Birding Colombia: Mid-Magdalena Valley, Tolima, and Fuerte’s Parrots!

Continuing on my Colombian bird-finding quest, I managed to cover A LOT of ground in 4 days and was lucky enough to find some very good endemic and range restricted species. The bird list for these next few days remains impressive, but what is more impressive is the fact that I was able to accomplish the following via public transportation and possibly most impressive, I didn’t dip on a single target bird! Below is a quick overview of the following few days:

Dec 26: I arrived in Bucaramanga at around 2130 Christmas night and quickly boarded another bus heading towards Ibague. My original plan was to get off at Puerto Boyoca and head towards the El Paujil Reserve, but knowing that the first chiva (picture rustic artisan bus) didn’t depart until 1100, I didn’t want to get stuck wasting a whole morning in Puerto Boyaca. Instead I stayed on the bus and got off in Honda at around 0400. From here I took a taxi back north to the junction of Victoria and caught another car to the town of Victoria to a reserve located just above town, a known hotspot of the range restricted White-bidded Manakin as well as a few other endemics including Velvelt-fronted Euphonia, Beautful Woodpecker, White-mantled Barbet, and Sooty Ant-Tanager. I arrived at my birding location just after light, but it was still very dark and threatening to rain. Soon the threats turned to reality and after hiding my backpack in the woods, I started walking around in the pouring rain, desperately trying to find a manakin. Luckily the rain stopped at about 0930 and I was able to find a single female White-bidded Manakin as well as Velvet-fronted Euphonia and Sooty Ant-Tanger. My taxi arrived to pick me up at 1100 and I quickly made my way back to the main highway. where after catching another taxi and a collectivo, I finally arrived in Puerto Boyoca at 1400. I knew that the only other chiva leaving for Puerto Pinzon would depart at 1500, but as always, I decided to confirm my transportation, before doing anything else–a smart move as I found the chiva was completely full and planned to depart in five minutes. I convinced the driver to let me on, but the only “seat” available was standing and hanging off the back of the truck! Luckily I only had to stand in this position for the first hour until some people got off and a seat opened up. During the 3-hour drive to Puerto Pinzon we passed through large expanse of open area and I was able to see a few new birds including Savanna Hawk, Northern Screamer, Black-capped Donacobius, and Rufescent Tiger Heron. We arrived in Puerto Pinzon shortly before 1700 and after a quick “scouting trip” to El Paujil to figure out the trail system, I settled down for my first sleep in almost 2 days.

Dec 27: I awoke at 0430 and hiked the 45 minutes to El Paujil reserve. My first goal was to look for Black Antshrike, but while walking to the area, I heard a Black-billed Flycatcher and was able to get nice looks and recording of it. From here I quickly found a female Black Antshrike as well as some other common birds such as Chestnut-backed Antbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher. My next target was Blue-billed Curassow and it didn’t take long to find the two female Blue-billed Curassows that have become habituated to the area. Although they were fun to see, it felt a little weird ticking such tame birds. It was only 1000, but became very quiet, so I headed back to town and waited for my 1500 ride back to Puerto Boyaca. After arriving in Puerto Boyaca, I took a bus to Ibague which got me to my destination around 2100.

Dec 28: I awoke at 0400 and took a taxi to the nearby town of Juntas. From here I walked 3 km phill to an area that is supposed to be good for Tolima Dove. Before light I heard a Mottled Owl. Once the sun rose, I started walking the road but something didn’t seem right. I hadn’t noticed in the dark, but once light hit it was clear that the habitat didn’t look good for the dove. I soon realized that the map in the Colombian guide was totally off and I needed to head higher up on the road to reach the correct spot. Frustrated that I had wasted the first hour of the day, I finally made it to the correct area and quickly heard a few Tolima Doves calling in the distance. I was able to tape one in to within 30 meters, but still couldn’t get a glimpse. Luckily while looking for this one in the distance, another Tolima Dove flew by! After giving up on the first bird I started walking back downhill and quickly had another dove fly across and land in the nearby vegetation. I was able to get a nice, but quick look at it perched before it disappeared into the thick undergrowth. From here I started walking downhill towards the bridge and came across a few more interesting species including the endemic Yellow-headed Brushfinch, White-naped Brushfinch, Indigo Hummingbird, and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. My only remaining target for the day was Tolima Blossomcrown, but due to dipping on Santa Marta Blossomcrown in Santa Marta, I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about finding what is known to be the harder of the two Colombian Blossomcrowns. I had some good information that the blossomcrown sometimes visits a flowering bush just before the bridge in Juntas so I walked to the area and began my stakeout. Although it was already 0900, the bush was still in the shade and light didn’t hit it until 1030. After 90 minutes of waiting, I was estactic when a male Tolima Blossomcrown finally decided to come visit the flowering bush. It visited three times over an hour and I was able to get some really nice shots of it. Happy that I had found all three of my targets, I boarded a bus back to Ibague and soon was on another bus to Pereira. I arrived in Pereira around 1900 and took another bus up to Santa Rosa de Cabal. I arrived around 2000 and found a hostel for the night and coordinated a 4wd vehicle to pick me up the next morning at 0500.

Dec 29: My driver picked me up at 0500 and we were soon on our way to find one of the most critically endangered parrots in the world, the Fuerte’s Parrot. Thought to be extinct for nearly 90 years, it was rediscovered in 2002, but the location is currently off limits due to security concerns. Luckily, another population was found in 2014 which is the group I was going to look for. During our hour long drive to the spot, I figured out that my driver had actually taken two other birders to the spot just a week before me! He said they had seen it so I was optimistic that I would also have a chance to see this rare parrot. We arrived shortly after 0600 and not even five minutes passed before four Fuerte’s Parrots quickly flew by. Although I was happy to see them, the quick view left a lot to be desired. For the next three hours I waited for more to pass as heavy fog rolled in and out of the area. Finally at around 0930 I heard some soft calls and was able to find another group of 8-9 Fuerte’s Parrots feeding along the hillside. I made my way towards them and obligingly, they made their way towards me as well. Soon I was only 30 meters away from this rare parrot. I was able to get some nice photos (although it was very dark from the fog) and some nice recordings as well. Happy with the sighting, I headed back to Santa Rosa and onward to Manizales. I made it to the hostel at 1600 and decided to take the afternoon off after a crazy four days that had involved lots of good birds, but very little sleep. At 2100 my friend Alex Harper arrived who had made the decision to spend two weeks with me. Over the next two weeks we planned to travel through the Western Andes, a story for the next blog post!