10/26/2023 - 10/30/2023
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 cordillera and the town of Jardin. This post covers our time in the Jardin area.
This post will be much shorter than the last. Looking back, the trip seemed to be lasting forever - in all the best ways. Now, we were staring down at the finish line. We will be heading to Jardin, where we will spend a couple of nights. We are leaving the central cordillera and heading back to the western one. We are not going to quite make it away from the central this first day, though. Honestly, we are just moving to the other side of Manizales. We will follow that up with a long drive to Jardin and then head to Medellin to start the process of getting home. Before that, though, we have a lot to cover.
We had been staying at a hotel on the eastern side of Manizales. After a half day of shooting at El Color de Mis Reves, we were heading a couple hours west just outside Manizales. We were still in the central cordillera, but we were much lower in elevation. This, obviously, brought us a whole new set of birds. We arrived at Hotel Tinamu in time for a very late lunch. We had from lunch on the day we arrived until lunch the next day to shoot. After that, we would make the long drive to Jardin. There were a few banana feeders spread around the property. A network of trails offered a chance for some birding, and we would be doing a night walk to look for owls and potoo. The specialty here was really the tanagers. There were three, aside from the regulars, that are known to come to the feeders: Blue-necked, Crimson-backed, and Guira. All three are spectacular, but we only saw two of them.
Blue-necked Tanager, to me, is entirely misnamed. It is not just the neck of the tanager that is blue. It is the whole head. What about Blue-hooded? And that blue. Is it really blue? Anyway, you be the judge. The bird is beautiful but not my favorite. It is normally more of a canopy bird; so, it is nice to have a spot where you can see it well and photograph it.
The Crimson-backed Tanager is a spectacularly beautiful bird. It specialized in being sneaky. It would move in from somewhere low, raid the feeder, and then run off. I basically got one good series at the bird, and this was these were the best of the photos. While I said this was a photo tour and it allowed us time to focus on getting photos, I probably should have clarified that this did not guarantee a good photo.
While we are discussing tanagers, I would like to talk about another tanager. While it is called a tanager, it is in a different family than the other tanagers. It says a lot about the bird that, even though it is a migrant from home (and even nests in my state), that I spent so much time photographing the bird. Summer Tanager was a shy but frequent visitor to the feeders. It was hard to resist shooting it when it was there. It is a spectacular bird, and we were lucky enough to have a male and a female coming in to feed.
We were also lucky (?) to have a pair of Great Kiskadee with a nest nearby. The nest consisted of a hollowed out hole in a bunch of moss on a tree. I gave the lucky a question mark, because they had a habit of bringing in food and then beating it on a limb in front of us. It was a bit macabre.
The normal perched shots were more enjoyable.
In the same-but-different department, we have the Rusty-margined Flycatcher. This pair landed near the tree with the kiskadee nest, and I immediately wrote them off as the kiskadee pair. Brian, to his credit, questioned my ID, and I took a closer look. They were, indeed, different.
Before we totally transition away from feeder birds and start in on more of the forest birds, I would like to share some shots of the thrushes that visited the feeders. We had three species, one of which was fairly common throughout the trip; Black-billed Thrush was easily observed in several places. Here, we added the national bird of Costa Rica to our trip list - the Clay-colored Thrush. The third was a bit shyer, and I only ended up with one photo of it. Cocoa Thrush was also a lifer for me.
The remaining feeder birds were a mix of Thick-billed Euphonia (which replaced Orange-bellied Euphonia here at the lower eleveation), Green Honeycreeper (including a spectacular molting male), Palm Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Scrub Tanager, and the occasional Red-crowned Woodpecker (yes, it looks a lot like a Red-bellied) and Andean Motmot.
There were a good number of hummingbirds here. The feeders were packed with White-necked Jacobin and Steely-vented Humminbird. We had two new species: White-vented Plumeleteer and Striped Hermit. The hermit is super-tiny, and I missed shots of it. Between rounds of shooting tanagers, I would try to get shots of the Steely-vented feeding on the verbena.
We had two species of parrot around the grounds. Blue-headed Parrot is a common tropical parrot. The Spectacled Parrotlet was new to me. This bird reminded me of lovebirds; probably because I got my best look at them while they were looking at nesting sites under the clay-tiled roofs of the lodge. In Africa, this is how we found our lovebirds. They were nesting under the roof of the hotel.
We had a few other forest birds show up around the grounds of the hotel. Greenish Elaenia was one of the first birds I saw when we got out of the van. So, I had high hopes of seeing lots of birds move through. Mostly, we had tanagers. We did add a new migrant warbler to the list - Yellow Warbler. We also had House Wren, and this bird sings a different (but still vaguely recognizable) song than the bird we get back home.
After dinner, we went out for a night walk. It had poured rain for about an hour beforehand, and we did not have high hopes of finding much. There was a place where Common Potoo would often perch, but the snag had blown down earlier this year. We walked out with flashlights blazing in every direction. Somehow, we all walked right past the Common Pauraque laying in the grass. The local guide had to call us back. We heard a very distant potoo. Other than that, the walk was a bit of a bust.
The next morning, we started in shooting right away. Jamie ran off to deliver school supplies to a local school. After she returned, we headed out for a forest walk and some light birding. My main target was a photo of Orange-collared Manakin. I failed, but at least we saw one. We had a nice selection of birds and even a family of night monkeys. The monkeys were high in a tree, against the light, and it was foggy. This is my way of saying there are no photos to share. There was a small feeding area where Gray-headed Dove comes to feed. This was the last of the same-but-different trinity of White-tipped, Gray-breasted, and Gray-headed Dove that I needed to see; so, it was nice to finally see this bird. They all pretty much look alike. Like all forest birding, you have to eke out photos where you can; seeing the bird and photographing it well are two very different things.
We got back from the walk, shot some more, had lunch, and hit the road. We had at least a 4 hour drive ahead of us. A lot of the main road was under construction and traffic was alternately shut down in different directions. This was quite an experience. We would stop and open the van doors for air. Vendors would come by to hock food, drinks, and various merchandise. We relaxed and watched the roadside for birds. Gray Seedeater and Carib Grackle were lifers for me. Once traffic started moving, the road turned into a free-for-all. The full width of the road (6 lanes, if I recall correctly) was turned into a mad rush to get your vehicle as far forward as possible. The lanes would eventually narrow down to a single lane, and you would move through the construction area to the next stop. We did this three times with a total wait time of somewhere around an hour and a half. We got into Jardin after dark.
Reserva Mirador El Roble
The next morning, we were up early for an hour drive up into the mountains. We had a couple more antpitta to chase down. I honestly never tired of seeing these birds. There were three possible antpittas here: Slaty-crowned, Chestnut-naped, and Chami. The last two would be lifers, and the last one is an endemic. It was previously part of the "rufous" complex, which was split into 4 or 5 different species. The Chami is supposed to be a very dark-red version.
We started by stopping along the road to look for parrots. Yellow-eared Parrot is a bird with an interesting history. While the bird was previously found in Ecuador and Colombia, today the bird has limited habitat in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes. The bird is heavily reliant upon the wax palm for its diet and nesting. It is also used for food and in the illegal pet trade. The palm itself is a slow-growing tree that is harvested by people for wax and wood. Cattle farming also cleared large areas where the palm was found. In particular, one tradition was having a large impact on the tree and, therefore, on the bird. The trees were cut and the fronds distrubuted for Palm Sunday services. The bird fell into decline and was thought extinct until 1999, when a small population of around a 100 birds was found at a lower elevation. Conservation efforts were put in place, and petitions were submitted to the Catholic church to get them to stop using the wax palm and instead use a different palm for decoration and services. The Vatican finally supported the switch. Conservation efforts like this and the establishment of reserves has helped to raise the population to over 3,000 individuals.
As we got out of the van, we could hear parrots calling. As we watched, small flocks would apperate out of the clouds and fly overhead. In the distance, we would see a large group take wing and circle through the air before settling back down. It would have been nice to get a good photo, but, more importantly, it was nice to be able to see them at all.
We continued up the road and eventually reached a small restaurant where we would have breakfast and meet our local guide. This is where I played a bit of a trick on Carmen. Carmen loves cats. Big, small, wild, feral, or domesticated; it does not matter. This place has a Tigrillo (or Oncilla) that has been visiting. The Onilla is a tiny wild cat of South America. It was showing up and eating their chickens; so, they started feeding it to keep their chickens alive. Now, it shows occasionally looking to be fed. There is a large canvas print of the cat hanging on the wall at the restaurant. I took a picture of it, being careful to not include any of the frame. Then, to ensure plausability, I took a picture of it from the back of the camera. This way, it looked like it was my photo. It also helped to hide the canvas texture in the original shot. When I got back to the room that night, I sent it to her. Predictably, I was told that I was not allowed to travel without her ever again. This included a number of exclamation marks. I did such a convincing job that she did not believe me even after I explained what I had done. I am still not quite sure she believes I did not see one.
We busied ourselves at the hummingbird feeders while breakfast was made. Breakfast was superb. There was nothing new among the species here; although I did get my first Lesser Violetear shots of the trip. Being smaller, they are a bit shy about hanging out too close to the feeders. They had less competition around these feeders. This is my favorite shot from the restaurant.
Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, Purple-throated Woodstar, Sparkling Violetear, and Lesser Violetear rounded out the action at the feeders. Slaty Brushfinch was coming in and allowing people to hand-feed it, too.
After breakfast, we moved down to the mirador and started a very rough hike to the antpitta location. We also had another chance at Occelated Tapaculo here. The local guide dusted us. It should not have been that tough of a walk, but I kept running out of breath. The trail was steep and muddy, and that did not help anything. I eventually made it and got situated. The wait churned through minutes until it reached the point where the guides were wondering if anything was going to show. There are no guarantees in birding. I finally looked to my right and spotted a small Slate-crowned Antpitta. He stayed for a very short burst of shots and disappered.
The reason for the quick departure was that the Chestnut-naped Antpitta had started calling from nearby. The local guides said that when this bird shows, the other antpittas disappear. He is a bit of a bully. Once the bird popped into view, I could believe it. This bird looks fierce.
We waited longer for the Chami or tapaculo to show. Eventually, it was explaned that they would not come with this bird around and that the Chestnut-naped always stayed a long time. We grabbed our gear and started the long trek back. It was not anymore fun the second time, but at least I knew how far we were going this trip.
On the way out and along the road back to Jardin, we stopped to bird a few times. We had several nice mixed flocks. New birds for the trip included Black-capped Hemispingus, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Buff-breasted Mountian-Tanager, Mountain Cacique, Rufous Spinetail, and Chestnut-bellied Chat-Tyrant. I swore we were finally going to catch a sight of White-capped Tanager, but the birds evaded us as they worked their way through the valley below us. I really want to see that birds some day. All in all, it was an enjoyable bit of birding.
We spent two nights in Jardin. At first, I admit, I was a little put-off by the whole thing. I was under the impression that we would be staying at a lodge here. I do not know why. There was nothing in the itinerary that said anything one way or the other about the lodging. This is a scouting trip; so, things were a little rough around the edges in place. This is why they scout the trips, first. It helps them refine the itinerary for when they start the actual tours. After spending a night in the town, I was happy to be exactly where I was. It is actually the perfect way to end the trip. The hotel was a bit high-end. It was super nice. The town was absolutely lovely. It is a small mountain town. The central square has a large open area in front of a huge cathedral where a small market is setup. The buildings surrounding the square are all small shops and bars. The place was totally safe to walk around. We had dinner, walked around, did some souvenir shopping, enjoyed a drink, and called it a night. The next night, we did it all over again.
After getting back from the mirador, we had a little downtime before heading out to our next location. We were going to be shooting Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. For anyone that has ever seen these birds, you know that they are spectacular. They are large, bright reddish-orange, loud, and obnoxious. The males lek; so, they gather around a certain area and perform in hopes of attracting a mate. Most of the time, it is just for practice. When a female comes through, the place loses its collective mind. To say it is a must-see is a bit of an understatement. I have seen this species a few times. The part I dislike is that the locations they pick are always very dark. They pick hillsides near water for their lek. So, you are usually looking down on them and trying to spot them through a ton of vegetation. It is not much fun, and the pictures take a lot of work to even look acceptable. I was actually not looking forward to shooting them.
We went in the afternoon, which was pretty odd. We caught small tuk-tuks or toroitos (small bulls) in the local language over to the location. A tuk-tuk is hard to describe, but it is basically like mounting an enclosed cab on a small, motorized tricycle. The entrance to where the lek is located is down a steep incline near the bridge. Here, you enter the Gallito de Roca Preserve. This place is different than any other lek I have ever been to. For one, there were a ton of birds. Small trails wound through the preserve and allowed you to observe them. Some from quite close. That was the second thing. The birds were not overly shy. They were used to people. Last but not least, it was pretty bright. I mean, the sun was going down behind the mountains, but it was still brighter than any other lek I have been to. There were still issues with limbs being in the way, etc., but you just had to move around and look for a better shot.
I could not quite get the photos right for capturing their displays. The birds break out into a raucous call and then lunge forward on their perch and flutter their wings. They will do this several times from various perches. Video would have been better.
The next morning, we were back at the preserve bright and early. The guide had arranged for us to enter before the place was open. While the evening is better for the cock-of-the-rock, the morning is better for the other birds. These consisted of a couple of endemics that I was looking forward to seeing. Behind the shop, there is a fruit feeder. Spread across the grounds are several fruiting trees. Unfortunately, these were drawing the birds away from the feeder and making seeing/shooting them a bit more difficult.
Crested Ant-Tanager was actually still coming by the feeder for a quick few bites. It would also come in to fight its reflection in a nearby window. None of this made it any easier to photograph. The bird would move in from below the platform where the feeders are located. Apparently, there was a banana on the ground. It would hop down out of view and feed; coming back up to a railing with a mouthful of banana. Then it would hop up on a fence pole and flutter against the window a few times before heading off. It was great to see it, but it was a bit of an exercise in frustration. The bird is very striking, and I would have loved a clean shot of it.
As frustrating as the ant-tanager was, the Red-bellied Grackle was even worse. It was not coming to the feeders at all. Instead, it was burying itself in the fruiting tree. It would feed in the densest tangle and then disappear. It was late morning before I worked out a couple clean-ish shots of the bird; only to find out later that the birds flew to an open perch shortly after I walked away.
While walking around the grounds, we did have a number of other birds. I was sure I had spotted a lancebill, but I did not get an identifiable look. I did get good looks at Green Hermit, and we totally blew the ID on a Slaty-capped Flycatcher until the guide corrected us.
Which pretty much brings us to the conclusion of this trip. The reason I had walked away from the Red-bellied Grackles previously was because I thought I had seen some of them fly down toward the feeders. When I got there, they were not around. Instead, I found the last bird I had been looking for. The guide mentioned that he had seen some fly through earlier, and I was afraid we had lost our chance. Black-chested Jay are a large, beautiful jay. When they fly, they spread their tails in an almost pheasant-like display. When I rounded the corner for the feeders, there were several perched in the area. They flew out, but one remained. I slowly raised my camera and fired a series of shots.
The guide came by and herded us all together shortly after this. It was election day, and the woman who runs the place was heading out to vote. We had two choices. Stay and be locked in until she returns, or leave now. We figured it was the wiser decision to leave; as we had to get checked out of the hotel.
We headed back to the hotel and finished packing up. One final lunch and then we loaded into the van and started the trip to Medellin. A short flight to Bogota awaited us there followed by an overnight flight to NYC. We would catch separate flights home from there.
I have not had much to say about Colombia this post, other than to talk about its birds. This is actually a large disservice to the country. Yes, the large cities are messy and probably not all that safe on your own. The country does have a very troubled past. Those days appear to be behind them, though, and there are a number of people working to show that the country has so much more to offer. Ecotourism is taking off there. They have an amazing amount of wildlife there and an array of talented people who want to share it with you. The landscape is the stuff of dreams. The food is good. I had the best hot chocolate I have ever had, there. Jamie swears by the limonada de coco, which is coconut lemonade. The soups and various dishes I had were all very good. The staff and lodging where we stayed and visited were all great. In short, go. If you have not been out of country before, Colombia may not be the right choice for your first trip. I tell people that is what Costa Rica is for. After that, come here. You will not regret it.
Thanks for reading,