Colombia has made great political progress over the past decade and is currently enjoying a new period of stability and prosperity. On this, Travelling Naturalist’s inaugural Colombia tour, the aim was to explore the country’s finest birding sites at a considerate pace, while staying in the finest available lodges. In total 425 species were encountered, including 37 Colombian endemics and a plethora of range-restricted and rare species. Of special note were 47 species of hummingbird, nine species of antpitta and a host of colourful tanagers, toucans, woodpeckers, owls, raptors and many more avian gems besides.
A marshland site outside Bogota produced the first of the tour’s many endemic species – Bogota rail. Moving on to Colombia’s central Andean range (the Andes splits into three ranges within Colombia), highlights included a thrilling mixed-species flock, while a host of antpittas delighted with point blank views, and hummingbird and tanager feeders provided further avian treats. High altitude páramo habitat revealed the much-wanted hummingbird, buffy helmetcrest, as well as black-chested buzzard-eagle, while a slow descent through lush cloud forest produced crimson-mantled woodpecker and plushcap.
In Colombia’s western Andean range, feeding parties of endemic yellow-eared parrots proved memorable, as did lacrimose mountain-tanager and barred fruiteater. A private garden with fruit feeders attracted stunners such as crimson-backed tanager, Andean motmot and red-headed barbet, while time spent at an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek was another highlight of the region. On the Pacific slope of the same western Andean range, in habitat known as the Choco, birding proved sensational. Much sought-after species such as gold-ringed and black-and-gold tanagers, black solitaire and golden-headed quetzal were all seen well, and a new suite of hummingbirds included violet-tailed sylph and velvet-purple coronet. However, the star bird of the Choco came in the form of a rare cloud forest pygmy owl, seen at eye level from just a few metres away!
Having explored all three of Colombia’s Andean ranges, the group headed to Santa Marta – an isolated mountain range that holds a unique array of Colombian endemic birds. Exciting species came thick and fast – an early morning flyover of rare military macaws was a highlight of the foothills, while ‘Santa Marta endemics’ started to appear higher up in the form of Santa Marta brush-finch and Santa Marta antbird. The famous El Dorado lodge was the group’s base from which to explore this birding paradise, and the gardens provided many new species including endemic white-tailed starfrontlet. Thrilling new birds kept on coming, with treasures including the retiring Santa Marta antpitta, Santa Marta mountain-tanager and white-tipped quetzal. It had been a magical few days, birding with views of the Caribbean coast far below and shimmering snow-capped peaks high above. The final ‘new species’ for the tour, seen outside Bogota, was sword-billed hummingbird – a fittingly unique and special bird for what had been an equally unique and magical trip.
Of course, the tour checklist quickly reveals Colombia’s amazing avian diversity, but what it can’t convey is the group’s new appreciation for a country that is making great strides towards becoming one of the world’s top birding destinations. Indeed, this was a wonderful journey of discovery full of friendly faces, delicious food, superb coffee and, of course, unparalleled birding. Thankfully, Colombia’s doors are now wide open, and an untold number of wildlife treasures await any travelling naturalist visiting this incredible country.