Exploratory Trip to the Santa Marta Mountains of Colombia
November 21-28, 2008
We all arrived safely on direct flights from Miami in Barranquilla, the fourth largest city in Colombia, on Friday night. At 7:21 am on Saturday while driving out of Barranquilla, at an unscheduled police stop, we got our first good bird - a Russet-throated Puffbird, thanks to Mark. On the drive east to Salamanca, our first destination, we also had the ubiquitous Rock Pigeon, and Great and Cattle Egrets. But we also had our first Striated Heron and Osprey.
Salamanca proved to be an excellent introduction to lowland forest, off a very busy main road, and although it conserves mangrove forest, it was surprisingly rich in birds. We saw our first Bicolored Wren - wow - now that is a wren, Northern Waterthrush, a couple of Bicolored Conebills, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, male and female Black-crested Antshrike, several Brown-throated Parakeets, a very obliging Lesser Nighthawk, two Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds and a Common (Mangrove - soon to be re-lumped) Black-Hawk.
Closer to Santa Marta we passed through extensive roadside wetlands where we got good looks at Roseate Spoonbill, Wattled Jacana, three White-cheeked Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, and the first of many Crested Caracara. Just past Santa Marta we ventured up the road to the antennas on San Lorenzo ridge and our lodge, the El Dorado. We saw several Red-crowned Woodpeckers, a pair of White-fringed Antbirds, a Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant, quite a find, and an endemic Shining-green Hummingbird.
Then it was on along the Caribbean coast to Riohacha with a lunch stop at a restaurant near the Los Estoraques Natural Area where we got White-vented Plumeleteer, a pair of Orange-chinned Parakeet building a nest in a termite nest, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Pale-legged Hornero, King Vulture that few flew over the road, and Ruddy Ground-Dove.
In the late afternoon we got to Camarones NP where we saw Bare-eyed Pigeon, an endemic, we also saw Cattle Tyrant, Tropical Mockingbird, four fantastic White-whiskered Spinetail (our favorite spinetail of the trip!); we also got poor looks at an Orinoco Saltator and Rufous-vented Chachalaca and great views of Nacunda Nighthawks; we also heard a Crested Bobwhite.
Sunday morning, November 23, after a night at Riohacha we drove again on the road through Camarones NP that terminates at Los Flamencos Wildlife Sanctuary. Birding was steady and good throughout the morning - we found a Slender-billed Tyrannulet on a nest with one egg in it right over the road. We also got Scrub Greenlet, two Gray Kingbirds, and a glimpse of a Gray-necked Wood-Rail that ran across the road in front of us. We got much better looks of an Orinoco Saltator, and saw a Baltimore Oriole - a lifer for Renzo- our local guide. We located a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl that was being mobbed by several Black-crested Antshrikes, White-fringed Antbirds, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, and a much needed Glaucous Tanager. We also got good looks at several Trinidad Euphonias, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, several female Vermilion Cardinals, and a fleeting glance of a Black-billed Cuckoo. Further along the road, a Peregrine flew over and a Rufous-tailed Jacamar was feeding in the nearby thickets.
On the road to the beach, we got lots of herons including Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets and shorebirds including Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Willet, Black Skimmer, Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, Sandwich Tern and a Collared Plover. In the village we also got several Cattle Tyrants and had a great lunch of fish and beer on the beach.
Running a little late and with rain showers in the area, we drove back along the coast and took the road to Minca where we exchanged vehicles for two 4x4 vehicles. And oh did we need these - the road from Minca to the fantastic El Dorado lodge (at 2000 m) is one of the worst roads that many of us have every been on. But it was through amazing and incredible scenery. We even got a Keel-billed Toucan, Crested Oropendola, a heard only Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush and an American Redstart on the way. After a great evening meal we retired early to bed.
After a late breakfast at 5:15 am on Monday, we headed up the road toward San Lorenzo ridge. But not before we got lots and lots of Blue-naped Chlorophonias at the lodge feeders. Although overcast and occasionally wet, along the road we did locate some good birds including: easy to see Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, Black-capped Tanagers, two Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, the endemic Streak-capped Spinetail, and two of the three endemic warblers - the Yellow-crowned Whitestart and White-lored Warbler - a great start to our endemic list. Returning to the lodge we also got poor looks at another endemic - the Rusty-headed Spinetail, so we had all the endemic spinetails on the first day’s birding in the Santa Marta Mtns. We also got the endemic sub-species of the Emerald Toucanet, and the endemic tanager - the Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager.
After a great lunch we headed lower and got Mountain Elaenia. In the late afternoon around 4 pm, we explored the lodge trail and Mark saw two regionally-endemic Band-tailed Guans and he and Renzo heard a pair of Black-fronted Wood-Quail. The group did get a White-throated Spadebill and saw three Black-chested Jays. Back at the lodge while relaxing before dinner we watched the feeders and flocks going through the lodges garden and got great looks of Pale-breasted Thrush and the endemic Santa Marta Brush-Finch.
Again, on Tuesday we tried going up the road but the wet conditions led us to re-trace our steps and we headed down to the Palo Alto Farm at 1700 m birding slowly all the way. A couple of us got a Black-headed Tanager, unfortunately the only one of the trip. As a group, all of us got the following: a nice Black-hooded Thrush, Collared Aracari, Swainson’s Thrush, Summer Tanager, and another endemic - the Santa Marta Tapaculo - and we had incredible looks of what is not your typically shy Tapaculo. Just below where we found the Tapaculo we found the localized Rusty-breasted Antpitta calling from 4 ft up a small shrub. It was incredible to see an Antpitta up a tree! We also found a Sooty-capped Hermit and another Keel-billed Toucan - which everybody saw this time. Returning towards the lodge we also found a Venezuelan Tyrannulet and three Groove-billed Aracari. After dinner we tried for the endemic and newly-described screech-owl - the Santa Marta Screech-Owl. Sadly we only heard three distant hoots.
Finally third time lucky - the early morning started clear and we ventured up the road nearly all the way to the antennas and the wax palm forest at 2650 m. We saw Scaly-naped Parrots on a tree, an unusual sight, the endemic and incredible White-tailed Starfrontlet - for many the highlight of the trip. We also saw a fleeting glimpse of the endemic White-tipped Quetzal, poor looks at another endemic Tapaculo - the Brown-rumped Tapaculo, and great looks at the endemic sub-species of Rufous Antpitta, this is sure to be split. Back down the road a couple of 100 m, we also got our third and last endemic warbler - the Santa Marta Warbler. We also had Spotted Barbtail, Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant and Strong-billed Woodcreeper just within the wax palm eco-tone. Lower down in the fog, we also heard several distant endemic Santa Marta Parakeets and saw another endemic - the Santa Marta Antpitta. We also got another localized species - the Blossomcrown, and the highly localized but widespread - Black-throated Tody-Tyrant. Back at the lodge we also got the local sub-species of Masked Trogon and Stripe-headed Brush-Finch.
Finally our last day birding arrived - we ventured down the lodge trail again and were rewarded with great looks of a Gray-throated Leaftosser. After saying our farewells to the wonderful staff at the El Dorado Lodge we started back down the road. At our first stop, several of us got looks at another endemic - the Santa Marta Woodstar. A little lower we got a Coppery Emerald and Steely-vented Hummingbird, and even lower within the coffee-growing zone we got several Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, and Black-billed Seed Finch. In a much degraded environment we also got Mourning Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler and Long-tailed Antbird. Our bird of this area was a very obliging Rufous-breasted Wren. Having taken our time coming down the mountain, we were caught in a torrential tropical downpour and got stuck above a landslide. We all safely crossed the landslide leaving our El Dorado drivers, guides and vehicles above while we hired a local to take us down to the main highway. A stop for air, for Simon, got us one more endemic - the Red-billed Emerald and we also heard Scarlet-fronted Parakeets.
It was a great trip - we saw or heard most of the Santa Marta endemics that are easily accessible.
We have already reserved our next Santa Marta trip - it’ll run in early January 2010. Hope you can join us.