Colombia, December 2019

We started our third Colombian birding expedition in Yopal, a small city in Casanare, lying just off the foothills of the easternmost of the three forks of the Andes. During the five hour drive to Hato la Aurora, a reserve in the center of the Llanos, specialties like these Sharp-tailed Ibis popped up:

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Sharp-tailed Ibis

Another target that brought us out here was the duck-like and distinctive Orinoco Goose, denizen of just a few locales in South America:

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Orinoco Goose

Hato la Aurora isn’t so much a pure birding destination – it caters more to wildlife enthusiasts in general, with safaris and horseback riding being offered. Jaguars can be found here, although we saw none. We did get a look at a Tayra, which looks like a cross between a small bear and a weasel, as well as this unforgettable creature:

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Giant Anteater

The Llanos are a hot, savannah-like expanse dotted with rivers and shallow lakes. In riparian areas we found Hoatzins and Sunbitterns.

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Sunbittern

But along these heavily wooded corridors, where there is relief from the sun, we also found plenty of less desireable wildlife, in the form of voracious ticks of various sizes. The most problematic, as always, being the tiny ones that almost escape eyesight, and appear like slowly-moving dust specks on you pant leg. Permethrin-treated clothing saved the day fo us once again. Claire got just one bite, and I got none.

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Yellow Oriole

Lots of yellows out here. Oriole Blackbirds, Yellow Orioles, Yellow-crowned Parrots…

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Yellow-crowned Parrot

… and a chance to compare and contrast Saffron Finches and Orange-fronted Yellow-Finches. When we studied up for this trip we learned to look at the extent of orange in the male’s cap, which is significant for the Saffron Finch…

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Saffron Finch

… but which terminates abruptly above the eye for the other finch:

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Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch

Another target, whose range is restricted to the Colombian Llanos and western Venezuela, is the dapper little Pale-headed Jacamar. These were common and easy to find in trees along the rivers.

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Pale-headed Jacamar

The same range holds the taxonomically messy Two-banded Puffbird, which eBird/Clements still considers to be a subspecies of the Russet-throated.

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Depending on your choice of taxonomy, a Russet-throated or a Two-banded Puffbird

And here is another denizen of the same restricted area, the White-bearded Flycatcher, potentially confusable with Rusty-margined and Social versions of the genus Myiozetetes. We found a pair that were calling, removing any doubt that we got our final Llanos target.

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White-bearded Flycatcher

After two days in the plains we headed back to Yopal, then flew on to Pereira, a small city in Risaralda, lying on the Cauca valley side of the central Andres range. Pereira provides the nearest airport for access to the Parque Nacional Tatamá, which is located on the westernmost of the three parallel mountain chains.

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Gray-breasted Wood Wren

Access to Tatamá is best gained via Camino Montezuma, with accomodation at Montezuma Rainforest Ecolodge, about three hours by car from Pereira.

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Male Green Honeycreeper. Green? Well, the female is green. A rare case where the female inspires the name.

We spent three nights at the ecolodge and were fortunate to have Michelle Tapasco as our guide. She has been birding this diverse and bird-rich area for some thirty years, and got us plenty of endemics and other treasures with seemingly little effort, working the elevational changes with ease. A few of the striking tanager specialties included Black-chinned Mountain Tanager…

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Black-chinned Mountain Tanager

… Gold-Ringed Tanger (where, exactly, is the ‘ring,’ though?)…

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Gold-ringed Tanager

… and relatively tame Black-and-gold Tangers:

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Black-and-gold Tanager

It is always a happy event when a target species is ubiquitous. In this case it was the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet, which was at all of the many feeders throughout the elevational range of Montezuma Road:

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Velvet-purple Coronet

The Obligatory Mammal Mention for Montezuma would be the Central American Agouti:

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Central American Agouti, like a big, tailless squirrel, slumming under the birdfeeders

Michelle also introduced us to a flowering plant, whose name she could not recall, that had the most delicious, heavenly fragrance I have ever encountered. Almost like a mix of mango and vanilla. I wandered around for some time, oblivious to the birds, with one of the flowers pressed up to my nose and mouth as if I was a poor drug addict huffing spraypaint from a paper bag.

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What is this called?! This has to be the best-smelling flower on the planet.

Winner of the Highest-Color-Variety-Bird-of-the-Trip Award was the Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia:

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Male Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, whose messy berry snack marred an otherwise fine photo opportunity

Runner-up: Red-headed Barbet:

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Red-headed Barbet

After Montezuma, we did a six-hour, bumpy trip up to the lovely little town of Jardín, Antioquia. Here we would meet up with one of the finest bird guides we’ve worked with yet, Guillermo Nagy of Aramacao Tours.

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Jardín, a lovely little town with serious birding clout

He also does coffee-related tours, which seems like the second-best thing one could do, after birding, of course.

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In a local shop. “Coffee helps those that sleep little and dream a lot.”

Walking distance from the center of Jardín is a splendid Andean Cock-of-theRock lek, and that is where we headed first, primarily to get Colombian endemic Red-bellied Grackle; but we had to make a stop for the main attraction as well.

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The bizzare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, working the lek

Guillermo sensed the unique opportunity to take a photo of us with matching hat and bird species:

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Here we are with three Cocks-of-theRock behind us, and one on my hat.

The bigger birding draw near Jardín is not the lek, but the neighboring slopes that hold a population of endangered Yellow-eared Parrots. We were treated to a very close encounter with a small flock of these striking birds, which use the wax palms in this area to nest.

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Yellow-eared Parrot

Then we rounded a corner and interrupted a private moment between this pair:

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Cattle, Cattle Egret, wondering if you have a problem with their relationship

Guillermo also took us to a secluded site where several antpittas were being fed. We found two of them, including a Chestnut-naped, who goes by the name of Belleza

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Chestnut-naped Antpitta,

… a Rufous, known as Linda

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Rufous Antpitta

… and a male Green-and-black Fruiteater, Freddie, that has developed a worm-eating habit:

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Green-and-black Fruiteater

Up the road we had fried trout for lunch at a nameless home/restaurant supplied with feeders and copious hummingbirds. This afforded us with a first in our birding adventures: hand-feeding a variety of hummers using a small, flat bottle of sugar water with a flower pattern on top:

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Claire hand-feeding a Tourmaline Sunangel

A frequently encountered, then often ignored, and even sometimes disparged bird that we’ve seen all over Central and South America is the Rufous-collared Sparrow. Its towhee-like “drink-your-tea” call is an ever-present part of birding these parts. For some reason, even as it competed with the spectacular hummingbirds teeming all over this area, it was as if I noticed with fresh eyes just how detailed and pretty this little sparrow is. It seems that we overlook common birds too often and forget how much they offer.

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Rufous-collared Sparrow

Colombian landscapes are lovely, even when the light isn’t great. I wanted to capture the eight or nine different shades of blue that made up this series of rolling mountain/hills. But I’m not a photographer and could not even get a decent approximation of it.

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View from the mountains above Jardín

Finally we headed off to Medellín, with a single stop aimed at getting the Stile’s Tapaculo (heard, recorded, and therefore ticked) and the Yellow-headed Manakin. Guillermo delivered again, with a spectacular and cooperative male:

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Yellow-headed Manakin

And that was it, and we headed to the hotel near the airport. As it was December 30th, the locals were well into their preparations for New Year’s Eve, which, in parts of Latin America, involves the ritual creation and destruction, by fire, of various figures and effigies. Often these are a variation of an elderly man, representing the ‘old’ year about to expire. Sometimes they are more specific, though:

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Politicians ready for New Year’s Eve in Medellín

The clown in the center needs no introduction, and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who seems to be universally (and justifiably) despised throughout South American, should not need one either. On the left is former Bogotá mayor and failed presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, whom I had never heard of before.  Probably some interesting stories there, but after thinking about one or two of the politicians I already know about, I don’t want to learn about any others. Not right now, at least.

Thanks for reading!

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