Duration:6 days
#Heard Only:25

2011 Colombia Fam Trip


Our brief visit to Colombia was all too short, just 6 days in the field, but it was quite spectacular. The trip was sponsored and largely paid for by ProExport and the Colombia Tourism Ministry as part of their efforts to promote tourism in Colombia. We had with us two experienced tour leaders who work for tour operators in the UK, one of whom (Byron Palacios) was originally from Ecuador and was especially expert at finding and identifying birds along with our guides.

The trip began with an early morning visit to La Florida wetlands, located on the far side of the airport. Despite the close proximity of our hotel to the airport, it took us a half hour to get there. Barb wire fencing has recently been placed around the wetland to keep grazing cows out, but it made things a bit hazardous for us as well. Construction is still underway and walkways are planned for the near future. As it was, we had to tromp through grass tussocks and chewed-up muddy ground caused by the cows having been grazing there recently. The wetland is a small oasis in a big city that is home to several important and endangered birds. With considerable effort and playback, we were able to coax a Bogota Rail into the open briefly for good looks but no photos. We also had a very good view of Spot-breasted Gallinule and the rather erratic Subtropical Doradito. However, we failed to hear or see the endangered Apolinar's Wren.

Later that morning we returned to the airport for a domestic flight to Medellin. Things were a bit messed up, as ProExport had changed the flight schedule from 12:00 PM without telling our guide to 11:00 AM. Making matters worse, Laura's ticket was booked separately and had not been changed. Fortunately, we were able to change Laura's ticket at the airport without cost. Otherwise we would have had to wait an hour for her in Medellin. From Medellin we had an uneventful 5-hour drive through largely deforested mountains of the central cordillera to Jardin, where we stayed in a basic hotel for the night.

On day 2 we were up at 4:30 AM for the drive up to the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve, the first reserve purchased by ProAves of Colombia. The Yellow-eared Parrot was critically endangered in 1998, when it was thought to be extinct until 2 small populations were re-discovered in separate locales. This reserve was the second locale where they were found, and its purchase coincided with the formation of ProAves to protect the species. 4-wheel-drive vehicle is required to reach the reserve up a steep gravel road. It allegedly takes about an hour to get to the area where the parrots nest, but in reality that is not possible. Currently 2 major mudslides cover about ¼ mile of road and is not likely to be cleared any time soon. That was actually fine, though we had about a 2-mile walk to the reserve from the blockage. Just beyond the blockage we found a Tanager Finch in the underbrush and had great views of it. This species is very hard to come by in Ecuador but is somewhat easier to see in Colombia. Not far beyond that we had decent looks at 2 Ocellated Tapaculos we were able to find with the help of playback deep in a tangled thicket. Other notable birds we saw walking up were Barred Fruiteater, Blue-capped Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Slaty Brush-Finch, and Stripe-headed Brush-Finch. Our main target was the Yellow-eared Parrot, which can be seen by looking for them from a vantage point on a grassy knoll overlooking a cleared area. The parrots only nest in Wax Palms, which grow at quite high elevations in the Colombian Andes and have been seriously degraded and cut because the leaves are used for Palm Sunday. The best time to see the parrots is early morning, but we didn't get to the site until 8:30 AM. With patience, however, the parrots finally showed 45 min later. We had excellent, though somewhat distant views of these beautiful birds. They flash large yellow patches on their wings when they fly, which we saw very well as the sun was out and the day was clear. While waiting we also saw a small flock of Scarlet-fronted Parakeets flying overhead.We did a bit of birding on our way back down the mountain, stopping at some rather inactive hummingbird feeders behind the ranger station where we saw Longuemare's Sunangel, a recent split from Tourmaline Sunangel. We hoped to rouse the endemic and always skulky Munchique Wood-Wren but had no luck with that.

We wound up having a late lunch and didn't leave the hotel until nearly 3:30 PM. This was bad enough, as it's about a 5-hour drive to the Rio Blanco Reserve near Manizales, but we also had an important birding stop planned along the way. Our driver was quite fantastic at driving the very winding roads through the central Andes, perhaps a bit too much so as a few people were feeling a little queasy from all the twists and turns of the roads. About an hour from Jardin, we stopped at the Apical Flycatcher site, one of the best places to find this endemic. With a bit of playback we were able to get very good looks at the species. We also soon discovered that the same spot was alive with other birds. We had intended to stop only 15 min, but birding was so good that we were there 1½ hours instead. Species we picked up included Colombian Chachalaca, a likely future split from Speckled Chachalaca, the endemic Grayish Piculet and Bar-crested Antshrike, Moustached Puffbird, and Slaty Antwren. We paid the price later, arriving at Rio Blanco at 10:00 PM followed by a late dinner.

We slept in a bit next morning and didn't get out birding until 7:00 AM. The reserve features 2 antpitta feeding stations. We walked up the asphalt road to the first one, located on a short trail off the road. On the way up we had a fine look at the tough-to-get Black-billed Mountain-Toucan perched at a distance in a tree. At the first feeding station we had wonderful looks at Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the endemic Brown-banded Antpitta. We then continued uphill to the second feeding station, where there was little activity. A couple people did briefly see the very secretive Chestnut Wood-Quail, which occasionally shows up at the feeding station. Sometimes Bicolored and Slate-crowned Antpittas also show up, though less often. That may change as they get more used to people being there watching as time goes on. The right-hand fork of the road leads into good secondary forest where birding is spectacular. A total of 364 species have been recorded in the reserve, including one we added to the list, namely Rufous-bellied Nighthawk, during our visit. In the forest we had very good looks at a pair of Powerful Woodpeckers as well as Dusky Piha. We hit a mixed species flock where the action kept us busy for some time. Some of the species were Golden-fronted Redstart, Black-capped Hemispingus, Black-eared Hemispingus, Gray-hooded Bush Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, and Blue-and-black Tanager. Several people saw the elusive Plushcap, though I missed it. Some other notable species were Rusty-faced Parrot, which typically is seen only in the forest canopy, Flammulated Treehunter and Red-hooded Tanager.

We left early on day 4 for Los Nevados National Park outside Manizales. The park offers a good altitudinal transect from middle-elevation forest up to paramo. On the way toward the top of the road we spotted a far off dot in the sky which, upon closer inspection, was a soaring Andean Condor. We spent quite some time watching this spectacular bird as it gradually soared closer, unfortunately never close enough to get decent photos. We continued up into the paramo to look for our primary target bird, the near endemic Bearded Helmetcrest. This rather spectacular hummingbird feeds primarily on the flowering stalks of the Frailejones, a strange plant of the high Colombian and Venezuelan Andes. A couple people found the male of this species after some looking, while the rest of us had to settle for just seeing the female. On the way back down the mountain, we were treated to a spectacular show of some 25 Rufous-fronted Parakeets that not only flew overhead but also perched in the trees a few hundred yards off the road. These birds are very rare, found only in the park, and our guide Sergio said it was the best look he'd ever had of them in the many years he's been birding the area. I guess that makes the Andean Condor as well as the Bearded Helmetcrest, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Purple-backed Thornbill, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, and Golden-crowned Tanager second-rate highlights, but we're happy to take them all.

Following coffee at Juan Valdez Coffee Shop in Manizales followed by lunch in a nearby restaurant, we visited Alcazares City Park in town before heading to the airport for our flight back to Bogota. The park actually features some good birding in secondary forest and a few open areas. Despite being the middle of the day, we picked up a nice variety of mostly widely distributed forest birds. That night we stayed at the Sheraton near the international airport, very plush indeed, courtesy of ProExport.

We were up before the crack of down on day 5 for an excursion up to Chingaza National Park. The park is allegedly 50 minutes from Bogota, but it took us 1½ hours to reach the gate. The habitat is paramo and the birding is good. Some of the species we picked up were Glowing Puffleg, White-chinned Thistletail, White-throasted Tyrannulet, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Rufous-browed Conebill, and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. We also saw a Merlin flying by, a most unusual sighting in that area. Farther along the road we picked up Plain-breasted Hawk (a possible future split from Sharp-shinned Hawk), Bronze-tailed Thornbill, and Crowned Chat-Tyrant. A couple people in the group also saw an Andean Snipe that flushed some distance away. At mid-day we headed back down the mountain to the town of La Calera, where we partook of traditional Colombian barbecue, an assortment of meats, roated potatos, corn, and plantains all served in one communal bowl.

After lunch we drove out of La Calera to a wetland that was once a gravel pit and still owned by the gravel company. En route we were astounded to spot an American Flamingo feeding in a wet pasture a couple hundred yards off the road. This bird doesn't belong there, but the condition and color of the feathers (pink and white, not red) suggested that the bird was wild and not an escapee. After changing vehicles from our 4-wheel-drive vehicle (which started reeking of fumes) to a full-size tour bus and then passing by an historical landmark church, we finally reached the wetland. This unnamed site teems with Bogota Rails, which came out in the open and scurried about on floating vegetation. We even saw two rails mating out in the open. It was great for photography as well as for seeing this endemic species. We also had distant looks at the endemic Spot-flanked Gallinule and were able to rouse a Noble Snipe with the help of playback.

Back in Bogota we had two very fruitful days at the trade fair. We met people in the ecotourism business and the staff at the ProAves office. Bogota is a big city of some 8 million people, and getting around is a real pain. There are only 3 main avenidas, and many of the remaining streets are frequently clogged with traffic during the day. It can be very disorienting, and driving in the city oneself is not for the faint of heart. The many, many taxis will get one wherever one wants to go.

Laura left for Panama after the trade fair to join a tour she was leading there. Meanwhile, I had one more day left in Bogota, so I arranged to go back up to Chingaza that day. The wife of our guide for 2012 and a driver took me up to Mundo Nuevo, an agricultural community adjacent to the park. We had one mishap before leaving Bogota, being stopped by police at 4:45 AM because the headlights weren't working on our vehicle. After waiting 45 min for a new vehicle, we were on our way. The road to Mundo Nuevo turns off from the main highway at La Calera and is strictly 4-wheel-drive. Our primary target bird was the endemic Brown-breasted Parakeet, and Mundo Nuevo is the best place to find them. Birding groups that visit the area don't always see them, but we had good fortune and saw several flocks flying about. We also had good looks at perched birds. A couple other notable birds we saw were Longuemare's Sunangel and Black-collared Jay. On our way back down the mountain we saw one last good bird, a rare Solitary Eagle soaring over the valley being harassed by a Kestrel.

- Jim Wittenberger, Exotic Birding LLC