The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Colombia Tours

CLASSIC COLOMBIA – Andes, Chocó & Santa Marta: endemics & specialities galore!

Sunday 21st February – Monday 15th March 2021

Leader: Trevor Ellery and local bird guides

23 Days Group Size Limit 7


Birdquest’s Classic Colombia birding tours are signature South American birding experiences; one of those trips you just have to do! Our Classic Colombia birding tour is the single best Colombia tour itinerary available and records more of the country’s endemics than any other. Right up there with Ecuador and Peru in terms of species diversity, Colombia is far richer than either in terms of the number of endemic birds. On this Colombia birding tour, we regularly record up to 60 species that are endemic to the country and about the same number of near-endemic birds! A staggering total of 200-220 regional specialities and other rarely seen birds are typically also seen on this fantastic tour! A visit to this truly amazing country is a must for all birders interested in Neotropical birding and this tour is surely the single best choice, especially if you only plan to visit Colombia once in your lifetime!

To most people, Colombia conjures up images of the finest coffee in the world, emeralds, cocaine, and swinging salsa and merengue music, but for birders, it offers the richest avifauna on earth!

Colombia has had a complex history. Once encompassing all of adjacent Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador, the early republic of ‘Gran Colombia’, founded by Simón Bolívar and others, soon shrank in size, but even today we are still left with an immense country with an endless variety of scenery, habitats and bird communities.

Colombia has the enviable distinction of having the greatest number of bird species recorded for any country in the world: nearly 1900 species have been recorded to date! Upon entering from Ecuador, the mighty Andean Cordillera soon divides into three huge ranges, Colombia’s ornithologically-famous Western, Central and Eastern Andes. In between are the wide Cauca and Magdalena Valleys that eventually reach the Caribbean Coast. Here, one of the planet’s most awesome mountain ranges, the snow-clad Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, rises abruptly out of the ocean.

Only rivalled by Peru for the diversity of its avifauna, it is not only the sheer number of species that are impressive about Colombia but also the extraordinary number of endemics found within its boundaries. Faced with the impossibility of covering all of this vast country in a single tour, this Colombia tour concentrates on the more readily accessible sites in Colombia, with mostly easy walking conditions, for the unique endemic species occurring in the Western and Central cordilleras and the isolated Santa Marta Mountains.

We will start our Classic Colombia birding tour in the scenic mountains around Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, where such exciting species as Bogota Rail, Silvery-throated Spinetail, Apolinar’s Wren, Rufous-browed Conebill and Turquoise Dacnis-Tanager await us.

Our next port of call will be the temperate forests above Ibague in search of the shy Tolima Dove and Yellow-headed Brushfinch before we head to Otun Quimbaya. A morning here may well yield Cauca Guan and the elusive Chestnut Wood Quail, as well as the recently-described Stiles’s Tapaculo and the superb Chestnut-breasted Wren. In the Santa Rosa area, we will look for the rare Fuertes’s Parrot.

Continuing on to Manizales, we make an in-depth exploration of areas bordering Los Nevados National Park. These include the excellent Rio Blanco Reserve and the nearby Nevado del Ruiz, where, amongst others, we hope to find such specialities as Rusty-faced Parrot, Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Brown-banded and Bicoloured Antpittas, and Golden-fronted Whitestart, in addition to more widespread but nonetheless elusive species such as Paramo and Ocellated Tapaculos, and White-capped Tanager.

Next, we explore the very wet Pacific slope of the Western Andes of Colombia, known as the Chocó, where we visit the Montezuma region. Here we can find the stunning Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold Tanagers alongside other colourful Chocó endemics, such as Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph and Orange-breasted Fruiteater, and such additional specialities as Munchique Wood Wren, Black Solitaire and Chestnut-breasted and Yellow-collared Chlorophonias and other endemics including Parker’s Antbird and the localized Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer.

Crossing the Cauca valley to Jardin, we will explore a forested ridge in search of Yellow-eared Parrot and Tanager Finch while nearer town we shall visit a spectacular Cock-of-the-Rock lek.

After crossing the low hilly country of the northern central Cordillera, we enter the wide Magdalena Valley where the humid forests at Rio Claro hold such specialities as White-mantled Barbet, Antioquia Bristle Tyrant and Sooty Ant Tanager.

Returning to Medellin, we make a special effort to see the rare Yellow-headed Manakin and the gorgeous endemic Red-bellied Grackle.

Moving on to the far north of Colombia, we will first visit the Santa Marta region, where we will climb the impressive Sierra Nevada in search of over a dozen endemics whilst simultaneously enjoying some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery!

We then descend to the arid littoral exploring the Guajira Peninsula. Here we will look for some restricted-range species only shared with neighbouring Venezuela, such as Chestnut Piculet, White-whiskered Spinetail and Vermilion Cardinal. On our final day, we explore a mosaic of coastal habitats in search of Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and the endangered Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird.

Birdquest has operated Colombia birding tours since 1998.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels and lodges are of good or medium standard throughout. Transport is by small coach or minibus, and 4×4 vehicles where necessary. The roads are generally good.

Walking: The walking effort during our Classic Colombia birding tours is easy to moderate. At Rio Claro, we walk along a stream bed to the Oilbird cave, repeatedly crossing the shallow waters.

Climate: At this season it should be mostly dry and often sunny. It can be quite hot and humid in the lowlands, whilst at higher elevations, it can be quite cool, especially at night. There may be some rain which at times can be heavy and persistent.

Bird Photography: Opportunities during our Classic Colombia birding tours are worthwhile.


  • One of the absolute best Neotropical itineraries for endemics and overall diversity
  • Residing in a series of birder-friendly lodges, many with great birds right in the garden!
  • Seeing the fantastic antpitta feeders around Manizales, including the stunning Crescent-faced Antpitta and rare Brown-banded and Bicolored Antpittas
  • Exploring the high paramo around Bogota, with Bogota Rail, Noble Snipe, Apolinar’s Wren and the superb Green-bearded Helmetcrest
  • Watching the rare Tolima Dove, Tolima Blossomcrown and Yellow-headed Brushfinch around Ibague
  • Seeing the rare Cauca Guan and with luck the amazing Hooded Antpitta and Fuertes’s Parrot in the central Andes
  • Having a great chance of the much-wanted, jay-like White-capped Tanager
  • Seeing the endangered, macaw-like Yellow-eared Parrot
  • Spending time at possibly the best Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek in the world
  • Enjoying a series of wonderful hummingbird feeders, with gems like the amazing Rainbow-bearded Thornbill to keep us company!
  • Watching the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird at close range
  • Finding the brilliant Buffy Helmetcrest on the amazing and active Ruiz Volcano
  • Seeing the rare Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold Tanagers in the Choco alongside an amazing variety of other specialities
  • Spending time in an Oilbird cave, with endemic White-mantled Barbets and Antioquia Bristle-Tyrants nearby
  • Amazing scenery in the Santa Marta mountains, where the snow-capped peaks rise from the ocean to over 5000m (16405ft)
  • Seeing the amazing Santa Marta endemics from the newly described Santa Marta Screech Owl to the superb Santa Marta Antpitta and the brilliant White-tailed Starfrontlet
  • Encountering the specialities of the dry Guajira Peninsula, including Chestnut Piculet, the lovely White-whiskered Spinetail and the stunning Vermilion Cardinal
  • Finding many other charismatic favourites such as Torrent Ducks, quetzals, mountain toucans and so much more
  • Watching a bewildering variety of tanagers including the amazing endemic Multicolored Tanager


  • Day 1: Evening tour start at Bogotá.
  • Days 2-3: Bogotá region.
  • Day 4: Drive via Magdalena Valley to Ibague.
  • Day 5: Ibague, then drive to Otun Quimbaya.
  • Day 6: Otun Quimbaya reserve, then drive to Santa Rosa.
  • Day 7: Paramo habitats, then drive to Manizales.
  • Days 8-9: Rio Blanco reserve and Nevado del Ruiz. Overnights at Manizales.
  • Day 10: Nevado do Ruiz, then drive to Montezuma area in the Chocó.
  • Days 11-12: Montezuma area.
  • Day 13: Montezuma area, then drive to Jardin.
  • Day 14: Jardin, then drive to Rio Claro.
  • Day 15: Rio Claro reserve.
  • Day 16: Rio Claro, then drive to Medellin.
  • Day 17: Medellin, then fly to Santa Marta. Drive to El Dorado lodge near San Lorenzo.
  • Days 18-19: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Overnights at El Dorado lodge.
  • Day 20: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, then descend to Minca.
  • Day 21: Minca area, then drive to Riohacha on the Pacific coast.
  • Day 21: Guajira Peninsula. Overnight at Riohacha.
  • Day 23: Salamanca National Park, then drive to Barranquilla airport for afternoon tour end.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.


Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

We also include this flight: Medellin-Santa Marta.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)

2021: £6600, $8990, €7280, AUD11950. Bogotá/Barranquilla.

Single Supplement: 2021: £530, $730, €590, AUD970.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

There are only a limited number of rooms at San Lorenzo (El Dorado). There is no single supplement at this location, but singles are provided free of additional charge if available at the time (they often are, but not always for everyone who wants one). At Montezuma there are also relatively few rooms and it is possible that not all those requesting singles will be able to have them. Any unexpected sharing at Montezuma will result in an appropriate refund.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.


Classic Colombia: Day 1  Our Classic Colombia birding tour begins in the evening in Bogotá, where we will stay for three nights.

Classic 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 endemic Apolinar’s Wrens frequent the marshland. Another typical inhabitant here is the distinctive Noble Snipe, and we shall have an excellent chance of seeing this localized bird. During the boreal winter, we could encounter a Merlin.

We will also visit some feeders where the delightful, restricted-range Golden-bellied Starfrontlet can often be seen, as well as Lesser Violetear.

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, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Rufous Wren, Black-crested Warbler, Golden-fronted Whitestart, (the nominate subspecies here has a white face), Black-headed, Black-capped, Superciliaried and perhaps Oleaginous 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 interesting Red-crested Cotinga, the uncommon Andean Siskin and 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, American Coo and, during the boreal winter, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper and perhaps Wilson’s Snipe. If we are fortunate, we will even come across the endemic local form of the Least Bittern, Andean 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, Southern Lapwing, Eared Dove, Ruddy Ground Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Smooth-billed Ani, Sparkling Violetear, Tropical Kingbird, Cattle Tyrant, Great Kiskadee, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow (during the boreal winter), Bananaquit, Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-backed Oriole and Eastern Meadowlark.

Classic 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 Whitestart, during tours between October and March we may well find wintering Black-and-white, Tennessee, Blackburnian, Mourning and Canada Warblers, as well as Swainson’s Thrush. 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 White-throated Toucanet, Azara’s and Pale-breasted Spinetails, Sooty-headed and Golden-faced Tyrannulets, Yellow-bellied and Mountain Elaenias, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Whiskered and House Wrens, Grey-breasted Wood Wren, 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. 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.

Classic 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.

Classic Colombia: Day 6  This morning 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 should locate this Colombian endemic as well as Sickle-winged Guan, whilst the booming calls of lekking Red-ruffed Fruitcrows (which are surprisingly common here) fill the air. If we are in luck we will encounter the furtive and very difficult Wattled Guan.

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. Other species may well see include the impressive Golden-plumed Parakeet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Marble-faced and Variegated Bristle Tyrants, Slaty-capped and Cinnamon Flycatchers, 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.

Classic Colombia: Day 7  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 part of Colombia and we have a very good chance of finding it in this area at a 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 three nights stay.

Classic Colombia: Day 8  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 and Ash-coloured Tapaculos. 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, Long-tailed Sylph, 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, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, 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 Amazon, White-capped Dipper, Yellow-billed Cacique or the bamboo loving Masked Saltator.

Classic Colombia: Day 9  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 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.

Classic Colombia: Day 10  After a final morning at Los Nevados we will head down to the humid Chocó region for a three nights stay in the Montezuma region.

Classic Colombia: Days 11-12  No ‘classic’ Colombia birding tour would rate as such without visiting the Chocó! As well as being very birdy, the Chocó region of Colombia 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, White-throated (or Choco) Daggerbill, 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.

Classic Colombia: Day 13  After some final birding around Montezuma we will drive to Jardin for an overnight stay. Along the way, we will stop to look for the recently-described Antioquia Wren and we also have a good chance to see the endemic Greyish Piculet.

We should arrive in plenty of time to see the magnificent Andean cock-of-the-Rock at a huge lek on the edge of town. As this is indeed one of the spectacles of Andean birding we will devote some time at this site watching these bizarre birds displaying. We might also see Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and Black-chested Jay here.

Classic Colombia: Day 14  This morning our main target will be the critically endangered Yellow-eared Parrot, and we have an excellent chance of finding this little-known species which is severely threatened due to the disappearance of the wax palms which it needs for roosting and breeding. Whilst searching for the parrot, we are likely to come across a number of other goodies in the cloudforest such as White-browed Spinetail, Striped Treehunter, Rufous-chested Chat-Tyrant, Streak-throated Bush Tyrant, Rufous-headed Pygmy Tyrant, the splendid Barred Fruiteater, Black-collared Jay, Northern Mountain Cacique and, with luck, Tanager Finch or even the rare Tawny-breasted Tinamou or Chestnut-crested Cotinga.

Lower down, in the more open country, we may find a few more new species for the trip, such as White-capped Parrot, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, White-lined Tanager, Subtropical Cacique, Russet-backed Oropendola and perhaps a small group of Black-and-white Seedeaters.

Later we will travel to Rio Claro for a two nights stay.

Classic Colombia: Days 15  The excellent Rio Claro Reserve preserves one of the best tracts of humid tropical forest remaining in the middle Magdalena Valley and here we hope to find no fewer than four of Colombia’s threatened Magdalena Valley endemics, the gaudy White-mantled Barbet, Beautiful Woodpecker, the recently-discovered Antioquia Bristle Tyrant and the stunning Sooty Ant Tanager with its bubblegum-pink throat patch and crest that stand out against the dark of the forest interior.

In addition, a host of other exciting birds inhabits this interesting habitat, and we shall arrive early when the dawn chorus is in full swing. Black-bellied and Bay Wrens vigorously proclaim their territorial rights with their loud duets and strikingly-plumaged species include Western Striped and White-bearded Manakins.

One of the area’s outstanding avian highlights is an impressive Oilbird cave. After entering the dark haunts of this strange nightbird, we will listen to the loud shrieks constantly echoing from the guano-covered walls of the cave and look up at the greasy chicks and their devoted parents huddled on the narrow ledges.

Other birds we may well find in the Rio Claro area include Laughing and Bat Falcons, Plumbeous Pigeon, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Striped Cuckoo, Grey-rumped and Short-tailed Swifts, Rufous-breasted and Long-billed Hermits, White-tailed and Gartered Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, the attractive but sedate Barred Puffbird, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Collared Aracari, Olivaceous Piculet, and Crimson-crested, Red-rumped and Cinnamon Woodpeckers.

Passerines include Plain-brown, Wedge-billed, Cocoa, Straight-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pacific, White-flanked and Dot-winged Antwrens, One-coloured and Cinnamon Becards, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Forest Elaenia, Ochre-bellied and Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Olivaceous Flatbill, the bizarre Southern Bentbill, Brownish Twistwing, Long-tailed Tyrant, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Piratic, the localized Panamanian Flycatcher, Dusky-capped, Streaked and Boat-billed Flycatchers, the gorgeous Black-chested Jay, the noisy Band-backed Wren, Pale-breasted Thrush, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-winged Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Chestnut-headed Oropendola and Yellow-rumped Cacique (sharing a breeding colony with their attendant brood parasite the Giant Cowbird), Bay-breasted, Rufous-capped and Buff-rumped Warblers, Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Thick-billed Euphonia, and Grey-headed, Golden-hooded, Dusky-faced, White-shouldered and Plain-coloured Tanagers.

We will also find a few of the more difficult species here, which include Saffron-headed Parrot, Citron-throated Toucan, the unobtrusive Grey-cheeked Nunlet, White-whiskered Puffbird, the secretive Magdalena and Bare-crowned Antbirds (our best chance of these is if we stumble across an antswarm), Black-faced Antthrush, Wing-barred Manakin, the distinctive, white-browed race of the Yellow Tyrannulet, Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant, Russet-winged Schiffornis, White-thighed Swallow, White-breasted Wood Wren, Southern Nightingale-Wren, Fulvous-vented Euphonia, and Tawny-crested and Scarlet-browed Tanagers.

Classic Colombia: Day 16  Today we shall again visit one or more of the sites near Rio Claro before heading west to Medellin for an overnight stay.

Classic Colombia: Day 17  Early this morning we will take a short trip to a small reserve that protects a fragment of cloud forest near the city where we will hope to see the very rare Yellow-headed Manakin. This beautiful manakin was discovered breeding here a couple of years ago and it has since become a reliable site at which to find this generally very rarely seen species. We may also see Colombian Chachalaca and Red-bellied Grackle here.

After our birding in the Medellin area, we will take a flight to Santa Marta. On arrival we will make our way up to El Dorado lodge, near San Lorenzo, for a three nights stay, noting our first Santa Marta endemics as we go. As with the Chocó, no ‘classic’ Colombia birding tour could omit to go to Santa Marta. We have even had to extend our stay in these wonderful mountains as the number of endemics and the time required to find them has increased!

Classic Colombia: Days 18-19  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 in northern Colombia 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, Santa Marta Toucanet, 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 Whitestart, 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 Santa Marta Bush Tyrant and the uncommon Santa Marta Blossomcrown, 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.

An endemic that needs some luck to see is the tiny Santa Marta Woodstar. The very rare endemic Santa Marta Sabrewing has been recorded in the San Lorenzo area, but as it has never been reliably recorded on any birding tour to the massif, we are not going to hold out any hope for that one!

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.

Classic Colombia: Day 20  After devoting much of the day to the birds of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, we shall begin our descent to Minca, situated in the semi-arid foothills above the coastal town of Santa Marta, where we will stay overnight. As we descend we will look for some of the mid-elevation species.

Classic Colombia: Day 21  Today 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.

Working our way to the coastal highway, we then head for patches of humid lowland forest. Here we will hope to add Lineated Woodpecker, Pale-bellied Hermit, Western Slaty Antshrike, Lance-tailed Manakin, Buff-breasted Wren and perhaps the attractive Cotton-top Tamarin or Venezuelan Red Howler Monkey.

We will eventually reach the coastal town of Riohacha, where we will stay overnight.

Classic Colombia: Day 22  East of the Sierra Nevada de 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 between this part of Colombia and adjacent Venezuela. Arguably the most striking of these is the eye-catching Vermillion Cardinal, but they also include Russet-throated Puffbird, the tiny Chestnut Piculet, 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 Hawks, Scaled Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Brown-throated Parakeet, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Buffy Hummingbird, Black-crested Antshrike, Northern White-fringed Antwren, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Yellow-breasted Flatbill, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Glaucous Tanager and the restricted-range Orinoco Saltator.

The nearby lagoons hold an 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, Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Royal, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, and sometimes Cabot’s Tern. During tours in the boreal winter we may possibly see a vagrant Herring or Lesser Black-backed Gull amongst the wintering Laughing Gulls.

After our visit to the Guajira Peninsula, we will drive westwards to the town of Santa Marta for an overnight stay.

Classic Colombia: Day 23  We shall take advantage of the cool morning hours to visit the cactus-studded coastal scrub of Isla Salamanca National Park, where at first light we hope to see the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca and perhaps Crested Bobwhite. Nearby mangroves are home to a very dense population of Bicolored Conebills, sharing this habitat with Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes (between October and March), and, with a bit of luck, the rare endemic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird.

Along the coast, we will see Magnificent Frigatebirds, numerous Brown Pelicans and Common Black Hawk, and will scan the shorebirds out on the mudflats for Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers, Willet, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitcher and Stilt Sandpiper. Shorebirds are more numerous between October and March when Osprey is also likely.

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, Greyish Saltator and Great-tailed Grackle.

Later we will continue on to Barranquilla airport, where our Classic Colombia birding tour ends in the afternoon.


by Trevor Ellery

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by János Oláh

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by Pete Morris

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by János Oláh

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Other unmissable 'blockbuster' birding tours in northern South America by Birdquest include: