Sumapaz National Park, Colombia: February 3, 2013

Much like Quito, Bogotá is a high-altitude Andean capital city, nestled up against even higher moutains whose upper reaches are covered in elfin forest and grassland, or páramo, habitat.  Chingaza National Park is the typical páramo birding site visited by tour groups passing through Bogotá, but I had heard that given the recent dry weather, bird activity there has been unseasonably low.  Instead, I made the two hour drive south to Sumapaz National Park, which protects over 150,000 hectares of montane forest and of grassland stretching from 1500 up to 4300 meters and including unique patches of mature polylepis woodland near treeline.  The part of the park accessible via road through Usme consists basically of frailejone-dominated páramo interspersed with shrubs and elfin forest, as well as a few lakes, bogs, and marshes.

My primary target bird was the Bearded Helmetcrest, a fierce-looking and hardy hummingbird capable of withstanding the cold and wet weather of the highlands.  There were a few other new species awaiting me too, including several country endemics, but I was simply excited to head out to the páramo again, where I had spent innumerable days hiking and birding while living in Ecuador.  Buoyed by my successful excursion on the previous day, I set out confidently in my rental car with only a few printed maps from the Internet. Indeed, the Sunday morning sky at dawn was perfectly clear, portending a satisfying and productive day, despite me not having any specific site information or even a field guide to the birds of Colombia.

The drive wasn’t as easy as I had expected, but my intuition and a few well-placed road signs eventually put me on the correct path.  About 30km outside of Usme on a winding but paved road, I eventually outstripped all the small potato farms and arrived at some undisturbed habitat before the signed entrance to the part (there is no park control or entrance fee).  Within seconds I was eyeing my first pair of Rufous-Browed Conebills, a subtle but still rewarding country endemic.  After catching flashes of a Bronze-Tailed Thornbill, I moved on to the tapaculo that was calling from near the side of the road.  It took a while without playback, but I eventually caught a glimpse of a non-descript tapaculo foraging in the mossy undergrowth of some dense shrubs.  Presumably this was the Pale-Bellied Tapaculo, but that’s only an identification based on habitat and range. 

Continuing into the park, I stopped at a large lake, where there is a parking area and a few hiking trails.  Opposite the lake is an expansive marsh, habitat I knew would be much more productive than the rocky shores of the lake.  Descending towards the marsh I passed through dense shrubs interspersed with frailejones, a genus of perrenial shrubs that are considered the tallest flowers on the planet and can grow upwards of ten meters in height.  In addition to flushing several Noble Snipe, I encountered several common birds of the páramo, including Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Sedge Wren, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. As usual, the Tawny Antpittas were nearly ubiquitous, but their call is considerably varied from those found in northern Ecuador.  It’s strange to think that an antpitta could ever be one of the easiest birds to see, considering nearly every other species is extremely reclusive.

Here I also found my first male Bearded Helmetcrest, perched commandingly on top of the tallest frailejon in the area.  Unfortunately, it was backlit and soon sped off to defend its territory from another hummingbird.  Could I possibly photograph this bizarre bird, I wondered?  It’s something of a cross between a thornbill and a mountaineer – both hummingbirds, of course – but the spiky crest and long double-pointed beard are completely unique in my experience.  Also present at the marsh were Andean Teal,  Lesser Yellowlegs, and Great Thrush, looking much more at home here than in Bogotá, where it is one of the few urban birds (I found Quito much birdier by comparison offering a good chance at also finding unusual migrants in the botanical gardens and other city parks).

To pursue a photograph of the helmetcrest, I explored an area down the road that was densely covered in frailejones.  Again, I spotted a few from a distance, but all were quick to speed off from their perches before I could approach.  Many-Striped Canasteros were common in this area, and I was nearly able to photograph one side by side with the similar-looking Andean Tit-Spinetail for comparison.  I made sure to scan the rocky cliffs a few times before the clouds moved in, which is always a matter of when, not if, in the páramo, but I didn’t see a single raptor during the day.  Further down the road I passed through a military checkpoint, a reminder that Colombia’s long civil war is not yet a thing in the past, despite the recent uptick in foreign investment and tourism.  Here the road descends to lower altitudes and passes along side tall polylepis woodland, but the area is also populated and somewhat degraded by agriculture.

Returning to the marsh, I decided to try for the endemic Bogotá Rail, which responded quickly to playback by striding out from a patch of tall grass.  I also attempted playback for Chestnut-Winged Cinclodes in the areas in which I’ve seen different cinclodes species in Peru and Ecuador, including both rocky slopes and the sides of streams, but without success; this was my only real dip of the day.  By then it was already early afternoon and had started to rain and, so I headed back towards Bogotá, making a final stop to investigate some bird activity along the roadside.  A small flock yielded Pale-Naped Brush-Finch and the exquisite Buff-Breasted Mountain-Tanager, a chunky tanager that generally stays in deep cover.  Even better, I also heard a group of Apolinar’s Wrens in the distance that came in nicely to playback (look for isolated tall, dense clumps of grass).  But the coup was finding myself in the middle of a territorial squabble between three male Bearded Helmetcrests, an encounter that finally yielded a few photographs.

Notable birds seen: Andean Teal, Bogota Rail, Noble Snipe, Lesser Yellowlegs, Bearded Helmetcrest, Bronze-Tailed Thornbill, Tawny Antpitta, Pale-Bellied Tapaculo, Many-Striped Canastero, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Sedge Wren, Apolinar’s Wren, Great Thrush, Buff-Breasted Mountain-Tanager, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Rufous-Browed Conebill, Pale-Naped Brush-Finch, Plain-Colored Seedeater, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.

No comments:

Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites