Thursday 2 April 2020

Colombia Endemic Cleanup: The Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve

Reserva Natural de las Aves Colibrí del Sol, or the Dusky Starfrontlet Reserve, protects 2,852 hectares of montane forest and páramo west of Medellín. Its flagship species, the Dusky Starfrontlet, was only known from specimens until a small population was rediscovered in the Páramo de Frontino in 2004. Following this exciting discovery, ProAves purchased the land and created the reserve to protect the starfrontlet as well as a number of other range-restricted species found here.

The Dusky Starfrontlet has to be one of the more poorly-named species in English of Colombian avifauna. I much prefer the Spanish name - Colibrí del Sol (Hummingbird of the Sun). As you will see later in this blog post, there is nothing dusky about these spectacular hummingbirds!

In addition to the Dusky Starfrontlet, there are a number of other interesting bird species found in the Páramo de Frontino that I was interested in crossing paths with. These include the Urrao Antpitta, Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, Paramillo Tapaculo and Black-throated Flowerpiercer. The first three are all endemic to a small section of the western Colombian Andes, while the Black-throated Flowerpiercer has a limited range in these mountains while otherwise being found in Peru and Bolivia.

The only problem was that the Páramo del Frontino and the Reserve is a little tricky to access. A friend of mine, Avery Bartels, provided the Whatsapp number of a woman named Yenny who works for ProAves and who could help coordinate my visit. I messaged her while I was at the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve and she confirmed that I could visit and provided the details.

Valley on hike to RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

The prices were actually much more reasonable than I expected, since I had heard that some of the ProAves lodges had really jacked up their prices. It cost me 108,00 pesos (around $37 CAD) which included one night accommodations (50,000), park entrance fee (20,000), and three meals (38,000). If I wished to hire a guide, or if I wanted a horse/guide to help transport my bags up to the lodge, then that would have cost more (I declined on both fronts).

Valley on hike to RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

But first, I had to actually get to the lodge! I began my journey at the Chestnut-capped Piha Reserve and drove for quite a few hours west past Medellín and then towards Urrao. I ended up taking the Via a Caicedo, heading west from the 25B Highway. This road started out as gravel, interspersed with a few recently paved sections. But eventually the road quality rapidly deteriorated. It took me around three hours on this road until I reached the Caicedo area (the only major town between the highway and Urrao). I decided to call it a night here and I slept in my car at the side of the road near Caicedo. Note that the road does not actually follow the line on Google Maps and I had a few moments of worry since I was nowhere near where I was "supposed" to be, but it all worked out in the end.

To access the reserve, one has to follow a horse trail through fields and forest for around two hours. The starting point to the hike is just outside of the town of Urrao. At dawn the next morning, I completed the journey to the start of the trail, east of Urrao, which was another 1.5 hours by car on the gravel road. I found the parking spot at 6.392764, -76.077769 and confirmed with the nearby rancher that I could park my car there for the day/night. I loaded up my day pack and headed out on the trail. It was a spectacular sunny morning and the birds were singing. I crossed a creek on a wooden plank; the elevation here was around 2400 m.

Creek crossing during hike to RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

The horse trail was relatively easy to follow and I hiked through rolling pastures as a slowly breeze materialized. I heard some Tawny-breasted Tinamous and spotted two species of Caracaras, Slaty Brushfinches, Blue-capped Tanagers and more, but mostly I was focused on making good time. Numerous butterflies also appeared, taking advantage of the sunny conditions.

Crested Caracara - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Green-eyed White (Leptophobia aripa) - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

White-banded Mountain Satyr (Lymanopoda albocincta) - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

At 10:30 AM I arrived at the lodge. My legs were pretty tired since I had already gained around 500 m of elevation. Only 600 m more to go until the páramo!

Here I met Jorge - the manager of the ProAves lodge - who had been expecting me. Jorge was a few years my senior, gregarious, and enthusiastic. He did not speak any English but I struggled along with my poor Spanish and we managed. I was the only one staying at the lodge, and the only guest in a few weeks from what I gathered. I relaxed by the hummingbird feeders while Jorge plied me with homemade jugo de mora (blackberry juice).

Sparkling Violetear - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Buff-tailed Coronet - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Lunch followed, which Jorge prepared for us from scratch. It was absolutely delicious and I devoured it quickly. I inquired about the chances of seeing Urrao Antpittas since I had previously heard that they had an antpitta feeding station set up near the lodge. Jorge was happy to oblige and we crossed over the river to the spot, only a few minutes from the lodge. Unfortunately however the antpittas were not interested. Normally they feed them earlier in the morning.

Having refuelled and relaxed by the lodge, I felt ready to continue my hike to the páramo. Though the antpitta is often seen around the lodge, the other target species of mine are more likely to be seen in the elfin forest and páramo at a much higher elevation. I left around 1 PM and followed the steep, winding trail that heads up from behind the lodge.

 RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Over the past few months my fitness had greatly improved - no doubt to all of the exploring at high-elevation that Laura and I had completed - but this hike taught me that I still had a ways to go! It was a struggle but I eventually made my way up, past 3000 m, 3100 m, 3200 m, and more. Fortunately there were many birds to distract me along the way and provide convenient rest stops.

The first of these was a Urrao Antpitta that I heard singing down a hillside. I coaxed it in a bit closer and soon had face-melting views of the little guy. Very carefully, I lifted my camera up and managed to take a few photos of him as well. Unreal!

Urrao Antpitta - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Other great birds on my hike up included some vocalizing White-capped Tanagers, a Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, a Dusky Piha and more Tawny-breasted Tinamous. But mostly, I slowly struggled up the mountainside, aware of the clock that was ticking. I needed to leave the páramo no later than 4:30 PM or so in order to be back down before nightfall. The approaching fog fuelled my urgency. The last thing I needed was to have zero visibility while looking for the rest of my targets!

 RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Finally, the infamous staircase appeared. A sign at the base of the stairs was posted with images of a Dusky Starfrontlet and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer, tantalizing me with the possibilities of what lay ahead. The pitch increased dramatically on this staircase and I cursed its existence as I pulled myself up, one step at a time. With each gain in elevation, my weariness level was inversely proportional with the oxygen levels of the air. A vicious cycle!

But it was all worth it. I reached the "lower feeders", about 2/3 of the way up the staircase. Amongst all the twittering and zipping around, I locked on to a beautiful male Dusky Starfrontlet!

Dusky Starfrontlet - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

He was one of three individuals of his species at the lower feeders, mixing with Tourmaline Sunangels and the other hummingbirds. An absolutely spectacular bird, and a welcome reward!

I kept climbing, bit by bit, until the forest gave way to páramo and I found myself at the top. My elevation was now over 3450m, meaning I had gained 1050 m by foot in one day (a new personal best, I think). And just when I arrived in the páramo, the fog gave way and the sun's rays shone through. It was poetic.

 RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

I positioned myself at the "upper feeders" and watched the action. Several more Dusky Starfrontlets were in attendance. Getting photos was a little tricky since they only seemed to like perching on the feeders, eschewing natural perches that were nearby and well-lit.

Dusky Starfrontlet - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Three species of flowerpiercers were in attendance. Of course the common Masked Flowerpiercers were around, but I eventually saw both of my main targets - the Black-throated and Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercers!

Black-throated Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Black-throated Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Masked Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Black-throated Flowerpiercer - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Still missing the Paramillo Tapaculo and with time running out, I went for a stroll a bit further up the path. Bird activity was above average in the late afternoon sunshine and I quickly found a few Paramillo Tapaculos by voice. I had no luck actually seeing one of them, though. I played a few snippets of tape without success but then gave up, since these birds are probably blasted with playback frequently.

A Crowned Chat-Tyrant provided incredible views beside the trail, the first time I had seen this species so well.

Crowned Chat-Tyrant - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

I walked back down to the upper feeders and soaked in some more views of the flowerpiercers and starfrontlets. Then, it was time to walk back down the mountain as time was getting on.

Dusky Starfrontlet - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Heading downhill was a welcome reprieve from all of the uphill walking earlier in the day. I paused along the staircase to pick through a mixed flock, adding a number of species to the day list including Plushcap, Streaked Tuftedcheek and Masked Trogon.

RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

A little further down the trail I heard Chestnut-naped and Slate-crowned Antpittas. And then, not far beyond that, this caught my eye.

Swallow-tailed Nightjar - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

That lump in the lower left-hand part of the image is a female Swallow-tailed Nightjar, getting ready to hunt in the gloom of the early evening. She was quite approachable and I snapped a few photos and studied the intricacies of her plumage.

Swallow-tailed Nightjar - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Male Swallow-tailed Nightjars are famous for the excessively long tail feathers they possess - a spectacular sight if one flies overhead. But what the females lack in flamboyance they make up for in subtle beauty.

Swallow-tailed Nightjar - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

It was almost dusk when I finally arrived back at the lodge. A few minutes later, the sounds of a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk pierced the still air. It had been an incredible day!

RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

That evening I enjoyed another scrumptious home-cooked meal with Jorge, along with Yenny and her boyfriend, up visiting for the night. An hour later, my brain was just as fried as my legs due to all the Spanish and I stumbled off to my room. Sleep came fast.


With all my targets acquired the previous day, I awoke without a great sense of urgency. Yenny and I tried for the antpittas at the feeding station once again, but they refused to visit for the second day in a row. Luck had been on my side when I had found the singing one earlier!

RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Avery had told me about the trail on the far side of the river which could be good for the Tawny-breasted Tinamou. While their songs had taunted me from all around, I still had yet to see one. Unfortunately, despite my efforts, this continued. But there were a few other interesting species along this trail including Streak-headed Antbird, calling Chestnut Wood-Quails and White-capped Tanagers, and a Sickle-winged Guan.

Streak-headed Antbird - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

I headed back to the lodge, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and said my goodbyes to the others. With all my targets acquired it was time to get a move on - there was still one more location I wished to explore later in the afternoon.

I had barely hit the trail when a small dark bird up ahead grabbed my attention. Another Urrao Antpitta! Who needs feeding stations when you can find them on your own in the forest.

Urrao Antpitta - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

The balance of the hike back down was mostly uneventful. Again, butterflies were on the wing and I photographed a few of them in the open pastures.

Unidentified (tribe Satyrini) - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

Brazilian Lady (Vanessa braziliensis) - RNA Colibrí del Sol, Antioquia, Colombia

I reached my car just after 10 AM. Somehow, only 26 hours had passed though it had felt like a lot more.I headed back east towards Medellín. The following morning, Laura would be flying in from Cartagena to meet me at the airport. Since I had made such good time this morning, I had the opportunity to explore one more location before the day was done.

San Pedro, located just north of Medellín, is a small city surrounded by green countryside. It was just outside of town where local birdwatcher, Rodolfo Correa Peña, spotted an unusual bird on January 7, 2018 while he was on his way to Sunday mass. He recognized it as the Antioquia Brushfinch, a species described in 2007 on the basis of three specimens found in a museum drawer (one of the specimens had been taken in 1971; the other two were undated). Photographs were taken later that month, and more individuals have been since found in several locations near San Pedro as well as further north in Antioquia Province.  With such an exciting recent avian discovery in close proximity to a major city, it makes you wonder what other undescribed bird species are still out there.

The day passed by quickly, most of which was spent driving, and by 4:30 PM I finally rolled up to the desired location near San Pedro.

 San Pedro area, Antioquia, Colombia

I did not have much daylight to search for the brushfinch but luckily they are common enough in the few remaining habitat patches. I quickly found two of them skulking in the undergrowth and enjoyed obscured views of them. Unfortunately however they stayed in the undergrowth and I was unable to obtain photographs. I waited around, and tried a few other areas, but that was all I would get!

The only brushfinch that posed for my camera was this Yellow-breasted Brushfinch.

Yellow-breasted Brushfinch - San Pedro area, Antioquia, Colombia

Some of the habitat patches described in previous trip reports were no longer present, having been turned into crop fields. Luckily, I have heard rumours that ProAves may be buying some property here for preservation.

I was also a little surprised to see this Black-throated Flowerpiercer in the same area - a nice way to close out the day.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer - San Pedro area, Antioquia, Colombia

As the sun set, I hit the road and sped through Medellín, only dealing with a little bit of traffic here and there. I splurged on a nice hotel near the airport - it had been a hugely successful eleven days!

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