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bird nerds in the cloud forest

Leaving Jardin, I’m tailed by a bashful teenage boy. Eventually, he gains enough courage to greet me and then we ride side by side.

His bike is borrowed: no gears, but here single speed isn’t hip – it’s just what there is. Never mind the mountains. The boy is shy but he has a number of burning questions. His dream, he says, is to travel the world by bicycle.

It is Sunday afternoon and we are climbing out of Jardin towards Rio Sucio. The first section of road is paved and the incline moderate enough to permit conversation. Expensive cars pass us as Sunday afternoon tourists make their way to a series of restaurants and trout fisheries dotted along the way.

“Everyone is staring at you,” says the boy.

I sigh. “Yes. I know. Sometimes it’s tiring.”

“Oh, no! They stare because they admire you. They don’t think it’s possible. A woman… travelling alone.”

I snort. “Machismo!”

He is puzzled. “That’s not machismo. It’s a compliment.”

I sigh, again. I try to explain my point of view and at least he listens.

For the most part, however, we chat companionably. He wants to be a policeman but he holds his hand up sadly. He is missing the last joint on one digit and this renders him ineligible to join the force. He gravely warns me that the road ahead is lonely and steep. When the pavement gives way to gravel and the gradient starts to increase he politely bids me farewell and returns to Jardin.

The rain is not heavy...

...but it is persistent.

As is the climb. The road rises steadily and enters lush cloud forest. This seems like the first real forest that I have seen since entering Colombia.

As gloomy afternoon starts to edge into gloomy evening, I round a corner at the crest of a hill and see two figures standing in the middle of the road with binoculars trained on a wax palm. I pull up beside them and peer into the drizzly dusk. I see nothing.

“What are you looking at?”

“Yellow-eared parrots.”

“Ah. OK.”

The area, it transpires, is a bird sanctuary and one of the few places where the yellow-eared parrot, thought until quite recently to be extinct, remains. Eduard and his friend, Monica, are student ornithologists. Eduard works on the reserve.

“Can I camp here?”

Eduard is unenthusiastic. He suggests I go down the road to a nearby finca and ask there. I try to impress him with my enthusiasm for birds by asking as knowledgeable questions as I can.

There is a derelict roofless structure by the road, filled with lush weeds.

“Maybe I can camp there…?” I suggest.

Eduard relents. He leads me up the hill and shows me a rickety wooden structure where I can pitch my tent. He brings me a mug of hot agua de panella while I organise my gear and then invites me into his kitchen to cook my dinner.

Eduard is the resident ornithologist at the reserve.

Monica is a fellow student ornothologist, studying in Andes.

I wake in the morning to find a tall man peering, curiously, at my tent. “You’re camping here?” he asks in English. “Yes.”

He is standing with his camera and binoculars in front of the humming bird feeders rattling off exotic names: dusky starfrontlet, tourmaline sunangel, something puffleg, collared this. I emerge from the tent, rumpled and damp. Eduard appears and offers coffee. We sip hot drinks in the relative warmth of the kitchen but everyone rushes outside again as parrots screech overhead.

“Yellow-eared parrot! Yellow eared parrot!” Eduard exclaims.

The weather is still misty, damp, drizzly.

“Shall we go for a walk?” suggests Mattias.

“Yes. Yes.” Eduard is eager to please. He is bearing a speaker and mp3 player with over a thousand bird sound recordings.

“Can I come, too?”

Mattias has a list of birds he is here to see. The tanager finch, dusky starfronlet, and yellow-eared parrot are high priority. We wander down the road. Every twitter and squeak from the dense forest elicits a name and often a passable imitation of the bird call from Eduard. Sometimes we stop and Eduard plays different recordings in response to invisible birds.

Another group of parrots squawks above us but they are different, unexciting, species.

Suddenly Mattias and Eduard freeze. A piping song. “Tanager finch! Tanager finch!” Eduard plays the appropriate recording. The bird pipes back. And then a flash of movement. A small and apparently rather unremarkable bird is bobbing about in the undergrowth – dark head and reddish brown body. It disappears again in the foliage. And then, suddenly, there are three of them, hopping – uncharacteristically – up the trunks of trees. Mattias and Eduard’s cameras click excitedly.

Eventually the birds disappear again and we resume our walk. The next appearance is by a black-billed mountain toucan. I am excited by this one – I love toucans and I haven’t seen this species, with a bright blue breast, before. It gazes at us quizzically, hops from tree to tree, and then flies away.

Monica further down the road spots a woodpecker on a distant tree. There is some debate and checking of bird ID books before it is pronounced a powerful woodpecker – one of the species of large woodpecker. Woodpeckers are another favourite of mine, so I am pleased by this sighting, too.

The rain settles in and eventually we head back to the reserve hut. I pack up and ride, a little reluctantly, off into the soggy afternoon. I could  happily have spent some more time traipsing around the forest with Eduard and Mattias, knowledgeable – and driven – enough to lure birds from their secret hiding places and name them.

Bird nerds: Eduard and Mattias. Mattias is here from Germany to see the yellow-eared parrot and the dusky starfrontlet, a rare hummingbird, in particular. He is also unaccountably excited by tanager finches.

The bird sanctuary sits at 3000 metres and it’s just about all downhill to Rio Sucio.

I pass a grader resurfacing the road, which in the long run is surely a good thing, but right now it makes for a long bumpy muddy descent into Rio Sucio.

The next days are spent riding the Eje Cafeteria - the coffee area.

Lush, green, cultivated.

And hilly.

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