It’s been some six weeks since I returned from Colombia, and it’s safe to say that I’m already planning my return there. There are hummingbirds aplenty to lure me back, the small matter of a hawkmoth new to science, but above all there are new friends I want to see again in this friendliest and most beautiful of countries.
When I told people back here in the UK that I was going to Colombia last year, the reaction was invariably a little guarded. Or even incredulous. There are still plenty of misconceptions about this country – ghosts that need to be laid to rest once and for all.
Unfortunately Colombia still stands in the shadows cast by its past – decades of bloody internal strife and then the years when the activities of the drugs cartels dominated the international news. Our perception of Colombia remains unfairly coloured by those years – it is now a welcoming and largely safe place to visit. Certainly no worse and in many cases a lot better than anywhere else in Central or South America.
I was there for a shade over a week and, to get the birdy bit out of the way, I saw exactly 350 species in that time – many of them new to me, not least a suite of gorgeous endemic and near-endemic hummingbirds. They were the driving force for my visit – but they were really the icing on a tremendously rich and varied cake. Colombia is incredibly biodiverse and boasts a phenomenal amount of endemic species of all shapes and sizes.
As our understanding of the complexities of taxonomy grows, we’re even now expanding the number of species we recognise there – so shortly after seeing Apolinar’s Wren and Bogota Rail (and recently split Green-bearded Helmetcrests) we bumped into what once was considered simply a subspecies of Bar-winged Cinclodes – now considered a species in its own right: Chestnut-winged Cinclodes. And so it goes on – this is a land of expanding horizons and discoveries waiting to be made.
I had my own small moment while I was there – a hawkmoth I found appears, according to the world Sphingidae expert, to be a new and previously undescribed species of Xylophanes. Further work is needed to confirm that, and this is just one of the reasons that compel me to return as soon as I can. I’ve found a handful of rare birds during my time living in Shetland, and it’s always a thrill – but not a patch on finding a first for the world!
I was there for such a tiny morsel of time, and covered such a meagre amount of ground, but my overwhelming impression was of a colourful, friendly and infinitely varied country.
There used to be an expression in Colombia back in the darker days – plata o plomo – literally, silver or lead. This was a knowing reference to the hard choices people had to make to survive.
The choice to return to Colombia – or for anyone thinking of going there for the first time – should be a much easier one to make. For anyone with even a passing interest in natural history, it’s a compelling, wonderful place – plata all the way.