The second stage of my recent first visit to Colombia took me to the Santa Marta mountains in the north-east of the country. These mountains are high, remote, and ancient – surely happy hunting grounds for fans of endemic species of any kind, let alone birds… and amongst those, the mountains harbour a number of endemic hummingbirds. Some of which are (relatively) easy to see… and others are much, much more difficult.
The latter would have to wait for another day. Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, for example is now, shortly after its rediscovery in recent months, relatively achievable provided you have the right contacts and are prepared to make a significant commitment in time and effort to hike into the remotest reaches of the range. Santa Marta Sabrewing is downright difficult, and is only seen sporadically…
(Which is a kind way of saying, barely ever, and never reliably at any given site).
I had a few targets for this leg of the journey, not least Santa Marta Blossomcrown and Santa Marta Woodstar. Our journey started in the lowlands at the National Park Salamanca, with another Colombian endemic hummer to kick things off – a smart male Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird that rather frustratingly kept itself to the treetops. The heat and humidity at, more or less, sea-level was intense, and I was keenly looking forward to climbing up into cooler conditions. I’ve lived in Shetland long enough to acclimatise to our weather – weather that, despite the islands being kissed by the Gulf Stream, is essentially cold and windy!
A brief stop in the Santa Marta foothills at Minca yielded White-vented Plumeleteers and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, a brief Red-billed Emerald, the obligatory arsy Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and plenty of feisty, territorial White-necked Jacobins. A world without the latter (and Sparkling Violetears) would be an easier one in which to see other species of hummingbird – but a lot drabber for their absence.
From here on access to higher elevations is best tackled in four-wheel drives – specifically, the legendarily indestructible Landcruiser. The road broke down into a pot-holed mess as we climbed higher. Still, it didn’t seem quite as bad as rumour had it… though no joy at our first attempt for Santa Marta Blossomcrown. We’d be coming back down the same way, so this would need to wait a while yet.
The next two days were to be based at the El Dorado lodge, run by Pro-Aves. This comfortable lodge was an excellent location, and provided many good birds of all kinds. Hummingbirds, naturally, figured highly.
A gorgeous male Black-backed Thornbill was the star of the show – a Colombian endemic, and a hard one to catch up with. His metallic lemony-green gorget flashed brightly when seen head on, but otherwise this was a dark and subtle bird.
The feeders at the lodge were swarming with two species in particular – Green Violetears and Crowned Woodnymphs. Both are spectacular in their respective ways, and the air was thick with their flashing colours, chattering calls and squabbling.
Every now and again a brief flash of snow-white would announce the swift passage of yet another endemic hummingbird – a male White-tailed Starfrontlet. Unlike the thornbill that preferred to perch high in the open when not feeding, the starfrontlet would bury himself deep in the heart of the surrounding vegetation. Both made but brief visits to the feeders, the pressure of Green Violetears proving predictably intolerable to them.
More erratic still were Lazuline Sabrewings – two birds would arrive sporadically and briefly, the male in particular being a strikingly colourful and typically dynamic bird.
On two occasions a female Santa Marta Woodstar showed up, but again only fleetingly. Fortunately in the coming days I was to get good views of another female and a brief male – the latter coming to refuel at flowers before heading back to an exposed spar way up in the canopy from which he held his territory. The second female was stunning – a lovely combination of white, chestnut and bluish-black. This was almost like a Union Jack in bird form – and she was frankly much more attractive than the male.
Climbing right up onto the San Lorenzo ridge took a long-time in the four-wheel drives. The track was, by now, a river bed – with channels carved and boulders exposed by the passage of water. On one occasion our vehicle grounded violently. The driver was unperturbed, and after a short while beneath the rear axle he’d stemmed the oil bleeding from our wounded Landcruiser. We were good to go. On the top of the ridge we found Tyrian Metaltails and a Mountain Velvetbreast – and a host of other birds, not least the highly endangered Santa Marta Parakeets.
Heading back down to Minca meant another attempt for Santa Marta Blossomcrown at the same fifty yard bank of flowering shrubs we’d failed at two days ago. While the species clearly has a larger range than this one site, it comes as a bit of shock to learn that this is, to all intents and purposes, the only place in the world where these Blossomcrowns are readily seen. With patience, one eventually was found and showed briefly… but not well enough for photographs, sadly.
As we headed downhill that was the same story for Coppery Emerald – one was seen, briefly and rather distantly, in the coffee-growing zone of the mountains. No-one ever said it was going to be easy…
Minca yielded more of the same hummingbird species with one notable exception in the evening – I suddenly found myself eye to eye with a hermit. All the hermits look a little like they’ve been thrown together from spare parts – somehow slightly jangly and disjointed. This particular Pale-bellied Hermit fed briefly in front of me before darting away into the dusk.
Returning to the hot coastal lowlands on the Guajira peninsula near Riohaca for one final morning meant a chance to catch up with three more species – another Red-billed Emerald, and single Shining-green and Buffy Hummingbirds. This was strikingly different habitat to what I’d been experiencing hitherto – sandy scrubland comprising low thorny trees and an understory of cacti and small flowering plants.
All three species on the Guajira Peninsula are near-endemics to Colombia; the almost laughably nondescript Buffy Hummingbird was to be my final new hummer for the trip, taking my total Colombian tally to 36 species.
Not bad at all – I’d seen most of what I’d hoped to see, a great many more birds and other wildlife besides (more of which in a later post), and had made some good friends in this most welcoming and friendly of countries. It goes without saying that I’ll be heading back there… and soon.
This latter part of the trip was as successful as it was thanks in huge part to the superb bird-finding skills and terrific company of Forrest Rowland. The man is a legend; and I’m immensely grateful for all his help. Plus he likes the writing of TC Boyle – and anyone who does is surely on the side of the angels…
Not only do I need to go and look at hummers Jon, I need to investigate the work of TC Boyle.
TC Boyle is one of the great American writers of our time, Steve – he’s a gem. A great novelist (try ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ or ‘Drop City’ as first dips of the toe) and a master of the short story form – ‘Tooth and Claw’ and ‘Wild Child’ are both terrific collections.
I forget which collection of short stories has the one based loosely on real (tragic) events here in Shetland on Unst one wild and windy night, but there’s an earlier (different, I think from memory) version of it in ‘The New Yorker’ online – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/01/21/swept-away-2
I hope you enjoy TC Boyle as much as I do, Steve…