20 October 2013

Antpittas

Four years ago, I landed in Costa Rica for my first taste of Neotropical birding. As any birder could testify to, there is no ‘easing’ into the Neotropics. I had enough trouble identifying the birds I could comfortably see, without digging for the the skulkers. I had over this short time seen enough to be certain of two things - finding Resplendent Quetzal was tricky and I may as well stop birding without some lengthy trips to the Neotropics. Last year  I packed away my life in Europe and returned for an entire years worth of birding in South America. 

With liberty to move at will, I set about tackling the difficult and elusive species first, on the assumed basis that the commoner stuff would follow. Spinetails, Woodcreepers, Tyrant flycatchers, other flycatchers, Antbirds, Tapaculos. My introduction was made all the more difficult due to the fact that Argentina is still not in possession of a decent field guide. 

As one is bound to do, a favourite family or grouping of birds soon emerges. Perhaps it was on one of my numerous forays through my digitised field guides that it came to me, perhaps not, either way I chose a family that contained a little over 50 species (on a continent that plays host to 3500+). All the more bizarre, I had not even seen a representative of the family yet!. My colours had been nailed squarely to the Grallariidae mast. Long-legged, short-tailed, drab, a little bit squat with large dark eyes and a generally repetitive, somewhat haunting voice. Practically tied to the ground, the Antpitta family are for all money, the birding worlds version of ghosts. Living predominantly in the mist and cloud shrouded forests of the Andes, they move stealthily about seemingly intent on avoiding peering binoculars and cameras.

Over the course of the last year I managed to lay my eyes on some of them, my camera lens on only a fraction. I have sat for hours waiting, crawled through wet leaves and mud, route marched to high altitude bamboo forests and for the most part failed miserably in my quest to get but a glimpse. They certainly aren’t overly attractive or even particularly rare for the most part, but they are without doubt my most sought after and equally frustrating birds in South America. 

The short excerpts below reflect some of my successes and failures. Some of the text was originally published on this blog. Many of the photos are courtesy of some of the great team of birders and photographers I work with at Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures :

Adam Riley
Luis Segura
Forrest Roland
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Variegated Antpitta, Grallaria varia
22/08/2012. Urugua-i Provincial Park, Misiones, Argentina

Having spent the better part of two days searching the Misiones forests, I finally connected with my first Antpitta - 53 days after the tour started.

Just then, a bird flushed off the path. Must have been a thrush, other than doves they are the only things that sit on paths. The bird has landed where I can still see it though, even if behind plenty of tangles. My tongue almost falls out of my mouth, I want to do a jig, I really want to get a photo too - but there is no chance in hell I am going to get an image. My long sought after Variegated Antpitta, at 14:00 in the afternoon. I sit down on the path and hope that it might consider coming back out to do whatever it was doing when I disturbed it. After 20 minutes my patience ebbs, it is clearly not coming back out. A few yards down the path I find the likely reason for the bird being in the open like this - a thick trail of large ants.  

Tick number 1, in the bag.
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Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Hylopezus nattereri
25/08/2012. San Sebastian de la Selva, Misiones, Argentina

My next Antpitta would not require another 53 days of birding, only 3 on this occasion. This was an unintended tick, for the purpose of my twitch this morning was a different beast - the Spotted Bamboowren. I’d win on both accounts thanks to my own persistence and Ramon Moller Jensen, top bird photographer and owner of San Sebastian de la Selva.

Breakfast at 07:00 before Ramon was due to take me off to find Spotted Bamboowren. Filled up on coffee and then got an unexpected bonus, there would be no long walk to the top of the property, Ramon and I jumped onto an ATV and headed up at speed. Arriving at the site, Ramon hauled out two very large machetes - just in case some trail clearance was required. We headed along a small trail, but machetes were not required. Just before reaching the Bamboowren site, Ramon heard a Speckle-breasted Antpitta calling. Out came the mobile phone and he started some playback. We were in luck, our bird was interested and crept over to see who was invading his patch. Not the greatest view, but as anyone that has ever seen an Antpitta will testify, good views are nigh near impossible. Happy to add a second Antpitta in a matter of days.

This was starting to feel a little easy.
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Argentina had only one species of Antpitta left to get, and I would get it at Calilegua National Park where everyone else seems to find it easily. I had already spent an entire day and afternoon searching for this apparently common species. It would happen though, my last morning confined me to defeat.

Another early start. I would not be cycling today, only walking for 5-6km’s up the road and along the river. Unfortunately, I was unable to add the list - if there were White-throated Antpittas here, they certainly weren’t making their presence known. I resigned myself to dipping on a host of species and shifted back to camp.

A few months later I was starting to cycle my way out of Bolivia.
Villa Tunari sits just over 200masl, by the end of the day I am expecting to reach 1900masl. Once I get to the 1200masl level, the cloud forest lives up to it’s name. Thick cloud and rain make the riding conditions treacherous. I pass a recently crashed truck which somehow managed to make a 90 degree exit on one of the few straight pieces of road. 

The rain intensifies, but onward and upward I go. I hear a familiar call bleating out of a roadside bush. A little thought before I check the calls on my iPhone. This is a bird I last chased in north western Argentina some months back. I get the playback going and within a few minutes manage to obtain a rather silhouetted view of a White-throated Antpitta. For all the hours that I walked around the beautiful Yungas of Calilegua National Park trying to find this bird, it shows on the side of a busy motorway in blinding cloud and heaving rain! 
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Undulated Antpitta, Grallaria squamigera

Bosque Ampay sits above the town of Abancay, a place of towering mountains and deep valleys in the Chalhuanca Valley. My first attempt at Undulated Antpitta came a few hours after some of the most crushing days I had spent in the saddle.

Up early for my trip to Bosque Ampay. It is Saturday, the streets deserted at 05:45. It only takes a minute or so to find a taxi. Some banged up old Toyota, but it manages the steep uphill out of town as well as the rutted climb up to the entrance of Ampay. There isn’t much to see outside except a vertical cliff face in front of me - the path goes straight up it. After all the climbing I have done on the bike, my legs are not looking forward to doing it all again on foot.

I take slowly to the task at hand, the trail continuing onwards and upwards at a crushingly painful gradient. After 90 minutes I reach the first dense Podocarpus forest of the climb. Undulated Antpitta calls from various places, but none near to the paths.

I would return to Abancay on two further occasions with Adrian. We would again hear them calling, but no visuals were ever had.
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Bay Antpitta, Grallaria capitalis
19/03/2013. Paty Trail, Huanuco, Peru

Adrian and I had walked a good section of the Paty Trail, all the time aware that the longer we walked the more painful the climb back up would be. We pause at one of the few clearings, the base of a massive electricity pylon. The opening allows some unhindered birding and we take full advantage.

During a lull in the birding, we hear a mournful call emanating from a nearby clump of trees. Neither of us can pick it, but it sounds like an Antpitta. Not overly useful as there are a number of species here. I run through the playlist quickly and decide that this is a Bay Antpitta.

With camera and bins ready, I start the process of luring the little fellow in - it’s a bit like fishing, sometimes they bite - mostly they don’t. The bird does come in, we both manage half obscured views from 6feet. There won’t be any images of this chap, but it is another good species in the bag. It only occurs to me now that this is Adrian’s very first Antpitta - a Puruvian Endemic to boot.
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Pale-billed Antpitta, Grallaria carrikeri
Rusty-tinged Antpitta, Grallaria przewalskii

This will go down as one of the hardest birding days I have yet encountered. It will also be remembered as one of my most disappointing days out, despite being a mostly successful effort.

Another early start to get up the Rio Chido Trail. The trail head was only three kilometres from town, but the hike itself was going to be savage. We began our climb at 06:00 and did not reach the bamboo forests until gone midday. A haphazard affair with many wrong turns and even more stops. We paused to rest and breathe every 50-60 metres for the first few hours. The mountain crushed us for most of the day. At least we were adding the odd species, some of which were particularly important. However, the major target (Pale-billed Antpitta) of the climb did not make an appearance, not even a squeak.

There was little consolation to be had from any of the other Antpittas or Tapaculos. We had to be satisfied with our haul, which admittedly did include Lulu’s Tody Flycatcher at 3 feet... The walk down only took a few hours, while easier on the lungs, it was horrendous on the knees and ankles.

I would learn later that a much easier and more accessible site for the Pale-billed had been found, but it was too late for either of us to tackle it. 
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Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla

Adrian and I had only just put our aching legs and disappointment of the Pale-billed Antpitta effort behind us when we got rather lucky. While driving the Leimebamba road I stopped for a short bird break. Ostensibly, I had pulled over near a large bush of flowers to look for Hummingbirds when we heard a familiar call. Chestnut-crowned Antpitta had spouted a few notes yesterday without display, today it was close - very close.

We tried some playback without success. The bushes in front of us contained the bird - we just could see it, despite their practically barren state. Adrian got onto the bird but was unable to guide me onto it. In fact it took a good 5 minutes of relocating the bird before I saw it. Perhaps a small amount of redemption after yesterdays efforts.
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Stripe-headed Antpitta, Grallaria andicolus
02/04/2013. Huascaran National Park, Yungay, Peru

The redemption would continue for us a week later with some of the most uninterrupted views of an Antpitta I had experienced to date. Huascaran National Park in the Ancash mountains of Peru has probably the largest undivided polylepis forest I have witnessed in all of South America.

We would find only one Stripe-headed Antpitta - but it would also sit high above ground level posing for photos. I could probably have gotten an autograph had I thought to offer the wee fellow a pen and paper. We would see this bird again a few weeks later at Abra Malaga. _________________________________________________________________

Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria rufula
Tawny Antpitta, Grallaria guitensis
Crescent-faced Antpitta, Grallaricula lineifrons
19/05/2013. Termes de Papallacta, Ecuador

I spent just over two weeks in Ecuador, and it rained on every single day of my trip. I had had to give up on birding the Amazonian lowlands as well as Guacamayos Ridge. Despite the freezing conditions and light drizzle, the break in complete cloud cover allowed me to bird the patchy forests above the Termes de Papallacta. The rain and cloud would make the afternoon miserable, but I was able to get good views of two new Antpittas in the space of a few minutes. While the Rufous Antpitta played hard to see, the Tawny was more easily located. I ran out of luck trying to find Crescent-faced Antpitta, probably one of the hardest of the family to see anywhere. I would see Rufous and Tawny again - on both occasions I would get face to face, out in the open, completely uninterrupted views. More remarkably, neither of the birds were fed or habituated - nor did I have to tape them in.

A few weeks later I would get some of my best views of an Antpitta. While trudging about Nevado del Ruiz, a huge volcano in central Colombia - I came across the most extroverted of Tawny Antpittas. 
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Giant Antpitta, Grallaria gigantea
Moustached Antpitta, Grallaria alleni
Ye
llow-breasted Antpitta, Grallaria flavotincta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula flavirostris

The Paz family did something remarkable many years ago. Firstly, they turned their backs on logging and then they started feeding antpittas. The story is well written and widely known about (see more here - Paz de las Aves website). I certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity to bag some ‘easy’ antpittas. 

At least thats the theory. True to form, there was a hitch. Maria (Giant) was sitting on eggs and Willie (Yellow-breasted) wouldn’t play ball either. In the end, Angel did manage to coax out two other species : Moustached (Jose) and Ochre-breasted (Shakira). I don’t particularly care how many trips I need to find Maria and Willie - I’ll certainly be back.

Shakira, the Ochre-breasted Antpitta is so named due to it's 'dance'. Apparently this 'Shakira' person is a dancer? 
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Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla
Bicolored Antpitta, Grallaria rufocinerea
Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
Brown-banded Antpitta, Grallaria milleri
04/06/2013. Rio Blanco, Manizales, Colombia

I’ve mentioned five species of Antpitta available at Rio Blanco, these are just the regulars that visit the worm feeders - 10 have been recorded in this small forested reserve protected by Manizales Water. Colombia fortunately has a number of protected areas due to water security concerns. The down side is that these are not run as tourist areas - meaning bureaucracy! What should have been a mere 4-5 Antpitta species formality turned to dust. 

I received little help from the local governmental body, given that I arrived in Manizales on a Sunday (Monday was a Public Holiday) - I suppose this was not all that surprising. I decided to try my luck and go to the gate in any case. This approach did not work however as they refused to open the gate without a permit. Given the time constraints and days of the week, I was not able to visit the reserve and went to Nevado del Ruiz instead.

One shouldn’t bank on anything in advance - but I felt rather gutted to miss out on such a large spread of ‘easy’ Antpittas. All I have as comfort is the knowledge that when I return in November 2014 - my contact that proved rather unhelpful is actually going to be my guide here!
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Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
05/06/2013. Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve, Jardin, Colombia

Having overfed on Antpittas during my short tour through Ecuador, I had to wait a little to find my next twitches. My trip to the Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve had nothing to do with Antpittas on the surface - I was here to see the Yellow-eared Parrot, the entire known population isolated to this tiny patch of forest around the town of Jardin. Having had an excellent mornings birding with the resident guide Edwar Guarin, allowed us to focus on the less targeted species. Edwar managed to pull out two new Antpitta’s for me, although he was more excited about the Andean Pygmy Owl we saw!
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White-bellied Antpitta, Grallaria hypoleuca
09/06/2013. Arrierito Antioqueno Reserve, Anori, Colombia

I was starting to get a little better at finding Antpittas by this point of the trip - what a pity I had been so poor at it in Peru! This ProAves reserve of Arrierito Antioqueno was again not high on my Antpitta list - my main focus was on the other 9 country endemics found here. I would get all but one as well as picking up White-bellied Antpitta. I fully expected to get better views of this bird elsewhere, but it turned out to be my only success. 
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Rusty-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula ferrugineipectus
Santa Marta Antpitta, Grallaria bangsi
Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria spatiator (rufula)
25/06/2013. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

My tour of South America was coming to a end, and I had left the best for last. The isolated Andean mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta host 21 species found no-where else on the planet. A number of others will soon be added to that list, including the isolated Rufous Antpitta sub-species.

I initially found success on the lower slopes near Minca. The Grallaricula Antpittas are awfully small, one might even say cute. The Rusty-breasted’s didn’t dance for me like their more southerly cousin, the Ochre-breasted. Further up the mountain I locked into both the Santa Marta and soon to be elevated Santa Marta Rufous Antpittas. It was back to form for both these birds, barely visible among the tangled foliage. As I rode down the mountain for the last time, I had seen the last of my favourite family. In a few weeks time I would have flown from Colombia to Spain, England, Germany, Dubai and finally South Africa. As I sit typing this final entry, I am conscious of the days ticking away until I land in Colombia again - this time I’ll have access to Rio Blanco and another hatful of species.
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The final tally then, I have recorded 17 of currently described 51 species. Tried and dipped on a further 15 species meaning I have not even given myself a chance with a further 19! Quite unbelievable given the vast distances and areas I covered in the Andes looking for the little buggers. Lots more work required and hopefully many more photos to come. Bring on Colombia 2014.

11 July 2013

Mission Complete

I’ve been rather quiet as of late, but be assured there is a good reason for this. While some might have suspected something was up, only a few people knew where I was, less knew where I was going.

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

My South American expedition officially came to an end on the 3rd of July 2013, 1 year and 4 days after it started. Total statistics to follow below. While the 3rd of July may have been the last day of this particular tour, it was the start of some rather more arduous travel which went something like this :
03/07/2013

Flight from Cartagena to Bogota (01:27 hours)
Flight from Bogota to Madrid (09:38 hours)

04/07/2013

Flight from Madrid to London (02:25 hours)

Spent the night in London while running about trying to retrieve some of my equipment that Adrian kindly stored for me. Unfortunately, Adrian had stored it in a rather useless manner in a facility that is not open 24hrs. Back again the next morning to find what I could and leave behind a lot that I couldn’t. Quick cab across south London to my old employers to collect a credit card and say hello to everyone. The credit card hadn’t arrived, rather redundant trip half way across the world as it turned out.

Scoot back to the hotel, repack my gear and head back to London, Heathrow. 

05/07/2013

Flight from London to Berlin (01:50 hours)
Flight from Berlin to Abu Dhabi (06:00 hours)

06/07/2013

Flight from Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg (09:35 hours)

Had to get my poor parents to drive all the way to the airport in order to arrange a rental car. This was necessary after my bank failed yet again to get my credit card to me. Night drive from Johannesburg to Bela Bela. Spend the day with my parents having some very decent food and sleeping in a room on my own for a change!

07/07/2013

Woke up early, perhaps my body clock still confused. Spent the day chatting, eating and watching the television. 

08/07/2013

Up at 03:45 for the long drive to Pietermaritzburg some 750km’s away. The winter morning staying dark long past 07:00. Not that I sat on the motorway all day, many stops were taken to bird along the way. A quick stop at the Sterkfontein Dam gave me the opportunity to show distant Mountain Reedbuck to some young British tourists. Drove into Pietermaritzburg in the early afternoon, arriving at the head office of Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures. I didn’t make those arduous flights or drives for nothing, I was here for an interview. Spent the late evening and dinner chatting informally with Adam and some of the team. Got to stay the night at the bosses house.

09/07/2013

I somehow slept in late, my future boss (hopefully at this point) woke me up after 08:00. After breakfast, we were back down to informal chatting before I was offered the job and some time to consider the offer. Time to consider? I had no need for that - I had spent the best part of the last two years planning for this very moment. The whole point of my trip to South America was justified as work experience first, birding and adventure second. The culmination of the last two years of my life was offered and I wasn’t about to dither. 

Five minutes later and I was having my photo taken for the new brochure and online bio. I am the newest Rockjumper Tour Leader and still rather struggling to come to terms with it. I wish I had a tail, for I could at least wag something in excitement. However, it is time to start studying. I have an action packed schedule coming up over the next 18 months with trips to various parts of the world, including amongst others : India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Panama, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, western South Africa and 3 months in my favourite birding country - Colombia. 

10/07/2013

Time to assimilate, need to arrange sim card, bank accounts and a huge spectrum of other bits and pieces. 

South American Statistics

Total Species Recorded : 1791

Birds : 1628
Lifers : 1446

Mammals : 55
Lifers : 49

Reptiles : 15
Lifers : 13

139 Endemics by Country

Argentina : 7
Brazil : 4
Bolivia : 6
Peru : 73
Ecuador : 5
Colombia : 44

Distances and Modes of Transport

Total Distance : 54 477km

Cycling : 7 865km
Bus : 3 425km
Hiking : 1 498km
Ferry : 270km
Taxi : 500km
Motorbike : 15 503km
Hire Car : 6 942km
Train : 660km
Running : 20km
Flights : 22 579km

Days in Country

Argentina : 74
Uruguay : 17
Brazil : 21
Bolivia : 59
Peru : 145
Ecuador : 15
Colombia : 37




View South America Tour in a larger map

Red - Cycling
Blue - Car rental with Adrian
Green - Motorbike rental with Adrian
Gold - Motorbike

10 June 2013

Colombia - May/June 2013

27/05/2013

Another day and another border crossing. Having successfully extricated myself from Ecuador I needed to go through the whole process of getting into Colombia legally. Me the individual is easy, stamp out and stamp in. The bike on the other hand is a whole different ball game. Hand the temporary import document back to the Ecuadorian officials, step 1. Now I need to get into Colombia. Having done this once before, I have a good idea of what I need. So instead of farting about at customs, I head into the town of Ipiales to find a place to sort out my SOAT. SOAT turns out to be much more expensive than I had expected, still not as bad as Peru - but much more than Ecuador.

SOAT sorted, I get all my documents copied before finding the customs office. This is the final hurdle and we clear it easily enough. I know I have come to Colombia with massive expectations, probably unrealistic ones - but at least no damage has been done at the border crossing. Suddenly I have to dust off the mental calculator - the Colombian Peso is 1800 x 1US$!

No time to mess about in Ipiales, my destination for the day is Pasto. I have not attempted a long drive today, about 140km’s to get out of Ecuador and another 80km’s from the border to reach Pasto. The Colombian side quickly hits the mountains, the winding roads slowing me down. The sky is threatening, but I don’t get rained on for a change.

The drive into Pasto is certainly not pretty - I really did wonder just what I had gotten into looking at the state of the town. Thankfully this must have been the industrial, low income section. Soon I arrived in the very upscale area, having to part with way more money than intended for a hotel. It must be said, the place was absolutely palatial. Just my room was bigger than any property I occupied in London. Then there was the walk in wardrobe, the power shower etc. In fact the LCD television was so far away from the bed that I declined to bother.
A cracking dinner in town before getting my head down. Tonight I could justify the expense - celebration at having made it into Colombia.

Overnight : Pasto

28/05/2013

Today was more driving, no birding yet. A long drive of 250km’s along twisting and wet roads towards Popayan. For the first time in all my travels through South America, the military suddenly made an appearance. Every single bridge, dam and blind curve had a dug in command post and soldiers crawling everywhere. I knew this was one of the FARC’s strongholds, but had also thought that this silliness was coming to an end. The military were very friendly and gave me a thumbs up whenever I passed them. 

Tonight there would be no expensive hotels, cheap and cheerful along the main highway. Colombians (like the Argentinians) have a sweet tooth - with bakeries everywhere. While they don’t have my favourite Dulche de Leche, their version is similar enough to satisfy my taste buds - as long as it is sweet, it will do. 

Overnight : Popayan

29/05/2013

I could take things relatively easy today, I only had a short distance to reach Cali where I would spend a few days.

After getting stuck in the one way system, I finally managed to find my intended hostel’s location. Decamped and got started on some much needed moto maintenance. Needed a fair amount of maintenance on my other gear too - lots of smelly and wet clothes. Spent the remainder of the day relaxing and researching. Tomorrow I could start birding properly for the first time. 

Overnight : Cali

30/05/2013

Up and riding by 05:00 towards the forested mountains surrounding the north west of Cali. At least, what forest was left - this area is popular amongst the cities richer patrons who like to build ‘fincas’ here.

Got stuck on the road by huge pelotons of cyclists. This was not a race or even a weekend ride - just the daily early morning run attended by hundreds of enthusiasts. Nor were these riders just a bunch of part timers - expensive racing bikes mounted by lycra clad riders. Nor were they out for some easy riding - they were at the base of a solid 21km climb. One that I had to do in 3rd most of the way even with an open road such was the gradient and twisting nature of the road. Cleverly, the riders had protection in the form of slow moving SUV’s and motorbike outriders making sure that no cars or trucks would cause any damage. 

[It has become evident over my first few weeks in Colombia that cycling is absolutely massive here. Colombians seem to like their cycling even more than football. As I said above, I am not talking about lazy weekend mountain bike riders either. You will never see a Colombian cycling on a flat road - they only ever seem to be going up the toughest climbs available (and there are plenty to choose from here!).

It is pleasing to note the respect other road users have for cyclists, waiting patiently for an overtaking opportunity and then giving plenty of room while passing. I don’t suggest any Colombian go cycling in Peru (can’t drive, no spatial awareness, no capacity for depth perception, limited ability to identify risk and the ultimate killer - faith), Brazil (can’t drive either so try to fly instead, but otherwise see Peru for reasons) or the UK (the overly hostile working classes - the drivers of white vans, busses and trucks. As well as the ambivalent - ‘never needed to work’ class whose wives drive massive SUV’s to fetch their darlings from school).]

I’s starting to digress again. The purpose of the morning was to see some birds in what was left of the forests at KM18. Turned out to be an eventful morning with many new birds species to add to my list. By midday the heat was becoming oppressive and I returned to beautiful Cali for lunch and some more bike maintenance! While casting my untrained eye over the bike yesterday I noticed that the engine oil was getting a little low. I also noticed a small sticker that said something along the lines of, ‘Change oil after initial 300km’s’. Well then, I guess I was almost 5000km’s overdue. Again, my untrained eye figured it was a small engine and probably didn’t require much oil. Hence I asked the garage attendant if he could give me a small bottle (something the size of a normal brake fluid bottle - 250ml). No such luck, only 1000ml bottles and while he was at it, which grade of oil did I want. I looked rather amusingly at him, shrugged my shoulders and told to pick which ever he thought would do the job.

Damn moto didn’t just sink the entire bottle! I must have been getting rather close to empty. Part of learning on the go I suppose. After saving myself from an impending engine failure - I returned to the hostel for more relaxation and research. Tomorrow I would be heading in the same direction, only this time I would be going all the way to Buenaventura. 

Overnight : Cali

31/05/2013

Another early morning start for my trip down the Old Buenaventura Road. today would see me birding along the way before getting to the port city of Buenaventura for a few nights. Things did not start off too well - light rain started soon after I departed meaning that I gave KM18 a miss and had a quick breakfast instead. I had seen most of the species I wanted in this area already, so it was an easy decision to plough onwards. 

The first few hours passed quickly as there were few birds to be seen in the farming areas. Once I left the asphalt, the forest encroached closer and I was able to bird intermittently, harangued by persistent rain. The birding was still good, although my capabilities were restricted by trying to keep my binoculars dry and defogged. After much persistence I called it a day and started riding with some intent. Not that I could go very quickly for the road was a horrid surface. South American’s in general have used some English words completely out of context - my personal favourite being ‘road’. Something they ascribe to any surface that one might be able to traverse by motorised vehicle. The fact that some ‘roads’ are only navigable on the odd occasion in an ATV or tank is immaterial - it thus becomes a ‘road’. The Old Buenaventura to my mind is a 60km stretch of contiguous post glacial scree slope.

I eventually managed to reach the New road which was covered in asphalt thankfully. The drive into Buenaventura was a different world to what I had seen of Colombia to date. Suddenly driving standards retrogressed to winner takes all, might is right attitude. Not only had the driving gone down the spout, but I no longer felt as if I was in Latin America, let alone Colombia. I was in Africa - the people were all of West African origin, that was a certainty. Other African peculiarities presented themselves - the first minibus taxis, packed and driven just as I remembered. I was for a fleeting moment almost relived to ‘be back in Africa’ - until I started chatting that is. Perhaps my subconscious expected everyone to speak English - they didn’t, what a CMF! (Complete and Mind are the first two words of that acronym). 

Buenaventura was hot, humid, smelly, full of litter, curb side prostitutes and too many gigantic women in lycra that I wouldn’t have gotten my rakish body into. This was I suppose a port town and it was horrid. Two nights dropped quicker than the effects of line over. [I’ll explain - when one or more guy lines connecting your harness to your parachute wraps over the chute canopy causing it to implode - you can do the rest]. Perhaps it was not the best of ideas to have arrived in Buenaventura on a Friday night either - things could get interesting! I dashed off to get some afternoon birding done - but remained on edge most of the time, too many people milling about wherever I tried to bird.

Returning to my hotel, I showered and dashed out to get fed. Back to my musty room to hide.

Overnight : Buenaventura

01/06/2013

Packed up early and departed for the same area I visited yesterday afternoon. Got hit up by one of the local layabouts for ‘car guard fees’. I wasn’t about to argue in this neighbourhood, paid up and left. Same problems as yesterday though - despite most of the town getting very drunk, there were still people just milling about at 06:00 on Saturday morning. The birding was crap in any case, so I cut my losses and escaped - that would be my last trip to the Pacific Coast thank you. 

I was planning on visiting a small forest reserve en route to my next destination - but was turned away due to the ‘trails being saturated’. It sounded like one of those ‘wrong type of snow on the tracks’ excuses that one hears on a daily basis on the London Underground. And much like the LU - you cannot argue about it either. 

Disconsolately I continued to the town of Buga. Despite the towns unfortunate English connotation, it was a rather nice little town. Got my things packed away in a local hotel and dashed out to make the most of the afternoon. Birded  the small forest patches around the local lakes, before I was eventually chased away by hordes of militant mosquitos. 

At least I had finished the day successfully, can’t say much about the rest of it though. Quick bite to eat and all the best of intentions of an early sleep. Ended up chatting to a friend in Bogota until the early hours of the morning. Apparently it was a long weekend - which had me a little concerned about my plans over the next few days. 

Overnight : Buga

02/06/2013

Up early to bird a local forest. Despite having arranged everything yesterday, the gates were shut and no-body was home. Bollocks, nothing to be done except ride to the next location - Manizales.

Not a bad ride, hundreds more cyclists climbing the steep roads. Found myself a decent hostel in Manizales before heading out to find some birds. Yet again, the targeted destination was off limits. This time, I had to get ‘permission’ to enter. Given that it was the weekend and Monday was a public holiday this seem unlikely unfortunately.

Feeling rather irritable and sorry for myself I headed back to the hostel to make alternative arrangements. I had not planned on visiting Nevado del Ruiz, but this now became my only option. There were some good birds here to, so tomorrow I would ascend the mountains to get some more paramo birding done. The rest of today would be spent making more plans.

Overnight : Manizales

03/06/2013

Up earlyish - paramo birding is generally rather cold and it is not necessary to be there at the crack of dawn. The birds evidently feel the cold too and don’t bother rising until they can get some son on their backs. 

It has been a while since I was at high altitude, and I was breathless after a small walk. The birds played ball, allowing me very good photos and sightings. The paramo is generally a cold, wet and windy place - but on mornings like this I really love the place. After a very satisfying morning it was time to descend the mountain before the impending rain caught me. 

With time to spare, it was an afternoon of updating and filing images. Another quiet dinner and an early night for a change. 

Overnight : Manizales

04/06/2013

Up and riding by 08:00, the lie in much appreciated. Today was not a long ride, supposedly just over 100km’s.

It did not take long for the fun to begin though. Missed the first turnoff - cost 12km’s. Missed the second turnoff - cost 20km’s and 1st crash of the day, missed the third turnoff - cost 14km’s, started on the correct road and then doubted myself - cost 10km’s, backtracked and drove around aimlessly - cost 14km’s. Eventually returned to ‘correct road’. Correct road quickly deteriorated from asphalt to thick gravel. Whose stupid idea was it to cover the roads in thick loose gravel in any case? Second crash of the day was surely not long in coming - and indeed it wasn’t. Nervous rider? Nah, straight back on, clear the carb of fuel and carry on as if it never happened. And straighten bits an pieces after the battering!

In detail - first crash occurred on a concrete causeway where slow flowing water had caused a large build up of algae. I had gone over once without a problem but on the return journey my front wheel popped every so slightly. It must have landed at a slight angle, for the next thing I knew I was on my right side sliding across the berm. Took a decent whack to the side of the head and my knee pad saved me some skin, but otherwise all was fine. Even the bike seemed undamaged, with only a minor scratch on the fender.

My biggest problem was restarting, but I soon worked out that the carb must have gotten flooded with fuel - so I waited around for a few minutes before starting up and moving again. It felt as though my wheel alignment was slightly out - but I either got used to it or is wasn’t. 

After much duffing about, I was naturally keen to get a move on towards Jardin. So keen that I flying along the crap road. I knew it was probably only a matter of time before my front wheel dug into a pile of loose gravel, but since it was impossible to predict I figured there was no use in taking my time. As it happens, the next crash came while I was actually pulling off the road for a break - and it was no the front wheel that did me, but the back. This time I had a much sifter landing. You drive 5000km’s without incidence and then fall on your arse twice in a the space of a few hours. Such is life.

The clouds were darkening and I was rather expecting to get wet. Thankfully there were only a few drops, but the fact that I made it to Jardin without further incidence is a testament not to skill but blind luck. If the road had been awful up to the point of my second crash, it got worse if that is possible. Now it was loose gravel with patches of sticky mud - and dogs... Probably worse, was the knowledge that I had to come back up this road in the morning to visit the birding reserve. Tomorrows problem.

Jardin is a beautiful little town, except for the monstrous monolith of a church. I continually wonder at the unnecessary expense people are prepared to lay out paying homage to a non-existent entity. Not that we are going to get started on a religious debate, I have given up debating the closed mind - I point only to the many natural disasters that have befallen Andean South America. The highest % of casualties in many of them - inside churches. Take for example the 2007 Peru earthquake. The response? ‘God also, on occasion, allows Satan to use various natural disasters to hurt or destroy people or their possessions.’ Quite - could also be attributed to plate tectonics...

Despite the wasteful junk - the rest of the town is pleasant and very safe. Lots of rural horse riding farmers interspersed with townsfolk. Set myself up in a small hospedaje - the house of a local resident. Absolutely palatial - with huge open spaces allowing plenty of airflow in the stifling heat. I could get quite used to this place.

Given that it was already late afternoon - I decide to settle down to some caffeine and update images amongst other things.

Overnight : Jardin

05/06/2013

My first visit to one of the ProAves Reserves. ProAves is a fantastic NGO that has bought land all over Colombia to protect Critically endangered birds and amphibians. Their work is much appreciated and I am very happy to hand over the entrance and guiding fees to help continue the good work. 

While I normally avoid being ‘guided’ while birding, I have no choice at the Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve, it is mandatory. My guide for the day is the delightful Edwar - who proves himself to be an excellent guide. We find many good species, even a new bird for Edwar himself which has him jumping up and down very excitedly. After seeing some incredible birds - including the flagship species Yellow-eared Parrot (the whole reason this reserve even exists), I head back to Jardin for lunch. 

After lunch I potter about the town trying to find another Colombian endemic to no avail. With the light fading it is back to town for another caffeine fix, dinner and bed. Tomorrow I head further north to Medellin.

Overnight : Jardin

06/06/2013

I really should have travelled back up the dirt road for some early morning birding, but my body is seriously fatigued. Given the good haul of birds yesterday I treat myself to a lie in. Breakfast, packed and gone by 09:30 for the 130km drive to Medellin.

I decide to make a small detour to bird a forest on the outskirts of town. Hopefully I can find the Red-bellied Grackle that I missed in Jardin. Local birding luminary Diego Calderon has kindly given me some good local knowledge - this should be a walk in the park so to speak.
Of course, by the time I finally find the park hidden amongst a maze of impossibly steep hills it is midday, hot and windy. I try anyway, but am not surprised when I fail to locate the bird. I give up after a few hours, planning to return in a few days if I fail again further north.

Medellin is a bastard of a place to drive - few off ramps and too many one way streets. I make numerous illegal turns including jumping central road partitions and even up and down grass verges to get where I want to go. If I come here again it will be with a 4x4 so I can do exactly the same! After much faffing about, I do find Hostel Buddha of all places. It’s a decent pad in a safe part of the city near to shops and restaurants.

A much needed shower before I get moving on planning logistics for my next destination. 

Overnight : Medellin

07/06/2013

Another late morning - don’t know why I am so tired these days. I set off north east of Medellin - when I can escape the city of course. More illegal turns and pavement mounting before I start to head in the right direction.

A stop for breakfast in Barbosa (sweet pastries and coffee) before driving along the banks of the Porce River. The horrid stench of chemicals has me looking at a horrible polluted river, chock full of white foam. I can only presume this is some form of industrial cleaning agent, for it smells similar to washing powder. What destruction this has caused to the river. [Worse, I drove back this way three days later to see that the fast flowing river was still chock full of the shit, so nothing had been done about it].

The valley became drier but more humid, the heat oppressive. Diego has very kindly called me the other night to advise me of how to bird this location. My original plan of staying in Amalfi would not work according to him as it was too far away. Of course, on a map it did not look far at all. However, upon looking into the deep chasm to my left I realised the problem of relying on maps alone! I decided I would go to Amalfi for the night in any case. I needed a fuel top up and to sort out food for what was likely to be a fairly barren few days while birding ProAves’s Arrierito Antioqueno Reserve.

I had noticed that one of my rear indicators was no longer working - no doubt a casualty of my two falls a few days ago. I also thought it might be an idea to get my bike cleaned for the first time. Lunch was enjoyed (sweet pastries and coffee) before I headed over to a very lively ‘lavadero’. The cleaners were most excited to see a foreign plated vehicle and get to chat to a foreigner. (Amusingly - I have not been referred to as a ‘Gringo’ in Colombia. Colombians do have a reputation for being very respectful, perhaps this is a consequence of that - but either way I very much appreciate it).

Could actually see my reflection in the bikes motor! I soon has the bike dismantled outside the hotel to find that the external clean was great - but there was one hell of a muddy mess on the inside. The electrics were caked in mud and dust - probably not a good idea. I disassembled and played about with the indicators. Nothing was happening and due to the nature of cheap Chinese manufacturing - there wasn’t even space to remove the bulb!

I walked into town to see about getting a new set of indicators which proved no problem at all and didn’t cost much either (US$7.00). Fitted these and then taped up all the electrical connections before putting everything back together. Quick dinner before more preparation. I needed to leave early tomorrow to get down the valley and up the other side to the birding areas. Getting to bed was rather easier said than done - being a Friday, a large karaoke party was in full swing next door. I spotted some talent sitting in the doorway with impossibly short skirts and equally improbable chests - the local hookers I reckoned. Here I was in this mostly Catholic Country (at least 90% claim to be), prostitution is legal and taxed by the government, abortion is illegal - you just can’t make this bullshit up.

Overnight : Amalfi

08/06/2013

Up early to ride back down one mountain and up another. The ride is pleasant early in the morning, the oppressive heat will arrive shortly no doubt. Diego Calderon gave me some good advice for some tricky species, so I stop en route to the reserve to try my hand at finding the Yellow-browed Shrike-Vireo. Diego is spot on - and I have the bird within a few minutes. Up the mountain I continue, riding past numerous small roadside properties before reaching my second ProAves reserve - Arrierito Antioqueno Reserve. I pop in to see if the resident guide is about, but no one is present. Next I drive about trying to find some accommodation. Diego has again advised me of some locations near by, but I find an even closer spot on my own. Clearly this is the spot used by researchers, as the proprietress is expecting me to be staying for a few months rather than a few days. 

Despite the midday heat, I head out to get familiar with the terrain and hopefully see a few of my targeted species. The birding is tough in this heat and most birds have taken the option for an afternoon siesta. I decide to climb the ridge trail in the hope of finding some tanagers instead. 

The ridge trail was supposed to be an excellent trail, instead I find myself hacking away along a barely visible maze. [It would turn out that this was not the ridge trail I was supposed to be on]. 

A little disappointed with the lack of birds, I head back down the mountain and try to find somewhere to eat - which turns out to be harder than finding a place to stay. I eventually find a small restaurant and am royally entertained by the hostess and people waiting for the bus to pick them up en route to Anori. Despite my poor comprehension - they persevere until I understand what they are talking about. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the Colombian accent! [It would turn out that some of the people here were not originally Colombian, but Venezuelan].

Since it was fairly late in the afternoon for lunch, I pig out and plan on missing dinner. I shall pick up some crisps or other nick nacks at the ‘tienda’ next to my accommodation. 

Remainder of the evening is spent writing up my CV and cover letter - it is getting to that point where I need to find some gainful employment!


Overnight : near El Roble, not really close to anywhere really

09/06/2013

Oversleep, really need to do something about this fatigue. Dash out the door half asleep - am 45 minutes late. Still rubbing my eyes, I see movement in the only tree for hundreds of metres. Instinctively I pull the bins up - expecting nothing more than a common species of Tanager. Fortunately for me - this is a White-mantled Barbet, one of the Endemic species I was looking for. My morning is looking up it would seem.

I race up the road, crashing into rocks much harder than I normally would. I get off the bike to find that all my bags zips are open. I never closed them before racing off - this is a massive problem. Wallet, passports, money - everything is packed in here. Now the prospect of wasting more time while driving back down the road to try and find all my gear. Remarkably, everything was accounted for - a lucky let off. Zip up and head into the forest. 

The birds continue to fall, even though I finally establish that the ridge trail I was on yesterday and this morning is inaccurate. I only find the correct trail at 09:30 - probably way too late to find the specific species I was after. I slog along the trail in any case, thinking it best to work out where and how far it goes. Not that I needed to worry about the birds - the Endemics kept falling until I had only one left.

I was sweating worse than a pig in the excessive humidity and heat. The altitude was not high, but I was finding the continuous uphill path a bit of a struggle. The problems of not getting much exercise... Three hours later I reached the end of the trail and much to my dismay - it was not circular, I would have to walk it all the way back down again. An unusual trembling call had me standing in my tracks for a minute until I noticed the holy grail sitting exposed in the under canopy - the Black-and-gold Tanager. Of all the species I wanted here, I would have traded them all for this one bird. Thankfully I would not have to - I had nailed the lot. 

Well then, I could saunter back down the trail feeling much better about life and not giving a care to the heat or humidity. Off I went for another late lunch before doing some general maintenance - washing me and washing my sweaty smelly clothes. in this heat stuff dries quick - so I got as much done as I could. Another night of typing and researching - can actually get some work done when there is no internet available. 

A massive electrical storm in the near mountains made for some spectacular sights. I enjoyed the visual display for half an hour before putting my head down. I would attempt to get up early tomorrow for a final fling at the local birds before heading back to Medellin.
Overnight : near El Roble, not really close to anywhere really

10/06/2013

Up early again, this time I was a little more composed with my gear. Decided to bird the small forest patches near the road as there seemed little need to go back onto the trails. I didn’t bird for long as there was little moving about to day unfortunately. I did add a few new species to the list, but nothing to write home about. 

Returned to lodging and packed up for the drive back to Medellin. The drive back was no more interesting that a few days ago. The may military personnel were friendly as usual and I had a few more people stop and ask where in Peru I was from... Clearly I was not having much luck with the new stickers I had put on. Arrived in Medellin much quicker than I had anticipated and managed to navigate through the city much easier than I had a few days previously. I put the afternoon to good use - typing out this entire blog piece basically and updating other lists. Early morning birding tomorrow to see if I can finally lay eyes on the Red-bellied Grackle - a bird that is becoming really irritating!

Overnight : Medellin


11/06/2013

Today was to be a dedicated early morning trip back to La Romera for another shot at the Red-bellied Grackle. Thankfully, there was no faffing about this morning. The grackles showed well and I could return to Medellin for breakfast satisfied at having ticked another Colombian Endemic.

The remainder of the day was spent doing paperwork. Thoughts have started to turn towards job hunting. The blog needed an update and many of my trip lists needed to be completed and published. Sent my first job application emails.

Overnight : Medellin

12/06/2013

Had an instant reply to one of my emails! Although who, where and when is not going to be revealed until it actually happens. Further motivated by this good news I climbed back into updating of previous trip lists and sorting out my blog. 

Overnight : Medellin

13/06/2013

Nothing further to be done today, time to head off for the humid lowland Magdalena Valley. Managed to escape Medellin without having too many illegal turns on these silly streets. Have become increasingly irritable with the drivers here, especially taxis. From a distance my own riding would probably look rather reckless, but when in Latin America, drive like Latin Americans I guess. 

Stopped for breakfast and some birding, but my target species at this stop did not materialise. By the time I reached Rio Claro (Clear River), the temperature must have been in the high 30’s, the humidity felt like it had superseded 100%. For someone who grew up in Durban, I really have never adapted or felt comfortable in these weather conditions. Even the thought of taking a step is enough for your body to pump out another litre of sweat. Everything gets wet and, oily and sticky. The mosquitos add to your discomfort before the sweat flies buzz around your eyelashes. 

Hot and irritable, I managed to get the tent set up - it would be a night or two of camping. Tent sorted I headed off to walk the trails and see what birds might be about as the afternoon gradually cooled. 

Sleeping in a tent in such oppressive heat is a oppressive in and of itself. Open up all the flaps that I can, mindful that it will surely piss down the moment I fall asleep... Which it did, a monster of an electrical storm erupted at 03:00 sending missile type rain drops ground ward. Even with the tent firmly zipped up, it was not long before the cheap skin layer was penetrated by the heavy rain. At least I was on an inflatable mattress, but the rest of my gear was getting a soaking.

Overnight : Rio Claro Reserve

14/06/2013

After a rough night I headed out to make use of the early hours. At least it was a little cooler and perhaps the birds would make a better showing this morning. The birding was OK, but not exactly brilliant. Given the state of the birding and my now floating tent, I decided to cut my losses here and head off to the next destination instead. It would be a long drive, so I spent no time messing about. Of course, the useless tent was rather good at letting water in, not so good at allowing it back out again. Much like my rain gear, it seems both would work better if I inverted them!

Gear packed, it was just a case of keeping the hammer down for as long as possible, if possible I would make it to my next destination of Rogitama. Initially good progress was made before the road suddenly disintegrated to a very poor state of dirt. From hot and humid the conditions suddenly got a lot cooler and thick cloud obscured my riding. Inevitably the rain made an appearance. What a delightful day. There was no hope of me making it as far as Rogitama today.

With some level of fortune the road suddenly became decent asphalt again? The mind boggles at who and how decisions are made regarding the road improvements in Colombia. I think they put a map up on a dart board and simply chuck darts to decide which parts of the road they are going to start work on - for that would be the most logical explanation.

With an hour of light remaining I was able to push on another 40km’s to reach the town of Barbosa. This was good enough, I was now only a short distance from Rogitama. 

Overnight : Barbosa

15/06/2013

Early morning rise to set off for the next birding destination. Rogitama is another remarkable little place - a farmstead owned and run by a local family who decided to protect a little bit of their property for the birds. It would transpire that they protected habitat for one of the most sought after Endemic hummingbirds in Colombia, the Black Inca. 

I arrived just in time for breakfast to find that Diego Calderon and his group were here too. What luck! I had chatted to Diego over the years and more recently on an almost daily basis - mostly Diego helping me with information on where to go, where not to go etc. Here I finally met the man that has provided me with so much help. 

Quick breakfast and catchup with him and his clients who turn out not only to be lovely folk but also top notch birders. With five of us patrolling the gardens, we couldn’t hope to miss, could we?

We did, Rogitama had a torrid day that produced absolutely nothing for us. After 4 hours it was time to leave and head to the next destination. I would have another shot at the Black Inca in a few days, but this was very disappointing.

Leaving Rogitama, a long climb into the paramo again meant another mid morning shower for me. At least it did not last long. Hammer down again for the town of Soata. Another (potentially) top nick place to bird with a number of Endemic species available close to the town. I arrived just after 15:00, a long and taxing ride through twisting mountain roads.

Found some accommodation, dropped my gear and headed straight out. I finally found the last major Endemic near the town just after 17:30. A quick call to Diego to inform him, but he appeared too far away to make it before dark. With 15mins of light left, Diego called back and I jumped into their car to show them the site. The light was fading quick and the there was no response from the Niceforo’s Wren. They would come back the next day and have a bash, but for now it was day over. 

Overnight : Soata

16/06/2013

A very early start to climb the dirt road out of Soata and into the higher Oak dominated forest. The target of the day was Colombian Mountain Grackle - one of the hardest birds to grip out here. The grackle was not playing ball and by mid morning I again cut losses and decided to leave. Diego and his group stayed another day for the bird but it helped little.

The rest of the day was spent navigating dirt roads by dodgy GPS, constantly getting lost and eventually finding the correct destination. San Gil is a bit of a tourist trap, but it has decent facilities and I could do with the break. The heat was punishing again, but at least it was not too humid. More whinging about the state of Colombian roads, or at least their direction. Not for the first time I have entered a crappy little village and not managed to exit it very easily. Why on earth are these towns designed in such a way that the entry road is diametrically opposite to the exit road? Signage is expectedly negligible, but why on earth it has to be this difficult.

Overnight : San Gil

17/06/2013

Nothing doing in San Gil, but I did allow myself to have a long lie in for a change. Off again for the next village of San Vicente de Chucuri. The first 20km’s of road proceed at rapid speed before it was back onto the crappy dirt. It would carry on like this all the way to San Vicente. What should have been a short and straight forward 100km ride ended up taking many hours of bone and bike crunching riding.

The heat went up many notches and the humidity returned. To cap things off, I managed to smack a cow. While riding downhill at speed the stupid thing made a run for either me or the cliff wall - not much I could do at this point but open the throttle some more and hope to skirt by. The cow took the full force of my left handle bar and lower left arm body armour. Damn thankful that there is body armour on my lower wrist area - for I felt that hit for many more hours. Dense animal no doubt forgot about the entire incident within a matter of seconds. I’m not a fan of most domestic animals in case you wondered.

San Vicente de Chucuri is like most other small, rural towns in the Colombia (excluding the coastal areas at least) - pleasant and relaxing. Some are incredibly beautiful too, this was not one of those places, but it decent enough. I would stay here for a few days while visited the nearby forests over the next two days. 

Overnight : San Vicente de Chucuri

18/06/2013

An early start to get up another horrid dirt track to reach the nearby ProAves reserve. I spent a few minutes clocking the hummingbirds and adding a few new species to my list. A cup of coffee later it was time to make the long hike up to higher forests. Or at least that was the plan - for despite much trying I was unable to make much headway.

I was also in one of ‘those’ moods - short on tolerance. I stomped around for a while longer before giving up and returning to town. Another ProAves reserve, another waste of effort. The rest of the day was spent planning for the next leg of the trip and sorting out what remained of the my blog updates. 

Overnight : San Vicente de Chucuri

19/06/2013

An early start to get out of town, yet another series of dirt roads to navigate through. Not that I made a very good fist of it, getting rather lost but somehow bashing my way to the asphalt road in the end. 

I could open the throttle and make good time to the town of Ocaña. I had, even up to this point considered skipping this site. It was 70km’s off route and given my recent luck, probably going to be another waste of effort.

I bucked up my attitude and went in any case. Reaching the outskirts of town, it soon became apparent that something dangerous was afoot. Indeed, within a few kilometres the situation deteriorated further and I started to wonder about my decision making. Burnt out motorcycles, smouldering tyres, rocks strewn all over the road. Plenty of military presence and then some new friends - body armour and black clad riot police lined the streets. It transpired that the local campesinos (farmers) had rioted over the las 3 days, I had just missed the culmination of the skirmishes. The arguments revolved around the military’s clearance of illegal crops - no doubt coca.

Now that I was here, I had no intention of turning around. I needed gas though, although it should have been apparent in a town that was burning that the sale of gasoline might be restricted - which it was. This did offer an opportunity to chat to some new friends. So me and the riot police and various other interested parties had a waffle about various things. I tried convincing them that i was in town to see birds - what they really wanted to know was how on earth I could be white and African, but more importantly, which country in South America had the most attractive women! I fudged the answer by suggesting Argentina and Colombia were the best. They almost looked disappointed - which I suppose is not hard to understand. Bit of a bugger being told that the best looking women in the world live in your own country - there is nothing better no matter where you go. And as a matter of fact Ocaña had an incredibly high percentage of very attractive ladies, staggeringly so when you consider that this is a town close to nowhere really. 

Women aside, I dropped my gear and headed off to find the reserve. I farted about going nowhere quick but did eventually find the place. In fact I probably missed the reserve initially as it was so well signposted. You’d have to travel about Latin America looking for national parks and local reserves to understand this seeming contradiction. I birded for a few hours before a threatening electrical storm had me scooting off the mountain. 

Overnight : Ocaña

20/06/2013

Back up the hill early this am to try and find the rest of the birds I needed here. Not much was ticking over, but I did get a few more satisfactory ticks. Back down the hill I went, when my bike cut out. Frustratingly it kept on doing this - everything was fine and then it felt like the engine got a little congested. This was the last thing I needed now, dirty fuel is what I initially diagnosed the problem as. Much starting and high revving to clear things out a bit before the problem returned. I figured I probably needed to fill up with some cleaner fule to solve the problem, making it to the first fuel station I could find - they were still not selling. Then it occurred to me that I might actually be out of fuel - high revving was probably not helping! I switched to my reserve tank and things improved almost immediately. Pillock ran out of fuel. At least the other gas stations were supplying, the bike drinking almost 3 gallons of fuel to fill up. At least I now knew what my range was! Fuelled up and packed, I hit the road once again - the big ride was now ahead of me. Which was no good, since I was very sleepy. Long straight roads were not going to keep me awake. I planned on trying to reach the town of Bosconia, some 400km’s away. 

Without further ado, I got moving and opened the throttle up as much as I dared, I spritely 80km/h. The day heated up very quickly, meaning any stops had me sweating like a pig. I pushed on, the longer I drove the more aware I was of just how far I had to travel today. I made one quick stop for lunch - toffee encrusted pastries and some very cold Coca Cola.

More and more long, boring roads - although the volume of trucks did keep me very much awake. I had not come across truck traffic like this anywhere in South America, but from the moment I left Medellin, the truck traffic picked up. Now it was like riding past train - the trucks were bumper to bumper for the entire stretch. The only way I was able to overtake was to undertake on the hard shoulder, a manoeuvre that Adrian first observed on our last bike ride in Peru. A move which he suggested was the gold standard of qualification for becoming a Peruvian taxi driver - it was not meant as a term of endearment.

Undertake / overtake, pretty much the same thing and I did plenty of it. Approaching Bosconia late in the afternoon, a huge super cell could be seen building on the horizon. This looked like it would produce some nasty weather. As I arrived in Bosconia, the skies had become quite black, the wind starting to whip things up. It would probably be relatively intelligent to sit tight for a while and have some proper food for the first time today. So I did sit and have a decent meal while watching the havoc unfold ahead and around me. The next town of Cienaga was still 100km’s away, if I did not leave Bosconia by 16:00, then I would have to stay put. 

At 15:55, I decided to shift. The rain had largely abated and the storm seemed to have drifted away from my intended direction of travel. What I saw over the next hour would only reinforce how good a decision I had made to sit tight in Bosconia. It started with a long line of vehicles - a distance of nearly 12km’s that I was able to ride past. Then I arrived at the blockage - a section of road that looked like a tornado had ripped through it. Huge trees had been torn in half, trucks were blown onto their sides, some with tree trunks through and on top of their cabs. People had definitely been badly injured and I would not have been surprised if there were some casualties too.

The emergency services must have arrived sharpish as most of the ambulances were already departing when I arrive, the chainsaws getting through the tree trunks quickly too. I was only held up for a few minutes before shifting onwards - the trucks and cars would be here for a few hours still. With this added delay, reaching Cienaga was going to be nip and tuck regarding daylight. Arriving in Cienaga at dusk probably sheltered me from just how ghastly this shit hole was. I did manage to find some crappy accommodation before settling in for a deep sleep. It doesn’t seem to matter which coastal town or port of Colombia you arrive in - they are all horrid little criminal entities where you worry that parts of your bike will go missing if you pause at the traffic lights too long. I wouldn’t be sticking around here very long in the morning. 

Overnight : Cienaga

21/06/2013

Up and out of the horrid hotel. While loading my bike I watched with some level of disgust as a bloke a few metres from me went about dismembering a cow with a machete. This was being done on a wooden stump on the side of a horribly filthy road, the ‘cuts’ of meat being hung from an awning above him. This was the type of thing i got used to in Bolivia, not in Colombia. There is a stark difference between coastal Colombia and everywhere else, that is for sure.

As if I needed further motivation to depart post haste. During the night, I had a minor brainwave and decided I would partake of another lengthy ride to Riohacha instead of heading to Santa Marta as originally planned. This would allow me to bird the Guajira Peninsula near the border of Venezuela and leave the major prize for later. 

The Guajira Peninsula is a stupendously hot coastal scrub / desert. It was also incredibly windy, billowing something close to 40km/h. I got blown clear across the road a few times, thankful that there were no oncoming trucks, for I’ve no idea what I may have done otherwise. Riohacha is the largest town between Santa Marta and Venezuela and security is quite tight. Driving around town looking for somewhere to stay got me pulled over and searched - the first time this has happened since I was in Peru. As per normal, the cops were all very friendly and engaged in as much chit chat as was possible given my lousy Spanish. 

Hotel found, I had nothing better to do than sit tight and get some other work done. I would head early in the morning to make use of the cooler and hopefully a stiller morning. 

Overnight : Riohacha

22/06/2013

Up early, but struggling to clear my head - the fatigue of near continuous early mornings and long rides is starting to affect me. Even the knowledge of having only a few hours of viable birding time was not enough to motivate me entirely. Out on the road, the cooler air cleared the cobwebs somewhat and I started knocking off the many species I was targeting here. I didn’t have to move far once I had parked the bike, the bird flowing thick and fast. By 09:00 the heat was too oppressive to carry on, the wind no at full scream too. I headed off to the estuary of Los Flamencos for a few more ticks before returning to Riohacha and my room. I rarely ventured out of my hotel, the streets full of dodgy characters. Besides, I had little reason to entertain the locals. 

Overnight : Riohacha

23/06/2013

Another early morning departure, I would spend a few more hours birding the local scrub for the remaining species before heading back along the coast road towards Santa Marta.

Birds in the bag, I wasted no time in leaving the stifling heat. I arrived in Palomino, half way back to Santa Marta and figured I might spend the night here. I visited a local hostel that seemed rather good, a decent tract of forest too. Finding the owner was a different prospect, something I failed to do. I skipped this town after a quick breakfast and headed to the main attraction for tourists here, the Tayrona National Park. One look at the entrance fee was enough for me to dump this location too. In the space of an hour, I had jumped two days ahead of schedule!

Minca it would be then. Up the road I went, still suffering the oppressive heat only to see some idiots taking more pain than me. Apparently there had been a marathon and some of the stragglers were only making the climb up at 11:00 in the morning. Poor buggers - I was seating profusely without engaging in anything strenuous, what this lot must have been going through!

I arrived in the small village and settled in to the rather pricey Hotel Minca. Probably against my better judgement, but I was weak minded at this point. At least the birding was good, the large array of hummingbird feeders providing some effortless ticking. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a slow walk around the town looking for new birds. 

Overnight : Minca

24/06/2013

Early again, and no respite from the fatigue. Turned out I had risen a little too early as it was still dark, light taking another half hour to appear. I was soon finding a number of new birds, so the early hour became irrelevant. By midday the heat was starting to sizzle and I returned to town for much needed refreshment. I had lucked out and found a small restaurant that also had WiFi. Nelson Mandela’s imminent death had me checking every few hours on how the poor fellow was getting on. Everyone has to die at some point, but the death of this one person means a little more than the death of many others - especially in South Africa. While he has been largely absent from public view for many years now, the mere knowledge that he is around is more than enough to keep many people motivated. Indeed many people are of the opinion that the state of the countries well being is intricately linked to his own. The swift decline of the ruling party which he so expertly led during the transition from apartheid to democracy seemingly testament to his own decline in health. I needn’t summarise here, the world is acutely aware of his current status and meaning I think. needless to say, his death will be the end of something intangible - a presence that few people have, and the power to do and inspire like even less can or do. If one looks back on the 20th and 21st century, the vast majority of histories ‘great’ people - and I mean those who had worldwide impact on people and countries were rarely good (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kissinger etc), Mandela was one of the few good and great people.

The rest of the afternoon was spent milling about before taking a ride to a road side and waiting for the arrival of roosting Military Macaws. I have been looking for these birds ever since I arrived in southern Peru without luck. Today would change all those misses and in some style too. Not content with rewarding me with a small flock of birds - I sat in awe as some 33 birds flew distantly over the horizon making a rowdy racket as they headed off to their evening roost. A great end to an excellent days birding indeed. 

Overnight : Minca

25/06/2013

Now for the giant diamond in amongst all the little gold nuggets I had witness on my South American travels. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - holder of some 21 Endemics, I need say no more. It had taken me 5 months and nearly 15 000km of cycling, riding and driving through Peru to see 70 Endemic birds, he I had a reasonable chance of seeing between 18 and 20 in a matter of a few days! 

I arrived at a small hostel, set on a locals farm for the next few days. I was unsure as to how may nights I intended on being here, but decided I would stay at least two and see how things progressed. The birds immediately started to fall into my lap, the flower laden gardens giving up a hummingbird and a few brush finches. An afternoon walk up the road towards the El Dorado lodge gave me another heap of new birds. By the time I went to bed, I had already seen more than 50% of the available Endemics! 

The weather was hardly great, thick cloud and the odd downpour - but at least it was cooler than Minca and the lower coast. Not that mosquitos had been informed, for they were as vicious as ever. A large number ending up splattered across my trousers as my one handed catches proved mightily accurate. 

Overnight : Campano

26/06/2013

Having found the Santa Marta Parakeet, I no longer had to get up at 03:00 to drive up the San Lorenzo Ridge. I understood the road to be an absolute nightmare, not something I really wanted to do in the dark in any case. Struggled to get up when my alarm went off at 05:00, dozed and then woke with a shock realising it was almost 06:00 already. Of all the places to doze off! Scoot up the hill as quickly as I can, but the reports were not inaccurate - this was some track - easily the worst I had traveled in all of South America. 

Ramping up foot high ledges, through loose boulders and 3 feet deep mud pools drove me to the edge of my riding experience. In fact, after the first few kilometres I had already come to terms with the fact that I was going to fall of somewhere, it was only a case of when and how many times. The fact that I ultimately made it to the top without having done so, was no reason to add another badge to my ‘experience’ collection, rather reasons to wipe out a few more lives in the luck department!

It took fully two hours to ride the 15km’s to the top before I fell into the middle of a huge bird party. The remaining Endemics fell quickly, only one particularly stubborn bird remaining unseen by the time I started the descent. The ride down was a little easier as I had only to allow gravity to take effect. Some crunching landings as I ramped over ledges added to the adrenalin rush of playing on a road next to a steep cliff face - and no, there were no barriers up here.

A few quick photos of the the snow clad peaks of Santa Marta in between the clouds before returning to the hostel for the rest of the day. I was so shattered by the time I got back to the hostel that I went to sleep for a 3-4 hours, something I had not done all tour.
Tomorrow I would try for the last commonly available endemic on the way out. The Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant that had not shown itself along the San Lorenzo Ridge was not worth another drive up that road unfortunately. I doubted if my bike could take that assault again and survive. 

Overnight : Campano

27/06/2013

Another early morning, although I seemed more awake than I had been over the last week. Down the hill to the Santa Marta Antbird spot and out it popped without much effort. The last nail in the Santa Marta Endemics list - all but 2 birds found (one quite impossible here and the other I really should have gotten). I was very stoked none the less and headed off to the town of Santa Marta for the night.

Unfortunately I made a rather horrid decision when picking a hostel. The WiFi turned out to be rubbish and then my luck really changed for the worse. For I had a morbidly obese British kid staying in the same room. This vast mass of beer addled body providing a sickening, sweaty stench - the snoring and spluttering only amplified the generally sickening state of the oxygen parasite. The British tax payer will no doubt be saddled with the expenses of his imminent diabetes, heart conditions, sleep apnea and no doubt the ‘psychological damage’ he must have suffered to end up the size of a hippo by 23. No doubt he will be too unhealthy or immobile to be of much use to society - so they will end up covering his unemployment benefits amongst an array of other expenses when in fact they need to stick him an alcohol free prison and make the bastard exercise until he is somewhat healthy and responsible enough to rejoin civilised society. Perhaps send him to North Korea - he’d soon learn to run.

I’m sure I am starting to sound vaguely familiar to Hitler here, but in societies like the UK, personal responsibility has been eroded by the nanny state to such a point that people have no reason to consider the effect of their actions on others. Make the bugger pay for private medical cover and then he can carry on as he pleases - but they should not be allowed to parasitise on the responsible citizenry.

Then some equally pissed bloke suddenly remembered he had a plane to catch at 05:00 and that 03:30 was a good time to start packing, lights on and all. I can only suggest the type of eyeball he got from me - although whether the blithering idiot understood precisely what I felt like doing at that point is unlikely. 

Overnight : Santa Marta

28/06/2013

Left none to pleased this morning. Another long drive to the northern Colombian city of Cartagena. You can do your own research on the history of this place - I am told it is fascinating. Here again, decision time regarding the hostel. Thankfully the first night passed off well, air conditioned with only minor disturbances at 04:00 when the party goers returned. They all had a slighter higher level of respect for other travellers, keeping noise to a minimum even in their inebriated state while not turning the lights on! Bravo. 

Overnight : Cartagena

29/06/2013

Last nights plusses quickly eroded this morning - the WiFi is not working... Spend the day tapping out this blog post and getting more and more frustrated with the hapless staff attempts at correcting the WiFi impasse. 


Overnight : Cartagena