Birding the southern Central Andes: PNN Puracé, Finca Meremberg, and San Agustín

12 – 15 September 2015.

After finishing up in the Anchicayá Valley and San Cipriano, in the amazing Chocó lowlands, we enjoyed a minor miracle – a flat, paved highway with passing lanes and made it to Popayan at 80-90 km/h instead of 30 km/h, which frankly blew our minds after the past 6 months of sinuous mountain roads that are chock-a-block with heavy truck traffic! We thought we might have to spend the night en-route but instead made it to Popayan mid-afternoon! Popayan is a charming colonial city and one of the more photogenic towns in Colombia; we took an afternoon to enjoy the downtown area and it was lovely.

With the clock ticking on our Colombian visas, however, we were anxious to get up to Puracé National Park and look for a couple of key birds. We had the good fortune to get to know and go birding with Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones, an ornithologist, conservationist, birder, and all-around cool guy who lives in Popayan, and his good friend and fellow cool girl and birder Laura Jaramillo. Oh and Fernando is the author of a new and super cool book “Hummingbirds of Colombia”. It’s pretty awesome and definitely a reference standard.

Hummingbirds of Colombia

Hummingbirds of Colombia

We spent a wonderful day birding together in Puracé. We started early looking for Mountain Tapir with no luck, then birded the trail to the Termales de San Juan. This short trail passes through excellent elfin cloud forest at about 3100 m elevation. Top on our target list for Puracé was Crescent-faced Antpitta, followed closely by Masked Mountain-Tanager and Black-backed Bush-Tanager. We opportunistically tried playback for the Crescent-faced Antpitta on the Termales de San Juan trail and on the second play we heard a response, albeit distant. We made our way up the trail to roughly where we thought might be closest and picked a good spot with heavy chusque bamboo cover but with decent visibility into the undergrowth and played the song briefly again. This time we got a quick response but the bird was either a ways off or was soft-calling, it was hard to tell which. We didn’t need to wonder or debate long, however, as soon a quick flash of motion caught our attention and a Crescent-faced Antpitta was perched in beautiful view for a few moments, man what a looker! This is a very difficult species; the most visited stake-outs in Ecuador are fairly taped-out from what we’ve heard (excessive use of playback causes the birds to either leave the area or renders them unresponsive). We tried for this species in the Paramo del Ruiz above Manizales but apparently no one has seen this species there recently without accessing a private reserve via difficult-to-obtain permission. There are not any truly reliable sites in Colombia, but Puracé is probably the best, though very few birders visit the park these days. Fernando commented that people still look for the Antpitta in the park and certainly not everyone sees it. We certainly had good luck, seeing it as nearly our first bird of the day with a mere 5-10 minutes of effort, although we had previously invested two entire mornings in Paramo del Ruiz! This species undoubtedly occurs in more locations in Colombia and Northern Ecuador and should be looked for in wet, elfin cloud forest with ample chusque bamboo at elevations near 3000 m. After the quick success of the Crescent-faced Antpitta, we enjoyed the views of the hot springs (the Termales de San Juan are not open for bathing, but it is a gorgeous landscape of mineral-scaled, bubbling pots of hot water, gorgeous carpets of moss all with a backdrop of cloud forest and paramo, definitely not an eyesore!

We had a couple of nice mixed flocks and a fair selection of hummingbirds, logging Plushcap, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Supercilliaried Hemispingus, Sharpe’s Wren, Golden-crowned Tanager, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Andean Pygmy-Owl, Golden-breasted, Glowing, and Black-thighed Puffleg, and Shining Sunbeam. After the Termales de San Juan trail, we headed back uphill (towards Popayan) and made a couple of stops in the elfin scrub and paramo, though increasing wind put a damper on activity. We still managed a few more nice birds, including Sedge Wren (this complex is so clearly comprised of multiple species, it will be interesting to see what happens when and if someone undertakes the very non-trivial task of sifting through the mess!), Tawny Antpitta, White-chinned Thistletail, Andean Condor, and Carunculated Caracara. The condors are still regular at “La Piedra de los Condores”, a small knoll on the north side of the road with a large rock outcropping on it. There is a sign at the base that says something to the tune of “avistamiento de condores.” Apparently about a dozen birds were re-introduced to the park some time ago and 2 or 3 remain, we had a nice, if windy, picnic lunch in this area and had 2 Andean Condors wheeling overhead for a bit including a couple of close passes. With the wind only increasing, however, we called it shortly after lunch and headed back to Popoyan.

The following day Kathi and I got up very early and headed back up to the park on our own. We birded the area near the road split (~2000 m elevation, the left fork goes on to Puracé (the indigenous community) then enters the National Park and heads past Termales de San Juan and eventually down into the department of Huila via La Plata; the right fork goes to Coconuco then up into the southern end of the park before descending towards San Agustín and Pitalito). We spent some time birding at this road junction and just above it in the direction of Coconuco. Though activity was slow overall, we still managed to find the fairly uncommon and local Rufous-chested Tanager, as well as Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Sierran Elaenia, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant. Heading further up above Coconuco towards the southern side of the park, the road travels up a fairly deforested valley then crests onto an equally deforested plateau. Eventually, though, it winds across the plateau and towards low hills that mark the edge of PNN Puracé again. About 5 km before the park boundary you start to enter good paramo and scrub forest, and this area is purportedly good for Black-backed Bush-Tanager and Masked Mountain-Tanager, though the Bush-Tanager is definitely still uncommon and the Mountain-Tanager is downright rare. Unfortunately the wind from the day prior had returned and it was howling while we were there. As a result, we saw very few birds and what little we saw were mostly common species – Sierran Elaenia, Slaty Brush-Finch, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, etc. We heard one Rufous Antpitta and saw a mixture of migrant Barn, Bank, and Southern Rough-winged Swallows whipping along at great speed with the strong winds.

We then started the long drive to Finca Meremberg, which involved retracing our steps down to the intersection at 2000 m and heading back towards and past Termales de San Juan. The trip from the crossroads to the Termales and down to the town of Santa Leticia is a good 3-4 hour drive depending on your vehicle and your tolerance for potholes, it was one of the bouncier drives we have had in a while. Finca Meremberg is just a few km below Santa Leticia. In any case, we made it in one piece, and camped for two nights though we only birded one full day.

Finca Meremberg

Finca Meremberg

Hospitality was not amazing (they roughly pointed in the direction of the bathrooms and then said little else in two days) and Ruben and the other staff knew little of birds. The forest here is remnant patches amid a maze of cow fields, so many species are not going to be present, but this is nonetheless still a good and, importantly, safe site to visit and stay overnight to look for a couple of key species. There is basically only one steep trail anymore and it is quite overgrown. Fortunately, the endemic Dusky-headed Brush-Finch is still common and we saw several groups during a full day birding, both along the loop trail and from the road. The overgrown loop trail is also good for (Upper) Magdalena Tapaculo. There are two distinct subspecies, with rodriguezi occurring in the upper (thus southern, as the river flows south to north) Magdalena Valley, and yariguiorum much further north in the Serrania de Yariguies, where many birders log it at ProAves’ RNA Reinita de Cielo Azul (Cerulean Warbler Reserve). We’ve heard it suggested that the two disparate subspecies might be a potential split, so it was nice to see both. However, based upon our admittedly limited experience, they sound pretty similar and we used the same recording to call them in, so that might not be such an obvious split after all. The other key species here is the East Andean Antbird, a newly minted Colombian endemic resulting from the split of Long-tailed Antbird. This species is restricted to the very upper Magdalena Valley and the adjacent eastern Andes. It certainly occurs in other sites but the two best known locations to look for it are Finca Meremberg and PNN Cueva de los Guacharos. We had been hoping and planning to go to Cueva de los Guacharos for some time, but being short on time we decided it would have to wait for a future trip and instead were hoping to find the bird at Meremberg. We trolled for it relentlessly on the loop trail where there is a lot of bamboo but had no responses. There is also a lot of bamboo along the road, so we walked the road uphill from the house and likewise got no bites. We then worked our way downhill along the road. Eventually, by miracle, we did call one in, though it came in silently to the very thick bamboo along the edge of the road, never making a peep, but eventually giving pretty good looks. It was honestly a miracle that Kathi noticed movement in the very thick bamboo, and equally a miracle that the bird cooperated and popped out into the open for a minute! In our prior experience with Drymophila Antbirds, they are fairly vocal and very responsive to playback, but they tend to stay tucked into cover pretty well. We never heard a single peep in our full day at Finca Meremberg, but we did see one, which was nice! There are also a few records of another newly minted Colombian endemic, the Tolima Blossomcrown, at Meremberg. We missed it in the Juntas/Cañon de Combeima area, and we missed it again at Meremberg – from what we have heard, it appears to be far more common in Cañon de Combeima, perhaps we just had bad luck or perhaps they move around a bit seasonally? We did manage a decent list over the course of the day at Finca Meremberg, with a few highlights including Striped Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Wedge-billed Hummingbird, Chestnut-bellied Chlorophonia, Safron-crowned, Flame-faced, and Metallic-green Tanager, and Green-and-black Fruiteater. One more nice find was encountering the local and very uncommon Rufous-tailed Tyrant in two different locations along the road. This is only the second time in 6 months we have seen this species and we got much better looks here than we did at Chicaque! While neither the birding nor the hospitality at Finca Meremberg are mind-blowing, and while you’re basically just visiting a cattle farm, it is nice that they haven’t cleared all of their forest, and the ~150 hectares that remain do hold three Colombian endemic species in a location that is safe to visit and camp at! One note – we had a very hard time finding contact information for Finca Meremberg but finally did. The caretaker, Ruben Luna, can be reached at 313 390 8527. Some published numbers are out of date, and the number in the Birdwatching in Colombia guide has a typo!

Our very last destination in the Upper Magdalena Valley before heading over the hills and into Putumayo and the Amazonian Foothills was the archaeological site of San Agustin. This is a fascinating pre-Colombian site where either one or a series of very poorly understood people(s) lived for at least 3000 years and perhaps longer. Little remains archaeologically in terms of buildings and the tombs were fairly simple. There are some artifacts but the major things that these people(s) left behind are a tremendous number of fantastic and intriguing statues. The statues vary wildly in age and vary from a few feet to a few meters tall. They depict mostly people but also a few animals. There is no solid theory for their meaning and it appears that every archaeologist or anthropologist who has studied San Agustin and the surrounding sites has their own set of interpretations. I don’t mean to be at all belittling but it does make it look like, at least in this case, they are all just guessing! There really is very little solidly known about these people(s). So we enjoyed a very pleasant few hours strolling around the site and taking in all the statues, and managed to find a handful of nice birds along the way.

San Agustin is certainly known amongst birders as a good site for the endemic Dusky-headed Brush-Finch, but there were a few other nice birds lurking in the secondary foothill forest.  While we were mostly ogling the statues, we still logged over 40 species in the afternoon heat, with a few standouts being Dusky-headed Brush-Finch, White-backed Fire-eye, Slaty Spinetail, Plain-breasted Hawk, Colombian Chachalaca, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Plain Antvireo, and Rufous-naped Greenlet. 

One other note about the San Agustin area – there are ample places to stay or camp, but there is one excellent restaurant that is not to be missed, especially if you are tired of rice, fried plantains, and fried meat! Along the road leaving town to the north and after you climb up out of town a ways, there is an Italian Restaurant called, fittingly enough, Restaurante Italiano. But this Italian restaurant is run by an Italian expat, Ugo, who makes homemade pasta and has a wonderful menu. We had one of the 2 or 3 best meals we have had in Colombia, as good as anything we found in Bogotá or Medellin. It is not to be missed, and it is a welcome relief in a sea of comida tipica! If you struggle to find the restaurant, just ask anyone for Restaurante Italiano or Ugo’s Restaurante and they will point you in the right direction.

3 Comments on Birding the southern Central Andes: PNN Puracé, Finca Meremberg, and San Agustín

  1. gborgmann // October 10, 2015 at 8:33 pm //

    the statues are very cool, interesting and quite ornate


  2. Yes, we camped right across from the Italian Restaurant and just walked over for great pasta every day!


  3. What amazingly colorful photos of the Termales de San Juan!


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