Colombia: The Central & Western Andes Feb 19—Mar 06, 2012

Posted by Steve Hilty


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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This trip was classic Colombia—curvy and bumpy roads, landslides, massive road construction, endless tractor-trailer trucks, outsized meals for carnivores, beautiful cloud forests, spectacular mountain scenery, rare parrots, hummingbirds, antpittas, colorful tanagers, exciting mixed species flocks, accommodations ranging from no stars to five stars, friendly people and yes, three flat tires.

We began our trip with an early morning departure from Bogotá, descended into the warm dry floor of the Magdalena Valley, and spent the balance of the morning birding at Mana Dulce, a small reserve largely ignored by birding groups, but good for two endemics and a long list of interesting species typical of drier inter-Andean Valleys.

On Day 2 we went for the brass ring with a super early departure from Ibague and a journey by truck far into the hinterlands of Tolima in search of the endangered Indigo-winged Parrot, which we eventually found after an invigorating climb, a long wait, and spectacular views of Nevado del Tolima. Day 3 started with birding near Ibague and then a long westward climb over the Central Andes. It was a bruising, day filled largely with torturous mountain roads, endless highway construction, and enough tractor-trailers for a lifetime. The pleasant little reserve of Otún-Quimbaya hove into view not a moment too soon. A delightful Colombian Screech-Owl and a surprise birthday cake (Shep!) topped off the day.

On Day 4 we birded Otún-Quimbaya and bumped shoulders (almost literally) at meals with dozens of national park employees on site for training, and dozens of teens fulfilling class projects and who knows what else, but the birding included Torrent Ducks, Crested Ant-Tanagers, and enough Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, White-capped Tanagers, and endemic Cauca Guans for all.

On Day 5 we spent a pleasant morning chasing elusive Chestnut-breasted Wrens, and then departed for a country guesthouse located far to the west in a fabled land called Tatamá National Park. The next day found us at the top of a mountain, at which point we began our return on foot, a descent of nearly 4,000 feet and some 12–14 kilometers distance, but what a spectacular day it was with rare Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercers, Orange-breasted Fruiteaters, and Purplish-mantled and Glistening-green tanagers.

On Days 7 and 8 we climbed hills and descended into valleys in pursuit of more birds including some of the most colorful tanagers and chlorophonias ever to evolve on planet earth. We departed on Day 9, stopping for an Andean Cock-of-the-rock on her nest, and ending with a circuitous bus tour through the winding streets of Manizales before reaching our hotel a bit after dark. Day 10 was punctuated by antpittas and enough hummingbirds and mixed species flocks for even the most jaded birder, as well as our second flat tire at the end of the day.

Day 11 took us to the top of Nevado del Ruiz where we basked in glorious morning sunshine, but it didn't last. With heavy fog blanketing the mountain, we visited a nearby forested valley with spectacular cliffs and interesting bird flocks just before experiencing our third flat tire and a broken tire wrench—a  problem that necessitated a cell phone call for a service truck. Amazingly, help arrived (we were far up a valley) in a little over an hour. Day 12 was devoted mostly to travel as we relocated to the lovely little town of Jardin.

Day 13 took us by jeep into high wet montane forest again with rare Yellow-eared Parrots, hummingbirds, tapaculos, and tanagers; delightful weather; a picnic lunch with Collared Incas and Buff-tailed Coronets; and a wonderful afternoon mixed species flock at a "trucheria." Day 14 began with a boisterous Andean Cock-of-the-rock display at dawn; a brief book-signing in a town called "Andes"; birding in the dry Cauca Valley; lunch at Kachcotis de la Quebrada restaurant; and an early arrival in Medellín.

Day 15 would find us looking at a male Yellow-headed Manakin, endemic Red-bellied Grackles, and little tanagers in a park in Medellín, all before making our way to the airport for a flight back to Bogotá.  Our heads were spinning with all the birds and travel we managed to shoehorn into fifteen days. I'm ready to do it all over again!

Trip statistics paint an interesting picture of the immense diversity of birds in the regions we visited on this trip: we recorded 32 species of hummingbirds; 9 antpittas (7 seen); 8 tapaculos (6 seen); 5 chat-tyrants; 13 wrens (10 seen); 4 jays; 8 thrushes (6 seen); 13 Tangara tanagers; 7 brush-finches (in two genera); and 9 species of wintering North American migrant warblers. We also recorded 14 species of raptors, which is a modest number that reflects their lower diversity in the primarily montane habitats we visited.