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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains

2017 Narrative

In brief: Is there a better way to escape the boreal winter than by spending a week in the tropics, enjoying the wonderful Caribbean food, staying in fantastic lodges, and seeing around 300 bird species?! Well, that’s what we did on our Santa Marta tour, and believe me… we really enjoyed it!

The Sierra Nevada Cordillera and the Guajira Peninsula are home to an amazing list of restricted-range species, and we had excellent views of (just to name a few…) White-whiskered Spinetail, Chestnut Piculet, Vermilion Cardinal, Black-fronted Wood-Quail coming in to the feeders at El Dorado lodge, Orinocan Saltator, White-lored Warbler, Black-backed Antshrike and a long list of “Santa Marta” species, such as Santa Marta Blossomcrown, Antpitta, Antbird, Tapaculo, Foliage-gleaner, and Brushfinch. In addition to these very local species, we also enjoyed encounters with the stunning White-fringed Antwren, two superb Black-and-white Owls on their day roost, the lovely Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to fruit feeders, the charismatic Russet-throated Puffbird, colorful Keel-billed Toucans, a splendid pair of White-tipped Quetzals, and so many more interesting sightings. Besides birds we also enjoyed an endless list of butterflies, moths, nice reptiles including good views of Green Iguana, and a few mammals such as Colombian Howler, Cotton-top Tamarin, Nine-banded Armadillo, and several Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths. This tour was also notable for the great accommodations, with amazing hummingbird feeders at Minca and El Dorado Lodge attracting probably several hundred of these magnificent and colorful birds. And last but not least, the food was really fantastic, and we all enjoyed the tasty Caribbean food, especially at La Jorara Lodge and in Barranquilla! 

In detail: The group met in the evening for an introductory meeting, followed by our first delicious meal of Caribbean cuisine – what better introduction to the tour! For our first birding day we had an early departure to the Universidad Del Norte grounds for a quick stop to look for our first restricted-range species of the tour, the Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. With the early morning light, we got excellent views of several chachalacas, and also a nice Straight-billed Woodcreeper and our first Yellow Orioles. We then headed towards the agricultural fields and wetlands at Palermo for some early morning birding, enjoying the still “cool” temperatures. Palermo is a wonderful birding area, and we saw more than 60 species of birds in less than two hours: lots of herons of several species, hundreds of wintering Blue-winged Teal, great views of Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, two Northern Screamers (almost a Colombian endemic), a Dwarf Cuckoo, a few Russet-throated Puffbirds perched in the open, several flocks of noisy Brown-throated Parakeets, family groups of Stripe-backed Wrens, great views of Straight-billed Woodcreepers and Yellow-chinned Spinetails, the splendid Pied Water-Tyrant, common Red-crowned Woodpecker, and even a Spot-breasted Woodpecker in his nesting cavity, and so many more! We could have spent all day here, but several other birding spots were waiting for us during our drive towards Riohacha. We also stopped at Isla de Salamanca National Park where we found a beautiful male of Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird as well as a group of Red-rumped Woodpecker, a few Bicolored Conebills, no fewer than four Pied Puffbirds with excellent scope views of one of them, a pair of Northern Scrub Flycatchers building a nest, and a few superb Prothonotary Warblers. And we found a Spectacled Caiman side-by-side with an American Crocodile! Continuing toward Riohacha we stopped at a wonderful birdy place where we enjoyed a riverside lunch while watching Great-tailed and Carib Grackles, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Little Blue Heron, and Southern Rough-winged Swallow. Before reaching Riohacha, we birded in some nice habitat, where the first bird seen was a splendid Collared Forest-Falcon coming to the tape! Other interesting species here included Rufous-vented Chachalaca, a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars, our first Trinidad Euphonia, a nice male Black-crested Antshrike, a few Gray Kingbirds, flocks of Blue-crowned Parakeet, and fantastic views of Green-rumped Parrotlet. We spent the end of the afternoon at the estuary at Los Flamencos Sanctuary, where hundreds of Laughing Gulls and terns (Common, Caspian, Gull-billed and Royal) were roosting together, as well as a few White Ibis, the colorful Roseate Spoonbills, and hundreds of shorebirds (mostly Willet and Whimbrel, but also two Marbled Godwit and an American Oystercatcher). We arrived in Riohacha after a long traveling day, amazed by all the birds seen on the first day of the tour.

We spent the next morning birding the dry scrubland and forest found on the Guajira Peninsula, knowing that we would find several of the restricted-range species in these particular habitats. One of the first birds of the day was a splendid male Vermilion Cardinal, followed by White-whiskered Spinetail coming close to the tape, a superb pair of Orinocan Saltator singing for a while in the scope, Chestnut Piculet, Northern White-fringed Antwren, Trinidad Euphonia, Bare-eyed Pigeon, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-faced Grassquit, Tocuyo Sparrow, Caribbean Pale-legged Hornero, and Buffy Hummingbird, just to name a few. We then drove to the fabulous La Jorara Lodge, arriving for lunch. We enjoyed a wonderful grilled Red Snapper, and then a swim in the Caribbean Sea and/or a nap on the white sand beach! When the temperature dropped in the afternoon, we did some birding in a patch of dry forest where we found plenty of boreal migrants (Tennessee and Prothonotary Warblers mostly), together with resident Red-legged Honeycreeper, Thick-billed Euphonia, Crimson-backed Tanager, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Forest Elaenia. We also had amazing views of a splendid male Lance-tailed Manakin, perching just a few meters from us, as well as a pair of White-necked Puffbirds feeding on a large grasshopper. We couldn’t have ended the day better than with a succulent grilled Robalo (local fish) served with Coco rice, a Caribbean specialty, and a peaceful night in our very comfortable lodge.

After an early breakfast at La Jorara, we drove to the entrance of Tayrona National Park for a morning birding there. Even if very touristic, the National Park protects some very good forest, and we saw lots of interesting species there. The most common ones, at least by voice, were the stunning Lance-tailed Manakin and the less colorful Buff-breasted Wren. We managed to have several looks at the beautiful males of Lance-tailed Manakin, sometimes displaying just a few meters from us! We also had cracking views of White-bellied Antbird, and a Rufous-and-white Wren also came just a few meters from us attracted by our tape. Other highlights of the morning were a Southern Bentbill showing well his weird bill, a pair of One-colored Becards building a nest, several singing White-chinned Sapphires, good views of Black-crowned Antshrike and a splendid male Crimson-topaz Hummingbird. Besides birds, we were also pleased by excellent views of two groups of the “punk-like” Cotton-top Tamarin and no fewer than four Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths! After a succulent lunch near Tayrona NP (shrimp risotto for most of us), we drove to Minca to check-in to our nice hotel. During our mid-day break there, we enjoyed the hummingbird feeders attracting dozens of White-necked Jacobin, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, as well as a Pale-bellied Hermit. In the nice hotel garden we also found Whooping Motmot, Pale-breasted Thrush, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Bicolored Wren, and the splendid Golden-winged Sparrow. We spent the rest of the afternoon just below Minca, in very dry forest, looking successfully for the restricted-range Black-backed Antshrike and a shy Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant. After a successful afternoon we drove back to the Hotel to watch the effervescent hummingbird activity at the end of the day and enjoy a nice dinner and night in Minca.

The next day we spent all morning birding the upper part of Minca, mostly in shade-grown coffee plantation and patches of dry forest. This habitat really attracts boreal migrants, and the trees were full of North American birds here for the non-breeding season: dozens of Tennessee Warblers, American Redstarts, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a few Broad-winged Hawks. Of course, plenty of resident species were seen together with these migrants, such as Rufous-capped Warbler, Boat-billed and Streaked Flycatcher, the electric-blue Swallow Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Golden-winged Sparrow, and so many more. In the dense understory of the forest patches, we played with a few more secretive species, finding Rufous-breasted Wren, a male Barred Antshrike, a Scaled Piculet, and a responsive Santa Marta Foliage-Gleaner, but unfortunately the heard Rosy Thrush-Tanagers stayed hidden in the vegetation! After our lunch and a break during the hot hours (but enjoying the hummingbirds feeders), we began the drive towards El Dorado Lodge. Not a long distance to drive, but the road is in such bad shape that it took us almost two hours to reach the famous lodge. On the way we stopped at a private garden where we had repeated views of the sought-after Santa Marta Blossomcrown, as well as our first Santa Marta Emerald Toucanet and White-lored Warbler. After a glass of Guava juice and check-in at our comfortable lodge, we stayed in the lodge garden for the rest of the day, enjoying the amazing quantity of birds found near our cabins: massive numbers of Lesser (Green) Violetear and Crowned Woodnymph, several Band-tailed Guans coming to the compost, Crested Oropendolas doing their unique display, and the absolutely stunning Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to the fruit feeders. We even has a pair of the fantastic White-tipped Quetzals coming to the edge of the forest, and staying in the scope for a while, an amazing beginning and wonderful introduction to the next birding days we would have around the lodge.

We had two full days to explore the different elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, looking for the endemic species living in this isolated range. On our first day, we mostly explored the upper part, driving by night from the lodge to the ridge near Laguna Sagrada. We had a field breakfast enjoying the spectacular view of this wonderful cordillera, with Yellow-crowned Redstart singing around, a pair of Santa Marta Brushfinch looking for bread, and flocks of Scarlet-fronted Parakeets leaving their night roost. In the patch of forest and chusquea bamboo, we found lots of Black-cheeked Mountain Tanagers and Mountain Elaenia, together with Streak-capped and Rusty-headed Spinetails, had great views of no fewer than four Santa Marta Warblers, a skulking Flammulated Treehunter, groups of White-throated Tyrannulets, and even a very close view of a very cooperative Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrant. We had to work hard to see both Brown-rumped Tapaculo (but saw it finally) and Rufous Antpitta (the endemic spatiator subspecies that will be split very soon). We took the almost all day to walk and drive down the road towards the lodge, enjoying the scenery and the change in vegetation. We also stopped at an antpitta feeding station, active for only a few weeks, and enjoyed fantastic views of Santa Marta Antpitta! Back at the lodge in the middle of the afternoon, we still had plenty of time to enjoy the garden and the feeders, and had amazing views of two Black-fronted Wood-quail. After dinner, we had a night walk near the lodge, discovering all kinds of creatures!

We spent our second morning at El Dorado birding the “road” below the lodge. We again had nice views of White-tipped Quetzal and found a few Masked Trogons. A pair of Grey-throated Leaftossers reacted strongly to the tape and came very close to us. We had excellent views of a few new tanagers including Black-hooded and Black-capped, and a Sooty-capped Hermit also came close to us. But the most amazing sight of the morning was undoubtedly our close encounter with a Santa Marta Tapaculo. Best view ever of a tapaculo, singing from an open branch just a meter from us – unforgettable! After a great lunch at the lodge, enjoying the fantastic view of the surrounding forest, we spent the afternoon looking for some new species, but also enjoying repeat looks at species already found the previous days. A pair of Cinnamon Flycatchers was seen at a forest clearing, and an Olive-striped Flycatcher was feeding on small berries in a fruiting tree, confirming that the name “Fruit-tyrant” as given in the Colombia ProAves field guide is really appropriate! After dinner, we did another night walk near the lodge, listening to a Santa Marta Screech Owl and watching a Nine-banded Armadillo digging just two meters away from us.

Unfortunately, after two full days at El Dorado lodge, it was time to leave that amazing place and drive all the way back to Barranquilla. On the way, we spent most of the morning birding the shade-grown coffee plantation between El Dorado and Minca, and again found impressive numbers of birds: large numbers of Tennessee Warblers together with Slate-throated Redstarts, Swallow, Black-headed, Bay-headed and White-lined Tanagers, lots of Yellow-legged Thrushes and a nice Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, the cute Paltry Tyrannulet (the local subspecies should probably be considered as a different species, already called ‘Mountain Tyrannulet’). We also had a good look at Santa Marta Antbird, our last local endemic.

After an excellent morning’s birding, we headed towards the Minca hotel for a nice lunch watching the busy hummingbird feeders, and soon after continued onward to Barranquilla where this fantastic tour concluded the same way it had begun, with a fabulous dinner at our comfortable hotel.

-        Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 29 March 2017