Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Northern Colombia:
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Guajira Peninsula

June 2 - 12, 2018

Colombia is famous among birders and naturalists 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 more than seven times larger.  The unique topography of the country - Pacific and Caribbean coasts, three Andean ranges, vast Amazonian forest, and equally vast llanos - supports a tremendous number of bird species, including over 85 endemics and 109 near endemics.  Northern Colombia  offers exceptional opportunities to see, enjoy, and learn about the country's impressive birds and wildlife  as it has good tourist infrastructure, great habitat variety, and many talented Colombian people who make our trip safe, comfortable, and fun. 

We begin this journey in the coastal lowlands near Barranquilla where tropical deciduous forest, freshwater wetlands, mangroves, and arid coastal scrub provide homes for both widespread and range restricted species.  In these habitats, we'll look for waders, waterfowl (white-cheeked pintail and northern screamer), pied water-tyrant, white-headed marsh-tyrant, collared plover, and an interesting suite of land-based birds, including chestnut-winged chachalaca, glaucous tanager, bicolored and stripe-backed wrens, spot-breasted woodpecker, yellow-chinned spinetail, straight-billed woodcreeper, all three species of ani (groove-billed, smooth-billed, and greater), brown-throated parakeet, pale-legged hornero, the uncommon dwarf cuckoo, and a local and fairly easy-to-see specialty, russet-throated puffbird.

We'll then work our way up to the small town of Minca in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  During our two days here, we'll enjoy good forest and many birds.  The hotel's hummingbird feeders attract white-vented plumeleteer, steely-vented hummingbird, rufous-breasted and pale-bellied hermits, and black-throated mango, and the grounds have plenty of widespread birds such as orange-chinned parakeet, pale-breasted thrush, blue-gray tanager, and streaked flycatcher.  In the forests above town we'll have good chances to see scaled piculet, golden-winged sparrow, black-headed tanager, pale-eyed pygmy-tyrant, Coopman's tyrannulet, rufous-breasted and rufous-and-white wrens, white-bearded manakin, whooping motmot, Carib grackle, sooty grassquit, swallow tanager, ruby topaz, rosy thrush-tanager, and many others.  While we'll certainly see the local race of red-tailed squirrel, we may also find a few other mammals that we've been lucky with in the past such as Brazilian porcupine, Venezuelan red howler monkey, tent-making and white-lined sac-winged bats, and Central American agouti.  Green iguana, yellow-headed gecko, anole lizards, marine toad, Leptodactylus frogs, and many species of interesting insects, such as the harlequin beetle, are also found in the area.  

From Minca we head up into the Sierra's cloud forest, stopping along the way to look for several specialties - Santa Marta tapaculo, Santa Marta foliage-gleaner, Santa Marta brush-finch, Santa Marta antbird, Santa Marta blossomcrown, groove-billed toucanet, white-lored warbler, the uncommon moustached puffbird, and long-billed hermit.  The excellent El Dorado lodge and the surrounding reserve - both managed by ProAves, www.proaves.org - is situated at about 2000 meters, where temperatures are pleasantly cool and Santa Marta specialties abound.  The views are spectacular, with daytime vistas of high snow-capped peaks above, the Caribbean Sea below, and nighttime views of the lights of Santa Marta.  Orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and mosses drape many of the trees, frogs are abundant and vocal, and the sunny mornings can be good for butterflies.

While we'll have good chances at the feeders to see Santa Marta woodstar, white-tailed starfrontlet, tyrian metaltail, and lazuline sabrewing, the rarer black-backed thornbill is always an unpredictable challenge.  On the grounds, along the road, and on the trails, we may find lined quail-dove, golden-breasted fruiteater, mountain elaenia, masked trogon, white-tipped quetzal, white-sided flowerpiercer, black-throated tody-tyrant, band-tailed and sickle-winged guans, Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada brush-finches, black-capped tanager, black-fronted wood-quail, blue-naped chlorophonia, gray-throated leaftosser, and many more.  The lodge area can be good for viewing raptors, and in the past we've seen black-and-chestnut eagle, hook-billed kite, double-toothed kite, and white-rumped hawk.  Yet another local prize is the Santa Marta Screech-owl.  While we always hear this bird, and have had superb views in the past, it's not quite as easy to see as it once seemed.  Fortunately, there are several territories so we always have several chances to search for it.

There are also some good mammals near the lodge, and we’ve had good luck in seeing red-tailed squirrel, Venezuelan red howler monkey, crab-eating fox, kinkajou, Central American agouti, and gray-bellied night monkey.  The many bromeliads on the grounds are good for frogs, and we’ve found several species of small but very vocal species.  At night the lights from the lodge's dining room attract large numbers of spectacular moths, particularly leaf-mimics, Saturniids, and showy Sphingids.

From the lodge, we drive up to 2600 meters where we'll look for another suite of Santa Marta endemics, including Santa Marta bush-tyrant, Santa Marta warbler, Santa Marta mountain tanager, and yellow-crowned whitestart.  Among the four parrot species found in the area, three, scaly-naped parrot, red-billed parrot, and scarlet-fronted parakeet, can be fairly common and conspicuous, while the third, the endangered Santa Marta parakeet, can be uncommon and elusive. We’ll be looking and listening for this species on the way up the mountain, particularly in spots where there are wax palms which the parakeets use for nesting.  Options for close-up viewing here vary, and some luck is usually required to see these birds well.......but so far we've never missed them.  In addition to the specialties, other high elevation birds include Andean siskin, streak-throated bush-tyrant, plushcap, white-throated tyrannulet, great thrush, rufous antpitta, flammulated treehunter, yellow-bellied chat-tyrant, and the farily common but very hard to see .brown-rumped tapaculo.

We conclude the trip at Playa La Roca, an excellent beachfront lodge that provides good access to the Guajira Peninsula as well as nearby lowland moist forest.  This scenic and tranquil spot also has the best food of the trip.   

Just a few miles from Playa La Roca is a great road passing through a nice patch of forest.  This area has easy walking and viewing and excellent diversity.  Many heliconias provide opportunities for pale-bellied and stripe-throated hermits, there is a lance-tailed manakin lek, some open-to-the-sky views provide opportunities for perched and soaring raptors such as black hawk-eagle, gray-lined hawk, gray-headed kite, and laughing falcon, and Lesson's and gray seedeaters are usually singing conspicuously.  Orange-crowned oriole, white-necked puffbird, southern bentbill, bright-rumped attila, white-chinned sapphire, striped cuckoo, golden-fronted greenlet, white-bellied antbird, one-colored becard, black-headed tody-flycatcher, and yellow-crowned tyrannulet are among the many other possibilities.

An hour away from Playa La Roca, we find the arid scrub of the Guajira Peninsula.  Here, the acacia and columnar cacti dominated scrub is home to an entirely new suite of birds for the trip.  Regional specialties include green-rumped parrotlet,  black-crested antshrike, white-fringed antwren, chestnut piculet, northern scrub-flycatcher, vermilion cardinal, bare-eyed pigeon, slender-billed tyrannulet, buffy hummingbird, red-billed emerald, white-whiskered spinetail, glaucous tanager, Orinocan saltator, yellow oriole, and pileated finch.  More widespread birds such as brown-throated and blue-crowned parakeets, tropical mockingbird, pearl kite, Harris’ hawk, tropical gnatcatcher, buff-breasted wren, straight-billed woodcreeper, scrub greenlet, gray-necked wood-rail, and Amazon kingfisher are also found in this area.  The rare and hard to find Tocuyo sparrow is also here, and we sometimes have luck with good sightings.

Adjacent to the lush desert scrub are coastal lagoons with water levels that fluctuate with the rains.  Of course in June, there are few migratory shorebirds, but it's always interesting to see which species oversummer or arrive very early.  In addition to resident collared plovers, we’ve had greater and lesser yellowlegs, whimbrel, short-billed dowitcher, spotted sandpiper, black-bellied plover, western sandpiper, and willet.  In addition to the common waders are a few spectacular ones.  American flamingos can be common while scarlet ibis is rare.  With some luck we may find double-striped thick-knee on the sandy flats or in nearby cattle pastures.  Carib grackles are common near the village, gray kingbird is uncommon near the coast, and the fishing village of Camarones is the only place on this route where I’ve seen a small group of house sparrows!  Hey, every bird is rare somewhere.

As one of the most biologically rich countries in the world and with a landmass almost twice the size of Texas, Colombia offers many choices to traveling nature enthusiasts.  The region of Santa Marta and the Guajira Peninsula offers not only easy access but hosts some of the highest endemism in the world and provides the perfect introduction to this natural paradise.  In addition to the many great birds, we'll learn a lot about the excellent natural history of the area.  

 

The cost will be about $3600/person, double occupancy, and includes all meals, lodging, tips, and transportation from Barranquilla.  Limited to 9 participants.

Detailed itinerary and references available upon request.

Santa Marta Parakeet by Jerry Johnson  
Black-crested antshrike and Streak-capped spinetail by Misty Vaughn
Rainbow whiptail by Karen Blumenthal


Last updated: June 10, 2017.