Central Colombia: Andean Endemics Paradise

The great Andean mountain range splits into three chains as it traverses Colombia, resulting in a very high degree of endemism (70+ endemic bird species). Colombia is blessed with an extensive system of reserves that protect many of the rarest and most local of these species, and we will visit many of them on this tour. We will search for such legendary species as Yellow-eared Parrot and Gold-ringed Tanager, and newly described ones such as Chestnut-capped Piha and Parker’s Antbird. If you’re looking for a tour that highlights the best of the Andes and targets a slew of rare, localized species, then this is the trip for you.

 

The following itinerary offers an excellent cross-section of Central Colombia, and for custom tours we can modify it to suit your needs. Shorter itineraries are possible and still very productive.

If you only have two weeks available, it is possible to leave this tour on Day 14 from Medellín. Please contact our office for the pro-rated price of the 14 day option.

Day 1: Bogotá. You will be transferred to a hotel in Colombia’s vibrant capital for the night.

Day 2: Chingaza NP. We’ll leave very early, avoiding Bogotá infamous traffic, driving into the high mountains above the city. Beautiful páramo covered with tall Espeletia plants covers the slopes, sometimes attracting the gorgeous Bearded Helmetcrest. We should find flocks of Rufous-browed Conebill, and  we’ll look for some very distinct forms of Tawny Antpitta and White-chinned Thistletail before heading down into forest to look for the endemic Brown-breasted Parakeet as well as many other species including Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Black-capped Hemispingus, Agile Tit-Tyrant, and Blue-throated Starfrontlet. We return to Bogotá in the afternoon.

The near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill can be found around Bogotá and Chingaza NP
The near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill can be found around Bogotá and Chingaza NP (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: La Florida and Laguna Pedro Palo. The wetlands around Bogotá are home to several endemics. We’ll visit the small reserve of La Florida near the international airport, where we stand a good chance of seeing the skulking Bogota Rail and Apolinar’s Wren, as well as Silvery-throated Spinetail in nearby woodland. We may also find Subtropical Doradito and Yellow-hooded Blackbird. We’ll then drive out of the city to Laguna Pedro Palo, home to two more Colombia endemics, Black Inca and Turquoise Dacnis, as well as other birds like Moustached Puffbird, Ash-browed Spinetail, Whiskered Wren, and Scrub and Black-capped Tanagers. We’ll spend one night in La Mesa.

Day 4: Laguna Pedro Palo and Payandé. After another morning at Laguna Pedro Palo, we’ll cross the mighty Magdalena River, the longest River in Colombia. In the afternoon we bird dry forest near Payandé, searching especially for two more endemics Apical Flycatcher and Velvet-fronted Euphonia among more widespread species like White-bellied Antbird, Cinereous Becard, and Spectacled Parrotlet. We’ll have one night in the city of Ibagué.

Day 5: Ibagué and Otún Quimbaya. The forested slopes above Ibagué are home to the local endemic Yellow-headed Brush-Finch, which is usually fairly easy to see, as well as the Tolima Dove, which is very shy but can often be seen with some luck. Other more common species here include White-vented Plumeleteer, Rufous-naped Greenlet, Olivaceous Piculet, and several species of tanager. In late morning, we’ll drive over the Andes to Otún Quimbaya NP, where we spend two nights.

Day 6: Otún Quimbaya NP. This park protects one of the last remaining populations of the endangered Cauca Guan, which are usually quite easy to see. This forest also offers us our best chance at Chestnut Wood-Quail, which is not as shy here as other sites on the itinerary. The spectacular Red-ruffed Fruitcrow is ridiculously common here and there is no better place to see it. We may also find flocks of the glowing Multicolored Tanager and try for the very shy Chestnut-breasted Wren.

Day 7: Otún Quimbaya and Rio Blanco. After another morning cleaning up at Otún Quimbaya, we’ll drive a few hours to the Rio Blanco reserve near Manizales, where we spend two nights. We should arrive early enough for some afternoon birding and to spend some time at the hummer feeders.

Day 8: Rio Blanco. This reserve has become well known for having one of the best antpitta feeders around, and we’ll hope to see Chestnut-crowned, Brown-banded, and Slate-crowned. Bicolored Antpitta is less regular, and we may have to try for that one “the hard way”. Other species we’ll hope to see here include Rusty-faced Parrot, Ocellated Tapaculo, Dusky Piha, Grass-green Tanager, and Gray-browed Brush-Finch.

Day 9: Rio Blanco to Jardín. We’ll have another full morning at Rio Blanco, concentrating on the higher elevations for the endemic Rufous-fronted Parakeet as well as more widespread but stunning species like Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Golden-crowned Tanager, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, and Golden-breasted Puffleg. After lunch, we’ll drive through the afternoon to the town of Jardín in the Western Andes, our base for two nights.

Day 10: Jardín. Yellow-eared Parrots are making a comeback around Jardín thanks to good local conservation efforts protecting the wax palms they rely on. We’ll take 4WD jeeps up a rough road to their reserve and should enjoy nice views of them flying to their feeding grounds early in the morning. A trail in the reserve gives us a great shot at the normally difficult Chestnut-naped Antpitta, and we’ll check the feeders for Tourmaline Sunangel and Collared Inca before spending the rest of the day walking back down the road. The easy roadside birding gives us our first chance at Tanager Finch, and we often see screeching hordes of White-capped Tanagers among a slew of more common montane species.

The endangered Yellow-eared Parrot still occurs in good numbers above Jardín
The endangered Yellow-eared Parrot still occurs in good numbers above Jardín (Nick Athanas)

Day 11: Jardín to Reserva las Tangaras. Depending on our luck with the Yellow-eared Parrots, we may bird some more near Jardín, or head off early to the Cauca Valley to look for Grayish Piculet. We’ll then drive a few hours west, deep into the heart of the Chocó with its world-famous endemics. We’ll spend two nights at a new lodge not far from the key birding sites. In the afternoon, we’ll take jeeps to some foothill forest to target the very rare Yellow-green Bush-Tanager as well as other Chocó foothill species such as Scarlet-and-white and Rufous-throated Tanagers.

Day 12: Las Tangaras Reserve. This cloudforest reserve is well named for having arguably some of the best tanagers in the world. Topping the list are the two endemics, Black-and-gold and Gold-ringed Tanagers, and one near-endemic, the spectacular Purplish-mantled Tanager, which usually can be seen without much stress. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. This reserve is just jam-packed with Choco specialties, and we’ll look for Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Choco Vireo, Toucan Barbet, Uniform Treehunter, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Empress Brilliant, Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Indigo Flowerpiercer, and many more.

The unique Gold-ringed Tanager is a highly sought-after endemic that we stand a great chance of seeing
The unique Gold-ringed Tanager is a highly sought-after endemic that we stand a great chance of seeing (Nick Athanas)

Day 13: Las Tangaras Reserve. Depending on our luck yesterday, we may bird the same areas, or possible try a different site for a good chance at Munchique Wood-Wren an another shot at Tanager Finch. After lunch, we’ll drive to Medellín, stopping for Grayish Piculet if we haven’t already seen it, as well as an endemic subspecies of Speckle-breasted Wren, a likely future split.

Day 14: La Romera to the Chestnut-capped Piha reserve. La Romera is a small reserve on the outskirts of Medellín. We’ll look for Yellow-headed Manakin and the superb Red-bellied Grackle, then drive northwest for several hours to the Chestnut-capped Piha reserve near the northern edge of the Central Andes. We have three nights in the lodge here. The lodge is very small, so single rooms are usually not available here.

Days 15-16: Chestnut-capped Piha reserve. This is tough forest-trail birding, but with great rewards. The piha is obviously target #1, but there is plenty more to see, including White-mantled Barbet, Multicolored Tanager, Chestnut Wood-Quail, Stiles’ and White-crowned Tapaculos, Ochre-breasted and White-bellied Antpittas, Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Pavonine Cuckoo, Wing-barred Piprites, Brown-billed Scythebill, Striped Woodhaunter, Pale-eyed Thrush, and more. Stygian Owl can sometimes be seen near the lodge, and Cinnamon Screech-Owl is also a possibility.

Day 17: Piha reserve to Rio Claro. We’ll bird forest patches along the road below the lodge for Black-headed Brush-Finch, then start the long drive south. A stop at a wetland en route will get us the impressive Northern Screamer as well as plenty of other marshland species like Cocoi Heron, Bare-faced Ibis, Large-billed Tern, and White-headed Marsh-Tyrant. Depending on when we arrive, there may be time for some afternoon birding near the hotel, where we spend two nights.

Day 18: Rio Claro area. The bizarre and unique Oilbird, in its own monotypic family is a huge draw for casual and world birders alike. We’ll make a special visit to one of their nesting caves. We’ll have to wade through a stream, but it will be well worth it to see these neat birds. The trail is also a great spot for the endemic Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant and other scarce birds like Bare-crowned Antbird and Brownish Twistwing, and birding forest edge may get us Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Pacific Antwren, and with luck even an electric Blue Cotinga.

Looking out of the Oilbird cave near Rio Claro
Looking out of the Oilbird cave near Rio Claro (Nick Athanas)

Day 19: Rio Claro to Victoria. We’ll check a different trail this morning for the newly-split endemic Magdalena Antbird as well as Barred Puffbird, Bay Wren, and Olivaceous Flatbill. After driving a few hours, we reach the small town of Victoria, where we spend one night. There is small forest reserve near town where we hope to mop up our last endemic, the well-named Beautiful Woodpecker, as well as the near endemic White-bibbed Manakin. It will also give us another shot at birds like White-mantled Barbet, Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant, and Magdalena Antbird if we missed them before. The rare Tody Motmot also occurs here, but we’ll need a ton of luck to find one.

Day 20: Victoria to Bogotá. After another morning at Victoria, we’ll drive back to Bogotá, stopping at a restaurant with some hummer feeders for lunch. We should pick up the endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird, and may get the rare Gorgeted Woodstar among the more common species. Depending on the time, we may be able to target Gray-throated Warbler before driving back to Bogotá for the final night.

Day 21: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the international airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Mostly very pleasant, but it can be hot for a few days in Victoria and Rio Claro, and quite cold at Rio Blanco. It should be fairly dry this time of year at most sites, but the Las Tangaras reserve can be very wet year round.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate to occasionally difficult. Many of the sites offer easy roadside birding, but birding the Bangsia and Piha reserves (about 4 days) requires spending a lot of time on moderately steep mountain trails.

ACCOMMODATION:  Mostly good to very good, but we’ll have to spend about three nights in some uninspiring yet acceptable hotels that are the best available. Singles are not usually available in the lodge at the Piha reserve and at Rio Blanco, and under rare circumstances it may be necessary to sleep three people in a room. These lodges do not charge a single supplement, but will provide singles when possible.