This overview was written by Richard Webster, who has scouted and developed our birding tour itineraries to Colombia. It comprises an introduction to the country and its biogeography and important birding regions, followed by a brief description of our current tours with links to their respective tour pages.
Colombia is well known to Field Guides clients for many things, particularly the length of its check-list (the world’s longest) and the magnitude of its internal troubles over the 20 years between our birding tour offerings to this beautiful land in the early years of Field Guides and its return to our schedule from 2010 forward. Colombia has been mending, and we now visit this diverse and rich country on three tours that seek many of its range-restricted and threatened species. And while political and military changes have been occurring, there has also been a steady growth in Colombian ornithology and the establishment of many private nature reserves to complement the public ones, all making locating many of the special birds more practical. Colombia has not yet had time to catch up to the ecotourism standards of its neighbors, and so be forewarned that while birding in Colombia is fun and feasible, there are a few more rough edges (discussed in the itineraries) than on comparable tours. All of our trips will have local support from our in-country operators both before and during the tour.
Because Colombia has been a difficult place to visit for many years, our current selection of tours is focused on visiting the areas in which the birds most special to Colombia reside. With time may come the general survey trips and introductory tours that are the core offerings in many adjacent countries.
To understand the biogeography of Colombia, it is best to start with the division of the Andes into three long, narrow cordilleras which are largely isolated from each other and divide the lowland regions of the country. Running north-south, the Western and Central cordilleras are separated by the narrow Cauca Valley, and the Central and Eastern cordilleras by the wide Magdalena Valley. These cordilleras come together in southern Colombia and become, like the Andes of adjacent Ecuador, a single block with outer Eastern and Western ridges and slopes; the birds of the Andes of southern Colombia are very similar to those of Ecuador.
The main “birding units” of Colombia are:
The capital, Bogota, is on a high plateau in the Eastern Andes. The Eastern Andes have few political endemics because part of the range is just inside the Venezuela border, but these are areas of Venezuela visited by few birders. The northern extension of the Eastern Andes, the Sierra de Perija, straddles the border, and is difficult to visit from either side.
Medellin, a modern city of six million, is near the northern end, and a convenient gateway for travelers. Ranging from tropical lowlands to permanent snowfields, a full range of Andean habitats exist on the slopes. Even among the specialties, most species are shared with the Eastern and/or Western cordillera. The “Bogota, the Magdalena Valley, and Santa Marta” tour will visit the lower slopes of the east side in pursuit of several endemics, while the “Cauca Valley and the Western and Central Andes” tour will visit several areas on the west slope and northern fringe.
The “smallest” of the three, the Western Andes present the biggest opportunities and challenges. “Choco” is the name of a department, and, more broadly, the name often used for the wet Pacific lowlands and slopes. The Andean portions of the Choco are very rich in total species and specialties, and while most species occur at accessible areas in Ecuador, a few are endemic to Colombia and a few more are difficult to see in Ecuador. Unfortunately, some good birding areas are in areas that are too dangerous to visit. Further, some of them are logistically difficult to strenuous. On top of that are the challenges that come with the rainfall that makes this one of the five wettest regions on earth. We will visit a couple of spots, and are working on finding more.
SIERRA NEVADA DE SANTA MARTA
Isolated by a lowland valley from the Sierra de Perija (Eastern Andes), virtually every montane species that has colonized this coastal massif has become differentiated to some degree, including about 70 that have unique names, as subspecies or species. About 16 are considered full species by most taxonomists, and recent investigations suggest that another four (or more) perhaps should be. Although rich in endemics, in its isolation the Sierra Nevada is less rich than the main Andes (but combined with the lowlands, even a short trip produces a lengthy birdlist).
Rich birding, but only a few species are not shared with northwestern Ecuador and Panama (particularly Darien), and including it in tour itineraries is not a priority (versus montane habitats of the Choco).
A wet, lowland area stretching across the northern flanks of the Western and Central Andes into the middle Magdalena Valley, it is a priority for conservationists because most of it has been converted to ranches and farms. This is a subset of the Choco avifauna, with only a few endemic species and subspecies. These do include some special birds, and both of our tours will sample this area, particularly at the El Paujil reserve (Blue-billed Curassow) in the Magdalena Valley.
The Caribbean coast of the northeast, centered on the Guajira Peninsula, along with northwestern Venezuela in the Falcon region, are a coastal desert with few political endemics, but a moderate number of species are unique to the region. Both tours visiting the Santa Marta area see a good sample of this avifauna.
A large portion of Colombia is in the lowlands east of the eastern Andes. This includes several biogeographic units, such as Amazonian wet forest, drier white sand forests, and llanos. Tourist infrastructure in much of it is limited, and all of the birds are shared with adjoining countries, with most of them more easily seen on tour routes outside of Colombia, so this area is less of a current priority.
Field Guides Itineraries
We currently have three itineraries planned:
Colombia: Bogota, the Magdalena Valley, and Santa Marta
This is an energetic, endemic-oriented tour connecting reserves up the Magdalena Valley from Bogota to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. For more information, see our tour page or map: tour page [tour map]
Santa Marta Escape
This offers an easier subset of “Bogota, the Magdalena Valley, and Santa Marta.” Santa Marta is reached by a direct flight from Miami, and we’ll have a couple more days here than on that longer tour in order to allow for a more leisurely approach to covering the region. For more information, see our tour page or map: tour page [tour map]
The Cauca Valley, Western and Central Andes
Our third itinerary focuses on five hundred kilometers along and above the Cauca Valley, visiting both the Western and Central Andes, and is not only a route rich in endemics, but a fun mix of birdy localities with a fine variety of Andean gems. Several international airlines serve the beautiful, modern city of Medellin, from which we will travel by road. For more information, see our tour page or map: tour page [tour map]