Birding Between Bogotá and La Vega, Colombia: February 2, 2013

While working in Bogotá for a few weeks, I set up two day trips with Colombia Birdwatch for the weekend.  Although I originally balked at the high price of a private tour, I determined it was too much of a hassle to arrange an independent excursion and decided to bite the bullet; however, the guide contacted me to cancel at the last minute.  With a rental car, some printed maps, and rudimentary site information, I figured I could simply follow the itinerary myself.  While Colombia has more bird species now that any country in the world, currently just short of 1900, I also imagined that with my years of experience birding in Ecuador that I would do fine with the identifications, even without having Steven Hilty’s classic field guide.

Picking up a compact Chevy at an Avis location near the airport Saturday morning, I continued through heavy traffic out towards La Vega.  During the week, Bogota enforces the Pico y Placa system, in which you’re only allowed to drive on certain days and at certain times according to the last digit on your license plate.  Saturday is free of restrictions though, and the streets simply flood with cars.  Once I finally escaped the clutches of Bogota, I found the driving relatively easy, with better maintained roads, adequate signage, and less industrial traffic than what I was accustomed to in Ecuador.  From La Vega it was another fifteen minutes drive on a decrepit and windy road to Parque Ecológico Laguna El Tabacal.

Within the reserve the picturesque lake is surrounded by steep forested walls, and while the habitat is somewhat degraded there is still some decent woodland and scrub to be explored along the trail system.  I didn’t have the chance to walk the entire trail network, but I was happy to bird the relatively open areas and briefly explore a few side trails.  Immediately catching my eye was the richly colored Crimson-Backed Tanager, clearly related but still distinct from the common Silver-Beaked Tanager of the Amazonian lowlands.  Also in the garden areas near the entrance I found Rufous-Capped Warbler, Blue-Necked Tanager, and Bar-Crested Antshrike.  I also searched fruitlessly for the endemic Velvet-Fronted Euphonia and Apical Flycatcher, but only realized later that they inhabit drier woodland areas than the relatively moist woodland found around the lake.

Heading counterclockwise around the lake, I was greeted by the familiar firecracker sounds emitted from a White-Bearded Manakin lek.  After a few fun minutes trying to photograph these explosive little birds, I moved on to explore a side trail through the dense undergrowth.  Flushing a Swainson’s Thrush, I noticed another tiny bird dash to another perch nearby.  An exquisite Rusty-Breasted Antpitta suddenly appeared in my binoculars, appearing much redder than the subspecies I had seen once in Pululahua Crater in Ecuador.  Although light conditions were poor and the bird quickly moved on, I was able to snag a few record shots of this lovely Grallaricula.  Further down the trail I heard the distinctive song of the Black-Bellied Wren and managed to reel a few in close with my iPod.
On another side trail I eventually found the mixed flock for which I was hoping, noting a nice variety of birds, including quite a few boreal migrants, such as Blackburnian and Canada Warblers and Summer Tanager (I had also seen a Northern Waterthrush earlier in the woodland alongside the lake).  In the undergrowth nearby, I then followed a pair of White-Bellied Antbirds that were calling as they probed through the leaf litter.  Finally, I scored a quick look at a Stripe-Breasted Spinetail as it sounded off from a dense tangle near a tree fall.  While I am able to identify the family and genus of most neotropical birds now by ear – that’s a spinetail, a woodcreeper, or an antwren, for example – I didn’t prepare much for the trip either by listening to bird calls or looking through a field guide; therefore, it was a real delight to actually see each new species for the first time. 

Being unprepared definitely forced me to pay a lot more attention to field markings, and I felt as if for once I was seeing the bird in its entirety instead of simply comparing it to an image I had memorized.  Indeed, who hasn’t been slightly disappointed to see a lifer after having seen it repeatedly in drawings and photographs?  The cost, of course, was that I missed quite a few identifications, including a handful of hummingbirds, what seemed to be a bush-tanager, and a foliage gleaner.  If I at least had had a field guide with me, I could have flipped through the pages quickly before the image of the bird had escaped my short term memory.  I left prematurely around 2pm in the afternoon hoping to hit a few more sights before dark on my way back to Bogotá.

Notable birds seen: Neotropic Cormorant, Striated Heron, Pied-Billed Grebe, Spotted Sandpiper, Rusty-Breasted Antpitta, Bar-Crested Antshrike, White-Bellied Antbird, Plain Antvireo, Stripe-Breasted Spinetail, Plain Xenops, Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher, Social Flycatcher, White-Beared Manakin, Black-Bellied Wren, Rufous-Capped Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Tropical Mockingbird, Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Summer Tanager, Crimson-Backed Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Masked Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Saffron Finch, Yellow-Bellied Seedeater.

Supposedly there was an excellent hummingbird garden at a private residence in a small town nearby called San Francisco de Sales, but I had no additional information.  After asking directions a few times I finally found the unmarked residence at the edge of town (for directions, take the first left after crossing the bridge just before you get into town).  El Jardin Encantado, as it’s known, is located next to a forested stream at about 1500m in elevation, and the site attracts over 20 species of hummingbirds, including the endemic Indigo-Capped Hummingbird.  The proprietress is a hospital woman who is fairly knowledgeable about birds and offered me her copy of Hilty’s field guide to assist in my observations.  There are nearly 40 hummingbird feeders hung in close proximity, and the small garden is teeming with nectar feeding birds.  Highlights included the stout and highly dimorphic Black-Throated Mango, the unique White-Vented Plumeteer, and the stunning male Gorgeted Woodstar.

Notable birds seen: Andean Emerald, White-Bellied Woodstar, Gorgeted Woodstar, Sparkling Violetear, Green Hermit, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, Black-Throated Mango, Indigo-Capped Hummingbird, White-Vented Plumeteer, Thick-Billed Euphonia, Bananaquit.

On the outskirts of the Bogota, I made one last stop at Humedal La Florida, a large recreational park that includes a restored wetlands area whose use is apparently restricted to bird watching activities.  Supposedly the Bogotá region originally had a vast network of wetlands, extensive but isolated enough for a separate rail species to evolve here.  Indeed the site is regularly visited by birders hoping to see the Bogotá Rail, as well as Apolinar’s Wren and Silvery-Throated Spinetail, all three country endemics.  Despite showing up long after opening hours, which are from 7am to 12pm, an enthusiastic guard led me to a birding blind from which I called both the wren and the rail into the open with sparing use of my iPod.  But had I known I would have found both species the following day at Sumapaz National Park, I would have skipped the site and spent more time at El Tabacal.

Notable birds seen: Andean Teal, Common Moorhen, Bogota Rail, Apolinar’s Wren, Yellow-Hooded Blackbird.

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