06 September 2010

Lago Calima

For the budget traveler, there is really only one way to get around in South America: public transportation. Luckily, the public transport systems are well set up, and it is near impossible to not get a cab while in even the most modest sized towns. However, for the long hauls across mountain ranges and between towns, the best option by far is to go by bus. I had heard the legends of the Latin American bus rides, but suddenly I was faced by my first one. We were traveling from Bogota to Cali, which, looking at a map, didn't seem all that far to me. In fact, I would've been surprised if it was more than five hours.

It turns out I was five hours short on my estimate.

An entire day was swallowed up by the unending mountain ridges and expansive river valleys of central Colombia. Some of the most incredible canyons I have ever seen carved through razorback ridges on their ways to Colombia's major rivers. The tropical lowlands amazed me, and I saw such cool birds as Striated Heron and Squirrel Cuckoo from the buses windows. This bus turned out to be the nicest of the whole trip - large windows, sleeper seats, and the occasional bad fighting movie. However, by days' end we were finally into Cali, and after a short night's sleep were off on our next bus, this one to the north of Cali, to a small town called Darien. This bus, thankfully, was much shorter and proved to contain a few more life birds for me, such as Saffron Finch and Cocoi Heron. We then arrived at Darien with time for a short walk along the lake to see what was out and about and specifically to look for a new taxon of hummingbird that was recently described. As we walked out, the life birds stacked up and overwhelmed me. Flame-rumped Tanagers flew through the trees, a Crested Bobwhite called nearby and Grassland Yellow-Finches were flushed left and right. We soon found a nice copse of trees, and began our vigil for the hummingbird. The trees were abuzz with Western Emeralds and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and we soon spotted our target bird briefly: the Black-capped Woodnymph. A paper recently published describes this distinctive hummer only found around Lago Calima, essentially identical to a Green-crowned with a black cap. What exactly will happen to it taxonomically is yet to be determined.

Darien, Valle de Cauca, Colombia: The view from our hotel room.

The next morning we went to check out some other woods, and I saw my first ever woodcreeper (a Montane) and my first ever antbird (Bar-crested Antshrike). Everywhere I turned, I was overwhelmed with the awesomeness that is neotropical birding. Blue-black Grassquit, Spectacled Parrotlet, and Crimson-backed Tanager all put in excellent appearances. A few of our familiar North American birds also showed themselves, including the resident Colombian subspecies of Acorn Woodpecker and the interesting South American subspecies of Black Phoebe. However, at this point during my travels, I began to feel sick, and slowly wandered down to the hotel. That afternoon, as I relaxed and hoped for the best health wise, we took a bus back to Cali and began plotting our next ornithological move in Colombia.

02 September 2010

El Parque La Florida

As I type this, I am recovering from a long and arduous weekend. What was meant to be a college kid run for delicious burritos just off campus ended eight hours later after our car was in a wreck and we had to deal with everything associated therein. Luckily, all of the members of both cars were fine, and I am nothing but a little sore. Of course, the anxiety and stress that always accompanies these events is getting to me now, but when I close my eyes I can think back to my my first day in South America, and think back to another time in which I was in shock and disbelief, but for much better reasons.

It all started when Andrew and I headed to one of the nearby squares for breakfast. I quickly saw my first South American species of bird: the Rufous-collared Sparrow. This ubiquitous bird was utterly fascinating to me, the lone member of its genus found south of the Mexico. Even though they were by many standards 'trash birds,' I never tired of watching these cool little sparrows hopping about the streets and yards.

Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), El Parque La Florida, Bogota, Colombia

As we continued onward towards our destination, every bird that crossed our path was a life bird! A flock of Brown-bellied Swallows cruising overhead, a Great Thrush darting through the trees, and a dumpy Eared Dove sitting on the wire. Andrew and I soon decided to head out to one of the city parks to bird for a bit: El Parque La Florida.

After an extremely long taxi ride across the city, we finally arrived at the wastewater reclamation area and city park known as La Florida. This place seemed amazingly mediocre to me, just like a North American city park to me at first, but the birdlife did not disappoint. American Coots and Spot-flanked Gallinules cruised the lake, while Common Moorhens, Eared Doves, and Rufous-collared Sparrows made themselves known. As we walked along the marsh grasses unsuccessfully trying to find a close Apolinar's Wren I spotted my first ever neotropical tanager - a Rufous-browed Conebill, a near endemic bird to Colombia! Even Andrew got a life bird (spotted by yours truly) that day - a Subtropical Doradito skulking in the bullrush. However, my most wanted bird of the day did not appear until the very end: the rare, endangered, and localized Bogota Rail. As we walked out of the park (having only heard the rail), we found one last patch of rush to try for the rail. Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Spot-flanked Gallinule quickly vacated the area, and not long after out came a Bogota Rail!

Bogota Rail (Rallus semiplumbeus), El Parque La Florida, Bogota, Colombia.

Overall, it was an amazing introduction to the neotropics, and an excellent start at that! In fact, I never saw another rail on the entire trip. Now, armed with my very first neotropical bird experiences, I began to gear up for the rest of my Colombian adventure, and wondered just what lay ahead of me.