Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Central Colombia Trip Report - the following is a composite of my 2014 to 2017 scouting trips.  

I first traveled to Colombia in 2011, making a productive scouting trip to the north where I've subsequently led annual trips.  After falling in love with the landscapes and the people on that first visit, I've taken extra time each year to explore new areas of this tremendously biodiverse country.  While traveling to several far flung places, searching for range-restricted endemics, and getting a feel for Colombia's complicated biogeography, I was, of course, looking for the right ingredients to put together another birding and natural history trip.

It took a few years, but I've finally found a route in Central Colombia with the right combination of unique lodging, fairly easy travel, good trail access, and excellent habitat and species diversity, to create another memorable natural experience.  This new route explores Colombia's Western and Central Andes, the Rio Cauca Valley, and the high paramo of Los Nevados del Ruiz National Park.  We start in Medellin, which is one of Colombia's more modern and prosperous cities and is fairly easy to get to.  From our nice hotel, we head to the southern edge of the city and a regional park, La Romera, where patchy cloud forest is home to a variety of widespread Andean species as well as a few special endemics.  Though there are exotic eucalypts and pines, as well as some second growth, in just a few short visits, we've seen about 60 species here, including black-capped, metallic-green, and beryl-spangled tanagers, black-billed peppershrike, white-naped and chestnut-capped brush finches, emerald toucanet, Andean motmot, and green jay.  The special attractions, however, are three Colombian endemics - Colombian chachalaca, red-bellied grackle, and chestnut wood-quail.  While the wood-quail is almost always just a "voice in the forest", this might be the best location in the country to enjoy the beauty and the social behaviors of the red-bellied grackle, which, at least so far, we've yet to miss.  

After a morning at la Romera, we continue south towards the Western Andes, with several stops along the way.  Our first short stop is in the foothills on the south side of Medellin where a small roadside restaurant serves up bananas for a few local birds.  While having Andean motmots and emerald toucanets perched just a few feet away is pretty cool, the highlight for me are the acorn woodpeckers, which, along with oak trees, reach their southern limit in Colombia.  Though this is a fairly well known bird in dryish oak woodlands in the western U.S., it's interesting to see Colombia's unique race (in which the female has no red on her head) in evergreen Andean cloud forest.  Of course, it's hard to pass up the opportunity for some coffee, or better yet, one of the many flavors of fresh fruit juice.  As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of foods native to the country that you're traveling in, and while southern Mexico remains my top spot for its long list of delicious native foods, the Andes of South America have their specialties, especially among the fruit juices.  My favorites are tomate de arbol (tree tomato, which is indeed a Solanum), lulo (another Solanum), mora (a blackberry native to the mountains of Latin America), guayaba (guava), and araca (a cousin of guava).  

After a lunch stop, we drop down out of the Central Andes and cross the Rio Cauca valley.  The Andes of Colombia are unique in that they split into three distinct and isolated cordilleras.  These ranges are separated by low, tropical valleys through which two large rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, run most of the length of the country from south to north.  The valleys are low enough, and the adjacent cordillera are high enough, such that they act as biogeographic barriers for some wildlife populations.  Over time, the isolation that these barriers have created has resulted in a high level of endemism, and Colombia is home to almost 90 endemic birds.  We look for several of these endemics in lowland areas soon after crossing the Cauca valley - Antioquia wren, grayish piculet, and apical flycatcher.  We have very little exposure to "lowland" species on our route, so this stop can be interesting.  In addition to the three endemics, we've also seen streak-headed and cocoa woodcreepers, sooty-headed tyrannulet, southern bentbill, blue dacnis, black-striped sparrow, yellow-backed oriole, and a few others.

We then climb up and over the "crest" of the Western Andes, officially entering the Colombian department of Choco and the Pacific drainage.  (Because of the nature and orientation of the triple-cordillera and the two major rivers, the entire rest of our route is in Caribbean drainage.)  As we descend a short ways down the western slope of the Western Andes, we arrive at Proaves' Las Tangaras Reserve.  The comfortable lodge has nice rooms, great food, productive banana and hummingbird feeders, and is set on a bend of the scenic Rio Atrato.  Close up Andean eye-candy is hard to resist, and we usually head straight to the feeders after our arrival.  Among the seven or so hummingbirds are mostly fairly widespread species such as Andean emerald, rufous-tailed hummingbird, steely-vented hummingbird, sparkling violetear, purple-throated woodstar, and crowned woodnymph.  At the banana feeders are russet-backed oropendula, Andean motmot, and several colorful tanagers - white-lined, flame-rumped, scrub, bay-headed, and golden.  

The main highlight at Las Tangaras, however, is the 7000-acre core of the reserve which is found about 6 miles up an adjacent dirt road.  Here we enjoy expansive views of Choco cloud forest.  Amidst the typical Andean vegetation of Cecropia, Clusia, Bomarea, orchids, melastomes, tree ferns, philodendrons, and members of the Ericaceae and Lauraceae families is an impressive avifauna.  In the past we've seen all of the Choco endemics of the area - empress brilliant, v, brown inca, violet-tailed sylph, toucan barbet, narino tapaculo, yellow-breasted antpitta, uniform treehunter, fulvous-dotted treerunner, orange-breasted fruiteater, beautiful jay, Choco vireo, black solitaire, black-chinned mountain-tanager, gold-ringed tanager, black-and-gold tanager, glistening-green tanager, purplish-manteld tanger, indigo flowerpiercer, dusky chlorospingus, and yellow-collared chlorophonia.  Of course there are many other species as well and we've had good luck with olivaceous piha, bronze-olive pygmy-tyrant, variegated bristle-tyrant, slaty-backed chat-tyrant, scaly-throated and buff-fronted foliage-gleaners, smoky-brown woodpecker, black-and-chestnut eagle, barred hawk, green-fronted lancebill, white-tailed hillstar, greenish puffleg, masked trogon, uniform antshrike, yellow-breasted and rufous-rumped antwrens, chestnut-breasted wren, Narino and Alto Pisones tapaculos, buffy and streaked tuftedcheeks, fulvous-breasted flatbill, handsome flycatcher, golden-winged manakin, white-headed and sooty-headed wrens, tricolored brush finch, and a long list of colorful tanagers.  Ok, I think you get the idea.  It's a rich place.       

If you're a bird nerd, or just someone who's curious about and interested in biogeography, you may have noticed, particularly if you've birded in Ecuador, that several birds on this list of species, all of which are found on the "western slope of the Western Andes of Colombia", seem to be out of range.  That's because in Ecuador, where there is just one cordillera, they are found only on the eastern slope of the Andes and are never found on the west slope.  Welcome to the world of Colombia's complex biogeography.  In addition to the three-way split of the Andes in Colombia, there are mountain passes with relatively low elevations that allow some of these "eastern" slope birds to cross the cordillera and the valleys to the western slope.  In Ecuador there are no such passes and there one encounters a much simpler east-west division. 

After a few unforgettable days at Las Tangaras, we head to the eastern (or interior) slope of the Western Andes and the quaint town of Jardin.  Nestled in a scenic valley, this small city is a popular vacation spot for Colombians.  It also has a large tract of protected cloud forest above the town.  Here we stay at the quiet and charming Kantarrana Casa de Campo.  I often choose to stay at places where other birding and nature groups don't stay, and this is one of them.  Rather than stay at the busy and much less personal hotel (perhaps with over 100 other guests) closer to town, the Kantarrana is outside of town, has a bit of habitat, good service, and is just plain cute.  While in Jardin, we make two early morning visits to Proaves' Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve.  This species was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered by Colombian ornithologists in 1998.  The remarkable discovery led to immediate conservation efforts which then led to the creation of Proaves, Colombia's premier bird conservation organization.  While the original estimate of the total population in the late 90s was a precarious 100 birds, recent censuses indicate that there are now over 1500.  Like other rare Andean psittacines (Santa Marta parakeet, golden-plumed parakeet), this species is tied to wax palms (Ceroxylon sp.) for nesting.  We'll see these palms, and hopefully the parrots !!, as they fly from night roosts to feeding areas.  With great luck, we may even find them foraging in a nearby tree.

The cloud forest above Jardin is higher than that at Las Tangaras and hosts quite a few different species.  As in most other cloud forests, mixed flocks are where a lot of the action is, and the ones in this area can have blue-winged, lachrimose, hooded, and buff-breasted mountain tanagers, grass-green and blue-capped tanagers, capped conebill, green-and-black fruiteater, black-capped and oleaginous hemispingus, pearled treerunner, golden-fronted whitestart, slaty brush finch, crimson-mantled woodpecker, black-collared jay, plushcap and others.  At lower elevations on the edge of Jardin, there's an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek where we make an afternoon visit.  Like many people, I've had the good fortune to see this dramatic species in the forest at fruiting trees and also at several leks, but I've never seen them like I have here - in perfect light, at eye level, and less than 20 feet away with no obstructions. 

After a few nights in Jardin, we head south to the town of Manizales (the capital of Caldas Department) in the Central Andes.  Here we stay at the lovely Hotel Recinto de Pensamiento (a loose translation might be "place to quietly gather your thoughts").  Nice rooms, grounds with a little habitat, and a nice restaurant make this a perfect home base for our day trips.  The main attraction near Manizales is the Rio Blanco Reserve, a protected watershed with good forest about 30 minutes away from town.  Reserve staff have been wonderfully successful in employing the now fairly common (but not easy to do) "antpitta habituation" trick, and they have no less than four species that come to earthworm feeding stations.  In addition to two Colombian endemics - bicolored antpitta and brown-banded antpitta - are slate-crowned and chestnut-crowned antpittas.  We usually see all four of these in the morning before we walk the main road to enjoy some beautiful forest and a nice suite of birds that are "new for the trip".  While the hummingbird feeders have green violetear, bronzy and collared incas, buff-tailed coronet, white-bellied woodstar, and speckled hummingbird, the forest is home to sickle-winged and Andean guans, gray-browed brush finch, rufous-crowned tody-flycatcher, smoky bush-tyrant, rufous-breasted chat-tyrant, dusky piha, Sharpe's and mountain wrens, barred becard, citrine and russet-crowned warblers, balck-headed hemispingus, and the usual large variety of colorful Andean tanagers.  There are a few rare birds for which Rio Blanco is one of the better places to see them, and we've indeed had some luck with them in the past - masked saltator, golden-plumed parakeet, white-capped tanager, and rusty-faced parrot.

We'll have a day and a half to enjoy Rio Blanco before heading "uphill" to the nearby Los Nevados National Park.  Here we enter an entirely new world in terms of elevation and habitat.  We'll gradually work our way up to about 13,500 feet where grasses, cushion plants, flowering shrubs, paintbrush (just like in the states), and Espeletias make up the plant community of this region's paramo.  Espeletia is a unique genus of perennial sunflower, found only in the high Andes, in which the plants have a thick stalk that grows to about 6 feet tall and is topped with fuzzy "rabbit-ear-like" leaves and droopy yellow sunflowers.  While sunflowers are generally not a plant-of-choice for nectar-seeking hummingbirds, the Espeletias are, and the hummer that does come to them is a gorgeous endemic, the buffy helmetcrest.  Fortunately the helmetcrest is often found right near the park's visitor center (which has snacks and hot coffee).  While in the paramo, we usually see several other birds, including Andean siskin, stout-billed cinclodes, viridian metaltail, Andean teal, tawny anpitta, plain-colored seedeater, plumbeous sierra-finch, and Andean tit spinetail.  One of the other prizes of the area, and of course it's another Colombian endemic, is the rufous-fronted parakeet.  This unusual psittacine makes its home in the high grassy and shrubby paramo where it feeds on fruits, flowers, and even grass seeds on the ground (we'll even be looking for i in cattle pasture!).  It roosts and nests on rocky cliffs.

Los Nevados National Park is of course our highest, and potentially coldest, part of the trip. Because of its variable weather, I've set up our itinerary such that we have two visits - an afternoon and then a morning - which optimizes our chances of enjoying the dramatic scenery and special species of the area.  In my ongoing efforts to minimize our "in the vehicle" time, and maximize our "in the field seeing cool stuff" time, I've chosen the Hotel Termales del Ruiz for our lodging while at the national park.  This unique hotel is at just over 10,000 feet in cloud forest.  Its nice rooms, friendly service, and good restaurant are pluses, but the beautiful pool filled with water right from the hot spring is a highlight.  So, too, are the hummingbird feeders where over a dozen species can be seen at close range - great sapphirewing, golden-breasted and black-thighed pufflegs, shining sunbeam, viridian metaltail, and others.  Of course almost all hummers at feeders are seen at close range, but these birds will be as close as they can possibly get, as in perched on your hand !!  The hotel has small disk-shaped feeders, about he diameter of a quarter, that rest in your palm while hummingbirds perch on the edge of your hand to feed.  Pretty cool.  We spend one night here and have the opportunity to enjoy the cloud forest as well as all the other highlights of the area.

From Los Nevados, we head south a few hours to Pereira, the capital of Risaralda Department.  Here we spend our last two nights at a very comfortable hotel which serves as our home base for our last outing.  About an hour to the east of Pereira is the Otun-Quimbaya Reserve.  Quimbaya is the name of a now-extinct indigenous group from the area, and Otun was one of their well-known caciques.  Otun is now the name of the river that runs through the property.  We'll spend a full day at the reserve which is a community conservation effort with most employees coming from the nearby town of La Florida.  While walking through a combination of intact forest, second growth, and old pine and ash plantations, we'll be looking for several species we usually haven't seen yet.  These include three endemics - Cauca guan, crested ant-tanager, and multicolored tanager - as well as red-ruffed fruitcrow (they're actually common here!), rufous-naped greenlet, collared trogon, strong-billed and black-banded woodcreepers, rufous-breasted flycatcher, plumbeous-crowned tyranulet, rusty flowerpiercer, saffron-crowned tanager, and more. 

Colombia is well known as Earth's most bird-rich country.  With fascinating biogeography and wonderful people, it's becoming an ever more popular destination for nature-based travel.  It's now become one of my favorite places in what I think of as my home away from home, Latin America.  I'm excited about and greatly looking forward to sharing this new route with may of you next year !! 

Photos by Lisa and Li Li

Last updated: September 06, 2017.