I can’t catch my breath and fear I’ll suffocate. Surrounded by air near the top of the Yariguíes mountain, it seems none of this life-sustenance is finding its way into my lungs. Pablo, our guide, ensures us that the hike gets easier and where we can stop for water. I turn around, searching for San Vicente de Chucurí, an almost indiscernible blotch in a valley below. I catch my breath again, this time at the beauty of the Andes in the department of Santander.
San Vicente de Chucurí is synonymous with chocolate, and is nestled in the steep valleys of a region with some of the best cacao in all Colombia. But, the town also wants to become a top birding destination, not only because of many endemic species, but more precisely because of the Cerulean Warbler.
This delicate black-white and sky-blue speckled bird is not easy to spot. However, given the fact that Santander is part of the bird’s southern flight path, in 2005 the bird conservation organization ProAves established 513 acres of tropical rainforest to help protect the endangered Reinita Cielo Azul (Setophaga cerulea). The Cerulean Warbler Bird Reserve became the first protected area in South America for this migratory species.
During the past decade, this little bird has been even harder to find because its population numbers have declined almost 70% in the last four decades. One of North America’s most threatened songbirds breeds in the Appalachian Mountains and travels across the Caribbean to winter in Colombia. Along the way, many are lost. In order to learn more about the threats to this bird, conservation groups launched a program in 2016 to outfit 19 male Cerulean Warblers with geolocators, a sort of high-tech backpack that captures light data associated with sunrise and sunset, then feeds information to map specific routes.
One of the tracking birds was dubbed Elmer. After a nice vacation in Colombia, the bird took off for North America, March 20. Over the next six weeks, he touched down in Guatemala to fatten up before flying straight into the Gulf of Mexico. Somehow, he managed to skirt 2,500 oil rigs with lights that often sidetrack birds. A few other obstacles faced were big city lights, skyscrapers, tinted windows reflecting the sky, tropical storms, large birds of prey and of course, plenty of free-roaming cats. After navigating thousands of kilometers, Elmer miraculously touched down in northwestern Pennsylvania on a branch of his favorite Elm tree and began singing.
Transnational efforts are underway to help give this songbird areas where it can nest and forage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded US$8 million to enhance 13,000 acres of this bird’s endangered habitat. In Colombia, while setting-up the Cerulean Warbler Reserve, Pro Aves worked with Parques Nacionales to give the Yariguíes mountains well-deserved protection with a National Park designation. The conservation group’s Pauxi Pauxi Reserve in nearby Zapatoca, Santander, also serves as a resting area along the Warbler’s Colombian “corridor”. The planting of critical flora by ProAves to support more than 150 other migratory birds is slowly beginning to see the numbers of the Warbler increase. The corridor is also helping two non-migratory birds recover from near extinction, the Gorgeted Woodquail and Mountain Grackle.
The Warbler’s Santander habitat is one example of how two countries have joined forces to save a bird that knows no borders. However, on my hiking trail through the Yariguríe mountains, I will not see an Elmer up close. As it is April, these remarkable birds are possibly riding ocean currents on their epic journey south. Other birds, such as the Beautiful Woodpecker or regal Blue-billed curassow (Crax Alberti), are fair game.
Just five hundred meters before we reach the summit, Pablo keeps us entertained with the story of an eccentric German who settled in the region during the mid 19th century in search of Quinine. When not extracting the natural anti-malarial from the chinchona tree, Geo von Lengerke was a busy man populating the towns of the Guanentá region with his Prussian DNA, as well as constructing roads and wrought iron bridges to connect the Magdalena River with Santander. Some of these bridges marked with “Made in Bremen” plaques still exist and used for transporting goods across difficult terrain. A 40-kilometer long cobble stone footpath that Lengerke engineered still weaves its way from San Vicente de Chucurí to Zapatoca, and has enabled ProAves volunteers to carry vital seedlings through a protected corridor. In a strange turn of history, Lengerke’s road and bridge-building legacy has influenced the Cerulean Warbler’s survival.