10/18/2023 - 10/21/2023
Sometimes, dreams come true. Mine was a simple dream. I wanted to visit the one country in the world with the most species of birds. Over 1,900 species (nearly 1/5 of the species described across the entire planet) of birds can be found in Colombia. After years of strife, ecotourism is finally skyrocketing there. So earlier this year, when I heard a friend was heading to Colombia as part of a scouting trip, I asked if I could go along. They were kind enough to allow me to travel with them, and I am forever grateful. A very large thank you to Brian and Jamie of Sabrewing Nature Tours for letting me join them. They would be scouting a photo tour of the south-central portion of Colombia. I would be living a dream. This tour would take us from the area around Cali on the western cordillera to the central cordillera area around Manizales, and finally back over to the western corillera and the town of Jardin. This post covers our time in the Cali area.
A quick note about this tour. As I mentioned, this is a photo tour. We are primarily focused on shooting around lodges, fincas (farms), and areas with feeder setups. We sometimes mixed in a bit of birding and shooting away from feeders. As you can imagine, shooting in the cloud forests presents a bit of a challenge. Lighting is usually poor. The foliage is dense. It was often foggy and/or raining - it is a cloud forest. While I recorded around 250 species for this trip over a 12 day period, an actual birding trip would have probably netted around 350. The main difference being that we would be focusing our efforts on capturing photos of species instead of trying to see as many species as we could. Like all things in life, it was a trade-off, and I enjoy photographing as much as birding. The species presented here are, largely, easily seen in and around feeder setups. The antpittas would probably be the largest exception. Their locations, by the nature of the birds, were often a bit more remote and often required a longer walk or hike to reach. Often - but not always. As a result of the style of this trip, I have a large number of photos to share. It would be impossible to present a story around or discuss them all. What I plan to do is cover each place we visited during our time in an area and highlight the speicialty species of each location. Often, even places that were close together had different speicialties due to changes in elevation or some other aspect of the area; some species were only possible at one or two locations. After highlighting a few species, I will then include a sampling of other species seen there as a larger photo gallery.
While Santa Marta is probably the most popular birding region in Colombia, Cali is exactly where I wanted to be. There is one particular endemic that is found in this area that I had my heart set on photographing. The problem is, the bird is known for its quick, erratic visits to feeders. Getting a shot was not going to be easy. We were also going to try for it right out of the gate. The first couple days were going to set the tone for my trip. Either I was going to photograph a Multicolored Tanager... or I was not.
We started our trip at La Florida. This place is legendary as a place to visit in Colombia. Unfortunately, it was our first stop. I say unfortunately, because we arrived late the previous night and were starting here with only a few hours of sleep. We had all day here, and I struggled through most of it. The place offers a number of specialties: Chestnut Wood-Quail, Little Tinamou, and a variety of tanagers; including "the" tanager - the Multicolored Tanager. In fact, there are banners hanging up around the place showing the incredible photos taken of the bird, there.
We arrived just in time to miss the Scaled Antpitta. It was there when we arrived, but quickly hid away as we sleepily bumbled our way to the viewing area. It did not return. The Chestnut Wood-Quail were not as discerning. A short while later, a group came in to feed as we sat back and enjoyed their antics.
Little Tinamou went a bit more to plan. After a short walk, we came to an area with some seating. Here, we sat down and started our wait. It took a little while - no pun intended. Brian had positioned himself down on the ground, and the wait got to him. Just as the birds walked out of the forest, I looked over to see Brian was asleep. I, of course, took a couple shots first and then woke him up with a quick tap on the shoulder. Priorities. The mottling on these birds is beautiful. The birds walked out and fed. After a few minutes, one of the birds started a courtship dance with the other. This dance consisted of what could loosely be described as twerking near the other. In the end, the bird's advances were ignored.
La Florida is probably best known for its tanagers. In our time there, several mixed flocks moved through the area. Each time, one or more species would pop down to the feeders for a quick bite. It was hard to keep up with the action at these times. Everyone was calling out different species that were moving through the trees. Often, things just moved too quick. A few made things a bit easier and posed for a few seconds. It was during one of the mixed flock visits that Brian suddenly calls out about a tanager at the feeders. We (at least me) having our backs to the feeders asked which one, and he states "the one on the banners!" That got our attention. A male Multicolored Tanager was buried in the undergowth part way down a hill under the feeders. It had found a fallen banana and was feeding on it while keeping itself mostly out of sight. A little while later, a female came by and made herself a little more available for photos; even if the pose was not ideal. I would at least not be going home totally disappointed.
Other tanagers coming in included Flame-rumped (the orange ssp.), Golden-naped, Black-capped, the beautiful Saffron-crowned, and Golden.
Birding ebbed and waned with each mixed flock. Between flocks, there were hummingbirds to shoot at various flowering plants. The purple verbena/porterweed is always popular with them. Here, we also saw our first migrant warblers. The birds we were looking at a month ago back home had already arrived in Colombia. Most common among these were Blackburnian Warblers. Inevitably, every other bird you looked at in a mixed flock was a Blackburnian Warbler. They were not that prevelant, but they were the easiest to pick out. Around 4 o'clock, we called it a day and headed back to our lodging for the next few nights. We were exhausted and looked forward to a good night's rest before our next destination.
I, obviously, did not just have one target on this trip. I had several. Our next stop was going to be another key location for the trip. There were several species here that we woud not have a chance at elsewhere on this trip. Doña Dora is sevearl hundred meters lower in elevation than La Florida. The place is actually a roadside restaurant. Behind the restaurant is a feeder setup distributed over three-and-a-half levels. Half a level down and around the side of the building is a set of hummingbird feeders. There is also a bug light near here. Out back, off the main level, is a set of banana feeders and some more hummingbird feeders. A set of narrow, steep stairs will take you past a small balcony area and up to the roof, where another set of banana feeders are available. Toucan Barbet nest behind this place. This would be our sole chance at photographing this species. Additionally, Empress Brilliant (a large, impressive hummingbird), Rufous-gaped Hillstar (another hummingbird), and the beautiful Rufous-throated and Glistening-green Tanagers can be found here. The last would, by far, be the trickiest of these species. It is even more erratic than the Multicolored - and probably every bit as beautiful.
Along the way, the van suddenly slowed and pulled up next to a cliffside. I immediately knew what we were doing and started scanning the rock face. There, just above the height of the van, was a large brown bird perched on the rocks, slumbering peacefully. Well, she was. Having spotted the bird, we all piled out and took a few moments to photograph the beautifule Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Apparently, only the females roost on the open rock like this.
The Toucan Barbet was the easiest and more disappointing of the specialties, here. The bird only came in to the feeders very early in the day. When it did, it immediately perched next to the fruit, ate, and then bolted. It did this a few times and then retreated to the distance for the rest of the day. So, photos were tough to come by and were in poor lighting; although, I obviously got a number of photos. It was still great to see them. I was disappointed not to get better looks at them in Ecuador; so seeing them well here was good. The pair here were actively nesting, and most of the rest of the day was spent with the pair trading off time in their nest cavity.
Of the hummingbirds, the Empress Brilliant was the most shy. This is a large hummingbird. The female looks a bit like a large jacobin. The male is unmistakeable. Large, dark green, irridescent pink throat, and a long tail. The bird would come in and feed quickly before retreating back into the trees. Staking out an area where it was known to perch meant the bird would find a new place until you walked away from its favorted perch.
Thankfully, the hillstar was much easier. Not quite as large as the brilliant, the male is a shiny copper color with a blue throat and a rufous patch near the bill (the gape). While not uncommon, this would be the only place we would see this bird this trip.
The tanagers were not as easy. We spotted the Rufous-throated Tanager pretty quickly in the day, but the Glistening-green was going to be a challenge. We were told that it only came by in the afternoon and then it only fed quickly and left. The Rufous-throated was not much different in its behavior. There was a pair that would show up at the upper feeders to grab a couple of bites of banana before disappearing. Timing was everything. In other words, you had to be there when the bird showed. I was not prepared for how beautiful this bird was. The field guide did not do it justice. The turquoise scaling on the bird along with the rufous throat make for a striking bird.
The day was winding around to the 4 o'clock hour, and it was nearing time to go. Here, the running joke of 15 more minutes started. 15 always turned into 30 or more; 5 was always at least 15 minutes. I had slipped around the corner to photograph Andean Emerald when I heard my name called. I popper around the corner to the words "glistening green". The bird was on the feeder and then popped up overhead. It perched in the treetops for a bit and then disappeared. My hopes crashed. 30 minutes moved by, and it had not shown again. We started the talk about leaving again. Jamie called out that the bird was coming in to the bananas up top. I raced (that being a relative term given the condition of the stairs) up in time to see it feeding below. We all headed back down. A few minutes later, a pair came back in to the feeder. The trip was saved.
It would be a bit of injustice not to call out the other hummingbird species here. While we would see these species elsewhere, we would not get as good of look at some of them anywhere else. To also be fair, two of them (Green Thorntail and Velvet-purple Coronet) would not be seen elsewhere. They just were not lifers for me. The Andean Emerald, Crowned Woodnymph, White-whiskered Hermit, and Purple-bibbed Whitetip were plentiful and fun to see.
A mix of birds would periodically cycle through the area. The biggest surprise was the Slate-colored Grosbeak. At the beginning and end of the day, Buff-rumped Warbler and (a lifer I had missed when studying) Black-headed Brushfinch were seen. Tricolored (yet another lifer) and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch were more prevalent throughout the day. A small troop of Yellow-throated Chlorospingus showed up a few times. White-lined and Silver-throated Tanager were new for the trip. Red-faced Spinetail and Common Tody-Flycather kept themselves buried in the trees but made themselves available a couple times for photos. Bay Wren even came in to raid the moths at the bug light first thing in the morning. There was a raiding party of Crimson-rumped Toucanet (another lifer) coming by to harass the Toucan Barbet and eat some fruits from a nearby tree. Add in common birds like Golden and Flame-rumped (the lemon ssp.) and Blue-gray Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, and Green Honeycreeper and it made for a very busy day.
RNSC San Felipe
We were not even supposed to be here. Located near the famous 18 KM area near Cali, this place is a privately owned farm (or finca). We arrived in Colombia a day ahead of when the tour would start, and the guide was good enough to throw in a bonus day. This was our bonus day. Frankly, it was amazing. This place tied for my second favorite day of the trip. I had zero expectations. I had not researched the place on eBird. All I knew was that it offered a lot of the same specialties as La Florida; including the Multicolored Tanager. It was very cloudy (read "foggy") the morning we visited. It cleared periodically but always returned. The Scaled Antpitta here was not currently coming to the feeder, and we had already seen Little Tinamou and Chestnut Wood-Quail; so, when given the option of where to start, we, obviously, chose the tanager.
This required a long-ish walk downhill to a small wooden shed, which was used as a blind. An impressive feeder was setup on the other side of it. The only issue? No birds. Well, there were very few. It was shortly revealed that the birds do not usually start showing until later in the morning. So, we headed back uphill and visited a second feeder setup. This was pretty much how our day went here. We shot at the lower feeders. We shot up top. Wash, rinse, repeat. In between, there was a set of hummingbird feeders, but I did not spend much time there; except to catch my breath on the walk back up.
Specialties? Well, the same as La Florida; so, we did not go to see them. The specialty here really was the lower feeder setup and the birds that came in there. Before we get much futher - yes, the Multicolored Tanager showed.
The female showed first.
Then the juvenile appeared.
Last but not least, the male (or "macho", in Spanish) came in.
So, things were good. This was not the only tanager to visit here. In addition to the regular tanagers, we also had Black-winged Saltator, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch.
It is probably worth mentioning that we got our best looks at Colombian Chachalaca here.
The upper feeders offered a slightly different mix of birds. We had several mixed flocks move through. The chachalacas would come in. Sickle-winged Guan also made appearances. A beautiful Streaked Saltator was just coming in to perch when a Yellow-headed Caracara made a pass through the area and scattered everything. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush was a nice, but reclusive, surprise. The beautiful song of the Chestnut-breasted Wren would echo through the forest to us. Canada Warbler flitted about in the trees but did not come close. Scrub Tanagers, Ruddy Ground-Doves, Acorn Woodpeckers, Andean Motmot and even a Yellow-bellied Seedeater (to name a few) all kept us busy shooting.
Lunch here was served in a beautiful open-air patio that overlooked a pond. In this pond, an endemic species of tree frog can be found. This is the Boettger's Colombian Treefrog.
As usual, we wound things down around 4 o'clock. The cloud cover had bought us another full day of shooting. Evening would bring another day of backing up photos, charging batteries, and getting some rest. Tomorrow, we would only have the morning for some shooting before moving locations further north.
We had a half day here. The shooting was tough. We finally got a full-sun day, and the sun quickly moved high into the sky. We were stuck looking for shaded locations to shoot. There just were not that many. The specialties here were a couple of hard-to-find hummingbird species. Unfortunately, they were hard enough to find that we missed them.
Before arriving, we spent some time walking the road and looking for tanager flocks. We did not run across anything unusual (we were hoping for Purplish-mantled Tanager), but we had good looks at a few species and managed a few non-feeder photos.
For a hummingbird place, we spent a lot of time shooting tanagers. The banana feeders were quite active, and a Multicolored Tanager kept popping in for visits to them and even the hummingbird feeders. We shot for a few hours before piling into the van.
We had a long, hot day of driving ahead of us, as we would be moving across the valley to get to the central mountain ridge. Our next morning would start our time in the Manizales area with a whole new set of birds to enjoy. Our trip was off to a great start, and we were far from done!
Thanks for reading,