Tailor-made tour experts

– English version of our original post in Spanish from our January 2021 expedition

Acknowledgments and Introduction

This trip and experience would not have been possible without the help of Peter Hobbs, one of the most daring people I’ve ever met. My wife, Viviana Tapasco, provided invaluable accompaniment and assistance. We would not have been able to get anywhere without the permission and accompaniment of the people of the indigenous communities of Monochoa, Amename, and Caño Negro in the departments of Amazonas and Caquetá, as well as Iván Macías, who helped us enormously in this part of the trip and the rest of the adventure.

I remember learning about the existence of this hummingbird for the first time, and it was not in the most scientifically possible way for a birder. It was 2015, and in that year of social networks, I was invited to join a new chat group on Facebook Messenger for birders, birdwatchers, and birdwatching guides that had just been launched a few days before. When I first joined the group, the first message I saw said:

Here is the chat icon: Chiribiquete Emerald, which I imagine is the only Colombian endemic that none of us here in the chat has seen

To my mind, I thought it was the impossible bird because right after the message with emphasis on the word “NONE”, which in the birding world already means quite a lot, there were several people asking to organize an expedition to see the hummingbird, but the answers were worse than the previous “none”, They spoke of millions of pesos in investment, days of travel, possible dangers, and a national natural park closed to any type of activity other than scientific, which, by the way, was not the easiest due to the absolute remoteness of the habitat of this peculiar hummingbird.

The Chiribiquete’s hummingbird

The Chiribiquete National Natural Park is difficult to describe, perhaps because of its majesty: more than 4 million hectares (equivalent to the size of Switzerland or Holland), or because it is the epicenter of Amazonian peoples who have thrived there for more than 12 thousand years (some of them still exist almost anonymously and only remotely detected by some signs), or simply because of its simply sublime landscape of tepuis that extend to the horizon.

The Chiribiquete is part of the Guyanese shield, a geological region that dates back to the Precambrian and Pangea, and its steep rocky plateaus, and dry and stunted vegetation, has served as home to this hummingbird close relative of the Red-billed Emerald (Chlorostilbon gibsoni) and that like all emeralds, is a fast-flying blue-green jewel that to the unprepared birder can look equal to the Western Emerald (Chlorostilbon melanorhynchos) or the much closer (in distance at least) Blue-tailed Emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus).

Foto por Carlos Castaño Uribe CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30746577

Birdwatchers understand that beauty is not always synonymous with colorful feathers or quirky looks, beauty also lies in rarity, and as good collectors that we are (of visual experiences), that rarity attracts us and seduces us, it may be the bird with the simplest colors in the world, but if that bird has been elusive to human search and has become a “cult object”, then that rarity becomes beauty to us, it becomes an almost profane desire to find what few have found, and whether it is for the pleasure that comes with the search and find, or for the simple desire to enlarge our life list, for whatever reason, the beauty is there, and it exists in forms so diverse that we can barely visualize them.

The renowned ornithologist Gary Stiles described the Chiribiquete Emerald (Chlorostilbon olivaresi) in the mid-1990s, based on a specimen collected during expeditions to the Serrania del Chiribiquete between December 1990 and August 1991. Other individuals that were fully identified as C. olivaresi were collected during expeditions in the park’s south in 1993. There were no other official records of the species apart from these data and the observations of a few lucky scientists and researchers in remote areas of the park, and its distribution was only known in the area of the park between the Apaporis River to the north and the Mesay River to the south.

An illustration of Chiribiquete Emerald in the species description article is available here.

It was not until 2019 that Jacob Socolar, ornithologist and devoted birder, in the midst of field trips around the Caquetá and Yarí rivers, well south of Chiribiquete, sighted on a rocky plateau south of the Caquetá River an emerald, which after careful observations he was able to infer that it was an individual of the Chiribiquete Emerald, the first report south of the Mesay River and most importantly, located in an area moderately accessible to those of us who do not have the luxury of entering a national park as hermetic as Chiribiquete, let alone reaching the remote localities where the hummingbird had been previously recorded.

Although it was not the most accessible area of Colombia, it was an opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest hummingbirds in a completely pristine habitat that is also seriously threatened by the infamous advance of deforestation that is sweeping over the Amazon basin from the west, home to dozens of ancestral villages, forests to the horizon, and hundreds of wild and untamed life forms.

The expedition

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were few but valuable opportunities to return to action, and in this case, the opportunity came in the form of a long-deferred desire, the longing of an English friend who wanted to be and live the experience of being in the Amazon jungle, but not in hotels and lodges, not in native communities that only exist for the staging in front of a captive audience. This trip was intended to be an authentic experience, observing nature in its purest form while also sharing with the communities that have lived there for centuries.

After much searching, we discovered the opportunity to visit two iconic sites of adventure travel to the Colombian Amazon: Alto Apaporis and Araracuara, the latter of which, just south of the Chiribiquete, was the site of Jacob Socolar’s record in 2019. It is here that our story takes shape because visiting Araracuara meant having the opportunity to see this mysterious hummingbird and, as some friends once said, belonging to a small cult of mortals who had seen the Chribiquete Emerald.

Our journey began in San José del Guaviare, a pleasant Amazonian town with many opportunities for birding and an introduction to the Colombian Amazon’s biodiversity. We spent three days there visiting various locations and learning about their cultures and landscapes. We approached the history of the Amazon’s original peoples through hundreds of pictograms that still survive in the rock shelters of the Nuevo Tolima hill in the Serrania de La Lindosa, where millenary representations of fauna, flora, and people silently observe the display of the Guyanese Cock of the Rock, which dances to persuade females of his species to choose him as the father of their offspring.

Pink dolphins, or Toninas (Inia geoffrensis), allowed us to see them without fear in the Damas del Nare Lagoon, and Horned Screamers (Anhima cornuta), moved in their parsimony to then spread their huge wings and fly off to another feeding site. In San José del Guaviare, we saw a lot, but nothing could have been more solemn than what awaited us in Araracuara.

Guianan Cock of the Rock, photo by Peter Hobbs, The Andean Birder, San Jose del Guaviare Colombia
Male Guianan Cock-of-the-rock. Photo by Peter Hobbs
Whooly Monkey, Photo by Johnnier Arango, The Andean Birder, Colombia
Whooly Monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha) on the trail to the Laguna Damas del Nare in San José del Guaviare. Photo by Johnnier Arango
Pictograms of the Nuevo Tolima hill. San José del Guaviare. Photo by Johnnier Arango
Peter photographs pictogram remnants on the Nuevo Tolima hill. San José del Guaviare. Photo by Johnnier Arango
White-eared Jacamar, photo by Johnnier Arango, The Andean Birder, Colombia
White-eared Jacamar (Galbalcyrhynchus leucotis). Photo by Johnnier Arango

eBird’s lists from San José del Guaviare:

Arriving in Araracuara is not impossible because Puerto Santander, which is right next to the Araracuara Canyon, has an economic activity that allows several flights a week to get there, a military base guards the airstrip, and on both sides of the canyon, whose flow or rapids do not allow any navigation, there are ports of departure to various indigenous and mestizo communities that populate the banks of the Caqueta River.

The trip to Araracuara was in a few words, colorful, exciting, and serene as we took the easiest means of transportation: an old Douglas DC-3 about 80 years old, an aircraft that serves as a cargo and passenger transport and transports along with the people, chickens, dogs, a bicycle, agricultural inputs and any other amount of provisions requested by the inhabitants of the depths of the Amazon jungle and on its return is loaded with fresh fish from the rivers that will go to the central supply centers of Bogota mainly. Flying in DC-3 was a unique experience since on its route to Araracuara, the plane flies over the Chiribiquete National Park, its tepuis, its black water rivers with their streams, and above all, lets you see in its fullness the almost eternal immensity of the jungle.

Douglas DC-3 is the main type of aircraft to different remote sites in the Colombian Amazon.
Aerial view of the Chiribiquete tepuys.
The tepuis in Chiribiquete stretch to the horizon. Aerial view from the DC-3 en route to Araracuara.

Once in Araracuara, with our feet on the tepui that had been converted into an airstrip, we met Jonás and Alci, who would be our guides in their territory, and we were able to arrive safely to our destinations thanks to their skills. We followed them west, upstream of the rapids, into the heart of Améname’s indigenous community, the land of the Huitoto and their traditions.

Our first stop on this adventure was chosen specifically to find an additional population of the Chiribiquete Emerald and thus contribute a little more to their knowledge. Some individuals had already been discovered south of a rapid on the other side of the Caquetá river in the Socolar expedition in 2019, and almost simultaneously, my friend José Castaño was on his way to his own expedition but in the opposite direction to ours. We could contribute a little more to what little was known about this species in this way, and maybe, just maybe, get the first photos of individuals in their natural habitat in recent decades.

Araracuara’s “airport” perched on a tepui overlooking the Caquetá river. Photo Johnnier Arango
Entrance to the Araracuara canyon from Puerto Arturo. Photo Johnnier Arango

It took several hours of walking through the dry forest and crossing some black water streams and white sands to reach the tepui of the indigenous community of Caño Negro (a long name I gave it because it does not appear to have an assigned name). This jungle is so vast that for hours there appears to be nothing but the persistent and strident call of the Screaming Piha (Lipaugus vociferans) or the Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin (Tyranneutes stolzmanni), and for long periods of time the jungle is silent as if only the trees were present. Despite the isolation of the jungle for long periods of time, we were able to add three new species to the Caquetá department in eBird.

We had to wait until the next day after reaching the base of the tepui and setting up camp because the rain or the tepui did not allow us to enter that afternoon. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our camp was located just a few meters from an active Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola rupicola) lek, which we discovered a few days later.

Peter crossing one of several streams with the help of Jonás. Photo Johnnier Arango
Maloca (community house) of the indigenous community of Caño Negro
Our camp at the base of the tepui

The Chiribiquete Emerald

The ascent to the tepui was not difficult, only about 200 meters of gradual ascent through the forest and then through dry vegetation that gave way to areas of semi-naked rock. We were immersed in a dense fog that did not allow us to see beyond a few meters and a light drizzle covered us once we arrived at what appeared to correspond to the descriptions of the hummingbird habitat, and then we considered the possibility that the rains that had stopped us the previous afternoon and had lasted all night would be our biggest obstacle.

It was already February, and although the dry season should have begun weeks ago, it was still raining and we had no idea when it would stop, or so I thought, but Jonas said, “There is a change of moon, and that is why the weather is changing,” and so it did. A few minutes later, the fog dissipated and the drizzle stopped, and a small hummingbird flew at full speed without being seen, which excited us.

Half an hour passed while the weather improved and we had to look for a new spot to look for our hummingbird. We found an area of abundant flowering bushes and did not have to wait more than five minutes to see a small hummingbird that landed in front of us no more than 10 meters away, but we could hardly see any detail due to its incensed fight with other hummingbirds. We were looking for that distinctive red color on the underside of the beak, and we were also hoping to photograph a hummingbird that was clearly not cooperating.

After about twenty minutes of running around the hummingbird, we were able to locate an adult male who landed not far from us, and then we could finally say, “It is the Chiribiquete Emerald!” It was an extremely exciting moment for us, but there was no photo, only a short shaky video taken with the phone and the telescope.

Another hour passed, and just as we were about to turn around because the sun was warming up the rock under our feet, a male landed only about 5 meters away and let himself be seen in all his glory: an iridescent blue-green emanated from his chest, and the red color on the bottom of his beak was clear. Then came what appeared to be an immature male hiding in the bushes, seeking shade from the sun. We were finally able to say “mission accomplished” after several hours of work.

Chiribiquete emerald, Photo by Peter Hobbs, The Andean Birder
Chiribiquete Emerald (Chlorsotilbon olivaresi) Photo by Peter Hobbs
Chiribiquete emerald, Photo by Peter Hobbs, The Andean Birder
Chiribiquete Emerald (Chlorsotilbon olivaresi) Photo by Peter Hobbs
Chiribiquete emerald
Immature male of a Chiribiquete Emerald (Chlorostilbon olivaresi) Photo por Johnnier Arango
Viviana birding in the Chiribiquete Emerald habitat.
Vegetation on the tepui where we were able to see the Chiribiquete Emerald.
Viviana and Jonás navigating the Monochoa river

Not only was it exciting to see a hummingbird that so few people had seen, the only endemic bird of the Colombian Amazon, but it was also exciting to see how different their habitat is, the tepuis are like islands of dry vegetation growing on rock as old as the planet itself, deep crevices furrow them making exploration very dangerous, and they are enormous, very enormous.

Our expedition to these remote Amazon corners was just getting started, but one of our primary goals had already been met. The Esmeralda del Chiribiquete was only the beginning of several days of jungle adventure, but that’s another story.

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About the author

Johnnier is the manager and main tour leader of The Andean Birder. Over 13 years he has been organizing and leading birding trips in the most important regions of Colombia.

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