BEST OF COLOMBIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of Colombia: Day 1 Our tour begins in the evening in Bogotá, where we will stay for three nights.
Best of Colombia: Days 2-3 Built on a flat, high mountain plateau, the bustling city of Bogotá is a great base from which to explore an excellent variety of natural habitats in Colombia’s Eastern Andes.
During our exploration of the Bogotá region, we will explore some high paramo, where we have a great chance of finding the splendid endemic Green-bearded Helmetcrest and near-endemic Bronze-tailed Thornbill. Here, in the thin mountain air, Tawny Antpittas bound across the turf, Buff-winged Cinclodes creep around the wetland edges and Noble Snipe and endemic Apolinar’s Wrens frequent the marshland. We will also visit some feeders where the delightful, restricted-range Golden-bellied Starfrontlet can often be seen.
A gently sloping hill above the city is covered in an excellent tract of temperate cloudforest. Here, iridescent hummingbirds zoom from flower to flower, and among these we shall especially be on the lookout for the glimmering, restricted-range Coppery-bellied Puffleg, as well as Glowing Puffleg and Tyrian Metaltail.
The endemic Silvery-throated Spinetail betrays its presence with its staccato vocalizations more typical of Cranioleuca spinetails, whilst Black and Bluish Flowerpiercers vigorously pursue their nectar thievery in the company of many other passerines in the flowering shrubs.
The monotonous calling of an Andean Pygmy-Owl may well lure in a mob of nervous little birds, and amongst these, or in the busy mixed feeding flocks, we will look for Pearled Treerunner, White-throated Tyrannulet, Rufous Wren, Black-crested Warbler, Golden-fronted Whitestart, (the subspecies here has a white face), Black-headed, Black-capped and Superciliaried Hemispinguses, the near-endemic Rufous-browed Conebill and the brilliant Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager.
Thick bamboo fills many of the forest glades and strange but distinctive calls may lead us to the highly distinctive local form of the Rufous Antpitta, while other birds of interest in this splendid area include Andean Guan, Ash-colored Tapaculo and the endemic Pale-bellied (or Mattoral) Tapaculo. We may also find the uncommon Andean Siskin or the rather more widespread Hooded Siskin.
Near to the city, some fine marshes provide shelter to two endemics, the secretive Bogota Rail and the perky endemic Apolinar’s Wren (here a different subspecies to that found on the paramo). In addition, the reeds here are alive with noisy Yellow-hooded Blackbirds and we shall scan the open water and its fringes for Black-crowned Night-Heron, Andean Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Purple and Spot-flanked Gallinules, Common Gallinule and American Coot. Another typical inhabitant here is the distinctive Noble Snipe, and we shall have an excellent chance of seeing this localized bird, which is sometimes seen alongside wintering Wilson’s Snipes. If we are fortunate, we will even come across the endemic local form of the Least Bittern, Merida Speckled Teal and Subtropical Doradito.
Widespread birds likely in the Bogotá region include Western Cattle and Great Egrets, Bare-faced Ibis, Black and Turkey Vultures, Roadside Hawk, American Kestrel, Eared Dove, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Sparkling Violetear, Tropical Kingbird, Cattle Tyrant, Great Kiskadee, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Barn Swallow (from October to March), Bananaquit, Blue-gray and Palm Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-backed Oriole and Eastern Meadowlark.
Best of Colombia: Day 4 West of the capital, the western slope of the Eastern Andes still harbours some very ‘birdy’ patches of cloudforest. One of these is one of the few sites where one of Colombia’s rarest endemics, the colourful Turquoise Dacnis-Tanager, can sometimes be found, though it is by no means common here. Another of the country’s specialities that occurs here is the flashy but scarce endemic Black Inca, and whilst looking for the latter species we are likely to encounter several other hummingbirds such as Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Andean Emerald, Steely-vented Hummingbird and Booted Racket-tail.
Oak trees, not found in any other South American country, are sometimes inhabited by parties of noisy Acorn Woodpeckers, while active mixed flocks nervously flit through the canopy and mid-levels, and often include Red-crowned and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Ash-browed Spinetail, Lineated and Montane Foliage-gleaners, and Brown-capped Vireo. Warblers often join the flocks and, as well as the resident Tropical Parula and Slate-throated Redstart, during tours between October and March we may well find wintering Black-and-white, Tennessee, Blackburnian, Mourning and Canada Warblers. Colour is added by the bewildering array of tanagers, which include Fawn-breasted, Golden, Flame-faced, Blue-necked, Bay-headed, Scrub, Beryl-spangled, Black-capped and Crimson-backed.
Other species likely here include Andean Toucanet (split from Emerald), Azara’s and Pale-breasted Spinetails, Sooty-headed and Golden-faced Tyrannulets, Yellow-bellied and Mountain Elaenias, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Whiskered, Southern House and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Brown-bellied and Blue-and-white Swallows, Black-billed and Great Thrushes, Shiny Cowbird, Streaked Saltator, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Moustached Brushfinch, Saffron Finch and Lesser Goldfinch.
We will also explore some shade coffee lower down where, in the brushy borders, we should see the zebra-striped, near-endemic Bar-crested Antshrike, which occurs here in close proximity to the similar but more widespread Barred Antshrike, and we should also find the endemic Colombian Wren (split from Speckle-breasted). Other species at these lower elevations include White-tailed Kite, White-tipped Dove, Slaty Spinetail, Vermilion Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. Here also we will look for flowering trees frequented by ‘hummers’ such as Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and White-vented Plumeleteer, and, if we are fortunate, we will find one of the rarer species such as Red-billed or Short-tailed Emeralds. We may also come across the smart Stripe-breasted Spinetail.
During the late afternoon we will explore some dry habitat in the Magdalena Valley, where we will have our first chance to find the endemic Apical Flycatcher and Velvet-fronted Euphonia, while other new birds could well include Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, White-bellied Antbird, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Black-striped Sparrow, Grey Pileated Finch, Grey Seedeater and Black-faced Grassquit. After exploring this area we will continue on to Ibague for an overnight stay.
Best of Colombia: Day 5 This morning we shall visit some relict patches of drier woodland above Ibague. Here we will try to find the endemic and highly localized Yellow-headed Brushfinch and, if we are lucky, the very rare Tolima Dove and Tolima Blossomcrown. We also have a good chance of finding the lovely Velvet-fronted Euphonia and the shy Yellow-throated Brushfinch, as. well as the superb Grey-throated and Crimson-rumped Toucanets, Northern White-crowned Tapaculo, Moustached Puffbird, Collared Trogon and Andean Solitaire. Afterwards we continue northwestwards across the paramo to Otun Quimbaya for an overnight stay.
Best of Colombia: Day 6 Today we will visit the Otun-Quimbaya Reserve where we shall find ourselves listening for the pre-dawn calls of the endangered Cauca Guan, for it was at this site that this previously thought-to-be-extinct cracid was rediscovered during the 1990s. As the sky lightens we shall try to locate this Colombian endemic and also the furtive and very difficult Wattled Guan, whilst the booming calls of lekking Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (which are surprisingly common here) fill the air.
Dense brush at the forest edge holds the inconspicuous and recently-described Stiles’s Tapaculo, whilst almost pure whistles from the forest understorey indicate the presence of Chestnut-breasted Wrens, perhaps more numerous here than anywhere else in the species’ range. It is also an excellent place for hearing, and with luck seeing, the secretive Chestnut Wood-Quail, and even the rarely seen Hooded Antpitta, which is being seen with increasing regularity at this site.
As mixed foraging flocks start assembling, we shall carefully scrutinize these for the localized Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet and Rufous-breasted Flycatcher as well as Golden-olive Woodpecker and Red-faced Spinetail, and amongst the tanager flocks, we may find the magnificent Multi-coloured Tanager. More widespread species may well see include the impressive Golden-plumed Parakeet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant and Inca Jay.
Along the river, we are very likely to find a superb pair of Torrent Ducks, which we will also take the time to look at. This stunning duck is another flagship species for many South American countries and highly evocative of the tumbling rivers of the Andes. We may also find Black Phoebe, Torrent Tyrannulet and White-capped Dipper. Later we will drive to the town of Santa Rosa for an overnight stay.
While exploring a magnificent area comprised of a mosaic of paramo grasslands and temperate forest fragments, we shall search for the splendid Fuertes’s Parrot. This rarely seen species has been found in this area and we have a very good chance of finding it here at this recently discovered site.
In the forest patches we shall also look out for the superb Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Paramo Tapaculo, White-banded Tyrannulet, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Golden-fronted Whitestart (the subspecies here having a yellow face), the electric-blue Blue-backed Conebill, Blue-and-black Tanager, the gorgeous Golden-crowned Tanager, Lacrimose, Hooded and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanagers, Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Slaty Brushfinch and, with luck, Bar-bellied Woodpecker.
Later we shall continue northwestwards to Manizales for a two nights stay.
Best of Colombia: Day 7 Protecting an important watershed for the city of Manizales, the important Rio Blanco reserve holds some of the rarest and most threatened species in Colombia. In particular, we will be keen to find the rare Rusty-faced Parrot and the skulking and hard to see Brown-banded and Bicoloured Antpittas.
In recent years, Brown-banded Antpitta has become easier to see as it visits a feeding station alongside Chestnut-crowned and Slate-crowned Antpittas. Other skulkers include Chestnut-naped Antpitta, the amazing Ocellated Tapaculo (which can be hard to see) and Spillmann’s Tapaculo. We shall also be alert for the jay-like calls of a party of stunning White-capped Tanagers, one of the oddest members of its family.
Another feature of the reserve is the amazing set of hummingbird feeders where, as well as the ubiquitous Tourmaline Sunangel, we should see the more drably-cloaked Speckled Hummingbird, the aggressive Buff-tailed Coronet and the tiny White-bellied Woodstar.
Other species that we will hope to see here include Plain-breasted Hawk, Tourmaline Sunangel, Green Violetear, Masked Trogon, the superb Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, the delightful Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Tyrannine and Black-banded Woodcreepers, Streak-headed Antbird, Chestnut-naped Antpitta (with luck), Blackish Tapaculo, the drab and elusive Dusky Piha, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Black-capped and White-tailed Tyrannulets, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Pale-edged and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Mountain Wren, Citrine and Russet-crowned Warblers, Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers, Capped Conebill (here with a white cap), colourful Grass-green and Flame-rumped Tanagers, Grey-hooded Bush-Tanager, Grey-browed Brushfinch and Black-winged Saltator. We will also seek out bamboo specialists such as Black-eared Hemispingus and Plushcap.
Pre-dawn, armed with a spotlight, we shall go in search of White-throated Screech-Owl, Rufous-banded Owl, Rufous-bellied Nighthawk and Band-winged Nightjar.
If we are fortunate we will see one or two of the rarer or more difficult species such as Scaly-naped Parrot, White-capped Dipper, Yellow-billed Cacique or the bamboo loving Masked Saltator.
Best of Colombia: Day 8 Today, we will explore the high temperate zone at Nevado del Ruiz, which is situated at above 9800ft (3000m), where patches of forest give way to the paramo. Here, our primary targets are the recently split, endemic Buffy Helmetcrest and the endemic and very localized Rufous-fronted Parakeet (which is often hard to find).
In the more open areas and around a wetland we shall look for Andean Teal, White-tailed Hawk, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Andean Tit-Spinetail, the localized Stout-billed Cinclodes, the attractive Many-striped Canastero, White-chinned Thistletail, Grass Wren, Pale-naped Brushfinch, and a variety of seedeaters including Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Paramo and Plain-coloured Seedeaters. Tawny Antpittas are often very tame here and we should see this endearing species well.
Of special interest are the fabulous hummingbird gardens surrounding the hotel at Los Nevados where we will spend the night. Here, a number of colourful hummingbirds, including Viridian Metaltail, Golden-breasted Puffleg, the lovely Buff-winged Starfrontlet and the dazzling Shining Sunbeam, occur alongside Great Sapphirewing and the formerly tough-to-see Black-thighed Puffleg and gorgeous Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, and sometimes even the scarce Purple-backed Thornbill.
Later we will head down to the humid Choco for a three nights stay in the Montezuma region.
Best of Colombia: Days 9-10 As well as being very birdy, the Chocó region is one of the wettest areas on our planet, and we are bound to have some rain during our visit! As well as holding a number of Chocó endemics that are shared with Ecuador, this area is also home to the fantastic Gold-ringed Tanager, and we should have little trouble finding this stunning endemic. If we are very fortunate, we will also find its close relative the Black-and-gold Tanager.
While at Montezuma we will walk a series of forest trails and work our way along a little-used track through the mossy forests. We should see a number of colourful and exciting hummingbirds, such as Tawny-bellied Hermit, Wedge-billed Hummingbird, White-tailed Hillstar, Empress Brilliant, Collared and Brown Incas, Velvet-purple Coronet and the exquisite Violet-tailed Sylph.
Mixed flocks are a feature of the area and hold such goodies as Red-headed Barbet, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, the skulking Rufous Spinetail, the smart but localized Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, the retiring Uniform Treehunter, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Ornate and Handsome Flycatchers, Black Solitaire, the simply stunning Glistening-green and Purplish-mantled Tanagers, Silver-throated, Lemon-rumped and Rufous-throated Tanagers, Dusky-bellied Bush-Tanager, the localized Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, the delightful Indigo Flowerpiercer and Tricolored Brushfinch. We should also come across at least several of the scarcer species, which include Pacific Tuftedcheek, the little-known Bicolored Antvireo, the endemic Parker’s Antbird, the elusive Yellow-breasted Antpitta (easy to hear!), the sluggish Olivaceous Piha, the gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Club-winged Manakin, the endemic Crested Ant-Tanager, the stunning Yellow-collared and Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonias, and even Beautiful Jay.
We should also find such more widespread species as Band-tailed Pigeon, Broad-winged Hawk, Chestnut-collared Swift, Glossy-black Thrush, the gorgeous Golden-headed Quetzal, Highland Motmot, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Barred Becard, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Sharpe’s Wren, Capped Conebill (the subspecies here has a blue cap and so does not appear capped!) and Blue-capped Tanager.
Providing road conditions permit, we will also explore another area, high up on a ridge shrouded in clouds. This area is very good for the rare and localized Munchique Wood Wren and the endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer. Also in the area are Green-and-black Fruiteater and the skulking Tanager-Finch.
Best of Colombia: Day 11 This morning we will drive to Periera airport and take a flight to Bogotá where we catch an onward connection to Barranquilla in northern Colombia. From there we shall begin our ascent to Minca, situated in the semi-arid foothills above the coastal town of Santa Marta, for an overnight stay.
We shall work our through the lower elevation habitats below Minca; a patchwork of dry woodlands choked with dense vine tangles, fields, pasture and small plantations of shade coffee, where flowering trees often act as a magnet to a variety of hummingbirds, and we shall watch especially for the tiny and very localized Coppery and Red-billed Emeralds.
Other birds in this zone include the localized Black-backed Antshrike, the splendid Golden-winged Sparrow and the stunning Rosy Thrush-Tanager, as well as Scaled Pigeon, Olive-striped and Social Flycatchers, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Golden-fronted Greenlet, American Redstart (from October to March), Swallow-Tanager, Crested Oropendola, the colourful Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Buff-throated Saltator and Black-striped Sparrow.
Best of Colombia: Day 12 After some early morning birding around Mina, we will make our way up to El Dorado lodge, near to San Lorenzo, for a three nights stay, concentrating for the rest of the day on the Santa Marta endemics.
Best of Colombia: Days 13-14 With the snow-capped peaks of Simon Bolívar and Cristóbal Colon towering up to 19,000ft (5800m) above sea level and lying just 28 miles (45 kilometres) from the coast, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal range. Nowhere else on earth is the distance so short between palm-fringed tropical beaches and windswept icy peaks. Between these two extremes, the mountain’s slopes are covered in lush forests showing an extremely high degree of endemism. A montane ‘island’ separated by a wide lowland gap from the Andes, this roughly triangular massif is home to more than 20 endemic bird species and an impressive number of often highly distinctive endemic subspecies. Though large parts of the mountains are currently inaccessible, the San Lorenzo road at its north-western corner allows the visiting birder to see the majority of the area’s endemics, in addition to a wealth of other birds.
As we climb up to El Dorado and as human influence diminishes and forest starts to predominate, we should soon find our first Santa Marta endemic, perhaps the attractive Santa Marta Brushfinch. On reaching lower subtropical elevations we shall start looking for four endemics that primarily inhabit this zone, the secretive Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner or equally tricky Santa Marta Tapaculo and the somewhat easier Santa Marta Antbird and White-lored Warbler. We will also keep a lookout for Sooty-capped Hermit and listen for the exquisite Rusty-breasted Antpitta, which we have a reasonable chance of seeing here.
The tall forests and shrubby edges here are also home to a number of other interesting birds, such as Red-billed Parrot, the spectacular White-tipped Quetzal, Yellow-billed Toucanet (split from Groove-billed), Santa Marta Toucanet (split from Emerald), Keel-billed Toucan, the distinctive local form of the Tyrian Metaltail (a good potential split!), the striking Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Yellow-legged and Black-hooded Thrushes, Black-headed Tanager and Southern Yellow-Grosbeak, and as we ascend the mountain we shall scan the road ahead for the large Lined Quail-Dove.
Higher still, we shall concentrate on the Santa Marta endemics above San Lorenzo. In dense bamboo thickets, Rusty-headed Spinetails deliver their relentless squeaks, whilst in vine tangles higher up in the trees, Streak-capped Spinetails eagerly forage for insect prey. We shall watch tubular flowers for the exquisite but elusive White-tailed Starfrontlet, and we will keep our ears open for the soft squabbling calls of a flock of quietly foraging Santa Marta Parakeets, masters at blending in with their surroundings. The ‘bob-white’ song of the omnipresent Santa Marta Antpitta will soon become a familiar sound, but we shall have to work hard to glimpse this phantom of the forest floor. Equally secretive are the endemic and highly distinct local race of the Rufous Antpitta and Black-fronted Wood-Quail, though Brown-rumped Tapaculo (now also an endemic, the other races having been split off as separate species) and the recently recognized Hermit Wood-Wren should prove less difficult.
Luckily, not all the birds require so much effort, and we will scrutinize mixed flocks for the lively Yellow-crowned Redstart, the smart Santa Marta Warbler and the handsome Black-cheeked (or Santa Marta) Mountain-Tanager. Amidst striking mountain scenery, where we can look down on the hot and dry Caribbean coast far below us, we will also search for the endemic Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant as well as more widespread species such as White-rumped Hawk, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner and Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant. We may also see a few of the other difficult species, which include the rare Andean Condor, the secretive Band-tailed Guan, Military Macaw, Mountain Velvetbreast, the difficult Flammulated Treehunter, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush or Yellow-tailed Oriole.
At night we will make a concerted effort to see the recently-described, endemic Santa Marta Screech-Owl as well as the much more widespread Mottled Owl and Band-winged Nightjar.
Best of Colombia: Day 15 After devoting most of the day to the birds of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we shall descend to the town of Rioacha in the Guajira peninsula for an overnight stay.
Best of Colombia: Day 16 To the east of Santa Marta, the arid Guajira peninsula juts out into the Caribbean Sea, becoming progressively drier towards the east. Here we shall search for a number of specialities only shared with adjacent Venezuela. Arguably the most striking of these is the eye-catching Vermillion Cardinal, but they also include the tiny Chestnut Piculet, Russet-throated Puffbird (split from Two-banded), the ubiquitous White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Inezia and the harder-to-find Tocuyo Sparrow.
Bare-eyed Pigeons constantly fly back and forth, and more widespread species inhabiting the arid desert scrub include Rufous-vented chachalaca, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, White-tailed and Harris’s Hawk, Scaled Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Brown-throated Parakeet, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Buffy Hummingbird, Maracaibo (split from Black-crested) Antshrike, Northern White-fringed Antwren, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Glaucous Tanager and Orinocan Saltator.
The nearby lagoons hold impressive number of wetland species such as American Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Great Blue, Little Blue and Tricoloured Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White and Scarlet Ibises, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Royal, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, and sometimes Cabot’s Tern. During tours in the October to March period we may possibly see a vagrant Herring or Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the wintering Laughing Gulls.
Other widespread species which we may see today, or elsewhere in the Santa Marta region, include Savannah and Zone-tailed Hawks, Pearl Kite, Common Ground Dove, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Bicolored Wren, Red-eyed Vireo, Trinidad Euphonia, Grayish Saltator and Great-tailed Grackle.
Afterwards, we will head for Barranquilla airport, where our tour ends in the late afternoon.