Colombia is widely acclaimed as a birding paradise, home to 1864 bird species, more than any country on Earth. Its species range from South America’s largest, Andean Condor, soaring on wings 11.5 feet from tip to tip, down to tiny Gorgeted Woodstar, a hummingbird whose stubby wings produce a slow, bumblebee-like flight.
Though geographically smaller than fellow South American countries Brazil and Peru, which also make the “top 5 birdiest countries” list, Colombia beats both out for birds because of its ‘location, location, location.’ Bridging southern Central America and South America proper, Colombia is home to species that live in both regions, and to a stunning 83 birds that live no place else, among them 17 endemic hummingbirds!
Birding Paradise Rankings
Here is how the top 5 ‘birding paradise’ countries rank for total numbers of bird species according to Birdlife International.
Bonus: Two High-Density Hotspots
Having a high number of species is one way to measure “birdiest,” but another is the number of bird species per square mile. Both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica score in the top 10 for “birdiest countries” by this measure. Tours to both of these countries are so pleasurable because the birding is easy and relaxing, with the potential to see a large number of species without significant travel between spots.
One attribute shared by these ‘birding paradise’ countries is their tropical location. For most plant and animal species, biodiversity is dramatically higher at the equator than at the poles, though there are many competing theories about why this “latitudinal diversity gradient” exists.
All of the top 5 are also large countries. The reason we offer three tours to Colombia because it would be impossible to see all of its impressive birds all on just one trip!
Beyond their tropical ecology and sizeable landmass, each of these ‘birding paradise’ countries has unique geographic and climactic features that support its particular suite of birds.
In this four-part series, we will discuss those factors, digging into what makes each a unique and inviting birding destination. In Part 1 we explore Colombia, in Part 2, Peru and Brazil and Part 3, Indonesia and Ecuador. In Part 4 we discuss Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, “high-density hotspots” that offer easy island birding and an exotic suite of species.
Colombia’s Geographic Diversity
Bridging Central and South America, Colombia is a land of geographic extremes, beginning with northern and western borders defined by extensive coastlines along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The country is divided north to south by the towering Andes Mountains, descending to savannas and Amazon lowlands in the heavily forested interior. For obvious reasons, birding Colombia is an adventure that invites one to visit and revisit, exploring each birdy area in turn!
Our guide of the year, David Mehlman, encouraged us to bring back birding and nature tours to Colombia, and his enthusiasm for and knowledge of the country places you in very good hands when visiting to this birding paradise. Dave helped us devise the following three routes, and we may well add more in the future!
Colombia Birds & Nature in the Coffee Region
This tour explores the famous “Eje Cafetero,” designated by UNESCO as being a World Heritage Landscape and a haven for both coffee drinkers and birds.
We have easy access to renowned birding areas such as Otún-Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary near Santa Rosa (with its famous flocks of Red-ruffed Fruitcrow) and the Rio Blanco Nature Reserve just outside Manizales, with a bird list of over 500 species and a legendary feeding station for antipittas.
We also include time at high elevations at the Los Nevados del Ruiz volcano, where we experience permanent snowfields just north of the equator! This unique area of the Central Andes above tree line, covered in a vegetation type called páramo, is the habitat for many rare, unique, and difficult-to-find species. We look here for Buffy Helmetcrest, Andean Siskin, Stout-billed Cinclodes, White-throated Spinetail, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.
Our hotel here has natural hot springs, which you are welcome to enjoy as a guest if you’re not distracted by the numerous iridescent hummingbirds to be found at the feeders just outside! We naturally sample local coffees, and enjoy a cultural field trip to a coffee farm, and even have one cooking class, learning to make the famous Colombian dish called sancocho.
Colombia’s Amazon may be best described from a naturalist’s perspective, as remote, difficult to access, and relatively unexplored by birders until quite recently. This is a magical trip where two of Colombia’s best destinations for birding in the Amazonian ecosystems collide, including the incredible Orinoco basin forest surrounding Puerto Inírida and the gorgeous, mystical Guianan Shield.
In 2020, our tour operator acquired 200 hectares of land near Puerto Inírida to establish an environmental reserve. This reserve involves the indigenous communities for the conservation of the wildlife that occur there and we are excited to meet these communities who are so involved in a successful ecotourism project.
We may see more than 400 species of birds, some of them considered among the rarest in Colombia. In addition to the bountiful birds we encounter, we are also on the lookout for special mammals like Yellow-handed Titi monkey, Pink River Dolphin, Giant River Otter, and many more!
Colombia Birding and Nature in the Central Andes
We explore the terrain of the Central Andes which contains a diverse mix of coffee and other agricultural plantations, natural habitat, small towns, and world-class nature reserves. The birding is excellent with numerous species easily seen as we hike trails and visit bird feeding stations for hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans, motmots, and many more!
This tour includes a break in the middle to explore and experience the legendary “paisa” culture which Medellin and its surrounding department of Antioquia are famous for. We also explore the valley of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s largest, in search of water birds and other species.
We hope to see unique bird species found in few other places such as Yellow-eared Parrot, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Red-bellied Grackle, Golden-headed Quetzal, and manakins, tanagers, and flycatchers too numerous to count!
Next Up in Birding Paradise Part 2: Peru and Brazil
Group birding Bosque Yanahuanca Jaen, Peru. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott