If you bird long enough and have enough birding friends, it starts to feel like someone you know has been to more or less every birding destination of earth. Certain trips are very popular with birders and many of your friends will no doubt have taken them over the years. Given my quirky travel schedules, there are actually quite a few popular places ... Madagascar, the Galapagos, New Guinea ... that many of my friends have been too but which I have yet to see. Of all these places though, one stood out for me; it felt like everyone I know has at some point been to the Santa Marta Highlands of Colombia ... everyone that is except me. This was a trip I had considered multiple times of the last 30 years but had never managed to get organized to do. So 2019 was going to be the year I finally got there.
Tuesday, August 27 - RNA El Dorado Lodge
Well I finally made it happen. I got to Santa Marta and, after some birding around Barranquilla, started to head up into the mountains along with legendary Colombia birding guide Daniel Uribe- Restrepo (know to the other guides as Don Daniel) and a local guide driving a beast of a high clearance 4x4 Toyota Landcruiser. The car was a must given that the roads were awful, especially while construction of a new road forced traffic onto a diversion that was little more than a muddy farm track. At times we pushed on through roads covered in liquid mud, thankful that we were deep in rutted tire tracks because they seemed to be the only thing separating us from the worryingly steep slope that started inches from the road. It was a long morning of bouncing around in the back of a car that slowly inched it's way up the mountains. So each time we made brief stops in promising birding areas, and had a chance to get out of the car, I was a very relieved and happy birder.
|The Team for the Santa Marta Highlands|
The life birds started rolling-in on the way up. A couple of stops not far above Minca produced skulking Golden-winged Sparrows, shy Santa Marta Antbirds and an even shyer Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner. These were all great birds, and new for me, but I was clearly going to have to up my photo game if I was going to have souvenirs to take home as all three stayed largely hidden in dense cover, affording only brief views and 'record shots' rather than portraits. As we got closer to the lodge though, one of the endemics did cooperate beautifully when a SANTA MARTA BLOSSOMCROWN sat out on a twig in light rain and allowed for some clear, if grainy, photographs.
|Santa Marta Blossomcrown, this is a famous individual, that has a favorite |
twig close to a trail. Many birders have seen this individual.
Once up, it made sense to spend time with the hummingbird feeders and the hundreds of hummingbirds, of a dozen or so species, that thronged the yard. Three species of violetear dominated but among them were some real star hummingbirds that were lifers for me. White-tailed Starfrontlet and Lazuline Sabrewing were both amazing creatures in a country with so many great hummingbirds. Even though it was raining for most of the rest of the day, I opted to stay outdoors and watch the 'hummers' until it was time for a shower and for dinner.
|The view from my cabin in the evening before dinner (in one of the rare breaks from the rain).|
So today was the big day. We planned to climb further up hill and spend the morning in an area where some of the most sought after endemics could be seen. I'd assumed that many of the star birds would be easy to get once you got to the habitat, but apparently we were going to need some luck and were going to have to put in some effort to get them. I've since heard from friends who missed one or other of the endemics at this spot, but today at least, the birding gods were smiling and we were on a roll.
|Santa Marta Parakeet|
|Santa Marta Warbler|
|Yellow-crowned Redstart and White-lored Warbler, also both endemic|
to Santa Marta. Any mountain with three species of endemic warbler
is pretty special.
For some reason I had a very wrong search image in my mind for the bush-tyrant. I'm not sure how I got confused, having seen other species of bush-tyrant in the Andes, but I had an image of a small bird sitting up on bushes close the the ground. In reality the SANTA MARTA BUSH-TYRANT is a thrush-sized bird more likely to be found on the tree tops. Either way though, it didn't really matter as we couldn't find one, and Daniel managed my expectations saying that this species (along with the Thornbill and the Parakeet were often missed on single day trips). After birding the trail for a few hours, the time had come to leave and to head back down to the lodge. Oh well, you can't see everything I thought ... and then, there it was, sitting silently in a tree top above us on the trail (Daniel spotted it). A perfect end to an amazing birding stop. Eleven life birds and now I felt that I'd really been to Santa Marta.
|Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, not in a bush ...|
While we were congratulating ourselves and walking back to the lodge, I heard a thin, high 'seeeee' note coming from the canopy. It didn't register the first few times but the third time it called, the penny dropped, and I shouted 'fruiteater!'. Now all we had to do was find it, no doubt sitting still high in the canopy. In the end it was Daniel's sharp eyes that picked it out and we got great looks and even a few mediocre photos of what is surely one of the most stunning of the canopy birds here, the Golden-breasted Fruiteater.
Thursday, August 29 - RNA El Dorado Lodge
Today was "mop-up" day, a spare day to chase the things we hadn't yet managed to catch up with. There was a last endemic life bird to find, and we picked up the Santa Marta Woodstar relatively easily helped by expert local knowledge and the bird's habit of sitting high on dead trees in the open. We also managed to hear, but not see the Black-fronted Wood-Quail further down slope and I got my life Groove-billed Toucanets along the same trail where we stopped to re-visit the Santa Marta Blossomcrown. A very pleasant, low pressure, day of birding.
Friday, August 30 - Santa Marta
By morning I did not feel appreciably better and skipped breakfast as, having just emptied my digestive system I was loathe to put anything new in there. The good news was that a we had already seen almost all the target species. The bad news was that today was mostly going to be a long and bumpy ride down the mountain followed by a long drive to the next birding destination. I prepared myself to just endure, and spent most of the day dozing and groaning in the back of the Landcrusier, dutifully getting out when told to look at birds, then collapsing back on the seat.
|I think this is a photo of a Red Howler-Monkey but it might well have been a photo of me that day. |
It's certainly how I felt.