The second highlight of the mostly dismal 2020 birding year is one that would be at the top of the list for any year: 21 days of epic birding in the natural paradise that is Colombia.
I went on at great length about the trip earlier this year, and you can read about it here:
So rather than repeat myself, I am just going to pick out a few moments that made this a memorable trip.
Welcome to the jungle
As a boy I devoured all kinds of books on the natural world. Inter alia I think I read every one of Gerald Durrell’s accounts of his adventures as an animal collector, and wore out the Life Nature Library books that our Uncle Carl gave us. One of the places that loomed large in my imagination was the Amazon jungle. It was vast, largely unexplored, and home to iconic beasts like the Jaguar, Anaconda and Harpy Eagle. I don’t recall where I ran across it, but I was fascinated by a photo of nineteen men holding up a 32 foot Anaconda as big around as a telephone pole.
Strangely, I never formed a plan to visit this region until I was struck by the birding addiction. But there we were last January, flying into Mitú, Colombia to gorge (metaphorically speaking) on antbirds, toucans, parakeets and other exotica.
Of course we are all grown up now and call it the Amazon rain forest, but it was a memorable experience all the same – a week spent wandering through one of the largest bits of unspoiled habitat in the world. We explored the tall, dense canopy forests of the várzea – areas that are seasonally flooded and rich with biodiversity. We tramped among the scrubby bushes of the dry white sand forest that has its own specialist birds and creatures. We gazed upon the broad and sluggish Vaupes river, a tributary of the mighty Amazon. We clambered up rock outcrops and visited the villages of our First Nations guides.
And though we had to wait until later in the trip to see our Anaconda, we did have the extremely cool and slightly creepy experience of following an army ant swarm, peering through the undergrowth at the antbirds that follow the swarm, while trying not to be devoured ourselves by the remarkably fast-moving and aggressive ants.
Oh, and there were some birds as well. 😊
Though it was hot and muggy throughout, and though we were feasted on by a wide range of the jungle’s finest biting insects, it was an epic experience. One that I hope to repeat somewhere down the line.
Birding trips to foreign lands tend to be action-packed events. The aim is to see as many species as one can in the limited time available, so the daily agenda typically runs from an hour before sunrise until well after sunset with limited breaks. The exceptions are the travel days, involving many butt-numbing hours in the saddle as we transition to a different habitat.
On this year’s trip, though, we took a couple of opportunities to just loaf around and let the birds come to us.
Loitering with intent
On one evening it was a planned event: we needed to be on a certain rock outcrop before dark if we were to see a Blackish Nightjar. So having arrived in a timely fashion there was nothing to do but sit around peacefully gazing over the landscape whilst being serenaded by White-throated Toucans. It was a very pleasant pause, and moments after the sun went down a nightjar plopped out of the bushes and did its pre-flight checklist about ten feet way from us. We then wandered back through the sleeping village of Mitusueño with just moonlight to guide our steps.
Just having a wee rest, guvnor!
The afternoon we chased the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock was hot and muggy even by the standards of Amazonia, and after a long approach march we had to scramble up an escarpment and down a few long gullies searching for the beast. On the way back we came to the flat top of the escarpment and by mutual unspoken consent decided to have a rest. A very pleasant 45 minutes or so ensued, with the mountains of Brazil for a backdrop and Paradise Tanagers, Lemon-throated Barbets, Red-fan Parrots, Scarlet Macaws and other exotica going about their business.
Yet more goofing off
The final big loafing opportunity came at the end of our last day on the great plains of Colombia. By this part of the trip accumulated fatigue was becoming an issue, and the long, dusty days bombing around the dry plains were taking their toll. We stopped by a long pond, ostensibly to wait and see if the local jaguar showed up, but really we wanted to stop and just enjoy some peaceful birding. And so we watched Nacunda Nighthawks, Scarlet Ibises, Yellow-billed Terns, Southern Lapwings and all the other standard Llanos birds until the sun went down and it was time to return to the ranch.
The hummingbird observatory
At the end of my very first visit to Colombia, a two-day birding excursion tacked onto the end of a rather dull conference, we retreated from the highlands cold and wet, seeking coffee and a respite from the wind. We ended up at Finca La Muchareja and its Observatorio de Colibríes (hummingbird observatory). A large and imposing country house behind a high wall is the home of a lady who is fairly mad about hummingbirds. Her garden is full of hummingbird feeders and they are well-attended by hordes of rather good birds. At some point she realized that she could make a bit of extra income by inviting birders and photographers into her private sanctuary.
So on our last morning in Colombia we again paid Victoria a visit. Over a cup of excellent coffee we goggled at a fine array of birds including Black and Green-tailed Trainbearers, the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Glowing Puffleg and the star performer – the scarce Blue-throated Starfrontlet.
There was one other visitor that day and he looked familiar so I struck up a conversation. He was indeed Frank Gardner, a former Green Jacket and someone who I admired for his outstanding work as a long-time war correspondent for the BBC. He is also a keen birder and the President of the British Trust for Ornithology. So of course, as I did several years ago, when his duties took him to Colombia he took some time off to see the local birds.
So when I looked back at the past year to think about the good moments among the bad, these are the kinds of thing I remember. Not just great birds, but great experiences whilst in pursuit of birds.