Birds to swoon over

Tour guide Edwin, Abby Smith and "his lordship" Hamish, all with binoculars. PHOTOS: ABBY SMITH
Tour guide Edwin, Abby Smith and "his lordship" Hamish, all with binoculars. PHOTOS: ABBY SMITH
Dunedin marine scientist Abby Smith discovers more about Columbia and its birds than she ever thought possible.

It's July 2022. "Why don’t we have Christmas with the family in Colorado," I say.

"I think we should go to Colombia," he says.

Rapidly I sort through elusive memories — what do I actually know about Colombia? I know it’s spelled with an O, not a U. I know it’s in South America. I know it has (or had) drug lords and civil war and danger.

Multicoloured tanager.
Multicoloured tanager.
Surely I know more about it than that? On deeper reflection, I remember that it is between Panama and Ecuador, so it must be near the equator. Therefore it’s hot. And it must have mountains because it lies on the line of the great Cordillera ranges of mountains that run from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska.

Why does he want to go there, particularly, I ask.

Colombia has the most species of birds of any country, he replies.

I visit e.bird. New Zealand has 206 species. Even Australia has a mere 828 species. There are almost 2000 species of birds in Colombia. Whoa.

Typical architecture of coffee-growing area Manizales.
Typical architecture of coffee-growing area Manizales.
I upload a map. Colombia has two coasts (Pacific and Caribbean), three mountain ranges with valleys between, and part of the Amazon basin. It stretches from 4°S to 12°N with altitudes from sea level to 5775m. That’s a lot of different habitats — no wonder there are a lot of birds.

I consult Wikipedia. There are 58 cities in Colombia that are larger than Dunedin. I’ve only ever heard of Bogota, population 8 million. The whole country has 80 million people, a lively blend of indigenous Amerind, African, and Spanish heritages.

I know a little Spanish but it’s time to revise. I load up Duolingo and start learning to say: "this dog is clean" and "I never eat lunch with my siblings" and other sentences that no traveller ever needed.

We book our tickets and our birdwatching tour. The itinerary arrives with names of total unfamiliarity: Manizales, Cali, Buga. We pay for it all, somehow, and his lordship orders the Colombian bird book. It must weigh a kilo!

Every day I go to e.bird and choose a bird picture from the Colombia list, then email it to his lordship for identification. We call it "Colombirdle."

Dawn in the Sant Maria Mountain.
Dawn in the Sant Maria Mountain.
The whole time we are prepping for our adventure, I have no pictures in my head. Colombia is a total blank to me. But I practise my Spanish ("My cousins are tall"), and fret about packing light on a trip that includes snowy Colorado and tropical Colombia.

I ask a friend to pick and freeze my plums, which will fall while we are gone. I learn to say: "this black skirt costs too much". We go out to buy jungle trousers — light coloured, lightweight, can be tucked into socks if it is buggy. His lordship makes notes in the 2kg bird book.

November passes slowly. December speeds up, and our suitcase choices keep changing. We seem to need a lot of first aid items. We pack cool clothes; we pack warm clothes. We pack binoculars and cameras. I can now say: "the green trees are swaying in the wind."

I pack the 3kg bird book. No, he says, the bird book must go into the carry-on backpack. "So I can study on the plane," he says. "Just in case the luggage goes missing," he says.

We weigh the suitcases. I email my family asking if we can borrow clothes. I specify that all Christmas presents must weigh less than 50g. Much worrying and rearranging takes place, but in the end we get on the plane and leave New Zealand.

Sickle-winged guan.
Sickle-winged guan.
After tree-decorating and presents, laughter and fun, puzzles and games, cooking and eating, we hug and say goodbye to family because we’re off to Colombia! Watch out birds, here we come.

Bogotá, it turns out, is high. 2600m high! People get sick just arriving here. But as we had been in the Rockies, we were okay. We meet our bird guide, Edwin from Whitehawk Birding. He will literally do everything he can for 17 days to make sure we see birds. All the birds.

We fly to Cali (a tropical city of over 2 million), and head into the hills. The bird lodge we start at is called La Florida. While it is only 18km from Cali, it takes a long time on bouncy backroads.

All over Colombia we see the term "aviturismo" — bird tourism. Birds are a big deal here. We see very few tourists in Colombia. Every single one we do encounter is wearing binoculars. In several places we meet a group of birders from Darwin who always travel together, accompanied by their cooler of wine and beer.

A birding lodge is quite distinctive — eco-friendly, with a flower-planted garden to attract small birds. There are feeders, fruit and nectar replenished all day. Bird-named rooms, bird decorations, birds everywhere — except the food. Our favourites were La Florida near Cali, Hacienda El Bosque and Paraiso Verde, both near the mountain city of Manizales.

A long-tailed sylph, a kind of hummingbird.
A long-tailed sylph, a kind of hummingbird.
As we walk from the car park to reception, we see a long-tailed sylph — a tiny black hummingbird with a ridiculously long black tail, but then it turns in the sun and becomes a flash of green iridescence. At the feeders we see tanagers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, toucans, all periodically chased away by huge bullies called guans (pronounced GWAHNZ).

We hear a man in the woods calling "Venga, venga, venga…" meaning Come, come, come. Later we will sit with him, waiting and waiting for a shy little antpitta to hop in, cock its head, and take a worm or two from the log while we hold our breaths with excitement.

Antpitta? I hear you ask. They are among the many birds that are only found in South and Central America (his lordship calls this area the Neotropics, which makes him sound very geographic).

There are tapaculos, Tinamous, and toucans, but especially antbirds of all kinds. Antwrens, antshrikes, ant-this and ant-that. So called because they follow army ant swarms and eat the bugs that are fleeing that devastating force. These neotropical specialities are what make real birdwatchers twitch.

"Twitchers" are birdwatchers who spot the bird and tick it off and race on to the next one. One such came all the way to Colombia just to see the five species he did not already have — he showed no interest in any other bird he saw.

Crimson rumped toucanet.
Crimson rumped toucanet.
Most birders, however, love birds and give them a bit more time. Even when faced with a tree-full of tanagers, we like to look at each one, discuss its special features, look it up in the 4kg bird book, see if there are others nearby, try to get a photo, and generally bask in it for a bit before turning to the next one. Sometimes we miss something but it’s how we learn.

Of course, birders also count and keep track. Edwin has provided a 17-page closely typed list of all the birds we might see, and each evening we go through and tick off what we saw that day, with much consulting of the 5kg bird book. We discuss what we’ll be doing the next day, which is sometimes unexpected.

Our trip takes us from the warm Valle de Cauca up into the Andes, higher than Mt Cook! At 4200m near Los Nevados, we see the buffy helmetcrest, a special mountain hummingbird with an iridescent purple beard. I buy a woolly Colombian hat, it’s so cold.

In contrast, three days later we are in the jungle. Sticky with sunscreen, insect repellent and sweat, we trudge through thick mud along paths lined with thorns, stopping to squint up at birds flitting among silhouetted leaves. We spy a jacamar (cousin to a kingfisher) while stopped to admire an iguana.

One day we walk through dry desert scrub, dodging low thorn trees. We are delighted with the thick-knees, cardinals, and even pygmy owl. I personally am very taken with the colourful complex grasshopper-like bugs, as big as a harmonica, that fly away with a mechanical buzz when I walk past. Not birds, though. Get back on task.

Rosy thrush-tanager (Photo: ebird).
Rosy thrush-tanager (Photo: ebird).
One day we go to a sandy beach with an estuary behind and I finally feel right at home. Terns and gulls, herons and sandpipers — these are the birds I know. The pelicans and frigatebirds are a welcome bonus.

One day we get up at 3am and drive on the worst road I have ever encountered — rutted and genuinely awful — to get up the mountain by daybreak, to see some special rare parakeets. Dawn in the mountains is superb, with a setting full moon. We do see parakeets but not the special one. What really astonishes us is how many people use this awful road — running, mountain biking, motorcycling… unbelievable.

One morning we spend ages parked in a bit of forest, listening to a bird we cannot see. Recourse to the 6kg bird book informs us that the rosy thrush-tanager is about the size of a blackbird, black and an unusual pinkish red, and "notoriously skulking". There it is, singing enthusiastically, but can we see it? No indeed. Three (well, two and a-half) experienced birders were completely bamboozled. After an hour, we sadly start walking back to the truck, when suddenly his lordship catches a glimpse of that pinkish-red through the leaves! We have spotted it! Just splendid, sitting and singing, as rosy as can be.

Every evening we choose our bird of the day. It might be a bird we really had to work for, like the rosy thrush-tanager. It might be the prettiest little chap, like a green honeycreeper or a golden tanager or a blue dacnis (I really recommend you look them up online, so beautiful!). Or it might be something unusual, something you always wanted to see. Perhaps the bizarre pipe-cleaner-adorned hoatzin, looking like the dinosaur it really is.

On our last day we clock in one final hummingbird and count up, checking the 7kg bird book. Colombia has 1954 bird species and we saw 567 of them. Most were new to us, some provided all-new families for our lists. They were all wonderful.

A pair of chestnut-crowned antpittas, one with a juicy worm.
A pair of chestnut-crowned antpittas, one with a juicy worm.
Meanwhile we discovered Colombia. We enjoyed the Colombian food, not spicy but often very flavourful. An excellent speciality: deep-fried whole fish that took an hour to dissect but were entirely worth it. We loved the glorious fresh tropical fruit juices, squeezed no more than 10 minutes ago. Not just mango and pineapple but plenty that were new to us: lulo, guanábana and araza. I was delighted to be able to say, in Spanish, "thank you for the excellent juice."

And coffee. Colombia grows coffee, and it knows what to do with it. Even crummy cheap paper cups of coffee in the airport were excellent. Plus: chocolate! Frothed up with milk using a traditional wooden churn, hot chocolate was glorious, not too sweet and often a bit spicy. We hardly missed tea.

Colombians seem to be universally polite and friendly, greeting everyone they meet. They shorten normal Spanish greetings to just "Buenas" which means good. And it is. Good people, good food, good birds and an overall good vibe.

Colombia is no longer a blank slate to me. Trisected by mountains, cold up high and hot down low, stretching across the equator from sea level to the high Andes. It is covered with gorgeous forests and gardens, various animals and especially birds. There are birds in the city, birds in the gardens, birds in the forest, birds on the ground, birds in the air, birds on the water, birds everywhere.

It’s not overly touristy, yet, but as people realise the drug wars are over, it will be. It deserves to be.