Santa Marta Mountains. Photo: Chris Fischer Photography
The Santa Marta Mountains (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) are unique. They are not a northern offshoot of the Andes, but a separate and isolated range. They are the world's highest coastal mountain range, and in fact the highest point in Colombia! Recent geological findings show that the Santa Marta Mountains were created in northern Peru and have been shifting and traveling northwards during the last 170 million years. For the birder the intense attraction of the Santa Marta Mountains is that they are incredibly rich in endemic birds, species you cannot see anywhere else on earth. Currently 19 endemic species are found here, although taxonomic changes are likely to see this number increase in the coming years.
The Cuchilla de San Lorenzo are the most accessible spur off the main Santa Marta Range. Most birders stay at the comfortable and well run birding lodge at El Dorado Reserve, which is run by the local NGO ProAves. Named after the legendary city of gold, the 2,175 acre El Dorado Reserve extends from 900-2,600 m elevation, protecting subtropical and montane rain forest. Endemic Santa Marta Brush-Finches are easily seen in the garden. Black-fronted Wood-Quail often come to visit feeders at the lodge in the late afternoon. A dizzying array of hummingbirds visit the multitude of hummingbird feeders, including White-tailed Starfrontlet, Green Violetear, Brown Violetear, Sparkling Violetear, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Tyrian Metaltail, Long-billed Hermit, Lazuline Sabrewing, and the Santa Marta Woodstar.
From the lodge, one can venture higher up to the highlands of the cuchilla, or venture down slope as well. Mountain birds stratify depending on elevation, so sampling a varied set of elevations provides the best chances for finding the most endemic birds. Many of the endemics are found primarily at higher elevations above the lodge, including Santa Marta Parakeet, Rusty-headed Spinetail, Santa Marta Antpitta, Brown-rumped Tapaculo, Santa Marta Bush-Tyrant, Santa Marta Mountain Tanager, Yellow-crowned Whitestart and Santa Marta Warbler.
Some endemics are troublesome but visible with some luck — such as the Black-backed Thornbill, Santa Marta Woodstar and the Santa Marta Blossomcrown, an endemic hummingbird that looks to have a pollen stained forehead. And a few endemics, well ... the Santa Marta Wren is not found in the Cuchilla San Lorenzo, and the Santa Marta Sabrewing is almost mythical in its rarity.
One of the most intriguing of the endemic birds is an unnamed screech owl which can be seen right at the lodge. This owl was noted back in the 1920s in a publication of the birds of Santa Marta by pioneering ornithologists Todd and Carriker. This bird has been here quietly waiting for birders to finally give it a name, something that is rumored to be happening in the near future. For now, one can actually go and see a bird without a name!
There is a lot to see here and endemics are but a part of it. Some gorgeous and striking birds such as the White-tipped Quetzal, Band-tailed and Sickle-winged Guans, Rosy Thrush-Tanager and the stunning Golden-breasted Fruiteater are not rare. There are various tanagers and a plethora of hummingbirds, as well as the eye catching Blue-naped Chlorophonias that come to feeders at the reserve. You won't want to leave.