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Bird Brain: Meet Colombia Tour Leader Greg Homel, Ornithologist Extraordinaire
By Bret Love
Raised in California, Greg Homel has been a nature lover from a very early age, but birds have always held a special place in his heart. The avid ornithologist has been guiding birding tours since the late ‘80s, establishing himself as an award-winning photojournalist, documentary film producer and lecturer.
He’s traveled to all seven continents and seen more than half of the world’s 9,800 or so bird species in their native habitats. So when he describes Colombia as “the world's most bird-rich nation,” the man knows what he’s talking about!
Here, we take time to get to know a little more about IE’s Colombia Tour Expedition Leader, from his early interest in nature and his fascination with birds to his favorite places for bird-watching in Colombia.
How did you originally become interested in nature?
I'm a fortunate "victim of geography," having grown up in Sherman Oaks, California, with the chaparral-clad Santa Monica Mountains foothills as my backyard! Even though I've been lucky enough to visit all seven continents and most of the world's major biomes in my career, those wonderful hills I explored during my formative years still stand out as some of the most natural and inspiring places I've ever seen.
At what age did you realize you had a particular fascination with birds?
It was early, and one of my first memories of wild nature. Nesting Cliff Swallows were visible right outside my second story bedroom window one summer. I asked my mother what kind of birds they were. She replied, "They're swallows!" At first I tried to correct her on the ID, because they didn't have forked-tails like the swallows depicted in my children's nature guides (including A Golden Guide to Birds). Alas, she was correct... and the rest is history!
What is it about birds – as opposed to butterflies or frogs or some other species – that speaks to you?
Birds are an important part of the natural world and, because many are migratory– they're natural emissaries from distant and alluring biomes far and wide– they offer a connection to the same! But my interest in nature is not at all limited to birds. It would be remiss to intellectually limit myself in such a way. But to be good at anything, you need to have a specialty. For me, birds are that specialty!
Let's talk about Colombia. Most people are familiar with big cities like Cartagena or Bogota, but know very little about the country's natural beauty. When did you take your first trip to Colombia, and what made the place so special to you?
My first visit to Colombia was in the mid-1990s, when I reached the border from Estado Merida, Venezuela, in the Northern Andes. I was on the trail of the Bearded Helmetcrest – a high-Andean hummingbird found only in Colombia and Venezuela – and luckily succeeded in finding this wonderful bird. The allure of being on the border of the world's most bird-rich nation was so strong that I knew I’d be back one day to explore the country. I've since had the privilege of leading a half-dozen birding expeditions to all three of Colombia's Andean cordilleras, the Caribbean, the Llanos and the Amazon, and the Santa Marta massif, seeing nearly 1,000 species in the process. The country is so bio-diverse, and so rich in ornithological delights and natural history, that I’ve still only scratched the surface.
Can you talk about a few of your favorite places in Colombia that IE travelers will be able to experience for themselves?
I'm particularly drawn to Sanctuario De Flora y Fauna Del Otun Quimbaya (a.k.a. Otun Quimbaya Natural Park) and Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco (a.k.a. Rio Blanco Ecological Reserve). You can often see the endangered Cauca Guan (which was considered possibly extinct when I first started studying Colombian birds), the difficult to find Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, and the Torrent Duck at Otun Quimbaya. And it's possible to see and photograph up to seven species of the normally elusive antpittas at Rio Blanco’s feeders! The reserve's manager, a good friend of mine, has worked for years to bring the dream of viewing these feathered will-o-the-wisps from dream to reality. These birds are the ambassadors for their cloud-forest environment. Once seen, they'll never be forgotten!
Any personal advice you can offer to IE guests about getting the most out of their Colombia travel experience?
Come with an active mind, a flexible spirit of adventure and an eye for the beauty of nature, and you can't go wrong! I think the naturally gracious hospitality and friendliness of the Colombian people will not only impress, but serve to dispel any anxieties one might have had about the former state of affairs of this now readily accessible natural history treasure. Like me, you'll want to return again and again…
Watch this webinar hosted by Greg to learn more about travel to Colombia.
Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.
All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions