Laguna de Fuquene, BioAndina, Manadulce, Laguna Pedropalo, Monterredondo, Chingaza National Park, Guasca Gravel Pits, and Acuamonte.
For the life of us we could not make a common sense plan to visit the sites around Bogotá without having to spend too much time driving in and out of the city. Nor could we make up our minds on where we wanted to be. What follows is our haphazard journey from the highlands to the lowlands to the highlands and back (unfortunately we do not like driving as much as it might appear!)
Laguna de Fuquene
We made a brief stop at Laguna de Fuguene to look for the Bogotá Rail and Apolinar’s Wren. Apolinar’s Wrens are quite common at the Laguna and easy to see, however this is not the case for the Bogotá Rail. I am sure that there are plenty of rails in the extensive marsh but the most accessible area has a channel cleared between the reeds and the shore, and the better marsh habitats are harder to access. While not the most inspiring birding destination, we did find two Subtropical Doraditos, not a very common bird, near the old train tunnel. We didn’t turn up much else at the Laguna besides Spot-flanked Gallinule, Silvery-throated Spinetail, and Black-backed Grosbeak (eBird list).
We wrapped up at Laguna de Fueqene early and headed up to BioAndina stocked with supplies, where we planned to spend several days enjoying cooler temperatures and hot chocolates. BioAndina is a private reserve near Chingaza National Park with excellent elfin forest, paramo, and amazing birding. The reserve itself was originally set up by a veterinarian to rehabilitate and reintroduce captured animals. They house several macaws, parrots, spectacled bears, and more. However the facilities where the animals are kept are off-limits to the public. But the main attraction at BioAndina is the excellent habitat and the birds of course. Here you can see several east Andean specialties including Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Glowing Puffleg, Coppery-bellied Puffleg, White-capped Tanager, and Brown-breasted Parakeet. On the drive up to the reserve in between bouts of drizzle and rain we stopped once along the road and were treated to Black-collared Jay, Ocellated Tapaculo, and White-banded Tyrannulet. By the time we made it to the reserve it was well into the evening and the rain continued, so we set up camp and prepared for an early morning rise.
We woke up to more drizzle and rain. Normally when I hear the rain outside I hit snooze and go back to bed, because who likes birding in the rain. Recently, however, we have been converted to umbrella toting birders, so we headed out armed with our new umbrellas. We took the trail/road that heads beyond the “zoo facilities”. A few steps down the trail a flock of Brown-breasted Parakeets flew through the mist. Not the best conditions to see the parakeet but at least we managed to see at least one characteristic field mark; the yellow leading edge of the wing. Despite periods of rain the birding was incredible! We came upon a really nice flock when the rain started pouring down. Thankfully our new golf umbrellas saved the day and we stayed dry while viewing Pearled Treerunner, Black-headed Hemispingus, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Blue-backed Conebill, Gray-hooded Bush Tanager, White-banded Tyrannulet, and more. We may look silly birding with umbrellas but I’ll take that over wet binoculars and everything else! Between periods of drizzle and rain we heard several Rufous Antpittas calling along the trail. The Rufous Antpitta, while currently considered one species throughout South America, will likely be split into six or more different species; Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria spatiator), Perija Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria saltuensis), an apparently as yet undescribed form that is endemic to the Chingaza area of the Eastern Andes, and several others! We had yet to lay eyes on the East Andean species and were keen to see just how different it looks and sounds from the Perija and Santa Marta Rufous Antpittas. While they all seem to prefer chusquea bamboo, they sound and look quite a bit different from each other. The East Andean species of Rufous Antpitta is much more rufous throughout while the Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta lacks rufous on the breast and is heavily streaked below. The Perija Rufous Antpitta is the palest and dullest rufous of them all and is more of a pale cinnamon brown than rufous. By voice, the East Andean Rufous Antpita is also very distinct from all other forms we have encountered so far. Luckily, when we eventually heard one calling near the trail, the (East Andean) Rufous Antpitta was not too hard to lure out of the thick undergrowth.
After three hours of birding in the cold rain we headed back to the van for a quick hot chocolate to warm up before heading out in the drizzle again. Just down the road we came across another amazing mixed-species flock that held a handful of Grass-green Tanagers and yes, they are the color of bright green grass, with red feet and beaks as well, a pair of Streaked Tuftedcheek, White-banded Tyrannulet, Golden-crowned Tanager, and more. Along the trail we also came across several Coppery-bellied Pufflegs and Glowing Pufflegs showing off their bright white bloomers, an aptly named group of Hummingbirds.
The next morning we woke up to more rain and suited up to head out for another wet day with sour expressions on our faces. We would like to think we are tough and hard core birders but after couple more hours birding in the rain, and no sign of the endemic Blue-throated Starfrontlet, we decided enough with the rain and headed down the mountain towards Manadulce for some sun and warmth. Undoubtedly there are more great birds to be had at BioAndina, but the weather did not seem to be clearing and we were ready for some warmth. See our complete eBird list here.
We arrived in the late afternoon at Manadulce and quickly changed from jeans to shorts. If it was heat we wanted it was heat we got! It was quite a shock going from the cold paramo at around 9,500 feet to dry lowland forest with cactus at around 1,300 feet. Mana Dulce is a small private reserve in the department of Cundinamarca which is the spot to see the endemic Velvet-fronted Euphonia. Thanks to the lovely hospitality of Constanza Mendoza we parked up in the reserve and set out for the last few hours of daylight to see what we could find. The late afternoon heat slowed down bird activity a bit but did nothing to stop the tiny little sand flies that came out with a vengeance. Can we go back to the paramo?
In short order we finally turned up a Jet Antbird, a species we have been looking for, looking for, and looking for, since Panamá. If you are looking for Jet Antbird, Manadulce is the place to be. In the day and a half that we were there we turned up at least seven!
The next morning we hit the trails in the reserve early, hoping for the Velvet-fronted Euphonia and a few cuckoos (Pheasant, Dwarf, and Little Cuckoo) which we heard were around. As we wandered the trails and road through the reserve we heard Velvet-fronted Euphonia up in the canopy but neither of us could get even a glimpse all morning long. The cuckoos remained quiet and out of site too. Despite a little bit of trolling we never heard a peep. The cuckoos may be around Manadulce, but they sure were not making themselves known when we were there. We did however come across a few nice birds including Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Apical Flycatcher, Jet Antbird, Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, and a few more species typical of dry tropical forest (eBird list).
However, we were still sorely lacking on the euphonia front. Hmmm, we thought, as we started heading back to the van for lunch, where are these little guys. As our last attempt we took the other half of the loop trail down from the road along the creek and lo and behold we heard Velvet-fronted Euphonias high in the canopy. This time, with our game faces on, we managed to spot them in the canopy! A little playback brought them in closer for a very nice recording and photos.
Now that we saw what we came for and it wasn’t even noon yet we needed to decide what to do, should we stay or should we go? And where should we go? We were trying to make plans for our trip to Mitu in the Amazon, and needed better phone and internet service, so back to the Bogotá we headed without a clue of where we were going to stay.
On the way to Bogotá we decided to stop in at Laguna Pedropalo to try our luck with a few species called out there, namely the Speckle-breasted Wren. We arrived in the early afternoon and quickly realized that we were not going to make it to Bogotá for the night and needed a place to stay. Unfortunately there are no established places to stay near the Laguna. We asked around but no one knew of any camping around the Laguna, so we opted for asking a local if we could park in their yard for the night. Despite the reputation some Latin American countries get from U.S. news media, the people of Colombia are some of the friendliest people we’ve met during our travels, and safety in most areas is excellent. If we showed up at someone’s house in the U.S. and asked to camp for the night most people would say hell no and probably call the police. Here in Colombia, people open up their doors with smiles and say “of course and you can, here is where the bathroom is, and we’ll leave the light on for you.” We sat around and enjoyed a beer and nice conversation with our new family for the night.
The birding at Laguna Pedropalo is along the road and there is no access to the lake itself, but the road makes for some easy birding. In the morning we saw, to our surprise, a Stripe-breasted Spinetail. I guess I should not say “saw” with such ease, because this guy gave us the run around for a long time before we actually laid eyes on him or rather parts of him. Spinetails can be real skulkers and this species of spinetail takes the cake. Further down the road we did run into a Speckle-breasted Wren, a species with a tiny range in Colombia that also occurs in Ecuador and Peru. We did not spend much time at Pedropalo but we racked up a nice species list (eBird list) including Beryl-spangled Tanager, Fawn-breasted Tanager, and Ash-browed Spinetail (this one much easier to see and is very common here).
Back in Bogotá, we made plans for Mitú and finally were able to set a day to meet up with our friend Oswaldo Cortes and go on a Cundinamarca Antpitta mission. Yes, I said mission, as finding and seeing a Cundinamarca Antpitta certainly is a mission. The Cundinamarca Antpitta is restricted to the department of Cundinamarca in Colombia and is known from only two locations (only one of which is accessible). The Cundinamarca Antpitta is also generally considered to be one of the harder Antpittas to see in Colombia.
We headed up to Monterredondo, southeast of Bogotá, to try our luck. This site is beautiful forest from about 1700 m up to quite high, eventually reaching Chingaza National Park, but the Antpitta is only known from the area between about 2000-2300 m. It was birdy right out of the van and we soon saw a noisy and obvious troupe of Ochre-breasted Brush-Finches. However soon an hour had gone by and not an antpitta was heard, which did not bode well for us, but the birding along the road really was great (Pearled Treerunner, Collared Inca, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Flame-faced Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, White-capped Tanager, and more). Just as I was thinking we’d have to try again another day we heard a Cundinamarca Antpitta calling in the distance. We tried to get closer, but it was much too far away from the road to be chased on the very steep very heavily wooded slopes. Oswaldo, however, was not worried. “We’ll find one,” he said. We heard several more calling distantly. One was close enough to try to call in, but it held tight and called from the distance. We contemplated an epic bushwhack but Oswaldo suggested heading further up the road. Sure enough, yet higher up, we heard a Cundinamarca Antpitta calling closer to the road. We positioned ourselves in an area where we could see a good ways into the dense understory and played the song very briefly. I saw the smallest movement in the understory and quickly picked up my binoculars hoping that the movement I saw was an antpitta and not an insect. As soon as I brought the binoculars up I landed on a juvenile Cundinamarca Antpitta! Wow! Really! Now to get everyone else on the bird before it darts off. Luckily Josh was on it and found the Antpitta right away. We enjoyed great looks, Josh snapped a few photos, and I got a decent recording and it was high fives all around! Although it was high fives and celebration after seeing the Cundinamarca Antpitta it was also a bit sobering. We were lucky to see the Cundinamarca Antpitta but others that follow may not be so lucky as the area where the Cundinamarca Antpitta occurs is not protected, there are already clearings immediately adjacent to territories, and this bird has a microscopic range. The forest patches here are unfortunately at risk of being completely cut.
As mentioned, though the Antpitta is the star attraction, the birding along the Monterredondo road is simply excellent. The habitat is best from about 1800 m up, but we also made a few stops in more disturbed and cutover habitats lower and picked up a few other nice birds including Yellow-tufted Woodpecker (lower), Green-bellied Hummingbird, and more (eBird list).
Thank you Oswaldo Cortes and Giovanni Chaves Portilla for spending the day with us and showing us around Monteredondo. We certainly would not have come across the Cundinamarca Antpitta that easily without your help!
Chingaza National Park
As far as cities go Bogotá is really not that bad – traffic sucks and the air quality could be better but it’s fairly cosmopolitan with a lot of culture, great food, tons to do. However, we were keen to get out of the city; we did not have a great place to stay in the van and driving the beast around a large city is a bit challenging but parking just plain sucks as we are too tall for most all public parking garages. While in Bogotá though, we finally made all of the arrangements for Mitú and now just needed to wait. We decided to head up to Chingaza National Park for a little bit of birding and relaxing before 10 days of non-stop birding in Mitú.
Chingaza National Park is located just outside of Bogotá and provides access to some amazing paramo and a few paramo specialties. Many of the specialties, such as Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Bronze-tailed Thornbill, Coppery-bellied Puffleg, Great Sapphirewing, Silvery-throated Spinetail can all be seen on the road to the park and before the park entrance gate (see Birdwatching in Colombia by Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Florez for more details on birding the road to the park). We weren’t able to spend much time birding the entrance road, as it was already late in the day and we needed to get to the camping area before dark.
Upon a friend’s recommendation we headed to Laguna Seca, about an hour’s drive from the park entrance. As soon as we got out of the car we heard a call we didn’t quite recognize. At first listen it sounded almost like a bush-tyrant but not any of the ones we recognized. The call was coming from a shrub 10-15 meters from us but we could not find anything obviously perching up singing. It seemed to be calling continuously and not moving, so we starting angling for better views. We continued to scan the shrubs until Josh landed on an antpitta! Wow, that wasn’t what I was expecting at all! We somehow missed the fact that we were in range of Tawny Antpitta and there it was calling unconcerned only a few meters from us. Tawny Antpittas are generally one of the easiest antpittas to see because they will perch out in the open to sing, unlike most of their brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, the morning we arrived the wind picked up and many of the birds were tucked in and staying quiet and our bird list was embarrassingly short (eBird list), although we did manage to see a Sedge Wren (likely a future split). We had planned to spend two nights in the park but as things usually go we changed our plans and let the wind and rain again chase us back down the mountain. At this point we only had two of the East Andean endemics left to look for – Blue-throated Starfrontlet and Bogotá Rail. We had been to several sites for each species but no dice yet on either. What followed was a long bumpy drive down back roads from the park towards Guasca. Why do we always seem to take the “short-cuts”? After several hours of jostling down the road we made it to the Guasca Gravel pits, where we were previously denied entrance to the ponds due to recent cattle theft, or so we were told. This time we opted to enter from a different corner of the pond, where we were freely granted access. A quick walk through a grassy field landed us in a wetland where one play of the Bogotá Rail brought this beauty to the edge of the reeds where we both enjoyed a good look. The Bogotá Rail, while obviously similar in appearance to many of its congeners, sounds fairly different, to our ears at least, and seemed to call much more quietly than other large rails. At the marsh we also spotted Grassland Yellow-Finch, Andean Duck, and Spot-flanked Gallinule.
If you go to Chingaza National Park:
You need to make reservations to enter the park by calling the office in Bogotá (353 2400 ext. 138-139). The reservation system was set up to limit the number of visitors on the trails in the park to reduce disturbance. Apparently, however, you are also not allowed to enter the park after 1:00 pm and on certain days of the week you are not allowed to enter at all. We were unware of the rules and showed up without a reservation around 3:00 in the afternoon. After talking to the park guard and a few park staff they let us in, but apparently we were not supposed to enter. Another rather odd rule of the park is that you are not allowed to walk on the road, which would make birding the area challenging as there are not that many trails in the park, but I also doubt that it is ever enforced and others told us they bird the road all the time. The rules and the fees associated with park entry make Chingaza a little less appealing to visit and bird. To enter the park you must pay 37,000 COP per person and 29,000 COP per vehicle. To camp at Monterredondo (the only place you are allowed to camp in the park, and not the same as the Monterredondo where the Cundinamarca Antpitta is found) you must pay 8,000 per person plus another 8,000 COP for the space, per night. The camping area is rather deluxe though with covered picnic area, lights, sink, barbeque, bathrooms, and very cold showers.
If you go to Guasca Gravel pits:
Check out the directions in Birdwatching in Colombia. However we recommend parking and entering just around the corner, along a side road where access to the marsh is easier (4.846667, -73.903028). There is also a house nearby to ask for permission to access the marsh.
Given that we missed Blue-throated Starfrontlet at BioAndina and Chingaza we were on the lookout and while we are generally not fans of seeing hummingbirds for the first time at feeders, we were at a loss for where to look for this endemic and rather uncommon species. We were close to a restaurant with feeders where the Blue-throated Starfrontlet is said to be a regular, as well as many other highland hummingbirds such as Great Sapphirewing and Black-tailed Trainbearer. Acuamonte is typically open only on the weekends but we called just to see if there was any way they would open up for us. Luckily they agreed to let us in and filled the feeders (with green sugar water) and soon enough Great Sapphirewing, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Glowing Puffleg, and Coppery-bellied Puffleg showed up at the feeders. A few minutes later a very shy Blue-throated Starfrontlet showed up before getting chased off by the Sparkling Violetears. The Blue-throated Starfrontlet made a few more appearances at the feeders before the rain started at which point we headed back towards Bogotá AGAIN, but this time to prepare for the Amazon!