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.
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.
In January and February of this year I took (yet) another birding trip to Colombia. Ken Edwards and I linked up with Daniel Uribe Restrepo for an extended foray that took us to Amazonia, the Llanos and the eastern foothills of the Andes. Rather than writing a 5,000 word tome on the whole trip I’m going to break it into parts, starting with the wonderful world of Mitú.
Note: if are reading this on a cell phone you are getting the light version, and the images and video may be a bit wonky. If you are connected to WiFi or have a robust data plan I suggest you click on the title, which should connect you to the actual website.
…is a small city in the Amazonia region. It’s in the deep eastern part of Colombia, near the border with Brazil, and thus about 250km beyond the end of the road network. To get there you can either fly from Bogotá with SATENA, or… not go to Mitú. But if you’re a birder you would want to go, for its remote location in the midst of a vast, trackless and undeveloped rain forest makes it one of the few viable places to access the wild and eccentric avian life of the Amazon basin.
So off we went aboard a shiny-new Embraer 170, which looked a bit out of place as it rolled into the grandly-named but rather rustic Aeropuerto Fabio Alberto León Bentley. After some tedious formalities where we had to provide our full particulars to both the tourism agency and the police, we checked into the hotel and headed off for a quick exploratory visit to the village of Urania.
Or at least that was the plan. But as soon as we hit outskirts of the town great birds started to pop up. A short roadside stop yielded ten species – not too big a number but six of them were life birds for me, including the highly desirable Paradise Jacamar, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, Yellow-browed Sparrow and Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch. This was going to be good!
We managed to tear ourselves away and eventually reached Urania, but to get to the village we had to cross a covered bridge. And the bushes and trees on both sides of the bridge were alive with good birds: Moustached Antwren, Cherrie’s Antwren, White-browed Purpletuft, Swainson’s Flycatcher, Bronzy Jacamar and a host of others. One of my most wanted birds for the trip was the Swallow-winged Puffbird, and there were lots of them perched on telephone wires in full view. Hummingbirds zipped by while Yellow-headed Vultures (Lesser and Greater) soared overhead.
The upshot of this cornucopia of creatures is that we didn’t actually get to Urania. We spent almost two hours on the covered bridge without even reaching the halfway point, before the sun set and we had to head back to town. So Urania would have to wait for another day, but after collecting 27 lifers in an afternoon one was… contented. 😊
Day 2 – Cachivera
The Amazon rain forest is a vast area with a few tracks and trails radiating out from towns and villages. Birding the area involves walking these trails, accompanied by a member of the first nations that collectively own the land. We were very fortunate to have Miguel as our guide – or rather we were fortunate that Daniel knows who the best guides are and made sure that we got Miguel. Aside from having uncannily good hearing and an amazing ability to spot small, far-away birds, Miguel is a really pleasant person and very determined to ensure that every member of the group has a good look at all the birds.
The mission for Day 2 was to walk a long trail that leads into the terra firme forest. Terra firme refers to a relatively small percentage of the Amazon basin rain forest that does not experience seasonal flooding. As a result the trees are much taller than in seasonally-flooded (varzea) forest and there is greater biodiversity. More biodiversity translates into greater bird diversity, so we were hoping to spot some bird species that are endemic to the white sand terra firme forests around Mitú.
So off we went for a short drive at the crack of dawn, and as the sun rose we were walking through a village, across another bird-infested bridge and on into the forest.
The Birding Experience in Mitú
The program for the day, and for most of the days at Mitú,
was to slowly walk along a track scanning for sounds and movement in the
treetops and deep in the forest, and then try and zero in on any birds that we
found. While not truly strenuous, it was hard work in birding terms. Bird
sounds were everywhere but catching sight of the pesky beasts took time and
patience. Most species were either high up in the canopy or skulking in dark tangles
This made photography particularly challenging: I have lots
of dodgy, highly-cropped photographs of far-away birds. Fortunately the Nikon
D500 has outstanding capability in low light, but I had to master the changes
needed to rapidly switch between bird-on-top-of-a
tree-in-bright-tropical-sunlight and bird
Moreover, like every day we spent in the area, the sun was beating down, the daytime high was in the mid thirties, and the humidity felt like about 99%. There were also a reasonable number of pesky insects, but more about them later.
By the way lest this be interpreted as whining, I want to be clear that I was in Mitú at my own request, and we had a fabulous time. But for those might want to go birding in the remote Amazon I thought I would give you an idea of what to expect.
Back to Day 2
After a few hours, despite having seen some great birds we were starting to feel a mite fatigued. But then our fearless leader’s wisdom in telling us to bring a bathing suit was revealed. Cachivera translates as “pool”, but in local usage it refers rapids in a river or stream. But these particular rapids ended in a pleasant-looking pool, so in we went.
Lolling around in the cool water was refreshing indeed, and reinvigorated we pressed on. Shortly thereafter we came upon a mixed flock high up in the canopy and managed to clock a few highly desirable species including Flame-crested, Paradise, Fulvous-crested and Turquoise Tanagers.
In the end we covered about nine km in six and a half hours that morning before retreating to town for lunch. Later on, after a much-needed siesta, we went for a stroll down the old pipeline trail, adding the much-wanted Thrush-like Antpitta, Coraya Wren, Green-backed Trogon and Yellow-billed Jacamar to our tally.
Life birds on Day 2: 37
Day 3 – A festival of Antcreatures
One of the reasons birders flock to Amazonia (groan!) is to gorge (metaphorically) on the huge variety of “antcreatures”: Antbirds, Antshrikes, and Antwrens. No, gentle reader, these birds don’t eat ants. But their favourite feeding strategy is to follow an army ant swarm, feasting on invertebrates as they try to flee the advancing ants.
These bird species are the kind of thing that hard-core birders really like: hard to find, hard to get a good look at, hard to tell apart and of course, hard to photograph. Antbirds and antshrikes are particularly cryptic: a range of small grey birds with semi-distinctive differences in the small white spots on their wings and back.
As we walked the new pipeline trail that morning we lucked upon an ant swarm with its accompanying suite of birds. Of course the ants don’t waltz down the middle of the road. They were in the forest and we needed to get ahead of them to catch the birds. This meant crossing the swarm.
I had somehow imagined army ants as large fearsome beasts, but the ones we saw that day looked like ordinary, medium-sized black ants. In vast numbers. And fast-moving too – if we stopped for even a moment we would find 40 or 50 ants racing up our legs with mayhem in mind. But it was worth the risk because when antbirds are near a swarm they are absolutely focused on feeding and you can get fairly good views without startling them.
So the ants generously provided us with a number of additions to the morning’s list, including Mouse-coloured Antshrike, and Dusky, Grey, Black-faced, White-cheeked, Chestnut-crested, Spot-backed and Scale-backed Antbirds. Or if you prefer, a bunch of LGJs (little grey jobs).
After lunch we returned to Urania/Mitusueño, and this time made it across the bridge and through the village. We piled up a good list in short order, starring Black-headed and Orange-cheeked Parrots, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, a handful of flycatcher species and Azure-naped Jay. But the star bird was Blackish Nightjar. Nightjars and their kin are hard birds to see as they hide motionless during the day and only come out to hunt after dark. They breed in the area of Urania so we hoped to catch a bird or two flying over in the last moments before nightfall.
What I did not expect is to have one creep out of the bushes so close to us that I had to back away to get it in focus! We marched back to the pick-up point that evening with another 23 bird species added to my life list. A celebration was called for, and achieved after a thorough search of the town turned up a friendly ice cream vendor.
So that’s the story of our first three days in Mitú . Stay tuned for the next installment.
Servicio Aéreo a Territorios Nacionales, a national airline operated by the Colombian Air Force, with the mission of connecting remote communities that commercial airlines decline to serve.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.