Remote Birding Hotspot in Putumayo: La Isla Escondida, Colombia

For me, La Isla Escondida Reserve ranks in the top 5 of any sites I’ve ever birded in the Neotropics! After my first 6 months traveling through parts of Colombia and the Brazilian Amazon in 2018, I finally got some downtime in December. But not for long.

To escape some X-mas blues and treat me with some advanced birthday present, I decided for a getaway from late December until early January to La Isla Escondida Nature Reserve.

I received some firsthand tip from a good friend about a recently established reserve in the foothills of southern Colombia’s East Andean slope. He mentioned it to be remote, rarely visited by birders, but with an excellent reputation and amazing birding. Exactly, what I was looking for.

The talk is about “Reserva Natural La Isla Escondida”. The owner of which is Jürgen Beckers, one of the main authors of “Birdwatching in Colombia”.

La Isla Escondida Reserve – Picture by Jürgen Beckers

La Isla Escondida Nature Reserve

My friend’s suggestions and a quick glance at the reserve’s checklist was more than enough, to convince me for a 9-day trip. The list hosts some highly sought-after species like Nocturnal– Salvin’s Curassow, Lined Forest-Falcon, Fulvous AntshrikeBanded-, Hairy-crested AntbirdFiery-throated Fruiteater & many more. 

From a Colombian perspective, many species confined to this particular corner of the country occur Black Tinamou, Buff-tailed Sicklebill, Pink-throated BrilliantNapo SabrewingCoppery-chested Jacamar, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Western Striolated PuffbirdWhite-throated WoodpeckerBlackish Antbird, Buff-rumped Foliage-gleanerFoothill Elaenia, Ecuadorian TyrannuletSpectacled Bristle-TyrantBuff-throated Tody-TyrantYellow-shouldered GrosbeakSpotted Tanager… 

Furthermore, as a newly established reserve in such a bird-rich region, many species remain to be added to the list. Possibilities for new discoveries are mesmerizing, including Wing-banded Antbird and Shrike-like Cotinga await the lucky and persistent one. 

The Department of Putumayo was heavily affected by Guerilla operations not long ago. But the reserve’s isolated location between two deep river valleys (Sucio River & Guamuez River) prevented the Guerilla of penetrating into the area. The immediate area around Isla Escondida is and always has been safe. 

How I got to Isla Escondida

I flew into Puerto Asístook a bus ride to Orito.  There I was picked up by a taxi driver who dropped me off at the trailhead, leading to the reserve. Mules were organized to carry my luggage to the lodge.

As soon as I stepped on to the forest trail, I realized, I was in birder’s heaven. I was surrounded by tall, lush forests. The trail starts at an elevation of about 650 above sea level and leads the lodge at about 800m. aslSo, it’s located in the ecotone between Amazonian lowlands and Andean foothills, one of the most interesting elevation belts for birding.

The trail is well marked and you can follow detailed instructions on the reserve’s webpage. As well, rely on Jürgen’s help about any queries visiting and accessing the reserve.  

To give you an idea, it’s a roughly 1 ½ hours hike up a muddy trail, walking slowly without birding. It is hot and humid and you could get rained out, anytime. So be prepared. There’s the possibility to rent a horse to bring you up. 

I walked up the trail mid-day in sunny conditions, so it was fairly quiet. Short before the lodge I hit a small mixed flock including Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher. 

The lodge

The lodge is built in a small clearing in the middle of a pristine forest, and really deserves the term Eco-lodge! The rustic but very charming cabins are mainly built by fallen trees, electricity is taken from solar panels, vegetables and fruits for food are mainly taken from the garden, the water waste is equipped with a double biological filtration system. 

I was greeted by Estefan, the reserve’s hardworking soul and caretaker of the placeHe and his whole family are from the indigenous Cofan tribe. In fact, it was his father that guided Jürgen on an exploration trip years ago to the present properties of Isla Escondida. 

Birding at La Isla Escondida Natural Reserve

After a quick snack, I was off to the first forest trail. I took my not even 25 minutes to located Banded Antbird, a bird I’ve only glimpsed once before, about 20 years ago in Peru! I did some nice sound recording of it (play here).

At some point, the birds walked right past in front of me. A pretty good start. The calls of Fulvous Shrike-Tanager revealed a small mixed flock of about a dozen species, a Rusty-belted Tapaculo singing right next to trail was literally asking to be sound recorded, too. 

After some late afternoon birding, I was treated by the first of Estefan’s delicious meals and some crazy story about a guest stepping on a Bushmaster (the largest Pit-Viper), about 80 meters away from the lodge in the middle of the trail! He showed me the picture of the snake and was telling me it’s size: It was over 2 meters long. Somebody got very, very lucky. I told myself to pay some extra attention to the trails 

Birding around the vicinity of the lodge

The next morning found my birding in the clearing and close vicinity of the lodge. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and Amazonian Umbrellabird frequent the same flocks. The latter was seen eating fruits of a Cecropia Tree. Lemon-browed-, and Dusky-chested Flycatchers were calling overhead, Golden-winged Tody and Black-and-white Tody-Flycatchers were found right outside my cabin.

Birding around the trails

Time to hit trails. I immediately run into a large mixed flock containing one of my sought-after species for the trip: Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant, a species I was looking for many times without success in Ecuador. My goal was to get as many sound recordings of this species as possible. But on my first encounter with it, I just enjoyed watching, as the bird wasn’t vocalizing at all.

The understory flock further contained: Tschudi’s-, Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleanerRusset AntshrikeFoothill Antwren4 more Antbird speciesseveral TyrannidsWing-barred Piprites and Fulvous Shrike-TanagerIn the afternoon I encountered more mixed flocks and sound recorded Sapphire Quail-Dove – the first sound recording of that species for Colombia on Xeno-Canto. 

The following days I spent exploring the same trails over and over, as every day revealed something new. I had walk-away views of Nocturnal Curassow, Fulvous Antshrike and Grey-tailed Pihaand I run into at least 2 large mixed flocks each day. I was able to sound record various vocalization types of the very little studied Spectacle Bristle-Tyrant – one of my main goals of the trip. Listen here

Trail up to Fin del Mundo

Excursions the trail up to Fin del Mundo revealed 2 new species for the reserve’s list: Zimmer’s Flatbill and Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, both of which I was able to document with sound recordings. Zimmer’s Flatbill proved to be fairly common in the area, accompanying almost all larger mixed flocks. It has been overlooked, obviously. 

The Canopy Platforms

The reserve’s 2 canopy platforms are the only ones in whole Colombia! But you have to be free from giddiness in order to be able to climb them. You only access with a ladder-climbing up a 30 m tall tree, secured by harness, of course.

My time up there proved to be fruitless because the tree was so! The only notable species up there were some Paradise Tanagers and an eye-level encounter with Ecuadorian TyrannuletShould you be up there when the tree has fruits – you shall be very happy.

It’s the place to observe Fiery-throated Fruiteater, many colorful Tanagers and Foothill Elaenia, which accompanies mixed flocks. One platform has sleeping opportunities, and meals are catered to you via cable pull! 

On my birthday I was surprised by the whole team with an (especially) delicious meal, wine and birthday cake.  

This finally marked the end of my brief visit to this special place. I can’t wait to go back there and explore more remote and unbirded forest. 

About the authors

Jérôme Fischer

Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. He has been focused on bird identification. He also traveled to many countries, starting in Switzerland and then exploring South America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.