Colombia has been coined "the birdiest country on earth" by Chris Calonje, founder of Colombia Birdwatch and the leader of our 12-day bird tour. According to ProAves, a Colombian non-profit dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, Colombia has over 1900 species of birds putting it on top for having the most species of birds in the world! This amazing diversity is due in part to the many habitats found in Colombia. From lowland tropical forest to mid-elevation cloud forest and finally to the montane forests of the Andes, Colombia has it all. In addition, Colombia bridges 2 continents so both North and South American species are found here. The first stop on our bird quest was EL 18, located on a 5900-foot pass, 11 miles northwest of the city of Cali. Many bird species can be seen right from the old road to Dapa . Highlights from our first morning of birding included Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, Blue-naped Clorophonia and this magnificent male Long-tailed Sylph.
We made a stop at Finca Alejandria where the owner, Raul, had discovered that several hummingbird feeders not only draw in these tiny winged beauties but also attract lots of tourists who are willing to pay a small fee to see them. In addition to the hummingbirds many brilliantly colored tanagers visited the feeders including this Colombian endemic, the Multicolored Tanager.
As we were leaving the Finca, an Ornate Hawk-eagle posed nicely in the top of a tree.
After lunch Chris took us to his family farm where stunning Blue-necked Tanagers were feeding on berries in the top of a tree and Crimson-rumped Toucanets entertained us at the banana feeders. "Wow, if I had a backyard like this, it would be tough to leave", I told Chris.
The next day we returned to the cloud forest above Cali where the highlight was being taken to a small farm where an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek is located. We climbed down to the location of the lek and waited patiently for the birds to arrive. We weren't disappointed. A beautiful male flew in and perched handsomely on a nearby tree.
We left Cali the following day and drove north for about 40 miles to the town of Buga. The draw here is the Sonso Lagoon, one of the only remaining wetlands in the Cauca Valley. Most of the valley's wetlands have been drained to grow sugar cane. In fact a prominent member of the "sugar cartel" illegally tried to drain Sonso Lagoon last year in order to plant sugar cane. Fortunately, he was caught and the damage to the lagoon was repaired. Today we were fortunate to see specialties of the area such as the Greyish Piculet, among the World's smallest woodpecker, and the Apical Flycatcher both which are endemic to Colombia.
After lunch we returned to the Cali Airport and flew via Bogotá to Barranquilla, a city on the Caribbean coast. Early the next morning we birded the marshlands of Isla Salamanca National Park. Birds such as White-masked Water Tyrant, Whattled Jacana, Purple Gallanule and our favorite, Yellow-chinned Spinetail flitted among the reeds.
An unexpected surprise awaited us at our lunch stop. A Bare-throated Tiger Heron was striking a bizarre pose on a nearby dock. "Was he trying to attract a female?" I wondered. There weren't any around so maybe he was just trying to stay cool. He didn't entice any females but he sure did draw a lot of excitement from us.From here we left the coast and drove into the foothills of the Santa Marta Mountains to the town of Minca. An afternoon thunderstorm made birding a bit challenging but we managed to pick up a few more species. From Minca we climbed along a deeply rutted road toward El Dorado Nature Reserve, a private reserve founded by ProAves in 2005. The reserve protects almost 3000 acres of tropical (970 m) to montane humid (2790 m) cloud forest. Early the next morning we drove to the top of Cerro Kennedy to look for some of the reserve's 24 species of endemic birds! We were fortunate to see 6 endemics - Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Brush Finch, Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Wood-wren, Santa Marta Mountain Tanager and the Rusty-headed Spinetail.
|Bare-throated Tiger Heron|
|Santa Marta Warbler|
|Santa Marta Brush Finch|
The views from the top were equally impressive. To the west rose the glacier-clad Santa Marta mountains, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. Pico Cristóbal Colón rises to 18,700 feet above sea level and is the highest mountain in Colombia. Much (12,000 feet) of this mountain is under water and when measured from its oceanic base, Pico Cristóbal Colónb is 30,700 feet TALL! Only Mauna Kea (33,000 feet) on the island of Hawaii and Mount Lamlam on the island of Guam are taller.
|Santa Marta Mountains|
That evening Roger Ardila who works for ProAves showed us a presentation about El Dorado Nature Reserve. Much of the information I have been sharing with you came from Roger's talk. Thanks, Roger! With 26 endemic species of birds and 9 endemic species of amphibians, most threatened with extinction, El Dorado Reserve along with adjoining Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park was named "the most irreplaceable site on Earth" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You can read more about this designation by clicking on the following link.
The following morning we explored the road below El Dorodo Lodge in search of more avian endemics. We weren't disappointed. We were rewarded for our patience with a clear view of a Santa Marta Tapaculo. This shy forest bird spends most of it time foraging on the forest floor and rarely shows itself.
|Santa Marta Tapaculo|
A short walk from the road brought us to an area where Santa Marta Blossomcrown frequent. Like most hummingbirds, the Blossomcrown rarely perches for very long but just long enough for Marc to snap his photo!
On our way back to Minca we took a break from birding to enjoy 3 Venezulean Red Howlers lounging in a nearby tree. The parents were trying to snooze while the rambunctious youngster entertained us by hanging from a branch with his prehensile tail.
|Venezuelan Red Howler|
Next stop on our bird tour was Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean coast. We were hoping to see Blue-billed Curasssow but they eluded us. While searching for the currasows we saw many colorful male Lance-tailed Manakins.
Although the bird life in Tayrona is prolific, I was keen to see a Cotton-top Tamarin, a tiny monkey endemic to Colombia. We left the group with Chris and went off to search for this rare primate. We ran into a troop of more common White-fronted Capuchins which posed nicely for us but I still wanted to see a Cotton-top.
Chris got a call on his cellphone that the rest of the group has spotted Cotton-tops near the stables. We ran to the stables but by the time we arrived, the tamarins had moved off. Bummer! We did manage to scare up a tiny asp, the most dangerous snake in the area but it wasn't exactly what I wanted to see. We searched a few more areas for the tamarins spotting a colorful male Rainbow Lizard (Cnemidophorus lemniscatus) courting a not-too-interested female.
Back at the parking lot I was crestfallen that we has missed the tamarins. Suddenly, Chris spotted something in a nearby tree. Could it be? Yes! Several Cotton-top Tamarins were scurrying about in the branches! They didn't stay still too long for Marc to get a photo but he managed to get a reasonably good shot.
Cotton-top Tamarins are one of the most endangered primates in the world. Only 6000 exist in the wild, all in a tiny region in northwestern Colombia. Up to 40,000 Cotton-top Tamarins are thought to have been caught and exported for use in biomedical research before 1976. Today habitat destruction is their primary threat. Now you can understand why I was so keen to see them.
The last stop on our bird tour was Los Flamencos National Park. The moist tropical forest of Tayrona gave way to the arid scrubland around Los Flamencoes. The transition was abrupt as were went in search of more birds in this semi-desert environment. The Wayuu, an indigenous group, make their home here. The local women have discovered that they can sell their hand woven bags to tourists who come here to see the birds.
|I Purchased the bag on her Shoulder|
Our local bird guide, Jose, is a Wayuu and was trained by the Audubon Society. He makes more money showing birds to tourists than raising goats in this harsh environment. The following morning we were birding around a pond where a local Wayuu woman was giving her 3 daughters a bath. While the group was searching for a Tocoyu Sparrow, I was intrigued by the little girls. At first they were shy and not sure what to think of these strangers intruding on their morning ablutions. I smiled and asked if the water was cold in Spanish and they smiled back as I took a few photos.
|Bathing Wayuu Girls|
I hope our brief visit has helped this community in a small way. Perhaps the bag I purchased was from a relative of this family. Maybe more Wayuu will be trained as bird guides giving this community pride in protecting a natural resource that people will travel thousands of miles to see. Our quest to see some of Colombia's amazing bird life had come to an end. We had just scratched the surface seeing 400 or so of the 1900 species that make Colombia home. Now that we have discovered this diverse country we'll be back to explore more of Colombia's wealth of natural treasures! A big thank you goes to Chris who organized and led this tour and to our amazing and ever-so-patience local guides, Jose Luna Solarte, Angel Ortiz Meneses and Jose Luis Pushaina Epiayu for finding so many wonderful birds for us!
We hope all is well back home.