In recent years, Colombia has once again become a rewarding destination for nature-based travelers. Of course, it's long been well-known among birdwatchers for being the most bird-rich county on Earth. While that's impressive enough, so too, is its overall biodiversity which is eclipsed only by that of Brazil.........which has the advantage of being about seven times larger!! Being about the size of Texas and California combined, and having many distinct biogeographic regions - Andes, Amazon, Llanos, Caribbean and Pacific coasts, and tropical desert - the only challenge in Colombia is deciding where to go. Fortunately the far north offers an excellent variety of habitats as well as many Colombian and regional endemics while also providing good infrastructure and exceptional opportunities to see, enjoy, and learn about the country's impressive birds and wildlife.
Our trip begins in the busy coastal city of Barranquilla, where we start with a short side trip to a productive patch of scrubby dry forest on the edge of the city to see the endemic chestnut-winged chachalaca (which can be fairly easy to see and at times abundant) as well as brown-throated parakeet, orange-winged parrot, glaucous tanager, bicolored wren, yellow-bellied elaenia, several ground doves, whooping motmot, and many common birds. The Rio Magdalena, a major river that drains the slopes of the eastern and central Andes and acts as an important biogeographic feature in Colombia, runs along the edge of the city. The river's delta has a vast network of fresh and brackish water wetlands, mangroves, and coastal scrub, and we spend a productive morning on a quiet side road where small ponds, canals, and large lagoons are a water bird paradise. The "usual suspects" include snail kite, black-collared hawk, large-billed and yellow-billed terns, purple gallinule, limpkin, several egrets and herons, three species of whistling ducks (white-faced, fulvous, and black-bellied), all three anis (smooth-billed, groove-billed, and greater), and several ibis species (green, white, bare-faced, and glossy). An interesting group of presumed over-summering non-breeders include great-blue heron, Caspian tern, and osprey. In the dense marshy vegetation and scattered shrubs, we've found yellow-chinned and pale-breasted spinetails, white-headed marsh-tyrant, and pied water-tyrant. Rarities that we've been fortunate to see here include long-winged harrier, dwarf cuckoo, and northern screamer.
Along the main road, where the habitat structure is fairly open, land bird viewing is fairly easy. Typically noisy pale-legged horneros work the road edge, yellow orioles are up in the trees, often in palms, lesser yellow-headed vultures cruise low, brown-chested martins hunt overhead, and brown-throated parakeets, while usually seen streaking by, occasionally perch for good views. Russet-throated puffbird, as beautiful a puffbird as there is, can be surprisingly confiding and common here. Less common is the dwarf cuckoo, the smallest cuckoo in the Americas, as are two of my favorite woodpeckers, the golden-green and spot-breasted. In this area we've also found bronzed cowbird. While this is a fairly common bird from the southwest US to Central America, the northwest coast of Colombia is the only location where the species is found in all of South America. Though uncommon, we sometimes see the regionally endemic sapphire-throated hummingbird here. Stripe-backed and bicolored wrens are noisy and conspicuous. Interestingly this part of Colombia is, except for a bit of adjacent Venezuela, the only place in the world where two or more Campylorhynchus wrens overlap. Elsewhere, this genus is known for competitive exclusion with no overlapping ranges. This is one of the many unusual distributional puzzles that occur within the complex regional biogeography of northern Colombia, and throughout the tour we explore similar situations with many species.
With the impressive Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in view, we continue further down the highway and pass coastal lagoons with similar water birds and a few additional species, including a coastal specialist, the white-cheeked pintail, as well as reddish egret, black skimmer, collared plover, and Caspian, Sandwich, and royal terns. As we skirt the city of Santa Marta, we start a gradual ascent to the small foothill town of Minca. The Hotel Minca, managed by my good friends Lina and Sergio, is a tranquil spot with great food and service, and the lush evergreen forests here keep us occupied for several days. The hotel's hummingbird feeders are busy with white-vented plumeleteer (interestingly, while males are numerous, we've yet to see a female at the feeders), steely-vented and rufous-tailed hummingbirds, white-necked jacobin, and black-throated mango. Two fast moving and usually shy hermits, rufous-breasted and pale-bellied, can also be seen very well here. While the grounds have plenty of widespread birds such as pale-breasted thrush, blue-gray tanager, and streaked flycatcher, they can also have less common species such as scaled piculet. The dining room porch offers views of the mountains and of flying and perched orange-chinned parakeets (which are common and often seen close-up as they feed on mangos), blue-headed parrot, keel-billed toucan, crested oropendula, and others. Above the town, the main road, as well as a side road to the waterfall at Pozo Azul, is where we spend most of our time. In these areas we've had great views of gray-lined hawk, black hawk-eagle, golden-winged sparrow, rufous-breasted and rufous-and-white wrens, golden-fronted and scrub greenlets, ruby topaz, olivaceous flatbill, sepia-capped flycatcher, white-bearded manakin, barred antshrike, whooping motmot, black-and-white owl, Carib grackle, sooty grassquit, swallow tanager, the uncommon black-headed tanager, and many others. At times, rosy thrush-tanager, a shy leaflitter bird with an oddly disjunct distribution in tropical America, can be common by its striking voice, and it's on this road that I've had my best views ever of singing males in the sun. Though not very common, this area can be very good for scaled piclutet, and we've had views of a nest-building bird just a few feet away. Minca is a great area if you like the challenge of identifying small flycatchers, particularly those that foliage-glean rather than flycatch. The species we've seen here include pale-eyed pygmy-tyrant, southern beardless tyrannulet, yellow-crowned flycatcher, sooty-headed tyrannulet, Coopman's tyrannulet, and yellow-olive flycatcher, all of which have either unique vocalizations, behavioral differences, or subtle field marks that help to sharpen your skills (or frustrate you) as well as enhance your appreciation for neotropical diversity.
Minca is pretty good for non-avian wildlife, too. While we always see the local race of red-tailed squirrel, we've also found a few other mammals such as Brazilian porcupine, Venezuelan red howler monkey, tent-making (Uroderma sp.) and white-lined sac-winged bats, and Central American agouti. Green iguana, yellow-headed gecko, Central American and rainbow whiptails, anole lizards, marine toad, and Leptodactylus frogs have also been seen, and interesting insects, including many colorful butterflies and large Cerambycid beetles (including the harlequin beetle), can be common.
From Minca we head up the bumpy road into the Sierra's cloud forest, stopping along the way to look for several specialties. Maybe we've just been lucky, but between our trip up to the lodge and then back down, we've seen all the specialties we've hoped to see - Santa Marta tapaculo (always a challenge, but we've had good, if typically brief, views), the skulking and rarely seen Santa Marta foliage-gleaner, Santa Marta antbird, Santa Marta brush-finch (fortunately very conspicuous and abundant), Santa Marta blossomcrown (June appears to be a good time for lek activity and great views), groove-billed toucanet (right at the blossomcrown lek!), white-lored warbler, coppery emerald, long-billed hermit, the uncommon moustached puffbird, and several perched male Santa Marta woodstars. Eventually we reach the excellent El Dorado lodge and surrounding reserve, both managed by ProAves, www.proaves.org. Situated at about 2000 meters, temperatures are pleasantly cool, and Santa Marta specialties abound. The views are spectacular, with daytime vistas of high snow-capped peaks above and the Caribbean below, and nighttime views of the lights of Santa Marta. Orchids, bromeliads, ferns, lichens, Peperomia, and mosses drape many of the trees, frogs are abundant and vocal, and the sunny mornings can be surprisingly good for butterflies, including a suite of daggerwings.
The lodge grounds are beautiful and productive. El Dorado's hummingbird feeders are amazing as the lighting and varied viewing positions are particularly good. Crowned woodnymph, three violetears (sparkling, green, and brown), and tyrian metaltail are common eye-candy. Two endemics, Santa Marta woodstar and white-tailed starfrontlet, are less frequent visitors but always crowd-pleasers. Uncommon but regular have been gorgeous male lazuline sabrewings, and while we haven't seen it at the feeders, we have found mountain velvetbreast on flowers near the lodge. The lodge grounds are great for other birds, too. Crested oropendulas have a nesting colony right out front, pairs of cinnamon and golden-crowned flycatchers sometimes include the main building as part of their territory, and three parrot species make frequent fly-bys - scaly naped parrot, the Santa Marta race of red-billed parrot, and scarlet-fronted parakeet. Less common as a fly-by is the black-and-chestnut eagle, an Andean raptor at its northern limit here in the Santa Marta. In 2013 a family of Santa Marta parakeets was seen intermittently in an open Cecropia right next to the lodge, providing for great views and photo-ops. Santa Marta brush-finches are common on the grounds as is the widespread rufous-collared sparrow, and blue-naped chlorophonia and black-capped tanager come intermittently to the banana feeders. The lodge's seed feeders and compost pile can be viewed from the porch and, though activity varies, can be good at any time of day. While the main attraction is perhaps black-fronted wood-quail, a gorgeous bird which usually arrives in the early morning or late afternoon, we've also seen Santa Marta antpitta, Sierra Nevada brush-finch, gray-breasted wood-wren (split as Bangs' wood-wren in the new Colombia field guide), white-tipped dove, and lined quail-dove here. The antpitta is a challenge. Though we've seen it at the compost pile and in the forest, it's been shy and elusive near the lodge in recent years. Fortunately a park guard further up the road has a newly habituated bird coming to a worm feeder as of 2017. After the hummingbird feeder and compost pile show, there is one more late-day act. June seems to be an excellent time for ripe Cecropia fruit in the Sierra's cloud forest, and there are a few large trees at eye level from the lodge's balcony. Though each evening is different, visitors to the fruits have included black-capped tanager, blue-naped chlorophonia, yellow-legged and black-hooded thrushes, and white-tipped quetzal. Just after sunset, band-tailed and/or sickle-winged guans have also come in.
Night activity at El Dorado is excellent. We've been very lucky with superb views of the endemic Santa Marta screech-owl, a species still awaiting formal description, and have seen gray-bellied night monkey, nine-banded armadillo, kinkajou, and crab-eating fox. The cloud forest here is rich in amphibians, and it seems that just about every bromeliad on the grounds has a singing frog or two.
El Dorado's surrounding forest is accessed by several trails and the main road. Among the many birds here are several endemics, some local subspecies of more widespread Andean birds, and a nice suite of widespread beauties, some of which are easier to see here than elsewhere. One of the area's prizes that we really wanted to see on our first trip was the white-tipped quetzal, as it was the "last of the quetzals" for us. Fortunately we saw several and enjoyed their calls and foraging activities. While the quetzal isn't common, we've had excellent scope views of several birds on every trip in the gorgeous cloud forest of the Sierra, and occasional have seen up to a half dozen birds. We've been quite lucky with more Santa Marta endemics and a whole bunch of other cool birds, including golden-breasted fruiteater, streak-capped spinetail, and gray-throated leaftosser. The entrance road has excellent forest and we've had both emerald and groove-billed toucanets, montane, strong-billed, and black-banded woodcreepers, black-throated tody-tyrant, golden-crowned flycatcher, slaty-backed nightingale-thrush, yellow legged and black-hooded thrushes, white-sided and rusty flowerpiercers, mountain elaenia, Venezuelan (mountian) tyrannulet, and the rare and local Santa Marta blossomcrown which, at least in June, has an active lek where we've had superb views of the males. In 2015, we were surprised to find a fledgling pair of Stygian owls near the lodge and later found out that this bird was first recorded in the area only a year and a half earlier.
From the lodge, we make an early morning drive up to 2600 meters and the San Lorenzo Ridge where there awaits yet another suite of birds found only at the higher elevations. Along the way, views of the snow-capped peaks are a nice bonus and provide an unusual contrast to the steamy tropics below. While we had unusual luck in 2013 with Santa Marta parakeets at the lodge daily, this area, with the wax palms that the parakeets prefer for nesting, is the traditional spot to see them. But they aren't necessarily easy as I've talked with several folks who've waited many hours for brief views. Our luck has varied between long studies and great photos of birds feeding at eye level about 50 feet away, brief views of perched birds, and multiple fly-bys of several groups..........but at least we've yet to miss this specialty. Noisy but beautiful scarlet-fronted parakeets and scaly-naped parrots are usually more common in the area. Among the other special birds we've seen on the ridge are flammulated treehunter, white-throated tyrannulet, Andean siskin, plushcap, streak-throated bush-tyrant, and, of course several Santa Marta endemics - SM warbler, SM mountain-tanager, SM bush-tyrant, rusty-headed spinetail, and yellow-crowned whitestart. One of the more difficult birds on the ridge is the brown-rumped tapaculo. While this skulker is always heard, it's very photophobic, even for a tapaculo, and almost never comes near an edge. The few times we've seen it required maneuvering deep into a thicket of Chusquea bamboo on a steep hillside. A bit easier to find in the area is what has been recently described as hermit wood-wren (the new edition of the field guide calls it Santa Marta wood-wren), another split from the widespread gray-breasted wood-wren.
At this point in the trip, having seen so much in a fairly short time, it's hard to imagine that there's a completely different habitat with a very distinct suite of special birds still waiting for us.........but there is. We conclude the trip at Playa La Roca, a charming and relaxing beachfront lodge with superb food and good access to the Guajira Peninsula as well as a great patch of nearby forest. From Playa La Roca, we spend a productive morning among the acacias and columnar cacti of the peninsula. While the dense scrub can appear a bit challenging, the birds are pretty confiding, and I'm not sure if I've ever been any place else where ferruginous pygmy-owl tooting has elicited such a strong response from so many species. With seasonal movements and day-to-day differences, there are no guarantees that you'll see all the area specialties in one visit, but we've come close. Between walking through the acacias with the occasional pygmy-owl enticement, we've enjoyed excellent views of rufous-vented chachalaca, crested bobwhite, green-rumped parrotlet, blue-crowned and brown-throated parakeets, Orinocan saltator, vermilion cardinal, slender-billed tyrannulet, pearly-vented tody-tyrant, northern scrub-flycatcher, black-crested antshrike, buffy hummingbird, red-billed emerald, chestnut piculet, glaucous tanager, bare-eyed pigeon, the local race of white-fringed antwren, white-whiskered spinetail, yellow-breasted flycatcher, tropical mockingbird, striped cuckoo, and straight-billed woodcreeper. Near the town of Camarones, we've found Carib grackles, pileated finch, nesting glaucous tanagers, and the only house sparrows of the trip! At the adjacent lagoons, American flamingo numbers vary each year from maybe a handful to almost a thousand. Scarlet ibis is rare this time of year, but we usually manage to find at least one spectacular adult. Though shorebirds are scarce here in June, it's been interesting to find multiple over-summering species this far south in early to mid-June - whimbrel, greater and lesser yellowlegs, willet, spotted sandpiper, black-bellied plover, and short-billed dowitcher. Most likely these are non-breeding immatures. Other presumed over-summering birds that we've seen in June and that seem out-of-season are gray kingbird and barn swallow. White ibis, roseate spoonbill, black-necked stilt, collared plover, several terns, and the all-black race of wattled jacana are also seen at the lagoons while fork-tailed flycatcher has been found near the villages. While it seems uncommon throughout its range, we've found double-striped thick-knee in the open flats of the lagoons or in nearby cattle pastures. Along the main road, pearl kite, Harris' hawk (this bird sure has a wide distribution), and both crested and yellow-headed caracaras occur One of the uncommon prizes of the Guajira is the Tocuyo sparrow, a look-alike cousin of the black-striped sparrow that we see near Minca. In the Camarones area, this species seems to prefer the more moist areas found further to the west and closer to the Sierra. Though there are never any guarantees, we've had good luck at a nearby side road.
Just a few miles from Playa La Roca is a quiet road that passes through good lowland forest. This area makes for a nice addition to the trip as it has easy walking and viewing, no traffic, and excellent diversity. The many heliconia patches attract pale-bellied and occasionally stripe-throated hermits. The calls of lekking lance-tailed manakins are frequent, and, with a little patience, we've had a fairly easy time seeing some of these beautiful birds, often in the scope. Some open-to-the-sky views provide opportunities for perched and flying birds and we've had luck with black hawk-eagle, crane and gray-lined hawks, laughing falcon, king vulture, scaled and pale-vented pigeons, and gray-headed and plumbeous kites. Something of a surprise on our first visit (perhaps thanks to seasonal movements) were the singing Lesson's seedeaters. More expected were several gray seedeaters which were also singing. Orange-crowned oriole, bright-rumped attila, white-bellied antbird, buff-breasted wren, Panama flycatcher, black-headed tody-flycatcher, little tinamou, one-colored becard, forest and greenish elaenias, russet-throated and white-necked puffbirds, rufous-tailed jacamar, scrub and golden-fronted greenlets, blue-black grosbeak, thick-billed seedfinch, gartered trogon, blue dacnis, striped cuckoo, and yellow-crowned tyrannulet are among the many other birds we've enjoyed at this productive spot. Several surprises have also turned up. A crowned slaty flycatcher, apparently having overshot it's Amazonian austral winter grounds, was seen perched high in a tree, and a blue grosbeak, accidental in Colombia, was also pretty unusual, especially in June. In addition to Venezuelan red howler monkeys and the ubiquitous red-tailed squirrels, we've also seen northern tamandua here.
As with all of the trips I do, the Northern Colombia trip offers an excellent opportunity to see, enjoy, and learn about general tropical ecology and biogeography, and, in addition to what the birds have to teach us, we always spend time getting to know something about the plants, arthropods, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals of the area. We also enjoy the warm hospitality of our Colombian hosts who are kind, talented, hard-working, and fun and who make our travel possible.
With so many choices for travel in Colombia, I'm glad I chose this area for our first trip as it has consistently exceeded my expectations. In addition to great scenery, birds, and wildlife, the locals that we work with are some of the most professional and nicest I've had the pleasure of knowing. The region of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Guajira Peninsula offers not only easy access and short travel distances compared to other parts of Colombia but also hosts some of the highest endemism in the world and provides the perfect introduction to Colombia's natural wonders.Photos; Santa Marta blossomcrown, pied water-tyrant, and yellow-crowned whitestart by Jerry Johnson
White-tipped quetzal by Misty Vaughn