Our exhausted group steadily climbs up the rocky cliff, trying desperately to be quiet in a forest of twigs, leaves and bushes that seem to refuse our slow advance. Loaded down with binoculars, cameras, scopes, water and candy bars, we hope the local tribal guide knows his way. But, risks must always be taken when walking the path less traveled, especially when the bird we are stalking is a member of a rare species – the Guianan cock-of-the-rock.
A resident in northeastern South America, the Rupicola rupicola weighs almost 300 grams, and is identifiable by its stout-body and bright crown of orange features. It almost seems this winged creature is heading to the Academy Awards in a tuxedo that appears to tuck perfectly into its black and white wings. The less conspicuous female is covered in luxuriously reddish brown feathers, but sans tuxedo.
The Guianan cock-of-the-rock is found in tropical and subtropical rainforests close to rocky areas. Their unusual name is a reflection of how and where they build their nests – on steep cliffs. Considered by birders to be elusive and shy, cock-of-the-rocks do not care for publicity and build their nesting areas deep inside humid forests with rocky outcrops. They flee at the slightest sound of intruders and therefore are rarely seen.
I am near the remote town of Mitú in the Vaupés department, an ornithologists dream after this remote community became known to the outside world as a place to spot Amazonian megastars. It is also located in a beautiful landscape of rolling hills, lush tropical vegetation and shade paths used for centuries by the local indigenous Huitoto people.
Twenty different indigenous communities surround Mitú, each with their own language and protected territory. Special permits are required, and a local representative from the tribe must accompany visitors. Many tribal guides do not understand or appreciate the world’s fascination with their birds, but are happy to lead a group through their homeland for a small fee.
Nearing the end of a three-day birding expedition, we had been hiking for almost an hour towards the caves of El Tigre in the heart of the Ceima Cachivera reservation to see this astonishing unique bird. As they are known to leave their nesting places during the day in order to search for food, only to return in the evenings, I feel I am racing with paparazzi to reach hallowed ground before sundown. As we pause momentarily to catch our breath, our indigenous guide yells loudly for us to go further. Understanding that we are in search of a shy bird, our spirits sink after the outburst. Guide Trevor Ellery leaps past us expertly dodging trees and large boulders in order to hush him. The native lets out a laugh that floats across the forest canopy almost falling off the rock he is wobbling on. But Trevor will not give up, and encourages us to silently endure the few remaining meters in case this bird is deaf.
We stop near titanic boulders, at the mouth of a cave and find Trevor facing a cliff pointing up to a nesting site. Standing shoulder to shoulder looking up for a few minutes – which seem like hours – one of my birding companions gets nervous and turns around to look when all of a sudden, “snake!” resonates though the valley.
In military fashion, we turn around. A motionless long black snake was sprawled on a rock six meters away. Someone then whispers “I think he’s dead” and the cameras come out clicking. After anxiously watching the sun slip below the forest and realizing our tribal companion has abandoned us, we plot to come back the next day.
Leaving a comfortable hotel before dawn we reach the reservation to meet our new tribal guide – a serious young man who knows his birds. He has already scouted the area confirming the birds are home and races to check a back-up location in case these mega- stars flee before we arrive. We aim determinedly along the same footpath.
Within minutes of reaching the snake cave, with the reptile is still there, Trevor spots a tiny flicker of red on the rock wall some 12-meters away. Looking through a small opening between the trees, we get a glance of the majestic head of this incredible bird. After this miniscule view of our day’s find, we cheer, laugh, and celebrate as if we had seen a Hollywood star.