BOGOTA – Broad-winged hawks at this time of year continue their migration back to North America from Combeima Canyon, a natural enclave on the Cordillera Central mountain range in Colombia, where they make a stopover to rest on their seasonal flight home from the continent’s southern region.
The flight of these hawks (Buteo Platypterus or Buteo swainsoni), natives of Canada and the United States, crosses 13 countries on their 10,000- to 12,000-kilometer (6,200- to 7,500-mile) journey.
In Argentina it is common to see them soaring over Mendoza, Salta and Neuquen as they begin their return migration.
As winter approaches in the south, the hawks spread their broad wings, which measure up to 1 meter (3 feet), and reach Colombia between March and April.
Every day their flight over the mountains of this coffee-growing country is around 200 kilometers, and varies from 375 to 2,500 meters above sea level.
The birds reach Combeima Canyon, considered a buffer zone for Los Nevados Natural National Park in the central province of Tolima, in the Lenten season, from which their local name is derived (“aguila cuaresmera” from “Cuaresma” meaning Lent).
In this part of the country, home of the spectacled bear, the rufous-fronted parakeet and the mountain tapir, one of the four tapir species found in the Americas, the migrating hawks land to rest after flying over the municipalities of Planadas, Rioblanco, Chaparral and San Antonio, scenes in the past of the bloodiest episodes of Colombia’s armed conflict.
“On what is known as the Autumnal Migratory Route, these birds of prey migrate through Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Argentina, where they find better feeding and weather conditions,” Executive Director Pedro Alvaro Bahamon of the Rio Cocora Foundation told EFE.
From September to October they are seen in the Colombian provinces of Cundinamarca and Boyaca, as well as in the central part of the country, after which they continue their migration south, gliding much of the way to save energy.
Later these birds of prey, which feed chiefly on insects, snakes, lizards and rodents, begin their return trip to North America.
The sight they offer in Combeima Canyon is admired both by locals and tourists who come from as far away as Germany, France and the Netherlands to observe the fauna of the area.
However, the broad-winged hawks, of which 1 million flew into Tolima in 2005, are today gravely threatened by hunters.
“We’ve had reports they are hunted to be eaten and that there are now even contests to see which hunter can kill the most,” the veterinarian Bahamon said.
These human “predators” hunt them at night, flashlight in hand, when the birds are resting in the treetops after their long flight.
For that reason Bahamon, who is also director of the Broad-winged Hawk Biological Station, said “they can no longer flock into the places they used to because either people have destroyed the forests or they shoot the birds or apply agrochemicals which also finish them off.”
So great is the problem that the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Tolima (Cortolima) has said that their way of hunting consists of “lighting up their pupils to locate them and then shooting the flock” with buckshot.
Those within the radius of the shooting “die immediately and the rest lie wounded among the crops,” the organization said in a statement, which also noted that the hawks generally suffer fractured wings and legs or perforated intestines.
So it’s no wonder that the number of these migratory birds has dropped dramatically, to the point that estimates put the number arriving on their best days at around 150,000.
In order to raise awareness in the community about the importance of these “foreign visitors” as a biological control, the Rio Cocora Foundation, the Environmental Police and Cortolima, among other organizations, recently celebrated a Bird Festival.
As part of this project, 700 schoolchildren in Combeima Canyon were taught why people in Colombia must let broad-winged hawks continue their migration home.