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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Sensational Suriname, Nov 2-19, 2005,
The paucity of published trip reports on the internet makes it clear that Suriname flies well under the radar of most free independent birders - those who prefer to organize their own itineraries for trips abroad alone or in small groups then bird at their own pace. This deserves to change and it surely will before too long because the country has a great deal to offer - the birding is superb, serving up classic neotropical birds in a pristine rain forest setting, it is safe, logistically straightforward, and it gives excellent value for the money. You can’t ask for much more.
Our own interest in visiting Suriname was piqued by reading that more primary rain forest remains in this small country than in the whole of central America, from southern Mexico through Panama’s Darien region. That is an impressive statistic, especially for people like us for whom the natural backdrop is an important consideration in choosing where we make trips. Underpinned by such an holistic ecological foundation it only makes sense that the birds and other wildlife must be inspiring too.
Although not a huge amount of information is available on the internet for trip planning relative to many neotropical countries, there is still plenty to work up a great trip and set it in motion. Perhaps the best approach is to consult some of the well-known general birding web sites and then follow appropriate links. Just a couple of examples are www.bsc-eoc.org, www.worldtwitch.com, and www.camacdonald.com. In particular, Jan Hein Ribot provides an excellent introduction to the birds and prime birding sites in Suriname (www.webserv.nhl.nl /~ribot/). His checklist gives status codes for each species in 5 main birding regions which we found invaluable for deciding which places to visit and how much time to allot to the respective areas. We also appreciated the only two trip reports we could find, by Jos Wanten and Roland Holz, and by Steven Wytema (both housed at www.birdtours.co.uk) . We organized our trip, albeit not without a few difficulties (see below), through STINASU, the Foundation For Nature Preservation Suriname (www.stinasu.sr). They arranged for all our accommodations, meals (except while in Paramaribo), transportation in Suriname and an outstanding birding guide in the person of Otte Ottema. Although we booked air travel through an agent at home STINASU said they could have done that for us also.
Suriname is the middle of the three tiny former “Guianas” lined up together on the north-east coast of South America. It is a very small country, just 164k sq km/63.5k sq mi and with a population of less than half a million. Until 1975 it was a colony of Holland but has been independent since 1975. Most people speak Dutch though English and other languages are also widely spoken. The vast majority of the population (90-95%) resides in Paramaribo and elsewhere near the coast. This means that there is an awful lot of pristine rain forest (approximately 80% of the country!) where hardly anyone lives - good news for birders, and for conservation of the country’s biodiversity.
Suriname’s geographical position pretty much guarantees that it has something to offer any birder. With its two neighbours it is tucked more-or-less into a triangle bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Orinoco River system to the north-west and the Amazon to the south, all of which can be barriers to the distribution of birds. Mostly the country is flat. This is particularly evident in the 40-100 km wide coastal zone where important bird habitats include very wide mud flats and associated mangroves, various marshes and swamps, and coastal plain forest as well, now, as agricultural and other converted land. Inland from the coastal zone is a fairly narrow belt of what Surinamers call savannah, found on dry white sands. It’s form ranges from extensive scrubby areas with openings to a type of intermediate height forest termed savannah forest, but along the rivers tall gallery forest also occurs. Then begins a wonderfully vast extent of still mostly intact and undisturbed rain forest. Huge granite outcrops of various heights and sizes are sprinkled throughout this interior. The so-called plateau at Brownsberg is the largest of these and is one of the country’s prime birding sites. The highest point in Suriname, at one of the granitic massifs, reaches 1238m (4060 ft) asl. Finally, in the southern extremity of the country adjacent to the Brazilian border lies another area of savannah, the Sipaliwini region.
Each zone, or major habitat type of course supports a community of birds differing to a greater or lesser extent from the others. Thus any trip to Suriname should include visits to each zone. We did not take time to fly into the Sipaliwini savannah although many organised trips do so. We were told that the flights were somewhat pricey, and judging from Jan Hein Ribot’s checklist the number of potential new birds was rather limited. The majority of Suriname’s birds have rather wide distributions, for example many extending well into the vast Amazon and/or Orinoco basins. While none are true endemics (the country being so small) there are nonetheless several “Guianan shield” specialties or near endemics and many more range-restricted species shared only with south eastern Venezuela and/or Brazil north of the Amazon.
We were very happy with the birds we saw – it ranks as one of our best trips. A quick look at the species list will clearly attest to the high quality of birds. Neotropical rain forest means antbirds and Suriname is well endowed with these wonderful birds. Fifty species from the families Thamnophilidae and Formicariidae are on the STINASU checklist and in 16 days we listed 37 of them. We will not soon forget our encounter at Raleigh Falls with two main army ant followers, the charismatic White-plumed and Rufous-throated antbirds, stationed just above marauding ant columns in the dark, shadowy understory and intently scanning for insects trying to get out of the way. Suriname offered the opportunity to see a family we had missed so far in our travels to South America, and we were thrilled to see fabulous Grey-winged Trumpeters 3 days at Brownsberg Nature Park – point blank studies of up to 21 birds at a time. We saw displaying Capuchinbirds and Guianan Red-Cotingas, plus one the finest Cotingas of them all - 30 or more Guianan Cock-of-the-rocks, bright orange clowns in boisterous display at their lek, surely one of the great birding experiences to be had anywhere. In all there were 7 cotinga species, 11 manakins, 4 jacamars, 6 puffbirds and 5 cracids, including bulky but elegant Black Currasows foraging below our balcony at Brownsberg then flying up to roost for the night in the huge fruiting tree overhead. All terrific neotropical families. We saw 5 new-world kingfishers, most notably the American Pygmy and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers that had eluded us for so long. Then there were the 6 macaws along with 12 additional species of parrots, with repeated scope views of Red-fans. Oh, did I not mention Harpy Eagle? We saw it - two actually. And so on.
As is often said sometimes the best bird of the day is a mammal, and we saw some very good ones. Beyond a brief mention here that we saw 7 of the 8 Suriname monkeys, we were also very fortunate to almost physically bump into a female Brazilian Tapir with her baby, and we got terrific looks at a huge Southern Tamandua.
All told we recorded 337 bird species, likely on the low end of what is possible during a 2+ week trip to Suriname (CLICK HERE to see the annotated species list). However, we made no attempt to run up the list with already familiar species or migrants from North America. As an example we could easily have added a couple of dozen shorebirds and associated species by spending a bit more time in the coastal zone.
The species list is a mix of three types of records. First are those that Candy and I would have seen for ourselves. Then there is a big chunk of species that Otte found for us because of his intimate knowledge of the birding sites, and through the use of sound on mini discs. Lastly are birds that Otte heard (mostly, but also a couple seen) but which were either too far away to try to attract by playing their vocalisations, or which did not respond. There were 52 of these, quite a few but likely not too unusual given that most of our birding occurred in rain forest where there are always a lot of “leader only” birds. For me then, I saw 285 species of which 111 were new (39%), more than I had anticipated but since we have not yet birded in neighbouring Venezuela or Brazil maybe it should be no surprise.
THE BIRDING SITES
There is no need to say much because Jan Hein Ribot (see link above) gives a very good overview of the best and most popular areas. To me Suriname is mainly about rain forest and there are at least 2 superb settings, each offering a slight variation on this central theme and both with huge, heart-lifting expanses of unaltered tropical lowland forest. Brownsberg Nature Park is accessible by road and sits atop a large plateau some 500m asl – just high enough as Jan Hein points out for the air temperature to fall all the way to around 22C at night, if you are lucky. There are many excellent trails and scenic lookouts, and many high quality species of birds - no one should miss it. And the same should be said even more so for Raleigh Falls, which is rain forest personified. It is reached either by air from Paramaribo or by a combination of vehicle and boat. Raleigh Falls is at Foengoe Island in the Coppename River and is the main access point for the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. A short 10-15 minute boat ride upstream gets you to the trail head leading some 7 km to the Voltzberg, one of the more noteworthy granitic outcrops dotting the interior of Suriname. The peak is roughly 200m asl, the surrounding lowland forest about 100m below and stretching as far as the eye can see. And the Voltzberg is synonymous with the Guianan Cock-of-the-rock. Although fit, energetic people could walk in the trail, climb to the top of the Voltzberg and also take a quick look at the lek, then return to Foengoe Island again in one day, no birder would ever want to do it. The trail itself gave us superb birds, and the lek really needs to be viewed in a relaxed, leisurely manner to get some appreciation of what is going on in there. A readily accessible Harpy Eagle nest is also in this same general area. All of which means overnighting at the small cabin near the base of the Voltzberg, and, sleeping in a hammock (more on that later). Despite a distinctly “rustic” quality to this facility, please believe us that you really do want to do it. We stayed two nights and we are both very happy that we did. Terrific birds, great experience.
Do not ignore the coast where several birding sites can be visited easily from a comfortable hotel in Paramaribo. Three Guianan near endemics can be seen here: Guianan Piculet, Blood-colored Woodpecker and Rufous Crab-Hawk plus additional specialty birds. The first two species are found quite easily at the entrance to Peperpot, an old Dutch plantation a short distance south of Paramaribo on the coastal road. The best (or at any rate easiest) place to see the hawk is on the muddy coast at Weg naar Zee, also not far from Paramaribo but on the north side. We visited other spots in and around the city with great birds, including the spectacular Crimson-hooded Manakin.
Lastly, the savannah with its own distinct assemblage of birds including some specialties. Areas such as around the Zanderij airport and in the vicinity of Berlijn can be visited reasonably efficiently from Paramaribo, but plan to be on site before dawn to try for nightjars, which means leaving the hotel at least an hour earlier. Half-day visits are often made en route to, or returning from Brownsberg. There are a few fairly new lodges accessible only by air in the southern interior of the country which includes the Sipaliwini Savannah and yet more forest. Major bird tour companies have begun to visit the Palameu Lodge, at least. We did not go there so cannot give any details.
Day 1 (Nov 2) - Toronto to Paramaribo via Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, arriving in the early hours of Nov 3.
Day 2 (Nov 3) - Paramaribo. Meet with STINASU to pay for trip and confirm travel details. Walk around old city core. Try to get some rest.
Day 3 (Nov 4) - AM: Bird savannah zone near Zanderij airport. PM: Drive to Brownsberg Nature Park.
Day 4 (Nov 5) - Early AM: Bird at Brownsberg. Late AM: By van and boat to Tonka Island and bird there.
Day 5 (Nov 6) - AM: Bird Tonka Island until 11:00. PM: Back to Brownsberg; bird mostly around cabin and main camp area.
Day 6 (Nov 7) - Brownsberg. AM: Mazaroni Road; PM: Circle trail.
Day 7 (Nov 8) - Brownsberg. All day Witi Creek trail.
Day 8 (Nov 9) - AM: Brownsberg on Mazaroni Road. PM: Drive to Paramaribo.
Day 9 (Nov 10) - AM: Residence Inn, Paramaribo. PM: Fly to Foengoe Island, Raleigh Falls, in Central Suriname Nature Reserve.
Day 10 (Nov 11) - Foengoe Island air strip and trails at Raleigh Falls.
Day 11 (Nov 12) - Early AM at air strip. Then walk trail to Voltzberg. Short visit to Cock-of-the-rock lek.
Day 12 (Nov 13) - Early hike to top of Voltzberg massif. PM: Cock-of-rock lek and rock outcrops near cabin.
Day 13 (Nov 14) - AM: Outcrops at Voltzberg cabin. PM: Trail to river and back to Foengoe Island/Raleigh Falls.
Day 14 (Nov 15) - Air strip and the creek at the Voltzberg trail head.
Day 15 (Nov 16) - AM: Raleigh Falls, trail across river from Foengoe Island. PM: Fly back to Paramaribo.
Day 16 (Nov 17) - AM: Peperpot then Weg naar Zee. PM: Sites near Paramaribo.
Day 17 (Nov 18) - AM: To vicinity of Watervliet; then savannah sites near airport; drive via Kraka to Berlijn. Quit @14:00 and back to Paramaribo.
Day 18 (Nov 19) - Ridiculously early departure to airport and long return journey to Canada.
PLANNING AND LOGISTICAL NOTES
Nowadays you can go nearly anywhere reasonably efficiently although at one point our travel agent did refer to Suriname as “that place where nobody goes”. However, she got us booked on BWIA (British West Indies Airlines) through Port-of-Spain, which allowed us to check our bags right through to Paramaribo from Toronto instead of having to claim them, check in again and go through security if we had travelled via the US. The downside was the horrendous arrival and departure times at Paramaribo – 00:45 and 04:00 respectively. Adding in the time at the airport plus an hour’s drive to/from the hotel, there was not a lot of rest these two nights. However, Suriname is apparently also served by KLM, Air France and Suriname Airways and perhaps other carriers, possibly with more convenient arrival and departure times.
Booking The Trip:
STINASU serves as a full-fledged travel agency. It also operates the facilities at Brownsberg and Raleigh Falls. We were told that the STINASU office was understaffed and that everyone was very busy. No doubt this accounted for some of the difficulties we encountered. The people we dealt with were far from unfriendly, apparently just distracted with other duties. We first made contact in August and despite 2 follow-up emails had heard nothing after 5 weeks. We were about to try to find an alternate booking agent or even abort the trip when intervention by a local contact got the ball rolling. In the end it all worked out, but at times it was slow, tedious going. Replies to our emails were sometimes slow, and on occasion questions went unanswered. At one point we lost our air reservations because we could not get confirmation of the start/finish dates for the trip from STINASU. To make up for this we were given an extra free night at Raleigh Falls which, though certainly appreciated, necessitated changing the itinerary so that we lost a day’s birding at the coast and/or savannah, and that likely cost us a few birds. Notwithstanding the above, we want to emphasise that once we got there the trip was excellent and no one should be deterred from going. In the final analysis it is about the birds and other wildlife, and they were just wonderful. However, some birders might want to contact METS Travel and Tours (www.metsresorts.com) who we were told are efficient although more expensive. Regardless of who makes your bookings, you will want to be sure to contact Otte Ottema to be your guide (see below).
One additional thing to bear in mind is that you cannot, as of this date at any rate, wire payment to STINASU. It is necessary to either bring cash for the whole thing (in $US), or pay by credit card when you get there, but there is a 7% surcharge to do this.
Visas are required. We had read that they could be obtained at the airport upon arrival. But just to be certain we asked STINASU about it in an email. This question was at first not answered. We asked again, twice. Time began to run short. Five days before departure we got an email directing us to get our visas from the Suriname consulate in Miami, USA. We were shocked, horrified. A panicked telephone call to the consulate, and yes, they verified that this was the required procedure, but very helpfully they promised they would turn the visas around the same day if we could get payment and our passports to them. Miami is nearly 2000 km from where we live! Plus, at that precise moment a strong hurricane was still battering southern Florida. Surely there was no way? Having paid for our flights long ago, we could now see our money pouring down the drain. However, we checked with the Fedex express delivery company and they claimed they could do it. So, against all my instincts we launched into action. And immediately discovered that the visa application forms on the Suriname government website would not print off. But then, in our third telephone call of the day to Miami, the consulate offered to fax blanks to the local Fedex office for us right away, and they did. We got photos taken, bought a bank money order ($30 US each for the visas), filled out all the visa and delivery forms, and handed the package over within two hours, and just in time. This delivery service is expensive, but you can track the progress of your package on the website. For example early next morning we read, nervously: “Left Canada 01:15; cleared Kentucky 04:30”. Looking good! Then in late afternoon: “Failed delivery, Miami. Natural disaster”. There have been a great many times that I’ve been called a pessimist (or worse) but this time I was certain I was vindicated – I just knew this was going to happen. Cutting short an even longer story featuring several more colorful ‘phone calls, our visas and passports did get back to us in time, barely, the day before our departure. Unbelievable, and lucky.
So off we go to Suriname after all, extremely relieved and now in good spirits. Everything goes like clockwork, even arriving at the Zanderij airport a few minutes early. We walk off the plane, down the ramp, across the tarmac and into the little terminal, and the very first sign we see reads “Visa Office”. And in it sits a uniformed officer ready for business at 01:15 AM. What the hell? If you can figure this out you are a lot smarter than us!
Travel Within Suriname:
At one stage in our planning we considered renting a car and driving around to birding locations ourselves. Then we came to our senses and purchased an all inclusive trip and that was the right decision. No doubt one could do it alone with a rental car or even using public transportation, but we wouldn’t have wanted to try it – the long birding days are tiring enough without the mental challenge of finding one’s way through a congested city and along poorly marked roads in the countryside to birding sites of uncertain location. STINASU booked mostly private drivers with cars at Paramaribo, and their own vehicles for travel to and from Brownsberg. This worked well. Travel to and from Raleigh Falls for birding parties is often via van with a switch to boat part way there, and later making the return trip by air. We flew both ways because we were told (in advance) that the boatmen were protesting high fuel costs and that the situation could be unsafe. Actually I suspect that by the time we arrived we could have done it in the more picturesque and bird-friendly manner, although it certainly was impressive to see the tremendous expanse of rain forest from the air.
Accommodations and Food:
While at Paramaribo we stayed at the Residence Inn (around $55 US) except for the first night when we were booked into the Eco Resort. Both are near the Suriname River towards the edge of the main part of the city. Although they are considered equivalent we easily preferred the Residence Inn. However both provided good rooms and decent meals, a buffet at the Eco Resort and menu at the Residence Inn. The latter also has a nice pool and grounds which attract some birds. On the other hand the Eco Resort is right next door to the STINASU office which was handy as we had to go there the first day to pay for the trip and to finalise some points in the itinerary with our guide. Also there was a bit of semi-natural habitat nearby; Otte said the Guianan Piculet can even be seen here at times. The Residence Inn, at least, lets you leave excess luggage there while visiting the interior.
Birders familiar with some of the jungle lodges in, for example, Peru and Ecuador should not expect quite the same level of facilities in Suriname but they are certainly adequate. Accommodations at both Brownsberg and Raleigh Falls appeared to range from dormitory style to private rooms to detached cabins, which we used. At Raleigh Falls this took the form of a secluded “forest bungalow” on the river bank consisting of a raised round platform under a thatched roof with two beds under mosquito netting. But also with running water, a sink, a shower and a toilet – rustic in an agreeable way and we thought it was a great idea. To see the cock-of-the-rocks (and other fine birds) it is necessary to go to the Voltzberg. Here facilities are also rustic, though perhaps in a somewhat less appealing sense of the word. The Voltzberg cabin is unnecessarily spartan. It is a small basic structure in the forest with a couple of rooms to hang hammocks. Actually we do not mind arrangements of this type, particularly when the birding is so great. And sleeping in a hammock two nights was what can be termed an experience. (Did I say sleeping? Maybe part of the second night anyway – hammocks take some getting used to.) Anyway, at very little expense substantial improvements could easily be made which would make the cabin quite comfortable, for starters a couple of seats or benches in the rooms, a few basic shelves and maybe even some nails hammered into the walls to hang up one’s clothes. All that said, we would not have missed it.
At Brownsberg there is a central dining area cum restaurant, proprietor by the name of Rocky, who served up copious meals that at times were pretty darned good. We found the arrangement at Raleigh Falls somewhat curious. Rather than a resident cook STINASU instead books a freelance cook to accompany each party, taking in the supplies at the same time. Clearly the quality of the cooks, and the food they bring in, is uneven so it is a matter of luck how you fare. Some people said their meals were delicious. For ourselves, well, I will just say that we would rather have good birding luck anyway. The same cook also makes the trek into the Voltzberg cabin.
Remember to bring your own towels and soap to both Brownsberg and Raleigh Falls. None were supplied and we were not warned about it.
Lastly, at Raleigh Falls construction of a large new multi-story building to include dining area, bar and presumably lodging was in full swing by volunteers from several countries under the auspices of Conservation International. So within a few more months the situation will have changed quite a bit from that described here.
Safety, Health, Bugs:
Aside from a stroll through old Paramaribo we were with our guide nearly all the time so we had no problems or apprehensions about safety at all, although to our surprise Otte warned that we likely should not go birding at the Cultuurtuin alone on the first day as we had planned.
We experienced no sickness and in fact Suriname might be our only trip to date where we had no gastrointestinal upsets. Visitors to Raleigh Falls and perhaps other parts of the interior are advised to take malaria prophylaxis as a precaution even though there apparently is very little likelihood of actually contracting the disease.
Insects and other pests were not abundant. A large biting fly (Tabanidae?) with a fierce looking proboscis frequently attacked Otte’s bare legs but Candy and I had few problems with them although we always wore long pants. Ticks and chiggers are present. We seemed to stay clear of them until our last day at Raleigh Falls when I attracted quite a few small ticks on my legs in the forest and some of them burrowed in before I discovered them. An excellent repellent is a clothing spray with permethrin as the active ingredient. We used to be able to buy the liquid in concentrated form, dilute it, then treat all our clothes ahead of time, but we can no longer find a source for the concentrate. If anyone reading this report knows where we can get some (especially in North America) we would be extremely grateful for the information.
Suriname is hot, I think the hottest country we have yet visited. Candy said it was like being in a perpetual wet T-shirt contest (Really? – I hadn’t realised that she had so much experience with these). The central portion of the country is situated 4 degrees (450 km/275 mi) north of the equator and most birding areas are not much above sea level, unlike Uganda, for example, which though right on the equator is just high enough to provide some relief from the pervasive heat. A minor exception is the Brownsberg plateau at 500m asl where day time temperatures may have been ameliorated slightly. Nonetheless, in the pleasant shade of the rain forest it at least seemed more comfortable. A typical day would start out at 22-24°C at 05:00 (basically the overnight low temperature), climbing to 27-29°C by 09:00, levelling off during mid day at 32-35°C then falling to maybe 27-28 degrees again in the evening. Usually we took a few hours off over the noon hour! These figures might be one or two degrees higher near the coast at Paramaribo and a bit lower at Brownsberg.
We were in Suriname near the end of the main dry season (August to November) and happily lost no birding time to rain though there were showers a few nights. There is also a short dry season February-April. The rainy seasons are April-August (main) and November-February (minor). Most days seemed basically a carbon copy of the one before and Otte said that, despite there being marked rainy and dry seasons, a weather forecaster would be right 60% of the time simply by always predicting the same weather as occurred the preceeding day.
Dawn is close to 06:00. It is light enough to use binoculars by 06:30 and by 18:30 it was getting hard to see well.
Having booked what was basically an all-inclusive trip we only needed cash for the usual items of a personal nature such as extra beverages and also our meals when we were staying in Paramaribo. We drank a lot of water while birding, but it was all supplied. The beer in the evenings, mostly the locally brewed Paro brand (short form for the capital city) was an extra. Otte said it was brewed with rice as the basic ingredient but we didn’t notice much difference in taste. A couple of bottles sure hit the spot after a hot day. We had almost no spare time this trip for general sightseeing or souvenir shopping, and while in Paramaribo we stayed well clear of the numerous gambling casinos (whose garish neon lights seemed a paradox juxtaposed next to the many stately vintage wooden buildings of the old city area).
Suriname currency is denominated in dollars, about 2.75 to the $US and 2.4 to $Ca when we were there.
I understand the 1994 Birds Of Suriname by F Haverschmidt and GF Mees is a lovely book though not intended as a field guide. I found a couple of copies for sale on the internet but as they each ran around $200 US I passed. The best guide is Steve Hilty’s Birds Of Venezuela, but it really isn’t a field guide either, at least I wouldn’t want to carry it around the trails of Suriname all day long. So, for the first time ever, I reluctantly cut away the plates from the spine with a scalpel and bound them into a rigid cover which then fit perfectly into the pocket of my field vest and I am very glad I did it. By my count some 58 of the 645 species in Jan Hein Ribot’s checklist are not illustrated in Hilty (close to 9% anyway). However, several of these are described in the text and/or depicted in other guides (eg, Panama, and North American guides for migrants). There remained a core of some 25 or so problem species not illustrated in any of our field guides, many of them desirable range-restricted birds. Fortunately Candy is an artist so she did some quick field guide style paintings based on illustrations in other guides and the Handbook Of The Birds Of The World. And we did see several of these species (although of course Otte knows them very well anyway). I suppose it would add quite a lot to costs but I remain surprised that the practice of publishing concise pocket guides separate from accompanying more detailed reference books has not been more widely adopted by authors for countries with big species lists.
We are not fanatical twitchers by any stretch. All things being equal we often like to wander along trails by ourselves, accepting that we will miss many species that we would see with a good bird guide, but allowing us to move at our own pace, take photos, explore side trails, stop for awhile to watch interesting things and so on. But in the rain forest all is not equal and we knew we would need help to find a lot of the species we really did want to see. Very happily, Jan Hein Ribot recommended that we contact Otte Ottema, a birder with professional training and almost 16 years experience in the Guianas. He was duly assigned to us by STINASU and it could not have worked out any better. Otte is a terrific guide with some of the most prodigious ears I have ever encountered, more like ultra-sensitive antennae (although I suppose this is taken somewhat on faith since I can now hear very few birds myself, especially after my hearing aid went belly-up on the fifth day in Suriname). In the event he showed us a high proportion of our targets, most of them seen very well. But just as important to us he seemed content to stop on the trail for extended periods if we wanted to, such as for two-plus hours at the cock-of-the-rock lek, something Otte no doubt has witnessed dozens of times before. For the most part the trip was very relaxed and we certainly had a great time.
Otte is quite fascinating to watch in action. I have never seen a birder so hearing oriented, at times almost to the point of visually ignoring birds in mixed flocks suddenly in motion all around and over the trail. His procedure is to calmly and deliberately set down his folding stool (bad back, like so many of us), settle down on it, carefully take out and cue up his mini disc gear, then play the song of the species leading the flock with the intent of keeping the birds milling about our immediate area, or coaxing them to swing back towards us when they move on a bit. Then he might use his bins now and again, but mostly he already knows what birds are about from their calls. It was hard for me to judge but Candy said the strategy worked many times. Obviously he has honed this approach through much trial and error. Otte should be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Day 1, Nov. 2:
After all the commotion of the past few days we are at last on our way to Suriname. Everything proceeds like clock work, off the tarmac at Toronto at 08:25, nearly spot on time. We are on a BWIA Boeing 737-800 and some 5 hours and 20 minutes later we are down on the ground again, at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 14:30 local time. We have a long, long wait until our flight to Paramaribo, scheduled for 22:40. Our luggage is checked right through but we wander down to baggage claim anyway, just in case, but thankfully there is no sign of our’s. We are a bit surprised, but pleasantly so, to find that we are free to leave the terminal and walk around outside. Moist, hot tropical air smacks us in the face. We wander around the car park area then find a semi out-of-the-way spot to sit beside a light standard, looking out over the runways and a wet grassy buffer zone. We always take our bins and camera gear in our carry-on bags, so we while away the time looking at familiar airport birds - Ruddy Ground-Doves, Great Kiskadees, Tropical Mockingbirds and Carib Grackles are all over the parking lot of course. Barn and White-winged Swallows and Grey-breasted Martins zip past, and an Osprey passes overhead. In the grassy habitat we note good old “TK” (Tropical Kingbird), a bunch of Smooth-billed Anis, Yellow-faced and displaying Blue-black Grassquits. Six Cattle Egrets stalk by in front of us, and a couple of very pretty White-headed Marsh-Tyrants pick off insects along a ditch. A big Ringed Kingfisher flies past, and in the distance some Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts. Then a small bird lands in the short, mowed grass in front of us. It takes a few minutes to figure out that it is a female or juvenile Dickcissel, seldom seen by us in North America and I’m pretty sure a new species for us for Trinidad, though I don’t recall of our 1977 list too well. As dusk descends we head back into the terminal and try for a brief cat-nap.
There are fewer than 50 passengers en route to Suriname so we have room to stretch out a little. But it is a short hour and a half flight and we arrive at the Zanderij airport at 00:45. Only 1 immigration officer is on duty so it takes a long time to get our bags and then find the bus into the city, which remains stationary until all possible passengers are collected and crammed on board. We don’t reach the city until 02:30, and our hotel until 02:45 so it is 03:30 before we are finally horizontal in bed.
Day 2, Nov. 3:
We managed to sleep until 08:30, albeit fitfully. So down to a bit of buffet breakfast, now well picked over. We found out that the STINASU office is right next door so we walked over to meet the very pleasant people we have been corresponding with and to pay for the trip – and it was good to unload the cash. Then to Otte Ottema’s office where we went over the itinerary in detail, making a few alterations concerning the days we had scheduled for the savannah and coast. At that point we thought we would take a taxi to the Cultuurtuin (botanical gardens) but Otte advised against us going alone. Unfortunate for us because we never did make it there, and so very likely missed a couple of trip species because of it. We improvised a Plan B consisting of walking through the old downtown section of the city, which turned out to be fairly interesting. In some places it felt rather like wandering into a movie set featuring an old but quite elegant and genteel frontier town. Dozens of century-plus wooden structures with ornate facades, many three or more stories high. Many government offices appear to be housed here. Although some of the buildings had obviously seen far better days many were lovely, in tip-top shape, and still others were in the process of seemingly loving restorations.
Then back to the Eco Resort for a very welcome cool beer, our first of many Paros on the trip, and an even more welcome nap. While we sat on the porch/patio in 34°C heat a few birds paid a visit, most notably a Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. We also enjoyed a large green Iguana that climbed the tree just out from our table up to where the main trunk had been cut off. Here it stretched out on its own private little porch and gazed rather imperiously out over its domain.
In late afternoon we casually birded the remnant natural area by the STINASU office and adjacent to the hotel seeing many of yesterday’s common species from Port-of-Spain, plus Short-tailed Swift, a Glittering-throated Emerald, a pair of Pale-breasted Spinetails busy with nest construction, 2 Yellow-cheeked Spinetails, a pair of Barred Antshrikes (always very nice), Common Tody-Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, 4 Pied Water-tyrants, many Rusty-margined Flycatchers, at least 25 new Pale-breasted Thrushes, Bananaquit, White-lined, Silver-beaked, Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers, and a couple of Wing-barred Seedeaters. Surprisingly 5-6 of these were new birds for us and at least one of which we did not see again on the trip. We also liked the common and confiding Ameiva lizards, some of them quite large – with speckled brown head and flanks as far as the rear legs where the color scheme turns to green, including the long tail. So, the day was not quite a complete write-off. We had a buffet dinner on the patio, 28°C at 20:30.
Bird Of The Day: I think we saw enough birds to give the initial award to the Spotted Tody-Flycatcher.
Day 3; Nov. 4:
Our first true birding day got off to a shaky start when our vehicle developed a battery problem. The planned 04:45 pick up became 05:40, and we still had to drive through the city to pick up our packed lunch. Which meant that we could not get to the White-tailed Nightjar stake-out before dawn, resulting in an unfortunate miss. Also, by not arriving near the airport until 06:50 it cut into the best birding hour in the hot savannah (already 26°C) where it always pays to start early.
Nonetheless, once we did get birding we saw some nice birds. Macaws were flying over the savannah, at least 150 Red-shouldereds and 4 Red-bellieds. Many Crested Bobwhites were about but most of the 25 or so we saw were brief air-borne sightings as they flushed out of dense shrubbery then dropped quickly back down again. A Grassland Sparrow on the road was the only trip sighting as were 2 Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts. Among 5 or so species of hummingbirds the Green-tailed Goldenthroat was most in evidence but we also got a nice Black-eared Fairy. An early highlight was a Bronzy Jacamar responding to tape, then sitting still for long scope views. And a similar story for a cracking pair of White-fringed Antwrens, though of course they did not sit still long! We saw 3 Manakins very well – Golden-headed, White-fronted, Saffron-crested Tyrant-Manakin and perhaps a fourth species when an anonymous drab female responded to the tape of Black Manakin. I’m usually not that big on tyrannids, but the Rufous-crowned Elaenia was attractive, and co-operative. Eight Yellow-rumped and @ 25 Red-rumped Caciques rounded out our birds for the morning.
At 11:00, too soon it seemed though it was getting very warm, we departed for Brownsberg, first traversing one of the few (and very dusty) roads penetrating very far into the interior then climbing up the plateau to the nature park on a rough road through beautiful forest, arriving around 15:00. But first we stopped near the top at a lookout for mandatory panoramic views out over the seemingly limitless rain forest. Luck was with us bird-wise as we caught sight of a mixed flock high in tall trees near the cliff face, off to our right. The birds were too far away to use bins so I went for the scope, and somewhat amazingly they were still there when I rushed back. In the end we saw both Red-billed Pied and Blue-backed Tanagers among assorted honeycreepers and dacnises, quite good ticks.
We had a couple of hours to bird the camp area and walk one of the shorter trails before dusk. Initially birds were somewhat scarce here though we found a spectacular Red-necked Woodpecker, and we got re-acquainted with Red-billed and Channel-billed Toucans. Of course Otte was hearing lots of stuff. We also saw two big troops of monkeys, 20 or so Brown Capuchins, and 30 or more of the peculiar Brown-bearded Saki Monkeys.
Bird Of The Day: I’ll go for the Red-billed Pied Tanager, one I was kind of hoping for
Day 4; Nov. 5:
We birded the vicinity of the accommodations without seeing anything of note before departing for Tonka Island after breakfast. This involves descending the same road we came on yesterday before branching off at the little town of Brownsweg at the bottom of the plateau and then proceeding along a track to a landing area where we boarded a boat to the island. Tonka Island itself is simply remnant lowland forest projecting above the waters of the huge reservoir created by a dam across the Suriname River built for hydroelectric power generation. The trip through the stark skeleton of the former forest felt a bit eerie, like boating through a grave yard. Certainly there were very few birds to be seen: Cocoi Heron, an Osprey, Wattled Jacana, a few Ringed Kingfishers and a mix of White-winged Swallows and Grey-breasted Martins were about it.
After some lunch we birded the path traversing the length of the island, likely not exceeding 2-3 km. Birds were generally scarce. At the far end we sought some shade to wait out the mid day heat. Fifty plus Band-rumped Swifts and 3 graceful Swallow-tailed Kites provided some distraction but most interesting was a small lizard, apparently not bothered at all by the hot sun. It cautiously but repeatedly approached my shoe, proceeding a few steps at a time and pausing frequently to “wave” one of its front feet above the ground in the most bizarre manner. Surely not a display (ie, directed at my foot)? Possibly a thermoregulatory mechanism? Whatever, in Suriname it goes by the name “wai wai ann”, meaning “wave hand” (or maybe more loosely something like “bye-bye lizard”?).
Birding improved somewhat on the return walk. All told, the afternoon produced, among others: 3 Grey Hawks, 2 Spix’s Guans, Golden-winged Parakeets winging overhead, 3 Black Nunbirds, a Black-headed Antbird, 2 Purple-throated Fruitcrows seen exceptionally well, a nice male White-crowned Manakin, 3 Black-tailed Tityras, and Green Oropendolas travelling here and there through the forest. Another welcome sighting was 3 very pretty Golden-handed Tamarins high in the trees. As we approached the cabin again a lovely little Bat Falcon posed on one of the dead trees in the water for extended scope views – and I’m somewhat chagrined to say a walk-away.
Bird Of The Day: The Bat Falcon – great little birds.
Day 5; Nov. 6:
In the morning a pair of Short-crested Flycatchers were still in the scrubby vegetation near the water at camp. Following breakfast our plan was to try to track down the Capuchinbird before going back to Brownsberg. Yesterday we heard their strange moaning “song”; today we wanted to see them. And we succeeded, though it was not a resounding success. We “bush-whacked” off the trail into the forest following a compass bearing towards the sound so that we could find our way back to the path semi-efficiently. Perhaps not altogether unexpectedly the calls changed location as we walked in. Eventually we stood at a spot where we could view canopy trees in the general area where we had heard the birds and by luck I was able to get quick looks at two in flight. Not great, but definitely the bird. Also seen during the morning’s excursion: Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, 2 Screaming Pihas screaming directly over the trail, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and Turquoise Tanager. Then a quick walk back to the cabin, a terrific huge lunch, and by boat back to the “mainland”.
Planning Note Re. Tonka Island: This is not a normal part of a Suriname birding itinerary. During correspondence with Otte I had mentioned wanting to see the Capuchinbird and he remembered having seen them at Tonka Island during previous visits, so we added it. In retrospect (hindsight always being 20:20) I don’t think we should have because: (1) Capuchinbirds can be seen fairly reliably at Raleigh Falls (although always chancey), (2) we really did not see that much at Tonka Island, and (3) this excursion took valuable time away from Brownsberg where we definitely could have used the extra day to try to track down such Suriname specialties as White-throated Pewee and others.
We arrived back at Brownsberg where we settled into a different cabin, a great location near the edge of the cliff and overlooking the impoundment below. Otte fetched us to see monkeys that had ventured into trees near the main cluster of park buildings, reportedly Guianan Sakis, but turning out to be Brown Capuchins. However, just at that time a gang of Grey-winged Trumpeters made their appearance for the cooked rice put out for them in a little wooded patch beside the restaurant. Twenty-one of them. What marvellous birds; they make the illustration in the field guide look very mundane. Only up close or when viewed in the scope does one notice the shimmery, iridescent blue feathers on the breast. They move about with a kind of awkward, loose-jointed or herky-jerky gait interspersed with short floppy runs and occasional flicks of the wings. As in a flock of chickens they are in constant interaction, with muted threat displays and probably a well established pecking order. I couldn’t decide if they reminded me more of some kind of an aberrant forest crane or maybe a type of giant wood-rail. Worth the price of the whole trip right there. After we got back home and looked at Candy’s photos we were intrigued to notice that the grey-white of the folded wings seemed totally disembodied from the dark tones of the rest of the plumage, instead blending perfectly with the silvery reflective under-surfaces of leaves on understory plants, while the blackish heads and necks read as just more dark shadows among the foliage. The birds themselves almost become lost in this contrasting backdrop. Uncanny cryptic coloration, and very lovely.
When the trumpeters finally melted back into the forest another huge lunch was waiting. Otte waded into it (that man can eat!) but Candy and I just took a cold beer back down to the verandah of our cabin where we sat and watched a steady procession of visitors to the huge fruiting tree overhead. Two terrific Spider Monkeys ambled through the highest branches (I think well over 30m up) shoving fruit into their mouths, then a troop of @15 Red Howlers arrived via an obviously familiar overhead pathway, making great heart-stopping leaps between trees (including females with fair-sized babies riding on their backs) before grabbing perilously thin branches then clambering up into the main part of the tree for their share of the fruit. Candy heard a rustling noise down below the balcony and when we peeked over there were 6 fabulous Black Currasows picking through the leaf litter. In contrast to the trumpeters they are stately, elegant birds with a distinct regal bearing, emphasized by an immaculately coiffed curly hair-do with tasteful white highlights, and also by a smoothly sculpted back resembling a black satin cape formed by the folded wings. And they walk slowly, grandly, with frequent pauses to survey the scene.
Too much! But it isn’t over yet, by a long shot. Otte returns and we prepare to set out, I don’t know where, because we do not get far. From the path above the cabin we get even better views of the topmost canopy of the fruiting tree, and birds are up there. Parrots also like this fruit and we get scope views of White-eyed Parakeets and lovely Caica Parrots, and there are Green, Purple and Red-legged Honeycreepers as well as Blue Dacnises. Finally we do wander away, leisurely following the trail along the edge of the escarpment and the birds keep on co-operating. The scope is in more or less constant action swivelling from wonderful Red-fan Parrots to Green Aracaris to Guianan Toucanets. Somewhere along the way we see Crimson-crested and Golden-olive Woodpeckers. Only when it gets too dark do we stop and suddenly we are hungry again. So back to the cabin for a welcome shower before dinner and we find that the currasows are now up in the fruiting tree, walking along the immense limbs in the half light, evidently preparing to roost just off our balcony for the night.
Bird Of The Day: Any one of half a dozen great species would be fine, but it has to be the trumpeter.
Day 6; Nov. 7:
Otte arranged for a very early breakfast but before that we check out the camp area, soon coming across our objective, a Blackish Nightjar on one of the gravelled driveways, and just after dawn a Short-tailed Nighthawk flies over camp. With that we set out along the Mazaroni Road, a dirt track through the forest leading somewhere, but we do not see a vehicle all morning. So it’s a great walk. A Yellow-billed Jacamar perches nicely overhead which we get in the scope, then a Black-spotted Barbet though it is somewhat less co-operative. We start picking up a few hummingbirds: at least 10 Eastern Long-tailed Hermits, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, a snazzy White-necked Jacobin, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and several White-chinned Sapphires. I am happy to get on a nice Coraya Wren before it disappears back into a tangle. Otte hears greenlets in a mixed flock and high, seldom a good omen but finally I get quick looks at two Tawny-crowned Greenlets.
This being the neotropics we are keen to connect with some antbirds. Otte’s hands have been pointing left and right at invisible, singing birds. Now he sets to work with the mini disc player and, gradually, we start to reel in a few antbird species. Band-tailed Antshrike is welcome because it is a range-restricted Guianan specialty. We also see Amazonian and several Cinereous Antshrikes, the latter normally front and center in mixed flocks throughout the trip, Long-winged Antwren, and Dusky Antbird. Plus all the usual heard-onlys. But the highlight of the day is the 15 minutes or so we spend ogling a Thrush-like Antpitta singing its heart out as it scurries back and forth along a downed tree trunk just off the road. Hilty in his Venezuela field guide says they are “devilishly hard to see”, so we feel fortunate when the bird responds to the recording, and keeps singing – like a broken record - as we creep up towards the sound; Candy eventually spots it only 20 feet away. She takes photos, I just look at it in the scope. We could even see its bare skin as the neck feathers puffed out when the bird sang.
Way ahead of us down the road I notice an animal trotting towards us, swerving from one side to the other and pausing at frequent intervals. Up goes the scope again and I can see that it is an Agouti. It keeps coming and keeps stopping, first to closely sniff the gravel then to squat and scent, exactly like a female dog - more than 20 times! Not until closing to within 20m does it finally veer off into the forest.
In the afternoon we walked the Circle Trail. Very quiet, but we did get excellent looks at displaying White-bearded and around 20 of the range-restricted and very attractive White-fronted Manakins as well as 6 Dusky Parrots in the scope. All in all a good birding day in very comfortable conditions, the temperature rising from 24°C at 05:30 to 27°C in the afternoon.
Bird Of The Day: Thrush-like Antpitta, our best looks yet at any antpitta
Day 7; Nov. 8:
With bagged lunches and lots of water stowed in our day packs we set off down the Witi Creek Trail, dropping off the plateau at 500m asl and descending to around 135m where the trail and creek intersect some 3.75 km from the trail head. A bit strenuous in places but a lovely walk and we see some really top-notch birds. At the first, though, it is quite slow and it is not until we reach the 3.4 km marker that we are stopped dead in our tracks by a cracking Ringed Woodpecker. It clings, a bit awkwardly, to a slender sapling not much more than 5 cm in diameter, and only 3 m up and maybe 5-6 m off the trail. We carefully settle down on the trail to watch. The woodpecker has drilled a small hole into the hollow interior of the stem through which a stream of ants is now emerging and we can see the long tongue flashing out to gather them in. Definitely one of those times when you do not walk away and it is 15 minutes or so before the woodpecker decides to move on.
After reaching the stream we ate lunch on large boulders projecting from a shady, inviting pool. Both Rufous-breasted and Great-billed Hermits were near here and Candy saw a Great Tinamou scurry off the trail. The upside to forest birding is when a discouragingly empty rain forest is suddenly full of birds as a mixed flock appears out of nowhere. We were happy to run into a few of these on the return walk. As is the norm many birds went unidentified but we tick such species as Chestnut-rumped Woodcreeper, Fulvous Shrike-Tanager and more antbirds: Brown-bellied, White-flanked and Grey Antwrens, and Warbling and Ferruginous-backed Antbirds; and we even got quick looks at a Black-faced Antthrush. I think the choicest, though, was the terrific little Spot-backed Antbird, all white dots on dark background or the exact reverse of this depending what part of the bird you looked at. With its short tail and predilection for hopping around mossy logs it certainly recalled a wren. At one point Otte took us a bit off the trail and taped in a McConnell’s Flycatcher, no doubt a rather dingy bird in the best of conditions but positively sombre when viewed in the dark sub-canopy of a rain forest.
For some the best bird of the day appeared just as we started the climb back up the flank of the plateau. A bit of movement, a flash or two of red, and we were suddenly gazing at 3 Guianan Red-Cotingas. They were obviously displaying, darting close to each other then perching abruptly nearby. Candy and Otte could also hear noises something like a mammal’s grunt or snort, probably produced by their wings. They moved away up-slope but after climbing another 2-300 m up the trail we came upon them again, or maybe these were different birds. This time there were four and the swooping aerial performance was repeated.
Bird Of The Day: A toss-up between the woodpecker and the red-cotingas, but both were great.
Day 8; Nov. 9:
We have the morning at Brownsberg before heading back to Paramaribo. To make the most of it we take breakfast with us and walk the Mazaroni Road again. Though a perched White Hawk in the scope makes a very nice beginning birds are harder to come by than on our first visit. We see several repeat antbirds but no new ones, although Otte’s sharp ears pick out a couple. With perseverance we add species such as Golden-collared Woodpecker, Buff-throated Woodcreeper and Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet along with glimpses of Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, and White-necked Thrush. It is also good to see 13 Grey-winged Trumpeters cross the road, here far from the rice feeding station near the restaurant and we also see more lovely Black Currasows. At one point an obviously pregnant Red Brocket Deer steps off the road and into the forest, and high in a tree there is a tiny Neotropical Pygmy Squirrel with its short spikey tail. Our sixth primate species of the trip materialized like magic in the form of 5 Guianan Saki Monkeys racing through the trees, trailing thick furry tails like Persian cats’. Our only observations of the trip.
Most of the afternoon was spent on the long drive back to the coast. We did make one short but very useful birding stop when Otte spotted a covey of roadside Crested Bobwhites. Each of the seven birds emerged singly from the roadside vegetation, hesitated as if to take a deep breath, then sprinted as fast as it could across the road. Except for one that evidently lost its nerve half way across. It stopped on a dime, paused in indecision for a second or two (thereby giving splendid clear views of the crest and deep tawny throat and face), then in a flash it was also gone. Everybody made it across safely.
Back in Paramaribo we checked into the very nice Residence Inn, scrubbed off the layers of dust, took a refreshing swim in the pool, and enjoyed a cool Paro with our meal.
Bird Of The Day: The currasows, among the top birds of the trip, but the little Bobwhites were great too.
Day 9; Nov. 10:
A much anticipated day - we have looked forward to our trip into the Suriname rain forest. Pick-up is not until 09:30, so we have lots of time for a relaxed breakfast and we even spot a new trip bird on the grounds, a Mouse-colored Tyrannulet. There is confusion about flight times. We get three conflicting ‘phone calls between 09:55 and 10:15, and then our vehicle arrives at 10:25. No matter, this is very much like what we used to call “bush time” during our years in the Canadian sub-arctic. The twin engine plane carries 15 or so passengers. I can see some of the cockpit instruments from my seat and we level off a bit over 2000m/6800 ft. Eight minutes out of Paramaribo and we are flying over essentially unbroken forest – magnificent! - and it continues like this for 30 minutes when we plunk down onto the little grass strip at Foengoe Island, Raleigh Falls, in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. We step out into a broiler, 35°C under a fierce tropical sun. But that doesn’t stop me from having my picture taken with the co-pilot beside the plane – slim, attractive, long black hair and easily the best looking flier I have ever encountered. Just for the record, female.
By the time we carry our bags to the “forest bungalow” we are soaking wet. This is a great little abode, perched on the cool (relatively) forested bank above the Coppename River and consisting basically of a circular platform under a thatched roof, but with all the amenities we need, including sink, shower, toilet and beds under mosquito nets. In the middle of a huge swath of undisturbed rain forest. We are very pleased to be here.
After a late lunch we hop into a boat for a 10-15 minute ride to the Voltzberg trail head. Our destination is one of the side trails that passes near an active Harpy Eagle nest, at least very recently active. Otte says the nest was found close to two years previously, in November, and by February or March a nestling was present. This makes the youngster about 1 1/2 years old now. Though still being fed at times by the adults it is no longer tied to the nest site. Nonetheless, it continues to frequent the general area, and sometimes still visits the nest. All very iffy, but hope springs eternal, as always. Otte advances cautiously, but there is no Harpy up there. We stand around for awhile then kneel or sit, still hoping. Twenty minutes to half an hour go by when a huge raptor suddenly flies in from the right, just where I happen to be looking. It is the young Harpy, and it lands on the lip of the nest. Before we can zero in with the scope the bird flies, but then it stops again on a big branch with an even clearer view. It sits there apparently disconsolately, flicking its drooping wings from time to time and making plaintive begging calls. The message is obvious; it would like one of its parents to come along with some meat. Harpys of course are notorious for being able to snatch full grown sloths and monkeys out of the canopy, but Otte reckons that iguanas are also a prime food source. While we were at Raleigh Falls we made two more visits to the nest and did not get another glimpse of a Harpy.
Bird Of The Day: Can there be any doubt?
Day 10; Nov. 11:
At Foengoe Island it is customary, you might as well say mandatory, to spend the first hour or so after dawn at the air strip. In the evening there seem to be fewer birds, it is hotter and the light is at an awkward angle. It’s not the place to go for secretive antbirds but no one could be disappointed with all the big showy species, normally seen extremely well. Even the many repeats are welcome but something new nearly always shows up too.
By first light pairs or small parties of big macaws are streaming back and forth over the strip. Sometimes they stop in the trees where they engage in very risque mutual preening. Red-and-greens were the commonest but we saw many Scarlets too, with only a single pair of Blue-and-yellows though Otte says at some seasons these are the most plentiful. We also got great scope looks at the sharp Black-headed, Blue-headed, Orange-winged, Mealy and nifty Red-fan Parrots. Normally there was at least one pair of common but always spectacular Channel-billed and/or Red-billed Toucans perched in plain view near the top of a Cecropia, and we saw sharp Black-necked Aracaris regularly. One morning, all in the same tree, we scoped Little Chachalacas, Marail Guans and a mildly retarded looking Blue-throated Piping-Guan. We took time out to pick through the Band-rumped Swifts flashing overhead and finally felt comfortable that we’d seen a few Chapman’s. How about a White-necked and four Pied Puffbirds, then a Green-tailed Jacamar and Golden-sided Euphonia in quick succession? Or a shimmering male Spangled Cotinga in a tree top? Very early was also the best time to see pairs of lovely Scaled Pigeons loitering on bare branches. One or two Grey Hawks habitually perched along side the strip. Two Black-crowned Tityras one morning were a rarity for the nature reserve. Like the macaws big Green Oropendolas apparently always needed to be somewhere else, flying to and fro over the strip and into the adjacent forest. Certainly a great birding spot, but keep one ear cocked for the sound of approaching airplane engines and then get off that runway and into the shrubs in a hurry, as we had to.
On this our first full day at Foengoe Island we spent a good part of the morning at the strip before a late breakfast in the dining pavilion, where a large Tarantula had set up home in the palm thatch eaves just above head level. As we ate a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture basked in a dead tree just across the river, its wings spread wide to capture as much of the rapidly warming sun as possible. Straight-billed Hermits came to the feeders with the more common Eastern Long-tailed Hermits. Suriname must be the Swallow-wing capital of the world. Despite all the construction-related activity 6-8 of these aberrant puffbirds mostly refused to abandon their perches on sundry equipment and piles of wood from where they launched sorties out over the river. At one point a lovely Waved Woodpecker also flew into an isolated tree midst the construction. The two-story building was rapidly taking shape but, as a (very) amateur wood-worker (“hacker” really) what caught my eye were the materials. The structural timbers included purpleheart, padauk, greenheart, possibly even goncalvo alves, and other species that where we live are termed specialty tropical hardwoods. Very expensive. Perfect planks measuring 1 in x 7 in x 24 ft in length! And massive bright purple beams and joists at least 12 in x 6 in x 18 ft long!!! They were even using big chunks of purpleheart as temporary shimming blocks - I could have made 4 or 5 bowls from any of these! And I had to look at this scene every day, incredulous.
After eating we crossed to the mainland opposite camp. Both Green and Amazon Kingfishers perched on bare branches over the river. A short search among the rocks turned up a Ladder-tailed Nightjar which then gave a fluttering distraction display in the sand for a few moments before we left it alone. Then we walked a forest trail, birds not overly conspicuous at first but we did see Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper, and nine beautiful little Common Squirrel Monkeys. Otte set to work with his mini disc player and after quite awhile got a response from his quarry, a Rusty-breasted Nunlet. Then the bird would not shut up. But it would not show itself either, except for quick darts to a different singing perch high in the canopy where it again disappeared. And we had an almost exact repeat performance with another nunlet the next day, resulting in another stiff neck. However, all was not lost as one of the best experiences of the trip unfolded next. We heard Capuchinbirds calling, mooing or moaning or whatever noise they make, not far off the trail. More stalking and peering up into the canopy when I finally caught sight of them. I got the bins on two birds sitting next to each other in full display, bodies stretched upwards, tails cocked with the bizarre cinnamon puffs exposed to either side, and one with its bald head silhouetted in side profile so as to highlight the feather toupee on the back of its head.
Bird Of The Day: I was thrilled by the Capuchinbirds, but the allopreening pair of Scarlet Macaws at the airstrip was a close second.
Day 11; Nov. 12:
Another much anticipated day. Early at the strip, then after some breakfast away by boat to the Voltzberg at 08:50, already 30°C. At least 50 Black-collared Swallows with maybe 5-10 White-bandeds mixed in were over the river and huddled on gigantic black boulders exposed in the low water that literally dwarfed the boat. From the trail head on the river bank you walk for several kilometers on a good, mostly flat and at this time of year predominately dry trail, all through essentially undisturbed rain forest. Not that birds are singing from every tree of course; in this environment you have to work at it. But it wasn’t long before we were stepping, carefully, over columns of army ants surging across the trail to our left and back into the forest. To the right there was movement in shrubs around and over the ants but it was hard to see into the shadowy, dimly lit understory. Then we could make out birds flitting and perching momentarily, peering down towards the ants. With patience came unforgettable views of two classic obligate ant-followers, the White-plumed and Rufous-throated Antbirds. In the former rich cinnamon body colors contrast strikingly with bold white throat plumes and a spikey white crest. The other is quieter, featuring more subtle earth tones, and the pale blue skin around the eyes imparts a rather ghostly effect. Both are beautiful.
We came across more mixed flocks, often headed up by the conspicuous Whiskered Flycatcher, which also gave looks at Chestnut-rumped Woodcreeper, Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant, a couple of hyperactive Long-billed Gnatwrens and a Blue-black Grosbeak. And more antbirds: Fasciated, Band-tailed, Amazonian and several Cinereous Antshrikes, plus Pygmy and Dot-winged Antwrens.
At the cabin we birded a bit nearby, had some supper and made our first ever attempt to pass the night in a hammock, which we did, though how much actual sleep took place was another matter altogether.
Bird Of The Day: The White-plumed Antbird, one of the co-birds of the whole trip. Great!
Day 12; Nov. 13:
Ready or not it was out of the hammocks very early and off to the Voltzberg by flashlight, initially over reasonably level ground, soon turning into a moderately rising incline and finally a steep climb up bedrock to the top. Then sitting on the cool rock surface in rapidly changing light as the sun lifted over 1.6 million stupendous hectares of superb primary rain forest that is the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. It was already 28°C but with a pleasant breeze up here, some 100 m above the surrounding forest canopy. A few amazons and macaws flew in sundry directions. Four Cliff Flycatchers enjoyed the view with us, 5 or more Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts coursed by the cliff top, and we found that the Voltzberg was home to large numbers of a dark, cryptically colored lizards which scuttled around us on the rock.
By 09:00 the temperature was pushing above 32°C so we retreated back down the massif into the inviting forest and slowly walked back to the cabin. Almost immediately we saw a female Slaty Antshrike and soon there was a fast moving mixed flock of maybe 15-20 birds of which we identified two, neither of them new – such is rain forest birding. But we encountered other flocks and did better: Rufous-tailed Foliage-Gleaner, Plain and a bit later a rare Rufous-tailed Xenops, Mouse-colored and Northern Slaty-Antshrikes, Guianan Antwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Buffy-cheeked Greenlet, Slate-colored Grosbeak, and two new tanagers: White-shouldered and Red-shouldered.
Having already paid a short get-acquainted visit yesterday to the famous Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock lek, this afternoon it was a more relaxed two-plus hour sit-down-and-really-enjoy-it type stay. An incredible scene, one of the most amazing and enjoyable birding experiences we have experienced to date. Compared to the Andean CotR site in Peru here there were more birds, we could get a bit closer and we were able to watch for a lot longer. For the males this is basically an 8 to 5, 7 days a week, 365 days a year job, and seemingly hard work. At any given time 15 or more were in view, alternately flying about the lek, vigorously displaying, or taking a bit of a breather. Sometimes a male would buzz out of the lek area, presumably in need of fruit to top up its energy level. At longish intervals a female might fly in, all dark chestnut-brown but with very similar body size, shape and proportions to the males. Of course this set off a frenzy of activity. Typically a female would perch in trees above the fray, cocking her head to properly observe and judge the performances below, then fly to another perch or even down into the understory/sapling layer where most of the action was taking place. At one point two Agoutis wandered through the lek with little noticeable disruption to proceedings. The apparent obliviousness of the males made me wonder why, for example, an accipiter would not just set up permanent station nearby but I suppose this could only work for awhile before the lek became totally disrupted, providing no further opportunity for the raptor.
When we returned to the cabin 2 super Black Spider Monkeys passed by the clearing in the trees, stuffing down some sort of fruit for their supper.
Bird Of The Day: - Obviously those animated orange balls of fluttering, flapping feathers - what a wonderfully exotic, fanciful bird.
Day 13; Nov. 14:
Near the Voltzberg cabin are at least two areas of low-lying bedrock that afford good views of the surrounding forest and which can be quite birdy early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Standing here bears an uncanny similarity to viewing a kipuka in Hawaii, places where molten lava flows surrounded and isolated patches of forest. After a better night in the hammocks we visited these sites again this morning. The undulating black rock has a hot, dry microclimate and presents a dramatic contrast to the adjacent rain forest. It was a bit of a jolt to find, on the one hand, at least two species of cactus while on the other waist high terrestrial orchids sending out 1½ meter sprays of yellow flowers. Both plants grew in shallow depressions where bits of organic matter had accumulated. As for birds we saw Violaceous Trogon, 2 pairs of McConnell’s Spinetails, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, a female Pompadour Cotinga, and at least 15 Green Aracaris embroiled in a noisy, squabbling confrontation that apparently represented a boundary dispute between neighbouring families or clans. And also, an adult Harpy Eagle flew over the outcrops, no doubt one of the birds from the nest out closer to the river.
We grabbed a bite of lunch and headed back towards the river and Foengoe Island, right away running into a couple of the best mixed flocks of the trip. We saw Grey-fronted Dove, Golden-collared and Yellow-throated Woodpeckers, Rufous-rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Greyish Mourner, both Fulvous and Flame-crested Tanagers, and Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. After scooping these Otte mentioned that he would be trying to call in the uncommon Rufous-bellied Antwren up ahead, but he played the song here so Candy could hear what it sounded like. Almost immediately the antwren appeared, eventually giving decent looks at a lovely little bird. But a different antwren popped up as well, permitting fairly good views before disappearing into the understory, but then showing itself again. As far as I could tell the best fit was Plain-winged Antwren. Elsewhere in its range this bird occurs in foothill situations and lower montane slopes, usually above at least 1000m. Here we were only around 250m. According to The Handbook Of The Birds Of The World, and as Otte also confirmed, the birds in the Guianas need a closer look; it is possible they represent an undescribed species. Before we reached the river we came across three Collared Peccarys, or Bush Pigs as Otte called them.
Bird Of The Day: Although competition today was not fierce I quite liked the Rufous-bellied Antwren.
Day 14; Nov. 15:
At the air strip and on nearby short forest trails this morning we had the usual top notch looks at many terrific birds. Despite a determined effort we could not relocate a Paradise Jacamar Otte saw in flight but a striking big Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle overhead was new and exciting. Somewhere we added Reddish Hermit and Black-throated Mango.
In the afternoon we set out in search of a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher at the little stream flowing into the Coppename near the Voltzberg trail head. A few days before Otte heard a kingfisher from the trail and guessed it was this species based on habitat. So far in our trips to Central and South America the Green-and-rufous (as well as American Pygmy) had always given us the slip. We found a spot on the bank with an unobstructed view up the creek just where it bent sharply in front of us to our right. An extremely pleasant place to settle back and meld into the surroundings. And evidently also to let one’s mind wander off, because both Candy and I were surprised when Otte rose, walked over to us and asked if we’d got a good look! The kingfisher had flown down the creek directly at us, across in front, then around the next bend and out of sight. Until then I had been at peace with the world, enjoying the lovely dappled shade beside an idyllic creek in the middle of a primeval rain forest. But suddenly I was wide awake, and not at all pleased with myself. Without much hope I followed the bank along to where I could look down the next stretch of creek. Nothing. So, with what could be called bitter resignation, I turned to head back to the others when I saw motion over the water and a very smart Green-and-rufous Kingfisher flashed up onto a branch not five meters from my head, and stayed there while I ogled it in the binoculars.
Bird Of The Day: It is always so great to go looking for a special bird, and actually find it - twice in this case!
Day 15; Nov. 16:
Our last morning at Raleigh Falls/Foengoe Island. We again boated upriver a few minutes, today weaving through the giant boulders in a surreal fairyland of mist now gradually dissipating as the sun burst above the forest canopy. We wanted to follow the river back downstream to camp by walking a trail on the opposite bank. But first we took a look at the Electric Eels. There were 10 or more of them grouped in a shallow pool off to the side of the rapids. They were about four feet long or a bit more and lay quietly alongside each other near the bottom, individuals occasionally rising to the surface to take gulps of air. I think the eels feed at night and this spot may have been analogous to a bird day roost. Otte says the locals eat them at times. I fought off the urge to put my fingers in the water to see what would happen.
Before entering the forest we sorted out activity in a big fruiting tree on the river bank: Red-billed and Channel-billed Toucans, Green Aracaris, Marail Guan, Green Oropendolas. And from the same vantage point we saw White-eyed Parakeets, Scarlet and Red-and-green Macaws, Green-tailed Goldenthroat, Amazon Kingfisher, Giant Cowbirds, and ruffian gangs of Red-throated and Black Caracaras screamed raucously like our crows. Once on the trail itself it became quiet. But every so often there was something good, most notably our best look at Ferruginous-backed Antbird, and Otte taped a Tiny Tyrant-Manakin down over our heads. Tiny is the operative word – to me it looked no bigger than one of our little kinglets at home (Regulidae).
At this point Candy and I changed places in our trail-walking order so I might have a better chance at seeing a Great Tinamou, having narrowly missed two already this trip (plus everywhere else we’ve been). Along we went for awhile when Otte stopped dead in his tracks and raised his hand, gesturing vaguely ahead. I couldn’t believe how well this arrangement was working out and scanned intently for the approaching tinamou. Instead I was shocked to see a mammal round the bend just ahead, about as big as a fair-sized pig but all black and white stripes and spots laid out in an intricate but bizarre harlequin pattern. I should have known what it was right off but one part of my brain was telling me this actually was a baby pig of some sort (having previously seen striped young Wild Boars) while another voice said it was way too big for that. Then round the corner follows mom, a fabulous Brazilian Tapir. We all saw each other at about the same time. To my surprise the tapirs merely exited the trail left and trotted calmly off into the forest. I paced off the distance – between 7 and 8 metres (20-25 feet). For Otte this was only his third tapir sighting in nearly 16 years in the Guianas.
Although a bit anticlimactic there was one more bird before we departed Raleigh Falls after lunch. A pair of Plain-crowned Spinetails were building a nest in a shrub near the dining building within a meter of last year’s structure, and very economically they were recycling materials from the old nest.
Bird Of The Day: Animal of the day of course was the tapirs. Bird? – I think the Tiny Tyrant-Manakin.
Day 16; Nov. 17:
We are in the lobby of the Residence Inn at 06:00 and within a few minutes we’re on our way through Paramaribo, up and over the big bridge spanning the Suriname River (and from which the hulk of a scuttled German WWII ship is visible in the river below) then along the coast road for a few kilometers towards Peperpot. A stop is necessary for a nice roadside Slender-billed Kite. Then we bird the entrance track into what is now the overgrown remains of a former Dutch plantation. It is one of the best and most convenient places to see two Suriname specialties as well as other good land birds of the coastal zone, and there is lots happening: a pair of Chestnut-fronted Macaws overhead, 3 Black-spotted Barbets, Black-crested Antshrikes, Black-throated and 2 pairs of Blackish Antbirds, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, 2 scarce Painted Tody-Flycatchers looking like mischievous little elves, Cinnamon Attilas, Piratic and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers (aka Ochre-lored Flatbill) and Ashy-headed Greenlet. Best of all so far, a terrific Spotted Puffbird sits patiently so Candy can snap its portrait. But a bit worryingly, there is not a sniff of the 2 main targets, Guianan Piculet and Blood-colored Woodpecker. We return to the van to make an initial dent in the very tasty packed breakfast and lunch (including Dutch pastries!). Then back into the old plantation and presently there is a piculet diligently working fine branches right over the track, almost becoming a walk-away. Soon Otte hears a woodpecker further along and hurries off. But just then Candy spots a bird flying through the trees that she is able to track to where it flares up into a tree and clamps onto a vertical branch - it is the woodpecker. It does not stay for long but we see it well.
Birdy though Peperpot is Otte thought it best to move on to Weg naar Zee for more specialties. We had to retrace our path through the city, exiting the north side and eventually turning east on a narrow road leading to the coast through what may have been wet marshland, now mainly converted to rough pasture and some crops. Snail Kites were all over and we passed Great Black-Hawks, Savanna Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, several White-headed Marsh-Tyrants, 5 or 6 classy Red-breasted Blackbirds and a Yellow Oriole. Though we tried hard, no Long-winged Harriers were seen. Reaching the coast we hopped out of the van and immediately there was our bird, an immature Rufous Crab-Hawk, and soon after that a perched adult. The mud flats were swarming with herons and shorebirds but as there was little likelihood of anything brand new we did not take time to pick through everything, although when the sandpipers took off in a panic we did glance up at the Peregrine flying by. And also the 15 or so glowing Scarlet Ibises, a species Candy and I had not seen since 1977 in Trinidad.
Now at 12:20 it was 34°C, so we loitered a bit in some shade where we polished off the rest of our lunch before heading for some birding sites Otte knows very close to Paramaribo itself. First to a remnant wooded area at the end of a residential street, an amazing little place where we got Little Cuckoo, Great Antshrike and watched a lek of Little Hermits in action. The main target here was the sensational Crimson-headed Manakin which came charging out to belligerently confront the supposed intruder after Otte played its call, then it hopped about over our heads.
Nearby was a disturbed area with weedy/brushy growth and a couple of small ponds. Otte has seen American Pygmy Kingfisher here, now the only new world member of the family we have not seen. A careful search yielded no kingfishers though we did observe Lesser Kiskadees, Grey Kingbird and a female Lesson’s Seedeater. Before leaving we took a final look around the ponds and as if by magic Candy spotted a Pygmy Kingfisher, first sitting in reeds over the water then buzzing between perches.
Two happy foreign birders and a relieved guide set out for the final site of the day where forest has been partly cleared away for housing that has not yet materialized. We walked along a grid of elevated dirt tracks laid out as future streets where we could view forest and a kind of artificial wet grassy/shrubby savannah, and also water-filled ditches beside us. Our final birds of the day included a very nice Crane Hawk, 3 Laughing Falcons, a calling Ash-throated Crake, Hooded Tanager, and a procession of around 250 Orange-winged Parrots flying to roost. We were getting ready to call it a day when I happened to notice some movement in one of the remnant trees. A weird looking thing and clearly a mammal but just what kind we did not yet know. As I got the scope on it the beast started to descend out of the foliage and we could note a very long snout, a long and thick prehensile tail still wrapped around a branch, and feet with elongate, vicious looking meat-hook claws. Finally down it went, head first, and was lost in the thickets. It was a Southern Tamandua, totally unexpected here and much larger than I would have anticipated based on a Northern Tamandua we saw in Panama in 2001, which must have been a quite young animal. What a superb last full day.
Bird Of The Day: I am tempted to say Spotted Puffbird but it likely should be Crimson-headed Manakin.
Day 17: Nov 18:
We have a final half day for birding in Suriname. Otte wants to try first for Spot-tailed Nightjar in a rural, part agricultural area along the Suriname River in the vicinity of Watervliet. To get there in time it is necessary to leave Paramaribo very early and we are underway at 03:55, 24.6°C, arriving at the site at 04:48 under a bright full moon. The nightjar is not co-operative, and it takes an age before it responds, weakly. Finally we walk into a wet field to see the bird, at least its eye-shine, in the beam of our spotlight. We sip coffee and munch the packed breakfast as dawn slowly becomes day. Then we bird partly cleared land from the road nearby with mixed results: Black-collared and Roadside Hawks, Striped Cuckoo, Bare-eyed Thrush, Greyish Saltator and Lemon-chested Greenlet are some of the birds we see.
Next we drive through the countryside towards the airport savannah, along the way noting a pair of Green-rumped Parrotlets flying into someone’s yard. By 10:15 it is already 33C with not a lot of opportunity to get out of the baking sun. However, we try a couple of sites and connect with a few birds. First, three Pale-bellied Mourners respond to a recording, a rare bird anywhere. One sits unconcernedly, preening on top of the scrubby vegetation while Candy takes photos. And we see Black-faced Tanagers, Lesser and Plain-crested Elaenias, Yellow-crowned Tyrant, and we get the scope on a dazzling Ruby-topaz Hummingbird. Time is running out but we decide on one more stop near Berlijn in another block of savannah where Otte thinks we have a decent chance at the Paradise Jacamar we missed at Raleigh Falls. Before we get there I spot birds from the van that I know are new for the trip even if I don’t know what they are, so we pull over and hurriedly look at four Moriche Orioles.
At last we drive slowly down through the old village to a creek but the foot bridge is way too rickety to trust. Though time is ticking by off come our shoes. We wade the shallow creek then walk up into tall riparian forest where we find ourselves in a tiny, melancholy grave yard. Vintage wooden crosses are in various states of decomposition, some of whose carved inscriptions are now almost too weathered to decipher. Nonetheless, this would seem like an auspicious place to find the Paradise Jacamar. Otte works the mini disc player. After many glances at our watches we spot two birds, high. One nice thing about jacamars is that they like to perch in the open, often for extended periods and happily these birds are willing to co-operate. We get very nice scope views of a splendid bird.
Then back to Paramaribo, though Otte offers to keep on birding in an effort to cross as many names off the target list as possible. However, Candy and I need time to pack and to get some rest before departure time which will come much too early tomorrow. After an interminable stop and go drive through totally unbelievable traffic (it’s a holiday weekend) we arrive back at the hotel, and, sipping cool drinks, we go through the daily list for the last time. Both of us find ourselves already wishing we had scheduled a couple more days. As we hurry to get to bed fireworks start banging away in the streets near the hotel.
Bird Of The Day: Paradise Jacamar, the last trip tick.
Day 18; Nov. 19:
Wake-up call is at 00:15, for a 01:00 pick-up, so that we can get to the airport by 02:00, for the 04:00 departure. Which means that we sit around the terminal in the middle of the night for an hour and a half! Better early than late I suppose, but still annoying when you’ve logged only a couple of hours sleep at the maximum. At Port-of-Spain we find that the Great Kiskadees now have a mostly completed nest in the parking lot although they are still busy with interior decorating. Once again we spend much of the morning sitting by the lamp post, seeing many of the same birds as before but also some new ones: Striated Heron, Great Egret, 2 Wattled Jacanas, a pair of Orange-winged Parrots overhead, 5 Yellow-headed Caracaras perching on scattered light standards, Blue-grey Tanager and Yellow Oriole. By now we must have a fairly decent airport list for Trinidad if I’d take the bother to sort it out.
As always it is good to get home, but we also leave part of ourselves in Suriname. Despite a two hour delay leaving Trinidad the rest of the journey proceeds without incident. We get out of the terminal, retrieve our vehicle from the hotel and are on the road home in about an hour, picking up our dog, thankfully safe and sound, and then finding the house in equally good shape, always a big relief. Now in the clear, sober light of retrospect the trip still stands as one of our very best. A terrific destination, led by a fine guide, and fabulous birds. We could not have asked for more. We hope the report will help persuade more birders to visit Suriname. You won’t be disappointed.
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