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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2016 Narrative

In Summary:  Another fantastic tour to Colombia! Visiting the three cordilleras, crossing both the Magdalena and Cauca valleys, birding from sea level to 15,000 feet elevation, and even adding a few days in the isolated Santa Marta and Guajira Peninsula, we had an amazing overview of the Colombian avifauna. It’s hard to pick the best birds of the trip amongst hundreds of wonderful species, but here are some of the favorites as voted by the group: Hooded and Ochre-breasted Antpitta (two little ones who gave us amazing views!), a male Santa Marta Woodstar displaying and showing well his pink-purple gorget, the most wanted Northern Screamer, a stunning Santa Marta Antpitta giving a wonderful show after we dove into the bamboo, and the superb Crested Ant-tanager. We also visited more than 10 different hummingbird feeding stations and saw more than 60 species of these fascinating birds! It was even possible to feed Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Golden-breasted Puffleg on the hand! Obviously, besides the incredible diversity of birds we were amazed by the incredible diversity of flowers, orchids, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, etc. Colombia is definitely the country of biodiversity!

In Detail:  We spent our first day at Chingaza National Park, in the surrounds of Bogota. Located in the North-East of the Colombian capital, the 75,000+ hectares of Chingaza NP are protecting several glacier lakes and provide more than 80% of Bogota’s potable water. It also protects extensive and pristine cloud forest and paramo habitat, home to a wonderful bird community. We left the hotel very early (and this was the rule for most of the tour) to reach the park just after dawn for a field breakfast.

Birding through the cloud forest along one of the access roads, we enjoyed some mixed species flocks including Streaked Tuftedcheeck, Pearled Treerunner, Slaty and Pale-naped Brush-finch, White-throated Tyrannulet, and Rufous-browed Conebill. We also had a wonderful view of three Rufous Wrens foraging in the understory. We had to work harder to find the local (sub)species of Rufous Antpitta (which we saw very well after a few tries) and the secretive Pale-bellied Tapaculo (that one just made a brief appearance).

The dense fog and mist (the usual here!) pushed us towards lower elevation and on the way to our second birding spot, the recently established Hummingbird feeders in the village of Mundo Nuevo. It was wonderful to find there some usually difficult species such as Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Short-tailed Emerald and Gorgeted Woodstar coming to the feeders, together with Lazuline Sabrewing, Green and Sparkling Violetears and Amethyst-throated Sunangel. After a nice snack and coffee break in front of the feeders, we headed towards La Cadera for our lunch. On the way, we also found a stunning flock of 35+ Brown-breasted Parakeet. After seeing the wonderful show of these yellow-winged parakeets flying in front of the cloud forest background, I think we all agreed that the name ‘Flame-winged’ Parakeet is way more appropriate for that species!

After lunch we visited the Guasca gravel pit, where we soon found a few Andean Teals, a group of displaying Ruddy (Andean) Ducks, and an American Coot. But the main reason to visit these wetlands was to find the endangered Bogota Rail… and we did; having great views of three birds and hearing at least four more. We also flushed a Noble Snipe who gave us great views flying a few times around us! After a successful first day, we had nothing else to do than head back towards the Bogota traffic to be back at our hotel in time for dinner.

After enjoying the early morning Bogota traffic jam, we birded most of the morning at La Florida Park and golf course. In the reedbed of those remnant wetlands, we saw a few displaying Noble Snipe, a few flocks of Yellow-hooded Blackbird, heard a few Bogota Rails, and even found the very locally distributed Subtropical Doradito. A pair of Short-eared Owls was also foraging over the reeds. On the main pond, we found a few dozen Bare-faced Ibis, American Coots, Ruddy (Andean) Duck and a few Spot-flanked Gallinules. The nearby shrubs were relatively quiet, but we heard numerous Sparkling Violetears and saw a few Lesser Goldfinches, Andean Siskin, two Rufous-browed Conebill, a Glossy Flowerpiercer, and a Silvery-throated Spinetail made a short appearance too.

We then began our drive towards the Magdalena valley, stopping for lunch near San Francisco. But actually the main reason to stop at San Francisco was not the nicely grilled meat or fish, or the impressive ‘bandeja paisa’ we had for lunch, but to visit an unbelievable garden full of hummingbird feeders! No less than 34 feeders attracting hundreds of hummingbirds. We saw twelve species in just one hour, including Indigo-capped Hummingbird, Red-billed Emerald, White-bellied and Gorgeted Woodstar, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer and Black-throated Mango. After that amazing visit, we had to drive the rest of the afternoon to reach La Victoria for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

We spent almost all the following morning at La Victoria. Arriving there for dawn, we enjoyed the morning song of Little Tinamou, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Black-crowned Antshrike, Common Tody-flycatcher and Pale-breasted Thrush. Rapidly, we found a group of five White-mantled Barbets foraging atop a close tree. Following our endemic quest, we were pleased by a nice view of a small group of Sooty Ant-tanagers (whose beautiful song is the best ring tone ever!) and later in the morning had great views of Beautiful Woodpecker. It was a great day for manakins too, finding a displaying male Golden-headed Manakin and a female building her nest, a lek of White-bearded Manakin with several displaying males, and two superb Western Striped Manakin coming back a few times to the same fruiting tree. We also enjoyed views of more widespread species, such as Rufous-capped Warbler, Black-crowned Antshrike, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Olivaceous Piculet, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Channel-billed (Citron-throated) Toucan, Buff-rumped Warbler and Blue Dacnis.

We then drove to Mariquita for lunch, and after a feast of grilled meat and local fish, we headed towards El Hato road. Even if it was very hot during the afternoon, the bird activity was good and we had great views of Velvet-fronted Euphonia, Savanna Hawk on its nest, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Pearl Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Spectacled Parrotlet, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Cinnamon Becard and many more. A Barred Antshrike gave us a great show singing in the open, and in the same family, we had a great view of Jet Antbird while a White-bellied Antbird was more elusive. We also had a stunning view of a Russet-throated Puffbird killing a large cricket, plus stunning close views of a Barred Puffbird coming to the tape; two great puffbirds in a row! When we left El Hato road, more than a thousand White-collared Swift swarming in all directions filled the sky! We then headed towards El Libano for our comfortable accommodation and a great dinner.

Our birding activity was delayed because of some heavy rain, but after a few extra cups of coffee, we were able to bird the remnant patches of forest above El Libano. We rapidly found Black-headed and Yellow-headed brush-finches, both endemic to Colombia, and had great views of a few Black-winged Saltators, as well as a male Bar-crested Antshrike, our first Golden-faced Tyrannulet, two Whiskered Wrens, the superb Black-capped Tanager and a few Scrub Tanagers. We also had cracking views of a pair of Crested Ant-tanagers, voted as best bird of the day by the whole group!

After birding in the morning and a succulent lunch at our hotel, we had a long drive to reach Manizales on the other slope of the Central Cordillera. We departed by night to Rio Blanco Reserve, where we had our breakfast with view of several feeders attracting Buff-tailed Coronet, Long-tailed Sylph, Tourmaline Sunangel, Speckled Hummingbird, Collared and Bronzy Inca. In the garden, we had great views of Slaty Brush-finch, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager coming to the feeders, White-sided Flowerpiercer and even a flock of Golden-plumed Parakeet perched at the edge of the clearing!

The activity at the Antpitta feeding station was spoiled by heavy rain, even though we had excellent views of Chestnut-crowned and Slate-crowned Antpitta. Later, we also had a superb view of a Chestnut-naped Antpitta.  Birding the trail at Rio Blanco was very exciting as we regularly found new flocks of birds, including Blue-and-black Tanager, Golden-fronted Whitestart, Barred Becard, Pearled Treerunner, Steaked Tuftedcheek, Black-capped and Black-eared Hemispingus, and Montane Woodcreeper. Besides these flocks, we also had a nice meeting with both Andean and Sickle-winged Guans, a nice group of four Black-billed Mountain-toucans, a super male Masked Trogon, a stunning Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, and a small group of Black-collared Jays. In the dense bamboo, we also found a few Streak-headed Antbirds and a few Rufous-crowned Tody-tyrants, but the elusive Ocellated Tapaculo stayed hidden deep in the vegetation. We stayed until dusk in the reserve, planning to look for nocturnal birds, but heavy rain obliged us to drive back to the hotel.

We spent the morning at high elevation, birding the paramo of Nevado del Ruiz. We had our breakfast at 4,400 m elevation (14,500 feet) with a view of the snow-capped volcano of Ruiz culminating at 5,311 m elevation (17,425 feet), and with three Tawny Antpitta running between our feet! A nice Buffy Helmetcrest was also seen from our breakfast spot, foraging some Espeletia flowers. In the paramo we found a few Andean Tit-spinetails, several Paramo (Sedge) Wrens, a few Stout-billed Cinclodes, Plain-colored and Paramo Seedeater, Rufous-backed Chat-tyrant, and a few Plumbeous Sierra-finches.

In the forest patches found at that elevation, we crossed paths with a few flocks including Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Black-crested Warbler, Black-backed Bush-tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Pearled Treerunner, Golden-fronted Redstart and Glossy Flowerpiercer. A pair of Red-crested Cotingas was seen well too.

Now, the main attraction of the morning was undoubtedly the hummingbird feeders found at our lunch spot, attracting an incredible variety of usually ‘hard to see’ species: Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Black-thighed and Golden-breasted Puffleg, Viridian Metaltail, Great Sapphirewing, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Shining Sunbeam and Buff-winged Starfrontlet! It was hard to leave such a wonderful place, but we had to drive to our next destination, Otun Quimbaya Reserve. We arrived there at the end of the afternoon, just in time for a bit of birding in the garden, and some pre-dinner owling rewarded by an excellent view of Colombian Screech-owl.

After our early breakfast, we drove all the way up above the reserve, and unbelievably, our first bird of the day was the extremely rare and local Hooded Antpitta! Two birds were vocalizing on both sides of the road, and we didn’t even need to use playback to have great views of this stunning bird.

The flocks were loaded with plenty of stunning birds such as Beautiful Tanager, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Variegated Bristle-tyrant, Oleaginous Hemispingus, Black-winged Saltator, and Orange-bellied Euphonia. During our walk through the forest, we also had good views of Golden-headed Quetzal, Collared Trogon, Emerald Toucanet, and several Red-ruffed Fruitcrow. It took us some time to find the sought-after Cauca Guan, but after spotting a few Sickle-winged Guans, we finally saw that endemic species!

Scanning the Otun River regularly, we also had a great view of a male Torrent Duck, a White-capped Dipper and several Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet. After a lunch at the reserve, we began our long drive to Las Tangaras Reserve.

After our night at our comfortable lodge, we began our birding day with a beautiful view of the forested slope of the western cordillera. Flocks of birds surrounded us as soon as we stepped out of our jeep: Black-chinned and Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, Rufous-throated and Glistening-green Tanager, Handsome Flycatcher, Red-headed and Toucan Barbet, Red-faced Spinetail, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Golden-collared and Indigo Honeycreeper, Dusky Bush-tanager, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner and so many more. In two hours, we did not move more than 50 meters from our parking spot, and were still finding new species! An Ochre-breasted Antpitta gave us a wonderful show, not only coming close and in the open, but also shaking its whole body like a little Shakira (another Colombian specialty!). We also had great looks at Olivaceous Piha, Yellow-vented Woodpecker and a stunning male Masked Trogon.

We spent part of the morning on a nice trail through the pristine forest protected by ProAves (Colombian NGO leader in Bird and Nature Conservation), along which we found Yellow-breasted Antpitta, ‘Alto Pisones’ Tapaculo, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, White-headed Wren, Uniform Antshrike, several Ornate Flycatcher, Black-and-gold Tanager, Choco (Tricolored) Brushfinch and heard the beautiful song of Chestnut-breasted Wren. We had a great picnic meal while sitting in front of several feeders attracting Empress Brilliant, Violet-tailed Sylph, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Greenish Puffleg, Brown Inca, Purple-throated Woodstar, and perhaps the most beautiful hummingbird in the world, the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet. After lunch, we walked back along the road, finding several new species, and ending the afternoon with a nice view of Nariño Tapaculo! Everybody loves tapaculos, right?

We spent the morning visiting ‘La M’, another place protected by ProAves. The first birds we found were a group of four Munchique Wood-wrens (a recent split from Gray-breasted Wood-wren) coming just one meter from us and singing on exposed branches (what a loud song for such a small bird!) for at least 10 minutes. We then walked down the road going through the beautiful forest, almost untouched as far as one can see, finding several great birds such as Rufous Spinetail, Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrant, Hooded Mountain-tanager, Citrine Warbler (of the richardsoni subspecies, a possible forthcoming split), Slaty Finch, Yellow-bellied Siskin and Grass-green Tanager. We also had great views of a Tanager Finch coming very close to us and giving great photo opportunities, and a prolonged view of a beautiful male Barred Fruiteater!

After a very enjoyable morning, we drove back to our lodge for a nice lunch in front of the feeders attracting Steely-vented Hummingbird, Andean Emerald, Crowned Woodnymph, as well as Bay-headed Tanager, Yellow-backed Oriole and Red-crowned Woodpecker. We arrived in Jardín at the end of the afternoon, slightly delayed by a ‘home-made car’ race, and went directly to an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek. Three males were waiting for a female, and were displaying regularly. Of course, if a female came, she could not resist such beautiful birds and colorful displays! 

We had an early drive to Las Ventanas above Jardín. We did not have to wait very long to see several flocks of Yellow-eared Parrot, and even saw a few perched on a dead tree trunk. In the same family, we had good views of two Speckle-faced Parrots, and some of the group even saw a flock of 20+ Barred Parakeets high in the sky. Still before breakfast, we visited an antpitta feeding station and had excellent views of a Rufous Antpitta coming for his worms! It was now time for us to have our own breakfast, and we enjoyed eggs, arepa, and Colombian coffee or hot chocolate.

We spent the whole morning walking down the road, finding some great birds such as Citrine warbler, Golden-fronted Redstart, Blackish Tapaculo, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Streak-throated Bush-tyrant, Sharpe’s Wren, Lacrimose Mountain-tanager, and even a pair of Plushcaps following a mixed-species flock. But one of the best finds of the day was a group of five White-capped Tanagers which stayed very close to us for a while, giving us a wonderful opportunity to study this stunning bird and to photograph them. Another amazing bird was a Flammulated Treehunter jumping on the ground on the roadside, obviously looking for some prey, and staying in the open for a while!

We enjoyed our lunch in front of Hummingbird feeders, visited by Buff-tailed Coronet, Tourmaline Sunangel, Collared Inca and Sword-billed Hummingbird, and after a short rest, we birded the same road at lower elevation. After finding a pair of Smoky Bush-tyrants, and a short break because of heavy rain, we crossed paths with a large mixed-species flock including Black-billed Peppershrike, Ashy-headed and White-tailed Tyrannulet, Purplish-mantled Tanager and Beryl-spangled tanager.

We left Jardín at night and arrived at Bolombolo for a nice breakfast with view of Scrub Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia and Clay-colored Thrush. In the dry forest found in the bottom of the Cauca valley, we found our three main targets: Apical Flycatcher, Greyish Piculet and Antioquia Wren, all endemic to Colombia. Beside these restricted-range species, we also had good views of Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Streaked Flycatcher and Straight-billed Woodcreeper. We made our way to Medellín, and just before lunch birded La Romera where we immediately found a group of three Red-bellied Grackles – excellent views were had of that charismatic blackbird!

After lunch at a popular Colombian restaurant, we headed towards the ProAves’ Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve (Arrierito Antioqueño). We stopped for half an hour at a known place for Tody Motmot, which we only heard, but where we also found Black-crowned Antshrike, Orange-billed Sparrow, Dusky Antbird and a Bay Wren. We arrived at our comfortable lodge in the evening, just in time to enjoy a nice dinner and a quiet night.

The Chestnut-capped Piha reserve is a wonderful place to bird! On the trail, we quickly found the bird giving the name to the reserve; a local and threatened species, described less than 20 years ago. We also found Lanceolated Monklet, played with White-crowned and Stile’s Tapaculo, found a few flocks of tanagers including Silver-throated Tanager and Yellow-throated Bush-tanager, a family group of Parker’s Antbird, had great views of Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and had a short encounter with a White-tipped Sicklebill. The lodge itself is also a great place for birding, as the feeders are attracting Green-crowned Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald and Steely-vented Hummingbird in good numbers, and even Colombian Chachalaca coming to the bananas!

Birding the access road, we also had great views of White-mantled Barbet, Blackish Rail, Black-winged Saltator, Magdalena Antbird, Channel-billed (Citron-throated) Toucan, Bar-crested Antshrike. A pair of Tropical Screech-owls also gave us a wonderful show one evening!

Leaving the reserve for Medellin, we made a few stops during our travel day, finding Yellow-browed Shrike-vireo, a lovely male Rufous-crested Coquette (local and difficult to find in Colombia!), Golden-hooded Tanager together with Plain-colored Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and Yellow-backed Tanager. The best bird of the day was a Tody Motmot, finally spotted in the dense vegetation from where he was singing! We arrived at our comfortable hotel in Medellin for an appreciated rest in the afternoon.

We had another travel day, flying from Medellin to Barranquilla in the far north of the country arriving in the middle of the afternoon. After checking into our hotel, we headed towards the Universidad Del Norte grounds, looking for Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and had great views of that Colombian endemic!

The dry scrubland found here was different from the habitat we experienced during the first two weeks of our trip, as were the birds. Russet-throated Puffbird, Chestnut Piculet, Brown-throated Parakeet, Black-crested Antshrike, Bicolored Wren and Yellow Oriole were a good introduction to our forthcoming days birding in the Guajira Peninsula.

Having a pre-breakfast departure, we arrived at dawn at Isla Salamanca NP to bird a nice area of mangroves. After our field breakfast, we found a nice male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, followed by a pair of Pied Puffbirds, a few Bicolored Conebills and Northern Scrub-flycatcher.

This was followed by the visit to a nearby wetland, where we immediately found a nice Northern Screamer! Almost all the birds here were new for the trip: Black-bellied Whistling-duck, Rufescent Tiger-heron, Black-collared Hawk and Snail Kite, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pied Water-tyrant, Stripe-backed Wren, and so many more. 

We then headed to Minca, with a short stop on the way to add Black-backed Antshrike to our list, for a lunch surrounded by feeders. Another great meal, surrounded by Steely-vented Hummingbird, White-necked Jacobin, Pale-bellied Hermit and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, while a stunning Golden-winged Sparrow visited the fruit feeder! Because of the recent rain, the very bad road going to El Dorado Lodge was in even worse shape than usual (hard to believe!), and it took us part of the afternoon to reach that stunning lodge. As soon as we arrived, we enjoyed the surroundings and all the birds coming to the garden: Santa Marta and Sierra-Nevada Brushfinch, Band-tailed Guan, White-tailed Starfrontlet, Lazuline Sabrewing and even Black-fronted Wood-quail coming to the feeders!

With two full days at El Dorado, we had plenty of time to explore the various elevations of the ProAves reserve, and to find most of the local endemics. One of the best experiences here was probably to hide in the bamboo to see the stunning Santa-Marta Antpitta – what an experience! We also ‘enjoyed’ the tapaculo hunt, finding both Brown-rumped and Santa-Marta, had great views of White-tipped Quetzal, Yellow-crowned Whitestart, Black-cheeked Mountain-tanager, Santa-Marta Bush-tyrant, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Rusty-headed and Streak-capped Spinetail, White-lored Warbler, Santa-Marta Woodstar, the recently split Santa-Marta Blossomcrown, the new Wood-wren (the anachoreta subspecies of Gray-breasted Wood-wren being recently split into ‘Hermit’ Wood-wren), and so many more.

On our way towards Riohacha we made several stops at known stakeout places, finding fantastic birds such as Black-and-white Owl, Santa Marta Antbird, Keel-billed Toucan, Rosy-thrush Tanager, Paltry (Specious) Tyrannulet, Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wren, Blue-crowned Parakeet, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Double-striped Thick-knee and even a pair of Glaucous Tanagers. At our last birding stop, in the typical scrubland found in the Guajira peninsula, we found most of the local specialties in just one hour: Vermilion Cardinal, Orinocan Saltator, Pileated Finch, Bare-eyed Pigeon, White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Crested Bobwhite, and Trinidad Euphonia.

For our last morning, we birded some arid (and much overgrazed!) scrubland and some wetlands near Camarones. In the scrubland we found a few Buffy Hummingbirds, a nice Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, a few more Russet-throated Puffbirds, a pair of Yellow-breasted Flycatchers and had a last great view of the stunning White-whiskered Spinetail.

In the wetlands we studied large groups of terns including Royal, Sandwich, Least, Gull-billed and even a Common and a Black Tern. We also found some Greater Flamingoes, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Black Skimmer, Reddish Egret and more…. Indeed, a great way to conclude this fantastic tour!

 -        Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 18 August 2016