Birding Without Borders

Day 89: The Road to El Dorado

Santa Marta’s endemics are pure birding gold.

March 30, 2015, Sierra Santa Marta, Colombia — In the 1500s, a rush of Spanish conquistadores and other fortune-seekers descended on Colombia to seek El Dorado, a legendary lost city of gold. Most of those expeditions ended in disaster, and none ever found the city (though some still say it exists). Lorenzo and I, along with our cheerful driver Anival, set out this morning for our own El Dorado—a remote reserve in the Santa Marta mountains with one of the highest concentrations of endemic birds in the world. A golden city is nice enough, but I’ll take the endemics!

The road into the reserve is adventurous, with grapefruit-sized boulders allowing only jacked-up 4x4s. Around midday we stopped at El Dorado Lodge, where Gabo Utria, a sharp birder from Santa Marta, was shepherding a brood of seven birders from the Panama Audubon Society. Lorenzo and I spent a couple of hours birding with their group after lunch, and saw several gorgeous White-tipped Quetzals. Gabo has been a big help in planning the Santa Marta section of my trip; although he’s busy with the Panama group, he kindly arranged all of my logistics this week! (If you ever visit Santa Marta, he’s the guy to fix a trip: birdingsantamarta@gmail.com).

Birders from the Panama Audubon Society spot a White-tipped Quetzal at El Dorado, Colombia. Photo: Noah Strycker

Eventually, Lorenzo, Anival and I continued up the boulder field (er, road) to stay at a small biological station called San Lorenzo, which has no amenities for tourists and is set up for researchers. After a stand-up avocado-cheese-and-ham-sandwich dinner, Lorenzo and I stepped outside to see if we could call up a screech-owl. The owls around here are probably an endemic species, often called the Santa Marta Screech-Owl, but, unfortunately for my year list, nobody has done the work to scientifically describe them yet. Clements, the authority I’m using, considers the Santa Marta Screech-Owl an “undescribed form,” which means, even though Lorenzo and I heard one trilling from a tree right over our heads this evening, I can’t register it as any of the world’s recognized birds. Sometimes an owl in the dark is just an owl in the dark.

New birds today: 26

Year list: 1861

Follow Along:

Next Day

Previous Day

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”
×