27 November - 19 December 2007
Tour leader: Nick Athanas
Luis Eduardo Urueña
Report and photos by Nick Athanas
Photo left: White-mantled Barbet
It was our first tour to this fascinating and beautiful country, and it was a without doubt a success. We saw 36 of the country's 62 endemic species, plus numerous near-endemics difficult to see in bordering nations, not to mention 500 odd other species. Some of the these birds are so rare and poorly known that only a handful of birders have ever been lucky enough to see them. Yet it is possibly the most difficult trip we have ever offered. Getting to these rare birds involves very long drives on roads choked with truck traffic, taking jeeps (sometimes even horses!) up bad 4WD tracks, a few difficult hikes, and occasional basic accomodation. The birds make up for the hardships, and all six people on the trip had a fantastic time. It helps that Colombians are friendly and helpful, the food surprisingly good, and with only a few exceptions, the accommodation is quite comfortable.
Don't let the name "Colombia" scare you away! Large areas of Colombia are as safe to travel in as Ecuador or Peru (we would not offer the trip otherwise). Some areas are still dangerous (though you can say that about most other countries in the world). Knowing the areas to avoid, combined with the logistical challenges of birding the key areas means that local help is essential. Tropical Birding contracted the services of Ecoturs, the ecotourism arm of ProAves Colombia, an excellent bird conservation foundation. One of their guides, Luis Eduardo, accompanied us for most of the trip to manage logistics and to help with finding birds; he knew quite a lot of key territories that I wasn't aware of and was extremely helpful and resourceful when the occasional problem interfered.
We visited seven "Reservas Naturales de Aves" (RNA) or Natural Bird Reserves owned by ProAves, as well as several other parks and reserves. The trip was designed to reach nearly all the key areas for endemics in the northern part of the country. By far the highlight of the trip was our visit to the Santa Marta mountains on the Caribbean coast. This unique massiff is totally separate from the Andes, and contains the highest mountains in Colombia at nearly 5800 m (19,000 ft). The range quite possibly supports more endemic bird species than any other mainland area of comparable size in the entire world, not to mention a huge number of endemic subspecies, and at least one undescribed species. They can be enjoyed in relative ease and comfort, since there is a beautiful new lodge and the birding is easy (all the endemics can be seen from the road). If you were ever to do just one trip to Colombia, this should be it! On the main tour list, I specifically mention the species and races endemic to the Santa Marta mountains.
Watch out for Chuck Bell's article on this trip in a future issue of Winging It, a publication of the American Birding Association.
This bustling metropolis of eight million people was our starting point for the tour. Everyone (including me) had decided to arrive a day early in case of flight delays or lost luggage. This turned out to be a good plan for Jim, whose suitcase turned up 18 hours after he did! With our extra time available, we decided to spend a morning birding before having some free time in the city. A good plan, since on our visit to Parque La Florida, not far from the airport, we failed to see the endemic Apolinar's Wren, despite enjoying nice views of Bogota Rail, the near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill, and a few other more common birds like Yellow-hooded Blackbird and Spot-flanked Gallinule. We then had a few hours to explore the Quebrada La Vieja, a small forest on the mountain slopes above the city, quite close to our hotel. It was very quiet by the time we arrived, but we managed to see the endemic Matorral Tapaculo that we would not find elsewhere, and a few people saw a female Golden-bellied Starfrontlet. The most amazing sighting was a Philadelphia Vireo, a rare bird indeed in South America!
After a good night's sleep, we left Bogotá early to avoid the traffic, stopping again at Parque La Florida to finally get Apolinar's Wren (in the scope!) before continuing down into the Magdalena Valley. A short stop near the town of Tobia got us some intresting birds like Black-faced Grassquit, Large-billed Seed-Finch, Red-billed Scythebill, and perched Spectacled Parrotlets. We carried on down into the valley and drove north along the Magdalena River, stopping for lunch at a roadside restaurant that was also a cattle auctioning ring, enjoying what might be the best steaks in Colombia. We turned off onto the mostly dirt road for the last, long 50km to Puerto Pinzón, having just enough time to stop for our first Northern Screamers (photo right) before arriving at the dock right at dusk. We had to duck a few times, but otherwise the boatman navigated us safely down the dark river to the lodge at the El Paujil reserve, where we scrambled up the muddy riverbank and "checked into" our rooms. The lodge is rather small and has two rooms with AC and two rooms with fans, all with private bathrooms, plus two dorm rooms with shared bathrooms. No hot water, but you really don't need it in the sweltering climate here. The food, as we found everywhere in Colombia, was not fancy, but was surprisingly good.
RNA El Paujil
This reserve was created to protect the critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow, a species thought to be nearly extinct until a ProAves expedition located a viable population here in 2003. The discovery could not have been more timely, as the company which owned the property was about to subdivide the land and sell it off to farmers, which would have spelled doom for the forest. ProAves was able to secure 1300 hectares or some of the last remaining humid lowland forest in the Magdalena Valley. They have worked with the local community of Puerto Pinzón to eliminate hunting in the reserve, and thus have given the Blue-billed Curassow a new lease on life. However, the curassows are still very shy and wary, and very hard to locate. Even the researchers studying them regularly go a week without seeing one. There are only about 200 estimated to survive.
Our first morning, we crossed the river by boat to a trail on the other side, and almost immediately found the obscure Black-billed Flycatcher, a very local bird only discovered in the reserve in February. We did not have a chance a chance to see much more when we discovered that the trail was blocked by a rapidly rising stream! Heading back to the river, we realized that the water level had risen by more than a meter in less than 45 minutes, and it had not rained a drop. Obviously it had poured down higher up the drainage. Some quick thinking by Luis Eduardo allowed us to flag down a passing boat and get back to the other side of the river where the trails were not flooded. Almost immediately Nancy found a bizarre Bare-crowned Antbird, not endemic but still one of the coolest birds in the reserve; check out Scott Olmsead's photo from his trip earlier this year. We carried on up a steep trail and soon found a pair of White-mantled Barbets, one of the other threatened endemics in the reserve. Farther up we finally got the view we wanted of the stunning Sooty Ant-Tanager, another major target here and a bird that no drawing ever does justice to, with a shockingly red crest and throat that seem totally out of place in the dark jungle understory that they live in. Here we also located Black-bellied Wren, common here but hard to see. It is so hot here that afternoon siestas are almost obligatory here even on the hardest-of-core birding trips. However, good birds turned up in the lodge clearing, and we had our only views of Beautiful Woodpecker here on both afternoons as well as out best Orange-crowned Orioles. In the afternoon we kept up our curassow hunt by walking up a streambed, seeing Jet Antbird and a few other more common species.
Next day was even hotter and the birds didn't seem to like it any more than we did. It was slow going, but we managed to pull out a few. The odd Southern Bentbill was quickly followed by a difficult Black-breasted Puffbird that finally provided acceptable views in the end. It was a hot hike on bad trails for a few hours, getting only Western Long-tailed Hermit and Fulvous-vented Euphonia before we finally scored another big target: Black Antshrike at a spot that Luis Eduardo new was reliable. After our siesta it was back up the streambed where we were treated to my most memorable sighting so far: Two fabulous Saffron-headed Parrots feeding at eye level! A bird I'd only ever seen in flight before, and one that few people ever get to see so well. Not a curassow, but nearly as special.
With one last morning, we were losing hope with curassow, and in the end we never did see it. Our last bird was a very cooperative Dull-mantled Antbird that we had to chase up a stream to get. Finally we packed up and took the boat back to Puerto Pinzón. Our van was waiting for us for another long drive north to the Cerulean Warbler reserve. We had better Northern Screamers on the way out and a few Bare-faced Ibises. By dusk we had arrived in San Vicente de Chucurí, where we switched into an ancient Land Rover for the last few very steep kilometers up through coffee plantations to the lodge at the reserve. The pleasant mountain air was a relief after the stifling heat of the Magdalena Valley.
RNA Reinita Cielo Azul
Reinita Cielo Azul is the local Spanish name for the Cerulean Warbler, and this 200 hectare reserve was established specifically to protect this beautiful yet threatened boreal migrant. ProAves has a small lodge on a coffee farm adjacent to the reserve, with four rooms, each with private bathroom and occasional warm water. There are additional rooms with shared bath in the main building. Access to the forest is via the Camino de Lengerke, a stone path built 150 years ago by Geo von Lengerke, a German settler and engineer. It is about an hour’s walk up this path to the start of the reserve, and the path then continues through beautiful montane cloudforest for many kilometers. The path is not especially difficult, but can be extremely slippery due to the wet moss that grows on it.
We spend the whole first day on the Camino de Lengerke, departing before dawn and returning after sunset. Once inside the forest, it's like a different world, a wonderland of huge trees covered with moss and epiphytes. Hummers were everywhere, and we saw several of the endemic Black Inca, one male feeding so close we could see every subtle plumage detail. We found a family of Parker's Antbirds that really showed well, then a few evil-looking Moustached Puffbirds. We chased down an Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, a species only recently described from a tiny area in the southern part of the country. It turns out it has been widely overlooked, occurring much farther north in the Andes, and quite likely up into Venezuela as well. Higher up, a couple of flocks came through very quickly, making it hard to get everyone on the key species. The Rufous-rumped Antwren and Rufous-naped Greenlets showed quite well to most of the group, but only one person saw the Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet. Soon after we saw some Yellow-breasted Brush-Finches of the newly described race yariguerum, endemic to the region. Farther along the trail we reached a ridge and a lookout, where we had a lunch that was freshly delivered from the lodge. It was a frustrating experience as we could here the exceedly rare and critically endangered Mountain Grackle calling on a distant hillside that was often hidden in clouds. We spent over an hour scanning, and most everyone had some flight views of this species, but it was not the sighting we were hoping for.
Next morning, we all birded around the lodge early, quickly scoring two more rare endemics, the Indigo-capped Hummingbird and the cute Turquoise Dacnis-Tanager. A short walk down into the coffee plantations produced a Bar-crested Antshrike, and then it was decision time. Two of the group went with me and climbed back up the mountain hoping for better luck with the grackle and some of the other birds we had missed. The rest stayed with Luis and did some easier birding lower down, but did manage to locate a female Recurve-billed Bushbird near the lodge at a new location only found a few months ago. Back up in the forest, we had immediate success with a very nice White-bellied Antpitta, then a flock with a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet in it. Shortly thereafter Stephen managed to spot a Yellow-throated Spadebill, an ultra-rare species despite having a rather large range. Things got very quiet after that, and Jim and I carried on up to grackle ridge, hoping for better luck. Amazing the difference a day makes... This time, despite not being any closer to begin with, one Mountain Grackle came in to the tape to a tree very close to us and stayed there singing for over 20 minutes, looking back and forth and showing the chestnut wing linings - check out the photo to the left! It was one of many unforgettable moments on this trip, and it made us take the news of the bushbird we had missed much more easily. We never did see any Gorgeted Wood-Quails, though we heard some fairly close once. This is another critically endangered species, and few visitors have been lucky enough to see one.
On our final morning, we left early to give us some time to look for Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird on the way out, but we had no luck, though we did get a male White-eared Conebill for our efforts. We had just arrived in early afternoon at the pleasant town of Ocaña, when the van's clutch went. It was a lucky place for it to happen, as within 15 minutes Luis had taxis organized to take us to the hotel (quite nice) and then to the Bushbird reserve, and a replacement vehicle was arranged for the following morning.
RNA El Hormiguero de Torcoroma
This is one of the newest of the ProAves reserves, protecting one of the only known sites for the enigmatic and endangered Recurve-billed Bushbird. This is a major stronghold, and it is much more reliable here than at the Cerulean reserve. Sure enough, less than 45 minutes after arriving that afternoon, we were all having incredible views of a male. There are some other interesting birds here, and we spend another morning looking for them. Moustached Brush-Finch turned out to be quite common, but Gray-throated Warbler was shy and unresponsive, with only a few of us getting poor views. Flocks has some nice tanagers in them like Speckled and Black-headed Tanagers, and we had a brief view of a Chestnut-bellied Thrush.
The drive to Santa Marta was an unpleasant 10 hour haul due to our slow replacement vehicle and the insane truck traffic on the road. On future tours we will fly instead. Fortunately we had a pleasant beachside hotel to arrive in and get some well-needed rest.
Isla de Salamanca National Park
This is a good side-trip from Santa Marta. The national park protects a large area of wetlands, mangroves, and desert scrub. Unfortunately, as with most national parks in Colombia, it is poorly managed with almost no operating budget. That means access is very limited, and much of the birding is from a very busy highway. There is only so much diesel fumes and trucks roaring past that one can tolerate before giving up. We did see Russet-throated Puffbird, Bare-eyed Pigeon, and a tremendous concentration of waterbirds before bailing out and heading to the small park visitors center next to some mangroves. This used to be a nice place but has fallen into total disrepair, and there are only a few hundred meters of trail and boardwalk. We scoured them as much as possible before it got too hot, and some of the better birds were Black-crested Antshrike, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Brown-throated Parakeet, and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. There was a greater concentration of wintering Prothonotary Warblers here than anywhere else I've ever been to - sometimes it seemed like there were more Prothonotaries than mosquitoes!
We headed back to the hotel to have lunch at a beachside seafood restaurant and then check out. By then, two 4WD vehicles had arrived to carry us up onto the San Lorenzo Ridge, the closest and most accessible area of the Santa Marta mountains. I've already raved enough about them, so let's get straight to it.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, including RNA El Dorado.
The road to the top of the ridge can be great birding the whole way. Even lower down where there are no endemics, the dry habitat and coffee plantations offer a whole different set of birds from the cloudforest higher up. We were planning to spend a morning here the day we left, so we drove higher up. On the way, we made a couple of short stops, first for the outrageous Golden-winged Sparrow, a bird so brightly colored it's hard to believe it's in that family. Farther along we stopped to look for Rusty-breasted Antpitta, having no luck on our first attempt, but instead getting the endemic subspecies of Ruddy Foliage-gleaner. Niels Krabbe has already submitted a paper to raise this to species rank, likely to be accepted, since the bird is different in virtually every way from "rea"l Ruddy Foliage-gleaners. We arrived at the Jeniam Ecolodge a little before dusk, in time for some of the group to get their first "real" endemic, the Santa Marta Brush-Finch. We would see dozens more over the next two days since they are the most common of the endemics.
The Jeniam Ecolodge and the view out over the Caribbean.
The lodge has one of the most spectacular views of any in the world. You can see all the way out over the Caribbean, and even to the city of Barranquilla 50 miles away. There are six rooms with private bathrooms and hot water. Above the restaurant there is a balcony looking out over some fruiting trees that is great for canopy species. A good chunk of forest here (about 680 ha.) is owned by ProAves as the El Dorado reserve, and most of the rest is part of a national park.
Most of the endemic birds are found at the higher elevations. Our first morning here we got up in the dark and drove up to about 2600 m (8500 ft), only to be met with fierce winds, which kept the birds down and made the going very tough. We were fortunate to see the difficult Santa Marta Warbler right away, as well as the more common Rusty-headed Spinetail, but things got very hard after that. As the wind got worse, we were forced to drive part way down the mountain and begin again. Slowly the birds finally came out. First it was the lovely Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager, followed by a pair of Streak-capped Spinetails. Then we successfully chased down a Brown-rumped Tapaculo, and soon after a male Golden-breasted Fruiteater. Finally a female White-tailed Starfrontlet turned up, and immediately after some White-lored Warblers. After lunch and a curious Santa Marta Antpitta, we noticed the wind had died down, so decided to go back up for the birds we had missed. Luck and persistance led to success, as we first saw the anachoreta subspecies of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (a possible split), a small flock of Santa Marta Parakeets (photo below), and finally, as we were about to give up, a single Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant. Very satisfied, we drove back down the bumpy road to enjoy the now rainy afternoon on the balcony of the lodge with a cup of good Colombian coffee, only to be treated to yet another endemic, the Santa Marta Toucanet, some brief views of a female White-tipped Quetzal, and great views of several tanagers including a few Blue-naped Chlorophonias. After a very tough start, it turned out to be one of the best days of the whole trip!
Our next day started early as well, but for a different reason - we were after the undescribed screech-owl in the area, a pair of which lives right behind the lodge. We got it singing pretty quickly, but it wouldn't come in, so we went off the road into the forest looking for it, finally finding it through a little gap in the trees. Sadly, not everyone had the right angle and it took off too quickly. Things got better though as we started walking down the road, finding many of the same birds we saw yesterday, but then having a great time with a Gray-throated Leaftosser, even doing the thing it was named for, then a very close Stripe-headed Brush-Finch. Both of these are endemic subspecies to the Santa Martas, and the brush-finch may be different enough to justify a future split. A bit farther down on the bee trail we found a lekking male Blossomcrown which sat for scope views and digiscoping (photo right), and a little bit lower a female Santa Marta Woodstar at close range. Soon after we found an incredibly easy Santa Marta Tapaculo, white crown and all, and suddenly we were just about done with all the endemics we could have hoped for! It made for a relaxing rest of the day as we could enjoy whatever we saw. There were still a few near-endemics to look for, and we had good luck with them as well with a fabulous male White-tipped Quetzal, a tiny Coppery Emerald, and a Yellow-billed Toucanet. We spent the rest of the day enjoying some of the more common birds like Rusty-breasted Antpitta and Rufous-breasted Wren before returning to the lodge for one last night.
We left early next morning to get to the drier, lower elevations before it got to hot. The birds were surprisingly quiet considering how busy the previous day was, and it took a while to find some of the targets. Best was a pair of Black-backed Antshrikes that showed very well, but some other nice ones were Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Cinereous Becard, Golden-fronted Greenlet, and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Finally we had to head to the airport to catch our flight to Medellin, which fortunately left on time, since it was another long four hour drive to reach the cabin at the Chestnut-capped Piha reserve, near the town of Anorí in the northern part of the central Andes. There is a new lodge being built here but it was not ready for our visit, so we had to sleep in shared bunkrooms with a single bathroom. The new lodge looks like it will be quite nice with four rooms each with private bathroom.
RNA Arrierito Antioqueño
This is another ProAves reserve; it was set up to protect habitat of the Chestnut-capped Piha, an endangered species only described in 2001. The Spanish name for the bird literally means "the little Antioquian herdsman" because of it's piercing whistles. We never heard it do this, it just gave some abrupt alarm calls, but we were fortunate to find the bird high up on the horse trail after fighting our way along an overgrown trail along a ridge. It was probably a young bird as the chestnut on the crown was just a small spot. A lifer for all! We heard a rare Black-and-gold Tanager up here too, but sadly it never showed itself.
Another star bird of the reserve is the exquisite Red-bellied Grackle, and it took us some time before we finally found a small flock along the side of the road. Check out the photo to the left, but it is way better in real life. Nearby we also saw a pretty Sooty-headed Wren and heard a Pavonine Cuckoo; as far as I know, this area is currently the only known site for the species in Colombia, and my recording is one of the first the country. Would have been better if we actually saw it though...
The final morning we spent on a new, well-built trail just below the lodge. It's a lot less steep and passes through some beautiful forest. Here we found a White-crowned Tapaculo, and farther along the endemic Stiles's Tapaculo. Doris even managed to find another pair of White-mantled Barbets, the first record for the reserve. However, our most memorable sightings were not even endemics; first Luis found a pair of Blue-fronted Parrotlets building a nest in a termitary in a tree over the trail. We watched them for a long time excavating the cavity, then allopreening - see the photos below. This is a fairly widespread bird, but mostly you just see them as fast-flying specks; this was by far the best view any of us ever had. Shortly thereafter a Chestnut-crowned Gnateater called by the trailside, and soon we had equally good views of both a male and a female of this very local Andean species. It was the only second time I'd ever seen it.
Finally it was time to leave and make another very long drive south through the huge city of Medellin an onward to the festive town of Jardín, located at a pleasant altitude in the western Andes.
RNA Loro Orejiamarillo
The key bird in this area is the critically endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Once occurring all the way down into central Ecuador, this species is now only know from a couple sites in the western and central Andes of Colombia. A new 130 hectare reserve has been acquired to protect some of the prime forest for the parrot, but the birds wander widely throughout the area in search of food, making it impossible to buy up all the habitat. Public awareness programs have been essential to protect this species, and ProAves has done a great job with this. Local people are now aware of the parrots and are proud to have them on their land. The wax palm tree, which the Yellow-eared Parrots use for nesting, has nearly been wiped out, since their leaves are highly sought-after for use in religious ceremonies. A national campaign has helped people to understand the importance of this tree, and has encouraged people to use other types of leaf in their ceremonies. To listen to a BBC story on this, click here.
We again left early in a couple of ancient 4WD jeeps and drove up to the highest point of the reserve. There's a lookout here where sometimes the parrots fly over early in the morning. No of sign of them today, despite the clear morning, and we started walking down the road, enjoying some of the high Andean species like Citrine Warbler, Golden-crowned Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, and the near-endemic Golden-fronted Whitestart. Unfortunately, dense fog drifted up the valley and stuck with us for most of the rest of the morning. Soon we heard some Yellow-eared Parrots, but only saw their distinctive macaw-like shapes flying through the fog. It was pretty hopeless, so we drove downslope a bit to get out of the fog. We started walking again, first finding a cute Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, then an excellent view of a White-browed Spinetail (it's in the monotypic genus Hellmayrea, named after the Austrian ornithologist Carl Edward Hellmayr). Finally a Slate-crowned Antpitta started singing near the roadside, and we managed to fight our way into the bamboo for a great closeup view of this nervous critter. We rounded a bend and heard a Black-billed Mountain-Toucan and someone quickly spotted it on the top of a dead tree in the distance. As we were training a scope on it, I heard more Yellow-eared Parrots and literally had to shout as loud as I could to drag eyes away from the beautiful toucan, just in time to have a close flyby in good light of a pair of these impressive parrots. Fortunately we were able to see them well, as we would find no more. While it was certainly the rarest bird we saw here, my favorite sighting was yet to come. As we reached a lookout near a small house, some White-capped Tanagers started calling on a distant hillside. I turned up the volume and blasted the iPod, and soon at least seven of these jay-like tanagers were flying towards up, crowns shining like headlights. They circled around us, coming closer and closer, screaming the whole time, until it seemed like they were perched on every tree and bush around us. They mobbed us for twenty minutes before giving up and flying away. The whole time another Black-billed Mountain-Toucan was feeding and "singing" in a tree right next to us. I'm including shots of both of these below.
We spent our last morning at Jardín trying to have a better view of the Yellow-eared Parrot, but fog once more plagued us and we just heard them fly overhead unseen. We added a few common birds like Mountain Elaenia, Black-and-white Seedeater, and the endemic red-rumped subspecies of Flame-rumped Tanager before driving on to Urrao, at the north end of the western Andes. Again the trip took longer than planned as we ran into massive road works near Concordia. Fortunately we had allowed some extra time and arrived at the start of the trail to the Dusky Starfrontlet reserve with enough daylight left.
RNA Colibrí del Sol
This 580 hectare reserve was established to protect two endangered species restricted to the Colombian western Andes, the Dusky Starfrontlet and the Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer. The starfrontlet was rediscovered in 2004, having previously been known only from its type specimen, a juvenile taken in 1951. Due to lack of material, it was originally described as a race of Golden-bellied Starfrontlet, but recent research has shown that it is a good species. This is the most difficult of the ProAves reserves that we visited. We arrived at the start of a mule track at 4pm and rode mules and horses for two hours to a new cabin at 3000 m (9800 ft) up in the cool temperature forest. The cabin isn't fancy (shared bunkrooms, one bathroom, cold water), but really was quite pleasant as we had a hot meal and a couple of bottles of Aguardiente Antioqueño to warm us up. We got a good night's sleep for the hard trek the next day.
The hike up to the páramo is very steep, and the locals did not want us to ride the mules since they though they might slip. It was only a few kilometers hike, but with a 500 m (1640 ft) elevation gain in rarified atmosphere. We took our time and as we got to the edge of the highest forest, we quickly found first a female and then the first of several males of the beautiful Dusky Starfrontlet, a bird so rare that only a handful of birders have ever seen it. Nearby we also had a few flyovers of Rusty-faced Parrots before continuing our climb to the top. Unfortunately, recent rains had turned the trail in to a horrible muddy mess, and we slipped and cursed our way up, spending so much attention on keeping our footing it was hard to bird. The Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer proved more difficult since they were not singing at all and totally unresponsive. Finally we got a couple to come in by playing Andean Pygmy-Owl recordings, and the last view was brief but good. There were a few other interesting high elevation birds up here, some of our favorites were Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, Glowing Puffleg, and Purple-backed Thornbill. It took the rest of the day to get back to the van, and we spent the night in a surprisingly nice hotel in the town of Urrao.
We left early next morning to get through the road works before the heavy machinery started up, and stopped for a pleasant breakfast in Bolombolo. For once we actually had unusually light traffic and we arrived in the city of Pereira by around noon, giving us the chance to visit La Suiza in the afternoon.
This was the first time I had visited this cloudforest, consisting of about 500 ha of municipal and private reserves just an hour out of the city. While the forest is not primary, it has had many years to regenerate, and there are some fantastic birds in here that are probably easier to see than anywhere else in Colombia. A mostly flat gravel road goes straight through the forest, and it is easy to see into the understory. I have never seen such a concentration of Red-ruffed Fruitcrows anywhere. The star bird of the area in undoubtedly the Cauca Guan, which 20 years ago was thought to be nearing extinction. This reserve is its stronghold as hunting has been eliminated, and now they are quite common and easily seen. It was raining our first afternoon, so the guans (photo right) and the fruitcrows were about the only birds we saw, but that's not bad on a day that was supposed to be a travel day. The following morning the weather was perfect, and we slowly walked up the road. We almost immediately struck gold with a huge covey of endemic Chestnut Wood-Quails crossing the road right in front of us. There were at least a dozen of them, adults followed by some juveniles at the end. Carrying on, things were a bit slow, finding only a pair Streak-capped Treehunters, before the mixed flocks started moving. We were just starting to get on something that might have been an Oleaginous Hemispingus when Luis shouted "TANAGER!" from 150 m down the road. Now the only tanager he could possibly be shouting about was the endemic Multicolored Tanager, so we forgot about the possible hemispingus and charged down the road. Sure enough, we were soon gawking at one of the most beautiful tanagers in the world, and one of the most sought-after Colombian endemics. There were at least one male and one female, probably more. We spent the next several hours working the mixed flocks, finding some uncommon birds like Variegated Bristle-Tyrant and Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet.
Finally it was time to leave this great forest - I felt we had only scratched the surface of it. We had originally planned to visit the Mirador reserve to search for Indigo-winged Parrot and some antpittas, but the night before Luis had told us that the heavy rains had blocked the road to the reserve. Mirador is not the place to be in the rain, it's hard enough there in good weather. We all knew it was pointless to go, so we changed plans and drove to Ibagué, a large city on the west side of the central Andes.
Some of Colombia's rarest endemics are found in very disturbed forest on slopes just outside the city. This could be a target area for a new reserve, but the forest patch is small and expensive, and ProAves would prefer to buy a more extensive piece - if only they can find one with they key birds in it. We birded a dirt road through an area known at "Carmita Botero", finding several pairs of the strange-looking Olive-headed Brush-Finch, resembling a female Scarlet Tanager. The shy Tolima Dove was more difficult. We finally found one while trying to chase down a singing Chestnut-crowned Antpitta; it was wandering back and forth across a side trail, though we had to return there a second time later in the morning before everyone saw it. Most of the other birds here were common and widespread Andean species, but we did add Immaculate and White-bellied Antbirds. A Rosy Thrush-Tanager was singing but refused to show.
In the foothills below Ibagué there are some of the best remaining dry forests of central Colombia. We spent one afternoon there near the town of Payandé, finding one of our targets, the Apical Flycatcher (photo right), but were not able to locate any Velvet-fronted Euphonias among the dozens of Thick-billed Euphonias that were present. There were plenty of other dry-country species present, like Scrub Greenlet, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, and Black-faced Grassquit.
We decided it would be faster to drive back to Bogotá rather than using our air tickets from Pereira, where we would have flown from had we been able to go to Mirador as planned. It was a fairly quick and uneventful journey by Colombian standards, and we celebrated the successful end to our trip at a nearby Italian restaurant. The trip wasn't over for everyone; the next day I went with Don & Doris to Leticia and then to Palmarí Lodge in Brazil. But that is another report for another day!
Two more photos from the trip before the bird list:
This list includes all the bird species that were recorded by at least one of us. Taxonomy and nomenclature follow:
Clements, James F. 2000. Birds of the World: A Checklist. Fifth Edition. Vista, CA: Ibis Publishing Co.
I have also included the final updates to the list. The 2007 version of the Clements list has now been published. Apart from the taxonomical order in some of the families, it is almost the same as the fifth edition with all the updates.