cruz

Sand blown in from Argentina

The Central Highlands, Bolivia

After Saipina, we drove north to Camarapa which is at 1800m, dropped our bags at the hotel and headed up to the high Yungas cloud forest of Siberia at 2,500m, where we caught up with the endemic Bolivian Brush-Finch.

The next day was spent birding at between 2,500m and 3,600m.  It was cold in the morning, even in our thermals and many layers but soon warmed up too hot sun and t-shirt weather.  At 3,600m we were watching a Rock Earthcreeper, when Birdgirl suddenly felt sick and faint.  After some TLC and removal of some layers she soon perked up and felt much better after some Sprite and Minstrels (as they travel well - another top tip from Digby!).  Fortunately, we have bought some altitude sickness tablets in case we need them.

Birds of the day were the endemic Black-Hooded Sunbeam and Grey-Bellied Flowerpiecer and also Huayo Tinamou (which was missed by Birdgirl), White-Faced Ibis, Black-Winged Parrot and Rufous-Capped Antshrike.

The next morning was spent birding in Siberia again, catching up with a very confiding endemic Rufous-Faced Antpitta.  We were very lucky as they can often be shy and skulky.  We then headed off back to Santa Cruz, via a lunch stop back in lovely Samaipata in a hippy hangout.  Here we had an array of veggie dishes to choose from and Birdgirl tucked into pancakes with honey and popcorn.  We got back to Santa Cruz to catch our evening flight to Cochabamba, further west in the Central Highlands, at 2,500m.  Luxury again, but no time to enjoy any of the facilities.

The Red Throated Macaw Lodge, Bolivia

The Red-Fronted Macaw Lodge

At the Red-Fronted Macaw Lodge we were met by Ronaldo, the administrator. The three local villages benefit from the lodge, in order to promote the conservation of the Red-Fronted Macaw, of which there are only 750 birds left, all in this area. It is great what they have managed to do here to conserve this bird.
The next morning was a late start with breakfast on the balcony at 6.15 am, watching the endemic Red-Fronted Macaw, Bolivian Blackbird and soon to be split Cliff Parakeet.  The Macaws and Parakeets nest, roost and feed on a cliff fact directly opposite the lodge, giving amazing views.  The rest of the day was spent birding the dry, desert surroundings.  It looked liked somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, with giant cactus everywhere.  Although the lodge is at 2100m,  it is still normally very hot here, but we were fortunate that it was an unusually cloudy morning, making birding very pleasant.  I even managed to fit in a three hour siesta after lunch!  In the afternoon, we birded above the lodge, getting great views straight onto the cliff and wondered around some pre-Inca ruins, where Birdgirl picked up a few pieces of pottery.   Back at the lodge, Ronaldo showed us some tools that were 4,000 years old and told Birdgirl that her painted pottery pieces were about 1,000 years old.  He also showed us some fossils and explained that the whole area around there was one of the best in the world for dinosaurs, dating back to 4 million years ago.  A full size dinosaur had been found at Sucre and north of there was a valley famous for dinosaur footprints that now climbed vertically up the mountainside (the ground had been pushed up to a vertical over the years).

After two nights at the lodge, we left heading for the Central Andes.  After Saipina, we made a successful Bolivian Earthcreeper stop for me. 

Breakfast looking for Macaws

That was an easy lifer!
Catching up on the bird lists

A relaxing afternoon birding in the heat

Or there's another way of spending your afternoon...

Birdgirl at a pre-inca site

Birdgirl with a giant cactus

A Bolivian road trip

Birdgirl enjoying "The Importance of Being Ernest"

A relaxed approach to Maths lessons

From Samaipata we drove further west along the foothills, then south and down into the dry valleys to Saipina. Our destination was the Red-Fronted Macaw Reserve.

This turned out to be the most eventful journey of our trips. After leaving Samaipata, before reaching even the next town, we came around a bend to find the aftermath of a recent accident. An open truck full of bricks had turned over, turning 180 degrees and upside down. A car had already stopped, but there was no ambulance yet. The front windscreen of the truck had fallen out and there were 3 clearly seriously injured people scattered around the vehicle, amongst the bricks. There was also a boy about 12 years old, covered in brick dust, sitting on a pile of bricks. Sandro and Herman ran to the people, whilst we waited helplessly in the vehicle. Our first aid kit seemed completely inadequate and I made a mental promise to attend a first aid course when we returned home. A few minutes later, they returned saying that the boy wanted a lift to the next town. Did they think we might say no? We made space for the boy next to Birdgirl and we set off at speed for the next town. During those 15 minutes, all I could do was wash some of the blood and dust from the boy’s face whilst Birdgirl washed down his arms. He was in shock and finally shed a few tears. As we got into town, he insisted on being dropped at a house surrounded by bricks. I felt terrible letting him go like that, but he clearly wanted to find someone. Who were the people in the truck? His father, his mother or both? We then sped of to the hospital to tell them about the accident. A doctor and nurse were already waiting outside in bright white coats, having already been phoned about the accident, waiting for the ambulance to pick them up. There was nothing more for us to do and we carried on our journey in silence.

I was worried about Birdgirl. Was this one step too far in her travel experiences? After a couple of hours, she said “I’ll never be able to see a brick again without thinking that.”

“I’m sure they looked worse then they were.” I lied. I asked Sandro whether he had seen many accidents like this. He said that he had seen two bad accidents, both on the road between La Paz and Rurrenabaque (where he lives) the first section of which is the World’s Most Dangerous Road. He said that sections are only wide enough for one vehicle and have a steep drop to the side. He said that one time he was on the Rurrenabaque to La Paz bus, when they came across another bus that had gone down the mountainside killing all 40 people on board. He said that his bus had stayed a whole day to get all the dead bodies up from the bus that was 100m below. In his understated way, Sandro described it as being “horrible”. I wondered if people suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here, or is that only a luxury of the West?
On that sombre note, we all sat quietly for our long journey. Just before Saipina, we stopped for Least Grebe, Birdgirl’s 2400th bird on her world list. She was very pleased. We did not see a Bolivian Earthcreeper and I was less pleased. It was another hour to Saipina and then here we drove two hours west, to the Red-Fronted Macaw Reserve.

The last three hours were dusty in dry desert conditions. It was late and pitch black when we stopped. We were apparently 400m from the lodge but the river was flooded between us and the village. Herman was more optimistic than Sandro about being able to drive across, but as he started to drive into a fast flowing river, the front of the vehicle dropped down into the water and we had to reverse back out. I had visions of spending he night in the vehicle, but Herman was not going to give up so easily. I could hear laughter outside and saw Herman wading across knee high, trying to find a shallow enough path through. Back in the vehicle, Herman drove us into the river and then downstream before crossing and driving along the riverbank and finally up onto a different track. He certainly had nerves of steel.

Our bird mobile

The Andes foothills, Bolivia

After leaving Camiri, we drove north back towards Santa Cruz. We had a birding stop for Breakfast next to a lake in the Andes foothills. The scenery was beautiful, with the forested mountains of the foothills surrounding us. Here we had two more Military Macaws perched and saw some new waders for the trip. Sandro saw a wader at a distance, back on, which he could not identify but knew was a lifer for him. Chris took a look and decided to take a path down to the water side. He had just placed his scope down, looked through it and immediately identified it as a Least Sandpiper when he gave out a shout of “ow!”. Then, Sandro, pointed at Chris’ trousers and shouted “chiwowa!”. Chris had been standing on an ants’ nest and was covered up to his knees in about a hundred little red biting ants. There was a lot of frantic trying to swipe the ants off, which resulted in Sandro also being covered in ants. It must have been the cost of a tick for him! Birdgirl and I managed to remain unscathed and when we returned to the vehicle, Herman could not help but laugh at the two grown men trying to get the remaining ants out of their trousers.

We then travelled west from Santa Cruz, stopping at a golf resort at Los Volcanos, for Masked Duck, Birdgirl’s 200th new bird for the trip. We also saw our first two Andean Condor of the trip. They are so beautiful and deserve their iconic status. The resort itself was very manicured and is normally full of lots of people from Santa Cruz. Though it had luxurious looking cabins on the lawns with absolutely stunning views overlooking a large lake and surrounded by mountains on all sides.

We then carried on west to Samaipata. This was a beautiful town set in the foothills, with well renovated Spanish style houses, painted white with red tiles. Apparently 80% of the residents are foreigners, who have settled here and set up businesses, liking the cool climate and hippy feel. There are nearby pre-Inca ruins of a place that was meant to have much spiritual meaning. Bolivia’s Glastonbury. We stayed on an organic farm and accommodation run by a Dutch guy, with homemade organic foods, including bread, pickle and honey. Birdgirl said that she would have liked to have stayed a week to which Chris suggested that maybe she could come back on her own when she was older, now that she knows it was there. Exactly what we hoped she would get out of the trip.

The next morning we birded in the hills above Samaipata and saw Giant Antshrike and the endemic Bolivian Earthcreeper, which I missed. I was promised the bird at Saipina. Promises on bird trips can be dangerous things, especially to me!,

Giant Anteater & Fer De Lance (the most dangerous snake in South America?)

As well as the many birds seen, we have seen lots of animals.  The best animal has got to be the Giant Anteater which we got great views of and Chris managed to get some video footage of.

The Fer De Lance snake is perhaps the most poisonous in South America and can be aggressive, which makes it more dangerous.  The one that we saw was not that big being about 18” long and was curled up under a fallen tree, ignoring us as we went past warily several times.

This was the first Fer De Lance that Chris and I had seen, but not the first Birdgirl had seen.  She was able to confirm her previous identification of a snake that she had been confronted by in the Ecuadorian Amazon when she was only 8 years old.

We were four hours up river from the nearest town and were staying at Sacha Lodge.  We had used a boat to get to uninhabited tidal islands in the middle of the Napo River, with our guide Andres Vasquez and local Amazonian guide.  We were all wearing walking boots, as protection from bites but had not seen any snakes on our travels.  We were walking back to the boat along a raised sandy path through forest. I was walking just behind the two guides and Birdgirl was walking with Chris about 10 metres behind.  Birdgirl was walking a couple of feet to the left of Chris and suddenly did a little hop, jump and a skip to the right, before carrying on walking.  After 10-15 seconds, Birdgirl said calmly, “sorry about that (my little jump), but the snake made me jump.”.  Chris’ thought was “OMG! What snake!” but didn’t want to frighten Birdgirl and returned to where she had seen the snake, but it was nowhere to be seen.

Birdgirl explained that the snake had been lying across the path and she had not seen it.  As she took a step, her foot landed 5-6 inches from the snake.  It responded by rearing up It’s head hissing at her aggressively for a few seconds.  This resulted in the hop, jump and skip away from the hissing snake.  Birdgirl had assumed that we had all seen the snake as it was on the path and was not frightened as it did not occur to her that it might be poisonous.  We said nothing to her, as we didn’t want to spoil the rest of her trip and we had assumed that it was some kind of harmless swamp snake, of which you apparently get many in that area.

That evening at dinner, Birdgirl asked Andreas (our guide) if he would help her identify her snake.  She then gave him an extremely detailed description of a 1 metre long snake which was too wide to get one hand around, impressing us all with her recall to detail.  She said that it had made a lasting impression on her and she had a good long view of it.  Andreas listened quietly and then told Birdgirl that he did not know what her snake was and that she should go and get the snake field guide book from the lodge library.  After Birdgirl had left the table, Andreas exclaimed that on that description he knew exactly what the snake was, there was no doubt that it was a Fer De Lance, the most poisonous snake in Ecuador!  He said that he had only seen it once before and that it was the only snake that would have responded so aggressively.  Birdgirl then returned with the book and after looking through the photographs said that her snake was a Fer De Lance.  Andreas showed her a few other photographs to try and persuade her that it might be something else, but no, she was sure.  We never told her the snake was poisonous, until now.

Being from the UK, it’s hard to remember to look out for snakes.  In Colombia, during our first night walk through dense humid forest looking for owls, I noticed our guide, Avery, using his torch to search around the ground as well as the trees for owls.  I asked whether he was looking on the ground for owl droppings, so that he knew to look above for owls but was brought back to reality of South American birding when he said no, he was checking for snakes!

A Fer de Lance snake

Animals seen in Bolivia:

Santa Cruz
Brown Capuchin, Bolivian Squirrel Monkey (an endemic), Three-Toed Sloth

Chaco (near Paraguay)
Andean Fox

Amazon Basin

Madidi National Park – 900 m (near Peru)
Golden Palace Monkey (an endemic recently described), Fer De Lance snake, Brazilian Rabbit, Amazonian Red Squirrel, Red-Broker Deer

Spectacled Caymen

Barba Azul Reserve
Capybara, Grassland Deer, Giant Anteater, Yellow-Banded Armadillo, Red-Bellied Piranha (unfortunately no Maned Wolf which are seen later in the dry season!)

Riberalta (near Brazil)
Coral Snake, Brown Agouti

Also two yet to be identified mammels, a small badger kind of thing and a rat thing with no tail.  We have the spanish names so will have to look up.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Chaco and the first 14 days in Bolivia

We had a four hour drive yesterday from Santa Cruz to Camiri on a pretty good road, stopping en route just South of the Rio Grande. Here, we had the most amazing short stop with lots of new birds including a Military Macaw which flew low out of a tree and then slowly across the road and down it away from us, giving us the most brilliant views. It was an awesome and unexpected birding moment and as soon as the bird disappeared out of site there were high-fives all around from Birdgirl, who had missed it twice in Madidi National Park.
We stayed in lovely lodge style hotel and managed to grab a quick pizza. Camiri was cooler than expected and even if I didn’t need the air conditioning on. The second bonus was absolutely no mosquitoes even though we are still low down.

We spent the day birding today in the Chaco, an area full of speciality birds, split between Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. The Chaco is known as the hottest past of Bolivia and we were ready for an extremely hot and dry climate. Instead, it was perfect. It was very cloudy with no rain and a good breeze, making it perfect for birding. Also, no mosquitoes, chiggers, sand flies, sweat flies or anything else to test our ability to cope.

We had a 4am start, but managed to grab a couple of hours of sleep on the way down. We saw 18 new birds for the trip in the first 2 hours, making the morning pass very quickly.

Herman, our driver, cooked lunch on a camp stove, so was perfect for Birdgirl’s fussy palate.
The afternoon was much quieter, but we still have tomorrow to catch up with more Chaco specialities.

The birding:

After 14 days of birding, 378 birds on our trip list seen. The walking has been easy so far, but we have the highlands to come. Bird Bolivia have been brilliant, rearranging things to fit around inevitable delays along the way.

3 endemics seen (out of 18), Blue-Throated Macaw, Unicolored Thrush and Masked Antpitta. None are not usually seen on trips and so this makes them even better. Also, saw Bolivian Slaty-Antshike which is being reviewed by SACC as to whether they accept as a new endemic.

Santa Cruz
Bolivian Slaty-Antshrike, White-Banded Mockingbird, White-Bellied Nothyra and Red-Legged Seriema.

Chaco (near Paraguay)
Black-Legged Sereima, Lark-Like Brushrunner; Many-Colored Chaco Finch; Black-Capped Warbling-Finch; Brown-Backed Mockingbird; Chaco Chachalaca; Striped Woodpecker; Chaco Earthcreeper, Red-Billed Scythebill and Chaco Suiriri.

Amazon Basin

Madidi National Park – 900 m (near Peru)
Military, Red and Green, Blue and Yellow, Chestnut-Fronted, Red-Bellied Macaws

Unicoloured Thrush

Barba Azul Reserve (‘Blue Beard’) – Blue-Throated Parrot Reserve
Blue-Throated Macaw (only 380 birds left in the world all in this area which is the size of Texas. We saw 25 individuals); Yellow-Collared Macaw; Greater Rhea; Southern Screamer;

Riberalta (near Brazil)
Masked Antpitta

We have another 24 days of birding left and so are hopeful that we will end up with a sizeable trip list - no idea what though!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Taj Mahal, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

So, totals so far after 12 days of birding in lowlands of Bolivia: 341 birds seen, lifers on our world lists are 109 for me, 108 for Chris and 146 for Birdgirl. No idea what the trip total might end up at, but I'm hoping big!

We had dinner with Ruth Alipaz, who runs Bird Bolivia and is married to Bennett Hennessey, as well as their son Adam. Went for a meal at The Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant in Santa Cruz.

We met an Indian customer who explained that there were only a few Indians in Santa Cruz or Bolivia. I had a chat with the chef, who turned out to be Bengali. We had special authentic veggie dishes rustled up for us as apparently Bolivians will only eat sweet or creamy dishes.

A long way to go for an Indian Meal at the Taj Mahal

Masked Antpitta - a mega endemic in Bolivia

Leaving Trinidad, our Flight to Riberalta (in the Amazonian northern border with Brazil) was delayed by several hours. Finally arriving at Riberalta airport it was 5.30 pm.

Flying up to Riberalta was really only for one bird, Masked Antpitta. It is a Bolivian endemic and only found near this remote town. Very few foreign birders have travelled to see this bird and most have used Louis, our driver to take them to the sites.

Louis picked us up in an ancient 2-door saloon car, so squeezing in with our bags took a few minutes. We asked to be taken straight to the site, but were told that although it was only a fifteen minute drive, it was a 400m walk to see the bird. It was touch and go with light, but decided to go for it. As we rushed along the path through the forest in quickly dimming light, this really did feel like a twitch. It was not to be and we did not even hear a bird before it was too dark within the forest. On top of this, the mosquitoes were vicious, biting through two layers of clothing and ignoring all repellents.

As we walked back in almost darkness, Birdgirl walked ahead with Sandro our indigenous guide. Suddenly they stopped. There on the path was a Coral Snake, a deadly poisonous snake. We all admired the snake before it slowly moved away. Birdgirl said that she had not seen the snake at all and were she walking ahead, she would have stepped on it thinking it was a stick. She was going to take more care when walking at night through the forest!

Our hotel was a beautiful old hacienda, dating back 100 years and full of antique furniture. Birdgirl had a hammock in our room to sleep in. As common in all the Amazon towns, there were hardly any cars but huge numbers of motorbikes. The evening entertainment was for everyone, young and old, to slowly ride their motorbikes around the town square. It was most amusing to watch.

The next day we had great views of the Masked Antpitta, after a couple of hours of trying. It was a big relief. This time we had taken extreme precautions against the mosquitoes, which seemed to do the trick.

The original plan had been to travel an hour and a half south to an area of grassland and trees called Cerrado. We had to restrict this to the afternoon but first had to go to Louis’ house to swap the car for a very old and battered 4x4 pick-up. Half an hour into the journey and there was a problem. Louis went to inspect and came back to say there was a problem with the back axel and we had to return to get it fixed. Whilst the pick-up was being fixed, Louis and Sandro tried to find another 4x4 to take us, but to no avail. This was not a town with vehicles. We finally left in the now fixed pick-up at 3.30pm, arriving after a very fast journey along slippery, muddy roads. We only saw a few birds in our hour of birding but were plagued by swarms of tiny sweat flies. We had to find hats to cover our ears and even Chris wore a head net. This was not fun birding.

Overnight, I was up with a bad stomach and took the morning off whilst Chris and Birdgirl returned to the Cerrado, with bandana’s around their faces and hats pulled down, just with their eyes showing. They saw a few more birds, which made up for the birds. I only missed 3 lifers and so don’t feel so bad about being ill.
Also, we have just heard from Bennett Hennessey at Bird Bolivia to say that the endemic Unicoloured Thrush that we saw in Trinidad was extremely rare and difficult to see and that we were amongst only a few foreign birders to have seen it. That makes it an even more special bird.

In the afternoon we returned to Santa Cruz, flying via Trinidad for the third time. The first time, security took a great interest in our bag of optics, carefully examining each one. The second time, they took them out, but quite quickly. The third time, they unzipped the bag, recognised the contents and us and closed it back up.

It is sad to leave the Amazon but has been great being back in Santa Cruz and having a couple of nights in a lovely hotel, with air conditioning, wifi and no bugs. Bliss. Tomorrow we head south to lowlands close to the Paraguayan border, so making the most of the selection of restaurants.

Birdgirl has been catching up with e-mails from her friends and enjoying the contact. It has been good to have a quick look at Facebook and BBC News, catching up with everyone else and the world.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bolivia – the first week

Birdgirl in the Amazon

Well, we have started out second trip. I meant to update before we left, but had a mad rush the last couple of days and then have been too tired travelling. Between trip was very lazy and so we had a lot to fit in at the end. Just enough time for a birthday and sleep over (when not much sleep had).

We left Heathrow on Monday 7th May, which was Birdgirl’s 10thbirthday. Our attempts at finding somewhere she would eat anything were fruitless (and was causing huge stress and tension) until we spotted a Wagamama’s. We couldn’t believe our luck, particularly as we had been told when we checked in that no vegetarian food was booked for us. So we tucked in, thinking it might be our last meal for 24 hours. Chris went to check the board and oblivious to anything apart from food, I ordered ice-creams for myself and Birdgirl…Well it was a big birthday! Chris returned to find ice-creams arriving, stressed because apparently it was a 20 minute walk to the gate and he wasn’t sure if we had 45 minutes or only 30 minutes to get there. This might be the case, but I was not going to leave my three scoops of very cold ice-cream, particularly not when we still had 10 minutes to spare. A very slow 8 minutes later, we were running towards our gate (via a train – it was our first time to Terminal 5). I was relying on the 20 minute estimate being an overestimate for old people. Fortunately, it was 45 and not 30 minutes and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. Not a good way to start a plane journey.

I had been dreading our transit in Miami as I remembered passport control in New York as being horrible and had heard the whole process was slow. I was pleasantly surprised to be met by no queues and a friendly passport control man, who even cracked a joke with Birdgirl! We arrived at our gate with a couple of hours to spare. Everything seemed to be going to plan until they announced that there was a transport strike in La Pazand our choice was to stay in Miami at our expense or fly on to Santa Cruz. A quick exchange of texts with Bird Bolivia and we decided to fly to Santa Cruz. At least then we were in the right country.
We arrived at 6.30am at Santa Cruz and were met by Bennett Hennessey from Bird Bolivia and his 12 year old son Adam. There were no flights to La Paz and so we fitted in some birding and stayed the night in Santa Cruz. It was lovely for Birdgirl to have some company her own age. We also managed to fit in a Japanese lunch and pizza dinner! The next morning we caught a flight to Trinidad, in the Amazon Basin, in a tiny 12 seater plane that you had to duck down to walk down the aisle. After a long 7 hour wait at Trinidad airport, we finally took our 1 hour flight to Rurrenabaque. The airstrip was cut into the Amazon and he whole flight beautiful. From here we were driven 3 hours into the foothills, to 900m, for a 3 night stay in the Amazon at Sadiri Lodge. This is a lodge built by a local indigenous people, built and run by them. We had amazing views, a lovely climate and great birds.

Chris and Birdgirl at Sadiri Lodge

Just also had a 3 night stay at Barba Azul Reserve, for which we had a one hour charter plane from Rurrenabaque and which takes 11 hours to drive from Trinidad in the dry season.  Our plane was a 5 seater tiny plane and I was a little concerned every time the pilot started talking on his mobile phone.  This was a really low flight over the Amazon to the research station, which although in the Amazon, was more open pampas grassland land and flooded rivers.  when we arrived, the plane circled twice before coming in low above the landing strip covered in cows.  I was worried we would hit a cow but we lifted up just in time.  Clearly the aim was to try to frighten the cows off the landing strip!  Then as we lifted off, we could see a gaucho on horseback galloping towards the landing strip, to clear it of cattle, just in time for our fourth and sucessful attempt to land.  As well as seeing the endemic and very rare Blue-Thoated Maacaw (called Barba Azul- blue beard in spanish) we saw a giant anteater and two yellow-banded Amedillos.  We were also plagued by mosquitoes and so were glad that we managed to get our charter plane to Trinidad yesterday, which was delayed by 8 hours due to rain.

Birdgirl enjoying a charter flight

Birdgirl riding at Barba Azul Reserve

After a night in Trinidad and birding for Beni specialities this morning, including the endemic unicoloured thrush, we are due to Fly to Ribiralta in the northern Amazon this afternoon for 2 nights. 

Colombia – a postscript

What were the highlights?  The things we will remember?  That is what most people have been asking.  The most memorable experience was definitely the horse riding in the Andes.  Maybe this will be become one of many riding experiences across South America and so will not remain that memorable, so I have tried to think of some other things:

Obviously, the almost 800 birds recorded on the trip including the 61 endemics.

In Ibague, the pedestrian crossing lights caused much amusement.  When the little green man lit up, he started by walking very slowly.  As the time to cross reduced, the little man stated walking faster and faster until he was running for the few seconds before he disappeared and the red man came on.  We only saw traffic lights like these in Ibague, but presume that they must have been imported from somewhere.

Birdgirl managing to eat 6 Dunkin Donuts, after a week of plain rice.

Colombians’ love of very loud music?  Even in the remotest mountainside, where there was electricity (or batteries) there was music blasting loud enough even to compete with the St Paul’s Carnival.  Not conducive to enjoying the countryside or birdwatching.  At the site of one endemic bird in the Santa Marta mountains, Miles told us about him once speaking to a local guide, asking whether they could ask the owners of a shop to turn down the blaring music.  The local was concerned and asked whether the birds would still know where to come if the music was turned down!

The cabin in Bahia Solano, completely opening up at the front and the back.  Front with a hammock and overlooking the beach and Pacific Sea and back to the jungle.

The enormous vault doors into each gallery of the Gold Museum in Bogotá, each with huge numbers of gold pieces.

The strange stone carvings in San Agustin.

The day we left San Agustin, we started off intending to head straight back to Nueva, a four hour drive.  After an hour, we persuaded the driver to take us on a four our detour up and over the Eastern Andes Cordilleras and then down to the Amazon foothills.  Although no lifers were expected, we thought we might see enough new species for the trip to tip us over 800.  Everything was looking great, until we got to almost the top of the eastern Cordilleras and our driver suddenly announced that he had forgotten to fill up with fuel and was about to run out.   We were 40km to the next town with fuel. He had enough to coast downhill back to the last town, but not to go on.  There was much verbal exchange between Trevor and the driver.  There was nothing we could do.  So we got out and started birding in a forwards direction, but after an hour we gave up as we were still too high to see anything different.  A couple of miles after heading back in the vehicle, I noticed a sign that said “Gas”.  We did a u-turn and went back to enquire and sure enough the tiny hut/shop had some fuel. A very small container and pipe appeared, to use suction to get the fuel into the vehicle.  The container looked impossibly small to me, but the driver seemed happy as he started driving back up the mountainside.  After a few minutes, again after much heated debate between Trevor and the driver, the driver again turned his vehicle around.  He had enough fuel to drive 30km….not enough to get to the next town…not sure when he was going to tell us!  We again stopped at the little hut, to find they had no more fuel.  So then we had to carry on to the next down, by which time it was too late to turn back.  It was probably for the best, as it was late enough when we arrived in Nueva.

The women in Medellin.  All the women looked the same: dyed blonde highlights, thin model like bodies, designer clothes and high heels and the centre of the world for cosmetic surgery.  Miles told us about a friend of his who was a bit of a playboy living in Medellin.  Miles, being a married man, asked what the difference between boob job breasts and real breasts was in terms of what they felt like.  His friend responded that he did not know.  Surprised, Miles asked him whether he had never seen a boob job.  To which his friend responded no, he was not sure that he had ever seen natural ones!

The amazing Scottish birders in their late 60’s, that we met at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve.  They arrived the afternoon of our second day and managed to see lots of good birds already.  They were near the end of their 3 week trip, but were still full of energy.  A couple of bottles of local rum were drunk by them before they headed off to bed very late.  We were heading back up the mountain the next day, with an early start of 5.30am.  They were leaving at 4.00am, so that they could go owling before walking up the mountain.  We met up with them early morning, when they were still friendly and enthusiastic, despite the inevitable hangovers.  There was one moment, when we saw Richard Scofield, ex-Birdquest tour leader, world lister and big drinker, away from the main group, having a cigarette talking quietly to Birdgirl, who was eating a packet of crisps where she would not disturb the birds.  The contrast could not have been more extreme and yet, here were just two birders talking together.  We returned for lunch at the lodge whilst most of the other group returned just before dark, in time to see an endemic hummingbird in the garden.   Birdgirl spent the afternoon painting and writing poems. The last two members of their group returned with their guide Trevor, several hours after dark, at 8.30pm.  The mountain trail was treacherous in the light and I can’t imagine how slippery it was in the dark and rain.  They arrived, looking exhausted but happy having seen almost the endemics, Highland Tinamou and the owl they were looking for.  We were full of admiration of their stamina and perseverance.  After dinner, we were enjoying the company of our drunk and raucous companions (including Digby tonight) when Birdgirl very uncharacteristically asked if she could read one of her poems.  They dutifully said yes, but probably would have liked to have said no.  I suggested that perhaps Birdgirl read the shortest one and Digby quickly agreed.  Birdgirl then read her poem, about the dawn, in a confident voice and with feeling.  After she had finished reading, there was a stunned silence, the drunken brains trying to comprehend what they had just heard….eventually one asked “did you write that???” Birdgirl responded with a shy “yes” and another asked “how old are you??” Birdgirl said “nine”.   After a few more seconds of silence, there was praise from everyone.  2000 birds on her world list and a successful poem in one day.

Birdgirl’s poem, written in 10 minutes that afternoon:


My breath is the dew,

My gaze is the sun,

My voice is the steady breeze,

My cloak is the night as it unveils my face,

All bow before me;

for I am the Dawn…

An amazing trip!