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Colombia 2007 - Birding in the ProAves Reserves
By Frank Lambert
During April to July 2007 I visited 7 of the reserves owned or managed by the Colombian bird research and conservation NGO, ProAves. The reserves owned by ProAves have been purchased thanks mainly to the generosity of a number of donors and the assistance of the American Bird Conservancy, and provide the keen birder with excellent new opportunities to see some of Colombia's scarcest species, as well as many commoner species with restricted ranges. I was invited to visit the reserves primarily to assist with identifying the best trails and sites where visiting birders and tour groups could potentially see some of the special birds that these reserves were set up to protect.
I also provided feedback to EcoTurs Colombia on improving the service received by visitors to the reserves. The best way to see their reserves is undoubtedly to go on a tour arranged by EcoTurs (see below) – they can make all the arrangements and provide a vehicle with driver, and if required, a bird guide, though this will depend on availability. Accommodation in the reserves is limited, so I would recommend booking as early as possible if you intend visiting the reserves.
EcoTurs Colombia was set up by ProAves to promote and organise ecotourism in their reserves and to provide vital income to support the running and management of the reserves. EcoTurs is located in the ProAves office, on Carrera 20 #36-61, Bogotá (telephone +57 287 6592; José Alfonso Ortiz). ProAves and EcoTurs Colombia will also have a stand in Marquee 6 at the Rutland Water BirdFair in UK this year, and it would be well worth visiting their stand to talk to Robert Giles or Paul Salaman there. Robert can also be contacted by email if you are thinking of doing a Colombia trip (rgilesecoturs.org).
The intention of this report is to draw attention to the birds that can be seen in these reserves, provide some advice on visiting them. A complete list of species that I observed in the reserves is available HERE. Nick Athanas of Tropical Birding has also written a report (pdf) about his February 2007 visit to all of these reserves. The best period to visit most of these reserves is probably between September and March, but EcoTurs Colombia should be able to provide the best advice on this.
Deforestation in Colombia has been severe in many areas, so that the remaining forest patches are mostly in steep terrain. As a consequence, searching for rare birds in some of the reserves that I visited requires a reasonable level of fitness because the majority of trails are steep in places, as well as being very muddy. However, it is possible to arrange access to some of the high points by horse, and then walk down.
I visited the following reserves:
18-25 Apr 2007: RNA (Reserva Nacional Aves) El Paujil (Dep. Boyacá);
27 Apr-7 May: RNA Cerulean Warbler (Dep. Santander);
9-16 May: RNA Recurve-billed Bushbird (Dep. Norte de Santander); ;
18-23 May: Clarito Botero, near Ibague (not a ProAves Reserve);
25 May - 4 June: RNA Fuertes's Parrot, and Jardín (below El Mirador) 5-6 June (Dep. Quindío);
8-19 June: RNA Chestnut-capped Piha (Dep. Antioquia);
20-24 June: Jardín and RNA Yellow-eared Parrot (Dep. Antioquia);
25-28 June: RNA Dusky Starfrontlet (Dep. Antioquia);
1-6 July: El Dorado (Santa Marta Mountains, Dep Magdalena);
7 July: Guajira desert scrub.
The ProAves reserves I did not visit were the two southern reserves, Colourful Puffleg (Dep Cauca) and El Pangán (Dep Nariño), where the security and logistical issues have made it hard to visit, and San Andres Island, where ProAves maintains a ringing/banding station. Despite the ongoing conflict between the Government forces and groups such as FARC and ELN in some remote areas, the reserves I visited are in areas that the government controls and are deemed safe for tourists to visit by EcoTurs Colombia/ProAves. When I visited, however, the British Foreign Office was still advising against visiting some parts of the Departments where these reserves are to be found, so you may wish to seek further advice before planning your trip. The security situation is continuously changing (mainly getting better) and ProAves/Ecoturs Colombia monitor the situation carefully: they obviously don't want any of their tours to run into any security problems.
I opted to travel between reserves using public transport since I had plenty of time, but EcoTurs Colombia can arrange both the transport and the logistics for you if you prefer, or you could travel in your own rented vehicle (though finding your way around Colombia without a driver might be difficult). But as stated above, my advice would be to go on a tour organized by EcoTurs if you are limited with time. For some of the reserves, access would only be possible with a 4WD at some times of year (El Paujil, Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-eared Parrot, El Dorado) and for others (Fuertes's Parrot, Dusky Starfrontlet Reserves) access is by horse and your vehicle would have to be left in the nearest town at your own risk. There are many military checkpoints on all the routes I took, and vehicles are randomly stopped and checked. You need to have your passport and other paperwork available in case your vehicle is stopped.
If you intend to visit any of these reserves, it is imperative that you inform EcoTurs Colombia of your intended dates of visit and arrange to pay for your stay in advance. The current cost of staying in the various reserves ranges up to about US$75 per night, which includes all food, coffee, etc. The quality of accommodation varies considerably between reserves. El Dorado, El Paujíl and the Cerulean Warbler Reserves all have very good accommodation with private bathrooms that have recently been completed. Accommodation at the Chestnut-capped Piha and Dusky Starfrontlet Reserves is more basic (2-3 rooms with bunk beds, shared bathrooms), but adequate, and you only need stay at these sites for 2-3 nights. The accommodation at the remote, high altitude Fuertes's Parrot reserve is rustic, with shared dormitories; but if you want to see Fuertes's (Indigo-winged) Parrot, this is your only good option. The altitude, at 3,300m, makes it a tough birding destination.
Food was of variable quality, but overall good and in some places, excellent (Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve). For anyone who drinks tea, however, my advice is to take your own, since Colombians have no tradition of tea drinking and if you ask for tea you will usually only get herbal tea.
Note that the majority of trails were not named in the reserves I visited (as far as I could ascertain), so the trail names used in this report are names that seemed appropriate to me. I hope that some of these will be adopted by the reserves and visitors, or that other appropriate trail names are invented quickly. Having names for trails will help visitors find the areas that they most want to visit.
It would be difficult to visit all the reserves I visited and have a good chance of seeing the main birds in less than 3-4 weeks, including travel time, but you could see a good number of the more interesting species even on a two-week trip. A one week trip to El Dorado would enable you to see most of the Santa Marta specialties and those of the coastal mangroves and arid Guajira peninsula. I would recommend that you stay for at least 3-4 full days in RNA El Dorado (easiest to get here by flying to Santa Marta from Bogotá, or via Barranquilla which has air connections to the US); at least three days in the Cerulean Warbler Reserve; at least 2-3 full days in RNA El Paujil and Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve; and 1-2 full days in the Recurve-billed Bushbird, Yellow-eared Parrot and Dusky Starfontlet Reserves. If you also want to visit the Fuertes's Parrot (plus Jardín, below this reserve) you should probably plan for at least three days because if you have poor weather (fog or rain), which is frequent in the paramo, then you may miss key birds. Also note that getting up to this paramo reserve takes considerable time.
RNA El Paujil [Blue-billed Curassow Reserve] (18-25 April) (Nearest large town: Puerto Boyacá)
This reserve is situated in a small range of hills to the west of the Eastern Andes (the Serranía de las Quinchas - see maps), adjacent to the Magdelena Valley and is the closest ProAves reserve to Bogotá. The reserve was set up primarily to protect the Critically Endangered Blue-billed Curassow, though it also supports numerous other interesting species. Seeing the curassow, however, can be very challenging, and I would recommend that you stay at least three nights if you are to stand a good chance of encountering one. They are best found by voice. During my visit I heard males at various times from dawn until 2pm. If you are lucky, you could easily bump into one on a trail, and some of the birds are apparently remarkably tame for a curassow.
I stayed in the main building of the reserve, which was fine for me, but there is excellent accommodation, with AC, in two recently completed cabins. This is a lowland site, so the weather is hot and there are biting insects at some times of the year. I used my own mosquito net here, but there should be nets available for visitors in the future. The reserve manager is currently Eliana Machado, who speaks limited English. There are usually also research students staying in the reserve.
This is the closest of the ProAves reserves to Bogotá and hence the one you are likely to visit first. The journey to Puerto Boyacá is supposed to take about 6 hours, but due to road works my bus took a little over 8 hours: a car would not be much faster. From Puerto Boyacá you need to travel to Puerto Pinzón, about 1.5-2 hours away. The road from Puerto Pinzón to the reserve is only really suitable for 4WD vehicles, but if the water in the river is high enough, you can go by boat. Boat is the best option since you are dropped off at the reserve visitor centre, only 15 minutes away.
If you have your own 4WD vehicle, you should be able to drive to Puerto Pinzón, but whether you can get into the reserve itself will depend on the state of the road. During my visit I suspect it would have been very difficult to take any vehicle as far as the visitor centre, but the road is better during the dry season and is going to be repaired. If you have to, it should be possible to arrange to leave your vehicle somewhere in Puerto Pinzón and take horses or a boat to the reserve. Of course, if you travel with EcoTurs Colombia and use their transport, you would not have to worry about the safety of a hired vehicle, so this is probably the best option.
Best trails and birding routes
Many of the trails are steep in places. The easiest trails to use and places to bird are:
Main Road. The main dirt road that skirts the higher area outside of the reserve is good for birding. Turn left when you leave the reserve (going right takes you to Puerto Pinzón). If you walk far enough (c. 2km) you can return to the visitor centre via the Sendero Lomo Patico -- look for an obvious gate on the left hand side.
Floodplain Trail (my name). This short, flat trail starts near the cabins. It follows the river upstream. After this the trail goes steeply up hill to meet the Sendero Lomo Patico. The steep section can be very slippery after rain, but is a good shortcut.
Sendero Lomo Patico. This is a public access trail that runs through the reserve. To get onto the trail, walk back out of the reserve, past the marsh. The trail starts just outside the main gate. If you turn right you will come to the main dirt road that leads to Puerto Pinzón; turning left takes you through degraded habitat at first, then through better forest. You can return to the lodge via the river trail by taking the only left hand trail that you pass, which goes steeply down hill, or turn right at the main road and follow it to the entrance to the reserve (an obvious entrance, after about 2km, on the right), or you can go back via Trail A (see below).
Trail A. This is used for research, and is currently known as Trail A. It starts at the end of the Sendero Lomo Patico, only c.10-20m from the gate by the main road. If using Trail A, it is best to return to the visitor centre by turning right when you get to the bottom of the hill and walking down the valley bottom. You will eventually reach the main entry road of the reserve. This route involves no difficult uphill walking, except for the initial walk up the Sendero Lomo Patico, and is wide enough for a small group.
Observation Points. A good vantage point with scopes is to be found just to the right of the first blue gate when heading out of the reserve from the main buildings. There was no trail up to this point when I visited, but one is planned. I did not see very much of great interest from here, but it is good for toucans and other canopy-loving species, though many are distant. It may be possible to spot a barbet from here, or to get reasonable views of passing parrots. The hilltop just above the new cabins is another good observation point.
Riverside Trail (my name). The trail roughly following the river floodplain across the river from the visitor centre is also apparently good (the best trail, according to Nick Athanas), but I only had two hours in that area because I was unable to cross the river most days. It is fairly flat for c.200-300m, but then goes very steeply uphill. During drier periods it is apparently easy to wade across the river to the start of the trail, which is near the old bridge by the visitor centre, but you probably need rubber boots. When I waded across the water was waist deep and the current quite swift.
RNA Reinita Cielo Azul [Cerulean Warbler Reserve] (27 Apr-7 May) (Nearest large town: Bucaramanga or Barrancabermeja)
This is an excellent reserve, with good accommodation and plenty to see, not just in the forest above the visitor centre, but also in the shade coffee plantations around and below the buildings. The only minor inconvenience is that getting up to the forest is a long uphill walk, as is getting back to the visitor centre if you go down to the coffee plantations, but there are a lot of birds to distract you from this effort. The reserve manager, Juan Carlos Luna, can provide good advice on where to find certain species, and he speaks some English.
From the El Paujil Reserve to Reinita Cielo Azul is a journey that takes most of the day. The route takes you near Bucaramanga (which, incidently, has daily flights to Bogotá) and then up to San Vicente de Chucurí. Once you reach San Vicente de Chucurí you will need a 4WD to take you up to the reserve. If you don't you're your own 4WD, EcoTurs can arrange for a vehicle to take you up the 4.5km, ascending 700m or so, to the reserve. If you have your own 4WD, leave the main square in San Vicente on Calle 10, head up this road for some way and then cross over using Carrera 6 to Calle 9. If you follow Calle 9 up out of town, it eventually reaches the reserve. There is one fork to the left without a sign that you should ignore.
Best trails for birding
The main Sendero de Lengerke provides good opportunities to see many species, though the tall trees often make this difficult if the light is poor. A scope is very useful. Within the forest, some of the rocks are extremely slippery, so caution is required. The entrance to the Barbet Trail (see below), starts about 1km from where the Sendero enters the forest. Above this point there are some different, higher-elevation birds, but all of the most important species that people will hope to see can be seen below this point.
Lookout points. There are two excellent lookout points above the Sendero de Lengerke on the ridge top, not far above the trail, before the trail enters the forest. Both overlook the canopy, though a scope would be necessary to see birds well. One is at 1,573m at N06 51'31.1" W073 22'45.6" (to the left of where some trees come down the hill from the forest edge, and where there is a tunnel through the bank – visible only when you reach it), and the other is farther along the same ridge, at c.1,630m at N06 51'22.1" W073 22'48.5", at a point where there are two isolated trees that are visible when you reach the main signboard for the reserve and look back along the ridge. Also note that these two trees have flowers that attract hummingbirds.
Wood Quail Ridge Trail (note that this and other trail names are my names). Probably one of the best chances to see Gorgeted Wood-Quail is along a 200-300m net line that is wide enough for a small group to use as a birding trail when researchers are not using it. This particular net line starts about 25m before the last gate before entering the forest (this is the gate with the square water trough in the ground behind it). Coordinates for the entrance to this trail, at 1,631m, are N06 51'12.0" W073 22'51.8". The entrance is narrow but the rest of the trail is broader.
Barbet Trail. Another good trail, though again you could only use this trail when researchers are not using it for netting, and it is not particularly suitable for larger groups. It is an obvious trail, and starts on the right of the main Sendero de Lengerke where there are two seats on a sharp left bend when going uphill (it is a steep slope). The entrance is at 1,660m at N06 50'47.8" W073 22'28.1" This particular trail goes around the valley, but is was a bit overgrown after the area that is used for netting. I found this the best area to see White-mantled Barbet (along the trial but also along the Lengerke trail in this area.)
Coffee and cacao plantations below the lodge. Don't ignore the plantations! The route I would suggest: walk up the main road, past the entrance to the Sendero Lengerke, and to just around the bend. There is a wide grassy entrance track on the left, just past the bend, leading down to some houses. Coordinates for this entrance, at 1,400m are N06 52'02.0" W073 23'01.7". Take this wide track, but branch off to the left after a short distance on a narrow downhill track that leads towards an obvious house, visible from the main road. This narrow track goes in front and around the house, continues downhill and then meets a broad track somewhat below the house. Walking down this broad track (ie to the left) provides excellent birding opportunities, with Rufous-and-white Wren and Band-backed Wren and Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird all present in the area, as well as many migrants at certain times of the year.
RNA Hormiguero de Torcoroma [Recurve-billed Bushbird Reserve] (8-16 May) (Nearest large town: Ocaña)
This reserve, situated just outside of Ocaña, was set up to protect the Endangered Recurve-billed Bushbird. There are several pairs in and around the reserve, and this is definitely the best place to look for this species. (Whilst you could see it in the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, getting into its habitat is almost impossible because of the huge rocks and dense vegetation). It prefers the dense stands of bamboo that are a feature of this small reserve. Apart from the reserve itself, there is good birding along the main road that passes through the reserve.
There is no accommodation at the reserve, but it is close to Ocaña, where there are several good hotels. Alternatively, the daughter (Janie) of the park guard (Don Carlito) has one room in her house that it may be possible to rent if you are alone or only two people. The house is a 20 minutes walk from the reserve entrance. She can also cook for you, and if you are a day visitor, she can cook lunch if you arrange it in advance. Staying and eating at the house would require prior arrangement through the reserve manager, currently Luis Eduardo Urueña leurenaproaves.org. Luis Eduardo can help you with your visit to this reserve, and possibly with visits to other reserves, though his spoken English is limited.
Since I visited the area, Todd's Parakeet Pyrrhura caeruleiceps has been rediscovered in the area. EcoTurs Colombia are presently looking for an accessible place to take visitors to see this species. ProAves are also hopeful of finding Red Siskin Carduelis cucullata at some time in the future, since it was historically known from this area.
From San Vicente de Chucurí I traveled via Buccaramanga to Ocaña. The reserve is only about 20-30 minutes out of town, so you can stay in a hotel and make day trips to the reserve very easily. The dirt road that passes through the reserve is probably not so easily done in a 2WD car, but since the reserve is on the main road, you can leave a vehicle and walk up the steep hill if necessary. The reserve manager, Luis Eduardo, can help to arrange your transport if necessary, but since he also works as a guide for EcoTurs, he may not be there if you are not on a tour arranged by them.
There are good birding opportunities from the 4WD dirt track that runs through the reserve. This flattens out after the initial steep climb from the main tarmac road. There are plenty of viewpoints and places where one can look into the canopy. But most visitors will want to look for Recurve-billed Bushbird, a species that is unlikely to be seen from a road. There are three trails that give an opportunity to see this species, outlined below.
Robert Giles Trail. Once you get near the top of the dirt road that runs through the reserve, where it begins to flatten out, look for this trail on the right hand side. The trail is fairly flat at first then drops down to the main road. It passes through good bushbird habitat (bamboo) in several places. There is one fork in the trail; either way will get you back to the road.
Loop Trail. This trail starts some 200m or so past the entrance to the Robert Giles Trail, on the opposite side of the dirt road (i.e. on the left, at N08 12'02.9" W073 22'43.8", 1,665m). It is a little confusing because there are various other trails that branch off it: at the first fork, turn left, then ignore the trail going down steeply to the right (in a small valley). At the next junction, turn left; you should eventually emerge in a small clearing with the foundations of an old house. From here, take the trail to the left: this comes back to the dirt road, after crossing a barbed wire gate. Or take the new trail that goes steeply down hill from here, eventually reaching the road. (I did not find this trail particularly good for birding).
Hermit Trail. This trail is not in the reserve. It starts from the main tarmac road almost opposite the dirt road entrance to the reserve (where the reserve sign is), passing along the side of a steep valley. The trail eventually leads to a ranch, but passes through some good forest where there is a large Stripe-throated Hermit lek.
Higher altitude forest. The dirt road that passes through the reserve continues up hill through some smaller forest patches, and after passing the electricity pylons bends sharply to the left. There is a relatively good forest patch in this section which is good for hummingbirds (e.g. Gorgeted Woodstar, Green-crowned Brilliant, Lazuline Sabrewing, purple-tailed race of Long-tailed Sylph) and Golden-breasted Fruiteater at about 1,810m at N08 10'59.2" W073 22'24.0".
Clarito Botero, near Ibague (18-23 May) [Not a reserve]
I visited the Clarito Botero area, above Ibague, because ProAves is considering purchasing land to create a small reserve here. I was taken to the area by Luis Eduardo Urueña from ProAves.
From Ocaña, it is a long journey to Ibague. I traveled by bus overnight, with total travel time of about 10 hours. As usual, there were many military check points where one can potentially be stopped and searched: fortunately, our bus was stopped only once.
To get from Ibague to Clarito Botero, you can either hire a 4WD or take a taxi to the edge of town and then hike a few km up a steep muddy road, but I don't have details on how to get to the start of the dirt road since this was very complicated. I stayed on a farm of Alfonso, off to the right of the main track nearly 3 hours from where the taxi dropped us in Ibague. With your own vehicle, you can get to within about 1km of the farm if someone from EcoTurs helps you find the road. Alfonso let me camp outside his house and use his kitchen to cook for a small fee, but he also had a spare bedroom in his house. He also showed me some of the trails in the scrappy forest fragments in the area, but it was easy to find trails oneself, and most birds could be seen from the main road/track. However, to find your way up to his farm and make a prior arrangement to stay there, you would definitely need to use EcoTurs Colombia. It must also be possible to stay in Ibague and make day trips to the area.
I birded along the main track and entered the forested patches wherever I found small tracks or could find a way in. There are a couple of tracks along streams from the bottom of the hill below Alfonso's house. Alfonso took me up the steep slope through degraded forest to the land that belongs to Roberto. There is more extensive regenerating forest here with species such as Brown-billed Scythebill and Rufous-winged Barbtail.
RNA El Mirador [Indigo-winged Parrot Reserve] (25 May- 4 June), and Jardín (5-6 June)
El Mirador is not an area that I would recommend visiting unless you are prepared to put up with very harsh conditions, including high altitude and very steep muddy trails. Jardín (below El Mirador), on the other hand, is relatively easy to get to (about 45 min from Génova) and has a fair number of birds nearby, along a fairly easy trail. Although the El Mirador reserve bird list includes some highly sought-after species, the reality is that you are only likely to see a couple of these during a short stay (2-3 days). Of the nine species that I had hoped to find during my two-weeks visit, I managed to locate six (three of which were at Jardín). Indigo-winged Parrot is one of the species that you should find, but this would probably depend on the availability of ProAves staff who know where the birds are feeding or nesting. Furthermore, getting to and from the reserve involves a journey of about four hours from Génova. ProAves is considering purchasing land in the area in the future (donations permitting!), which would potentially enable visitors to stay at lower elevation but still within striking distance of the important birding areas.
The weather at El Mirador was terrible when I visited (so don't visit in late May-June), but at other times the weather is better. During my visit, most mornings were usually only clear until 10-11am, when dense fog would roll in and reduce visibility to such an extent that it was hard to see anything even in nearby trees. Intermittent heavy rain inevitably followed, though this sometimes stopped after about 4pm. Due to the weather, I only birded in the mornings. On one day, rain started at 6:30am, and on another at 8am, and on those days I only walked short distances from the house. Hence I lost at least 60% of potential birding time to fog and rain. If you do go out and get wet, it is very difficult to dry your clothes. During the mornings it was not too cold, but afternoons were generally colder and nights were very cold. Hence, if planning to visit El Mirador, seek the advice of EcoTurs on the best period of the year to visit. August and September are apparently very windy, which would make it hard to find some of the birds.
All of the trails in the El Mirador area are either muddy or boggy or involve walking through wet vegetation. Although getting to the nearest area of paramo (in the Espejo Valley) only takes about 1.5 hours, it is an arduous uphill walk even if you are used to the altitude (I waited five days before making my first visit). The paramo is, of course, not only very wet, but can also be very cold even with several layers of clothes. I was cold on some visits, even with five layers, including thermal vest and long-johns. It is, however, a wonderful place when the sun comes out.
The El Mirador house has two rooms that visitors can use. These contain up to six beds. There is electricity when the hydro-powered generator is switched on. The single shower has no hot water, but you can request a large pan of hot water, which is sufficient to wash with if you are careful. Nobody at the reserve spoke English when I visited.
If you intend to visit this reserve you would be best advised to bring rubber boots, waterproof trousers and coat, thermal and other warm clothing, gloves and hats, compass, emergency space blanket and preferably a good sleeping bag and GPS.
To get to the reserve from Ibague, you first travel to Armenia (2.5 hrs) and then on to Génova (1.5 hrs). From Génova, you need a 4WD jeep (locally known as a Willy) to take you up to the Jardín reserve, a journey of about 40 minutes, climbing up 900m to where there is a house that you can arrange to stay in if you wish. From here, it is another two hours by horseback (though allow more time since the mules carrying the gear have to be loaded) to the house at the El Mirador reserve. Don't attempt to walk this since it will take you at least four hours unless you are very fit, and the longer you are walking the more likely that it will start to rain. The trail is muddy and rocky and the altitude makes it a very hard hike as you get nearer to El Mirador. The house is situated at about 3,300m, and the altitude takes time to adjust to. The house is situated in a large area of pasture, so there are very few birds to see in the immediate vicinity.
Best trails for birding (my trail names)
Trail to San Antonio Ranch. This is the easiest trail for birding, since it more or less contours the landscape, at 3200-3300m. Walk back down from the El Mirador house, pass the entrance gate (with the welcome sign); the trail is the first one on the right, some 30m past the gate.
Main Mule Track from El Mirador to Jardín. Though steep and very muddy, there are a few spots where it is possible to get off this trail and into the dense habitat to look for antpittas etc. If you are not used to the altitude it is a hard climb back up this trail to the house. You could potentially arrange for someone with a horse to come and pick you up, but this seemed a bit too complicated when I visited.
Paramo Trail (Espejo Valley). The best trail to the paramo is the one that starts in the pasture about 50m above the generator building. Waterproof overtrousers and rubber boots are essential on this trail because of the tall grass and other wet vegetation that you need to wade through. Weather conditions in the paramo can change quickly, and you need to be prepared for very cold, very wet, windy conditions. I went alone, but it's probably better to have someone with you in case the clouds come down. The trail goes up steeply at first, but then enters a valley of old pasture that is less steep. The trail passes a large square rock at the top of this valley, within the pasture. After the pasture, the trail goes up steeply through a piece of forest and then enters another extensive area of what was once pasture in a broad valley (the Espejo Valley). The trail then crosses this old pasture and eventually you come to the head of the valley, where there are cliff faces and dense scrub. The trail continues up to the top of the ridge, just to the right (west) of the tallest peak at the end of the valley. I walked to just above where the trail reaches the ridge (it continues down the other side) to N04 07'38.1" W075 43'17.6", 3,823m.
Calera-Linea Trail. This is an alternative trail up to the paramo. It is much more arduous than the Paramo Trial, and it takes longer to get to paramo habitat (2 hours minimum). You will definitely need a guide the first time on this trail, since if the mist comes down, there is a serious danger of getting lost if you leave the trail. The trail up the valley is good for the first part, but is overgrown higher up. I lost the trail on a couple of occasions in the deep grass and shrubs that you need to wade through in places. I eventually reached a point where my altimeter told me that I was at 3,720m (just above N04 06'57.29" W075 43'15.8"; though I suspect that it is actually some 50-100m or so lower than this) where the trail became impenetrable, but it was well below the treeline which I had hoped to reach. On my second visit I ascended another 50m by walking up through the paramo vegetation. Unfortunately, for most of its length, the trail is in open areas and not close enough to the forest. As a result, you are unlikely to see many birds from the trail. Getting off the trail to look into forest is hard work due to the often tall, usually dense vegetation that you need to clamber through and the highly undulating nature of the terrain beneath it. I lost count of the number of times I fell over. Waterproof overtrousers are essential on this trail because of the tall grass and other wet vegetation that you need to wade through.
Jardín Contour Trail. There is a very good trail to bird, which is just above the house at Jardín. It more or less contours the hillside, and is a pleasant trail to bird from, without wet muddy areas. From the house at Jardín, go through the gate and turn right up the main trail towards El Mirador. The Contour Trail starts after about 100m, branching off to the right from the main trail. It goes down hill at first, then levels off. It is not entirely flat, but flatter than any other trail in the area, and certainly not as muddy. The Contour Trail also connects to the house at Jardín (you will see the trail to the house going off to the right after about 200m), but if you use this trail you have to climb over a difficult barbed wire fence and you miss a good patch of forest that is at the beginning of the trail.
RNA Arrierito Antioqueño [Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve] (8-19 June) (Nearest large town: Medellin)
This reserve is about 4.5-6 hours from Medellin, depending on the state of the road. It was created to protect the recently described Chestnut-capped Piha and a number of other restricted-range species, including Black-and-Gold Tanager and Red-bellied Grackle. I found this a very pleasant reserve to visit, despite the lower standard of accommodation when compared to some of the other ProAves reserves (though note that the accommodation will be upgraded in the coming year or so). The food was excellent -- the best I had in Colombia.
The reserve has two parts, one of 110ha, near the house, and the other ("Oasis") about 250ha, about 30-40 minutes walk down the road (10 minute drive, but note that the road was in a very bad state when I visited). This latter area had just been purchased when I visited, so there were no real trails within it. The trails in the part of the reserve near the house are mostly steep to very steep, involve clambering over all sorts of vegetation and walking up rocky rivers, and are difficult to follow in places, so it is advisable to take a guide, or even better, not use these particular trails. If you do use these trails with more than a few people; those at the back would probably see few birds, and you have to constantly watch your feet. Hence I would recommend that during a short visit you concentrate your efforts on the road, Quebrada La Solidad and Grackle Trails (note that these are my names for the trails).
There are currently three rooms with bunk beds that visitors can use in the house, and only one shower and toilet. The garden attracts quite a few hummingbirds early morning (they visit the flowering bananas), so it was disappointing that no hummingbird feeders were in operation, since they would undoubtedly attract a lot of hummingbirds at this particular locality. A few common birds come to the garden to eat bananas on the bird tables.
The Reserve manager is currently Adriana Sierra, but she is not in the reserve continuously, so you definitely need to inform EcoTurs Colombia well in advance of any intended visit. There is nowhere else in the vicinity where you could stay.
I left Jardín, below the El Mirador reserve, about midday in a Willy (one of the uncomfortable 4WD vehicles that are used as taxis in the Génova area), then traveled from Génova to Armenia. From here you need to travel via Medellin (4.5-5.5 hours). I was met there by the reserve manager, Adriana Sierra, and we traveled by bus to the reserve. It took 6 hours by bus, but in a vehicle would probably take about 5 hrs, or perhaps a bit less.
Best trails for birding
Note that the trail names are ones invented by me, and may not be in use at the reserve, since none of the trails were named when I visited.
The Main Road. Very few vehicles use the main road, which passes through a variety of habitats, and has some good overviews into the canopy of some forest patches. I saw a lot of mixed flocks along the road, which included in one instance, Purplish-mantled Tanager. If you go up the road, after about 20 minutes walk you will pass a marshy area, with possibility of observing rails and crakes. Soldiers patrol the road: I met a patrol just after dawn one morning.
Grackle Trail. This is the best trail for birding (and butterflies!), suitable for small groups. It is quite steep at first, and unfortunately decades of use mean that in places the banks tower over your head, but it passes good forest and levels off higher up. It is possible to arrange to ascend the trail on horseback, but since there are plenty of birding opportunities on the way up, it's probably better just to take it easy and walk slowly. The trail starts some 25-30 minutes walking distance from the house (10 minutes drive), after the small neat house on the left and immediately after a small river with a bridge. The trail goes up through pasture for 100-200m before entering scrub and then forest. It follows a ridge top, giving some good views into the forest.
Eventually you come to a fence, after which the forest only continues another 20m or so. There is a very narrow ridge top trail on the right some 100m or so before this fence, which provides birding opportunities for 1-2 people, but you would be much better to spend your time on the main trail. Everything along the narrow ridge top trail I also saw from the main Grackle Trail. Also note that using the narrow ridge top trail will damage the habitat. Total time to walk from the road to the top is about 30-40 minutes without stopping, but it is worth birding all the way up. I spent one night at the top of the trail, sleeping under some plastic sheeting for half the night and owling the rest.
Watertank Trail. Apparently Red-bellied Grackle was regularly seen along this trail, which starts close to the reserve house, just down the road in front of the forest guard's house, though I never heard or saw them here despite spending a number of afternoons and one morning in the area. Go through the fence opposite the house, and walk up through the field on the narrow trail that bends up to the left, following the field edge (there is an Inga tree a little way up, which when in flower, attracts a few hummingbirds). The trail levels off after a short distance and follows the contour of the valley to the left, eventually coming to the stream. You can follow the stream for a long way, but need rubber boots. There are trails that go off up the slope from this trail, but they are mostly very steep, muddy, difficult to follow and difficult to bird from. You can also go up the next valley, along the streambed that has been walled (apparently by native Indian gold miners, a long time back) by cutting across the valley when you see the large concrete water tank below you. This trail leads to an area of taller trees and joins the Border Trail further up.
Border Trail. This trail gets you up to the highest parts of the reserve (some 200m climb from the road), but is very long (it took me more than 5 hours to complete the trail) and not particularly productive for birds. It follows the various ridge tops that border the original reserve. The trail starts not far up the road; you start walking up hill on a poorly marked trail to the left of the road just past where the first small river crosses the road (going up from the house), where there is a bridge. The trail is easy to follow higher up since it is fairly broad, but is steep in places. Once on the ridge, however, it is fairly easy walking, though there are numerous small trees and saplings sticking out of the ground, which makes it a bit hazardous. If you want to take this trail it would be best to take a guide. Soldiers occasionally patrol the route, so if you want to use the trail, it would be advisable to inform the reserve manager the day before so that the soldiers can be informed. If the trail is dry there is a high risk of fire, so please avoid smoking or lighting any fires.
Jardín and RNA Loro Orejiamarillo [Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve] (20-24 June) (Nearest large town: Medellin)
It is well worth making the effort to visit this area to see Yellow-eared Parrot, a spectacular species that is dependent on wax palms for breeding and has a known world population of only 500-600 individuals. It was formerly more widespread, but now seems to survive only in Colombia. The small town of Jardín, only three hours from Medellin, is a picturesque place to visit, very popular with local tourists at weekends (so best to visit during the week, when there are more places in hotels, and prices are lower).
Traveling from Arrierito Antioqueño to Jardín involves returning first to Medellin. From Medellin to Jardín is a 2.5-3 hour journey, passing first through the town of Andes. There are several good hotels in Jardín, and others just outside of town. To drive to the reserve in your own car, you need to take the road out of the main plaza that leaves uphill to the right of the cathedral. This road will take you all the way to the reserve. The road is good for more than half the length, but then becomes quite bad in places, and you would need a 4WD to be sure of getting to your destination.
The reserve manager is Juan Pablo Varona, but I was shown the area on my first day by José Castaño (josefcproaves.org), who was an excellent guide and very knowledgeable about the movements and best places to observe the Yellow-eared Parrots and other species. José speaks some English.
Best areas for birding
There are no real trails into the reserve that are particularly good for birding, but this is not really a problem since you can see most species from the road, or just off the road in the case of birds like tapaculos or antpittas. There is forest along the road in both directions. Seeing the parrots is relatively easy from vantage points along the road, as the fly to and from the roost early morning and late afternoon, or elsewhere along the main road.
RNA Colibrí del Sol [Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve] (25-28 June) (Nearest large town: Medellin)
The reserve house was being built when I visited. It will have two rooms with bunks and shared toilet and bathrooms. The house is located in a valley where Rusty-faced Parrot frequently occurs, and will likely be a good spot to see this species from. It is not very far from the area where Dusky Starfrontlet and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer occur, but the topography is very steep. I saw the endemic Flame-rumped Tanager on my way up to Urrao.
From Jardín, you need to travel back towards Medillín (1.5-2 hours), and then take another road from Bolombolo to Urrao (3-4 hours). I was met in Urrao by Diego Caranton, the reserve manager (who speaks reasonable English). I stayed the night in Urrao at a hotel, then headed up to the reserve the next morning. From the end of the road, it is a fairly easy 2 hours walk or ride to the site of the reserve house at about 2,850m, which was being constructed when I visited. The house will have two visitor rooms with bunk beds, and shared toilets and shower. A small hydro-electric generator will be installed on the nearby river.
Best areas for birding
The Paramo. From the new house to just below the paramo (3,200-3,300m), where Dusky Starfrontlet can be seen, is a tough 2-hour walk. When I visited there were no trails up to the paramo – I followed directions given to me by Diego Caranton (the reserve manager), and used a GPS to ensure that I did not get lost on the way back. A trail will be constructed, however, during the coming year, and horses will be available to take visitors to the vicinity of the paramo. Dusky Starfrontlet can be encountered from about 3200m upwards.
Lower valley. The trail that you follow to get to the reserve house passes through the bottom of the valley in which the reserve house is situated and is a good birding area, particularly between the reserve house and the nearest house down the valley (N05º33'17.4" W075º47'40.6").
RNA El Dorado (nearest large town Santa Marta)
This is a fantastic reserve, with plenty of endemic and other birds to see. The reserve has excellent new accommodation with private bathrooms (six large rooms, some of which can house several people if needed), and a separate building where you can eat and relax. It is only 2 hours drive from Santa Marta, but the road is horrendous in places and a 4WD is essential.
The house is conveniently located at about 1950m altitude. This means that you are within easy striking distance of the areas where the lower elevation specialties occur as well as those at higher elevation. The undescribed owl and new foliage-gleaners that were discovered earlier this year are both found close to the El Dorado house. Driving up to the higher altitude areas takes about 30 minutes. When I visited this area in 1991, the only place to stay was the national park station at San Lorenzo; as a result I missed the opportunity of seeing the lower elevation species. San Lorenzo still receives visitors, but the accommodation is old and you have to take all your own food to cook or arrange for someone to cook it for you. So I would definitely recommend staying at the ProAves El Dorado centre rather than at San Lorenzo, whatever the difference in cost. The Giles Bar, in the main building at El Dorado, will be an added attraction when it is completed (late 2007).
It is possible to visit the Guajira peninsular and the mangroves of Salamanca National Park from El Dorado, but a very early start is necessary. To reach the Guajira peninsular soon after dawn you would need to leave El Dorado at about 3:30am. Salamanca is closer, about 3 hours from El Dorado, and on route to the airport of Barranquilla.
Best Birding Areas
The best birding is from the main road, which has almost no traffic. ProAves is developing a system of trails for tourists to use, but I saw everything from the road except Santa Marta Antpitta. This is common and widespread and best seen by stepping off the main road on existing trails or where you can see into the surrounding understorey. Note that if you are walking, it is a very long walk up to the top of the reserve, where you stand your best chance of seeing Santa Marta Parakeet. If you are not with a tour group you need to leave at least half an hour before dawn if you have your own 4WD vehicle, or 2 hours before dawn if walking. If you have no vehicle, you can arrange to be taken to the top through EcoTurs Colombia and then walk down. There is a short cut, the Orchid Trail, which cuts your return journey significantly.
Santa Marta Parakeet
Possible future splits in the area include:
Guajira Peninsula (7 July)
I visited this area for a few hours, arriving more than an hour after dawn after having left El Dorado at 4am. Since my visit was so short, I have not included this site in the bird list. Despite the heat and wind, I was surprised to find quite a few of the specialities relatively easily, including Bare-eyed Pigeon, White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Tyrannulet and Vermillion Cardinal. Other birds there included Scaled Dove, Russet-throated Puffbird, Double-striped Thick-Knee, White-fringed Antwren, Northern Scrub Flycatcher and Black-faced Grassquit