Santa Marta Mountains Colombia: Christmas Morning Birds


I clawed my way across the low berm and rolled over the top onto a soft bed of pine needles fallen from the introduced conifers. I looked up into a star-choked sky, fortunately still black without a hint of sunrise. It was 5 am and it was crucial to make it to the top before dawn. I had been hiking for a solid hour up the steep and unrelenting Bromeliad Trail. Within the limited arch of light my headlamp provided I saw nothing but the muddy path and occasional wooden steps hemmed by dense low vegetation. It was an easy trail to follow, straight up the mountain, past humming electrical towers, carrying heavy cables to the antennas on top.

I had rolled out of bed at four am and grabbed the full pack, snatched a plastic sack with snacks from the lodge’s fridge and started walking, as fast as I could. I knew it was a solid 6-8 miles to the top, but I had to be there before sunrise to have a real chance at some of the rare endemics. Usually people have the privilege to ride to the top in an ancient jeep along the bumpy road, but since I hadn’t planned transport, none was available. It was more real this way anyways, work for the birds.

Yet as I dry-heaved back onto my feet I would have taken a ride. I was pretty exhausted. Looking up I could see red lights flashing from the antennas somewhere near the top, looking down I could see the shimmering lights of Roradero and Cienega Grande fringing the black Caribbean. I knew nothing was coming up this road in weeks. Fortunately the wind was calm and the sky clear, good signs, and I buckled down again, heading up the road. The road swung back and worth, higher and higher, past clear-cuts, stands of introduced pines and patches of cloud forest. Suddenly a rooster called, I hadn’t expected that to be the first bird of the day, but apparently there is a small farm up there, clinging to the slope. At least I was getting somewhere, time was ticking and I quickened my pace.

the lights of Cienega Grande along the Caribbean, Photo Stephan Lorenz

I remembered, “take the left” turn and focused not to miss it. When I reached the fork it was obvious and I trudged on without pause. Near a level stretch I spotted a firefly on the road, I was so exhausted I just saw a small light and walked closer to investigate. A Band-winged Nightjar fluttered up just two feet away and I snapped out of my stupor. I looked at the next “firefly” carefully with binoculars before approaching and saw a nightjar well. I saw more antennas and the road eventually continued straight toward a large open area. The sun was rising quickly when I reached a grove of stately eucalyptus near the famous lagoon. I kneeled in the road trying to rest a bit when the first birds of the day flew in. A group of the endemic Santa Mata Parakeets, six or seven, the main reason I had struggled to beat the dawn. I could barely make out any color in the wan light, but didn’t need to worry. I would later see up to 25 of these beautiful parakeets, some of them even feeding near the ground less than fifty feet away.

The ringing song of a tapaculo exploded from the impenetrable bamboo. Here I was again trying to lure one of these secretive birds into the open. This Brown-rumped Tapaculo is another Santa Marta endemic, occurring at high elevations and it is even harder to see than the Santa Marta Tapaculo further down. I am sure the tapaculo could see me, but all I saw as moving bamboo. At less than four feet away, with the vegetation wiggling, I was amazed that I couldn’t see even a single feather. Fortunately tapaculos tend to be fairly common and I eventually coaxed a calling pair into view just a few yards down the road.

A Red-crested Cotinga sat up in the open, one of the easiest cotingas to see.

I wandered over to the “lagoon”, where Santa Marta Parakeets shot from the oaks. The remaining endemics I hoped to see where the Black-backed Thornbill, Santa Marta Warbler and Bush-Tyrant. Before long I spotted a hummingbird that was not a Violetear in the canopy and followed as the bird zipped into a nearby tree. There it was, a male Black-backed Thornbill with a bright yellow gorget. I walked within several feet of the bird calmly sitting on its perch. Barely 8 am and I was doing pretty good.

I left the lagoon to walk further up the road, among a loose group of Santa Marta Brush-Finches and Rusty-headed Spinetails and as if on cue a pair of Santa Marta Warblers made an appearance. Large sluggish birds with an odd face markings, no wonder these were considered hemispingus for some time. One bird left and I decided to get it on the way down. I birded carefully and stopped often. In a stand of introduced pines I came across a male White-tailed Starfrontlet, one of the more amazing hummingbirds of the region. Green body with bluish crown tipped with a clean white tail, the bird stretched and preened for several minutes. Turning to continue two Santa Marta Parakeets hurtled over the sharp ridge, almost hitting me in the head. Despite trying I couldn’t turn up a Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, but found several feeding flocks containing the cool endemic  Yellow-crowned Whitestart.

I was amazed to reach the lodge before lunch and enjoyed my break after the long walk. Claudia and I spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging around the lookout, enjoying clear views of Pico Cristóbal Colón, Colombia’s highest mountain, and observing Red Howler Monkeys scramble through the trees.

Colombia's highest peak in the distance, Photo Claudia Cavazos


One response to this post.

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