Female Birders Flocking to Colombia Day One

Third time lucky. Twice before we’d tried to join a ProColombia fam trip to Colombia but the dates hadn’t worked. This time, however, the proposed trip started just as our Antarctic cruise was due to end. And this time the trip was just for female birders so Alan could fly home as per our original plans and I could go on to Colombia. I was already in South America so it was only a short hop from Santiago in Chile, right? My sense of geography corrected and over seven hours of travel later I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia to be greeted by the friendly smile of Diana Balcazar who was to be our guide for the trip.

After the 0 degrees C in the Antarctic, the 32 degrees C in Cartagena felt like a sauna as I was taken on a walking tour of this fascinating city, the first of many cultural immersions I was to experience on this unusual and rewarding trip. A complex history and a mix of cultures has enriched modern society here, and the different quarters of the city had distinct identities which reflected the city’s development and chequered history. I was reminded of Havana, with the same delightful quirky corners of the old town, the same toe-tapping music spilling out of the bars as afternoon turned to evening.

By the next morning, our whole group had collected: Angela and Luisa from Nature Colombia, Juliana from ProColombia, Diana our bird guide, and the rest of the guests: Wendy from Bird Watchers’ Digest, Bryony a published bird writer and blogger, and Eliana from Birding by Bus. We jumped aboard our comfortable air-conditioned minibus and drove only a few minutes from our smart beachside hotel to La Boquilla (little mouth), a small fishing village where the creek hits the sea just yards from the high-rise hotels and swanky apartment blocks.

Let loose, we excitedly pointed out to each other the vast array of waders on the mud here: Marbled Godwits, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Semi-palmated Plovers, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, while Laughing Gulls bathed in the fresh water. We all had something to contribute here and everyone made sure everyone saw every single species. Eventually Diana had us corralled and seated in wooden canoes, three to a boat. Together with Eliana and Wendy, my boat was poled away from the beach and into the secret world of the mangrove swamp. The trees leaned over us making an atmospheric tunnel through which we silently glided. This was the domain of Green Herons, Prothonotary Warblers and Ringed Kingfishers. We burst out into an open area of water and were thrilled to see an assortment of Terns all laid out for us to enjoy: Royal Terns, Caspian Terns and Large-billed Terns lined up side-by-side for handy comparison.

We moved on to an area that was being newly replanted with mangroves. This marked the boundary between the government-owned local nature reserve and privately-owned land. It was the private land that was being replanted. The locals, dependent on fishing for their livelihood, had realised how important were the mangroves to maintain their way of life so were steadily turning back the clock by looking after the mangroves and increasing the amount of land being maintained like this. Of course the birds were beneficiaries too: Roseate Spoonbills, Black Skimmers, Bare-faced Ibis, White-faced Whistling Duck and Blue-winged Teal amongst many others.

It was hard to tear ourselves away but there were more experiences in store. This special tour was more than just about the birds, it was also to find out more about the women of this region and what they were doing to improve their lives, sometimes bird-related and sometimes not. At a nearby cabana on the beach, we received our first lesson in turban tying. Trust me, this is so much more fun than it sounds, and while we tried to turn an unruly piece of fabric into an elegant headpiece, we learned more about the culture of the turban and its empowering rather than subjugating role in the life of the women.

Next up, jewellery-making, using the shells and seeds of coconuts. The ladies of DAMARTES (Damas y Madres del Arte) explained how they used their creative skills to produce highly desirable items of jewellery. Against the odds and a distinct lack of support from their husbands, they learned how to produce items that they could sell at a profit, bringing home additional income to improve their standard of living, as well as creating a supportive network of ladies in the community. Funny how their husbands are total converts now they see the fruits of their wives’ labour in the shape of televisions, washing machines or even a new roof!

Then we went to drum school with BATAMBORA, a project encouraging youngsters to preserve their African heritage and traditions. We were given a fantastic demonstration of the group’s drumming and dancing skills, the songs being current and topical as much as traditional. For example, one song was about the importance of protecting their traditional community here from the continuous encroachment by huge upmarket hotels as Cartagena expands. I felt slightly guilty about my oh-so-comfortable room in the nearby Radisson hotel the previous night. Then we were let loose on the drums ourselves. Great fun, very loud and very cathartic, wonder if anyone would object if I brought a drum home with me?!

Our day ended with more birding at dusk at our destination for the night, Barranquilla. In a small patch of dry woodland on the edge of the university grounds, we caught sight of several large but surprisingly elusive Chestnut-winged Chachalacas, three wonderfully-named Whooping Motmots, (though unfortunately we didn’t hear any whoops), Red-Crowned Woodpeckers and Yellow Orioles.

Only Day One and already our heads were buzzing with thoughts and ideas, new birds and experiences, with the faint sound of drums still ringing in our ears.

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