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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains

2023 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, 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, the charismatic Russet-throated Puffbird, a Little Tinamou walking quietly on the forest floor, and so many more interesting sightings.

The 10 best birds/sightings of the trip, as voted by the group, were Rusty-breasted Antpitta (we saw one so well on our last day!), Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Santa Marta Antbird, Vermilion Cardinal, White-tipped Quetzal, Barred Forest-Falcon, Golden-winged Sparrow, Santa Marta Screech-Owl and Montane Foliage-Gleaner. 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 Red Howler, and Gray-legged Night Monkey coming to the fruit feeders at El Dorado Lodge. 

This tour was also notable for the great accommodations, with amazing hummingbird feeders at Minca and El Dorado 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 and garlic prawns 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, and also a nice Red-crowned Woodpecker, a Straight-billed Woodcreeper, and a few Yellow-crowned Parrots 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 a Tricolored and a Cocoi Heron and a Large-billed Tern. Two Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures landed close to us 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 about 60 species of birds in less than two hours: lots of herons of several species, several shorebirds including eight Least Sandpipers, a Wilson’s Snipe and a few Solitary Sandpipers, great views of Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, beautiful Russet-throated Puffbirds perched 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 and even a pair of Spot-breasted Woodpeckers, a cute pair of the minute Common Tody-Flycatcher and so many more!! At a nearby stake-out we also found a few Bronze-brown Cowbirds (a possible split from Bronzed Cowbird) feeding together with Shiny Cowbirds and Scaled Doves. 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 Great-tailed and Carib Grackles, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, a pair of Common Black-Hawks and a few Southern Rough-winged Swallows!

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 few Slender-billed Tyrannulets and Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrants, a group of four Green-rumped Parrotlets and the sparkling Rufous-tailed Jacamar amongst others. In a nearby field, we spotted a few Double-striped Thick-knees resting in the shade of short trees, as well as a pair of Buff-necked Ibis and two Savanna Hawks. We ended the day with a delicious dinner in Riohacha.

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 no less than 15 birds calling in small groups from the treetops. We also had excellent looks at Trinidad Euphonia, Tropical Gnatcatcher, White-tipped Tyrannulet, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Northern White-fringed Antwren, the recently split Ochre-lored Flycatcher, Gray Kingbird and Orange-crowned Oriole. And even found a pair of the uncommon Black-backed Antshrike! At a ‘magic tree’, we had close and prolonged views of Glaucous Tanager together with Blue-gray Tanager, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Pale-legged Hornero and Pileated Finch! Unfortunately, after repeated attempts, a pair of Tocuyo Sparrows never came out in the open and instead stayed on the heard list.

We wrapped up our morning at a local garden where the owner feeds birds, attracting the mega-beautiful Vermillion Cardinal, a few Orinocan Saltators, Black-faced Grassquits, and a Buffy Hummingbird!

We then drove to the fabulous 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, a few Red-legged Honeycreepers, a female Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, and a Long-billed Gnatwren. We also had fantastic views of a pair of White-necked Puffbirds, a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, and a Double-toothed Kite perched in the forest understory. We couldn’t have ended the day better than with a mouthwatering plate of garlic prawns with coconut rice, a Caribbean specialty, and a peaceful night in our very comfortable lodge.

After an early but tasty breakfast at La Jorara, we drove to the entrance of Tayronaka reserve for a morning birding there. 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 Forest Elaenia feeding young chicks at their nest, the lovely Whooping Motmot, and also Rufous-breasted and Pale-bellied Hermits, Collared Aracari, Keel-billed Toucan, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Purple Honeycreeper, the migrant Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Blue-headed Parrot. We even found a group of at least six Military Macaws, a species whose population is slightly increasing in the area. But the most incredible find of the morning was the Little Tinamou seen walking quietly on the forest floor, seen well by the whole group.

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, Yellow-backed Orioles, 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. This habitat really attracts boreal migrants, and we found several North American birds here for the non-breeding season: Tennessee, Blackburnian, and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Summer Tanagers, and Broad-winged Hawks! Of course, plenty of resident species were seen together with these migrants, such as the stunning Chestnut-capped (recently split from Rufous-capped) Warbler, Boat-billed and Streaked Flycatchers, the electric-blue Swallow Tanager, Golden-winged Sparrow, and so many more. We also found a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle (usually rare here, even if this one would be the first of three different sightings!) soaring above us, being mobbed by a Short-tailed Hawk! In the dense understory of the forest patches, we played with a few more secretive species, finding Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-White Wrens, a Scaled Piculet, and even a Rosy Thrush-Tanager! For the ‘Santa-Marta’ species, we had fantastic views of a Santa-Marta Foliage-gleaner singing from an exposed perch, a pair of Santa-Marta Antbirds giving us an amazing show, and a pair of Santa-Marta Blossomcrowns feeding on the flowers of Marmalade-bush!

After lunch, we began the drive towards the famous El Dorado Lodge. Not a long distance to drive, but the road is in such bad shape that it took us about an hour to drive just two miles. On the way, we made a short stop in the forest where we had an unforgettable sighting of two Santa Marta Tapaculos chasing each other!

After 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 Violetears and Crowned Woodnymphs, a pair of White-tailed Starfrontlets, plenty of noisy Band-tailed Guan coming to the compost, both Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada Brushfinches, and the absolutely stunning Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to the fruit feeders. What 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 San Lorenzo ridge. On the way, we stopped twice for nocturnal birds and had amazing views of the recently described Santa Marta Screech-Owl and a beautiful male Band-winged (Rufous-Naped) Nightjar. We then had a field breakfast while enjoying the spectacular view of this wonderful cordillera, with Yellow-crowned Redstart singing around, and a flock of Scarlet-fronted Parakeets leaving their night roost to perch in the trees in front of our breakfast table! In the patch of forest and chusquea bamboo, we found several Black-cheeked Mountain Tanagers and Mountain Elaenias, together with Streak-capped and Rusty-headed Spinetails, the recently split Hermit Wood-Wren and Black Flowerpiercer. We even had a close view of Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrants and found an uncommon Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant calling from atop a dead branch! We got a wonderful show of two beautiful Santa Marta Warblers following a mixed-species flock and singing in the open just a few meters from us. And a pair of White0tipped Quetzals were seen very close offering incredible views. What a morning! Back to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon break, we had plenty of time to enjoy the garden and the feeders. During a short walk from the lodge, we had a prolonged view of a close Gray-throated Leaftosser (actually tossing leaves) and found our first White-lored Warblers. Later, our dinner was interrupted by three Gray-legged Night Monkeys, including a female with a young baby on her back, coming to a fruit feeder. And then it was time to say good night after a long and excellent day.

We spent our second morning at El Dorado birding the “road” between the lodge and the San Lorenzo biological station. Besides the species already contacted the previous day, we also found a few new ones, such as Brown-rumped Tapaculo, a pair of Southern (Santa Marta) Emerald-Toucanet, Rusty-headed Spinetail, Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, and a fantastic scope view of a beautiful White-rumped Hawk perched at the edge of a landslide.  We also looked for the elusive Santa Marta Antpitta. Two individuals came close to us, attracted by the tape, but only Ferenc managed to see one crossing the road.

After a great lunch at the lodge, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest, we walked down the road the lodge. Our nice afternoon walk began with prolonged close views of Masked Trogons, followed by a quality sighting of a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush standing quietly on his understory perch allowing scope views! Then a pair of the impressive Strong-billed Woodcreepers came in close, and while we were watching these superb birds, a Barred Forest-Falcon appeared, giving incredible looks while he was calling from an exposed branch! And that’s not all: we then got on a Black-banded Woodcreeper foraging close, a male Golden-breasted Fruiteater, a singing Black-hooded Thrush, and finally a pair of the endemic White-lored Warbler. It was now time to drive back to the lodge and celebrate the wonderful time we had at El Dorado!

After two full days at El Dorado lodge, it was time to leave this amazing place and drive all the way back to Santa Marta. On the way we spent most of the morning birding the shade-grown coffee plantation between El Dorado and Minca, visiting a flowering garden to wait for hummingbirds. Our wait was successful, and we enjoyed good looks at Coppery Emerald, Santa Marta Woodstar and Santa Marta Blossomcrown! Near the garden, we also had an amazing view of a mega-cute Rusty-breasted Antpitta and found Spectacled Tyrannulet and Cocoa Woodcreeper. 

On our way back down to Minca we found a few new birds including Masked Tityra, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Rusty Flowerpiercer, and also had a close flyby of two Military Macaws, as well as an amazing encounter with a family of Scaled Piculets with two fledglings still being fed by the adults.

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. Traffic delays en route left us with little time at Isla Salamanca NP, but it was enough to find a lovely Pied Puffbird, a pair of Bicolored Conebills, a Northern Scrub-Flycatcher building its nest, and a few Solitary Sandpipers, as well as Pied Water-Tyrant and Panama Flycatchers. And with that, our fantastic tour concluded the same way it had begun, with a fabulous dinner at our comfortable Barranquilla hotel. 

-          Fabrice Schmitt

Created: 03 March 2023