Sunday, September 7, 2014

Welcome to Colombia, Birdiest Country on Earth

My retinas are still scorched from gaudy tanagers and glittering hummingbirds; my ears still ringing from exuberant antshrike and tapaculo songs; and my brain still trying to comprehend how this guan, once overhunted in dwindling forest fragments to the point of presumed extinction, sat in a tree in front of me to be photographed.

Cauca Guan, Otun Quimbaya National Park - Endangered Colombian endemic, less than 1000 mature individuals remain

This wasn’t my first time around the block in South America, but I’m not sure I’ve sustained such a fast and hard birding pace over so many days before anywhere.  Natalia Ocampo-Penuela assembled a dream team of eight natural scientist friends, planned an optimal route from Cali to Medellin, and collectively we managed to log nearly 500 of Colombia's 1900+ bird species (making it #1 in the world) in just 12 days in the Colombian Andes.  

the Dream Team atop a peak in Tatama National Park

To put that in perspective, I’m still waiting to tick my 500th species for the United States, the country where I’ve lived and birded for over a decade.  

For hardcore listers, that’s the magic of birding the neotropics—one can see in 12 days the avian diversity that it might take 12 years to experience in the temperate zone.   For the more aesthetically-minded, it offers the chance to see some of the most bizarre and beautiful creatures on the planet while wandering through primeval landscapes. 
Golden-crowned Tanager, Los Nevados National Park

And birds are just the tip of an iceberg for the entemologically-(or botanically)-inclined.

Will (our team lepidopterist) making the most of a midday bird lull

Our trip took us from the Pacific lowland rainforests of San Cipriano, where we rode Brujitas (“little witches” is a literal translation for the name of the motorbike-powered rail platforms used there for transport) up to the open Paramo of Los Nevados National Park. And we covered the breadth of cloud forest elevations between all over the Western and Central Andes. 

Trip Route

We saw so many birds and bird families, but I always get asked, “which was your favorite?” So let’s start there.

I struggle with favorites, especially with so many to choose from, but one of them has to be the Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, a hawk-sized monster in the cotinga family and one of New World’s largest passerines.    

Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Otun Quimbaya National Park
Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Otun Quimbaya National Park

We did well on cotingas on the trip, spotting 8 members of this diverse family including one that rivals the Cauca Guan in terms of absolute rarity, the Chestnut-capped Piha.
Chestnut-capped Piha (look at that cap!), Chesnut-capped Piha Reserve - Endangered Colombian endemic

An estimated 750 to 1250 Chestnut-capped Pihas remain in existence.  Not surprisingly the species is endemic to Colombia and is listed as endangered.  We saw ours in the well-named “Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve,” essentially the only place they are known to persist.

Also included with the Cotingas were three fruiteater species we saw, the most common and cooperative of which was the Green-and-black Fruiteater.  
Green-and-Black Fruiteater male, Tatama National Park
Green-and-black Fruiteater female, Tatama National Park

Natalia’s favorite bird of the trip was also a cotinga, this Black-tipped Cotinga of which we saw several in San Cipriano.  While most tropical birds are either colorful or camouflaged, this bird is one of the few in the forest that is almost entirely white.  

Black-tipped Cotinga, San Cipriano - totally blown out white in this photo

At the other end of the size spectrum from the fruitcrow lies the Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, which is the world’s smallest passerine species.

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, San Cipriano - world's smallest passerine

This cute guy belongs to the much maligned tyrant flycatcher family, the most diverse bird family in both Colombia and South America.  Birders like to hate on tyrant flycatchers because “they all look the same.”  While that’s true of some groups (I’m looking at you elaenia!), we stumbled upon several of the more distinctive and attractive examples among more than 50 flycatcher species encountered on the trip.  
Fork-tailed Flycatcher is a bird that if it should appear in North Carolina might inspire psychotic birders to drive hours in chase, whereas in Colombia it’s kind of a ho-hum yard bird.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, near Cali

Same goes for the most brilliant of all tyrannids, the Vermillion Flycatcher.
Vermillion Flycatcher, near Cali

Cinnamon Flycatchers, as cute as they look, are “trash birds” of the cloud forest.  Even the birders that scream “eagle!” at every passing Black Vulture quickly learn to ignore this ubiquitous tyrant.

Cinnamon Flycatcher, Montezuma

Unfortunately my photo of one of the cutest flycatchers of all, the Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher came out blurry…

Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Rio Blanco Reserve

…so take this Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher instead.

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Antioquia
Let's take an interlude here for a quick, old-fashioned, near-death-experience story:

About halfway into the trip I learned about one of the risks that comes with birding in the tropics.  At night at the Montezuma Lodge in Tatama National Park, thousands of moths and other nocturnal insects would swarm at the lights over our dinner table.  A kaleidoscope of unimaginably ornate, delicate things crashing into the walls, lighting on shirt sleeves.  As I stooped to examine some sort of behemoth rhinoceros beetle that had just bounced off the ceiling when I felt a sharp pain in my neck.  Ouch!

I reflexively reached for the pain and felt nothing but a rapidly forming welt.  As my companions sitting around the table recounted the day’s dozen hummingbirds, I felt my head grow hot as if swelling.  My lips began to inflate and face grew tight.  My body itched everywhere.  Was I being bitten by bugs?  No.  I was going into anaphylactic shock!

Our team doctor, Mr. Mark K. (not an actual doctor) administered antihistamine, which may or may not have saved my life.  I spent the next couple hours wheezing, trying to will my throat not to seal itself shut.  The closest hospital was at least 6 hours away on rough roads, so a medical evacuation was never even worth considering.

This condition presented a novel conundrum for me: I figured I should try to come up with some profound and choice last words, but at the same time I didn't want to waste any breath on speech.   

Anyway, since you’re reading this, I obviously made it through.  In fact I was out birding the first thing the next morning.  But sometimes there’s a balance between chasing lifers and staying alive.

So where were we?  Right, we covered a couple of the perch-and-sally-types, the Cotingas and Flycatchers.  Let’s talk about the ducks for a hot second and call it a day!

Ducks in the tropics?  Indeed.

During our morning at the Sonso wetland down in the Cauca valley between the central and western cordilleras, we spotted Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Cinnamon and early migrating Blue-winged Teal; and in Los Nevados we spotted four Andean Teal and an Andean Ruddy Duck.  

But the best duck of the trip (if not of all time!) came at a random roadside stop on the way to Otun.

Torrent Duck family, Risaralda

I had seen Torrent Ducks before, but never a whole family all together battling the rapids!

Enjoy the video.  

In the next post we will explore the joy of tropical bird feeding (expect colorful Tanagers and Hummingbirds!).

Stay tuned and stay safe!


  1. Geez. This...this is bad for me. This is bad for any ABA-area limited birders.
    I cannot, should not, will not look at these birds again...

    ...well maybe just once more.

    1. I've never understood the appeal of restricting oneself to the ABA area. Heck, half the ABA birds don't do that either. All those beautiful "North American" warblers are really neotropical species that visit high latitudes for a few months a year to breed.
      I think the more US birders that discard the ABA area blinders, the better the prospects for all the endangered tropical species that nobody knows about.

    2. Fair point about the birds, but of course some of the fun is seeing species in the short window while they're around. Plus, you and I both know the reason the Wood Warbler come to North America is because they'd be relatively dull if they stayed in the south, but in N. america they're the best thing ever. They are vain creatures.

      It's a can of worms, a box on's like the tropics aren't even fair, like there's no end to it, like some of those birds are just sort of made up there every day, like those Genesis days of creation in Colombia or Peru just kept going after 7.

      Of course, I enjoy birds wherever I go, but it's also nice to have an attainable life goal revolving around seeing the ABA birds, something that's a little more contained, accessible, and in english. Also, there's less chance of going into life-threatening shock! True enough, it's insulated and dangerously so for some endangered tropical birds, but that insulation also brings its own comforts...and also a more tenable price tag.

      I can sympathize at any rate, and also salivate, SIR, with your deliciously unscrupulous birding.

    3. Unscrupulous birding! Ha!

      Not sure that birds are made up every day, but in recent decades Colombia has averaged something like one new species described per year. It would be nice if more of them had the vanity to migrate north for us yankees to see.

      Does seeing ABA birds really make sense as a life goal? It's not like you'll stop once you hit 600 or 700, which you could easily reach in a decade. That leaves you a lot of decades to spend your birding effort doing silly things like driving across several states to see a redshank that hundreds of people have already seen and crushed, or worse flying every spring to outer Alaskan islands hoping for code 12 Siberian vagrants. Go to the neotropics and you can see birds that may be extinct in a few decades, and by doing so, support a nascent ecotourism infrastructure that may be their best shot at survival.

      The cost prohibition is a misconception. Flights are expensive, yes. But costs once you arrive are unbelievably low. What you really need is time. In 2010 I traveled and birded solo around Ecuador and Peru on about $25 per day.

      Yes, Spanish is incredibly useful. But you don't have to be native or fluent to get by. Shouldn't everybody in Arizona be bilingual by now anyway?

    4. he he he...I don't disagree with anything you're saying. South America beckons (maybe Central, first) when that ABA 900 is met...

    5. Just to add another thought to my earlier reticence to open the Pandora's Box that would be tropical birding, I think there's maybe a mental association--even involuntary--that because there are 3,000+ gorgeous, color-splattered birds to see in the tropics, it cheapens the appeal, the allure of any particular species. I would enjoy them all, no doubt, but I would not know and appreciate them to the extent I can the smaller, more knowable group of ABA birds, birds who can often stand out more singly, more recognizably. Any ABA bird, to put it simply, is 1 in 800 or 1 in 900. Throw in a splash of yellow or red, or a weird behavior, and now it's like 1 in 50.
      It doesn't seem likes there's the same kid of return with the tropics, because they are so damn birdy. I realize this is an almost perverse way of appreciating the birds, but I imagine it's because I'm coming at it from the perspective of a hobbyist, not a better-educated professional.

    6. You know what I've heard is a lot of fun? Doing a Christmas Bird Count in Nunavut. Yeah there are only 2 hrs of light and only one species, but boy do you appreciate that light! And never before has a birder so thoroughly enjoyed Common Ravens. With only seven of them, each individual is like a beloved child.

      I've already booked my tickets. You in? Bonus is that Nunavut counts as a separate province so you get an important ABA area total ticks tick! And then one can dream of getting the mega-rarity, the House Sparrow. It's worth a repeat visit just for that vanishingly small chance...

  2. Torrent ducks! Good writing Scott! Hope all is well! Your trip sounds awesome, just back from belize where I saw (sigh) loads of flycatchers that all looked the same! I jest. Thanks for the birding inspiration - i go nowhere without the bino's these days! Dave (of la hesperia days)

    1. Hi Dave! Glad to hear you're still into birds and still making forays into the neotropics! I need bird Belize some day; I hear there are some nifty flycatchers there.
      Still have a few photos of flycatchers from La Hesperia that I never was able to identify.