I entered Victoria Lizarralde’s garden, also known as the Observatorio de Colibries (Hummingbird Observatory), and felt a ‘whoosh’ and the unmistakeable ‘buzz’ of a hummingbird whizzing past my ear. On a cool, damp Sunday morning I had joined a small tour group led by Andes Ecotours and travelled 45 minutes up into the mountains from Bogotá. We headed for a wooden shelter in the corner of the garden, careful to avoid the feeders hanging at various points in the garden. The hummingbirds darted back and forth between the feeders and the surrounding trees and bushes. “That one’s a Glowing Puffleg,” said Chantelle, our guide for the day, indicating towards one of the feeding tables. “See its puffy white legs?”
A Haven for Hummingbirds
Colombia is home to 165 different types of hummingbird, and 18 of these have been sighted in the hummingbird observatory which lies in an isolated mountainous area in the state of Cundinamarca, about 25km from Bogotá. Victoria Lizarralde explained that when she moved to the area, she wanted to encourage the local fauna to visit her garden. “This is a very personal project for me, rooted in my love of nature. When we arrived here, the surrounding area was dedicated to potato and cattle farming, so we started to plant native flowers and complemented these with bird feeders. Gradually, hummingbirds started visiting the garden in increasing numbers and the observatory became a place devoted to their well-being.”
It has been a huge success, having attracted over 2,500 visitors since it opened to the public in 2013. Chantelle du Plessis, originally from South Africa, runs Andes Ecotours with her Colombian husband Andrés Umaña and started bringing tourists up to the observatory in 2014. “A few years ago, I started to see posts in birding circles about the observatory with incredible photos, and I knew it was a place I had to visit,” she told me. “We spent three hours here and I was blown away by the number of species and the photographic opportunities.”
The hummingbird observatory is a photographer’s dream
On the day of our visit, we arrived to find a group of photographers with cameras which, to my inexperienced eyes, looked more like large weapons. They had set up within a few metres of various feeders and bushes, ready to trigger another cluster of burst shots as the hummingbirds flitted to and fro. “This tour is ideal for serious birdwatchers, as there are a lot of target species to be seen,” explained Chantelle. “But even more so for photographers, given the quality of the shots and how close the birds get to visitors.”
As a relative newcomer to bird-watching, I was fascinated by these enigmatic creatures, some of which were as small as large moths. At the other end of the spectrum, a brief flash of blue confirmed the presence of the Great Sapphirewing hummingbird. At up to 17.5cm in length and weighing about 10 grams, this is one of the largest species of hummingbird, and apparently quite elusive. We headed down to the bottom of the garden where it was quieter in the hope that we’d see him or her again. After sitting patiently on a nearby log and watching several Blue-throated Starfrontlets and Black-tailed Trainbearers hover between the nearby trees and feeders, the Great Sapphirewing appeared again in all its glory for just a few seconds at a time, before settling on a branch in a nearby tree, where it stayed for a while and contemplated us and the feeders.
Hummingbirds under threat
Deforestation poses the greatest threat to hummingbird populations in this area, as farmers clear land for potato and cattle farming, and property developers build luxury complexes overlooking the capital. The armed conflict in Colombia has also played a role. Many rural areas beyond the big cities were infiltrated by the FARC and paramilitary groups, making them no-go areas for outsiders. But La Calera, a town in the mountains less than half an hour from Bogotá, was a relatively safe choice for Bogotanos wanting to escape the city for the weekend. This led to the widespread development and deforestation of this area about half an hour’s drive from the hummingbird observatory.
Ecotourism helps to tackle deforestation and provides an income for locals
On the drive up to the observatory, the road was lined with small restaurants where families and cyclists were having breakfast. Chantelle pointed out how little forest there was left, and explained that what remained was in danger of being felled for further development. I asked her what was being done to address this problem.
“I’ve seen little action on the part of NGOs and the government, but a lot more effort from private landowners and ecotourism companies who are working together to create tourism offerings that support conservation efforts.” In the last decade, security in Colombia has improved and following the signing of the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC in September 2016, more people are choosing to visit Colombia. As tourism in Colombia increases, many farmers are realizing the potential for subsidizing their incomes through activities such as bird-watching and are therefore making efforts to conserve the native vegetation.
Although there currently doesn’t appear to be the will at government level to protect the forested areas in the state of Cundinamarca, the government has joined forces with the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, hosted by the World Economic Forum, in an effort to protect over 60 million hectares of Amazon rainforest in Colombia from commodity-driven deforestation. As Chantelle sees it, the local problem is that Bogotá and the state of Cundinamarca just aren’t recognized for their natural value at present.
Ecotourism and environmental education must go hand-in-hand
But people like Victoria, along with ecotourism companies like Andes Ecotours, are helping to gradually change this. Visitors to the Observatorio de Colibries are up 50% from this time last year, with the observatory now receiving over 50 visitors a week on average. I counted more than twenty visitors during the three hours I was there that Sunday morning. Victoria agrees that tourism can be part of the solution to protecting forested areas, but emphasises that this must go hand-in-hand with environmental education, teaching people what they can do at an individual level to protect their natural surroundings.
Experience the magic of seeing hummingbirds up-close
We sipped the hot coffee offered to us by staff at the observatory and continued to watch these wonderful birds, learning their magical names. Of the 18 species which have been registered at the hummingbird observatory, we saw 12 that morning, including the White-bellied Woodstar, the Tyrian Metaltail and the Amethyst-throated Sunangel. One which made a great impact on me was the Sword-billed Hummingbird with its magnificently long beak. Chantelle explained to me the crucial role that hummingbirds play in the pollination process. The Sword-billed Hummingbird is the only species with a beak long enough to fully enter the native Curuba flower, which grows in the high Andes, thus both bird and flower sustain one another. It didn’t take much research to realise the delicate balances that existed within the food chains in this area, and how destroying one would impact heavily on the other.
After living in Bogotá for over four years and having explored the region alone and with Andes Ecotours, I am in great awe of the beauty of Cundinamarca, and its potential as an ecotourism destination. Beyond bird-watching, I have helped harvest coffee at family-run coffee farms and hiked the almost other-worldly páramo ecosystem at Chingaza National Park, all located a couple of hours from Bogotá. If responsible, community-led tourism were to increase and give local people an alternative to destructive farming practices, it could contribute a great deal to the sustainable development of these regions. This is especially true in former conflict zones, where vast areas of land have now been vacated by the FARC and are becoming available for development. “In any region,” Chantelle tells me, “wildlife is worth more alive than dead and has the potential to provide an income for local populations for many years to come if it’s taken care of.” Initiatives such the Observatorio de Colibries are few and far between at present, but could provide a conservation and economic model for others in the region to follow in the future.
If you would like to visit the Hummingbird Observatory (Observatorio de Colibries), contact Andes Ecotours for more information.
All photos were taken by me, Naomi Dalton, or by my guide and friend Chantelle du Plessis. Please ask for permission before using them.