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The Western Andes, the flooded savannas and the Harpy Eagle

"We had 3 week trip packed full of birds, birding locations, great people and great food, with 470 bird species and nearly 180 lifers, so many great memories were made there – great people, beautiful scenery, great food, etc."

We have named this trip “best selection” because we are mixing up two of the best areas for birds and wildlife in Colombia, but also completely different areas from the point of view of natural history and ecosystems: the Andes and the plains, each one with a different set of birds and wildlife but also different culture and lifestyle. In the Andes is about colorful Tanagers, tons of hummingbirds and crazy mixed flocks, in the plains is about the whole experience of being in a wild, remote area enjoying all the wildlife around in seasonally natural changing scenarios, part of the year everything is under the water but once the summer arrive, the wetlands and ponds reduce the size everything turns into yellowish color and there is a congregation of wildlife around the oversummer lagoons.

The cherry in the top of the cake, was the addition of the expedition of the Harpy Eagle in the transitional area in between the Orinoco river basin savannas and the green lush Amazonian forest in the Macarena serrania slopes.

In this trip I have the pleasure of travelling for second time with Liz, an avid birder who has previously visited the central Andes of Colombia and Ryan, an avid cyclist on seeking new adventures on his first trip to Colombia.

Day 1 & 2 Introduction to the western Andes, the km 18.

Today was a mellow pace, we visit the well-known km 18 or San Antonio forest above the city of Cali. This cloud forest is an IBA (important bird area) and is loaded with good birds. We had an early morning start walking on a gravel road on the ridge of the western Andes. Some mixed-species flocks appeared quickly after we started our walk: Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Red-faced Spinetail, Lineated Foliage Gleaner… suddenly we heard a Chestnut Wood Quail and saw one dash across the road, so we decided stay around and check the forest. Luckily one of the Wood Quails stayed in the forest edge and eventually it came into a small opening of a game trail and stayed there long enough for us to get photos! By mid-morning we reached a private reserve, La Florida, at the feeding stations we added a lot of colorful birds: Multicolored Tanager (endemic), Golden-naped, Saffron-crowned, Golden, Flame-rumped and Scrub Tanager visited the feeders from time to time, also a family of about 7 Chestnut Wood Quails were nearby in the forest. By 10:30 we left this place in order to do a short walk.

Right after we left we hear a Golden-headed Quetzal relatively close, but it was too foggy to see the bird. We waited patiently for the fog to clear and were rewarded for our patience when a single bird flew into view and then flew right over our heads and perched in a tree. The bird changed perches several times, but we were able to get great views, photographs and even videos of this magnificent bird.

Our lunch at San Felipe, another private reserve where we enjoyed tons of birds in the feeders, including the elusive Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Black-capped Tanager among others. Unfortunately, a very heavy rain started by 2pm and forced us to stop. Despite the short first day in the field we already had 80+ bird species for the trip!

On our second day we walk along the IBA, San Antonio forest, above the city of Cali and we were able to add some new species to the list, but the best of the day was about to come...late in the afternoon we did a walk inside the property of the Araucana Lodge, our main aim was the Spectacled Owl. We had searched for this species the night before with no good luck. When we started our walk, the forest was very quite and the low bird activity continued for more than one hour. We were quietly walking through the forest when Liz found a pair of eyes looking at her: Spectacled Owl! We spotted a second Spectacled Owl with the first within the forest. Despite the heavy foliage, we were able to quietly spend time enjoying good views of this magnificent bird.

Day 3. Doña Dora Spot, western slope of the western Andes.

Our day took place in the mid elevations on the old road to the pacific coast. The morning was loaded with birds and mix flocks and we added plenty species to our already large list! We started with a couple of Silver-throated Tanager and Rufous-throated Tanager, both species restricted to this slope of the cordillera, but later in the day we had amazing views walking along the road of: Indigo Flowerpiercer, Glistening-green Tanager, Green Thorntail, Rufous-gaped Hillstar, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper (a bird Liz really wanted to see), Ornate Flycatcher, Collared Trogon, Uniform Treehunter, Dusky Chlorospoingus, Yellow-throated Chlorospingus and a couple of Toucan Barbets. By mid-day we visit Dora´s house, with one of the best backyards ever. We were able to observe and photograph many fantastic birds including Tricolored (Choco) Brush-Finch, White-whiskered Hermit, Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Empress Brilliant, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Toucan Barbets, and many more! We left Dora´s house after lunch to head to our lodging, but on the way back we made a short stop to scan a rock cliff and saw a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar! What a great way to end our day trip.

Day 4. Cauca river valley, Sonso oxbow area

We started the morning with a short walk around our lodge and found some nice species of birds. We packed up and made a short stop in the lowlands in the Cauca river valley near Sonso lagoon. This stop was very productive and we spotted many new birds for the trip. One of the best moments was when we found a Common Potoo (one of Liz’s favorite birds) nesting site, this bizarre looking bird was very exposed on a stick having a nice nap! Other species we saw in the lowlands included Greyish Piculet, Spectacled Parrotlet, Horned Screamer, Blackish Rail, Buff-necked Ibis, Slate-headed Tody Flycatcher, Spot-breasted Woodpecker among others. After our short stop, we headed north towards our next location!

Day 5-6-7. Tatamá national park, Montezuma

Montezuma is inside Tatama National Park, the area contains extensive primary rain forest, which can be accessed by a 13km long road. This elevation along this road changes from 1300-2800 masl, providing habitats for many different birds. The first morning we hit the road early in a 4X4 truck so that we could reach the top of the road shortly after dawn. At the end of this road we enjoyed fantastic views of the Tatama mountains and had a nice picnic breakfast. We spent the morning walking back down the road; during the morning we spotted a lot of beautiful birds including some endemics: Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, Munchique Wood Wren, Gold-ringed Tanager, Brown Inca and incredible views of the Nariño Tapculo among others and despite the drizzle all the day long - welcome to the bio-geographical Chocó! Liz was feeling a little under-the-weather this day, we had a lot of fun walking down on the bumpy road. Other birds in mix flocks included Fulvous-dotted Treeruner, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Glistening-green Tanager, Tricolored Brush Finch…but the best was waiting for us at the end of the day, a pair of Lanceolated Monklets (another bird Liz really wanted to see) perched over the road! They offered us great views and plenty of time for photographs! What a great end to a soggy day!

The second day was loaded with mix flocks, and there was no rain or drizzle - hard to believe! Early in the morning we enjoyed spectacular views of a pair of Ochre-breasted Antpitta performing their dance, an Ornate Hawk Eagle passed by a couple of times right above us and the Orange-breasted Fruiteater appeared at least 4 times during the morning walk. During the morning we crossed paths with one of the best and largest flocks of our trip: Olivaceous Piha, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Uniform Treehunter, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Glistening-green Tanager, Dusky Chlorospingus, Black and Gold Tanager, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Bicolored Antvireo, Uniform Antshrike, Flame-faced Tanager and so on...rush hour!

After lunch we spotted the always beautiful Scaled Fruiteater, but the most excited moment was when we heard the "booming" of the Banded Ground-Cuckoo at least two times, we spent about 20 minutes waiting patiently on the road trying to spot it with no luck, but is always nice to record such a bird!! Our last mix flock in the lower elevation area was also very productive: Crested Ant-Tanager, Russet Antshrike, Buff-fronted Foliage Gleaner, Dusky-faced Tanager and the increadibly beautiful Striolated Manakin.

On our last morning in Montezuma we only spent a couple of hours in the field, but we had many good birds and it was good way to say good bye to the western Andes: Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Moustached Puffbird and the elusive Sooty-headed Wren

We finished our western Andes portion of the trip with 277 species recorded!

Day 8 and 9. The Eastern Andes, High Andean forest.

We had two amazing days in the high Andean forest, sub paramo and Paramo areas in the eastern branch of the Andes. Our birding spots were northeast from Bogotá, in areas near Chingaza National Natural Park. The first morning we hit the road early and after 1h of driving we reached the high Andean forest, just 2 seconds after we got out of the car we had our first mix flock loaded with high elevation specialties: Black-headed Hemispingus, Golden-crowned Tanager, Pearled Treeruner, Golden-fronted Redstar, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Superciliared Hemispingus, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Blue-backed Conebill, Hooded Mountain-Tanager among others, it was rush hour for a while! The spectacular views of the paramo at a bit higher elevation were superb. A very cooperative Pale-bellied Tapaculo also gave us a good show and the Speckle-faced Parrots joined us for a while. Later on the day we did a couple of stops in a lower elevation area in the way to watch other range-restricted birds, we got good views of the endemic Bogota Rail, the Silvery-throated Spinetail an un-expected Whistling Heron and we end the day with the elusive Grassland Yellow Finch, what a day!

Our second and last morning in the high elevations on the eastern Andes was dedicated to cleaning up our target list. We started early in the morning with very specific targets and we added most of them. A couple of Ochre-breasted Brush Finch during our breakfast time in the morning to start and then the endemic Brown-breasted Parakeet, Longuemare’s Sunangel, Gorgeted Woodstar and the near endemic Blue-throated Starfronlet. Our morning was also adorned with the beautiful Black-billed Mountain Toucan and Mountain Cacique. On our way back, a short stop for the near endemic and elusive Bronze-tailed Thornbill was a greatway to end the Andes chapter of this trip.

Now off to the flooded savannas!

Day 10 - Day 12. The Flooded Savannas, home of impressive wildlife!

The flooded savannas- llanuras inundables- are located in the eastern side of Colombia, to the north of the meta river. The seasonally flooded savannas are home of a vast diversity of birds and wildlife and with no doubt the best place in Colombia for a safari. The open ecosystem and the over summer ponds and wetlands increase the chances for sights and offers so many opportunities for fun. We arrived at Hato La Aurora- Ecolodge Juan Solito in the afternoon and we decided to have a boat ride on the Ariporo. The wildlife and birds were very abundant and gave us incredible sights and photo opportunities. Within a short time in the boat we had seen many of our target species. Some of the best ones included the Orinoquia range restricted: Pale-headed Jacamar, Orinoco Goose, White-bearded Flycatcher and Sharp-tailed Ibis, and many other beautiful and amazing birds like: Sunbittern, Grey-headed Kite, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Violaceous Jay, Masked Cardinal, Great Potoo, among others. One of the best moments during the boat ride was when suddenly we spotted a Boat-billed Heron and a second one appeared in the scene – we were thrilled to see this beautiful species. Capybaras and Spectacled Caimans were seen all along the riverand we even had Scarlet Macaws fly by several times! This was a very memorable afternoon!

Our second and third morning we had our wildlife safari, departing after breakfast and driving through the reserve in the way to increase our chances for birds and other animals. We had successful days and we saw several species in the pastures, gallery forest and the wetlands: Scarlet Ibis, Oriole Blackbird, Crane Hawk, Black-collared Hawk, Jabiru, thousands of Whistling Ducks, Brazillian Teal, Plain Thornbill, Buff-necked Ibis, Whistling Heron, Green Ibis, Pied Plover and much more.

One of the highlights of our first morning of Safari was the impressive Orinoco Caiman, a critically endangered species with an estimated total population of no more than a 250 adults in the wild. We spent quite a bit of time observing this beautiful species, and were able to watch this species very close!

Another great moment was when we saw a White-tailed Hawk, sitting on a fence post along the road. as we were leaving the area we saw it having breakfast! eventually ate a snake like spaghetti.

Our safaris in the private reserve were very productive, the Giant Anteater was an incredible sight that we enjoyed on one of our morning walks. We also had amazing views of a Southern Tamandua climbing a tree at the end of the morning right before the heat.

Southern Tamandua, photos by Liz Harper

Our time in the llanos - plains - was simply amazing, we were able to watch so many birds and wildlife in the natural setting and our time there brought our bird list to over 400 species.

Day 13-Day 15. The Harpy Eagle experience.

The Harpy Eagle is one of those birds which many birders dreams about. This powerful bird is at the top of the rainforest food chain and has no natural predators - except for human beings - and unfortunately in many cases is just a legend. The loss of the primary forest and killing by humans - for no reason - are the factors that negatively affect this species the most. The population has had a rapid decrease in many localities and is considered as vulnerable in nearly all of its range.

We visited the Harpy Eagle reserve in the slopes of the Macarena Serrania in Colombia, this private reserve protects an active nest of this specie but also aprox 100 hectares of primary forest, the main source of food for this species. It also involves the local community in the conservation of this species, and works to educate people about the importance of the conservation of this species and many others in the forest.

Our trip there was beyond fantastic. We had a 1h drive through the mountains and then a 3.2 km walk - 2 miles – up the mountain to reach the reserve. During the walk we loaded a mule with our belongings and enjoyed the forest and other birds and mammals around, some Brown Woolley monkeys joined us for a while, and there were also several Hoatzins and an Amazonian Motmot showing off! Once in the reserve we had spectacular views of the Harpy Eagle, a 9 month big chick was occupying the nest. It was old enough to spend most of its time alone and to jump around the big tree and make short flights. Within a few minutes of our arrival on the first afternoon the chick received a visit from the adult male who was checking the nesting site and eventually disappeared again in the primary forest.

Our time with the local community, the ranger in charge of taking care of the Harpy and his family was beautiful and memorable.

Beside the Harpy we added many other amazing Amazonian birds and monkeys! We had incredible views of the Paradise Tanager, Lemon-throated Barbet, Masked Tanager, White-throated Toucan, Many-banded Aracari, displaying Crested Oropendola, the amazing Lanceolated Monklet, Squirrel Monkeys and Brown Capuchins.

We ended the trip with 460 bird species! Not bad for a 2 week trip! In addition to birds we saw a lot of fantastic wildlife, including:

Oppossum, Black Agouti, Crab-eating Fox, White-tailed Deer, Capybara, Spectacled Caiman, Orinoco Caiman, False Coral Snake, several frog and toad species, beautiful butterflies, Squirrel Monkey, Brown Capuchin, Giant Anteater, Tamandua, Tegu Lizard, Green Iguana, Amazonian Coachwhip, and Red-footed Tortoise and we had a LOT of fun along the way!!

Our Top.

This was tough since we had 3 weeks packed full of birds, birding locations, great people and great food!

Top Birds of the tripwith 470 plus species of birds seen and nearly 180 lifers, this one is tough! We saw all the species I had hoped to see, except for Greater Scythebill.

1 Harpy Eagle

2 Spectacled Owl

3 Great Potoo

4 Golden-headed Quetzal

5 Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

6 Lemon-throated Barbet

7 Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant

8 Munchique Wood-Wren

9 Bat Falcon

10 Lanceolated Monklet

Special mention: Yellow-billed Nunbird, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker and White-throated Quail-Dove

Top experience of the trip – also tough as there were so many!

Top birding outing – boat trip in Llanos as we saw so many of the birds that I wanted to see back-to-back with great views, and what makes it my top moment is that on top of all the great birds, we saw Boat-billed Herons (a species I have tried for several times).

Watching a Brown Inca build a nest on the Montezuma portion of the trip

Top location for the trip – Harpy Reserve – not just because of the Harpys tho! So many great memories were made there – great people, beautiful scenery, great food, etc.

Top food – again – lots of great foods, but my top is a Cholado in Cali

Favorite non-bird animal sightings

1) Orinoco Caiman

2) Giant Anteater

3) Tamandua

4) Crab-eating Fox

5) Red-footed Tortoise

Favorite non-birding experiences

1) Seeing Ryan biking in the sub-paramo

2) Conversations with folx at Harpy Reserve

3) Touring Cali

4) Touring Bogota

5) Connecting with staff at the Araucana Lodge

  • check out our best seletion trip by click in the link!


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