Colombia: The Santa Marta Getaway Jan 01—07, 2012

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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Colombia is rapidly becoming a "must see" destination, as most areas within this beautiful country can now be safely visited by birders. This fact has not been lost on the birding community, which is now flooding numerous tiny reserves, as well as national parks, and pressing into new uncharted sites. The Santa Marta Mountains are well-known for the large number of endemic birds that occur there, and quite a few of them can be seen even in a short visit.

The stars aligned well for us during this trip, the first that we have offered that focuses entirely on the Santa Marta area. We were able to see all but a couple of the endemics, and were thrilled to see one—Black-backed Thornbill—which has not been previously seen by any of our groups and, indeed, has not, until the past few weeks, been previously recorded at the El Dorado Lodge where we stayed. The individual that we saw came regularly to one (and only one) feeder at the lodge. It was a subadult male, in most aspects like an adult but with patches of brown feathers on its wing coverts. We were also fortunate to see the endemic Blossomcrown (by no means a guarantee), and enjoyed a great study of a Coppery Emerald, a near-endemic. With some extra effort we were pleased to see the Santa Marta Warbler too, a species with striking plumage and one that is not always easy to find; during this trip, in particular, they seemed almost completely unresponsive to playback and were not singing.

The Antpitta "feeding" program at the lodge is by all accounts quite a success. Each evening, a few worms placed in a small bowl prove irresistible to a resident Santa Marta Antpitta (yes she, if she is indeed a "she," is called "Monica" because her erratic and sometimes irrepressible behavior apparently reminds locals of a former human visitor) that overcomes a genetic history of retiring behavior and leaves dense cover to enter a small open space near the lodge for this gift of slippery and squirmy food—even in the presence of a considerable number of humans sitting in full view. I continue to find it remarkable that these birds, so difficult to see under normal conditions, can be "trained" to overcome their fear of being in the open and will actually come regularly for food. The same also can be said for the Black-fronted Wood-Quail, which now include the lodge compost heap in their daily rounds, spending lengthy periods of time scratching and poking for both plant and animal food items.

The El Dorado Lodge, featuring good food and comfortable lodging, is rapidly developing into a world-class destination for birders, offering a range of activities for arm-chair watchers, as well as those who seek more vigorous exploration of nearby roads and trails. Combined with the remarkable number of endemic birds nearby, and relatively easy access (road notwithstanding), it is a destination that is sure to appeal to an increasing number of naturalists and birders.

We hope that you enjoyed this short trip from top to bottom and everywhere in between. Getting to Santa Marta (from international destinations) requires a bit of effort, but I think it is well worth it.  And, I hope that all of you will come back to see the "rest of Colombia." After all, Colombians now say that "the only risk is wanting to stay," or maybe it should be, "…of not wanting to leave all these beautiful birds behind."