Christmas Eve Birds in Santa Marta Colombia

Somewhere in the shadows the bird flitted over a fallen trunk, appearing and disappearing with an uncanny ability, seemingly unique to tapaculos, some of the master-skulkers of the bird world. I had heard the bird clearly, interrupting our careful study of a feeding flock racing through the high canopy, Blue-capped Tanagers, Bay-headed Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts, oh some small flycatcher… when all of the sudden the loud and distinct song of a tapaculo rang out from a streamside tangle. Santa Marta Tapaculo, an endemic, I said excitedly. While even range restricted tapaculos are often common within the right habitat, these birds are tough to see well. Playback is pretty much a must except for a handful of the 56 species. I crouched down a quietly played the song. The bird responded with calls and I thought I saw a shadow move up the small bank. For the next few minutes the bird played hide and seek, mainly following large rotted trunk, perching in view briefly and then vanishing. I got decent glimpses, but Claudia was having difficulty spotting the dark bird in the deep shade.

cloud forest, Santa Marta Mountain Colombia Photo Claudia Cavazos

While patiently waiting for better views I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, small round shape, large eye, obvious eye ring, after a one or two expletives I got the name out: Rusty- breasted Antpitta, one of the nine Grallaricula antpittas, small birds that highlight their uniqueness by being rare (except for two or three) and tough to see. These tiny antpittas are often more arboreal then their larger relatives. Forgotten was the tapaculo as I tried to find the bird again after it had moved across the narrow trail. Luck was on my side as I spotted it and its mate perched low on an arm-sized branch. The only thing cuter than a Rusty-breasted Antpitta, are two Rusty-breasted Antpittas. We studied the birds carefully as they foraged in the relatively open understory. One bird stayed for ten minutes and preened. I laid down on the forest floor for better views and Claudia did the same.

The birds were confiding, hopping rapidly onto the leaf litter in chase of insects and returning to low perches, wings flicking. While we laid still, watching, the Santa Marta Tapaculo passed by, out in the open, literally in front of our noses, as if saying “hey don’t forget about me”. One endemic and one great rarity down, further down the trail we emerged on the road again. Claudia spotted a spinetail in a feeding flock of woodcreepers and tanagers, after a moment I got onto a Streak-capped Spinetail, another endemic and then a sheer luck would have it I heard the endemic foliage-gleaner. The bird nearly hit Claudia in the head as it shot from the roadside brush across the gravel, eventually sitting still for some decent views. Things were looking up.

This Christmas Eve, December 24th, of birding had not started very promising. First I woke up late, well ten minutes after sunrise, which is late in the tropics. My goal was to stake out the hummingbird feeders at the lodge, since a Black-backed Thornbill had recently visited. This species of hummingbird I can often be hard to find and is one of many endemics found in the Santa Marta Mountains. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia represents an island of cloud forest, paramo, and glacier covered peaks surrounded by arid lowlands. Isolated from the Andes to the south the Santa Marta Mountains support some of the highest numbers of endemics found on a mainland anywhere in the world, depending on taxonomy almost twenty species are endemic to these coastal mountains along with many unique subspecies. Add to that a wide variety of near endemics and rarities, the area can keep birders busy for weeks.

hummingbirds crowding the feeders at El Dorado Lodge, Photo Stephan Lorenz

I waited patiently, by the feeders sifting through the numerous Sparkling and Green Violetears that dominated the feeders. The smaller Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were also present in high numbers and occasionally a Brown Violetear, the altitudinal nomad would make an appearance. I waited. A female Santa Marta Woodstar slowly hovered around a feeder, woodstars always give their presence away with their buzzy flight.

female Santa Marta Woodstar, Photo Stephan Lorenz

The banana feeders right in front of the lodge were busy with Blue-naped Chlorophonias, flocks of large Blue-capped Tanagers, and single Bay-headed Tanagers. But by eight am no thornbill had appeared and bird activity around the lodge began to slow down. Claudia and I decided to head downhill and check for some of the lower elevation endemics, with aforementioned success.

In the afternoon I walked uphill, flushing Lined Quail-Doves twice, as usual just fleeting glimpses. A female Masked Trogon promised to bring more from my favorite family of birds. Walking slowly I heard the thin faint whistle of fruiteaters, which I had heard in the morning without any success of a sighting. I stood still and focused on some roadside trees. Fog crept up the slope, enveloping the high branches, dripping from abundant epiphytes. I waited and spotted movement during a clear spell. There was quite a bit of movement in the tangled canopy and eventually a stunning male Golden-breasted Fruiteater perched in the open for several minutes. Overall a handful of fruiteaters gorged on ripe berries and offered unforgettable views.

With daylight waning a started the trek downhill back towards the lodge, but finally heard the distinct hooted whistles of the White-tipped Quetzal, second later a male flew right overhead, revealing its red and glistening green. I arrived back at the lodge with barely light to outline the path.

Sparkling Violetear, Photo Stephan Lorenz

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