Cali, Medellin, Pereira, Manizales: there are some Colombian cities that seem to make perfect sense to host bird fairs. These are cities surrounded by well-known reserves and with large networks of local birders and ecotourism companies. Montería – the capital of the coastal department of Córdoba – might not seem like a natural fit on that list. The region is relatively unknown when it comes to birding in Colombia, so I was intrigued when I saw an advert for the first Montería Bird Fair in late-May.
I immediately knew that I had to attend. Because for me, Montería is the ideal place to host a Bird Fair. Why? What a Bird Fair should really be is a seed to grow new networks of birders; an event that brings together a community of enthusiasts and starts a region on the first steps to becoming a birding destination. By that definition, the Montería Bird Fair was an unqualified success.
While Córdoba isn’t one of the Colombian departments that immediately spring to mind when you think of birding destinations, one of the many positive aspects of the Bird Fair was discovering just how much the region has to offer, bird-wise. With that in mind, I made sure to arrive early to squeeze in some birding before the fair began. I had one special target in mind: the elusive and beautiful Agami Heron. The Sinú River Delta area on the coast of Córdoba is a stronghold for this species, so my chances seemed good.
My flight departed from Bogota at an ungodly hour. An hour later I touched down in Montería in the pouring rain. Heavy black clouds hung on the horizon as my bus made its way towards the coastal town of San Bernardo del Viento. A freezing cold stream of air rushed out of the faulty vents in the little 10-seater and by the time I arrived in San Bernardo I was shivering and running a fever.
The rain hadn’t abated and the streets in front of my hotel were flooded ankle-deep. I settled into my street-facing room and spent the rest of the day feverish and unwell. I have rarely looked forward less to an approaching day of birding.
Thankfully, I woke refreshed to clear skies and a fiery sunrise on the horizons of the nearby Sinú Delta. My guide Eduard – an enthusiastic and knowledgeable birder from local company Sinú Birding – met me in front of the hotel with a couple of mototaxistas and we roared off along the rutted and potholed road heading northeast towards the marshes and winding creeks of the delta.
We crossed the muddy Sinú River on a large raft and set off on foot along the dirt road. The day was breaking clear and bright and the birds were responding in kind. Huge flocks of Yellow-hooded Blackbirds billowed from the rice fields in unison, and noisy groups of Brown-throated Parakeets streaked across the blue sky. Russet-throated Puffbirds regarded us haughtily from power cables, while hundreds of egrets and tiger-herons probed the muddy fields surrounding us.
It was a perfect birding morning: we ambled along as the day grew hotter, enjoying the relaxed pace and gentle birding. Eduard told me how he had fallen in love with birds; he was blessed with a keen eye and a local’s knowledge and we had racked up a list approaching 50 species before 9’o’clock.
By the time we arrived at the little community of Caño Grande, I had almost forgotten that I had a target bird for the day. It was a wonderful feeling. It can be all too easy to get caught up in lists and lifers and forget to stop and breathe and just enjoy the birds. But I have to confess that as we gingerly climbed on board the little dugout canoe that would be paddling us through the mangroves I was struck by the little thrill that comes from heading out on a rarity hunt.
We paddled silently through the narrow mangrove tunnels (I regularly had to contort myself into all sorts of unnatural poses to squeeze under low-hanging branches – it was like yoga-birding at times), eyes peeled for the shy herons. We had one tantalizing glimpse of a far-off Agami through a jumble of mangrove branches but little else. I was beginning to think that my luck wasn’t in.
As we headed back towards Caño Grande I suddenly caught a flash of movement just meters to my left. The heron flapped noisily up from the water’s edge into the branches and I momentarily thought it would keep going and disappear into the labyrinthine chaos of the ragged forest. Thankfully it settled just a few meters back from the creek and froze in what I assume was an attempt to blend in and confuse us. It was as beautiful as I had hoped and we sat and watched it for a good half hour before paddling back for lunch.
Eduard and I caught a bus back to Montería that afternoon. He had a lot of work to do before the fair opened the next day. I was exhausted and in need of about twelve hours of sleep.
The fair more than lived up to my expectations. With a selection of talks from a mixture of local and national bird experts, the lineup was a Glastonbury-like dream for any Colombian birder. The festival organizer and founder of Sinú Birding Hugo Herrera opened proceedings with an overview of Córdoba’s bird diversity, while his 11-year-old daughter Maria Alejandra brought the house down with her talk about her burgeoning passion for birds. We enjoyed informative and fun talks from the likes of Diego Calderon, John Myers, Rodrigo Gaviria, Paul Betancur, Fernando Ayerbe, and Andres Cuervo, whilst learning more about what the region had to offer from several local birders and biologists.
What most impressed me over those two days was the enthusiasm of the local birders who were overwhelmingly young, passionate, and motivated to learn and improve their knowledge. This is something which bodes extremely well for the future of Córdoba birding and conservation – if they can continue to harness that energy into such positive projects as the fair, then there’s a bright future on the horizon.
The Montería Bird Fair was, as well as being tremendous fun, a real testament to what a dedicated team of local birders can achieve. Hopefully, it will be the first of many to come and those involved will look back on those few days as an important moment in the history of birding in Córdoba. With a star like the Agami Heron and such a wonderful supporting cast of species, there’s no reason not to believe that the department can make a splash in the Colombian birding community in the years to come. I for one will certainly be back.