Colombia: Bogota, Eastern Andes & the Magdalena Vallley Feb 01—16, 2018

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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Our birding route included several traditional sites in the Magdalena Valley and, for the second year in a row, also a circular loop down the eastern slope of the Eastern Andes to the bustling city of Villavicencio and a return to Bogotá via the picturesque little mountain city of Santa María. This route includes some terrific forest birding sites as well as access to the high páramo of Sumapaz National Park, which is the largest contiguous páramo in the world. Botanists describe it as a tropical alpine grassland, but that hardly conveys the beauty of this fairyland of strange and unusual plants dominated by rosette-shaped Espeletia (Asteraceae) and an interesting variety of birds. It is a region Lewis Carroll would surely have loved.

We had great birding almost everywhere and experienced rain only one morning at the little Bellavista Reserve near the town of La Victoria. Top birding days would surely include the old Bavaria Beer Company forest near Villavicencio, a morning near the military bases below Santa María, the high montane forest above the city of Ibague, and that last remarkable morning at the Río Claro Reserve where we spent almost an hour and a half at one site, moving little more than a few steps as we watched woodpeckers, trogons, antwrens, woodcreepers, flycatchers, becards, wrens, thrushes, a variety of colorful tanagers (including Swallow Tanagers close at hand), caciques, oropendolas, euphonias, and much more at close range. Remarkably, we also observed a large number of species carrying nest material, building nests, incubating eggs, or searching for suitable nest sites.

After our birding loop on the eastern slope of the Eastern Andes, we left Bogotá and began a series of stops westward, descending down into the Magdalena Valley, eventually ending at the Río Claro Reserve and a drive to the Medellín airport for a short flight back to Bogotá to conclude the trip. Each person will have their special moments to remember on this trip, but the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek above Santa María, and a morning near the river below Santa Maria with a Fasciated Tiger-Heron, wood-rails, ibises, Chestnut-vented Conebills, and oropendolas, and flycatchers amidst a background of red-flowering Erythrina trees will likely be included. For some also, the wonderful elfin-like vegetation of Sumapaz National Forest was a highlight, as was the exquisite little lichen-covered nest that a Yellow-bellied Elaenia was so carefully building at the Mana Dulce Reserve, or the incredible colors of a male Chestnut-bellied Chlorophonia above Ibague. The variety of colorful tanagers was impressive everywhere, and we had an unusual number of opportunities to observe gorgeous little Striped Manakins and hummingbirds almost everywhere. Also impressive was an afternoon in ranchland and marshes of the central Magdalena Valley with Northern Screamers, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, flocks of Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, and many other species almost all at once.

Several of you spent a day or two prior to the trip visiting sights (and doing some birding in Bogotá where you saw Black-tailed Trainbearers and a Sword-billed Hummingbird) with Diana Balcázar. But, beyond birding, it soon became evident to everyone that Colombia is a country at work. Road construction projects are in progress everywhere (and can sometimes cause delays for travelers), large heavy trucks are ubiquitous, the economy is varied and booming, and the country is generally clean and surprisingly cognizant of conservation issues. There also were many recreational cyclists, impressive by almost any standards. Bogotá suffers growing pains like any large metropolitan area (major traffic congestion) but the city is attempting to ameliorate congestion and smog in various ways including private bus lanes; a proliferation of bicycle lanes; an odd-even license plate number system for alternate day driving; Sunday closing of many streets to all but bicycles and foot traffic, and even closing the city to all automobiles one day a year. Road signs throughout the country urge people to take care of the environment (could those of us from wealthier countries learn something here?). For a country that has struggled to rid itself of crippling political and social problems, the transformation is remarkable. The statistics are undeniable—about 1,970+ species of birds (slightly more or less depending upon the taxonomy followed) have been recorded in Colombia including more than seventy endemics and many more that are almost endemics. A recent (2018) National Geographic issue largely devoted to birds quotes prominent conservationist Thomas Lovejoy, who once said . . .  “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the big problems in the world.” In this regard, Colombia is doing its share and more.

And finally, a popular slogan in Colombia says that the only danger in Colombia now is wanting to stay. And that just may be true. We hope you will want to return and see more of this remarkable country.