Birding Putumayo – Colombia’s birding frontier

16 – 21 September 2015. 

We really ran short of time in southern Colombia, unfortunately. We had hoped to visit PNN Cueva de los Guacharos, the Mocoa area, the Sibundoy area, and the Junin area (RNA Pangan and Rio Ñambi) but we only had a few days left on our Colombian visas so we decided to check out the Mocoa and Sibundoy areas as there would be many new species for us there and we were hoping to connect with a couple of rarities as well as make some new friends.

Leaving San Agustin via Pitalito towards Mocoa, the road heads up and out of the Magdalena Valley for the last time, cresting over 2000 m in gorgeous east-Andean cloud forest, before descending slowly down through large intact swaths of gorgeous subtropical forest to Mocoa at 500 m in the Amazonian foothills.  To the east lies the immense PNN Cueva de los Guacharos and for a good portion of the drive there is intact forest along both sides of the Pitalito-Macoa road. Unfortunately there is a bit too much traffic on the road to make it seriously appealing for birding, but we gave it a bit of a try anyways. Some mid-morning birding around 1500-1600 m at approximately km 65 – 58 was not super productive due to heat and traffic (eBird list).  We only turned up a small handful of species, but Plain-backed Antpitta was heard several times and Ecuadorian Tyrannulet was one of the first birds we saw! White-tailed Hillstar and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus were common. We then descended a bit more and birded near km 51 where there is a side trail that looks promising. We had to fight the rain, but even so a brief stop here at around 1200 m elevation was productive with an interesting mix of subtropical Andean species and Amazonian species (eBird list). We found Orange-eared Tanager, Lined Antshrike, Yellow-throated Toucan, and Wire-crested Thorntail, alongside Amazonian species such as Chestnut-eared Aracari, Magpie Tanager, and Paradise Tanager. This side trail and any others that can be found along the road, should make excellent birding. To find the side trail at km 51, it is actually a couple hundred meters north of the km 51 marker (towards km 52 and Pitalito), on the east (downhill) side of the road. There is an obvious pullout and a horse/motorcycle path leading from the road. We asked permission to park and hike along the trail and permission was freely given. We birded a bit of path (which quickly narrows and is quite muddy so rubber boots are recommended) before being chased off by increasing rain.

Arriving in Mocoa we stayed at Casa del Rio (1.124338, -76.638365). This hostel has recently changed ownership and they are still working out the kinks. However, the new owners were very kind and were happy to let us camp. Their parking lot is not terribly flat so we parked just outside the gate next to the river. They also have rooms and bunks available for a reasonable price. They serve food as well, but based on what I saw I would recommend eating elsewhere. The grounds are reasonably birdy and there are some trails that leave from the hostel, but we didn’t actually bird the grounds. Instead, on our first afternoon, we met up with local birder Brayan Coral Jaramillo. He recommended that we bird an area called Vereda Rumiyaco (1.1179,-76.6774). To get to Vereda Rumiyaco leave town headed towards the Trampolín de la Muerte and Sibundoy and turn right onto a dirt road after crossing the Rumiyaco river (1.1202, -76.6567). Drive a short distance down the road and find a place to park (be sure to ask if you are parking in front of a house). We parked in a wide spot of the road and started walking and birding. This area was indeed birdy with plenty of disturbed habitat species, such as Violaceous Jay, Silver-beaked Tanager, Glittering-throated Emerald, Lettered Aracari, and Golden-bellied Euphonia. But among the common birds we pulled out a nice handful of surprises, best of which were certainly Cream-colored Woodpecker and Plum-throated Cotinga! This area is also good for Orange-fronted Plushcrown though we didn’t track any down in our brief afternoon outing. See our eBird list for a complete list of species seen.

The following morning we picked Brayan up early in town and headed to Pueblo Viejo. To get to Pueblo Viejo head north out of town towards Pitalito for approximately 5 km. Turn left onto a dirt road at 1.1917, -76.6477 (the dirt road is on the left just before the highway goes over a river). Drive down to the end of the road, where there is a house/restaurant and a suspension bridge, say hi and ask permission to park. From here, cross the suspension bridge and start birding. We spent the day birding our way up past Montclart and most of the way to Vereda San Martin. This trail climbs from about 600 m to about 900 m through mostly disturbed habitat with a handful of small forest patches. Nonetheless it was birdy in the morning, highlights in the open areas were Red-capped Cardinal, Orange-backed Troupial, stacks of Violaceous Jays again, Golden-tailed Sapphire, Thrushlike Wren, Scaled Piculet, Little Woodpecker, White-winged Becard, Yellow-bellied Tanager, Yellow-bellied Dacnis and a handful of Gilded Barbets in the forest patches. A couple of surprises here were some fairly low elevation Bronze-winged Parrots, an even more surprising Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and a female White-bellied Dacnis. Starting at about 900 m the trail climbs into mostly second-growth forest and the birding gets more interesting. Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Gray-chinned Hermit, and Slaty-capped Flycatcher are common here. We had a nice surprise in the form of a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. But the prize birds here are Coppery-chested Jacamar, Black-streaked Puffbird, and Golden-collared Toucanet. The Jacamar is actually fairly common here and nests in the bank cuts right along the trail. We saw at least 5 over the course of a couple of hours from about 900 m up to about 1200 m. We heard and called in a single Black-streaked Puffbird and almost got some photos but it eluded the camera. We trolled for the Toucanet a bit but no dice on that uncommon species. We also had a surprise White-throated Quail-Dove and quite a few more Gilded Barbets here (eBird list). With mid-day heat and blazing sun we had a long, hot walk back down and celebrated with some cold beers and surprisingly good fries in a random roadside restaurant!

After this we parted ways with Brayan for a few days as he was off to take University entrance exams. For our last day of birding in the Mocoa area we hiked to the Fin del Mundo canyon and waterfall. This is a beautiful hike that starts in second-growth gallery forest at about 500 m before entering better forest around 900 m elevation. Unfortunately it pissed rain until 9AM so we got a late start and didn’t have a ton of activity, though we still managed a few nice birds and enjoyed the falls (eBird list).

If you do hike this trail, the trail itself is in great shape, is mostly a wooden walkway, and there is no need for boots, you could hike it in sandals. If you want to descend the canyon all the way to the creeks and falls you will have to make a couple of creek crossings that may be more or less adventurous depending on water levels so plan to get wet up to your knees if not your waist! We turned up several nice tanager flocks and despite brutal backlight and birds 30 m overhead we picked out a wide variety of the more common canopy species – various Honeycreepers and Tanagers and Dacnis, with highlights perhaps being Green-and-gold Tanager, Gilded Barbet, Black-faced Dacnis, and Fulvous-crested and Flame-crested Tanagers. A group of noisy White-fronted Nunbirds was nice entertainment and kept a flock around for a while, as we struggled to never quite get good looks at a probable White-bellied Dacnis. We also caught the tail end of an understory flock, where an Amazonian Barred-Woodcreeper was a nice find. At the top of the trail, where it flattens out for a bit before descending again into the Fin del Mundo canyon, we had a pair of vocal male Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock. It really does look like the best birding in this area would be from the trail crest here and further along. After cresting the ridge, the trail descends slightly and proceeds along a level area. It then descends into the canyon, down some stairways, and eventually crosses the creek the first time. After the first creek crossing, before the trail heads down wooden stairways again, there is an area with cleared undergrowth and something of a very rudimentary lean-to structure uphill on the right. In this area another trail leaves the main trail and heads uphill towards Finca Dantayaco and other areas (more details in Jurgen and Pablo’s birdwatching guide). It appears that a non-rainy morning and hurrying up to this area to bird the more intact forest more intensively would be the best strategy here.

There is a lot more birding in the Mocoa area and down towards Puerto Assis and security has improved a lot recently making many of these areas accessible for the first time (though this remains an area where you should ask locals and the local police/military before heading down random roads or into the woods – always better to have up-to-date information!). Unfortunately, however, we didn’t have anywhere near enough time to adequately explore it all.

With just a few days remaining on our Colombian visas, we needed to head up the Trampolín de la Muerte towards Sibundoy and Pasto. The Trampolín de la Muerte is famous for being one of the most outrageous/dangerous roads in all of Colombia with single lane hairpin turns next to thousand foot drops. The name is pretty awesome as well – the trampoline of death! As well there is enough heavy truck traffic to keep things interesting, with random face to face meetings on blind corners and the smaller vehicle having to back up until there is a passing spot. The entire Trampolín de la Muerte, starting around 1000-1200 m elevation as you leave the Mocoa area and continuing up to about 2500 m over the course of at least 50-60 km, consists of amazing subtropical forest that continues untouched in all directions. The views from the road are absolutely stunning and we did not find driving the road to be scary at all!

From a driving perspective, the traffic is really not that much and the road is not as bad as reputation makes it out to be, we have been on far, far worse! Unfortunately, though, there is just enough traffic that it is not quite a “quiet dirt road” for strolling down and the traffic interferes with the birding. There are, none the less, a ton of amazing birds found here. Our morning birding here consisted of various stops between about 1500 m and 2300 m as we worked our way up the road, but we were plagued by traffic and rain and it was just not as productive as we had hoped as a result (eBird list). Green-fronted Lancebill, White-tailed Hillstar and Collared Inca were all common along the road. Common mixed-flock birds included Handsome Flycatcher, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Saffron-crowned Tanager, and Flame-faced Tanager. Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, despite barely making it into Colombia, range-wise, was the single most common bird we encountered in this area, though closer to Sibundoy it is much less common, nearly totally replaced by other Diglossa species. Both Short-billed Chlorospingus and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus are quite common, though care needs to be taken to ID these two birds. Eye color is critical for ID and the throat/moustache area of Short-billed Chlorospingus is not nearly as cleanly delimited as some guidebooks make it appear – studying some photos ahead of time, paying attention to elevation, and paying attention to eye color will help quite a bit! We heard Long-tailed Tapaculo, a species with a restricted range in Colombia, several times, though seeing it from the Trampolín would be quite difficult as the vegetation is cleared back several meters from the road in most areas and there is just too much traffic. We also heard Spillman’s Tapaculo higher up and we had a Hooded Mountain-Tanager and a Streaked Tuftedcheek in a mixed flock. There is an absolute mountain of potential for birding along this road. Several days could be spent just between Mocoa and Sibundoy along the Trampolín de la Muerte. When first ascending above Mocoa there is a spot called El Mirador at about 1800 m or 2000 m where there are a few little restaurants and stores and a military base and it would probably be possible and safe to camp there if you can sleep in your vehicle. As well further along there are a couple more tiny little outposts with 1-2 buildings or a restaurant where the adventurous could readily overnight. Being on the road in the mornings and evenings would be more productive and would be subject to far less traffic noise. We just didn’t have the time to do this, as much as we wanted to. It is not often, in this day and age, that you can drive through 50+ km of wholly intact foothill and subtropical forest! In about 10-15 years a new route from Sibundoy to Mocoa will open and the Trampolín de la Muerte, once freed from traffic, is likely become one of the premier birding roads in all of South America! In fact the local birders have already started calling it Trampolín de las Aves or Trampolín de la Diversidad (the trampoline of birds or of diversity – this is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet!).

Our final bit of birding in Colombia would be in the vicinity of Sibundoy. Sibundoy is a small town that is nestled in a somewhat drier valley just east of the continental divide. It is markedly drier here than along the Trampolín de la Muerte and the majority of the valley has been converted to agriculture. However you only need travel a short distance back towards Mocoa, perhaps 10-20 minutes, to re-enter great habitat, and there are some spectacular trails and roads to bird here that are free of vehicle traffic. We had the pleasure of meeting with another fantastic Sibundoy local, Alvaro Alberto Cárdenas Cerón. We spent the day birding a trail that descends from Portachuelo to Minchoy together with Alvaro. Starting on the outskirts of San Francisco (the community adjoining Sibundoy to the east) at about 2300 m, a dirt road turns off the Sibundoy-Mocoa road, currently featuring a sign about access to the construction of the new road. This turn is at 1.1738, -76.8635. You can drive a ways up until you reach a washed out bridge. Park here and start walking! The track ascends to about 2600 m before descending again, crossing the construction of the new highway, and descending to about 2100 m at Minchoy. Below Minchoy it continues descending into ever better habitat, though a combination of rain and lots of birds higher up meant we did not get any lower than Minchoy on our visit. This trail passes through a bit of pasture at first then proceeds through a mixture of elfin forest, scrubby second-growth cloud forest, and taller second-growth subtropical forest. Overall it is quite birdy and despite the rain we tallied a large number of species, many of them less common. The higher elevation areas are good for White-rimmed Brushfinch, though we came up empty despite considerable effort. In the higher areas we did find Chestnut-crowned and Slate-crowned Antpittas, Blackish and Spillmann’s Tapaculo,  Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Yellow-bellied and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrants, and Sharpe’s Wren, among other common mixed-flock birds. We also noticed that the Golden-fronted Redstarts in this area show signs of apparent intergradation with Spectacled Redstart. We saw no pure birds of either species but rather birds that appeared to have some red in the crown and a few with a touch of a black line connecting the gape to the eye, but still looking more like Golden-fronted overall. Interesting!

As we descended towards Minchoy we logged at least two if not three Bicolored Antpittas, one seen well as it was singing just off the trail! In the area near and just above Minchoy we found a slightly high elevation Lined Antshrike that was singing and responded well to playback, a Lineated Foliage-Gleaner in a mixed flock, and a large variety of Tanagers including Rufous-crested, Fawn-breasted, Saffron-crowned, Golden-crowned, Grass-green, and Hooded Mountain-Tanager. Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager was a member of every mixed flock we encountered – this species seems to be local and generally fairly uncommon, but where it is present it can be abundant! We found Short-billed Chlorospingus again as well, and the elevation here should mean that Yellow-throated would be the far less expected of these two very similar species. This is also a good area for some other nice species, though apparently it is better to descend further below Minchoy, where you have a chance at finding Yellow-throated Tanager, Blue-browed Tanager, Spectacled Prickletail, and Violet-fronted Brilliant. In all, our best bird of the day was definitely the Bicolored Antpitta. We had a lot of rain and we didn’t manage to find a single one of the specialties we were looking for, but the birding along this route is absolutely fantastic and should not be missed (eBird list). A bit of an earlier start and a drier day would let you hike down further for a better chance at some of the rare birds as well! This trail actually continues all the way to Mocoa and would make an awesome three plus days of backpacking and birding.

We saved the hardest bird for last, and with just one full birding day remaining, we teamed back up with Brayan Coral Jaramillo to head to the Paramo de Bordoncillo at a spot called Quilisanyaco in order to look for the incredibly rare Chestnut-bellied Cotinga. This bird was actually discovered in this locale by Brayan and others as part of a training course about the local fauna. On the same day that they found the Cotinga, they also found Masked Mountain-Tanager! We spent a full day hiking muddy trails up and down throughout the elfin forest, gaining various viewpoints to scan over the hillsides for perched Cotingas. A brief moment of excitement was short-lived when we had a distant pair cotingas, but of the Red-crested variety and not Chestnut-bellied, sadly. Unfortunately, neither the Chestnut-bellied Cotinga nor the Masked Mountain-Tanager could be found that day, and we were weathered out of  a final attempt the following morning on our way to Ecuador, but we still had a very nice day out, enjoyed close looks at multiple Rainbow-bearded Thornbills, found numerous Tawny and Rufous Antpittas, again found the ever striking Grass-green and Golden-crowned Tanagers, enjoyed a very close pair of soft-calling Barred Fruiteaters, and saw and heard Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers at every turn! (eBird list).

To get to Paramo de Bordoncillo – Quilisanyaco from Sibundoy take the highway east towards Pasto for roughly 30 km until you get to the summit just before the border between Putumayo and Narino. Here, there is a small dirt track that leads perhaps 50m to a couple small buildings – a tiny school and a  house, on the north side of the road at 1.1488,-77.0984. Park here (with permission, of course) and start hiking up the very muddy (rubber boots mandatory) track behind the house to the radio towers, scanning tree tops for the cotinga. Just behind the house, if you angle left across the cleared area you can find another track leading into the forest. The early parts of this track have good views over the forest as well, and the track later goes into the understory of the elfin forest. Though we did not try for it here, this looks like perfect habitat for Crescent-faced Antpitta, virtually identical to where we have seen this species in PNN Puracé and on Cerro Mongus in Ecuador.

While we missed most of the uncommon and rare birds we were looking for in the Sibundoy area and along the Trampolín de la Muerte, there is great access to excellent habitat all over the area and there are now a good handful of local birders who are ferreting out the best locations for all of these species. We had a bit of tough luck with the weather, but overall we really just didn’t have enough time in the area. It is not realistic to expect to spend three days birding and turn up 10 of the scarcest birds in Colombia! We have had bizarrely good luck a few times but this was more par for the course – lots of hiking, lots of good birds, but not blockbuster days with mega rarities at every turn! I think a good 3-5 days in the Mocoa area, 2-3 days along the Trampolín de la Muerte, and 3-4 days in the Sibundoy area would be a much better way to bird the area. A handful of local birders have been out there exploring, who are finding more and more species, but there is also a world of exploration left to do. Unfortunately many of the locals go birding only with their small zoom cameras or old, low quality, binoculars, which severely limits what they can see. It is times like these when I wish we had extra binoculars and bird guides to give away, because it is these locals who are out there finding new birds and expanding the knowledge base. They are the ones who need binoculars so badly. It is also these guys who are changing people’s perceptions about nature and birds. Alvaro works road construction on the Trampolín de la Muerte and he carries his camera every day to take pictures of the birds he sees while working. His fellow coworkers made fun of him day in and day out. He told us that at one point they even threw rocks at a Brushfinch Alvaro was trying to attract with rice. But because of Alvaro’s persistence his coworkers have started to come around and now they call Alvaro over to take pictures every time they find a bird. It may only be a few people whose minds Alvaro has opened up, but change like this can only happen one person at a time.

In consolation for being weathered out of a final chance at the Cotinga, we made a very brief stop at Laguna la Cocha, accessed via the turnoff to El Encano and simply driving to the end of the road which puts you amid reedbeds at the edge of the lake. Andean Gull, Slate-colored Coot, Andean (Ruddy) Duck, Grassland Yellow-Finch, and Plain-colored Seedeater were all common and we also managed to find a single Yellow-billed Pintail and a single Subtropical Doradito. Apparently Silvery Grebe can be found here with some luck (bring a scope!). There is also access to the lake via another turnoff, a bit further east, that eventually makes its way to Hotel Sindamanoy. In this area you are a bit higher and can scope the lake quite readily from the road at various points.

And with that, we were Ecuador bound!

2 Comments on Birding Putumayo – Colombia’s birding frontier

  1. you can see why there are so many birds in SA with all the plush greenery for them to flourish.
    again, as usual great writing and pictures


  2. great journey! I’m glad you had a nice experience in Putumayo!


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