Our birdwatching tour to Colombia begins with a scheduled flight from London today, bound for Bogotá. Evening arrival in Bogotá, where we meet up with our local guide. Night Bogotá
Days 2 - 3
BOGOTÁ MARSHES, LAGUNA DE PEDRO PALO
Bogotá stands at an elevation of 2640m (8660ft). With our body clocks kicking in early, we’ll rise early and make our first visit to La Florida and the famous Bogotá marshes, looking for the endangered Bogotá Rail, which is most active first thing in the morning.
The open, urban wetlands of Bogotá boast an endemic avifauna that also includes the near-threatened Subtropical Doradito and Apolinar's Wren. The few wetlands that still exist in and around the capital are extremely threatened habitats in Colombia and the populations of several endemic species there have declined significantly. Noble Snipe, Spot-flanked Gallinule and Andean Ruddy Duck are possible, and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds are usually easily seen. Silvery-throated Spinetail and Rufous-browed Conebill may also be found in the surrounding eucalypts and parkland, while Brown-bellied Swallows zap overhead and the very common Great Thrush jumps about on the ground.
To help with acclimatisation, we then leave Bogotá and descend to around 1400m (4,600ft) for a two-night stay near Anapoima, which lies about 60km west of the Colombian capital. The grounds of our hotel hold an array of birds and a late afternoon walk here should produce Vermilion Flycatcher, Scrub and Blue-necked Tanagers, Common Tody-flycatcher and Thick-billed Euphonia.
The Laguna de Pedro Palo is a municipal reserve just a short distance away. A walk along the quiet track can be good for euphonias and a veritable artist's palette of tanagers, including Crimson-backed, Flame-faced, Black-capped, Fawn-breasted, Bay-headed, Beryl-spangled, Golden and Lemon-rumped! The area is also notable for near-endemics such as White-throated Toucanet, Moustached Brush Finch, Ash-browed and Stripe-breasted Spinetails, and Rufous-naped Greenlet. The endangered, endemic Turquoise Dacnis and the tricky Black Inca can sometimes be found here, too.
We'll break at a nearby restaurant, perhaps enjoying a traditional Colombian Paisa lunch - of beans and rice, pork and banana - before continuing our birding. Mixed feeding flocks could produce the likes of Acorn Woodpecker, Olivaceous Piculet, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Brown-capped Vireo, the splendid Red-headed Barbet and Azara’s Spinetail. Dense forest patches might reveal Moustached Puffbird and lowland Grey-breasted Wood Wren, as well as Whiskered and Speckle-breasted (Colombian) Wrens. Two nights Toscana Ecolodge, Anapoima
CHICAQUE NATURAL PARK
Leaving our lodge early this morning, we drive the relatively short distance back to Bogotá. En route we may well stop again near Laguna de Pedro Palo and have a second try for Black Inca or Turquoise Dacnis if we missed them before. Continuing, we’ll bird the approach road and hummingbird feeders at Chicaque Natural Park, on the edge of the Bogotá Plateau.
There are some excellent hummingbird feeders near the reserve centre, attractive to dazzling Glowing Pufflegs, Mountain Velvetbreast with its thin, decurved bill, aggressive Sparkling and Lesser Violetears, smart Collared Incas and the incomparable Golden-bellied Starfrontlet, another Colombian near-endemic. This whole area can often be shrouded in fog and low cloud, but as we sit back and enjoy the frenetic hummingbird show we can keep ourselves warm with steaming mugs of hot chocolate - another great Colombian tradition!
As we explore the entrance road we should be treated to good views of several fine olive-backed brushfinches, among them Moustached, Pale-naped, Grey-browed and Chestnut-capped. Other species typical of the cloudforest here include Brown-billed Scythebill, Pearled Treerunner and Smoky-brown Woodpecker, with Black-eared, Black-capped and Oleaginous Hemispingus in the understorey. We also have good chances of finding the diminutive Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, Variegated Bristle Tyrant, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the speckle-breasted Bronzy Inca, and can at least hope to hear furtive Ash-coloured and Blackish Tapaculos. Colombia boasts a fantastic list of tanagers and yet more are present here: Grass-green, Blue-and-black and White-capped star, while Black-crested Warblers and the beautiful Golden-fronted Whitestart have a penchant for flowering shrubs.
In the afternoon, we continue onwards to Bogotá for a three-night stay. Night Bogotá
CHINGAZA NATIONAL PARK, LAGUNA DE TABACAL & 'JARDIN ENCANTANDO' HUMMINGBIRD GARDENS
We spend these two days exploring the highlands around Bogotá, taking in the high elevation paramo at Chingaza and Laguna de Tabacal in the Magdalena Valley, and an incredible hummingbird garden near San Francisco de Sales. With an eye to the weather, we will choose the best day to visit Chingaza.
An early departure takes us east from Bogotá into the stunningly beautiful wilderness of montane forests and paramo that is Chingaza National Park. Located at an altitude of 3500m (11,500ft), it will be cold here first thing and we could experience weather ranging from thick fog through to glorious bright sunshine - and quite possibly both extremes on the same day!
We start our birding on the edge of the paramo, where low scrubby vegetation, bamboos and grasses mix. The most distinct plants are the Espeletia or ‘frailejones’ (‘big monks’), whose sunflower like blooms are so attractive to hummingbirds and flowerpiercers. We should soon be enjoying our first Glossy Flowerpiercers, while searching for 'hummers' should produce Great Sapphirewing, Tyrian Metaltail, Coppery-bellied Puffleg and 'glowing like the rising sun' Shining Sunbeam. With luck, a Bronze-tailed Thornbill may show up as well, with its little pointed ‘Elizabethan’ beard!
Excitement mounts as mixed feeding flocks surge past in waves, and we’ll be looking especially for the lovely Golden-fronted Whitestart (birds here have an all-white face), Black-headed Hemispingus, and Scarlet-bellied and Black-chested Mountain Tanagers. The dense undergrowth contains some serious skulkers, such as Rufous Antpitta, Matorral Tapaculo, Brown-backed and Rufous-breasted Chat-tyrants, and White-chinned Thistletail.
With such a variety of altitudinal habitats, we will be spending most of the day in the park, searching patches of temperate forest for the endemic Brown-breasted Parakeet and a long list of other goodies: the colourful Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Black-collared Jay, White-banded Tyrannulet, Agile Tit-tyrant, Streak-throated and Smoky Bush Tyrants, Plushcap, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Rufous Wren, Blue-backed Conebill, Pale-naped and Slaty Brushfinches, Plumbeous Sierra Finch and the plump Red-crested Cotinga all await our discovery here.
Northwest of Bogotá, lie the steamy foothills and coffee plantations above the Magdalena Valley. A small but birdy patch of forest still survives on the steep hillsides around the enchanting Laguna de Tabacal. As soon as we arrive in the car park near the entrance to the lake, we have chances of Bar-crested Antshrike, Grey-throated Warbler and Spectacled Parrotlet - all Colombian near-endemics. A trio of antbirds - Jet, White-bellied and Dusky – also lurk about the bushes and leaf litter. We may not move too quickly as birds can come thick and fast!
In gardens near the entrance we may track down a Rufous-capped Warbler, and Blue-necked and Crimson-backed Tanagers. Amongst the more common species, including Red-crowned Woodpecker, Black-billed Thrush and Saffron Finch, we hope to find the unusual Rosy Thrush-tanager.
Walking the easy trail through the forest itself, the avifauna changes again. The recently split Blue-lored Antbird, endemic colombianus race of Speckle-breasted Wren (another potential split) and Rusty-breasted Antpitta are possible and we should encounter a host of others, from Moustached Puffbird and Plain Antvireo to Red-billed Scythebill and maybe White-bearded Manakins at the lek. At the lake itself, we may find Neotropic Cormorant and Least Grebe, and have a good chance of White-throated Crake.
After lunch, we visit a private residence in the nearby small town of San Francisco de Sales. The 'Jardin Encantado' hummingbird garden is located next to a forested stream at 1500m (4,900ft) and is known for more than 20 species of hummingbird, among them the endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird. Packed with an astounding 40 hummingbird feeders, we will spend a couple of hours in the garden, enjoying the amazing spectacle as literally hundreds of hummingbirds swirl in front of us in a frenzy of feeding activity! White-vented Plumeleteer, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Black-throated Mango are among commoner species to watch for, but we will also be keeping an eye out for the tiny, bee-like Gorgeted and White-bellied Woodstars, and the stunning Ruby Topaz. Restless Bananaquits and steel-blue and yellow Thick-billed Euphonias often pop down to see what is going on!
As we head back to Bogotá, we may have time to revisit La Florida for another chance of Bogotá Rail and Subtropical Doradito. Two nights Bogotá
FLY NORTH, BOGOTÁ-BARRANQUILLA
We leave Bogotá this morning on a flight that carries us 700km north (approx. 90 minutes flying time), following the Magdalena River to its mouth at Barranquilla, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Famous for its carnival, the lively city of Barranquilla sits close to open marshes and coastal lagoons and is the gateway to our own avian carnival of delights at Minca and beyond, in the lofty Santa Marta Mountains.
Birding on the Colombian coast is very different and very warm. After checking-in at our hotel we will visit some nearby scrub and, in the ‘cooling’ temperatures of late afternoon, try for the elusive endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. Other new species to be found include Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Yellow-breasted and Boat-billed Flycatchers, White-fringed Antwren, Black-crested Antshrike, Common Ground Dove and, with luck, Chestnut Piculet - an elfin rufous woodpecker with a speckled black cap. Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Yellow Oriole and Glaucous Tanager can also be seen. Night Barranquilla
ISLA DE SALAMANCA & MINCA
Departing our hotel early, we make the short drive east of the city, crossing over the mighty Magdalena River - the longest in Colombia - to ‘Salamanca Island’, a narrow strip of land set between the Caribbean Sea and the vast system of freshwater lakes and marshes within Ciénaga Grande National Park.
The park protects mangrove habitats and coastal scrub; although the construction of the coastal highway between Santa Marta and Barranquilla has resulted in the degradation of large segments of mangroves, thankfully many still remain - notably around the visitor centre at Los Cocos. Birds to be seen on the saline ponds and lagoons within the park include Black-necked Stilt, Large-billed Tern and a wide range of other waders and shorebirds.
As the days here can be hot, we will visit the nearby marshes early - when they should be alive with birds. Stripe-backed Wren, Caribbean Hornero, Russet-throated Puffbird, and Spot-breasted and Lineated Woodpeckers are typical of the scrubby coastal habitat. Three species of kingfisher hunt the lagoons - Green, Amazon and Ringed - along with a plethora of herons and egrets, and up to three species of Whistling Duck. Small birds to watch for include White-headed Marsh Tyrant and Pied Water Tyrant, and we have a fair chance of finding Dwarf Cuckoo.
As the temperature starts to rise, we'll head to the shade of the mangroves in search of Golden-green Woodpecker, Pied Puffbird, Panama Flycatcher and Bicoloured Conebill. As well as the waterbirds, we target two hummingbirds: Sapphire-throated, and the endemic and critically endangered Sapphire-bellied. The former is common here, but the Sapphire-bellied is now extremely rare and only found in areas dominated by red and black mangroves.
Working our way east along the coast road through the Salamanca National Park, we'll pause to investigate any concentrations of waterbirds that we see. Yellow-billed and Gull-billed Terns are likely and our first ‘proper’ shorebirds should include Collared and Wilson’s Plover, and Willet. Lunch is taken beside the shore of the large seawater inlet, and from the restaurant we will see menacing Magnificent Frigatebirds and hulking Brown Pelicans, with chances of Arctic and Pomarine Skuas, too.
As the afternoon draws on, we begin to climb away from the humid heat of the Caribbean coast, up into the cooler and more pleasant foothills on our way to Minca. The waterfalls, river pools and shade coffee plantations here attract many birds, and our lovely Minca hotel sits in four acres of mature forest and gardens, with fruit and hummingbird feeders that lure many species. With today's travelling behind us, we will enjoy a restful late afternoon, with drink in hand, watching the hummingbird feeders. Possibilities include Steely-vented and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Rufous-breasted and Pale-bellied Hermits, White-necked Jacobin, White-vented Plumleteer, Black-throated Mango and perhaps Long-billed Starthroat.
The next day, after breakfast at the hotel, we start our birding along a quiet back road above the town. At an altitude of 660m (2,100ft), the mosaic of dry forest scrub, shade coffee plantations and humid gullies hosts an impressive diversity of species. We should quickly find the noisy Speckle-breasted Wren and also hope to encounter Rufous-and-white Wren, with its ethereal song amongst the finest in the Neotropics.
A little further along the road, we will check for the colourful Golden-winged Sparrow (a near-endemic) and listen out for excited calls that mark the approach of mixed bird flocks that can hold Rufous-capped Warbler, Golden-fronted Greenlet and many tanagers. Smart Rosy Thrush-tanagers often sing noisily from the understorey - but obtaining views of these notorious skulkers can be difficult! Whooping Motmot and Rufous-tailed Jacamars are generally much more obliging, and we will also be on the lookout for Scaled Piculet, Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, and Barred Antshrike. We also have a chance of seeing the large Military Macaw, a vulnerable and much-declined species threatened by deforestation.
Returning for lunch at our hotel in Minca will afford another opportunity to sit and enjoy the ceaseless comings and goings of hummingbirds as they visit the feeders. In the gardens of the hotel, we will also keep a look out for Orange-chinned Parakeet, Keel-billed Toucan, Tropical Pewee and Pale-breasted Thrush.
In the late afternoon, we visit an area of dry forest near the lodge Minca to look for Black-backed Antshrike and Cinereous Becard. Also occurring here are Crimson-crested Woodpecker and the scarce Black-and-white Seedeater, with Chestnut-collared Swifts overhead. Two nights Minca
Days 10 - 12
THE SIERRA NEVADA DE SANTA MARTA
& EL DORADO
An isolated extension to the Andes, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a triangle of uplands whose highest peaks are only 42km from the sea. Covering an area of 17,000 square km, the mountains rise like an island from the beaches of the Caribbean and the fertile coastal plain to form snow-capped peaks that attain an altitude of 5700m (18,700ft). In 1979, UNESCO declared the area as a Biosphere Reserve for its many unique species and our feet will be itching today to move from Minca up to the higher elevations in search of our first 'Santa Marta' endemics!
The road leading up to El Dorado Lodge is at times quite rocky, so we will need to switch to 4WD vehicles this morning in order to access the San Lorenzo ridge in the Santa Marta Mountains and reach our lodge for lunch. This forested area is the only easily accessible area of the entire range and is protected by a bird reserve that hosts all but a few of the much-coveted 'Santa Marta' endemics.
We will make one or two stops in the cooler mid-elevations on the way up as they can be good for a number of species, including the recently described Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Santa Marta Tapaculo (with its characteristic white spot on the forehead), and the recently split Santa Marta Antbird. We shall probably encounter our first Santa Marta Brush Finches, too. We will also be on the lookout for another recently split species, Coopman’s Tyrannulet, as well as the oft-elusive Coppery Emerald - two Colombian near-endemics.
On our first afternoon at El Dorado we will relax and take time to bird from the veranda of the spectacular wooden clad lodge. Located at an elevation of 1400m (4600ft) in the heart of the reserve, this enchanting spot commands an awesome view down over the forested slopes, all the way to the distant Caribbean - though our eyes may be distracted from this by the busy hummingbird feeders! The brilliant endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet, plentiful Crowned Woodnymphs, three species of violetear, the districta race of Tyrian Metaltail (a future probable split) and seasonal visitors, Santa Marta Woodstar and Lazuline Sabrewing, are all on the cards.
Not quite so picturesque (but equally attractive in its own way), the lodge's compost heap and feedings stations attract the otherwise very elusive Black-fronted Wood Quail, and Sierra Nevada Brush Finch. Emerald-green ‘Santa Marta Toucanets’ (still treated as part of the White-throated Toucanet complex) visit fruiting trees in the clearing and, as dusk approaches, surprisingly confiding Band-tailed and Sickle-winged Guans may emerge from the forest.
One morning, we will rise before dawn (5.00am) and drive up to the top of the ridge for a picnic breakfast. It’s only about 5km away, but the road is rough and even in 4WD vehicles it will take us a while to get there! Many of the Santa Marta endemics are to be found in the stunted forest up on the ridge. In the gloom of early morning, we may at first feel taunted by the soft whistles of a Santa Marta Bush Tyrant, calling invisibly nearby, but with improving light and increasing temperatures, things can get very busy indeed.
By arriving at the ridge-top for dawn, we will maximize our chances of connecting with the endemic Santa Marta Parakeet. It will be a cold start up here, but bird activity should be high and, aside from the parakeet and bush tyrant, we can expect to find a host of other endemics including Santa Marta Mountain Tanager, Santa Marta Warbler and Rusty-headed Spinetail, as well as the chattering Yellow-crowned Whitestart. There are three incredibly skulking species that we will also hope to lure out: Santa Marta Antpitta and Brown-rumped Tapaculo, plus an endemic form of Rufous Antpitta that is almost certainly a ‘new’ species.
Other birds of particular interest to watch for include Santa Marta Wood Wren (a high elevation subspecies of the Grey-breasted Wood Wren), Scaly-naped Parrot, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrant and, on rare occasions, the majestic Black-and-chestnut Eagle soaring overhead.
If the weather is clear, we could be treated to spectacular views of the three highest peaks of the impressive Santa Marta range, which are permanently snow-capped. Reaching almost 6000m (19,685ft), the summits Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar are the highest mountains in Colombia.
Below our lodge, the forest is taller and a little drier, with a range of different species to be found - and even more birds with ‘Santa Marta’ in their names! Feathered gems that put gleams of lust into the eyes of visiting birders here include White-tipped Quetzal, White-throated Toucanet, Golden-breasted Fruiteater and the much-desired Santa Marta Blossomcrown: recently split, this delightful little 'hummer' with its cream and rufous cap and rusty tail tip was seen at a ‘lek’ on both our previous visits. We will look for more mid-elevation endemics, among them Santa Marta Woodstar and Streak-capped Spinetail, whilst a fantastic supporting cast features Groove-billed Toucanet (birds here being of the sometimes split yellow-billed form), Red-billed Parrot (endemic race), Grey-throated Leaftosser and Rusty-breasted Antpitta.
Having returned to the lodge for lunch, our afternoons birding will be spent ‘mooching’ about the hotel grounds, enjoying the hummingbirds and taking short walks near the lodge for the likes of Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Masked Trogon (an endemic race) and Black-throated Tody-tyrant (yet another endemic race).
During our stay at El Dorado, we also have the chance to try some nocturnal birding, seeking the often-elusive Santa Marta Screech Owl (another newly described endemic) and Mottled Owl, and with a slim chance of encountering Grey-handed Night Monkeys, which can sometimes be found in the vicinity of the lodge. Three nights El Dorado Lodge
RETURN TO BARRANQUILLA, FLY BOGOTÁ
After breakfast and one last chance to stroll about the busy gardens of El Dorado, all too soon it will be time to leave this magical place and take our 4WDs back down the bumpy track, via Minca, to the outskirts of Santa Marta city, where we transfer to our air-conditioned bus.
The coast road takes us back to Barranquilla, but not before stopping en route for lunch and the chance to stretch our legs and have a last look at the lagoons and shoreline. Squadrons of Brown Pelicans sweep past over the sea, with awesome Magnificent Frigatebirds for company, whilst roosting flocks of terns hold Gull-billed and many Yellow-billed, with Cabot’s and Royal Terns for good measure. Willet, Ruddy Turnstone and Collared Plover - no doubt with a few Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers thrown in – feature among a nice variety of shorebirds, too.
Our flight from Barranquilla to Bogotá departs late afternoon, so we will return to the airport in good time to check in before heading south.
Landing back at Bogotá, we transfer the short distance to our comfortable city hotel for one final night in Colombia. Night Bogotá
BOGOTÁ MARSHES, FLY LONDON
Our last 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 as Brown-bellied Swallows zap busily overhead and the very common Great Thrush jumps about on the ground.
After an excellent final morning and lunch in Bogotá, we collect our bags and return to the airport in good time to check in for our overnight flight home.
We arrive in London in the early evening, where our birdwatching tour to Colombia concludes.