Birding Hurts Your Neck

Charismatic encounters with nature

Trail near a tributary of the Amazon. 2013. Photograph by Steven Prorak/Alamy.

After spending whole days looking up, your neck grows sore. You get spasms and realize how unnatural it is to gaze at the sky for more than a few moments. After several days of doing it, your head can remain fixed in that position, your gaze glued to the ceiling, your cramped muscles not letting you look down again. I imagine an island of bird-watchers, their heads in the clouds, visited by Gulliver on one of his voyages. It could be located in the middle of the Amazon River.

If you look at a map of Colombia, you will note that its southern tip has what could be a fanciful little tail drawn by a child. It was drawn in a 1922 treaty that granted Colombia a trapezoid of Amazonian forest in Peru that provided access to the largest river in the world—and with it a Peruvian port that has since passed into Colombian hands: Leticia.

In a park in this small riverside town, a wondrous thing takes place at dawn and at dusk: flocks of thousands of white-wingedparakeets, Brotogeris versicolurus, arrive from the jungle to perch in the park’s trees. It is a mystery why, of all the countless trees in the Amazon jungle, the birds choose the ones in this park. Some say it may be due to genetic memory, because this place used to be a wetland. Or perhaps parakeets prefer a moderately urban environment where they can spend the night, thus avoiding the predators that abound in the jungle.

At dawn, the bright green of the parakeets blends in with the foliage of the trees. When they begin to vocalize, it’s as if the mass of leaves were turning shrill. Suddenly, the birds fall from the branches, screeching in unison, an explosion of color denuding the trees. They spread and compress like green clouds above our heads, and a few feathers float down from the sky. The birds spend an hour in a sort of dance, stretching their wings before returning to the forest in small bands. They remind me of murmurings, the way thousands of starlings oscillate without touching each other in a silent flock that looks like an equalizer wave. The little parakeets, by contrast, vibrate in a cacophony.

Many travelers feel better if they approach a vacation as they might work. A trip is justified, they think, if undertaken with a list of activities. For some, that list includes visiting monuments and museums, or taking culinary or sports tours. For others, a specific obsession tops the list: bird-watching. It’s a passion that I—a Colombian writer with little prior interest in the natural world—have practiced steadfastly over the past year.

I took up birding a few months after turning 30—way too young, as a friend told me. For some, bird-watching might be equivalent to weekend cycling: an appealing hobby for people enduring a midlife crisis. Its benefits include long hikes with a purpose, filling up lists, taking pictures and generally feeling like an adventurer while exploring modest patches of forests in cargo pants. But beyond the cliché, for me it’s also a spiritually invigorating activity. As I stride in silence, I open my ears to the sounds of the jungle (or my backyard). Binoculars enable me to experience something that has always been there but that I hadn’t necessarily noticed.

On my most recent excursion, I traveled to the Amazon with Oto, a local bird-watcher. My goal was to add to my list of observed birds, or lifers. But this long trek, it turns out, took me on a detour. I not only came across birds but also heard stories of Austrian documentarians, coca fields, a missing drone and an anaconda—a snake that sank its teeth into one of the filmmakers.

A few years ago, a group of Austrian filmmakers hired an Indigenous man—a Ticuna—to be their fixer in the Amazon. Their intention was to film the anaconda in its jungle environment and, while they were there, get some supporting shots of the river and the jungle, those essential voice-over aerial views that abound in documentaries. And for that they brought a drone.

The biologist who commanded the expedition had already found more than one anaconda in the plains of the Amazon basin between Colombia and Venezuela, where the huge snakes sometimes calmly cross the roads of the wildest areas, but he dreamed of seeing the anaconda in the mythical Amazon River. The leader of a Peruvian Indigenous community, known for its coexistence with the snakes, told the Ticuna fixer that the guys could record in the area for five days if they paid the leader a moderate sum. He would take care of the community, including the surrounding coca growers and traffickers, who might view the presence of the filmmakers as suspicious. A few days later, when the group showed up at the scene, the leader had had a chance to reflect, so the sum was doubled. The Austrians were angered by the change, but since the price was still insignificant, they let it stand.

On the third day of recording, with no trace of an anaconda, they found themselves traversing a zigzagging meander of one of the many tributaries of the Amazon. They raised the drone to take a shot with which they could later establish an analogy between the snaking river and the anaconda. The drone was a bit ahead of the boat. Suddenly, it stopped emitting images and disappeared from the radar. At the same time, some men armed with rifles appeared on the banks of the river and signaled to them. The pilot of the boat nodded and sped away, to the complaints of the Austrians, who did not understand why the drug traffickers onshore weren’t keeping the distance the fixer had promised. For his part, the community leader relayed the ultimatum: they had to leave that day. With neither anaconda nor drone.

The fixer came up with a solution. He led the filmmakers upriver to a natural park in Peru where it was said that they could find the snake. After they arrived at the lodge and dropped off their bags, an elderly man led the film crew to the riverbank. And there, about a 15-minute walk away, they found it: a wide anaconda more than four meters long, glittering, andcleaning a swarm of bugs off its scales. It was curled up close to the water, as the snakes tend to be during digestion. The Austrian biologist was mesmerized, but he broke the spell just long enough to ask the old man if he could touch it. “Sure,” said the old man, “it’s tame.”

The biologist was elated. He approached gingerly. He began to stretch out his hand, and the anaconda came out of its digestive torpor. It pounced quickly and bit the biologist. The man gave such a cry that he seemed to frighten the snake itself. Instead of proceeding to wrap up its victim and suffocate him, the snake released him. Its teeth and gastric juices had tattooed the silhouette of the bite on his hand.

King Vulture. 2021. Photograph by phototrip.

Then the biologist’s panic gave way to ecstasy, and he began laughing like a madman. How lucky he was! To go up against an anaconda and seal the pact with a scar that the Austrian could boast of for the rest of his life. What’s more, everything had been captured on video!

The next day they returned to the place, but the snake had left. The filmmakers were satisfied and packed their bags. They were grateful to the Ticuna fixer, who always wondered why none of them noticed that the old guide had said that the anaconda was tame, as if he knew it beforehand. The fixer knew but did not tell them that the snake was kept in captivity in the Peruvian reserve and that from time to time they released it next to the river so that tourists who traveled to the park could “spontaneously” come across an anaconda in its natural environment.

The Ticuna fixer was Oto, my guide in the Amazon.


Oto and I left early, while there was still shade. We were looking for a special bird. We boarded a small canoe down the Loretoyacu River, a tributary of the Amazon, until we reached the Tarapoto lagoon complex, one of two Ramsar wetland systems in the Colombian Amazon. We got off in one of the floodplain forests that generally have to be crossed by canoe but that at this point during such a harsh and dry summer could be crossed on foot. The waterline on the trees reached my height, about six feet, showing just how submerged the trees had been months ago.

Walking in the soil, soft and rich from thousands of years of detritus, we pricked up our ears. After a while, we felt the call. Think of a tuba note, deep, low, played spaced out and barely audible. Or a low and deep reverberation as if someone were delicately blowing on the mouth of a glass bottle. We examined the thick undercanopy for a rotund, dark figure. After a few minutes, among all the hues of green, we saw something resembling a black wing and part of a neck. Then there was a jump and an undulating flight between the treetops, as if the bird had felt the weight of our eyes. There was a landing nearby, and we followed its echo. Stepping cautiously, I raised my binoculars. Among the leaves, I met its eye, its iris brilliant white. Little by little, from glimpses here and there, I deduced that the bird must be about 25 meters above our heads. It was corpulent, heavy, ashen black. After following it for what seemed like a long time, the reward arrived: it perched on a branch from which a window opened through the foliage, and I saw its entire body. I was filled with bliss.

The Amazonian umbrellabird looks more clothed than feathered. This male Cephalopterus ornatus was large and elongated, with an oval figure. He had a 1980s-style quiff and long wattle hanging from his neck that marked him as a fertile and dominant male. It is a bird that is both majestic and ridiculous. To behold it made me burst into a laugh of joy. And then it was gone, launching itself into a dense canopy.


Our daily routine began by waking up at five in the morning, enjoying breakfasts prepared by Colombia, Oto’s partner, and walking through secondary forests that surround the Indigenous reservation where I was staying, near a village called Puerto Nariño. The Amazon basin is often imagined as a vast, homogeneous green ocean, but it is really a mosaic of many types of forest: terra firme, flooded, secondary, floodplain, riparian, sandy soil, morichal, among many others. Each type of forest has its own community of associated species, plants, fungi, insects, reptiles, mammals and birds. And, of course, Indigenous peoples.

Many of these patches of forest surrounding Puerto Nariño were used for cattle ranching or planting crops over the past 200 years, only to be reclaimed by the jungle. The number and variety of birds is overwhelming: jacamars, macaws, parakeets,flycatchers, tanagers, woodpeckers. We saw wonders, and my list grew rapidly, keeping pace with my euphoria. On our first day, a stunning magpie tanager perched on a branch in front of me, lit by a shaft of sunlight cutting through the foliage like a theater spotlight. Then we came to a clearing where a white-throated toucan flew from one treetop to another. We chased it for a while and managed to catch a detail or two of its plumage in flight. It looked like a Ramphastos vitelinus, a large black toucan with a white bib and blue bags under its eyes.

We walked among yucca, pineapple and banana plantations. The indigenous agriculture of the Amazon is rotational. People cut down a patch of forest, burn it and plant for a few seasons. Once the soil has provided its nutrients for vegetables and fruit trees, they leave the orchard to be reclaimed by the forest, repeating the process elsewhere. All around us, patches recently felled and burned were interwoven with patches of jungle.

On the bare crown of a tree were a quartet of gorgeous fork-tailed flycatchers, striking migratory birds with extremely long tails that appear serpentine as they leap from their perches and draft an ellipse through the air to catch insects.

Later, as we returned to the lodge, we heard the heavy flapping of wings. Landing in a tree was an imposing crimson-crested woodpecker, with a chest of yellow and black bars and a black cloak crossed by a white V, as if it were the insignia on the cape of an outlandish superhero. It was Campephilus melanoleucos, which hammers trees and feasts on the sap they release. Some hummingbirds, like Chionomesa fimbriata, take advantage of the woodpecker’s work, imbibing the sap with their long beaks.

Oto has a hummingbird tattoo on his arm, a brightly colored Topaza pyra that’s drinking from an Angel’s Trumpet (in Spanish, flor de borrachero, or drunken flower). Hummingbirds only exist in the Western Hemisphere, which is why European conquerors were so astonished to find them, naming them “flying jewels.” The names that ornithology assigns them still harmonize with that moniker: emeralds, mountain gems, brilliants, coquettes, mangoes, topazes. Topazes, like the one on Oto’s arm, are the basal clade, that is, the hummingbirds with the oldest genetic line. The drought has been especially hard on hummingbirds. In order to conserve energy, they move less, so one sees them less often. And there aren’t as many flowers thatprovide essential nectar.

The diversity of the jungle’s plumage has long inspired the people who live there. The Ticuna, for one, are divided into clans of feathered and featherless beings. One ceremony that Oto remembers attending as a child is the pelazón, a ritual of passage for a girl after her first menstruation. “Pelazón” because, for a long time, young women were left peladas, or bald, by having the hair on their heads pulled out by the roots. Today, it’s cut with scissors. The young women are then smeared with a sticky substance and adorned with white feathers collected under herons’ trees.

One night in Puerto Nariño, I passed by a house that had several lights on, its doors wide open. It was the house of an old palabrera, a village elder who makes musical instruments, baskets and toys. After chatting with her about birds for a while, I asked if she had made a hummingbird, thinking I would like to take home a handicraft as a souvenir. “I only have that one,” she said, pointing behind me, where the ceremonial outfit of Mü the hummingbird hung. The paint on the face was a little smeared, and the sisal bark cloth was a little torn from having been used in several pelazones. It was like a lifer from the great beyond.


In the mornings I awake to the song of a bird that asks me, with a melancholic melody consisting of three notes, Where are you?

To attract birds, some observers use playback, reproducing the call or song of a bird so that another of the same species will come. Attraction works for many reasons: helping a colleague in trouble, finding a mate, defending territory from competitors. Oto enjoys imitating the call of a cinnamon-colored pygmy owl, Glaucidium brasilianum. A small, reddish and white bird, it’s called locally dos caritas (two little faces) because it has spots like eyes on the back of its head. When his own hooting doesn’t work, Oto plays a recording of the owl, and a swarm of little birds—tanagers, finches, flycatchers— congregates in the nearest tree like a mob ready to lynch their own predator. Although Aristotle called this behavior “admiration,” today it is more appropriately known as “harassment,” and it is a fascinating behavior of the smallest and most vulnerable birds that come together to face the potential danger of a predator.

I have longed to see one of those owls that Oto mimics. A traveler who stayed in a reservation a little farther away brought photos of a baby owl that had been left without a nest after some peasants cut down a patch of forest and set it on fire to grow an orchard. The Indigenous farmer picked up the owl, despite its tentative defense, and put it in a nearby place where it might have a chance of being found by its parents.

Oto is often at a crossroads: the birder’s most basic satisfaction lies in seeing the bird. The difficulty it takes to get there gives us a sense of accomplishment, but the difficulty should only be seemingly insurmountable. Because for many, bird-watching is not a matter of process but of result. One enjoys crossing the bird off the list that one came to see. It’s an ephemeral pleasure, if it can be described at all as a pleasure. It is the satisfaction of fulfilling an obsession.

In my case, I also enjoy “failure,” long walks through the jungle that allow for the placid appreciation of nature without necessarily seeing birds. But I know it’s hard to have a tool available and not use it, especially for someone who provides services in the hospitality industry. If you need to attract birds as a guide, how can you not do it, especially if it means the difference between pleasing a client or having them leave disappointed? The matter is complicated by numbers: if guides like Oto are successful, they’ll be hired by many birders. Their activity multiplies, and the same goes for employing a tool that should be used sparingly. After all, playback confuses and can affect the behavior of birds: if we deceive them so often, they can no longer trust their ears—they remain stressed by non-existent competitors or are made euphoric by illusory lovers.

One night, we finally searched for owls. The forest fell dismally silent. The toads stop croaking and the tarantulas slipped into their burrows. The only creatures that seemed ecstatic were the moths that crashed into my face, attracted by the headlamp. The forest was so quiet that the bats hovered in alarm above us, not sure where they were.

It was a frustrating outing, and it was evident that Oto’s failure to find any birds put him in a bad mood. All the same, I stumbled upon a tarantula on a trunk at eye level and learned how butterflies sleep, perched face down on twigs.

We crossed a long stretch of tall grasses that reached my shoulders. This patch of forest was very dense. In general, Oto does not have to bend down or contort, because his dimensions are suited to the height of this jungle. I, on the other hand, bumped into everything and collected cobwebs on my head. Just days earlier, I was close to stepping on a mapaná, Bothrops atrox, a dangerously venomous snake. Then I almost stepped on an equatorial mussurana that I saw just in time. It startled me, as I took it for another mapaná. Oto was very calm because he said that after he was bitten by a coral when he was a child, an Indigenous healer cast a spell on him, and now snakes avoid his path. But what about mine?

On our way back, defeated at not having seen any owls, we sat down on a felled log in a recently burned patch. We wondered if the expansion of the orchards in the area was responsible for us not encountering any nocturnal birds—and almost no animals. A few days earlier, we heard how one of the members of the reservation felled a huge tree near the riverbank. It was a red oak that prevented landslides and was home to a large family of pygmy marmosets. Oto had been putting out owl and common potoo songs to attract something in the deafening silence. While we were on the log, a bird responded to one of our calls. Oto located the source and shone his flashlight into the twinkling eyes of a common pauraque, Nyctidromus albicollis, perched on a stump. In order to escape the beam of light, it jumped to the fallen trunk of the tree and from there back to the stump, until it was convinced that the only way to get away from us was to leave its comfortable seat and go into the thicket. It was the first of its kind that I had seen. I managed to record its calls.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov, famously enamored of butterflies, professed a feverish love for them from a young age. That love coexisted with the pleasure of capturing them, taking their lives and listening to the cracking of their thoraxes when he impaled them with pins in a box. Nabokov was particularly impressed by the mimetic ability of butterflies. For him, natural selection, which had privileged this defense mechanism, was not enough to explain the acrobatics and subtleties that butterflies reached in their imitation of a dry leaf, with all its gratuitous shades and nuances and the holes the worms would make on its surface, which would not particularly mislead the gaze of a predator. In that behavior “he discovered the non-utilitarian delights he sought in art.”

Nabokov was also a net-in-hand type of collector. His outings were rewarded with the increase of his inventory, a monumental collection that he nurtured throughout his life, full of specimens of increasingly rare species, including the Karner blue butterfly that he described for the first time. We bird-watchers, for our part, have lists, our drawings, the photos that many take as tokens that allow us to satisfy our longing to possess a creature without killing it.

Many people with the temperament of poachers, who in other times would have crossed the world in search of exotic species to dissect and hang on the walls of their study, also cross the world but are content to shoot birds with expensive lenses as long as rifles, taking pictures to post on their Instagram walls. That simulation is preferable, if we consider that in the course of its life a single bird can appear on the walls of countless hunters.

Take one hardcore Austrian birder who has traveled to see only three species. Oto acted as his guide. Although the fellow estimated that it might take him a week to find his targets, Otodispatched all three species in the course of a morning. The stunned birder crossed them off his list, more relieved than happy, then locked himself in his room. He told Oto that he’s all set, that they don’t have to go out again, that he’ll rest for the next few days. Oto was somewhat puzzled. Since the man would be in the Amazon for a week, wasn’t he interested in enjoying nature beyond having captured his targets?

But perhaps I’m being unjust. Maybe the hardcore birders are looking for something more akin to poetry, only by means that are incomprehensible to me. It may be that after years and years of birding, it gets harder and harder to achieve that sense of awe, and that its power becomes less intense.

For someone nearsighted like me, bird-watching presents clear challenges. I often confuse a leaf or the tip of a stick with the silhouette of a bird. I think I have cleverly discovered a camouflaged bird but no, the birds all go more or less unnoticed. Or at least that’s how Oto’s exceptional eyesight makes me feel. He sees small birds at ground level among dense bushes 15 or 20 meters away in a closed forest, and he does me the favor of pointing them out with the help of a laser.

After several days of long and exhausting walks, I discarded the possibility of getting up at five in the morning to start a new one, and although I did not set the alarm, I was awakened by the guans around the house that begin their thunderous chorus of cackling at six in the morning, when the tinamou have finished their song. My neck was sore, so I did some exercises so as not to end up like those inhabitants of the bird-watchers’ island. As I came down from my room, even though I had given no sign that I intended to go birding (as my pajamas confirmed), Oto was putting on his boots, looking at me as if to say, “Ready?” I played dumb.

“Where are you going, Oto?”

“Well, to bird with you,” he said, inflecting his voice as if saying the most obvious and tender thing in the world. I was paying this gentleman to do something he loves to do and would do even without me. “Look over there, Karim, that’s a good critter,” he would forever tell me, pointing the camera at the creature to take another picture. His fellow members of the Ticuna community are also a bit puzzled by his sense of wonderment. The paths of the reservation are full of trees from which hang the nests of crested oropendolas. His neighbors caught us looking at them all the time, asking him, “Why look at the cornbird again?” No, he told them, this was not a simple cornbird, but a Casqued oropendola, or a green oropendola, or an oropendola like this and like that. And if you look closely, every bird has something special, even if you see the same species many times.

I feel a particular fascination for the very common black vultures that I saw in droves. Their common name in Spanish, chulo (which also means “pimp”), is discordant with their dignified demeanor. These winged gravediggers carry with them a permanent reminder of death but also of the life that comes from it. Resting on their perches, the chulos imbue the trees with solemnity, like a funeral procession of tropical gargoyles. In my country, chulos are eternally associated with war, with the vast number of violent deaths that have surrounded us for so many decades. Of the deaths without the possibility of burial, much to the anguish of relatives who see or suppose their loved ones devoured by birds and dogs. I am moved by their grave silence, because they lack the syrinxes that allow other birds to sing.

One of the most exciting encounters of the trip occurred when Oto and I were on a bare hill above the Patrullero forests. We spotted the silhouettes of three vultures in the sky, but, as they approached, one of them revealed itself to be larger, whiter and more ornate. It was Sarcoramphus papa, the “king vulture,” escorted by two coragyps, guards of his majesty. His presence was awe-inspiring. The plumage was a resplendent white, ending in black tips. His neck was red and yellow, and his beak appeared to be decorated with colorful ornaments, all ending in a yellow tip. It was horrific and majestic.

There is a name for the vulture that seems more accurate than chulo: “auras.” The aura is a soft and gentle wind, an exhalation, an expiration, barely a breath. I suppose this name has to do with the bird’s powerful sense of smell or with its efficient way of staying in flight, gliding while barely flapping its wings. But I also like the fact that it coincides with the idea that death can be a gentle breath, as life is but a breath. I think I understand the aura as the emanation of a body that was alive. Do they take the soul with them?

All birders are overwhelmed by an astonishment that is difficult to explain to those who do not feel it spontaneously when they see a bird magnified through binoculars. A tremor, a joy at an aspect of life that had gone unnoticed until now and that acquires a magnetic vitality. It is not only that the size of the birds increases but that their movements acquire willfulness, as if we were realizing for the first time that they are alive. We don’t just see them, they see us. The king of the vultures gazed at us from a height with those intimidating eyes, their black pupils and white irises outlined by an orange contour.

We have all always perceived birds as things that flutter at the margins of our vision. Very occasionally, we have a charismatic encounter, something that makes us observe them more closely. A blackbird might climb onto our table to steal food, a sparrow might crash against a window and hurt itself, a hummingbird might nest on a fence in front of our house. Binoculars permit such encounters to happen frequently, and the practice of observation ensures that each encounter takes on something charismatic. These encounters allow us to admire ourselves in communion with that of which we are a part. A thrill that can come from an anaconda that bites you, a butterfly that tricks you by imitating a leaf or a bird that is death in bloom flying above you, alive and watching.


Karim Ganem Maloof

Karim Ganem Maloof is the editor in chief of El Malpensante, the oldest and most relevant literary and longform journalism magazine in Colombia. He is a winner of the Simón Bolívar Journalism award for his food writing. His first book, Calor Residual, a collection of his food writing, was just published by Hammbre De Cultura.

The Amazon is famous for its biodiversity, as a home to innumerable types of animals and plants. Less frequently extolled is the extraordinary human ecosystem that’s grown around the river and its surrounding jungle. Indigenous tribes, missionaries, loggers, miners, soldiers, ...

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