Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Birds of Colombia's Llanos and Catching the Highway Duck

With three Andean cordilleras, two long coasts and a considerable chunk of Amazon rainforest getting all the attention, the Llanos is probably the most poorly known region of Colombia.  Few birders travel to its seasonally flooded savannas because the flat topography means there are no endemic species, and the alpha species diversity lags behind other South American hotspots.  This is a shame, because it happens to be a phenomenal place to see birds.

The dry season (roughly November to March in a typical year) is the time to visit.  The inundated landscape desiccates forcing wildlife to concentrate at depressions, called esteros, where water persists.

Llanos wildlife, Casanare, Colombia

I’ve yet to visit Brazil’s famed Pantanal, but I know of no other place where one can go and expect to see six ibis species in a day…

Buff-necked Ibises, Casanare, Colombia
…or Horned Screamers wandering around pastures like Turkeys.

Horned Screamer, Casanare, Colombia

And it was at one of these llanos esteros where I finally saw my first Jabiru, a massive stork that stands about 4-and-a-half feet tall. 

Jabirus in flight, Casanare, Colombia
The default raptor in this region is the beautful and fearsome Savanna Hawk.

Savanna Hawk
But this trip was about a science project; the birding was just a bonus.  I tagged along to help world-famous conservation biologist, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela, affix satellite geolocators to a couple Orinico Geese.  El “Pato Carreterra” (or “highway duck”), as the geese are referred to by locals, belongs to the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily, Tadorninae.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia
Most of the population breeds in the llanos of Colombia during the dry season, but where these geese go once the rainy season begins is a mystery.  Improvements in remote tracking technology have led to an opportunity for Natalia and her collaborator, Duke University’s Lisa Davenport, to track the movement of a couple geese for up to three years.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia

All we had to do was catch a couple geese and attach the transmitters.  

Orinoco Geese, Casanare, Colombia

Fortunately these geese will wander dazedly toward a bright flashlight at night.  They are quick and strong though, and will bolt if they sense danger.  Arturo and his skill with throwing a weighted fishing net (“ataraya”) proved to be essential. 

Natalia attaching a transmitter an Orinoco Goose - photo by Lourdes Penuela

Natalia attached transmitters to one male and one female following US Geological Society methods. 
Data is flowing in from the male, but the female has not transmitted since shortly after she was released.  We fear she may have been eaten by the foxes that where prowling the estero where we captured her. 

Male Orinoco Goose wearing a satellite geolocator

This is a small tragedy for the loss of life of the goose and loss of equipment, but is part of the risk of doing any scientific field investigation and life in the wilds of the llanos. 

It will be months before we know where the male decides to go for the rainy season and probably years before the results are published (funds for more transmitters and geese will probably be needed), but it was a thrill to be part of this investigation and get to experience such a distinctive wetland landscape and appreciate its birds hands-on.


  1. Great photos! That Horned Screamer is quite the funny looking bird! I can only imagine the sound it make based off the name. I was hoping to get in touch with you but I couldn't find your contact info. I hope you will email me.

  2. Things Have Been Crazy At Work, But You Took Care Of Business With No Complaints. Bravo! camar189