Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Santa Marta Highlands of Colombia ... Finally!

A Few Days Looking for the Santa Marta Endemics

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
Birders come to Santa Marta for the endemics.  A large cluster of bird species found nowhere else but on these isolated highlands in the North of Colombia.  Separated from the Andes and surrounded by low, dry country, the forests of Santa Marta are a true island and things here have taken their own direction.  Not all of the endemics were going to be accessibly to us, The Santa Marta Sabrewing is a seldom-seen legend, and both the Santa Marta Wren and the Blue-bearded Hemletcrest live way up on the tundra-like habitats on top of the mountain (and the required 4 days trip by mule was not going to be a part of the trip).  That still left me with around 30 target birds to focus on though, more than enough for a three day trip.

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.
By the time we made it to the lodge, I was exhausted from the car ride.  The lodge was very pleasant with a common area overlooking a big feeder set-up and cabins scattered through the forested grounds with amazing views down to the Caribbean Sea miles behind us.  My first thought was to nap but I was thwarted by Daniel who woke me as soon as I'd dozed off and dragged me back to the lodge to see a White-tipped Quetzal and a Black-hooded Thrush.  I was a little grumpy about being woken up, surely we'd see more of these species ... but in the end we didn't, so I was glad that Daniel persisted and forced me up to see them.

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.

White-tailed Starfrontlet
Lazuline Sabrewing
Exhausting as the day was, we weren't done yet though, and a brief nocturnal excursion after dinner produced two Kinkajous, a Gray-handed Night-Monkey but no screech-owls.  I slept very well that night.

The view from my cabin in the evening before dinner (in one of the rare breaks from the rain).
Wednesday, August 28 - Cuchilla San Lorenzo

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
First up, as we arrived at the observation tower area where we planned to have breakfast, were SANTA MARTA PARAKEETS.   There were a group of them sitting around on palm stumps close to the road, which was pretty much what I had expected, but greatly excited the guides who were thrilled to have a major target so quickly (this bird can be missed I've since learned).  Then, as soon as we moved past the parakeets a Santa Marta Warbler started singing along with Hermit Wood-Wren and Santa Marta Antpitta.  Where to start?  In the end it was none of these as a BLACK-BACKED THORNBILL flew past, stopping to feed on roadside flowers ... another seldom seen and hard to get bird.  For a few minutes I wasn't sure where to look.

Santa Marta Warbler
Before breakfast, we had tracked down the birds one by one, and added a few more local stars including Brown-rumped Tapaculo and Yellow-crowned Redstart.  The morning was a whirlwind with 9 life birds before coffee, not a bad way to start the day and the guides were definitely looking releived that so many of the targets had surrendered so easily.  With hours to spare though, we pushed on up the road in search of two other possible endemics, quickly getting Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager but striking out on the brush-tyrant.

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 ...
Oh, but the lifers weren't over yet, and on the way down to the lodge the local guide stopped the car, and led us off into the forest to an overlook where we could look into the canopy of some evergreen trees.  There, tucked into the foliage were a pair of SANTA MARTA SCREECH-OWLS, a species only relatively recently discovered and one I had expected to have to look for with a light at night.

Montagne Woodcreeper
Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant
After lunch and a siesta it was time to go birding again but the list of potential new birds was significantly diminished after the morning session.  The lodge area was hopping as usual but there wasn't really a lot of add there other than two birds that were reputed to come to the feeders and compost heap occasionally ... the Lined Quail-Dove and the Black-fronted Wood-Quail.  So we staked out the compost heap and stood still in the light rain hoping that one or other species might make an appearance ... ah the romance of birding.  The compost heap turned out to be pretty active with many Band-tailed Guans, a Sickle-winged Guan and even a Strong-billed Woodcreeper sharing the choicest morels with a Black Agouti.  Of our target birds however, there was no sign.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Eventually we got bored and decided to wander up the road a bit playing tape for Wood-Quail.  A little while later when we were busy scanning the forest floor and listening for the telltale sounds of rustling leaves, I happened to turn and look behind us and there was a Lined Quail-Dove, just walking down the trail thirty meters from where we stood.  The bird was coming towards us but noticed the two apes standing in the trail a split second after we saw it, taking an abrupt right turn and heading off the trail into the forest.  We looked, but never saw it again.

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.

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.

Groove-billed Toucanet
So the trip was going perfectly, I'd seen almost all my target birds and a few I hadn't expected to see.   I was having a terrific time and really looking forward to a cold beer and a great dinner at the lodge ... and then it all went horribly wrong.  After a warm shower, that cold beer at the lodge was going to be the perfect end to the day but somehow it tasted off and I found that I wasn't enjoying it the way I thought I would.  By the time the soup course came, the soup was tasting funny too, and in fact I was starting to realize that I was not feeling right at all.  When the main course hit the table I had to excuse myself and, after an unseemly scramble across the dining room, made it to the bathroom just in time.  The thin bathroom door would not have spared the other occupants of the dining room from the rather gruesome, and I"m sure meal-ruining, sound effects of a middle-aged Welshman throwing up with great enthusiasm.  Whatever it was, bug or food poisoning, it hit me like a truck and I spent the night mostly in the bathroom of my cabin praying for death.  Not a good experience and a bit of a surprise as I'm usually a bit of a goat (I can eat almost anything with no apparently ill effects) but it would seem that my digestive system failed me royally that night.


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.
 I did finally connect with Whooping Motmot, one of those birds that you can't imagine you haven't seen already but somehow didn't make it onto your life list before now.  There were also a few other decent birds to be seen but my heart was just not in it and while I forced myself to look, the fun of the experience was lost for me.  In my mind I just had to survive until the next hotel when I could sleep.  A rough end to an amazing trip and looking back, a tough contrast between one of the best days of birding I've had in recent years, so quickly followed by a day of feeling pretty awful.  Still, these things happen, albeit rarely, and in the end I had no complaints.  We saw amazing birds, and I had finally joined the ranks of the birders with the Santa Marta endemics on my list ... I've very glad I went.



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