Canyon Birding by Train

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Verde River Canyon from open-air car (photo Prudy Bowers)

We didn’t intentionally plan this, but scheduling vagaries put us on three train trips to three canyons over three weeks in March.  A triple header spring fling.  Two of the trips were part of Road Scholar’s ‘Scenic Railroads of Arizona’, the first of which was a 4-hour, 40-mile round trip on the Verde Canyon Railroad along the beautiful Verde River.  The Canyon is rimmed with Sedona-like red rock cliffs and buttes, and the non-stop eye candy of colored rock, riparian forest and rushing water is impossible to turn your back on.  Coach car seats are assigned, but once the train pulled out, we moved to an open-air car and stayed there for the duration.  At an average speed of 10 miles per hour, we had plenty of time to take photos and look for birds, which included Turkey Vultures, Common Black Hawks and a posing Bald Eagle.

 

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Grand Canyon Railway Fiddler (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The second Road Scholar ride was quite different, but equally rewarding.  The Grand Canyon Railway runs from Williams, Arizona across the Coconino Plateau to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a 65-mile, 2-hour trip that descends from ponderosa forests to upper Sonoran prairie and then climbs back to pine, fir, aspen and spruce at the national park.  Wildlife, including pronghorn, is likely along the way, but the faster pace of this train and lack of open-air cars make spotting and photography more problematic.  So instead of trying to focus on slipping scenery, we enjoyed a fiddle-playing comedian and a colt-toting marshal.  Once in the canyon, birding wasn’t any easier, considering the constant distraction of sweeping vistas and plummeting depths.  They don’t call it grand for nothing.  Even so, you can count on Steller’s Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos and, if you’re lucky, California Condors.

 

Magnificent Hummingbird, Mirador Hotel

Magnificent Hummingbird at Mirador Hotel, Copper Canyon (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our third trip was a train adventure on steroids, taking three legs of the daily trains between Los Mochis and Chihuahua, Mexico.  Two passenger trains depart every morning, one heading east from Mochis and the other heading west from Chihuahua, each traveling 400 miles on a single track and somehow never colliding.  To board this adventure, we chose to take some friends and drive 600 miles south to El Fuerte, in the overly-publicized state of Sinaloa. From El Fuerte (312 feet above sea level) to Posada Barrancas (7,300 feet) are 80 miles of special interest, since they travel into and through the Copper Canyon, crossing high bridges, passing through long narrow tunnels and looping elliptically to gain precarious elevation. All this while surrounded by copper-colored rock walls (hence the name), spectacular waterfalls and hillsides of pink-blossomed amapa trees.

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Copper Canyon from Gallego Point (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are three great hotels at El Fuerte, Cerocahui and Posada Barrancas, and we put together a trip that included 5 overnights, including side trips to Mexico’s 800-foot Basaseachi Falls, Cerro Gallego, with a glass bottomed platform that juts out 6,000 feet above the canyon floor and an eco-park that features the world’s longest and probably highest zip line, a single run 3 miles long that reaches 80 miles per hour.  Of the three hotels, the most breathtaking is the Mirador, 7,400 feet above sea level and perched on the very edge of the canyon.  Every room features a canyon-side balcony, and if you can pull your eyes away from the view, you can find birds like Mexican Chickadees, Black-eared Bushtits, Painted Redstarts and Blue-throated Hummingbirds.  The challenge is giving up the view, even for a hard-core birder.

 

 (This article was published in the May, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Penguins: White Tie and Tails

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Three Kings at The Falklands’ Volunteer Point (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Having just returned from the far southern reaches of South America, it seems appropriate to write about the most popular bird from that part of the world, the penguin.  Unafraid of humans (they have no land predators), flightless and shuffling around upright like munchkins dressed for formal night, these adorable critters are impossible not to love.  Except for the Galapagos Penguin, all penguin species are found exclusively in the southern hemisphere, and one of the best places to see them up close and personal is along South America’s coastline from Argentina to Chile.  Another hotspot for penguins is the Falkland Islands, some 900 miles off the coast of Argentina.

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Magellanics at Punto Tombo, Argentina (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

On our trip, we found about a half million Magellanic Penguins at Argentina’s Punto Tombo reserve, and three species (Magellanic, Gentoo and King Penguins) at East Falkland’s Volunteer Point, a two-hour, four-wheeled drive across spongy peat from Stanley.  The big attraction at Volunteer Point is the colony of King Penguins, second only to the Antarctic’s Emperor Penguins in size, standing three feet tall and weighing 30 pounds, give or take.  With charcoal back and wings, coal-black head and face, white belly and neon orange and yellow accents, this is a stunning bird.  Put several thousand of them together, some with incubating eggs on their feet, some with featherless hatchlings poking their heads out, some molting, some grooming and many bellowing at a moonless sky, you have a classic, incomparable photo op.

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King Penguin with young chick (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

King Penguins are monogamous, and share parental duties over a lengthy chick-raising cycle that starts with egg-laying (one egg only) in November, and doesn’t end until the juvenile birds head out to sea a year later to fend for themselves.  Like other penguins, Kings spend half their life at sea, eating small fish, squid and even lantern fish, diving as deep as a thousand feet to find their prey.

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Magellanic juvenile (left) calling mom (right) (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

All penguins are flightless, and their wings have evolved into highly-effective flippers, propelling them through deep water as efficiently as their airborne cousins cross the sky.  This wing-flipper evolution is not a recent phenomenon, either.  Fossils of flightless penguin predecessors have been found in New Zealand that date back more than 60 million years.  Penguins are all colored specifically for camouflage, with gray or black backs and wings and white fronts.  Orcas and leopard seals searching for them from below have difficulty distinguishing the white bellies of penguins from the reflective ocean surface, and the dark plumage on their backs effectively screen them from flying predators like skuas and vultures.

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Gentoo Penguin checks his formal attire (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

This black and white ensemble combined with their human-like upright strolling gives them the formal look of an opera buff headed for the Met, all decked out in a freshly pressed tux.  Or perhaps more appropriate in their case, white tie and tails.

 (This article was published in the April, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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The Birds and the Bees

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Verdin looking for crystallized sugar (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If, like millions of other folks, you hang sugar water feeders in your yard to attract hummingbirds, you’ll know this article isn’t about sex education.  I get lots of mail from hummingbird lovers who want to know how to keep non-hummer intruders away from their feeders.  When you put sugar water in a feeder and hang it outside, you’ll certainly attract those little acrobatic marvels you’re after, but in the wild you should know there’s no such thing as table reservations.  Candy stores draw kids of all kinds and ages, and easy-to-get sweet, energy-packed sugar water works the same way in your back yard.

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Orioles, like this Hooded, are nectar lovers too (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Among other creatures, hummingbird feeders attract ants, bees, bats and even other birds.  Although hummers aggressively fight off rival hummingbirds, including their own species, they’re mostly hesitant to take on other critters. They ignore ants, but ants contaminate feeders, and you can eliminate them by hanging ant guards between the feeder and its hook.  Hummers also tolerate bigger birds, and since there aren’t any smaller birds, this includes a lot of intruders like woodpeckers, orioles, Verdins and House Finches.  Even the school yard bully Rufous Hummingbird gives up his bar stool to a Gila Woodpecker that outweighs him 16 to one.  Nectar-feeding bats are also sugar water feeders, although, like Dracula, they feed only at night.  If your feeders are full when you go to bed and empty when you get up, you probably have bat visitors.  Migrating nectar feeding bats can use a little sugar, too, but if you don’t want to refill all your feeders every morning, put a couple on a flat surface when the sun sets.  Bats will ignore these, since they need to hang from the feeder to feed.  And until you rehang them in the morning, your hummers can still feed from a table top.

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Bees can be the most annoying nuisance (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Compared with birds and bats, bees can be a real nuisance.  If bees on your feeders bother you, there are some ways to mitigate the problem.  First, try to keep your feeders at least half full.  Sugar water becomes more concentrated as it evaporates, and everyone including bees likes a sweeter hit.  Rinse off the outside of feeders daily.  Wind and heavier birds will splash sugar water onto the outside of a feeder, which is like a candy store tossing bonbons on the sidewalk.  In summer, dilute your sugar water from 1 part sugar to 4 parts water to 1 part sugar to 5 of water. The less concentrated liquid won’t attract as many bees.

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No bees, but a hitch-hiking fly on this Rufous (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

It also helps to hang multiple feeders; often bees will focus on the sweetest, leaving others for the hummers.  Some folks even designate one feeder for the bees, hanging it out of sight and filling it with more concentrated sugar.  Don’t bother with ‘bee guards’ or feeders with slits instead of holes.  Bees don’t seem discouraged by either.  Feeders with flexible membranes over the holes that open only when a hummingbird pushes the membrane aside with his bill will keep bees out, but given a choice, hummingbirds will also ignore these.

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Bee-free feeder with light coating of Avon Skin so Soft (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Another option is to put a light coating of Avon’s Skin-so-Soft around (not in) the feeding holes.  Wet your finger with it instead of spraying it onto the feeder, and spread it lightly around the holes.  Although bees are not completely discouraged, their numbers will drop, at least for a while.  On the other hand, if you’re the one getting discouraged, look on the bright side.  In the high country, it’s bears, not bees that come to the feeders.

  (This article was published in the February, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Hummingbird Feeders

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A male Costa’s guards ‘his’ feeder (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbirds, those amazing little winged marvels that seem to burn more energy than they consume, are pushovers when it comes to attracting birds to your yard.  Flowers are the simplest way to draw them, especially bright tubular ones like salvia and tacoma, and they love water mists and sprays, like when your drip irrigation system springs a leak.  They’re big fans of floral nectar with its high sugar content, not surprising when you weigh the same as a penny, fly 30 miles an hour and sport a heart rate up to 1,200 beats per minute.  These little acrobats can also hover, fly upside down and spin their wings in a figure eight pattern at more than 3,000 cycles a minute.  Did I mention they have the highest metabolism of any homoeothermic animal?  Sugar isn’t their only food source, however.  Like the rest of us, they need protein as well, which they get by snagging spiders, gnats, mosquitoes and other tiny tasty critters.  If you wonder why the hummer in your yard is playing elevator, going up, down and sideways in an apparently empty plot of space, take a closer look and you’ll likely find him picking off near-invisible bugs.  But it’s a sugar high that powers those aggressive dogfights we’ve grown accustomed to, and you’ll be their friend for life if you supplement your floral buffet with a few sugar water feeders.

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An impatient Broad-tailed Hummer being hand-fed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbird feeders are like fishing lures when it comes to consumers.  Stores are full of expensive elaborate contraptions that often appeal more to the buyer than the bird (or fish).  When shopping for a hummingbird feeder, keep the birds’ needs in mind.  Hummingbirds don’t like to wait in line for a sugar hit, so choose a feeder with multiple feeding holes.  They sometimes like to take a breather, too, so a feeder with a perch will give that racing heart a chance to rest.  You also want enough capacity to accommodate your traffic, but not so much that you’re tossing unused food when it’s time to clean the feeder.  And do yourself a favor at the same time—choose feeders that are inexpensive, wide-mouthed to facilitate filling and easy to disassemble, clean and reassemble.  Red components, like the reservoir and top cover, are common and may attract hummers initially, but once they find your feeders, they won’t forget.

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Frozen sugar water needs to be thawed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Don’t waste your money on commercial dry ‘nectar’ mix or premixed food.  All you and the birds need is a simple sugar water blend you can prepare easily and cheaply at a fraction of the cost of premixed ‘nectar’.  Use a four-to-one recipe:  bring water to a boil, add pure granulated sugar at the rate of one part sugar to four parts water, stir to dissolve, let cool and you’re done.  Store unused sugar water in a closed container in your refrigerator, and never add food coloring or anything else.  And don’t forget to clean your feeders when they are empty, after a week or two regardless and immediately if the liquid turns cloudy or black spots appear.  Use a bottle brush and hot water to clean the components, adding a vinegar or mild bleach mix if necessary, and always rinse multiple times to protect the birds.

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Choose a feeder with multiple holes for crowds (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In SaddleBrooke, we have six species of hummingbirds during spring and fall migration, and three of those species are found here year-round:  Costa’s, Anna’s and Broad-billed.  ‘Seasonal’ hummingbirds, like the Midwest and eastern states are accustomed to, is not the case here, so keep your feeders up and filled whenever you’re in town.  These supplemental feeding sources, more for your benefit than the birds when flowers and bugs are abundant, can be critical lifesavers during a winter freeze.  Your hummers will thank you.

  (This article was published in the January, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Big Bird Holiday at Rooster Cogburn’s

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Up close and personal with the world’s largest bird (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

If you’re looking for a bird-oriented holiday outing designed for kids, grandkids and adults, too, there’s a great option about an hour from Tucson.  The Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch is a 600-acre tract on the south side of Picacho Peak that features a petting zoo, monster truck tours and the opportunity to feed 300-pound ostriches and 4-ounce Rainbow Lorikeets. By December, 2016, added attractions will include diving ducks and stingray feeding.  In 1993, founder D.C. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn moved his ostrich ranch from Oklahoma to its present site, hoping to turn ostrich farming into a major enterprise. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn is a descendent of the one-eyed lawman portrayed by John Wayne in the 1969 movie, ‘True Grit’ (and by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake.) The original goal of a large-scale commercial ranch was never realized, in part due to a hot-air balloon flyover in 2002 that panicked 1,600 ostriches, resulting in a chaotic bird stampede that destroyed ranch facilities and led to the death of 1,000 ostriches.

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A Lorikeet treat for grand kids (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

However, the switch in focus to family-friendly entertainment has been a big success, and this 5-star Trip Advisor attraction is well worth the drive.  Hundreds of ‘South African Black’ Ostriches are available for viewing, feeding and photographing, visitors can feed deer, miniature Sicilian donkeys, Boer goats, lorikeets and parakeets. ‘Monster truck’ tours provide a 40-minute open-air ride around the ranch on weekends, and a gift shop sells a variety of ostrich-related products, including (in season) fresh eggs that weigh 4 pounds and equal 2 dozen chicken eggs.

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The author interviews Rainbow Lorikeets (photo Prudy Bowers)

If you’re under 6 or over 106, admission is free, something to look forward to if you’re retired. Otherwise, 7 bucks will get you into the feeding areas, and admission includes food pellets for ostriches and a nectar cup for lorikeets. Rainbow Lorikeets are noisy parrots as colorful as their name, native to Australia and eastern Indonesia and, at nearly a foot in length, a three-ring circus when you’re holding a nectar cup. Make sure someone in your party carries a camera instead of nectar.

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Flightless birds are good runners in lion country (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Feeding ostriches, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Ostriches, native to Africa, are the world’s largest bird, standing up to 9 feet tall and weighing in at 300 pounds or more. They have muscular legs and can run 40 miles per hour, a useful trait for a bird that can’t fly and lives in lion country. In the wild, they hang out in hot, dry deserts, making them happy campers in our lion-free Sonoran Desert.

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Discretion is the better part of valor when feeding 300-pound birds (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

At Rooster Cogburn’s Ranch, fenced walkways and platforms provide visitors unobstructed close-up views of the ostriches, as well as easy access to feed the birds. The ostriches roam a large area, but know exactly where and when to find pellet-toting visitors. You have three choices for feeding them: placing pellets into an external chute safely screened from the big bird’s big beaks, placing the pellets into fence rail-top trays or, for the brave and foolhardy, extending an open hand full of pellets. The ostriches can easily swing their heads a couple of feet over the top of the fence, giving them ready access to guests’ hands and more. They may not have teeth, but they don’t have a smile, either, and an aggressively hungry largest-bird-in-the-world with a big open bill can be unnerving, to say the least. You might prefer the feeding options with less direct contact. Additionally, ostriches have been known to skip the pellets and go for an earring instead. Let’s just say that discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to feeding a 300-pound bird.

 (This article was published in the December, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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The Hummingbirds of Colombia

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Male Booted Racquet-tail (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Arizona draws a lot of retirees for a lot of reasons, but if you love birds that could be reason enough. More than 600 species have been recorded here, including 16 different hummingbirds. If you moved to Arizona from an eastern state, your hummingbird world likely was limited to a single species, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and in comparison, Arizona’s variety has persuaded more than a few folks to take up birding. We’ve documented 7 species in SaddleBrooke so far, with a couple more likely to show up at some point. Most American birders have a special affinity for hummingbirds. They’re our smallest birds, easily attracted to our yards and capable of incredibly acrobatic feats unmatched by any other bird. What many folks don’t realize, however, is that hummingbirds are unique to the Western Hemisphere. You won’t find this incredible bird in Africa, Australia, India or Asia. Hummingbirds exist only in the Americas and Caribbean, from Canada to Argentina, and as you head south across the Mexican border, their numbers increase, peaking in Ecuador and Colombia, where more than 150 species have been documented.

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Golden-breasted Puffleg (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Colombia is a relatively small country, smaller than our state of Alaska and just one-eighth the size of neighboring Brazil. In spite of this size disadvantage, Colombia is home to more bird species than any other country in the world, nearly 2,000 in total, or almost one in five of all bird species on the planet. Unfortunately for birders, Colombia also has been a problematic destination, suffering 5 decades of war, but this is finally changing. Armed conflict has ended, and the country seems determined to resolve these issues permanently. We took advantage of this improved environment in August, and just returned from a month’s tour of many of the country’s best birding sites. We were not disappointed. We found exceedingly friendly people, exceptional coffee, wonderful food and spectacular sights. Best of all, we found amazing birds and lots of them. Colombia is ideally situated as a birding destination. It is the only South American country that borders Central America and both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. The Andes diverge into three separate cordilleras here, the Santa Marta Sierra end abruptly at the Caribbean, and the topography includes llanos, paramo and Amazonia.

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Rainbow-bearded Thornbill (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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Hand-feeding Hummers at Termales, Colombia (photo Bob Bowers)

We found 345 species of birds, and most of these were birds we had never seen. We also took nearly 8,000 photographs. With this many exotic birds, it’s difficult to pick favorites, but as a family hummingbirds are unmatched. We recorded 55 species of hummingbirds, ranging from tiny buzzers to long-tailed wonders, with names as colorful as the birds themselves, like Tourmaline Sunangel, Violet-tailed Sylph, Shining Sunbeam and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. We found hummingbirds in national parks, botanical gardens, eco-lodges and private yards, but one of our favorite sites was at the Termales Hotel, 10,000 feet above sea level near an active volcano. In addition to a thermal-heated swimming pool, each morning the hotel provides guests with miniature sugar water feeders you can hold in your hand. High-elevation hummers perch on your head and hands as they swarm the feeders, giving you a bucket-list experience as well as amazing photo opportunities. We might have seen more exotic birds, like Booted Racquet-tails and Sword-billed Hummingbirds, at other sites, but hand-feeding the birds of Termales is the memory that lingers longest.

 

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Sword-billed Hummingbird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

(This article was published in the November, 2016, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Birding Postcard from Colombia

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Lazuline Sabrewing, El Dorado, Santa Marta Sierra (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Colombia is smaller than 25 other countries, and just two-thirds the size of Alaska, and yet it holds the world’s record for most species of birds. Nearly 2,000 species have been documented to date, or nearly 20 percent of the world’s total. Colombia’s count exceeds that of every other country in the world, including its bird-rich border-sharing neighbors Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil, which incidentally is nearly eight times larger than Colombia. In spite of this, birders have been slow to explore Colombia’s avifauna, in large measure due to the country’s 52-year war with FARC, a conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people.  That conflict appeared to have ended when government and rebel leaders signed a peace accord in Havana last month. A public referendum endorsing the accord was held on October 2nd, and was expected to pass by a wide margin, but instead failed in a close vote. This may cast a shadow on Colombia’s future birding prospects, but there is reason to be hopeful, since both sides are tired of fighting and seem willing to continue seeking an acceptable solution. From a birding perspective, the doves are dominating the hawks.

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Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Termales del Ruiz (photo Bob Bowers)

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Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Prudy and I took advantage of this stabilization in August, and traveled to Colombia for a month’s exploration of many of the country’s best birding destinations.  We flew into Bogota, spent two days with a local guide at four sites near the capitol and another two visiting cultural sites, then flew two hours north to spend 3 days birding on our own on San Andres, a ten square-mile, little-known island off the coast of Nicaragua. From there, we returned to Bogota, then flew to Cali, where we joined local guides Andrea and Alejandro. Recently wed, this young couple have started a birding and herping tour service, appropriately called ‘Birding and Herping’, and they had agreed to spend 10 days with us, following a birding itinerary we had put together to cover the three Andean cordillera between Cali and Medellin. We parted with Andrea (the ornithologist) and Alejandro (the herpetologist) at Medellin, from where we traveled on our own to Cartagena, and from Cartagena to Santa Marta, Minca and finally El Dorado, an eco-lodge in the Santa Marta Sierra before returning to Bogota and home.

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Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Anchicaya Valley (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

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Colombia’s National Bird, the Andean Condor (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

The primary cities of Colombia are large (Bogota is nearly nine million), traffic-bound centers of growth and hustle, but once outside these metropolitan areas, birders are faced with problems of access, transportation and some challenging roads. In spite of this, and by using local guides, we saw much of this spectacularly beautiful country and many wonderful birds. We recorded 345 species, almost all of which were birds we had not seen before, including 55 species of hummingbirds and 14 of Colombia’s 78 endemics. We also took more than 7,600 photographs. In addition to Colombia’s 56 National Natural Parks, many lodges, private homes and fincas share hummingbird and other feeders with visiting birders. One of our favorite sites was the Hotel Termales del Ruiz, nestled more than 10,000 feet high in the Andes’ Los Nevados, and featuring a volcanic-warmed thermal swimming pool. Each morning, you can hold miniature sugar water feeders while dozens of hummingbirds swarm around, perching on your head and hands for up close and personal observation.

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Colombia’s endemic Yellow-eared Parrot (photo Alejandro Echeverry, Birding and Herping)

This is an adventure we recommend without reservation, and guided trips are offered by several U.S. based companies. This is the easiest and most convenient option, although you can also arrange personalized guided trips in Colombia using the same guides that would accompany your states-originated trip at a fraction of the cost. Several U.S. airlines fly direct to Colombia, and with a flight time of just four hours from Atlanta to Bogota, fares are reasonable. Living this close to the country with more bird species than any other in the world is an opportunity that should not be skipped.

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