Torrent Ducks are the thrill-seekers of the avian world. Very few birds – or animals for that matter – would plunge head-first into the churning cauldrons of some of South America’s most treacherous rivers. But Torrent Ducks are fearless and to witness some of their daredevil feats ranks pretty high in the book “1000 Avian Spectacles to See Before You Die”. A book that I have not yet written.
On a recent filming trip to Colombia with Aderman (my notorious/nefarious videographer), Birding Tours Colombia and Richard Crossley, I was fortunate enough to see some of this death-wish behavior first-hand. Although Torrent Ducks are fairly widespread throughout much of South America they are a declining species in most places due to hydroelectric schemes, introduced trout, pollution and erosion of riverside habitat. Otun Quimbaya remains a very good place to view this highly enigmatic and entertaining species.
Searching for Torrent Ducks proved more difficult than expected and we looked for quite a while until we found a breeding pair. Seeing only the male or female really doesn’t cut it as these birds are the epitome of sexual dimorphism. Before Corey and Mike get complaints about my lewd remarks let me clarify that this is a scientific term that describes instances where the male and female of a species look different from each other. But you already knew that and I’m just trying to reach 1,000 words so that Corey sends me 10 gold stars.
We initially only found a male Torrent Duck and later on, only a female. The female was really tough to film and we had to crawl across a broken bridge, navigate a swarm of stinging bees, run through mud and squeeze through barbed wire. All just to get a glimpse of her. Aderman was livered (as evidenced in the below video). But boy am I glad we went to hell and back to get the shots. Because after we found that female she led us right to a male. And did they put on a show! The couple engaged in a beautiful display as another pair of ducks entered their territory. They then proceeded to drive the other ducks off. Funnily enough it was the female that was most aggressive, charging through the violent waters and viciously biting the other birds.
Torrent Ducks share their habitat in Colombia with another striking and highly unusual species, the White-capped Dipper. These beautiful counterparts of the more familiar American and European Dippers are indicators of water quality and are unlikely to be found in any streams of dubious H20 purity. Whilst searching for the ducks it just made birding sense to keep an eye out for these little beauties.
I’ve always been mesmerized by the notion of an aquatic songbird. How freakin bizarre is that?? Its almost as outlandish as an aquatic squirrel. Almost. My son tells me that there are such things as aquatic squirrels. He has seen one on Spongebob Squarepants. I find that hard to believe.
Spending time with the dippers was awesome. It is fascinating to watch them hunt in these fast-moving streams and interesting to note that they do not submerge themselves as the other northern dipper species, preferring instead to keep their heads above water most of the time. To the untrained eye a dipper appears like an ordinary songbird. It has regular songbird-like feet and is the general shape and size of a regular songbird. But delve a bit deeper and dippers reveal the secrets to their watery success.
Covered by dense plumage and blessed with rather large preen glands, dippers are well-insulated against the turbulent waters. They have short and strongly-muscled wings that can act as instruments of flight or as flippers. Long legs with sharp toes enable them to cling onto rocks and vertical surfaces. Their eyes have the ability to change the curvature of the eye-lens to enable proficient underwater vision and they even have nasal flaps to prevent water from entering their nostrils. In short these are badass birds and they should be inducted in the Avian Hall of Fame immediately. The guys below…well…not so much.
Otun Quimbaya is also famous for its Red-ruffed Fruitcrows that are as tame as chickens here. Red-ruffed Fruitcrows are a highly sought-after species and are tough to find elsewhere in South America.
But Otun Quimbaya is most famous for the critically endangered Cauca Guans that frequent the fruiting trees around the research station. Colombia is a land chock-full of avian treasures. Just be sure to watch out for disturbed birders. If you stumble across them keep your distance. They are charmed and dangerous.