Birding Colombia with the Family

Clifton and Banks in Cartagena, Colombia

Clifton Avery shares his family trip to Colombia

The final 2 months of 2019 I traveled with my partner and son to Colombia to explore the incredible diversity of ecosystems and cultures.  I had previously worked on a bird project in Colombia for 4 months in 2015 and then returned in 2018 for a bird tour, so I was familiar with traveling around the country. My first trip to Colombia had caused me to instantly fall in love with the country and I knew that I wanted to take many more trips to explore the endless corners of a country that boasts coastline of two oceans, the highest coastal mountain range in the world, the Amazon, the Andes, the Llanos, the Choco and much more! Convincing my partner that it was a good idea for us and our not quite 2-year old son to travel for 2 months in a foreign country was not easy but my constant stories and dreamy portrayal that I had painted of Colombia eventually won her over.

Erica, Banks and Clifton at the Raleigh, NC Airport

I will not sugarcoat it; it was an extremely challenging 2 months but also immeasurably rewarding.  We began our trip in the large city of Medellin, nestled in the Central Andes Mountains.  We spent a week exploring the city, adjusting ourselves to a new culture, and getting over some illnesses that plagued us for the first couple weeks of the trip.  Medellin is known as the city of eternal spring.  Usually hovering between 60-80 F year-round it is about as close to a perfect climate as one could imagine.  While we were there the weather pattern was quite similar to summertime in the Southern Appalachians.  Cool in the morning, followed by a buildup of heat and humidity, erupting into an afternoon downpour to cool things back off heading into the evening. 

We usually took a morning trip out of our AirBNB to a local park around the city for our son to play in and for me to bird!  Grayish Piculet, Barred Antshrike, Acorn Woodpecker, and Thick-billed Euphonia were a few of my favorite birds we saw in our first few days in Colombia

Our next stop was the small town of Jardin about 4 hours south of Medellin.  This beautiful, quaint town sat up on a plateau surrounded by 10,000+ft mountains with endless outdoors opportunities.  Jardin is in the center of coffee country so where the forest had been cut there were coffee plantations as well as cattle ranches. Jardin was extremely safe, the food was delicious, the people were incredibly friendly, and the birding was fabulous. 

Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve

Five minutes from the center of town is a Cock-of-the-Rock lek that offers intimate and up-close views of these bizarre birds.  I had been to a few Cock-of-the-Rock leks before, but this was hands down the best I had visited.  We visited the lek many times and usually saw over 10 males and a couple females each visit. 

A short ride up the road above Jardin one can bird pristine Andean cloud forest.  We spent 2 days up there birding, looking for cloud forest specialties including the endemic Yellow-eared Parrot and lucked out one of those days!  Other highlights included Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Plushcap, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager.

We loved Jardin so much that we ended up staying for nearly 3 weeks.  We did not want to leave! 

Metrocable above Medellin

We returned to Medellin and spent another 5 days exploring some areas further outside of the city including Parque Arvi, which required us to take a long metrocable ride up above the city.  We also went to the zoo, the aquarium, and visited many amazing restaurants and coffee shops. We then headed north to the Caribbean coast.

We flew from Medellin to the large coastal town of Santa Marta and caught a quick bus up into the foothills of the Santa Marta Mountains.  These mountains are the highest coastal mountains in the world with peaks reaching nearly 19,000 feet!  This area has also been referred to as the most biologically important region in the world.  This mountain range is totally separated from the Andes Mountains and the level of endemism is unparalleled. Eighteen-thousand foot peaks are only 30 miles from the ocean.  The level of diversity is staggering and there is no doubt many new species are to be discovered here. Fortunately, much of this region is protected under national park and indigenous lands but still is suffering from deforestation. We based out of the tiny tourist town of Minca.

Sunset in Minca

Minca was not nearly as charming as Jardin but the outdoor opportunities were numerous. Around 25 endemic bird species call the Santa Marta Mountains home and my goal was to check off the remaining species I had not found in previous visits here.  I found many, including the Santa Marta Mountain Tanager, Santa Marta Tapaculo, and Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant.  Erica and Banks enjoyed swimming in the pristine river that flowed through Minca as well as exploring the many hidden corners of the hippie and low-key vibe of the community. 

After 5 days or so we returned to Santa Marta to enjoy some time on the beach and take in the hot Caribbean sun.

We stayed south of Santa Marta in a small beach town called Rodadero Beach.  We spent our days here enjoying the beautiful beaches and birding the unique scrub/shrub habitat that many species call home. 

One day we took a terrifying boat ride across the open ocean to the northern tip of Colombia in Tayrona National Park.  The beach was incredibly beautiful that had jungle spilling into the pure white sand that then met clear and turquoise waters.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Our final leg of the trip was to the large city of Cartagena. Although I am not much of a city dweller, Cartagena captured my spirit with its beauty, history, and culture.  There was so much to do here!  Some of my favorite highlights were visiting the Spanish fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, walking along the wall of the Old City, and exploring the hundreds of coffee shops that could be found throughout the city.  I did even get some good birding in.  I went to a lagoon 15 minutes outside of the city that was known to be good for shorebirds and possibly a flamingo.  I did not find a flamingo but I found a bunch of good stuff including my lifer Savannah Hawk.

Sunset in Cartagena

It was truly an incredible trip and I hope to return with my family again in the near future!

Venture to Southeast Brazil

Regua Lodge and excursions, Rio do Janeiro, Brazil

November 22-30, 2019

To many people, Brazil evokes beaches, bronzed bodies and lively entertainment, while to others it’s a land of vast rainforests, unique birds and critically-endangered ecosystems. It’s a huge country and on this trip we were only going to see a small part of the state of Rio de Janeiro along Brazil’s east coast.

Regua Lodge

We were all picked up at the very convenient Hotel Linx at the Rio Airport by Regua’s driver, Alceni, for our 1.5 hour drive to Regua Lodge, set in the shadow of Serra de Orgao National Park’s craggy peaks. Originally a ranch, Regua is now a birding destination for birders and naturalists from all over the world.

Our first walk was on the property around the large wetland complex that had been recreated in the valley.

A haven for waterbirds, Cattle Egrets now nest, along with Black-crowned Night and Boat-billed Herons; Wattled Jacanas and Common and Purple Gallinules are abundant and Chestnut-capped Blackbirds nest in the reedbeds, along with Greater Ani, Great Kiskadee and Social Flycatcher. Highlights had to be the soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle and the Common Pauraque sitting on 2 eggs on the side of the trail. The birding was excellent.

Despite the gray conditions, we spent the afternoon in the open fields outside Regua. With the deforestation and the wet fields, the uncommon Giant Snipe has now become far easier to see and has probably considerably expanded its range. Other birds of the open country included Burrowing Owl, Streamer-tailed Tyrant and the strange and entertaining Guira Cuckoo. A stop at the edge of the woods on the way home produced great views of a Tawny-browed Owl.

Our first excursion was north to search for the localized Three-toed Jacamar, which is restricted to a few locations in interior coastal Brazil. Stops along the way produced the beautiful and enigmatic Toco Toucan, as well as Crested Black-Tyrant and Ash-throated Crake. Despite their global rarity, it was not a difficult bird to find at all and I believe we saw at least 4 pairs. And because we were so close to the state of Minas Gerais we decided to cross the line to add an e-bird list and our Green-barred Woodpecker was the only sighting of the trip!

It was off to the beach the next day, but not to Copacabana or any other famous Brazilian beach spot. Our final destination was the Restinga habitat along the coast; home to the endemic Restinga Antwren.

Restinga Habitat

Along the way we stopped at various wetlands and coastal habitats seeing Gray-hooded and Kelp Gulls, Common, Royal and Sandwich Terns and a good selection of migrant shorebirds. The Restinga Habitat has been destroyed along a good part of the coast, but thankfully we managed to see the Antwren without too much difficulty.

We stayed on the grounds of Regua Lodge the next day and decided to hike the Green Trail to the waterfall. The trail is fairly steep, but we took it slowly finding a good selection of forest birds along the way.

Waterfall near Regua Lodge

Flycatchers are always well-represented and we found Yellow-olive, Sepia-capped, Whiskered and Ochre-bellied. Swallow-tailed (Blue) Manakins were calling all along the trail and we all got great views of the gorgeous Black-cheeked Gnateater.

It was quite hot high on Pico Caledonia above the lingerie capital of Brazil (Nova Friburgo) and we needed the 4 x 4 Toyota to climb the very steep cobbled road. Our target was of course the Gray-winged Cotinga, a critically rare species that lives within a 400m range and is probably below 1,000 individuals. Unfortunately we didn’t see any, but our supporting cast included Diademed Tanager, Black-and-gold Cotinga and Mouse-colored Tapaculo.

On the way back to Regua we stopped at the old road now called the Theodoro Trail. This is a somewhat reliable spot for the uncommon Brazilian Laniisoma (Shrike-like Cotinga) – which alas we only heard in the high canopy. Bare-throated Bellbirds were clanging away in the canopy and a Rufous-breasted Leaftosser showed itself nicely along the edge of the trail.

The Waldenoor Trail was another trail on the Regua property. Only about a 30 minute drive away from the lodge over somewhat bumpy roads, this trail snaked up through the forest through a few private houses and gardens, but it was still a great birding spot. It was a great place for forest birds, and some of the highlights including nesting Long-tailed Potoo (with a delightful fluffy chick), nesting Chestnut-crowned and Crested Becards, and an impressive large White-throated Woodcreeper.

A walk around the Regua wetlands in the afternoon produced a pair of delightful Rufous-sided Crakes, a couple of probably transient Snail Kites and a couple of Muscovy Ducks. We continued our search for Masked Duck, but once again they evaded us.

The following day was another excursion, but to middle elevations at Macae de Cima – just this side of Nova Friburgo. The weather again was a little foggy but hopefully this would not affect the birding. We made our usual stop in the farm fields outside of Regua where an Ash-throated Crake gave us great views.

Our group

Birding along the Macae de Cima road was very good and very easy with wonderful Green-crowned Plovercrests singing along the road where we also watched a Scale-throated Hermit building her nest. A Dusky-tailed Antbird showed very well, as did both White-browed Foliage-gleaner and Sharp-billed Treehunter; more somewhat-confusing furnarids!

A drive to the very peak found us deep in the fog again but on the downhill hike we did find a couple of great birds: Hooded Berryeater and Sharpbill, that offered adequate views considering the weather conditions!

by Simon Thompson

observation tower at Regua Lodge
Brazilian Tapir
Common Marmoset
Three-toed Sloth