FLY LONDON TO BOGOTÁ
Our birdwatching tour to Colombia begins with a flight from London Heathrow today, bound for Bogotá, where Trevor will be waiting to welcome us. We make the 30-minute transfer to our comfortable city hotel for dinner and overnight. Night Bogotá
CHICAQUE NATURAL PARK & MAGDALENA VALLEY
Leaving Bogotá early this morning to miss some of the traffic, we head southwest through the bustling streets of the capital to Chicaque Natural Park, at the edge of the Bogotá Plateau. This amazing cloud forest reserve is home to an impressive variety of birds. At altitudes of between 2100m (6,900ft) and 2700m (8,900ft), we will be taking it slow and easy today, birding mostly along the entrance track into the reserve.
Loose feeding flocks here can hold Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, several species of flowerpiercer (including Masked, Bluish, White-sided and Glossy), Black-capped Tyrannulet and Blue-and-black and Beryl-spangled Tanagers. Superciliaried, Black-eared and Oleaginous Hemispingus might also come our way - all birds of course, and not tropical diseases!
Scrubby bushes along the road provide chances of Black-crested Warbler and several olive-backed brushfinches, among them Moustached, Pale-naped and Grey-browed. Though we are of course unlikely to see everything on a single visit, other species typical of the cloudforest at Chicaque include Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Andean Pygmy Owl, White-throated Toucanet, Pearled Treerunner, Striped Treehunter, Rufous Spinetail, the tiny White-throated Tyrannulet, Smoky Bush Tyrant, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Wood Wren and the near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill - and we can hope to at least hear Ash-coloured and Blackish Tapaculos. Colombia boasts a fantastic list of tanagers, with Blue-capped Tanager and Ashy-throated Bush Tanager to watch for here, while Golden-fronted Whitestarts have a penchant for Chicaque's flowering shrubs. With an eye on the slopes above, we might also hear and find the fabulous Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and perhaps even Buff-breasted Mountain Tanager.
Near the buildings at the end of the track are some excellent hummingbird feeders, attractive to dazzling Glowing Pufflegs, snazzy Collared Incas, Mountain Velvetbreast with its thin decurved bill, aggressive Green and Sparkling Violetears, and occasionally Golden-bellied Starfrontlet, another Colombian near-endemic. The whole area can often be shrouded in fog and low cloud (well, this is cloud forest!), but as we sit back and enjoy the hummingbird show we can warm ourselves with steaming mugs of hot chocolate - another great Colombian tradition!
Departing Chicaque late morning, we descend from the cool Eastern Andes into the hot lowlands of the Magdalena Valley. Pausing to enjoy lunch en route, we then cross the mighty Magdalena River, which runs south to north in Colombia, bisecting two-thirds of the country.
In the late afternoon we take a quiet sideroad that runs through farmland and dry forest. Here we will find a whole suite of different species to those seen in the cool Andean highlands this morning. As our exciting first day draws to a close, we will target two key endemics: Apical Flycatcher and Velvet-fronted Euphonia, but other species to watch for include the near-endemic Spectacled Parrotlet, our first Red-crowned Woodpeckers, and both Vermilion and Fork-tailed Flycatchers. Along with a good selection of the commoner seedeaters, raptors and our first Tropical Gnatcatchers and Tropical Kingbirds, with luck, we might also glimpse a troop of Crested Bobwhites crossing the road.
Early evening arrival at our hotel in the bustling regional coffee town of Ibague. Nestling in a valley on the eastern slope of the Western Andes, Ibague will be our base for two nights. Night Ibague
IBAGUE: CLARITO BOTERO & THE MAGDALENA VALLEY
We will rise early and take breakfast this morning at a conveniently located 24-hour bakery near the hotel. Transferring to 4WD Jeeps, we then make a half-hour ascent up a bumpy track into the foothills of the central Andes. We will find the temperature pleasantly cool up here and, if it is clear, we should be rewarded with spectacular views over the city of Ibague and the flatlands of the Magdalena Valley spread out below us.
Much of our morning will be spent at Clarito Botero, birding along a wide track where the only traffic might be the occasional mule train (bring your own tea tray!) or lycra-clad mountain biker! Amongst many new species, our main focus will be to find the endemic and range restricted Yellow-headed Brushfinch. We'll also keep our eyes peeled for the endemic Tolima Dove, though this species is shy and retiring and sightings are rare. Our birding will be busy with plenty of other interesting species to look for. The near-endemic Bar-crested Antshrike is normally quite common and mixed feeding flocks often hold the attractive Rufous-naped Greenlet and a fine selection of terrific tanagers including Bay-headed, Blue-necked, Black-capped and Scrub.
Scrubby ravines may produce our first Andean Motmots and, if we are really lucky, we will might across a Moustached Puffbird or Black-headed Brushfinch. We will almost certainly hear Northern White-crowned Tapaculos and though these mouse-like birds are always tough to see, we will make a good effort to find one. A whole host of commoner species will keep us busy here through to late morning, when we'll return to the hotel for lunch and a short siesta.
In the mid-afternoon we'll head a little north along the Magdalena Valley to visit a dry forest park, which brings a change of scenery (and a second opportunity to look for Velvet-fronted Euphonia and Apical Flycatcher if we missed them yesterday). Amongst a good selection of dry country species in the reserve are White-bellied Antbird, the splendid Lance-tailed Manakin, Rufous-tailed Jacmar, Whooping Motmot and Cocoa Woodcreeper. Pale-breasted Thrush should be common and we have an outside chance of goodies such as Yellow Tyrannulet, Colombian Chachalaca and Dwarf Cuckoo. Night Ibague
CANYON DE COMBEIMA & DRIVE TO OTUN QUIMBAYA
After a slightly later breakfast today, we will spend the morning birding in the Canyon de Combeima, near Ibague. Our initial focus will be on a patch of flowers which are a favoured haunt of the endemic Tolima Blossomcrown.
From there, we move on to bird along another quiet backroad with second chances of some species from the previous day’s birding and also plenty of new ones to entertain us. Bare-faced Ibis, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Smoke-coloured Pewee, White-winged Becard, Azara's Spinetail, Whiskered Wren and Fawn-breasted Tanager are among many we could see.
Late morning we depart Ibague and make the slow drive across the central Andes to Otun Quimbaya. Though the distance isn't great (just 70 miles), this is the only road that crosses the Andes here (indeed it's the only route between Bogotá and Colombia's Pacific port) and slow moving convoys of heavy trucks can sometimes slow travel down. However, it's an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the scenery and reflect on our sightings so far. Come late afternoon, we will have crossed the spine of the central Andes and arrived in the upper reaches of the Cauca Valley. If the traffic has been kind to us, we may arrive early enough to stop for a little birding along a river on the way in to Otun Quimbaya. It's here we have perhaps our best chance of finding Torrent Tyrannulet and White-capped Dipper as well as the handsome stripy male and beautiful burnt-orange female Torrent Duck.
This night and the next will be spent at the Otun Quimbaya Field Centre, which is part of Colombia's fine National Parks system and one of the gateways to Los Nevados National Park. We will stay in a building built in a traditional style, where rooms are simple but comfortable and the pleasant grounds and setting provide a wonderfully relaxing experience. Meals will be taken in a communal dining room and the self-service style may remind some of their school days! Indeed, we may well find groups of young biologists or park staff are present undertaking training courses. Night Otun Quimbaya
With minimal driving today, we spend a full day about Otun. Making a pre-dawn start, we drive for about 40 minutes, uphill to quite literally the end of the road. Here we will try for the difficult and rare Hooded Antpitta, with its bright rusty head. Although this site is the best location for this diminutive and highly localised species, sightings can never be guaranteed. If we are incredibly lucky, we could also encounter the rusty-bellied Moustached Antpitta here.
Among other key species to look for this morning is the endemic Cauca Guan, which is usually seasonably common, and we also hope to pick up it's smaller cousin, the Sickle-winged Guan. Simply stunning, we will very much hope to find a flock of gaudy White-capped Tanagers while another signature bird to watch out for at Otun is the fabulous Red-ruffed Fruitcrow.
While we will focus our efforts on the above specialities, there will be plenty of other great birds to enjoy. Walking back down the road, we can check the thick roadside undergrowth for Collared Trogon, Inca Jay, Chestnut-breasted Wren, Streak-capped Treehunter, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and both Golden-olive and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers - the latter one of those impressive red-crowned or red-headed Campephilus woodpeckers that used to include the now extinct Ivory-billed.
We will return to the Field Centre for lunch and have some time to relax and enjoy a stroll about the grounds – perhaps taking a photo or two.
In the afternoon we'll take to the trails behind our lodgings. Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet, Marble-faced Bristle-tyrant, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Antvireo and Spotted Barbtail are possible here and, with much luck, we might even come across the amazing Multicoloured Tanager - in all its yellow, green and turquoise glory! As ever, we will also keep our eyes and ears open for sneaky skulkers such as Stiles's Tapaculo and Chestnut Wood Quail, though these species can be very difficult to see.
After our evening meal, there'll be an opportunity to enjoy a little night birding (optional). Local possibilities include Common Pauraque, Rufous-bellied Nighthawk, Mottled Owl and Colombian Screech Owl. Night Otun Quimbaya
OTUN & RIO BLANCO
There is so much to see at Otun that we'll relish the chance to spend a little more time this morning birding the trails, searching for any species we may have missed the previous day or to enjoy ‘seconds’ of those we did see. We also have another chance to try for Torrent Duck.
After lunch, we leave Otun and make the three-hour transfer to Rio Blanco, where we plan to spend the late afternoon birding the lower part of the reserve. Arriving at some stands of flowers, we will watch the toing and froing of hungry hummingbirds as the plants are often visited by Wedge-billed Hummingbird. Other 'hummers' that are attracted to these flowers as well as to nearby feeders include Bronzy Inca, Speckled Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Buff-tailed Coronet and the tiny White-bellied Woodstar. We may well stay out until dusk (about 6pm) in the hope of seeing Lyre-tailed Nightjar, which can sometimes be found nearby, before continuing to our next hotel at Manizales, where we stay three nights. Night Manizales
RIO BLANCO RESERVE
We spend the whole day in the Rio Blanco Reserve, taking breakfast on arrival at the lodge there. Today is officially ‘Antpitta Day’ and we spend the morning visiting feeding sites where, over the years, antpittas have become habituated to people and regularly come to take worms. At Rio Blanco, we have good chances of enjoying point blank views of Chestnut-crowned, Slaty-crowned and the long-legged, endemic Brown-banded Antpitta - and have a reasonable chance of Bicoloured Antpitta, too. Other species that are attracted to the feeding stations include the appealing Grey-browed Brush Finch and Green-and-black Fruiteater.
After a dizzying morning, we'll while away the rest of the day birding roads within the reserve, hoping to encounter mixed species groups. The mixed flocks at Rio Blanco can be some of the best in the world and there may be times when we simply don't know where to look! Likely candidates here include Yellow-vented and Powerful Woodpeckers, Dusky Piha, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Black-collared Jay, Black-capped, Black-eared, Superciliaried and Oleaginous Hemispinguses, Slaty and White-naped Brushfinches, Plushcap, Grey-hooded Bush Tanager, and Blue-winged and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers. Those tricky tapaculos are another highlight at Rio Blanco: Blackish, Spillman's, Ash-coloured and Ocellated are possible... with a bit of luck (and skill) that is!
Seasonally, both Golden-plumed Parakeet and Rusty-headed Parrot can be found here, while the bamboo is home to Flammulated Treehunter and Streak-headed Antbird. It promises to be a busy day of birding, but we will take a little time around lunchtime to relax at the small lodge and reflect on what will have been a great morning - and also to enjoy watching the hummingbird and fruit feeders. New species here might include Long-tailed Sylph, Tourmaline Sunangel and the endemic Andean Squirrel. Night Manizales
THE NEVADO DEL RUIZ VOLCANO
Today we will leave pre-dawn and use 4WD vehicles to climb to the highest and coldest site visited on the trip - at 3700m (12,100 ft), on the slopes of the active Nevado del Ruiz volcano. At dawn, temperatures can be as low as -2C (28F) so we'll take coffees to warm ourselves up!
Our first stop will be an occasional roost site for the endemic Rufous-fronted Parakeet, though it can be erratic and tough to locate at times. We swiftly move on to the park entrance, where we hope to find the endemic and charismatic Buffy Helmetcrest – and what an incredible little hummingbird this is, with its spiky hair-do and lanceolate purple throat patch!
Species diversity on the windswept high paramo is quite low, but this allows us to spend time looking for a small subset of quality birds. Tawny Antpittas are the exception to the rule when it comes to this skulking group and can often be found running around on the road and feeding in the open, completely unconcerned! Viridian Metaltail, Andean Tit-spinetail, Many-striped Canastero, Brown-backed Chat Tyrant, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra Finch, Plain-coloured Seedeater, Black Flowerpiercer and Black-backed Bush Tanager are among other possible treats in store.
Mid-morning we will drop back down to a hotel at some thermal springs. We have two main objectives here: first, to get a welcome cup of hot chocolate to warm us up, and second to enjoy the remarkable hummingbird feeders, which are generally regarded as some of the best in the world! Among many species we hope to see are Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Black-thighed and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Mountain Velvetbreast, Great Sapphirewing, Shining Sunbeam and the incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird.
We return to our hotel at Manizales this evening for a third and final night. Night Manizales
Days 9 - 10
MANIZALES & LAS TANGARAS
After our extended stay, we set off from Manizales this morning on the longish drive (about five hours) to our stop: Las Tángaras Reserve.
We drop from 4000m to about 600m in the Cauca Valley, where we meet the Cauca River and follow it north as it gently descends. Along the way, we shall cross our third Andean range of the tour as we climb up and over the Western Andes and finally descend to Las Tángaras, which nestles on Colombia's Pacific slope. We should arrive in time for some afternoon birding at this wonderful new lodge, which will be our home for two nights. We will dine this evening next to our third great Colombian river - the Atrato - which though here, close to its source, is more like a rushing mountain stream.
Las Tángaras Bird Reserve was created in October 2009 to protect the incredibly bio-diverse and important forests that are home to two very rare endemic tanagers: Black-and-gold Tanager and Gold-ringed Tanager. (Please note that to reach the best spot for the latter, a short but steep, 10-minute climb is required. Some participants may choose to opt out of this, but you can decide locally).
We begin our full day here by climbing into jeeps for the 40-minute drive from our lodge up into the Tángaras Reserve, eventually finding ourselves amidst some of the most stunning scenery of the tour and surrounded by lush, dripping, moss-laden Choco cloudforest. Our birding will be along a traffic-free road and a wide trail - and this could easily be one of the birdiest days of the trip!
Starting off, we hope to find the endemic Black-and-gold Tanager along with other special birds such as Olive Finch, Handsome Flycatcher and Indigo Flowerpiercer, before heading out into a clearing where White-headed Wrens are often present. We also have chances of Black-chinned Mountain Tanager, Toucan Barbet and Golden-headed (and possibly Crested) Quetzal here.
After this, we head on up the trail for the rest of the morning (and possibly for much of the day) as Las Tángaras boasts a spectacular list of target species. Among many delights we hope to find are Red-headed Barbet, Beautiful Jay, Black Solitaire, Olivaceous Piha, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Star-chested Treerunner, Uniform Treehunter, Bronze-olive Pygmy Tyrant, Ornate Flycatcher and Glistening-green, Rufous-throated, Silver-throated, Saffron-crowned and Purplish-mantled Tanagers. We will also keep a watchful eye on the understorey for Yellow-breasted and Ochre-breasted Antpittas and Dusky Leaftosser.
At lunchtime (or later if we are busy with birds!), we will visit some hummingbird feeders in the forest, where - incredibly - we may find yet more new 'hummers'. Possibilities include Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed White-tip, Booted Racquet-tail, White-tailed Hillstar, Empress Brilliant, Brown Inca, Violet-tailed Sylph, Purple-throated Woodstar and Greenish Puffleg - imagine going home with that!
In the afternoon we will return to the road, focusing our attention on any species we haven't yet seen - while those that wish to take things more gently have the option to return to the lodge and relax, perhaps by enjoying some of the commoner species at the hummingbird and fruit feeders. Two nights Las Tángaras
LA EME RIDGE & COCK-OF-THE-ROCK LEK AT JARDIN
Leaving the lodge before dawn, we drive up to La Eme ridge, 2600m (8500ft). Along the way there may be time to pause for Swallow-tailed Nightjar and White-throated Screech Owl. However, our main aim here will be to find the critically endangered Munchique Wood Wren, while also looking out for the localised Tanager Finch, which can sometimes be seen along the road. Other species we might encounter at La Eme include Black-billed Mountain Toucan, White-capped Parrot, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Rufous and White-browed Spinetails, Citrine and Russet-crowned Warblers, Lachrimose and Hooded Mountain Tanagers. If we are really lucky, the patchily distributed Chestnut-crested Cotinga is very occasionally recorded from these forests.
Late morning we will descend from the ridge and make the three-hour drive to the pleasant town of Jardin, where we spend the next two nights at the Hacienda Balandu Country Hotel.
Jardin boasts one of the best Andean Cock-of-the-rock leks in the world and we will aim to arrive in time to pay a visit in the late afternoon. Any chance to see these special birds as they sneak in to lek about the trail is a magical one! Night Jardin
YELLOW-EARED PARROT RESERVE
Another early start will find us ascending to the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve above Jardin, at an elevation of 2600m (8500ft). Here we will eat our packed breakfast as we look out and wait for these large and extremely rare green-and-yellow parrots to depart their roost.
We'll spend the rest of the day slowly walking on a gravel backroad through wonderful Andean forest and seeing what we can pick up. It's an opportunity to get further views of species we may have seen previously, but we've also a great chance of adding the likes of Barred Fruiteater, Rusty-winged Barbtail, Streak-throated Bush Tyrant, Rufous-headed Pygmy Tyrant, Ashy-headed and White-tailed Tyrannulets, Northern Mountain Cacique, Metallic-green and Grass-green Tanagers... and a host of others.
Come late afternoon, at the end of another terrific day of Colombian birding, there are options either to return a little earlier to our hotel and rest up or to revisit the local Cock-of-the-rock lek. Night Jardin
CAUCA VALLEY TO MEDELLIN & FLY MEDELLIN-BOGOTÁ
This morning we must head to Medellin for our flight back to Bogotá. There may be time for a little birding along the Cauca Valley, which sits between the Western and Central Andes. Key targets here are the endemic Antioquia Wren and Greyish Piculet, but other species which make their home in the valley include Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Greenish Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Slate-headed Tody Flycatcher, Clay-coloured Robin, Black-striped Sparrow and the dazzling Yellow-backed Oriole.
Continuing to Medellin Airport, we catch an afternoon flight back to Bogotá. Night Bogotá
BOGOTÁ MARSHES, FLY LONDON
Our final morning in Colombia offers a great opportunity to visit La Florida and the famous Bogotá marshes - home to the endangered Bogotá Rail, which is most active early in the morning. The open, urban wetlands of Bogotá boast an endemic avifauna that also includes the near-threatened Subtropical Doradito and the endangered Apolinar's Wren, which is endemic to the Andes of central Colombia.
The few wetlands that still exist in and around the capital are extremely threatened habitats in Colombia and the populations of several endemic species have declined significantly. Noble Snipe, Spot-flanked Gallinule and Andean Ruddy Duck are possible here. Yellow-hooded Blackbirds are usually easily seen, while Silvery-throated Spinetail and Rufous-browed Conebill may be found in the surrounding eucalypts and parkland; Brown-bellied Swallows zap overhead and the very common Great Thrush jumps about on the ground.
After an excellent final morning and lunch in Bogotá, we return to the airport and check in for our overnight flight home.
Late afternoon or early evening arrival in London, where our birdwatching tour to Colombia's Western Andes concludes.