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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colombia

2019 Narrative

In Brief: Another wonderful Colombia tour. We visited all three cordilleras, the isolated sky massif of the Santa Marta Mountains, both main valleys (Magdalena and Cauca), the semi-desert Guajira peninsula and the steamy lowlands of the Caribbean coast…and a whole lot in between. Diversity is the key word when thinking of any Colombia trip and all the mountains and forests sure produced a lot of birds. Perhaps this year’s standout was the antpitta haul. We enjoyed good and often crippling views of no less than fifteen(!) species on the trip – something unthinkable even ten years ago! There were so many other brilliant birding moments throughout the tour that it’s hard to pick them out. Of course it was not just about the birds — we also enjoyed a host of other wildlife (including some close up encounters with some special mammals), jaw-dropping scenery, and friendly Colombian hospitality.

In Detail: Our tour started with an early morning visit to Chingaza National Park. This Park is situated close to Bogota and protects a huge area of windswept Paramo and temperate forest. After a quick field breakfast we were soon into the birding and one of the first species that we came across was an Agile Tit-Tyrant, a real surprise. The same loose mixed flock held Plushcap and Pale-naped Brushfinch. Walking further down the road and we added the near-endemic Bronze-tailed Thornbill and both Brown-backed and Crowned Chat-Tyrants.

We then dropped to slightly lower elevations where we found a couple of Rufous Antpittas (of a vocally distinct and probably soon to be split subspecies) plus a Pale-bellied Tapaculo. Skulking furnarids included White-chinned Thistletail and the wrenlike White-browed Spinetail, while the delightfully dapper Pearled Treerunner was seen moving with mixed flocks. The mixed flocks kept us busy, also containing White-throated Tyrannulet, Rufous Wren, Black-crested Warbler, Golden-fronted Redstart, Superciliaried Hemispingus and Slaty Brushfinch.

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers were common (here and at many highland sites through the tour) and we also located a pair of the highly desirable Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers. We found plenty of the near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill and managed four species of Flowerpiercer, with Black, Glossy, White-sided and Masked all seen well. The roadside edges were also productive, with their foraging Plumbeous Sierra-Finches and a single bonus Paramo Seedeater. A couple of Red-crested Cotingas were obliging and for once showed off their elegant crests, while and a few Brown-bellied Swallows hawked overhead.

After lunch we started drifting back to Bogota with a roadside stop producing the endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail (despite the bothersome traffic) and we also added Andean Siskin, Yellow-backed Oriole and a brief Black-backed Grosbeak on the journey. In the afternoon we made a visit to a well-known hummingbird garden, where we found Lesser and Sparkling Violetears, Black-and Green-tailed Trainbearers, Glowing and Coppery-bellied Pufflegs, Tyrian Metaltail, the near endemic and truly dazzling Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing and both White-bellied and a surprise Gorgeted Woodstar– a really impressive haul and a great way to start off our hummingbird tally. The area surrounding the garden also held a couple of Streak-throated Bush-Tyrants and the final journey back to Bogota produced a roadside White-tailed Kite.

The next morning, we headed to La Florida Park on the edge of Bogotá. In just a couple of hours we managed to find the endemic Bogota Rail along with Subtropical Doradito and Yellow-hooded Blackbird. Wildfowl on the lake included plentiful Andean Ducks and a couple of Blue-winged Teal, while Pied-billed Grebes were abundant and we also saw plenty of American Coot and Common Gallinule. Return migration had just started and as well as a scattering of Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, we also enjoyed some passage Barn and Cliff Swallows, which were hawking over the pool. We also found our first mammal with several Brazilian guinea pigs feeding around the lake edge.

We then made a short stop at Laguna Tabacal which added Least Grebe, Green Heron, Olivaceous Piculet, Red-crowned Woodpecker and the near endemic Spectacled Parrotlet and Bar-crested Antshrike. Steady birding in this small but productive forest remnant added Plain Antvireo, White-bellied Antbird, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, White-bearded Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Pale-breasted and Black-billed Thrushes and Rufous-capped Warbler. We also started to rack up the tanagers with Grey-headed, White-shouldered, Crimson-backed, Scrub and Blue-necked all seen, along with Green Honeycreeper and Buff-throated Saltator. We retired to a nearby village for lunch but even then the birding didn’t stop as we managed to find a surprise Orange-crowned Oriole from the restaurant balcony.

Next we visited a garden absolutely full of hummingbird feeders and we managed to add White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Black-throated Mango, Red-billed Emerald, White-vented Plumeleteer, Andean Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, the endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird and a single Ruby Topaz. The garden was simply buzzing with birds and at times it was hard to know where to look. We then spent the hot afternoon dropping down in to the Magdalena valley. A short stop at a dry forest site virtually on the banks of the river added Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Scrub Greenlet and the endemic Apical Flycatcher.

The next morning, we headed out in to the humid lowland forest at the La Victoria reserve. We focused on several key endemics and were lucky to find White-mantled Barbet, Sooty Ant-Tanager and Beautiful Woodpecker – all of which showed very well. A couple of Citron-throated Toucans were also very obliging, while Blue-headed Parrot and Scarlet-fronted Parakeet were overhead. Black-crowned Antshrikes ranged through the mid canopy and mixed flocks held Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops. Another target was White-bibbed Manakin, which can be tricky but we managed to find six! We also noted Golden-headed Manakin, Rufous-naped Greenlet and Black-chested Jay. White-thighed and Southern Rough-winged Swallows hawked overhead along with our first Grey-breasted Martins.

The understorey held Scaly-breasted and Sooty-headed Wrens, Orange-billed Sparrow and a Buff-rumped Warbler. We also found Black-faced, Golden-hooded, Plain-coloured, Yellow-backed and Bay-headed Tanagers and both Yellow-tufted and Blue Dacnis. Other odds-and-ends included Stripe-throated Hermit, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Purple Honeycreeper and Fulvous-vented Euphonia.

In the afternoon we birded some dry forest and farmland en route to Libano. This produced wonderful views of Crested Bobwhite, Pearl Kite, the scarce Dwarf Cuckoo, all three species of Ani (Greater, Smooth-billed and Groove-billed) and some very showy Barred Puffbirds. We also found Jet Antbird, Forest and Greenish Elaenias, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Pied Water Tyrant, Boat-billed and Streaked Flycatchers, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Grey Seedeater, Black-faced Grassquit and Red-breasted blackbird. Our main target was the endemic Velvet-fronted Euphonia and after some searching we located a single individual. We then climbed out of the hot Magdalena lowlands and up in to the foothills of the central Andes where we were to spend the night.

The next morning, we were birding the remnant forest patches above Libano. We soon found our main target: the endemic Yellow-headed Brushfinch. We also added Squirrel Cuckoo, Andean Motmot, Grey-throated Toucanet, Slaty Antwren, Montane Woodcreeper, Pale-breasted and Slaty Spinetails, Slaty-capped Flycatcher and a female Golden-winged Manakin. The roadside birding here kept us busy and further highlights included Yellow-faced Grassquit, Speckled Hummingbird, Bronzy Inca and a skulking White-crowned Tapaculo. Mixed flocks held White-winged Becard and Brown-capped Vireo, while Whiskered Wren skulked deep in cover and we picked up our first Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens along with Three-striped Warbler and Slate-throated Whitestart. One person managed to see a very skulking Rosy Thrush-Tanager and we also added our first Black-winged and Streaked Saltators. Further Brushfinches included Black-headed and White-naped, while a Highland Hepatic Tanager was a bonus. The afternoon was taken up with a long climb over the central Andes, with a short stop in the highlands in the afternoon producing Plain-coloured Seedeater.

The next day we spent the whole day at Rio Blanco. This is normally one of the most anticipated days of the trip and it would not disappoint. Rio Blanco is famous for its antpitta feeding and you always see a couple of species being fed – if you’re real lucky you may see three or four. We were incredibly lucky and managed to see a whopping five species of antpittas at the feeders! We started with the sometimes erratic Bicolored, which not only showed up but showed well. We then had the main prize of the day when an Undulated Antpitta (a rare species here) fed unconcernedly along the side of the road and came to take some worms. After this we enjoyed great views of Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded Antpittas and rounded things of with the diminutive Slaty-crowned Antpitta. We also continued to increase the hummingbird list with White-throated Wedgebill, Collared Inca, Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph and Fawn-breasted Brilliant.

Walking the forest trails produced Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan and Smoky-brown, Yellow-vented and Golden-olive Woodpeckers. Some stunning views of a couple of Rusty-faced Parrots (a rare and erratic species here) were a real trip highlight. The understorey held Streak-headed Antbird and Blackish Tapaculo, while mixed flocks produced Streaked Xenops, Streaked Tuftedcheek and Montane Foliage-gleaner. Our Flycatcher list increased with White-tailed and Black-capped Tyrannulets, Streak-necked, Pale-edged, Golden-crowned and Cinnamon Flycatchers, Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Smoky Bush-Tyrant and both Yellow-bellied and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrants. We also enjoyed good looks at Green-and-black Fruiteater, Black-collared Jay and Sharpe’s Wren. The river produced a showy White-capped Dipper and we also found Blackburnian and Russet-crowned Warblers. The Tanager list included White-capped, Fawn-breasted, Blue-and-black, Beryl-spangled, Grass-green, Golden and Metallic-green Tanagers, along with Grey-hooded Bush-Tanager and Lacrimose and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers. The flocks here really are very busy, and we also found Black-capped and Black-eared Hemispingus, White-capped Conebill, Common Chlorospingus, and both Grey-browed and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches. In the afternoon we also managed to find a flock of Red-hooded Tanagers, another species that is quite scarce in Colombia and which can be hard to find.

The following morning, we left early for Nevado del Ruiz. Before heading up to the main mountain we stopped at another antpitta feeding site. Here we managed superb views of Crescent-faced Antpitta. Further birding in the vicinity also produced Powerful Woodpecker, Barred Fruiteater and a Rufous Antpitta (of the nominate subspecies) at another feeding spot.

We then climbed up to the high point of the tour – the entrance to Los Nevados NP, where we managed good views of the endemic Buffy Helmetcrest and Western Tawny Antpitta, along with Stout-billed Cinclodes, Many-striped Canastero, Andean Tit Spinetail, Palin-capped Ground-Tyrant and Sedge Wren.

The nearby lake held a pair of Andean Teal and as we dropped down to a hummingbird garden, some birding en route allowed us to pick up the superb Purple-backed Thornbill, along with White-banded Tyrannulet, Blue-backed Conebill and Black-backed Bush-Tanager. The feeders at the hummer garden were buzzing and we added Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Viridian Metaltail, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Shining Sunbeam and Buff-winged Starfrontlet. In the afternoon we headed over to Otun Quimbaya and managed to find a nice male Torrent Duck and a Torrent Tyrannulet on the drive. We also arrived just in time to enjoy some of the endemic Cauca Guans around the visitor centre.

The following morning, we set out early and spent some time looking for the Hooded Antpitta which eventually showed very well. We also enjoyed good views of Sickle-winged Guan, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Variegated and Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrants and Ashy-headed Tyrannulet. The Red-ruffed Fruitcrow is also a major target at Otun and we saw a couple very well. Chestnut-breasted Wrens were more skulking but eventually showed and we also found Flame-rumped, Multicolored, Saffron-crowned and Black-capped Tanagers, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, and Orange-bellied Euphonia. We then transferred across to the western Andes with quick roadside stops adding White-tailed Hawk and Spectacled Owl on a day roost.

The next day was spent entirely Las Tangaras Reserve. This is always one of the birdiest days of the tour and it proved very busy. We started along the road where we found Toucan Barbet and Black-and-gold Tanager. A roosting Lyre-tailed Nightjar showed well and new hummers included Tawny-bellied Hermit, Violet-tailed Sylph, Greenish Puffleg, Brown Inca, Velvet-purple Coronet, White-booted Racket-tail, Rufous-gaped Hillstar, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Empress brilliant, Long-billed Starthroat, Purple-throated Woodstar, and Steely-vented Hummingbird – phew!

Birding in the forest added Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-rumped and Yellow-breasted Antwrens, Uniform Antshrike and an amazing three Ochre-breasted Antpittas. We also found Tatama and Nariño Tapaculos, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Buff-fronted, Scaly-throated and Lineated Foliage-gleaners and Uniform Treehunter. Our flycatcher list once again continued to increase with Ornate, Handsome and Flavescent Flycatchers and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant. Other highlights included Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Olivaceous Piha, Chocó Vireo, Beautiful and Green Jays, White-headed Wren, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Purplish-mantled, Glistening-green, White-winged and Silver-throated Tanagers, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Olive Finch, Chocó Brushfinch and Crested Ant-Tanager. A flock of the endemic Red-bellied Grackle were also a bonus.

The following day we made the climb up to the higher elevation La Eme ridge where we quickly found two main targets, Tanager Finch and the endemic Munchique Wood-Wren. We also found Rufous Spinetail, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, a couple of Pale-footed Swallows Citrine and Russet-crowned Warblers, Hooded Mountain-Tanager and Bluish Flowerpiercer. In the afternoon we travelled across to the beautiful colonial town of Jardin where we arrived in time to visit the Cock-of-the-Rock lek. This lek really is something else and allows unbelievable close-up views of these fascinating birds. We also found a flock of Bronze-winged Parrots, White-lined Tanager and Russet-backed Oropendola.

The following day was a busy day at the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve. After scoping out a flock of the Parrots at dawn we moved on to another feeding station where we saw some very tame Chestnut-naped Antpittas. We then spent the rest of the day birding in the temperate forest and managed to see White-rumped Hawk, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Speckle-faced Parrot, Ocellated Tapaculo (a couple), Spillman’s Tapaculo, Rusty-winged Barbtail, Golden-crowned Tanager, Northern Mountain Cacique and a second and much more showy Chestnut-crested Cotinga.

The following day we made the long drive to the Piha Reserve but we stopped off in the Cauca valley en route – this produced Antioquia Wren, Greyish Piculet, Apical Flycatcher, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Chivi Vireo, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Clay-coloured Thrush, Golden-crowned Warbler and Black-striped Sparrow. Other birds seen roadside on the journey included Savanna Hawk, Acorn Woodpecker (at our roadside lunch stop), Crested Oropendola and Collared Aracari.

The following day was spent entirely on the trails at the Piha Reserve. The trails kept us busy with Lanceolated Monklet, Parker’s Antbird, Streak-capped Treehunter, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Wing-barred Piprites, Speckled Tanager, Yellow-throated Chlorospingus, and Blue-naped Chlorophonia, while Green-crowned Brilliant in the garden was new. The Piha proved rather difficult and was only seen by a couple. In the evening some owling around the lodge produced Tropical Screech-Owl, Stygian Owl and Mottled Owl, quite an impressive diversity for one single site.

The next morning we had originally planned on birding the trails but heavy rain put paid to that and although we managed a short walk, in the end we left and began the journey back to Medellín with birding stops. We did manage Scarlet-and-white Tanager and Collared Trogon before our departure. Our first roadside stop produced Blue-lored Antbird, while further down the road we added Bay Wren, Magdalena Antbird, Ruddy Pigeon, Yellow-throated Toucan, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Guira Tanager.

The next day, instead of early morning birding, we had an early morning flight via Bogotá. By early afternoon it was all change as we were in the arid semi-desert peninsula that is the Guajira – the northern tip of South America. Of course now we were into a whole set of different birds and we were quickly racking up the Guajira near endemics. Bare-eyed Pigeons were common while Common-ground and Scaled Doves fed quietly in the shade. We visited a garden where Buffy Hummingbirds were coming to feed along with the dashing Orinoco Saltator on the fruit feeders and several simply stunning Vermilion Cardinals. We also added Yellow Oriole and Trinidad Euphonia.

Further exploration of the surrounding scrub yielded a flock of Green-rumped Parrotlets and mixed flocks which held Back-crowned Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, the stunning White-whiskered Spinetail, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Slender-billed Inezia, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Grey Kingbird, Bicolored Wren and Pileated Finch. We also got to experience a little of the culture of the indigenous Wayuu who call this desert their home, as we threaded in between their wattle and daub houses and said hello to the ladies in their brightly coloured traditional clothing.

Of course, we were birding near or at times on the shore so off the Caribbean – Magnificent Frigatebirds cruised overhead, while plentiful Brown Pelicans passed by. The wetlands and lagoons held our first Reddish Egrets and Little Blue Herons, along with White Ibis and Black-necked Stilt.

The lagoon mouth played host to a whole wealth of new waders for the trip, including Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Whimbrel, Turnstone, Least, Pectoral, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers and American Oystercatcher. Best of all was a Dunlin, a Colombia vagrant and a Colombia tick for the leader who has lived in the country for 11 years! There was also a good selection of Terns with Yellow-billed, Large-billed, Caspian, Common, Royal and Cabot’s all present, along with the ubiquitous Laughing Gulls.

The next morning, we continued in the Guajira searching out those specialities that we had missed on the previous day. At dawn we visited a site for Rufous-vented Chachalaca, where we enjoyed good looks at several birds. We also found Ochre-lored Flatbill and some Wood Storks were seen flying overhead. A couple of Harris’s Hawks were perched roadside and Limpkin was added along with a couple of Double-striped Thick-Knees. Birding in the scrub produced Shining-green Hummingbird, Chestnut Piculet, Brown-throated Parakeet, Black-backed Antshrike, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Caribbean Hornero, Pale-tipped Inezia, Glaucous Tanager and best of all, the much desired Tocuyo Sparrow.

We then made a stop in some gallery forest as we headed west along the coast, where we found a superb pair of White-necked Puffbirds, a male Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Buff-breasted Wren and a smart Lesson’s Seedeater. Another stop also produced a nice group of Blue-Crowned Parakeets and a Laughing Falcon was seen from the car. In the late afternoon we began our climb to El Dorado Lodge managing to see day-roosting Black-and-white Owl en route.

The next day, we headed up into cooler temperatures again for a morning on the San Lorenzo ridge above El Dorado. This was our day for Santa Marta endemics and it really produced. We enjoyed excellent views of the sometimes tricky Santa Marta Parakeet and Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant. We also picked up most of the commoner endemics, including Santa Marta Brushfinch, Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager and Hermit Wood-Wren. Scaly-naped Parrots were common overhead, while some searching allowed us to see Rufous Antpitta (of the Santa Marta endemic race) and we also picked up Brown-rumped Tapaculo. Streak-capped Spinetails were common but a single Rusty-headed Spinetail was much more skulking. We also got good looks at Santa Marta Warbler and Yellow-crowned Redstart.

We slowly descended from the lodge with a late afternoon visit to the antpitta feeder, where we enjoyed great looks at a Santa Marta Antpitta. We then returned to the lodge where Band-tailed Guans were plentiful, and a Lined Quail Dove was visiting the feeder. We also added a single White-tailed Starfrontlet and several Lazuline Sabrewings, with Black-hooded Thrush being seen in the surrounding trees. In the evening we enjoyed watching Kinkajou and Grey-handed Night Monkeys that came to feed on bananas put out by the lodge.

The next morning we mainly birded below the lodge looking for some species that we had not yet seen. A nice Plain-breasted Hawk was perched up and we also added the scarce Ruddy Woodcreeper. A couple of Santa Marta Blossomcrowns were seen well, as was a male Santa Marta Woodstar, which was scoped on a high perch. We found the Yellow-billed Toucanet and the handsome Keel-billed Toucans, while the often-skulking Santa Marta Antbird gave exceptional views. We also managed good looks at a couple of Rusty-breasted Antpittas, a single Santa Marta Tapaculo, a very confiding Grey-throated Leaftosser, and a skulking Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner. The poorly known Spectacled Tyrannulet took some searching and we also picked out a couple of Golden-breasted Fruiteaters. Other bits and pieces included Rusty Flowerpiercer, Dull-coloured Grassquit and Black-headed Tanager. Finally, we added our tenth Brushfinch of the trip: the endemic Sierra Nevada Brushfinch.

The next day we descended the mountain for the last time and made our way out along the coast to the bustling city of Barranquilla, our home for our final night. On the way we made several stops to keep adding to our now rather long trip list. As we descended, we picked up Whooping Motmot, Scaled Piculet, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Golden-winged Sparrow and Rufous-breasted and Rufous and White Wrens. We also found another, much more obliging Rosy Thrush Tanager, which was seen by all.

An afternoon visit to the Mangroves produced Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Pied Puffbird, Golden-green and Red-rumped Woodpeckers , a roosting Lesser Nighthawk, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Panama Flycatcher and Bicolored Conebill. The nearby wetland added Tricoloured Heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Snail Kites, Large-billed and Black Terns and Black Skimmer. We finished the day at a site on the edge of Barranquilla where we enjoyed good numbers of the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca.

And so came our final morning in the marshes near Barranquilla. We still had some species to look for so there was no let-up in the birding until the end. The marshes produced White-faced Whistling-Duck, White-cheeked Pintail, Cocoi Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Purple Gallinule and our first Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. We also located some very confiding roosting White-tailed Nightjars, a couple of Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, Amazon and Green Kingfishers, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, a surprise groups of Turquoise-winged Parrotlets, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant and plentiful Stripe-backed Wrens.

After a final busy morning it was time to head back to the hotel for lunch, showers and on for our homeward flights. It was a superbly successful tour, chock full of highlights, and we managed to see many of the main targets, plus a surprising number of bonus species.

- Trevor Ellery

Created: 19 February 2020