Finding the Fuertes’s Parrot: in search of one of Colombia’s rarest birds

Finding the Fuertes’s Parrot: in search of one of Colombia’s rarest birds

I pulled, perhaps a little too sharply, on the reins of my horse and turned my head to take in the sweeping panorama at my back. Dawn was breaking to the east, and narrow shafts of soft sunlight were gradually beginning to pour out over the rugged peaks. I had been riding in the cold darkness for well over two hours already and the first warm rays would be a welcome relief. Soon the sun would rise over the mountains of southern Quindío and the dark forests surrounding me would come to life again.

I dismounted inelegantly and strode over to the edge of the ridge to take it all in. Scattered plumes of cloud floated above the forested ravines and the air was crisp and still. I only had a minute to enjoy the view though; we needed to keep moving – there was a critically endangered parrot hidden up in one of those distant valleys and only a short window of time in which to see it. I swung back up onto my horse and we trotted on in the half-light.

Loro Coroniazul ProAves Reserve Quindio Colombia

The Fuertes’s Parrot – also known as the Indigo-winged Parrot or Hapalopsittaca fuertesi1 – is a small species of parrot confined to the central Colombian Andes. Considered to be critically endangered by conservationists, it has been a victim of large-scale habitat loss, as the epiphyte-rich temperate cloud forests it calls home have been gradually reduced in size until only fragmented pockets remain. IUCN estimates that there between 50 and 250 mature individuals left in Colombia – for conservationists it’s a challenge; for birders, a Holy Grail.

There are a couple of slightly more accessible sites where the parrot is easier to spot2, but there’s a reason why I chose this location: it is where the parrot, figuratively speaking, came back from the dead. The Fuertes’s Parrot, having been first described by pioneering ornithologist Frank Chapman in 19123, was lost to the world for over 90 years and was largely considered extinct until it was rediscovered in 2002. The parrot was found clinging on in the isolated mountain forests of Génova in southern Quindío department and the discovery prompted ProAves to create the Loro Coroniazul Natural Reserve. This 657-hectare reserve protects the fragile Andean ecosystems so vital to the parrot’s long-term survival and is one of nearly 600 global sites partnered with the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE).

In my determination to see the parrot in the same place where it was rediscovered I made contact with the organizers of the annual Génova Bird Festival and arranged a trip up into the mountains in October. I was given fair warning that in order to stand any chance of seeing the elusive bird we would need to rise long before dawn and ride for around four hours up into the mountains. The parrots are active first thing in the morning, and it becomes almost impossible to spot them after about eight o’clock. I’m no great rider but I eagerly agreed – after all, it was my chance not only to see the Fuertes’s Parrot for myself but also to explore another forgotten little corner of Colombia.

The town of Génova was founded by liberal settlers fleeing conservative government reprisals during the Thousand Day War. It later gained notoriety as the birthplace of Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, better known as Manuel Marulanda Vélez – the founder of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).

Genova Quindio Colombia

Marulanda was born into a poor Génova family aligned with the Liberal Party during a period of conflict known as “La Violencia” during which he apparently lost an uncle to partisan violence. By founding the FARC, you could perhaps argue that he had the greatest impact on Colombian history of anyone in the last century. Not that you would know it from visiting his birthplace: Génova is understandably keen not be associated with a man whose group committed so many atrocities in Colombia and there isn’t a mention of their most notorious son anywhere in the town as far as I could tell.

However, the current most important resident is commemorated throughout Génova. There are several murals of the parrots, and every establishment in town seemed to have a poster of the birds or an advert for the upcoming Bird Festival. Although it’s highly likely that most of the town’s residents have never laid eyes on the parrots, they are seemingly a constant presence in Génova life.

***

After a couple more hours on horseback, negotiating muddy trails and treacherous paths, my companion announced that we had arrived. We left the horses in the paddock of a lonely, windswept dairy farm and hiked up to a hillside offering 360-degree views over the forest. Our best chance to see the parrots would be to sit tight and wait for them to fly past. In spite of their many splashes of colour, they are well camouflaged and have an annoying habit of feeding extremely quietly while sitting in the epiphyte-laden branches of high trees.

Before I even had the chance to sit down I heard rapidly approaching kaw-kaw cries echoing from the forest, and raised my binoculars in time to watch a flock of 10 Fuertes’s Parrots skim along the tree line, their bright orange and indigo wings flashing in the sunlight, standing out against the mottled greens and browns of the forest. They arrowed past, turned back on themselves and disappeared into a heavily forested ravine. We sat and waited for another hour or so, but they never showed themselves again.

Fuertes's Parrot Colombia © Daniel Orozco

As we slowly wound our way back down the muddy trails to the house I had plenty of time to reflect on the experience of seeing the parrots. As thrilling as it was to catch a glimpse of such a rare bird, it was sobering to think that the 10 birds I had just seen represented perhaps 5% of the entire population.

While huge efforts are going into conserving this critically endangered bird, it is entirely possible that the parrot will one day go the same way as other lost Colombian species like the Antioquia Brush-Finch and Colombian Grebe. For now, though, it is still out there; clinging tenaciously on to its existence in forgotten, mist-shrouded forests. The story of the Fuertes’s Parrot offers a stark reminder of both Colombia’s unique and irreplaceable biodiversity and the urgent need to protect it.


Parrot images © Daniel Orozco // All other images © Chris Bell

Footnotes

  1. The parrot takes its name from Louis Agassiz Fuertes, an American ornithologist, illustrator and bird artist. He has one other bird named after him: Icterus fuertesi, a subspecies of the Orchard Oriole
  2. The best site to observe the parrot is Cortaderal, near Santa Rosa de Cabal in Risaralda department
  3. Chapman was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1917 for his work ‘The Distribution of Bird-life in Colombia’

Chris Bell has been exploring Colombia and writing about his experiences since he first moved to the country in 2011. He has travelled extensively throughout Colombia and has now visited all 32 of the country’s departments. When he’s not birding in the depths of the jungle (over 1000 species now!) or exploring little-known regions of Colombia, he can usually be found enjoying a cup of coffee at home in Manizales.

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