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  • Writer's pictureToby Ross

Colombia, A Country Of Surprises

Updated: Oct 13, 2020


February 2019

(this trip was organised as part of Seattle Audubon's International Birding Trips Program by Toby Ross, Senior Science Manager)

The destination for Seattle Audubon’s 2019 International Birding Trip was Colombia, and what an incredible trip it was. Due its species diversity and recent peace treaty, the country has become a dream destination for many. Like last year’s Guatemala trip, this itinerary was developed as part of National Audubon’s International Alliances Program (IAP) and was offered through Holbrook Travel.

The IAP works with local partners in Latin America and the Caribbean to conserve key bird habitats that steward the full lifecycle of migratory birds. As part of this work, the IAP has developed a bird-based tourism program that initially trains local stewards to be bird guides and then creates itineraries for international travelers to follow. Doing so kick-starts ecotourism in those countries, provides employment to the recently trained guides, and brings money to smaller communities where good habitat is found. This results in an understanding that local stewardship of healthy habitats will lead to local economic improvement. To date, itineraries have been developed in the Bahamas, Belize, Colombia and Guatemala. Seattle Audubon wants to support these kinds of conservation and capacity building efforts through our International Birding Trips and will continue to seek itineraries with a strong conservation thread.

Colombia, slightly smaller than Alaska, borders both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The country also boasts the tallest coastal mountains in the world, as well as extensive areas of tropical Amazon lowland forest and high altitude Andean grasslands. This huge diversity of habitats and altitude differences are responsible for Colombia’s nearly 1,900 bird species - the greatest number of any country - accounting for 20% of all bird species in the world.

Our group of 11 participants, started the trip in Medellín, home to former drug lord Pablo Escobar whose pet hippos escaped his personal zoo, have bred and now reside in the Magdalena River. The rest of the trip was based around three main locations, with 2 nights in each: Río Claro, 3 hrs southeast of Medellín; Los Nevados National Park, located at 13,000 ft in the central Andes; and Otún Quimbaya Sanctuary, further south at mid-elevation in the central Andes, before heading to Bogotá and onward.

Leaving Medellín, we stopped by our first birding spot, La Romera Reserve, a secondary forest in the Medellín Mountains. We picked up our first 15 species which included a couple of US migrants - Blackburnian Warbler and Canada Warbler - and two endemic species - Red-bellied Grackle, and Colombian Chachalaca. With two endemics on our first morning, we knew this was going to be a very rewarding trip.

Our first major destination, Río Claro Reserve, consists of humid tropical forest with abundant wildlife. We soaked up our first 50 species quickly with highlights including a Blue-crowned Manakin lek, mating Cinnamon Woodpeckers, endemic Antioquia Bristle-tyrant and White-mantled Barbet, a gorgeous Golden-hooded Tanager, and a cave full of unique and devilish roosting Oilbirds. It wasn’t all birds, we also found chattering Capuchin and Night Monkeys, a hunting Blunt-headed Snake, a scorpion which we illuminated green with a UV light, marching leaf-cutter ants, a host of large spiders and a rainbow of butterflies.

After the steamy forests of Río Claro, we ascended over a 14,000 ft pass, just shy of Mt. Rainier’s 14,400 ft summit, to Los Nevados National Park. Los Nevados contains the greatest extent of páramo ecosystem in the world. This unique habitat is found above the timberline and consists of neotropical alpine grassland and associated shrubs. The weather in this area was a huge contrast to that of Rio Claro, and very much like Seattle, with temperatures dipping into the 40s accompanied by grey clouds and drizzle. Despite the weather, we found some great birds, including Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager and a couple of hummingbirds - the unusual looking Buffy Helmetcrest (endemic), and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill.

On the way to our last birding location we stopped at Río Blanco Reserve, famous for having feeding stations that attract Antpittas. The rangers regularly hand feed species like Brown-banded Antpitta and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. Other highlights from this stop included three of my favorites of the trip - Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, as well as Green-and-Black Fruiteater and the heavily range-restricted Masked Saltator. The Masked Saltator was also a lifer for our guide, which is always exciting to witness.

Our final stop was Otún Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Reserve which contains forested trails that provide easy access to mid-elevation habitat. One of our outings yielded wonderful looks of a Torrent Duck as it fished and perched on rocks in the rushing Otún River. Brightly colored Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Golden Tanager, and Orange-bellied Euphonia. Endemic species we observed here were Grayish Piculet, and Cauca Guan.

The trip finished in Bogotá with one final birding destination – La Florida Park, located directly next to the International Airport. We only had a short while at the park but found familiar species like Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, and Greater Yellowlegs, along with the unfamiliar Bogotá Rail (endemic), Andean Duck, and heavily range-restricted Rufous-browed Conebill.

Our guide Manuel Espejo was brilliant and easily the best guide in every way I’ve experienced. Manuel expertly led us to over 220 species in the space of 7 days. Check out (Flickr album) some of the photos taken during the trip. Colombia is a fantastic country, full of surprises with a vibrant culture, exceptionally friendly people and astounding birdlife and landscapes. Since the peace treaty was signed in 2016, the country is as safe as anywhere else in South America. I would strongly encourage anyone to add this destination to their birding bucket list, and support the burgeoning eco-tourism efforts in the country. Colombia is not to be missed, and I hope to lead another trip there soon.

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