In April 2019 Ken Edwards and I headed to Colombia for a tour focused on the endemic species of the Central and Western Andes. After a few adventures we arrived in Cali to be met by Daniel Uribe Restrepo, Executive Director of Birding Tours Colombia. We piled into his new 4X4 and headed into town for a late dinner and an early morning start.
Our first port of call was La Minga Ecolodge, in the foothills of the Western Andes. Walking the mountain roads around the lodge produced some excellent finds including Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Solitaire, a handful of foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers and treehunters, and the rather scarce Spotted Barbtail. At the lodge the feeders and gardens were buzzing with bird life. Hummingbirds included the charismatic Booted Racket-tail, Long-tailed Sylph and Andean Emerald, and there was a fine selection of tanagers. Multicoloured Tanager, my most-wanted bird of the trip, was in the bag by noon.
We continued our explorations in the afternoon, then went out in the evening for a spot of owling. The gardens at the lodge were quite accommodating – while sneaking up on a roosting Common Potoo we flushed a Common Pauraque, and later we listened in on a territorial discussion between Mottled Owls.
After a quick morning stroll along the roads (Chestnut Wood-Quail, White-throated Quail-Dove), we headed off for Buga. Along the way we visited Finca Alejandria, where pouring rain did not dissuade a range of birds from showing off. Key birds included Red-headed Barbet and our first-of-many Andean Motmots, but the star was the hard-to-find Blue-headed Sapphire. Further down the road we visited Bosque de San Antonio, where we had great views of an unusually confiding Colombian Chachalaca, the scarce Rufous-tailed Tyrant, as well as a handful of tanagers and flycatchers and a nice White-naped Brushfinch.
After a good breakfast accompanied by Buff-necked Ibises and Blue-headed Parrots at the hotel in Buga, we moved to the conservation area at Sonso Marsh. This is a great area of ponds, wetlands and dry forest, and we spent a pleasant three hours ticking off 65 species therein. The bird of the day was definitely the shy and skulking Sungrebe, which gave us a full five seconds of view as it scuttled across an opening and disappeared into the reeds. It was a life bird for all of us, and a round of high-fives ensued.
Other great birds included Anhingas, two of which we spotted soaring in a kettle of Black Vultures; seven species of herons; a smattering of warblers; showy Jet Antbirds; Snail Kites and about one zillion (or 60+ anyway) Spectacled Parrotlets who were nesting in the bamboo roofs of the buildings. Our next site was the Montezuma Rainforest Lodge on the Pacific slope of the Western Andes, so a long road move was in the cards. We stopped for breaks at a couple of small but bird-full wetlands along the way, passed through Pueblo Rico (which is not really a village and certainly not rich), and finally rolled into the lodge at dinnertime.
PNN Tatamá / Cerro Montezuma
The Lodge is in the heart of the Tatamá National Park, about 52,000 hectares of almost undisturbed rainforest. Birding is done along a rough track that leads up towards the summit of Cerro Montezuma (Montezuma Peak). On our first day at the lodge we girded our loins and departed in the wee hours for the long bumpy ride to the top.
The early start was necessary to have a shot at the skulking Munchique Wood-Wren. The birding gods were in good mood that day and we soon heard the beasts, and shortly after had decent views of a pair. Thus fortified we carried on to the top, where the lodge staff keep a set of well-attended hummingbird feeders. We gorged (metaphorically) on Empress Brilliants, Violet-tailed Sylphs and Rufous-gaped Hillstars, as well as our first sightings of the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet. However, the stars were a pair of rare endemic species: the endangered Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and the critically endangered Dusky Starfrontlet. The latter hummingbird was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in 2004. These birds continue to cling onto life as their favoured habitat disappears, so it was both exciting and sad to see this brilliant bird at close range.
Cerro Montezuma – Day 2
The next day we worked the middle portion of the road, feasting (again, metaphorically – no birds were hurt in the making of this report) on such beauties as Buffy Tuftedcheek, Rufous Spinetail, Tricolored Brushfinch, and the epic Crested Ant-Tanager (sort of like a Northern Cardinal on meth). During one of the periodic downpours (there’s a reason they call it rainforest) we took shelter in the vehicle. Only to protect the camera equipment you understand. An extended nap ensued.
Lunch back at the lodge meant more hummingbird watching, with Tawny-bellied Hermits, Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymphs, White-necked Jacobins and Purple-bibbed Whitetips buzzing past our ears. Then back up the mountain road for Lanceolated Monklet, Zeledon’s Antbird, Ornate Flycatcher, White-throated Spadebill, Choco Warbler and other treats.
On Day Six we had another walk up the road, adding a number of goodies to our list including Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Slaty Spinetail, Parker’s Antbird, Black-headed Brushfinch and Greyish Piculet. Then it was back on the road, heading east to the Central Andes, enlivened by a stop where we bagged Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper.
Our next stay was at the lodge at the Otún-Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary. An old stand of beech woods, it hosts several much-in-demand bird species including the rare Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and endemic Cauca Guan. Until recently, the Guan was thought to be extinct, but there is a healthy population in the small reserve. We rolled up and saw both species before dinner, doubtless due to our superior bird-finding skills, though a cynic might have noted that both species roost in trees and bushes on the grounds of the lodge. After a good meal we off in search of owls, and were rewarded by a good look at a Colombian Screech-Owl (recently lumped with Rufescent Screech-Owl).
In the wee hours of the next day we headed down the forest road on a mission to find antpittas. Three species of these furtive, skulking forest birds are known to haunt the reserve, and we hoped to catch a glimpse or two. What we did not expect was to see a Moustached Antpitta, the most skulking of the bunch, standing idly by the side of the road. We all goggled at it for a few seconds until, tiring of the glow of our headlights, it vanished into the undergrowth. Shortly thereafter, in a deep and very dark glade, we spotted a Hooded Antpitta. In the days of film a photograph would have been impossible, but I cranked the Nikon up to ISO 12,800 and got what we can charitably call a record shot.
We spent a bit more time patrolling the sanctuary, and added a number of good birds to the trip list including Wattled Guan, White-naped Brushfinch and Variegated Bristle-tyrant. Then it was time to head off to the next port of call, Manizales. Our route included a stop at the Cameguadua Marsh, which is actually a sewage lagoon and a rather good one at that. In just under two hours we spotted 66 species, including some highly desirable ones: Blackish Rail, Great Antshrike and Pale-breasted Spinetail. Herons and waders were well-represented, and Vermillion Flycatchers abundant. In the afternoon we visited Rio Claro near the town of Chinchiná, where we saw a male & female endemic Turquoise Dacnis.
In the wee hours we headed up into the Central Andes aiming for Los Nevados national park, home of several high-altitude bird species. On the way up we saw Paramo Seedeater, Grey-browed Brushfinch, a showy Paramo Tapaculo, and on the hummingbird side added the highly colourful Purple-backed Thornbill, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Shining Sunbeam. Probably the best find was a flock of the endemic & endangered Rufous-fronted Parakeet, seen by scope on a distant cliff face.
We stopped for a snack and some coca tea at Laguna Negra, while a very friendly Stout-billed Cinclodes showed off for us. Coca tea, by the way, is used by the locals to combat altitude sickness. Tasty stuff, but I decided that if I brought some back with me there would likely be a scene with the customs officials so I reluctantly let it go.
The Visitor Centre at Los Nevados sits at 4,200m, which is 13,800 feet in old money and the highest I have been without being surrounded by an airplane. The target bird was an endemic hummingbird known as the Buffy Helmetcrest, a beast that apparently does not need oxygen to survive. We lowlanders do need oxygen, and there was precious little in evidence. Nonetheless, while moving about very slowly we managed to spot the beast. Slow high-fives were exchanged, then we fled back down to the air zone.
On our way back we stopped in at the Hotel Termales del Ruiz, a nice hotel with thermal baths. And hummingbirds. Stacks of them. There are bird feeders throughout the grounds and they attract a stunning array of hummingbirds and tanagers. Of the 12 species of hummingbirds, four were lifers for me: Mountain Velvetbreast, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, near-endemic Black-thighed Puffleg and near-endemic Golden-breasted Puffleg. We also saw four species of mountain tanagers, of which Lachrymose and Scarlet-bellied were new to me. So all in all, not bad for 90 minutes work that also included lunch!
Our next stop was the lodge at Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco. Just a short hop from Manizales, this reserve in the cloud forest is particularly noted as a hotspot for antpittas. We arrived at the crack of dawn to ensure we were in place when the rangers feed the shy Bicoloured Antpitta.
The Bicoloured is a small antpitta and can be bullied by the others, so they have their own feeding “theatre.” Just after dawn our ranger-guide led us to the spot and in the gloom a small bird appeared to get its meal. We then went to another spot where the procedure was repeated and both endemic Brown-banded and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas came to feast. It was a fascinating experience and also a great test of camera-handling: fast-moving birds in low light are tricky enough, and one has to bear in mind that antpittas have very long legs and toes. Some of my otherwise best images are marred by missing toes!
After the antpitta-fest we had a good breakfast and started exploring the rest of the reserve. Over a long day and a half of hill-walking we found really good numbers of birds, with flycatchers, guans, wrens and furnarids particularly well represented. A nighttime excursion netted White-throated Screech-Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and the charismatic Lyre-tailed Nightjar. And needless to say, hordes of hummingbirds buzzed around the feeders at the lodge.
The lodge itself was very comfortable, with good food and friendly staff. This seems to be a theme – we ate well and slept well at all the birding lodges we visited.
After a final bit of cloud forest birding we set off for the short trip to Hotel Tinamú, a private reserve and lodge where we hoped to find a few key birds. Tinamous, of course, would top the list, but these skulkers are very rarely seen. True to form we didn’t see any – though I strongly suspect that the vaguely chicken-shaped bird that scooted across the trail in front of me was a Little Tinamou. But we were consoled by a lot of other good sightings: Green Hermits at a lek, Golden-collared Manakin, Blue-lored Antbird and our target bird the Grey-headed Dove.
My compañeros were too fatigued to go owling in the evening but I went out with the head guide and we spent an hour or so patrolling the reserve. We were rewarded with good looks at Tropical Screech-Owls – a bird I had previously seen but had not been able to photograph. So all was well.
In the morning after a fine breakfast we had another good look around, enabling me to renew acquaintances with Clay-coloured Thrush, a species that I first saw in Costa Rica. Then it was “on-on”, with a long drive ahead before we would come to rest in Jardin.
On the way through Manizales we picked up Daniel’s daughter Laura, who is learning the ropes of the birding business. This clever and charming young lady was a welcome addition, as her presence immediately raised the standard of conversation above the usual masculine grunting noises.
Western Andes – Riosucio and Jardin
The mountain road that winds between Riosucio and Jardin is home to some special birds, most notably the endemic & endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Once on the verge of extinction, with a total wild population of 81 birds, this parrot has benefited from an intensive conservation effort and is now on the rebound. There are over 1400 of these colourful, large and noisy parrots screeching around the area, and we had no problem spotting groups of up to 30 birds. While poking around we also discovered the endemic Yellow-headed Brushfinch and beautiful Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, the latter being one of Ken’s key targets.
After a night in Jardin we headed back up the mountain road to link up with Doña Lucía, a local antpitta-whisperer, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so observing and feeding Chestnut-naped Antpittas. A lone Slate-crowned Antpitta observed the proceedings from a safe spot but was disinclined to join in the festivities.
There were doubtless many more birds that could have been found, but we had to head back to Jardin in time to see the Cock-of-the-Rock spectacle. On a riverside lot in downtown Jardin there is a copse of trees that Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks have deemed to be appropriate for their mating displays.
These are striking birds to look at, with their neon-red plumage and bizarre shape, but their idea of how to win a lady’s heart is truly spectacular. The birds bob, shake their wings, perform deep bows and push-ups and hop around, all the while emitting a cacophony of squawks, croaks and beak-clapping. It’s equally astonishing and amusing. Visiting a Cock-of-the-Rock lek was one of my key wishes for this trip and I was not disappointed.
The next morning we made a final foray up the mountain road, adding Scarlet-rumped Cacique to our list but dipping on Red-bellied Grackle, another bird on Ken’s wish list. We still hoped to find one, and the omens were good, as we were now headed to the legendary Las Tangaras lodge, the final stop on our tour.
Las Tangaras is a flagship reserve of ProAves, the most important NGO working to preserve the birdlife of Colombia. The reserve is located within the Choco region of the Western Andes, and consists of tropical forest with an elevation ranging from 1250 to 3400m. E-bird lists 454 bird species that have been seen at the reserve.
The lodge was quite comfortable and offered excellent food. Most of the key species are not found on the grounds of the lodge, but on a high mountain road that winds southwards. We arrived at lunchtime and immediately made our first foray up the road. For about four hours of effort we ended up with 42 species, highlighted by Toucan Barbet, endemic Tatama Tapaculo, Uniform Antshrike, eight flycatcher species and the endemic Black-and-gold Tanager, as well as a good assortment of hummingbirds.
The next morning we headed back up, and though low cloud and intermittent rain made viewing conditions less than optimal, we still managed a good haul. Both Rufous-rumped and Yellow-breasted Antwrens were seen, along with Choco Vireo, Crested Ant-Tanager and a few new-for-the-trip furnarids. Several Yellow-breasted Antpittas were heard at close range but they refused to show themselves. A lone Olivaceous Piha was spotted lurking in the forest at close range, and despite the cloud and dense undergrowth I managed to get a decent image.
Fortunately we had better weather the next day, as it would be our last shot at a few target birds. Much searching was needed but we did eventually find two Beautiful Jays and a couple of Red-bellied Grackles, as well as a pair of White-headed Wrens. A good assortment of tanagers and furnarids rounded out the list, with a surprise addition of Long-billed Starthroat at lunch – our 51st hummingbird species of the trip. Then we were back on the road, heading for Medellin, with a couple of new species added during short stops along the way.
Goodbyes were said, vast plates of grilled chicken were dispatched, and finally we were at an airport hotel awaiting an early flight through Panama City bound for Kingston. Given that we were primarily looking for scarce endemics, a final trip list of 481 species (456 seen, 25 heard-only) was quite respectable. When we add in the birds I saw in the Eastern Andes with Daniel my Colombia life list sits at 651. Plans are already being hatched for the next excursion to Colombia, the Mecca of Birding.
 Showy for a tapaculo, that is. Still a fairly skulking bird.