Bird watchers or birders the world over have always wanted to look for and at birds in Colombia. Why, because the country has the most diverse habitats, for its size, than any other South American country. This diversity creates an environment that produces large numbers of endemic birds. Endemics, as you may remember, are species that are found in an area or country and in that area or country only.
Colombia is bordered by Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela. Colombia boasts 68 endemic birds, Venezuela 48, Ecuador 37 and Panama a mere 12. Flip and I have been eyeing Colombia for years. It was one of the top contenders and was considered first place on our “bucket list” of birding spots to visit. However, the thought of going into the bush in the highlands of Colombia with a pair of binoculars sent chills down our backs. Not wanting to be caught in the wrong field planted with one drug-producing plant or another and being abducted or perhaps killed, definitely put a damper on birding in Colombia.
The fear of birding in Colombia started disappearing during the Clinton administration as he and the president of Colombia worked very hard to manage the problems caused by Colombian drug trafficking. Colombia became progressively more tourist-friendly and when we received an invitation to participate in TravelMart Latin America in Bogota, Colombia, we felt we were ready to bird Colombia. TravelMart Latin America is a travel and tourism conference which visits a different Latin American country yearly. TravelMart also offers short trips within the hosting country. If the travel industry was ready to go to Colombia, then we were. We felt safe.
It is a three-hour flight from Miami to Bogota, the capital of the country. The altitude is about 8,800 feet so, after being at sea level, this was a bit of a shock, but we acclimated easily. We arrived a few days before the conference to do some, you guessed it, birding. We were pleased to find a local birder through an organization called ProAves. Our guide, Miles McMullan, turned out to be the illustrator of the Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia! What a treat.
An hour north of Bogota is the Chingaza National Park and our target bird was the brown-breasted parakeet which is one of the endemics. Unfortunately, the gate to the park didn’t open until 8 a.m. and the parakeets had left their roost. But the countryside was awesome and we saw many other bird species including five species of hummingbirds, bush tyrants, buzzard eagles and many more. The TravelMart conference was in Cartagena, which is on the Caribbean coast and is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings. The buildings inside the walled city are very Spanish and have been restored. It is a fun city, but the birding is limited and we were itching to get into the field. We then drove along the coast to Santa Marta and stayed in the Tayrona National Park, which provided us with a taste of Colombian shorebirds, gulls and terns and a few lowland species. It is a treat to wake up to the cacophony of brown-throated parakeets and surf. The mountains of Santa Marta rank among the most famous birding spots in Colombia, for it boasts 18 endemic species. Flip and I had to get there. We found another local birding guide and although our Spanglish and his English were both barely passable, we both talked bird. What an experience. The “road” up the mountain to the town of Minca was worse than the Quansoo Road was in the 1960s by a zillion times. Then, after a great breakfast on a porch with six hummingbird feeders and a swing around the grounds of the Minca hotel, we were back in the Land Cruiser to bump, grind, thrash and crawl our way up to El Dorado, an eco-lodge run by ProAves. We settled into our cabins with a porch looking down to the coast. The first bird we saw when we arrived was the endemic Santa Marta screech owl. It was roosting in a tree just below our porch. Hummingbird feeders between the cabins and the dining area provided us with a look at another endemic, the Santa Marta Woodstar.
During dinner we met a team of three scientists, two with Global Land Trust and one with the World Land Trust. They were in the area checking on possible endemic amphibians, reptiles and rats of the area. They also had some idea what birds were. The plan was to team up in two four-by-fours and head up the mountain at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at dawn to catch both birds and other creatures at sun-up. This road was even worse. But boy, was it worth it. Not only were we able to see the endemic Santa Marta parakeet, but photographed it as well. By the end of the day we had found 11 of the 18 endemics found in the Santa Marta National Park.
We plan on returning to Colombia and visiting Medellin and Leticia and maybe return to Santa Marta to find the other seven endemics.
Gay Head remains the best birding spot in the fall on the Vineyard. Katama and Norton Point are close seconds. On Sept. 27 Lanny McDowell and David Stanwood and I went to Gay Head. We met up with Jim and Deb Hendrickson. Our best bird was a scarlet tanager, but we also spotted two ruby-throated hummingbirds, a merlin, red-breasted nuthatches, a pine warbler and bobolinks. Back at Quansoo, Flip Harrington watched a peregrine falcon driving two mallards out of the air into Tisbury Great Pond. Both Flip and I are awakened by a belted kingfisher daily. Jeff Bernier photographed a belted kingfisher at Katama the last week in September.
I checked with Vineyard birders and discovered that Daniel Waters, Penny Uhlendorf and Scott Stephens, Sarah Mayhew and Nancy Rogers had their last ruby-throated hummingbird visits the week of Sept. 24.
Ken Magnuson sent a nice photo of a yellow-rumped warbler he took at Felix Neck on Sept. 27.
Luanne Johnson spotted an American oystercatcher at Wilfred Pond in Tisbury on Sept. 28. Jeff Bernier watched two adults and two immature American oystercatchers on the shore of the Lagoon in Tisbury on Oct. 1. The same day Jeff photographed greater and lesser yellowlegs and semipalmated sandpipers at Katama.
Sarah Mayhew sent a superb shot of sandpipers in the air. There were at least two adult and perhaps one immature pectoral sandpipers in with a flock of semipalmated sandpipers.
On Oct. 1 Lanny McDowell birded Norton Point and found two dunlin, a young piping plover and three juvenile black skimmers. He also counted somewhere between 13 to 19 American oystercatchers. At Katama he spotted an eastern pewee and a palm warbler. Lanny also took a photo of a flock of gulls which included not only ring-billed gulls, but also a mystery gull that looks somewhat like a Mew gull but probably was a ring-billed gull with an odd shaped bill. Craig Gibson sent a series of black skimmer photos he took at Katama on Sept. 14.
Hillary Blocksum spotted an imma
ture northern harrier hunting the fields at Black Point on Oct. 1. The same day Eleanor Hubbard reported that an ovenbird hit one of her Tisbury home windows and perished.
Rob Bierregaard reports from Osprey central that all of his tagged osprey are on the move. In his own words, “we’ve already got a bird out over the Caribbean, one in Haiti right behind her, a traffic jam of three birds in Cuba, Belle (from the Vineyard) doing her usual very interesting stuff in the Bahamas, and two birds vying for the “last one out of New England, please turn out the lights” award.
Our two birds that download via cell towers rather than satellites are providing us with really cool data, including locations through the night (make sure to check out Bridger’s maps for a real surprise from these data) at bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard/migration12.htm.
Bob Shriber birded Gay Head on Oct. 3 and 4 and on the third he found three clay-colored sparrow and two dickcissel and merlins. The next day he counted four clay-colored sparrows at Gay Head and 18 great egrets at West Basin.
Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II her website is vineyardbirds2.com .