Colombia is without question one of the best places to watch birds and immerse yourself in nature on the planet. No other country is home to more bird species, it has the largest number of terrestrial mammals (those that live predominantly or entirely on land), the largest number of amphibians in the world (including frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) and is home to over 4,000 species of orchids.
Colombia boasts an extraordinary total of more than 1900 different kinds of bird, close to one in five of all those in the world. Not surprisingly the Andean Condor is Colombia’s national symbol. It’s also home to some of the most sought-after wild creatures in South America including six native wild cat species, from Jaguars to Ocelots, anacondas to Tapirs and Spectacled Bears to sloths.
The birdlife includes colourful Scarlet Macaws, bizarre Hoatzins, raptors such as the Ornate Hawk-eagle, and more than 70 endemic species, found here and nowhere else on Earth. And with so many more species being discovered or ‘split’ from their close relatives, it may not be long before Colombia becomes the first country to boast over 2,000 different bird species.
The main reason why Colombia is at the top of many ecotourists ‘must visit’ destinations is the amazing variety of habitats. Even in the rich and diverse continent of South America, the country can lay claim to an incredible geographical range. Starting at the coast, visitors get two for the price of one, as Colombia has one coastline facing the Pacific Ocean and another facing the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. Heading inland, there are rainforests and cloud forests, deserts and plains, grasslands and savannahs, rivers and wetlands, and the peaks of the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, which rise to a height of 5700 metres (almost 19,000 feet). This extraordinary range of habitats creates special niches, which in turn encourages the huge variety of birds and wild creatures – there are more species of bird in Colombia than in the whole of Europe and North America combined!
Andes & Antioquia (Región Andina)
This region is one of contrasts: from the snow-capped peaks of the high Andes, down through moorlands, forests and wetlands, to the humid sub-tropical forests of Antioquia, there is something to suit all tastes.
The area is home to a phenomenal 800 different species of birds, including endemics such as Bogotá Rail, Cauca Guan, Gorgeted Wood-quail, Colombian Turkey (Blue-billed Curassow) and a number of scarce and sough-after hummingbirds. This is also one of the best places in South America to see the extraordinary lek of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock.
These bizarre looking birds – the males of which are about the size of a feral pigeon, and bright orange with black wings and tail – gather at dawn to perform a daily display to attract the watching females. This is a ‘winner-takes-all’ situation, lending an air of desperation to what is surely one of the greatest avian spectacles anywhere in the world.
Other areas of this diverse region to explore include the Central Andes, home to the rare and localised Rufous-fronted Parakeet; one of a dozen endemics found here. And a trek up to the high tops will produce montane specialists such as the Buffy Helmetcrest (another endemic – this time a hummingbird) and the best known of all South American raptors, the huge Andean Condor.
Mammals are few and far between, though they include such sought-after species as the Olinguito which was spotted several years ago but was only confirmed as a distinct mammal species in 2013. It is usually found in cloud forests in western Colombia. While the spectacled bear – South America’s only member of the bear family – the Andean fox and mountain tapir can be found within this region.
Colombia boasts three different types of basilisk – the common basilisk, the brown or striped basilisk and the western or red-headed basilisk. Basilisks are often known as the “Jesus Lizard” because they can run on water at up to 1.5m per second, thanks to long toes on their back feet. Basilisks live in lower altitudes in western Colombia, although the western basilisk was recently introduced to Gorgona Island, 35km from Colombia’s pacific coast.
Best sites: Jardin, an attractive little tourist town about half a day’s drive south of Colombia’s second city Medellin, is a very convenient base from which to explore the region, not least because one of the most accessible cock-of-the-rock leks in South America is conveniently close by. From here, head east to the Samana River, or south to the Arrierito Antioqueño Natural Reserve, home to the incredibly rare Chestnut-capped Piha and the amazing Multicoloured Tanager, which really does live up to its name.
The Amazon or Amazonía (Región Amazónica)
For keen birders and nature lovers, few places in the world are quite as exciting – and at the same quite so daunting – as the Amazon rainforest. The part of Amazonia that falls within Colombia’s boundaries – almost one-third of the country’s total land area – is home to no fewer than 750 different bird species. Although it would be impossible to find them all in a single trip, a birdlist of between 300 and 350 species is achievable, with the help of expert local guides.
Key species found here include the common and familiar, such as the Hoatzin. This strange-looking bird is about the size of a pheasant, survives mainly on leaves, and its youngsters have claws on their wings to enable them to cling on to waterside vegetation and not fall victim to the various predators gathered beneath. Other easy-to-see species include Scarlet and Red-and-green Macaws, Osprey, Great Black Hawk and Tropical Screech-owl.
This area is also one of the best places in Colombia to search for more elusive and sought-after species. Top of many visitors’ ‘want lists’ is the extraordinary Amazonian Umbrellabird, a member of the cotinga family, the male of which is probably the largest passerine in South America. All black in colour, it has a prominent crest and also a wattle on its neck, which he inflates during courtship displays. Other sought-after species include the Sword-billed Hummingbird, White-plumed Antbird, Colombian Orange-headed Tanager, Plum-throated Cotinga and a host of manakins, parrots, antshrikes, owls and nightjars.
This region is a great place to see some of South America’s most charismatic mammals, including jaguar, pink river dolphin, three-toed sloth, capybara, giant river otter, spider monkey and a host of different species of monkey. The forest also holds many extraordinary invertebrates, such as huge tarantulas and columns of leafcutter and army ants.
Glass frogs also live in trees near fast streams, laying their eggs on low branches so their tadpoles can drop into the water and are one of the most curious wildlife species. Officially known as the “Fleischmann’s glass frog” it hides from predators thanks to its transparent skin, which allows it to look like a leaf.
Best sites: Many people start at the city of Leticia, just a short flight from the capital Bogotá. There are many species in and around the city itself, while from here you can easily explore farther afield, taking a boat trip to Isla Ronda, home to a range of rare species including Zimmer’s Woodpecker. The Amacayacu National Park, which runs alongside the Amazon in the southern part of the country, is one of the best areas in the region to explore. Within the park’s boundaries you can find almost two-thirds of all the birds of the Colombian Amazon – close to 500 species in all. Founded in 1975, it covers an area of more than 4200 square kilometres – roughly the same size as the US state of Rhode Island or the English county of Somerset. While the Chiribiquete National Natural Park is the largest national park in Colombia . Established in 1989 the park occupies 27,800 square kilometers and includes the Serrania de Chiribiquete mountains and the surrounding lowlands, which are covered by tropical moist forest, savannas and rivers.
Orinoco and East Andean Slopes (Región Orinoquía)
The Orinoquía region – in the eastern part of Colombia, stretching from the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains to the Orinoco River itself – is one of the country’s least known and most seldom visited locations. Yet with up to 800 species of bird found here, including such rarities as the Collared Forest-falcon, Spix’s Guan and Channel-billed Toucan, it is worth considering on any trip to the country.
The habitat ranges from mountain slopes through savannah grassland to the riverine plains, and so is home to a wide range of species. As with any of Colombia’s main birding regions, there is a fair share of endemics, including the Brown-breasted Parakeet and Cundinamarca Antpitta.
Amongst the highlights are the wetland areas, where thousands of waterbirds gather to feed, including Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and a dozen other species of herons and egrets. Hoatzins are common by the side of rivers and lakes, occasionally taking to the wing to flap clumsily across to the other side, but more often than not simply sitting amongst the foliage and slowly feeding. The wetlands are also home to rare reptiles including the endangered Orinoco Crocodile.
The forests provide greater variety, though the birding is always harder than in open areas. Highlights include various antbirds and an array of colourful manakins, including Golden-headed, Wire-tailed and White-bearded. The last, a tiny black-and-white bird, performs an extraordinary courtship display, in which the males flick their wings to produce an incredibly loud clicking sound like a firecracker, to attract the females. Mammals here include both capuchin and howler monkeys, the latter producing their extraordinary sound that gives the species its name.
Best sites: the Villavicencio area and nearby Bavaria Forest are excellent places to start, while it is also worth a visit to the zoo at Ocarros, where amongst the caged animals are a host of wild bird species, often easier to see than elsewhere. Near Villavicencio, the Merecure park reserve has birds such as Sunbitterns, and is also a good site to look for mammals such as Tapirs and the world’s largest rodent, the Capybara.
Chocó and Pacific Region (Región Pacífico)
Colombia’s long Pacific coastline and the hinterland of lowland tropical rainforests behind it is, like so many areas of this country, one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots in the world, with upwards of 650 different bird species. Offshore, between July and November, this is also one of the best places in South America to go whale watching, as vast pods of humpback whales migrate along the coast.
The birds include one of the world’s most sought-after raptors, the enormous Harpy Eagle; many colourful species such as the Yellow-eared Toucanet and Scarlet-and-white Tanager; along with a range of hard-to-see endemics: Baudó Guan, Baudó Oropendola, Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher and Sooty-capped Puffbird amongst them.
But be warned! This is called rainforest for a reason: the municipality of Lloró gets more than 13,300 millimetres (roughly 523 inches) of rain every year, making it the wettest place on the planet.
Most birders stay at one of the well-placed and comfortable lodges, and then explore forest trails, in search of the huge variety of birds found here. Guides will try to find a swarm of army ants, as these are followed by a host of specialised species known as antbirds, antthrushes, antwrens and so on – not because they feed on ants; but because they follow the trails and then feed on the invertebrates and other small creatures disturbed by these feisty insects. Trying to identify up to twenty or more species of bird as they flash past is one of the hardest tasks facing any birder, anywhere in the world.
The rivers in the region support the usual range of South American waterbirds, including cormorants, darters, skimmers, pelicans, kingfishers, herons, egrets and storks; and scarcer species such as the beautiful Sunbittern.
Colombia’s golden poison dart frog can also be found in this region and contains the world’s most deadly venom. The frog eats insects containing the poison, which it stores in its skin glands to be used as self-defence. The golden poison dart frog is endemic to Cauca and Valle del Cauca departments, close to the Pacific coast.
Best sites: Most people start their exploration of the Chocó region by flying into Bahía Solano, from which you can drive to the various parts of the region including El Valle and Utría National Park. So well as exploring forest trails, don’t forget the roads, which often allow you to get views of species hard to see otherwise; and of course the rivers – a boat trip will always provide great views – not just of waterbirds but also other species of birds, mammals and reptiles that visit the river to drink and bathe.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Región Caribe)
Even in a country where superlative birds are on hand wherever you look, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta leads the way as Colombia’s top birding destination. Having been isolated from the main part of the Andes for roughly 200 million years, and with taller and more inaccessible peaks than anywhere else in Colombia, the local birdlife has evolved into many very special forms.
These include no fewer than 22 different endemics – more than a quarter of the country’s total – such as the Santa Marta Screech-owl, Santa Marta Parakeet, Santa Marta Mountain-tanager, Santa Marta Tapaculo and the Santa Marta Antpitta.
These mountains are also home to Colombia’s three species of big cat – the jaguar, puma and ocelot – though as always they are very elusive and hard to see.
The whole region has been dubbed the world capital of biodiversity, because it is home to so many unique and irreplaceable species of wild creature.
Best sites: the key place to visit is also one of the most stunning locations in the world, as it perches high in this beautiful mountain range, against a backdrop of the Caribbean. This is the El Dorado Bird Reserve, on the northern slopes the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountains, which was created in 2006 in order to safeguard the region’s unique birdlife. This is an excellent place to see many of the region’s endemics, and is also home to many migrants from the northern hemisphere, including one of North America’s rarest and most beautiful songbirds, the Cerulean Warbler.
Local Wildlife Specialists: Birding Santa Marta
Best Times to Visit Colombia
Unlike the temperate regions of the world, where we have distinct seasons and many birds are migratory – being present either in spring and summer or autumn and winter – most of Colombia’s regions can be visited at more or less any time of year. The very consistent climate – hot and humid all year round, with rainfall varying depending on location and habitat – means that most birds are sedentary, so can be seen throughout the year. However, there are two distinct wet seasons, April-May and October-November, which should be avoided if you can.
Read more: Colombia, a land of birds and peace
Photo credits: Manakin Nature Tour, Ecoplanet and ProColombia