A country as rich in birdlife as it is in culture. A week’s just not long enough…
Perhaps the most acclaimed of Colombia’s artists are the writer and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. Their work, though regarded widely as great art in itself has also drawn attention as being peculiarly Colombian, somehow reflecting the essence of the nation more than others. Botero is reported to have proclaimed himself the most Colombian of Colombian artists.
And, pompous and pretentious though it may seem, from the short spell I spent earlier this year immersed in the birds of the country I can see a little of what he means. Throughout my time there in February I felt in a state of curious hyper-reality and strange surrealism which reminded me of the ‘Magic Realism’ of Garcia Marquez.
But even more so, I saw something of the art of Botero in the world around me. For those not familiar with Botero, his paintings are of what could justifiably be called well-rounded characters. Some may even call them ‘fat’, perhaps like the Colombian equivalent of Beryl Cook, with added biting satire and political content. However, dare to use F word (fat, that is) in front of the guides at the Botero Museum in Bogota and you will be assertively reassured that the figures are not fat, but exaggerated of form, given extra fullness, enriched, apparently to reflect the artist’s intuitive aesthetic.
And it is this very richness, feeling of things full to bursting, which is an overriding impression it is impossible to avoid when birding in Colombia. For this is a land of incredible birdlife, perhaps the richest in the world, with nearly 1,900 species including 73 endemics, and new birds being discovered all the time.
My time there was all too brief, in February last year, and with a week or so there is no way to see everything on offer, but each of the localities we visited had an almost overwhelming wealth of bird richness.
I was part of an inaugural familiarisation trip to help develop and promote bird tourism within the country. We started at Medellin in the mid-north and even as we breakfasted at our stop-over hotel, the garden was kicking with birdlife – Acorn Woodpeckers (with curious dark eyes), Ruddy Ground-doves and the ubiquitous Great Kiskadee, and Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers. From Medellin we flew west to the coast at Bahia Solano and drove the somewhat patchy road toward El Valle and our beach side lodge of El Almajel.
Along the way we got stuck behind a truck which was itself stuck in mud, so we bundled out of the vehicle and enjoyed some roadside birding. But it was Colombia, and the inevitable surreal edge was lent to the situation by our camouflaged armed soldier guard blending into the bushes while we watched such delights as King Vulture, Blue Ground-dove, Bay-headed Tanager and various parrots and hummingbirds.
The truck was soon dug out and we continued to our beachside lodge – huts set in forest by the Pacific, renowned for passing Humpback Whales (but not at that season) and filled with birds. Red-legged Honeycreepers and several tanagers came to fruit in the garden, and the wooded slopes above provided a mixed flock of mouth-watering small birds – including the delightful Scarlet-and-white Tanager (more like an Asiatic Crimson Sunbird than a ‘normal’ tanager), Rufous-winged Tanager plus such lovelies as a Pied Puffbird (like a little black-and-white kingfisher).
The next day was one of the strangest of my birding career. I thought I had waterproof clothing until I went to see my first Baudo Orependola, a far from impressive endemic with a little colony of hanging nests in a giant lone palm in the forest. It rained and rained and the path of a few miles was a stream or a narrow river or a thin lake if you prefer – it was certainly deep in water and soon I was morphing from mammal to amphibian, almost breathing through my wet skin.
But out of the damp emerged beauty and as the rain cleared, on the way back to the relative dry, we picked up such bedraggled delights as Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-chested Jay and, best of all, a scarce Grey-capped Cuckoo drying itself, on a wire, as if on a clothes line.
In contrast to the miserable morning, the afternoon’s birding was sensational. We passed back along the paved part of the road we had come in on and birded our way back. We walked right under a perched King Vulture, its rainbow-patterned face uglier than any artist could conceive; watched a tiny hawk which rejoiced in the name of Tiny Hawk, saw gorgeous snow-white Black-tipped Cotingas and marvelled in the crazy ‘wing-snap’ display sounds of the Golden-collared Manakin, a ball of bird which Botero himself could have dreamt up.
It is a given in South America that whenever you change altitude or move around a bit in hills or to and from the sea, there is a completely different set of birds to be enjoyed. So when we headed back to Medellin and birded the foothills nearby we were able to watch birds such as the endemic Red-bellied Grackle (a grackle with added colour no less), Emerald Toucanet and Chestnut-headed Oropendola for instance. From Medellin we flew to Manizales, where the geothermally heated pool of our hotel hinted at how close we were to proper mountains.
Things were about to kick into a new realm of magic reality, as we were whisked away after dark to the local sewage works to enjoy one of the world’s most bizarre night birds, the Lyre-tailed Nightjar – the nightjar with a three-foot tail. We had great views of a young male then found a mother with a tiny chick on its nest in one of the works’ pipes.
In the morning, we hit the heights, with a visit to what was my favourite Colombian habitat, the Páramo, at an elevation of well over 4,000m. At this altitude everything seems strange, perhaps owing to the bizarre vegetation or the shocking drop in temperature, or perhaps to the fact that you get out breath just using binoculars!
I like to believe, though, that the most destabilising thing was the magnificent close-up views of one of the world’s great hummingbirds, the Bearded Helmetcrest. This highly localised little greenish beauty has a Mohawk hairdo (hence the Helmetcrest) and a long beard of pure amethyst, for me the bird of the whole trip.
The hummer was backed up by high altitude specialities with mad compound names such as Many-striped Canastero (like a very streaky Dunnock) and Brown-backed Chat-tyrant (like a New-World Whinchat) and Andean Tit-spinetail (another streaky Dunnock-alike).
Still enjoying the euphoria of birding the spectacular highlands, we dropped in elevation for the afternoon and visited the Rio Blanco reserve, to be greeted by what can only be described as flocks of hummingbirds coming to the nectar feeders and flowers of the garden. There were nine or so species, all with names drawn from the peculiar trove of fantasy titles only hummingbird taxonomists could dream of: Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Sparkling Violetear, Bronzy Inca.
Here comes the Worm Man
As we enjoyed the hummingbird feast, things took another twist towards the strange. In among the hummers, armed with spade and bucket, was a man known simply as the Worm Man. For the past several months his daily ritual had been to collect worms in his bucket and head for the forested slopes above. That afternoon followed him up the hill, but were almost immediately distracted from our duty by a feeding flock of passerines with more bizarre names: Ruddy Treerunner, Capped Conebill, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Montane Woodcreeper…
One thing the Worm Man has in abundance (besides worms) is patience and he waited for our flock to pass so he could lead us to a little shaded area with a couple of benches where we would sit still and wait. His earthworms were placed in a wok-like bowl in a small clearing some 30 feet away and we sat still and waited while he whistled a simple repetitive refrain – the call of the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta.
We waited and waited and as we waited, the challenge became to focus on the bowl, stay with the current reality, look for the slightest movement.
The Worm Man whistles and it is so easy to drift off in imagination, to be walking the epiphyte-dripping rainforest slopes of Chicaque National Park, watching Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers and flocks of delightful tanagers and woodcreepers, warblers and fruiteaters, each more exciting than the next, each corner holding a new explosion of excitement, and perhaps the endemic hummingbird we sought, the Black Inca.
The Worm Man whistles and a tiny tapaculo, the closest a bird gets to being a mouse (like a little dark wren) shoots out into the periphery of perception then away before I could focus.
Another whistle and my mind takes me to the hills above Bogota, where Tawny-breasted Tinnamous call, as we watch russet and grey Agile Tit-tyrants and Glowing Puffleg (another hummer). Then down to the outskirts of the city to search for the local
endemic Bogota Rail. I shake myself back to the present forest reality where the whistles of the Worm Man are being echoed from the forest.
Then, shyly and warily, the worm-hungry antpittas appeared. There were three species, the Robin-like Slate-crowned Antpitta, the gorgeous Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the endemic Brown-banded Antpitta. Treading the fine line between fantasy and reality, they are perfect, nervous balls of energy, the size of a round, tailless thrush. Not fat, but with added richness, vitality or fullness. A bird as the living embodiment of the art of Fernando Botero, the most Colombian of all artists.
Colombia is a large country in the north of South America, bordering Panama (and the only South American country with Atlantic and Pacific borders). Owing to its position, size and wide variation in geography (from Amazonian rainforest to Andean páramo), it has the largest bird list of any country with 1,871 species, of which 74 are endemic. Getting there: Mike travelled to Colombia courtesy of Proexport London, Colombia Tourist Office, 2 Conduit Street, London W1S 2XB, 0207 491 3535. Mike would like to thank them and all associated organisations who faciliated his trip to the country, and provided transport, accommodation and guiding within Colombia.www.colombia.travel