By Ron Morris
Not so long ago, a trip to Colombia would have been considered foolish. Warring between extreme left factions, paramilitaries of the extreme right, and drug traffickers that plagued the country for decades made it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. But negotiations in the early 1990s resulted in a significant decrease in tensions and most areas of the country are now considered safe for travel.
Still, it pays to have the guidance of a local who knows the best places to find birds, and the places that are best avoided, so I signed up with Colombia Birdwatch for a guided birding tour of several days.
The incredible diversity of birdlife is due in large part to the country’s geography. Because Colombia sits astride the equator, temperatures are steady throughout the year; no harsh winters for birds to survive.
Elevations range from sea level along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, to mountains in the north that reach 19,000 feet. The Andes divide into three ranges, or cordilleras, and with their intervening valleys, it’s possible to go from cloud forest to rainforest to tropical humid forest and tropical dry forest in a day, and still have time to enjoy the birds. These variations in terrain and elevation result in differences in temperature, rainfall, and exposure to sunlight which, in turn, result in many habitats, microhabitats, and geographic isolation of bird populations.
To illustrate the results of all that diversity, consider hummingbirds. Nineteen species can, with a lot of effort, be found in the United States, but many of those barely cross the border into the southwestern United States from Mexico. The ruby-throated is the only breeding hummer in the eastern United States. In contrast, Colombia, which is about twice the size of Texas, has 163 species of hummers.
Tanagers demonstrate the difference in diversity, too. Whereas the United States hosts four species, Colombia is home to 88 species.
These two groups — hummingbirds and tanagers — provide much of the excitement of Colombian birding.
The diner’s bird feeders were humming with activity as she served up breakfast. Early ornithologists must have found it alternately taxing and amusing to come up with names for so many hummers. Brown violetears, green thorntails, crowned woodnymphs, empress brilliants and booted racket-tails were among the visitors on this morning.
Scientists who named tanagers were more descriptive, if a little less imaginative. Feeding on the diner’s array of fresh fruit were flame-rumped, glistening green, silver-throated, and golden-bellied tanagers, among others.
But hummingbirds and tanagers weren’t the only attractions that morning. Red-headed barbets, crimson-rumped toucanets, green honeycreepers, and orange-bellied euphonias also commanded attention while breakfast got colder by the minute.
I reluctantly tore myself away from the frenzy of bird activity at the feeders and my guide led me down the Old Buenaventura Road in search of more birds. The dirt road remains an important thoroughfare even after a paved road was built to replace it. The new road takes hours longer to reach the Pacific coast than the old one. A slow but steady stream of locals motored past as we walked alongside the road. Each passer-by greeted me with a wave and a smile.
Once a dangerous place to visit, Colombia has cleaned up its act and has once again earned a place on the traveler’s list of destinations. For the traveling birder, it’s a destination that’s hard to top.