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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Northern and Eastern Venezuela, 2nd-16th July 2005,
Harpy Eagle, Imataca Reserve, Venezuela, 6th July 2005 (Richard Rae)
This is a report on a birding trip we made to Venezuela, focusing mainly on sites in the east of the country but also a couple of key sites in the northern coastal cordillera. The trip was partially guided, interspersed with birding on our own, the itinerary being put together for us by David Ascanio.
We saw just over 400 species, including such excellent birds as Harpy Eagle, Scallop-breasted, Chestnut-crowned and Slate-crowned Antpittas, Ferruginous-backed Antbird, Handsome and Red-banded Fruiteaters, Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, Capuchinbird, Sharpbill and some nice manakins including Scarlet-horned, Crimson-hooded and Golden-headed.
Generally bird activity was good although it could be hard going at times on the Escalera.
Getting There, Getting Around and Ground Arrangements
Our international flights, with Lufthansa, were booked through the website www.travelocity.co.uk at a cost of £525 including admin and postage, a reasonable price. The flights were unremarkable and more-or-less on time. Unprecedented levels of bureaucracy and general inefficiency at Caracas airport when departing meant lengthy periods spent in queues for check-in, departure tax and immigration. David Ascanio said the situation was probably worse than normal due to it being holiday time for Venezuelans, however if flying internationally from Caracas it would seem wise to leave at least 3 hours to complete all formalities. We were told on check-in that departure tax had risen since we bought our tickets and so had to pay approx a further $10US each.
Our internal flights, with Avior and Aeropostal, and all ground arrangements were made for us by David Ascanio and Gioconda Motta of www.ascaniobirding.com, and all ran seamlessly.
We had initially considered doing the trip as a self-drive, but various reports about the bad state of hire cars in Venezuela, combined with our almost total lack of Spanish and having just two weeks available to us and a lot to fit in led us to consider a guided trip. A fully guided trip for just the two of us proved to be beyond our budget and so we opted for a compromise, with some guiding at the start and end of the trip. Although we would certainly have seen more species had we had a guide all the time, we both enjoy finding our own birds and were very happy with the balance of the trip.
Although we were advised that a current yellow fever certificate was required to enter Venezuela, we were never asked for it. No other particular red tape although a rather long and tortuous journey through immigration and departure tax queues when leaving the country. Police/Army roadblocks are not uncommon so it is important to keep your passport with you at all times.
We had paid David US$2630 per person for all transport, accommodation, guiding, food and soft drink before we left home, therefore about the only thing we paid for was a few beers a night. We only spent a further US$50 each during the whole holiday. One thing that everyone remarks on about Venezuela is the extraordinarily cheap petrol. At the time of our trip it was the equivalent of £0.016/litre (on return to the UK prices were about £0.86/litre!).
All was of a decent standard.
The food was on the whole fairly simple and tasty. At most of the places we stayed there wasn’t a menu as such, you just eat whatever the cook feels like making.
Most people in Venezuela speak little English. If you are on a trip similar to ours, or fully guided, this is not likely to be a problem, however if travelling independently it might be difficult without at least some rudimentary Spanish.
Generally warm and humid throughout. Being only a few degrees north of the equator the weather was pretty similar throughout. When the sun was out, a hat was essential to prevent getting burnt, and on the Escalera to keep the rain off.
The Escalera was generally wet with bird activity limited during the heavy showers – some of which lasted for a few hours. On the plus side these did seem to be altitudinal to some extent and the birds had a flurry of activity after the showers had gone through. Our strategy here was to go up (or down) to get to drier areas on the road.
Health and Safety
No major issues; there is malaria in Venezuela and that found in areas south of the Orinoco (where we were for some of the trip) is resistant to Proguanil and Chloroquine therefore we took Malarone (once daily, 4 days before entering infected area until one week after). This is expensive and (in Britain at least) only available by prescription. At least it tastes better than Chloroquine! Neither had any side effects, except for some extremely vivid dreams at night! It may be a good idea to shop around as DL was charged £48 for 23 tablets in Bolton, and RR charged £60 for 24 in Sheffield.
DL had a bit of an upset stomach early on in the trip, culminating in a roadside vomiting, which actually commenced while still in motion, much to the delight of RR sat in the back of the jeep!
At no time did we feel remotely threatened although we spent little time in urban areas and hardly any time in Caracas, which does of course have a bad reputation for crime.
We found most people to be very friendly.
Trip Reports, Field Guides and Tapes
As usual, trip reports by Hornbuckle (2001) and Vermeulen (1994) were useful, also Simon Allen (2002). All available online.
Birding in Venezuela
Birds of Venezuela
We also purchased the CD Rom by Peter Boesman, and burned what we thought would be useful calls/songs onto CD for use in the field which proved massively useful.
For the Escalera we produced a compilation of all the info we could find on the net, on a km by km basis, using the lists in Mary Lou as a starting point. This was quite useful for keeping focused on what to be looking out for at which km, although of course a lot of the Escalera specialities could occur at numerous points along the road and what become regarded as “hotspots” are simply where a couple of people have seen a species.
For general travel info we took the Lonely Planet guide to Venezuela, although the nature of this trip, with all accommodation and transport pre-arranged, meant that we hardly used it.
We had three guides at different stages of the trip:
Daniel Muller for our stay at La Vuelta Larga. Daniel is enthusiastic about his birding and knowledgeable about the area. We would not have seen anywhere near as much without him. Also he has a jeep which is useful for getting up to Cerro Humo. Note that Daniel does not have recordings (or if he does he didn’t bring them out with us!).
Xavier was our local guide during our 2.5 days in the Imataca Reserve. He was sharp eyed and indispensable for finding Harpy Eagle. He knows the best areas for some species, but doesn’t have “stake-outs” in the way that many guides do. He also barely speaks any English, so most of our communication took place by pointing at plates in the field guide. He does not have recordings.
David Ascanio was our guide for the final 2.5 days, at Henry Pittier. David is quite simply one of the best guides you could ever have. His knowledge about Venezuelan birds is second to none, and his use of the iPod in calling difficult species out was amazing. On top of that he is terrific company in the field.
An ordinary European plug adaptor is fine for use in Venezuela.
Thanks to David Ascanio and the team at Birding Venezuela for putting together a first-rate holiday for us, and to David for the two and a half fantastic days in Henry Pittier at the end of the trip.
Special thanks to Gruff Dodd, who sent a lot of useful comments about his recent trip, as well as a draft copy of his trip report.
Thanks also to Chris Sharpe who kindly responded to our initial enquiries once he returned from guiding a trip. By that stage, however we had already begun making arrangements with David Ascanio.
July 2nd. Arrived Maiquieta international airport and collected by Mario. Driven to German village of Colonia Tovar. Birded the road from the airport to the village.
July 3rd: Morning near Colonia Tovar on road to La Victoria. Returned to airport to catch internal flight to Carupano. Birding the late afternoon around La Vuelta Larga.
July 4th: morning birding looking for the endemics around Cerro Humo. Lunch back at the Vuelta Larga. Afternoon boat trip to Cano Ajies to search for Rufous crab hawk.
July 5th: morning birding around la Finca Vuelta Larga. At 10:45 departed after breakfast back at the lodge with our driver Cesar Cortez for the drive to El Palmar. Ferry over the Orinoco and eventually arrived in the dark at our hotel, Parador Tagupire.
July 6th: full day birding in the Rio Grande (Imataca) Forest reserve to look for Harpy Eagle.
July 7th: full day birding in the Rio Grande (Imataca) Forest reserve.
July 8th: morning around the Imataca Forest reserve. Departed the taguapire mid morning to drive south to the mining town at the base of La Escalera, Las Claritas. On the way stopped at the marsh near Vila Lola and the Cuyani bridge.
July 9th: La Escalera.
July 10th: Capuchinbird Road – La Escalera – Capuchinbird Road.
July 11th: La Escalera – Capuchinbird Road.
July 12th: La Escalera – Gran Sabana – La Escalera.
July 13th: morning birding La Escalera. Afternoon drive north to catch flight from Puerto Ordaz to Caracas. Met at the airport by Mario and David, and drove to Maracay.
July 14th: full day birding within Henri Pittier NP (Choroni Road)
July 15th: full day birding within Henri Pittier NP (Rancho Grande and Ocumare Road)
July 16th morning birding within Henri Pittier NP (Rancho Grande) and then driven back to Caracas to catch the flight home.
Most sites visited are very well covered in the available literature so we will not spend too much time on this here.
Montane site in northern coastal cordillera, ca 2hrs west of Caracas. Endemic Caracas Tapaculo and Black-throated Spinetail and a good variety of species not likely to be seen in Henry Pittier.
Henry Pittier NP
Legendary National Park in the northern coastal Cordillara. Huge variety of habitats and home to such mega birds as Scallop-breasted Antpitta.
Paria Peninsula, Cano Ajies and La Vuelta Larga
Situated in the north-east of the country, an area with a wide range of habitats and a good selection of endemics. Added to our itinerary as a substitute for Cano Colorado which is underwater in July, but on reflection it’s hard to see how CC could have been better. Staying at La Vuelta Larga and having the very personable and competent Daniel Muller as a guide helped enormously.
Rio Grande (Imataca Forest Reserve)
This lowland forest site in the north east of Venezuela is famous for its high density of Harpy Eagle nests, but also offers excellent general birding, and is well worth 2-3 days.
Escalera and Gran Sabana
The Escalera is a road leading south of the mining town of Las Claritas, well known to birders for offering the easiest chance to see the various tepui endemics. The road covers quite a range of altidudes as it winds up the escarpment before reaching the Gran Sabana, a large grassland plateau with not a lot to get excited about birding-wise. The Escalera needs several days to get a good sample of the species occurring at the different altitudes along the road, and even then there will probably be some gaps on your list. The birding here can be hard work at times, with sometimes several hours passing with very little being seen. However the quality of the birds when you do see them make it a rewarding experience.
The so-called Capuchinbird Road, well-known to birders as a reliable place to see this unique and bizarre member of the cotinga family, is a road running west from the main road leading from Las Claritas to the Escalera. The forest here is at an elevation below the start of the Escalera so various species are seen here that will not be seen on the Escalera.
DAILY DIARY (RR 2nd – 8th July, DL 9th – 16th July)
2nd July – We touched down in Caracas at 14.30 local time, after a not too arduous flight with Lufthansa from Manchester via Frankfurt. A few complimentary cognacs helped to pass the time! After a smooth passage through immigration and having collecting our bags, we made our way into the chaotic arrivals hall, and began scouring the signs for our names. After a few minutes we soon spotted the sign, held by Mario, who would be our driver/guide for the first 24 hours of the trip. We were struck by the intense heat and humidity as soon as we left the airport, but it was just a short walk to Mario’s airconditioned 4x4. Heading along the coast and then up into the coastal cordillera, birding started immediately, with DL, on his first visit to the neotropics, plunged straight into a ticking frenzy! The highlight was a Barred Forest Falcon in the early evening, a lucky sighting and the only one we were to see. It was dark by the time we arrived in the charming village of Colonia Tovar, built in the 19th century by German immigrants, and still retaining its’ German character to this day. For a birder it provides a chance to see a couple of Venezuelan endemics and a good selection of species within easy striking distance of Caracas. After locating the Hotel Freiburg, tucking into a tasty dinner of schnitzel (what else?) and enjoying a beer with Mario, we were both ready for bed after a long day.
3rd July – Up before dawn, and after a German-style breakfast we were keen to start proper birding, along the roads above Colonia Tovar. One doesn’t have to go far to get to good birding habitat. The first notable species were a couple of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes and a smart Ochre-bellied Brush Finch by the roadside. A little further along, in a likely looking bit of habitat, we decided to start taping for some of our target species. The CD of Black-throated Spinetail was duly spun, and it wasn’t long before a bird was responding. A little more playing of the CD, and we could glimpse some movement in a bush by the roadside. DL had seen more of the bird at this stage and ventured the opinion that it was not in fact the spinetail. A little more work with the CD player ultimately gave good enough views to identify the bird as a Caracas Tapaculo, our other main target for the morning!! Somewhat puzzled, I initially thought that I may have got mixed up when compiling the CD, however a perusal of Hilty, with the comment that Black-throated Spinetail has “some calls resembling Caracas Tapaculo”, along with the fact that our Caracas Tapaculo track also pulled in CT later on in the morning, seemed to explain it. Apparently even the birds themselves get confused!
In the run up to a trip, thumbing through the field guide and anticipating what certain species might be like “in real life”, is, I find, an enjoyable part of the preparation. One species that both of us had become very keen on seeing was Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, and we knew that Colonia Tovar was probably our only chance of seeing it on this trip. Our current location seemed as good a place as any to try and see one, so out came the CD again. We were pleasantly surprised to get an immediate, albeit distant response. Another go with the CD brought a response clearly much closer, and we were now pretty sure that we would at least get a brief view of the bird. Playing the CD again, we were now concentrating intensely on the roadside vegetation where we hoped the bird would appear. Suddenly a movement at ground level. It must be it! Tension soon gave way to elation as the bird bounded out of the scrub to stand right out in the open at the roadside for a few glorious seconds, its’ head positively glowing orange in the early morning sun, its’ white throat and boldly streaked underparts looking, if anything, even better than expected. It soon decided it wasn’t happy being so exposed and flew across the road and into the scrub on the other side and began singing. A few minutes later a final go with the CD gave another marvellous, too close-to-focus view as the bird hopped into a narrow gap in the vegetation only about a metre in front of us. An early contender for bird of the trip!
Much of the rest of the morning was devoted to our quest for the spinetail, although every speculative play of the CD just resulted in us being mobbed by Caracas Tapaculos!!!! A slight exaggeration perhaps, but they are clearly very common in this area and much less bashful than many of their family. A few nice species presented themselves including Plushcap and a stonking Black Hawk-Eagle, but with two endems targeted for the morning and only one seen, it was going to be hard to describe the morning as an unqualified success, even with a showy antpitta in the bag. However we had a flight to catch from Caracas in the afternoon, so sticking around wasn’t an option. Back at the car, having quickly polished off our packed lunch from the Freiburg (schnitzel again!), we were about to depart when up pops a long tailed, bright rufous bird with a nice little black chin, right next to the road. Black-throated Spinetail is on the list, and Mario drives two very happy birders back to Caracas airport. We bid a fond fairwell to Mario, and make our way to the departure gate which is found with some difficulty. On receipt of our boarding passes, with seats 7A and 7B respectively, we had remarked on how it would be nice to be near the front of the plane for a change. As an indication of how small the plane was, we were almost at the back and both had window seats! Clearly the route from Caracas to Carupano is not one of the busiest. On arrival at Carupano, we were met by Daniel Muller, and from there we drove to La Vuelta Larga, about an hour away, and our base for the next two nights. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived, too late to go anywhere but a brief look around the gardens of the lodge gave Russet-throated Puffbird (of the double-banded form) and a few other common species. A tasty evening meal and an early night, in preparation for tomorrows assault on the Paria Peninsula.
4th July – Up, as would become customary on this trip, well before dawn, in order to reach the upper slopes of Cerro Humo, the key site on the Paria Peninsula and home to all the endems. There were numerous, not particularly well marked speed bumps along the main road – fortunately Daniel knew where they all were and could zip along happily between them. Once on the mountain the road turned into a track, and I very much doubt an ordinary car could make it all the way up. Birding started before we had finished breakfast. The first species seen was the localized White-tailed Sabrewing, and we would see several more during the morning. This was quickly followed by the endemic Venezuelan Parakeet, with good views of a party of 6. We then started walking the trail, which initially ascended, before crossing a ridge and ascending, quite steeply at times. Birds were coming thick and fast, largely thanks to the sharp eyes and ears of Daniel. The paria endemic Scissor-tailed Hummingbird was very obliging and seemed quite common, a Black-faced Antthrush gave great views, Paria Whitestart showed nicely and with a bit of effort we got great views of the paria race of Handsome Fruiteater, a potential split according to David Ascanio, and certainly sporting much more red on the chest than birds we would see later on at Henry Pittier NP. Having mentioned to Daniel our desire to see Slate-crowned Antpitta, he stopped at a likely spot and suggested we give the CD a try. Almost immediately the bird flew in, perching on a low branch and inspecting us for almost a minute before slipping away silently. Brilliant. The paria race is regarded as a possible future split by David Ascanio. After this we walked fairly briskly back to the car, pausing only for a male Collared Trogon. During a short rest back at Vuelta Larga Copper-rumped Hummingbird was added to the list, then we were off again to the jetty at Cano Ajies, a short drive away. The mangroves around here are home to the localized Rufous Crab Hawk and a number of other interesting species. We had a very pleasant 3 hours out on the water, seeing lots of species although sadly dipping on our main target. The highlight was a male Jet Antbird that went absolutely nuts to the CD. 2 Hoatzins seen by the road on the way back to Vuelta Larga were a much-wanted lifer for DL.
It was dark when we arrived back at the lodge, having stopped off for a celebratory bottle (or was it two?) of the local beer in the village. Another early night, after briefly meeting our driver for the next week, Cesar Cortez, who had arrived at the lodge ready for our departure tomorrow morning.
5th July – Our last morning in the company of Daniel was to be spent at Finca Vuelta Larga, the ecological reserve owned by the Muller family, and a remarkably good place for birding. Just a couple of problems: it’s pouring down with rain, and DLs guts are in less than robust form. It is this latter issue that proves to be of most immediate concern to both members of the party, as a particularly bumpy section of road on the way to the Finca proves too much for DL, and a slender trail of vomit emerges, finding its’ way quickly onto RR, sat in the back of the jeep. Daniel reacts quickly and the vehicle is stopped while DL slopes off to produce a particularly fine example of “pavement pizza”. No more fruit juice for DL!
Fortunately the evacuation seems to help, and now we just have to contend with the rain. Given that much of the Finca is open wetland habitat, it is less of a problem than if we were in forest, but we have a couple of passerine targets for the morning as well. Once we get out of the car and start birding we are quickly impressed with the place. The habitat is excellent and there are loads of birds. We have only been out a few minutes before the highly localised endemic Black-dotted Piculet is on the list, and 3 Horned Screamers are very welcome, since this can be a hard species to find. Other good stuff includes a decent fly-by from a Least Bittern, White-headed March Tyrant and a cracking Cream-coloured Woodpecker. A good selection of herons, egrets and ibises is on display, and Limpkin is a welcome family tick for RR, although not much of a “looker”! At this point the rain starts to become rather heavier and we take shelter for a few minutes, however it is clearly not going to stop so we quickly head back to the jeep. The potential highlight of the morning is yet to come however, and we are a little concerned about how the rain might affect our chances of seeing Crimson-hooded Manakin. The first lek we visited was empty, but at the second, after a little encouragement from the CD, we scored, with a male coming in almost immediately, and then sitting and looking at us for several minutes. A great finish to the birding here. This area had not even been on our original itinerary, only being included because Cano Colorado was under water at this time of year. However it had given us a lot of birds and we’d certainly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to eastern Venezuela. Back at the lodge for a quick breakfast and one last tick in the shape of Rufous-breasted Hermit, which we realised had in fact been nesting right outside our window!
The long drive to El Palmar took up most of the day. A few open country species such as Savannah Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, and Red-breasted Blackbird were seen en route to Maturin. A visit to Wimpy in Maturin proved agreeable to DLs still-fragile constitution, and then it was onwards once more in the direction of El Palmar. 4 Large-billed Terns were seen as we took the ferry across the Orinoco. By the time we arrived at El Palmar it was dark, with a few unidentified nightjars being seen along the last stretch of road. We checked into the Hotel Taguapire, a place that has probably seen more than its’ fair share of the great and the good of the birding community over the years. Obviously the standard was to drop over the next three nights, as DL and RR were in residence. A by-now-customary early night, ready for a big day tomorrow.
6th July – After an early breakfast courtesy of the Hotel Taguapire, we were off, firstly to pick up our guide for the next 2 and a half days, Xavier, and then in the direction of the Imataca Forest Reserve, home to what is perhaps the world’s highest density of Harpy Eagles. There was a bit of a language barrier, with Xavier speaking no English at all and us speaking a woefully small amount of Spanish. So it was always a bit of a mystery what we were going to be doing next! We assumed that Xavier had a master plan, so didn’t stipulate that we went straight to see the Harpy, although that was clearly the main reason we’d come. Anyway the birding was pretty good along the road to the forest, and better once we got inside the forest, although when you know you’re going for one of the world’s most legendary birds it’s hard to really appreciate anything else until it’s safely “in the bag”! It was probably about 9.30, and we had been driving for quite some time, when Xavier suddenly shouted “Harpia! Harpia!”. Seconds later RR and DL piled out of the Landcruiser in a highly agitated state. Having read other people’s reports, they had always involved a lengthy walk to the nest. At this stage we assumed that Xavier had simply spotted a bird by chance while driving, thus giving a much greater chance that the bird might fly off at any second. [we later discovered from David Ascanio that the road we had been travelling along was a new track, that the Harpy Eagle nest had been discovered while this area of the forest was being “opened up”, and that the nest had subsequently collapsed, but the young bird had still hung around]. As it turned out, we need not have worried – the immature Harpy Eagle remained in the same tree for the duration of our stay. We were able to peruse it from just about every angle and quite a few photos were taken! On a few occasions it called in a way that suggested it wanted some food. Each time it did so we were hoping that mum or dad might drop by with a fresh monkey, but sadly that didn’t happen. Still it was a beautiful bird and we thoroughly enjoyed watching it. A Waved Woodpecker in the tree next to the eagle was a nice bonus. For lunch we adjourned to a small pool in the forest, just underneath some small falls. Walking back to the car, we had our only sighting of White-crested Spadebill, which proved remarkably difficult to get good views of in the lower canopy. The rest of the day was spent birding along the miles of roads through the forest. Highlights included Amazonian Violaceous Trogon, King Vulture and a seen Screaming Piha (others heard!). As dusk approached, and heading out of the forest, we stopped at an area of rank vegetation by the roadside, and a female Great Antshrike obligingly shimmied up to perch openly while we tried to identify it. 3 Black Caracaras flew over and were the only ones seen during the trip. Very pleased with the day we headed back to the Taguapire.
7th July – Another day in the Imataca Forest Reserve, and having secured the main attraction yesterday we were keen to see a few of the other specialities of the area. As mentioned previously we were a bit in the dark as to Xavier’s grand strategy for our time with him, however he seemed to be reading the situation correctly since we spent a decent amount of the day actually on trails, having birded almost exclusively from the road yesterday.
A Grey-necked Wood Rail seen briefly by RR feeding on the road, but (typically) legging it back into cover almost immediately, resulted in a productive hour long stop, with one of the major targets for this site, the delightful Ferruginous-backed Antbird, being coaxed into view after a bit of work with the CD player. DL nearly missed this due to a return of his “digestive difficulties”. Also along the same bit of road, Lineated and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Black Nunbird, several American Purple Gallinules and 2 Grey-necked Wood Rails were seen after a bit of a wait by a small pool.
The rest of the morning was spent along a fairly good trail, where, typically, the first bird we saw was another Ferruginous-backed Antbird! It was very hot and humid in the forest, and there were quite long periods with little bird activity, although we did see a few good birds. Perhaps the biggest surprise was when, while walking through a small clearing, we flushed a roosting nightjar, which fortunately landed on the ground in front of us and gave incredible views, allowing us to identify it as a Blackish Nightjar. Then, carrying on, we got to the next clearing and flushed another 2, one of which gave equally good views and was deemed to be a male. Great stuff. Another highlight was finding a mixed feeding flock of antbirds, with Rufous-throated and White-plumed Antbirds both giving superb
Rufous-throated Antbird, Imataca Reserve, Venezuela, 7th July 2005 (Dave Lowe)
views. A well-built Black-banded Woodcreeper also showed well here. It was now late morning so we started to retrace our steps along the trail. It was very hot and humid now, making the birding hard work, but we still managed to pick up a few new species, including a pair of Grey Antwrens, Flame-crested Tanager and (for RR only) a Yellow-backed Tanager. We had indicated earlier to Xavier our interest in seeing Musician Wren and as we were walking back he indicated a shady spot with a dense understorey as a likely spot to try for it. We got an immediate response to the CD, which was pretty pleasing, and DL enjoyed some crippling views (which were no doubt exaggerated for RR’s benefit later!), but RR only had a very brief naked eye only view before it retreated and, true to its’ description in Hilty, lost interest. We waited for a little while and tried the CD again but it was to no avail. Arriving back at the car for lunch, RR was in a sombre mood. The afternoon was spent birding along one of the roads through the forest, and this proved quite productive with plenty of new species seen. Among others, a raucous group of Red-throated Caracaras were seen in a treetop next to the road, and RR saw a Helmeted Pygmy Tyrant (a call well worth knowing when at Imataca) that slipped away before DL got on it. The highlight (that was very nearly the lowlight for DL) of the afternoon was when RR got on a pair of Golden-headed Manakins while wandering slightly ahead along the road. After some frantic gesturing DL arrived in time to see the stunning male before it disappeared. A real cracker. Arriving back at the bridge near the entrance in the late afternoon, we picked up an attractive group of Turqouise Tanagers and 4 Golden-winged Parakeets flew over. We arrived back at the Taguapire tired and again well pleased with the day’s birding. RR was by this stage feeling the onset of a cold.
8th July – A final morning with Xavier in the Imataca Reserve before another long drive south. RRs cold had kicked in with a vengeance by this stage and he spent a miserable morning in the intense humidity, and could barely be bothered to get out of the landcruiser when we stopped at the Villa Lola marshes later on in the day.
We had made it known to Xavier that the main species left that we hadn’t seen was the ground cuckoo, so much of the morning was spent on that, with no success whatsoever. However, there were a few successes, with Mouse-coloured and Dusky-throated Antshrikes being coaxed into view, an Eastern Long-tailed Hermit that played cat and mouse with us for a while before perching openly, and, in a “classic bit of habitat reading by RR” the CD was played resulting in not one but TWO Musician Wrens responding with their almost unearthly, flutey songs. The first one proved unobliging (except to DL!), however the second gave cracking views, easing RRs pain from yesterday despite having a head full of cold. DL was able to grip-back Helmeted Pygmy Tyrant, so all round not a bad final morning.
After a quick lunch back at the Taguapire, we packed up and were on the road once more. Having read about some roadside marshes en route (known as Villa Lola) we stopped to pick up a selection of waterbirds for the list. Shortly after leaving the site, it transpired that some sort of communication breakdown had occurred between the members of the team, since RR was claiming two species of whistling-duck whereas DL had only seen one! RR, suffering badly with his cold and certainly not “firing on all cylinders”, was almost convinced that he’d been hallucinating, however a stop a little bit further along the road gave another pair of White-faced Whistling Ducks and RRs reputation was restored. From here we ate the miles to Las Claritas, stopping just once at the Rio Cuyuni, where the old road briefly deviates from the new, to watch from a bridge for a few minutes where White-winged and White-banded Swallows hawked.
It was getting decidedly gloomy by the time we arrived at the pleasant Anaconda Hotel in the very unpleasant Las Claritas, so no further birding was done. We enjoyed the first of a number of tasty evening meals, washed down with a couple of beers, and retired for an early night, keenly anticipating our first day on the legendary Escalera.
9th July - This was to be our first days birding along the famous eastern Venezuelan road, La Escalera. Literally meaning the elevator, the road winds its way up from the grotty mining town of Las Claritas, through cloud forest to the world heritage site of the Gran Sabana. The beauty of this road is the number of different elevations it passes through allowing the birder to connect with a wide range of localised species.
We were based in the secure Anaconda hotel, whose massive gates were locked at night. We did briefly venture onto the high street one day, but were warned that this mining town inhabitants (a high proportion of which were convicts released from the nearby maximum security prison) were not to be trusted. The anaconda itself is pleasant with our room having 2 single beds, sofa, air con and clean shower room/toilet.
Breakfast with Cesar was at 04:30 in order to drive to the higher reaches of the Escalera for first light. Breakfast was by candlelight as the torrential overnight rain had knocked out the electricity supply. With several days at our disposal we opted to start at KM110 as many trip reports had indicated several of the more interesting birds could be found around here.
The birding was extremely difficult as canopy species flitted through quickly. The rain was heavy at times and when it wasn’t raining the water dripping off the leaves made for a frustrating first few hours. The birding had definitely been easier in the north! There were long periods where nothing at all was seen and then suddenly a fast moving canopy flock went through. The threat of being gripped off by the other meaning we stayed on our toes as much as possible.
About noon we decided that enough was enough and hoped that higher elevation would be drier and offer a different suite of birds.
We reached the soldiers monument at KM136 and sure enough it was drier but still much of the landscape was shrouded in mist. The habitat at this level was of far more stunted bushes instead of towering epiphyte laded trees. The diversity of species was significantly lower but at least we could see them! 3 Black-faced Tanagers were the highlight here. With the improving afternoon weather we headed north (back down the Escalera) to just beyond the alcabala (army check point). Here the most rewarding birding of the day was had with excellent views of Tepui Whitestart, Olive Manakin, Tepui Brushfinch, Black-billed Thrush and Greater Flowerpiercer. We were a little surprised at the good views afforded by the latter as some people seemed to have struggled but this area of white sandy soil with second growth melastomes was a regular spot to see them over the next few days. Unfortunately the cloud and rain descended again at 17:20 and we had to admit defeat. One final stop on the way down at KM98 yielded Cliff Flycatcher at the Piedra de la Virgen. This huge rocky outcrop marks the start of the Escalera and is said to resemble the Virgin Mary with people coming to pay tribute at its base. It is also a reliable spot for this unobtrusive bird.
As we tucked into a hearty steak dinner prepared by our hosts conversation turned to the next day’s strategy. It had been a bit of shock today how difficult the birding actually was. As was to prove the case every day on the Escalera you just have to keep going knowing that eventually you will come across feeding flocks. The frustration was partly fuelled by the trip reports we had with us at the time. Reading about the dozens of birds others had seen and we hadn’t didn’t exactly help morale. The rain came belting back down through the night and it was another fitful night’s sleep. Not only was the Malarone causing both of us to experience some pretty vivid dreams, but the bar over the road cranked out Latino rhythms until the early hours.
10th July - Today we were to start in the area of forest just before the base of the Escalera made famous by its regular sightings of the enigmatic Capuchinbird. We arrived on site at the fork of the road and took the left hand track, ably guided by our driver Cesar who knew the area well. The birds were heard mooing almost immediately but were out of sight high in the canopy. We entered the forest on a barely discernable track on the left and strained to see into the tops of the trees. Luckily it was just about dry, and this certainly helped when looking directly into the canopy. Before the capuchins were located we found a guan species; although the angle of view and the poor light prevented specific identification it was most likely a spix’s. The Capuchinbirds didn’t remain hidden for long however and a calling bird was seen well in the canopy. Others were heard around this site and later in the day even flying over the fork in the road and briefly in the relative open. Other birds at this site included Channel-billed Toucan and Spot-winged Antbird (for DL only).
The rain started to come on strong again and we retreated satisfied with the Capuchinbird experience and suitably confident that we could master the Escalera again.
The day was spent in light misty drizzle around KM111 & KM121. Our usual tactic was to park the jeep and wander quietly down the road for an hour or so, at which point our ever patient and helpful driver, Cesar, would come and pick us up. Thankfully he had developed the canny knack of knowing just when the heaviest showers were about to hit and appear on cue to save us from a drenching.
One of the key species both of us wanted to see was Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, which was the reason for spending the majority of time at these two “sites”. It was well into the afternoon before a female suddenly appeared next to us, dashed across the road, perched briefly and disappeared into the mass of exposed roots at the base of a roadside tree by KM111. Just as we were expecting the bird to reappear a huge coach passed down the road honking its horn. The bird was never seen again. Our excitement was tempered slightly by the brief views and the fact that no male bird followed this female. This proved to be our only sighting of this localised resident.
Other birds seen in these areas included the delightful Roraiman Antwren (local in the mid canopy with its distinctive incessant trilling call), the charming Black-eared Fairy, Velvet-browed Brilliant, Red-shouldered Tanager, and a pair of canopy dwelling Pied Puffbirds.
At around 14:15 our energy levels were flagging and we decided to head back into town and try some “easy” birding at the self styled birders paradise that is the Barquilla de Fresa. We arrived at the gates with anticipation high that another target bird, crimson topaz, could be nailed. After ringing the bell on the gates, eventually the owner appeared and after a terse conversation an arrangement was made that he was busy and we should come back tomorrow. This left us a little frustrated as we could just see various flowering bushes on the other side of the enclosure that looked ideal for hummers. With the afternoon becoming very humid and the threat of rain hanging in the air we decided to return to the Capuchinbird Road area. Capuchinbirds were heard again as well as Band Rumped Swift, a superb pair of Red-necked Woodpeckers and another Black-eared Fairy, whilst overhead tight fast flying flocks of Tepui Parrotlets flew to their roosts.
Another tough days birding but at least the rain held off until 20:10. With the success earlier in the holiday on the enigmatic antpittas we decided that weather permitting we should try around KM122 for Tepui Antpitta.
11th July - Thankfully we awoke to a dry dawn which was a modicum of relief after the noisy bar over the road had done its best to keep us awake. We ascended the Escalera again, this time to KM122 to try and locate the previously heard Tepui Antpittas. The light was clear and sharp, and when an antpitta responded to the CD almost immediately the omens looked good. The birds far carrying hollow sounding notes were not particularly close but at least they were present. We decided to try to coax them into an area we at least had a chance of seeing them, selecting a narrow clearing with many fallen branches and mossy rocks. They seemed to be responsive only at first light and as the sun rose higher in the sky, they lost interest. At least the sun was shining for once! Other birds around this section included reasonable views of Tepui Swift, 2 or 3 flocks of Golden-tufted Grackles, a party of unobtrusive Fiery-shouldered Parakeets and a Golden-olive Woodpecker. Further down 2 (presumably males) Smoke-coloured Pewees nearly fought to their death as they locked claws and pirouetted to the road. As we watched them tangled together on the road a huge truck came lumbering up and was within a whisker of crushing them both. Fortunately both birds escaped unharmed.
4 hours of patient birding took us down the Escalera to approximately KM118.5. We encountered a couple of nice feeding flocks, one at nearly eye level containing Slate-throated Whitestart, Speckled Tanagers and Olive-backed Tanagers amongst others. Shortly before the rain set in Rick heard a soft whistle and quickly located one of our target birds, Red-banded Fruiteater sat quietly in a melastome tree. A constant fear on the Escalera is not getting onto the birds that your colleagues see, more so than normal as there is little opportunity to follow them once they flit through. Fortunately however I was close enough to hear his shout and got onto the bird before it disappeared. The rain had now got heavier so we tried the earlier tactic of getting above the clouds and hoping we would find drier weather. This tactic was to prove rewarding and we spent the next couple of hours walking from KM134 – KM133. A good idea we were advised was to keep an eye out for fruiting trees. By now we were starting to get our eye in and this helped to locate one of the best birds on the Escalera and certainly one of the biggest surprises – a Sharpbill. Rick had been watching a Speckled Tanager and another bird appeared in the tree close to it, feeding methodically. Its lightly marked underparts initially making us assume it was another tanager, until its conical bill, beady eye and scaly face made us realise its true identity. To get such good views was a real bonus. Joining it in the bush was a male Masked Trogan, a Bearded Bellbird flew over the road and suddenly the Escalera felt like a really good place to be.
By now we were due to leave to get to Henry Cleeve’s place. This was the first time we had to literally drag ourselves away and hopes were high of seeing the topaz. We arrived at the agreed time and parked by the gates although the place looked deserted. Despite ringing the bell several times we had no response, until eventually what could have been a house boy came out. A conversation ensued between him and our driver that, although neither Rick nor I speak much Spanish, it was clearly not going well. The offer of money to enter wasn’t going to sway this guy and the upshot was that Henry was not in and unlikely to return before sunset. This was incredibly frustrating, as the thought of watching hummers in the garden while sipping a cold beer had proved extremely enticing. Further research back home revealed that this is not an entirely new phenomenon at this site. It is possible that only by using the accommodation can one “enjoy” the delights of the garden. We were also told later that the Anaconda is likely to be setting up some hummingbird feeders that will hopefully attract the topaz, so in future it will perhaps not be necessary for birders to bother with this place. We wished we hadn’t! To be fair we watched the perimeter of the small garden for a while and saw only an Amazonian White Tailed Trogan – a species easily seen elsewhere.
By now the time was such that we were a little marooned at the wrong end of town. The only option open to us was to return to the area of the Capuchinbird Road again. The capuchins mooed in the distance but the only new birds were a distant flock of Paradise Tanagers containing an Opal-rumped Tanager (for RR only).
At the end of the day plenty of new birds, some real surprises and good weather combined to make this an overall enjoyable one, despite the best efforts of a certain German…
The holiday list now stood on a combined total of approx 280.
12th July – Thankfully the disco seemed to be confined to the weekends and last night was relatively quiet. The rain had continued through the night, and we ate breakfast in the dark surrounded by the depressing sound of heavy drops of rain dripping of all the surrounding vegetation. There were still a few target species required and the tactic today was to try and mop these up, knowing other species would appear organically. As we drove up to KM133 the weather improved and my calves, having been sunburnt the day before, felt horribly exposed. A Rufous-browed Pepper Shrike skulked in the lower canopy, and typically proved difficult to get good views of. Better views were obtained of some excellent Coraya Wrens, that briefly responded to the CD. As the weather was so nice we decided to try our luck again with the elusive antpittas. The area a little north of the alcabala at KM122 seemed a likely spot but they were not responding to playback at all. A pair of Black-headed Tanagers were the only new birds recorded. By now it was mid morning and the rain had descended again. Deciding that our chance had gone with the antpittas today we headed up onto the world heritage site that is the Gran Sabana. We had read various reports that this was a truly spectacular area with huge quartzite plateaus rising up from the surrounding grassland. Unfortunately this area is not best appreciated when shrouded in mist. Once out beyond the cloud forest that borders the Escalera up to the soldiers monument the diversity naturally thins out, but the birds are a little easier to see. Attractive Tawny-headed Swallows, Aplomodo Falcon, American Kestrel and Burnished-buff Tanagers were seen between KM141 and the river at KM151. Views of the Tepuis are possible from about KM175. We picnicked here, in the hope that photo opportunities would present themselves if the rain cleared. The only bird of note was a Grassland Sparrow in the low scrub. There is no doubt that in the right weather conditions this would be a fantastic area, with spectacular views of the Tepui and attendant waterfalls (Angel falls is not a million miles away from this area). The drive through to the Brazilian border at Santa Elena de Uairan would reputedly pass through some wonderfully scenic spots. We had to be assured this by our driver Cesar who seemed as disappointed as us that his “local patch” was putting on such a poor show weather wise! As both the scenery and the birds were not quite hitting the spot we bit the bullet and headed north back towards the Escalera. At about KM150 we drove through a large flock of feeding swifts, mainly White-collared but also quite a few Tepui, and in these better lighting conditions we could fully appreciate their actually quite stunning head colour. Back on the Escalera, at KM134 once the showers stopped a feeding flock was soon found that consisted of Tepui Greenlet and finally (for DL) a Rufous-browed Pepper Shrike. This vireo-like skulker was tracked by its distinctive call as it moved furtively through the scrub. A mysterious looking bird that is surprisingly difficult to describe in the field. After this flock had moved through we both continued walking down the road in a relatively content mood. We had become separated a little and to be honest I had probably begun day dreaming about the 280 lifers so far. The sun was now high in the afternoon sky but bird of the day was about to shatter the calm. As I gazed down the road I could see Rick in the distance watching something. I thought at the time that if it was something good I would have to be pretty light on my feet to arrive in time. I consciously started to step up the pace, just in case. As I did I heard the muffled shout, “Scarlet-horned Manakin!!!”, there was nearly as much tension in his voice as there was in my stomach! With rucksack and bins swinging I covered the 50 or so yards and arrived breathless next to where Rick was stood watching this sought-after Tepui speciality. Now the hard bit began - trying to get on to the bird in the dense tangle of scrub in front of me. Luckily we were pretty in tune with each other by now and Rick’s superb instructions got me onto this stunner straight away. A male bird simply sat still in a fruiting melastome tree as a Yellow-legged Thrush fed clumsily next to it. A few seconds of pure pleasure and then it disappeared into the forest never to be seen again. Much congratulations all round as we hung around hoping it would return. It never did. Clearly the trick of finding a fruiting melastome tree was the key up here. As we waited however another manakin appeared in the same tree. Clearly a female type, much debate ensued about its identity. Initially we presumed it was a female scarlet horn following her mate but consultation in Hilty revealed it to be an Orange-bellied Manakin (sometimes known as Tepui Manakin). A lovely surprise but soon this too flitted away. With further views of Bearded Bellbird and Sharpbill (together in the same tree) the Escalera had eventually yielded most of its special birds and our list had a few less gaps. It was about this point in the holiday we decided that it would be worth posting a trip report after all!!!!
13th July - Our accommodation in the Anaconda made the nightly tropical downpours bearable, and we were generally exhausted after the days birding anyway that we just crashed out. Today was to be our last few hours on the Escalera and after a breakfast of fried eggs and coffee, we set off back to the area we had previously heard the Tepui Antpittas. The weather was warm and for once sunny and by 06.30 we had heard a couple of these skulkers calling. In the area around the alcabala we heard 4 individuals and with one of these managed to get within a few feet. Unfortunately the dense undergrowth prevented us from seeing the bird. The bird clearly responded to the playback but stubbornly refused to show. It seems likely that this species simply sits in one spot calling and not moving for extended periods of time. Time was now against us and as we had focused totally on the antpitta our list for the morning was a little sparse. Red-and-green Macaw, Smoke-coloured Peewee, Masked Trogon, Lined Seedeater and a new but unidentifiable flycatcher were the only birds of note. As we had a flight to catch back to Caracas we had to return to the anaconda for an early lunch (and settle our beer account). The steak was excellent and the cheap price of the beers left us thinking we should have had a few more each night! The picturesque garden at the anaconda had few birds and a flyby hummer remained unidentified. The plans for today was drive up to Puerto Ordaz and then catch the afternoon flight to Caracas. Here we were to be met by a guide who would escort us around the world famous Henri Pittier National Park. After the trials and tribulations of the Escalera (enjoyable though it was on the whole), we were both looking forward to having some relatively easy birding with a knowledgeable local guide (especially one who could sort out the Myiarchus flycatchers). We bid a fond farewell to Cesar in Tumeremo, and changed cars into the for the final leg of the long drag to Puerto Ordaz. The blacked out windows and enormous boom box in the back of Jesus’ chevvie effectively precluded any further birding but to be fair we needed the break. Jesus had a fairly wide ranging taste in music, and the haunting strains of Enyas “Orinico Flow” raised a smile, as we were heading towards that famous river. Arriving at the airport the flight was on time although we then proceeded to make a complete mess of checking in. A tip for birders here is not to check in too early as the departure lounge is a “dry” zone. If you do like we did you will end up sat behind a glass screen watching beautiful Venezuelan girls enjoying a cold beer with no prospect of joining them. The short flight landed at Caracas at 18:00, and we then went through the now familiar procedure of scanning the crowd to look for our next guide, whilst we waited for our baggage. Very soon a mildly familiar face came bounding towards me across the arrivals hall. I can only describe the feeling as when you find a rarity whilst out birding. You recognise it from pictures on the Internet or the plate in the field guide, but there is still that pregnant pause whilst you try to assimilate what it is actually doing here. David Ascanio was someone we had corresponded with to organise the trip with for several months, but now here he was and going to be guiding us for the final 3 days. Due to a late cancellation of a trip he was supposed to be doing elsewhere, he would now be guiding us. After the difficult birding that the Escalera offered, spirits soared as we knew very little would slip through the net. As we crawled through the rush hour traffic towards Maracay, (driven by our charming driver from the first 2 days – Mario), David updated us on the world events we had been cut off from whilst birding fro the last 10 days. His immense knowledge of his countries birds also enabled us to upgrade a few probables to full tick status! That evening we checked into our comfortable hotel and set the alarm for 03.55 in anticipation of a good days birding. In the event it was one of the best days ever for either of us!
14th July - The night was still dry as Mario wound the jeep up the narrow road into the national park. There are 2 major routes through the park and today David had decided we would bird the Choroni road. It was still pitch black when we pulled over and our guide announced we would prepare breakfast and try for owls and nightjars. A bit of expert use of the iPod (David put our fumbling with the CD to shame as he effortlessly called in a whole host of species in the next 3 days) and we had good views of the scarce Black-and-white Owl. Dawn had still not broken when, by torchlight, David had located a pair of Band-winged Nightjars by the roadside, and within a few minutes of the first rays of light breaking through the canopy, Short-tailed Nighthawks twisted and turned overhead. 3 lifers before breakfast and both Rick and I knew today was going to be a bird filled extravaganza. Our breakfast was constantly interrupted as new species flitted about the lower canopy, including Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Golden Tanager, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Inca Jay, Three-striped Warbler, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Blood-eared Parakeet and Brown-capped Vireo. As Mario cleared up the breakfast we strolled down the road with David pointing out birds and other aspects of the local natural history. A couple of attempts with the iPod and quickly a distant call became a much more interesting low piping whistle right next to the road. We had already been primed for this bird but it still came as a shock to have it calling right next to us as we stood on the road. As we peered into the under storey our guides sharp eyes located the bird we had hoped to see here – the endemic Scallop-breasted Antpitta, incredibly rare and when seen well (like right now!) a stunning looking bird. As it hopped at eye level from mossy branch to branch it allowed prolonged views, enabling us to marvel at the intense chestnut crown, ornately scalloped breast and delicate structure. At one point it even flew low across the road and perched on the raised kerb, inviting comparisons with our native robin it was that showy! It takes a hell of a bird to beat Harpy Eagle to the title of bird of the holiday but for sheer quality of views and stunning looks, surrounded by fantastic virgin forest and quality of company this little gem won hands down (and was roundly toasted on the flight home!). We were on a complete high at this point and it was only 07:50! Within the next hour as the sun came up other species encountered included: Schwartz’s Antthrush, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Streak-capped Treehunter, Band-tailed Guan (being pursued briefly by a large but unidentified raptor), Beryl-spangled Tanager, Rufous-cheeked Tanager and Pale Edged Flycatcher. The birds continued to show easily including a group of fruiteaters that contained both Handsome and Golden-breasted. Eventually at around 10:15 bird activity tailed off and it was almost a relief as we dived for the field guides and notebooks and tried to make some sense of the last few hours intense birding. As the cloud rolled in David decided we should change mountain sides and see if the north side was clear.
After a short drive around numerous hair pin bends our guide selected a spot that looked suitable and as Mario parked the 4x4 we scoured the forest for more ticks. The first bird was an elusive Southern Nightingale Wren that eventually gave good views. A feeding flock of Chestnut-crowned and Black-and-white Becards passed through, along with an Olivaceous Woodcreeper and the endemic Venezuelan Bristle-Tyrant. Birds were still coming through at a nice pace, and we made good use of the numerous hair pin bends in this section of the national park, to look at eye level at feeding flocks using the lower canopy below us. This tactic enabled us all to get good views of Buff-fronted Foliage Gleaner, the endemic Rufous-lored Tyrannulet, a nice male Black-hooded Thrush, Wing-barred Piprites and another Cinnamon Flycatcher. By now with our lists bulging and humidity increasing we made our way down the mountain to a much lower elevation at which to have our lunch. The effect of some stunning forest birding, continual hair pin bends and the temperature was enough for us all (except Mario !) to have a very satisfied nap.
A fine picnic lunch and strong coffee shook us out of our drowsy state and David soon had us crossing a rickety “bridge” and following a track alongside a coffee plantation. To be honest at this point we felt as though the ticks would dry up in this semi cultivated habitat – how wrong we were! Again the iPod proved invaluable as amongst others, Golden-crowned Warbler, White-winged Becard, Lance-tailed Manakin and Flavescent Warbler were encouraged into view. A pair of unobtrusive Orange-chinned Parakeets fed in a Cercropia, whilst Rufous-and-white Wrens skulked in the scrub. The level of activity was surprisingly high for the heat of the day and at times we both struggled to keep up with David’s sharp eyes as he seemed to be continually shouting out new birds. Soon after 3pm we headed back to the jeep as the plan was to try once again for the Quetzal. A brief stop en route by a huge flowering African tulip brought several hummers (including some aggressive Black-throated Mangos), Southern Rough-winged Swallow and Brown-throated Parakeets. The Quetzal again proved elusive and unresponsive to playback. However other birds showed well including Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Fulvous-headed Tanager, the endemic Green-tailed Emerald, Sooty-capped Hermit and Yellow-bellied Seedeater. By now the light had faded and it was time to head back to our hotel in Maracay to digest what for both of us had been one of the most exhilarating days birding ever. The wonderful birds combined with the beauty of Henri Pittier National Park made for a day of sensory overload at times. On top of a long list of amazing birds was undoubtedly the Antpitta, a truly stunning bird that no field guide can do justice to.
15th July - Another early start saw us on the road back to Henri Pittier by 04:20am. Today's plan was to bird around the biological station at the heart of the reserve. On arrival at 05:00am the headquarters were back lit by an impressive lightening storm that was ominously close. Later the rain came in and threatened to spoil the day as big spots continually dropped off the emergent vegetation making forest birding difficult. Fortunately our guide was well used to these conditions and before breakfast had been completed taped in a cooperative Foothill Screech-Owl. The heavens now opened and we were fortunate to be on the top storey of the bizarre structure that passes as the headquarters of the park. By coming up to the top floor you are afforded excellent views into the canopy of the surrounding forest and of the balcony feeders. Despite the heavy showers and lack of success with the iPod the morning still produced a number of birds, notably Rufous-backed Oropendola, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, the endemic Guttulated Foliage Gleaner, Slaty Antwren (one of the only species that responded to playback today), Lined Quail-Dove, Red-billed Scythebill, Streaked Xenops and White-tipped Swift (nesting under the balcony). David managed very brief views of both Short tailed Antthrush & Plain-backed Antpitta but despite hearing both species on numerous occasions they refused to reveal themselves again. Back on the balcony as we waited for the brakes to be fixed on the Toyota, we managed to see Masked Tityra, Swallow Tanager and Golden-crowned Flycatcher. By now the time was 11:25 and we decided to head down to lower elevation to try and escape the rain. On the way to Ocumare we had excellent roadside views of a Fasciated Tiger Heron as it fished a fast flowing river.
As the rain continued to pour down we refuelled the jeep, overlooked by some Guira Tanagers and then made our way down to the beach at Ocumare. Some easy ticks here whilst we had lunch (and a well earned beer) included Brown Pelican, Scaled Dove and Brown Booby. Finally the showers passed over the cordillera and we were able to get stuck into some birding around the mangrove scrub. The only problem now was the raging humidity! This break in the weather clearly suited the birds however and we were treated to some excellent playback activity as the passerines in the area responded superbly to our Ferruginous Pygmy Owl recording. Glaucous Tanager, Black-crested Antshrike, Barred Antshrike, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wren, Ochre-lored Flatbill, Northern White-fringed Antwren and Fuscous Flycatcher all responded particularly well in the dry scrub surrounding the mangroves. It was suggested that our chances of playback success was greatly increased if a species of antshrike was in the vicinity. Whenever there was (at least in this mangrove scrub) the bushes literally started jumping with other species as well. This was equally obvious when no antshrikes were present and very little was seen. Reluctantly we moved out of this dry scrub and into some nearby dry forest. Again there was much activity and the iPod came to the fore. Venezuelan Flycatcher, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Pale Bellied Hermit, the localized Black-backed Antshrike, Scaled Piculet, Variegated Flycatcher, Greenish Elaenia and Ultramarine Grosbeak to name a few. A real Ferruginous Pygmy Owl even came in close to check out its artificial rival but never materialised from the dense roadside scrub. Overhead a Zone-tailed Hawk briefly masqueraded as a Turkey Vulture. Around 15:30 the humidity subsided and made the hectic birding a little more tolerable. We remained in this lowland scrub until about 16:20, adding Yellow Tyrannulet and Bran-coloured Flycatcher to the list, when the humidity went through the roof again and we beat a retreat to the cooler north side of the cordillera. When the rain started to come down again David decided we should start to head back to the hotel with a brief stop at the University botanical gardens on the outskirts of Maracay yielding White-tailed Hawk at dusk. Another fantastic days birding was celebrated at a restaurant in town with several beers!
16th July - This was to be our final morning and we decided that there were still several species (notably Plain Backed Antpitta) that we would like to see around Rancho Grande. A lie in (well 04:40 anyway!) was in order and we still arrived at the biological station for first light. A distant probable Mottled Owl was calling. The endemic Violet-chested Hummingbird showed well in the car park and with a little effort that other localised endemic, Venezuelan Antvireo was eventually located hopping around the massive trunks of the forest trees. The weather was slightly better now as we headed off around the trails at the back of the headquarters. After much effort and chasing of shadows (Rick…) we eventually located an extremely retiring Plain-backed Antpitta despite hearing several. A pair of Short-tailed Antthrush gave good views adjacent to one of the trails. A quirky Grey-throated Leaftosser lived up to its name by one of the trails. The only other new bird for the trip was a Black-capped Tanager in trees around the car park.
By now it was mid morning and time to drive back to the airport. Our time in Venezuela had nearly come to an end and it was with no little sadness that we dragged ourselves away from the delights of Henri Pittier National Park. A thoroughly successful trip in terms of both logistics and birds seen. We can both totally recommend the country and in particular David Ascanio and his team. David never seemed to take the easy option and show us obvious birds. His skill with the iPod at times seemed to conjure flycatchers and antshrike’s from nowhere. He elevated a good trip to that of a resounding success with so many excellent birds that the flight back to the UK was dominated by a heated Top 10 debate until the in flight brandy kicked in.
Blackish Nightjar, Imataca Reserve, Venezuela, 7th July 2005 (Richard Rae)
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