The Osprey, at the heart of the Sonso Lagoon

Communities in Colombia’s Sonso Lagoon track fish by following this wily raptor.

The Sonso Lagoon is a hidden paradise in the Cauca Valley, 40 minutes from Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia. At more than 5000 acres, the laguna is the largest wetland in the region. Community researchers have logged more than 200 species of birds in the area, a wonder for tourists who come from different parts of the world to delight in the variety of the landscape.

There, once travelers have left behind the bustle of Cali and the pressure of the clock, they discover a story of community entrepreneurship. Artisanal fishermen, midwives, and young people of the area teamed up several years ago to promote ecotourism, preserve this natural paradise, and share it with those who come from outside to enjoy it sustainably.

Some bird species grab the bulk of birders’ photos, including the Marsh Vulture (Anhima cornuta), the Ruby-Rumped Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus), the Masked Cardinal (Paroaria nigrogenis) and the Yellow-Headed Monjita (Chrysomus icterocephalus). 

However, out of all the birds hiding in the branches at the edge of the lagoon or crossing the sky, one in particular holds a place in the hearts of residents here: the Osprey. The raptors are a daily part of life in Sonso and intimately familiar to anyone who calls the area home.

The Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, also known as the halieto, guincho or fish hawk, is a medium-sized raptor measuring between 20.4 and 23.6 inches tall, with a wingspan of up to nearly 27.5 inches  It is present on all continents except Antarctica. Although Sonso residents know it is migratory, they see it all year round. For them, the osprey never leaves and that is why they would like to know more about it, to know if the one they see today is the same as the one they saw yesterday or the one they saw last year. They use their entire bodies to describe its movements, which they know by heart – but that’s not the same as knowing how it moves along migratory routes. 

A dream come true

The impressive raptor is so much a part of life here that Omaira Rendon named her ecolodge in its honor. She is a leader in this amphibious community, where fishermen learned from their ancestors to use the Osprey’s flight as a compass, following it silently to fish where it falls on its prey. 

"Osprey Ecolodge is a family project, and we decided to call it that because it is what represents us,” said Omaira. The Osprey is a fisher and we are ancestral artisanal fishermen. We are looking for a relationship between the birds and our trade and the Osprey is perfect. It is the way to visualize it to the world, and it is also a sonorous name that allows anyone to remember it. When someone in Colombia mentions Osprey they remember Omaira, the lagoon, and the community. It has worked for the name of the tour operating agency, Osprey Nature Tours, as well as for the Ecolodge and even for the restaurant." 

The community's project seeks to raise awareness about the richness and conservation of the Sonso Lagoon by educating domestic and international tourists, as well as students who come to learn about this ecosystem. Another of the community's objectives is to carry out permanent monitoring to learn more about the ospreys and their nesting and migration processes. 

"In this part of Colombia, we single the Osprey out for protection, and we are interested in meeting more people who have experiences with this wonderful species so that we can relate to each other and find together a solution for the conservation", explained Omaira, who traveled several minutes by boat from her hotel to meet us at the lagoon. "There are many people around the world – because the Osprey has a wide distribution -- and we need to know those other stories.  It would be good if we could meet and unite, either through social networks or get together to look for answers to the threats that exist in each territory and understand how we can counteract those threats to conserve this species, which is everyone's responsibility."

Omaira says that Sonso communities identify with the eagles because they are a very strong species with a clear objective; they go straight for their prey. "What we seek is to have a clear objective to achieve our goals. So, here the community works together, precisely to be able to sustain the species and maintain these beautiful ecosystems so that they have a place to feed, as well as preserve our culture of ancestral artisanal fishermen."

All for one

The economic return from ecotourism benefits the community, especially the local matriarchs, 24 women who prepare food for the tourists drawing on the culinary heritage handed down from grandmothers raised on the banks of the Cauca River. 

These profits help young people to educate themselves as environmental interpreters. Currently, twelve of them are part of this project, learning about biology and birds, as well as English.  All this knowledge helps them to improve their quality of life.  

One of them is 23-year-old Jonathan Bedoya, who came to live near the lagoon as a child. His work as an environmental interpreter began by learning the names of the birds he saw. "Then, we must know every detail of what a bird transmits, everything behind their behavior and the ecosystems they inhabit," said Jonathan, who has adapted his life to the rhythms of the birds, especially their schedules. "They know that the early bird catches the worm." 

"The Osprey is very common in the Sonso Lagoon because it fortunately still has a lagoon mirror. Here, in the mornings, we can easily find them, and even see them eating for breakfast the occasional fish that falls into their talons," said Jonathan, who describes the eagles that are found in the lagoon, with a length of almost 26.3 inches. 

"When it opens its wings it's about this size," he said spreading his arms a little wider than his body. "It's big, but not that wide, it's rather elongated, which allows it to be faster. When it goes fishing, it hovers in the air, it has a literal eagle eye, and it knows very well when to make its move, it goes for the kill. I think it's important to understand that birds try to talk to us in their way and, as humans, we must learn to listen to them. Eagles have a very peculiar song: you would think that because they are so big, they would have a very deep song, but the truth is that they sing almost like a chick," explained Jonathan, who sees birdwatching as a way to earn a better income for himself and his family, as well as an opportunity to connect with people from all over the world.

Fishing together

The fishermen also benefit from nature tourism,  as they take the visitors who arrive year-round on tours of the lagoon and river they know so well. 

Fisherman Darío Dávila has lived in the region since 1991. His story with the osprey is long and full of details, as when he tells how the eagle does not eat the fish's head. "When I'm bored,  I go bird watching,” he said. Their song makes my mind change," he said, adding that the osprey is his ally in the work of fishing. "If it's not there, it means there are no fish, and that's something that is becoming more and more frequent. The lagoon is changing. We see the eagle all year round, but what is going to happen when we don't see it anymore?"

The buchón or water hyacinth, is an aquatic plant and invasive species that outcompetes native species due to its rapid growth and reproduction. Its biomass is capable of doubling in a month, causing the formation of dense floating colonies that reduce water flow and oxygen availability. A single plant is capable of initiating an overwhelming invasion of a lake; a serious threat for the life of the Sonso lagoon. However, it has also proved to contain a silver lining in the employment opportunities generated by the manual cleaning of the lagoon, as fishermen are paid to remove the plants one by one. The eradication of the buchón has also become an option for fishermen and women's groups that are betting on the use of this plant, which is largely used as fertilizer and as fiber to make paper and handicrafts. 

In the Sonso Lagoon, more than 200 species of birds have been recorded. In all of Buga, the municipality to which the lagoon belongs, more than 540 species have been recorded. In a single half-day birding trip, an average of 60 bird species are seen. 

In 2017, the Sonso lagoon, which is part of a complex of 26 wetlands in the Cauca River corridor, was declared a Ramsar site of international importance. This is a title that allows access to international cooperation resources for the conservation of these ecosystems.