Trip Report: Colombia’s Marvelous Magdalena Valley 2024

January 21, 2024 to February 2, 2024 with Jesse Fagan

A little local knowledge goes a long way. Thanks to our hosts at the Cerulean Warbler Reserve for putting us on to this Common Potoo, which we would have easily missed inside the forest. Photo by participants David and Judy Smith.

The Magdalena River, and its associated valley located between the Eastern and Central cordilleras of Colombia, is nearly 950 miles long, and its drainage covers a surface area of roughly 105,000 square miles. We visit just a tiny portion of this drainage on our tour, but it's enough to get a sense of the river’s immensity and its importance to many species of special creatures. We spent our time mostly in the southern half of the valley, visiting the foothills on both sides, along with stops in the dry valley, and we must have crossed the river itself half a dozen times. I think I attempted to map this out at least once on a restaurant napkin, but don’t worry if you felt a little lost on the tour. Overall, the tour was a success in so many ways. First, we had a great group, many of whom I knew from previous trips, or were connecting from our Colombia’s Eastern Cordillera tour. The birding was excellent (which is often the case in Colombia) tallying 368 species with a bevy of endemics or near endemics. Finally, the weather cooperated nicely, and rain was never really a factor, though we would have been happy with cooler temperatures in a few places!

A wonderful capture by David and Judy Smith of this Spectacled Parrotlet pair. The male is easily distinguished from the female by the blue border to the eyes.

Going back to the birds, the highlights were many. The Sooty Ant-Tanager was a hit for most. This Colombian endemic has a lovely melodic song, but it can be tricky to locate in the forest, which we experienced firsthand at Bellavista. I have rarely had this species sit “pretty” for groups, but that wasn’t the case this year! The Oilbird experience was enjoyed by all, too. It wasn’t a lifer for most, but for those that had crossed paths with them before, none had seen them at dusk exiting their cave. The build up before hand was pretty intense with lots of growling and shrieking before they fluttered like bats outside the cave entrance, eventually taking off into the full moon sky. A place that got high marks for its birds (and hospitality) was Ukuku Lodge near Ibague. This site alone had three endemics that we did not see anywhere else on the tour: Tolima Dove, Tolima Blossomcrown, and Yellow-headed Brushfinch. However, by a landslide, most folks thought the Blue-billed Curassow was top bird. This very rare cracid is found in just a few places in Colombia. Obviously, like many curassows it is threatened by habitat destruction and hunting, but you wouldn’t have known that at El Paujil Reserve. Here they roam freely in the garden, a testament to what is possible if they are not persecuted.

Thanks again to this fun group and I really look forward to seeing you again sometime soon on another Field Guides trip. All the best of birding in 2024 and beyond.

You can see my complete trip report on eBird at this link: https://ebird.org/tripreport/215445

—Jesse Fagan aka Motmot from Lima, Peru