Saturday, 15 January 1983

VENEZUELA 1982/83. Part I: Henri Pittier & the Andes

In the autumn of 1982, having returned from a six months birding in Asia, I was keen that my next trip would be to South American.  Venezuela had a superb looking comprehensive field guide while at this time most South American countries had nothing.  Nick Gardner had produced a very comprehensive Birding/Site Guide and was a helpful source of information so it seemed to be the best destination for a first visit to the ‘bird continent’.  Discussions on the Isles of Scilly with Steve Gantlett revealed that he was of a similar mind and, not finding anyone else interested in joining us, we decided to go for two months, leaving just before Christmas.

Shortly before our departure the Venezuelan government revalued their currency (the Bolivar) which was to put a severe strain on our finances although we had already decided to use public transport as we couldn’t afford to hire a vehicle.  At least my not being a driver made no difference.  We intended camping, enabling us to be on site as much as possible, but took bivy bags rather than a tent to save on weight and space as we would be carrying our rucksacks (often with a supply of food) for much of the time.  It was to be a typical budget trip with any comforts taking a back seat to birding as much as possible.  After all, there were so many birds occurring in Venezuela that even on a two month trip we didn’t want to waste any longer than was absolutely necessary.

This blog relies on notebook entries (to my shame they are often no more than place names and bird lists), unreliable (particularly about what happened precisely when or where) but usually very happy memories and scanned slides of varying quality.  Looking back I feel very privileged to have been able to spend a reasonable time in such a fascinating country and one I’d very much like to revisit one day, although not on public transport and sleeping in a bivy bag!

24 December 1982.  Arrival.  We arrived somewhat tired and anxious after an overnight VIASA flight via Madrid.  We caught a local bus into the centre of Caracas which was just waking up.  Greater Kiskadee on rooftop TV aerials by the central bus station was our first bird in Venezuela and we were soon on our way to Maracay.  A few birds were seen at Maracay bus station as we waited for a bus to Occumare de la Costa.  This route cut through Henri Pittier National Park crossing the mountain range at Rancho Grande where we hoped to stay.  It was a crowded bus and we were the only passengers getting out at Rancho Grande, perhaps that was the reason that there appeared to be only one fare for the journey irrespective of how far one was going, either that or we paid the gringo rate.  Unfortunately Rancho Grande was closed for Christmas and there didn’t even seem to be a caretaker around.  Luckily there was a gap in the fence by the locked entrance gate and we were able to use the porch of the research building as our base although it was a bit hard sleeping on it in bivy bags.  We spent the rest of the day birding along the road either side of the pass.  Low cloud, and a surprising amount of traffic, was a problem although usually one side of the pass was clearer than the other.  A completely mind blowing day for, although I only saw 31 new birds, everything was unfamiliar and so many species looked very similar.  It immediately became apparent that the Venezuela field guide was very good and the plates by Guy Tudor were not just superb to look at but very accurate.  Highlights of our first day included Blood-eared Parakeet, Long-tailed Sylph, Grove-billed Toucanet, two stunning Grey-breasted Wood Wrens and White-winged Tanager.  Wintering American Redstarts and Blackpoll and Tennessee Warblers added a touch of the more familiar and the only surprise was not to see something with ‘ant’ in its name.

view from Rancho Grande looking down to Maracay
albino Long-tailed Sylph, this species was common at Rancho Grande although this was the only albino we saw, and also the only Long-tailed Sylph I photographed


25-27 December 1982.  Park National Henri Pittier (Rancho Grande).  Based at Rancho Grande we birded along the road, going down to km 40 and hitching back on Christmas Day, and found a couple of good trails, one behind the buildings and a ridge trail on the opposite side of the road (another fence with a gap in it).  Four days into the trip and I’d already seen 100 new birds, including my first Antpitta.  My more memorable sightings and birds seen with the best names included Band-tailed Guan, White-vented Plumeleteer, Collared Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Scaled Piculet, Spotted Barbtail, Sharp-tailed Manakin, White-necked Puffbird, Chestnut-crowned Becard, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, White-throated Spadebill, an excellent Plain-backed Antpitta, Nightingale Wren, Andean Solitare, Tropical Parula, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, stunning Golden Tanagers and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch which I noted as being ‘really good’.  Wintering Northern Waterthrush and Black & White, Golden-winged and Cereulean Warblers were also seen.
Roadside Hawk at Rancho Grande
28-31 December 1982.  Park National Henri Pittier (Porto Colombia/Caribbean slope).  We caught the bus back to Maracay where we bought some supplies then got another bus over the mountains to Porto Colombia, on the Caribbean Coast in the north east corner of the park.  We spent two nights outside Porto Colombia and birds seen here included Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Little Hermit, a superb male Wire-tailed Manakin, Olivaceous Flatbill, Black-crested and Barred Antshrikes, White-fringed Antwren, Long-billed Gnatwren and Flavescent Warbler.  On 30th caught a bus back to the pass at km 23.  Here we found a very small concrete hut that was just about big enough for us to sleep in.  We collected some ferns to make its floor slightly less hard to sleep on although I’m not sure we were too successful as it still felt very hard, but neither of us had much natural padding!  The pass was rather higher than Rancho Grande and the birds were somewhat different.  It was also cooler at night.  In the two days in the area, mostly within 2 kms of the pass, we saw an excellent Highland Tinamou, Bronzy Inca, Green Violetear, Rusty Spinetail, Golden-breasted Fruiteater, brilliant views of a superb Chestnut-crowned Antpitta (with more heard), Moustaced Wren and Beryl-spangled Tanager.  I finished 1982 having spent 7 months birding abroad and seeing over 1200 species.  I’d also managed to see Long-toed Stint, Little Whimbrel, Black-billed Cuckoo, Varied Thrush, Northern Waterthrush and American Redstart in Britain.


Scaled Dove at Porto Colombia
Black Vulture, not all its ugliness is due to photographic degredation/chemical spill
Brown Pelican at Porto Colombia
this one, in better plumage, indicates where the name 'Brown' might have come from
Lineated Woodpeckers
view south from km 23
view north, to Caribbean, from km 23
wacky caterpillar or mobile hair curler


number 89
sunrise at km 23 with more photographic degredation
Steve in the hut we stayed in at km 23
forest at km 23 - superb but mainly impenetrable
1-3 January 1983.  Park National Henri Pittier (Porto Colombia road/interior slope).  We birded down the road to km 10 and the grounds of the Hotel Maracay where we slept on the golf course.  We were now seeing lower elevation species the most enjoyable being Stripe-backed Wren, which was common, and Yellow Oriole.  Walking up the road to km 23 and back on 2nd added White-tailed Hawk, Swallow and Burnished-Buff Tanagers, Blue-hooded Euphonia and Purple Honeycreeper.  On 3rd, we returned to Maracay bus station where we got a long distance bus to Santo Domingo and Merida.  Bird of the day was a Ringed Kingfisher looking huge when seen from the bus.

4-6 January 1983.  Universidad de Los Andes Forestal.  We arrived at Merida Bus Station soon after dawn, bought some supplies and birded around there before getting a local bus to the Universidad de Los Andes Forestal.  We were dropped off within a short walk of a deserted building in a clearing and settled in on the veranda.  We spent two days birding in this area then caught a bus back to Merida.  Birds seen included Collared Inca, Orange-throated Sunangel, Mountain Velvetbreast, Masked Trogon, Crested Quetzal, Emerlad Toucanet, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Pearled Treerunner, Brown-rumped Tapaculo, Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, Green & Black Fruiteater, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Chestnut-bellied Thrush, Black-crested Warbler, White-fronted Whitestart, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and Moustached & Slaty Brush-Finches.
Universidad de Los Andes Forestal
forest track
Steve on the veranda of a deserted hut that we made our base while at Los Andes Forestal
yellow frog



7-10 January 1983.  Pico Humbolt Trail.  Back in Merida we caught a bus to Tabay and walked to the Trout Hatchery - a long walk but an excellent site for White-capped Dipper.  We saw a pair as well as Chestnut-collared Swift and Semi-collared Nighthawk by our ‘camp’ at the start of the Pico Humbolt trail.  
looking back down on mostly hidden Tabay from near the Trout Hatchery
White-capped Dipper
slightly wonky 
On the 8th we slowly walked up to Refuge 2 above the tree line seeing Andean Guan, Lined Quail-Dove, Merida Sunangel, Golden-headed Quetzal, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Great Thrush, Collared Jay and Lachrimose Mountain Tanager.  The refuge was little more than dry stone walls covered by a small corrugated iron roof and didn’t look very weatherproof so with a wet night in prospect we set about rebuilding it.  We had a dry night but that may have been due to the non-arrival threatened rain rather than our building skills.  
view from Pico Humbolt trail
view north from Pico Humbolt trail
Steve housebuilding
Lake Coromoto with the clouds coming in, but hey we had just built a new lodge
On 9th I walked up to the second ridge seeing a female Bearded Helmetcrest, Ochre-browed Thistletail, Andean Tit-Spinetail and Red-crested Cotinga (common).  We then started back down the trail seeing Andean Pigmy Owl, Golden-bellied Starfrontlet and Sword-billed Hummingbird before reaching Refuge 1.  It was a dark, damp wooded ‘hide’ that had nowhere near the character of our rebuilt Refuge 2 but it provided a reasonable place to sleep. 

early morning near Lake Coromoto
Lake Coromoto
Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant
Lake Coromoto
me above Lake Coromoto
looking down on Lake Coromoto
the snow covered summit of Pico Humbolt was still a long way off
The next day (10th) we slowly birded our way back down to Tabay seeing a day roosting Rufous-banded Owl, Short-tailed Emerald, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Unicoloured Tapaculo, Barred Becard and Plush-caped Finch bu there was no sign of the dippers we’d seen our first evening.  From Tabay we got a bus to Pico Aguila.  At 14,000 ft this was very cold and we arrived just as it was getting dark.  We took some time deciding if we were likely to be able to afford to stay there or should crash out on the porch when, having finally built up the courage and memorized a couple of relevant phrases from our guidebook, the proprietor locked the doors and made the decision for us.  The porch it was, and very cold too.
Sherpa Hotel, Pico Humbolt.  Its waterproofness wasn't put to the test
Tree fern on Pico Humbolt trail descent 
distant view of Merida from Pico Humbolt trail descent
roosting Rufous-banded Owl
11 January 1983.  Pico Aguila.  A superb morning above the clouds at Pico Aguila, or it was once we’d warmed up.  I saw 9 Bearded Helmetcrests, including two superb males.  I only saw 16 other species at Pico Aguila but half of them were new including Speckled Teal, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Streak-backed Canastero and Paramo Pipit.  We left Pico Aguila somewhat reluctantly and thumbed a lift from a somewhat manic Venezuelan to Tovar.  From there we caught a bus to La Fria, on the edge of the Maracaibo basin and very close to the Colombian border.
dawn at Pico Aguila
Pico Aguila roadhouse, we never got to check it out due to excessive dithering
lagoon at Pico Aguila, it wasn't frozen but felt as if it should have been
view from Pico Aguila
habitat shot with distant female Bearded Helmetcrest
closer view of female Bearded Helmetcrest
12 January 1983.  Encontrados Road.  We spent most of the day on the Encontrados Road, a superb wetland area, before getting a bus back as far as El Guayabo.  Thirty-seven new birds was my best total on the trip other than our first full day.  They included many South American wetland specialities such as Jabiru, Anhinga, Limpkin Wattled Jacana and Southern Lapwing as well as Northern and Horned Screamers, Savannah and Black-collared Hawks, Bat Falcon, Dwarf Cuckoo, Greater Ani, White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, Pied Water Tyrant, Fork-tailed Flycatcher  and Masked Yellowthroat.  El Guayabo was a one horse town and being very close to the Colombian border had a rather unpleasant atmosphere with the locals appearing to be staring at us intently all the time.  This feeling got worse when Steve disappeared to the toilet for some time leaving me the sole object of scrutiny.  After a while, that was probably nothing like a long as it felt, I found Steve and told him I’d had enough and was going to kip on the edge of town.  He’d just about finished and quickly joined me.  It was the closest we came to a disagreement the whole trip, which was pretty good going considering how long we were together and how rough it was at times.  I think we were prepared to put up with a lot so long as the birds kept coming, and did they just.
Capped Heron
Horned Screamers
Great Black Hawk
Crested Caracara
Vermillion Flycatcher
White-headed Marsh-Tyrant, a poor image of a firm favourite 
13-15 January 1983.  Paramo de Tama.  The 13th was a travel day to Betania with Orange-winged Parrots and a male White-headed Marsh-Tyrant my best sightings.  It was the first day in which I didn’t see a new bird, although frustratingly we were no’t able to check out some potential Pigmy Palm Swifts seen from the bus.  On 14th we walked up a steep track onto Paramo de Tama and spent most of the day wandering around on the paramo above the clouds.  Our map marked this as the border with Colombia although I’m not sure how close we got, or if we inadvertently crossed the border.  We saw no one all day, something that I was quite pleased about!  We then returned part way and stayed in a hut on the way down.  Birds seen included Tyrian Metaltail, Glowing Puffleg (didn’t quite live up to its name), Blue-throated Starfrontlet, White-chinned Thistletail, Green & Black and Barred Fruiteaters (brilliant), Rufous Wren, Golden-fronted Redstart and Scarlet-bellied Mountain and Golden Crowned Tanagers.  
leaving Betania
looking back at the start of the climb to Paramo de Tama
above the clouds, just
above the tree line
Paramo de Tama moorland, Colombia straight ahead?



me on the Paramo de Tama
On 15th we walked back down to Villa Paez seeing Amythest–throated Sunangel, Tyrian Metaltail, Golden-fronted Redstart and Blackburnian Warbler.  On the walk back we passed a farm with the mornings washing laid along the hedge bordering the track we were on.  I couldn’t resist adding a dirty shirt of mine to the end of the row as I wasn’t intending keeping it much longer anyway, very childish humour I know.  In Villa Paez we caught a bus to San Cristobal and another to Barinas.  The last journey was mostly in the dark and we walked to the edge of town to crash out in our bivy bags.

looking back at Paramo de Tama from near to Villa Paez

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