The Western Andes of Colombia host seven outright endemic species, a few likely future splits, as well as several other species that are nearly endemic to Colombia. Combine this with some outright amazing birding destinations and the western Andes are a must for most birders visiting Colombia. Unlike much of the eastern and central Andes, the west slope of the western Andes is still mostly forested, and these forests are some of the most diverse on earth. Here is a taste of some of the reserves we visited in the northern part of the western Andes.
Colibri del Sol Reserve (aka Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve)
The ProAves Colibri del Sol Reserve (aka Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve) is nestled in a valley just below Paramo Frontino in the Western Andes. This reserve is home to several Western Andean specialties including Dusky Starfrontlet, Urrao Antpitta, Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, and Paramillo Tapaculo.
We arrived mid-day and the forest guard was waiting for us with horses to take our gear up to the reserve. It’s a two hour hike or horseback ride up to the reserve and while it seems that most people take the horses up, we opted to hike up the hill. The hike, although not bad, is a bit steep and passes through cattle pasture nearly the entire way, so there is not much birding to be had. Once you can see the creek though, start looking for White-capped Dippers, and keep an eye upwards for raptors or chance flyovers of Rusty-faced Parrot. We saw one White-capped dipper along the creek just before entering the forest.
The lodge is adorned with hummingbird feeders and as you arrive you can hear hummingbirds whizzing around. The feeders are full of Tourmaline Sunagels, Long-tailed Slyphs, Collared Incas, Mountain Velvetbreasts, Buff-tailed Coronets, White-bellied Woodstars, and Sparkling Violetears. To our surprise we also saw not one but two of the prized Dusky Starfrontlets at the feeders right in front of the lodge. Normally these guys are higher up and can only been seen just around treeline, but here they were right in front of us! Dusky Starfrontlets are absolutely gorgeous and the English name does not do them justice in the least. They are velvet black and when the light is right they light up gold and metallic green; they really are something to see! As the light started to fade and the hummingbirds took one last drink we headed inside for hot chocolates and to prepare for the next day.
First up on the agenda was the endemic Urrao Antpitta. Urrao (aka Fenwick’s) Antpitta was first described in 2010 and occurs in a narrow elevation range (2600 – 2900 m) in the northern end of the Western Andes. Colibri del Sol is THE place to see this species. The antpitta is fairly common in the reserve but there is also a pair that are coming to the feeding station every day without fail. While it may feel odd at first to watch a normally secretive and elusive antpitta eat worms out of a bucket five meters in front of you, excessive use of playback for rare birds in single locations may well be worse for the birds in the end. Of course I love the challenge of looking for the hard-to-see birds like antpittas, but when there are just a few territories around and hundreds of birders who want to catch a glimpse of the same bird it starts to get complicated. Because let’s be honest, most people use playback to see antpittas because they are very difficult to see without it. Sure you can spend days hoping to catch one in the trail but who allots enough time for that when planning a birding trip? We watched in silence as the Urrao Antpitta came in to eat a few worms. Wow! It’s not every day that you get such great views of an antpitta. Feeders or not, I was still happy to have seen the Urrao Antpitta.
Next up on the agenda was a steep hike up to the paramo to search for Paramillo Tapaculo and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer. We took our time though and slowly birded up the trail. Shortly after entering a nice patch of second growth forest we heard a Slate-crowned Antpitta and a Chestnut-naped Antpitta. The Slate-crowned Antpitta was very obliging but the Chestnut-naped Antpitta was not so and remains on our heard only list. Speaking of our heard only list, we also added Tawny-breasted Tinamou to our list. Tawny-breasted Tinamous can be heard echoing through the entire valley all day long taunting you with their song. This species, and its congener Highland Tinamou, are readily heard but are completely immune to playback and are fairly skittish, it really is truly just luck to see one in a trail or road. To date we have seen neither though we’ve heard Highland Tinamou more times than we care to count. Ahhh Tinamous!
By the time we made it to the upper hummingbird feeders it was already lunch time. While eating lunch a Tourmaline Sunangel perched on my hand and tried to take nectar from my ring. I’ve had close encounters with hummingbirds before but never have I had one perch on my hand! These hummingbirds seem to have no fear. Later during the afternoon another Tourmaline Sunangel flew up to Josh and investigated his lens cloth that hangs from his binoculars. The same cast of characters hangs out at the upper feeders, but here you will find the Dusky Starfrontlet if it is not at the lower feeders. Further up the massive set of wooden stairs are a final few feeders at the edge of the Paramo and these feeders attract Chestnut-bellied, Black-throated, White-sided, and Masked Flowerpiercer, though the flowerpiercers are not too hard to find away from the feeders given a bit of time.
The forest patch between the upper hummingbird feeders and the flowerpiercer feeders is a great and we had a nice mixed flock in this patch on two consecutive days. In the mixed flocks we had Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Black-headed Hemispingus, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Citrine Warbler (the subspecies in the Western Andes is quite distinct, both visually and by voice, and is probably a separate species), and Black-chested Mountain-Tanager. We also spent some time in this area searching for the Paramillo Tapaculo but struck out. We heard it once or twice in the uppermost elfin forest and paramo edge but it was always distant or, if close, unresponsive. I have to imagine that playback is used very frequently here. We started looking around more and did find the Paramillo Tapaculo is the Chusque trail that forks off from the wooden stairs above the upper hummingbird feeders and takes you back down to the main trail. After enough effort, we eventually had great looks at Paramillo Tapaculo and further down the Chusque trail we saw Ash-colored and Spillmann’s Tapaculos as well. And if you are not tired of looking for tapaculos you can also try your luck with the Ocellated Tapaculo which can be found in the elfin forest patch near the flowerpiercer feeders, as well as along the Chusque trail. We managed to see two Antpitta species and four Tapaculo species in a day, not bad!
Colibri del Sol is also a great place to see a different subspecies of Rusty-faced Parrot that is likely to be split in the future. We didn’t do the long hike to the cliff where come to consume minerals, but we did finally see them in flight several times as they flew over the trail below the lodge. Along the lower trail we also had really nice looks at a silent, if you can believe it, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan. When they do open their mouth they sound like a car alarm or perhaps even an air-raid siren, which can be quite a shock to hear in the middle of the forest. Another surprise along the lower trail, at least for us, was a Streak-headed Antbird. For whatever reason, the Streak-headed Antbird was not on our radar, but as soon as we heard its distinctive scratchy song we instantly knew who was lurking in the bushes.
RNA Gorrion de Andivia (AKA Tanager Finch Reserve or locally known as La “M”)
After Colibri del Sol we decided to take the back road to the Tanager Finch Reserve. However, before taking the back road from Urrao to Carmen de Atrato, we asked several people about the safety of the road and everyone assured as that everything was fine along the road. If you take this road it is a good idea to ask about current safety. The area was sketchy in the past but our understanding is it has been reasonably safe recently. We were told by one local that paramilitaries still operate in the Choco foothills west of the pass, and this same gentleman recommended not being in the area at night, despite the fact that nothing has happened in the area in some time. We passed through pastures and farmland for several hours before finally reaching really nice cloud forest below the pass. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to bird this section because we needed to find a safe place to park for the night, but it is definitely worth exploring. Just below the pass on the other side lies the new RNA Gorrion de Andvia ProAves Reserve. There is no infrastructure at the reserve and birding occurs along the road, but the birding here is quite good. We allotted only a few hours to bird the area but racked up a nice bird list including the endemic Munchique Wood-Wren (which is very easy to find), Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Sharpe’s Wren, Grass-green Tanager, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Capped Conebill, the tail-wagging Gray-headed Bush-Tanager, and more (eBird list). It took us a little longer to find the endemic Tanager Finch and we unfortunately didn’t get great looks at it either. We found a single Tanager Finch on the other side of the pass heading towards Urrao, and only got a quick look at it hopping around in some bamboo approximately 30 meters below the road.
RNA Las Tangaras (Tanager Reserve)
Along with Montezuma Road and Anchicayá Valley (the old Buenaventura Rd), Las Tangaras is one of the best known and most visited birding sites in Colombia’s Western Andes, and with good reason! Here the mixed-species flocks are amazing. We must have come across 2-3 enormous mixed-species flocks every day that included Black-and-Gold Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, Handsome Flycatcher, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Yellow-breasted Antwren, and so many more. The hummingbirds here are pretty amazing too. We tallied six new species of hummingbirds at the feeders! Regular visitors to the feeders include Velvet-purple Coronet, Purple-throated Woodstar, Empress Brilliant, Violet-tailed Slyph, Greenish Puffleg, Booted Racketail, Brown Inca, White-tailed Hillstar and Fawn-breasted Brilliant. We were also luck enough to see Purple-bibbed Whitetip, a species that is less regular at the feeders but does occur from time to time. In the trees above the feeders we also had great looks at the uncommon Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager.
Birding at Las Tangaras is mostly along the infrequently traveled road, save one trail that heads through some excellent forest to a waterfall. The road however, is the best place to see mixed-species flocks and it passes through a variety of habitats. In the scrubby second-growth areas we had Tri-colored Brush-Finch and White-naped Brush-Finch. We also saw a Bicolored Antvireo in the scrubby second-growth along the road, a super great bird to see as it is not very common anywhere throughout its range. In the more mature forest patches along the road our list of new birds grew tremendously, Nariño Tapaculo, Dusky Cholorspingus, Toucan Barbet, Black-billed Peppershrike, Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, Uniform Treehunter, and Rufous-throated Tanager. The trail at the third bench is a great place to look for Nariño and Alto Pisones Tapaculos as well as Yellow-breasted Antpitta. We had good luck with all three species along the trail and we also caught up with Bronze-Olive Pygmy-Tyrant, Olive Finch, and Olivaceous Piha (although the Piha is mostly silent we found them fairly easy to spot along the trail). Back along the road we decided to hike further down the road to see what we could turn up. We had a similar mix of species but also turned up Lemon-browed Flycatcher and Choco Vireo (eBird List). Complete lists from our time at Las Tangaras can be found here (eBird lists Day 1, Day 2, Day 3)
Via Concordia – KM 3
On our way to Jardin we made a quick stop along the Concordia – Bolombolo road near kilometer 3 (5.96501,-75.86133) to look for the endemic Grayish Piculet and Antioquia Wren. Right around kilometer 3 there is a small patch of dry scrubby forest which is ideal or both species. We stopped to look for these two species during the dead heat of the middle of the day, not a good time to go birding, but it was the only time we had. Luckily for us, both species were readily encountered in about an hour. The wren was singing when we arrived, but the piculet took a bit more time to find. We eventually found the Grayish Piculet in a small mixed flock.
The birding above the town of Jardin starts along the road that heads towards Riosucio and the ProAves Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve. From Quebrada Bonita all the way up to the pass and for a good distance on the other side the habitat and birding are excellent. We arrived in the late afternoon so we were not expecting much in the way of bird activity, but boy were we surprised when in less than 3 hours we managed to see both of our target species. The area just around the trout farm at about 2600-2700m is known to be a good spot to see the Chestnut-crested Cotinga, but being a cotinga all you can really do is hope you come across one perched in the top of the tree as regular and cotinga usually do not go hand-in-hand. We parked at the trout farm and worked our way up the road a bit, scanning tree tops and looking for fruiting trees. Not more than 45 minutes passed when two Chestnut-crested Cotingas flew into a fruiting tree just above us for a quick snack. They did not stay long, but we got a minutes worth of great, close looks at them. Nice! With one hard bird in the bag we headed up to the pass to see if we could find the Yellow-eared Parrot. The Yellow-eared Parrot was feared extinct until 1999 when 81 individuals were rediscovered in the area. Thanks to conservation efforts the population of Yellow-eared Parrots is rebounding nicely and they can be seen with regularity about 2 km below the pass. As you descend from the pass you enter some pasture areas and pass a small farm house. Just after this are a couple of curves in the road where you can park and have nice views in both directions as well as at the handful of wax palms in the paddocks. When we got to this area, clouds and mist started moving in, it began to rain, and we thought the parrots were going to be a wash for the day, so we sat in the van and had a snack. Within about 10 minutes the rain started easing off and just then we heard parrots flying over. We both jumped out of the van as they were flew low right in front of us and they perched in a tree about 25 meters away. We were able to get quite a bit closer yet along the road and enjoyed about 15 minutes watching a group of 4 of these beautiful parrots eating and preening from a very close distance! We were hoping just to get looks of them flying over and never expected to get such good looks at perched Yellow-eared Parrots. Pretty cool!
We camped at the pass so we could get an early morning start to see who else was around. We needed to get to our next destination so we didn’t spend too much time birding the area, but a few nice birds we saw there included Speckle-faced Parrot, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Barred Fruiteater, Green-fronted Lancebill, Blue-backed Conebill, and more (eBird list).