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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains

2019 Narrative

In brief: Is there a better way to escape the boreal winter than by spending a week in the tropics, enjoying the wonderful Caribbean food, staying in fantastic lodges, and seeing around 300 bird species?! Well, that’s what we did on our Santa Marta tour, and believe me… we really enjoyed it!

The Sierra Nevada Cordillera and the Guajira Peninsula are home to an amazing list of restricted-range species, and we had excellent views of (just to name a few…) White-whiskered Spinetail, Chestnut Piculet, Vermilion Cardinal, Black-fronted Wood-Quail coming in to the feeders at El Dorado lodge, Orinocan Saltator, White-lored Warbler, Black-backed Antshrike and a long list of “Santa Marta” species, such as Santa Marta Blossomcrown, Antpitta, Antbird, Tapaculo, Foliage-gleaner, and Brushfinch. In addition to these very local species, we also enjoyed encounters with the stunning Northern White-fringed Antwren, the lovely Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to fruit feeders, the charismatic Russet-throated Puffbird, a group of no less than five male of White-tipped Quetzals, and so many more interesting sightings.

Besides birds we also enjoyed an endless list of butterflies, moths, nice reptiles including good views of Green Iguana, and a few mammals such as Colombian Red Howler, and Gray-legged Night Monkey and Kinkajou coming to the fruit feeders at El Dorado Lodge.  This tour was also notable for the great accommodations, with amazing hummingbird feeders at Minca and El Dorado Lodge attracting probably several hundred of these magnificent and colorful birds. And last but not least, the food was really fantastic, and we all enjoyed the tasty Caribbean food, especially at La Jorara Lodge and in Barranquilla!

In Detail: The group met in the evening for an introductory meeting, followed by our first delicious meal of Caribbean cuisine – what better introduction to the tour!

For our first birding day we had an early departure to the Universidad Del Norte grounds for a quick stop to look for our first restricted-range species of the tour, the Chestnut-winged Chachalaca. With the early morning light, we got excellent views of several chachalacas, and also a nice Lineated Woodpecker and a beautiful Whooping Motmot, and our first Yellow Orioles. We then headed towards the agricultural fields and wetlands at Palermo for some early morning birding, enjoying the still “cool” temperatures. Palermo is a wonderful birding area, and we saw more than 60 species of birds in less than two hours: lots of herons of several species, dozens of wintering Blue-winged Teal, great views of Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, no less than three Dwarf Cuckoos, a few Russet-throated Puffbirds perched in the open, several flocks of noisy Brown-throated Parakeets, family groups of Stripe-backed Wrens, great views of Straight-billed Woodcreepers and Yellow-chinned Spinetails, the splendid Pied Water-Tyrant and White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, common Red-crowned Woodpecker and even a few Spot-breasted Woodpeckers, a cute pair of the minute Turquoise-winged (Blue-winged) Parrotlet and so many more! We could have spent all day here, but several other birding spots were waiting for us during our drive towards Riohacha.

On the way to Riohacha, we stopped for lunch by a scenic riverside. It was great to have lunch while watching Great-tailed and Carib Grackles, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Southern Rough-winged Swallow!

We arrived at the village of Camarones in mid-afternoon and birding the dry shrubland along the old access road to the village, we found a pair of Streak-fronted (Black-crested) Antshrikes and a Northern White-fringed Antwren, the stunning White-whiskered Spinetail, a few Slender-billed Tyrannulets and Northern Scrub Flycatchers. In a nearby field, we spotted eight Double-striped Thick-knees resting in the shade of short trees.

We ended the day at the estuary at Los Flamencos Sanctuary, where we found flocks of shorebirds, including hundreds of Willets, but also Short-billed Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones, Greater Yellowlegs and Whimbrels. A Caspian Tern was also spotted amongst the numerous Royal Terns and Laughing Gull. After enjoying the susnst here, we ended the day with a delicious dinner at our seafront hotel in Riohacha.

We spent the next morning birding the dry scrubland and forest found on the Guajira Peninsula, knowing that we would find several of the restricted-range species in these particular habitats. One of the first birds of the day was a beautiful Orinocan Saltator feeding on a cactus fruit just a few meters from us! We also found a spending pair of Vermilion Cardinals, as well as a few Glaucous Tanagers, White-whiskered Spinetail coming close to the tape, Chestnut Piculet, Trinidad Euphonia, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-faced Grassquit, Caribbean Pale-legged Hornero, and Gray Kingbird, just to name a few. We also flushed a pair of White-tailed Nightjars and another ‘night’ bird, a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, came to the tape mobbed by Red-billed Emerald, Buffy Hummingbird and plenty of Tropical Gnatcatchers. A few Scarlet Ibises and White Ibises, as well as a few hybrid, were feeding on a small pond also attracting Bare-eyed Pigeon and a lonely Solitary Sandpiper. South of Riohacha, we also spent some time in a small patch of dry forest, where we found a very responsive pair of Barred Antshrikes and had great views of the rare and local Tocuyo Sparrow.

We then drove to the fabulous La Jorara Lodge, a stunning place just by the Caribbean Sea. We arrived for lunch and enjoyed a wonderful grilled Red Snapper, and then a swim in the Caribbean Sea and/or a nap in one of the lodge hammocks! When the temperature dropped in the afternoon, we did some birding in a patch of dry forest where we found Thick-billed Euphonia, Crimson-backed Tanager, Yellow-crowned, Brown-capped, and Sooty-headed Tyrannulets, and Forest Elaenia. We also had amazing views of a splendid male Lance-tailed Manakin, perching just a few meters from us, as well as a stunning Rufescent Tiger-Heron hunting on the shore of a little stream. But the best surprise of the afternoon was to find a cute (and rare here) Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher! We couldn’t have ended the day better than with a mouthwatering plate of garlic prawns with Coco rice, a Caribbean specialty, and a peaceful night in our very comfortable lodge.

After an early but tasty breakfast at La Jorara, we drove to the entrance of Tayronaka reserve for a morning birding there. The tall secondary growth forest attracts lots of interesting species and the most common ones, at least by voice, were the stunning Lance-tailed Manakin and the less colorful Buff-breasted Wren. We saw a very long list of birds that morning including very good views of a pair of One-colored Becards, Rufous-breasted and Pale-bellied Hermits, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Collared Aracari, Cocoa Woodcreeper, and Blue-headed Parrot. We even found a group of at least 25 Military Macaws, a species whose population is slightly increasing in the area, and a large White-necked Puffbird was seen on his perch for a while. But the best finds of the morning were two Santa Marta Woodstars, our first Santa Marta endemic, extremely rare at this low elevation!

During our lunch on the way to Minca (succulent shrimp risotto for most of us), we found two Great Black Hawks while a King Vulture was soaring over the restaurant! After checking in at our nice hotel in Minca, we enjoyed a mid-day break there, napping or watching White-necked Jacobin, Steely-vented Hummingbird and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird coming to a blooming tree in the garden. We spent the rest of the afternoon just below Minca, in very dry forest, looking successfully for the restricted-range Black-backed Antshrike and the minuscule Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant. After a successful afternoon we drove back to the Hotel to enjoy a nice dinner and night in Minca.

The next day we spent all morning birding the upper part of Minca, mostly in shade-grown coffee plantation and patches of dry forest. This habitat really attracts boreal migrants, and we found several North American birds here for the non-breeding season: Tennessee, Blackburnian, and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Broad-winged Hawks! Of course, plenty of resident species were seen together with these migrants, such as the stunning Chestnut-capped (Rufous-capped) Warbler, Boat-billed and Streaked Flycatchers, the electric-blue Swallow Tanager, Bay-and-green (Bay-headed) Tanager, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Golden-winged Sparrow, and so many more. In the dense understory of the forest patches, we played with a few more secretive species, finding Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-White Wrens, a Scaled Piculet, and the Rosy Thrush-Tanagers gave us an amazing show! After lunch, we began the drive towards El Dorado Lodge. Not a long distance to drive, but the road is in such bad shape that it took us almost two hours to reach the famous lodge. On the way we stopped at a known stake-out where we had excellent views of both Santa Marta Woodstar and Coppery Emerald, and at a private garden, where we had repeated views of the sought-after Santa Marta Blossomcrown!

After check-in at our comfortable lodge, we stayed in the lodge garden for the rest of the day, enjoying the amazing quantity of birds found near our cabins: massive numbers of Lesser Violetear and Crowned Woodnymph, a Band-tailed Guan coming to the compost, both Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada Brushfinches, and the absolutely stunning Blue-naped Chlorophonia coming to the fruit feeders. What an amazing beginning and wonderful introduction to the next birding days we would have around the lodge.

We had two full days to explore the different elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, looking for the endemic species living in this isolated range. On our first day, we mostly explored the upper part, driving by night from the lodge to the ridge near Laguna Sagrada. On the way, we stopped twice for nocturnal birds and had amazing looks at the recently described Santa Marta Screech-Owl and a beautiful male Rufous-naped (Band-winged) Nightjar. We then had a field breakfast enjoying the spectacular view of this wonderful cordillera, with Yellow-crowned Redstart singing around, and a flock of Scarlet-fronted Parakeets leaving their night roost to perch in the tree in front of our breakfast table! In the patch of forest and chusquea bamboo, we found lots of Black-cheeked Mountain Tanagers and Mountain Elaenia, together with Streak-capped and Rusty-headed Spinetails, had great views of White-throated Tyrannulets, the recently split Hermit Wood-Wren and Black Flowerpiercer. We even had a very close view of two very cooperative Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrants. We had to work hard to see both Brown-rumped Tapaculo (but saw it finally) and Rufous Antpitta (the endemic spatiator subspecies that will be split very soon). Back to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon break, we had plenty of time to enjoy the garden and the feeders, and had amazing views of three Black-fronted Wood-quail. During a short walk from the lodge in the evening, we had fantastic views of a pair of Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, a few White-lored Warblers, a group of Santa Marta (Southern) Emerald-Toucanets and three Sickle-winged Guans. Later, our dinner was interrupted by three Gray-legged Night Monkeys and a Kinkajou coming to a fruit feeder. And then it was time to say good night after a long and excellent day.

We spent our second morning at El Dorado birding the “road” below the lodge. We had nice views of a Gray-throated Leaftosser, tossing dead leaves on the forest floor. Besides the species already contacted the previous day, we also found a few new ones, such as Black-banded Woodcreeper, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner and Black-hooded Thrush. But the most amazing sight of the morning was undoubtedly our close encounter with a Santa Marta Tapaculo. Best view ever of a tapaculo, singing atop a large boulder just a few meters from us – unforgettable!

After a great lunch at the lodge, enjoying the fantastic view of the surrounding forest, we drove again to higher elevation, looking for the elusive Santa Marta Antpitta. Two individuals came close to us, attracted by the tape, but only Mary managed to see one through the dense vegetation. More conspicuous was a group of no less than five male of White-tipped Quetzals, seen together feeding on a fruiting tree! Unbelievable to see these large and colorful birds so well, and this will stay as one of the best sightings of the trip! At dusk we also heard a pair of Barred Forest-Falcons, who came close to the tape, but it was impossible to find them in the dark foliage.

Unfortunately, after two full days at El Dorado lodge, it was time to leave that amazing place and drive all the way back to Barranquilla. On the way, we spent most of the morning birding the shade-grown coffee plantation between El Dorado and Minca, and again found impressive numbers of birds: Tennessee Warblers together with Slate-throated Redstarts, Swallow, Black-headed, Bay-and-green (Bay-headed) and White-lined Tanager, a few Red-billed Parrots feeding on flowers together with Crested Oropendola and Black-chested Jays, Yellow-legged Thrushes and one more Rosy Thrush-Tanager. We also had a good look at Santa Marta Antbird, our last local endemic, and found a cute Rusty-breasted Antpitta singing in the understory.

After an excellent morning’s birding, we headed towards the Hotel Minca for a nice lunch watching the busy hummingbird feeders, and soon after set off toward Barranquilla. ‘En route’ we stopped at Isla de Salamanca National Park where we found a pair of Bicolored Conebills, no less than four Pied Puffbirds (with excellent scope views of one of them), a dozen of the superb Prothonotary Warbler, and also a few old friends such as Russet-throated Puffbird, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, and Snail Kite. And with that, our fantastic tour concluded the same way it had begun, with a fabulous dinner at our comfortable hotel.

-        Fabrice Schmitt



Created: 12 March 2019