Birding Without Borders

Day 86: Birding the Paramo

Scouting for birds above the treeline yields a few well-deserved species.

March 27, 2015, Bogota, Colombia — Early morning found Juan Pablo, Giovanni, Joan (a driver), and me at the entrance to Sumapaz National Park outside of Bogota, over 12,000 feet high. A stiff breeze blew, heavy clouds scudded over nearby peaks, and it was brisk enough that I shivered in my down jacket.

Sumapaz holds the largest expanse of paramo in the world. Paramo, loosely defined, is the ecosystem found above treeline in the tropics (a more narrow definition restricts paramo to northern South America and central America). In Sumapaz, the paramo is open, windswept, cold, wet, and carpeted with weird vegetation. One of the dominant plants here is the so-called Frailejon, an artichoke-shaped species of the genus Espelatia (in the sunflower family) which grows up to 10 feet tall. Fraile means “monk” in Spanish; I guess the Frailejons bear a certain resemblance, with their bent trunks and silvery mop tops.

There aren’t many birds in the paramo, but those that live there are found nowhere else. The big prize this morning was a hummingbird called the Green-bearded Helmetcrest, spectacular in its own right and a close relative of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (which lives farther north in Colombia and was just rediscovered after being thought extinct since the 1940s). We watched the helmetcrest cling nearly upside-down to its favorite flowers, hanging on in the breeze as it sucked down nectar.

In the afternoon the four of us repositioned to a reserve called Chicaque, on the east slope of the Andes, which required a steep 2-kilometer walk down a cobbled track before returning uphill through the cloud forest. It was nice to get some exercise, and fun to share sunset over the Magdalena Valley with a silhouetted Emerald Toucanet.

New birds today: 7

Year list: 1812

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