Colombia: The Central & Western Andes Jun 05—21, 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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A few years ago I summarized this trip with the following comments: curvy roads, landslides, massive road construction projects, tractor -trailer trucks, out-sized meals for carnivores, enchanting cloud forests, spectacular mountain scenery, rare parrots, hummingbirds, antpittas, colorful tanagers, mixed species flocks, and remarkably friendly, helpful people. Has anything changed? Actually yes, several things. There was less road construction this year, and there were more hummingbird feeders than ever, including the ones at the Hotel Termales de Luis, which surely attract the most spectacular array of hummingbirds anywhere on the planet. Also included was a new hummingbird and tanager feeding site near Cali, an antpitta feeding site near the Yellow-eared Parrot reserve, the discovery of a lovely new site for the recently described Antioquia Wren, and a new restaurant with feeders for hummingbirds and tanagers in the Anchicayá Valley. It gets better with each passing year. And young Colombian birders themselves, of which there are now many, are discovering and reporting new sites, finding new species for the growing country list (already the largest in the world), and contributing in many ways to advancement of ornithology and birding in their country. And best of all, at several of the sites we visit, these young local birders are assisting us or providing inside information on an array of species that is proving helpful in many ways.

This year we began the trip above Cali where a remarkable collection of hummingbird feeders and hummingbirds delighted everyone. In the afternoon we visited a similar but much more modest site not far from the little town of Queremal and, despite being relatively new, the feeders were attracting a remarkable collection of birds including Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, Rufous-throated Tanagers, and an Empress Brilliant. The following day we visited my favorite Colombian birding area, the Anchicayá Valley, the region where I undertook my graduate dissertation work almost forty-five years ago. It proved, as always, to be one of the best birding days of the tour. The following day, we made a productive stop at Laguna de Sonso, and by our fourth day we were high on a mountaintop in Tatamá National Park in the Western Andes with magnificent scenery all around. This area brought an endemic Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, a Munchique Wood-Wren—the wren being a species I discovered in the late 1970s and eventually helped describe new to science in 2003. Our stay in the remote Tatamá region added many Chocó-Pacific birds including Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, Gold-ringed Tanager, Black-and-gold Tanager, and breathtaking views of Crested Ant-Tanagers.

Crossing the Cauca Valley and proceeding into the Central Andes, we spent a night at the Otún-Quimbaya Reserve near the city of Pereira. This reserve is predominantly second growth and plantation woodland but holds an unusual assortment of rare species, among them Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and Cauca Guan; this year, with assistance from an excellent local birder, we were able to see one of Colombia’s least-known birds, the diminutive little Hooded Antpitta. From Otún we moved northward to a new base in the city of Manizales. Our first destination there was the Río Blanco forest reserve, a watershed that provides the water for Manizales. Several antpitta feeding stations also are maintained here and rank among the best to be found anywhere. During our visit to three feeding sites we logged four species of antpittas, including the endemic Brown-breasted Antpitta and rare Bicolored Antpitta.

We also spent a day on nearby Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano, finding a group of nine endemic Rufous-fronted Parakeets feeding in the páramo and the endemic Buffy Helmetcrest among many other species. Later we spent several hours at a rainy and foggy but spectacular site watching hummingbirds—surely hosting the most incredible collection of dazzling hummingbirds to be seen anywhere on the planet. 

Leaving Manizales we recrossed the Cauca Valley again, this time for a short visit to the Las Tángaras Reserve operated by ProAves, and then onward to the picturesque Andean town of Jardín and one of Colombia’s richest coffee-growing areas in the Western Andes. Our focus at this site was the rare Yellow-eared Parrot, a species that did not appear at sunrise the next morning, although by midafternoon we succeeded in spending almost 30 minutes beneath a tree while eight of these lovely birds fed on small, dark lauraceous fruits. This area also produced a remarkable list of additional “glamour” species including Sword-billed Hummingbird, Andean Cock-of-the-rock (surely the most habituated group on the planet), Hooded Mountain-Tanager, and a cute little Rufous Antpitta that came for bits of worms at a feeding site—this the culmination of over a year of daily feeding visits by a local woman who has habituated this bird. Her patience is almost beyond comprehension. A nearby Chestnut-naped Antpitta also comes occasionally but as yet, not on a regular basis. 

We ended the trip by crossing the Río Cauca one last time and continuing on to the bustling city of Medellín, but not before adding a couple of endemics including the newly described endemic Antioquia Wren and Grayish Piculet en route. In Medellín we enjoyed a pleasant morning with the endemic Red-bellied Grackle and near-endemic Yellow-headed Manakin. Our last activity involved an afternoon trip to a lake where we observed an interesting collection of aquatic species including two over-summering northern migrants, a Green Heron and a male Blue-winged Teal. Also present were a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with nearly a dozen boldly marked downy chicks en tow, looking like nothing so much as large black and yellow wasps (warning colors?), a dozen Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, and several other aquatic species.

Our group left at various times (including some at unseemly early departure times) for international flights the following morning, each carrying photographs and memories of lovely birds, mountains and cloud-filled valleys, and of people all along the way who seemed to go out of their way to help us. We hope you will come again to see even more of this delightful and alluring country.