Birdwatching in Colombia – Basic Knowledge From a PRO

Bird watchers in Laguna de Sonso

Last updated on November 23rd, 2021 at 05:36 pm

Dear Reader
My name is Frank and I run a travel agency in Bogota, Colombia. Have fun while reading!

Why Birdwatching in Colombia?

Colombia has been world champion in birdwatching for a number of years. There is no country with more different species. So why not pursue this interesting and relaxing activity in world championship land?

Biodiversity in Colombia

Colombia is known for its biodiversity. It has the largest number of birds and has the second largest biodiversity in the world (after Brazil). In addition, due to its geography, all thermal floors can be found. This means that there are a variety of landscapes and ecosystems where unique birds can be seen.

According to SiB Colombia, there are 1999 bird species (recorded) in 2021. This means that more than 20% of the world’s bird species are found in Colombia. In addition, there is a wide variety of endemic birds (that is, they only live in this area). According to SiB Colombia, 82 birds that only live here have been recorded by 2021.

Colorful, imposing, great singers and beautiful birds – you can find it all in Colombia. Here are some interesting examples:

Multicoloured Tanager (Chlorochrysa nitidissima)

One of the most beautiful endemic species in Colombia. This bird is distinguished by its multi-colored plumage, in which yellow, orange, emerald green, and black predominate. The tanager can reach a length of 12 to 14 cm. The Multicoloured Tanager occurs in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Quindío, Risaralda, Caldas and Antioquia. However, this beauty is not easy to see as it tends to inhabit the upper parts of the forests and flies very quickly.

Multicolored tanager on a branch
David Monroy, via Ebird.org

Santa Marta Screech Owl (Megascops gilesi)

This lovely little owl is endemic to Colombia. Their color can vary from dull brown to something lighter. This bird lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The Santa Marta Screech Owl is located on the El Dorado Reserve, which is 21 miles from the city of Santa Marta. It is managed by Fundación ProAves, which has several reserves dedicated to the protection of all types of birds.

Great Potoo (Nyctibius grandis)

Without a doubt one of the most curious birds in Colombia. This species is the largest of its group, the potoos because it can grow between 45 and 55 cm and is whitish to greyish in color. The Great Potoo is perfectly camouflaged between the branches of the trees. This bird can be found almost everywhere in Colombia, in habitats up to 1,600 meters above sea level. In the Llanos, I discovered one sleeping on a cattle fence and was able to get up to a meter closer. Even those who have heard the singing of the Great Potoo will never forget them. A really exciting bird!

Nyctibius grandis

Colombian Chachalaca (Ortalis columbiana)

Another bird endemic to Colombia is the beautiful Colombian Chachalaca. This bird is notable for its lack of sexual dimorphism (which means that there are no physical differences between males and females of this species). This animal can measure up to 53 cm and is gray-brown in color for most of its body, the legs are pink, and the tail is brown. They can be found in the mountains of the Valle del Cauca.

Ortalis columbiana

There could be more birds in Colombia

It is undeniable that the 1999 species in Colombia make this country a unique place. The truth is, however, that there could be a lot more. Every year new species of birds are discovered in Colombia, so the number is increasing. According to SiB Colombia, there were 1909 species in 2019, 1954 in 2020, and finally, 1999 species are recorded today.

This fact helps make Colombia the country of choice for birdwatching.

Birdwatching is good for your connection with nature and your health

Colombia is known for being a country full of beautiful natural landscapes. So when you go birdwatching, you will find yourself relaxing and calming in the natural surroundings. In addition, listening to the chirping of birds has been documented to help improve mental health and reduce melancholy.

This was recorded in an article in the Colombian newspaper El País which mentions that: “Spending five minutes a day listening to birds is a recipe for overcoming melancholy. National Trust ecologists told the Daily Telegraph that hearing birds singing is not only good for your spirits, but is also good for your health.” That is why birdwatching is great for your health.

Not a difficult job

If you have been birdwatching for the first time in Colombia, like me, you quickly become aware of a certain difficulty. But let me tell you that there are many places where even inexperienced birdwatchers will get a sense of achievement very quickly. Places such as the Cerro de Monserrate in Bogotá have a birdwatching trail with guides to help you.

Of course, there are places with an incredible level of difficulty where you have to walk through complex terrain, but there are also places with a much lower level of difficulty that are accessible to everyone. You shouldn’t start with the most difficult birds, which only come out of the bushes for 3 seconds a day.

Where to go birdwatching in Colombia

Some interesting birdwatching spots in Colombia are:

El Cerro de Monserrate

Department: Bogotá
Website: https://monserrate.co/
Opening times (for birdwatching): Monday to Saturday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Difficulty for birdwatching: easy

Top of Monserrate Hill in Bogotá

At an altitude of 3,152 meters above sea level is the Cerro de Monserrate, one of the most important symbols of the capital. At the top is the famous Basilica del Señor de Monserrate, an imposing church with a beautiful white facade. It was founded in 1920 and is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for locals and foreigners alike.

At the top of Monserrate, there is the El Paramuno Ecological Path, which is 360 meters long and dedicated to birdwatching. You can spot some of Colombia’s most beautiful species and large numbers of hummingbirds along the way.

Some of the birds found here are the Silvery-throated Spinetail (Synallaxis subpudica), the Shining sunbeam (Aglaeactis cupripennis), the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), and many other birds that are typical of the high Andean forest ecosystem.

To get to the top of Monserrate, you can either walk or take the cable car.

The hummingbird observatory

Department: Cundinamarca
Website: https://www.observatoriodecolibries.com/
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Price: 3-hour plan at $ 25,000 per person
Full day plan at $ 65,000 per person
Difficulty level for birdwatching: Easy
Prices in 2021

About 30 minutes from Bogota, on the road to La Calera, you will find one of the most peaceful places for birdwatching. In the observatory, you can watch more than 30 species of birds for 3 hours or all day long, where a large number of hummingbirds present stands out.

Some of the species found in this location are the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae), and the glowing puffleg (Eriocnemis vestita).

Arví Park

Department: Antioquia
Website: https://parquearvi.org/
Opening times (for birdwatching): Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Difficulty for birdwatching: Easy

Drone Photo of the Arví Park in Medellin Colombia

About 1 hour from Medellín is Arví Park, one of the best places to connect with nature. This park has several places to connect with nature, such as several hiking trails, a butterfly farm, and is also a great place for birdwatching.

Everyday tours lasting approx. 2 hours are offered along a 578 m (0.6 km) long path, where you can observe 69 species of birds, such as the Andean motmot (Momotus aequatorialis), the Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni), the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) and other species.

El Dorado Reserve

Department: Magdalena
Website: https://proaves.org/reserva-proaves-el-dorado/
Difficulty for birdwatching: Medium

This nature reserve is the most emblematic of the ProAves Foundation, which owns several nature reserves for birdwatching. El Dorado is 34 km from the city of Santa Marta and has an area of ​​1024 hectares. There are 10 rooms and five single cabins.

There you can find a wide variety of endemic birds such as the Santa Marta Parakeet (Pyrrhura viridicata), the Santa Marta Bush Tyrant (Myiotheretes pernix) and other birds such as the Military Macaw (Ara militaris), the Rusty-Headed Spinetail (Synallaxis fuscorufa), among other species.

Las Tangaras Reserve

Department: Chocó
Website: https://proaves.org/reserva-proaves-las-tangaras/
Difficulty for birdwatching: Medium

This is another reserve owned by the ProAves Foundation. The Las Tangaras Reserve is located in the municipality of Carmen de Atrato, in the Chocó department. It covers more than 4,000 hectares and was specially created to protect the bird species Gold-Ringed Tanager (Bangsia aureocincta) and Black-and-Gold Tanager (Bangsia melanochlamys).

This reserve is close to several indigenous reserves belonging to one of the indigenous cultures present in Colombia, the Emberá.

Arrierito Antioqueño Reserve

Department: Antioquia
Website: https://proaves.org/reserva-proaves-arrierito-antioqueno/
Difficulty for birdwatching: Medium

This is another reserve owned by the Fundación ProAves. It was founded in 2006 and is located in the municipality of Anorí, about 4 hours from Medellín. This reserve was created with the aim of protecting the habitat of this land’s endemic bird called the Chestnut-Capped Piha (Lipaugus weberi), a species that has unfortunately been classified as threatened by the IUCN.

This place covers an area of ​​1,324 hectares and is home not only to the Chestnut-Capped Piha, but also to beautiful birds such as the Black Tinamu (Tinamus osgoodi), the Sharpbill (Oxyruncus cristatus), the Stiles’s Tapaculo (Scytalopus stilesi), and other species.

Quindío Botanical Garden

Department: Quindío
Website: https://jardinbotanicoquindio.org/
Opening times: Monday to Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Difficulty for birdwatching: Easy

Quindio Botanical Garden Colombia

In the municipality of Calarcá is the Botanical Garden, one of the most iconic sites in the Quindío department. This was founded in 1979 but only opened to the public in 2000. The botanical garden boasts 600 plant species, a butterfly garden with more than 40 species and is of course ideal for birdwatching.

More than 150 species of birds can be found here, and while birdwatching is a new activity launched by the Quindío Botanical Garden, it is already a relatively popular place for the activity. There is a wide variety of birds that inhabit the garden, e.g. the Crimson-Rumped Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus), the Barred Antshrike (Thamnophilus doliatus), the Blue-Necked Tanager (Stilpnia cyanicollis), among other species.

Birdwatching tours

Not only are there special places for birdwatching in Colombia, but there are also travel agencies specializing in birdwatching such as Sula. Tours are offered across Colombia. To illustrate, below are some interesting tours.

Birdwatching tour in the upper Magdalena

Website: https://sula.com.co/portfolio/upper-magdalena-birdwatching-tour/
Price: On request
Starting point: Pitalito municipality, located in the Huila department.
Dates: On request

The first tour we will show you is a visit to some of the best birdwatching spots in the Huila department. This tour lasts 6 days and visits places like the Cueva de Los Guacharos National Park, which is home to more than 300 species of birds. The towns to visit are Palestine, Pitalito, and San Agustin. Every day you visit different places where you can watch different birds.

The bird lists can also be downloaded from Sula’s website.

Birdwatching tour in the Cauca Valley

Website: https://sula.com.co/portfolio/valle-del-cauca-birdwatching-tour/
Price: On request
Starting point: Yotoco municipality, in the Valle del Cauca department.
Dates: On request

This tour lasts 15 days. During this time one can enjoy the great variety of birds that can be found in this department. There are around 1000 different species that roam this sector of the Pacific during the year.

Some incredible places to visit are La Conchita and La Minga, where more than 250 species of birds are registered. You will also visit places like the Laguna de Sonso, where you can find some migratory birds depending on the season. Every day you visit different birdwatching spots.

The bird lists can also be downloaded from Sula’s website.

Birdwatching tour in the Coffee Region

Website: https://sula.com.co/portfolio/coffee-triangle-birdwatching-tour/
Price: On request
Departure point: Matecaña Airport in Pereira
Dates: On request

Another recommended tour leads to one of the most emblematic places in Colombia. The Eje Cafetero is also known as the coffee triangle. This region is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site not only because of its cultural and historical importance, but is also one of the best places for birdwatching.

The Eje Cafetero is made up of several departments. During this 15-day tour you have the opportunity to visit different places in the departments of Caldas (around 850 species) and Risaralda (around 880 species).

The tour includes destinations such as the Tinamú Nature Reserve, which specializes in birdwatching and nature photography. Then visit the Otún Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, which is home to a large number of birds.

The bird lists can also be downloaded from Sula’s website.

Some birdwatching tips

Birdwatching is an exciting activity, but it can also be difficult. So we’d like to give you some tips that can improve your experience.

Plan your trip

Remember, in Colombia, the weather can work against you. For example, some areas of the country have constant rains in late March, April, and May, which means you may not be able to enter certain locations and see birds. In some regions, entire territories are also flooded during the rainy season.

It is also important to note the bird migration times. The boreal migration season begins between September and October and ends between March and April. More than 200 species enter the country during this time and these are good times for birdwatching.

Finally, if you want to observe or photograph a particular bird, you should study its behavior beforehand. If you’re not an expert, find a local guide or take a specialized tour. One should also read up on the Colombian bird literature. Sula’s website offers a wealth of information on this. If you are interested, we recommend visiting the website.

Take the necessary equipment with you

Some must-have items for your birdwatching adventure include:

Binoculars

Undoubtedly one of the most important items for birdwatching. In general, birds fly relatively far, high, and sit in places that are difficult to reach. Binoculars are essential for birdwatching. You can also stay away from the birds thanks to the binoculars and avoid disturbing or scaring them away.

It is advisable to carry light binoculars or to use a strap so that you do not get tired. Sometimes the walks are long and the terrain is rough.

There are also differences in the quality and magnification of binoculars. I have 8x magnification and my binoculars cost USD 250.—. So far I have had no complaints. I also recommend the same magnification for beginners. You can find different binocular options in the US.

Field notebook

For these types of activities, it is always useful to have a notebook where you can write down your observations and the characteristics of the birds you see so that you can identify them later.

Telescopes

If you are visiting an open area, a telescope can be very useful for your adventure. With a telescope, you have the opportunity to observe the birds up close. There are a few tips we’d like to give you when using a telescope.

First of all, you should always pay attention to the diameter of the front lens and the magnification of the eyepiece. The most important thing about a spotting scope is the diameter. As with binoculars, the larger the diameter, the brighter it will be, but the heavier it will get. With quality comes additional weight and higher costs.

Recording device

Some birds have beautiful singing. Therefore you can also use a recording device. Sometimes, however, the mobile phone is already sufficient. There are also suitable apps such as RecForge II or AudioRec Pro, for Android and Voice Record Pro, for IOS, which deliver files in very good quality.

Here are some useful tips when you want to record bird calls with a mobile phone:

  • Record in WAV format as this is the format you will get the best quality audio files.
  • Many of these applications have the option to set the audio quality to low or high. It is best to set it to high.
  • As for the audio channel, it is advisable to set it to mono. If you set it to stereo, the files get heavier and you have no real benefit.
  • In the audio levels, you can set the application for recording between -6 dB and -12dB.
  • A directional microphone catapults you into a higher league.

Comfortable clothing

This is basic advice for most nature tourism activities. Keep in mind that many of the areas these birds live in also have different types of insects and reptiles, so wear clothing that will protect you from possible bites and stings.

It is also important to wear clothing that is appropriate for the local climate. Some birdwatching tours can take hours. Therefore it is important to dress appropriately. This includes a hat or cap to protect you from the sun and wind. Wear inconspicuous clothes in gray, green or brown. Choose comfortable footwear. Here in Colombia I usually wear rubber boots for birdwatching. These are the best in my opinion. However, feet suffer in hot climates.

Note: Due to history, it is not advisable to wear military camouflage in some regions in Colombia.

Use applications like eBird

Website: https://ebird.org/home

This application is a database that works worldwide and is updated in real time. Here you can record your sightings and see what other observers have seen. In addition to the web, eBird also has an app for Android and IOS.

General rules of conduct

As with any activity involving wildlife, there are a few things to keep in mind while birdwatching:

  • Remember that these animals live in these places, do not throw away any rubbish or leave any trace of your visit.
  • Do not try to lure the birds with noise. This can frighten them and disrupt their habits, you could even attract their predators.
  • Groups should not consist of more than 8 people. Avoid noise and gossip, as this will put many species on alert and cause them to become still, hide, or disappear.
  • Never touch eggs or chicks that you find in a nest. Don’t get too close either.

Bird photography tips

Bird photography tours are different from birdwatching tours. There are different goals and methods. Nevertheless, you can also take great photos on a birdwatching tour. Let me tell you that wildlife photography in general is quite complex, so here are some useful tips.

Equipment necessary for animal photography

Camera

A mobile phone, no matter how good the quality, will not have enough range and quality to take good pictures of birds. Compact cameras are also not a good option for taking these types of photos, as you will need a telephoto lens.

  • Reflex camera: This type of camera is the most common among photographers. These have interchangeable lenses, which means that you have a large number of lenses with different focal lengths available. Many of these devices have high ISO and great autofocus systems.
  • Mirrorless cameras: about the same as single-lens reflex cameras, but without a mirror and usually smaller.
  • Bridge cameras offer a lot for the money, but are not on par with professional devices in terms of quality.

Lenses

As already mentioned, an 18-55 lens is not sufficient for bird photography. For this reason, we recommend using high-speed telephoto lenses. I took most of the photos on our website with a Sony 100-400 telephoto lens.

Remember that there are different types of lenses:

  • Zoom lenses, with different focal lengths.
  • Fixed lenses that only give you one focal length.

Tripod

Very helpful depending on the size and weight of the equipment.

Some tips for taking better bird photos

Research before going out to take the picture

The masters of photography often say that you should know the planned picture in advance. For this reason, street photographers often go through the place a few days in advance to see what could be interesting to photograph.

It is clear that in bird photography the subject is more complex because you do not know where the animal will be. However, one can study the bird, its behavior, its flight times, its habitat, etc. in advance.

Focus on the eyes

It doesn’t matter if another area of ​​the bird is out of focus. Focusing on the animal’s eyes increases the quality of the photo.

Wear inconspicuous clothing

As mentioned earlier, if the bird spots you, it will likely fly away, so it is advisable to wear less colorful and less flashy wardrobes. You can also hide and even build hiding places.

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