Toucans are some of the most colorful and certainly impressive of all birds. Their range is not overly big, confined primarily from the south of Mexico to central portions of South America. They are primarily forest dwellers so their compact bodies feature relatively small wings but their feet are quite adept at tree dwelling and travel with two toes on each side of the well-acclimated feet. Their hallmark feature are their unusually large and colorful peaks but they are not merely for show as they allow the birds to reach food in trees others cannot get to. Though the are generally fruit-eating, they are opportune eaters that will ingest insects and other small prey, including eggs of other birds. The vary in size greatly with the biggest ones reaching over 60 cm though relatively light at only 650 grams!
Of course, I had seen them in aviaries before and did manage to see one at a fair distance in its natural habitat in the Ecuadorian jungle a couple years earlier but it was more exciting seeing them in Tayrona not only because they were closer but also due to the fact that they were literally right next to our camping spot!
At the tail end of our Tayrona stay, after seeing tons of birds from toucans to various wading birds, we decided to check out the Carnavel area a little before exiting the park. To be honest, the shuttle was not there and I figured I'd take a short hike to see the beach while D waited for it. It was a bit rushed as I wanted to be back for the shuttle but not only did I see a nice chunk of the coast but also a gorgeous osprey. While I am quite used to seeing them as they had many nesting in my old hometown of Wildwood, NJ as well as in Florida where we were calling home at the time of our Colombia trip, it had been awhile since I had actually seen one up close. Well, while out on this trail I lucked out and spotted one to put the final feather on my birding cap for the trip. The osprey is also known as a sea hawk or fish eagle and are quite large birds of prey, reaching 60 cm with a wingspan of 2 m! They are resilient birds of surprising grace and are skillful hunters. They can be found on all continents aside from Antarctica though in South America where I spotted this one, they are non-breeding migrants.
The kingfisher is one of my favorite birds and have been lucky to see them on a number of occasions. I think my favorite siting was in Mompos a few weeks earlier in Colombia when I snapped a few great shots of one in between his fishing forays which were even more amazing but not be captured by me in a photo. I even saw one from my own back window when living in Florida right after returning from Colombia. The trip to Tayrona thankfully did not pass without spotting one either. Though not a particularly rare bird with a very wide distribution, they do tend to congregate in the more tropical areas though found just about everywhere aside from polar and desert regions. They eat a variety of foods and are keen at getting their prey with steep swooping movements generally from a perch. It is a beautiful thing to watch as the stubby looking bird is surprisingly graceful and lightning quick. It's hallmark feature is an oversized head that makes it look a bit like a woodpecker but the bodies are more powerfully built and the tails are almost like rudders on a boat. They also tend to be quite colorful with males and females sharing equally in the pretty plumage.
Of course, since we had finally spotted our first monkeys we no sooner ran into a couple who said they had seen much bigger monkeys than this crazy white-maned ones we were so excited to spot. We walked away muttering under our breaths that their monkeys were probably the same ones we had seen, they just were exaggerating the size. So, as we were hiking the last leg of our trek in Tayrona National Park, having seen Toucans, monkeys, lizards, a Kingfisher, and countless wading birds, we were quite content and not even looking to see anything else. To be honest, at this point, all we wanted was to get out of the park, back to town for a hot shower, comfy bed and restaurant meal. So, when I noticed some other hikers looking up at a tree, I didn't really get too excited but as it turned out, there were some very big monkeys up in them so the other couple had not been overstating their sighting. They turned out to be spider monkeys which were quite acrobatic with their prehensile tails and strong hands and feet, effortlessly gliding through the trees. As you can see, it was not easy to get a decent shot of them but it was a nice way to finish off our trip to Tayrona National Park. Otherwise, it would have been “the big one” that either got away or did not exist in the first place.
It seemed everyone had seen a monkey that we met at Tayrona National Park and though we had great luck in spotting numerous birds and other assorted animals, the monkeys had eluded us. Finally, on the next to the last day, we heard some scurrying in the trees and soon spotted monkeys unlike any we had ever seen. They looked like something out of the Wizard of Oz, with white lion-like manes sprouting up from their black faces. I had to do some maneuvering to get close enough for a photo but was glad I did so I could try and find out what they were on my return. It turns out they were Cottontop Tamarins which are one of the larger of their species. They are omnivores so feed on insects, fruit, small vertebrates, and even eggs. I guess anything they can get their hands on! They were quite noisy and traveled in a small band of about ten monkeys which seems to be typical of the species. Their typical habitat is rain forest and since that was exactly where we were marching through I guess it should not have been as much of a surprise as it was to us.
One of the most pleasant surprises at Tayrona National Park was this gorgeous Blue-tailed Skink. Oddly enough I would have missed it entirely if I was not chasing some monkeys, trying to get a closer photo of them. When I looked down, I was immediately hit by the electric blue of the lizard's tail which is its trademark feature. They feed primarily on insects and are commonly seen on the lower trunks of trees. Their most fascinating characteristic is they detach their tails when attacked which gives the “rest of the lizard” time to get away while the still wiggling tail keeps the attacker busy. Most of the photos I found of skinks on the Internet were much less colorful in the face than this beauty from Colombia and was very happy to have seen and get a fair shot of it.
Leafcutter ants are one of the great if small sights in Tayrona National Park. All one has to do is walk with your head down and you are bound to cross paths with conga line of them, carrying their trademark green leaves as if attached to their backs. Oddly enough, the leaves are used to cultivate a fungus which is what they actually feed on. The colonies can number 8 million and their “societies” are seen as second to humans in scope and complexity. They are quite adept at waste disposal in order to keep their “fungus gardens” in the best shape. Interestingly, they are known to line this waste area with dead ants perhaps to warn of its toxic nature!
While the Turkey Vulture may be one of the ugliest birds to grace the planet and certainly one of the more despised despite it being a useful scavenger, it is also one of the most far-reaching migratory birds in the Americas. The birds spend their summers in Canada and are found as far south in winter in Colombia. We spotted this one right on the beach in Tayrona National Park and found it a bit odd even though we have grown used to seeing them on the beach in Florida, often feeding from the trash cans along the beach.
The Great White Egret is often confused with the Great White Heron with both being closely related to the Blue Heron with which they share common habitat. The Great White Egret however has black legs and a golden beak, and lacks the head feathers of the Herons. It is also a very large wadding bird, a meter in length and 2kilos in weight. They are also fantastic fishing birds, feeding on small fish, frogs and sometimes small mammals. They are adaptable birds and can coexist with human populations. We were quite used to seeing them in South Florida where we used to live and it was nice to see them in a more natural habitat along the Colombian coast. We got lucky seeing not only stalking fish but actually catching one, snapping a photo just before he swallowed it whole!
Tayrona National Park was surprisingly great for birdwatching and particularly so for wading birds. One of the best spots to see them was a small lagoon near the Arrecifes campground. This large pond had a great jungle backdrop for great effect and with the sun coming up on the ocean side, it provided great light for photographing them. We saw quite a few Blue and Great White Herons, often in full fishing mode
The Great Blue Heron is the largest of its kind in North America and is found throughout the continent and well into South America. While it reaches lengths of nearly 140cm and weights of 3.5kilos, it feeds primarily on very small fish which it spears with its sharp beak and lightning quickness. Found in a variety of habits, we spotted a few along Colombia's coast in Tayrona National Park which provides a perfect home to this skillful fishing birds. The best place to spot them for us was at a small saltwater pond between the ocean and jungle where they are known to build their nests for protection.
They are quite interesting to watch when feeding as the move so slowly but with incredible precision, using their long legs to glide across the water until their piercing eyes spot food. The rest is perfunctory, these birds are adept at catching their prey once found.