March 25, 2017 [LINK / comment]

Birding in Colombia

Three weeks ago, I spent a few days visiting Colombia for the very first time, and of course, looking for birds was one of my top priorities. My original plan was to spend two days at the Rio Claro Nature Reserve and two days in Medellin, but for various reasons (to be explained in a later blog post focusing on general tourism), I ended up spending all four days in and around Medellin. As it turned out, there were plenty of places to go birding there, so it worked out pretty well.

Mar. 2: Parque Arví

On my first full day in Medellin, we took a ride on the awesome Metrocable system (not the U.S. cable TV provider) to Parque Arví, about two miles east of the city. I had no idea where we were headed, and was utterly delighted upon arriving at the destination in the cool, misty highlands. The steep mountains in Colombia create abrupt transitions in habitat over short distances, and also create distinct climactic zones such that the birds you find in one part of the country are often quite different from those you find elsewhere.

Soon after debarking from the gondola, I spotted two dark birds charging their own reflection in a big window. I later determined that they were Great Thrushes**; one adult male and one probable juvenile male. There were also Rufous-collared Sparrows singing and flying around the gardens. That was a species I had seen in Peru in 2004 and Costa Rica in 2005, and I was surprised not to see any in Peru this year. My hopes were raised when I spotted a bright green bird flying near the balcony of the visitors center, and I fortunately got a good photo of it: a female Black-capped Tanager.** Excellent! My main "target bird" that day was the Andean Motmot, known locally as the "Barranquero Andino." Like many birds dwelling in the tropical rain forest, it has bright colors: blue, yellow, and green, with the added attraction of extended tail feathers.

Then my brother-in-law Toño and I headed off along a nature trail with no particular destination in mind. (The maps provided to park visitors were hard to read and frankly of not much use.) We soon heard various birds singing and calling from the bushes, but didn't see much other than a Swainson's Thrush -- one of the many species of neotropical migrants that spend their summers in North America. But after that, there was hardly anything to be seen as we walked downhill along wooded stairs and boardwalks, alternating with a dirt trail. Eventually I spotted a small dark bird that I later determined from my photographs to be a White-sided Flower-piercer.** It has an odd-shaped curved bill (barely discernible in the photo) that is adapted to getting food from flowers. I also spotted an Acorn Woodpecker, a species which I had seen in Arizona three years earlier, but sadly I failed to get good looks at any other birds. Even though the locale appeared to be very promising, and we saw many fascinating butterflies, flowers, and bromeliads, I was disappointed by the relative absence the birds. I'm sure a birding guide would have helped me to see more birds, but they are of limited availability at the park.

** Double asterisks denote "life birds" -- those I saw for the very first time.

Montage 02 Mar 2017

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Great Thrush (juv.), Rufous-collared Sparrow, Acorn Woodpecker, Black-capped Tanager (female), Great Thrush (male), Ruddy Ground Dove, and White-sided Flower-piercer (male).

Mar. 3: Botanical Gardens

The next day was much better for seeing birds. We started off strolling through the Parque Botero downtown, where I had good views of various parrots in the palm trees and on the ground. Then we took the Metro train to the lush and beautiful Medellin Botanical Gardens, about two miles north of downtown, adjacent to the modern campus of Antioquia University. Soon after arriving, we saw the first of many Blue-gray Tanagers. Approaching the big pond in the middle of the park, I saw the first of several Great Kiskadees, a species which I had last seen in Costa Rica. They are gorgeous with a bright yellow breast and bold face markings, and they aren't very afraid of humans. I was also astonished to see a Bare-faced Ibis** at very close range. (At the time I thought it was the same species as the Puna Ibises which I had seen at a distance in Peru, but it turned out to be a new species for me!) I also saw a Woodpecker, but just couldn't get a good photo of it before it vanished. That was very frustrating, but I'm pretty sure it was a Red-crowned Woodpecker, which I saw the next morning. There were other life birds in the Botanical Gardens: Black-billed Thrush** and Grayish Saltator.** Not bad at all!

Near the end of our visit, I spotted a male Vermilion Flycatcher boldly proclaiming his territorial rights, and soon located the nest where his mate was apparently incubating eggs. Great photo op! At the Metro station I saw a Palm Tanager**, which resembles the Blue-gray Tanager but is duller -- yet another life bird! I also saw some more (probable) Orange-chinned Parakeets and a probable Northern Waterthrush. Toño agreed to take the Metro train north to the part of the river where I had seen many egrets and ibises, and I finally got some good photos of Cattle Egrets. Only after going through my photos yesterday did I discover an additional life bird: a Rusty-margined Flycatcher**, which resembles a Great Kiskadee but with a smaller beak and smaller overall size.

Montage 03 Mar 2017

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Orange-chinned Parakeets, Great Kiskadee, Brown-throated Parakeet, Saffron Finch (juv.), Black Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher (male), Bare-faced Ibis, and Blue-gray Tanager.

Mar. 4: Cerro Nutibara

On my final full day in Medellin, I saw a Red-crowned Woodpecker** and a Bananaquit as we were walking along the downtown streets. My other brother-in-law Oscar and I took [a taxi] to Cerro Nutibara, a hilltop park about a mile south of downtown. After visiting the "Pueblito Paisa" tourist attraction (to be described in a separate blog post), we descended the big hill and saw many, many birds on the way down. Among them were two neotropical migrants that we sometimes see here in Virginia during the summer: a Yellow Warbler and a Summer Tanager. But no life birds that day.

On the way to paying a family visit back on the north side of Medellin, I had a closeup view of an Eared Dove,** which I had previously seen in downtown Medellin. As we approached the house, I got a nice closeup photo of a Shiny Cowbird, but some of the local residents did not appreciate my taking photographs of their neighborhood, and I had to explain what I was doing, showing them all the bird and scenic photos that I had taken. (Whew!)

Montage 04 Mar 2017

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-crowned Woodpecker, Ruddy Ground Dove, Saffron Finch, Bare-faced Ibis, Summer Tanager, Tropical Kingbird, and in center, Great Kiskadee and Vermilion Flycatcher (male).

Another parallel with my trip to Peru was that I saw a life bird on my last day there, during my ride to the airport. In fact, there were at least two: a pair of (probable) Colombian Chachalacas** and a (probable) White-collared Swift.** But visibility was poor (steady light rain), and there was no practical way to stop the car to get a photo, so I didn't even bother to mention it. A complete set of photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly page.

Life birds in Colombia

To be honest, my trip to Colombia was only a partial success, bird-wise: only [13] 14 life birds altogether. Hopefully I will get to Rio Claro and other special birding places next time. Anyway, here is my provisional list of birds that I saw for the first time during my trip to Colombia. My guide for identifying bird species in Colombia was Guía Fotográfica de las Aves del Valle de Aburra, by Ulises Muñoz, Juan Ochoa, Wilmer Quiceno, and Victor Quiroz (Medellin, Colombia: Ed. Pulsatrex Birding Productions, 2014). (The Aburra Valley more or less coincides with the province of Antioquia, of which Medellin is the center.) It is an top-notch reference book, but was perfectly suited to my interests, since I was only visiting that part of Colombia. Like the field guide I used in Peru, it has fine photographs and provides much technical information, including superb maps of the urban area and surrounding region.

  1. Great Thrush
  2. Black-capped Tanager
  3. White-sided Flower-piercer
  4. Orange-chinned Parakeets
  5. Brown-throated Parakeet
  6. Bare-faced Ibis
  7. Red-crowned Woodpecker
  8. Black-billed Thrush
  9. Grayish Saltator
  10. Rusty-margined Flycatcher
  11. Palm Tanager
  12. Eared Dove *
  13. Colombia Chachalaca ?
  14. White-collared Swift ?

[ * CORRECTION: Previously seen in Peru, 2004. ]