While the Chocó and the Western Andes host a wealth of exotic endemics, the area surrounding Los Nevados National Park (near the towns of Manizales and Pereira) cannot be underestimated. Diversity is through the roof here, the sites are very easy to access and comfortable, the birding is excellent, and there are hot springs all over the place, which make excellent places to stay or camp! There are at least 13 species of Antpittas in this small area of the Central Andes – Scaled, Moustached, Undulated, Brown-banded, Bicolored, Chestnut-crowned, Chestnut-naped, Rufous, Tawny, Ochre-bellied, Slate-crowned, Crescent-faced, and Hooded. And 10 of these species have been recorded at Rio Blanco alone!
There is a wealth of information already readily available about Rio Blanco. Rio Blanco is one of the most classic and most visited birding sites in Colombia, and rightly so. Rio Blanco is the go-to spot for three very difficult species – Masked Saltator, Bicolored Antpitta, and Brown-banded Antpitta. The two Antpittas are commonly heard and both are seen readily at feeding stations. The Saltator is regular, but certainly not guaranteed. Most birders do manage to see it, though not always well, and sometimes it can take more than a day to find (more on that later!). There are Hummingbird feeders at the entrance building and at the lodge and all of them are swarming. There is a good diversity of species at the feeders but nothing super rare or range-restricted, though a Wedge-billed Hummingbird is regular in the lodge garden, and Sword-billed Hummingbird is fairly regular on the lodge feeders. There really isn’t much need to try to figure out where the birds are in the reserve, as it is mandatory to have a guide when you go out, and your guide, Albeiro, is a passionate birder who knows every song, alarm, contact call, and soft call in the forest and knows where to find every bird you could be looking for. There are currently three Antpitta feeding stations, one for Slate-crowned Antpitta, one for Chestnut-crowned and Brown-banded Antpittas, and one for Bicolored Antpitta. The antpittas also have a few friends that come in for a few worms as well. A Green-and-Black Fruiteater comes to two of the feeders and takes a few worms. Wait! I thought fruiteaters ate fruit?? A few Gray-browed Brush-Finches also take a few worms. Chestnut-naped Antpitta occasionally visits the feeders, but apparently this species wanders more widely in the reserve. However, there are a couple of habituated Chestnut-naped Antpittas so it’s possible to go out with Albeiro to track them down and call them in for a worm snack. While many people dislike Antpitta feeders and question their ecological impact, it seems, to me, increasingly obvious that the impact of feeding one or two individuals a few extra worms each day cannot be as large as the impact of non-stop playback for rare and range-restricted birds when there is basically only one site to see them. As well, most birders are happy to see Antpittas at feeders and these feeders attract ecotourism to reserves, and that money goes to conservation. (Watch for Kathi’s more in-depth article on this subject in the future).
While Masked Saltator also ranges from Central Ecuador to Northern Peru, it seems to be more readily and reliably seen at Rio Blanco than anywhere else. As such, we didn’t want to miss it here, but it gave us a bit of a rough go. We arrived mid-day our first day and went out in the afternoon. On our way back down to the lodge, passing through the area where the Saltator is most frequently seen, we came upon a large mixed flock. While working the flock Albeiro found the Saltator but as soon as he called it out it flew over us and stuck itself in a thicket, not to return. We saw enough of a flight profile to ID the bird, but that is hardly the way you want to see such an iconic and awesome species! What followed was two full days of staying out all day and not being able to find it again to save our lives. We extended our stay by a day to give it one last whack. On our final morning we worked the same area for the umpteenth time and re-found all the same resident birds along this particular stretch of the trail. We spread out along the trail for maximum coverage. I was up on the ridge, Kathi was back a few hundred yards at a trail junction, and Albeiro was a good ways below her. We were trying to cover more ground but were also figuring that if we did find it, one of us could miss it. Looking at the same Great Thrushes over and over had gotten to be downright boring. But, if you’re looking for a Saltator, of course you have to check any mid-sized bird you see moving, but 80% of them were Great Thrushes and the other 20% were Montane Woodcreepers, Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, and Mountain-Tanagers that I knew on a first name basis by that point. As well, when a bird tucks into a tangle it is tempting to punt on it if you don’t see it in the first few moments of looking. However, persistence can pay off! Eventually I saw a bird tuck into a hanging vine tangle and spent a few minutes trying to get a look at it; when it popped it’s face out it was a nice slaty-black face with a red eye and a stonking red bill! After having barely missed (or barely seen depending on how you count it) the bird on the first day, after three days of persistent searching, and with just a few hours left before we would be leaving, it was a huge relief to find Masked Saltator. I whistled loudly for Kathi and could hear her running up the trail while I tried to stay on the bird. Luckily, in this case, it kept rummaging around in the same tangle, and then popped right out into the open just as Kathi caught up with me and stayed there until Albeiro caught up as well. We all watched it for several minutes, and Albeiro commented that you almost never get such good looks at it. Of course I had left the camera behind that morning – it has become a bit of a joke for us, when we really want to find the rare bird, if I leave the camera behind we will see it for sure! But we relished the view for several minutes, very happy we decided to spend an extra day looking! With a couple of hours to kill we decided to go take a look for Undulated Antpitta. Not surprisingly, we didn’t walk right up to one. We actually never even heard one during our three days. However, while looking for this species in a likely area, not more than an hour after we had seen the Masked Saltator, we stumbled upon another Masked Saltator in a different mixed flock. When it rains, it pours, I guess… we figure that we will probably now see several in Ecuador and Peru down the road!
Along with the various Antpittas and the Saltator, we logged a ton of other great birds in our time there (eBird lists Day 1 and Day 2). Standouts include Golden-plumed Parakeet, Dusky Piha, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Ocellated Tapaculo, White-throated Quail-Dove, Pale-footed Swallow, Rusty-faced Parrot, Striped and Flammulated Treehunters, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Grass-green Tanager, Blue-winged and Hooded Mountain-Tanagers, Powerful Woodpecker, Flavescent Flycatcher, and Yellow-vented Woodpecker. We also stayed out owling one evening, seeing Band-winged Nightjar and hearing Rufous-bellied Nighthawk, White-throated Screech-Owl and Rufous-banded Owl. Overall, the birding at Rio Blanco is pretty remarkable and it is one of the birdiest sites we have been too. The number of mixed flocks and the diversity in the flocks is outstanding, the trails are actually dirt roads with good footing, and you don’t have to walk very far from the lodge to end up with a huge list! We never once put on rubber boots or repellant, it is notably less rainy than some places we have been recently, and we spent our time looking up at birds and not down at slippery trails and rocks – awesome!
After Rio Blanco we headed to the Paramo del Ruiz and a hotspring therein called Termales del Ruiz. Paramo del Ruiz is a large expanse of Paramo both outside of and inside of Parque Natural Nacional Los Nevados. You can drive up to the northern entrance station to the park (accessed from the Manizales – Bogota Rd) at about 4100 m elevation. Just at the park buildings and along the road you can readily find Tawny Antpitta and Buffy Helmetcrest. We also found a Stout-billed Cinclodes on our short visit, though I think that this one would be easy to miss there. There is not really a birding related reason to enter the park, although it is purportedly beautiful and Andean Condor is easily seen within the park. If you do want to enter, you can only do so between 8AM and 2PM daily, and it is mandatory to have a guide. Camping is not allowed in the park. Paying two entrances, the car’s entrance, and the guide, would have been about 80,000COP ($30 US), which is not terrible. However we were starting to feel a bit of pressure with our visas expiring in late September, so we passed on seeing the park; we have a lot of Colombia left and only 3 weeks to see it!
Below the park entrance, on the old road down to Manizales, there is a hotel and hot springs called Termales del Ruiz. From the park entrance road, there is a signed dirt road descending to the right that leads to the Termales. About 4km down this road, just before the road turns from pavement to dirt, is one of the best places to look for Rufous-fronted Parakeet. We stopped and looked on our first afternoon. We couldn’t find any in the pastures or in the scattered trees around, but we heard them in the distance and eventually saw a group in flight. Another afternoon stop here on a subsequent day was rewarded with about 10 Parakeets feeding on the ground and in flowering trees about 50 m uphill from the road. Exact GPS coordinates for this spot are 4.96262, -75.36646. Descending another couple of kilometers you will arrive at the well signed Termales del Ruiz. This hotel and hotsprings was undergoing renovation and was loud and dusty inside and didn’t look like a great place to stay but on the weekend they had it halfway cleaned up and had guests. Friends of ours have reported that the restaurant was overpriced (50,000COP for two lunches) but it is the only thing anywhere around if you want a hot meal! We parked the van a few meters down the road and paid the daily entrance fee (18,000COP / person) to take advantage of the springs, have access to bathrooms and showers, and to check out the great hummingbird feeders. The feeders here attract Black-thighed Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Tourmaline Sunangel, Tyrian Metaltail, Viridian Metaltail, Shining Sunbeam, Great Sapphirewing, Collared Inca, Mountain Velvetbreast and Sparkling Violetear. We also found a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill in the garden near the feeders though we didn’t see this guy come to the feeders themselves. We also walked from the Termales about 5 km down the road. The first ~2 km below the Termales is elfin scrub that was loaded with flowers on our visit (mid-August 2015) and was absolutely buzzing with hummingbirds. We didn’t stop to identify every bird but we logged all of the species we saw at the feeders multiple times with the exception of Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. However, we also saw several Purple-backed Thornbills along this stretch of road.
A few km below the Termales there is an immense shrine just as the vegetation transitions from elfin scrub to cloud forest. From here down in the patches of Chusquea bamboo, Crescent-faced Antpitta has occurred on occasion, however iIt has not been seen recently. We tried speculative playback along the road with no luck either. Anywhere in the Los Nevados area that you can find bamboo in cloud forest around 2800 – 3400 m is a place to look for this rare bird. Another nice species that we found multiple times in this area (around 3100 – 3200 m) was Crowned Chat-Tyrant. This species has a large range but is seemingly always local and uncommon. Although we did not have any mega rarities, we had a nice mix of upper elevation cloud forest species here – Glossy Flowerpiercer, Slaty-backed, Brown-backed and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrants, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, White-browed Spinetail, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Rufous and Slate-crowned Antpitta, Blackish, Ash-colored and Spillman’s Tapaculos, Barred Fruiteater, Powerful Woodpecker, and Blue-backed Conebill (eBird list). We drove this road down from the mountains and back into Manizales when we left the area. There is excellent cloud forest all the way down to about 2500 m, with massive amounts of bamboo in areas. You could spend two full days just birding this road, although places to park off the road are very scarce, we saw only a handful of cars on the entire road.
Our next stop was a recently discovered stake-out for the critically endangered, endemic, and awesome Fuertes’s (Indigo-winged) Parrot. This is another species that was thought extinct but recently rediscovered. There are a few reserves that have been created to protect the parrot – the two most notable being ProAves’ RNA Loro Coroniazul and RNA Giles Fuertesi. However, these sites are a bit complicated to access at the moment. Fortunately there is a quite reliable new site above Santa Rosa de Cabal (located between Manizales and Pereira). From Santa Rosa, head east up onto the slopes of Los Nevados along the well signed hotsprings road that leads to both Termales de Santa Rosa and Termales de San Vicente. Just above town, at the signed left turn for Termales de San Vicente, turn left here. Follow the road up until you see another fork, with a signed right hand turn descending towards the Termales de San Vicente. Keep left to keep going uphill at this fork. From here you wind a good ways up through more pastures, to a small checkpoint at nearly 3000 m (unoccupied on our visit but we were told that if you tell them you’re just going birding but not entering the park there is no problem), then down through a small forested gulley, then back up to open pastures at about 3000 m again. Continue along through these pastures until you pass a second small farm on the left and start descending slightly. When you see some partially intact cloud forest with cleared understory in the valley below you on the left, a creek with a small yellow bridge directly below you, and extensive intact cloud forest in the distance on the right, stop in a spot with a good view and have a look. Other species of parrots occur here too (Speckle-faced Parrot on our visit). We spent about an hour watching and listening until we heard and then saw in flight 3 Fuertes’s Parrots. They moved around a bit, eventually coming quite close with one individual perching in a nearby snag for several minutes. While on the stakeout we also had great looks at a pair of Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan. It looks like there is a good bit of good habitat further uphill on this road (which eventually enters PNN Los Nevados), and we’ve heard that Crescent-faced Antpitta can be found higher up, though we did not go looking on our visit. The exact GPS coordinates of the spot where we parked and scanned for the parrots are 4.85618, -75.48463.
Next up on our tour of the area was Santuario de Flora y Fauna Otun Quimbaya. This is a very classic site and is well documented, much like Rio Claro. A nominal 5,000COP/person fee is charged to use the trails, although you do not need to pay to bird the road. There is a nice restaurant and lodge at the entrance to the reserve as well if you are looking for a place to stay. We were allowed to camp for free anywhere in the reserve as long as we were off the road. We camped at the top of the road where there is a single family home and small store, called El Cedral. There are also restrooms here, and this is where the trail up into the adjoining reserve, Ucumari, starts. Otun Quimbaya is well-known as the best site for the endemic, endangered and now very local Cauca Guan, as well as being a great site for Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Chestnut Wood-Quail, Moustached and Scaled Antpittas, Torrent Duck, and Multicolored Tanager. The birding is along fairly flat trails and a road. The understory is pretty navigable and open, making this a great place to actually see Antpittas and the Wood-Quail. We spent our time in the reserve trying to track down some of these secretive species. The Red-ruffed Fruitcrow and the Cauca Guan are common; we saw several of both species each day. We heard Scaled Antpitta a couple of times and failed to see it on one effort, but we did hear and see a Moustached Antpitta which was a nice bonus! We also saw a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta while we were off trail stalking a different bird, it happily hopped across the forest floor in front of us, unconcerned! We also had nice looks at a Chestnut-breasted Wren. Mixed flocks are not super common but do hold nice birds – Ashy-headed and Plumbeous-crowned Tyrannulets, Crested Ant-Tanager, Multicolored and Metallic-green Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, and more. We finally actually saw a Wattled Guan and we had nice views of an adult Black-and-chestnut Eagle circling overhead for a few minutes at one point. Bronze-winged Parrots seemed to be the most common parrots flying overhead. Along the river, Torrent Duck, Torrent Tyrannulet, and White-capped Dipper are all reasonably common.
Quietly walking the trail along the river one morning, we came upon a pair of Chestnut Wood-Quail, another species we had heard many times that was nice to finally see as we will soon be leaving its range! We also drove the road in the evening and saw a few owls, one presumed Colombian Screech-Owl that did not vocalize or respond to playback and another larger-appearing owl that we saw briefly may have been Mottled Owl. There is also another trail that is nice to bird (though crowded on weekends, apparently). Just before the Otun Quimbaya visitor’s center and lodge, there is a fork to the left that is signed “Pez Fresca.” This short road leads to a secondary set of park offices and a trout farm. If you ask permission to park at the trout farm you can walk a trail that begins just after the second bridge on the right. This signed trail leads to a waterfall (Sendero La Cascada – the waterfall trail) and along this trail we had a nice mix of mostly the same birds, including Grayish Piculet in the scrubby second growth areas (eBird list).
We also made a quick trip over the crest of the Central Andes to the eastern slopes to look for a few Tolima area endemics in the Cañon de Combeima/Juntas area. We birded the Ibague botanic gardens, hoping for Blue-lored Antbird, which has been reported in the gardens but we did not find and Tolima Dove, which we found reasonably quickly despite afternoon heat. We hiked up above the irrigated/garden areas towards the forest higher up and heard a dove calling. After a bit of cat-and-mouse with this fairly shy Leptotila, we soon got pretty good looks. Next we headed to Juntas, where we camped just past town in the picnic area/trailhead on the right side of the road after the bridge. It took us about 2 minutes to find the endemic Yellow-headed Brush-Finch here. They are quite noisy and conspicuous. After this we spent a good bit of time looking in this area and below town along the river for the third endemic, the recently split Tolima Blossomcrown. We had no luck in the flowering trees along the rivers so we hiked up a ways to a lodge called UKUKU, where the Blossomcrown sometimes comes to the feeders. Unfortunately it hadn’t been seen at the feeders recently and we didn’t luck into it during our time chatting with the awesome and very kind owners, so the Tolima Blossomcrown went down as a miss. We have invested a lot of time and effort hunting down endemics but somehow Hummingbirds can fail to inspire and can feel hopeless sometimes. So many hummingbird species move around seasonally or are little understood and it frequently just doesn’t make sense to stay in an area an extra day or two hoping to luck into a hummingbird!
Even after all the amazing birds we logged in the area, including the Masked Saltator, Fuertes’s Parrot, Brown-banded Antpitta and the Buffy Helmetcrest, the best species would be the last! With just a couple of historic records from Venezuela, the Hooded Antpitta is, for all intents and purposes, a Colombian endemic species. It also happens to be one of the rarest, least known, and hardest to see of the Antpittas. There are harder birds on the list of Colombian endemics (Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, Santa Marta Wren, Chiribiquete Emerald, Gorgeted Puffleg), but of the birds that are reasonably accessible, Hooded Antpitta is certainly among the most difficult and least frequently seen. There are very few known sites for it, with most all records in recent times coming from the region in the Central Andes or from Parque Nacional Cueva de los Guacharos. We were fortunate to have a bit of help finding this species; several Colombian friends provided tips on where to look. We visited several areas several times, staking out likely places and historical territories, trying a bit of playback, and never receiving any responses or seeing any sign of this very furtive little skulker. We were starting to think we might miss the species or might be headed to Cueva de los Guacharos. However, having slowly gained something of an understanding that this bird seems to prefer moist ravines, and not necessarily in chusque bamboo, usually around 2000 m, we started going further off trail and doing more bushwhacking. On our last evening we were going to dedicate to the search, we had gotten ourselves further into the forest in a likely place, and were trying playback a bit, when we finally heard a response. The initial elation of hearing Hooded Antpitta, however, grew into anxiety as we were having a hard time figuring out just how far the bird might be from us and could not discern any trace of motion in the dark undergrowth. With many Antpittas, in a manner similar to Screech-Owls, it can sometimes be very hard to determine from what direction and from how far the voice is coming as they can be quite ventriloquial and frequently soft-call from much closer than expected. We dressed in dark clothes to conceal ourselves, but actually sat down on the forest floor to hide ourselves even better. We spent perhaps 15 minutes listening and scanning the undergrowth but could not detect motion or find a perched little tailless ball. We decided to try to very quietly and slowly move closer. After getting just perhaps 2-3 meters closer, Kathi quickly stopped me and pointed, she saw the Hooded Antpitta perched in the understory no more than 5 meters in front of us! She saw it briefly but unfortunately, however, I missed it, seeing only motion as it hopped from perch to perch away from us and tucked itself in. What followed was an agonizing 20 minutes as we crouched down, stayed very quiet, then played the call again at very low volume a couple of times. Finally Kathi saw some movement and motioned me in the right direction. I managed to get a good but quick look at this adorable little tailless ball of feathers before it again tucked further back in. We stayed there for some time, silent, scanning and watching, hoping for a photo opportunity, but did not see the little guy again so we left it in peace and quietly retraced our steps out of the forest, absolutely elated! This was certainly one of the best species we have seen in Colombia, or on our entire trip for that matter! Unfortunately we cannot share the location where we saw it but local guides (we would recommend Diego Calderon, Pablo Florez, or Luis Ureño) can help you find this species. For us, seeing Hooded Antpitta was an absolute highlight of the trip and is a memory that neither of us will ever forget.
All in, the Central Andes offers a wealth of fantastic birding destinations and a load of endemic birds are present. Access to most sites is easy and there are comfortable places to stay. At most sites the birding and hiking is relatively easy as well. We loved our time in the Central Andes and can see why everyone comes away so impressed! Having now spent a fairly good amount of time in each of Colombia’s three Andean ranges, the Perijá, and Santa Marta, it seems like Santa Marta and the Central Andes are the friendlier, easier places for an introduction to the Colombian Andes, leaving the Western and Eastern Cordilleras rougher roads, muddier and steeper trails for later.