Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Isla Margarita - Venezuela, March 27th-April 3rd 2006,
In need of a week’s break we plumped for the limited avian delights of Isla Margarita, Venezuela and were pleasantly surprised by the island’s overall attractiveness, the variety of habitats and relative abundance of other wildlife, especially butterflies. The island lies c14km off north-east Venezuela and comprises desert scrub, lagoons of various quality, sea coasts and some slightly higher elevation birding in a rather pleasant if restricted national park.
Being based in Montreal, Canada we were able to take advantage of a package tour with Go Travel Direct. Their web site won’t give you much useful information other than which beaches will brown your backside quickest, however we benefited from using them as their carrier, Zoom Airlines, fly a direct charter to Margarita from Montreal and our other Canadian cities. Zoom were very good and comfortable, you can’t ask more from a package carrier. The amount of accommodation choice is limited if you use Go Travel although they do have the Costa Caribe on their list which might be OK. Our accommodation was the Portofino all inclusive complex near Mazanillo on the north-east corner of the main island. What can I say, most of the staff were nice, I’m not sure what the Chef’s day job was but it did not include food preparation and the grounds were of little use to a birder and the rooms of low standard. Having said that, the sea watching was good but the disco was loud and you need to order a pizza NOW in order to get one. After a couple of days we chose to spend some extra dollars for a few nights at the Dunes complex just to the south of Portofino. The Dunes were excellent, great food, birdy grounds and handily placed for birding spots along that coast. Having seen most of the other vacation places on our travels around the island I would say try to stay at the Dunes or, at a push, the Costa Caribe. Any birder with a non birding family would find the Dunes ideal.
We pre booked with Budget via the Expedia.ca and had to collect the car from the airport. We found it was $20.00US per day cheaper hiring that way over the resort prices. A cab from the Portofino was $20.00US. Over a week the saving adds up and the Budget people, although unilingual (Spanish naturally), were quick, efficient and the car was fine. We were given a Kia something or other, a small auto with air con, in March you need it, if the weather is wet and you want to explore the tracks, splash out on a four wheel drive. Gas was ridiculously cheap, $1.50 filled the tank, we gave the pump guy more in a tip than the gas cost. Two fill ups was all we needed for a week which comprised 750KM driven. Credit cards were fine for the hire. The car hire place also gives you an adequate map and we did not really get lost. Don’t be scared to follow your nose down any track that looks interesting, we did and ended up in lots of quiet, birdy little spots.
Hot from 6.30 to 18.45 with stiff breezes most days. Use sun block wear hats and drink lots of water (but not out of the taps). We birded all day long some days and still found plenty of activity.
Not a problem. A couple of mossie bites, just like being on my deck in June! Some beautiful and very large Grasshoppers were about, also a few big spiders but none that might bother you.
The currency is the Bolivar. $1.00US = 2,200B. The hotels all gave the same rate so no point shopping about. Don’t forget to put aside 115,000B or $54.00 US per person for the airport exit tax. Tipping is appreciated. On the Restinga mangrove trip we gave a generous tip and the “Captain” came after us to try to give some back!
No precautions were needed, the lousy food at the Portofino resulted in a dose of tropical tummy but Immodium sorted that one out.. We always keep a first aid kit handy when traveling and I had to remove several cacti spines from various places on my hands and legs, I treated the wounds and have had no problems.
Birding in general
Clearly in hot climes early morning is best but we found that we could bird all day, even in the semi desert scrub. Heat haze is a problem, especially at the Restinga shorebird area and it is hard trying to stalk birds in the open. We chose not to take a scope as the hotel safety deposits boxes could not contain one. It would have been nice to use one for a few of the seabirds and at the Restringa shorebird area but we didn’t really miss one that much. We did take a monopod, mainly to steady the camera but also to use to wallop anyone who looked vaguely intent on mugging us, we didn’t need it though thankfully.
A birder lost his binoculars and camera on a village beach near the Dunes in January 2006. Our company rep was honest enough to tell us that three people had been mugged in our resort town in the first three months of 2006 although all were in ‘quiet’ areas. Be sensible would be my advice, don’t wander poor towns flashing expensive optics or cameras, carry a small bag to hide things. The Portofino had a barrier and security on the gate but nowhere else. The Dunes had men on each door and an ancient old guy on one external gate. He had a big gun and would probably have done himself a mischief with the recoil had he fired it! The people we spoke too everywhere were nice, friendly and largely oblivious to birders. Kids would say “Gringo give me Coca Cola”.
We assembled a checklist of 199 species, drawn from the two versions of The birds of Venezuela and the five trip reports available on the web. We printed our own checklist, scanned whatever plates were applicable to Isla Margarita (if you ever read this please ignore this bit Mr Hilty, I have bought your book and very good it is too) and then spiral bound our own portable field guide. In the absence of a Russian shot putter to carry them, we left the ‘real’ field guides back at camp and found the pocket version adequate. The only comment I have here is will someone please pay Ian Lewington whatever it takes to illustrate a World guide to Hummingbirds, he is the best bird artist bar none, North American birders might not be aware of it but trust me on this.
In total we managed to see 93 species and might easily have topped the 100 by going back to La Sierra.
Books: Both Venezuela guides as stated earlier, we took Hilty’s with us.
Web: Trip reports from David Ferguson (19th January – 2nd February 2006), Alan Miller (2nd-16th March 2005),
Henrik Madsen (November 2002), Mark Gawn (September 1999) and Charles and Joy Fletcher (July-August 1999). Many thanks to them all for posting their trip reports.
The trips reports mentioned earlier give a nice selection of sites but, basically, anywhere that gets birds is a site so explore. We enjoyed what we will refer to as the Restinga track enormously, saw lots of our target birds around there and regret not going back at dusk for nightjars, they have to be there. We did the obligatory mangrove boat trip and saw conebills but not much else except a Seahorse. We went up to La Sierra in the Cerro el Copey NP which was nice and worth more visits. We also looked at a variety of pleasant and not so pleasant lagoons.
This area is between the main island and Macanao which is the big dry bit on the left of the map. You visit primarily for Bicolored Conebill. Finding it is easy, going south from Juan Griego you come to a major highway that crosses the south of the main island. Go west (right) here until you go under a bridge with rather pointless flashing amber lights. There is a major right here, take it and drive 15km or so until a gas station appears on the left. The shop here is ok unless being used by an unfeasibly large Venezuelan lady in a thong, this vision of loveliness is not recommended for the nervous or small children. Just after the gas station is a right turn to the boat area and parking. Youjust ask for a boat and it costs $17.00US for a mangrove tour, it might also cost 50cUS to appease the kid who guards you car, he desperately needs Nikes so just give him the cash. If you show the “Captain” your bins he will speed out to one of the mangrove islands. Stop the boat, pish and they will come, lots of Bicolored Conebills. Endure the “Captain” pointing out the Pelicans, Frigatebirds and possible Ospreys and mention Seahorse (mime one if you can!), he might find you one.
This is a dusty track which you can drive slowly,park anywhere and walk the scrub to get sorely prickled by the cactus which I swear lives solely to trap birders, there are also lots of birds here.
Finding the track. From the boat trip location go back onto the road and go west over a channel, you will then pass a Police checkpoint confirmed by audible snoring. You have a choice here. The road splits three ways just after the checkpoint. If you take the middle road for about 2km and there are tracks (drivable) on the left to a trash filled lagoon, it does get birds though and we saw Little Blue Heron and Hudsonian Godwit here. Back at the split there is a road that goes right. Take it and go about 8km, when it bends left there is a ill defined track on the right and some sort of decrepit building and NP sign for Restinga. Take the track and ignore the condition of the first part, it does improve, this is the Restinga track. Just to digress, 2km further on from the bend in the road is a track on the left which goes through gates to a preserve of some type. The gates were locked but we gained access on one out of three visits and enjoyed good scrub birding, especially in the well-vegetated gullies. This is the parrot track mentioned in other reports.
Back on the Restinga track we found the first bit before it dips and levels off to be great for parrots especially between 15.30-17.00. Yellow-shouldered come in and squawk, Brown-throated is common, we also saw Russet-throated Puffbird and Pearl Kite here. There are lots of Vermilion Cardinals, probably two or three pairs of Venezuelan Troupials and, further on, sneaky Bare-eyed Pigeons hiding in the dunes, we saw 21 on one visit. Moving on, go towards the sea and there are two choices here, explore the left hand track and see Magnificent Frigatebirds really close, find rock roosting terns and other seabird possibilities, we also had a Masked Booby and several Cayenne Terns here (how on earth is that a Sandwich Tern?).
The Right hand track from the main track goes east along the sand flats, is easily drivable in dry conditions and offers varied birding. After three kilometers lagoons start to appear and there are lots of shorebirds on the muddy, drying area, or at least in March 2006 there were. When you first take the right hand side track from the main track look left after c200m to see Burrowing Owls.
Further on east the lagoon with water might have more shorebirds and perhaps a heron or two. Further still and there are mangrove pools with lots of birds, we had two Great Blue Herons on nests here. If you keep going further there are places to buy drinks from in beach side shacks, further still and the road gets blocked about 2km and you cannot get through. Having checked out the eastern end later of the track from the village of La Guardia later, it seems that the track is being repaired so it may be possible to drive right through at some point, as shown on the map. If it has been wet there will be a lagoon at La Guardia and several more along the tracks in that area which would be worth exploring.
There are other bits of Macanao which seem worth exploring but it is hot there. We found Blue-crowned Parakeets by the roadside 5km south-east of the Restinga track turn off, they may roost in the area so late afternoon could offer the best chances. The last 5km before the road to the main island have a pair of White-tailed Hawks but they are hit and miss.
Laguna de Las Maritas
Near the Airport is a big lagoon complex the Laguna de Las Maritas. We tried to find a way on without luck, we could see lots of distant birds from the road but there seemed to be no access tracks
Laguna de Boca de Rio
Located on the south side of the thin bit between Macanao and the main island. The lagoon is shallow and full of trash. You can view it from the track mentioned earlier or by negotiating the maze of roads around the slums at the east end.
In Pedro Gonzales, going north on the main road there is a left which is very broad and was being worked on. Down here is Laguna Zaragoza. If you miss the turn look out for the well marked one to the Dunes complex. Go past the Dunes entrance and take the next left.
Laguna de los Matires
A large laguna accessed of the same road going north as above. Head for Playa la Galera, once you reach the bay take the next right and the road skirts the laguna. Part of it is also viewable on north side of Juan Griego off the road between there and Pedro Gonzales. There is also a sewage treatment works. To find it find the road that runs along the south side of the laguna, pick you way through the streets keeping the laguna tight to your left and you will come to the gates. Not much there on our visit.
Laguna de Suarez
We didn’t see much of this one. You can see part of it on the road to Pta Caribe. Other birders viewed it from the holiday complex off the main road just before the steep hill.
A short track from a parking area between Sta Ana and La Asuncion. This road was ridiculously busy and we saw nothing here that we could not find elsewhere although other birders have had more luck. It takes about 20 minutes to get there from Juan Griego.
La Sierra in the Cerro el Copey NP
This area is really nice and it would have been good to have visited it more than once. The easy way to get there from the north-east end of the island is to get to La Asuncion, take the good road to Porlamar and look out for the clear left turn to Valle Del Espiritu Santo and then La Sierra. Access to the park, which opened at 8.00, was along a track to a car park. It would be better to park in the village if possible and try to get part way up the track to the summit at first light. On the first bend uphill from the car park we had Lance-tailed Manakins, a male and three females, also a pair of Red-legged Honeycreepers. We didn’t manage to find an Antpittas or Chachalacas but it was a Saturday when we visited and got busier from 9.00 onwards, it might be quieter in the week, tapes would be useful here.
List of birds seen
The list follows Hilty, Birds of Venezuela, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 2003. I’ll not bother with dates, just locations.
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra: One from the beach at the end of Restinga Track.
Red-footed Booby Sula sula: Seen daily when we were at Portofino.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster: Common offshore.
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis: Common.
Neotropic Cormorant Phalacrocorax olivaceus: Common.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens: Common and magnificent.
White-cheeked Pintail Anas bahamensis: One on Luguna de los Matires.
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias: Common Restinga, two birds were on nests there.
Great Egret Ardea alba: Fairly common.
Snowy Egret Egretta thula: Common at the Dunes.
Little Blue Heron: Egretta caerulea: Seen at Dunes and Laguna de Boca de Rio.
Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens: One dark morph on Laguna Zaragoza.
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor: Breeding at the Dunes, seen on most lagunas.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis: Common.
Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax Nycticorx: Common at the Dunes.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea: Three on Laguna de los Matires.
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus: Common.
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura: Common on Macanao.
Osprey Pandion haliaetus: Present Restinga mangroves.
Pearl Kite Gampsonyx swainsonii: One Restinga track, one near the Airport.
Harris’s Hawk Parabuteo unicinctus: Fairly common Macanao.
White-tailed Hawk Buteo albicaudatus: Two on the road to Restinga track.
Northern Crested-Caracara Caracara cheriway: Fairly common.
American Kestrel Falco sparverius: About five seen.
Merlin Falco columbarius: Seen Restinga Track and Manzanilla.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus: Seen at the Dunes and Portofino.
Gray Plover Pluvialis squatarola: 20 at the west (shorebird) end of Restinga Lagoon from Restinga track.
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus: About 200 at the Restinga shorebird site.
Wilson’s Plover Charadrius wilsonia: Up to 40, Restinga shorebird site.
Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus: Five at the Restinga shorebird site.
Collared Plover Charadrius collaris: At least 20 at the Restinga shorebird site.
American Oystercatcher Haemantopus palliatus: One on the rocky island from the Portofino.
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca: Five around the Restinga shorebird site.
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes: Four at the Restinga shorebird site.
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia: Seen Laguna de los Matires and Portofino.
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica: Laguna de Boca de Rio.
Sanderling Calidris alba: Twenty or so at the Restinga shorebird site.
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla: Hundreds at the Restinga shorebird site.
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri: At least ten probably any more at the Restinga shorebird site.
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla: Two hundred or more, Restinga shorebird site.
Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus: Five at the Restinga shorebird site.
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla: seen at several spots offshore.
Royal Tern Sterna maxima: Common offshore from Restinga track.
Cayenne Tern Sterna eurygnatha: Several offshore from Restinga track beach.
Rock Dove Columba livia: A few.
Bare-eyed Pigeon Columba corensis: A group of 21 at Restinga track.
Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata: Seen all along Restinga track area, also Dunes and Portofino.
Scaled Dove Scardafella squammata: Common.
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina: Common.
Ruddy Ground-Dove Columbina talpacoti: Small numbers seen.
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi: Small numbers seen.
Blue-crowned Parakeet Aratinga acuticaudata: Seen along the road to the Restinga track.
Brown-throated Parakeet Aratinga pertinax: Fairly common on Macanao.
Green-rumped Parrotlet Forpus passerinus: Only seen around the Dunes complex.
Yellow-shouldered Parrot Amazona barbadensis: Seen on one date along the Restinga track late afternoon.
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani: Common.
Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia: Six birds seen at three sites.
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird Chrysolampis mosquitus: Seen only at La Sierra.
Blue-tailed Emerald Chlorostilbon mellisugus: Common on Macanao.
Buffy Hummingbird Colibri anteado: Common.
Copper-rumped Hummingbird Amazilia Tobaci: Seen only at La Sierra.
Russet-throated Puffbird Hypnelus ruficollis: Seen Restinga track and La Sierra.
Red-crowned Woodpecker Melanerpes rubricapillus: Seen at the Dunes and La Sierra.
Straight-billed Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus picus: Seen at the Dunes and Restinga track.
Barred Antshrike Thamnophilus doliatus: Seen at several sites. Common in the hills.
Northern White-fringed Antwren Formicivora intermedia: Fairly common.
Northern Scrub-Flycatcher Sublegatus arenarum: One at the Dunes.
Dusky-capped Flycatcher Myiarchus tuberculifer: Two along the parrot track on Macanao.
Brown-crested Flycatcher Myiarchus tyrannulus: Fairly common on Macanao.
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melanocholicus: Common, especially in the north-east.
Lance-tailed Manakin Chiroxiphia lanceolata: Seen at La Sierra.
Scrub Greenlet Hylophilus flavipes: Seen at several locations.
Gray-breasted Martin Progne chalybea: Common.
Purple Martin Progne subis: An adult at Portofino.
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor: Two seen well at Portofino.
Southern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx ruficollis: One around the Dunes on one date.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica: Seen at several places.
Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea: Common.
Tropical Mockingbird Mimus gilvus: Common.
Tropical Parula Parula pitiayumi: Seen only at La Sierra.
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis: One at the Dunes.
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola: Common.
Bicolored Conebill Conirostrum bicolor: Easily seen in the Restinga mangroves.
Glaucous Tanager Thraupis glaucocolpa: Fairly common on the main island.
Palm Tanager Thraupis palmarum: Seen at La Sierra.
Red-legged Honeycreeper Cyanerpes cyaneus: A pair at La Sierra.
Vermilion Cardinal Cardinalis phoeniceus: Fairly common.
Blue-black Grassquit Volatinia jacarina: One at the Dunes.
Black-faced Grassquit Tiaris bicolor: Common.
Saffron Finch Sicalis Flaveola: Seen at the Dunes only.
Carib Grackle Quiscalus lugubris: Common.
Venezuelan Troupial Icterus icterus: Easy to find along the Restinga track. Others seen elsewhere on Macanao
Yellow Oriole Icterus nigrogularis: Common.
What we didn’t see!
We had expected to be able to locate quite a few more species but a week isn’t really long enough to be able to revisit some of the sites, we were also surprised by the general lack of passerine migrants. We might also have expected to see, in no particular order, a few more herons and shorebird species, perhaps Yellow-billed Tern, possibly Large-billed Tern, a couple of cuckoo species. Owls, a nightjar and nighthawk, a few more flycatchers, especially Gray Kingbird and Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Scaled Antpitta, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Yellow-legged Thrush, perhaps a few Nearctic warblers and perhaps another species of tanager.
We did see a very dark dove? species at La Sierra with a broad white terminal tail band which slipped off into the vegetation.
Seahorse: One at Restinga mangoves.
Capybara: Eight, the Dunes, presumed feral.
Lizard: Several species including a couple of big ones.
Snakes: One dead on the road, garter type.