Colombia: Bogota, Eastern Andes & the Magdalena Valley Feb 16—29, 2016

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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For the first few days it seemed as if the trip would be more about traffic in Bogotá (and how to get in and out of the city) than birds, but our days afield soon dispelled that notion. On our first day, at Chingaza National Park, we found the mountain slopes alive with hummingbirds and an abundance of flowering plants and, although some hummers seldom seemed to sit still, others did, such as the gorgeous Purple-backed Thornbill. And, any memories of hummingbird frustration were quickly forgotten after an afternoon visit to a nearby group of feeders with point-blank views of trainbearers, Blue-throated Starfrontlet, and Glowing Puffleg among others. On the second day, during our visit to Laguna Tabacal, we focused on more difficult forest species and were successful, during our short period of time here, in getting almost everything—including Striped Manakin, Rusty-breasted Antpitta, Gray-throated Warbler, and Speckle-breasted Wren. Our visit to the private Chicaque Reserve the next day proved to be one of the best days of the trip with almost non-stop mixed species flocks, gorgeous view of Golden-bellied Starfrontlets, and later, a Black Inca. And so it continued—tropical dry forest, montane wet forest, the lovely little Bellavista Reserve in the Central Andean foothills, the hot and humid lowland forests at Río Claro, stops in Magdalena Valley ranchland and, finally, a visit to the ProAves Cerulean Warbler Reserve.

Remarkably, one of our top days was the humid forest above Ibague, on the east slope of the Central Andes, where we recorded, in a half-day, almost a hundred species, among them Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, and even a male Lazuline Sabrewing at feeders. Río Claro brought a spectacular selection of large fruit-eating birds at a fruit tree where Saffron-headed Parrots, toucans, oropendolas, motmots, and even several tanagers were present. And there was an evening visit to an oilbird cave and enough antbirds, flycatchers, and becards for almost any enthusiast. Later, a search for Northern Screamers added quite a number of additional unexpected species, among them Orange-winged Parrot, a beautiful pair of Blue-and-yellow Macaws at a nest stub, and even a tiny Shining-green Hummingbird. 

Among other trip highlights were seeing two species of scythebills (one of the few times we’ve ever seen two species of scythebills in a single trip); the largest number of spinetails I’ve ever recorded on this trip (9 species); 38 species of hummingbirds (all seen well); 15 species of wrens (12 seen); a good selection of endemics such as the Apolinar’s Wren and Turquoise Dacnis; 5 species of Hemispingus tanagers; and 13 species of Tangara tanagers (at least 10 seen by everyone). We also saw quite a number of Gray-cheeked Thrushes (including 6 one morning), and over 45 Blackburnian Warblers, although overall I thought the number of wintering North American breeding migrants was low. I didn’t count the list, but it was surely a good one. This trip also goes on record as one of the driest with much of Colombia suffering from extreme dryness due to the effects of an unusually strong El Niño.

Every time I return to Colombia I learn about another new and exciting location for birding—a new lodge, a new road, an area previously inaccessible or unexplored. During the 1980s and 1990s Colombia was mired in civil unrest and foreign visitors were rare, flocking instead to neighboring Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and other countries for birding and ecotourism. When birders finally were able to return to Colombia beginning about 2008, an explosion of interest followed. In the late 1980s I often said that security was so bad in Colombia I might never be able to return. Little did I imagine the transformation that would occur.

Colombia also is a busy country. Everywhere we traveled there were signs of heavy construction, people working, a country at work, a varied and booming economy, and a country that is generally clean and surprisingly cognizant of conservation issues. Bogotá suffers growing pains like any large metropolitan area (major traffic congestion), but is trying numerous novel ways to ameliorate congestion and smog—a private lane bus system; a proliferation of bicycle lanes; no automobiles one day a week; an odd-even license plate number system for alternate day driving; and Sunday closing of many streets to all but bicycles and foot traffic. Road signs throughout the country urge people to take care of the environment and keep the environment clean. For a country that has struggled to rid itself of crippling political and social problems, the transformation is remarkable. The statistics are undeniable—just over 1,900 species of birds have been recorded here including over 70 endemics and many more species that are almost endemics. And, for several of you who came a day or two early for birding and cultural sites around Bogotá with Diana, you added even a few more birds. A popular slogan says that the only danger in Colombia now is wanting to stay. And that just may be true.