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A tale of ten tapaculos - Colombia 2010 (1 Viewer)


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Well, actually eleven ;)

After many years of security issues and access problems, Colombia is finally getting the recognition it deserves amongst birders. In recent years, the government has made enormous progress in the fight against the guerillas and huge areas which were previously unsafe are now easy to visit. The topography is complicated with three separate Andean chains as well as the hulking mass of Santa Marta in the North. Colombia is also the only South American country with both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. It is hardly surprising then that Colombia has the highest species list in the world, with new discoveries and taxonomic changes increasing this on an annual basis.

I've spent many happy months travelling the country over the years, but given the number of endemics and other specialities there is always more to return for. Many birders follow a similar route giving huge species lists and lots of specials but some of the really good birds require travelling to more off-the-beaten-track parts of the country.

More and more tour companies are now offering Colombian itineraries. For me, however, a more targetted trip was needed. I spoke to several ground agents and finally settled on Ecoturs. This company is linked to Proaves who have worked hard at saving large areas of habitat and establishing many important reserves. Lengthy e-mails between myself and both Trevor Ellery and Robert Giles from Proaves resulted in the final itinerary designed to give me a real chance of some of the rarest birds in South America. Trevor and Robert were both very flexible at tweaking the timings of each site giving a final trip plan I was delighted with and I was very pleased with all aspects of the service Ecoturs provided.

The following links have detailed information on Proaves' work and Ecoturs including much information on the main sites.


Many other companies and organisations in Colombia are also doing fantastic work. The following were very helpful for gen on key species and were invaluable at providing information. Both offer superb set tours or can arrange private trips such as the one I settled on.


So, armed with a three week itinerary, an iPod with 1500+ calls and songs loaded and a variety of field guides, I was ready to return to one of the best birding countries in the world.
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Well-known member

The flight via Paris was uneventful and I was met efficiently in Bogota by an Ecoturs car meaning I was at the Chico Imperial Hotel by 5 pm. Trevor Ellery, an English guide for Ecoturs, met me at the hotel to discuss plans for the next day. Trevor has lived in Colombia for the last few years and is very experienced with logisitics and the birds. To have him accompany me for the whole three weeks would have been expensive for a group of one as well as detracting from the fun and challenge of finding my own birds. We had decided therefore that he would be with me for the first few days when his inside info would be particularly useful with a few tricky species. After this, it would be just me and Jovani my driver.

Doing the trip this way had the great advantage that my Spanish improved exponentially. Without basic Spanish, however, the lack of a translator would have made things very difficult. As it was, Jovani was fantastic - fully aware that speaking slowly helped my comprehension, as well as tolerant of my serial mangling of one of the most beautiful languages in the world. In return, three weeks of purely Spanish conversation was extremely useful for my personal development! Jovani was great company and very easy going and knew most of the sites as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the road system. This was to prove very useful later in the trip when landslides and the like caused issues.

I retired back to the hotel surrounded by the familiar Bogota trio - Eared Dove, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Great Thrush!


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mmmh, thanks for mentioning us -COLOMBIA Birding- at your post... please do not stop posting your story and pics, you know I am jealous I could not be guiding your nice trip!!
look forward to read more .....


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29/9/10 - Cundinamarca day

We left Bogota at 3.45 am and drove through the city and along the road to Monterredondo. The weather was clear and sunny - a distinct disadvantage for bird activity and indeed the forest was quiet with few birds vocalising. A couple of Lined Quail-Doves and a Sickle-winged Guan on the road were appreciated though. Although there were few mixed flocks, we gradually picked up some nice birds including Longuemare's Sunangel, Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Rufous-browed Conebill and Black-collared Jay. Ash-coloured, Paramo and Ocellated Tapaculos were singing along the road but better was a very confiding Matorral Tapaculo which came in very close to tape, appearing much darker than most illustrations of this species. A pair of Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulets were exactly where Trevor predicted they would be and came low down in the roadside canopy, laying to rest a bogey bird for me.

No antpittas were singing and the two 'usual' territories were quiet. The main targets here can be difficult and so we had built two days into the itinerary in case of such problems. This meant we could explore the other side of the ridge and drop down into the tiny town of El Calvario. By now, it was raining and the mist was settling in. At a finca known to Trevor, we introduced ourselves to the owners and gave a present of groceries we had brought with us - the area is far from surrounding towns and the bread and other gifts were clearly appreciated. We then set off up the steep hillside above the house, climbing through pastures while the calls of Tawny-breasted Tinamous taunted us from the surrounding forest patches.

At one of the forest remnants we paused and played the antpitta tape - a couple of alarm calls came back from the gloom of the undergrowth then silence. This species was living up to its reputation! We climbed a little higher along a wide track through the forest itself, up a steep incline. Still nothing. By now it was getting late in the afternoon and we had other fish to fry, so we turned to leave. On cue, a Cundinamarca Antpitta sang from right next to the trail. Hardly breathing, we swivelled around and played the tape cautiously at low volume. The bird sang back. Silence. Then a brown ball on legs bounded through the thick mossy undergrowth and bounced onto the trail only 20 feet away. Miraculously, a second bird bounced out from the left of us, and joined the first in feeding on the path. Over the following minutes we had crippling extended views of these secretive birds, as they pounced on worms and other invertebrates tossing leaves aside in their search for food. Interestingly, one bird was much more heavily streaked on the breast than the other.

Once we had had our fill of Grallaria action, we returned to the pasture. The farmer had given us a tip-off and suggested a place to be at dusk. Sure enough, at 5 pm, a raucous screeching announced the arrival of 3 Brown-breasted Parakeets - another localised Colombian endemic. They swept in and settled in front of us, moving between trees and showing nicely. This seems to be a roost area for this threatened species and we had great views.

Making our way back to the car, we picked up some other choice birds such as White-capped and Golden-crowned Tanagers then drove the short distance into El Calvario where we picked up a male Green-bellied Hummingbird feeding on fuschia flowers in the village. Options are limited and we shared a room in a private house for the night, eating in a perfectly acceptable restuarant in 'town'. Although we had budgetted for two nights here, we had already scored the targets so decided to leave the next day and use the extra time later in the trip. Trevor and Ecoturs were great at accommodating these last minute changes of itinerary even though the work created was significant - this was not the last time I would request such a change!
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30/9/10 - to Zipaquira

We left El Calvario early and drove up to the paramo at the top of the ridge, seeing a fully-plumed male Swallow-tailed Nightjar on the road en route. A track runs around the contour of the mountain here, towards a ?disused army base and we had no problems with access to the habitat. The chief target, a delightful male Bronze-tailed Thornbill, fell without too much effort, there were good numbers of Great Sapphirewings duelling each other high above the track and Glowing Pufflegs and more Blue-throated Starfrontlets at flowers.

Descending back towards the Bogota highway, we birded the forest along the road. A Rufous Antpitta came in silently to tape and perched up in a thicket close to us, flicking its tail nervously. The form here sings very differently to other subspecies and is one to watch, giving both buzzy calls and a series of thin descending whistles. It is restricted to central Colombia.

Once we hit the highway, we made rapid progress and arrived at Zipaquira by 4 pm. As we had made such good progress, Jovani suggested visiting the Catedral de Sal - an underground salt mine with an entire cathedral that is used regularly for mass. The experience was quite surreal, with stations of the cross, chapels, altars and a huge open auditorium all carved out underground. The guide was a little overenthusiastic and had a bizarre pseudo-American accent but if you find yourself in this lovely colonial town I would recommend a quick half hour here.



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1. Catedral de Sal
2. Cundinamarca Antpitta zone
3. Paramo above El Calvario - best not to reverse off the track!


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Well-known member
An exciting start and I cant wait to read more!

ABSOLUTELY agree with Patrick... what a nice way to give reports Jonathan!... I normally only visit Monterredondo area for the Antpitta but do not go over the ridge and towards El Calvario.. sounds like a great place! have to visit!...

I am happy you got the Thornbill, normally not so may people get them!.. here a couple of my last trip pictures in 2 localities near Bogota...we were really lucky!


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Nice pics Diego! I will confess in advance that there are not going to be many bird pics from me in this report - too much rain and mud and too little light for me to get reasonable results. I was concentrating on seeing the birds and photography very much took a back seat. Some rather dodgy efforts may surface later on having said that!


Well-known member
Nice pics Diego! I will confess in advance that there are not going to be many bird pics from me in this report - too much rain and mud and too little light for me to get reasonable results. I was concentrating on seeing the birds and photography very much took a back seat. Some rather dodgy efforts may surface later on having said that!

eager to see them anyways!


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1/10/10 Soata

We left early and continued North on the drive to Soata. One of the first birds of the day was a Barn Owl over the road - a new bird for me in Colombia.

The town of Soata is surrounded by extensive oak forests - a habitat much under threat in the country. The area above the town is a reliable one for Mountain Grackle - a threatened endemic that is difficult to see at other sites. Although they do occur at the Proaves reserve of Cerulea, most people miss them there and they seem difficult and erratic. I had factored in a few days at Soata for this species in particular, although two other key endangered endemics also occur in the area.

Arriving in the town, we headed straight for the forest. 40 mins or so above town, we pulled over at an overlook and got out of the car. The first sound I heard was a Mountain Grackle in the trees below the vehicle! Trevor and I looked at each other with a mixture of surprise and delight - the birds were obviously close. Before we could react, two birds sailed out of the trees and flew across the valley, vanishing into the oaks on the far side. Although we got them in the scope, this was not the experience I wanted with these birds - they were distant and furtive. When I was in Colombia in the early 90s, I had spent long hours in the Amazon reading about the montane endemics of Colombia and the grackles had really caught my imagination. We needed better views.

As we debated our options, more calls came from further up the road. We ran along the track and headed off-piste. Within minutes, we had a pair of adult grackles and 4 fledglings in the trees around us. The youngsters were begging noisily and the adults seemed attentive but a little harrassed, busily attending to their loud offspring. Subtly distinctive, these birds are slender with long tails. Chestnut epaulettes relieve an otherwise black plumage, but are really only visible with perfect light.

As it turned out, we needn't have worried. We had another 3 birds in fruit trees in an open area on the way back to town, and this seems an excellent location for this tricky bird.

It was 11 am now, and getting warm so we headed to an area downslope from the town, where a stream and some riverine forest had delivered the goods on another critically-endangered endemic in some gen I had found on the net. Leaving the road, we picked our way through faeces and rubbish and tried the tape. A Nicefero's Wren sang back immediately and the bird then jumped into view a matter of feet away. I'm a huge fan of Thryothorus wrens - I treat them as honorary antbirds (how high an accolade is that?) - and this bird was very flirty for the genus, even allowing itself to be scoped once I'd backed off up the slope so it would fit in the field of view! The species does occur at Cerulea Reserve but there remains some ongoing controversy about the identity of the birds there. Either way, this one was out to prove a point and sang its heart out in an isolated open bush.

Satiated with the wren, we headed back for town, seeing a nice covey of Crested Bobwhites on the way. One bird was limping but seemed in good condition otherwise. We dumped our bags at the hotel, ate lunch and studied our (rather limited) gen. Mid afternoon, we headed out again looking for the third endemic - another very localised and threatened species. Our approach was to locate flowering shrubs and scrutinise any visitors. Sadly, hummingbirds were very thin on the ground. We did find a finca with gorgeous gardens full of flowers and managed to charm our way in. Speckled Hummingbird and Rufous-tailed Hummer were the only rewards. We had spotted a flowering Inga tree close to the wren spot. Although lacking hummers earlier in the day, we returned here towards dusk and staked it out. The first hummer in was a Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird - our target. As a family, there is a lot of competition for gaudiness and drama amongst hummers. Let's just say that CBH would struggle to win prizes for either, being relatively dull and lacking tail ornaments. Very welcome nonetheless, the bird buzzed between flowers coming close and perching for extended views. The third target was in the bag, meaning another shift in the bookings for the remaining 2 and 1/2 weeks and more work for the Ecoturs office but more opportunities for later in the trip.


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1. Oak forests above Soata
2. The grackle spot
3. Fledgling Mountain Grackle oblivious to the fact I've waited 18 years for this species ;)


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Great post again!... I loved the "honorary antbirds" title, actually a lot!
nice you did OK in Soata, it is a great place to bird in and not a lot of people visits (Indeed, last Colombian Birdwatchers Meeting was held there less than a month ago!)...

if you do not mind I can post some pics once in a while your posts so more of your birds can get pictured in this trip report.. here, CBH and a bad shot I have from the grackle yet.


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By now we were 2 days ahead of schedule and Ecoturs had very kindly jiggled all my bookings to give me extra time elsewhere - I had already decided this would be best spent at Las Tangaras and El Paujil and it proved to be useful at both!

Today was always going to be a long travel day - little did I realise just how long. The next destination was Ocana and there were several options as to route. None of them were particularly palatable, especially in light of widespread rumours of heavy landslides following record rains in much of the area. We decided to try the forest above the town again for a few possibilities, but heavy rain stopped play quickly and so we headed over the ridge where plentiful forest covered the mountainside right down to the road. The decision was made and we took this road down the slope and towards Ocana. The first few hours were a little disappointing, although Rusty-faced Parrot proved unusually common here and we even had some storming perched views in a nest tree above the road. Trawling for Moustached Puffbird produced the goods when 2 birds came in close giving stellar views in tangled vegetation in a damp gulley. Black Inca was a new endemic hummer for me, having proved elusive on my last visit.

Leaving the forest behind, we continued on our chosen route although it was becoming apparent the time estimates we had been given in Soata were wildly optimistic. Several hours later, we descended into a small town to be told the road ahead was blocked, there were 53 landslides in total and the biggest was 45 minutes ahead. A JCB had been sent to clear the way but nobody knew with what result. We debated our options and decided to drive the 45 minutes rather than return all the way back to Soata. If the JCB was not winning the battle, we would have lost little.

After 45 mins driving, there was no sign of a block. A campesino told us that in fact the landslide was another hour ahead! Pressing on, we cleared a small slip from the road, breaking the trunks of the fallen saplings to allow us to pass. Rounding a bend, we came across the biggie with the JCB valiantly shifting earth as we watched. The traffic jam consisted of about 6 trucks, and I chatted to an older lady who was sat on sacks of onions in the back of one of them - she had been here hours. Using my scope, she also pointed out that the small slip we had cleared earlier was now another large landslide, blocking us into this valley. We could see a lorry stuck on the other side. Luckily, the JCB broke through before too much time had passed and we prepared to continue but not before we were asked to drive back to the second landslip to collect the town mayor and ferry him back.

The estimate of 53 slips was luckily a tad pessimistic and a few more delays later we were on our way. Even so, we didn't reach our hotel in Ocana until midnight - a total of 12 hours + to drive a few dozen km.
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Yes, honorary antbirds for sure! Black-throated and Sooty-headed Wrens in particular.

I didnt know that oak forests existed in Colombia! I thought their southernmost distribution was in western Panama. While its wonderful to bird vicariously via your trip report (and I thank you for posting it), how I need to go to Colombia!
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