I would be hard pressed to pick my best ever birding day. There have been so many, in such a distinct array of places, that to choose one above the rest would feel somehow petty or mean. A few do spring to mind right away – a day spent exploring the dry forests and lagoons of Los Flamencos in La Guajira, early on in my Colombia birding days, which yielded 60 new species; wandering the narrow jungle paths of Pueblo Nuevo near Mitú and finally clapping my eyes on the elusive Chestnut-crested Antbird; a Christmas Day of endemic species in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; and how could I leave out the morning of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest and Santa Marta Wren in the chilly heights of that same Sierra?
And how do these Colombian experiences stack up against my British birding experiences? Sure, I have seen far more species in this country than anywhere else on earth, but how could I possibly forget about that first boat trip to Skomer Island off the coast of Wales, spotting my first Puffins and Gannets and practically falling off the boat with the unconstrained joy that only a ten-year-old can muster. Or the summer days of volunteering at Minsmere aged 17, racing down the backroads for a surprise Osprey, and strolling through the heather at dawn accompanied by Red Deer and the purring of Turtle Doves. And I’ll never forget my first Golden Eagle, perched incongruously atop a lamppost on a small crossroads on the way to the Mull of Kintyre in the Scottish Highlands. It’s safe to that I’ve had some good birding days.
Having said all of that, I recently enjoyed a truly special day that is a strong contender for the best of my long birding life. It happened in the forgotten jungles of eastern Caquetá, alongside an isolated oxbow lake called Peregrinos Lagoon. I travelled in the region for over a week and saw some wonderful species in that time, but one day, in particular, stands out in my memory, and probably will for as long as I live. Even as the day was still going on, I knew that it would take its place in the upper echelons of my birding experiences, alongside those carefree childhood adventures and intense Colombian pajareadas. Although we registered a modest 50 birds that day, it was really a tale of two species.
The day began promisingly; the dense primary rainforest delivering an excellent selection of antbirds, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and toucans. Then, around mid-morning, as the dawn bird rush was starting to slow down, and we entered a new section of jungle, the day took a turn for the wonderful.
There was a sudden crash and commotion in the canopy as some giant unseen creature beat a hasty retreat through the upper branches. I turned to our guide, eyebrows furrowed, pursing my lips towards the source of the noise in the Colombian fashion. “What was that” is the general gist of that expression.
“Aguila churrukera,” he whispered under his breath. Not being familiar with the local names for many species, I took in the information with a casual shrug that seems mad in hindsight and turned back to a mixed flock working its way through the understorey. When I turned back to confer with the group, I suddenly realized that I was all alone, and I could just about make out my companion’s backs disappearing off the trail behind me.
I hurried after them and found all three standing in hushed awe, quietly pulling out their cameras with the exaggeratedly delicate movements that birders adopt only when they’ve spotted something really special. I followed their gazes up to the bare branch of a large tree up ahead and could scarcely believe my eyes. There, perched imperiously, scanning the forest with an almost disdainful glare, was a Harpy Eagle; one of the most wanted species for neotropical birders and one that I had scarcely dreamed of encountering.
I calmly raised my binoculars – even though my hands were shaking from the excitement – and was rewarded with a quite remarkable view of one of the world’s great avian predators. Standing almost a metre tall from giant, savage talons to ruffled slate-grey crest, the eagle had his back turned, but there was no mistaking those disproportionately large feet. “Aguila churrukera” – there’s only one bird large enough in this rainforest to hunt churruco monkeys.1 Of course it was a Harpy Eagle. I should have known.
The eagle suddenly leaned forwards, unfurled his rounded wings, and flew off through the canopy to the right. I hurried back to the path, hoping to catch another glimpse, but the Harpy was long gone. I turned back to my companions and we celebrated the incredible sighting, a lifer for all involved.2 We stopped just short of embracing – but only just – then moved on along the narrow trail, steps buoyed by the unexpected encounter.
There are precious few birds that can top a Harpy Eagle, and I fully expected the sighting to be the highlight of the day by some distance. We had come to this corner of southern Caquetá with a long list of bird targets (the Harpy hadn’t made the list, such is the unlikelihood of stumbling across one away from a known nest site). Top of the list? The Black-necked Red Cotinga, a large, manakin-like cotinga, with a rather annoying habit of making its home in the densest, darkest understory of the Amazonian rainforest. I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding one in that vast forest and felt quite content to settle for a Harpy Eagle: hardly a bad substitute after all.
By late afternoon the day was winding down after a good 10 hours in the forest. We’d walked relentlessly along the forest trails and seen some excellent species along the way, but the light was failing in the dark understorey, and our eyes were beginning to grow weary in the gloom. I had quietly accepted that the cotinga would have to wait, and we were already making plans to return before dawn tomorrow morning when the guide stopped suddenly and whispered “la mirla.”
Before I even had time to reply, I saw a flash of deep-red, absurdly bright against the muted greens of the late-afternoon jungle, and there was a Black-necked Red Cotinga, feeding calmly in a fruiting tree directly above us. It took its time, pulling individual berries from the branches, allowing us all to fire off a few record shots and take in its rare beauty, before quietly ghosting away into the forest as suddenly as it had arrived.
This time there was a bit of hugging. I don’t think any of us had really expected to encounter the Cotinga. It almost felt greedy after the joy of the Harpy Eagle, but that’s birding for you: for every day like the one we had just had, there are ten others where nothing appears and you draw a blank. But that’s the magic of it all – if you persevere long enough and put up with the quiet days, the shockingly early mornings, and the missed birds, then nature sometimes sees fit to reward you with a brief flash of magic. That’s why we were there, somewhere in a forgotten swathe of rainforest in the wilds of Colombia, faces split by broad grins, stunned by the revelation that perhaps there was a bird that could beat a Harpy Eagle after all. And that very revelation – with my sincerest apologies to all the Blue-bearded Helmetcrests, Puffins, and Golden Eagles out there – is surely the marker of the best birding day ever.
Harpy Eagle image by Jorge Muñoz. All other images by Chris Bell.
- The local name for the Brown Woolly Monkey or ‘Lagothrix lagothricha.’ Despite being large compared to other primates, the Harpy Eagle is able to snatch these monkeys from the trees using its giant talons. The presence of the eagle suggests a strong population of these monkeys, among other prey species like the sloth, and therefore, a healthy ecosystem
- ‘Lifer’ is birding slang for a species you’ve never seen before – a ‘life bird.’