The Central and West Andes with an extension to the Llanos in the eastern lowlands
-By Avery Bartels (Guide)-
In a country with such a diversity of habitats and landscapes one is spoiled for choices when it comes to prime birding destinations. This itinerary was chosen as it provided fairly comprehensive coverage of the northern part of the West and Central Andes coupled with a lack of any really long travel days, the latter a rare feat on a Colombia trip. While not focusing on building as big a list as possible in the time available, the idea was to have a good chance to see the bulk of specialties occurring in these two mountain ranges. To this end we achieved moderate success recording 21 Colombian endemics, 17 of which were seen by the group, 2 (both Tapaculos of course!) remained as heard only and 2 were recorded only by the guide. A total of 386 species were recorded by the group on the main tour with an additional 118 species recorded on the extension. The final species tally for the entire 17 day trip was 504 species.
Day 1 Medellin to Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve
After a few days of pre-tour birding around Bogota the group all reconvened on the first morning of the tour proper at the Finca Hotel La Ponderosa a few Kms from the Jose Maria Cordova Airport outside Medellin. A couple hours of birding from the well placed patio there provided a nice introduction to the common Andean avifauna with Southern Lapwings, Andean Motmots, Scrub and Black-capped Tanagers on show. Our first endemic, the Red-bellied Grackle made a brief appearance as a group of 3 flew overhead. At mid-morning we boarded our bus with the excellent Leonardo at the wheel and
departed. On the 4.5hr journey north to the Piha Reserve, operated by the Colombian conservation group Proaves, we made a few birding stops picking up a pair of Bar-crested Antshrikes along with some lower elevation humid forest species such as Black-faced Dacnis, Plain-colored Tanager and Black-bellied Wren before arriving at the reserve in time to watch a group of Colombian Chachalacas devouring the bananas at the feeding station. Over the next 2 days we would tally 11 species of hummingbirds at the impressive feeder setup!
Day 2 Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve
Our first full day of birding was spent working our way slowly up the ridge trail, through pristine montane rainforest. The lushness of the forest is a product of the high humidity and during the first few hours of the morning we had to contend with fairly dense fog. Nonetheless, we got off to a nice start with an extremely confiding Chestnut-crowned Gnateater that showed off at less than 2m from us. Normally at lower elevations, a Yellow-throated Toucan was a nice surprise shortly afterwards. On the ridge itself we were
fortunate to run into 4 different Chestnut-capped Pihas! Despite being the Reserves showcase species they can be quite elusive so we counted ourselves fortunate. Though we were disappointed to dip on a couple the reserves other endemics, in particular the Multicolored Tanager, we ran into some other tricky species on our descent back to the lodge including Brown-billed Scythebill, Wing-barred Piprites and Purplish-mantled Tanager. Some after dinner owling down the road failed to produce the hoped for Stygian Owl but we did hear Mottled Owl.
Day 3 Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve
For the duration of the morning we birded the road that carries on north from the lodge. This road passes through several patches of good forest as well as regenerating pasture and a grassy wetland. Shortly after leaving the lodge we got good looks at a pair of endemic Parker’s Antbirds. These were followed by a nice mixed-species flock in which we picked up Fulvous-breasted Flatbill, Silver-throated and Golden Tanagers and as we were departing, a troupe of Red-bellied Grackles. A little ways down the road Jose, the local forest guard, picked out a roosting South American Coati. These mammals are a lot trickier to see in the Andes than in other parts of the tropics. At a small wetland we found an accommodating Wedge-tailed Grass-finch perched atop some shrubbery along with a pair of Bran-colored Flycatchers. As the morning warmed up, activity declined but we still
managed to get good looks at a male White-crowned Manakin, thanks to Jose’s sharp eyes. The morning was capped off with a surprise encounter with a Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner that stayed perched long enough for everyone to get extended scope-views of a normally rather skulky, if not uncommon, species. After lunch we enjoyed the feeders and the grounds at the lodge where Black-winged Saltators and Blue-necked Tanagers made appearances along with a very rare Solitary Eagle that circled a few times over the nearby ridge. A calling White-crowned Tapaculo was tracked down. After dark, most of the group made an unsuccessful attempt at Cinnamon Screech-owl in the forest, while those that preferred to stick to the road were rewarded with a flyover Stygian Owl that Jose was able to call in.
Day 4 Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve to Medellin
This morning we spent birding down the road in the opposite direction to the previous day. The birding was fairly quiet until we reached the first habitations, beyond the reserve boundary. Here we had a very productive hour getting good looks at the near-endemic Sooty-headed Wren and a family group of White-mantled Barbets that put on a show at close quarters. Another group of Red-bellied Grackles were feeding nearby and Jose spotted a female Western Emerald nest-building. After an early lunch at the reserve we made our way back to Medellin. On a tip from Jose we made a stop to look for the very local Tody Motmot. Despite hearing a few individuals we were not able to get views, unfortunately. We did pick up our first Black-crowned Antshrike, Sepia-capped Flycatcher and Crested Oropendolas. Other stops produced the only Citron-throated Toucan of the trip and our first Spectacled Parrotlets.
Day 5 La Romera Reserve and the Cauca Valley to Jardin
After a pleasant night in the south of Medellin we made our way to the nearby La Romera Reserve on the outskirts of the city. The main target at this reserve is the very local Yellow-headed Manakin which, with patience, can usually be found. Sure enough, we eventually all got good looks at one perched unobtrusively in the undergrowth after only part of the group got brief views of one at a fruiting tree. Close encounters with a pair of Emerald Toucanets, Ornate Flycatcher and Russet-crowned and Three-striped Warblers filled in the rest of our time here. Traveling down into the Cauca Valley we had 3 endemics in mind; Greyish Piculet, Apical Flycatcher and Antioquia Wren. Disappointingly we
dipped on all three despite visiting two sites where all are known to occur. Our consolation came in the form of several new species to the trip including White-fringed Antwren, Panama Flycatcher and Golden-crowned Warbler. After checking in to our hotel on the plaza in Jardin we walked to the edge of town where a track leads down to the creek and perhaps the best Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek anywhere. Pretty soon we were enjoying several incredible males displaying and interacting just metres away from us!
Day 6 Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve, night in Jardin
We had an early departure to make the bumpy hour and a quarter journey up to the Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve in time for the flight of Yellow-eared Parrots leaving their roosts. This species has made a remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction thanks principally to the efforts of Fundacion Proaves. As we were finishing up our field breakfast a trio of the parrots flew over and landed in a tree on the slope opposite where we were able to get good scope views of them followed by close flyby looks as they moved on to their next foraging site. Birding down the road we ran into the typical upper elevation forest birds including Pearled Treerunner, Rufous Spinetail as well as several tanagers such
as Lachrimose Mountain-tanager, Blue-and Black and Grass-green Tanagers. After a field lunch we spent some time at a good vantage point where we scoped a distant Chestnut-crested Cotinga, a much sought-after denizen of remote high elevation valleys. Some nests of Mountain Cacique provided further entertainment but with the onset of late afternoon rains we decided to make our way back to Jardin. After a rest we enjoyed a wander around this beautiful town and at dinner at an open-fronted restaurant we were entertained by a parade of men, women and children on horseback, all showing off their trots as they circled the main plaza.
Day 7 Jardin, return through the Cauca Valley to Montezuma Lodge
We started out at 6 to make our way down into the Cauca Valley for breakfast at a restaurant near our first birding stop. The restaurant had put out a few bananas near a small pool and these attracted many Thick-billed Euphonias, Tanagers and our only Clay-colored Thrush of the trip. A second attempt at Antioquia Wren and Apical Flycatcher again left us empty handed, though our only Black-tailed Flycatcher and Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher of the trip were spotted. Moving on we were promptly stopped by road works which provided an impromptu opportunity to call in a pair of responsive Greyish Piculets. Finally getting onto this enigmatic endemic was a welcome salve for our poor luck with the Wren and Flycatcher we had dipped on. After a longer than anticipated journey, in part due to a wrong turn along the way, we arrived at the Montezuma Lodge with time to spend an hour or so enjoying the hummingbird feeders that held an impressive 15 species including Violet-tailed Sylph, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant.
Day 8 Montezuma Lodge/Tatama National Park
The Choco eco-region is one of the most biodiverse in the world and holds a host of regional endemics, many of which only occur on the west slope of the Western Andes. Our first day here started with drive up to the peak above the lodge where a couple of Colombian endemics can be found. We started off with a singing Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer that gave a few good, though brief views before working our way down through stunted forests until we finally were able to get on a pair of Munchique Wood-wrens. Both of these target birds only occur at the highest part of the road so we were pleased to get onto them and start working our way down through nicer forest. The rest of the day was spent making our way slowly downhill. Though activity was light, considering that this area is often teeming with flocks, we did pick up many of the specialties including two other endemic Tanagers, Gold-ringed and Black-and-gold along with Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Beautiful Jay, a scoped Pale-eyed Thrush and our first Glistening-green Tanager and Indigo Flowerpiercers. In the late afternoon we drove down to the Rio Claro, not far from the lodge, where we encountered a noisy group of Crested Ant-tanagers and heard a calling Plain-backed Antpitta which ultimately proved elusive.
Day 9 Montezuma Lodge/Tatama National Park
Having done the higher part of the road the day before, we drove only about half way up and spent the morning working down the lower part of the road. With most of the country endemics in the bag from the day before we were targeting a few of the missed Choco
specialties as well as the prized Multicolored Tanager, which already eluded us once, at the Piha reserve. Having heard so many the day before it was a relief to finally get a prolonged scope view of a Black Solitaire as it sang from a mossy perch. Shortly after that we got fantastic looks at a responsive Cloud-forest Pygmy-owl, one of the hardest of the Choco specialties to actually see! Small flocks held many Tanager species including Flame-faced and Saffron-crowned. A pair of diminutive Bronze-olive Pygmy-tyrants foraged beside the road as did an Ochre-breasted Antpitta, picked out by Michele Vigano, an Italian birder staying at the lodge for 10 days who joined us for the duration of our stay as our “local” guide. Having spotted a few of the widespread Green-and-black Fruiteaters we were delighted to have a male Orange-breasted Fruiteater land in a nearby tree. The morning was capped off with a stop at a known roost site of a Common Potoo! After lunch back at the lodge and some time enjoying the hummingbird feeders we headed back out in the mid-afternoon focusing on
trying to finally lay eyes on a Multicolored Tanager. The distinctive sound of a displaying Club-winged Manakin reached us from a damp ravine below the road and after a bit of coaxing this little gem of a bird came and danced right in front of us, one of the highlights of the trip! A large mixed flock in poor light finally produced a fleeting glimpse of a female Multicolored Tanager for myself but before any of the group got on it it was gone.
Day 10 Montezuma to Manizales
We gave one last go at Multicolored Tanager before we had to head out to our next destination, Manizales. In the few hours we had again birding the lower part of the road above the lodge we picked up Golden-bellied “Choco” Warbler, Olive Finch and Ochre-breasted Tanager and heard the only just described Tatama (aka Alto de Pisones) Tapaculo. Alas, no Multicolored Tanager. As we prepared to depart the lodge a pair of Barred Hawks soared out over the ridge behind us. On our way back down towards the Cacau Valley we made a stop near Apia for Turquoise Dacnis. Staking out a likely looking tree, I did get onto a male briefly, though, like the Multicolored the day before it disappeared before any of the group got on it. Several false alarms with a male Green Honeycreeper ensued but the Dacnis did not reappear. Lunch in the dry Cauca Valley produced a surprise Dwarf Cuckoo as well as good looks at a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers. We encountered an absolutely torrential deluge with very strong winds in between the cities of Pereira and Manizales which forced us to wait at a roadside truck stop as bamboo, tree limbs and whole small trees were blowing down across the road. While still on the road one of these blowdowns struck the back of the bus leaving a sizeable dent!
Day 11 Rio Blanco Reserve, night in Manizales
We had the full day to enjoy this wonderful reserve. After a half hour watching the hummingbird feeders at the lodge, photographing Long-tailed Sylphs, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, Buff-tailed Coronets etc. we moved up the road to visit a succession of three
Antpitta feeding stations. Here we were immediately greeted by a small group of Golden-plumed Parakeets. The feeding stations themselves provided excellent views of Chestnut-crowned, Bicolored and Brown-banded Antpittas and some of the group spotted a skulky Chestnut-naped Antpitta that remained in the dense vegetation. A couple excellent mixed flocks held Black-billed Mountain-toucan, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and Metallic-green Tanager amongst a host of others. Skulking in the bamboo were Streak-headed Antbird and a couple Striped Treehunters though they were hard to get good views of. Perhaps the bird of the day was Masked Saltator, of which a pair was spotted, eventually giving good looks for all of this rare and local species. Back at the lodge after
lunch we waited out the rain that had finally broken over us. The birding was still quite good from the patio and we added Rufous-crowned Tody-flycatcher, Black-eared Hemispingus and Yellow-billed Cacique here. At dusk we waited at a stakeout for Lyre-tailed Nightjars that leave their roost from a cliff at the roadside. Here we saw a couple females before a stunning male flew overhead with it’s incredible tail streaming out behind it.
Day 12 Nevados del Ruiz National Park and Termales del Ruiz Hotel to Otun Quimbaya Sanctuary
This was a cold day dominated by thick fog that made birding difficult for most of the morning. We started off with a few stops in the high mountains near the entrance to Los Navados national Park in an unsuccessful attempt to pick up the endemic Rufous-fronted Parakeet. Frustrated by the lack of visibility we moved up to the park entrance itself where another endemic, the punk-rock hummingbird – Buffy Helmetcrest is regular. We were made to wait before one finally showed itself. In the meantime we saw Stout-billed
Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra-finch and some got on a Tawny Antpitta. Making our way back down to the Termales del Ruiz Hotel we enjoyed an array of stunning hummingbirds at the feeder setup here. Shining Sunbeams and Great Sapphirewings predominated with lesser numbers of Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Golden-breasted Puffleg and a lone Black-thighed Puffleg joining in. Even amongst this impressive list the star was undoubtedly the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill that was so tame it would fly back in forth right in front of our faces, even attempting to land on us! After lunch we made the 3 hour journey to the Otun Quimbaya Sanctuary where we birded the grounds in the final hour of daylight picking up Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Fawn-breasted Tanager and a calling Tropical Screech-owl.
Day 13 Otun Quimbaya Sanctuary, flight to Bogota. End Main Tour
The final morning of the main tour was spent birding up the fairly level road beyond the accommodations at Otun Quimabaya. We started in the parking lot where a Wedge-billed Hummingbird was visiting the flowers and the first of many Cauca Guans flew into a nearby tree for scope views. This endemic was once thought extinct but there is now a healthy population here though it is the only known site for them. As the morning
progressed we caught up with a group of Crested Ant-tanagers, which not everyone had seen at Montezuma. Moustached Antpittas proved elusive as always despite hearing a couple near to the road. A covey of Chestnut-wood-quails, one of the tougher endemics to actually see, flew across the road allowing for brief views. Around 9:00 we came across an area of good activity with a pair of Blue-naped Chlorophonias started things off. A fruiting tree held a Crimson-rumped Toucanet briefly and Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulet and Black-billed Peppershrike foraged with a mixed flock at the roadside. At long last we finally encountered a pair of Multicolored Tanagers that showed themselves a few times over the next 10 minutes, the female even appearing to explore a potential nest site in a clump of moss. We were all extremely pleased to have finally caught up with our nemesis bird, even if it was at the 11th hour! A stunning show of butterflies kept us entertained as the birds quieted down in the late morning. After lunch we started the drive back down to the Pereira airport where we were catching our flight back to Bogota. We made a couple stops along the river here to try to pick up Torrent Duck without success.
Day 14 Flight to Yopal, drive to Hato La Aurora
After a 45 minute flight to El Yopal, at the edge of the llanos east of the Andes, we piled into two pickup trucks for the 5.5 hour drive to Hato La Aurora. This huge ranch has been converted to tourism and receives a small but growing number of birding groups. En route we got acquainted with many of the regular large species such as Horned Screamer, Jabiru, Whistling Heron and Scarlet, Buff-necked and Sharp-tailed Ibis. Also seen on our frequent birding stops along the way were Brazilian Teal, Russet-throated (Two-banded) Puffbird
and Oriole Blackbird. Mammalian highlights included prolonged views of a Giant Anteater sucking up ants at the roadside and a Jaguarundi that crossed the road ahead of us. After a late lunch at the Ecohotel Juan Solito (the accommodation at Hato La Aurora) we spent the rest of the afternoon birding along a trail that parallels the river. Here we got our first looks at Pale-headed Jacamar, Rufous-fronted Thornbird, Violaceous Jay and Black-faced Tanager. Beside the hotel there is a lookout over the river where we spotted our first of several Sunbitterns, Gray-cowled Wood-rails and at dusk, Nacunda and Least Nighthawks.
Day 15 Hato La Aurora
While enjoying our excellent breakfast we were fortunate enough to be interrupted by our second Giant Anteater in as many days! A quick ferry across the river (with a pair of Rusty-backed Spinetails seen, nest building along the shore) and we were off in safari
style in a pickup with benches set up in the back. We slowly bumped our way through scrubby forest and grassland, stopping at lagoons and enjoying our highest diversity of species of the trip (we finished the day with 129 species of birds). Our first stop was for a group of beautiful Chestnut-eared Aracaris inspecting a termite nest. We saw several Burrowing Owls at their burrows over the course of the day and the many lagoons we visited held a multitude of waterbirds including Orinoco Geese, White-faced and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Rufescent Tiger-herons, Cocoi Herons, Pied Lapwing and several Large-billed and a single Yellow billed Terns. Every watering hole also had up to several dozen Capybaras in attendance. A pre-lunch stop had us watching our first Hoatzins of the trip, undoubtedly one of the most awkward and unusual of the world’s avifauna. From a nearby perch an adult Great Black-hawk eyed us. We lunched at the Hato (ranch house) proper where we spent some time enjoying the feeders that were alive with Yellow-rumped Caciques, Carib
Grackles, Saffron Finches and Masked Cardinals. The hummingbird feeders attracted several Bananaquits and the odd Glittering-throated Emerald as well as Red-crowned Woodpecker and a lone Venezuelan Troupial. Behind the Hato we followed a small backwater stream where we found more Hoatzin and an Anhinga. An afternoon drive around the lagoons near the Hato produced a Limpkin and partial views of an Anaconda that reluctantly showed it’s snout and a part of its back after some prodding from our local guide. As dusk set in we watched a spectacular show of Scarlet Ibis, and a few other species, coming in to roost at a pond just in front of the Hato. Least Nighthawks and bats hawked insects and as darkness settled in we departed to make the 1hr drive back to the hotel. Along the way we spotlighted White-tailed Nightjar and Common Pauraque as well as a Crab-eating Fox.
Day 16 Hato La Aurora
After another sumptuous breakfast we again crossed the river, this time setting off on foot along a trail through forest and scrub that runs along the edge of the river. We had only been on the trail for a few minutes when our local guide, Jovani, halted us and pointed out a Crestless Curassow in a tree ahead of us. Relying on staying still to remained unobserved, it allowed for a fairly prolonged, if partially obscured view before it finally flew down to the ground and disappeared. This is one of the star birds here and we were
thrilled to have seen it so close to the lodge! Shortly afterwards we came across an area with good activity where we spotted Spectacled Thrush, a pair of Buff-breasted Wrens and a Scaled Piculet tapping away on some vines. Carrying on a pair of skittish American Pygmy Kingfishers unfortunately flew off before most of the group could get on them. Several Rufous-tailed Jacamars showed off their stunning iridescence and a male Wire-tailed Manakin, vying for the attention of a female was eventually tracked down. In the afternoon we were paddled upstream a ways, spotting another Sunbittern, a Gray-headed Kite and a pair of Red-bellied Macaws. We then took a different trail where we got fantastic looks at 2 male Wire-tailed Manakins as well as our first Black-crested Antshrikes. As we floated back down to the lodge in the late afternoon our 7th Ibis species of the extension flushed off the shore, a Green Ibis. A trio of Lesser Kiskadees were our last new bird of the day.
Day 17 Hato La Aurora to Yopal, flight to Bogota
Our final morning of the trip saw us spend a couple hours birding the same trail we had started on upon arrival here. We began with 20 minutes overlooking the river where we were shocked to see another Crestless Curassow fly across the river! From the other side of the river we could hear a calling Rosy Thrush-tanager, though we did not encounter any on our side. Moving on we found a gathering of 4 Little Woodpeckers, followed by nice scope views of a Plumbeous Kite. Southern-beardless Tyrannulet and Rufous-and-white Wrens were welcome additions to the trip list but all too soon we had to return to the Ecohotel to retrieve our bags and depart for Yopal. The birds spotted on the drive were much the same as what we had seen on the way in though a stop at a little pond just after leaving the hotel provided us with our first Yellow-chinned Spinetails and not long afterwards we encountered a group of Blue-crowned Parakeets in a tree at the roadside. After a roadside lunch and some ice cream in Paz de Ariporo we continued down the Hwy to the Rio Paoto. Here we stopped, at the driver’s suggestion to do a bit of birding. It proved an inspired
decision as we found several new birds for the trip, not least of which was a roosting Great Potoo! In the same area we got on Hooded and Burnished Buff Tanagers, Chestnut-vented Conebill and a couple Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. Our final new bird of the trip was Brown-chested Martin, 4 of which were foraging over the river. Arriving at the airport in Yopal with time for a quick meal we were whisked back to Bogota where we said our goodbyes and prepared for the return to Canadian winter.