My recent trip to Colombia was made, principally, in order to spend some time in the isolated Santa Marta mountains in the north-east of the country. These ancient mountains – much, much older than the Andes – have stood alone on the edge of the Caribbean for such a long time a host of species endemic to them alone have evolved there. Inevitably, on my first visit to Colombia, I wanted to visit such a biologically fascinating destination.
Of course, the Santa Marta range are just a fragment of the larger Colombian territory – and there are many, many more interesting species of birds to be seen across the country as a whole. Almost 2,000 species have now been recorded in Colombia – a staggering and remarkable testament to the country’s vast biodiversity.
Flushed with the success of my intense weekend hummingbird bird race in Costa Rica earlier this year, a similar approach seemed like a good way to kick things off. With the invaluable help of my good friend Diego Calderon – who flew into Bogota from Medellin especially to help out – and the silky skills of German, our driver, we set about seeing as many species of hummingbirds as we could in the space of 36 hours.
The first, full, day saw three main sites visited – we started at the increasingly well-known Jardin Encantado on the outskirts of the small township of San Francisco, a reliable site for the Colombian endemic Indigo-capped Hummingbird and the charismatic Ruby-topaz Hummingbird. The former were present in good numbers, a gorgeous, neat combination of intense green and blue; the latter was far trickier, with just one blazing individual turning up sporadically and briefly at the numerous feeding stations.
Sparkling Violetears were ubiquitous, and were as pugnacious and territorial as I remembered them from my time in Ecuador. A couple of Brown Violetears appeared from time to time, a close look at their iridescent gorgets belying their outwardly drab café-au-lait appearance. Winning the good looks competition had to be the Black-throated Mangos, with both males and females strikingly attractive. In the course of our time here two species of woodstar put in an appearance, their presence usually heralded by the deep buzzing sound of their blurring wings.
It would have been a reluctant departure from here were we not heading towards Chicaque, a site that promised plenty more good birds. Our arrival coincided with some heavy drifting fog, limiting visibility and photographic opportunities. The main target here was Golden-bellied Starfrontlet – a hummingbird that, like many of its kind, combines looks as mouthwatering as the name suggests – a vivid combination of metallic gold, green, blue, lilac and orange. One bird consented to show itself, although territorial violetears were doing their very best to suppress the activity of any other hummers.
Our final destination for the day was one dearly close to my heart – the Sumapaz Paramo. While I love a good cloud-forest as much as the next man, wild open spaces strike a chord within me. (And people wonder why I love Shetland so much…)
Dominated by the architectural growth of Espeletias, this high upland landscape was considered sacred by the indigenous people of the area, a place where humans were not supposed to tread. As the name Sumapaz suggests, it’s an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place. At first glance, there was not a lot of bird life evident, let alone the species I most dearly wanted to see – the fabulous Green-bearded Helmetcrest. Not the most colourful of hummingbirds by a long chalk – but surely one of the more charismatic species, at least partly by virtue of the atypical habitat it occupies.
In due course Diego’s knowledge and persistence paid off, and after a thorough and patient search of the area in fine and sunny – though chilly – conditions we finished the day with good views of three helmetcrests and the other resident hummingbird of the area, Bronze-tailed Thornbill.
One Green-bearded Helmetcrest allowed a reasonably close approach to where it fed, clinging to flowers upside down, dextrously using one foot to hold on and the other to bring a flower to its bill.
We hit the road again, passing back through Bogota in the early evening. Having experienced firsthand by this stage the chaos that’s Colombian traffic – and having watched, in the course of the day, German skilfully avoid numerous dogs, randomly reversing vehicles on high, blind corners, and a young boy who ran out into the road in front of us – my appreciation of German’s driving was reaching new levels. While I would be prepared to drive myself on the country roads, I think Bogota would be a step too far…
Long after dark we had climbed back up into foothills east of the city. A warm welcome awaited us at 9,800 feet at the beautiful Observatorio de Colibries – and it was here we spent the night and the following morning before heading to the airport. I had a flight to catch to Barranquilla and the Santa Marta mountains…
Before that, the morning at the Observatorio was tremendous, and netted several further species of hummingbird. Both Black and Green-tailed Trainbearers were feeding on the flowering shrubs in the gardens; a Sword-billed Hummingbird made an all-too brief appearance; and Glowing Pufflegs and Tyrian Metaltails were constantly moving around us.
A tense wait ensued for the main targets, Blue-throated Starfrontlet and Coppery Puffleg. Two individuals of the former eventually obliged, though the latter species was to elude me. A good reason to come back, of course…
I’m really not a fan of photos of hummingbirds at feeders, but on this occasion one such photo simply has to creep in – the starfrontlets were making all-too-brief visits to the feeders, and when not feeding were returning fast, high and deep into nearby tree cover.
Such a beautiful bird though has to be seen to be believed – colours like this are overwhelming for European birders used to the largely muted tones of Western Palearctic birds. Que chimba! It’s a feeder shot or nothing – a shame as this was such a handsome bird and I’d have dearly loved to have had a decent, more natural portrait to show for myself.
By the time I made it to the airport, less than 36 hours after arriving in Colombia, Bogota’s immediate surroundings had yielded, with Diego’s invaluable assistance a healthy 24 species of hummingbird of which 10 were new to me. Missing Coppery Puffleg – and not having enough time to try for Black Inca – was a shame, but I won’t be shy in heading back for another visit! There’s so much to see in this wonderful country. Dusky Starfrontlet is calling me… not to mention Blue-bearded Helmetcrest…
…but those are stories yet to be written. For now, sated with starfrontlets, I was heading north-east to Colombian endemic bird species heaven…
Immense thanks are owed to Diego for his invaluable assistance and terrific company on this first leg of the trip; to German for his skills behind the wheel; and to Victoria at the Observatorio de Colibries for welcoming us into her home.