Colorful Birds of Colombia

By Marie-France and Denis Rivard
February 4, 2016

With around 1900 species of birds, Colombia is an excellent destination for bird watching and photography. During a 5-day trip in the Andes, we saw 183 species of birds including hummingbirds, tanagers, antpittas, antshrikes, guans, flowerpiercers and much more. The tour brought us to Cameguadua marsh, Los Nevados National Park, Rio Blanco Watershed at Manizales and El Recinto del Pensamiento Ecopark in the Central Andes of Colombia. National parks cover about 10% of the country and there are, in addition, a number of reserves for the protection of birds and other species. In Colombia, major industries and services also make a significant contribution to research, education and protection of habitats and ecosystems. For instance, the Rio Blanco ecolodge is located in the water management area of Manizales, and the origins of Recinto del Pensamiento park can be linked to coffee growers. As some sites have restricted or limited access, having the services of an experienced guide is recommended. 

The masked flowerpiercer by Marie-France and  Denis Rivard ©

The masked flowerpiercer was often seen in the gardens of Rio Blanco.

Birds of the Andean forest often move and feed in mixed flocks, a phenomenon that we had not experienced to that degree previously. Mixed flocks are composed of several individuals of different species moving together to forage (they are sometimes called mixed-species foraging flocks).  We have often seen mixed flocks of shorebirds in North America but the mixed flocks of the Andean forest were quite an experience.  As we were walking along a trail in the Rio Blanco Refuge, our guide stopped and pointed at a species, new to us, up in the canopy.  Within minutes, several other species were seen, from the height of the canopy to the forest floor, barely giving us time to set and push the trigger to photograph a “new” species before another one was found. We were in the middle of a mixed flock. In this situation, handholding your telephoto lens, as we usually do, is necessary for a better response time. To our surprise, the flock included species of warblers commonly seen in North America, like the blackburnian, black-and-white and Canada warblers.

Red-headed barbet can be seen in mixed flocks or at feeders by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Red-headed barbet can be seen in mixed flocks or at feeders.

Many wildlife preserves provide feeders and gardens carefully planned for attracting hummingbirds.  We saw 26 species of hummingbirds during our short stay including species like the great saphirewing, green-fronted lancebill, wedge-billed & speckled hummingbirds, long-tailed sylph, tourmaline sunangel, bronzy & collared inca, fawn-breasted brilliant, Andean emerald and white-bellied woodstar. The most unusual encounter was made at 4,100 meters in the Los Nevados National Park. It was a foggy and cold morning when we reached the habitat of the buffy helmetcrest. Our attempts to locate this unique bird were unsuccessful and, after an hour, we were ready to leave for a warmer area, down in the valley. As we were leaving, a buffy helmetcrest landed on top of a small bush beside the visitor center. The fog lifted momentarily and the bird allowed us to move to a nearby position where we were able to get a few pictures before he disappeared. It is unusual to find hummingbirds at such altitude and cold temperatures which made this particular sighting even more memorable.  From there, we went down to Hotel Los Termales at 3300m where we enjoyed lunch and thermal baths before moving to their gardens renowned for their hummingbirds.    

The buffy helmetcrest  by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

The buffy helmetcrest lives in high altitude (here at 4100 meters) and is near-endemic to Colombia

Great saphirewing by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Great saphirewing in the gardens of Hotel Los Termales (at 3300 meters).

Long-tailed sylph at Rio Blanco by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Long-tailed sylph at Rio Blanco.

While there are several species of antpittas in Colombia, they are difficult to observe and photograph as they live on the forest floor where the vegetation is dense. Antpittas feed on insects and are not attracted by feeders based on seeds or fruits. They essentially live on or close to the ground and move around by walking or hopping.  With their long legs and vestigial tail, they have a unique appearance. It is only in recent years that feeding techniques have been developed for antpittas and some nature centers now maintain feeding stations where visitors can see these elusive birds. Such stations are the result of considerable efforts, dedication and patience by those who maintain them, as specific feeding schedules have to be followed daily for the birds to return to these stations. There were six species of antpittas at Rio Blanco and we were able to observe 4 of them during our stay. 

Chestnut-crowned antpitta by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Chestnut-crowned antpitta in Rio Blanco Lodge.

Tanagers are another colorful family of birds. We saw them at feeders and also along the trails. Some species are uncommon and we were fortunate to see a small flock of white-capped tanagers near the end of our visit at Rio Blanco. We first heard them moving from the other side of the valley, making quite a rattle with their loud calls. They followed us for a while along the trail but remained high in the canopy, making it difficult to get a good picture. They are known to be noisy and to travel in small but conspicuous groups.  We saw no less than 24 species in the tanager family, including mountain-tanagers, hemispingus, bush-tanagers, flowerpiercers, plushcap, etc.   

Crimson-backed Tanager by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Crimson-backed Tanager in the gardens of a private ranch.

White-capped Tanager by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

White-capped Tanager in Rio Blanco.  Photo taken with ISO 6400 to compensate for the lack of light under the canopy.

Most visitors to South America hope to see parrots, toucans, guans and motmots. Along some of the trails at Rio Blanco, we saw the black-billed mountain-toucan, the Andean motmot, the masked trogon, the sickle-winged guan and the crimson-mantled woodpecker. The motmots, trogons and guans are easier to photograph as they tend to perch in the open but the mountain-toucan and woodpeckers were more difficult to “capture” in the shade of the Andean forest.

Black-billed mountain-toucan by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Black-billed mountain-toucan, a difficult capture against the sky in the shade of the canopy.

A number of birds, like the bar-crested antshrike, the bicolored and the brown-banded antpitta, the golden-fronted redstar and the grayish piculet, can only be found in Colombia or in neighboring countries (i.e. endemic or near-endemic to Colombia). With its 76 endemic bird species, Colombia provides opportunities for birdwatchers residing in other countries to increase their life list significantly. A “special moment” with endemic species included the sightings of golden-plume parakeets, which tend to come in large groups; we saw 24 of them at the Rio Blanco lodge on one day, and 12+ along a trail in the following day.       

Bar-crested antshrike by Marie-France and Denis Rivard ©

Bar-crested antshrike (near-endemic to Colombia) in Cameguadua Marsh.

While we focused mostly on bird photography, other members of our party brought back beautiful pictures of flowers, plants, insects and mammals like the Andean coati and the crab-eating fox. The visit of local gardens and a butterfly conservatory provided additional opportunities for nature photography.

For the identification of birds, we consulted the Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by McMullan M. T.M. Donegan and A. Quevedo (2010).

Authors Biography & Contact Information

Marie-France and Denis RivardIn December 2014, we spent 5 days with Daniel Uribe, a local guide from “Birding In Colombia”. Daniel was instrumental in making every moment of this trip perfect, so that all members of our group could enjoy their stay. In Rio Blanco, a local guide joined us for the added benefit of having local knowledge of recent observations. The photos appearing here were taken with a Sigma 150-500mm lens attached to a Canon 70D and a Canon 100-400mm lens mounted on a Canon T3i.  The headshot photo was taken during this trip by Marcela Zuluaga, a member of our group. 

See their previous article: Fall Wildlife in Saskatchewan by Marie-France and Denis Rivard.


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