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Sierra de Santa Marta (Colombia) (1 Viewer)

JLS

Well-known member
In late March I will have 4 nights to bird the Sierra de Santa Marta (will stay on after a holiday with my partner who is not into birding, hence the short time).
I was wondering how to best distribute my time, I'm currently thinking 2 nights in Minca, and 2 in El dorado, or possibly even staying in one of the guest houses further up the ridge, since I understand that that's where the Santa Marta parakeets are in the early mornings (and possibly other endemics, although I don't have a very clear overview of that yet).
Also, would you recommend hiring a guide? I'm considering it since it'll be my first time in the Neotropics, but would be hesitant to pay the steep prices that are usually quoted, unless highly recommended. I speak fluent Spanish, in case that is a consideration.

Thanks in advance for any input!
 
In late March I will have 4 nights to bird the Sierra de Santa Marta (will stay on after a holiday with my partner who is not into birding, hence the short time).
I was wondering how to best distribute my time, I'm currently thinking 2 nights in Minca, and 2 in El dorado, or possibly even staying in one of the guest houses further up the ridge, since I understand that that's where the Santa Marta parakeets are in the early mornings (and possibly other endemics, although I don't have a very clear overview of that yet).
Also, would you recommend hiring a guide? I'm considering it since it'll be my first time in the Neotropics, but would be hesitant to pay the steep prices that are usually quoted, unless highly recommended. I speak fluent Spanish, in case that is a consideration.

Thanks in advance for any input!
Yes you would benefit from a guide in that case. You can find them at Minca if you don't make other arrangements. They were cheap: something like 50 USD for a half day but doubtless are more expensive now. Just walking around Minca you can find things like manakins and keel-billed toucans on the edge of town. Look up for king vulture.

Further up, start early: leaftossers are only around at (just before) first light. The parakeets are also about in the evening; that time can be good for other species. The area around the biological station was good, with guans, ant-pittas and the possibility (supposedly) of the sabrewing. Some other endemics were present further up, but it depends a lot on recent weather and habitat. For example, when I was there, the effects of El Nino and a fire meant that birds were very much not where they normally were.

Edit: you don't mention Tayrona NP. It's got great beaches and scenery for non-birders (although you can't swim). You should be able to see things like Cotton-top Tamarin. The park can get busy so it pays to start early here too. You should get good migrant warblers if nothing else.
 
I would suggest Breiner Tarazona as a good option for a local guide. You can find him on facebook at:

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I don't know how easy it is these days to just show up and find a birding specific guide. You will definitely benefit from having a guide, and I would recommend it if even for a single day. Note that transport up the mountain in one of the trucks is very expensive so consider renting a moto-taxi in Minca to take you up the ridge and maybe arrange a pickup for when you come down.

Several of the target endemics at higher elevations are tricky and without a guide you would potentially struggle to see them in just two days. I would tentatively suggest spending 2 nights higher up, on the ridge at one of the newer, basic options you mention. A night at middle elevations (below El Dorado or if you can afford it, at El Dorado itself) and a night in Minca. That would likely get you the best possible spread of species/endemics.

With four days I would focus on this area and not bother trying to fit in Tayrona, though if you may wish to go with your partner.

FWIW, you can disregard any suggestions of spotting Santa Marta Sabrewing in the area - one of THE most strung birds in Colombia. That being said, a new site for it has been found around the SE side of the massif. Something for a future trip!
 
Thanks a lot for the suggestions! It looks like I will then spend only the last night in Minca, to maximize morning birding time in all locations, seeing as I need to get to Cartagena by around 8pm for my flight home.

I have contacted Breiner on Facebook.

On Tayrona, we were indeed planning to go there for general tourism, with probably limited opportunities for birding for me, but the Tamarins will be a good argument to spend more time in the forest, so thanks for the heads up.
 
On Tayrona
Sorry I don't have my notes available. I entered the park by one of the less travelled side entrances, ? Calabaza ?, returning eventually with the tourist bus. Try to do something similar if you can, and leave early in the morning (ideally before dawn) because the main routes in the park get very busy, disturbed. My route ran close to back of some houses initially; I don't think that matters but lack of disturbance does. Along the main road keep ear out for parrotlets. In the park, check for manakins esp. lance-tailed. Worth learning a few sounds of this (ebird, xeno canto) as they're fairly spectacular if common.

(I stayed in a place just across the road; cabinas/chalets. Rather disconcertingly one bathroom had a large Phoneutria which I was careful to leave in peace!)
 
4 days is short, but if you want to get a good grip on the endemics, you would be better off spending your time higher up the mountain, as there are more endemics than around Minca.
That is not to say 2 days are not worth spending near Minca...

@Avery: I am trying hard to get the whereabouts of that Sabrewing, but it seems all is still a good-kept secret and the location (disregarding eventual seasonality and erratic presence) doesn't seem to be open to a wider audience?
 
4 days is short, but if you want to get a good grip on the endemics, you would be better off spending your time higher up the mountain, as there are more endemics than around Minca.
That is not to say 2 days are not worth spending near Minca...

@Avery: I am trying hard to get the whereabouts of that Sabrewing, but it seems all is still a good-kept secret and the location (disregarding eventual seasonality and erratic presence) doesn't seem to be open to a wider audience?
Pm me when you do...

(Fewer endemics around Minca, but easier to find and far more general interest for non-birders. Alas the local (cf lazy cat) food was terrible though)
 
On the topic of Minca, the past few years have seen a drastic increase in general tourism and on my last visit (2019) we avoided birding the main road up from town as traffic was near constant. Try to find some quieter trails, alternately the little road that leads to this "Reserva Gairama" ebird hotspot can be good and Military Macaws are often seen coming/leaving from roosts late afternoon/early morning.

 
I am back from the trip now, and can confirm that I would have indeed liked to stay longer in all the places we visited. Thanks again everyone for your advice! It was a great trip and in total I saw 153 species of birds in 10 days, although more experienced birders would have likely gotten a larger list (I am sure I missed for example some flycatchers due to not being able to ID them properly). Also, as I mentioned above, this was more of a general tourism trip with my partner and only the last few days were fully dedicated to birding. In case it is helpful to anyone (maybe for this very reason), I wrote up a short trip report. It is not a literary masterpiece, but here it is:

On March 18 we flew into Cartagena, which besides having a beautiful old town, also proved to be surprisingly birdy. Despite our hotel being in the middle of the old town, I was woken up by bird song and saw Black Vulture, Yellow-Crowned Parrots, Eared Dove, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird, Carib Grackle and Magnificient Frigatebird by just stepping out of our room. I was already quite happy.
Roaming the old town in the morning, I added Cattle Tyrant, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Grey Kingbird, Yellow-headed Caracara, Social Flycatcher, Olive-gray Saltator, Common Ground Dove, Yellow Oriole, Red-crowned Woodpecker and the very abundant Great-tailed Grackle. Great Kiskadee was ever present throughout our visit to Cartagena. Two large parrots flying over with screechy calls were identified as Chestnut-fronted Macaws, although they were against the light and thus I could not see much color. I also failed to properly see a woodpecker with a yellow-golden back and a red cap that I saw flying twice — checking e-bird the most likely candidate seems Spot-breasted Woodpecker. In the evening, a few Southern Lapwing and some Brown-chested Martin were seen from the city wall while watching the sunset.
Parque del Centenario in the old town held the only Saffron Finch of the trip, apart from many other birds encountered more frequently, such as Bicolored Wren, Brown-throated Parrot, Yellow Oriole, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Blue-gray Tanager, Red-crowned Woodpecker and Great-tailed Grackle. There are also some mammals in there, I saw 2 sloths and a white-footed tamarin (I suspect they are introduced to the park, as Cartagena seems to be outside their range).

After two nights in Cartagena, we took a bus to Santa Marta and from there a taxi to the Tayrona NP. Our accommodation was very close to the Zaino entrance in quite a large property, including a river and a forested hill, which proved to be excellent for birding and where I spent the following three mornings and two evenings. The hotel, called Senda Watapuy, was an excellent accomodation in all regards. Some flowers outside our bungalow attracted White-necked Jacobins, White-chinned Sapphire and Black-throated Mango apart from the more common Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. I also saw Pale-bellied Hermit on the property. Crimson-backed, Palm and Blue-grey Tanagers were common, as were Pale-breasted Thrush, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila, Orange-chinned Parakeet, White-tipped Dove, Southern Rough-Winged Swallow, Buff-throated Saltator, House Wren, Crested Oropendola, Black-chested Jay and both Black and Turkey Vultures. A Crested Caracara was also present around the hotel. Many other birds were seen: Trinidad and Thick-billed Euphonia various times, Barred Antshrike on two occasions, Rose-breasted Grosbeak on two occasions, White-fringed Antwren, Russet-throated Puffbird, Green Kingfisher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar various times, Prothontory Warbler, American Redstart, Tennessee Warbler, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Plain Xenops, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Slate-colored Seedeater (there might have been some Grey Seedeaters), Orange-crowned Oriole, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Summer Tanager, Blue Dacnis, Grey-sided Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, Golden-winged Sparrow, Black-striped Sparrow (took me a lot of hours of searching the book and the help of a friend I asked about it until I was finally able to ID that one), Scrub Greenlet, Military Macaws (a pair was flying over one evening with loud calls), Squirrel Cuckoo and some Ani (I could not say which species, as I was not aware that various species occurred there when I saw them. As I said, a more experienced birder would surely have gotten a larger list). Common Parauque was heard at night at Senda Watapuy. I also saw some flying over the river at Finca Barlovento, where we went to see the sunset one evening. This proved to be a nice place bird-wise as well, there were many Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, some Tricolored Herons, many Snowy Egrets and a Spotted Sandpiper.

We spent one day in the Tayrona itself, hiking from the bus stop in the park to Cabo San Juan and a bit further. Unfortunately, there were many, many people there, which meant that I saw few birds: a brief view of Whooping Motmot, a Squirrel Cuckoo, a group of Macaws I did not manage to see well but think were Military, a Brown Violetear perched on a tree on a beach, some Royal Terns and 2 White-fringed Antwrens (there might have been some other common birds of the region which I did not take special note of). The hike was good though for mammals: We saw a group of Cotton-top Tamarin, also a group of Howler Monkeys, and various groups of Colombian White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. The monkeys in the park were very easy to detect, as there was generally a large group of people watching them and they were not very shy…That being said, there were also some monkeys (of all three species just mentioned) at Senda Watapuy, which showed what seemed to me a more natural wariness of humans.

After leaving our amazing accommodation at Tayrona NP, we headed to Minca for one night, where we stayed in a tree house a little bit up the hill, close to the entrance to the track to Pozo Azul. It was immediately noticeable that the bird-mix had changed with the altitude. Along with the common Blue-grey Tanagers were now beautiful Swallow Tanagers and White-lined Tanagers. There was a Baltimore Oriole in a bush in front of our tree house, and Chestnut-capped Warbler was ever present. I also saw Whooping Motmot, White-vented Plumeteer, Black-and-White Seedeater, White-collared Swifts and a Roadside Hawk around Minca. Frustratingly, I did not manage to see any Keel-billed Toucan that time, despite being close: I heard a large bird flying over when I bumped into a group of people with a guide, who managed to locate the toucan. However, it flew before I was able to get onto it. Luckily, I found a Toucan when I returned to Minca later on.

Unfortunately the morning we spent in Minca I started feeling a little weak — my partner had already started feeling sick during the night. This of course made the whole experience less enjoyable (and I’m sure I missed many birds due to not birding with much energy). We headed down to Santa Marta during midday, but both got worse and mainly stayed in our hotel in the actually quite beautiful old town of Sant Marta for the rest of the day. The next morning, it was time for my partner, who had improved significantly overnight and was feeling well again, to head back to Cartagena to catch the flight home. Unfortunately, I had gotten worse during the night and woke up very weak with rather high fever. Not sure how this would evolve and with the prospect of soon being alone without anyone to help me get around, I decided to go to the hospital to get checked for any potentially serious problems, instead of returning to Minca as was the plan. Luckily, I too improved quickly after being injected with some medications and was discharged in the late afternoon, without a diagnosis but feeling a lot better. I nevertheless decided to spend one more night in Santa Marta, knowing that access to medical care in Minca in case I get worse again during the night would be more difficult. The next day I was supposed to check in at El Dorado and I was already fearing that I would not be able to make it — luckily, I continued to improve during the night and was feeling well enough to travel to Minca, and take a Moto-taxi up to El Dorado, which worked very smoothly.

I was supposed to do this part of a trip with a guide I had arranged prior to the trip, but I had contacted him during my stay in the hospital telling him that I would likely not be able to come to Minca the day we had agreed to meet. When I knew I was going to be able to come to Minca, he had already made other arrangements for the day, so we agreed to meet the next day at El Dorado. That wasn’t too bad as I was still far from being 100% fit and just taking small walks was already an effort, so I think David, the guide, would not have been able to show me much that day anyways. I thus spent an actually quite enjoyable and surprisingly productive day close to the reception of El Dorado, where the feeders are located and which has a terrace with a very nice view. Despite that, I saw a good selection of birds that day: at the hummingbird feeders, there were Lesser Violetear, Crowned Woodnymph, White-tailed Starfrontlet and Sparkling Violetear. On some short walks, I saw various Masked Trogons and even a White-tipped Quetzal (I later learned they were nesting close to the reception area, so were quite easy to see there), both Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta Brushfinch, Montane Woodcreeper, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Lined Quail-Dove, Slate-throated Redstart, White-lored Warbler, many beautiful Blackburnian Warblers, Bay-headed Tanager and Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Wood-wren, Black-headed Thrush, Black Flowerpiercer, White-sided Flowerpiercer, Chivi Vireo, Spectacled Tyrannulet and Golden-bellied Flycatcher. Watching the absolutely beautiful sunset over the sea from the terrace of the El Dorado reception, many Band-tailed Guan started to come in to the feeders and also one Black-capped Tanager. Someone located a Golden-bellied Fruiteater, but it quickly flew into a dense bush before I could see it. After dark, the people of the lodge showed all of us staying there a group of Grey-handed Night-monkeys that were coming to a feeder in a tree— the first time I ever saw a Night-monkey and for me a highlight of the stay.

For the next morning, my guide David had given me the option to either head to the top of the mountain for the endemics there, which would have meant a 4am start, or just leisurely walking up the hill and see what we find. Still feeling the need to rest, I opted for the latter which I do not regret despite missing many birds, as I was actually feeling quite well after a long sleep the following morning and was able to enjoy what remained of the trip. On that walk we saw various Golden-bellied Fruiteaters providing great views, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Streak-headed Spinetail, both Red-billed Parrot and Scartlet-fronted Parakeet flying through from time to time, Yellow-crowned Redstart, Tytrian Metaltail, a Merlin, a nice perched Barred Forest Falcon, a secretive Sickle-winged Guan and an amazing group of Santa-Marta Emerald Toucanet (apparently the endemic subspecies is a potential future split) that was in the same tree as a White-tipped Quetzal. We also saw many of the other birds again that I had seen the previous day. Santa Marta Antpitta was heard various times but never seen, despite some effort.

The next day was already my last full day in Colombia, and we hiked down part of the road from El Dorado to Minca, which proved to be amazing birding. We heard Brown-rumped Tapaculo and Rusty-breasted Antpitta and saw both without much effort. Also Santa-Marta Woodcreeper was seen very well. Having breakfast at a place with hummingbird feeders further down the mountain, we saw Santa-Marta Blossomcrown and Coppery Emerald, along with the more common Rusty-tailed Hummingbird, and Rusty Flowerpiercer. Later, a group of raptors appeared including Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Hawk and Swallow-tailed Kite (that last one I unfortunately did not see). Continuing our way down, we had a Yellow-legged Thrush and a nice Black-headed Tanager. With more time, we would surely have seen many more species along the road, but I had to travel to Cartagena that day and did not want to arrive too late at night to avoid problems with getting to my accomodation. We thus ordered a Moto-taxi and headed down to Minca. There, David showed me a roosting Black-and-White Owl and we briefly went to a spot for White-bearded Manakin. This proved to be a very good idea — in a short while, we saw Keel-billed Toucan, Pale-eyed Pigmy Tyrant, White-bearded Manakin, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Black-crowned Antshrike and Rufous-fronted Wren. Very happy, I headed down to to the bus station in Santa Marta and got on the first bus to Cartagena, where I arrived about 5 hours later. Prior to the trip, I was a bit nervous about not having pre-arranged transport, but it turned out to be no problem at all.

I had booked a hotel very close to the Botanical Garden (located in the town of Turbaco, a short drive outside Cartagena), where I headed the following morning. There were very few visitors, and I found it a very enjoyable place. Lance-tailed Manakin were abundant. A Bananaquit and Yellow-olive Flycatcher were also about. Later, I heard a woodpecker working on a tree, and quickly found a nice Crimson-crested woodpecker, which I would see a couple of times throughout the morning. I also saw a Crane Hawk perched in a tree, and later a juvenile Grey-headed Hawk. Non-bird highlights were Howler monkeys, which I saw various times (I think there are two groups in the garden) and many Yellow-striped Poison Frogs. Happy with my final morning, I headed back to my hotel to have lunch and a shower, before heading to the airport for my flight home.
 
Sounds like you had a great time and saw many good birds! Out of interest, did you happen to get any pictures of the Slate-colored Seedeater(s)? This is another species where most reports (almost certainly in excess of 90-95%) pertain to mis-identified Gray Seedeaters. The best way to separate them is the extent of curvature in the lower mandible of the bill (not always indicated in field guides), and the fact that Slate-colored are most often found near seeding bamboo.
Gray vs Slate-colored Seedeater.jpg
 
Thanks for pointing that out Avery! I didn't take any photos, but after what you said and looking at ebird (where a lot of grey seedeaters but no slate colored seedeaters are reported around the Tayrona), it is highly likely my initial ID was wrong. I don't recall seeing any bamboo there and they were all around the area. I have corrected my notes.
 

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