Caribbean Colombia: The Guajira Peninsula and the Santa Marta Mountains
February 15 - 24, 2023
Leader: Jan Hansen
$3,950 from Barranquilla
Santa Marta Screech-Owl
The Caribbean lowlands of northwestern Colombia and the isolated mountain range of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria comprise what is perhaps Colombia’s most endemic-rich avian region. With over 1900 species, a relatively undeveloped infrastructure and a landmass the size of Texas, Colombia presents a challenge to the visiting birder. Where does one begin to explore this rich region. This tour is perhaps the easiest answer to that question as it gives birders an opportunity to delve deeply into the Colombian avifauna without having to cover vast distances. In short, this is a relatively easy tour that begins in then coastal city of Barranquilla, which is only a 2.5 hour flight from Miami.
The Guajira Peninsula is the driest region in all of Colombia receiving on average only a little more than 20 inches of rain annually. The arid landscape is dotted with cacti and thorny acacia lending visitors the impression of being in the Chihuahuan deserts of northwestern Mexico rather in one of the wettest countries on earth. Despite the arid and sometimes foreboding nature of the Guajira, it is home to 10 regional endemics and a host of other interesting birds not easily found anywhere else. The regional endemics include Bare-eyed Pigeon, Buffy Hummingbird, Russet- throated Puffbird, Chestnut Piculet, White-whiskered Spinetail, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Glaucous Tanager, Tocuyo Sparrow, Orinoco Saltator and the resplendent Vermillion Cardinal. These birds are also found in northern Venezuela, but the current political situation in that country makes visiting a dicey and generally unrealistic possibility for most birders. In addition to these regional endemics, the Guajira region boasts a large coastal salt lagoon where a nice variety of gulls, terns and shorebirds can be seen.
The tour will also allow us some time to visit the coastal mangroves around Salamanca National Park. The entire park stretches along the coast from Barranquilla to Santa Marta and is composed of a mosaic of habitats including saltwater ponds, mangroves, scrubby patches of woodland, open fields and freshwater marshes. The road between Barranquilla and Santa Marta is a busy 2-lane affair, but we will find places to escape the traffic and look for mixed flocks moving through the wooded areas. One of the very rare, but hoped for species here will be the critically endangered Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird which was once thought extinct, but of which there have been reliable reports from here in recent years. The mangroves also host Bicolored Conebill, Green ibis, Limpkin and Straight-billed Woodcreeper.
In freshwater marshes we can look for Snail Kite, Purple Gallinule, Yellow-chinned Spinetail and a variety of herons and kingfishers. In open areas there will be Bronzed Cowbird, Cattle Tyrant, Pied Water-Tyrant, Spot-breasted Woodpecker and more. The diversity of habitat here makes for a rich variety of birds and a lengthy day list.
The tour’s other major venue will be the recently opened El Dorado Lodge which is operated by the Colombian conservation group ProAves. The lodge is situated at an elevation of 6300 feet on the San Lorenzo ridge and commands a breathtaking view of the Caribbean and the city of Santa Marta far below. Depending upon how you count or what particular taxonomic authority you choose to follow, the San Lorenzo ridge is home to between 15 and 20 endemic birds. As an island mountain range, the flora and fauna that occurs here has been isolated for eons by the surrounding lowlands which inhibit the dispersal of mountain-loving avian species. The entire taxonomy of this region is in constant flux with new species continually being argued for and against by the ornithologists choosing to study here. Despite all of this uncertainty, what is known for sure is that there are a lot of birds to be seen on the San Lorenzo ridge and that El Dorado Lodge is the best place to be if one desires to see them. We will spend 3 nights at El Dorado which will give us plenty of time to explore areas around the lodge as well as some higher portions of the Green-and-black Fruiteater road on the ridge above. The lodge maintains an impressive set of hummingbird and fruit feeders that attract a continual procession of colorful hummingbirds including Crowned Woodnymph, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Black-capped Tanager and both Sierra Nevada and Santa Marta Brush-Finches. The lodge is located in a small clearing with a wonderful garden and a forested track leading above and below making it a terrific place to wander about on your own during breaks. On at least one morning we will take 4WD vehicles to the top of the ridge in hopes of finding some of the more difficult endemics like Santa Marta Parakeet.