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The Third Cardinal: El Rey de la Guajira

The Northern Colombia Birding Trail

 

It has been said of our Northern Cardinal (was it Scott Weidensaul?), that if it only occurred on a single exotic, remote mountaintop, that birders from around the world would make pilgrimages to behold its beauty. As it stands, however, the Northern Cardinal is one of the most common birds east of the Great Plains, easily seen throughout much of the U.S. and southern Canada. A separate population occurs in the southwestern U.S and Mexico, where it overlaps with our other cardinal (genus Cardinalis), the Pyrrhuloxia. These birds are in the family Cardinalidae, a recently revamped family which now also includes Scarlet, Summer, and Western Tanagers, to name a few.

"El Rey de La Guajira", the Vermilion Cardinal.

“El Rey de La Guajira”, the Vermilion Cardinal.

But while Northern Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia are favorites of ABA Area birders, relatively few of us are familiar with the third cardinal, known in Colombia as “El Rey de la Guajira”. This name translates to “the King of Guajira” and Guajira is the northernmost department in Colombia. The birthplace of Vallenato folk music, and home to the Wayuu and other indigenous tribes, the most striking geological feature of the department (if not all of Colombia) is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This isolated, ancient mountain range, is referred to by some authorities as the most biodiverse place on the planet, hosting a remarkable array of endemic birds including the White-tailed Starfrontlet and the Blue-billed Curassow. Below the Santa Marta mountains is another unique region of arid forest-scrub, the realm of “El Rey de la Guajira”, or as we know it, the Vermilion Cardinal.

On the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, birders spy a Lance-tailed Manakin at Tayrona National Natural Park. (Photo by Natalia ?).

On the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, birders spy a Lance-tailed Manakin at Tayrona National Park. Birding is sky-rocketing in Colombia. About 400 people gathered in Cali for the 2nd Annual Colombia Bird Fair in 2016, over half being Colombians. (Photo by Natalia Gónima).

Situated at the very top of South America, is the Guajira peninsula, split between Venezuela and northeastern Colombia. The Vermilion Cardinal lives here, and today Colombia is perhaps the best place to see this retina-burning bird. Similar in general appearance to Northern Cardinal, the two sound similar too, but when singing the Vermilion has (as described by Steve Hilty), an “erect, ramrod straight posture”, with an absurdly long crest, and it’s regarded as “the most shockingly red of the three species.” Males and females and differ dramatically in appearance, but as with other Cardinalis, both sexes sing.

The female Vermilion Cardinal. Both males and females sing.

The female Vermilion Cardinal. Both males and females sing.

With its striking appearance and sweet song, the Vermilion Cardinal is heavily pursued as a caged bird, and this combined with increasing losses of its restricted dry forest habitat could spell trouble. According to John Myers at the National Audubon Society, the dry forest in Guajira, “is the largest enclave of remaining xeric scrub along Colombia’s Caribbean Sea. It is truly unique to the Neotropics, and a center of bird endemism”. In addition to the Cardinal, there is a host of desert dandies here, including Chestnut Piculet, White-whiskered Spinetail, Buffy Hummingbird, and Tocuyo Sparrow. But perhaps most striking of all, the King of the Guajira, takes prominent perches in the dry forest, sitting high above his subjects, and rules as a spectacular hallmark bird of the Northern Colombia Birding Trail.

IMG_3708 Tayrona

Tayrona National Natural Park, located on the Caribbean coast, is perhaps the crown jewel of Colombia’s national park system. (Photo by G. Armistead)

The Northern Colombia Birding Trail is the first loop of a national network of such trails throughout the country that link together communities, local businesses and protected areas and other birding sites. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and set up by a partnership of groups, including the National Audubon Society, Patrimonio NaturalCalidris and Colombia’s National Natural Parks, the project’s goals are to protect bird habitat and provide stable economic opportunities to local communities. Last December a group of 44 local guides graduated from an 8 month-long bird guide training program. And now a number work as pro guides at places like Los Flamencos Sanctuary (home to “EL Rey”), Tayrona National Park and other sites in the Santa Marta and Serrania del Perija mountains.  Myers tell us, “Poverty in the Guajira peninsula is almost 65 percent. My hope is that an influx of birders to the Northern Colombia Birding Trail will help local communities to see birds, bird habitat, birding and birders as good for the local economy. And that this leads to a number of other positive outcomes.”

Colombia host 160 species of hummingbirds. The White-tailed Starfrontlet is endemic to the Santa Marta Mountains. (Photo by G. Armistead).

Colombia hosts ~160 species of hummingbirds, more than any other country. The White-tailed Starfrontlet is endemic to the Santa Marta Mountains. (Photo by G. Armistead).

After 50+ years, Colombia’s protracted conflict is winding down. Because so much of the country was off limits during the conflict, a number of remote ecosytems were spared development. Today, this country enjoys a staggering list of near 2000 bird species; the highest total of any country worldwide. For decades it has beckoned and tantalized birders, and now it’s all there for the taking. Since around 2011, birders have heeded the call to Colombia. Just a couple hours by plane from Miami, rests a whole other world, where an estimated one fifth of all bird species in the world have been recorded. Among these is The King, “El Rey de la Guajira”. A bird so spectacular, that people from around the planet, are now making pilgrimages to commune with it, and behold its beauty.

Note the long crest and erect posture of the Vermilion Cardinal.

The critically endangered Blue-billed Currasow has a population perhaps as low as 250 individuals. The species is endemic to Colombia and can be seen along the Northern Colombia Birding Trail.

The critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow has a population perhaps as low as 250 individuals. The species is endemic to Colombia and can be seen along the Northern Colombia Birding Trail.

The endemic and absurdly gaudy Multicolored Tanager is a star of the attendees at feeding station at km18 in Cali for the Colombia Bird Fair. (Photo by G. Armistead)

The endemic and absurdly gaudy Multicolored Tanager is a star of the attendees at the feeding stations in Cali for the Colombia Bird Fair. (Photo by G. Armistead)

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George Armistead

George Armistead

George Armistead is a lifelong birder and since April 2012 is the events coordinator for the ABA. George spent the prior decade organizing and leading birding tours for Field Guides Inc. He has guided trips on all seven continents, and enjoys vast open country habitats and seabirds most of all. Based in Philadelphia, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time birding the coast between Cape May, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC.
  • Frank Izaguirre

    Very cool write-up. El Rey kinda seems like a mix of the most exaggerated features of northern cardinal and pyrrhuloxia, since he’s got the super bright red of cardinal but the high crest and funky bill of pyrrhuloxia. That’d be a great bird to see someday.

    Vallenato I wasn’t the biggest fan of, although I did dig the cumbia. Maybe I just need a little more exposure 🙂

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