Colombia: Santa Marta Mountains Extension Feb 28—Mar 06, 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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This trip, which follows the Bogotá-Magdalena Valley tour, provides an entirely different suite of birds and a different environment, culture, and work ethic. Our trip began with an early morning flight from Bogotá to Santa Marta and a visit to a scrub and plantation area south of the airport. Despite being hot and late in the morning, we found several of the commoner dry forest and mixed scrub species including Yellow-headed Caracara, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Panama Flycatcher, Scrub Greenlet, and several North American breeding warblers including several Prothonotary Warblers and Yellow Warblers and a rare Northern Parula.

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 and then early afternoon birding in moist tropical forest that was remarkably productive. Later, well out on the Guajira Peninsula, we made a few relatively brief stops that quickly added many new birds, among them Double-striped Thick-knees (six of them), a couple of Green-rumped Parrotlets, and a pair of Trinidad Euphonias among others.  

The next morning, with the help of local Wayúu guide Jose Luis Pushiana from the village of Camarones, we found a long list of locally-occurring desert scrub species, among them a lovely pair of Vermilion Cardinals (what a crest!), Orinocan Saltators, Crested Bobwhite, Chestnut Piculet, White-whiskered Spinetail, Vermilion Cardinal, and much more. Late in the morning we returned to the bay at Camarones, which held a remarkable collection of shore- and water birds, before departing for 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. This lodge, opened in 2008, offers birders a magnificent base for exploration, as well as unrivaled views of the entire Caribbean coast spread out far below.

The road to the El Dorado Lodge also extends upward well beyond it, ultimately terminating on a mountaintop at about 9,200 feet. This mountain now bristles with telecommunications towers and equipment. 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 Parakeets, Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, and Santa Marta Warbler (three of them). We spent the afternoon around the lodge, and the next morning exploring areas above the lodge and a nearby forest trail. One notable highlight was a female White-tipped Quetzal at her nest cavity. This also was the first time that I have seen a pair of Blossomcrown Hummingbirds visiting the orange Marmolade bushes (Streptosolon) at the El Dorado Lodge. On our last morning at the El Dorado Lodge we undertook an early morning hike, arriving at a location where it was possible to see two “Santa Marta” Screech-Owls at their day roost, and we took turns standing in a particular spot where they were visible.

Birding at lower elevations, and around Minca, on our final two days brought many more new species, and plenty of dust as these were, without doubt, the driest conditions that I have ever seen here. One highlight, remarkably, was a pair of Golden-winged Sparrows (a.k.a Arremon) that were coming to a fruit feeder at the Minca Hotel, and a half-dozen new hummers visiting feeders at the Minca Hotel. We also spent a fine morning on a side road a little above the hotel where we enjoyed an array of North American migrants (generally in lower numbers this year than previously), as well as Scaled Piculet, Plain-brown Woodpecker, and Black-headed Tanager among others.

Overall, the extreme drought this year almost certainly played a hand in the fact that we largely or completely missed some species or groups of species (among those conspicuously absent were: rails, jacanas, and fewer large waders; almost no swifts; no response from the Black-backed Antshrike; no large woodpeckers; poor response from antpittas and from several endemics in the extremely dry and dusty areas between El Dorado and Minca; and a notable absence of seedeaters due surely to the fact that there were few grass seeds available). On the other hand, we had more shorebirds and quite good numbers of other species that we don’t routinely see, so the list balances out.

We thank you for choosing VENT for your travels and hope you enjoyed this visit to this northern birding route in Colombia. We also hope that you consider returning to Colombia to see some of the many other spectacular birds in the Andes and elsewhere. As Colombians will tell you now, “your only risk is wanting to stay.”