Birding Colombia: The Caribbean Coast & Minca

As a student who gets a significant amount of time off for winter break, I decided to use this extended amount of time and visit the country of Colombia! After a hectic week of finishing up with school and Melissa being ill, I finally boarded a plane at 0600 on December 9th from Washington Dulles airport to start my way too long journey to my final destination of Baranquilla. After a 2 hour layover in Miami I flew into Barranquilla, but then had to continue on to Bogota and fly back to Barranquilla because the round trip ticket to Bogota was significantly cheaper than flying directly to Barranquilla. I didn’t anticipate the extra travel being too big of a hassle, but when I arrived in Barranquilla the first time, I discovered that my backpack that was in checked luggage was no where to be found. For the next few hours in Barranquilla, Bogota, and back again in Barranquilla, I dealt with the missing luggage personnel trying to figure out where my bag was. Unfortunately my bag was never found but luckily, I was able to get a hold of Sebastian, the local guide I was eventually going to meet up with, and got an address in Santa Marta to send my bag to when it eventually was relocated. This way I could continue to bird and not have to worry about backtracking a few hours to Barranquilla.

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Marshland near Palermo

Yellow-chinned Spinetail

Yellow-chinned Spinetail sit in the open, unlike most species in this family

After spending a somewhat restless night at the airport, I caught a taxi to Palermo, a small town at the edge of the city. It was just starting to get light as I arrived and I quickly made my way down a nearby side road to spend the first part of the morning birding a large marsh. My main target was Northern Screamer, but this area was also supposed to be good for Pale-legged Hornero and “Brown-backed” Bronzed Cowbird. There were a ton of birds in the marsh and as I hiked further in I saw hundreds of egrets, cormorants, teal, and terns. I walked for about 3km before finally finding a pair of Northern Screamers in the distance. Since my tripod was in my lost bag, I had to use my scope by resting it on nearby fence posts. Not an ideal situation but you gotta do what you gotta do. This road was a great place to spend the morning and I added a number of interesting species to the list including Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, Wattled Jacana, Southern Lapwing, Russet-throated Puffbird, Orange-crowned Oriole, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Pale-legged Horneo, and Spot-breasted Woodpecker. Although I was able to find a few Carib Grackles I was unable to find my other main target, Bronzed Cowbird.

Russet-throated Puffbird

Similar to the spinetail above, Russet-throated Puffbirds are quite conspicuous

By 0720 I was back out to the main road and feeling good to be on schedule to head up the road another 10 km to Isla de Salamanca. I bought another water and tried to flag down a bus heading by. The first bus blew right past me, but I wasn’t too worried as there was a ton of traffic on this road. Soon another passed, and another, and another. None of them even thought about stopping. It took almost 45 minutes to finally get a vehicle (a motorcycle coordinated by the lady I bought the water off of) to take me to my very close destination. This was my first lesson about how Colombian public transportation wasn’t quite the same as other South American countries I have visited.

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I finally made it to Isla de Salamanca shortly after 0800 and as I talked to the park staff, a hummingbird whizzed by but I was unable to get a good look at it which is unfortunate because several hummigbirds were at the top of my “must see” list in the park. After paying the steep 42,000 peso entrance fee, I staked out the area I had seen the hummingbird, but nothing showed. I made my way to the other park building on the northern side of the highway and once again sat near an area that hummingbirds are known to visit. After not seeing anything I decided to take a walk along the boardwalk trail. The area was loaded with Prothonotary Warblers as well as a few Northern Waterthrushes. Other highlights in the area included American Pygmy Kingfisher, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Brown-throated Parakeets, Bicolored Conebill, and Black-crested Antshrike. Still needing two hummingbirds, I made my way back to the site of my original sighting and as soon as I arrived, I spotted a male Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird sitting a top of a small tree. Awesome. It quickly flew off and after another 20 minutes had not returned. Still needing to see Chestnut Piculet, I once again returned to the northern side of the highway. The rangers said they had just seen a few hummingbirds and sure enough, I was soon able to see 2 birds, one of which was definitely a Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. From here I headed back in to the mangroves and came across a single Chestnut Piculet, Great Black Hawk, and a Panama Flycatcher. By this time it was already 1020 and getting very hot. I packed up my bag and tried to flag a bus. Once again, getting on public transportation provided to be very difficult, but luckily it only took 25 minutes before a Microbus heading towards Riohacha stopped and let me on.

A little over four hours later, I arrived in Riohacha. I checked maps.me (an essential map app showing information on stores, hostels, etc) and found a hotel called Bona Vida. It was a good choice as it turned out to be a very quaint little hostel run by a young Colombian and Austrian couple. I got a room for 30,000 pesos in the dormitory and quickly set back out in my taxi to spend the afternoon birding Camarones. Luckily not only was my taxi driver interested in spending the afternoon birding for a decent price, he also happened to be from Camarones. From multiple sources I had heard that the Camarones area could be a little dangerous so having a local taxi driver made me feel better about not getting harassed by any locals (although after birding the afternoon and the following morning, I never had any problems with anyone I encountered, even when I was away from my taxi driver). We quickly made our way to Camarones and stopped along the old road to the town. I spent about an hour walking the road and although it was very overcast and windy, I still managed to pick up my first few specialties of the area including Green-rumped Parrotlet, White-whiskered Spinetail, Oriocan Saltator, Slender-billedd Inezia, and Glaucous Tanager. Since it was so windy, I decided to spend the last hour of the day along another dirt road on the south side of the highway. Although I haven’t seen this road mentioned in any reports, a few eBird lists show that Tocuyo Sparrow is possible. I was hoping the points in eBird were accurate and sure enough they were, as it only took about twenty minutes before I was able to hear my first Tocuyo Sparrow. Although I was able to get brief looks, it was starting to get dark, so we headed back to Camarones.

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White-whiskered Spinetail

Up at 0500, my same taxi driver from yesterday, Andres, picked me up and we headed back to Camarones for another morning of birding. I decided to start at the Tocuyo Sparrow spot since I wanted to get better looks. Although I heard one sing briefly, it took almost 45 minutes before I managed to track down a pair and get good looks. Although I got some recordings, I wasn’t able to get any pictures. Not much else was in the area except some White-fringed Antbirds and Rufous-vented Chacalacas calling in the distance. I decided it would be best to head back to the old road heading in to Camarones. I got out at the first bridge and quickly found a family of Vermilion Cardinals and some Crested Bobwhites. Although I got great looks, a rain storm kept me from getting any pics. I also picked up on multiple Pale-tipped Inezias along the road this morning. The only target left was Buffy Hummingbird and although I spent all morning searching the area only a single hummingbird was seen, a Red-billed Emerald. I took a quick scan of the flats at the end of the road with the most notable bird being two Marbled Godwits.

I had really been looking forward to birding the Guajira area, and although I managed to find all of my targets except for Buffy Hummingbird, I left a little disappointed. The area has experienced a lot of rain lately and the usually stark dry desert was instead a lush green oasis with standing water everywhere. The birding was a lot more difficult than I anticipated and I expect that is because birds weren’t concentrated around the typical waterholes. Most of my targets I only saw once or heard a few more times. The vegetation is currently very thick and made it difficult to find birds that wanted to stay concealed. Overall I still really enjoyed the area and at 1030, once it was too hot to find much, I board a bus and headed back towards Santa Marta.

I arrived at the edge of Santa Marta at 1:30 and took a motorcycle up to Minca. Thirty minutes

Black-backed Antshrike

Black-backed Antshrike

later I arrived in the mountain tourist town and made my way to a nearby hotel. Most of the interesting species are higher up in elevation than Minca, but one bird in particular, Black-backed Antshrike is only found below Minca. It was almost 1500 when I headed off down hill from Minca. I wasn’t sure how far I’d have to go, but after about two kilometers of walking, I finally found a single female Black-backed Antshrike. The original goal was to turn around shortly after finding the antshrike and catch a ride further uphill to try for a few of the mountain endemics, but I wasn’t able to hitch a ride. Instead I spent the rest of the afternoon walking the steep road back to Minca. Highlights along this section included some more lower elevation species such as Scaled Piculet, Golden-winged Sparrow, and Keel-billed Toucan. Also being the first time I’ve traveled to the tropics in the winter time, it was cool to see some familiar faces from back home in the form of Tennessee Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. As dusk fell, I returned to Minca and coordinated a motorcycle for the following morning to take me to Campano, a small village up hill from Minca.

The road from Minca up to San Lorenzo ridge was in terrible shape!

The road from Minca up to San Lorenzo ridge was in terrible shape!

Minca at 0400 in the morning is a stark contrast to the busy tourist town that it becomes during the day. As I stood on the only bridge in town I wondered whether my driver would actually show and more importantly, what I was going to do when he didn’t. Luckily, only five minutes past my pickup time, my driver, a young Colombian probably no more than 15 years old, appeared and greeted me with a sleepy smile. For the next 45 minutes he navigated the deteriorated and muddy road up to Campano. A few times I had to get off the motorcycle and walk through the muddiest parts, but eventually we arrived in Campano unscathed (or so I thought, more on that later). From here I continued hiking further uphill and as it started to get light I found myself just below the turnoff in La Ye for El Dorado. I continued hiking uphill and soon found my first target of the morning Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner. From here I continued past the only store on the road known as “La Tienda” and continued up to a hostel known as Palo Alto.

Palo Alto (as well as La Tienda) are known hotspots along the road for hummingbirds and both places have usually have feeders out. Unfortunately for me, I was very surprised to find that Palo Alto didn’t currently have any feeders up. Luckily, I managed to see one of my main targets Santa Marta Woodstar within the first minute of arriving, but after that, the only hummingbirds present were Sparkling Violetears. Without any good hummingbirds to keep me interested, I decided to head further uphill and soon ran into a few small flocks of the regulars which included Black-capped Tanager, “Santa Marta” Bay-headed Tanager, White-lored Warbler, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and a few different woodcreepers. I heard a single Golden-breasted Fruiteater, but was unable to find any White-tipped Quetzals. By now it was starting to get hot and I needed to head back downhill in order to be on time to meet Sebastian, my guide, at 12:30 in Minca. On my way down, I stopped below La Ye to look for Santa Marta Antbird and luckily found a pair at almost the exact GPS location mentioned in a trip report I had brought. By now I was running behind schedule and started double timing it down the mountain. Fortunately, a motorcycle passed before I reached La Campano and I was about to get a ride back down to Minca.

Sebastian arrived promptly at 12:30 and we headed down the mountain towards Santa Marta to finally pick up my lost luggage. I haven’t mentioned it much, but my luggage had been lost since I arrived 5 days ago! Finding it was a mess and required several phone calls on my end and several from Melissa back at home insisting that they continue to try and relocate it. Luckily, my bag containing my clothes, toiletries and other essentials arrived in time for the anticipated hike up Santa Marta. I say “anticipated” because that brings me to my next point, Sebastian informed me that the local “fixer” (tribe coordinator/mule guy) in San Pedro town was busy and might not be able to leave until Wednesday or Friday. We started heading in the right direction, but near Cienaga found out that indeed the “fixer” wouldn’t be available until Friday. After some quick brainstorming, the decision was made that I would head directly to Valledupar for 2 ½ days of birding in the Perija mountains and then return to meet Sebastain at San Pedro town. Since we didn’t have much else going on that afternoon, we stopped at a reliable spot for Chestnut-winged Chacalaca. It was only 1430 so we had some time to kill (they usually don’t sit up until late afternoon), but luckily at 1530 I spotted a single bird that had climbed up to sit at the top of a bare branch. With another endemic in the bag, we headed to the bus station so that I could catch a bus to Valledupar and start my adventure into the Perija Mountain.

Chestnut-headed Chachalaca

Chestnut-headed Chachalaca

Oh yea, remember when I mentioned about being “unscathed” from the trip up to Campano on the motorcycle? Well once the morning bird started, I realized that somehow my LCD screen on my camera broke. Luckily the camera still functions (for the time being), but I am unable to view pictures in the field anymore (back to the good ole days, I guess). Fingers crossed that it stays operational for the Perija Mountains and more importantly for the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest trek!

Stay tuned for more on those adventures in the next blog post! (And as always, a formal and detailed logistics Trip Report to come!)

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