Saturday 23 September 2017

Colombia Trip Report

Colombia Birding Trip Report – April 2017


After leading a birding tour around Costa Rica in March 2017 (details of that trip here soon), I had a few weeks spare before my next commitment in the USA, at the Biggest Week in American Birding (in Ohio in May 2017). So, I took this opportunity to take a short holiday in Colombia as I was ‘in the area’ so to speak.

This trip really began about 17 years ago when I was working in Costa Rica as a bird guide. During rainy days, or which there were a few, I would often sit down and look in awe at the copy of Hilty’s Colombian field guide, dreaming about Cock-of-the-rocks, Andean Condors and the plethora of hummingbirds, antbirds, flycatchers, and tanagers. Back then it was just not safe to visit Colombia, but thankfully over recent times the country has stabilised in most areas and with careful planning it is safe enough for the birder to visit large areas of this species-rich country and beautiful country.

During my trip, I visited areas within the Western and Central Andes within a few hours of the city of Cali, and the Santa Marta area in northern Colombia along the Caribbean coast. Each of these areas has a number of endemic and highly sought-after species so seemed to make sense for a first-time visitor to the country. In each of these areas the tourism infrastructure is well set up. The main roads were all very good, accommodation was of a good standard and often catered specifically to birders with fruit and hummingbird feeders present to allow excellent close-up views of many birds. Food was great and plentiful, with a nice range of local dishes, and in addition the people were all incredibly kind and friendly, it was nice to practice my Spanish again. I was very grateful to have a decent knowledge of Neotropical birds from Costa Rica which meant that in most cases even if I didn’t know the species immediately I could at least work out which family it belonged to and work from there, Colombia for the first-time visitor to the Neotropics could probably be a little too overwhelming.

I must make a special mention of the weather, most of the time the weather was fine, however there were a few days that were totally rained off due to a huge storm, unfortunately this stopped us seeing quite a few birds while in the Central Andes, however our disappointment at missing some birds is of no consequence or importance to the many people who unfortunately lost their properties and even their lives as a result of the many landslides after a months’ worth of rain fell in a couple of hours, particularly around Manizales as was reported internationally by the BBC at the time. I also had several days washed out while I was in the Santa Marta area and I got one of those enjoyable tropical shower soakings than many a birder has had over the years! Poor visibility hampered us massively while we were in the highest parts of the Central Andes and was the reason we saw no Andean Condors, for two days the visibility was less than about 6 feet!

The Birding:

The birding was excellent, I was with a couple of Chinese photographers for the first two weeks in the Western and Central Andes so the pace was very slow, much slower than on a ‘proper’ birding tour, or I’d have done if on my own, yet I still recorded around 500 species from my few weeks in the country, and most of these were new birds for me with a good dose of endemic birds. I was on my own while I was at Santa Marta so went a bit harder there to try and get as many of the endemics as I could, with a very good success rate.

Below I’ve included some photos and notes on my Top 10 birds/moments of the trip (could quite easily have been more) to give an idea of what I saw and experienced.

Top 10:

1. Andean Cock-of-the-rock

Andean Cock-of-the-rock was one of those birds I’d seen in the field guide years ago and always wondered if they’d look as incredible in real life. On day 1 of my trip I found out. We hiked down a ravine mid-afternoon, it was drizzling with rain but we could hear the birds raucous call in the distance over the river. We settled into position and waited excitedly for them to come towards us. We didn’t have too long to wait and suddenly there they were – WOW, what a stunning bird. The colour was as intense as I’d hoped, the shape of the birds head was crazy and it was quite a lot bigger than I’d thought, what’s more it was perched a matter of feet away, at eye-level! We watched the birds for way over an hour as they (four or five males) vied for the attention of a single female.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock male

Andean Cock-of-the-rock male

2. Hummingbirds

I saw a lot of very nice hummingbirds, (exactly 50 species) during my trip. There’s not many ‘ugly’ hummingbirds so it’s no surprise that they came out high on my list of highlights. White-booted Racket-tail was one I really hoped we would see, and needn’t have worried as they were actually fairly numerous at several locations (but very difficult to photograph away from feeders). Long-tailed Sylph was another of the really spectacular birds, especially the adult males with their long tail streamers. One of the main stand out hummingbirds was one of the ones in the guide all those years ago that really made me sit up and take notice, the mega Sword-billed Hummingbird – this bird has a 20cm long bill and its body is only about 10cm! This bird is all bill, and as its name suggests its bill is held straight out and up like you would hold a sword… amazing. However, the hummingbird that got my attention the most, and I’d now consider my favourite hummingbird was the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, this delightful gem flew up to me, and without encouragment, landed on my finger as I was taking photos of another bird! It turned to look at me and in doing so the light caught its ‘beard’ which changed from black to a rainbow of beautiful colours, a really spectacular sight. Photos of all four of these species are shown below, along with the common Crowned Woodnymph (I just really like the photo so wanted to show it).

White-booted Racket-tail

Long-tailed Sylph (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Rainbow-bearded Thornbill

Crowned Woodnymph

3. Antpitta Extravaganza

When we were told by our local guide that we were off to visit an Antpitta Feeding Station I was a little sceptical. It sounded too easy. Birds hopping round at feet etc, good views and photo opportunities etc. Is that even possible? I expect to have to work for pittas, ant or otherwise...  We headed into the forest, our local guide did his thing, and within a few minutes we were surrounded by several antpittas! It was astonishing! Over the course of the morning we saw three species and heard another. This trend also continued a few days later while in the Andes and Santa Marta Mountains where I added another three species of antpitta to my list. By the end of the trip I’d had great views of Chestnut-crowned, Santa Marta, Bicoloured, Rufous, Tawny, Brown-banded, Rusty-breasted, and Slaty-crowned Antpittas. It would have been more too if the weather hadn’t have scuppered my plans for a couple of days.

Brown-banded Antpitta

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Slaty-crowned Antpitta

4. Santa Marta Birding

The Santa Marta area of northern Colombia was very different to the Central and Western Andes regions I’d been birding in. I stayed at the wonderful El Dorado Lodge up in the mountains, right within the endemic bird area. The hotel accommodation was incredible, with a view to die for. The food and staff were brilliant (the best food I ate in the country) and the birding was awesome. I got most of the regional endemics either around the birding lodge, or up/down the mountain from it. Highlights from my few days here were many, but included: Santa Marta Screech Owl, Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Santa Marta Antbird, Santa Marta Antpitta (check out the Birding EcotoursYouTube page for a video of this bird!), Santa Marta and Brown-rumped Tapaculo’s, Santa Marta Bush Tyrant, Santa Marta Wood Wren, Santa Marta and White-lored Warblers, Santa Marta Brushfinch, and Santa Marta Mountain Tanager. Plus, Band-tailed and Sickle-winged Guans, Black-fronted Woodquail (my 1,500th bird species of 2017), and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Santa Marta Brushfinch

Santa Marta Parakeet (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

5. Torrent Duck

This duck of fast-flowing rivers was also one I really was keen to see. They occur along the Andes from Colombia in the north down to Argentina in the south. It doesn’t take much for them to vanish in amongst the boulder-strewn rivers but we got lucky and found a couple of birds at different locations. Males and females look very different so it was nice to see both. Below is the male bird, a phone-scoped shot in near-darkness, but you get the idea.

Torrent Duck (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

6. Tanagers and Toucans

The Tanagers and Toucans were well represented on my trip and I managed to get some record shots of lots of them. They were also quite happy to make use of fruit feeders and several of the areas we visited which was great as it allowed some very close views of these gorgeous birds, this led to a few photographs being taken too! Most of these were actually phone-scoped and see #8 below too.

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Crimson-backed Tanager (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Golden Tanager (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Multicoloured Tanager (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Saffron-crowned Tanager (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Blue-throated (Grey-throated) Toucanet (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Crimson-rumped Toucanet (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

7. Red-ruffed Fruitcrow

A rather unusual bird that can be quite difficult to find, we got great views of several of these rather interesting looking birds and I managed to get a few phone-scoped shots. See #8 below for lots more phone-scoped photos.

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

8. Phone-scoping Madness

There was ample opportunity for me to practice and try and improve my phone-scoping skills during my time in Colombia. In addition to some of the other photographs shown above, the following were all taken on my IPhone 7 through my Swarovski ATX-95.

American Pygmy Kingfisher (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Golden-headed Quetzal (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Masked Trogon (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Moustached Puffbird (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Spectacled Parrotlet (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

Toucan Barbet (Phone-scoped IPhone 7 & Swarovski ATX-95 scope)

9. American Migrants

I had a few American migrants (e.g. Eastern Kingbird, Swainson’s Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, American Yellow Warbler, and Canada Warbler), but one of them stood out more than the rest, Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I had two birds - one during this trip (nothing too unusual about that, it was April), and another a month later (mid-May), when I was expecting them to have all been back in North America. Presumably this bird was held up by a series of weather fronts blocking it from leaving. Either that or it was just over-summering in Colombia! As a side-note I didn’t see a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Ohio in two-weeks spring birding (just two or three Black-billed Cuckoos….).

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

10. Some Interesting Animals

Colombia was full of interesting other animals, here’s some photos – very impressed by the beetles out there, some giants! (Any IDs welcome... Jessa....)

A Summary:

This was my first trip to Colombia, a destination I have long dreamed of visiting and I didn’t leave disappointed. I recorded almost 500 species (most of these seen well) from what I would consider a fairly-relaxed pace trip, which was very pleasing. This short trip (for a country as large and diverse as Colombia) has really whetted my appetite for visiting again, and I am already planning my next trip! There’s still so much more to see!

A huge thank you to the many people involved in making this trip possible. You know who you are and I look forward to traveling and birding with you again soon!

I’d really recommend Colombia as a birding destination, take a look at the Birding Ecotours Colombia tours here…. 

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