Colombia: Santa Marta Mountains Extension Feb 15—22, 2014

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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This short extension to the Bogotá-Magdalena trip provides an entirely different suite of birds and a look at a different Colombian environment, culture, and work ethic. Our trip began with an early morning flight from Bogotá to Santa Marta and then a short drive southward to look for the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. Despite the late morning visit to this site, we did manage to see (flush actually) one Chachalaca at close range, and some of you saw it several times as it moved through a series of trees and gradually put some distance between itself and our assembled group.

Black Flowerpiercer, El Dorado Lodge, Colombia

Black Flowerpiercer, El Dorado Lodge, Colombia— Photo: Steve Hilty

Here also, south of Santa Marta, we saw a few of the commoner dry forest and mixed scrub species including Yellow-headed Caracara, Red-billed Emerald, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar. Soon we began the drive eastward to the Guajira Peninsula and its fascinating desert scrub birds, with a lunch stop at the Las Acacias restaurant for some delicious Red Snapper. Later, well out on the Guajira Peninsula, we began our search for desert scrub birds, soon finding Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Double-striped Thick-Knees, a variety of herons (including a migrant Great Blue Heron and a couple of Green Herons), as well as Bicolored Wrens, Chestnut Piculet, and many others before driving into Riohacha at dusk. With the hotel restaurant closed, we ventured out for an evening seafood meal at the Casa de Mariscos restaurant.

The next morning, with the help of local Wayúu guide Jose Luis from the village of Camarones, we quickly found Orinocan Saltators (5 all feeding together), Vermilion Cardinal, and many other birds typical of the desert. Best of all was a pair of Tocuyo Sparrows, as well as a remarkable group of 6 Chestnut Piculets together, some quality time with a pair of White-whiskered Spinetails, and an adorable covey of some 20 Crested Bobwhites. By late morning we were en route back toward Santa Marta and a rendezvous with some very macho-looking 4×4 Land Cruisers for a rough and tumble ride up to the El Dorado Lodge, which opened in 2008 and offers birders a magnificent base for exploration, as well as unrivaled views of the entire Caribbean coast spread out far below.

Shortly after our evening arrival at the El Dorado Lodge we spotted several Black-throated Wood-Quail in the compost pile, as well as a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and Sierra Madre Brush-Finch, and at dusk in trees overhead, a pair of Band-tailed Guans. It was quite an introduction.

The road to the lodge also extends upward well beyond the El Dorado Lodge, ultimately terminating on a mountaintop at about 9,500 feet. This mountain now bristles with telecommunications towers. Driving up this road is an adventure (an understatement perhaps), as it surely ranks as one of the most difficult roads you are likely to encounter. On our first day here we reached this upper zone without incident (these are high clearance vehicles) and spent a marvelous morning finding many of the endemics including the much-sought Santa Marta Bush-Tanager and spotting both Rufous Antpitta and Santa Marta Antpitta foraging at length in the road. We spent the afternoon around the lodge and explored areas both above and below the lodge the following day. We were fortunate to see the Blossomcrown rather easily at the little store below the lodge on our second day.

Birding at lower elevations and around Minca on our final two days brought many more new species with highlights including several gorgeous Golden-winged Sparrows (a.k.a Arremon), Santa Marta (Long-tailed) Antbird, and a Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner. There also was a Santa Marta Tapaculo for part of the group, a lot of little flycatchers (tyrannulet heaven here), and a half-dozen new hummers visiting feeders at the Minca Hotel. 

I hope that you enjoyed your visit to this exciting region and that you will consider returning to Colombia to see some of the many other spectacular birds in the Andes. As Colombians will tell you now, “Your only risk is wanting to stay.”