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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains

2024 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, Buffy Hummingbird, Orinocan Saltator, White-lored Warbler, Black-backed Antshrike and a long list of “Santa Marta” species, such as Santa Marta Blossomcrown, Antbird, Tapaculo, Antpitta, Foliage-gleaner, Woodstar and Brushfinch. In addition to these very local species, we also enjoyed encounters with the stunning Northern White-fringed Antwren, the lovely Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to fruit feeders, a pair of the critically-endangered Blue-billed Curassow, the charismatic Russet-throated Puffbird, a beautiful pair of Rusty-breasted Antpittas, Golden-winged Sparrow, and so many more interesting sightings.  

Besides birds we also enjoyed an endless list of butterflies and moths, nice reptiles including good views of Green Iguana, and a few mammals such as Colombian Red Howler, and Cotton-top Tamarin.  

This tour was also notable for the great accommodations, with amazing hummingbird feeders at Minca and Mountain House Lodge attracting dozens of these magnificent and colorful birds. And last but not least, the meals were really fantastic, and we all enjoyed the tasty Caribbean food, especially the red snapper, shrimp, or seafood with coconut rice!

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 eating unidentified flowers, and also singing Northern Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, a few Saffron Finches, a flock of Glaucous Tanagers, and a few Yellow-crowned Parrots (feral population here) leaving their night roost. On our way out of the city, we stopped briefly along the Magdalena River, one of the most important Colombian rivers, finding four Northern Screamers standing in the floating vegetation, as well as two Great Blue Herons, two Large-billed Terns, a group of Brown-throated Parakeet perched atop a tree in the morning light, and a few Gray Kingbirds while dozens of migrant Northern Turkey Vultures soared overhead.

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 50 species of birds in less than two hours: Cocoi Heron, great views of Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, a beautiful pair of Russet-throated Puffbirds perched and displaying close in the open, several flocks of noisy Brown-throated Parakeets, family groups of Stripe-backed Wrens, great looks at Straight-billed Woodcreepers and Yellow-chinned Spinetails, the splendid Pied Water-Tyrant, common Red-crowned Woodpeckers, the stunning Spot-breasted Woodpecker and even a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers, a pair of Yellow-bellied Elaenia, three super-cute Turquoise-winged Parrotlets 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.

On the way to Riohacha, we stopped for lunch by a scenic riverside. It was great to have lunch while watching Carib Grackle, Green Kingfisher, Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a flock of Orange-chinned Parakeets!

Mid-afternoon, we arrived at the village of Camarones where we met Johny, our local guide from the Wayuu community. Birding the dry shrubland along the old access road to the village, we found the beautiful Black-crested (Streak-fronted) Antshrike and a lovely male Northern White-fringed Antwren, the both chestnut and both stunning White-whiskered Spinetail and Chestnut Piculet, a Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Northern Scrub Flycatcher and the sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar amongst others. In a nearby field, we spotted no less than 15 Double-striped Thick-knees doing some courtship display, as well as a pair of Buff-necked Ibis and two Aplomado Falcons. We ended the day with a delicious dinner in Riohacha.

We started our day with an early breakfast at Johny’s mom’s house, where she had prepared fruit, eggs, rosquillas (a fried bread) and of course Colombian coffee and hot chocolate for us, and it was a great way to start the day! 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. The first of them was the Rufous-vented Chachalaca, and we found birds perched atop a small bush and heard a few more calling. We also had excellent views at Trinidad Euphonia, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow Oriole, Brown-crested Flycatcher, the recently-split Caribbean Hornero, White-tipped Tyrannulet and Black-faced Grassquit. We even found a pair of the uncommon Black-backed Antshrike! We wrapped up our morning at a local garden where the owner feeds birds, attracting the mega-beautiful Vermillion Cardinal, a few Orinocan Saltators, Pileated Finch, Scaled Doves and a Buffy Hummingbird!

We then drove to La Jorara Lodge, a stunning place just by the Caribbean Sea. We arrived for lunch and enjoyed a wonderful grilled Red Snapper, and then a swim in the Caribbean Sea and/or a nap in one of the lodge hammocks! When the temperature dropped in the afternoon, we did some birding in a patch of dry forest where we found Thick-billed Euphonia, Crimson-backed Tanager, the splendid Lance-tailed Manakin, and two Red-legged Honeycreepers. We also had a nice flock of Nearctic migrants including Blackpoll, Black-and-white, Tennessee and Prothonotary Warblers, and Red-eyed Vireo, and had fantastic looks at a pair of White-necked Puffbirds perched in the open atop a tall tree. We couldn’t have ended the day better than with a delicious dinner and a peaceful night in our charming lodge.

After an early but tasty breakfast at La Jorara, we drove to the entrance of Tayrona National Park for a morning birding there with our local guide, Angel. The tall secondary growth forest attracts lots of interesting species – the most common, at least by voice, being Buff-breasted Wren. We saw a very long list of birds that morning including very good views of a pair of One-colored Becards, a pair of Rufous-and-white Wrens, and also Pale-bellied Hermit, Collared Aracari, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Streaked Flycatcher, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, White-chinned Sapphire, Cocoa Woodcreeper, White-bearded Manakin, Orange-crowned Oriole and Black-crowned Antshrike. Besides birds we also had excellent looks at two groups of Cotton-top Tamarins and a family group of Colombian Red Howlers.

But the most incredible find of the morning the pair of the critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow walking quietly on the forest floor, seen well by the whole group! Angel also knew where to find a roosting Great Potoo, and we had an excellent view just before we exited the park.

After a great lunch along the way, we stopped in Minca for an ice cream in front of hummingbird feeders attracting numerous White-necked Jacobins, Steely-vented Hummingbirds, White-vented Plumeleteers and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. And then it was time to head to our lovely lodge in the foothills above Minca, enjoying the super view of Santa Marta and the Caribbean coast as well as the Blue-naped Chlorophonias, Black-headed and Bay-headed (Bay-and-green) Tanagers, sparkling Crowned Woodnymphs, and dull Pale-breasted Thrushes, all coming to the garden.

The next day we spent all morning birding the upper part of Minca, mostly in shade-grown coffee plantation and patches of dry forest. In just a few hours we found so many of the Sierra Nevada endemics: a family of Santa-Marta Antbirds giving us an amazing show and offering fantastic views, a Santa-Marta Blossomcrown feeding on the flowers of Marmalade-bush together with a pair of Santa Marta Woodstars, a Sierra Nevada Brushfinch coming to a feeder in someone’s property, a pair of Santa Marta Tapaculos coming close to the tape, a few White-lored Warblers and plenty of Santa Marta Brushfinches! Besides these endemics, we also had Yellow-backed Orioles, flocks of Red-billed Parrots, a Gartered Trogon, two lovely Plumbeous Kites, and a pair of Masked Tityras. We even had cracking views on two Rusty-breasted Antpittas seen just a few meters from the road!

After lunch, we began the drive towards El Dorado Lodge and after arrival spent the rest of the afternoon in the lodge garden, finding a lovely pair of Masked Trogons, a beautiful Golden-olive Woodpecker, a Sickle-winged Guan and numerous Band-tailed Guans coming to the feeders. We ended the day with a drink watching the beautiful sunset on the Caribbean coast. What an amazing beginning and wonderful introduction to the next birding days we would have in the Sierra Nevada!

We had two full days to explore the different elevations of the cordillera, finding most of the endemic species living in this isolated range. We spent our first morning birding the “road” between the lodge and the San Lorenzo biological station. We started the day with decent views of two Brown-rumped Tapaculos attracted by the tape of their song, and then started our walk along the road. We found a few flocks, including Blackburnian and Black-and-white Warblers, Blue-capped Tanager, Brown-capped Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, Montane Woodcreeper and Streak-capped Spinetail. We also saw a sublime Yellow-breasted Chat-Tyrant (the Tyrant-Flycatchers family is usually under-rated, so I really enjoy using ‘sublime’ for one of them). Our lovely morning concluded with a nice show by two Santa Marta Antpittas coming to a feeding station. What a treat to see this very elusive (and obviously endemic) species in such excellent conditions!

For our second morning, we explored the upper part of the road, driving by night from the lodge to the San Lorenzo ridge. On the way we stopped twice for nocturnal birds but only heard a distant Santa Marta Screech-Owl. We then had a field breakfast enjoying the spectacular view of this wonderful cordillera, with a pair of Yellow-crowned Redstart singing around us! In the patch of forest and chusquea bamboo, we quickly found a family group of the beautiful Santa Marta Warbler, several Black-cheeked Mountain Tanagers and Mountain Elaenias, together with Streak-capped and Rusty-headed Spinetails. We also enjoyed close views of a pair of the recently-split Hermit Wood-Wren, and a prolonged scope view on a migrant Merlin. But the stars of the morning could well be the charismatic pair of Scaly-naped Parrots visiting a possible nesting cavity in a dead tree right by the road! Then, just as we were leaving to return to the lodge, we found an uncommon Santa-Marta Bush-Tyrant calling and foraging close to us — what a morning! During a short afternoon walk, we had another look at the splendid White-tipped Quetzal, and also Lined Quail-Dove, Montane Foliage-gleaner and Santa Marta Woodstar. And then it was time to say good night after a long and fantastic day.

After two full days in the Sierra Nevada, it was time to leave this amazing place and drive all the way back to Barranquilla. On the way down, we stopped at the lovely Mountain House Lodge for a breakfast on their terrace, enjoying the stunning activity at their feeders: Keel-billed Toucan, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Yellow-backed Oriole, Tennessee Warbler, the electric-blue Swallow Tanager and Rusty Flowerpiercer, all seen while enjoying the coffee produced by the owners of the lodge themselves! Continuing towards Minca, we made a few stops in the shade-grown coffee plantations, finding Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Scaled Piculet, Golden-winged Sparrow, a Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and our last restricted-range species: a Coppery Emerald feeding on the roadside and offering great views! We also found numerous North American migrants including American Redstart, Baltimore Oriole, and Broad-winged Hawk, and even added two species to the overall tour list: Yellow-throated Vireo and Acadian Flycatcher.

After an excellent morning’s birding, we headed to Hotel Minca for a nice lunch watching the busy hummingbird feeders, and soon after set off for Isla Salamanca. Delayed by a flat tire, we had little time at Isla Salamanca NP, but it was enough to find a lovely Pied Puffbird, a pair of Bicolored Conebills, a few Spotted Sandpipers, as well as Pied Water-Tyrant and a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

And with that, our fantastic tour concluded the same way it began, with a fabulous dinner of tasty Caribbean cuisine!

-          Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 25 January 2024