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This Duo Photographed Hundreds of Colombia’s Dazzling Birds This Year

While their images are spectacular, the people they’ve met along the way are just as big a highlight.

This is the second Colombia Big Year dispatch; read the first installment here.

Ángel Gonzalez stopped hunting birds because of his daughter. One night, the farmer arrived at his home in the mountains of eastern Colombia with an Andean Guan under his arm and his rifle slung over his shoulder. Outraged, his then six-year-old daughter called him a criminal, and asked him what the chicken-like bird had done to cause him to take its life. Shocked, Gonzalez told her that there was no meat in the house. She stubbornly replied that they would eat chicken eggs, or something else. Gonzalez took her concern to heart.  From that day on, he began to view wild birds differently—and he no longer hunted them. The shotgun barrel became a metal pipe put to use in the house. The wooden stock fed the fire that heats the farmhouse.

Gonzalez tells us that story after excitedly showing us seven endangered Mountain Grackles, the 1,347th avian species we’ve recorded on our journey to complete the first Big Year in the country. The farmer is now a birding guide in Gámbita, in the department of Santander, and one of many guardians of the birds we have encountered during more than 10 months we’ve been traveling across Colombia, tallying as many birds as we can in 2021. So far, we've recorded 1,417 species.

We’ve discovered first-hand the richness of our country, which boasts the greatest avian diversity on the planet. We’ve covered 10,439 miles of roads, we have descended from high, misty peaks to vast plains that extend as far as the eye can see, spotting dozens of bird species through the window of our truck. We have crossed 248 miles of rivers in boats, reaching remote sacred sites in the Colombian Amazon, inaccessible by other means. Thirteen flights have ensured we reach 28 departments the country, and we have trekked 733 miles, marveling at crystalline waters rushing over pink riverbeds; at small hummingbirds atop a mountain facing each other like medieval warriors, wielding their beaks as weapons; at the brilliant blue eyes or bright yellow plumage we caught site of as we have ventured through forests.

Some 1,800 cups of coffee and countless glasses of cold panela water with lemon have enlivened passionate conversations about conservation with Afro-Colombians, Indigenous people, villagers, children, and community forest rangers. We have laid down our heads on 220 pillows, many of them provided by the families who welcomed us into their homes and slept in hammocks during our visit. 

With less than two months to go through four remaining departments, we know that we will experience many more tearful goodbyes with families who, like Gonzalez, not only opened the doors of their homes to us, but also have also shown us what they’re dedicated to protecting.

Nine black birds sit, packed side by side, on a tree limb.
    On a warm morning in Puerto Leguízamo, in southern Colombia, we were walking along the streets leading to the airport when we heard a sound similar to a pot of water boiling. Niky quickly looked around and sure enough, it was them: a flock of Smooth-billed Anis, commonly known as the “las hervidoras” (the boilers), warming their wings together in the early morning. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A bird with a yellow bill, red eye, silver-blue neck, and red chest perches on a limb.
    Any experienced Colombian birder can likely guess where this photo was taken. That’s because the Toucan Barbet is the symbol of Doña Dora's farm. A dozen years ago Doña Dora decided to bet on bird conservation, after birders passing through the area convinced her to dedicate her small property for bird tourism. Her small plot, where she runs a small store and raises a few pigs, is located in the southwest of Colombia, next to an old road that leads to the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of a region full of forests, waterfalls and clear rivers. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
An olive-orange bird with a bright yellow bill holds tight to a moss-covered branch.
A close-up of a bright red bird with a flamboyant tuft atop its head, its eye resembling a target, with concentric circles in black, yellow, and red.
    We were looking forward to seeing the flamboyant Andean Cock-of-the-rock. Our wait paid off: in the Jardín de Rocas Natural Reserve, in Antioquia, we were able to delight our birdwatching eyes by seeing a half dozen of the striking birds at the same time. The sight of red flashes cutting through the intense green of the mountainous forests, while in the background rivers run, is like attending a concert orchestrated by nature. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A chicken-like bird stands on a moss-covered rock. It's pink legs and red eye encircled in blue stand out amid its brown-black body.
    It was a pleasure to see this Sickle-winged Guan perched, elegant, free and with a steady flight at the farm El Color de mis Revés in Manizales, a place that has been dedicated to bird tourism for the past two years (and one of the best glamping sites in the region). Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
An emerald green bird with a spearlike beak extends its clay colored wings behind it, toward the end of the tree limb its perched on.
    In the high Andean mountains, the Buff-tailed Coronet, a territorial and very photographic species, opens its wings as if to say "Here I am and here I stay." Its tender, slipper-looking legs awakened in us the desire to contemplate it for a long time. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
This multi-colored toucan is named for its gray breast feathers.
    Happenstance played no part in capturing this image. We knew that if we wanted to photograph the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan we had to be prepared to venture to higher elevations than where we spotted the similar Black-billed Mountain-Toucan. So we went in search of it at El Bosque, a hacienda famous for its bird conservation work in the heart of the mountainous Colombian coffee region. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A fluffy brown owl with dark eyes looks directly at the camera.
    In the evenings and early mornings throughout the months of our journey, the sweet song of the Tropical Screech-Owl, the most common and widespread screech-owl of the neotropics, has accompanied us. One early morning, at the El Bronco farm, in the department of Arauca, in eastern Colombia, three Currucutús were singing together. Suddenly, one of them came out to greet us and allowed us to keep his image as a souvenir of a region willing to heal the wounds of the armed conflict and ready to move forward. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
This vibrant tanager has a bright yellow belly, blue back, black head, and red eye.
    We saw this Hooded Mountain Tanager at the Hacienda El Bosque in Manizales, one of the best places to photograph birds in Colombia. Because of its location in the country’s high mountains and the bird feeders placed by the owner Juan Martín Pérez and the bird guide NéstorZapata, the site draws visitors such as the Gray-breasted Mountain Toucan and the Crescent-faced Antpitta, who usually can’t be seen so close to the eye, because they’re either in the tallest trees, in the case of toucans, or near the floor in the case of the antpitta. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A black-and-white striped bird perches atop a tree, its black head feathers sticking straight up toward the top of the frame.
    We took this photograph in the company of Flor Peña, a friend who is also a birding guide, a housewife, an entrepreneur, and a chef living on the banks of the Putumayo River, in southwestern Colombia. This image will remain in our memories because, while appearing still here, the Barred Antshrike moves its body to the rhythm of its own song. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A vulture with a colorful yellow, purple, and blue face perches on a wooden post painted green.
    Near the Hotel El Mirador, a farm in La Macarena, the eastern plains, the Andean Mountains, and the Colombian Amazon meet. There we watched as this Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture flew overhead with a flock before landing on a nearby tree limb. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A yellow patch atop its head and on its belly stand out on this songbird's otherwise black body.
A shimmering green hummingbird sits in the V of a branch, its back to the camera. Its swordlike black bill—longer than its body—points up to the right.
    Inside the high Andean forest, where the greens blend with the mist, the hummingbird with the longest beak in the world comes stealthily to perch on the nourished branches of the forest. The city of Manizales has a variety of places to observe the Sword-billed Hummingbird in all its splendor. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A yellow woodpecker faces to the right, its head feathers extending behind it and its long, dark tail feathers resting on the branch it's perched on.
    Jaime Córdoba, a Curripaco ndigenous leader, welcomed us to his community near a beautiful rusty-colored stream called Caño Vitina, in Guainía, in western Colombia. Córdoba, who has been a birder for three years, took us on a trail that snakes along the stream, where we spotted this Cream-colored Woodpecker and his mate. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
This close-up side profile of a large black bird shows off its the blue-gray helmet on its forehead and small, stout red bill.
    The Helmeted Curassow is impossible to ignore: Its stunning beak, incredible size (they can weigh almost nine pounds) and the blue tuft of the males make it unthinkable to look away. The destruction of 90 percent of its native habitat, the tropical dry forest, as well as hunting have made this captivating bird one of Colombia's most endangered species. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A toucan sits on a moss-covered branch, looking to the right out of a dark eye surrounded in yellow and blue. It's white neck feathers transition to a blue belly, and its dark tail, with a bright orange tip, extends below the branch.
    On our tour through Caldas, in the Andean region, we knew we wanted to capture images for our album The Big Year Colombia, so we came to the magical locations of El Color de Mis Revés, part of Caldas’ photographic route. This image of a Black-billed Mountain-Toucan froze in time our awakening in the glamping "El Tucan," where from 6:00 am morning dew accompanies birds’ songs. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A raptor tips forward on a branch, its blue head looking down to the ground, its black-and-white tail feathers lifted, revealing its rusty body and bright orange feet.
    This charming Double-toothed Kite let himself be photographed for a long time in a forest in Meta, eastern Colombia. While our lenses shuttered, he looked at us with curiosity, doing all kinds of poses, including this one with his tail up. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
Two birds perch on a snag, facing opposite directions. Each have bright orange feet, and orange bills with blue-gray tips. Their black head feathers appear to flow behind them, as though blown by the wind.
    One of the things we have admired most on our long journey is the constantly changing ecosystems we see through the window of our truck. Driving down the road from the green and blue mountains of Antioquia, in the Andean region, to Puerto Pinzon, near the lowlands of the Eastern Plains, we counted about 40 Crested Caracaras in a two-hour drive. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa
A bird sits atop a branch, its white, tan, and brown plumage providing natural camouflage next to the similarly colored bark. At the top of the frame, the black oval of its eye stands out amid the white fluff of its face.
    At Doña Dora's farm, in southwestern Colombia, we noticed this Common Potoo sleeping for a few days on a tree two blocks away from her house. One morning, accompanied by our great birding friend Gilberto Collazos, we went to contemplate this specimen camouflaged as it pierced on the trunk, only visible to those who looked closely. Photo: Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa

Follow Niky and Mauro’s Big Year at @nikymauro on Instagram, and @guardianesdelasaves on Facebook.

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