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Venezuela July - August 2002,
In July and August 2002 we made what was for both of us our first visit to Venezuela. We had three and a half weeks in total and managed to cover a good proportion of the sites throughout the country, omitting only the Llanos and Amazonas amongst major areas. The initial plan was to concentrate on the east of the country plus Henri Pittier, but we also included four days in the Merida area at the start of the trip, and a rather long detour to the Coro area, which is the most productive area in the country for xerophytic specialities. The trip worked out very well, despite the first two sections feeling a little bit rushed, particularly the Henri Pittier and Coro leg of the trip when car problems cost us time, money and doubtless a few of the specialities that we missed. We were both struck by how modern Venezuela seemed, in contrast to Peru in particular, and the standard of food, accommodation, sanitation and roads in particular is comparatively good throughout. We ended up with a total trip list of 566 species seen and a further 26 heard only, with just under 200 lifers each.
We flew with Lufthansa from Heathrow to Caracas via a two hour stop in Frankfurt. We also took internal flights to and from Merida with Avior ($72 US one way) and to and from Maturin with Aeropostal (a very resaonable $35 US one way). Both were booked in advance from the UK, although the Maturin connections we could probably have organised on arrival. However, surprisingly Avior have only one flight a day to Merida and in a remarkably small plane, so make sure you book in advance. I believe that Santa Barbara are the only other airline that fly there from Caracas, but there are several others that have flights to a large number of destinations within Venezuela.
In Merida we hired a 4WD for three days through someone called Stefan Brandt recommended by Jurgen Beckers, whose website proved very useful for planning the trip to this area. The price was $60US per day, which seemed reasonable enough, particularly given that our driver, Jonatan, was friendly and helpful, even offering to drive us up to the start of the Pico Humboldt trail at the start of our fourth day at a cut price fee.
For the rest of the trip we hired cars through Avis, who were generally helpful and sent out replacement vehicles for us at no extra charge on the two occasions we had problems. The excellent condition of the roads and incredibly cheap petrol made it a worthwhile option for birders with limited time, although inevitably the cost of the hire itself was quite high. That said, birding the Escalera in particular without one's own transport would be very time consuming.
We hired taxis at about 30,000 B for a morning on the two occasions when we were car-less, and this would be a good option for those not prepared to drive themselves or who would rather use public transport in most areas.
Traffic was generally light and we were relieved at not having to go into Caracas with the vehicle. However, a word of warning for those heading to and from Coro. We had a horrendous time getting back from Coro to Maracay on a Sunday afternoon, and around the kitsch and unpleasant coastal resort of Tucacas near Chichiriviche we got stuck in some very heavy traffic of people returning from the beach, not helped by a sustained tropical downpour making the roads treacherous and visibility minimal.
July 21st Fly London to Caracas with Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Arrive 18:00. Night Posada Il Pressano in Catia del Mar near Maiquetia airport.
July 22nd 9:00am Flight to Merida (with Avior) 11:00 - 18:00 Merida - Mifafi - Laguna Mucubaji - Las Tapias - Santo Domingo. Night at La Casa de Mis Viejos, Santo Domingo.
July 23rd 06:00 - 9:30 San Isidro ; 10:00 - 11:00 La Soledad; 11:30 - 12:30 Rio Barragan; 12:45 - 18:00 drive to Olinda II. Night at Monteverde, Olinda II.
July 24th 06:00 - 09:00 Olinda II; 10:30 - 13:00 Limones, Caño Zancudo; 13:00 - 17:00 drive to Tabay via Las Curvas. Night at Hotel de Turistas, Tabay
July 25th 05:00 - 15:00 Pico Humboldt Trail. Night at Hotel de Turistas, Tabay
July 26th 10:00am Flight from Merida to Caracas. 12:00 - 18:30 Drive Caracas to Coro via Campeche marsh. Night at Apart Sahara Hotel, Coro
July 27th 06:00 - 9:30 Xerophytic birding near Coro 10:00 began ascent of Cerro San Luis; car problems, which took the rest of the day to 'fix'. Night at Apart Sahara Hotel, Coro
July 28th 06:00 - 07:30 'Acarigua road' area (this is badly named in MLG as I will explain later); 08:30 - 10:00 Cerro San Luis; 13:30 arrival of replacement vehicle from Caracas; 14:30 - 19:00 drive Coro - Maracay. Night Hotel Traini, Maracay
July 29th 06:00 - 10:00 Rancho Grande area, then birding down towards the coast; 12:30 - 14:00 Turiamo road; 15:00 further car problems (of my own making this time) - grua to Maracay. Night Hotel Traini.
July 30th 06:00 - 09:00 Choroni road (at and below the pass); 10:00 - 11:00 Museo Cadafe trail; 14:00 arrival of (third!) new vehicle from Avis in Valencia. 15:00 - 17:00 Rancho Grande area. Night Hotel Traini.
July 31st 07:00 - 10:00 Drive to Maiquetia. 12:00 Flight to Maturin (with Aeropostal). 14:00 - 19:00 drive to El Palmar. Night at Parador Taguapire, El Palmar
August 1st 05:00 - 18:00 Campamento Rio Grande area. Night at Parador Taguapire, El Palmar
August 2nd 05:00 - 18:00 Campamento Rio Grande area (with Harpy guide). Night at Parador Taguapire, El Palmar
August 3rd 06:00 - 10:30 Campamento Rio Grande; 12:00 - 17:00 drive to El 88. Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88.
August 4th 06:00 - 11:00 Escalera km 121-123; 09:30 - 14:00 km 112 then up to km 132 - 140; 15:00-17:00 km 131 then km 122. Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88
August 5th 06:00 - 09:00 Escalera km 122-3; 10:00 - 13:00 km 118 down to 112; 14:00 - 17:00 back up to km 136 (Solider's Monument), birding en route. Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88
August 6th 06:00 - 10:30 Capuchinbird lek road (km 86); 11:00 - 14:00 Escalera km 90-112; 14:30 - 18:00 Escalera km 122 -136 and back down. Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88
August 7th 06:00 - 12:00 Escalera km 122-3, then up to km 136 and back down with stops; 14:00 - 15:00 Barquilla de Fresa, km 85; 15:30 - 18:00 Capuchinbird lek road. Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88
August 8th 06:00 - 10:00 Guyana trail km 67; 10:30 - 18:00 Escalera (various kms). Night at Hotel Pilonera, km 88
August 9th 06:00 - 09:00 Escalera km 122-3; 11:00 - 19:00 drive to Maturin. Night at Hotel Europa, Maturin.
August 10th 08:00 - 11:30 drive to La Vuelta Larga near Tunapuri, Paria Peninsula; 15:00 - 18:00 trip with Daniel Muller to La Vuelta Larga. Night at La Vuelta Larga.
August 11th 06:15 - 10:30 La Vuelta Larga and environs; 11:00 - 12:00 drive to Irapa. 15:00 - 18:00 Cerro Humo NP. Night at Hotel Maryoli, Irapa
August 12th 07:30 - 10:00 Cerro Humo NP; 12:00 - 16:30 drive to Caripe. Night at Hotel Venezia, Caripe
August 13th 07:00 - 10:00 Leisurely birding around Caripe. 12:00 - 15:00 drive to Maturin via El Guamo. Night in Hotel Europa, Maturin.
August 14th 12:55 flight from Maturin to Caracas; 19:10 flight to Frankfurt.
August 15th Arrive Heathrow 14:00.
Mary Lou Goodwin of the Venezuelan Audubon Society very kindly e-mailed us copies of the appropriate chapters of the new edition of her Birding in Venezuela. We found this very useful on the whole, with only two or three occasions where the directions were not as clear as they might have been (which I will note later). Wheatley's Where to Watch Birds in South America (1994) is good for species lists, as was Dave Sargeant's Venezuela: A Birder's Guide (1994), which also had some good maps.
In addition to this we used a number of trip reports, particularly:
Taxonomy follows Hilty's very recent Birds of Venezuela (2002) field guide, which is outstanding and which we wish we had had during our trip!
Birds of Venezuela
The Venezuelan currency is the Bolivar. In August 2002 the exchange rate was about 1,270 bolivares to the US dollar. Given that the largest denomination is 20,000 B, expect to carry around a bulging wallet full of money! Changing traveller's cheques when you are on a tight itinerary proved difficult and I would recommend a combination of $US cash and drawing money out from the fairly widespread ATM machines that are located in the larger cities.
We had been concerned about the timing of the trip being during the rainy season and had assumed that we would lose a bit of time through rain. As it was, we experienced very little, with only a solid downpour for several hours on the Pico Humboldt trail and one rather overcast and drizzly morning on the Escalera having any effect on birding time. Neither cost us more than perhaps one or two species. In fact, in some areas we were remarkably lucky with the weather - e.g. in an afternoon and a morning on Cerro Humo we experienced no rain whatsoever except for a five minute shower. It was not cold anywhere, even on the paramo at Merida (in the afternoon), and was hot throughout in the lowlands, especially in the east where it was also very humid in places.
Not having been to the country before it was impossible to draw any comparisons regarding bird activity. Overall, I would say that the birding was very good, with extraordinary profusions of hummingbirds at flowering trees at several sites. However, some birds were not very responsive to tape, and flocks were at something of a premium in the lowland forest of Bolivar in particular, and to a lesser extent on the Escalera, although we caught up with virtually all the specialities on the latter.
David Ascanio and Chris Sharpe gave us valuable and advice before the trip, and we bumped into both of them separately on our travels. They were guiding Mark and Elaine Sokol whom I had met in northern Peru three years before. David, Mark and Elaine gave us information regarding their sightings (as we did them) when our paths continually crossed on our way up and down the Escalera. We were also fortunate enough to meet fellow Brits Chris Jones and Rob Innes, seasoned Venezuela veterans on something like their fifth trip to the country, in Henri Pittier. They very kindly furnished us with some up-to-date gen on the southeast, from which they had just returned. I would like to extend my thanks to all of the above for their assistance. Special thanks must go to Mary Lou Goodwin for her incredibly generous help, particularly regarding the copies of her birding guide which she e-mailed to us.
Diary and Sites
Sunday July 21st
We arrived in Caracas on time at about 5pm and taxied to the nearby Pressano hotel for the night. Fortunately we had the foresight to go via the Avior desk to confirm our flight for 6.30 the following morning to Merida. We were told on arrival there that the schedules had been changed and that the first flight out of Caracas wasn't until 8.45am. We thus had to change our arrangements with Stefan Brandt for being picked up at Merida airport. Several Carib Grackles flying around outside the terminal became our first Venezuelan lifer and after enjoying a tasty dinner of local fish we turned in for a much needed sleep.
Monday July 22nd
The Avior flight left more or less on time and we reached the pleasant Andean town of Merida after a scenic hour and a half flight. We were met at the airport by Jonatan our driver who we had hired for three days. We had a limited number of target species in the Merida area so had planned a tight schedule and were thus keen to minimise the possibility of birding time being lost through logistical problems and difficulties of navigation. After stopping off at the company office to pay for the jeep we were heading out on the road towards the paramo, through attractive landscape that was principally given over to agriculture. About an hour and a half out of Merida, we reached the turn-off to the Mifafi Condor Centre, located off the main road towards Pico El Aguila, a little way beyond the turn off to the Santo Domingo Valley. We birded along the short road up towards the centre in amongst the boulders and scrubby vegetation we lured a tape-responsive Ochre-browed Thistletail into view, and a found a single Bearded Helmetcrest feeding on the ground just beyond the reintroduction cage. Other more widespread Andean species in evidence included Sparkling Violetear, Brown-bellied Swallow, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Streak-backed Canastero, Plain-coloured Seedeater and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.
Flowering shrubs by the roadside around the turn off for Santo Domingo held small flocks of Andean Siskin and a single Eastern Meadowlark. Further down at Lake Mucubajiwe found a singing Paramo Wren amongst the frailjon plants about a kilometre along the trail towards the cascadas, in a wide valley, in addition to the endemic local races of Andean Tit-Spinetail, Andean Teal and a strikingly different form of Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant.
Continuing down the valley towards the town of Santo Domingo, we passed the impressive Hotel Los Frailes after 8kms, but decided not to stop to try for Sword-billed Hummingbird. A little further down, and just after Las Tapias restaurant, we took the track off to the left just at the end of some barbed wire fencing. It drops down to the river and contours along the hillside along the other side of the valley through disturbed temperate forest and shrubbery. Key species include Orange-throated Sunangel, Merida Flowerpiercer and Merida Tapaculo, all of which we found fairly easily, whilst more widespread birds we found included Tyrian Metaltail, Citrine Warbler, Pearled Treerunner, Lachrimose Mountain-Tanager, White-throated Tyrannulet, Masked and White-sided Flowerpiercers and Slaty Brush-Finch. Mike finally caught up with a long-standing bogey bird, Paramo Seedeater. Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and Ocellated Tapaculo also occur but we didn't find either in the couple of hours we had in the afternoon. As dusk fell we headed for the very pretty and very reasonable Casa de Mis Viejos in Santo Domingo and then out for a hearty meal including a delicious pisca andina soup.
Tuesday July 23rd
Dawn the next day found us making our way across the quarry at the entrance to the San Isidro valley, some 20 kms or so below Santo Domingo. Good forest remains here along the ravine here. The entrance to the area is a steep track up to the right. From the turn off it is several kilometres to the quarry where you should park. The scenery is nice and the forest seems to be granted some unwitting protection thanks to the position of the quarry. Andean Cock-of-the-rock is the main attraction although we didn't try to find the lek so didn't see any. The trail was relatively birdy and we recorded some nice species, although most of them were widely-distributed Andean birds.
More unusual species we found included White-rumped Hawk, Black-and-chestnut Eagle, Wedge-billed Hummingbird, Golden-winged Manakin and Rufous-rumped Antwren, whilst we heard Rusty-breasted Antpitta but frustratingly couldn't call it out. Despite close scrutiny, a very co-operative Andean Guan could not be turned into the more restricted Band-tailed, the species we had expected to find at this elevation and a bird we were embarrassingly to miss wherever we went in Venezuela.
As the heat increased we made our way further down the valley to the La Soledad track, another steep turn off up to the right opposite a restaurant, some 15kms lower down towards Barinas. We made a token stop to look for the rare Red Siskin and unsurprisingly failed to locate it, although we did add the odd new bird such as Yellow-legged Thrush plus a selection of tanagers and honeycreepers.
The lowest point we reached was the bridge over the Rio Barragan, where we spent a very productive hour or so in the midday heat on the track off to the left just before the river crossing. Various reports suggest that the habitat is badly degraded here but we found the remaining forest patches and secondary growth plantations to be very birdy. The highlight was a Pale-headed Jacamar about a kilometre along where the track passes very close to the river, but we also added, amongst others, White-chinned Sapphire, Scaled Piculet, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Black-and-white Becard, Stripe-backed and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Bare-eyed Thrush and Orange-crowned Oriole.
By midday it was time to retrace our steps and make our way back up the valley towards Merida. Once back in the city we changed some travellers cheques (only possible at the airport and the queue made it rather tedious) before dropping down the west side of the Andes towards the vast Lake Maracaibo. The weather, as we had expected, was rather poor on the other side, and limited our afternoon birding considerably. We had planned to spend some time on the stretch of road known as Las Curvas, a series of hairpin bends of some 5-6 kms in total distance passing through rather nice forest. Only when we emerged from the low cloud and drizzle further down did we manage to make any productive stops, and in the increasingly degraded habitat below Las Curvas on the road to the unpleasant town of La Azulita we did find Chestnut-fronted Macaw and Burnished-buff Tanager. Our destination was the small village of Olinda II, at the end of a side road off to the left beyond La Azulita that was rather longer than we had anticipated. We spent the night at the remote Monteverde, a private house run by a very nice woman called Adeysa. We had expected it to be a cabin in or next to forest and were rather disappointed to discover that the immediate area was completely deforested and the nearest forest was several hundred metres away. After a nice home-cooked meal, a bed was most welcome after a tiring day of a lot of travel.
Wednesday July 24th
This was a frustrating morning. Despite a fairly impressive list of species, the area has been ravaged by deforestation and we found it to be disappointing. Military Macaw, Pavonine Cuckoo and Grey-throated Warbler are reported to occur but we found the secondary forest above Monteverde to be seemingly very low in density of species and numbers of birds. There are some areas of forest on other fincas in the area, such as Federico's a bit further back towards the main road, but you might need to explore a bit to find genuinely good patches. A couple of hours along a track beside the forest edge and a totally birdless trail in the forest did yield a few birds of note, particularly the restricted-range Crimson-backed Tanager, Bronze-winged Parrot, Yellow-bellied Siskin, Stripe-breasted Spinetail and the localised Yellow-billed Toucanet, split by Hilty from Groove-billed, but we retreated to the finca somewhat disgruntled. Some open country birds such as Ruddy-breasted and Grey Seedeaters, Steely-vented Hummingbird and Black-faced Tanager were seen around the house, and spirits were lifted slightly by the arrival of a Sooty-capped Hermit to inspect us during our ample breakfast. On our way back towards the main road we found a Black-mandibled Toucan feeding in a fruiting tree as well as our first Tropical Mockingbird and Green-rumped Parrotlets.
Lower down deforestation continues apace and one is hard pressed to find any areas of original habitat remaining. We explored the Limones area, a track off to the right leading down to a river, and then beyond it passing through scattered patches of woodland before linking up with the main road to El Vigia near Caño Zancudo in the Maracaibo basin. Some good birds can be found in the area lower down - we had Black-chested Jay in some secondary woodland along here, and others have seen Citron-throated Toucan, Shining-green Hummingbird and even Blue Cotinga at nearby Rio Frio, which we didn't have time to visit. We also found Short-tailed Hawk, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Collared Aracari, Brown Violetear and Black-crowned Tityra. Down in the heat of the lowlands, we were relieved quickly to find several Pygmy Swifts hawking insects over the sticky town of Caño Zancudo itself.
The afternoon was spent working our way back up towards Merida and Tabay. We spent some more time at Las Curvas in rather better weather in the early part of the afternoon, adding Mountain Elaenia, Venezuelan and Black-capped Tyrannulets, the surprisingly common Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Chestnut-bellied Thrush, Rusty Flowerpiercer, Black-capped and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, and what turned out to be our only Moustached Brush-Finch of the trip. Soon enough the clouds rolled in and we were getting rather worried as to where we were going to find one of the region's most attractive local endemics, the localised Rose-headed Parakeet. After a long search, we had all but given up when we found a group of this very attractive parrot in a private garden on the largely deforested plateau on the way back towards Merida. The birds were feeding on a flowering tree and perching co-operatively on adjacent telephone wires. Jonatan then duly delivered us to the Hotel de Turistas in Tabay and very kindly arranged to ferry us to the start of the Pico Humboldt trail the next day for a reasonable price.
Thursday 25th July
Jonatan arrived bang on time and delivered us to the start of the trail, in nearby Sierra Nevada NP, well before dawn. After some initial confusion regarding which was the right trail to take (the one on the right after the last set of HQ buildings up the track), we made steady progress along the trail in the dark. We were planning to maximise our time at elevations where the specialities and endemics occurred, but were distracted momentarily by the most unexpected sighting of an Oilbird flying around us which I managed to spotlight. Once daybreak was upon us, the song of the ubiquitous but invisible Chestnut-crowned Antpitta started up, accompanied by equally skulking Merida Tapaculos and a single Slate-crowned Antpitta, none of which we actually managed to set our eyes on. Nevertheless, these were not our main quarry, and we soon began to develop a good list of regional specialities and target species. I had a brief but good look at a Lined Quail-Dove on the trail in front of us, and then a small group of Black-collared Jays passed noisily by. Longuemare's (Merida) Sunangel was common, and mixed flocks held good numbers of the sprightly White-fronted Redstart.
At about 2300-2400m we heard the distinctive song of the sought-after endemic Grey-naped Antpitta, and some playback soon had two or three individuals singing all around us. After glimpsing a couple of birds flashing across the trail, we eventually located a singing bird deep in the undergrowth and watched it for a couple of minutes before it moved away. Shortly afterwards an Undulated Antpitta began its hooting trill although it was too far away to try to call out. Proceeding further up the mountain, we found the endemic Golden Starfrontlet perched by the trail, and flocks of another endemic, the Grey-capped Hemispingus, became more in evidence. Parrots were represented by a couple of rather flighty flocks of Rose-headed Parakeets and some more co-operative Speckle-faced Parrots, although the rare Rusty-faced Parrot disappointingly remained elusive. Splashes of colour were provided by Emerald Toucanet, Masked Trogon and Golden-headed Quetzal, whilst flock-going birds were represented by Rufous Spinetail, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Black-crested and Russet-crowned Warblers, Blue-backed Conebill and the shy Yellow-billed Cacique.
Having dropped down to a stream, we began the long ascent up towards Laguna Coromoto, finding a pair of the much sought-after Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia at the eleventh hour in a flock before the rain came just before 10am. We pressed on despite the downpour and despite the exceedingly difficult visibility and the incessant weather, we managed to reach the lake, at about 3000m, and also to pick up one or two birds on the way, including White-browed Spinetail and Mountain Velvetbreast, but sadly the rare Slaty-backed Hemispingus could not be found despite the fact that we came across one or two bamboo-based flocks, one of which held a Plushcap. The weather at the lake showed no signs of easing off so we began the long walk back towards the HQ, adding very little of interest. Eventually the rain stopped and we picked up a few more species below the park headquarters on the way back towards Tabay, including Black-headed Tanager and Green Jay, before hitching back into town and settling into the unenviable task of trying to dry out our stuff.
Friday 26th July
The next morning we had a bit of a lie-in, and with a flight out of Merida at about 10am there was not enough time for birding. We arrived at Maiquetía and picked up our rental car from Avis with the minimum of fuss. The expected horrendous drive to get out of Caracas thankfully never materialised as the autopista took us on a quick bypass of the city itself, and after a quick lunch stop we were soon on our way towards Maracay. Our final destination of the day was far-off Coro in the largely xerophytic state of Falcón.
We made only a few brief stops on the way as time was relatively short and we wanted to try and get to Coro by dusk. Mike's liberal interpretation of what seemed to be a ludicrously low speed limit for what were for the most part good, empty roads allowed us to achieve this with about half an hour to spare. Not before we had broken the journey at Campeche marsh beyond Chichiriviche, mentioned in Mary Lou's book, to look for Rusty-flanked Crake. Unfortunately none was apparent despite some trawling with the tape and some rather attractive habitat. Some compensation was provided in the form of a variety of water and open country species including Cocoi Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Black-collared Hawk, Limpkin, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Pied Water-Tyrant and Oriole and Yellow-hooded Blackbirds.
The last stretch of road into Coro passed through dry scrub along the Caribbean coast where a rather extended gas stop yielded our first birds typical of this habitat, including Glaucous Tanager, small flocks of Brown-throated Parakeet and a fly-by Bare-eyed Pigeon. Once we had orientated ourselves in Coro we ventured out on the highway south trying unsuccessfully to find the right spot for the following morning according to Mary Lou's directions. It was already dark by the time we were back in the city and having checked into the Hotel Apart Sahara (30,000 B for a double), the tallest building on the Coro skyline, we headed out for a vast plate of meat at a local campo-style steakhouse.
A pre-dawn start saw us out on the road towards the area described in Mary Lou as the Acarigua road. This was one of the few directions she gives that we found to be erroneous. A few kilometres out of Coro, shortly after a police alcabala, there is an obvious fork in the paved highway with a bronze statue of a soldier in the middle of the road. This is not mentioned in Mary Lou. The fork to the left appears to be the continuation of the main road, with the one to the right apparently a minor turn-off. Mary Lou mentions a large bridge some five kilometres after the alcabala which leads on to the area she talks about. We took the left hand fork, because when we asked at the checkpoint for the road to Acarigua, we were told it was left. Make sure you take the right fork here. As it was, we continued for 20 kilometres to a turn-off to the right signposted Acarigua. We soon realised that we had gone wrong and as the sun was rising we decided to abandon previous directions and try to find some suitable habitat. We did this by turning back onto the main highway towards Coro and taking a right turn onto another, this time un-signposted dirt track which passed through a small area of cacti and then slightly taller dry woodland.
Birds were quite plentiful in this habitat and we soon found a number of the specialities of the region including the gorgeous White-whiskered Spinetail, the drab but vocal Slender-billed Tyrannulet and the uncommon Short-tailed Tody-Flycatcher. Other species we encountered early on included Yellow Oriole, several pairs of Orange-winged Parrots that we initially misidentified as Yellow-shouldered, Scaled Dove, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Black-crested Antshrike, Pale-vented Pygmy-Tyrant, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Ultramarine Grosbeak, Pileated Finch and Lesson's Seedeater. Continuing on up the hill, we added the attractive White-fringed Antwren, a pair of Black-faced Grassquits, a striking Ruby-topaz Hummingbird and eventually a gorgeous male Vermilion Cardinal. A distinctive, quick-fire tapping noise probably belonged to a Chestnut Piculet but we couldn't locate the source of the sound.
As the sun got higher we headed back towards the main road in an attempt to find the right area mentioned in Mary Lou and to head up Cerro San Luis, adding the huge Bicoloured Wren on the way. Back at the fork, we took the right fork (coming from Coro) at the statue and soon located the bridge and the much more arid, less vegetated area. After half an hour or so of rather fruitless searching, adding little more than some Greyish Saltators and another Short-tailed Tody-Flycatcher, we decided to head up the step ascent of Sierra San Luis.
About half an hour in, our car unfortunately died on us and after trying to wait for the engine to cool down and discovering that we still couldn't start the engine, were forced to free wheel down to one of the few villages on the mountain before being towed back to a taller near Coro, passing a dainty Pearl Kite perched on a roadside wire. The rest of the day was spent frustratingly awaiting the result of several hours of work by a mechanic, which culminated in him declaring that he couldn't fix the empaquedora until Monday when the part shops would reopen. We therefore opened negotiations with Avis to have a new car delivered to us the next day, and they promised to get it to us by lunchtime.
Sunday 28th July
Trying to make the best of this setback to our itinerary, we hired a taxi for the morning to take us back to the arid area at the base of Cerro San Luis and up the mountain itself to look for Red Siskin. As it turned out, this was a very birdy morning and we picked up lots of species that we were not to find again, although an hour and a half searching did not prove sufficient to find the rare siskins.
We started off in the cacti-clad desert bordering the dam at the base of the mountain, where we enjoyed good flight views of several pairs of the threatened Yellow-shouldered Parrot from an elevated vantage point. Down in the litter-strewn scrub we quickly found a few of the remaining target species, Orinocan Saltator, the sluggish Russet-throated Puffbird and fly-by Buffy Hummingbirds, in addition to Rufous-tailed Jacamar (in rather unusual habitat, it seemed) and more Bare-eyed Pigeons, whilst a flock of Greater Flamingos were picked out in flight over the dam in the distance.
Cerro San Luis was rather cloud-covered as we reached the top, but the rain held off and a profusion of flowering Inga trees held staggering numbers and diversity of hummingbird species and other birds with a preference for nectar. Hummers ranged from the large Lazuline Sabrewing to the tiny Rufous-shafted Woodstar, and also included Sooty-capped Hermit, Brown Violet-ear, Black-throated Mango, brilliant views of a stunning Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Blue-tailed Emerald and Copper-rumped Hummingbird. Other species we added were Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Scaled Piculet, Crested Spinetail, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Red-legged and Purple Honeycreepers and Guira Tanager, although time ran out on our search for Red Siskin and Rosy Thrush-Tanager and they will have to wait for next time.
Down in Coro again by 11.30, we waited for a couple of hours for the Avis car to arrive, and once it did we were off towards distant Maracay. We had planned to spend the previous two nights at Palmichal, but scuppered by car problems and deterred by what seemed to be some very adverse weather in the coastal range, we decided to concentrate on Henri Pittier for the next two days. As it was the drive to Maracay was pretty horrendous, with torrential rain and a remarkable volume of traffic around the coastal resort of Tucacas meaning it was 7pm before we arrived in Maracay and checked into the Hotel Traini. We did add White-cheeked Pintail and Ringed Kingfisher on the way.
Monday 29th July
Dawn saw us pull in near the pass on the Ocumare Road near the old field station of Rancho Grande in Henri Pitter NP. There was a fairly strong wind, which thankfully died down sufficiently so as not to affect activity. We bumped into fellow British birders Rob Innes and Chris Jones, and spent an hour or so birding with them before the gates of Rancho Grande opened. Flocks of Red-eared Parakeet showed quite nicely, a Rufous-lored Tyrannulet flitted in the canopy and the endemic Venezuelan Bristle-Tyrant allowed for good comparisons with the widespread Marble-faced. A canopy flock held another endemic, Rufous-cheeked Tanager, whilst the restricted-range Fulvous-headed Tanager foraged in the outer leaves of a roadside tree. Other species tallied here included Plain Xenops, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Forest Elaenia and Chestnut-crowned Becard, whilst invisible Venezuelan Wood-Quails called from deep within the forest.
Once inside the field station, we climbed to the roof of the remarkable old building and were soon watching such colourful species as Groove-billed Toucanet, Swallow Tanager and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, whilst a male of the splendid Handsome Fruiteater alighted in a tree at eye level. Soon we wandered off onto the network of forest trails behind the building searching for skulkers. Short-tailed, Black-faced and Schwartz's Antthrushes were calling, and we spent a long time trying to get views of the latter, although we never got even a glimpse of it, although once it appeared that we were within touching distance! We had more luck with the shy Grey-throated Leaftosser, which showed well, and from a rustling in the understorey materialised a smart Plain-backed Antpitta. Flocks were at something of a premium, although we did find Collared Trogon, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner and Cocoa Woodcreeper plus a solitary Rufous-breasted Hermit.
Lower down the coastal range towards Ocumare, the heat was increasing, but a stop for a drink added a pair of Rufous-winged Antwrens. We spent a couple of hours in the heat exploring the Turiamo road near the naval base, and found it to be a little disappointing. We did locate Scrub Greenlet, Venezuelan Flycatcher, more Black-crested Antshrikes, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous-and-white Wren and got a brief look at a Lance-tailed Manakin, but our prime targets of White-eared Conebill and Black-backed Antshrike remained elusive.
On the way to the Ocumare tip to try for these and others, our car jinx struck again as a moment's loss of concentration by me saw us hit a rock at the side of the road and end up in the drainage ditch, puncturing the front right tyre and causing sufficient damage so as to require a grua to tow us back to Maracay, and that was that for birding for the day. Another evening of phone calls to Avis resulted in them promising to send us out another car the next afternoon and I went to bed a little shaken!
Tuesday 30th July
We hailed a cab in the street outside the hotel and made good time up the Choroní Road, reaching the pass shortly after dawn. The pass here is at a higher altitude than the Portachuelo pass on the Ocumare Road and consequently holds some different species, including some specialities. We soon found Black-throated Spinetail and Ochre-breasted Brush-Finch in the roadside scrub and flocks began to form which held a superb pair of Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, various tyrannids, Oleaginous Hemispingus and White-winged, Blue-capped and more Rufous-cheeked Tanagers. Other species we found included Red-billed Parrot, Speckled Hummingbird, Booted Racket-tail, Long-tailed Sylph, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and the beautiful White-tipped Quetzal.
Further down the road towards the coast, we spent the best part of an hour exploring the trail across the river from the Museo de Cadafe mentioned in Wheatley and also Mary Lou. This yielded both Lance-tailed and Wire-tailed Manakins (alas only females and young males) and Flavescent Warbler amongst a few others, although White-bellied Antbird was only heard.
We got back to Maracay at about midday and after some lunch the car duly arrived and we headed up the Ocumare road once more for a final attempt at some of the specialities that were still eluding us at Rancho Grande. We bumped into Mark and Elaine Sokol whom I had met in northern Peru in 1999, and who were being guided by Chris Sharpe. They had just seen a pair of Moustached Puffbirds near the pass, although we couldn't locate them. Back on the forest trails, we found a Slaty Antwren in a flock but failed to find the endemic Guttulated Foliage-Gleaner. Reluctantly we returned to Maracay in preparation for a bit of a lie-in the next morning.
Wednesday 31st July
We were due to fly to Maturin at about midday so left Maracay at about 7am. The transit to the airport was relatively painless, as was the hour-long flight to the eastern oil city, where we picked up our new car from Avis and with skies closing in and rain coming down, we began our long drive south towards the mighty Orinoco river and our final destination of El Palmar in the Serranía de Imataca. We had very little time to stop and bird, but did manage to get on a variety of open country species out of the car window on our way, such as White-tailed Hawk, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Fork-tailed Pal-Swift and Red-breasted Blackbird, and on the ferry crossing of the Orinoco, small numbers of Large-billed Terns.
A combination of misleading directions led us to failing to take the main road to El Palmar, 8kms to the south of the police checkpoint at Upata, and instead we ended up entering from the non-existent village of Villa Lola on a much rougher road some 30 plus kms to the south. We finally arrived in the town of El Palmar just after dark, and checked into the Parador Taguapire, run by the slightly sinister Señor Stofkim. We discovered that his Harpy guide was already booked up for the next day so we decided to head off to the reserve on our own to explore.
Thursday 1st August
Up at 5, we made our way along an initially good gravel road from El Palmar that deteriorated somewhat a few kilometres beyond the settlement of Rio Grande. We parked our car by the bridge just before the river and headed out on foot, having been warned by Chris and Rob that a regular rental car would not be able to get through some muddy sections on the other side of the bridge. There is some good forest edge along the first few hundred metres, before the track arrives at a large clearing and then narrows as it passes through some better forest, occasionally broken by pozos, blackwater swamps filled with dead tree stumps and invariably frequented by Long-tailed Tyrants and Grey-breasted Martins.
This excellent day's birding began at a small pool on the right hand side of the track, where I finally caught up with perhaps my longest standing Neotropical bogey bird, the unusual Sungrebe, and as we watched it swimming quietly beside the vegetated edge, I felt a heavy weight lift from my shoulders! Meanwhile, an elegant Capped Heron alighted in nearby tree, showing off its subtle creamy plumage. The open nature of the first kilometre or so of the track allowed us good views of canopy-dwelling species such as Golden-winged Parakeet, Dusky-billed Parrotlet, Black-necked Aracari, Red-billed Toucan and Black-spotted Barbet, whilst scope views of a party of Painted Parakeets was particularly appreciated. A little further on, a Green-tailed Jacamar was found sallying for butterflies, and we also a pair of Violaceous Euphonias, whilst a stunning little male Orange-bellied Manakin appeared in a bush beside the track and gave great views.
Some tape playback resulted in excellent views of a pair of Dusky Antbirds, and it was with much excitement that we encountered our first army ant swarm, complete with its obligate species, Rufous-throated and the striking White-plumed Antbirds, plus a single Rufous-capped Antthrush and a couple of Plain-brown Woodcreepers. Later on we added the beautiful, restricted-range Ferruginous-backed Antbird to our growing list of antbirds, and a Chestnut-rumped Woodcreeper was found in a small flock. One particular stop in the vicinity of a pozo was very productive, allowing us to add a pair of Black Nunbirds, a female Pompadour Cotinga, Yellow-throated Flycatchers in the scope and, nearby, a pair of Pied Puffbirds and an elegant Paradise Jacamar.
Raptors began to be more in evidence as the sun warmed up, and over the course of the day we found Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites, King Vulture, Laughing Falcon, Grey-lined Hawk and both Black and the scarce Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles. Hummers were also a prevalent group, remarkably so in fact for a lowland Amazonian type forest. Amongst the ten species we found during the day, White-chinned Sapphire, White-chested Emerald, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, Reddish Hermit, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and the striking White-necked Jacobin all proved relatively numerous. Further splashes of colour came in the form of Black-throated Trogon, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Yellow-backed and Turquoise Tanagers, Moriche Oriole and Green Oropendola, whilst more soberly clad species included Plain-crowned Spinetail, Grey Antwren, Amazonian Barred and Lineated Woodcreepers, Slender-footed Tyrannulet and Slate-coloured Grosbeak.
As the heat got up we paused to eat our packed lunch and began the long slog back through the heat towards the far-off bridge and our car with Band-rumped and Short-tailed Swifts zooming by overhead. Activity was somewhat down, understandably, and flocks were infrequently encountered. Those we did find, however, yielded Golden-spangled Piculet, Ash-winged Antwren and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher whilst a Channel-billed Toucan was scoped back in the main clearing where the turn-off to the old, abandoned logging camp can be found.
We eventually made it back to the car, and from there we headed to Rio Grande for some drinks before returning to the clearing later in the afternoon, stopping in a small forest patch to add Guianan Slaty Antshrike. This proved a productive strategy as we found and enjoyed prolonged scope views of females of first a Tufted Coquette and then the rare Racket-tailed Coquette which occupied a favourite perch on top of a tall tree with bare branches at the clearing's edge. Tired but elated at a highly successful day, some impending showers chased us back to El Palmar for a tasty dinner.
Friday 2nd August
We left for the reserve in a large, old and quite odorous old jeep with our Harpy guide. The main benefit of the jeep was its ability to blaze a trail through the muddy sections of the track and thus allow us to get deeper into the forest earlier in the day. Our progress to the spot for the Harpy nest was halted temporarily by a very cooperative pair of Black Curassows which crossed the track in front of us and allowed excellent views.
Once the car had been parked we headed off along a narrow forest trail towards the nest. We didn't stop a lot on the way, partly due to rather limited activity, but we did manage to track down a calling Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant near the start of the trail. There were some other birds in evidence, however, and noisy Red-throated Caracaras serenaded us with their raucous cries, whilst some large Spix's Guans moved away through the sub-canopy. We reached the spot after about an hour to find that the bird, reportedly a two year old immature, was not in evidence. However, within ten minutes I saw a huge shape fly in and we enjoyed extended scope views of a magnificent Harpy Eagle with its extraordinarily powerful features and talons, until the sun rose up behind it and made viewing difficult.
Having enjoyed the Harpy experience we spent much of the rest of the day working our way along the track in both directions. We stopped for one or two flocks along the trail back to the jeep track, adding Todd's and Brown-bellied Antwrens, Cinereous Antshrike, White-lored Tyrannulet, Black-capped Becard, Buff-cheeked Greenlet and Yellow-green Grosbeak. Continuing along the main track away from Rio Grande, we stumbled across a roosting Blackish Nightjar and enjoyed extended views of its subtle plumage.
Some different psittacids appeared to be in evidence today, and we found Black-headed, Dusky, Mealy and fly-by Caica Parrots alongside some of the previous day's species. There were one or two different hummers in evidence too, and we added Eastern Long-tailed Hermit and the tiny Amethyst Woodstar. A fruiting tree back towards the clearing provided us with much interest, and a pair of Guianan Toucanets was the definite highlight here, along with Wing-barred Piprites and Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. We were dropped back at the hotel for another good meal.
Saturday 3rd August
A last morning was planned in the Rio Grande area before we were planning to head further south down towards Km 88 and the famed Escalera. We ventured into the forest along a trail described for us by Chris and Rob, about a kilometre beyond the first main clearing. The forest was not particularly productive in terms of locating flocks or lots of activity, but there were some quality species to be had. Our pulses were soon racing when we heard the distinctive hoots of the Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo, although contrary to Chris and Rob's experience (a pair apparently came straight out to their tape) we could not persuade this much sought-after rarity to come and have a closer look at us. Other skulkers were much more cooperative, and Mike was particularly delighted when we located a very responsive pair of another seldom-seen species, the bizarre Wing-banded Antbird. A little further on, some rustling in the leaf litter turned out to be due to the foraging of a Black-tailed Leaftosser, a widespread but elusive Amazonian species. Along the forest edge and near the clearing we found a soaring White Hawk, a perched Pale-vented Pigeon, Pygmy Antwren, Golden-headed Manakin, three more female Pompadour Cotingas, Purple-throated Fruitcrow and a striking Black-eared Fairy.
By about 10.30am we were back at the Taguapire, and received a rather nasty surprise on discovering how much we had been charged for laundry and also that the owner had added a VAT charge to our overall bill without warning us beforehand. Although he claimed that this happened in every hotel in Venezuela, this was the only place we found this to be the case. It certainly left us feeling a certain degree of resentment towards Mr Stofkim. The problem is that he has a monopoly in the area - his is seemingly the only hotel and he knows all the Harpy guides. That has perhaps led him to bumping his costs up, because he feels he can, despite the accommodation itself being rather basic. If you do stay there, our advice would be to opt for dinner only (he charges the same for all meals and dinner is far more substantial than the other two) and buy supplies for other meals in town.
We made our way back towards the main north-south road along the same rutted track we had taken into El Palmar, and a brief stop at a marsh on the way out added a few different species such as Savanna Hawk, Southern Lapwing, Amazon Kingfisher, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant and White-winged Swallow.
Our far-off destination of Km 88 lay several hours to the south so we didn't make too many stops on the way, although we did plan in a half-hour pause at the Rio Cuyuni bridge at about Km 5 to look, without success, for Black-collared Swallow and Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, with only Red-capped Cardinal new for the trip. One later roadside stop as we started to pass through some forest patches revealed a busy group of Cayenne Jays, and we arrived in a rainy Km 88 at about 5pm, where we checked into the cheap and friendly Hotel Pilonera opposite the petrol station. Here we were charged only 11,000 B per night for a spacious room with three beds, although even with two portable fans left on all the time it remained remarkably and almost unbearably hot, much more so in fact than the quite pleasant temperature outside. We enjoyed a tasty spit roast chicken dinner at the café/shop next to the gas station which we used to buy all our daily supplies each evening and which is recommended.
Sunday 4th August
We were up before 5 in anticipation of an exciting first day on the Escalera. We decided to head first to km 122, a good area for many of the regional tepui endemics due to the interesting stunted forest in the area and also the fact that there seemed to be some areas where one could get away from the road. The drive up to the area took about 50 minutes, and once we were parked, we began to walk down towards km 121. First up bird-wise was a small flock containing Yellow-bellied, Specked and Black-headed Tanagers, the latter of the very distinctive tepui race whitelyi which is a possible future split. These two proved amongst the commonest species along the road. Our first tepui endemic was a perky pair of the very attractive Ruddy Tody-Flycatcher right beside the km 122 marker, soon followed by some rather bold Golden-tufted Grackles which were foraging around the police checkpoint a little further up the road.
It was at this point that we bumped once more into the Sokols, who were by now with David Ascanio, probably Venezuela's foremost field ornithologist. We spent a little time chatting and birding along the road between km 122-121, adding good views of the sometimes tricky Greater Flowerpiercer, plus Tepui Brush-Finch, Red-shouldered Tanager, Sierran Elaenia, Tepui Redstart and the smart Rufous-breasted Sabrewing. We then went our separate ways and we explored the clearing and forest edge behind km 122 on the right side of the road, in search of the Red-banded Fruiteater which the Sokols had reputedly heard on the way down a few minutes previously. We had no luck with that one but did find our what proved to be our only Velvet-browed Brilliant engaged in a fascinating display flight, whilst a small flock of the attractive Fiery-shouldered Parakeet paused for nice looks in a tree crown. As we were to find over the next few days, birding the Escalera can be quite hard work, with often quite long periods of inactivity. The remainder of the forest patch seemed quite dead, as did a trail we tried on the opposite side of the road, although on returning to the car it did not take long to get excellent looks at a Tepui Antpitta that had begun to call and showed instant interest in our playback.
We passed the alcabala, pausing to look at a Bat Falcon, before trying the old 'pipe trail', where the habitat seems much altered in parts by the recent construction of a series of high tension electricity wires and pylons. There was very little in the way of bird life in evidence, with the exception of some curious Coraya Wrens, so we continued further down to a rather hot and again somewhat bird-less km 112. We did locate Double-toothed Kite and Chestnut-tipped Toucanet before deciding to head further up towards the top of the road. At around km 134, bellbirds began to be heard, and it was not long before we had got decent views of an immature Bearded Bellbird, followed a little later in the day by a magnificent full male, complete with wattles, in voice on a bear branch. Just before this km marker we finally came across our first proper tepui flock, including such specialities as Black-fronted Tyrannulet, Tepui Greenlet, Tepui Spinetail, Olive-backed Tanager and the dainty Roraiman Antwren, whilst a pair of Red-and-green Macaws that flew over seemed most incongruous.
Out above the line of the forest, we entered the Gran Sabana and made a stop at the Soldier's Monument at km 136. A brief fly-by hummer with a flash of white on it could have been the endemic Tepui Goldenthroat, but despite much searching we could not relocate that individual, and that was a bird we couldn't find anywhere in the area despite much searching on subsequent days. A lack of flowering bushes in the scrubby habitat was a possible reason for its scarcity mooted by David. A Plain-crested Elaenia interrupted our lunch up at the monument, and some 4kms further on at the bridge over the Rio Aponguao we found a few Tawny-headed Swallows hawking and a pair of Burnished-buff Tanagers in the riverine trees.
Retracing our steps we made another stop between the monument and the start of the forest, and were rewarded with good views of the difficult Great Elaenia, in addition to a Copper-tailed Hummingbird perched in a low bush and a Black-faced Tanager. Further stops on the way back down the Escalera revealed a female and immature male Peacock Coquette at km 134, a high-flying flock of Tepui Parrotlets at km 131 and a pair of White-throated Foliage-Gleaners back down at km 122 before the rains came in at about 5pm and we made our way back towards km 88, only to find our way blocked by a fallen tree which took about an hour to clear, during which time we chatted to the Sokols who were in the car in front, and watched the rain die away in the darkness.
Monday 5th August
Another assault was planned this morning for the area around kms 122-124 to try to catch up with some of the more difficult tepui endemics. Things were again a little slow, with a Black-hooded Thrush the only new bird in evidence at km 122, although some exploration on the other side of the road did yield a couple of drab Olive Manakins in small mixed flocks. Excitement was increased at the track opposite the shelter beyond the alcabala as we gained excellent views of the remarkable Rose-collared Piha, which left us wondering just why it had bothered to evolve such an extraordinary colour on what is otherwise an all grey bird.
We again chanced our arm lower down, and this time had a bit more luck. First of all we found a single Rufous-brown Solitaire perched quietly in the sub-canopy at about km 114, which was just as well given that they weren't singing anywhere along the Escalera. Soon after we had another chance encounter, this time with a male Scarlet-horned Manakin, again a stroke of good fortune given that they did not appear to be displaying anywhere obviously adjacent to the road. Best of all, a lunchtime vigil between kms 111-112 revealed a cracking male Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock that appeared suddenly in a tree next to the road. A flock was also encountered in the area that held Fasciated Antshrike, Ash-winged Antwren, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, and our first Paradise Tanagers of the trip.
The afternoon was spent on another fruitless search for the goldenthroat around the Soldier's Monument, where Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch was our only new bird for the trip. This was followed by an ultimately successful session with the tape recorder which saw us eventually managing to coax a very shy pair of MacConnell's Spinetails out of some dense roadside ferns at about km 133, thanks to some up-to-date information given to us by the Sokols. Again the rain threatened later on in the afternoon, but it didn't deprive us of much birding time on this occasion, although our hunt for a calling Flutist Wren was curtailed as much by the bird's lack of interest in the tape as by the intermittently adverse weather conditions.
Tuesday 6th August
A change of scene was planned on for the morning and we headed out to the 'Capuchinbird road' for some lowland birding. We found the turn-off eventually having driven past it at least once. It is only about 3kms from the Pilonera, opposite a now defunct bank. It is the only obvious track off to the east along that stretch of road. Once there, park your car at the obvious 'Y' after some 5kms; the directions are as per Mary Lou and the Capuchinbirds were easy to locate, with their bizarre calls leading us along the short, narrow forest trail to an area where we could view at least two of these unusual creatures displaying under the canopy.
We spent the rest of the morning birding along the track to the river. Mike lucked out by getting onto a well-camouflaged Yellow-billed Jacamar in the understorey, but generally activity was again quite poor. At the river we opted against trying to cross what looked like a very precarious bridge, and instead worked the area back towards the car. A small group of Blue-cheeked Parrots were a good find as they flew over, their apricot speculums and bluish face patch matching the tame one at one of the stalls in Km 88, whilst a canopy flock held Spot-tailed Antwren and Long-billed Gnatwren, and Black-throated Antbirds frequented the understorey.
Back in the car, we made a stop for a single small toucan in a cecropia which turned out to be our only Green Aracari, and then another pause for birding in a forest patch alongside the road proved most productive, with Cinnamon-rumped Foliage-Gleaner, stunning males of both White-throated and White-crowned Manakins, Golden-spangled Piculet, Lemon-chested Greenlet and Rufous-bellied Antwren all appearing in a good flock. Just before we reached the main road, a female Guianan Streaked Antwren popped out of a bush next to a small farm building.
The remainder of the morning of the afternoon was again spent on the Escalera. We first spent some time at and above the huge Piedra (rock) de la Virgen which marks the start of the road's ascent. A Cliff Flycatcher was, appropriately, in residence, whilst a little further up we found Waved and Golden-collared Woodpeckers in two different small flocks. We drew something of a blank for the rest of the afternoon, failing to catch up with any further tepui endemics at the various elevations at which we birded, and it was two slightly concerned birders who returned to Km 88 that evening, with some important specialities still managing to elude us.
Wednesday 7th August
Dawn saw us once more at km 122, with fingers very firmly crossed for the remaining tepui endemics. It looked like we were going to get off to a good start when a pair of Streak-backed Antshrikes began calling nearby, but half an hour of crawling through the undergrowth with the birds calling around us did not even yield a glimpse. Frustration was setting in but we tried the clearing area again where another bird was calling distantly and this time we managed to enjoy good views of a striking pair of this sometimes tricky species in the middle level of the stunted forest.
Next stop was at the track across the road from the shelter, where we eventually caught up with the surprisingly scarce Tepui Swift, and two or three individuals zipped overhead, their broad chestnut collars glowing against the blue sky. We again worked up and down the short track, and excitement grew to fever pitch when the high-pitched whistle we had strained our ears for materialised in the form of a magnificent male Red-banded Fruiteater, probably the most striking and sought-after of the tepui endemics on the Escalera. We played with him for a while, gaining excellent views, before back-tracking down towards km 88 with broad smiles etched across our faces.
Brief stops on the way down yielded Whiskered Flycatcher amongst other birds, and we reached km 88 before midday. The plan was to go and visit the Barquilla de Fresa at km 83 or so, the much lauded but overpriced and somewhat rustic birder's lodge owned by German ex-pat Henry Cleeve. He charged us $5 to come and sit by his hummingbird feeders, which proved most worthwhile, as we enjoyed a good hour admiring individuals of several species, of which the highlight was undoubtedly the resident pair of Crimson Topaz. Other species that regularly visited the feeders included Eastern Long-tailed and Rufous-breasted Hermits, White-necked Jacobin, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, Long-billed Starthroat, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and Black-eared Fairy.
After a brief shower of rain we headed again for the forest patches along the Capuchinbird road where the first bird we saw was another Crimson Topaz, followed by a small group of the strange Red-fan Parrot. Other new species here included good views of singing Warbling and Spot-winged Antbirds, and we headed back to Km 88 just before dusk.
Thursday 8th August
Our plan for the morning was to head for the Guyana trail at km 67 which had been recommended to us by Chris and Rob, in search of some of the remaining lowland species we might have a chance of getting to grips with. Early morning mist doubtless had a detrimental effect on activity, but in general this was one of the most disappointing mornings of the trip, with few birds seen and little vocal activity. We were to discover later that David had stopped using this trail some years ago, although reports of Cinnamon-crested Spadebill and Red-and-black Grosbeak led us to give it a go. One or two small mixed species flocks were located, but the only new birds for the trip were Dusky-throated Antshrike, Long-winged Antwren, Pink-throated Becard and Tawny-crowed Greenlet.
By 10am we decided to cut our losses and headed once more up to the Escalera, via a nice perched Red-fan Parrot at about km 75. Up on at km 123, we found a small party of Roraiman Warblers, but were disappointed again in our attempts to lure a calling Flutist Wren into view. At km 133, both bellbirds were calling, and we finally got good views of the an immature male White Bellbird in a bare tree. Chapman's Bristle-Tyrant was not so obliging, however, nor was Roraiman Barbtail, two species we were disappointed to miss.
Friday 9th August
Our final few hours on the Escalera were spent in search of the barbtail between kms 122-124, but the weather, so kind to us for the vast majority of our trip, finally broke and a overcast and drizzly first hour of daylight put paid to the early formation of flocks and thus curtailed our search for the final handful of endemics. We cut our losses just before 9am and having checked out of the Pilonera, began our long drive back towards Maturin. The only real birds of note all day were found at the bridge over the Rio Cuyuni, where we enjoyed good views of a pair of Rufous-winged Antwren, a scoped Brown Jacamar perched atop a distant snag and a small group of Black-collared Swallows among the more numerous White-banded and White-winged. With an hour or so lost in the queue for the ferry at the Orinoco, and after enjoying good views of Grey River Dolphins during the crossing itself, we ploughed on towards Maturin, arriving at about 6pm and checking in at the simple but central Hotel Europa.
Saturday 10th August
This was to be a non-birding morning so we enjoyed a lie-in and even a leisurely breakfast in modern Maturin before striking out to the north. With Caño Colorado off limits due to the rainy season, our destination for the day was La Vuelta Larga, a small eco-lodge at the base of the Paria Peninsula and on the edge of the Delta Amacuro. We arrived at about midday, and after lunch and a siesta, the son of the owner, Daniel Muller, an experienced bird guide, took us out in his truck to the finca itself at about 3pm.
The habitat was a mixture of farmland, gallery woodland and an area of llanos habitat, set around a large and partially vegetated reservoir. Birds were relatively numerous, although our main quarry, the localised Black-dotted Piculet, remained elusive. Plenty of open country species were in evidence, and new birds for the trip included Neotropic Cormorant, Wood Stork, Scarlet Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, a Long-winged Harrier quartering the llanos, Zone-tailed Hawk, Greater Ani, Glittering-throated Emerald, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Swainson's Flycatcher, Brown-chested Martin, Giant Cowbird and Large-billed Seed-Finch, along with a lot of mosquitoes and one small unidentified snake.
Sunday 11th August
We returned to the finca just after first light, and this time had more luck in locating our target species, as at least three Black-dotted Piculets showed well in the gallery forest patches along the dyke. After admiring a smart adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron perched in a tree and a gorgeous Cream-coloured Woodpecker, we decided to move on to our next key bird. Daniel knew a reliable site for the stunning Crimson-hooded Manakin, and it wasn't long before we were admiring the intense flame colour of this little gem as it responded to the tape, our eleventh species of the family seen well on the trip.
With the two key birds 'out of the way' so early, we were taken on a trip around several areas of different habitats. A flock of small parrots with square tails flew over us and could have been Scarlet-shoudered Parrotlets, but did not vocalise and the light was too poor to determine any plumage details. We added a good variety of species over the morning, including Hook-billed and Slender-billed Kites, Black-collared Hawk, some noisy Hoatzins, Grey-necked Wood-Rail, Red-bellied Macaw, White-eyed Parakeet, Little Cuckoo, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Great Antshrike, Jet Antbird, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Black-capped Donacobius and Masked Yellowthroat.
Back at the lodge by eleven, we continued on for the hour or so that it took us to get to Irapa, a coastal town on the south east of the Paria peninsula, and the base for exploring Cerro Humo. The forested mountaintops seemed relatively free of cloud, so after checking into the Hotel Maryoli and getting a spot of lunch we headed out towards the village of Rio Grande Arriba at the base of the mountains back on the road towards La Vuelta Larga. From there a difficult 8km road winds steeply up through deforested farmland to the ranger station (not manned on either of our visits) just beyond the remote village of Las Melenas. We hired a local truck in Rio Grande Arriba for about 15,000 B and arranged to have him pick us up later in the day. Spectacular views out over the Caribbean were to be had from the back of the truck, although we needed to exert some fairly strong powers of concentration in order to avoid falling out of the vehicle as it rocked its way along the track.
We arrived at the trailhead to find the weather looking pretty good. Just as at Cerro San Luis earlier in the trip, there was a remarkable profusion of flowering Inga trees which in turn held a wide variety of hummers, including Golden-tailed Sapphire, Brown Violetear and Copper-rumped Hummingbird. Flocks of small canopy-dwelling birds passed by at eye level and included the dainty endemic Yellow-faced Redstart, but the real star bird here was the male Venezuelan Flowerpiercer that Mike chanced upon almost as soon as he lifted his binoculars and which subsequently disappeared, not be relocated, much to my chagrin. This endangered species had seemingly not been recorded on the mountain for some time.
With mosquitoes again extremely prevalent we did not want to stay still for too long, so struck out along the lower trail down to the left, where we soon caught up with two more of the local specialities, a male Scissor-tailed Hummingbird in the sub-canopy and a striking male White-tailed Sabrewing beside the trail. A Green Hermit at a Heliconia boosted our hummer lists further, and a pair of furtive Cocoa Thrushes was another good find. Nearby a Lined Quail-Dove foraged on the trail ahead of us and a Stripe-breasted Spinetail lurked in the undergrowth. Battling extraordinary humidity we clambered back up the trail for our rendezvous and returned to Irapa for the best meal of the trip in a smart local fish restaurant.
Monday 12th August
After a rather interrupted night's sleep, we were pleased to be on our way up again to Cerro Humo, which again seemed to be enjoying remarkably good weather conditions. However, logistics were not smooth this morning as our truck from yesterday, whose driver we had re-hired, this time did not make it up the mountain, and we were left with a nervous wait to see whether another truck would pass that could take us to the park HQ. Fortunately we did not have to wait more than half an hour, but it was already getting a little warm when we reached the trailhead, and this time took the main trail up towards the summit of Cerro Humo itself. Our main targets for the morning fell fairly easily, firstly in the form of a delightful Slate-crowned Antpitta, and then after a bit of an anxious wait in some seemingly birdless habitat on the ridge, some soft calls turned out to belong to a responsive and delicately marked White-throated Barbtail that responded to the tape most enthusiastically. On the way down we also managed to locate many of the specialities of the previous day, in addition to a Waved Woodpecker, whose range somewhat strangely seems to extend into these north eastern mountains from its principally Amazonian distribution.
Back in Irapa by midday, we spent the afternoon driving the windy roads to the small town of Caripe. We paid a brief visit to the Oilbird cave at about 5pm and soon ticked off the Venezuelan (Maroon-faced) Parakeets that live near the cave entrance, but were running out of steam and could not bring ourselves to wait the two or three hours for the Oilbirds to emerge, preferring instead to return to Caripe, check in to the Hotel Venezia and enjoy a relatively early night.
Tuesday 13th August
The last full day of the trip and we were flagging in terms of motivation and energy levels, to the extent that we decided against an assault on Grey-headed Warbler country up Cerro Negro, instead preferring to spend a couple of relaxed hours birding the coffee groves and forest patches near the Posada La Cuchilla as mentioned in Mary Lou. We surprisingly managed to pick up one or two interesting species, including Blue-naped Chlorophonia, White-winged Becard and Small-billed Elaenia, all new for the trip list.
Back at the cave, we decided to join a tour group to view the Oilbirdsat close range, which was a fascinating experience for all the senses! We were especially interested in the fact that we were able to view a number of young birds at very close range that had fallen from their nests. The cave itself was also a spectacular sight and thoroughly recommended.
From there we worked our way back towards Maturin, stopping for an hour or so at the El Guamo reservoir, where we added our last new species in the form of Green Kingfisher, Common Thornbird, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Piratic Flycatcher, Trinidad Euphonia and a migrant Barn Swallow, along with a couple of out-of-range Tawny-headed Swallows. Unfortunately no Caribbean Coots or Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrants could be found: two more frustrating dips. We were back in Maturin by 4pm and checked in once more to the Hotel Europa before a bit of shopping and a nice dinner to mark our last night in Venezuela.
Wednesday 14th August
Another lie-in was in order with our flight back to Caracas not until 1pm, but we were relieved to get the car back in one piece to Avis after two completely trouble-free weeks! A longish wait at Maturin was compounded by a longer one in Caracas before our 7pm flight back out to Frankfurt and the end of what had been an excellent trip.