Birding Colombia: Exploring the Perija Mountains and Santa Marta

Everything was set….or so I thought. With the local guide in the Santa Marta mountains not being available for a few more days, Sebastian and I devised a plan that I would first explore the Perija mountains and then return to Santa Marta to start the expedition for the helmetcrest. Before I started on the long bus ride to Valledupar, Sebastian called Fabio (the local contact for the Perija mountains) and finalized for me to be picked up by Fabio and transported directly to my birding destination deep within the Perija mountain range.

The Serrania del Perija, an extension of the eastern Andes, stretches the border between Colombia and Venezuela and is home to a number of endemic and near endemic species and subspecies that are only shared with a small section of Venezuela. Although ProAves has recently constructed a lodge along the main road up into this range, the hefty price tag still keeps many independent birders from visiting the location. Luckily, Sebastian had recently met a Colombian who often does transportation runs up into the mountains and who was willing to set up housing and transportation for my 2 1/2 day stay. The game plan was to have a 4wd vehicle and driver for the duration of the trip and stay at a local family’s home who would also provide meals.

My bed at Fabio's house, good enough for 2 hours of sleep!

My bed at Fabio’s house, good enough for 2 hours of sleep!

I arrived in Valledupar at 2100 and Fabio was no where to be found. I took a lap around the bus terminal looking for him and was warned three times that the area wasn’t safe and that I should definitely not walk around… great. I headed back to where I had gotten off the bus and found a lady working a nearby food stall. Luckily she was extremely helpful and attempted to contact both Fabio as well as Sebastian to see if anything had changed since I got on the bus a few hours before. Of course neither picked up and I spent the next hour trying to figure out what my next move should be (once again being told multiple times that I wasn’t safe there). Luckily the lady finally got a hold of Fabio and he said he was on his way. Twenty minutes later, a Colombian in his early twenties approached me and said that Fabio was in the nearby town of Manaure and that he was supposed to take me to see him. Next thing I know I’m getting in a sketchy old car with two Colombian guys at 2230 at night. Luckily things were on the up and up and we arrived at Fabio’s by 2300. The next curve ball was that he wouldn’t be taking me up into the mountains. Instead, two of his “workers” would be. The next point of confusion was that he had no clue that I wanted to leave as soon as possible and instead suggested we depart in the morning. I explained I needed to be at the paramo by first light (0530ish) and it was a 2 1/2 hour drive. After a little more explaining, he finally understood my needs and was ok with telling his worker to be there at 0200 to depart. At 2330 I laid down on a mattress in a spare room for a solid two hours of sleep.

Before I knew it, my alarm was going off and I was up packing my things for the bumpy ride to the top of the mountain. The next surprise came in the form of an additional passenger. Maria, one of the caretakers of the ProAves property, needed a ride up to the ProAves lodge with a ton of supplies for the Rockjumper Tour group which would be arriving a few days after me. I of course had no problem with it, but it’s funny how ProAves has been absolutely atrocious with communicating with me, but are quick to jump on a free ride to the top of the mountain. Not surprisingly, she didn’t even say thanks when we finally made it to the top. Anyways, we departed at 0200, but after about 1 1/2 hours of driving, the very old truck we were taking broke down. Luckily this only set us back for 45 minutes and right before we were about to leave a Striped Owl started calling and flew over in circles a few times providing decent views.

The paramo at 2900m

The paramo at 2900m

As we made our way up the final stretch of road to the paramo, numerous Band-winged Nightjars flushed from the road and a White-throated Screech-Owl was heard calling when we reached our destination. I told the drivers they could return to the ProAves building and wait there for me. I spent a little time with a Perija Antpitta before making my way up to the paramo to search for both Perija Thistletail and Perija Metaltail. Frustratingly, as I climbed the last bit of road to enter the paramo it quickly became apparent that it was going to be a very, very windy day. I spent the next few hours being wind blasted and seeing very few birds. My consolation prize was great looks at a pair of Black-fronted Wood-Quail and a quick look at a Perija Metaltail which saved the morning from being a total wash. By 1030 I gave up on the paramo and decided to head down out of the wind and make my way to the ProAves building and find my driver. As I neared the building it quickly became apparent that the driver and his friend were no where to be found. I asked Maria, the ProAves worker, where they were and she said that he headed down hill to El Cinco. It was pretty annoying as I had stated numerous times to wait at the ProAves building for me and I was already pretty exhausted from hiking all morning. As I sat talking with Maria, downhill in the distance we could see the truck leave El Cinco and disappear further down the hill. I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t know if they were heading back to the city, if they thought they didn’t need to stay and only needed to pick me up in 2 days. No clue. I was pretty pissed as my big backpack was still in the truck as well, so I had absolutely no supplies to spend two days by myself. Also, I wanted to head downhill to look for a few other birds and if I didn’t have transportation, there was no way that was going to happen (especially since I needed to spend the next morning up top again looking for the thistletail). I decided to head downhill anyways to El Cinco and see if possibly they had left my backpack or if the owner of the house I would be staying in knew where they went. Luckily, by the time I got there, the truck had returned. Crisis adverted, but I was still pretty pissed that I had had to walk the extra few kilometers in the heat of the day with no water. They were just starting lunch and that turned in to a two hour process which would have even taken longer had I not said it was time to go birding again.

Black-fronted Wood-Quail!

Black-fronted Wood-Quail!

That afternoon, we headed downhill towards San Antonio where I planned on spending the afternoon looking for Klages’s Antbird and Perija Brushfinch. Luckily both birds were fairly easy to find below San Antonio and I spent the rest of the afternoon causally birding along the road. Other highlights included the Perija subspecies of Common Hemispingus, Lacrimose Mountain Tanger, and Rufous Spinetail, as well as Perija Tapaculo, Perija Yellow-breasted Brushfinch, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, Red-shafted Woodstar, and Venezuelan Tyrannulet.

Perija Thistletail!

Perija Thistletail!

The next day we departed El Cinco at 0400 so that I would have some time to look for the White-throated Screech-Owl that I had heard at dawn the day prior. We arrived at the top around 0430, but finding the screech-owl proved to be difficult. I finally got a bird to respond and although it came close, it still was not clouse enough to see. This high elevation species found throughout the Andes will once again remain on my nemesis list. As dawn approached, I waited in anticipation as it was hard to tell if it would be as windy as the day prior. Although there was some wind, it didn’t seem to be as bad. As I started walking through the paramo looking for the thistletail, I began to once again become frustrated as there was too much wind and very little was calling. Luckily this only lasted for the first hour and by 0630 the wind had subsided and it seemed to be a whole different day. By 0700 I had found a Perija Thistletail and shortly afterwards back along the main road through the paramo, I was able to find a single Perija Golden-bellied Starfrontlet. The area was very birdy, a stark contrast from the day prior and I was able to find a number of interesting species including Mountain Velvetbreast, Emerald Toucanet, Hooded Mountain Tanager, and another Perija Metaltail. As I headed back to the vehicle (it actually remained here this time) my driver informed me he had seen a Spectacled Bear while I was walking through the paramo! The second part of the morning and the afternoon was spent on the section of road from ProAves to El Cinco. Although I wasn’t able to find too many new species along this section, a few of the highlights included Fulvous-headed Tanager, Streak-capped Treehunter, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, and Barred Fruiteater.

Perija Brushfinch!

Perija Brushfinch!

My last morning in the Perija Mountains was spent birding the road from San Antonio down to the coffee plantations above Manaure. One interesting spot was a shaded gulley near 1740 meters that contained a Lazuline Saberwing lek and also held a few Perija Brushfinches. I didn’t arrive to the coffee plantations until late in the morning but still managed to find a few interesting birds including Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warblers, Whopping Motmot, and Bat Falcon. I arrived back at Fabio’s house around 1100 and was quickly on my way to the bus station in Valledupar. I boarded a bus to Santa Marta shortly after 1200 and planned to get off at the small town of San Pablo. Sebastian and I had coordinated this to be our meetup point for the trek into the Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta. Despite asking two different workers at the bus terminal if my “direct” bus would let me get off in San Pablo, the real answer is NO. So as we neared San Pablo and I began to get ready to disembark, I was very surprised that the bus driver would absolutely not stop and let me off the bus. Crazy! The public transportation here in Colombia so far as been very different than anywhere else I’ve seen. I used the phone of the guy sitting next to me to call Sebastian and informed him of my predicament. So instead of meeting in San Pablo, I had to drive over an hour past it just to meet in Santa Marta and drive back to San Pablo. Because of this delay, Sebastian and I didn’t arrive in San Pedro Town until almost 2100. We quickly made our way to our hotel for the night and discussed the plans for the following morning.

Please click here to read about our 6 day trek to find the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest! (link currently not available as I’m still writing that post!)

With most of the Santa Marta endemics seen during the hike, I only had a short list of targets left and hoped to make short work of it on the San Lorenzo side of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Since I still needed to see the Santa Marta Parakeet, I couldn’t avoid the long ride up to the top of Cerro Kennedy to look for this species at dawn. In years past, they have regularly been seen in the morning, but due to a fire this past March, they have become a lot more elusive.

Sunrise at the top of San Lorenzo ridge

Sunrise at the top of San Lorenzo ridge

I awoke at 0300 and met my motorcycle driver outside of the hotel at 0315. Things started off well as the road was in much better shape than just a week prior (not nearly as much mud) and although it was still very bumpy and slow going, we initially were making good time. As we continued to climb I noticed the motorbike started to get slower and the driver would stop every once and a while and rev the engine before starting off again. At first I didn’t make much of it, but eventually it became noticeable that the bike was seriously starting to struggle. As we neared El Dorado lodge it stopped going up the steepest parts with both of us on it. I quickly jumped off and ran up the steep sections to make sure I was ready when the motorbike came up beside me. At first this wasn’t a huge deal, but still being a few miles from the top, this process started to become quite tiresome and very slow. To see the parakeet I HAD to be there at dawn so there wasn’t much time to complain and instead just continued to do sprints up the hill with my backpack on while the motorcycle gave me short reprieves on the less steep section. Somehow we managed to make it to the top just before light and as my driver started his descent back to Minca I unpacked my gear and waited for the parakeets.

Santa Marta Parakeet

Santa Marta Parakeet

Shortly after first light I heard a group of Santa Marta Parakeets calling over the hillside, but frustratingly couldn’t see them. Thirty minutes passed as Scaly-naped Parrots continued to fly by, but there was no sign of the parakeets. I was starting to get a bit worried when I heard a few quick calls from the Santa Marta side of the mountain. I did a quick scan and luckily noticed 5 Santa Marta Parakeets sitting in a tree about 75 yards away! I was able to watch them for a few minutes before they took off and quickly disappeared in the other direction. Had I not noticed them in the tree, I never would have seen them as they flushed in the other direction. Satisfied with this endemic I started to fast walk/shuffle (as quickly as you can with that much gear on you!) as I could to make it down the mountain a mile or so before I hit good forest where my next two targets could be found. Once I finally arrived in the forest before San Lorenzo Research Station, I quickly found my next target, White-tipped Quetzal and shortly after a few small groups of Sierra Nevada Brushfinch. With my last two high elevation targets seen, I now needed to make my way down another 2-3 miles to “La Tienda” a small shop with a lot of flowers that is the regular hangout for the Santa Marta Blossomcrown. By the time I made it to “La Tienda” it was about 1000 in the morning. As I sat watching the large group of flowering bushes, a group of Groove-billed Toucanets moved through the area. With good looks at the toucanets obtained, I was down to my last two target birds, Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Coppery Emerald. For the next seven hours I spent my time at La Tienda, Palo Alto (another spot with lots of flowers), and a small side trail in hopes of seeing the Blossomcrown. Although I had nice looks at a female Santa Marta Woodstar along the small trail, the Blossomcrown never arrived. Frustrated I headed back down the hill at dusk knowing that I would be spending another day in the area looking for the Blossomcrown.

Usually I wouldn’t mind having to spend another day in an area such as Santa Marta, but the nature of finding hummingbirds usually involves a lot of sitting and waiting and not a lot of birding. With that in mind I decided to start lower in elevation, just uphill from Minca, so that I could find the Coppery Emerald before starting the wait again for the Blossomcrown. The early morning in the coffee plantations was fantastic with Green and Forest Elaenias, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Grey-headed Tanager, Golden-winged Sparrow, and of course my main target Coppery Emerald. From here I headed back up the mountain on another hour long bumpy motorcycle ride to wait for the Blossomcrown. I sat at La Tienda for a few more hours, but the hummer remained a no show. A small birding group stopped by who had been in the area for eight days and had still not seen the Blossomcrown so that made me feel not as bad about missing one of the endemics. (Little did I know at the time, but this would be my only endemic dip of the entire trip!) Frustrated with the situation, I finally left around 1500 to make my way back to Minca so that I could catch the last collectivo in to Santa Marta and an overnight bus to Ocana. Although I was a little annoyed about dipping on a Santa Marta endemic, my time in the Sierra Nevadas de Santa Marta had been absolutely fantastic and I was a little sad to be leaving such an amazing area.