Colombia’s Prime Birding Destination: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta covers part of the departments of Magdalena, La Guajira and Cesar, and is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. It covers life zones from sea level to the snow belt. Because of the variety of ecosystems, thermal floors by the sea, its unique beauty and cultural richness, it is a unique territory to visit.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range has been declared a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO (1979), among other national categories. It is the most endemic rich, continental area in the World. 21 species (and several more subspecies) are confined to the area – many of them carry Santa Marta in their name. The isolated range’s avifauna bares similarities with both Venezuelan mountain ranges to the east, and Andean mountains to the south-west, all adding to the biogeographical complexity of these mountains.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park (aka Santa Marta Mountains) is for long and by far Colombia’s prime birding destination. It’s the highest coastal mountain range in South America, the highest peaks – Cristobal Colon & Simon Bolivar – are at the same time the highest ones in Colombia. They tower 5575 meters above sea level.
Within this mountainous massif there is an area of great cultural significance, considered a sacred place for the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra: the Arhuacos (or Ikas), the Wiwas, the Kogis, and the Kankuamos. This is the Teyuna Archaeological Park “Lost City”, which is administered by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History – ICANH.
Climate and seasonality
In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta you can find lowland rainforest (0-1,050 m), premontane rainforest (1,050-1,900 m), paramo (3,400-4,200 m), superparamo (4,200-5,100 m) and snow belt (5,100-5,770 m). The average annual temperature at sea level is 27º C, while at the top of the mountains it drops to 0º C. The annual precipitation is 3,000-4,000 mm and decreases with altitude. The dry season runs from October to November and from June to July.
Cuchilla de San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo Ridge)
The Cuchilla of San Lorenzo is an area within the Sierra Nevada that has been declared an Important Bird Area (IBA). It extends from the town of Minca (600 m), through an extensive area of shade coffee plantations, to the edge of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Natural Park.
The Cuchilla de San Lorenzo is very important for the migratory birds that cross the Caribbean. It also contains one of the highest concentrations of endemic species in Santa Marta with the presence of Santa Marta bush-tyrant (Myiotheretes pernix), Santa Marta Parakeet (Pyrrhura viridicata) and Santa Marta Blossomcrown (Anthocephala floriceps) among others.
Most endemic bird species are concentrated in the upper parts of the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo and Cerro Kennedy, a mountain that reaches 2,800 m. Cerro Kennedy has wooded patches, dominated mainly by bamboo and shrubs. This is one of the best areas in Santa Marta to observe endemic and rare species, since it presents 15 species of endemic birds, making it one of the highest concentrations of endemisms in the continent.
In the region, projects that involve the local population have been implemented towards the conservation of the environment. Strategies such as: the production of “Bird Friendly Coffee“, the creation of a “Bird Friendly Club” for children and young people of the region, the installation of monitoring stations for the bird populations and environmental education actions.
Vista de Nieve Farm at Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
On our Sula Fam-Trip we first visited the beautiful coffee–plantation “Finca Vista de Nieve” which caters also for small groups of birders. It’s the ideal place to get away from it all, combine birding with relaxing holidays. Sipping delicious local coffee while watching a beautiful sunset over the Caribbean Sea shall sure do you good.
The close surroundings of the farm consists of shade grown coffee plantations and some second growth forest – both excellent habitat for birding. With an elevation of about 1300 m. asl. Many of the Santa Marta foothill specialties are found here. During our comfortable 2-night stay the we observed exquisite species like Black-fronted Wood-Quail, Scaled Piculet, Santa Marta Antbird, Slate-crowned Antpitta, Santa Marta Tapaculo, Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner, Streak-capped Spinetail, Sierra Nevada Brushfinch & White-lored Warbler.
A walk down the access road to Vista Nieves through a mosaic of coffee plantations and second growth forest can turn up some nice mixed flocks and especially Spectacled Tyrannulet and Santa Marta Blossomcrown. The latter visits flowering plants in gardens of local farmers & roadside shops.
In order to see most of the area’s endemics it’s necessary to visit different elevations.
El Dorado Lodge
The centerpiece of a visit to the Santa Marta Mountains is the El Dorado Lodge 2000 m. asl., owned and managed by the ProAves foundation. It has several trails into good forest, excellent hummingbird feeders and access to the Cuchilla San Lorenzo is way more convenient from here. The immediate area around the lodge is best for the recently described Santa Marta Screech-Owl, White-tipped Quetzal, Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, Golden-breasted Fruiteater & Santa Marta Brushfinch. The lodge’s compost pile attracts regularly Band-tailed Guan, Black-fronted Wood-Quail and Sierra Nevada Brushfinch. The hummingbird feeders host large numbers of Brown Violetear, Crowned Woodnymph and rarer species like Lazuline Sabrewing and even White-tailed Starfrontlet.
From the lodge the road winds up the mountain and end at the exposed Cuchilla de San Lorenzo at 2600 m. asl. It’s only an 8 km long ride but on an extremely rough, bumpy road. This has the benefit that it prevents general tourism invading the area. Plans to build a concrete road up to the ridge have fortunately been stalled. The environmental impact would have been disastrous. The road ends at the ProAves reserve, which was established to protect the Parakeets. It is the only accessible site to see this endangered species. If you stay at the lodge you have access to an observation tower, but you can see the Santa Marta Parakeet elsewhere along the ridge first thing in the morning. If you have a scope scan the Eucalyptus tree in front of the tower. At times they are frequented by Black-backed Thornbills.
The view from here is one of the most impressive vistas in the country. You bird along a roughly 1 km long stretch on a trail in stunted elfin forest. Black-backed Thornbill (rare), Santa Marta Sabrewing (extremely rare), Brown-rumped Tapaculo, Santa Marta Antpitta, Rusty-headed Spinetail, Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant (rare) Hermit Wood-Wren, Black-cheeked Mountain-Tanager, Santa Marta Brushfinch, Santa Marta Warbler, Yellow-crowned Redstart occur here and are all endemic! For Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest you have to mount a multi-day expedition in order to access proper habitat.
Unfortunately, the excessive use of playback by everybody have had impact on the birds. Several species don’t respond anymore to it at all, and got very difficult to see…
Santa Marta Biological Station
If you’ve been efficient on the ridge or your time is limited you can visit the Santa Marta Biological Station on your way back. But you have to arrive there at 9am – that’s feeding time for Santa Marta Antpitta. At current state it is not possible to stay there overnight, because of a turnover of the station’s manager.
For those with a little more time, a visit to the lovely and touristy town of Minca might well be taken into consideration. It’s year-round spring-like climate, many hiking opportunities, good food & charming hotels offer something for everybody. There’s some good birding around Minca, too. Species like Military Macaw, Scaled Piculet, Venezuelan Flycatcher, Rosy Thrush-Tanager & Golden-winged Sparrow occur within close reach of town.
- BirdLife International (2020) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Cuchilla de San Lorenzo. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 25/08/2020.
- System of National Natural Parks Website
- Macaulay Library archive Website
About the authors
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.
Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. Jérôme has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries, starting in Switzerland. Then he traveled exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.