Colombia: The Central & Western Andes Jun 07—22, 2015

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Colombia, so little-known in recent decades and yet with so much going for it!  With the largest bird list known from any country in the world, plus a well-developed infrastructure, birders are once again turning their sights to this complex country that is home to the greatest montane avifauna anywhere.  On this very successful trip, our 6th run of this itinerary, we took full advantage of what Colombia has to offer, emphasizing the unique Western Andes and nearby slopes of the Central Andes.  We were thrilled to find an amazing variety of special endemics and species rarely seen elsewhere, plus a huge assortment of Andean birds, in settings that were surprisingly pleasant.  Add to this spectacular mountain scenery, friendly people, and “home-cooked” food, and who could ask for more?

Our travels took us through the heart of “classic” Colombia, from intensely agricultural regions with vast sugarcane plantations and hillsides covered in sun-grown coffee to mountain wilderness blanketed in gorgeous cloud forest as far as the eye could see.  From the bustling and very modern cities of Cali, Pereira, Manizales, and Medellin we passed through very tidy, colorful, and quaint towns and villages back in the hills.  There were ranches with fine horses and real cowboys, roadside restaurants serving huge meals best suited to carnivores, curvy mountain roads with motorcycles careening around them—and birds, birds, birds!

Red-bellied Grackle, a Colombian endemic

Red-bellied Grackle, a Colombian endemic— Photo: David Wolf


Each and every day of the trip brought special sightings.  On Day 1 we plunged into our birding at Laguna de Sonso, a large marsh that is one of the last remaining wetlands in this highly-agricultural region.  Upon arrival birds were popping out everywhere in this mélange of habitats—seedeaters, hummingbirds, Spectacled Parrotlets, Scrub Tanager and much more, while a thicker grove of trees produced our first endemic, the Grayish Piculet, and 3 Common Potoos at their day roosts.  Lunch was at a nearby roadside restaurant by a pond with a breeding colony of Bare-faced Ibis to entertain, and then in the afternoon we visited Bosque Yotoco, one of the last remaining foothill forests in the interior valley.  Our hike through the thick forest was slow, but yielded such skulkers as Slaty Antwren and Scaly-breasted Wren.  Then it was on to Cali in the late afternoon to the very modern Hotel Dann.

On Day 2 we left very early for the long drive through the forested Anchicayá Valley down into the Chocó foothills, where we watched sneaky tanagers coming to a fruiting tree and found a large mixed-flock of forest birds highlighted by a pair of rarely-seen Lita Woodpeckers and a Golden-bellied (Chocó) Warbler close at hand.  Here too we added a number of attractive lowland species to our list, including a mixed-flock of toucans with a Chocó Toucan in it.

Day 3 took us up through the denuded hills above Cali (stopping for our first Colombian Chachalacas en route) to a pass in the Western Andes at 6,200 ft.  Here we had a fabulous morning in the garden of “El Paraiso de Colibries,” the hummingbird feeders swarming with 18 species of these gems!  The colorful tanagers and Red-headed Barbets at the banana feeders weren’t bad either, and we all enjoyed a male Golden-headed Quetzal on the forest edge.  At lunch in an open-air restaurant near the Cali Airport, a Bar-crested Antshrike almost came to the table, while nearby we had to stop for a flock of Buff-necked Ibis parading through the grass beside the highway.  Then it was time to travel hard, to the small town of Pueblo Rico, where we switched to 4X4 vehicles for the final push to Montezuma Lodge, our home for three nights.  At this simple, yet very adequate, country guesthouse in the heart of the Western Andes, we found hospitality and dinner awaiting us.

Daybreak on Day 4 found us bouncing up the rough track from the lodge into Tatamá National Park, with the prospect of an exciting day in the Chocó montane forests, only to round a bend in the half-light and find our way blocked by a treefall.  Not to worry—the drivers hopped out, took a quick look, grabbed their machetes and began swinging away with amazing dexterity.  In less than 15 minutes we were on our way again, slowly climbing higher when suddenly our first views of the incredible Tatamá massif came into view, leaving us awestruck.  Clearly a photo stop was required!  On this gorgeous clear morning we could see the entire jagged ridgeline of this inaccessible wilderness, with sheer cliffs and steep slopes covered in elfin scrub plunging thousands of feet down into a broad forested valley below.  We had to drag ourselves away, but before long we reached our goal at the end of the track, a military post on Cerro Montezuma at 8,000 ft.  Low thickets and stunted bamboo covered the hilltop, and within minutes of our arrival a Munchique Wood-Wren sang nearby and came into view close at hand!  This recently-described Colombian endemic was first discovered by Steve Hilty in the early 70s, but to this day remains very poorly-known.  Thus began an amazing string of special birds as we worked our way down the road through the course of the day (descending 3,500+ ft. in elevation), beginning with a pair of Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercers just a few feet away and followed by our first mixed-flock, with Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, and Purplish-mantled Tanager among others.  Then it was a Tanager Finch feeding quietly in the lush understory; our first Gold-ringed Tanager sitting up in full view; a sunlit Indigo Flowerpiercer of the most intense blue imaginable; a displaying male Club-winged Manakin; and a pair of sneaky Crested Ant-Tanagers in a vegetation-choked ravine, brilliant scarlet-red when they finally came into view.  By the time we were back at the lodge in the late afternoon we were almost—but not quite—too fulfilled to watch the show at the hummingbird feeders!

On Day 5 we again went up the Montezuma track, this time starting lower, in the subtropical zone.  These forests are the wettest in the New World, and the luxuriant vegetation reflects this, with mosses and epiphytes covering every square inch of the tree trunks and branches and the understory almost impenetrable.  A trio of Beautiful Jays began the day in a great way, and then through the course of it we found a male Orange-breasted Fruiteater; both Chestnut-breasted and Yellow-collared Chlorophonias (hard to decide which was prettier); a big mixed-flock containing a Toucan Barbet and our first Black-and-gold Tanagers; a male Golden-winged Manakin in the scope; and a rare Bicolored Antvireo.  In the mid-afternoon, at lower elevation, we stirred up an unseen Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl and soon had a big bunch of small birds mobbing it, including rarely-seen specialties like the Chocó Vireo and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.  We never did spot the owl until it dashed out of the tree above us.

On Day 6 we spent the morning birding the lower zone of the Tatama NP road, walking up from the lodge and finding a pair of Moustached Puffbirds and endemic Parker’s Antbirds in the process.  It was a sunny morning and the forest soon became rather quiet, but a great show of butterflies came out to entertain us.  Taking our leave of this area, after lunch we made our way back to Pueblo Rico, greeted Jovanni at the bus, and traveled a few hours to the Otun-Quimbaya Reserve, where some of us saw our first Cauca Guans feeding in a cecropia behind the lodge at dusk, and then a walk in the forest after dinner produced great looks at a Colombian Screech-Owl.

On Day 7 we spent a very pleasant morning and early afternoon birding Otún-Quimbaya, starting off with a flock of 10 or more Cauca Guans feeding in the forest canopy.  This highly-endangered species was once feared extinct.  A tip from Luis’s colleague Hernan sent us on our next quest, to the secondary forest up the road at 6,500 ft.  Here we stepped off the road into the thickets, Luis played calls, and out popped an incredibly visible Hooded Antpitta, slowly wiggling from side to side as we watched it, fully in the open!  Very few people have ever seen this species (Steve, sorry you weren’t here with us) and it proved to be the top bird of the entire trip.  Our last big quest bird here was tougher, the much-desired Multicolored Tanager.  Eventually a male was spotted in a small mixed-flock, but it was flighty and never easy to see, which is apparently typical.  Much more cooperative were the Red-ruffed Fruitcrows for which the reserve is famous, and throughout the morning we spotted them sneaking into fruiting trees, flying low through the forest, and even “booming” in the treetops.  A mid-afternoon stop below the reserve produced a pair of Torrent Ducks along the rushing Rio Otún, and then we headed into the attractive city of Manizales and the Hotel Varuna, our headquarters for 3 nights.

Our excursion to the humid temperate forest at Rio Blanco Reserve on Day 8 proved to be one of our most rewarding, beginning with Black-collared Jays along the entry road.  Then we were off to an amazing show at three feeding stations where four species of delightful antpittas came for worms.  Afterwards conditions were perfect for a walk through the gorgeous forest, with high clouds and no wind, and we found Scaly-naped Amazons feeding right above us (flaring their colorful and diagnostic tails), a Powerful Woodpecker, and mixed-flocks and obscure understory flycatchers, enough to satisfy even the most jaded birder.  After a home-cooked lunch at the caretaker’s cabin, with hummingbirds at the feeders all around the porch, a remarkably cooperative Masked Saltator was found (scope views).  Finally, at slightly lower elevation, we stumbled onto a trio of gorgeous Red-hooded Tanagers sitting atop the tall trees.  It soon became evident that they were the forefront of a huge mixed-flock of smaller birds, which we proceeded to follow for the next 30 minutes.

On Day 9 we did the high country at Nevado del Ruiz, the Volcan Ruiz looming in the distance with clouds of steam rising and fresh snow on its flanks.  After a wonderful breakfast in a simple mountain cabin (rooster and all), short walks in the paramo produced almost all of the high elevation specialties, the best a male Buffy Helmetcrest guarding a flowering Espeletia.  The stunted treeline forests slightly lower were quiet, likely due to the nice weather, but the hummingbird feeders at the Termales del Ruiz attracted an amazing variety of species normally quite hard to see, including Great Sapphirewing, Black-thighed and Golden-breasted pufflegs, and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, while pygmy-owl calls brought a Crowned Chat-Tyrant, male Paramo Seedeater, and two unbelievably bright Purple-backed Thornbills up right in front of us.

The morning of Day 10 found us slowly walking up a long forested valley near Manizales.  Initially it was quiet, but that changed suddenly when a flock of 25 or so endangered Golden-plumaged Parakeets landed in the trees above us.  Their camouflage was remarkable, but they stayed and we all had great studies, eventually to be distracted by a trio of Black-billed Mountain-Toucans in the same area.  We then encountered several roving groups of small birds and finally a mixed-flock of the “big birds,” led by Black-collared Jays and Mountain Caciques and with Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, Dusky Pihas, and Hooded Mountain-Tanagers tagging along, all of them slowly foraging close at hand.  With the morning gone, it was time to travel the backroads through the coffee plantations of the foothills of the Western Andes to lovely Las Tangaras Lodge.

On Day 11 we climbed into the 4X4s for our excursion to Las Tangaras Reserve on the ridge high above the lodge, where upon getting out of the vehicles we immediately found a tree full of chlorophonias, tanagers, a pair of Golden-collared Honeycreepers and more.  Then we hiked a trail into the interior of the gorgeous moss forest.  Birds were not easy to see here, but we scored big with an Olivaceous Piha in the understory, a calling Scaled Fruiteater under the canopy, and a secretive Chestnut-breasted Wren that finally revealed itself, as well as several mixed-flocks.  Lunch was served as we watched 11 species of hummingbirds at feeders inside the ridgetop forest, while back down at the lodge in the late afternoon we did some easy feeder-watching and added 6 more species of hummers to the day’s tally.

Since we had done so well with the Chocó specialties at this point, on Day 12 we decided to depart Las Tangaras first thing and drive to the remnant dry forests several hours away, only to be thwarted by road construction in the hills in the coffee country.  It had to happen sooner or later!  Still, by mid-morning we were strolling down a road through the dry forest and it didn’t take too long before we had a close pair of recently-described Antioquia Wrens singing from a few feet away, plus a selection of other birds of this rather different habitat.  A big lunch was had at the very nice and traditional Restaurant Mayoria at the crossroads, and then an afternoon drive took us to the lovely little city of Jardin.  We arrived in time for a late afternoon visit to a spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek just below the town, where 8 or more spectacular males boldly displayed right in front of us for 30 minutes of observation.

On Day 13 we climbed into 4X4s in the dark for yet another adventure in the high montane forest, this time to search for the rare Yellow-eared Parrot.  A little owling on the way up failed to bring a calling White-throated Screech-Owl into view, but produced a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar that perched right in front of us.  Our daybreak arrival at the Parrot Reserve atop the ridge at 9,200 ft. paid off almost immediately when a trio of these extremely endangered birds flew past us, circled back, and landed quite close at hand for scope views.  In the next hour we spotted almost 100 more parrots, in flight both near and far, perhaps 10% or more of the entire world population.  Feeders at a private home nearby attracted our one and only Sword-billed Hummingbird, while the local boys flushed a Tawny-breasted Tinamou that crash-landed right amidst the group before realizing its mistake and zooming off!  In the forest a little below here we silently watched a mixed-flock foraging parallel to us, the last bird to sneak into view a remarkable Plushcap that stayed out for great looks.  Our trip back down the mountain was interrupted by a surprise flock of the beautiful endemic Red-bellied Grackles, but we arrived back in Jardín in time for a relaxing vist to the colorful plaza, bustling with crowds of all ages enjoying a pleasant Saturday afternoon.

In the morning on Day 14 we returned to the forest high above Jardín.  The rare Chestnut-crested Cotinga failed to show for us, but instead we were rewarded with an insane flock of White-capped Tanagers that stayed around for two hours.  After lunch in the hotel garden (interrupted by birds) we continued on to Medellin, where we found ourselves a bit shocked to be in a city again after the tranquility of the Colombia countryside!

The final excursion of the trip, on the morning of Day 15, took us to a well-hidden park on the steep hillsides above Medellin, where we were entertained by the foraging antics of Red-bellied Grackles and eventually located a stunning male Yellow-headed Manakin in the shady understory of a wooded ravine, the last great bird of the trip.  All too soon we said goodbye to Luis and Winnie, who flew back to Bogota while the rest of us relaxed and ate well at the Hotel Porton before our international departures early on Day 16.

Now our heads are spinning with all the birds and travel we managed to shoehorn into fifteen days.  A few trip statistics paint an interesting picture of the incredible diversity in the montane regions that we visited.  As a group we recorded about 451 species (including 23 heard only), most of them seen well (except maybe those darned tapaculos!).  Of these, 19 are Colombian endemics (including one heard only), plus there were many “near-endemics.”  We saw 46 species of hummingbirds, 13 woodpeckers, 15 antbirds, 6 antpittas (plus 3 more heard only), 30 members of the ovenbird and woodcreeper family (all but 3 seen), 9 tapaculos (all but one seen by at least some of the group), 57 flycatchers, 14 wrens (two heard only) and an amazing 73 members of the tanager family as presently constituted, including 14 Tangara.  Whew!  Special thanks go to Luis for his expertise at finding the special birds of his country, not to mention his skill in managing the complex trip logistics.  I’ve written a book here, but my enthusiasm for it is great and I hope to return to Colombia to bird more of this fabulous country!  It was great sharing the experience with you all.