Thursday, 30 June 2016

Colombia - Day 9 (January 25, 2015) - Bogota area including PNN Chingaza, Siecha wetlands

Introduction
January 17, 2015 - Isla de Salamanca, Minca, El Dorado lodge
January 18, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 19, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 20 and 21, 2015 - El Dorado lodge to Minca
January 22, 2015 - Minca, drive to La Guajira Desert
January 23, 2015 - La Guajira Desert
January 24, 2015 - PNN Tayrona, fly to Andes
January 25, 2015 - Bogotá area: PNN Chingaza, Siecha wetlands
January 26, 2015 - Laguna de Pedro Palo, Payande area
January 27, 2015 - Cañón del Río Combeima, SFF Otún Quimbaya
January 28, 2015 - SFF Otún Quimbaya, drive to Montezuma Road
January 29, 2015 - Montezuma Road
January 30, 2015 - Montezuma Road, drive to Jardín
January 31, 2015 - Jardín area, Cauca Valley
February 1, 2015 - Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco
February 2, 2015 - Páramo del Ruiz near PNN Los Nevados

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We made it to the airport on time on January 24, and before long our quick domestic flight had touched down in Bogotá. The capital of Colombia, Bogotá is located high in the Andes at an elevation of 2,640 m, making it the fourth highest capital city behind La Paz, Bolivia (3,640 m), Quito, Ecuador (2,850 m) and Thimphu, Bhutan (2,648 m).

After a relatively uneventful flight, we touched down in the late afternoon and waited for our driver to pick us up at the airport. William soon arrived and after some introductions we loaded our packs into his SUV and we were on our way.

William was an excellent driver and although he did not speak any English, we did the best we could with our broken Spanish to communicate. Due to the Bogotá traffic we did not arrive at our pre-booked hotel until after dark. That evening we went out for dinner and beers at a nearby restaurant, eagerly awaiting what the next 10 days had in store.

David Bell arrived during the night after we had gone to bed, and by 4 or 4:30 we were all up. We collected our packed breakfast that we had arranged with the hotel the night before, and stepped outside into the predawn darkness just as Adam Timpf arrived. Adam and Dave would be traveling in Colombia for two months; Dave would spend the first 10 days or so of their adventure with us, while Adam would be joining periodically. Before long William pulled up and we were on our way.

Bogotá is surrounded by mountains on all sides, and while cattle grazing has taken up much of the natural landscape, there are several large protected areas remaining. Parque Nacional Natural Chingaza rises up above the city. The park shelters cloud forest, and further up, large swaths of paramo, home to the iconic frailejones and the endemic Green-bearded Helmetcrests that survive in this unique habitat. Unfortunately at this time of year the helmetcrests would not be in an accessible area; instead we would be birding some of the lower elevations near the entrance to the park. In addition to connecting with a wide variety of colorful and unique species found in the Andes, we were hoping to cross paths with a number of near-endemics and endemics, including the Vulnerable Brown-breasted Parakeet, an endemic Colombian species numbering less than 10,000.

Steve (foreground) and William near PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

We drove for a couple of hours, making our way up a gravel road through chunks of woodland interspersed with cleared areas being grazed by cattle. The lifers started appearing immediately and in short order we had racked up quite a few, including Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, White-browed Spinetail, Green Jay, Smoky Bush-Tyrant and two species of chat-tyrants. Brown-bellied Swallow were now the default swallow in the small towns we passed, while small flocks of tanagers included the stunning Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. Unfortunately I was not able to obtain any decent photos of them. Needless to say the birding was exciting, as we periodically exited the vehicle to bird stretches of the road.

Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant - PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia


Several of our target hummingbird species made an appearance at a flowering tree, including Amethyst-throated Sunangel and Blue-throated Starfrontlet

Throughout the course of the morning, we birded hard, trying to tease out each and every species on the mountain, while at the same time attempting to memorize each of the vocalizations that we were hearing. The first day birding in a completely new area often comes with a little bit of frustration at trying to remember each species, though that feeling is always overwhelmed with the excitement of new discovery around each corner.

(left to right) Adam, David, Dan Wylie, Dan Riley birding at PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

Despite the heavy fog as we ascended to the gate of the National Park, the birding was enjoyable, even if the fog severely limited the number of species that we would cross paths with. The lifers kept coming - three species of warbler, two flowerpiercers, a handful of tanagers and odds and ends like Pearled Treerunner, Mountain Cacique, Slaty Brushfinch and Andean Guan. A stunning Crimson-mantled Woodpecker was a nice addition, and was another species I wish I had a chance to photograph!

Andean Guan - PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia


We hiked at the edge of the cloud forest for most of the morning, marveling at the vibrant, lush flora. With the foggy backdrop, photos looking across the mountainside were rather dramatic.

PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

Rufous-browed Conebill, a near-endemic bird species, was eventually added to our lists. We spotted a few Glowing Pufflegs, but the near-endemic Coppery-bellied Puffleg was nowhere to be found, a species we would miss throughout the rest of the trip. One of the morning's highlight was a small, noisy group of White-capped Tanagers that broke through the fog and appeared in some trees along the ridge. This species can be fairly nomadic and scarce throughout its range (Andes of Colombia through central Peru). At the time, it broke up a bit of a lull in the bird action.

White-capped Tanager - PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

We encountered a few mixed flocks throughout our walk, many containing various tanagers, warblers, tyrannulets, and spinetails. A few Rufous Antpittas were heard calling, as well as Pale-bellied Tapaculo. The latter is a near-endemic, found in the Andes of north-central Colombia as well as adjacent northwest Venezuela.



Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant - PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia


Steve at PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

We walked back to the vehicle after a successful morning of birding and slowly headed back down the mountain. As we were driving along the bumpy road, a small flock of parakeets shot by the vehicle, parallel to us down the mountainside. Brown-breasted Parakeets! We all got on them briefly, some with better looks than others. Unfortunately that would be the extent of our luck with that endemic species, but at least it was better than nothing.

It was interesting to note how much land just south of the national park had been cleared by local farmers for grazing land.

pasture outside of PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

pasture outside of PNN Chingaza, Mundo Nuevo Province, Colombia

We had done quite well in the low elevations of Chingaza and the adjacent lower slopes so as the sun broke through the fog we continued onwards, our destination being a group of artificial wetlands on the outskirts of Bogotá.I was already up to 38 life birds on the day - a bit overwhelming but certainly exciting.

The Siecha wetlands were established by the flooding of the Siecha river over abandoned limestone quarries. Quite a few different species of waterbirds typically found in Andean alpine lakes can be found here, while these wetlands are also home to the Endangered, endemic Bogotá Rail. Also found here is an endemic subspecies of Spot-flanked Gallinule, Andean Duck, Andean Teal, and Noble Snipe, among other waterbirds and shorebirds.

pasture near Siecha wetlands, Gravilleras de Capilla de Siecha, Colombia

It took a bit of driving around but we eventually found the access point to one of the better sites. Here, cattle graze in the surrounding pastures.

A scan of the ducks revealed Andean Duck, Andean Teal and Blue-winged Teal, while several noisy Southern Lapwings alerted all the other species of our arrival with their raucous calls.

Andean Ducks and Blue-winged Teals - Siecha wetlands, Gravilleras de Capilla de Siecha, Colombia

Southern Lapwings - Siecha wetlands, Gravilleras de Capilla de Siecha, Colombia

In no time at all we had found several Noble Snipes, and eventually a Bogotá Rail was spotted skulking in the reeds. Some of the other guys were able to take some distant photos, though I arrived a little late on the scene and focused more on obtaining good looks than trying for photos. We also found a couple of vocal Spot-flanked Gallinules, while a single Gray Seedeater (another target species found here) was spotted in the neighbouring field. This Sharp-shinned Hawk was perched quietly on one of the fences, keeping an eye on us while simultaneously scanning for prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Siecha wetlands, Gravilleras de Capilla de Siecha, Colombia

It had only taken us 31 minutes and we had seen all of our target species at the Siecha wetlands so we headed back to our hotel within Bogotá, stopping on the way for a hearty meal and several beers. It was an excellent day in the field, with the ideal combination of good weather, several endemic and near-endemic birds, and an excellent introduction to the birds of the Andes. The following day we would begin heading west to the Magdalena Valley, stopping at several locations along the way.  

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Colombia - Day 8 (January 24, 2015): PNN Tayrona, fly to Bogota

Introduction
January 17, 2015 - Isla de Salamanca, Minca, El Dorado lodge
January 18, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 19, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 20 and 21, 2015 - El Dorado lodge to Minca
January 22, 2015 - Minca, drive to La Guajira Desert
January 23, 2015 - La Guajira Desert
January 24, 2015 - PNN Tayrona, fly to Andes
January 25, 2015 - Bogotá area: PNN Chingaza, Siecha wetlands
January 26, 2015 - Laguna de Pedro Palo, Payande area
January 27, 2015 - Cañón del Río Combeima, SFF Otún Quimbaya
January 28, 2015 - SFF Otún Quimbaya, drive to Montezuma Road
January 29, 2015 - Montezuma Road
January 30, 2015 - Montezuma Road, drive to Jardín
January 31, 2015 - Jardín area, Cauca Valley
February 1, 2015 - Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco
February 2, 2015 - Páramo del Ruiz near PNN Los Nevados

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Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona is located approximately 34 kilometers west of the city of Magdalena, on the north Caribbean coast of Colombia.Its picturesque sandy beaches and dry forests are popular with Colombians, as well as with backpackers. The park consists of 460,000 hectares of primary and secondary forest, and is the last stronghold for the endangered Cotton-top Tamarin. The endemic, critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow still survives in these forests as well, though it is much more difficult to encounter this species here than in the place where most birders see their first, at El Paujil Bird Reserve in the Magdalena Valley. Steve, Dan, and Dan, my three amigos for this leg of the trip, had already seen Blue-billed Curassow here earlier on their trip before I joined up with them - an excellent sighting indeed!

There are not many species at PNN Tayrona that would be new for me, as many of the specialties of the area are also found in neighbouring eastern Panama, which I visited with David Bell and Steve Pike in March, 2014. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful park with a nice diversity of birds, reptiles and other organisms, and a place we were happy to explore.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we paid our entrance fee and headed over to where we were planning on staying for the night, in some cabins right next to the beach. It turns out that the guy who ran this enterprise also had a keen interest in the flora and fauna of the area, particularly the snakes. When we arrived he actually had a young Fer-de-Lance in a bucket which we were eager to photograph. He had found this individual around the cabins and had carefully maneuvered it into the bucket, and instead of killing it like many would have done, he was planning on releasing it in the nearby woodland. It was great to see someone like this with a great respect for snakes, a group of animals which is often unfairly maligned throughout the world. 

Fer-de-Lance - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Fer-de-Lance - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Fer-de-Lance - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We were shown our rooms - basic, but certainly adequate and with a killer view - before having the rest of the evening to explore the nearby coast. 


Ghost crab - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

The Cotton-top Tamarin is a distinctive, diminutive monkey endemic to northern Colombia. While once fairly widespread throughout the area, habitat loss has contributed to an approximately 80% decline in population in the last three generations (18 years), as they now number around 6000 total individuals. The population within Tayrona was introduced in 1974, and it remains one of the few protected areas where Cotton-top Tamarins stiil exist. 

We were quite excited to encounter a small group of the charismatic mammals that evening, jumping from tree to tree as they slowly moved through the forest along the edge of the clearing near the cabins. You've got to love the hairdos on these guys and gals!

Cotton-top Tamarin - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Cotton-top Tamarin - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia
A Crested Caracara was on the lawn, presumably searching for something to eat among the fallen coconuts from the nearby palms. 

Crested Caracara - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Crested Caracara - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

That evening we set out on a night-hike after dinner, exploring some of the trails through the mangroves and into the dry forest. Due to the lack of moisture it was difficult to find many herps, and despite a concerted effort we were unable to turn up any snakes. Scorpions, however were present in large numbers.While very difficult to see as they hid in the leaf litter, Dan Wylie had brought a black light with him. Shining the light over the forest floor, the fluorescing scorpions could be easily found as their cover had now been blown.


Using only the black light for illumination, I experimented with various camera settings until I was able to obtain a sharp result, showing the scorpion fluorescing under the UV light. It is still being worked out by scientists why the exoskeletons of scorpions have this amazing ability to fluoresce under UV light. While the reason why scorpions fluoresce is not fully known, the science behind how it happens is known. The exoskeleton contains several compounds, including beta-carboline, which glow under UV light. Young scorpions who do not have a hardened exoskeleton do not exhibit this feature, and scorpions recently having undergone ecdysis (shedding of their skin) also do not fluoresce. The image below is of the same scorpion as above, however this time I used the flash of my camera.


Below are two more examples, one with the black light and the second image with a camera flash, of a different species of scorpion. It really was amazing how many scorpions could be found in certain parts of the forest where there was an abundance of leaf litter.


We found a few lizards on our hike, including this Yellow-headed Gecko resting on a trailside boulder. This attractive lizard is a widespread species in Central and South America. 

Yellow-headed Gecko - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We were also successful in spotlighting a roosting White-bellied Antbird in a thicket - not how one usually encounters this species.

White-bellied Antbird - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

We arrived back at our cabins by 10:00 PM or so - fairly early, but with the sun setting around 6:00 PM we still had enjoyed a solid 3-4 hours of night-hiking, and we needed to get some rest for another early morning of birding.

The birdsong in Tayrona was a little more familiar to me as several of the species I had encountered previously in Panama, and we were now a week into the trip and had become accustomed to the common species of this part of South America. 

We walked down the road shortly after dawn, quickly finding some of the specialty birds of the area, including Buff-breasted Wren and Lance-tailed Manakin. White-bellied Antbirds were singing, though remaining out of the site - good thing we had found the roosting individual the night before!

I added one lifer on the morning - a White-chinned Sapphire. As expected, we had no luck finding any Blue-billed Curassows on the road, though the early morning traffic of motorcycles, trucks, and convoys of horses likely played a role in preventing the curassows from coming close to the road. While the birding was a little slow, it was great to be exploring the mature forest of this beautiful park.

By mid-morning we headed back to the cabins to pack up and slowly prepare to depart for the airport. I explored the beach one more time.


PNN Tayrona - Magdalena Province, Colombia

While I was at the beach, Steve was busy getting his hands on one of the brightly colored, and aptly named, Rainbow Whiptails which frequented the open areas. He handed it off to me to photograph - what an awesome lizard!

Rainbow Whiptail - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Rainbow Whiptail - PNN Tayrona, Magdalena Province, Colombia

Our driver soon arrived and we bid Tayrona goodbye. We were dropped off at the airport and from there made the short flight to the capital, Bogota, where we were planning on meeting up with David Bell and Adam Timpf to explore the Andes on a 10 day tour.

All things considered, we had cleaned up in the north of Colombia, seeing every single one of our main target species. We found all of the possible endemics found in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Guajira specialties, Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird in the mangroves, and a wide variety of other species, totalling 292 species of birds in our first eight days. I missed Blue-billed Currasow, and El Paujil Bird Reserve wasn't on our itinerary, but it is a place that I will visit eventually. Our only other miss was Groove-billed Toucanet, though the vast majority of its range falls within Venezuela's borders.

Up next - the Andes!

Friday, 24 June 2016

Colombia - Day 7 (January 23, 2015): Guajira Desert, PNN Tayrona

Introduction
January 17, 2015 - Isla de Salamanca, Minca, El Dorado lodge
January 18, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 19, 2015 - Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, El Dorado lodge
January 20 and 21, 2015 - El Dorado lodge to Minca
January 22, 2015 - Minca, drive to La Guajira Desert
January 23, 2015 - La Guajira Desert
January 24, 2015 - PNN Tayrona, fly to Andes
January 25, 2015 - Bogotá area: PNN Chingaza, Siecha wetlands
January 26, 2015 - Laguna de Pedro Palo, Payande area
January 27, 2015 - Cañón del Río Combeima, SFF Otún Quimbaya
January 28, 2015 - SFF Otún Quimbaya, drive to Montezuma Road
January 29, 2015 - Montezuma Road
January 30, 2015 - Montezuma Road, drive to Jardín
January 31, 2015 - Jardín area, Cauca Valley
February 1, 2015 - Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco
February 2, 2015 - Páramo del Ruiz near PNN Los Nevados

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In the predawn darkness, our driver pulled up to the hotel and we were soon on our way to El Sanctuario de Fauna y Flora Los Flamencos. Our plan was to meet up with Jose Luis, a native Wayuu who knows the birds of the Guajira Peninsula better than anyone. 

There are a number of bird species endemic to the Guajira area of northern Colombia as well as northwestern Venezuela. As Venezuela is not an easy place to travel in right now, and the situation in Colombia is very stable, this means that Colombia is the place to go at the moment to see them. Some of the species are: 

-Buffy Hummingbird
-Pygmy Swift (only in Venezuela)
-Bare-eyed Pigeon
-Chestnut Piculet
-White-whiskered Spinetail
-Black-backed Antshrike
-Slender-billed Tyrannulet
-Tocuyo Sparrow
-Glaucous Tanager
-Orinocan Saltator
-Vermilion Cardinal
-brevicaudus subspecies of Pileated Finch

A few additional target species in Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Russet-throated Puffbird, Trinidad Euphonia, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Rufous-vented Chachalaca and the Colombian endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca are a little more widespread.

We had already seen Chestnut Piculet, Black-backed Antshrike, Russet-throated Puffbird, Orinocan Saltator and Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, leaving around a dozen target species to search for during the morning.

birding at SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

After meeting Jose in his community of Los Camarones, we headed out on foot through the trails in the area. The dawn chorus was quite something here in the desert and we quickly began to work away at our target list. 

Crested Caracara - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Quite a few Slender-billed Tyrannulets and Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrants added their voices to the dawn chorus. A few Orinocan Saltators were quickly found, also singing away as dawn broke. Occasional pigeons flying over were soon seen well enough to identify as our target Bare-eyed Pigeon. 

Orinocan Saltator - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

A Buffy Hummingbird was performing display flights and vocalizing frequently; perhaps a female was watching from somewhere unseen to us.

Buffy Hummingbird - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Buffy Hummingbird - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Buffy Hummingbird - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Perhaps the iconic bird of this part of the world, the striking Vermilion Cardinal soon made an appearance - Jose quickly picked up on its song and got us on a bright red male, singing from the top of a distant, thorny tree. We ended up seeing at least four of these beauties, though unfortunately I was never able to get anything better than distant record shots. With its bright colour and tall crest, it is easy to see why this bird is known as El Rey de La Guajira (the king of the Guajira).

Bird activity was fantastic around a few of the ponds dug into the sand and clay, which the people of Los Camarones use as a water source. Green-rumped Parrotlets, Black-faced Grassquits, Glaucous Tanagers, Pileated Finches and White-fringed Antwrens were all easily seen here, among many other species. 

Kids near Los Camarones

Green-rumped Parrotlets - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Pileated Finch - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

A different suite of species could be found skulking in the thorny thickets throughout the part of the reserve that we walked. Pale-breasted and (our target) White-whiskered Spinetails were found, as was our first Pale-tipped Tyrannulet and a surprise Yellow Tyrannulet. Meanwhile, overhead various herons and other wading birds were occasionally seen flying to their feeding grounds, while Magnificent Frigatebirds slowly cruised over. 

Snowy Egret - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Magnificent Frigatebird - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

It only took an hour or two of sunlight until the day was becoming quite warm. With a few other spots to explore for our few remaining target species, we left the birdlife of this area. 

Common Ground-Dove - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

cactus fence - near Los Camarones, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Our next trail provided some good studies of tyrannulets, while both Scrub Greenlet and Shining-green Hummingbird were seen briefly but well. Eventually, the distinctive call of a Trinidad Euphonia led to great views of one, singing away from within a small tree. The heat haze of the morning made photography a little difficult but I was happy to come away with some record shots. 

 SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Trinidad Euphonia - SFF Los Flamencos, La Guajira Province, Colombia

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are a widespread species throughout Central and South America. We had heard a couple in the Santa Marta mountains, but it was here that we had our first good looks at one, after following the call of an individual from nearby scrub. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are diurnal, hunting small birds and other vertebrates by day. They can be quite active hunters, and the owl eventually continued on its way, diving into a thicket to chase something. 

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl - La Guajira Province, Colombia

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl - La Guajira Province, Colombia

Our only remaining target bird at this point was one of the hardest species - the Tocuyo Sparrow. Fortunately for us, Jose had a couple of good leads on where they can be found. We struck out at his first spot, and continued on to the second. Here we finally lucked out, having good views of one skulking around on the ground, deep within a thicket. Success! My photos show not much more than a blur, but at least it is identifiable!

Our last stop was the road off the main highway in the Casa Blanca area, which we had visited yesterday on our drive towards the desert. It was now well over 30 degrees Celcius, putting a damper on the bird song. At least there was a bit of a breeze so one could somewhat cool off in the shade.


Here we had good looks at a Pale-tipped Tyrannulet and found another Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. We had no luck with Rufous-vented Chachalaca, a species which can often be found here roosting in some of the thickets. One last new species was a White-tailed Nightjar which some of us flushed. 

While slowly driving up this road, we encountered a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, perching in some roadside trees.It was quite approachable for photos!

Rufous-tailed Jacamar - La Guajira Province, Colombia

We said our goodbyes to Jose, after having seen every one of our main targets, only missing Rufous-vented Chachalaca, one of our secondary targets. Jose was able to help us find 70 species, including so many range-restricted species, in only a half day of birding. I would highly recommend him if anybody reading this is planning on going to northern Colombia in the near future. 

We continued back to the west, driving parallel to the coast, leaving the desert behind with our destination being the forests and beaches of Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. Our plan was to drive through the heat of the day, arrive by late afternoon, and spend the evening and following morning birding the park. In the afternoon we had a flight booked to Bogota high up in the Andes, where we would meet up with David Bell and Adam Timpf and begin the next leg of our trip, a 10 day tour of the Andes.