Colombia Birding – The locations

In my previous post I had touched briefly on Bogota, Minca, Santa Marta and Cartegena. In this post I will discuss the other places we went, mostly to go birding – the primary reason for this trip.  I have included only a few photos with birds. I will do another post showing some of my bird photos when I am further along with the slow job of identifying my birds.

Feb 3-6, Montezuma Eco Reserve

We had come to Colombia with only a few bookings and would be finding our way to birding sites on the fly.  The one exception to this was stimulated by a line in Lonely Planet which identified Montezuma as the one best birding sites in the country.  There was no further information in the guide on where it was or how to get there.  I was able to find only an email address that linked me to a Kurt Niznik who turned out to be a Californian who was helping Michele, the long-time owner of Montezuma connect with the English speaking world.  Michele speaks no English and so Kurt helped through numerous emails get us a 3 day booking at Montezuma.

I had only a very rough idea of how to get to Montezuma and phone numbers for Michele and her daughter Yesennia (pronounced with a j) and the hope that our three night reservation was firm.  Once in Colombia I was able to speak with Yesennia who has better English than I had hoped and so we were on our way.  We flew from Cartagena to Pereira, in the heart of La Zona Cafetera, the coffee growing region.  We spent the night there and then in the morning caught a 3 hour bus ride to Pueblo Rico where Yesennia arranged for us to be picked up in a 4×4 for the hour long ride to the reserve, arriving just after noon.

The lodge is a rough tumble of guest rooms linked by an open area that serves as the gathering place, the eating area, resource centre, discussion area for the guides and clients to discuss their plans and to build the birds-seen lists that are so important to everyone who comes.  But primarily this area, is where you sit and watch the feeders.  Coffee cup or beer bottle in one hand and binoculars in the other everyone will spend some hours catching the hummingbirds at the sugar water feeders or the tanagers and others at the hollowed logs holding mostly bananas.  We got out of the 4×4 and headed straight across to the birds. Even before sitting down to the welcome lunch.  Every group that arrived had the same reaction.

Also connected to the rooms are at least two kitchen areas, clothes washing area and space used by the numerous family members who work around the lodge and various children who play and mingle at will.  The lodge is far from luxurious but it is wonderfully set in the cloud forest and many birds are found on the grounds of the lodge.  Michele’s extended family creates such a welcoming environment that birders settle in almost immediately.

We hung out at the feeders and wandered the grounds for a while until Yesennia returned from an outing and then we created a plan with her for the next two days.  The first day after breakfast in the lodge at 5:30, we walked and birded for about five hours up the road until a hot lunch was brought by motor bike. We then turned around and birded back to the lodge again.  The second day we drove for about an hour to the top of the mountain, at about 2400 m, where there is a military base protecting the communication towers.  We watched a different slate of hummingbirds at the feeders there.  The lodge maintains feeders at various locations along the road to the mountain top.  At the top we also saw new tanagers in the bushes and a swallow-tailed kite soaring on the early morning thermals.  Hot breakfast was served on the truck tailgate.  We spent the rest of the day walking and birding our way back down the mountain, with a hot lunch brought again by motor bike.  Weather varies continuously.  First hot sun and then clouds made birding tough.

Birding, and for me bird photography, in the cloud forest is very difficult.  It is dark jungle, the birds are mostly small and very shy and rarely sit out on exposed branches.  The guide, in this case Ysennia, will know all the birds by sound and what their behaviours and habitats are.  Yesennia would identify a bird initially by sound and then with her binoculars. She would point out the bird by shining a laser pointer near the bird (never right at the bird).  It was almost always sitting in deep shade amongst the leaves and branches.  Rich would usually find it in his binoculars before I could get my camera locked onto it.  Often it would flit off before I could get it, or it would be too dark or distant to get a good photo.  To help zero in on a bird Yesennia, and the other bird guides would occasionally use recorded sounds to attract the bird closer.  Sometimes this technique would be used by the guide in a location that they knew was frequented by a specific bird and the recorded songs would sometimes bring it in so we could see it.  This technique is considered questionable by some and is not allowed in the national parks.

At the end of each birding day we sat with Yesennia and ticked off the birds-seen from a printed list of the 700 or so species that have occurred at Montezuma.  There were two birding groups that we encountered at Montezuma, one from Britain the other from Sweden.  Each group seems to have its own personality.  Some are very serious listers who are often primarily after the area’s endemics; birds that occur nowhere else.  Others are more fun oriented but are still out for lots of species.  A typical two week birding tour in Colombia, probably getting to 5 to 7 spots will get listers 500 to 600 species. Most groups that we saw were a mix of bird listers and bird photographers, although the very serious of both types would be in tours designed for either listing or photographing.  Very different approaches are required.

Montezuma was a great first birding lodge experience for us.  We did a lot of independent walking about, which reinforced how hard it is to find birds without a guide.  I did find an Andean mot-mot on my own which I thought at the time was a great find.  As the trip went on we saw many mot-mots and so I guess it was no big deal.   High on my list of birds found here the Lanceolated Monkbird,  the Swallow –tailed Kite,  and the Mot-mots.  Yesennia pointed out some tiny orchids for me and I got a few butterflies.

Michele and Yesennia were wonderful hosts. Yesennia also helped connect us with our next location… 

Feb 7-9 Otun Quimbaya

Juan-Manuel, a friend of Yesennia, made reservations for us at Otun Quimbaya which is a Nature Reserve near Periera.  So after birding the morning of Feb 6 at Montezuma, a jeep ride down to Pueblo Rico and a 3 hour bus ride back to Pereria we checked back into the same hotel we were in four days ago. In the morning we caught a strange open bus called a Chiva, where we sat on benches that could hold 5 people.  The definitive aspect of these buses is their very high clearances and their ability to handle the unimproved forest roads.  Chiva is Spanish for goat; the name is well chosen.

It took a bit under two hours for our Chiva to bounce its way the 18 km back up into the cloud forest to Otun.  The lodge here was quite different.  It is much more of a public place, reminiscent of a youth camp.  There is a cafeteria style restaurant.  Most rooms are dormitories.  We were given a private room I think because they felt we didn’t fit in with all the young people who were taking courses.  Predominant guests here were Colombians, indicative of the scale to which Colombia is embracing eco-tourism.

We were able to walk the grounds before we had lunch and a meeting with Yuan-Manuel.  Juan is an independent bird guide who works for the reserve when in the reserve, but also works on his own and with the various bird tour groups.  We began to see how large the birding tour business is in Colombia.

We did an hour nature walk with one of the other park guides that afternoon and then had breakfast with Juan the next morning at 5:10.  A 30 minute 4×4 ride to the end of the road and then birding back for the next 5 or 6 hours.

Once again Juan used all of his considerable expertise to find and draw out the cloud forest birds for us to see and photograph.  Juan was even more diligent in putting in the extra effort to get me and the bird into a position where I could get a shot.  We experienced some big birds here like Trogons, Guans and the Southern Lapwing but for me the real thrill was getting shots of the little bush birds like the Greyish Piculet and the Moustached Puffbird that Juan was able to set up for me.

After lunch we spent a long time with Juan going over the plans for our remaining time in Colombia.  As he had such a good knowledge of birding opportunities and people we went over many possibilities, finally settling on a plan that minimized logistical problems and maximized birding.

Feb 9-11 Tinamu

In the morning another nature walk with another guide around the lodge finished off a very successful visit to Otun Quimbaya.  Incredibly Juan had offered to pick us up after lunch and drive us to our next destination.  Not only would we stop off along the way and bag a few more birds, but it meant that we did not have to take two different buses and another 4×4 to get to Tinamu.  A two hour drive instead of struggling for a full day.

Tinamu is still in the coffee growing area, and in fact at one time was a coffee farm.  The current owner has turned it into high-end birding resort, with lots of feeders for the arm-chair birders and the big-lens photographers. But there is also a network of trails that rapid growth is gradually returning the jungle habitat from the coffee plantation.   Arriving at the lodge we were struck by the contrast with the lodge at Otun.  A Czech Republic group of primarily photographers, with their tripod mounted cameras set up around the grounds, were finishing up their visit.  The only Colombians worked there.

Francisco, the main bird guide at Tinamu does not speak any English but they contract, at a small extra cost, Daniel a younger guide who would spend the day with Rich and me. We had a leisurely start with breakfast at 6:30 and then spent the day walking the paths cut through the jungle.  I saw no signs of coffee, but the growth was so lush I guess I wouldn’t recognize coffee plants anyway.  The real prize for me on this day was the little Golden-crowned Manakin that Daniel worked very hard to entice into camera range for me.  Manakins are low to the ground birds and so we were down on our hands and knees to see it.  Also fun was the very strange Common Potoo, reminiscent of the Frog-mouthed birds Rich and I had seen in India and Australila.  The very friendly bird photography grounds gave some good opportunities to improve on pictures birds seen elsewhere.

Tinamu is a lovely spot to bird and to stay.

Feb 11-14 Manizales

Manizales is a sister city to Pereira in coffee country.  It is extremely mountainous and quite high, so the climate is lovely.  It is a great place to centre yourself if you want to bird from a city.  Laura, another contact of Juan’s picked us up after an early breakfast and off we went for the day with her.

Los Nevados National Park

It took us a couple of hours to make our way down from Tinamu and then high up to Los Nevados, a park noted for its high altitude birds.  Laura is not a birder but she had taken others up for birding.  Once we left the main highway she dropped us off so we could bird the bushes along the road.  We didn’t find anything; we will blame it on the cold windy day, but the views were spectacular.  We drove along the park road, stopping a few times.  We did see distant Andean Ducks, similar to North America’s Ruddy Duck but not much else.  At the very top of our drive it was completely clouded in with no relief in sight.

Continuing our drive we next stopped at Termales del Rui, a hot spring known in birding circles for its gardens and bird feeders.    More hummingbirds and tanagers and a nice lunch.  A bit later and much lower we finally got some relief from the wind and a little sun, which brought out the birds.  We found a nice hedgerow which housed a few species we may never be able to identify, not having the knowledge of a local birder.

We were dropped off in our hotel in Manizales where we would spend the next three nights.

Rio Blanco

The next morning Laura drove us and our new guide Miguel an hour or so back up into the mountains to Rio Blanco.  There is a lodge there and it would have been nice to stay, but we were unable to get in when we were working out our plans with Juan.  We spent only the morning at Rio Blanco but it was still very productive.

A key feature at Rio Blanco were the little hides that had been built where the guides have habituated some of the special little birds to watchers.  The trick is that they throw little bits of worm onto a flattened area in front of where some stools for the watchers sit.  After a while the little birds hop out of the dense undergrowth.  We spent the morning walking up the road stopping at three of these hides.

At the second hide I was crouching over to get a shot of one of these little guys poking his head out of the leaves when one of my lens multipliers dropped out of an open pocket and fell into the brush hanging precariously on the mountain slope.  Miguel climbed down and for about fifteen minutes fought through the brush but could not find it.  It was assumed that if I had tried I would have rolled all the way down to Manizales.

Overall the lighting was very poor on this day for photography.  Rich saw a few new birds but other than the hides I did poorly.  Back at the park centre we kind of hung out watching the hummingbirds and I noticed Miguel had left.  But he was soon back with my multiplier.  Laura had driven him back to the hide for another look.  Another example of how carrying the people are that we met at the birding sites.

The little Ant-Pittas, four kinds, were great to see.  The shot I got of the Tody-flycatcher when I lost my multiplier turned out ok and I added to my raptor collection with a Road-side Hawk. Another place that would be great to visit on a return trip.

I returned to Manizales after Rio Blanco and crawled into bed where I spent about 18 hours recovering from something.  A quiet day walking around Manizales seemed to restore me.

Feb 14-16 Honda

We were heading to Honda in part to get to a birding area called Belavista, which we hoped to find some way of getting to from Honda.  Honda was also about half-way along a main highway to Bogota where we were scheduled to be on Feb 16.  The altitude at Honda is around 200 m, which means it was quite hot and some different birds were on offer.

Our hotel, a few minutes by taxi outside of Honda, is a resort type of place that has seen better days, but was quite nice given our budget travel preferences.  We were both able to find some nice birds walking out from the hotel.  On my walk I watched one of the staff extricate a little woodpecker from a vine tangle.

Walking around Honda the fishing life along the Rio Magdalena highlighted some of the differences from the Cloud Forest.  Rich was more productive.  He found an English speaking hotel owner who had some knowledge of birding and who agreed to drive us to Belavista the next morning.

Luis dropped us off on a small road leading into Belavista.  Luis is not a bird guide and had to get some work done on his car.  We found some good birds on this morning but could only identify a few of them.  Luis returned and we went down to the Rio Magdalena where we saw a few water birds and got a taste of Colombian wet land habitat.

The next day we spent a few hours with Luis walking around Honda itself and found a number of new birds.  All in all the stop at Honda was quite enjoyable even if a bit different than the birding lodges we have been to.  We had good looks at large numbers of Great Egrets, Cormorants and Vultures on the Rio Magdalena.  I also got some shots of a Ringed Kingfisher and we were invited into a garden where a Colombian Chachalaca had been enticed to visit occasionally.  It expressed great consternation that these foreigners had been invited into its territory.

Feb 16-19 Bogota

We had three days and nights in Bogota before our 11:30 pm flight home.  We returned to Bogotá more familiar with things Colombian and quite enjoyed our final days here.  We ate particularly well, finding some great restaurants.  No birding though.

The first day, a Sunday, we spent 4 hours on a bike tour, hosted by Mike, an old American expat who has lived in Colombia for 12 years.  Along with about 20 others we visited a market where we sampled at least 20 kinds fruit, many of them hybrid crosses.  We cycled the somewhat quieter streets with hundreds of others.  On Sundays in Bogota Ciclovia brings many out on their bicycles to enjoy the city’s attractions. We watched dancers and a kind of martial arts in the park. We went to a coffee roaster. We stopped at many street art locations.  We rode through the red light district, didn’t partake though. We drank beer and played a strange game where we threw lead weights at something caps with gun powder.

The second day we walked up Cerro de Montserrat and the day we were leaving we spent much of it in The Gold Museum before enjoying one final Colombian coffee.

We had to leave our bags in a lobby for the day and foolishly I left my camera bag.  There was an attendant but at the airport I found that a packet with American money that I have carried from country to country and my visa card were gone.  A bit disappointing but I should have known better.  I still come away with a very favourable impression of Colombia and Colombians.  Great trip and great birds, some of which I hope to share with you soon…

The Birds

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About kenmyhre

I am a retired educator, computer professional. Now I like to travel the world by bicycle, on foot and periodically on skis
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