White-whiskered Spinetail, a superb near-endemic on our Colombia: The Santa Marta Mountains tour. Photo: Fabrice Schmitt
Colombia is well known for its diversity of habitats and high level of bird endemism. This is especially true of the isolated mountains of Santa Marta in northeastern Colombia and the Guajira Peninsula on the Caribbean coast, where an impressive number of species can be seen. They include the beautiful and sought-after White-whiskered Spinetail, Blossomcrown, Scarlet Ibis, Vermilion Cardinal, Santa Marta Antpitta, White-tipped Quetzal, Chestnut Piculet, and Lance-tailed Manakin. During our searches we’re likely to see some fine mammals such as the handsome Cotton-top Tamarin or the bright red Red-tailed Squirrel, as well as a number of interesting reptiles and showy butterflies.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6 pm in Barranquilla. Night in Barranquilla.
Day 2: We’ll begin in the wetlands east of Barranquilla. After crossing the wide Magdalena River, we’ll stop at an extensive marsh where migrants from North America are abundant and mix with the more exotic Brown-throated Parakeet, Straight-billed Woodcreeper and Yellow-chinned Spinetail. The noisy Stripe-backed Wren is usually common, the omnipresent Red-crowned Woodpecker peeks from its holes in the palm trees, and the stunning Russet-throated Puffbird is sometimes seen hunting large insects and lizards in the open.
After a few hours of birding in this mix of shrubs and wetlands, we’ll drive to the Isla Salamanca National Park for a short walk in the shade of the mangrove. This rich habitat always attracts interesting species, including Bicolored Conebill, Bare-eyed Pigeon and with some luck the stunning Chestnut Piculet or the critically endangered Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird.
By now it will be hot so we’ll retreat to our cool vehicle and drive toward Santa Marta and then Riohacha, stopping for lunch on the way. In the afternoon, just before arriving in Riohacha, we’ll explore the semi-arid vegetation of the Los Flamencos National Park. The thorny and almost leafless vegetation here hosts an amazing selection of beautiful species. One of the most striking is the White-whiskered Spinetail, but the competition is stiff as other amazing birds occur, including Vermilion Cardinal, Orinocan Saltator, and Trinidad Euphonia. Night in Riohacha.
Day 3: In addition to thorn scrub, Los Flamencos offers mudflats and coastline, where shorebirds sometimes congregate in great number but the star of the mudflat is the bright Scarlet Ibis, found along with White Ibis and often some hybrids. In the same range of colour, we’ll have a good chance of finding the lovely Roseate Spoonbill and a few Greater Flamingoes. We’ll also look for birds in the most arid part of the reserve, looking for any species we may still need, perhaps the extremely restricted Tocuyo Sparrow, Slender-billed Tyrannulet (or Inezia), or Buffy Hummingbird.
In the afternoon we’ll drive toward the splendid Tayrona National Park, arriving early enough to relax in our lodge on the shore of the Caribbean Sea. In the late afternoon, we’ll offer a choice between some more birding or a swim from a beautiful white sand beach. Night La Jorara.
Day 4: Tayrona is both beautiful and relaxing, and it’s a great birding destination. We’ll spend the morning looking for Crested Guan, Lance-tailed Manakin, Southern Bentbill, White-chinned Sapphire and White-necked Puffbird among others. We even have a chance of finding the extremely rare and endangered Blue-billed Curassow. During our morning’s walk through the forests of the national park, we’ll also be looking for mammals, including Colombian Red Howler Monkey and a Tayrona specialty, Cotton-top Tamarin.
After lunch we’ll wend our way towards the village of Minca in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. After check-in at our hotel, we’ll look especially for the restricted-range Black-backed Antshrike, but also Pale-eyed Pygmy-tyrant, Rufous-capped Warbler, Panama Flycatcher, and Bicolored Wren. With some luck we might even find a flock of Military Macaw, and the bright red morph of Red-tailed Squirrel would be a brilliant addition to our mammal list. Night in Minca.
Day 5: We’ll be birding all morning around the charming little village of Minca. Its location at the intersection of arid habitat, coffee plantation, and the first patches of humid forest helps explain why it holds so many interesting species. Our main targets will include Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Golden-winged Sparrow, Scaled Piculet, Rufous-and-white Wren, Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous-breasted Wren, Swallow Tanager, Keel-billed Toucan and our first Santa Marta endemic, the Foliage-gleaner!
We’ll have lunch at the charming Hotel Minca, where besides the wonderful food, we’ll find one of the most impressive hummingbird feeding stations in Colombia. We’ll see dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hummingbirds of various species while enjoying an after-lunch cup of Colombian coffee: Steely-vented and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Red-billed Emerald, White-vented Plumeleteer, and Pale-bellied Hermit among others will be competing for the precious sugar.
After our time at the feeders and on the hotel grounds, we’ll begin our drive toward the El Dorado Lodge. The last part of the road is rough and we’ll change over to four-wheel vehicles, arriving in the late afternoon. Night at El Dorado Lodge.
Days 6-7: The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain massif that rises directly from the Caribbean up to about 18,700 feet. Around 30 range-restricted species occur in these mountains, and we have good chance of seeing more than 20 of them! There are also many endemic subspecies, reflecting colonization, then differentiation, from the main Andean chain.
We’ll stay at El Dorado Lodge run by the Colombian NGO ProAves. It’s a magical place where you can have a drink on the terrace with an impressive view of the Caribbean coast while watching Sierra Nevada Brush-Finch, Black-fronted Wood-quail or Santa Marta Antpitta coming to the feeders. Another endemic, the not-yet-described Santa Marta Screech-Owl, is often heard from our cabins.
Away from the lodge we’ll visit higher elevations along the San Lorenzo ridge where we’ll look for Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Warbler, Santa Marta Bush-tyrant, and Brown-rumped Tapaculo. In the mixed species flocks, we may find a few Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager, Rusty-headed Spinetail, and the handsome Black-capped Tyrannulet. We’ll also pay special attention to the hummingbirds as we have chance of seeing Black-backed Thornbill, Santa Marta Woodstar and the endemic subspecies of Tyrian Metaltail.
At lower elevations, we can find the stunning White-tipped Quetzal not far away from Golden-breasted Fruiteater, as well as Santa Marta Tapaculo, White-lored Warbler, Yellow-crowned Whitestart, and the superb Blossomcrown. Nights at El Dorado Lodge.
Day 8: Unfortunately we’ll have to leave our wonderful mountain home and drive back to Barranquilla. On the way, we’ll have some time for birding, making a few stops to look for any last species we may still be missing. We’ll arrive in Barranquilla in the late afternoon. Night in Barranquilla.
Day 9: The tour concludes this morning in Barranquilla.
Updated: 17 November 2020