Colombia’s Ecological Wonders: A Working Lands Exploration

Audubon staff and bird migration connect people and places across the hemisphere.

In the Central Valley, Audubon California researcher Ian Souza-Cole's winter mornings begin before dawn, bundled up in a beanie, gloves, and layers beneath his waders, as he navigates California's cold, muddy rice fields. These fields serve as surrogate wetlands for migratory shorebirds and other waterbirds. On bustling days of shorebird tagging, jotting down data with a mechanical pencil, sans gloves, can leave his fingers tingling.

In contrast, during a recent trip to the Cali region of Colombia with Xerónimo Castañeda, Working Lands director for Audubon California, Ian found himself traversing alongside migratory Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, and Solitary Sandpipers dressed in a t-shirt and without a beanie in sight. The heat was palpable before the sun even came up, as they walked the rice fields with Gloria Lentijo, the Working Lands strategy director for Audubon Americas, Jorge Velásquez, Audubon’s science director for Latin America and the Caribbean, and their crew. Ian and Xerónimo were visiting the Colombia team to share knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of the local initiatives aimed at establishing vital bird habitats and tracking their migration patterns across the hemisphere. The Cauca Valley heat made Guanabana juice a delight at the end of each shift. Ian reflected on the experience, saying, “We had it every day after work. You know, around noon when it was hot, this icy yogurt fruit drink was delicious!”

Exploring Birdlife in Colombia

The team embraced the incredible birding opportunities between work shifts, adding an extra layer of excitement to their journey. An encounter with the cryptic Common Potoo within the city limits illustrated the juxtaposition of urban development and wildlife. Ian described spotting the muppet-like bird, saying, “Common Potoos look like broken branches on trees. This one was just chilling, sleeping during the day, totally unaware of the traffic right underneath him!"

Xerónimo’s urban birding highlights included sightings of the Great Kiskadee, Blue-headed Parrot, and the stunning Saffron Finch. Describing the vibrance of the finch, Xerónimo remarked, “It looks like someone spray-painted orange on their forehead."

The team's birding adventures extended beyond Cali, delving into nature reserves nestled in the cloud forest just 12 miles from town, providing a glimpse into a different realm of lush greenery and diverse habitats. A highlight of their journey was the visit to Kilometro 18, where they marveled at the staggering diversity of birds. Ian enthusiastically described one of his favorite hummingbirds from a bird lodge, the mesmerizing White-booted Racket-tail. He recounted, "They've got this crazy tail and would fly right in front of your face or land just a foot away!" With over 150 bird species spotted, including more than 50 lifers, their experience truly illustrated the richness of Colombia's natural treasures. Their stops at bird lodges were complemented by indulging in Colombian coffee and pastries, adding another layer of delight to their trip.

Tagging Shorebirds for Movement Study

Before Ian and Xerónimo parted ways on their Colombia journey, they collaborated with members of Gloria and Jorge’s research team, Juan David Garcia and Santiago Muñoz Bolaños. Together, they trapped and deployed Motus tags on a Lesser Yellowlegs and a Greater Yellowlegs, two bird species known to use the Pacific Flyway, which includes a route through California’s Central Valley on their way to Cali, Colombia. Traveling the 3,719 miles from Sacramento to Cali by plane is no small feat—it took Ian and Xerónimo approximately 18 hours for one leg of the journey.

Now, imagine being a migratory Greater Yellowlegs. Instead of boarding a plane for your long flight to Colombia, you are the plane, but you only weigh about as much as 40 marshmallows. Your weight on the day you take flight is crucial because your primary fuel and water source consist of the fat stores you accumulated at your last stopover. You might draw moisture from your own organs and even digest part of them to stay hydrated. If that water were to run out, your body would then resort to burning the muscles that power your wings.

Upon arriving in Colombia, Ian and Xerónimo enjoyed local foods such as buñuelos (fried corn dough) and arepas (ground maize dough stuffed with various fillings). Migratory shorebirds don’t have the luxury of exploring local cuisine upon landing. They have specific food and habitat requirements and face starvation within just a few hours if they don’t find enough food to support their recovery. This is why coordinating our conservation work across the hemisphere to protect birds across their lifecycle is critical.

Land and Soul Transformed: Embracing Silvopasture

While Ian continued working with the Colombia team on the shorebird movement study, Xerónimo joined Gloria on a tour of rice farms and ranches. During a visit with a large rice farm landowner, they witnessed the joy on the owner’s face as he learned that the migratory shorebirds on his property journey all the way to California and beyond. Having coffee and pastries with a property owner might not be the typical image associated with shorebird conservation, but ensuring these birds have a fighting chance means building relationships with as many people as possible at every stopping point along their path.

These conversations open a window of opportunity to foster appreciation and connection for birds—connecting the dots between these lands and the intricate migratory journeys they make. Raising a landowner’s awareness that their everyday surroundings are critical to the survival of migratory birds adds depth to their inherent appreciation of the natural world and their place within it.

Rice fields aren’t the sole working places of importance for migratory birds—that's why Xerónimo and Gloria met with a retired schoolteacher deeply invested in the practice of Silvopasture on her ranch, similar to the work our California Audubon Conservation Ranching team does to help North America’s grassland birds in California. In traditional ranching, non-native grasses are incorporated as forage for cattle. However, with Silvopasture, reintroducing native plants and trees produces more forage for cattle while simultaneously adding habitat value for birds and increasing biodiversity.

For this rancher, the operation began as a hobby with her husband before he passed away and before she retired. After the loss of her husband, she delved into learning about sustainable practices and decided to put them to the test. For her, the benefits of converting to Silvopasture became apparent as more birds began to arrive, and the positive results were confirmed in the ranch’s productivity numbers. Through the transformation of her ranch, she also experienced a personal form of growth; she recalled, “it changed my soul.” Her passion continues to drive her, leading her to learn more about the local watershed, share her story with other ranchers in her community, and host students on her property for research purposes.

From Cali to California: Gloria Visits the Central Valley

After Ian and Xerónimo spent a week in the Cauca Valley, Gloria joined our team in the Central Valley to learn about our conservation programs. These visits offer valuable opportunities for our teams to exchange knowledge and gain insights into regional processes for creating critical habitats for shared bird species, such as the Lesser Yellowlegs—an Audubon priority species. Just as we are connected by the birds we share, we are also connected by our shared struggles. This is evident in both the Cauca Valley and the Central Valley, where less than 10% of our wetlands remain. The story of migration, for both humans and birds, serves as a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness in both challenges and progress.

It was affirming for the teams to recognize that we all encounter similar challenges, despite language barriers and cultural differences. Regardless of our musical preferences or culinary choices, we face common struggles. By acknowledging the role of birds in connecting us, we also acknowledge the unifying aspect of the human experience. As Xerónimo expressed of the Colombia team, "They live in a beautiful place and they're trying to save their wildlife, like we all are."

Pathways of Hope: Nurturing Migratory Birds and Our Communities

Together, we can make the changes that birds demand across the hemisphere's working lands. Discover more about our efforts in creating habitat for migratory birds through the BirdReturns program in California, and explore how the Audubon Americas team is supporting the birds we share throughout their migratory journey. Stay updated on our progress by signing up for our newsletter.

Migratory bird conservation goes beyond merely studying the movements of these impressive travelers across the Pacific Flyway. It's about fostering understanding and reciprocity within our communities as much as possible—ensuring that birds have what they need to complete their bi-annual migration cycles. By collaborating with landowners and stewards to create habitat for birds, we also strengthen our resilience in the face of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis.