Colombia lives up to its reputation as a prime birding destination for Roseau County birdwatchers
Beth Siverhus of Warroad and Kris Guggisberg of Roseau were among the birders who visited Colombia on a Jan. 15-Feb. 2 birdwatching tour.
WARROAD, Minn. – Growing up in northern Minnesota, a fascination with birds and other wildlife came naturally to Beth Siverhus, but she didn’t get really serious about birding until she was in her 20s.
“I’ve always liked birds,” said Siverhus, a retired medical technologist from Warroad who grew up in Bemidji. “My parents were big into birds. I remember hearing an ovenbird, and I couldn’t find it. I didn’t know what it was, and I asked my mom, I said, ‘What is that bird?’ I couldn’t find it because it was singing from 30 feet high up in the canopy, and she said ‘Well, that’s an ovenbird.’
“And so, after that, I started learning the calls.”
Siverhus’ passion for birding hit a new level in the mid-’90s, when she met Carrol Henderson through a mutual interest in northwest Minnesota’s Pine to Prairie Birding Trail. A longtime nongame wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson retired in 2018 and has traveled extensively in his pursuit of birdwatching opportunities.
“It was fascinating hearing of his wildlife adventures in Costa Rica and South America, and I hoped that someday I would be able to go on a trip like that,” Siverhus said.
In 2008, Siverhus did just that, traveling to Costa Rica on a self-guided birding trip with Kris Guggisberg of Roseau, Minn., a friend since their days at Bemidji State University who shares a passion for birding. To prepare, Siverhus bought Henderson’s book, “Wildlife of Costa Rica,” and planned the trip using lodging and transportation recommendations in the book.
Birdwatching trips are expensive, Siverhus says, but she and Guggisberg saved up for guided trips to Ecuador in 2011, Cuba in 2014 and a return trip to Costa Rica in 2018.
They recently returned from their fifth birdwatching trip and longest to date – an 18-day excursion to the Colombian Andes in South America. Like the previous three excursions, they booked the Jan. 15-Feb. 2 trip through Preferred Adventures, a St. Paul-based company that organizes adventure travel excursions across the world.
The Colombian Andes was a logical choice for their most recent excursion, Siverhus says, because of its abundance and diversity of bird species. Colombia has more than 1,900 species of birds, she says, of which about 150 are hummingbirds.
“It is not inexpensive, but I have always wanted to go to Colombia,” she said. “It is second only to Brazil in having the most biological diversity due to its wide range of ecosystems. The Andes contain a huge portion of that biodiversity due to the changes in elevation, creating a variety of niches for plants and animals.”
Henderson and his wife, Ethelle, also were on the trip, and the group saw 314 species of birds during the excursion, Siverhus says.
Birdwatching with Henderson is “like traveling with an encyclopedia,” Siverhus says.
“He has so many interesting facts about so many different things, from butterflies to sloths,” she said. “He’s just a fascinating guy to have along, and then he’s so upbeat. They’re well-traveled, both of them.”
The birding crew flew from Minneapolis to Atlanta, a two-hour flight, and then 4½ hours to Bogota, Colombia, Siverhus says. In addition to the Hendersons, the crew of about a dozen people included birdwatchers from California, Chicago, Bismarck and other parts of Minnesota, she said.
Days were long, often starting at 5 or 6 a.m., and the places they visited included Bogota, Pereira, Santa Rosa de Cabal, Ibague, Medellin and Jardin. They’d travel by tour bus to some destinations and by 4x4 vehicles to more remote sites; they even had a couple of in-country flights.
Local guides who work with Preferred Adventures accompanied them throughout the trip and shared their knowledge of the bird life wherever they traveled.
“There’s just an incredible amount to see, and most of them are new birds,” Siverhus said. “Some I’d seen in Ecuador and some in Costa Rica, but it’s just a head-spinning trip – a lot to absorb.”
Accommodations were comfortable, Siverhus says, ranging from high-rise urban hotels to quaint cabins or smaller motels. As they traveled the country, they’d stay in a location from one to three nights.
“I preferred the eco-lodges (and) motels in the countryside because we were closer to the birds,” Siverhus said. “Many of the places we visited to birdwatch were private nature reserves created by landowners. Some people had very simple homes with a small piece of rural property, but with the proper landscaping and feeders, they attracted many wonderful bird species to their yards.”
Often while birding, they would be served coffee, hot chocolate or fresh juice and “a fantastic lunch, often cooked over a wood stove and served outdoors,” Siverhus says.
“Ecotourism at its finest, benefiting the local people directly without large corporations or a middleman and protecting nature from development,” she said.
They’d hike from 1.5 to 5.8 miles a day, Siverhus says, based on the mileage app she has on her phone.
Highlights were many, Siverhus says, but Termales Del Ruiz in the high elevation near Los Nevados National Park stands out. The historic brick motel featured outdoor pools fed by natural hot springs.
“The views of the mountains from the motel were spectacular, and they had beautiful gardens with hummingbird feeders,” she said. “The front desk gave small hand-held hummingbird feeders to guests. In the gardens, the hummers would come in and land on your open palm to feed. It was amazing.”
Another destination, Hacienda El Bosque near Manizales, is a working ranch that recently started catering to birdwatchers and nature lovers, Siverhus says.
“The young son of the ranch owner convinced his father to invest in ecotourism by building a small restaurant and a few cabins to expand their business,” she said. “They have hummingbird and toucan feeders on the property and hired several local birding guides.”
The son wanted people to experience the beauty of Colombia and see that the country is not just about cocaine and drug lords, Siverhus says, a perception many people have.
“One thing about going with a tour group is they will not take you where it’s not safe,” she said. “We never felt unsafe.”
Siverhus took about 2,000 photos during the trip, striking images of such colorful species as white-bellied woodstar and shining sunbeam hummingbirds, red-headed barbet, gray-breasted mountain toucan and the flamboyant Andean cock of the rock, “a crazy-looking bird with a big crest.”
Other species that spend summers in northern Minnesota were more familiar, including blackburnian, Canada, bay-breasted, mourning, Tennessee and yellow warblers; a Swainson’s thrush, turkey vultures, broad-winged hawks and several rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Siverhus says she didn’t have any particular species in mind as a birdwatching goal when making the trip.
“I went for the whole experience,” she said. “However, the hummingbirds and tanagers were glorious with their vibrant colors and incredible variety.”
Another highlight, she says, was the sight of an Andean condor soaring near Los Nevados National Park at an elevation of 13,500 feet. The bird is an endangered species in Colombia,
“They are a massive bird and the largest flying bird in the world, weighing up to 30 pounds with a 10-foot wingspan,” Siverhus said. “They are breathtaking to watch.”
With the memories of the Colombian Andes fresh in her mind, Siverhus says it’s too soon to think about where she and Guggisberg will travel on their next birding adventure.
“I really love South America,” she said. “Costa Rica is a great country to bird in – it’s very accessible, safe and not as expensive. This was a pretty expensive trip, but I’d like to go to Peru or Chile or – I don’t know – there's just so much to see. It just depends.”
Traveling to Colombia, she says, was a privilege.
“I’m still processing this trip and relishing the memories,” she said. “It was not the kind of trip where you go to one place and lie on the beach for a week.”