Author: Victoria Restrepo, bio below
Are those birds real? Asked a lady who was strolling through my Colombian bird's watercolor exhibition in Washington, D.C. She was originally from Scotland and told me she loved birds, but she couldn't believe the ones in my paintings were real. Since I only paint from my own photographs, I showed her the photos of the "real" birds to reassure her they didn't come from my imagination.
Colombia holds about 10% of global biodiversity and has the highest number of birds, butterflies, and orchids species. It is second in the number of plants, amphibians, and freshwater fish. Almost 2,000 bird species have been reported in Colombia. This is 19.5% of the world's 10,000 bird species and half of the birds found in South America. All this data can't reflect Colombia's biodiversity. You need to immerse yourself in it, to believe it.
This fantastic abundance is due to several geographic features. Colombia is a tropical country and the only one in South America to have coastlines in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Andes enter the country from the south and split into three mountain ranges with glaciers, volcanoes, cloud forests, and paramos. The Orinoco, the Amazon basins, and the Choco region in the Pacific are covered in wetlands and tropical rainforests. The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is recognized as one of the "irreplaceable places" on the planet. This mountain range is located on the Caribbean coast and is independent of the Andean Mountain range. Each ecosystem has unique fauna and flora which varies based on altitude range along with the seasons. Colombia is an obligatory passage through which migratory birds transit and spend the winter months from the north and the southern hemispheres.
Tambia coffee farms are scattered on the slopes of the Andes and the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta between 1250-1800 meters above sea level. Both areas are hotspots for bird watching, and each has a unique and distinctive topography, landscape, and bird species. The farms grow coffee under the shade of tall trees and conserve wide forest corridors for birds and fauna to live in and move during migration.
I took a small trail around one of the Tambia coffee plantations in the Andes. The crops intermingled with primary and secondary forests, and the natural springs that run down the slopes form streams and creeks. I heard the birds chirping and calling, the frogs croaking, and the bustle of insects creating a marvellous concert. The tall canopy gleamed with the sun's golden rays, and low bushes displayed colourful wildflowers. Waterfalls were enfolded by plants with an incredible number of shades of green, where the wet rocks were covered with bright moss. I found some unusual plants with leaves that can grow several meters long. They have strange names like: "angel wings" or "elephant ears" (Caladium Lindenii Magnificum, Xanthosoma lindenii.) Ferns and bromeliads hung from the tree branches. I was thrilled to see the bees, tiny beetles, and dragonflies buzzing around the water. While immersed in my observations, a bright black and blue butterfly suddenly fluttered in front of me and led me to a cacao tree. When I got closer with my camera, I saw it was full of tiny pink flowers. It looked like an enchanted miniature garden, where the flowers grew among the moss, directly from the trunk and the thick tree branches. Diminutive fruits were growing all over the tree, even closer to the roots. Some were just starting to sprout; others were dark green and much larger. The ripe fruits were big and bright yellow.
This is such a wonderful part of the world, The ecosystems of Colombia are unique. They occur when the clouds wrap around the mountains and their moisture is deposited as tiny droplets on the vegetation, the spiderwebs, and even over the birds and insects. These forests conserve humidity like a natural greenhouse, in which water is constantly recycled. Among this abundance of plants, I found the bamboo forests, which serve as a refuge for many species of birds. Their songs and calls are mixed with the musical sound of their leaves.
I enjoy seeing the rainbow shining after a storm or listening to the wind soothing the leaves. Walking barefoot on the wet grass, catching a firefly to see it glow, and letting it fly free. Laying on my back to watch the full moon rising in the mountains or wait in silence for a shooting star. Those little experiences bring joy to my life.
When I give myself the time to wait for the birds, it is when I come across the most beautiful and intimate moments with them, and it is also when I take my best pictures. Walking Among Birds in Colombia is an exciting adventure. I see many different and colourful species of birds every time I go birding. Some of them are familiar to me, while I always find some new ones. I am still discovering them.
During the rainy season in Colombia, there are showers and storms almost every day, sometimes, it starts raining in the morning, and the sunrise is dark and cloudy. Other days are bright in the morning, foggy at noon, and there is always a big storm with strong winds and heavy rain in the afternoon.
Once the rain stops, most birds leave the canopy to the surface of the trees and start chatting with their friends and looking for food. This is usually the best time to find them, and it is a pleasure to see them stretch themselves to dry their feathers. Even the tiny Rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) spread its feathers to sunbathe.
I witnessed a couple of blue-necked tanagers ((Stilpnia cyanicollis)) working to build their nest. They collected straw, small sticks, and moss in their beaks. I was surprised to see they spent a lot of time just jumping in a nearby tree, or just waiting for a while, before flying to the nest site. Maybe they were trying to distract predators toward the secret place where they would be hiding their eggs and chicks. I never saw the nest, even though I could guess where it was. They did a great job!
One of my favourite birds is the vermilion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). I could see how small and light it was when it rested on a rosebud. They present sexual dimorphism, distinct differences in the appearances of the male and female. The male's body and head are bright red. It has a black mask across its eyes, and dark wings, back, and tail. The female's colours are softer with a peach-coloured belly and dark grey wings and tail. She is adorable, During courtship, the male presents the female with the gift of a tasty cricket, or an impressive butterfly. If the prey is big, they hit it against a tree branch to break and soften it. I found a pair hidden in a garden with their tiny chicks in a nest made of moss and lichens. It was camouflaged and matched the texture of the shrub where it was built. Both parents brought worms, grasshoppers, moths, and flies to their tiny, and always hungry, babies.
Blue-grey tanager (Thraupis episcopus) are very social and interact with other species. They visit flowering trees to eat wild berries, nectar, and arthropods. While eating, they hang upside down along the branches to check the foliage and to catch insects in midair. These birds are essential in dispersing seeds for trees and shrubs in the tropics.
When I saw a couple of black-capped tanagers (Stilpnia heinei), I thought they could be from different species. The males and females are so different from each other that it is hard to believe they are from the same species. The male is blue and turquoise with a black crown, and the female is green with a blue head. The female builds the nest with straw, moss, lichens and cobwebs; she alone broods and cares for her chicks, while the male sporadically brings food for her. They feed mainly on insects found among the foliage.
When flowering trees bloom, one of their first visitors is the black-throated mango (Anthracothorax nigricollis). It feeds mainly on nectar from the flowers of large trees, such as the guayacan (Handroanthus chrysanthus), the African tulip (Spathodea campanulate), and the bucaro tree (Erythrina Fusca). They are migratory within their own region, following the fluorescence of the trees. The black-throated mango is a very territorial hummingbird. Despite only measuring 10 centimetres, it considers the whole tree its own and fiercely protects it. It spends more time harassing and chasing away other birds, even bees, than eating the nectar. The male is green with a black stripe on the chest, and the female has a white breast with a black line in the centre.
I grew up in these mountains, but they still surprise me every time I travel to Colombia. Once I immerse myself in the forests, I always find new and astounding treasures. I know for sure that I will never get tired of exploring them.
Victoria Restrepo is a painter, photographer, and documentarian born in Colombia, South America. She currently lives and works in the US, traveling and documenting National and State Parks. She studied Fine Arts in Colombia and photography at the New England School of Photography in Boston, MA. You can read more Walking with Birds here.