GUYANA BIRDING TRIP REPORT
2008 Guyana Fam Trip
One of us (Jim) was among 9 people invited by the Guyana Tourism Authority and Carana Corporation to explore Guyana on a familiarization trip and discover its marvelous birding opportunities. Our group consisted of 3 Americans including Jim Wittenberger from Exotic Birding, 3 British tour operators, 1 Ecuadorian tour operator, 1 German tour operator, and 1 Swiss journalist. We met a variety of lodge operators, government officials, and consultants involved in a concerted effort to promote Guyana as a birding and cultural tour destination. During our 9 full days in Guyana our group saw or heard 321 species of birds including a variety of endemics only found in the Guianan Shield region of northeastern South America. We also visited and explored several Guianan Shield rock formations, some of the oldest surface rock in the world at approx. 2.5 billion years of age, and two Amerindian villages.
Our tour began in the capital city of Georgetown with a visit to the botanical gardens. The gardens are an excellent location to see a variety of parrots. During our morning excursion we saw Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Red-shouldered Macaw, Golden-winged Parakeet, Festive Amazon, Yellow-crowned Amazon, Orange-winged Amazon, and Mealy Amazon. One of our main target birds was the endemic Blood-colored Woodpecker, and we had great looks at 3 individuals near the end of our visit. Raptors we saw there included Pearl Kite, White-tailed Kite, Snail Kite, and White-tailed Hawk. Other notable birds we saw were Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Short-crested Flycatcher, Black-capped Donacobius, Turquoise Tanager, Burnished-buff Tanager, Wing-barred Seedeater, and Carib Grackle.
From Georgetown we flew by 13-passenger aircraft into the interior of Guyana. We saw large expanses of rice fields irrigated by an extensive network of gravitationally driven canals laid out in rectangular grids near Georgetown. Within 40 miles of Georgetown we were flying over vast expanses of nearly unspoiled tropical rainforest. Several gold mining operations created isolated smudges within the forests, which are otherwise little touched by logging or human activity. Guyana is an under-populated country with a total population of about 750,000 people, most of whom live on the coast, and hence the human impact on the rainforests to date has been quite minimal.
Our first destination was Iwokrama Field Station, located on the Essequibo River. The field station is accessible only by a short boat ride from the only north-south highway, a dirt road, transecting the country, although they plan on building road access to it in the near future. There is an airstrip near the field station, but our flight was diverted to a different airstrip farther south. Hence, upon arrival we drove the hard-pan, well maintained dirt road north to the field station from Rock View Lodge, where we would return in a few days. The road transects natural savanna near Rock View, scrub forest, and then primary rainforest as we drove north. En route we saw an interesting variety of birds, including several Black Curassows on the road itself. Other birds we saw included Jabiru, Scarlet Macaw, Black Nunbird, White-throated Toucan, Channel-billed Toucan, the endemic Green Aracari, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Blue Dacnis, and Red-rumped Cacique. We saw many raptors, including several soaring King Vultures, the seasonally numerous migrant Plumbeous Kite, Gray Hawk, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle soaring high overhead, Black Caracara, Red-throated Caracara, Northern Caracara, Yellow-headed Caracara, and great looks at both Aplomado Falcon and Bat Falcon.
During our short boat trip on the Essequibo River to the field station, we saw Capped Heron, Great Black-Hawk, Southern Lapwing, Yellow-billed Tern, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, White-winged Swallow and other more common birds. Upon our arrival at the field station itself, we saw Red-and-green Macaw and Painted Parakeet. The field station offers good cabana accommodations with comfortable beds that were very suitable for our group.
Early next morning we hiked the Turtle Mountain Trail into the rainforest near the field station. Most of the trail was relatively flat, though the last part was up a fairly steep ridgeline to an overlook where we could see the forest canopy and Essequibo River. On the steeper part of the trail we heard Gray-winged Trumpeters, a shy bird that will show itself if people sit quietly but not usually otherwise, and the very colorful endemic Red-and-black Grosbeak, a truly beautiful bird. Other birds we saw on the trail included the endemic Caica Parrot, several lovely Red-fan Parrots that posed in a tree near a forest clearing, White-flanked Antwren, Black-chinned Antbird, the spectacular White-plumed Antbird, Rufous-throated Antbird, Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant, Screaming Piha, Blue-backed Tanager, and Yellow-green Grosbeak. That afternoon we went birding along the main (only) road again. On the boat to the road we saw a Brown Capuchinbird fly across the river. We had looked for it in the morning on its traditional lek site and heard them but hadn't seen them so we were very glad to see this quite bizarre bird. Along the road itself we saw Scarlet Macaw, Red-and-green Macaw, Black-headed Parrot, Blue-headed Parrot, Paradise Jacamar, Black Nunbird, Green Aracari, Black-necked Aracari, the same toucan species we'd seen the day before, Red-necked Woodpecker, Mouse-colored Antshrike, Cinereous Antshrike, Yellow-throated Flycatcher, a female Guianan Red-Cotinga, Black-tailed Tityra, Green Oropendola, Moriche Oriole (where we landed the boat to meet our vehicles), and Giant Cowbird. In late afternoon we spent some time waiting at Mile 26 until dusk, where Jaguars are sometimes seen crossing the road, with no luck. After dark we spotted several Blackish Nightjars and Common Potoos near and along the road back to the boat launch.
The following morning we departed Iwokrama Field Station and drove back south along the same road, birding as we went. We again saw Black Curassows along the road, as well as various raptors and other birds we had seen the previous two days. Some new species we hadn't seen previously were Golden-winged Parakeet, Dusky Parrot, Black-bellied Cuckoo, White-winged Potoo, Reddish Hermit, a couple spectacularly colored Crimson Topaz hummingbirds, one of which perched for a long time over a creek near the road for a wonderful photo op, Black-eared Fairy, the endemic Guianan Puffbird, a recent split from White-necked Puffbird, Long-tailed Tyrant, Flame-crested Tanager, and Lesser Seed-Finch. We also heard but did not see Rufous-capped Antthrush, Black-faced Antthrush, and Thrush-like Antpitta. En route south we stopped for a hike through Mori Scrub habitat, where several specialty birds can be found. There we saw White-chinned Sapphire, Glittering-throated Emerald, Spotted Puffbird, Rufous-bellied Antwren, Black Manakin and White-crowned Manakin. One of our tour organizers saw a Black Puma along the road while transporting our luggage south, but those of us in the group all missed it. Another of the tour organizers saw a Gray-winged Trumpeter along the road while we were hiking through the Mori Scrub.
We arrived at Atta Rainforest Lodge at mid-day. This lodge is still a work in progress and offered hammocks under open-air shelters with shared bathrooms plus a dining area as the main accommodations. The plan is to convert the shelters into 8 self-contained rooms with private bath during by September 2008. The lodge is located within the rainforest not far off the main road, and one of it's attractions is a canopy walkway that consists of suspended bridges between several viewing platforms in the forest canopy. Just at the base of the hike up the ridgeline where the canopy is located, we spotted a large, approx. 2-meter long Fer-de-Lance lying across the trail. Needless to say, we waited patiently until the snake decided to leave and give us access to the trail up. The bird activity was fairly slow on the canopy walkway itself, but we did see Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Black-spotted Barbet, the endemic Guianan Toucanet, Chestnut Woodpecker, the endemic Todd's Antwren, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, and distant views of a female Pompadour Cotinga
We returned to the canopy walkway next morning, where activity was still slow. We saw Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Blue-crowned Motmot, Black Nunbird, White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans, Black-throated Antbird, Pompodour Cotinga, Yellow-green Grosbeak, and Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Later that morning our group split up for the nest two days, with half the group going to the village of Surama while the other half visited the village of Aranaputa. The groups then changed places the next day. Most of the birders in the group went to Surama that afternoon.
The road between Atta Rainforest Lodge and Sarama traverses a transitional zone where the forest gives way to natural savanna. Still in the forest, we stopped at a known lek of Guiana Cock-of-the-Rock, where we saw a goregous male perched in the forest and a juvenile so close we could have touched it huddled on a ledge of the rock overhang. We didn't spend much time birding en route to Surama but we did see Gray Hawk, Black-collared Hawk, and Band-rumped Swift.
The Amerindian village of Surama offers suitable accommodations in a small lodge with thatched cabanas and an open-air restaurant. It's situated in a natural savanna surrounded by woodland and rainforest. In the open areas around the village we saw the vulture-mimic Zone-tailed Hawk as well as Scaled Pigeon, Red-shouldered Macaw, Brown-throated Parakeet, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Black-tailed Tityra, and Pale-breasted Thrush. After settling in and having lunch, we went on a mile-long hike through the forest to a known Harpy Eagle nest. We were led by two young boys from the village who could follow a trail that became quite indiscernible to us as we approached the next. Along the trail we saw Spix's Guan and Rufous-bellied Antwren despite the rain that began falling. We finally reached the nest, where we were rewarded with good views of a young Harpy Eagle who perched above the nest for a bit before flying into the forest. We also saw a Double-toothed Kite near the nest. In late afternoon we went looking for potoss and found both Great Potoo and Common Potoo roosting in an open woodland a short walk from our lodge. Some people also saw the endemic Finsch's Euphonia near the village.
The following morning we found several Cayenne Jays in the open scrub around the village. We hiked the trail to Burro Burro River and took a short wooden boat ride down the river. Probably the best bird of the morning was the endemic Guianan Streaked-Antwren. Other birds we saw during this excursion included Cocoi Heron, Lilac-tailed Parrotlets flying overhead, Great Antshrike, the canadensis subspecies of Black-crested Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, Black-chinned Antbird, Streaked Flycatcher, Capuchinbird, Golden-headed Manakin, Black-crowned Tityra, White-banded Swallow, Buff-breasted Wren, Violaceous Euphonia, and Pectoral Sparrow.
At mid-day we departed Surama, birding the open savanna along the road on our way out of the village. We saw a variety of open country birds including White-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Southern Lapwing, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Red-breasted Blackbird. Our next destination was Rock View Lodge, certainly the most comfortable lodge we stayed at during our trip. That afternoon we visited the nearby village of Aranaputa, where we were treated to a demonstration of peanut-butter making at the village "factory" and then a wonderful welcoming ceremony at the Amerindian school during which the children performed a variety of traditional dances. Afterwards, we hiked up nearby Panorama Trail, a rather steep trail up to a vantage point overlooking the valley. The trail undoubtedly offers some good birding in early morning, but birding was a bit slow in the afternoon. Some birds we saw were White-chinned Sapphire, the endemic Green-tailed Jacamar, and Variegated Flycatcher.
Next morning we saw Buff-necked Ibis in the savanna behind the lodge. After breakfast we packed up and drove south through open savanna, birding en route to the boat launch on the Rupununi River. Birds we saw along the road included Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, White-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Aplomado Falcon, Sooty-capped Hermit, our only looks at a Toco Toucan which is very locally distributed in Guyana, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Small-billed Elaenia, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Spangled Cotinga, Grassland Sparrow, Gray Seedeater, Plumbeous Seedeater, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Lesser Seedeater, Orange-backed Troupial, and Red-breasted Blackbird.
When we reached the Rupununi River, we were met by Diane McTurk, famed for her work rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned Giant Otters. Our next destination would be Diane's Karanambu Ranch, where she has established very nice accommodations in thatched cabanas on her ranch. During the ensuing 2-hour boat trip up the Rupununi River, we were treated to fine views of wild Giant Otters and Neotropic Otters as well as Boat-billed Heron, Cocoi Heron, various other herons, Green Ibis, Osprey, Gray Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Black-collared Hawk, Limpkin, Sunbittern, Pied Lapwing, Large-billed Tern, Short-tailed Swift, 3 species of kingfishers, Swallow-wing, Amazonian Scrub-Flycatcher, Pied Water-Tyrant, Lesser Kiskadee, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, Capuchinbird, and White-winged Swallow. Upon our arrival at Karanambu, we saw the endemic Little Chachalaca, White-chested Emerald at the feeders, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Thrush, Burnished-buff Tanager, Finsch's Euphonia, and Red-capped Cardinal. In late afternoon we took an excursion by boat to see the amazing Giant Water-lilies, whose beautiful white flowers open as the sun goes down. At dusk and after dark we saw Lesser Nighthawk and Band-tailed Nighthawk along the river as we returned to Karanambu. We also saw numerous Tree Boas that we found by their eye shine. Later in the evening after dinner we went out to the grassy landing strip where we found White-winged Nightjar. It's possible to see up to 8 species of nightjars at Karanambu depending on the season.
Next morning some hands at Karanambu found a sleeping site of Giant Anteater, and we all had great views of this amazing animal. We also saw several Savanna Fox in the area. Birds we saw in the savanna included King Vulture, several Double-striped Thick-knees along the dirt track, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, great views of Bearded Tachuri, Grassland Sparrow, Grassland Yellow-Finch, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Plumbeous Seedeater, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. At the lodge feeders we had our only sighting of White-tailed Goldenthroat, as well as Glittering-throated Emerald and White-chested Emerald. Around the lodge and on a short trail down to the river we saw Black-crested Antshrike, Guianan Slaty-Antshrike, White-flanked Antwren, Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant, Short-crested Flycatcher, Capuchinbird, Blue-backed Manakin, and Bicolored Wren.
From Karanambu we took a charter flight by small plane to Dadanawa, the world largest cattle ranch. Dadanawa covers an expanse of 1700 sq. miles, large parts of which are under water during the rainy season. The accommodations at this working cattle ranch were quite basic but comfortable, and food was plentiful. Everyone was taken by the colorful and very friendly vaqueros, who demonstrated some of their skills for us. All had a strong interest in birds and wildlife, and they were most helpful finding birds for us. During the afternoon we drove some dirt tracks in 4-wheel drive vehicles and hiked up onto an outcrop of the Guianan Shield where we could look out over the valley below. Among the birds we saw were White-faced Whistling-Duck, Buff-necked Ibis, Jabiru, Aplomado Falcon, South American Snipe, Eared Dove, Burrowing Owl, White-collared Swift, Brown-chested Martin, Buff-breasted Wren, Finsch's Euphonia, and Shiny Cowbird.
Next day we took an excursion some 20 miles from the ranch buildings, all on ranch property. Our primary target bird was the beautiful Red Siskin. This bird has been nearly exterminated in Venezuela and Columbia because it is in demand by the pet trade and was considered on the brink of extinction until a significant population of some 1000 individuals was discovered on the Dadanawa Ranch. Our best sighting was a male Red Siskin that perched for some time on a small tree a couple hundred feet from where we parked just after our arrival in the area. For many of us, this bird was one of the biggest highlights of our tour. We walked around a hillock of black Guianan Shield rock and saw several individual siskins flying by as well. The siskins were fairly dispersed during our visit, but at other times of year, notably October-November, they form flocks and are more easily seen. In addition to the siskins, we saw numerous Crested Bobwhite, White-tailed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Red-bellied Macaw, Red-shouldered Macaw, Fork-tailed Palm-Swift, Black-crested Antshrike, Lesser Elaenia, Swainson's Flycatcher, Short-crested Flycatcher, Bicolored Wren, Yellowish Pipit, Lowland Hepatic Tanager, Finsch's Euphonia, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, and Yellow Oriole.
Our last morning at Dadanawa began our last day of birding on the tour. We went out early and found another Giant Anteater that had been followed to a sleeping site by trackers who work on the ranch. This individual was special because she had a baby with her. Babies are rarely seen even by ranch hands, so it was a special treat seeing a half-grown anteater riding on the back of its mother. Most of the birds we saw this morning were repeats of the previous days. We did see Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets flying overhead near the river. Other birds of note included Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, good looks at the endemic Golden-spangled Piculet, Pale-legged Hornero, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Blue-backed Manakin, White-winged Becard, Ashy-headed Greenlet, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Grayish Saltator.
After breakfast we boarded our charter plane for a flight to Kaieteur Falls, the world's highest free-falling waterfall at 741 ft. and nearly five times the height of Niagra Falls in the US. The falls are picturesque not merely for their height, but also because of the striking rust color from minerals in the water as it flows over the precipice into the Potaro River canyon far below. One must be careful here as there are no railings or other safeguards, unlike more easily accessible places that tourists are accustomed to. These falls are in a remote area of Guyana reachable only by plane or expedition trekking up the Potaro River. We spent 2 hours at the falls, and while there we had excellent views of a male Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock in the Giant Bromeliad forest nearby. Here bromeliads grow as tall as trees, and an endemic yellow-colored frog lives in pools inside these plants. A major birding attraction are the swifts attracted to the insect activity generated by the falls. The swifts gather especially at dusk, a spectacle we missed on our visit due to the tight schedule and the fact that the only accommodations are hammocks under shelters at the park headquarters. We saw White-chinned Swift, Tepui Swift, White-collared Swift, and Band-rumped Swift at the falls. We didn't see White-tipped Swifts, which are also possible here. Other birds we saw around the falls included Little Chachalaca and Cliff Flycatcher.
We arrived back in Georgetown late that afternoon, quite a contrast to the remoteness of Kaieteur Falls. We were treated to a city tour, where we saw numerous government buildings left over from British colonial days, a variety of churches, schools, monuments, homes in wealthy neighborhoods, not-so-wealthy neighborhoods, and open-air markets. We learned that Georgetown is actually located 6 ft. below high tide and is protected by a concrete seawall that runs much the length of the country and protects it from flooding. On our last evening we were treated to a farewell dinner at Cara Lodge in Georgetown, where we dined with the Executive Director of Guyana Tourism Authority, the lodge owner, the owners of Dadanawa Ranch, the British High Commissioner and his wife, and various other dignitaries. It was a special evening and left us all feeling a strong desire to return to Guyana and share its unspoiled beauty with birders who would fully appreciate what this amazing and as yet little-known country has to offer.