Sunday, 6 February 1983

VENEZUELA 1982/83. Part III: Bolivar

20-21 January 1983.  Travelling to Bolivar.  We got an early bus from Maracay to Caracas where we booked an overnight bus south and visited the VIASA Office to confirm our flights home in a month’s time.  Caracas was very modern and very busy despite private car use being restricted to 4 working days a week, the exact days dependent on the first or last character on its number plate.  Few birds were in evidence although the 9 species I saw did include Green-rumped Parrotlet and Red-crowned Woodpecker.  The overnight bus was fast and efficient but not very comfortable.  We crossed the Orinoco at Cuidad Bolivar in darkness and it got light at Upata with the bus stopping at El Dorado for breakfast.  We got let off at km 73, the famous Guyana Trail.  Here we found Mr Jeffries, an English speaking migrant, who gave us permission to sleep on his lawn while enquiring if we knew what the price of gold was and tried to interest us in ‘nuggets’.  We concluded that he was a gold prospector who had crossed in to Venezuela some years before along the Guyana Trail.  It took about two minutes to suss out where the trail started (as it was right by Mr Jeffries house) and after a quick look along the road we spent the rest of the afternoon on the trail where birding was typically slow but excellent.  Highlights were King Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite, Green-tailed and Paradise Jacamars, Gold-spangled Piculet, Chestnut Woodpecker, Rufous-capped Ant-thrush, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Capuchinbird, deafening Screaming Piha (could they scream!), Scarlet-horned Manakin and Wing-banded and Musician Wrens.
Caracas with spectacular backdrop
downtown wasn't so scenic
22-23 January 1983.  Guyana Trail.  We spent two full days on the Guyana Trail.  It was an easy to follow trail that ran over 20 kms into Guyana, and most days on it we encountered locals presumably going to/coming from Guyana.  It was fairly flat for several kms after going over an initial hill, although it then started climbing again.  We never went down it for more than 10-12 kms.  It was superb, as were a couple of streams it crossed that I followed up or down for a few hundred metres.  As with all primary forest it could be very slow at times and the temptation, usually resisted, was often to return to the forest edge and bird along the road for a quick species boost.  Highlights were Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Black-faced and Violaceous Trogons, Black-necked Aracari, Guanian Toucanet, Channel-billed and Red-billed Toucans, Great Jacamar, Curve-billed Scythebill, Rufous-capped Ant-thrush, Spotted Antpitta, Helmetted Pigmy-Tyrant, Red-ruffed and Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Capuchinbird, a female Guanian Cock-of-the-Rock, Swallow-wing, Spangled and Pompadour Cotinga, White Bellbird, Golden-headed and White-crowned Manakins, Song Wren, Paradise and Spotted Tanagers and Slate-coloured Grosbeak.
about the only thing on the Guyana Trail that I managed to photograph
24-30 January 1983.  La Escalera.  We spent a superb week along the Escalera.  We packed up and left Mr Jeffrey’s house at km 73 soon after dawn, walking/birding along the road for 3 kms until we got a lift to km 85 from where we walked to a roadside pool at km 87 where we found the hoped for Sungrebe and San Isidro (km 88) where there was a small shop.  Here we stocked up with provisions but there was little choice so we bought almost their entire stock of rubbery long-life rolls and a bag full of rather bruised bananas.  We then caught a bus heading to Santa Elena de Uairen (on the border with Brazil) as far as km 135 and the Gran Sabana, walking to km 140 were we camped.  Birds seen included Sungrebe, Painted Parakeet, Black-headed Parrot, Red & Green Macaw, Tepui Goldenthroat and Golden-tufted Grackle.
km 88 Sungrebe site
main road to Brazil across the Gran Sabana
open grasslands typical of the Gran Sabana
dark clouds over gallery woodland
Tropical Mockingbird
Rufous-collared Sparrow
On 25th we slowly birded our way from km 140 back down to km 131.  Mostly we slowly walked along the road with any side trails explored although the few we found quickly petered out.  The road was being upgraded but was mainly dirt although there was very little traffic, usually only a handful of vehicles each day, so it wasn’t dusty.  The lack of traffic was great as far as birding went with disturbance an absolute minimum (a wonderful contrast from the constantly passing vehicles birding the main road at Henri Pittier) but there were times when we would have appreciated more traffic as it was almost impossible getting a lift on the occasions that would have been helpful.  The main disadvantage of the road repairs was that some of the km markers were missing or had been replaced which sometimes made it difficult following our information which made great use of them.  At km 131 we found somewhere just away from the road to camp.  Birds seen included Rose-collared Piha, Scarlet-horned and White-fronted Manakins, Rufous-brown Solitare, Brown-capped Whitestart, Wedge-tailed Grassfinch and Tepui Brush-Finch.
grassland and distant tepuis
gallery forest and distant tepuis
Steve by the main road to Brazil
another Rufous-collared Sparrow
Swallow-tailed Kite
On 26th we continued down from km 131 back to 124.  We hadn’t gone that far when we found what looked like a trail off from the right hand side of the road.  With so little traffic on the road, and being sure that it wouldn’t go anywhere, we left our bags by the road rather than hiding them as was our normal practice.  We’d only been off the road for two minutes when we heard a vehicle approaching and slowing down.  We headed back fearful that our bags were being stolen but it was an Army Jeep suspicious of what we were doing.  Our lack of Spanish probably didn’t help our birdwatching explanation, along with field guide and notebooks, allay their fears.  We were moved up the chain of command and driven back to their camp on the Grand Sabana, a few kms beyond where we’d been the previously day.  There we were questioned rather casually by a friendly officer who soon realised that we weren’t foreign saboteurs and invited us to join their mid-day meal in the canteen.  It made a welcome change from rubber-rolls and squashed bananas!  After a short wait we were put in the back of the next vehicle heading that way and run back to where we’d been picked up.  We’d probably been ‘in custody’ for 3-4 hours.  Birds seen included Black Curassow, Velvet-browed Brilliant, Rufous-throated Sapphire, female Peacock Coquette, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Roraiman Antwren, Rose-coloured Piha and White-fronted Manakin.

upper Escalera
On 27th we birded from km 127 back to 117, making sure we hid our bags every time we left the road, but also being on the road late morning in the hope the Army would offer us a similar pick-up lunch service, unfortunately they didn’t.  By now our long-life rolls were getting decidedly stale.  There was a good looking trail at km 125 but we found it to be almost birdless although a superb Roraiman Barbtail made our efforts on it worthwhile.  Other new birds seen were Red-throated Caracara, Fiery-shouldered Parakeet, Rufous-breasted Sabrewing, Tufted Coquette, White-necked Jacobin, Tepui Spinetail, Cliff Flycatcher and Coroya Wren.
middle Escalera
On 28th we were conscious that we might have dropped too low for some of the Escalera specialities, in particular Red-banded Fruiteater, and so retraced our steps back up the road.  At km 120.5 we were fortunate to come across a pair of said fruiteaters by the road.  They were superb and one of the birds of the trip for me.  Buoyed by our success we turned around at km 121 and slowly birded back down to 101km where we got a lift to km 88 for more supplies of which we were running out.  We then walked back up to km 97.  Birds seen included Marail Guan, White Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, Red & Green Macaw, Blackish Nightjar, Paradise Jacamar, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Red-banded Fruiteater (a superb pair at km 120.5) White Bellbird, male Guanian Cock-of-the Rock (km 102) and Scarlet-horned and White-fronted Manakins.

lower Escalera
a similar view, not quite spot the difference
Blackish Nightjar
On 29th we slowly birded up the road from km 103 to km 111 and back down to km 107.  Birds seen included Black Currassow (including excellent views of a male on the road), White and Short-tailed Hawks, Red & Green Macaw, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, Scale-backed Antbird, Roraiman Antwren, Rufous-capped Ant-thrush, Scaled Antpitta and Guanian Cock-of-the Rock (two males at km 107).  
White Hawk
On 30th we slowly birded down the road from km 107 to km 98.  We then got a lift back to the Guayana Trail at km 73.  Birds seen included White Hawk, Blue-cheeked Parrot, Red & Green Macaw, Red-billed Toucan, Red-necked, Waved and Golden–collared Woodpeckers (the latter at km 73) and Guanian Cock-of-the Rock (a pair at km 106).
another Swallow-tailed Kite
approaching Piedra de la Virgin 

Piedra de la Virgin at km 98.  Her eyebrows and bow tie were impressive from this angle!
31 January-02 February 1983.  Guyana Trail.  We had another three full days on the Guyana Trail and, although there were long periods on the trail when not much was happening, they were probably the most enjoyable three days of the whole trip.  We often wandering along the trail on our own, bumping into each other to compare notes during the course of the day.  This was to maximise the chances of seeing skulking forest floor species which might otherwise be disturbed by more than one of us walking the trail however quiet we were.  This was counter to the maxim that two pairs of eyes are always better than one although at times it was frustrating when we were together if one of other to us saw something the other didn’t manage to get onto although it didn’t happen often and usually the offending species was later caught up, an advantage of having a reasonable amount of time at sites.  One occasion when this didn’t happen was when Steve saw a Gould’s Jewelfront well which I only saw untickably in silhouette, but that is forest birding.  Each day Mr Jeffries asked us if ‘we had seen the Trumpeter, a very curious bird’.  Sadly we hadn’t and with hindsight I wish we’d given it a few more days although roughing it there was beginning to take its toll.  One night there was a terrific thunder storm and we sheltered on Mr Jeffries porch, bivy bags not really being up to coping with it.  Birds seen on out second visit to the Guyana Trail included Giant and Variegated Tinamous, Spix’s Guan, Double-toothed Kite, Sunbittern (3 sightings of two birds including one followed as it stalked along a streambed which was a trip highlight), Ruddy Quail-Dove, White-necked Jacobin, White-tailed Trogon, Guanian Toucanet, Channel-billed and Red-billed Toucans, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Rufous-bellied and Brown-bellied Antwrens, Ringed Antpipit, White-plumed, Rufous-throated, Scale-backed and Spot-winged Antbirds (the first two at an antswarm), Rufous-capped Ant-thrush, Wing-banded Antbird (brilliant views of a pair of these superb antrails), Spotted Antpitta (3 sightings of two birds), Capuchinbird, Bearded Bellbird, Golden-headed Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Song Wren and Buff-bellied Warbler.

03-06 February 1983.  Rio Grande.  We said goodbye to Mr Jeffries and after a short wait along the road caught a north-bound bus to Villa Lola.  Here we got a lift to El Palmar, bought some more supplies and then walked for several hours into Rio Grande.  It had rained heavily before we arrived and the approach road, which was actually tarmac, was rapidly drying out.  This attracted frogs and a rather large snake doing raised stick impressions with its head up, presumably hoping one would pass within range.  We were not convinced it wouldn’t have a go at us and lobbed a couple of sticks in its general direction to encourage it to move, something it appeared rather reluctant to do.  The reserve appeared to be deserted and we found what looked like a side-less barn to sleep in.  We spent two full days birding in the forest nearby but were somewhat hampered by not being able to get across the river to where the habitat looked better.  Periodic heavy rain didn't help either.  One of the most spectacular species we saw was a pair of smallish terrestrial antbirds with a rufous back, blue orbital skin and the male a distinctive black, white and buff patterned underparts.  We couldn’t find anything in the field guide that looked remotely like them and were beginning to wonder if it might have wandered in from Guyana (not that far away) and be new for Venezuela.  However seeing them again the next day we revisited the field guide, reading every antbird description and eventually found an exact match under Ferruginous-backed Antbird, the only antbird in the field guide that wasn’t illustrated.  On our final day we had the morning around Rio Grande and then returned to the main road where we got a bus to Cuidad Guayana and Puerto de la Cruz where we arrived late evening.  We fortunately found an overgrown vacant lot near the bus station which we were able to sneak into un-noticed.  I slept surprisingly well despite the ground being hard and a bit uneven.  Birds seen at Rio Grande included brilliant views of Variegated Tinamou, Crane Hawk, Golden-winged Parakeet, Striped Cuckoo, Black-eared Fairy (superb), White-necked Jacobin, Paradise and Green-tailed Jacamars, Black-necked and Green Aracaris, Red-billed Toucan, Black-tailed and Short-billed Leafscrapers, Great Antshrike, Steaked and Rufous-winged Antwrena, stunning Ferruginous-backed and White-browed Antbirds, Black-faced Ant-thrush, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Bright-rumped Atilla, Black-capped Becard, Black-tailed Tityra, Greyish Mourner and Golden-headed Manakin
Rain temporarily stopped play, Steve in our accommodation at Rio Grande
rather tame Orange-winged Parrots
Smooth-billed Ani
Red-billed Toucans at Rio Grande

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