Cuchillo de San Lorenzo, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

10-16 April 2015

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a world famous birding destination, and for very good reason. We first learned of this place long ago, and during our initial trip planning, long before we knew much about anything in South America, the mythical Santa Marta held sway over us and the mention of the El Dorado Lodge seemed so far away and so magical. Even after over a year birding Mexico and Central America, having stood on Cerro Pirre and looked down on Colombia, it still seemed exotic and intimidating, the greatest biodiversity on earth and nearly 2000 bird species, most of which would be new. That is a lot of studying to do, by the way, and we feel like we can barely keep up learning bird song and behavior and we find ourselves tongue-tripping over bird names every day. Was that a Tody-Tyrant or a Tody-Flycatcher and was it Streak-capped or Streak-crowned and which genus is that in and what is that weird call and is that bird even possible here?

Fortunately the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo is pretty well documented as a birding destination, and there is a heap of valuable information in Jurgen Beckers’ and Pablo Florez’s excellent new “Birdwatching in Colombia.” However, the vast majority of birders who visit do so on guided tours that follow a pretty similar regimen of staying one night in Minca and a couple nights in the El Dorado lodge with a one day trip up to the ridgetop for the higher endemics. We tend to prefer to find birds on our own and, when possible, to not feel rushed or pressured to “get everything” in one morning. With a new and improved vehicle, we can bring far more food, wait out bad weather far more easily, camp in a wider variety of places, and generally do things more on our own schedule. Along those lines, we stocked up on fresh produce and good food at a big market in Baranquilla, had a nice lunch and made our way up to Minca where we camped at Hotel Mirador.

Another wonderful aspect of our trip is meeting the locals and making new friends. We had seen Gabriel Utria’s name go by about 200 times and on Facebook he was listed as someone you may know with 30 odd friends in common. So we sent him an email and introduced ourselves and soon had a plan to bird together for a morning and have lunch. We walked from Minca to Pozo Azul, a local swimming hole about a kilometer above town then a few hundred meters down a side road. The birding varies from the still fairly dry forest in Minca itself up through coffee and slightly wetter forest mixed with some scrubbier open areas. All in all, it adds up to a variety of habitats that yield a large number of birds and in a casual morning where we spent as much time chatting as birding we still racked up almost 100 species. Having not birded Colombia or the Andes previously, we still have the delight of seeing relatively new birds for the first time, and though it may be common enough to almost qualify as a “trash bird,” seeing our first Swallow Tanagers was still just good-old-fashioned awesome! We also saw a couple of regional specialties or otherwise not terribly wide-ranging species such as Golden-winged Sparrow, Scaled Piculet, and Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, a species which we have missed a few times in the Darien, so it was nice to see a few individuals finally! We saw our first Yellow-billed Cuckoo in some time, always a fantastic bird that always feels like a treat to see one. Black-headed Tanager, again not a rare bird, was still a new one for us, and between the three of us we had a quite productive morning and a lot of fun! Also noteworthy are two more birds that occur in the area. The first, Black-backed Antshrike, a not terribly common species with a range restricted to NE Colombia and NW Venezuela, is fairly common in the tropical dry forest a few kilometers below Minca. The second, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, has a range that is actually quite large, if patchy, but is never common, is always local, and can be quite a skulker. If you bird West Mexico or Central America enough you will definitely eventually see this awesome bird, and we have seen it numerous times along our route, but it was still a pleasure to see it again above Minca!

We wrapped up with lunch at Hotel Minca where we enjoyed the swarms of White-necked Jacobins, Steely-vented Hummingbirds and White-vented Plumeleteers with a handful of Pale-bellied Hermits and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds joining, an occasional Rufous-breasted Hermit, and a single Long-billed Starthroat that only Gabriel saw. It was a very fun day and we made an excellent new friend, whom we can highly recommend as a guide if you would like to visit Minca and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (check out his birding tours on Facebook).

While birding in Minca is wonderful, if you’ve birded dry forest on the Pacific slope of Central America or in northern Colombia or Venezuela previously, most of the species will be familiar. Golden-winged Sparrows and Scaled Piculets will always be awesome birds, but the real stuff of legend is higher up, starting around 1000 m in elevation and really getting exciting above about 1300m. The Cuchillo de San Lorenzo is a birder’s paradise, an amazing slice of the Santa Marta Mountains accessed by one dirt road through mostly excellent habitat with options for both all-inclusive lodging to more rustic accommodations to camping. The number of endemic birds in these mountains is kind of out of control. Separated from the Eastern Andes by a moderate distance, colonization has occurred at various times by various species but then much speciation has occurred. Rising on its own, nearly out of the ocean, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has a grand total of 20 purely endemic birds following current South American Ornithologist’s Committee Taxonomy:

  • Santa Marta Woodstar
  • Santa Marta Sabrewing
  • Black-backed Thornbill
  • White-tailed Starfrontlet
  • Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (recently split from Bearded Helmetcrest and only recently rediscovered after not having been recorded for almost 70 years!)
  • Santa Marta Parakeet
  • Santa Marta Antbird (recently split from Long-tailed Antbird)
  • Santa Marta Antpitta
  • Rusty-headed Spinetail
  • Streak-capped Spinetail
  • Santa Marta Foliage-Gleaner (recently split from Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, though apparently not too closely related)
  • Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant
  • Santa Marta Tapaculo
  • Brown-rumped Tapaculo
  • Santa Marta Wren
  • Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager
  • Santa Marta Brush-Finch
  • Sierra Nevada Brush-Finch
  • White-lored Warbler
  • Yellow-crowned Whitestart
  • Santa Marta Warbler

Additionally there are several more species that are very nearly Santa Marta endemics, shared only with the Perijá Mountains, the very northernmost part of the Eastern Andes, or other nearby areas:

  • Black-fronted Wood-Quail
  • Blue-billed Curassow
  • Coppery Emerald
  • White-tipped Quetzal

Beyond that, there are numerous noteworthy endemic or near-endemic subspecies, many of which are already considered species by some authorities and which probably will be officially split in the future:

  • Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta (a paper on Rufous Antpitta is in preparation that will apparently suggest at least a six-way split of this species)
  • Santa Marta Screech-Owl (currently lumped with Tropical Screech-Owl but clearly a distinct species awaiting formal description)
  • Santa Marta Blossomcrown (a paper has just been published that suggests splitting Blossomcrown to Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Andean Blossomcrown)
  • Santa Marta Wood-Wren (the highland form of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren that occurs above about 2200m on the Cuchillo is a very distinct subspecies with notably paler underparts and is obviously different by voice after familiarizing yourself, a study is underway on this subspecies/ species)
  • Emerald Toucanet (This is a taxonomic mess with really widely ranging subspecies occurring over a huge area; some authors split it many ways but officially all of the widely varying subspecies are still just Emerald Toucanets. If it is ever split, some neotropical birders might end up with a half dozen or more armchair ticks.)
  • Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (certainly a distinct subspecies, and obviously vocally distinct, though not as obvious as the Rufous Antpitta)
  • Paramo Seedeater (a quite distinct subspecies of a little studied group of birds that probably represent several distinct species)

There are many more endemic subspecies at all elevations, but particularly in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. Elevations above 2800m are not accessible on the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo and generally not accessible at all to visiting birders. Due to very difficult access, almost no birding and very, very little biological work gets done up higher, where there are certainly more interesting subspecies and future splits.

Beyond all of the endemic species and subspecies and near-endemics, the fact that the Sierra Nevada is a biological island has resulted in a bit lower species diversity, but relatively high abundance of many species, meaning that most of the endemics are pretty easy to find and some species that do occur in other locations are definitely more common here. For instance, we recorded Golden-breasted Fruiteater and White-tipped Quetzal at least a dozen times each in 2 days birding in the appropriate elevation range, and Lined Quail-Dove is literally a trash bird or as they call them in Colombia una plaga (literally a plague). We couldn’t keep accurate counts on all days but from about 1300m up to about 2600m it can be heard from multiple directions, constantly, all day long, regardless of weather, and we saw several each day without trying, either just walking on the forest floor, perched on branches, walking across the road, or in flight as they flushed.

Getting back to the access issues for the higher elevation species mentioned earlier, there is no realistic access to elevations higher than 2800m in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Essentially, you can get to 2700-2800m at the top of the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo, but the Cuchillo is an independent ridge that does not continue higher up into the mountains, and there are no other good options for accessing higher altitudes. This means that the just recently re-discovered Blue-Bearded Helmetcrest and the Santa Marta Wren are essentially inaccessible.

The Santa Marta Sabrewing is quite a unicorn bird. Per the field guides and what little literature exists, it occurs mostly on the southern and eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. eBird shows numerous records on the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo, but the majority of reports appear to be of misidentified female White-vented Plumeleteers or perhaps misidentified Lazuline Sabrewings (another rare bird, though not AS rare), and there are actually only a couple of truly verifiable records of this species on the Cuchillo. One was photographed at Pozo Azul, just above Minca at about 650m elevation, a few years ago, and there is at least one verified record from Palo Alto, just above the school at about 1750m elevation. It has been seen on the SE side of the Sierra near an indigenous town called Nabusimake, but it’s not clear if there are many records there or just one or two. There is certainly does not appear to be any stake-out or known strategy for seeing this bird at this point.

Luckily, though, almost all of the rest of the endemics are basically easy to find given a moderate amount of time. Some are harder than others of course, and one is seasonal, but in 4 days we saw all of the possible species except the seasonal Black-backed Thornbill.

After our great day birding at Pozo Azul with Gabriel Utria, the next morning we set out early, and our first stop above Minca, still well within the coffee zone at about 900-1000m elevation, was a moist, forested gully and the edge and coffee surrounding it. The first two birds we heard were the very wide-ranging Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and the first of the Santa Marta endemics, the Santa Marta Foliage-Gleaner. This species was previously considered a subspecies of Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, though it is a world apart, vocally, and there are clear if subtle physical differences as well. Golden-winged Sparrows and Swallow Tanagers were common. During the morning, we were treated to some perched Red-billed Parrots and Kathi picked out a Mourning Warbler in the coffee. We also heard and saw our first of several Sepia-capped Flycatchers and Pale-breasted Spinetails. Another stop a touch higher, at about 1200m, again in coffee/forest edge habitat, yielded our first Yellow-legged Thrush, a couple of migrant Gray-cheeked Thrushes, some Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, a handful of Dull-colored Grassquits, and our first of the green-bellied local subspecies of Bay-headed Tanager. We stopped again above La Ye where the forest patches just start to get larger and healthier, and despite late-morning heat there was still a good bit of activity. We heard Santa Marta Tapaculo immediately after getting out of the van and soon had good looks at this cute little guy. Just a few dozen meters down the road we heard Rusty-breasted Antpitta and easily tracked down a pair in the roadside tangles who were happy to flit around and perch for us without use of playback and seemingly unconcerned about our presence. They were just a bit too quick and energetic, however, to get a good photo (or the photographer was a bit too slow and lethargic, perhaps?). We also soon had a nice look at our first of what would be many, many Lined Quail-Doves and Santa Marta Brush-Finches, and a surprise Sierra-Nevada Brush-Finch, a touch below its stated elevation range. A Masked Trogon and a Rusty Flowerpiercer were around as well. This is when the fun started; every 3rd species observed was new! We hadn’t had a treasure trove like this, with such a high proportion of the birds being lifers, in a long time, and have only had a few on the trip – our first day in Cuba, our first day in the Tufted Jay Preserve in Sinaloa, and our first full day at Pirre Station and Rancho Plastico in the Darién (though we weren’t getting any common or disturbed habitat birds as lifers at Rancho Plastico!) Another stop just a tad higher, again in edgy habitat, found us a good mixed flock in the forest where we added Montane Foliage-Gleaner and White-lored Warbler. Back in the open, we found an antswarm with more White-lored Warblers and a silent and skulking Santa-Marta Antbird. We started to see our first of many Sparkling Violetears. Awesome! A perched Olive-sided Flycatcher was a nice migrant to spot (we saw another later), and a flyover Osprey was a bit of a surprise! Our next stop was at the little store for some vegetables and beer and a check of the flowers and feeders, which were dominated by Sparkling Violetears and Crowned Woodnymphs. Kathi soon picked out a Blossomcrown that didn’t hang out for long. A bit higher, above the hostel and garden at Palo Alto, we birded a stretch of forest where we found a silent Moustached Puffbird and then a nice mixed flock with Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Streak-capped Spinetail, and our first Montane Woodcreepers and Cinnamon Flycatchers among others. We stopped at the El Dorado Lodge to make arrangements to have lunch there the following day and found a Band-tailed Guan perched in a flowering shrub just above the corn feeder (suspicious!). After the arrangements were made we continued up to the National Park station of San Lorenzo. The young ranger, Eudis, was extremely kind and let us park and camp on the flat patch of grass in front of the gate and allowed us the use of the restrooms and showers for no charge; we also had several nice conversations with him and before leaving made a donation to his beer-fund! After dinner we started hearing Band-winged Nightjars calling and set out to look for them as well as the Santa Marta Screech-Owl. We soon heard the owl very close but were unable to find it and did not want to harass it so we let it go. Still, a downright amazing day.

The next day we made a full day of a hike from the National Park station at San Lorenzo down to the El Dorado Lodge where we had a nice break with a delicious lunch and a little time to bird the garden. At dawn we didn’t get very far as we heard Santa Marta Antpitta almost immediately. Luckily it was calling close to the road and close to a spot where we could peer down to the forest floor pretty well. A brief play of the song brought it hopping over, where it fortunately stopped and fed and hung out in plain view! We soon heard Brown-rumped Tapaculo as well, but it was further off, so we birded the edge of the clearing and down a tiny side road that headed in the direction of the Tapaculo. Morning activity was high at the forest edge and we got our first of some incredibly common birds – Tyrian Metaltail, White-throated Tyrannulet, as well as some of the more common endemics – Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager, Yellow-crowned Redstart (or Whitestart depending on which naming conventions and taxonomy you follow), and Rusty-headed Spinetail. We found a Mountain Velvetbreast perched at the edge of the station clearing, saw our first of many Great Thrushes, saw and heard many of the local subspecies of Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and shortly heard the Tapaculo call again from much closer by. Again we picked a strategic spot where we could see into the undergrowth well but that would still be sheltered enough for the bird and a brief play of the song brought it right over where it perched and sang back at the intruders. A bit of jostling around with the camera got me a clear window and despite the low light and dark understory we actually got a decent photo or two! While still at the edge of the clearing I spotted a small raptor soaring much earlier than you would expect most raptor activity. As it came closer it was easy to identify as a Plain-breasted Hawk. Technically this is still lumped with Sharp-shinned Hawk, along with the White-breasted Hawk of the northern Central American highlands (Chiapas to Nicaragua) and the Rufous-thighed Hawk of south-eastern South America, but these three non-migratory forms are all morphologically distinct, do not overlap in range and are not known to undertake any large seasonal movements or interbreed with the nominate, migratory form that is familiar to North American birders. Finally making our way down the road, we added many fairly common Andean birds – Blue-capped Tanager, Black-capped Tanager, Scaly-naped Parrots, Scarlet-fronted Parakeets, Olive-striped Flycatcher (no where in Central America have we seen this bird as common as it is on the Cuchillo de San Lorenzo), Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, Sickle-winged Guan, more Band-tailed Guans, more Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, and more of the endemic White-lored Warblers and Streak-capped Spinetails. All the while we were hearing White-tipped Quetzals calling but always a ways off. Soon enough we heard one calling very close by and a bit of footwork soon got us great views of a perched male! Before we made it to the lodge we also added Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Golden-crested Flycatcher and spent a good bit of time watching and photographing something that was either a very, very distant perched raptor or a very, very distant termitary in the crown of a tree. Later looks at the photos on the computer revealed that our wished for Black-and-Chestnut eagle looked much more like a lump of mud on a branch! We made it to the lodge mid-day as planned and our pre-arranged lunch was soon ready, and it was delicious! A little casual birding in the garden didn’t turn up any hoped for Black-fronted Wood-Quail or any interesting hummingbirds but was still very enjoyable with swarms of Green and Sparkling Violetears, Crowned Woodnymphs, a few Brown Violetears, White-sided Flowerpiercers, and plenty more. We soon headed out to make our way back up the hill. The afternoon was pretty slow but we got better looks at a few of the morning’s birds, got some new photos and recordings, had a quick flyover Brown-bellied Swallow, enjoyed back to back looks at Smoky-brown and Golden-olive Woodpeckers and got a modicum of exercise too! Just as we got back to the van, one final burst of activity included a nice, loud, melodic song that we couldn’t place but that we quickly tracked down to a Golden-bellied Grosbeak. A bit of a forehead-smacking moment for not recognizing an obvious Grosbeak song and we were back at the van with time for a celebratory beer! As evening settled in we staked out the clearing to watch the flowers until dusk then try to get a look at a Band-winged Nightjar, which instead yielded a bunch more Tyrian Metaltails (by far the dominate hummingbird from the station up), some Blue-and-white Swallows, a Barred Forest-Falcon that was flying from perch to perch and calling at the edge of the clearing, and a couple more heard-only Band-winged Nightjars. We went back to where we had heard the Santa Marta Screech-Owls the evening before and again looked for them, this time seeing one in flight briefly, but did not want to harass them or abuse playback so we quickly left them in peace again.

Having already seen essentially all of the species that can be found around the station except for one or two hummingbirds and the Black-fronted Wood-Quail, we decided to head further up onto the ridge and spend a day or two birding up there. The road is a pretty decent dirt road up to the El Dorado Lodge, easily passable with 2WD and a bit of ground clearance in the dry season (There are only a few spots where you need the clearance and need to take care). Above the lodge to the San Lorenzo Station, the road gets much worse. It is still passable in 2WD but much more clearance is necessary and 4WD makes it a lot easier. Above the station, it degrades a bit further and there are a few spots where 4WD is probably mandatory. All around, the going is slow and it takes a couple hours to get up to the ridge. Climbing up out of the pine forests near the station you pass through some lush wooded areas which we did not bird then to some more open hillsides that you switchback up, passing the first communications tower en route. These open areas have great vistas for raptors, swifts and swallows, and depending on flowers, have some hummers, but we did not find any of the endemics there. Higher up the road you enter another patch of pines and pass the second set of communication towers at the first little summit of the ridge. This area was pretty birdy for us but again mostly just common species. Passing the second towers, you descend slightly until you reach a narrow saddle with great views in both directions. We parked here next to a small bench and birded the area (a mix of an open pine stand and scrubby recovering elfin forest). A bit further along the forest improves gradually until you get to pretty good elfin forest. Walking this stretch covers a variety of habitats and this whole area was quite birdy. The dominant birds were still Mountain Elaenia, Santa Marta Brush-Finch, Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Tyrannulet, Yellow-crowned Redstart, Tyrian Metaltail, Sparkling Violetear, Blue-and-white Swallow, Great Thrush, Santa Marta Mountain-Tanager, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Blackburnian Warbler, and Rusty-headed and Streak-capped Spinetails. However, in the more open area with sparse pines, we also found a pair of White-tailed Starfrontlets on an apparent territory. Kathi got a quick glimpse of a solitary Plushcap that didn’t hang around or respond to playback in the least. On the ridge we also saw a Black-capped Tyrannulet, heard a couple of Santa Marta Antpittas down the slope, and we found our first of many of the highland form of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (Henicorhina leucophrys anachoreta) that is endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and replaces the more widespread and familiar Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (nominate subsp. Henicorhina leucophrys leucophrys) above about 2200m. The highland form is easily recognizable, we thought, as somewhat vocally distinct with a higher pitch and different phrasing, perhaps a bit faster. Additionally it is a noticeably paler on the breast. This has long been mooted as a future split, which would presumably be Santa Marta Wood-Wren (Henicorhina anachoreta). A study is apparently underway looking at the two forms. A bit further along, after the pines and as the elfin forest improves, we added another Golden-bellied Grosbeak, more White-sided Flowerpiercers and soon heard our first (Santa Marta) Rufous Antpitta. As mentioned previously, Rufous Antpitta is vocally and morphologically very distinctive across many subspecies and will likely be split many ways in the future. The form on Santa Marta occurs above about 2500m and seemed to like the bamboo thickets in the elfin forest.

Despite being mid-morning, and despite being stuck in an incredibly thick bamboo tangle, we decided to try to lure the Antpitta a little further along in the bamboo thicket where we could peer in. This worked quickly but the Antpitta was excited and I only saw it for a brief split second glimpse and Kathi only saw a rufous blur. We left the poor fellow (or gal) alone and continued along the road. The forest peters out and turns back to scrubby lower growth as it crests a small rise, after which you are at the Eucalyptus stand. This is purportedly a good spot for the Black-backed Thornbill so we spent some time looking but there were very few blossoms in the Eucs and all we managed to add were a half dozen Tyrian Metaltails and another White-sided Flowerpiercer. A bit further along you come to the area by the lake (which is actually behind a fence and gate and a no-entry sign posted by ProAves, we did not enter). There is one more Euc here and this one was covered in blossoms. We staked out the tree a couple different times and saw stacks of Tyrian Metaltails. We also saw two “maybe” Black-backed Thornbills, one male hummingbird that flashed what appeared to be a longer and more forked tail was seen very briefly, and I saw one apparent female that appeared to flash white in the tail but neither was seen well enough to say anything beyond “Hmm, that was interesting.” The Black-backed Thornbill is very seasonal and apparently disappears from sometime in February until sometime in late April or May when the rains begin again, which means we were a bit early for a good chance at it. Also in the area near the lake we came upon a fantastic mixed flock that was again dominated by Rusty-headed and Streak-capped Spinetails, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Montane Wood-creeper, and Yellow-crowned Redstart. Also in the flock were our only Santa Marta Warbler that we managed to see in two days birding on the ridge, and a Strong-billed Woodcreeper that flew into a tree no more than 4 meters in front of me, far too close to fit into the camera’s frame resulting in a cropped photo of a Woodcreeper with no tail! Just as the flock was passing a Bush-Tyrant popped briefly into view and then proceeded to play hide-and-seek with us. We spent the next 20 minutes chasing it up the road trying to a better look, with it always perching briefly in view in horribly back-lit perches. In the middle of this chase we also got our first looks at the Santa Marta Parakeet, which is actually quite common and pretty easy in this area. In the end, I managed to take a few terrible photos of the Bush-Tyrant that helped us later be confident of our ID as a Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant. The Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant is purportedly more common in the area although we did not see any. We distantly heard what we thought was one Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, and saw two non-vocalizing Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants. If seen well, identification is not that hard, but in poor lighting it can get tricky in a hurry! There are several field marks for separating the two, but if you are not familiar with either species already and if you don’t get a great look, judging a “darker, more olive chest”, a “cleaner throat”, and a small relative difference in bill size is challenging. However, there is a clear and objective field mark in the color of the primaries that is evident on a perched bird’s folded wing. Both species show rufous on the back and in the secondaries and tertials, but the Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, along with it’s cleaner white throat and paler, more peach colored belly, shows a clear rufous mark in the primaries, whereas the Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, along with it’s more ruddy-olive breast and darker throat and vent, has clean black primaries. After the flock passed, activity fell off a cliff and we headed back downhill, adding only a distant Emerald Toucanet and a couple more Sickle-winged Guans. We moved the van up to a flat pullout near the little lake and setup camp. Good timing too, as it pissed rain all afternoon so we had a quiet afternoon reviewing photos and enjoying a couple cups of tea in comfort, a massive upgrade from the pickup and we were feeling pretty pleased with our new home! After the rain passed we birded the road up towards the final summit (Cerro Kennedy) and radio-towers. There was not a ton of activity but we saw a solitary Andean Siskin, heard a few more Santa Marta Antpittas far downhill, saw a few more Santa Marta Parakeets, heard an additional Brown-rumped Tapaculo, and found a small flock of Paramo Seedeaters. As a fair warning, the Paramo Seedeater on Santa Marta looks nothing like the depicted subspecies (of this very varying species that may well represent numerous actual species) in the new ProAves published Colombia bird guide by Miles McMullan, Thomas Donegan and Alonso Quevado.

On the subject of field guides for Colombia, despite the smaller and less detailed illustrations and lack of natural history, we find this new guide far more convenient for carrying in the field as it is far more inclusive, has 25 years of taxonomic updates, and is far more portable than all other options. As well, it has a few very brief notes on frequency/habitat/behavior and voice that are extremely concise and helpful. The long standard guide, which is absolutely excellent, is Hilty, Brown and Tudor’s “Birds of Colombia.” This guide is still the reference standard but is frustratingly lacking illustrations for hundreds of regularly occurring species, and the taxonomy is, at this point, woefully out of date with so many splits and new species. The best illustrations of Paramo Seedeater are probably in the also venerable and also excellent “Birds of the High Andes” by Jon Fjeldsa and Niels Krabbe. In fact, we actually routinely use no less than 6 guides for Colombia. The three above, the new consolidated and taxonomically updated single volume “Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America” by Ridgely and Tudor, which is spectacular, the accompanying “Birds of South America: Non-Passerines, Rheas to Woodpeckers” by Erize, Rumboll and Mata, which is also quite good for a very concise and small volume, and the comprehensive, two volume, “Birds of Northern South America” by Restall and Rodner. The last is noteworthy for illustrating all known subspecies and plumages.

In any case, at this point we had seen most all there was to see, but still needed a few hummingbirds and a quail. The next morning we heard Stygian Owl close to our campsite, and were at the previously discovered territory of a Rufous Antpitta at dawn. Before even hearing the bird we watched a pair feeding in the road for a long moment before they noticed our approach and scurried back to cover. A bit too dark for photos but it was great to see them feeding together without use of playback! We found the same cast of birds as the previous morning, adding only one more species, a well seen Black Flowerpiercer. We spent several more hours searching, in vain, for Black-backed Thornbill, and decided to descend. We camped in the woods between the station and the lodge in order to look for the quail and try again for a better look at the Screech-Owl. We very distantly heard the Black-fronted Wood-Quail at dusk (so far away it could have been in the vicinity of the lodge), and after dark heard at least 5-6 Santa Marta Screech-Owls but failed to get a good view. It is nice to know they are relatively common in the forest patch there but we did not want to harass them just to get a view. The following morning we birded the vicinity of the lodge to keep trying for the quail. We peered over the fences at the compost pile and corn feeder several times to no avail and started working our way down below the lodge. Hearing a bit of scratching, on a hunch we played the call once and instantly got an ear-shattering response from very close by. It didn’t take long to track down a small covey of at least three adults and at least three chicks, awesome! Our next stop was the garden at Palo Alto, where we saw two more Blossomcrowns, saw a female Santa Marta Woodstar, more White-sided Flowerpiercers, and two more Rusty Flowerpiercers. A bit further down, with intermittent rain, we tracked down a Groove-billed Toucanet near the little school, basically wrapping up everything we were looking for in short order. Thanks again go to Gabriel Utria for the tip that the garden at Palo Alto is the best location for the Blossomcrown and the Woodstar! And speaking of the rain, we have really become converts to umbrella birding. At first we kind of chuckled at the concept of birding with a golf umbrella, but it really is the way to go. Of course you may not be able to maneuver the umbrella in really thick forest, and in heavy enough rain you still won’t see much and you’ll still get wet from the waist down, but being able to bird in light and moderate rain and keep yourself and your optics dry and not be sweating inside a sticky, clammy rain jacket is really the way to go!

After a final night in Minca, on our way down the hill we stopped about 4km below Minca to look for Black-backed Antshrike. No sooner had we stepped out of the van than we heard one, but we were soon distracted by a fantastic cacophony of Black-chested Jays and Pale-breasted Thrushes. We figured they must be mobbing something, and as bird mobs frequently turn up interesting snakes or owls and can be a good way to find other species of birds that come to check out the commotion, we headed for the ruckus. We quickly identified the culprit as a beautiful several foot long boa species, being mobbed by seven incredibly loud Black-chested Jays and a couple of Pale-breasted Thrushes for good measure. Getting a bit of distance from the noise, we soon tracked down a pair of Black-backed Antshrikes and were on our way!

Boa species unknown

Boa species unknown

Links to our eBird lists (you can also view links to eBird lists on the Colombia Birding Map which will be posted soon. Mouse over to Birding sites and scroll down to Colombia. Soon a new tab will appear with the birding map).

4/9/15 Minca area

4/10/15 Minca to la Ye

4/10/15 El Dorado Lodge

4/10/15 Estacion San Lorenzo

4/11/15 San Lorenzo to El Dorado Lodge

4/12/15 Cuchillo de San Lorenzo

4/12/15 Cuchillo de San Lorenzo

4/13/15 Cuchillo de San Lorenzo Lago


4/14/15 El Dorado Lodge

4/14/15 Palo Alto area

4/16/15 Below Minca




9 Comments on Cuchillo de San Lorenzo, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

  1. gborgmann // April 23, 2015 at 11:47 pm //

    ok I can deal with all the great photos of the birds and scenery but can you leave the snake alone please?
    will take me awhile to look up all the birds to see what they look like -such weird names for such little creatures


  2. Connie Beck // April 24, 2015 at 12:31 am //

    fun posting!  Looks like Asclepias curassavica (milkweed) with the hummer.  Icky snake pix.  Yecch.  Looks like you are having fun and glad the golf umbrellas are so successful. Had a great class today, lots of new people.   Connie Beck


  3. Mary Ann Good // April 26, 2015 at 3:00 am //

    Great read, thank you so much for telling it in such detail. One day I hope to look out on the vistas you post and see many of those birds! I can totally imagine how you’re enjoying your new digs, being able to take your time and have so many more comforts. You have the quetzal id’d as Santa Marta Brush-Finch, by the way, and are missing a caption on the bird above it.


  4. mimi beck // April 28, 2015 at 10:47 pm //

    Aw, that snake wasn’t icky…
    Amazing pix!


  5. Interesting post and beautiful photos! ( I wrote a novel, A Place in the World, set in Colombia that had good reviews; I mention it because it has a nature theme – birds included! see my blog or Amazon)


  6. Mary Ann Good // May 24, 2015 at 1:26 pm //

    Cinda, I just saw your comment (since I commented as well) and checked out your book. It looks amazing! I ordered it and can hardly wait to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh my – I so hope you enjoyed it!
    (Can I say this without seeming pushy? ;} …honest reviews are always welcome on Amazon etc. They help other readers decide if it is for them… and of course also helps me as an indie writer.)


  8. Mary Ann Good // July 9, 2015 at 2:33 am //

    Cinda, I am nearly done with your book–I am relishing it. I will tell you, I really like the tone and pace of the book. While it isn’t exciting or fast-paced, it suits the material and fits my preference for all things nature-related–I despise the jazzed-up nature shows on TV, preferring to see a slow-paced depiction of how things occur naturally. I see this in your story–it feels like a diary of real life, rather than a novel building to some crescendo–a diary of a life I would love to experience, in the Colombian cloud forest! Yes, I will put my review on Amazon. Thanks for a lyrical story (oh, and it’s a joy just to handle and behold the beautiful cover!)


  9. Mary Ann Good // July 10, 2015 at 5:10 pm //

    Haha, I see I was right! Well, I had little doubt. It was too true to life to be made up.


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