Birding Colombia: Rio Blanco, Nevado Ruiz, and Rio Claro

Rio Blanco is widely known as one of the best birding spots in all of Colombia. Set up at a reserve protecting the watershed for Manizales, it has become a well visited birding hotspot due to a variety of antpittas coming to feeders as well as the possibility of finding a few other tricky birds including Masked Saltator Dusky Piha, and Rusty-faced Parrot.

As I mentioned earlier, my friend Alex Harper, a guy I previously had birded Peru with, decided to meet up with me for a portion of my Colombian trip. Alex and I  were picked up at our hostel at 0600 (late, I know!) and made our way to Rio Blanco. After breakfast at 0630 we headed off to the antpitta feeders at 0700. Although I’m usually a fan of starting my day at first light, the staff at Rio Blanco has a pretty set routine, so 0700 it was. (Although it was a later start than I would have liked, the extra sleep was nice because I had been seriously sleep-deprived from my whirlwind previous 4 days.) We arrived at the first antpitta feeder and settled in to wait for Brown-banded Antpitta, one of the stars of Rio Blanco. Although two very friendly Chestnut-crowned Antpittas came in for some free worms, our endemic target remained hidden. Luckily during our hour-long wait at the feeder, a decent sized feeding flock passed through and I was able to find a Masked Saltator in the flock! This species can be extremely difficult to find so having it practically find us was a huge relief! Other good birds in the flock included Golden-fronted Whitestart and Flammulated Treehunters. Giving up on the antpitta, we reluctantly headed up to the next antpitta feeder which is suppoed to be good for Bicolored Antpitta. Once again we settled in for a long wait and after about 30 minutes, the small, but sharp looking Bicolored Antpitta made a quick appearance. After eating a few worms he disappeared back into the bushes and we continued to wait to see if Brown-banded Antpitta might show up. We were just about to give up (and I was already thinking of how I could plan a second visit) when luckily not one, but TWO Brown-banded Antpittas showed up and chowed down on a few worms. By this time it was already almost 1000 in the morning, but we had our three main targets in the bag! We spent a little more time searching the area, but soon had to head back to the main building for lunch. During lunch it started to rain so for the next two hours we spent some time watching the hummingbird feeders which are regularly visited by numerous species. During our time at the feeders, we had nice view of Collared Incas, Buff-tailed Coronets, Green-fronted Brillants, Violetears, White-bellied Woodstars, and a single Bronzy Inca. A Black-billed Mountain-Toucan feeding in a nearby tree also helped to pass the time. Eventually the rain stopped and we headed back up the road to search for a Stygian Owl that has been roosting in the area. Sadly we were unable to find the owl, but we did come across a few new birds including Yellow-vented Woodpecker. We then headed back to an area known for Dusky Piha, and after a few minutes of playback, Alex spotted the enormous beast sitting in the canopy. We then made our way back to the main building where while we waited for our taxi, we were able to see a Band-winged Nightjar and hear a White-throated Screech-Owl.

img_1402The next day, we hired a driver to take us to the paramo of Nevado Ruiz. As we climbed higher in elevation we were surrounded by spectacular scenery as the sun rose above the horizon. The fog rolled in and out but the views were breathtaking. We spent the first hour of the day looking for Rufous-fronted Parrot, but after initially missing the bird, decided to head further up in elevation to try for Buffy Helmetcrest near the park entrance. We were only there a few minutes before our driver signaled that he had seen the hummingbird. Soon Alex and I were staring at a Buffy Helmetcrest only a few meters away. After only seeing subadult Blue-beared Helmetcests in Santa Marta, it was great to finally see how spectacular an adult male Helmetcrest can be. We spent about an hour in the area enjoying more views of the large hummingbird as well as Andean Siskin, Stout-billed Cinclodes, White-throated Spinetail, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. From here we headed back to our prior spot for the parrots and planned to spend a few hours searching the area for the tricky endemic. Luckily it only took about 15 minutes of walking down the dirt road below the mirador before Alex and I both simultaneously found the parrots as a flock of about 15 flew by and landed on the nearby hillside. After some great looks at this tiny parrot, we returned to the car and headed to a nearby hotspring called Termales de Ruiz. This hotel is often visited for its natural hotsprings, but it also has a large number of hummingbird feeders that attract a few very cool species of hummingbirds. For the next hour Alex and I had a great time watching Black-thighed Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Vederina Metaltail, Great Sapphirewing, Mountain Velvetbreast, and a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. The absolute highlight of the visit and one of the biggest highlights of the entire trip was watching the thornbill drink out of a small pink cup! This species rarely visits feeders so having the opportunity to watch and photograph a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill at close range was awesome! After getting our fill of hummingbirds, we headed back to Manizales and started the five hour ride to Medellin. We arrived around 2000, but sadly couldn’t get a ride to Rio Claro on New Years Eve (disadvantage of travelling over the holidays) so instead we made our way to a hotel near the bus terminal.

At 0500 we were back at the bus terminal and getting ready to take a van to Rio Claro. We finally arrived at Rio Claro around 0900 and made our way to our Cabana. We finally made it onto the trail around 1030, and although it was very hot, we were still able to find a few flocks including the likes of Magdalena Antbird and Barred Puffbird. After lunch we headed back out on the trail and had a fantastic afternoon as we made our way up to a clearing near the end of the Mulata Trail. The first good bird we found was Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant and shortly afterwards Alex saw two Saffron-headed Parrots fly by. I missed them, so we continued up the trail in hopes that we could be able to find them again. Luckily, only about 30 minutes later, we once again heard the Saffron-headed Parrots and this time I was able to get nice looks as they flew around and landed in nearby trees. As we made our way up to the clearing, Alex found a male Blue Cotinga and I taped in a Blue-lored Antbird. As we were standing in the clearing I started to play the tape for Beautiful Woodpecker and we quickly had a single bird respond and fly in for nice views. At this point it was pretty late in the evening so we headed back down towards our room happy with how well we had done for the day, especially since we hadn’t gotten started until 1030 in the morning! Although it had been a great day, we still had one more target to get. As it was becoming dusk we quickly made it to a cave along the river where Oilbirds roost. We arrived shortly before dark and as I sat on the bank, Alex swam across the river and started to climb up the waterfall and into the cave. He still needed oilbird as a life bird, and since I had seen them previously, I decided to stay behind with the gear. After getting good views in the cave, Alex returned to the other side of the river to join me and as it became dark we watched 100-150 Oilbirds emerge from the cave!

The next day we left early and hiked up to the clearing before light. As we reached the clearing we heard a lot of the birds we had seen the day prior including Dusky, Bare-crowned, Blue-lored, Magdalena, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds! As I concentrated on recording the antbirds, Alex found his life White-mantled Barbet and shortly afterwards we taped in a few Sooty Ant-Tangers. Happy with how well the morning had been going we started working our way back down the trail in hopes of finding our last main target, Slaty-winged Foilage-gleaner. I wasn’t too optimistic as this is a very tricky bird, but fortunately we heard a foliage-gleaner calling and after heading up a steep side trail, we finally were able to get fantastic views of a single Slaty-winged Foilage-Gleaner. By this time it was starting to become very hot so we headed back down to our room and went to lunch. Since we had seen all of our targets, Alex decided to take the afternoon off and do a boat tour down the river while I decided to head back up the trail to get more audio recordings of a few of the species. The afternoon was very productive for me with the highlight being two Black Oropendulas flying by low over the clearing. Other highlights for the afternoon included another Blue Cotinga, Black-faced Antthrush, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffibrd, and more good views of Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant.

The next morning we took an early bus back to Medellin from Rio Claro and then another bus towards Anori. It was a full day of traveling, but we arrived in a small village just before Anori (and close to the Chestnut-capped Piha reserve) just as it was getting dark. We weren’t entirely sure where we’d be spending the night, but we did have a little bit of dated information that said that there was a place to still in this small village. After talking to a few locals, we were taken to a nearby “hotel” that consisted of a building with a few rooms. It wasn’t much, but we were happy to have a roof over our heads as it soon started to pour down rain which meant our plan B of camping that night would have been a very wet one. Thankfully it didn’t have to come to that!