Thursday, 11 January 2018

Colombia birding Dec 2017 - Jan 2018

This story of my birding trip to Colombia from 17 Dec 2017 to 09 Jan 2018 is also published as a formal report on CloudBirders.com.

Links

Sunrise over the Santa Marta mountains
It's been a long time coming. A birding trip to the wealthiest country (as far as bird species go) in the world. Nicola happily fell pregnant in August (2017) but this did mean she was unable to join me on this trip. Instead, to help ease the per person cost, I advertised extensively and managed to find a local birder to join me. Lisl van Deventer had birded in Peru, Ecuador and the southern US before so would be a great asset on the trip. She also has a sharp eye and easy personality and together we would have a fantastic time in Colombia. When I initially started looking for guiding companies, my biggest consideration was cost. I contacted several companies in March (2017) and after some discussions, settled on one company as their director was very helpful and patient setting up a tour and also promised to advertise for additional tour members. By May however, no other people were interested and I started getting worried – there was no way I’d be able to afford the trip I wanted to do on my own. So in conjunction with doing some of my own advertising, I also started trawling for other companies that might be able to provide a cheaper tour. After getting Lisl on board, we received several offers and together sifted through these, asking many follow-up questions, and eventually settled on Colombia Wild Ecotours, owned and operated by Ernest Leupin.

Planned itinerary

With our guiding company sorted, we started saving up and transferred money in two batches. Frustratingly, political decisions in South Africa, especially in the second half of the year, ruined our currency exchange rate and by the time we had paid 95% of the cost, the trip was already costing us almost R10,000 (around US$800) more than at the start of the planning phase. Further bad news came when Lisl by pure accident found out that as South Africans, we now suddenly needed a visa for Colombia. This was never the case before and it came into effect only on 09 Oct 2017. Reading the ridiculous requirements for the visa (must maintain a minimum balance of five monthly salaries over three months, all non-Spanish documents to be translated by an official translator, all non-Colombian documents to be apostilled) we thought our trip was in serious jeopardy. At nearly R2,000, it was also the most expensive visa I had ever applied for (and that includes, US, UK, Schengen and Australian). Long story short, it turned out that there’s some “flexibility” as to requirements and we got our visas approved with the following documents (no translations needed and no documents apostilled):
  • Normal 3-month bank statement
  • Letter of employment
  • Spanish invitation from Ernest, detailing full itinerary
  • Flight tickets
But let this be a warning to other birders (South African) heading for Colombia – you need a visa!

Excitement built as the year and work dragged to a close and on 15 Dec, Nicola and I departed for Pretoria. It was Nicola’s birthday and a chance for a last celebration before I left.

16 Dec 2017
Our South African Airways flight to Sao Paulo was unsurprisingly unpleasant. The aircraft’s APU was broken and of course there was no spare and/or the engineers were unable to fix it. So we had no air-conditioning in the rising morning heat. Then there was some or other breakdown in the system that pumped fuel (either the truck or the underground pump or both) and we were delayed by an hour waiting to be re-fueled – without AC. Just as we finally started pushing back, several Brazilian passengers behind us jumped up and started protesting loudly – although the engines had already started, the captain said they can only switch the AC on once we’re airborne but since this was SAA and of course no staff spoke any Portuguese, no-one had bothered to explain it to these poor passengers who now pretested about having to fly in this oven. We quipped how funny it was that not a single South African had anything to say – maybe we’re just too used to this kind of crap. The rest of the flight was at least uneventful and we arrived only one hour late in Sao Paulo. Queues at immigration were almost non-existent and by the time we were stamped through, my bag was already on the carousel (Lisl packed only hand luggage). Lisl drew some Reais at an ATM and we jumped in a taxi to Hotel Monreale in Guarulhos. As we had to get up at 3am to catch the shuttle back to the airport, we headed for bed straight away.

17 Dec 2017: Arrival, Observatorio de Colibries, Chingaza National Park
Day count: 29
Cumulative count: 29
Highlights: P - Sword-billed hummingbird, L – Blue-throated starfrontlet
We were up at 3am, left the hotel at 03:45 in their free shuttle and were checked in and through security and immigration by 04:45. LATAM Brazil’s flight started boarding on time and we were pleasantly surprised with a spotlessly clean aircraft with new seats that had ample leg room. The AC was working as well. Departure was three minutes ahead of schedule and we arrived in Bogota a full forty minutes early! Immigration was fairly straight forward and quick and despite having to fill out a declaration form for customs, this went quick too. Ernest was also flying in today (from Medellin) so Johnnier received us just outside Arrivals. Our timing was just perfect because we walked over to domestic arrivals where we literally waited about three minutes before Ernest walked out. After a very hearty welcome we all (five of us, including our driver Arley) clambered into a comfortable 8-seater all-wheel-drive and off we went. Initially we were going to go to Parque la Florida but as it was almost 10am already; chances of picking up the endemics were slim. So the plans were changed to go visit the Observatorio de Colibries first and then start birding Chingaza National Park in the afternoon. Ernest bought us some snacks along the way so that we didn’t waste time with lunch and we promptly got to the Observatorio at 11:00. The feeders were quite active, mostly with Sparkling violetears, but there were also Glowing puffleg, Black-tailed and Green-tailed trainbearers, Tyrian metaltail, White-bellied woodstar and Sword-billed hummingbird. Just before we left, Johnnier called in a very shy Silvery-throated spinetail and we also spotted a Red-crested cotinga. The road up to Chingaza had frequent cars carrying weekenders which made birding along the road a bit dusty and noisy at times. Being there at the heat of the day also didn’t help but we still picked up good species like Golden-fronted whitestart, Rufous-browed conebill, Bronze-tailed thornbill, White-chinned thistletail and we heard Pale-bellied tapaculo several times. By 5pm we had started to descend and then stopped at a restaurant in La Calera for dinner. Ernest recommended we try ajiaco, a regional Colombian soup with three potato varieties, corn, chicken, capers and cream. We were rather shocked by the massive size of the bowl and then getting rice and half an avocado as well. There was no way we could finish it but it was delicious! Lisl had started feeling a bit woozy during dinner (probably a bit of altitude sickness) so we left immediately after all were done and drove down to our accommodation at Hotel Casona del Patio. Ernest first saw to Lisl getting her room quickly before we all said our goodnights. I also crashed into bed almost instantly since we were up since midnight Colombian time.

Black-tailed trainbearer

White-bellied woodstar (left), Sparkling violetear (right)


18 Dec 2017: Chingaza NP
Day count: 41
Cumulative count: 51
Highlights: Green-bearded helmetcrest
It was an early start to try and reach the upper elevations of Chingaza NP. We stopped at an open food stall along the way to get some arepas and coffee before driving up to the entrance of the park at about 3500m. The sky was crystal clear but a stiff breeze made things decidedly cold. Apart from the omnipresent Great thrush, our first birds were Sparkling violetear, Brown-backed chat-tyrant, Black-tailed trainbearer and White-throated tyrannulet. Longish walks were interspersed with short drives where we were able to warm up a little. Annoyingly, large numbers of trucks and vehicles were driving past, taking people and supplies to the ongoing aqueduct project in the park. The noise and dust they created was not pleasant. A busy culvert in the road produced Pale-naped brush-finch, Rufous-browed conebill, Bronze-tailed and Purple-backed thornbills, Black flowerpiercer, Tyrian metaltail and Golden-fronted whitestart. A split in the road saw us taking the high road which brought us to two small lakes. A trail led off from the road towards the lakes and although the lakes themselves were rather sterile, both a Grass (Sedge) wren and Many-striped canastero showed well. Our elevation was now around 3700m and a large patch of very short paramo held some Andean siskins and White-tailed deer but no Paramo pipit. Arley spotted a hummingbird on some Espeletias and Johnnier’s quick eye confirmed our second endemic for the trip: Green-bearded helmetcrest. After lunch we returned to the fork where we turned left earlier and this time turned downhill. At an altitude of about 3100m, Johnnier’s Andean pygmy owl playback stimulated a real specimen to respond. Two more calls and suddenly the little owl was staring at us from about 10m away – what a beauty! This had further consequences as passerines started harassing the little owl – we ticked Scarlet-bellied mountain tanager, Black-headed and Superciliaried hemispingus, Rufous-breasted chat-tyrant and Blackburnian warbler. The sun was now heading to the horizon and we started back, doing a few more birding stops along the way. Our last new bird for the day was a smart White-sided flowerpiercer. For dinner we stopped at the same restaurant – Lisl ordered a vegetable soup and I had some pork and we shared a few empanadas as well. Again it was delicious and as Lisl was feeling much better since yesterday, we had enough time to quickly tally up our bird list for the trip so far. Just after 8pm we were back at Casona del Patio and headed straight for bed – it was going to be an even earlier start tomorrow.

Andean pygmy owl
Paramo habitat at 3800m in Chingaza National Park

White-tailed deer

19 Dec 2017: Monterredondo
Day count: 70
Cumulative count: 105
Highlights: Flame-winged parakeet
With a 2-hour drive to get to Monterredondo, it was necessary to be up before 4am so we could leave at 04:30. Today was a “cargo day” – trucks are allowed to transport cargo only on certain days and are meant to be off the road and loading on the alternate days. But on cargo days the roads are choked with big-rigs and small-rigs and driving can be unpleasant. Luckily the road down to Villavicencio is quite new and has several dual-carriage sections and even a few tunnels cutting down on some of the curviness. After over an hour’s drive we stopped at a roadside stall to buy almojabanas, a chewy roll made with yucca and another local tuber’s starch – this went down really well with fresh coffee. We struggled a little finding the turn-off to Monterredondo due to the new highway blocking off the entrance but when we did and we finally started birding, new species came thick and fast: Crested oropendola, Palm tanager, Tropical kingbird, Spectacled and Pale-breasted thrushes and Saffron finch. However, with the morning already starting to warm up quickly at this low altitude, we thought it important to try and get to the top quickly and then bird our way down. About halfway up we did stop for a short walk and was almost immediately surprised by a small flock of Flame-winged parakeets. They were very high up in the trees though so the views were not great. However, a White-throated toucanet showed beautifully and a low-flying Black-and-chestnut eagle surprised even Johnnier. A little higher up the mountain and some fog started to roll in, making birding conditions better. The tanagers started coming: first Black-capped and Blue-and-black, then later Grass-green, Golden-crowned, Scarlet-bellied mountain, Hooded mountain and White-capped. A few other birds of note included Bluish flowerpiercer, Masked trogon, Sharpe’s wren, Collared inca, Longuemare’s sunangel and Spillman’s tapaculo. At numerous spots along the road we tried to call and listen for Cundinamarca antpitta but didn’t get the remotest hint of this difficult bird. Arley finally picked us up after noon and we started descending. Still above 2000m we stopped for a sandwich lunch and then continued birding in mist until we finally dropped below it. Late afternoon we birded the bottom end of the road and added Southern lapwing, Giant cowbird, Blue-necked tanager, American redstart, Inca jay, Magpie tanager, Rufous-breasted wren, Pale-breasted spinetail, Ruddy-breasted seedeater, Palm and Speckled tanagers. A short stop at some erythrinas did not produce anything new and by 17:30 we left. There weren’t any decent-looking restaurants on the way back up to Bogota so we drove all the way back to our hotel, dropped our gear and walked around the block to a nearby restaurant where we ate a light meal of floury tortillas with a delicious chicken and mushroom filling.

Female Masked trogon

Bare-faced ibis


20 Dec 2017: Parque la Florida, Jardin Encantado, Puerto Triunfo, Rio Claro
Day count: 88
Cumulative count: 175
Highlights: Bogota rail
Our first targets today were Bogota rail and Apolinar’s wren at Parque la Florida so we had to pack our bags and the car and leave by 05:30 to reach the park at sunrise. We made it perfectly on time and a heavy rolling fog made for ideal rallid conditions. The first interesting birds included Greater yellowlegs, Carib grackle and American coot. At a stand of reeds, Johnnier could hear Bogota rails calling and we soon picked up on calls coming from several spots. However, it took us about ten minutes to finally find a pair of these handsome rails, looking very much like African rails, walking out in the open. We now tried for Apolinar’s wren at good stands of reeds up and down the Bogota river and along the marshes but just could not see or hear any. The supporting cast was good though and included White-tailed kite, Yellow-hooded blackbird, Noble snipe, Spot-flanked gallinule, Eastern meadowlark, Silvery-throated spinetail and Grassland yellow-finch. After almost two hours, our time was up so we left for a bit of a drive to reach Jardin Encantado in the village of San Francisco. Forty sugar water feeders hung around a magnificent flowery garden and attracted a whole bunch of hummers: Indigo-capped (endemic) and Rufous-tailed hummingbirds, Black-throated mango, Gorgeted and White-bellied woodstars, Red-billed and Short-tailed emeralds. Some seed and fruit feeders attracted Saffron finch, Shiny cowbird, Blue-grey and Crimson-backed tanagers, Ruddy ground-dove and Thick-billed euphonia. After spending a very interesting hour here, we left to drive the majority of the day’s distance in the heat of late morning/early afternoon and then stopped at a decent looking restaurant for a late lunch. Another hour’s drive brought us to Puerto Triunfo where we spent more than an hour birding the marshy fringes of the Magdalena river. We were now only 150 metres above sea level and the sun was scorching down – the sweat darkened my shirt in minutes. The discomfort was bearable though considering how good the birding was. In no time at all we had racked up American yellow warbler, Grey-breasted martin, Pale-legged hornero, White-headed marsh and Pied water tyrants, Fork-tailed flycatcher, Red-breasted blackbird, Spotted sandpiper, Red-crowned woodpecker, Savanna hawk, Northern crested and Yellow-headed caracaras, Northern screamer, Black-capped donacobius, Blue-headed parrot, Orange-winged amazon, Bicolored wren, White-fringed antwren, Buff-throated saltator, White-eared conebill , Black skimmer and both Green and Amazon kingfishers. Another fifteen minute drive got us to our accommodation for the next two nights, Los Colores Ecoparque. While Ernest sorted out our rooms, we took a quick stroll around the grounds in the heavy dusk and just managed to pick up two woodpeckers in the failing light: Red-crowned and Spot-breasted. The air-conditioners in our rooms were heaven-sent and while these cooled down, we took dinner in the restaurant – I tried the catfish with smashed and deep-fried plantain with fresh lulo juice– yet another excellent Colombian meal!

Foggy morning at Parque la Florida

Best image I could get of Bogota rail


Forty hummingbird feeders around Jardin Encantado (Enchanted garden)

Black-throated mango

Indigo-capped hummingbird

21 Dec 2017: Rio Claro
Day count: 84
Cumulative count: 235
Highlights: Golden-headed manakin
The air-conditioning at Los Colores worked really well and I slept like a baby, waking naturally only five minutes before my alarm went off. We were ready to go at 05:45 and drove about ten minutes down the road to the entrance of Rio Claro reserve. We wanted to get birding along the trail before the holiday crowds showed up around 8am so we each grabbed something to eat while we walked. It was already uncomfortably hot and the sweat started rolling down my back as we walked the concreted pathway next to the Rio Claro. Our first bird was a Black phoebe but a ringing whistle got Johnnier excited and in less than two minutes we were viewing a stunning Magdalena antbird. Continuing on the path we found Cocoa woodcreeper and an uncooperative female White-tailed trogon, then a Wedge-billed woodcreeper, Buff-rumped warbler, Bay wren, Band-tailed barbthroat, Ochre-bellied flycatcher, Scaly-breasted wren and Rufous-breasted hermit. Just before 8am we returned to the main building of the reserve where they served breakfast and got some scrambled eggs, arepa, toast and melon with a decent cup of coffee. Another group of birders walked in and after Johnnier had a quick chat with them, we quickly walked down the road to catch up with an Antioquia bristle-tyrant they had seen a few minutes earlier. We saw it easily enough and then continued on a track that climbed steeply next to a small tributary of the Rio Claro (the Mulata trail). Here the birds came so fast that we struggled to keep up some times: Yellow-backed tanager, Red-legged honeycreeper, Red-rumped woodpecker, the endemic White-mantled barbet, Chestnut-breasted antbird, Bay-breasted warbler, White-tipped dove, Yellow-throated toucan, Plain xenops, Cinnamon becard, Dusky-faced and Tawny-crested tanagers, Broad-billed motmot, Slaty-capped flycatcher, Orange-bellied euphonia, Pacific antwren, Streak-headed woodcreeper, Black-crowned antshrike – and that’s just half of it. It quietened down a little as we climbed higher along with the sun. By the time we reached about 200m vertically higher than the Rio Claro, the sun was roasting us alive but this did not dampen the sight of around ten Golden-headed manakins displaying for a solitary female at a lek. We gawked at these gaudy little birds and even managed a few photographs – quite an achievement for displaying males that never sit still. Around noon we started downhill again but despite the walking now being easier, I was overheating rapidly and by the time we reached the car, on the point of heat exhaustion. A fruit juice and air-conditioned car helped to ease these troubles significantly as we drove back to Los Colores for lunch. I ordered a ceviche and soup, thinking fondly back to the ceviche I had in Peru. Boy was I disappointed. The ceviche came in a cup that’s actually smaller than an espresso glass and although it did taste pretty good, I noticed that the fish was actually heat-cooked as well. The campasina (farmer’s) soup made up for the ceviche and after this late lunch, Lisl and I relaxed in a shady patch on the grass for a short siesta. At 3pm we drove a short distance to a trail that leads through a cattle pasture and into dark forest closing in on a small stream. This led us to the entrance of a large cave where we saw very strange creatures – Oilbirds. I didn’t realize quite how big they were until I saw them fly around the cave, constantly making either a raspy, screechy noise or clicking sounds I presumed to be a form of echo-location. On our way back we heard the beautiful song of Marbled wood-quails but were unable to locate them on the steep and dark forest floor. By 17:30 we were back at the car and a short time later started packing our bags back at Los Colores. To make up for the ridiculous cup of ceviche I had at lunch, Ernest recommended an Argentinian steak and explained to the waitress at length how we were going to send it back if it wasn’t done to perfection. The steak really was better than I expected and accompanied by tamarind juice, it was a very fine meal indeed. After completing our daily bird list and working out plans for tomorrow, we finally retired to our rooms well past 8pm.


Streaked flycatcher

Golden-headed manakin

22 Dec 2017: Aquitania, San Luis, Piñuela
Day count: 94
Cumulative count: 276
Highlights: P - White-breasted wood wren, L – Sooty ant tanager
We all met at the car around 05:30, loaded the roof rack and picked up breakfast from the restaurant. It was about half an hour’s drive to a road seldom used for birding, close to the settlement of Aquitania. While we were munching granola and milk, Johnnier quickly showed Lisl some Sooty ant tanagers since she didn’t get a complete view yesterday. A noisy Scaled pigeon proved impossible to see but other birds were more cooperative: Bay-breasted warbler, White-tailed trogon, Wedge-billed woodcreeper, Swallow tanager, Blue and Yellow-tufted dacnises, Slate-colored grosbeak, Western striped manakin and a stunning White-breasted wood wren were the highlights. At a busy road near San Luis we scored decent views of White-mantled barbet, Lemon-rumped and Plain-colored tanagers and a bit more distant view of the endemic Beautiful woodpecker. A couple of ham and cheese sandwiches were quite adequate for lunch on the go which meant we could skip a more formal sit-down lunch and head straight down the road to Piñuela. Piñuela is a small settlement on steep slopes above a fast-flowing river. We birded the dirt road down towards the river and habitats included secondary growth with tiny patches of primary forest, farm pastures and riparian forest. We saw Sooty-headed and Band-backed wrens, Cinerious and Cinnamon becards, Bar-crested antshrike, Pacific antwren, Yellow-backed oriole, Southern rough-winged swallow, Masked tytira, Blue-black grassquit, Boat-billed flycatcher, Scrub tanager and a flighty Orange-billed sparrow. Just after 5pm we drove back up the road, joined the asphalt highway and gained altitude. It was already past dusk when we reached a roadside steakhouse/diner and sat down for dinner. Thereafter it was another half an hour or so to reach the Ibis hotel in central Medellin – nowhere near birds but perfectly adequate and comfortable.

Garterred trogon

White-mantled barbet

23 Dec 2017: La Romera, Sinifana, Jardin
Day count: 76
Cumulative count: 311
Highlights: Apical flycatcher
After grabbing some hot coffee from Ibis’s early breakfast bar and wolfing down fresh hot buñuelos that Arley bought for us, we drove through the outskirts of Medellin and up into the hills to La Romera. It was overcast and beautifully cool after two hot days and our first birds came with ease: Swainson’s thrush, Russet-crowned, Blackburnian and Three-striped warblers and Golden tanager. However, two birds called loudly but eluded us: Russet-crowned greenlet and Stiles’s tapaculo. A dilapidated platform looking out over Medellin was the perfect spot to view a small flock of endemic Red-bellied grackles moving through the forest and while we had some juice and yoghurt, a loud group of Colombian chachalacas provided nice photo opportunities. With our targets in the bag it was off to some dry tropical forest in the Cauca river valley near Sinifana. Here the first few birds we’ve seen already but it wasn’t long before we got an Antioquia wren to respond to Johnnier’s soft whistles. Shortly after, the second endemic, Grayish piculet, was also seen well. The third target, Apical flycatcher proved a bit more difficult and we had to walk quite a distance in the lowland heat before we finally got a stunning pair posing for photos in several places. Lunch was at another roadside restaurant that served huge meals and although it was super tasty, we again had to leave almost half the food on the plates. With our tummies full, both Lisl and I dozed off for the hour and a half drive back up the slopes of the Andes towards Jardin at around 1800m. Although the altitude made conditions more bearable, it was still quite warm, bordering on hot when we started birding the forest just outside Jardin at 3pm. Good birds included White-bellied woodstar, Lesser violetear, Mountain elaenia and Black-capped tanager. At 4pm we visited the local Cock-of-the-Rock lek where about fifteen of these gaudy cotingas were displaying less than five metres from us. It was quite a sight and we spent a fair bit of time before looking at some of the other nice birds on the property that included Russet-backed oropendola, Clay-coloured thrush and Bay-headed tanager. A last walk close to the river got us Yellow-faced grassquit, White-naped brushfinch, Green-fronted lancebill and Yellow-bellied seedeater. Dusk was already strong as we walked back into a very busy Jardin. It was a short distance to the hotel (La Casona) so we just walked there and found Arley had already checked us in and dropped all our gear in our rooms! Some of our stinky clothes were handed in for laundry before we walked through the town square to a local eatery that also served a few non-Colombian dishes. My chicken and vegetable curry was fantastic but strangely enough had virtually no chilli in it. We were back at the hotel just before 8pm and I could finally wash off the day’s stickiness.

Colombian chachalaca

Andean cock-of-the-rock

24 Dec 2017: Jardin Ventanas
Day count: 79
Cumulative count: 358
Highlights: Yellow-eared parrot
With wax palms having been obliterated from Ecuador, Yellow-eared parrots that roost in these palms have become endemic to Colombia – this was our main target for the day. After picking up some fiambres (worker’s lunch packets, a cooked meal wrapped in plantain leaves) just after 5am, Arley navigated the tricky road up the mountain towards the Yellow-eared parrot reserve. It was misty with heavy fog being driven by a very chilly breeze. Just over 2900m we stopped and almost immediately heard parrots calling in the distance. Tracing the calls we could see some in a wax palm very far away and although this was good enough to tick the bird, we waited a bit longer. Boy, were we in for a show! Within the next fifteen minutes, several groups of parrots landed in the fruiting trees right next to the road where we were standing and we had the best possible view you could imagine of these beautiful parrots. Johnnier has guided here many times before and even studied these parrots for several consecutive weeks and said that he’d never seen them so close. What a privilege! After an egg, onion, tomato and cheese-filled arepa and coffee for breakfast, along with fresh mangosteens, it was time to continue birding. We descended down the road into the forest, at times enveloped in fog. This was ideal birding conditions though and we heard Tawny-breasted tinamou, three antpittas and three tapaculos. We even managed to get really good views of a Rufous antpitta and I also sneaked a quick glimpse of an Ocellated tapaculo. Our entire day was spent walking down the road back to Jardin, the birding only marginally interrupted by our fiambres for lunch. Conditions remained overcast and cool and we made really good progress particularly with the tanagers and ovenbirds. Our new tanagers were Beryl-spangled, Lacrimose mountain, Blue-winged mountain, Buff-breasted mountain, Fawn-breasted, Purplish-mantled and Gray-hooded bush tanagers. The new ovenbirds were Rufous, Azara’s, White-browed and Red-faced spinetails, Rusty-winged barbtail, Pearled treerunner, Streaked tuftedcheek, Streaked xenops, Tyrannine and Montane woodcreepers. We also added three new woodpeckers: the very handsome Crimson-mantled woodpecker first, then a Yellow-vented, and our last new bird for the day – Acorn woodpecker. We arrived back at La Casona on the dot at 6pm with very tired feet and legs but extremely happy with one of the most memorable birding days we’ve ever had. We returned to the same restaurant for dinner as their food was so good last night and they continued to impress us, this time with some pasta dishes. With another 4am wake-up call for tomorrow, it was off to bed early.

Yellow-eared parrot
Johnnier and Ernest shooting Yellow-eared parrots

25 Dec 2017: Peñalesa, Los Termales Road
Day count: 68
Cumulative count: 376
Highlights: Bicolored antpitta
We left Jardin with a thin drizzle wetting the roads. In Colombia Christmas is celebrated on the 24th of December and we drove past several places where people were still partying in the early hours of the morning. In Peñalesa we found a decent place that was actually open for breakfast at 06:30. While our breakfast was still being prepared, we birded the immediate surroundings including a bridge over the Rio Cauca, and ticked Crested caracara, Solitary sandpiper, Scarlet-fronted parakeets and a Cattle tyrant. After breakfast we wound our way up the Cauca valley until we left the river and climbed into the mountains towards Manizales. Manizales is a fairly large modern university city built on very steep hills around 2100m.Our luggage was dropped off at the hotel before we drove higher into the mountains on the Los Termales road. It was almost noon already but since we had a huge breakfast we opted not to eat lunch but rather snack on trailmix and fruit until dinner. The slopes of Nevado del Ruiz were covered in heavy cloud and we reached the ceiling around 2700m where we started birding. A Dusky piha and Black-billed mountain-toucan were the first birds on the list but it went rather quiet after that and we only encountered one minor feeding flock the whole afternoon. However, with almost disturbing accuracy to where he said they should be, Johnnier found (and we saw) Bicolored and Chestnut-naped antpittas, Ocellated, Ash-colored, Spillman’s and Paramo tapaculos! In addition, we also heard Slaty-crowned and Brown-banded antpittas. Around 3pm the fog descended, the already dim light grew even dimmer and it started to drizzle. Donning rain jackets we kept on birding and higher up the road, at around 3400m, found Black-thighed puffleg, White-banded tyrannulet and Mountain wren. As the drizzle grew a little heavier we got in the car and drove higher, past the Los Termales hotel and into paramo habitat where we picked up a small flock of Paramo seedeaters. Just before 5pm the drizzle turned into rain and we called it a day. Back in Manizales most restaurants were still closed (for Christmas) so we settled for probably the least appetizing meal so far on the trip – a semi-decent chicken soup, over-cooked steak and a type of milk tart at the hotel.

Black arum lilies

26 Dec 2017: Nevado del Ruiz, Los Termales Road
Day count: 49
Cumulative count: 390
Highlights: Buffy helmetcrest
Just after 5am we started ascending the same road we came down on yesterday. Today was obviously “cargo day” again as we continued to get stuck behind large trucks labouring up the pass. Just before 6am we turned off towards Nevado del Ruiz and climbed further until we reached a little restaurant at about 3900m in the paramo. It overlooked a very photogenic lake that held a pair of Andean teal and a single Ruddy duck. We ordered breakfast and then birded the surrounding paramo – Andean tit-spinetail and Stout-billed cinclodes were easily ticked off. The steaming breakfast and coffee was delicious, especially at this altitude. We continued further up the road to the entrance of Los Nevados del Ruiz at around 4125m. Almost immediately we got onto a Buffy helmetcrest but were unable to photograph this pretty endemic hummingbird. As we had already seen pretty much all the possible paramo birds, our only target now was Tawny antpitta. A short trail to the meteorological station did not produce one but when we got back to the car, Johnnier was able to locate one singing in the distance. One of the rangers standing around turned out to be Austrian and started chatting with Ernest. Just then a Tawny antpitta hopped out of the paramo next to the car, barely ten meters from us. It stood out in the open long enough for me to snap a quick picture before it hopped under the car, presumably looking for some warmth from the car engine. Amazed at the good views of such a notoriously difficult bird to see, we soon started descending again. Although the early morning weather was great with clear enough skies to see the Ruiz volcanoes well, fog and cloud had now started to rise, and by the time we started birding again around 3800m, we were pretty socked in again. Birding was slow, even in these almost ideal conditions and the only new bird we got was a Viridian metaltail. Rufous-fronted and Golden-plumed parakeets made flybys, but we could barely see these birds in the fog and IDs were made by habitat, altitude and call. Eventually we reached the Los Termales hotel where we spent a good forty minutes at the hummingbird feeders. Here we added some new birds: Golden-breasted puffleg, Buff-winged starfrontlet, Shining sunbeam, Rainbow-bearded thornbill and a single Glossy flowerpiercer. For lunch I chose local trout that was very good although my coffee was on the cold side. To my great dismay I managed to lose my favourite beany I was carrying since we left the higher altitudes. Returning to the feeders and looking around the restaurant didn’t help and I left the hotel feeling a little sad – I’ve had this beany for 17 years and it’s travelled to more than 30 countries and ascended over 4000m with me 11 times. It was time to bird though so I left the memory behind and descended into drizzle and fog. Birding continued to be slow and the only new bird we added was a Crowned chat-tyrant. It started raining harder necessitating umbrellas and even though we came across two smallish feeding groups, these held nothing new. By 16:30 we basically gave up and climbed into the car, hoping that a slow descent would find us a drier patch. This was not to be though and we exited the forest just after 5pm and drove back to Manizales. Dinner at the Italian Il Forno restaurant was very good and afterwards Ernest helped to find me two Colombian masks at an artisan shop. Back at the hotel I checked the weather forecast and took note that it was unlikely that we would see the sun again until we leave for Santa Marta in a week’s time.

The Nevado del Ruiz volacnoes

Espeletias in silhouette
Great sapphirewing

27 Dec 2017: Rio Blanco
Day count: 97
Cumulative count: 411
Highlights: White-capped tanager
The Rio Blanco reserve is located within the water management infrastructure of Manizales. They charge a rather exorbitant fee (over US$20 per person) for entry and have the most retarded rule I’ve ever heard of: you can bird until 12:00 but must then return to the main center/lodge and you’re not allowed to leave from here again until after 2pm. Anyway, we had paid for a day’s birding here and picked up a local guide (which is mandatory as well), arriving around 06:30 when they open. The first new bird we added was a Buff-tailed coronet – they’re the most common hummingbirds around the feeders at the center lodge. After a quick scan of the feeders also produced Bronzy and Collared incas, Long-tailed sylph, Speckled hummingbird, Lesser violetear and Blue-winged mountain tanager, we sat down for breakfast. We were joined by another birding group of three Americans and their guides. At 07:30, a reserve ranger collected some earth worms and we all walked over to an antpitta feeder just behind the lodge. This was for a Bicolored antpitta. However, after patiently waiting for about twenty minutes, all we saw was a flash in the darkness. We then climbed the ridge behind the lodge to a second feeder where we got unbeatable views of both Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded antpittas. On our way to a third feeder, fog started rolling in and although a Stygian owl roost had its owner in attendance, it was near impossible to make out in the fog. The third antpitta feeder produced a quick glimpse of a Slaty-crowned antpitta before our two groups separated and went our own ways. We did tick off a few other good birds like Spotted barbtail and Montane foliage-gleaner but it soon started to drizzle and we sought shelter at a farmer’s house and got offered a cup of coffee. The drizzle let off for a bit and we continued birding until lunch back at the lodge. At the lodge feeders we picked up a new hummingbird: Fawn-breasted brilliant. Johnnier managed to get the reserve staff to let us go back in the forest a little earlier and just as we were walking at 13:30, a single Hook-billed kite was seen circling high above us with Black vultures. Back in the forest we added some more good birds like Rufous-breasted and Pale-edged flycatchers, Golden-faced tyrannulet, White-winged becard and Yellow-bellied siskin. It was still heavily overcast and drizzle continued to come and go throughout the afternoon. By 16:30 we were tired of this and started heading back. Just before we got into the car, a flock of White-capped tanagers flew into the trees right above us and provided opportunity for decent photos despite the poor light. At the entrance to the water management offices, we spent another half an hour to add White-throated wedgebill, Green-throated lancebill, Andean emerald and White-capped dipper. In Manizales we returned to Il Forno for dinner and I opted for a pizza – one of the best I’ve ever had. At 8pm we got back to the hotel for our last night in a proper city hotel for a while.

Chestnut-crowned antpitta

White-capped tanager

28 Dec 2017: Cortaderal, Otun Quimbaya
Day count: 51
Cumulative count: 417
Highlights: Grey-breasted mountain toucan
With a two hour drive ahead of us to Santa Rosa de Cabal, we had to leave early. When we stepped out of the hotel at 04:30 it was still raining. Along the road we stopped quickly for some fresh buñuelos and reached Santa Rosa de Cabal shortly after 6am. The drive up to Cortaderal was initially quite OK, but after the road split to the San Vicente termales, it got pretty bad. Poor Arley struggled in several places, despite the all-wheel drive and at one spot we had to get out to lighten the car a little. It was almost 8am by the time we reached 3125m, just on the edge of an interesting tract of forest that included lots of open grass and scrub and was covered in far more moss and lichen than what we’ve seen barely 20km further north on the Los Termales road. The forest here also felt different. Older perhaps. Our main aim here was the Critically Endangered and considered by some to be Colombia’s rarest bird, Fuertes’s parrot. The first new bird we picked up though was a tiny hummingbird that trap-lined some reddish flowers on the ridge – a Mountain avocetbill. The weather was miserable – heavy fog with very low visibility and a steady drizzle. While we waited in the ideal place to observe flyby parrots, we had some breakfast and then took a short walk along the road to look for other birds – we saw Grass-green, Hooded mountain, Lacrimose mountain and Scarlet-bellied mountain tanagers, Rufous-breasted chat-tyrant and flyby Scaly-naped amazons. Just as we were turning back towards the car, two Fuertes’s parrots suddenly hurtled through the mist. We managed to get our bins on them but the visibility was so poor we could barely make out anything. Ten minutes later the fog had cleared a little and with perfect timing, another two parrots came past (possibly the same individuals). This time we got better views to confirm the ID. We birded some more along the road but by 11am the constant drizzle and mist was taking its toll and we decided to wait it out a bit in the car – birding activity was extremely quiet anyway. At 12:30 the rain had still not let up and we returned to our original observation area to have lunch. At 13:30 the drizzle stopped and although we didn’t see the parrots again, a very cooperative Grey-breasted mountain toucan came to feed on a fruiting tree and we all snapped photos in quick succession. At 2pm we started down the mountain, just as the drizzle returned once more. In Santa Rosa de Cabal we stopped for fuel and a toilet break before continuing to Otun Quimbaya which we reached in fading light. But still just light enough to make out a Cauca guan in the Chinese elms outside the lodge. The very slight drizzle we had on the drive in turned into rain during dinner and continued throughout the night.

Grey-breasted mountain toucan
Our group, FLTR, Johnnier, Lisl, Arley, Ernest, pieter

29 Dec 2017: Otun Quimbaya
Day count: 81
Cumulative count: 437
Highlights: Red-ruffed fruitcrow
It was still overcast when we got up but at least it wasn’t raining. We ate breakfast pre-dawn and then drove up the road a few kilometres to start looking for Hooded antpitta. Not a peep though so we continued higher up. By 8am the big guy in the sky put in a brave effort to break through the cloud and marginally succeeded. This brought out the birds and we saw White-booted racket-tail, Chestnut-capped and White-naped brushfinches, Spotted barbtail, Plumbeous-crowned tyrannulet, several warblers and tanagers. Where the road crossed a bridge we got a beautiful pair of Torrent duck and a single Torrent tyrannulet as well. At this point we turned around and started birding back towards the lodge. A few other good birds were seen including Cauca guan, Red-ruffed fruitcrow, Inca jay, Montane foliage-gleaner and Ashy tyrannulet. The sun started losing ground against the clouds and after we fruitlessly hunted down a calling Moustached antpitta, it gave up completely and it started raining again. It was lunch time anyway though so we returned to the lodge for soup, chicken, rice, potato and salad. The rain stopped during lunch and a quick venture outside the lodge produced Bronze-winged parrot, Bronzy inca, Western emerald and a heard-only Orange-billed nightingale-thrush. But the rain wasn’t done and it started coming down again. We fled back to the lodge and drank coffee while the weather deteriorated further. Only as the light started fading did the rain ease to a spitty drizzle and we ventured out again in a desperate attempt to get new birds. We only walked around the soggy lodge grounds but did pick up a Tropical pewee as a new bird. Dinner was soup followed by two small potatoes, salad and sort of a tuna/pasta baked quiche thing. It wasn’t bad at all but definitely didn’t blow our minds. We agreed earlier in the day that we would finally try some owling tonight so after dinner we quickly grabbed torches and drove about a kilometre away from the lodge to get into darker and quieter forest. However, the clearing clouds revealed a three-quarter moon that’s not good for owling and we didn’t see a thing until we were standing right back opposite the lodge and Johnnier spotted the back of a smallish owl. We had to walk inside the lodge grounds to be able to see the face and confirm it as a Mottled owl. Not the Colombian screech-owl we were hoping for but at least something. At 20:30 we returned to our rooms for an early night.

A pair of Torrent ducks

Violet-tailed sylph

30 Dec 2017: Otun Quimbaya, Apia, Montezuma
Day count: 84
Cumulative count: 470
Highlights: Gold-ringed tanager
A hurried breakfast got us going at just after 05:30. There was still a fair amount of cloud in the sky but it wasn’t raining. At a quick pitstop for groceries, three feral Scarlet macaws made it onto our list along with a few other common birds. We then crossed the Cauca valley where the sun warmed us up nicely and started ascending the Western Andes. Near Apia we stopped for half an hour to look for Turquoise dacnis but were unsuccessful. Along the road we started to notice numerous sections where landslides had come down - long ago as well as uncomfortably recently. Just after 11am we reached the entrance road to Tatama National Park – an unmarked, obscure track leading up the hill. The road was only marginally better than the road to the Cortaderal but evidence of recent landslides and a breathtaking precipice below made it a far scarier prospect. At noon we finally reached the Montezuma Rain Forest ecolodge and were heartily welcomed by the family running it. We were immediately inundated by Johnnier calling out names of hummers around the numerous feeders and in the space of just a quarter of an hour we had seen FIFTEEN species of hummingbird! The new ones were Tawny-bellied hermit, Crowned woodnymph, Steely-vented hummingbird, Fawn-breasted and Empress brilliants, White-tailed hillstar, Velvet-purple coronet, Brown inca and Purple-bibbed whitetip. We got served lunch at the tables overlooking the feeders but it was hard to look at the plate of food with all the fluttering just metres from us. With clouds gathering around the summits of Tatama, we got bundled into a proper four-wheel drive at 1pm and drove up into the cloud to around 2000m. Good thing we had the four-wheel drive – this road is truly horrendous and there was no way our vehicle would’ve made it. The moment we stepped out of the car, the lifers started rolling in: Star-chested treerunner, Brown-billed scythebill, Gold-ringed (endemic) and Black-and-gold (endemic) tanagers, Ornate and Handsome flycatchers, Scaled fruiteater, Chestnut-breasted chorophonia and Crested ant tanager (endemic). In between it started raining again and several times we fled to the car, drove down a little until the rain eased up and continued birding. Just after 5pm we caught sight of seven Lemon-browed flycatchers huddling together in a line on a twig – a stunning sight to end the day’s birding. Back at the lodge we quickly completed our daily list and were stunned to see we had added 33 new species – considering we had only birded for a total of about four hours in the afternoon and we had already notched up well over 400 species, this was remarkable and a testament to the uniqueness of the avifauna in the western cordillera. Dinner was simple but tasty.

Birding in the rain in Montezuma
Lemon-browed flycatchers

31 Dec 2017: Montezuma
Day count: 82
Cumulative count: 489
Highlights: Munchique wood wren
New Year’s Eve. It was still dripping a little when we left the lodge after a cup of coffee at 05:30. Just ten minutes after leaving, our driver had to get out and cut down a tree that had fallen across the road during the night, but thereafter it was clear. It took us over an hour to drive the 12kms to just before the military base at 2500m. The clouds had cleared a little in the valley but it was still heavily overcast and within fifteen minutes, heavy fog had set in too. Two Munchique wood wrens responded very quickly to playback and arrived at our feet in about five minutes. We had excellent views of the pair before we started looking for Chestnut-bellied flowerpiercer. This proved much harder and we decided to have breakfast (fruit, arepa, rolls, eggs, coffee) to spend a bit more time in the right habitat. This did the trick – just as we were packing up and getting ready to go, the flowerpiercer appeared out of the fog and showed briefly but well. We started birding downhill and soon it started drizzling. For the next five hours we had about six or seven spells of rain interspersed with brief moments of almost no drizzle and at one point, even about twenty minutes of bright hot sunshine. The birding was terrible though. Even in these ideal conditions (overcast, fog, drizzle) we didn’t see even half the birds we saw yesterday, never mind new species. By the time our lunch was driven up on a motorcycle we had seen only four new species (the wood wren and flowerpiercer, Greenish puffleg, Black-chinned mountain tanager). Lunch was delicious but the mood a bit depressing. It was not for a lack of trying though – the forest was just really really quiet. After our twenty minute sunshine, the sun disappeared for good and we had almost continuous drizzle the rest of the afternoon. Lower down though, the birding did improve and we found Black solitaire, Red-headed barbet, Orange-breasted fruiteater, Rufous-throated and Ochre-breasted tanagers and even a Common potoo that perched like a broken branch. The same seven Lemon-browed flycatchers we saw yesterday sat on the very same twig and provided more photo opportunities. By the time we reached the lodge it was 6pm and we were pretty darn tired. Yesterday afternoon’s epic count of 33 new species in just four hours just could not be repeated and we only added 19 today after a full twelve hours in the field – a little disappointing as we were looking forward to crossing the 500 mark on the very last day of the year. But we were bound to have less good days as well and the disappointment did not last long. We had a more elaborate dinner that included Chilean wine – our last meal for 2017.

Empress brilliant

01 Jan 2018: Montezuma
Day count: 75
Cumulative count: 507
Highlights: Zeledon’s antbird
Finally, some blue sky. For the five or so hours we birded this morning we had a healthy amount of sunshine in a partly cloudy sky – the longest stretch without rain in the past week. We had a decent breakfast at 6am and immediately after, started walking up the road again to pick up a few more species before we had to leave. I had a brief glimpse of a Choco tapaculo that flew across the road but it was the Zeledon’s antbird that stole the show with its beauty and really good views. Parker’s antbird and Green hermit were also seen but the Plain-backed antpitta we heard calling remained unseen. Higher up the road we spent a good twenty minutes looking at a small young raptor devouring something yellow. It was partially in moult to adult plumage so we found it difficult to pin down an ID. Luckily Johnnier was able to take fairly decent pictures to help us later identify it as a Double-toothed kite. Just as we were about to turn around close to 10:00, we encountered the first of three decent feeding flocks that kept us busy. Good birds included Spotted woodcreeper, Buff-fronted and Ruddy (heard only) foliage-gleaners, Plain antvireo, Yellow-breasted antwren, Acadian flycatcher, Black hawk-eagle and Barred hawk. All this excitement meant we arrived back at the lodge only at 11:15, but there was enough time for a quick shower before lunch. The shower was still wet from yesterday’s shower though and the moment I stepped in, I slipped, crashed into the opposite wall with my right foot, my back onto the threshold and brought the shower curtain rail down on top of my head. In pain I managed to get the curtain rail back up and finish a quick shower before limping back to the verandah with all my gear. Thankfully we were going to drive for the rest of the afternoon so I could nurse my ankle which was hurting a fair bit. Lunch was good and the goodbyes fond – Montezuma really is one of the highlights of this trip! For the next seven hours we drove back down the mountain, then into and up the Cauca valley, battled Cali traffic and then dropped off Ernest at Km 18 just above Cali. He was going to meet a few buddies from his army days and join us later. We only arrived at Hotel el Campanario in El Queremal at 8pm but could still squeeze in dinner and complete our list before heading straight for bed. Earlier today my camera started acting up, giving me a lens error when I switched it on. I did manage to get the lens retracted again at least but apart from a few more pictures, today was the end of the line for my camera for the rest of the trip. I was able to use my phone for some scenery shots at least and ultimately I am a birder and not a photographer but it was still sad that I wouldn’t be able to photograph birds in the Santa Martas. My ankle also bothered a bit – turned out that I partially tore the Achilles tendon and walking especially downhill for the rest of the trip would be quite unpleasant. But, today also, on the very first day of 2018, we crossed the magic line of 500 species for the trip – this was our minimum number expected so now we were really excited to see where we would end up.
 
It wasn't all about birding

02 Jan 2018: Anchicaya
Day count: 91
Cumulative count: 546
Highlights: Black-capped pygmy-tyrant
With a long drive ahead of us, we started at 04:30 and arrived at our first birding spot around 6am. A Chestnut-backed antbird called right in front of us while we had some cereal and yoghurt and then the birding started in earnest. Initially conditions were partly cloudy with a nice cool breeze blowing but it soon warmed up and became hot and sticky - we were only at about 600masl. Birding was excellent though and in quick succession we saw White-whiskered hermit, Purple-chested hummingbird, Laughing falcon, Lita woodpecker and a beautiful little Black-capped pygmy-tyrant (second smallest passerine in the world). Just after having a more proper breakfast we also added Brown-capped tyrannulet, Rufous mourner and a Pacific flatbill working on a nest. With the sun out full blast, things quickly quieted down and we drove a little lower. However, a Long-tailed tyrant drew my attention and after we stopped to look at it, we realized a feeding flock was moving through. Apart from a few common things like Rusty-margined flycatcher and Tawny-crested tanager, we added four new tanagers: White-shouldered, White-lined, Rufous-winged and Grey-and-gold. Through late morning, clouds started building and finally, just after we finished some sandwiches for lunch, it started raining. A bit of fun ensued when I walked and the others drove through a waterfall, cascading straight onto the road. After several attempts, Johnnier managed to call in a Choco trogon which showed really well, but Choco toucan eluded us. By about 3pm we turned around and started working our way back stopping a few times to work through smaller flocks before heading back up into the cloud. We got back to the hotel around 18:15 and soon sat down for a relatively tasty but uninspiring dinner. Adding up all the birds after completing our daily list, we were quite surprised to find that we added a whopping 39 new species! Anchicaya was delivering, just like Ernest’s been promising us for the last few days.
Birding under a waterfall
Velvet-purple coronet

03 Jan 2018: Anchicaya
Day count: 88
Cumulative count: 556
Highlights: Tawny-faced gnatwren
Ernest was feeling a little under the weather and stayed behind for the day. At a roadside stall we picked up breakfast and lunch and further down the road, a young fellow from the community who Johnnier has taken under his wing to train and get some guiding experience to get the local community involved – a very noble undertaking. Our birding started well with a Stripe-throated hermit showing well and then shortly after, heard a Choco toucan calling lower down the valley. But after this, new birds were hard to come by and we worked hard in the hot sun. We saw most of the same tanagers as yesterday and the same furnariids as well. Antbirds were represented a bit better in today’s showing with Chestnut-backed, Zeledon’s, Bicolored and Esmeralda’s antbirds all being seen, Ocellated antbird, Great and Black-crowned antshrikes heard and then also Pacific and Dot-winged antwrens and Spot-crowned antvireo seen. Just before lunchtime, Arley drove up behind us and showed Johnnier a picture of a White-whiskered puffbird he had just taken. We rushed after Arley who led the way for a hot and sweaty 500m before he showed us the spot and within two minutes Johnnier had relocated it. High-fiving Arley for this good find we returned to the car for what was now a late lunch. Clouds had started building and soon after lunch the first spots of drizzle came. We continued birding lower down until the road became concrete again before turning around. It was quiet on the return journey too but we ended the day with two very nice additions: White-headed wren and Black-cheeked woodpecker. For dinner we had soup, fried fish and plantain and then started packing for our flights tomorrow to Bogota and Barranquilla.

Black-cheeked woodpecker

04 Jan 2018: Anchicaya, Km 18
Day count: 99
Cumulative count: 571
Highlights: Toucan barbet (with an honourable mention to Vermillion flycatcher)
We slept “late” this morning for a change and only left the hotel at 6am, driving only about ten minutes down the Anchicaya road before we started birding. It was partly cloudy and fresh and the birding equally pleasant. A few already-seen species came quickly but then something caught my eye and I shouted “guys!” almost at the same time as Johnnier shouting “here, here!” – we both had two different Toucan barbets in view! The pair showed well for over a minute before disappearing and shortly after we managed to locate a pair of Club-winged manakins. A rock face around a road corner was scoured by Johnnier until he located a roosting female Lyre-tailed nightjar. The little road stall where we had to get breakfast did not inspire much confidence with an open urinal flanking the one end and the other several pigsties. The back of the stall was much better though as it fronted the valley slope and they turned it into a flower garden with several fruit and sugar water feeders. We got good views of several hummingbirds including Brown violetear and Green thorntail. Another two Toucan barbets put up a great duet for us and I thought it a major pity that my camera was stuffed. But it’s the memory that counts and it was a good one. Outside the restaurant we searched for more birds and found Tricolored brushfinch and Uniform treehunter but a Black-thighed brushfinch that was seen earlier by Ernest, eluded us. Around 10am we left Anchicaya but just outside Borerro Ayerbe I spotted a red bird sitting on a wire and screamed for Arley to stop. Vermilion flycatchers are pretty common birds in South America. They are conspicuous in cities, towns and farmland and three years ago we had seen lots of them in Peru. But on this trip, apart from a distant individual at Puerto Triunfo that only Lisl had seen two weeks ago, we had not seen a single one - mostly due to the fact that we arrived in cities/towns in the dark and left in the dark as well. Having not seen such a common bird on this trip yet, became a fun poke at me, and whenever we would drive through semi-urban areas, everyone would mockingly start looking for the elusive Vermilion flycatcher. So now, a whole 19 days into our trip I finally got to add a Vermilion flycatcher and we all sighed in relief – and this is why this pretty bird gets an honorouble mention today! We drove up to Finca Alejandria at Kilometre 18 where some fantastic fruit and many sugar water feeders were attracting tanagers, hummers, barbets, thrushes and toucanets. We counted twelve species of hummer including the beautiful Blue-headed sapphire. New tanagers we saw were Saffron-crowned and Golden-naped but it took almost twenty minutes before we got good looks at the real attraction – the endemic Multicolored tanager. A pair of White-throated toucanets (probably rather griseigularis subspecies of Emerald toucanet but the taxonomy and distribution is confusing) also came for a visit before we left for lunch. One of the main restaurants at Kilometre 18 provided a decent enough lunch and for the afternoon we continued birding the roadside forest from here all the way back to Finca Alejandria. We encountered two pretty decent flocks that included even better views of Multicolored tanager but the only new bird we picked up was a Lineated foliage-gleaner. At 5pm on the dot we left for Cali airport, arriving around 18:30 to find relative chaos – several flights (mainly to the US) have been cancelled and although ours was still going, it was at least 40 minutes late. This had potential serious implications for our connection to Barranquilla, but Ernest assured us that it would be fine. My fifteen years of flying experience has turned me into a very cynical flyer and I remained uneasy throughout the two flights until we got to Barranquilla and I had my backpack in hand again – at 1am on Friday morning. We rushed off to the hotel to catch a few hours sleep.

Red-headed barbet

Multicolored tanager

05 Jan 2018: Salamanca National Park, Las Gaviotas
Day count: 97
Cumulative count: 616
Highlights: Lance-tailed manakin
Man, what an awful little hotel Brisas Antioqueñas is. It’s on the main highway to Santa Marta and right by a toll gate so throughout the night you could hear air brakes, hooters, people and other noise. The rooms are small, dingy, not particularly clean and there are mosquitoes and cockroaches. Its only saving grace was that the air conditioner worked. Even with just three hours of sleep, it was no trouble getting up and leaving this place at 6am. Our first stop was a little further up the road at Palermo, a little farming community on the edge of Salamanca National Park. Having had virtually zero waterfowl birding so far, new birds came quickly: White-faced and Fulvous whistling ducks, Limpkin, Tricolored and Little blue herons, Least and Solitary sandpipers, Common gallinule etc. Terrestrial birds also didn’t let down with Brown-throated parakeet, Northern scrub flycatcher, Band-backed wren, Dwarf cuckoo and Great-tailed grackle. Returning in the direction of our hotel, we passed through the toll gate and then stopped at Salamanca’s headquarters where a couple of boardwalks led through mangroves. Here we added Green-olive woodpecker, Slender-billed inezia, Panamanian flycatcher, American pygmy kingfisher and two of the important hummingbirds: Sapphire-bellied and Sapphire-throated – these two may be lumped in future but a large research study to determine this is about to start. A third stop just before Cienaga was unpleasant – there used to be some pretty decent wetlands here but they have all but dried up and what remained is dead or dying. We only added overflying Brown pelicans and a couple of Snowy egrets. It was very hot and humid and decidedly uncomfortable outside so we stopped for an early lunch in Cienaga to breathe a little. A two-hour drive then followed along the coast through some of Colombia’s best preserved dry forest until we reached Las Gaviotas in the Guajira department. Birding here was excellent and we picked up Bar-crested antshrike, Bicolored and White-bellied wrens, One-colored becard, Gartered trogon and our bird of the day, the stunning Lance-tailed manakin. At 5pm we jumped back in the car for the hour-long drive to Camarones where we booked into the Jiisot hotel. For dinner we had fish and coconut rice on the beach before coming back to the hotel to wash off layers of suncream, sweat, insect repellent and more sweat. The bird count for the day proved that we’ve moved into a vastly different habitat, adding a super-impressive 45 new species and crossing the 600 species mark. Six hundred was the tally we were hoping for but now we had crossed that already and we started thinking it would be quite funny if we could reach 666 birds for the trip!

Snail kite

Birding in the mangroves of Salamanca National Park

06 Jan 2018: Los Flamencos National Park, Minca
Day count: 99
Cumulative count: 654
Highlights: White-whiskered spinetail
Jiisot hotel, although basic, was like a piece of paradise in the middle of hell – despite fronting a noisy street, the air-conditioning was super effective and I woke up refreshed and ready to go. We left at 6am and picked up a local guide that knew the area very well. In some fairly thick but low woodland we stopped and almost immediately started picking up new birds – White-whiskered spinetail, Pearly-vented tody-tyrant, Tawny-crowned and Pale-eyed pygmy-tyrants. After watching a displaying pair of Orinoco saltators and Vermilion cardinals, we followed the calls of Chestnut-vented chachalacas deeper into the bush. Although they fled upon our approach without us getting a glimpse, we got great views of Baltimore oriole and Chestnut piculet. On our way to breakfast we added American white and Scarlet ibises, Roseate spoonbill, Semipalmated sandpiper and Royal tern. We spent half an hour at a different site looking for Buffy hummingbird but the wind was fairly strong and this probably deterred this diminutive bird from venturing out much. At a catholic cemetery on the edge of Camarones, a quick stop yielded Glaucous tanager before we picked up our baggage from the hotel, said goodbye to the local guide and headed for Minca. Johnnier spotted a Pearl kite along the way but as much as we scanned the cacti as we drove, we could not find a single Bare-eyed pigeon. Somewhere just before Santa Marta we stopped for lunch and then headed up into the mountains. Above Pozo Azul, Toño our driver knew a roosting spot for Black-and-white owl and we found a pair in exactly the same spot he knew. We continued birding upwards towards Victoria, adding two stunning birds: Golden-winged sparrow and Rose-breasted grosbeak before reaching Colores de la Sierra Ecohotel – a basic but clean hotel with a picture-perfect setting surrounded by secondary forest. Dinner was a little dull though so we are looking forward to the much-touted El Dorado lodge tomorrow.

Birding the beach outside Camarones

07 Jan 2018: Minca to El Dorado Lodge
Day count: 75
Cumulative count: 680
Highlights: Santa Marta antbird
The plan was to start birding directly from the lodge so we were able to sleep a little late and assembled just before 6am. I heard a Tropical screech-owl calling but by the time I could inform the rest of the group, it was quiet, so we started birding up the road towards El Dorado lodge. Santa Marta foliage-gleaner was heard calling early on but it took us a while to see one properly. The next two birds to be seen were Santa Marta tapaculo and Santa Marta antbird and soon after also Yellow-legged and Black-hooded thrushes. We got some pretty decent looks at a wood wren that’s currently still considered a subspecies of Grey-breasted wood wren (Bang’s wood wren), even by the IOC, so this one was not included in our tally – we’ll keep it for an armchair tick along with all the other Santa Marta subspecies. For breakfast we stopped at a roadside stall for delicious black coffee and deep-fried balls of mince in mashed potato. Onwards and upwards we birded, stopping at two locations to look for Santa Marta woodstar (unsuccessfully) before we reached El Dorado lodge by lunchtime. Oh my goodness, what a place! Reminiscent of a Swiss mountain refuge/restaurant, with an unbeatable view towards Santa Marta and the Caribbean, two thousand metres below, fruit-, seed- and hummingbird feeders all around – a real gem of a place. They also have a proper chef preparing the food and it was pretty awesome what he was able to achieve in a tiny kitchen with very limited ingredients. After lunch we explored the trails around the lodge and managed to find some really great birds: White-tipped quetzal, White-lored warbler, Golden-breasted fruiteater, Santa Marta antpitta (calling only), Yellow-crowned whitestart, Whooping motmot, Sierra Nevada brushfinch and Golden grosbeak. Back at 5pm we staked out the compost heap and seed-feeders, hoping for Black-fronted wood-quail (no luck), and started chatting with a Brit, also hoping to catch a glimpse. Halfway through our checklist for the day, the lodge ranger suddenly called out and we all rushed over to the hummingbird feeders to get a great look at a White-tailed starfrontlet. At dinner I feigned a sad face to deliver some “bad” news to the group – we would not be able to finish our trip on 666 birds. When I told them it was because we’d already reached 680 species, the looks on their faces were priceless! After dinner we grabbed torches and went searching for Santa Marta screech-owl. Just outside the lodge we spotted a kinkajou up in a tree and heard that there were night monkeys there earlier as well. At least two screech-owls were calling but after three attempts at tracking one down, although we had one within about ten metres, we just never managed to see one. Glad we at least got to hear it, we returned to the lodge for a shower and early night; we had to leave no later than 04:30 tomorrow morning to drive up to Cuchilla de San Lorenzo.

Coffee break halfway up to El Dorado lodge

08 Jan 2018: Cuchilla de San Lorenzo to Minca
Day count: 62
Cumulative count: 691
Highlights: Santa Marta parakeet
My alarm went off at 03:45 and after a quick splash of cold water in the face and a cup of strong coffee at the lodge dining area, I was awake and ready to go. Above the lodge, the road really turns to shit and a high-clearance four-wheel drive is a must. A single nightjar that fled our headlights remained unidentified but an owl a little further on got us out of the car and chasing after it. We relocated it very briefly and eventually identified it as a Stygian owl based on call. We arrived at the top of the ridge just after 6am to relatively clear skies and could see the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta massif rising a further three thousand metres to the south east. The Santa Marta mountains are truly massive and the explored area within the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo triangle is tiny in comparison – imagining what remains unexplored and what could still be out there in these mountains boggles the mind. The first birds that greeted us as we stepped out of the car were a pair of curious and hungry Santa Marta brushfinches but we barely looked at them as we heard the screeching of Santa Marta parakeets! These are not easy birds to get and we were ecstatic to see at least four birds perched in a flowering Eucalyptus. Soon we also added Rusty-headed spinetail, Santa Marta warbler, Flammulated treehunter and Brown-rumped tapaculo. Try as we might though, after about an hour and a half on the ridge, we had yet to find a Santa Marta bush tyrant. This is a Critically Endangered species though so we were not surprised. On the way down we picked up Black-backed thornbill, Lazuline sabrewing and Groove-billed toucanet. As the morning warmed up, the birding activity cooled down and by the time we were back at El Dorado lodge for lunch, we hadn’t added anything else new. Around 2pm we started birding back down to Minca. Just around the corner from the lodge we finally heard the Black-fronted wood-quails calling and rushed back to more or less where we thought we heard them. Playback resulted in absolutely nothing though and after ten minutes we gave up. We stopped at the same two places we did yesterday to look for the Santa Marta woodstar but again couldn’t find one. As a consolation we ran into a nice feeding flock of birds that included a Dull-colored grassquit and then shortly after got to see a real army ant swarm for the first time. It was just emerging onto the road and not many birds had caught onto it yet but it was fascinating to watch insects and spiders trying to flee. A Rusty-breasted antpitta provided one of the best views we’ve had of any antpitta when it scoped out the six-legged fugitives out in the open. We arrived back at the Colores de la Sierra Ecohotel just after dark, ordered dinner immediately and worked on the checklist while waiting. We were now up to 691 birds with a very real chance of breaking 700 on our last morning – what a magnificent total that would be!

Sunrise on the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo ridge

09 Jan 2018: Minca, Cienaga
Day count: 57
Cumulative count: 701
Highlights: Crimson-crested woodpecker
Finally we have reached the end of our trip. After grabbing a quick coffee at the lodge at 5am, we drove down towards, and then just past Minca to reach some dry forest on the lower foothills. This was a site where roosting Military macaws could be seen and immediately upon getting out of the car, we could see two individuals perched in a palm tree on the opposite side of the valley. We soon saw some birds flying and another group already feeding as well but we had to use the scope to get good views. A dead tree twenty metres from the car drew some attention when first a stunning Crimson-crested woodpecker and not long after, a Lineated woodpecker visited – both absolutely stunning woodpeckers. An Orange-crowned oriole and overflying Grey-headed kite were new as well and after also seeing a Long-billed gnatwren and Black-backed antshrike, we were on 699. It was a quite pretty but not hugely exciting Blackpoll warbler that became tick #700. We took a last group photo where the Rio Minca literally and figuratively ended the road for us. We returned to the tarmac and descended into the steamy lowlands. Just outside Cienaga we quickly drove down a road leading to a local port and picked up our very last bird for the trip – the endemic Chestnut-winged chachalaca. At lunch in Cienaga we completed the final column on our checklist that by now looked pretty mangy and then drove another hour and a half to reach Barranquilla’s airport. Check-in was quick and efficient and soon we were all enjoying a drink in the departures hall. Ernest and Johnnier kindly gave up their business class seats they got on special so Lisl and I flew in luxury for an hour and a half back to Bogota. Ernest was already late for a connecting flight so we hurriedly said our goodbyes and then waited for my bag at the carousel with Johnnier. He actually had another group starting the very next day and the poor guy still had to go and take a shower before meeting them for dinner tonight. When our bags arrived we bid him a very fond goodbye before he too rushed off. Check-in queues for our flight to Sao Paulo weren’t too long and immigration and security were both efficient. We decided to check into a lounge to catch a shower since we were still sticky and dirty from the morning’s birding. We used the LATAM lounge just after security and the shower and snacks were definitely worth it.

At the end of the road, FLTR, Tono, Ernest, Lisl, Johnnier, Pieter

10-11 Jan 2018: Bogota-Sao Paulo-Johannesburg-home
Our fourth Avianca flight in a row was also late (about 40 minutes) but with about 11 hours layover in Sao Paulo, it didn’t matter much. We exited Guarulhos airport just after 8am and caught a taxi to the Ibis Guarulhos where we used Dayuse.com to reserve a day room for each of us – far more comfortable than staying at the airport and at about half the price than a regular night at the hotel, definitely worth it. I had a quick breakfast before getting some sleep. Our SAA flight was on time for a change and we arrived back in Johannesburg exactly on time. Something was going on though as our passports were checked by customs officers as soon as we exited the air bridge and then a huge pile-up of foreigners being accosted in customs’ green channel just before exiting. It was just super seeing my wife again and I noted how much more her belly had grown – 20 weeks to go! It was time to go home and celebrate a truly magnificent trip.

Conclusion
What a trip! What an experience! Our expectations were exceeded on almost every front and at this point, it’s hard for me to recommend any other birding destination.

Colombia is a troubled but fascinating country. It has a bad reputation and the stories Ernest told us were sobering (his father was the second foreigner to be kidnapped by FARC and the first to survive – check out “The dark side of the mountain” by Eric Leupin). The troubles we had with our visa shortly before the trip perhaps lowered our expectations and some of the things we experienced during the trip were worrisome. It does seem that there’s a culture of people trying to screw you over at every opportunity. At several locations where we ordered food or drinks, we had to make sure and ask twice or even three times to get what we asked/paid for. We had laundry done in El Queremal and Ernest had to ask twice to get two different pairs of socks back. La Consentida Camping Ecoturismo in Camarones just simply cancelled our booking (deposit-paid, Booking.com confirmed reservation), despite Johnnier confirming the reservation again three days before we arrived – and they lost the deposit they paid. When we arrived at Finca Alejandria, Ernest paid our entrance but places like these don’t give receipts. Upon departure he was told that he only paid a quarter of the amount and he must pay more. It seems Colombians are more concerned about bureaucracy and rules than doing the moral thing or keeping customers happy. Their eyes light up when they see official papers with smeared ink stamps and scrawled signatures but ensuring everything in a room is working before a customer gets it or switching on the hot water in the afternoon before the customers arrive, that’s way too much trouble. In a sense, I get the feeling that they live like most of Africa do – only for today. They try to get as much as they can out of the foreigner today but keeping them happy so they return tomorrow – that’s of no concern.

Lyre-tailed nightjar
Then there’s the environment. ProAves has apparently done much good to protect some pieces of land and they’re rightly proud of it. But all of these reserves are very small and land clearing encroaches from all around. They (ProAves) are also plagued by politics and corrupt individuals and things are not quite as smooth as they seem on the surface. Ernest pointed out that FARC and their likes have done much bad to Colombia but because of their presence, remoter places in Colombia remained pristine – this is no longer the case as remote forests become safe and farmers/communities move in and clear the land. The areas we birded were mostly quite clean but around the Caribbean, people couldn’t care less and the amount of rubbish, filth and squalor is epidemic.

There are few highways in Colombia – the topography simply doesn’t allow for them outside the flat valleys. The roads heading into the mountains are, bar a very few exceptions, single-lane, curvy secondary roads with zero passing lanes. Getting stuck behind a truck is the rule rather than the exception and as a result, so is dangerous overtaking. Generally speaking, traffic signs and road markings are merely suggestions anyway and some drivers in Colombia are pretty bad and inconsiderate. It is, for example, perfectly acceptable to switch on your hazards and double-park on a single-lane road so you can exit the car and do grocery shopping. I’m not saying that drivers in South Africa are much better but this kind of thing would not be tolerated. That being said, mostly due to the topography as well, speeds are low and rarely (only on the highways) go above 70-80km/h. It is therefore very important to note that getting from one place to another will ALWAYS take at least twice as long as you would expect for a similar distance at home. Road quality is generally not bad. The few highways are excellent and although most of the rest of the connecting roads are just single-lane, they still have very good surfaces (definitely better than Peru). In the western Andes though, even the main roads often have patches of gravel where landslides have destroyed the road. At some of these patches there appears to be some construction to repair this but in others it looks like they’ve given up. Some of the public gravel roads like at Jardin Ventanas, Los Termales, Monterredondo and Anchicaya are not too bad and can be done in sedan vehicles. But going past Minca in the Santa Martas or up the Montezuma Road you definitely need a serious four-wheel drive and some skill (or a motorbike).

People, especially in the rural parts but even in the cities, are genuinely friendly and pretty much every single person greets you with a smile. Our small group got along extremely well too and I often, during quieter birding or driving stints when I reflected a bit, caught myself smiling. We felt safe too. Perhaps it’s because we’re more used to violence and crime in South Africa, but never did we remotely feel uncomfortable or threatened. There were a few police/military checkpoints but these were always routine and professional and nowhere on the level of those I have experienced in Cameroon and the Gambia before.

Red-crested cotinga

I’ve read a number of birding reports where people complained about the lack of diversity of food. Honestly, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Bar a few exceptions, the food in Colombia was fantastic with the biggest issue being that we got too much of it, more often than not being unable to finish a plate. Yes, arepas, beans, rice and plantains are included in virtually every meal, but everything else that comes with it makes for such great variety and taste that we really couldn’t complain much even on the odd occasions that the meals were a little mediocre. In particular, we took a great liking to ajiacos soup, fresh hot buñuelos and the fruit in milk smoothies you can find almost everywhere. During the first part of the trip we ate our main meals mostly in decent sit-down restaurants but the main meals never exceeded 10 US$ and averaged 6-8 US$. Often we bought from road-side stalls and vendors, especially fresh fruit, which is something else to rave about: apart from the omnipresent and sweet bananas, mangos, pineapple, papaya, avocado and grenadillas, we tried soursop (guanabana), mangosteen, lulo, guama machete, guava apple and tree tomato. In Africa, they usually boil plantains as a stodgy alternative to potatoes that can be pretty bland. In Colombia, they boil it first, then mash it into a flat pancake before frying it, making a sort of crispy flatbread that is far tastier than the African version. For protein we often had beans as part of the meal and the lentil stews were super-tasty. Fish (trout, tilapia, mackerel), especially on the Caribbean coast, was fresh and delicious. Pork, chicken and beef are all easily available although they do tend to butterfly everything and if you want a thick-cut, medium-rare steak, you better take some time explaining exactly what you want. Water and sodas (regular; sugar-free sodas are a little harder to find in small towns) are freely available and cheap. At breakfast, most Colombians drink hot chocolate and it’s surprisingly difficult sometimes to get coffee for breakfast. The chocolate was a little watery for my liking so I would usually rather wait (sometimes only arriving at the end of the meal) for my coffee. But the coffee, especially in the Santa Martas, was excellent, true to what I expected from Colombia.

I kept the best for last. We expected to see at least 500 species and hoped to get 600. But our final list was 701 – that’s SEVEN HUNDRED birds in just over 3 weeks! And our heard-onlys made up less than 5% - 33 birds heard only and 668 seen! Our main aim was actually to get as many of the endemics as possible – within our itinerary there were a possible 56 endemics and 91 near endemics. And we got 50 endemics (46 seen, 4 heard-only) and 87 near endemics (83 seen, 4 heard-only)! Looking at some of the important bird families, hummers (72) and tanagers (63, including the ant- and cardinal tanagers) featured the strongest. The furnariids (44) and tyrannidae (78) were well-represented too and we got 8 manakins (all seen), 13 tapaculos (9 seen), 22 wrens (all seen) and 41 ant-somethings (not including the ant tanagers) with 11 antbirds, 7 antshrikes, 8 antwrens, 1 antthrush (heard-only), 2 antvireos and 12 antpittas (8 seen). From previous experience, I normally end up seeing around 50% of all the possible birds on a trip like this. The list of possible species that Johnnier and Ernest compiled had around 1040 species and we got almost 70% of them! Noticed the number of exclamations in this paragraph?!

We birded hard. Except when we had to drive for some time, we were out birding before sunrise and only on two days finished before 6pm (but still after 5pm). Owling was done on two nights. On several days we had breakfasts and lunches in the field and although we mostly walked, the car was almost always (except in Rio Claro and Rio Blanco) nearby. Generally speaking, the birding was relatively easy. Apart from the Mulata trail in Rio Claro, a deserted road in Rio Blanco and the trails around El Dorado lodge, all our birding was done from public access roads. This meant we were looking mostly at forest-edge rather than interior forest birds (which meant we had little chance of seeing ant swarm flocks). Roads were almost always on slopes as well so although we did a fair bit of warbler-necking, we also had a lot of easy eye-level and below observations. I had not expected to see so many antpittas and tapaculos but Johnnier has an amazing knack for knowing where to look and listen for these species and when they are around, actually spotting them in the ridiculously dark undergrowth. On a daily basis we were astounded when birds appeared almost on cue, more often than not, exactly in the spots where he predicted. The public roads do mean that cars, trucks, chivas, motorcycles and cyclists can be somewhat annoying, especially the ones that cannot suppress the urge to honk when they drive past you. But to be honest, there was only one occasion when a vehicle driving past scared off a bird and we didn’t see it.

A typical half portion lunch in Colombia

Our expectations for this trip were very high, but they were not met. They were exceeded. By a lot. On almost every level. Although Ernest didn’t need to be on this trip and used the opportunity as a bit of a holiday for himself, his logistical and language support was invaluable. Nothing was ever too much to ask and never before have I met someone who’s gone so much out of his way to ensure his clients are happy. We discovered quickly that Ernest and I had a lot in common and some of our conversations got so enjoyable that we sometimes neglected the birds. The same goes for Johnnier. He’s young, energetic and passionate about birds but also has a great interest in insects, frogs, lizards and orchids and his scientific knowledge is remarkable. He taught himself English and is entirely able to hold his own even in technical conversations and has a very sharp sense of humour. I have no qualms about saying that Johnnier was one of the very best guides I’ve ever had on a trip. I cannot recommend Ernest (Colombia Wil Ecotours) and Johnnier high enough.

So that’s it folks. One last question remains. Would I want to return to Colombia?

In a heartbeat….

Breakfast view on the way to Nevado del Ruiz ar 3900masl

2 comments:

  1. Mr. Vrey, rarely do I read such a long and detailed blog article about someone’s experience like yours. I mostly skim through the paragraphs only looking for the main ideas conveyed. However, reading yours captivated me in such a way, that I found myself devouring every word from beginning to end. I found your recount of your experience traveling as a birder through Colombia absolutely fascinating and informative. Even living in Colombia myself, I only knew that we are one of the top bird destinations in the world, but through your article I learned a great deal about just how truly enormous the number of bird species that are present in this country. Incredible! And how knowledgeable you are to be able to recognize so many species by song alone.
    Just to share with you something you might be interested in, there’s another truly spectacular area in the south of Colombia with remarkable bird species worth seeing, in case you ever want to return. Perhaps you could ask Ernest to take you to Putumayo and to the Sierra de la Macarena. A friend of mine, also an incredible birder and bird photographer who has published a couple of books on the most beautiful species of birds in Colombia has done various expeditions to the area to identify and study the birds there. I strongly recommend his book.

    Thank you for sharing your article. As I said earlier, I read it from top to bottom with great delight.

    Conny

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    1. Hello Conny - thanks so much for your kind comments. I should humbly say though that my knowledge of the birds in Colombia, including their calls, are extremely limited and we only got to see and hear what we did because of our guides and it's they that deserve the praise. I do recall Johnnier specifically mention Putumayo several times though, and when I do have a chance to visit Colombia again, I would absolutely love to see this as well as the Sierra de la Macarena and about a hundred others too. We loved Colombia and will make work of getting back there!

      All the best.

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