Its is a short drive from Cali over the misty peaks of Los Farallones, past El Dieceocho, to the pacific slope of Colombia’s Western Cordillera.  But in this  distance, many things change, both in terms of the visible environment, and in more subtle ways.  In moving from the inter-andean valley to the pacific slope, one becomes acutely aware of the reason why the peaks of the Western Cordillera are so constantly shrouded in mist, and why here forests are so abundantly green and moss-hung.  This reason has a name: the Cocó-Darien.  Famous as the place that stopped the Pan-American Highway, with its impenetrable forests and up to ten metres of annual rainfall, the Chocó is a massive lung, harvesting and respiring great humid breaths of the moisture moving in from the warm pacific coast, and condensing it against the high peaks of the Andes.  In these forests, the almost constant rain humidity has allowed the growth and diversification of a massive profusion of life-forms, including many species not found anywhere else on the planet.

The more subtle difference is socio-political: sadly, as in so many lowland tropical forests, there is now a push for Colombia to open this region to exploration for gold, timber, and oil palm expansion, industries whose profit balances are intricately linked to the global flow of capital and commodities markets, or the transition from fossil to bio-fuel alternatives.  This process has already begun, in places illegally, yet the reason for this region’s relatively intact state to this day is yet more machiavellian.  Long revered by indigenous andean communities as a gift from the gods, coca (Erythroxylum coca), is cultivated on a large scale on these slopes, converted to cocaine, and trafficked through coastal ports to lucrative markets in the US and Europe.  FARC, the organization that has for almost the last 50 years been pitted against paramilitary groups and Colombia’s successive governments in the world’s longest running civil war, is considered to draw a substantial amount of its funding from coca traffic, and has been infamously portrayed by the US government as a narco-terrorist organisation for this reason.  The civilian toll of this conflict, its impact on lives and livelihoods, and its contribution to the rise of the paramilitaries and the subsequent burdening of Colombia with one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, are an ongoing tragedy.  This violence and unrest also makes parts of the Chocó region an unsafe place to travel, and limits opportunities for people living there.

Happily, at this moment a long-running peace-process is drawing to a close in Colombia: (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/16/colombia-brink-ending-civil-war-farc), in the terms of which FARC are pushing for a radical shift in the way coca cultivation is viewed.  Rather than criminalizing the growers, they display a healthy dose of connectivity-consciousness in suggesting instead a thorough examination of the socio-economic factors that contribute to coca cultivation being an attractive option, the corruption which surrounds the continued existence of international markets that receive the products, and the interests of the chemical companies supplying the ingredients for coca-processing on a massive scale.

It is an unfortunate irony meanwhile that a side-effect of this conflict has been the preservation of one of the worlds last great lowland rainforests.  At Los Pericos
a micro-catchment reserve on the pacific slope, only two hours drive from Cali, I was lucky enough to sample some of the tangible and intangible benefits of this conservation.  Tangible, in that I could join a throng of day-trippers from nearby Buenaventura (a city not recommended for travel by tourists, for its high crime rate), in  enjoying the ecosystem services of cool flowing water, and respite from the heat offered by the many streams that flow form the cloudy peaks here.  Intangible in the soul-recharge offered by time spent in an intact and functioning forest.  I was even inspired to try to capture that feeling of connectedness in the above peice “conexiones”, consisting of a rainforest stream and boulder, painted with naturally occurring ochre from the site.  For me the simple points and lines represent the interdependence of all components of the biosphere.  I sincerely hope that not only will peace come to Colombia and the Chocó soon, but that in peace, we can also find ways to recognize the vital importance of intact ecosystems, not just as natural resources to be extracted, but places of intrinsic value that cannot be estimated in pesos or dollars.

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Páramo las Delicias and Puracé

_DSC0093Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis)

I have to admit that after a month falling in love with Villa de Leyva, Popayán, another of Colombia’s famously colonial cities was a little under-whelming.  Her cobbled streets had been paved over in the 1930s, and much of the centre destroyed by earthquake in 1983 and subsequently rebuilt… It has also been a centre of conservative political power for many years, and perhaps for this reason there is thus something of a less-human scale about the place, different from the charm of Villa’s cobbled streets, homely restaurants and colonial churches.  On the other hand, Popayán is a great place to use as a launch-pad to explore the Central Cordillera.

From here I was fortunate enough to visit two superb páramo and high Andean cloud-forests (bosque alto-andino) locations, accompanied by the very knowledgeable bird expert, local guide, accomplished photographer and all-round good guy, Jaun Pablo Lopez Ordoñez.  I was once again astonished by the massive amount of water harvested, filtered and stored by these environments; the ground underfoot is literally a mossy sponge in many places, and everywhere there are small flowing streams and lakes.  The profusion of mosses, epiphytes and ferns that cloak every available space reflects this, and habitat is also provided for numerous special birds that you can see at high elevations.  We visited páramos home to Andean Teal (Anas andium) and High Andean Cloud-forests where we had great views of Golden-crowned Tanager (Anisognathus rufivertex), Hooded Mountain-tanager, (Buthraupis montana), Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossa cyanea) and Tyrean Metaltail (Metalura tyranthina).  More pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/complicando/sets/72157643540824084/

These excursions have been have provided a welcome respite from long days cooped up in over-air conditioned collections, measuring the dried remains of many of these same bird species that we see in the forests and páramos, and it is a great pleasure to be able to see them in their living state and natural environments. They have also been a great opportunity to meet local and international birders; in Las Delicias I had the pleasure of the company of another Colombian ornithologist, Alejandro Pinto (also working on the ecosystem services project at the Instituto Alexander Von Humboldt), and in Puracé, Mark and Eliana, a lovely couple from the US/Colombia, and also great appreciators of Colombia’s wonderful culture, biodiversity and landscapes.

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Colombia- Valle del Cauca- Dapa and El Dieceocho

View from El DieceochoView from El Dieceocho 1View from El Dieceocho 2Slate-throated Whitestart (Myioborus miniatus) at nestOxeochistus puerta (Nymphalidae)Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis)
Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis)Uniform Antshrike (Thamnophilus unicolor) maleUniform Antshrike (Thamnophilus unicolor) femaleFawn-breasted Tanager (Pipraeidea melanonota)Beryl-spangled Tanager, (tangara nigroviridis)Purple-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii) female
Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae)Fawn-breasted Brilliant (Heliodoxa rubinoides)Speckled Hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys)Long-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi)  male 1Long-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi) 2 landscapeBrown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) bathing
Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae) resting in the rainBlue-Gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus)Golden Tanager (Tangara arthus) 1Golden Tanager (Tangara arthus) 2Saffron-crowned Tanager (Tangara xanthocephala)White-tipped Dove (White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi))

Dapa and El Dieceocho

Despite having lived or traveled in some of the biggest cities in the world (Rio De janeiro, Mexico City) and some of the most livable (Brisbane, Oslo?) and having enjoyed the fruits of their incredible human cultural diversity, I can’t call myself a city person. When I do find myself in the concrete jungle, I often feel that my heart and eye always seek a green horizon somewhere, to at least have the illusion of a chink in the concrete that lets in the cool green caress of the natural world. So it was that when I arrived in Cali, in the steamy Valle del Cauca, Colombia, I was pleasantly surprised to see the imposing, craggy, cloud topped and above all, green, presence of the Cordillera Occidental was visible from almost anywhere in the city.

In fact, on closer inspection, the system of National Parks and reserves in “los Farallones” protects an amazing wealth of biodiversity and water catchments for the residents of Cali. In less than an hour one can ascend to cool temperate cloud forests, home to a huge number of birds and other species, including some difficult to find elsewhere. In two day trips, guided by dear friend and local frog expert Martha Velasco, we explored “el Dieceocho” and Dapa, rewarded with great views of the beautiful Multicoloured Tanager (Chlorochrysa nitidissima). Other highlights of this day of tanagers included Beryl-spangled, (Tangara nigoviridis), Saphron-headed (Tangara xanthocephala) and Golden Tanagers (Tangara arthus).

We also visited another private reserves, la Finca Alejandria, where the large number of feeders attracts a high diversity of hummingbirds, including Andean Emerald (Amazilia franciae), Long-tailed Sylph (Agaliocercus kingii) Brown Violet-ear (Colibri delphinae), and one of Colombia’s smallest, the Purple-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox michelli). Along the road at Dapa, which passes through relatively intact cloud-forests in the Reserva Bitaco, we also had a fleeting glimpse of the Booted Racket-tail, (Ochreatus underwoodii). To have all this within reach of a major urban centre is a real blessing for Caleñas.

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Boyacá – Rogitama la Biodiversidad

In surprising contrast to the dry hills surrounding Villa de Leyva, near Arcabuco one finds again cool and moist rainforest environment filled with mosses, ferns and bromeliads. Sadly, much of the area of the altiplano of the Eastern Cordillera of the Colombian Andes has long been cleared for dairy and potato farming. One couple though have made it their work of the last 20 years to restore some of this habitat and the biodiversity it supports. At their finca (farm) “Rogitama Biodiversidad” http://www.colparques.net/rogitama.htm , Don Roberto Chavarro and his family have been planting flowering and fruiting species to attract hummingbirds and other species for the last two decades, with great results.

Though the finca is small, their impressive efforts have been recogized by the Colombian National Parks service: http://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/PNN/portel/libreria/php/decide.php?patron=01.06110744, and more than 80 species of bird have been recorded from the site. The quantity of flowers available is such that despite their being none of the usual hummingbird feeders, one can see about 10 species of hummingbird (of a total of 16 recorded at the site) within a short time walking. Highlights include the endemic Black Inca or “el Principito de Arcabuco” (Coeligena prunelli), the beautiful Lazuline Sabrewing, (Campylopterus falcatus), and the tiny White-bellied Woodstar (Chaetocercus mulsant). Other interesting species include the endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail (Synallaxis subpudica).

The management of the reserve now includes a focus on the propagation and planting of indigenous plant species as well as those attractive to birds, but there is an advantage to the previous emphasis on planting bird-attractive species.  Unlike sites with many feeders, at Rogitama that there is much less of an impression that the high concentrations of hummingbirds results in modified behaviour, including aggression, and possibly repercussions for patterns of pollination in local plant species. Instead, hummingbirds can be seen visiting flowers as they do naturally. Relatively recently in fact, an individual was photographed at Rogitama that could not be identified, causing a huge stir in the Colombian and international birding community, when it was suggested that it might be a rediscovery of the Bogotá Sunangel (Heliangelus zussi, http://10000birds.com/bogota-sunangel-or-not.htm). This species is known only from a skin in the Museum of Natural History in the US, dated 1909 and marked “Bogotá, and is usually either considered extinct, or a rare hybrid. While the investigation continues, including sequencing of dna from feathers taken from the bird when it was eventually captured (and released unharmed), the rumour is that it is likely to be something else entirely. Meanwhile, it has yet to be re-sighted at Rogitama… one more reason to visit, and support this excellent example of a private conservation initiative.

for more pictures visit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/complicando/sets/72157642151202535/

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Book Review: “Birdwatching in Colombia” by Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Flores



_DSC0366At Montezuma I was lucky enough to meet Colombian birding guide Pablo Flores, co-author of a great new resource for birders visiting Colombia : the book “Birdwatching In Colombia”

This book is a mine of useful information on where to go in this enchanting country for birds, and includes information on how to get to the top places, and what species can be expected once you get there.  It also includes an plenty of maps and pictures, and is available online.  At 274 pages it fits comfortably alongside your copy of  ProAves’ Field Guide to Colombia (another useful book for Colombian birding, and the only attempt at so far at a portable guide, an understandable challenge given the 1855 species that need to be included, reviewed here).

In recent weeks I have had an opportunity to road-test the book at birding sites in the departments of Antióquia, Risaralda, Boyacá, and Valle del Cauca.  In each case I have found the book extremely useful, leading me to great views of the endemic Gold-ringed Tanager which graces the cover for example, and the beautiful Multicoloured Tanager.  The site entries have a good balance between descriptions of the locality, lists of the birds you can find, and info on how to get there, plus a few beautiful and tantalizing photos of highlights from each.  The authors, both with many years experience in Colombian birding, have also found space for a well-considered introductory section with useful entries on health and safety for example, as well as coverage of important recent changes to the taxonomy of Colombia’s birdlife.  I have found though that for someone unfamiliar with the area, the simple maps included need a bit of assistance from online searches or other maps.  Once arrived on site however, they serve their purpose well.  I can recommend this book to anyone planning a trip to explore Colombia’s incredible landscapes and avian biodiversity.

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Villa De Leyva and the Instituto Alexander Von Humboldt.

It is with heavy heart that I left Villa de Leyva yesterday.  My home for the last month, Villa de Leyva is a colonial jem. Chosen by the conquistadores for its location in a dry enclave of the planalto central as early as 1572, the site had already held special importance for the Muisca people of the region (see my previous post about iguaque).  Long the holiday destination for the Colombia’s colonial wealthy, Villa’s architecture enhances a mediteranean feeling. The town also boasts what is apparently the largest cobbled plaza in Latin America, adding to its historic charm, if making things hazardous for anyone in high heels.  This plaza also hosts the most friendly, well-groomed and well-behaved pack of street dogs I have yet to encounter (see pictures here).


The real reason for my visit however is the impressive collection of bird specimens held in the Instituto Alexander von Homboldt.  Housed in an ex-monastery, the Claustro de San Augustin (circa 1590), the Institute is home to some 13,000 specimens of Colombian birds.  As part of my post-doc at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and in collaboration with the institute, I am in the process of measuring many of these specimens to develop a matrix of functional traits (lengths of beaks, wings, feet etc) of about 320 species of birds in the western cordillera, hence my extended visit.  Generously hosted and aided by project collaborator and Directora of the collection, Claudia Medina, and her knowledgeable and friendly technicians, Fernando Forero and Socorro Sierra, I have been welcomed there with open arms and helped at every turn, making the tedious task of measuring about 900 birds that much easier and enjoyable.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about these collections.  Their importance for taxonomy is undeniable, and while their diversity of shapes and colours is fascinating to a naturalist, there is something very sad, almost genocidal, about these endless rows of little dried bird skins, each with their tag, name and number.  There is also something distinctly victorian about our urge to collect, name and own something that is inherenntly dynamic, mercurial and fleeting, such as a bird, or indeed an abstract concept like “species”.   Many museums, such as that at Tring in London, owe their origins first to the private “curiosity cabinets” of the wealthy, and only secondarily to any systematic scientific endeavor.

In a place like Colombia, home to 1800 bird species already, there are new birds being described every year, and changing attitudes to collection are reflected in recent controversies over taxonomic precedence, and indeed the need to have entire specimens to describe someone new: http://birdingblogs.com/2011/Gunnar/one-bird-two-names-bitter-feud-among-colombian-ornithologists.  Despite the trope that we must “understand in order to conserve”, several hundred years of collecting and naming in the Linaean tradition also seems to have had limited effect in curbing our environmental impact as a species.  Extinctions continue, and at least in the neotropics, probably faster than taxonomy.  Does this mean we need to do taxonomy faster, or is it time for a fundamental rethink of our relationship with the natural world?

The vast majority of the collections are historical however, and without them, and the taxonomic and systematic knowledge that they allow, the work of ecologists like myself would be much more difficult.  The work of collectors and taxonomists, if unpalatable to some, also plays a critical role in defining our understanding of biodiversity and species distributions, at some level still key to conservation management.  I console myself also that in attempting to wrest additional information (morphometrics) from these silent rows of feathery witnesses to our thirst for knowledge, I am adding to their individual contribution… perhaps in doing so somehow they die a little less in vain?  In the black and white/ colour composite images I have been making, I have also been attempting to capture some of the significance of each individual amongst the multitude.. somehow full monochrome or polychrome images of the collections didn’t seem to do the individuals justice.

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Montezuma’s gold

pink orchidsmelastoma flowerTiliaceae?Smooth-billed Ani, GarapateroSilver-throated TanagerCrimson-backed Tanager
Blackish RailWhite-tailed HillstarBlue-winged TanagerViolet-tailed Sylph, maleFlame-rumped Tanager, maleRed-headed Barbet, male
Scrub TanagerParque Nacional Sierra de Tatamá, Western Cordillera, Chocó/ RisaraldaOrnate FlycatcherGrasshopper 2Grasshopper 1Heliconia spp ?
Fern crozierStill life with petalcloud forestcloud forest forms b&wcloud forest formsfleshy flowers

Colombia-Risaralda-Montezuma, a set on Flickr.

It hardly seemed possible, but if anything the abundance and diversity of the avifauna increased at our next destination. The second of three landscapes in the system under study as part of our project, Montezuma sits adjacent to the Tatamá National Park and is well known as a Colombian birding destination for its easy access to a high concentration of rare and endemic species.

After another day of driving through the warmer inter-Andean valleys, we arrived at Pueblo Rico and swapped again to a local 4×4 to take us up to the highlands, but this time on the western flank of the Cordillera. The road wound for an hour or so through steep-sided valleys, and was in many places under construction for an expansion that will eventually carry a widened road through to Qibdo, the capital of the Chocó department. At 1400 m asl, the ecolodge at Montezuma lies lower than that at La Mesenia, and noticeably warmer conditions prevail, but it is also much wetter, and most of the four days we stayed here were cloudy, if not actually raining gently.

The fruit in feeders at the lodge hosted a constantly changing array of species, including Vitrioline, Silver Throated, Flame-rumped, Summer and Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers, as well as the occasional Orange-bellied Euphonia or Red-headed barbet, While hummingbird feeders attracted Collared Inca, Violet-tailed Sylph, and White-tailed Hillstar.

Further afield, the road above the lodge offers good access to primary and secondary forests at higher elevations, (important for our project) and opportunities to see Montezuma’s gold: the endemic Gold-ringed and Black-and-Gold Tanagers, two attractive and endemic species in the genus Bangsia. Understandably, the owner of the lodge is concerned at the fate these high elevation specialist species may face due to anthopogenic global warming, and monitoring these species seems a must. Other birding highlights here included Crested Ant-tanager, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Olivaceous Piha, Masked Trogon, and glimpses of two more elusive understorey birds: Rufous-breasted Antthrush and Yellow-breasted Antpitta. All this, combined with friendly and knowledgeable staff, comfortable accomodation, and excellent fresh and local vegetarian food, and I look forward to returning to Montezuma in the near future.

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