Venezuela NE and NW, 25 Dec. 1997 - 13 Jan. 1998

Birding trip report, part 1 (Northeast) (see also part 2)

John van der Woude  -  www.jvanderw.nl 

See sketchy map with places: NE , NW.       Have a look at ven98mlg.html for additional logistical details.


Introduction
Our 4th private birding trip to Venezuela had three aims. First, in this El Niño winter the weather in Venezuela should be better than in Ecuador or Peru, the original options for this winter. Second, we wanted to fill two gaps in our Venezuela travels (only to discover more gaps). Third, we wanted to try out a trip in a South American country without hiring a car, although on the last five days we did hire a car because of a sprained ankle. Some conclusions on this theme of birding here by public transport will follow at the end of the report. Photo right is from Rio Frio valley in Maracaibo basin, at foot of Andes.
Except for some heavy rains in the Andes, the weather was good. Maybe the foregoing months had even been a bit too dry, there were not many flowers and hence less hummers than expected. The two regions visited were the Northeast (Maturin, Paria peninsula, Caripe) and the Northwest around Merida (Tabay, Azulita, Maracaibo basin border, Bocono, Barinas, Sto. Domingo). The public transport in Venezuela is such that we could reach any possible destination with the appropriate means of transport. That is, going from long to short distances: internal flights, long-distance buses, shared (= por puesto, per seat) taxi's, minibuses, private taxi's (libres), and shared or private 4WD trucks and jeeps. Once we were even offered a ride on a mule. Photo right is from Las Melenas, Paria peninsula, with the 4WD that brought us up.
The total number of bird species observed on this trip was 340, not an overwhelming number, but with several specialties, and only from North of the Orinoco, with few waders etc.
 
Itinerary
At Maiquetia, the airport of Caracas, we (Nollie and me) were awaited by Mrs. Mary Lou Goodwin of the Audubon Society of Venezuela. She was there to bring us the 4th and much enlarged new edition of her book Birding in Venezuela. At
ven98mlg.html I have put some comments and additions on this book, as based on this trip and as sent to the author. Note June 2005: there is a new version of this book now. We would often be using this book (further referred to as MLG), despite the preparations at home, and we were free in our planning because we made no reservations for hotels except for the first night. On this national holiday there was no possibility to change money at the airport, and this would mean that the next day would not be a full first birding day alas. The afternoon flight to Maturin, in the state of Monagas (NE Venezuela) was in time, and the next morning we reached the village of La Pica by minibus, which leaves Maturin from the old market. La Pica is at the beginning of the road into the Caño Colorado, a birding area first described by Peter Boesman in Cotinga 3, and situated in the wet forest belt surrounding the Paria Gulf near the Orinoco delta. At La Pica, we started walking along this road in order to do some scrub and forest border birding before going deeper into the wet forest the next day. After c. 1.5 km along this road we found a track to the left, going for about two km into gradually more forested habitat (although never in true forest). During this walk in the open area we noted the first 40 trip ticks, a.o. Little Tinamou, Short-tailed Swift, Red-shouldered Macaw (probably a hundred), Streak-backed Wren, Plain-fronted Thornbird, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Great Antshrike. At the very end of this track we were near to the true forest and observed White-tailed Trogon. Back in La Pica, while waiting shortly for the minibus to bring us back to Maturin at about noon, an Aplomado Falcon flew overhead. The (late) afternoon in Maturin was needed for changing money and for going from the first hotel (Friuli, too cold, the central airco could not be tempered) to another hotel, Colonial, with a more central location too, but even more expensive than Friuli. Hotel prices in Maturin are high (like 40 or 50 dollar) because of the oil boom here. Dinner was in a large, memorable chicken restaurant of tiles and formica only, near to the Colonial.
Before dawn the next day, we halted a taxi in front of the hotel, and the driver appeared to know exactly where we wanted to go in the Caño Colorado area. We agreed on 32 dollars for being brought now and picked up again at 5 p.m. Today we started our walk a while beyond the hamlet called La Hormiga, at the first crossroads after the end of the tarmac road, which begins at La Pica. Going to the left from the crossroads, we first passed a half open marsh-and-forest/shrub area with amongst others Silvered Antbird, Glittering-throated Emerald, some 400 Orange-winged Parrot, Marbled Wood-Quail, Black-shouldered Kite, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Purple Gallinule, Black-capped Donacobius. Tear-jerking views of several groups of Blue-and-Yellow and Red-and-Green Macaws convinced us that this area can stand the comparison with the South of Venezuela. A fox came looking around at some 20 m distance from us, unaware of our presence for several minutes. At the end this track goes to the right and changes into a path that wriggles through some plantations (ignoring a side track that goes to the left again). Here we found Reddish Hermit, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Swallowwing, Ultramarine Grosbeak.
Then we reached the proper varzea forest, after crossing (via a tree trunk) a side stream of the Guarapiche river. In the forest (not flooded now of course) we immediately saw Crimson-hooded Manakin, one of the specialties of this region. A trail follows the stream for several kms through this varzea forest (see photo). We did about two or three kms of it, and observed a.o. White-flanked Antwren, Black-chinned Antbird, Violaceous Trogon, Cinereous Mourner, Cinnamon Attila, White-shouldered Tanager, Short-crested Flycatcher, Plain Xenops, Slaty Antshrike, Jet Antbird. A second day along this same trail would undoubtedly have produced several new and interesting species, but we did not yet know how fast we would get to see the Paria endemics later on this trip, so we still calculated more time than necessary for that. This Caño Colorado area was really fine birding, despite (or thanks to) a few short rain showers. The taxi driver was glad to see us back in the afternoon, he was a bit worried about the fact that we did not wear boots, because of possible snakes. A next time we would certainly wear boots here (as advised by MLG too), also because of the moist grass on the tracks.
The next day was a travel day really. We first had a 4 hour bus ride from Maturin to Irapa on the Paria peninsula near Trinidad. We easily found the hotel Maryoli in Irapa and went out again to the street where most taxi's and minibuses are leaving, in order to ask for the possibility to go the next morning up to the village of Las Melenas, high in the mountains, where the trails into the Paria National Park begin, and the best place to see the Paria endemics. With the help of a kind taxi driver we found a man from Las Melenas with a 4WD truck. But then we would have to go now, and so we packed a few things from the hotel room and up we went with him. He also knew a family where we would be able to have a meal and spend the night. What a chance to bird there right in the early morning. The road was known to be a bad 4WD road, but it has been improved and I think you can do it by normal car now. We paid the driver 24 dollars for the round trip (arranged to go back at 4 pm the next day) and paid the family, Ramon and Raina Subero, 20 dollars for the meal and the room. They gave us their own sleeping room and said they would welcome other birders in the future. Raina is a good and clean cook.
At dawn we went into the Paria National Park, and choose to do the forest trail first, and the trail to the left, through a plantation along the forest border, later on the day. We managed to see (all close by) four of the specialties/endemics here, the White-throated Barbtail along the forest trail, the Yellow-faced Whitestart along both trails (good numbers), and the Lazuline Sabrewing and the Scissor-tailed Hummingbird (female) along the plantation trail, the latter bathing in the little stream that we crossed after c. 1 km at about 2 p.m. The cloud forest here is one of the finest we have ever seen (see photo), and we observed a.o. Plain-backed Antpitta, Band-tailed Pigeon, Three-striped Warbler, Black-faced Antthrush, Slate-crowned Antpitta, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Blue-capped Tanager, Groove-billed Toucanet, and finally also our first Sloth. Somewhere on BirdChat I think I read the expression 'typical cloud forest frustration', and in a sense this holded for this forest too: the birding was really slow at times, but what you see will often be something special, like that highly endemic barbtail. The trail in the plantation, along the forest border was a bit easier to bird, but I don't think we would have seen the barbtail there. Additional species in the plantation were a.o. Rufous-breasted Wren, Trinidad Euphonia, White-necked Thrush.
Contrary to the general belief in the travel and birding literature, Irapa does have a restaurant in the city centre, it is in the Calle Monagas, c. 100 m West of the main street. Even a foreign (albeit also Dutch) travel party was dining there. From that same side of the city centre, via the end of the Calle Anzoategui, we made a nice walk the next morning through the deserted coconut groves (photo) and the low forest behind the beach. This walk was intended to find some waders at the end of the trail, but instead we found quite another array of birds, especially in the coconut groves: Barred Antshrike, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Black-crested Antshrike, White-fringed Antwren, Yellow-bellied Elaenia. The trail starts with wading a small stream of c. 10 cm depth, and ended for us at the beach of the Paria Gulf, where we witnessed the spectacle of some 500 fishing Brown Pelicans.
We ourselves had eaten fish the night before as well. That same night I had been phoning to two lodges at the Western end of the Paria peninsula, to find a quiet place for the next two nights, the last two nights of the year, and hence a bit too noisy for early birders when staying in a city center. Finca La Vuelta Larga, for birders probably the best of the two, appeared to be fully booked long ahead, but in the other one (picked up from MLG's new book) we would be the only guests. This one is amidst wetlands that serve as buffalo grounds, and is situated between Tunapuy and Bohordal. It is called Hato de Bufalo Rio de Agua (photo). We payed 38 dollar per person per night for full board, and had quite good meals, as usual in lodges in Venezuela.
The lodge and immediate surroundings at walking distance had nearly no shrubs or trees, so we mostly saw wetland species: White-necked Heron, Wattled Jacana, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, White-winged Swallow, Limpkin, Vermillion Flycatcher, Red-breasted Blackbird, Pied Water-Tyrant, Anhinga, Long-winged Harrier, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. We also saw Peregrine and Sharp-shinned Hawk, the first eating the only Blue-winged Teal we had seen here, the latter feeding on the large swallow roost just behind the lodge. Two Horned Screamers were calling in the distance, from the top of the small trees of the next farm.
On the second day we walked back to the main road (20 min.), and from there a further 10 min. to the West, where from a small village a narrow, wooded valley goes up into the hills (see at background of photo above). To our surprise, the most frequently seen and heard bird here was the Lance-tailed Manakin. We just walked up in the stream bed, nearly dry now. Other birds around in this tall and half-open forest were Scaled Piculet, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Black-crested Antshrike, Black-eared Fairy, Yellow-bellied Siskin, Rufous-and-white Wren, Red-billed Toucan, White-bellied Antbird. There was a lonely Howler Monkey too. On the way back, in the buffalo marshlands, we had a very close encounter with a Southern River Otter. At dusk, besides the enormous gathering of swallows there was also night roost migration of large Amazona pairs, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, and a majestic flight of ten Magnificent Frigatebird.
After birding around the lodge the next day till 10 a.m, we managed to get to Caripe for 50 dollars in total, most of it by private taxi because it was the first of January, about the worst day in the year for public transport here. Caripe is famous for Steatornis caripensis, the Oilbird, first described here by Humboldt when he visited the now famous cave, the Cueva de Guacharo (= oilbird). The area is mountainous, with altitudes around 1000 to 1400 m above sea level. This would be our last spot in NE Venezuela, and we had two full days for it (three nights). During the last daylight hours after arrival we tried to do some birding from the centre of the elongated city of Caripe, just from somebody's backyard up into the shaded coffee plantation on the hill, but it was too late, we practically only saw some of the ubiquitous Crested Oropendula.
At dawn the next day we left our hotel (Venezia, clean and spacious rooms, but water supply cut off during the night, 14 dollar, with a good restaurant) and halted a taxi for a ride to the village of Guacharo, 7 km away (1 dollar). From here a road goes up through the forest towards the cave. Walking this 2.5 km road (photo left) we saw Maroon-faced Parakeet, Oriole Blackbird, Bare-eyed Thrush, Green Jay, Orange-winged Parrot, Pale-breasted Thrush, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet. Then, at the cave's entrance (a tourist business, with a good café), we first went up the well maintained but sometimes slippery trail opposite the cave. This is all part of the Guacharo National Park. Along that trail, we saw several of the species of this morning again, plus Orange-crowned Oriole, Fulvous-headed Tanager, Variegated Flycatcher, Golden-crowned Warbler, Green Hermit, Collared Trogon. The trail ends at a waterfall.
In the afternoon we went into the cave, in a group with a guide. Flashing and flashlights are forbidden in the first part of the cave, that is the part where the thousands (now outside the breeding season hundreds) of oilbirds live. But the birds were disturbed anyway, and flew around sometimes, coming close enough to the lantern of the guide to see them well. The cave is full of the screaming and clicking sounds of the guacharo's, and these shrill sounds add to the charm of the cave, together with the piles of droppings and the creatures living on that. The oilbird part of the cave ends after about 1 km, when you have to pass a narrow tunnel, after which you suddenly hear no more oilbirds at all. On the way back we asked the guide if the guacharos are making these constant noises also when there are no visitors, and he admitted that they were quiet then. It is the lights which disturbs them, he said. So a holiday period like this must give a lot of stress to these enigmatic birds, there were hundreds of visitors in the cave.
Incidentally, but maybe indicative of the sleepiness of Caripe, we had on our way back the same taxi driver as this morning. With his low fares we trusted him enough to make an appointment for the next day, to bring us into the valley of La Margarita, that is to the East of Caripe. The very rare Grey-headed Warbler has been seen here (see Cotinga 3, another paper by Peter Boesman), and this just means for us that the area should be good for birds in general. So at about 7 a.m. the taxi driver left us behind at a point some 2 km beyond the locally well-known bridge across the Rio Colorado. At that point the road got a bit too bad for a normal car, and we made the appointment that he would be back at 4 p.m. at the bridge. A local 4WD por puesto truck just came by when we left the taxi, and we were brought to a point a few kms further, where a track goes up into a side valley to the North (we had asked the driver for a possibility to get closer to the forest). This side valley is even more scenic than the main valley (photo), with shaded plantations of all sorts between partly wooded hillsides. We ate several oranges that had just fallen on the ground. Following the 4WD track to the very end where it becomes a trail we saw a.o. Long-billed Starthroat, Orange-crowned Oriole, Groove-billed Toucanet, Blue-capped Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Bay-headed Tanager, White-winged Tanager, Burnished-buff Tanager. Then after passing two small streams the trail goes up into the forest, with patches of true rain forest.
Now we were in the right (rain forest border) habitat for the rare warbler we think, so our hope on some luck increased, but in vain. This bird is just too rare to see it on such a short visit. But instead, in this forest we observed nice birds like Black-banded Woodcreeper, Little Tinamou, Golden-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Yellow-legged Thrush, Ultramarine Grosbeak, White Hawk. We were back at the Rio Colorado bridge in time, thanks to a ride with a Red Cross car, but didn't see many birds there, partly because of heavy rain showers, which also caused some 20 minutes delay for the taxi driver (nothing to worry, enough other cars and even taxi's passing by).
Read further in part 2 (NW)
Species list at end of part 2.