Holbrook’s Nicole Sullivan Previews New Colombia Amazon Birding Expedition

Holbrook’s Nicole Sullivan Previews New Colombia Amazon Birding Expedition

Apr 7, 2022|BirdingHolbrook in the Field| by Holbrook Travel

Holbrook is expanding its birding programs in Colombia to include Inírida, one of the newest world-class birding destinations. We caught up with Nicole Sullivan, Operations Specialist, back from a 5-day preview of the new Colombia Amazon birding program.

Nicole and other guests were part of a familiarization trip to the Colombian Amazon. They were invited by ProColombia, a Colombian government agency that promotes tourism, and several in-country tourism partners.

“The Amazon rainforest has always been a bucket list destination for me, and this destination did not disappoint,” said Nicole. “Though I am not an avid birder, I can imagine why birding in the Amazon, and in such a remote location, would be a lifelong dream for birdwatchers.”

When you picture the Amazon rainforest, Colombia may not be the first country that comes to mind, but the expansive region spreads across nine South American countries. Brazil has the largest share with 60% of the total area, followed by Peru with 13% and Colombia with almost 7%. However, Amazonian rainforest makes up 42% of Colombia's national territory. The municipality of Inírida is a place where three rivers converge: the Guaviare River, the Atabapo River and the Inírida River, which all flow to the great Orinoco River. Innumerable Indigenous communities — such as Curripaco, Puinave, Piapoco, and many others — inhabit this land, making this experience even more interesting!

“I’m really excited about adding the Colombian Amazon to our wide collection of birding expeditions. Though I am new to birding and have only visited Cartagena on a previous trip to Colombia, I logged over 200 lifers in just five days in Inírida!” Nicole said.

So let’s dive in! Here is Nicole’s account of her adventure.

Day 1: Inírida

After an overnight in Bogotá, we took a short flight to Inírida in the morning to start our expedition. We arrived in the early afternoon and transferred to the hotel for check-in, had lunch at a local restaurant, then spent the afternoon at Caño Culebra for an introduction to birding in the Amazon. It was late afternoon by this time, so we only stayed for a few hours; however, this was the perfect location to look for the Black Manakin. Other target species were the Spotted Puffbird, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Black Caracara, and the Pale-bellied Mourner.

This location was also good for nightjars and owls closer to sundown. We were unable to see the Black Manakin on this particular day, but we were fortunate enough to see the yellow-handed titi monkey, which can be found in lowland forests around the Amazon, Orinoco, Rio Marañón, and Guianas rivers in the northern part of their range, and south to the Río Purús.

Yellow-handed titi monkeys

Day 2: Sabanitas

Today was an early morning wake-up for breakfast at 5, which I learned would be the norm for the rest of the trip. We visited Sabanitas, an Indigenous community of 250 people (60 families) part of the Curripaco ethnic group. The community’s land is home to one of the best locations to find the Capuchinbird, which was the main goal for the day and the highlight of the trip for some of my fellow travelers. Some other birds that were seen during our journey to find the Capuchinbird were Amazonian Trogon, Amazon Kingfisher, Swallow-winged Puffbird, Brown Jacamar, Gilded Barbet, Yellow-crowned Manakin, White-crowned Manakin, Golden-headed Manakin, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, and Screaming Piha.

As a new birder, I did not realize what kind of emotions and excitement a species can evoke in a viewer. I was amazed by not only spotting the bird, but at the anticipation and passion that was felt as we were on its trail. When we finally caught a glimpse, we were exhilarated and shared a collective relief of finding the bird. Later, we returned to the community entrance and were welcomed by juice, water, and the anticipation of lunch.

Capuchinbird courtesy of Manakin

Lunch was phenomenal – pescado moqueado, a typical dish of the community, freshly caught fish cooked by steam from a clay stove. Afterwards, we were welcomed to relax in one of their many hammocks, continue birding in the surrounding field or go for a swim in the river. I took the chance to take a swim in the river with a few other travelers and played some catch with the local children. In the afternoon, we spent some more time birding along the road on the way out from the community to add a few more to our list.

Day 3: Matraca Trail and the Inírida River

Another early morning wake-up and breakfast was followed by a 15-minute boat ride to the Matraca Trail, another trail on Indigenous community land. No more than a few hundred feet from the river bank where we disembarked our boat, we were bombarded by the calls of multiple species congregating on a few trees by the trail. It was an amazing sight with dozens of birds flying overhead back and forth across the trail from tree to tree. We continued on and hiked a few miles down the trail and back. In just a short amount of time, we had added 100 species to our list.

Green-tailed Jacamar

In the afternoon, after lunch and a short rest, we boarded the boat again to seek out the Hoatzin, a second bucket list item of mine. En route we encountered a small group of pink river dolphins that let us get a glimpse of them now and again. Honestly, it was something I never thought I’d experience in my lifetime.

Collared Puffbird

Day 4: Sendero El Paujíl

Today we boarded a boat, this time for Sendero El Paujíl, an Indigenous reserve less than 20 minutes away. On this trail we found American Pygmy Kingfisher, Lettered Aracari, Many-banded Aracari, Masked Crimson Tanager, Rose-breasted Chat, and Wire-tailed Manakin.

It’s one thing to see the excitement of travelers who have never been to a destination or only a few times, but I was able to witness the pure joy and excitement from the local guide when we heard the call of a Black-spotted Bare-eye. A fun part of birding to me is the hunt, sneaking into the woods trying not to make a sound and then standing perfectly still until the object of your desire lands perfectly in the clearing for you to see and photograph. The anticipation and suspense is exhilarating. The Black-spotted Bare-eye was a super lifer for everyone in the group.

Wire-tailed Manakin

Later that day we had another really cool thing to accomplish. We went to an area where an unnamed species of antshrike was found only a couple years ago and is undergoing genetic testing to verify. After only a few minutes of searching, we found it just across the river where we had left our boat. It is currently called Undescribed Antshrike sp. currently classified under Chestnut-backed Antshrike.

Day 5: Cerros de Mavecure

The last day in Inírida was my favorite day. We visited the Cerros de Mavecure in the morning, about an hour and a half one way by speedboat. We were transported to what looked like another universe entirely. As we came around a bend in the river, from the dense forest of the Amazon rose three majestic mountains made up of volcanic rock. Arriving at the base of the mountains, we disembarked the boats and walked up to the Remanso community for a hike around the mountain with their captain and another community member. Some of the target species were the Orinoco Piculet, Orange-breasted Falcon, Black-collared Swallow, Great-billed Hermit, Green-tailed Goldenthroat, and Glittering-throated Emerald.

After our hike, we returned to the boat for a 5-minute trip further up the river to the community’s restaurant. Lunch was provided, then we had time to relax on the beach, lie in the hammocks, explore the area for more birding, or go swimming. I again took the opportunity to go swimming. The backdrop of the beach was breathtaking, and for a few minutes some river dolphins came to visit just offshore.

We started our return to the hotel about mid-afternoon and prepared for our farewell dinner in the city. As a special surprise for our visit to Inírida, city hall had organized a presentation by one of the Indigenous communities. We were asked to join in on their dance and were adorned with their traditional headdresses. It was a truly memorable experience.

Nicole summed up her experience: “My favorite aspect about this itinerary is that it is a birding program that cannot help but be a cultural program as well. It really gives you a sense of connection to the country. In this area, the native communities are what make tourism possible. Their land is where trails are accessible. They maintain them, accompany you during your walks, and provide lunches and a place to rest mid-day when not birding.”