Birding Colombia’s Llanos – The Approach March

After thoroughly sampling the full Amazonia experience, our next key target in the 2020 Colombia expedition was the Llanos – a huge grassland plain that stretches over eastern Colombia and Venezuela. About 500km of driving lay ahead of us from Bogotá. Obviously we had to look for Eastern Andes endemic birds along the way, so several days were to pass before we reached our jumping-off point in Paz de Ariporo.

We spent some time working the forests near Santa María, Boyacá, and then another couple of days climbing up into the foothills near Monterrey. I will just mention a few highlights from these stops before we get to the main event.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron (juvenile) on the road to Santa María

Santa María

This is a small town (less than 5,000 inhabitants) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Andes. It had a short period of growth during the construction of the La Esmaralda dam and power plant, but has now lapsed back into small-scale agriculture and torpor, enlivened by a bit of eco-tourism. It seems that Santa María is a hotbed for arachnid species, though we did not encounter any spider tourism groups during our stay.

Development is not permitted in the forested hills surrounding the reservoir, so they are home to a large variety of birds. We managed to add three new entries to the birds-whose-names-start-with ant category, the smart-looking Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-and-White Wren, Crested Spinetail and the enigmatic and highly prized Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. A evening of owling was quite productive. And I also saw more Cerulean Warblers in three days than I have seen in ten years in their breeding range. Photos of the more cooperative species are below.

White-chinned Jacamar
Golden-headed Manakin
Crested Spinetail

I must also give a shout out to the Restaurante Polideportivo, a small neighbourhood spot that provided us with excellent meals throughout the trip, even opening early so we could have pre-dawn breakfasts. It’s not a fancy place but they do great work. And I got a life bird while eating lunch in their garden so how good is that?

Burnished-buff Tanager sampling the fare at the Restaurante Poliodeportivo

Monterrey

Our next stop was Monterrey, a much bigger and busier place in the Casanare district. Birding here involves driving up into the hills and then a mix of walking forested trails and roadside birding. With daytime highs in the mid-thirties it was a matter of pick your poison – sweat like a pig as you climb ever upwards, or bake in the tropical sun while you stare up into the trees until your neck gives out.  So of course we did both. But we had good success with the local specialties. Yet more ant-named species were seen, we had good views of a White-necked Thrush, and I added a couple of hummingbirds and a jacamar to my life list.

One of the most-desired species for the area was Blue-rumped Manakin. When all the usual sites came up dry it emerged that if we really wanted to see one we would have to climb the 912 steps up to a radio tower. It would be a life bird for both Ken and me, and a smart-looking bird at that so the choice was obvious. At least at the beginning… But we did persevere. And we did find a sole Blue-rump, though sadly it was the dull brownish-green female of the species.

(BTW this is what the male Blue-rumped Manakin looks like).

Fortunately the day ended well when another long hike yielded a pair of Northern Slaty-Antshrikes and decent long-range views of a soaring White Hawk. And equally fortunately, we were staying at the Hotel Montseratt Plaza, without a doubt the nicest accommodation of the trip. After a soak in the a/c, a good meal with ice cream dessert and some power rehydrating we were ready to head off again.

Brown-crested Flycatcher

After one more trip to the hills, we headed off for Paz de Ariporo. This is not a birding hotspot, but it’s the last chance for a hotel on the road to the Llanos. I don’t have much to add except that the locally-grown coffee is very good – I had some for breakfast this morning.

On to the Llanos

Colombia's Llanos

And so it came to pass that we left in the wee hours on our way to the Llanos. This region fits into the flooded grasslands and savannas biome, a category that includes the famous Pantanal in Brazil. It’s basically a vast, flat plain that eventually drains into the Orinoco River. The annual cycle between flooded and bone-dry means that it is not very useful for agriculture, so most of the region is dedicated to cattle grazing.

Colombia's Llanos
A demonstration of the sad fact that for wildlife photography no lens is ever long enough.

Those shallow, seasonal pools of water attract vast flocks of birds. Need I say more?

Our destination was the Ecolodge Juan Solito, which is part of a large ranch (18,000 hectares) owned by an ecologically-minded family. The ranch is run as a nature reserve, so although there are large herds of cattle and a few water buffalo roaming around, the wildlife is safe to go about their business unmolested by property developers and other deviltry.

But to get there we had to traverse a long, bumpy gravel road flanked by flat fields dotted with the aforementioned shallow, seasonal pools. With the aforementioned vast flocks of birds.

So to make a long story short, 78 species and fourteen life birds later we arrived at the lodge. And epic birds they were. A modest selection follows.

(And stay tuned for part 2 of this story, where our heroes battle giant snakes, treacherous torrents and sensory overload).

Colombia's Llanos
Hoatzin
Colombia's Llanos
Orinoco Goose
Colombia's Llanos
Roseate Spoonbill
Colombia's Llanos
Jabiru
Black-collared Hawk
Oriole Blackbird

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