Huzzah! Risk Versus Reward in Colombia.

Huzzah! I cannot explain how amazing it is to be sitting down to type out my first Colombian post! Ive been here around three weeks now and I feel like I really made the right decision in relocating to Bucaramanga! Its a beautiful city, the people are insanely friendly, and so far Ive had some decent bird watching experiences. At heart I am really more of a city person and Im enthralled to have so many great restaurants and things to do right outside my door. Another thing I have right outside my door?  Yellow Crowned Parrots:

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Yellow Crowned Parrot

Since Im now a city girl again I knew that my day to day birding would be in the cities parks. Of course, being an obsessive bird watcher, I was dressed in my baggy bird watching pants and off to scout within the first few days of being here. The two parks I needed to test out were Parque La Flora (closest to my house) and the Botanical Gardens roughly 20 minutes away in Floridablanca. When trying to find a new local patch I am also checking out a few things besides just the quality of birding. I need to see how easily I can get there, how crowded it usually is, and way down at the bottom of the list is how safe the park is. Ive never actually worried that much about my personal safety, but I do get a bit worried sometimes carrying around my camera and my lens. Of course, all of these other concerns are things  I weigh after I weigh the quality of the birding. My first impression of both parks is that there were a lot of crossover species from Panma. This Rufous Capped Warbler was a familiar find for example:

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Rufous Capped Warbler

As I mentioned everyone in Colombia has really been very kinda and caring. They have left me with the impression that when you are a guest in their country they treat you like they would treat a guest in their own house. Ive felt that the people here want to make sure you have a nice time and things go well for you. This led to me ending up having what (at first) came off as two very strange encounters at the Parque La Flora, but ones I am very grateful for. My second time birding there I was actually approached by two separate people who cautioned me against birding on my own there with my camera equipment. They recommended that I either come with someone or leave the equipment at home because it could make me a target for being mugged. Both of them imparted the same message to me, ‘Be careful because you never know’. I opted to temporarily heed their warnings and spent the next couple of days collecting some more information from friends and weighing if I should return or not. Usually when you’re deciding where to bird the only risk versus reward scenario you need to analyze revolves around the amount of species you could potentially see. I decided to take extra time to process if I would go back since this time my camera gear was what was potentially being risked. In the mean time decided to spend more time birding the park in Floridablanca.  The Botanical Gardens in Floridablanca are bit further but I immediately was happy with my decision. The park really feels safe – there is only one entrance with a security guard and you have to pay a small fee to enter. Most importantly there were some wonderful birds there and I saw some cracking species on my first two visits. Olivaceous Piculet was a particular favorite I had been trying to track down for a while in Panama: 

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Olivaceous piculet

I still had a bit of an itch about returning to Parque La Flora though. The species list on Ebird looked very tempting and I was teetering about returning at some point. I was engaged in some serious analysis when a few days later I was text messaged by a friend and my questions were answered. I found out that over the weekend (during the middle of the day no less) someone was stabbed to death after being mugged for their cell phone. When I heard this news I was super sad and shocked, and I was super grateful to the people who had took time out of their day to look out for me and give me advice. As they both said, you never know. This situation has made me be a lot more cautious about where I will be going on my own, and also very thankful that the Botanical Gardens exist. As I wrote, I feel very secure there and its really a wonderfully maintained city park. Orange Chinned Parakeet from the Botanical Gardens below:
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Since one cannot subsist on city park birding alone,  I also had planned my first short 2 day 1 night trip for a bit of country birding. On a whim I decided to head to the La Pacha Hostel which is slightly outside San Gil, about 2 hours from Bucaramanga. While I was going to explore some trails, what I was most excited about is that they allowed you to rent tents there! I have been yearning to go camping for several years now, but the fact that I didnt own a tent always got in my way. When I read on their website that they rented tents with bedding I was immediate sold! The Hostel was in an area that had zero birding reports out of the immediate area, and very few reports out of the surrounding area. I knew it was going to be an interesting time exploring and I set off not knowing what to expect or what I would find! I packed my red birding backpack and off I went in search of new species! 

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Female Black Throated Mango

The La Pacha Hostel was offered up a very unique experience, delicious food and some fairly interesting birding. The price tag was also very attractive and I ended up paying $56,000(COP) total which included my tent rental and 3 large and tasty vegetarian meals. But back to the most important aspect… the birding. Much like the Bucaramanga area my stay at San Gil offered up some Panamanian repeats (Blue Gray Tanager, Crimson Backed Tanager, Golden Crowned Warbler) but there were also a lot of really interesting new species to be had. Two of the highlights I knew right off the bat were Black Capped Tanager and Colombian Chacalaca. I also managed to eke out a few decent photos of one of the more stunning Colombian common species – Saffron Finch. There is nothing I can write to explain how awe inspiring this shade of yellow is to the naked eye. No photograph can truly capture it, but I can sure as hell try!

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Saffron Finch – Male

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Saffron Finch – Female

One of the most embarassing confessions I have to make about my time in Colombia is that I have been operating without a field guide this whole time! Sadly when I arrived in the country all the places I could find that sold the English Language version of the two most reputable field guides were sold out, so Im waiting on a copy to come from the states. I recently downloaded the App ‘All Birds Colombia’ by Helm Field Guides and Sunbird. While the app has a few flaws it will be better than nothing. I didnt manage to download this app until after my San Gil trip, so for the first 3 weeks here my technique for iding birds has been a bit slapped together to say the least!

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Bran Colored Flycatcher

Basically, my plan of attack was to figure out the family of the unknown bird and then pull up the ebird list and Google every bird in the family that I did not know. This ended up working out fairly well for some birds, and not so well for others. For example in a real ‘DOH!’ moment  I somehow forgot what Roadside Hawk looked like and emailed one of my internet contacts to ask for help with an ID. But even though this technique was inefficient (and sometimes led to embarrassing situations) it did manage to be fruitful for several other identifications. For example with one of my favorite birds from the La Pacha Trip – Grassland Sparrow:

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Grassland Sparrow

As I alluded to, there were some birds I was absolutely stumped on without a field guide. One of the most confusing birds to identify was a Wren that I had gotten up close and personal with in the shaded coffee area behind the hostel. It was loud, large, and super confiding. It let me get extra close to take pictures of it and let me sit and photograph it while it foraged in different piles of twigs and leaves. Whenever any species of Wren makes itself visible Im pleased and so I had a really great time watching and photographing this singular bird for 10 minutes.

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I ended up posting it in a Colombian birding Facebook group (RNOA) and someone was kind enough to confirm for me that this was a Niceforo’s Wren!  This is an endemic bird to the area, and to top it off is listed as Critically Endangered. Its population is estimated at 250 individuals but as Birdlife says this needs to be confirmed. It really gets me thinking to one of the reasons I love birding so much, you really never know what you will find when you go out. The world is really surprising and wonderful place and just by poking around a bit you can stumble across some truly spectacular things. Im super glad I took a gamble and ended up birding here.  Birding here was a really classic example of  a risk (seeing nothing) versus reward (seeing spectacular things people didnt know were there) when deciding to bird somewhere new, and in this case my gamble paid off.

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Seeing this bird really reinforced to me of how important it is to get off the beaten path when birding. A lot of people will only head to the most known hot spots and forgo heading to new places and in my opinion, are being a bit too risk averse. New spots are only found by people who get away from the well trod areas and try something different. When Im out birding I really do feel like Im exploring, and even more so when I have no idea what species I will be seeing. Seeing this Niceforo’s Wren was just a reminder to me that its something I need to continue doing. Overall my short birding trip to San Gil turned out pretty well and Ill most likely be heading back there around migration time! On that note, I have a few more of these one night/two day trips planned and I cant wait to report back with everything I find! A few lists to as a parting gift below the fold!

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