Central & South America Wildlife

Wake up and smell the feathers: birdwatching in Colombia’s coffee zone

Why Colombia’s Eje Cafetero is a haven for more than just coffee lovers.

In Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (coffee axis), houses with wide eaves and verandas cling to ridges, nestling amid coffee bushes, fruit trees and plantains. Woodwork is painted in strong colours, bright reds and yellows against the white walls and surrounding green. Roads snake over jumbled hills and ravines. It rains a bit; the sun come out for a bit; then it rains a lot more.

The zone’s popularity has been growing alongside the tourism industry, especially since the signing of peace accords between the government and the FARC guerrilla movement. That’s true not just for coffee farms – at which you can stay and learn how to pick the beans and prepare the tastiest cup – but also for the colourful colonial towns that are no more than a short bus ride apart, and for adventure sports.

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The Valle de Cocora is one of Colombia’s most popular destinations © Jiann, Shutterstock

Around the zone are several national parks, from the snow-capped volcanoes of Los Nevados to the wax palm forest of the Valle de Cocora. Areas of the country out of bounds during the years of conflict are now opening up, and the government is actively supporting conservation, with tourism as a major contributor. Colombians, some of them ex-combatants, are being trained as guides to be advocates for the protection of their local environments. Birdwatching is an important niche sector. 

The coffee zone provides a snapshot of Colombia’s appeal for birders, a country recognised as having more bird species than any other (1,921, of which 79 are endemic). It encompasses a wide range of habitats, from the Magdalena Valley to the foothills and heights of the Central and Western Cordilleras of the Andes and the upper reaches of the Chocó. Many birds here are range-restricted, so you can spot many different species in spots just a short distance apart. The corollary is that many species are near-endangered or endangered.

To understand how coffee and birds are linked, consider the Canada warbler. Despite the name, this bird spends eight months each year in the Colombian, Ecuadorean and Venezuelan Andes, migrating north to breed. Though globally classified as ‘of least concern’, in Colombia it is threatened because of the reduction of its habitat.

It thrives where coffee is shade-grown, not cultivated intensively in full sun (BirdLife International and Swarovski Optik are supporting conservation efforts). It’s a fetching little bird: yellow throat, chest and belly, grey back, a black speckled necklace and white spectacles. 

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Canada warbler © Frode Jacobsen, Shutterstock

I caught my first sight of it at Tinamú Birding Nature Reserve, just outside Manizales, a former coffee farm, during a recent birdwatching tour. The estate buildings now house a good hotel, and more than 260 species of birds have been recorded in its gardens and trails. In addition to the Canada warbler, I saw moustached puffbird, fly- and gnatcatchers, various tanagers, acorn woodpecker and, most special of all, the tiny, endemic greyish piculet.

One morning, as the dawn rose over the mist in the valleys, I was dropped with other guests at the roadside in the sub-páramo on the climb up to Los Nevados National Park. The road glistened after overnight rain, and water droplets clung to grasses and purple arnica flowers. On one side the ground tumbled away, while on the other it rose to crags on which the last tatters of cloud lingered. 

Higher up, at Laguna Negra, we looked for Andean teal and stout-billed cinclodes. While we breakfasted on hot chocolate and arepas in the rustic Restaurante Cumanday, the milk truck arrived to collect the churns brought in by donkey. But the main aim of the morning was to find the buffy helmetcrest, a brownish hummingbird with a spiky crest and purple beard, at Las Brisas visitor centre in the national park. And, right on cue, as we left the vehicle and headed for the building, there was the bird waiting for us on the fence. Would it were always so easy…

Until that point the morning had been clear and sunny, but soon the clouds rolled back in and, by the time we reached the Termales de Ruiz, everything was shrouded in fog. No matter: the hummingbird feeding stations were alive with shining sunbeam, tourmaline sunangel, buff-winged starfrontlet, purple backed thornbill, great sapphire wing and the aptly-named sword-billed hummingbird. 

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Tourmaline sunangel © Ondrej Prosicky, Shutterstock

On another pre-dawn guided walk, we meandered uphill from the conference centre of El Recinto del Pensamiento to a small education centre. On the trails we saw tanagers, saltators, vireos, flycatchers and, at the centre, more hummingbirds than an amateur like me could keep track of.

After breakfast, we followed a new trail, through the orchid forest of the Orchid Society of Caldas (Colombia has 4,270 species of orchid, of which some 39% are endemic). One eye on the flowers, the other was trained on vines and branches for the chestnut belly and blue face of the sickle-winged guan, the black-and-white tail of the squirrel cuckoo and the green jay. Also in the grounds were several Swainson’s hawks, distinguishable by their wing shape and white throat patch.  

Later in my trip, near the Otún Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary outside Pereira, we stood on a steel bridge over the fast-flowing Otún River on the look-out for torrent ducks. All our attention was on the current when suddenly our guide exclaimed and pointed overhead. I adjusted my focus from the rushing water to the clouds, and realised that the greyness was alive with a vast kettle of Swainson’s hawks.

Our on-hand experts reckoned about 1,000, swirling and wheeling as they funnelled south along the Andes from their breeding grounds on the prairies of western North America to the pampas of Argentina and southern Brazil – one of the longest migrations in the hemisphere. What a sight.