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!

The Rapid Trip North

Traveling across Europe in lock-down: March 2020

Simon Thompson

Sometimes what starts out calmly and enjoyable finishes in a crazy insane rush. This is what happened when I took my mother on what was planned to be a quiet and leisurely road trip from her home in the east of England, down through eastern France, across into Spain and down to my brother’s home on the Costa del Sol.

Simon in Caceres, Spain

We had been watching the news, so we were aware of continued Covid-19 transmission in China and also now in Italy, but we felt like it wouldn’t really impact our trip. We were, however, prepared with gloves and hand sanitizer and used it when we needed to, but things hadn’t blown up in any way to what they resemble now.

Mum-enjoying-some-Gigondas-France

We had allowed 3 weeks to drive down with time for birding, wine-tasting and a little exploration along the way. I had 2 target birds to find (Hazel Grouse and White-backed Woodpecker) and mother really wanted to see a Great Bustard – we had directions for all three, so we thought we had a really good chance of doing a clean-up! Driving down through France is always a delight as we stayed off the autoroute for much of the time; stopping at bakeries for French baguettes, good cheese and a bottle or two of red wine. Birding was typically wintry as we drove south and the weather matched with continuous cold rain at times. Winter in Europe has never been one of my favorite seasons.

We meandered through small villages and ancient towns; highlights on the way down were Common Cranes and White-tailed Eagles near Troyes; White-throated Dippers and Grey Wagtails in a beautiful old village east of Lyon; wine tasting in Gigondas with Cirl Buntings and Blackcaps in the surrounding fields and a fly-past of French planes trailing red, white and blue.

Pont-au-Royans-France

We drove across a low pass in the Spanish Pyrenees into Catalonia; beautiful forests and mountains with Red Kites, Common Buzzard and Mistle Thrush in the fields, before spending the night in the ancient city of Vic. It was somewhat sobering to see the main plaza emblazoned with the photos of the imprisoned leaders of the independence movement.

The weather improved a lot as we drove south along the Spanish coastline, enjoying company with English expat friends, sampling Spanish red wine and enjoying several good tapas meals along the way. El Hondo National Park near Alicante is always good for a few hours to catch up with Marbled Teal, Red-knobbed Coot and other Spanish specialties before visiting my brother near Estepona.

Main Plaza, Vic, Spain

As we enjoyed a family reunion, the international news kept getting stranger and stranger – with restaurants and hotels closing all around us, forcing us to make a decision to leave early and drive as fast as we could back towards the English Channel. Our first stop was actually planned, but not for as brief a stay as we had. The fortified town of Trujillo was spectacular but strangely quiet and we felt lucky to end up in a nice hotel tucked into the castle walls. We had stopped to see the Great Bustards on the plains of Extremadura the previous evening and pick up dinner supplies, as eating out was looking like a very bad idea, but it would have been nice to spend a lot longer in this beautiful town.

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

It was two more long days of driving to get to the ferry back to Dover. Our last night in Spain was without breakfast (and coffee!) and it was the same as we drove through Bordeaux and north through France. Shops and restaurants were closed and lunch was a sandwich from a French truck stop; so much for French cuisine! Thankfully we found a small hotel near Paris that was open and even more opportune was a grocery store which we hit as soon as it opened. We had heard there was a shortage of toilet paper back in the UK, so a 12-pack went into our cart, along with wine, cheese, groceries and food for the rest of the journey north. Looking back at our shopping experience, we really didn’t have much idea what we would find when we got to the UK and should have stocked up with a lot more!

This map shows our starting point in Southern Spain.

Anyway, we got to the ferry a couple of hours ahead of time, after our GPS took us through right through the center of Paris, and thankfully safely out the other side and onto the correct road to Calais. It was now beginning to feel a little more surreal with all cars heading north having GB license plates, very few passenger cars on the ferry, and the customs agents all wearing masks and social distancing enforced. As the ferry left the continent it was cause for celebration and our first cooked meal for 3 days – good ol’ English fish and chips washed down with some ale!

Once back in the UK, our arrival was strangely devoid of instruction. No one handed out information or even mentioned that we had just arrived in from Europe, but after a lot of research we decided to start our first 2 weeks of quarantine – which continued even longer with the English lock-down 2 weeks later.

Oh yes, during all of this mess, we never did get time to look for Hazel Grouse or White-backed Woodpecker – maybe next time.

Louisiana

Some of us drove and some took a plane, but we all ended up at the hotel in Iowa (“Eye-oh-way”), Louisiana at the correct time! Thank goodness for cell phones, so we could at least keep track of each other on our cross-country perambulations!

Our group, with leaders Simon Thompson (front) and Keith Watson (back left)
by Simon Thompson

Our “Beat the Crowds” rail trip that first afternoon was postponed due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, so we all joined a very pleasant, albeit foggy, trip along some quiet side roads in the rice country. One of our first birds was a Dickcissel, closely followed by great views of both Sedge and Marsh Wrens – all excellent birds to start our trip.

Sedge Wren
by Simon Thompson

Flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese flew over and we had our first (of several) Vermilion Flycatchers of the tour. A brief stop in a pine lot was amazing with a day-time roost of 20 or so Barn Owls – more seen in one day than many of us had seen in our lifetime!

Barn Owl roosting
by Simon Thompson

One of the attractions of the festival was the food, although vegetarian options can be challenging at times. After a classic Cajun sausage meal our first evening, we moved on to crawfish etouffee, catfish bites, shrimp and a veggie plate – definitely something here for all of us.

Our group having lunch
by Keith Watson

Our afternoon activity was walking (well maybe clambering) through a very tufty and overgrown field looking for sparrows. Sedge Wrens were the default little brown bird that we flushed, but eventually Casey spotted a very furtive sparrow which turned out to be a Henslow’s.

White-faced Ibis
by Simon Thompson

Waterbirds are a predominant feature of the area, with huge flocks of White-faced Ibis being abundant, along with White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. Flocks of Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese were constant sights and sounds as they flew overhead and the most abundant duck was Northern Shoveler with smaller numbers of Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard and Green-winged Teal.

Snow Geese
by Simon Thompson

Thankfully we had low ticket numbers for the combine rides, so we could head out birding before returning to the rice fields for our turn on the combine harvesters. One of our first stops was the wonderful water treatment plant in Crowley. Here we were able to walk around at our leisure and enjoy the vast numbers of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Redhead and American Avocet.

American Avocet
by Keith Watson

A large flock of Tree Swallows was feeding low over the lake and it didn’t take us too long to find Cave, Barn, Northern Rough-wing and even Bank amongst the horde!

The combine rides and observing the rails as they escape from the harvest are the undoubted star attractions of the festival and while the rails are easier to see from the sidelines, how often can one ride a combine harvester?

A productive field
by Keith Watson

Covered in dust and chaff we all saw Sora, King, Virginia and Yellow Rails as they flushed from the fields, but the bumping of the combine made using binoculars and cameras almost impossible. However, as the combines cut the rice swaths into smaller and smaller sections, the rails became concentrated and soon flew out into the adjacent fields. This is when the photographers had a fighting chance of getting pictures.

Keith with a Virginia Rail about to be banded
by Keith Watson
Yellow Rail in hand for banding
by Tim Carstens
White-faced ibis
by Simon Thompson

Cameron Parish is probably the most bird-rich parish in Louisiana, so we spent the next 2 days exploring the marshes, cheniers (coastal woodlots), shore and fields of this coastal parish.

boardwalk at Cameron Prairie NWR
by Keith Watson

A flock of Sandhills soared out of the morning mist, revealing a single image of black and white flying alongside them – a Whooping Crane. Although it was a distant apparition, we all got to enjoy in-flight views of this rarity.

Merlin
by Simon Thompson

Loggerhead Shrikes, American Kestrels and both Vermilion and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were “wire-birds” along the roadsides and pairs of magnificent Crested Caracaras sat on nearby fences and trees, as multiple Northern Harriers quartered the fields.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
by Simon Thompson

A picnic in Peveto Woods; a Baton Rouge Audubon Sanctuary was a great place for late migrants, such as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue Grosbeak and a handful of warblers: Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.

Magnolia Warbler
by Simon Thompson

The adjacent beach held the common and regularly-occurring Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, along with the more uncommon Piping and Snowy Plovers, while the mixed tern and gull flocks contained all of the expected species, such as Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, Caspian, Royal and Forster’s Terns, as well as Gull-billed Tern and several Franklin’s Gulls hiding among the many Laughing.

Snowy Plover
by Simon Thompson
Beach birding
by Keith Watson

Highlights of the trips had to be the stake-out Say’s Phoebe in a sports field, a picnic lunch in a quiet cemetery, a pelagic Harrier (why?) and a Hermit Thrush that we “chased” up a road in the marshes.

It was then off to the closing dinner for the 2019 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival; an evening of heavy hors d’oeuvres and socializing- a very pleasant end to the week. It was then some morning birding before some of us drove and some of us took a plane back to our respective homes.

Here are a few more birds (and one reptile!) from the trip:

Black-necked Stilt
by Simon Thompson
Stilt Sandpiper
by Simon Thompson
Inca Dove
by Simon Thompson
Tri-colored Heron
by Simon Thompson
American Alligators
by Keith Watson