EASTERN VENEZUELA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Eastern Venezuela: Day 1 Our Eastern Venezuela birding tour begins at Caracas airport, with an evening flight to Puerto Ordaz, where we will spend the night. Puerto Ordaz is part of the twin city of Ciudad Guayana.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 2 Today, after crossing the mighty Orinoco River, we will drive northwards through the oil-producing country of eastern Venezuela, where ‘nodding donkeys’ are a typical feature of the savanna-like llanos.
We will make a few roadside stops along the way to break the journey and we are likely to encounter such open country species as Great Egret, Wood Stork, Black and Turkey Vultures, White-tailed Kite, White-tailed, Roadside and Savanna Hawks, Yellow-headed Caracara, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, Southern Lapwing, Common and Ruddy Ground Doves, Scaled and Eared Doves, Brown-throated Parakeet, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Orange-winged Parrot, Smooth-billed Ani, Black-throated Mango, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Plain Thornbird, Cattle Tyrant, Tropical Kingbird, Great Kiskadee, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Grey-breasted Martin, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, House Wren, Palm and Blue-grey Tanagers, Red-breasted Blackbird, Black-striped Sparrow, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and Grassland Sparrow. We may also come across Whistling Heron and Aplomado Falcon.
Eventually, we will reach the hills and mountains and travel onwards to the Caripe region for a four nights stay.
Eastern Venezuela: Days 3-5 The main attraction of the Caripe region is the occurrence of six bird species that are either endemic or near-endemic to these cloudforests in the northeastern corner of Venezuela. The flashy White-tailed Sabrewing (a hummingbird that also lives on Tobago) prefers shady patches of Heliconia while the unobtrusive and well-camouflaged endemic White-throated Barbtail behaves more like a mouse as it forages among moss-covered trunks. The dainty and endearing endemic Sucre Antpitta, looking for all the world like an egg on legs, hops around in the densest thickets but can sometimes be hard to see but the endemic Paria Brushfinch is much less of a challenge. We will also explore one of the few remaining patches of suitable habitat for the endemic and endangered Grey-headed Warbler. We have a very good chance of encountering this Red Data Book species. The rare Urich’s Tyrannulet is another speciality we will be hoping to see. This poorly-known species was first refound in this area in 2007.
The endemic Venezuelan Sylph also occurs here regularly and there is even a good chance for the rare endemic Venezuelan Flowerpiercer. We should also encounter the endemic Caracas Tapaculo although the local form here may represent a distinct species, restricted to northeast Venezuela. Fruiting trees often attract hungry near-endemic Groove-billed Toucanets and sometimes the endemic and very aptly-named Handsome Fruiteater.
Other species we may well see in the Caripe region include Swallow-tailed Kite, White and Zone-tailed Hawks, Red-billed Parrot, the Venezuelan form (emma) of the Painted Parakeet, Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Green Hermit, Collared Trogon, Golden-olive and Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Olivaceous, Black-banded and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Red-billed Scythebill, Crested and Stripe-breasted Spinetails, the ground-hugging Grey-throated Leaftosser, Slaty Antwren, Black-faced Antthrush, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Slaty-capped, Cinnamon and Social Flycatchers, Coopmans’s Tyrannulet (named after the late Paul Coopmans, our greatly missed guide and friend), Rufous-breasted Wren, Yellow-legged Thrush, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Cerulean (uncommon), Three-striped and Golden-crowned Warblers, Tropical Parula, Bananaquit, Green Honeycreeper, Blue Dacnis, Blue-capped, Turquoise and Black-headed Tanagers, and Thick-billed Euphonia. On a day with good thermals, the huge Ornate Hawk-Eagle is possible here.
At lower altitudes, among the nectar-rich blossoms of the flaming-red Erythrina trees we will witness the antics of an excellent selection of hummingbirds with resounding names like Golden-tailed Sapphire, Brown Violetear, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Blue-tailed Emerald, Copper-rumped Hummingbird and Long-billed Starthroat, whilst Tennessee Warblers and Crested Oropendolas often join in to sip the nectar. If we are very lucky we will even come across the exquisite little Tufted Coquette or a flock of swift-flying Lilac-tailed Parrotlets. Hard-to-see Little Tinamous whistle from patches of shrubby growth and woodland, where we may also find Great Black Hawk, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Squirrel and Striped Cuckoos, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Ochre-lored Flatbill, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Rufous-and-white Wren, Golden-fronted Greenlet, Red-eyed Vireo, Bare-eyed Thrush, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Trinidad Euphonia, Silver-beaked, White-lined and White-shouldered Tanagers, Greyish Saltator, Grey and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and Blue-black Grassquit.
Caripe is known for its famous Cueva de los Guacharos (‘Cave of the Oilbirds’), so eloquently described by Alexander Von Humboldt in his travel journals. He also gave the Oilbird its scientific name, Steatornis caripensis. A visit to this largest cave in Venezuela, situated in a rocky limestone canyon, is a real experience.
Before entering, we will spend some time near the cave’s entrance where flocks of Scarlet-fronted and Venezuelan Parakeets roost on the cliffs and White-tipped Swifts skirt the higher ridges. Bold Inca Jays hope for scraps at the picnic tables whilst Bat Falcons sometimes perch high on their lookout posts.
Other birds we may encounter here, or en route, include Fork-tailed Palm Swift, Sooty-capped Hermit, Strong-billed and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Barred and Black-crested Antshrikes, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Blue-and-white Swallow, Bicoloured Wren, Pale-breasted Thrush, Carib Grackle, Giant Cowbird, Orange-crowned Oriole, Oriole Blackbird and Tooth-billed Tanager.
As soon as we enter the cave we will hear the Oilbird’s strange snarls, clicks and groans, reminiscent of Donald Duck in a rage. They are amongst the very few birds that use echo-location and live in the first 2300ft (700m) of this more than 6-miles long (10 kilometres-long) cave. The floor is covered with palm and laurel fruit stones (Oilbirds are strictly frugivorus) and we will soon detect these large, nightjar-like birds on their nests, situated on the higher ridges between impressive stalactites. More than 10,000 Oilbirds are assembled here, so the cave offers a truly amazing spectacle, and at dusk there is a massive exodus when they all fly out to commence the foraging journeys that can take them up to 30 miles (50 kilometres) away. Most birds leave the cave in the first hour after dusk, often accompanied by large numbers of bats.
The endemic Green-tailed Emerald and the diminutive, range-restricted Rufous-shafted Woodstar sometimes visit flowering trees in the coffee plantations and with luck, we will find one or both.
Further to the east lies the anvil-shaped Paria Peninsula, which is the end point of the Venezuelan coastal cordillera that starts far to the west in the state of Yaracuy. Geologically speaking, the cordillera resurfaces in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Providing conditions at the time allow, we will spend one night not far from the peninsula so that we can see two additional endemic birds: the pretty but endangered Paria (or Yellow-faced) Whitestart, which has the habit of constantly fanning its tail and which tends to follow flocks of Bay-headed and Speckled Tanagers, and the spectacular Scissor-tailed Hummingbird, which is best located by checking tubular red flowers in the lower canopy.
Whilst there is dry scrub at sea level in the Paria, higher up the vegetation rapidly becomes more verdant. Part of the original forest has been altered into farmland or coffee plantations, but areas of undisturbed forest remain. Above an altitude of 2600ft (800m) the mountains are almost continually covered in cloud and this state of affairs gave the highest peak in the peninsula, Cerro Humo (‘Smoke Mountain’), its name.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 6 This morning we set out for the immense Orinoco Delta where we will spend two nights.
We will spend some time along the way in a fine tract of habitat where the Black-dotted Piculet, endemic to northeastern Venezuela, can be seen. This diminutive woodpecker is today’s prime target. Some other exciting birds inhabit the forests here, and we have a very good chance of finding the range-restricted Little Hermit, the gorgeous Crimson-hooded Manakin and the fairly widespread but localized Velvet-fronted Grackle (the local form guianensis may represent a distinct species).
More widespread species include Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Cocoi, Capped and Striated Herons, Anhinga, Plumbeous Kite, Black Hawk-Eagle, White-tipped and Grey-fronted Doves, Blue Ground Dove, White-eyed Parakeet, Blue-headed Parrot, Yellow-crowned Amazon, Greater Ani, Short-tailed Swift, White-chested Emerald, Guianan Trogon, American Pygmy Kingfisher (uncommon), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Swallow-winged Puffbird, Cream-coloured, Lineated and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers, Northern Slaty Antshrike, Jet and White-bellied Antbirds, Yellow-bellied and Forest Elaenias, Yellow Tyrannulet, Helmeted Pygmy Tyrant, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Lesser Kiskadee, Cinnamon Attila, White-winged Swallow, Buff-breasted Wren and Cocoa Thrush. We may also find the uncommon Yellow-crowned Elaenia.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 7 A little-known area for birders, the vast Orinoco Delta has produced some species new to science in recent decades. From our base in the delta, we shall explore the waterways and river islands in search of these special birds.
As we work our way around a number of river islands of varying ages we shall be in search of the fairly recently described endemic Rio Orinoco (or River Island) Spinetail and an as-yet-unnamed form of Stigmatura that resembles the Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant of the Amazonian river islands, but which may be a distinct species (‘Orinoco’ Wagtail Tyrant). We should also see a number of other river island specialists here including River Tyrannulet and Riverside Tyrant.
As we turn our attention to more tangled and taller forest, we will be looking for the recently-described endemic Delta Amacuro Softtail and the spectacular, range-restricted Black-chested Tyrant. There is also a form of Tolmomyias flycatcher here that might prove to be yet another species new to science. It is somewhat reminiscent of Grey-crowned Flycatcher, but has a rather distinctive vocalisation, pointing to the likelihood that it may better be regarded as a separate species.
In addition to these species, we may well see Horned Screamer, Long-winged Harrier, Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, the striking Blue and yellow Macaw, Hoatzin, Spotted Tody-Flycatcher, Lesson’s Seedeater, Yellow-browed Sparrow and the pretty Orange-fronted Yellow Finch. Time permitting, we will also look for White-bellied Piculet and devote our attention to the spectacle of several male Crimson-hooded Manakins attending their lek.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 8 After some final birding in the delta, we will return to Puerto Ordaz for an overnight stay.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 9 Early this morning we will be trying to find the uncommon and little-known Carrizal Seedeater not far from Puerto Ordaz.
Afterwards, we will drive south to the remote settlement of Las Claritas for a six nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Eastern Venezuela: Days 10-14 From our base at Las Claritas we will explore three major habitats: the forested slopes of the tepuis along the Escalera, the grassland and scrub of the Gran Sabana and the fringes of the Guianan rainforest. Many bird species have a distribution limited to the tepui region that comprises the borderlands of southeast Venezuela, southwest Guyana and far northern Brazil and it is of course these specialities that we will be concentrating on.
To the south of Las Claritas we soon reach La Piedra de la Virgen, a huge rock that marks the start of the Escalera, the escarpment leading up onto the Gran Sabana. The rock also marks the boundary of Canaima National Park, one of the largest national parks in the world. Provided it is clear as we climb to the top of the Escalera and reach the Gran Sabana, we shall enjoy spectacular vistas of steep-sided, flat-topped tepuis rising like islands out of a sea of windswept grassland and forest that stretches away to the horizon and the borders of Brazil.
At the edge of the plateau, the rivers plunge over sheer sandstone cliffs into the forest far below. Here amongst the giant tree ferns and epiphyte-encrusted trees resides the gorgeous White Bellbird, although we shall hear many more than we will see. Where waterfalls cascade down the forested slopes we should encounter the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, although sometimes one must be content with just a glimpse of an orange fireball flashing through the trees. Cliff Flycatchers can be found in their typical microhabitat and Rufous-brown Solitaires utter their liquid incantations.
The most sought-after birds of this magnificent area are of course the many tepui endemics including Fiery-shouldered Parakeet, the nominate form of the Foothill Screech Owl (sometimes split as Roraiman Screech Owl), Tepui Swift, Rufous-breasted Sabrewing, the exquisite Peacock Coquette, Velvet-browed Brilliant, Tepui Toucanet, Tepui Spinetail, Tepui (or White-throated) Foliage-gleaner, the unobtrusive Roraiman Barbtail, Roraiman Antwren, Roraiman Antbird, Tepui (or Brown-breasted) Antpitta, the handsome Red-banded Fruiteater, Rose-collared Piha, Tepui Elaenia, Ruddy Tody-Flycatcher, Black-fronted Tyrannulet, Flutist Wren, Tepui Vireo, Tepui Whitestart, Roraiman Warbler, Golden-tufted Mountain-Grackle, Olive-backed Tanager and Tepui Brushfinch. We can also expect the range-restricted McConnell’s Spinetail, Streak-backed Antshrike and Scarlet-horned, Orange-bellied and Olive Manakins.
Less easy-to-come-by endemics are Tepui Tinamou (straightforward to hear but we need a bit of luck to see one), Blue-cheeked Parrot, Tepui Parrotlet, the restless Copper-tailed Hummingbird, Tepui Goldenthroat and Greater Flowerpiercer, but with perseverance, we should find a number of these.
More widespread species we may well find on the forested slopes and in the savanna include Broad-winged Hawk, Spix’s Guan, the skulking Russet-crowned Crake, Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-and-green Macaw, White-collared Swift, Blue-fronted Lancebill, Sparkling Violetear, Masked Trogon, Golden-collared Woodpecker, Ash-winged Antwren, Bearded Bellbird, Wing-barred Piprites, Plain-crested Elaenia, Guianan Tyrannulet, Roraiman Flycatcher, Black-capped Becard, the awkward-looking Sharpbill, Tawny-headed Swallow, Black-hooded and Black-billed Thrushes, Coraya Wren, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Spotted, Yellow-bellied, Paradise, Burnished-buff, Black-faced and Fulvous-crested Tanagers, Wedge-tailed Grass Finch and Rufous-collared Sparrow.
More uncommonly encountered species include the timid Black Curassow and Common Potoo.
The Las Claritas area lies at the edge of the Guianan rainforest which holds a different suite of birds. The first hours of the day reveal Channel-billed Toucans perching on exposed limbs whilst flocks of tanagers and saltators peruse the forest edge. As we enter the dark world of the forest interior all seems quiet after the frenzied activity at the forest edge, but suddenly our ears reverberate to the piercing ‘whee-wheee-oo’ of a Screaming Piha at its lek, surely the most evocative sound of the South American rainforest. Hearing this fascinating bird is much easier than seeing it and we shall have to search the foliage diligently before this drab cotinga, which stays almost motionless whilst calling, can be located. Another splendid cotingid, but often not an easy one to find these days, is the amazing Capuchinbird (or Calfbird), whose unearthly calls sound like a blend between a cow and a chainsaw.
Noisy flocks of Cayenne Jays move through the Cecropia trees and we may watch a Brown Jacamar sally forth from a dead limb after one of the brilliantly-hued butterflies that abound here. Amongst the many other species we may find along trails close to Las Claritas are Plumbeous and Scaled Pigeons, Blackish Nightjar, Grey-rumped and Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, Rufous-breasted Hermit, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, White-necked Jacobin, the gorgeous Crimson Topaz, Black-eared Fairy, Guianan Toucanet (uncommon), Red-necked Woodpecker, Olive-backed Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Mouse-coloured and Dusky-throated Antshrikes, Pygmy, Long-winged, Todd’s and Spot-tailed Antwrens, Black-throated Antbird, Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped and Ochre-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-crowned and White-lored Tyrannulets, Olivaceous Flatbill, Pink-throated Becard, Black-tailed Tityra, the lovely Spangled Cotinga, White-necked Thrush, Black-faced Dacnis, Glaucous Tanager and Swallow Tanager. If we are fortunate we will come across Black-faced Hawk or Slaty-backed Forest Falcon.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 14 Return to Puerto Ordaz for an overnight stay. You will be looked after by our local representative, who will also transfer you to the airport next morning.
Eastern Venezuela: Day 15 Our Eastern Venezuela birding tour ends with a morning flight to Caracas.
(Most international departures from Caracas are in the afternoon or early evening.)
MOUNT RORAIMA EXTENSION
Mount Roraima: Day 1 Today we will set off early and head for the remote village of Paraitepuy (or Paratepui), looking out for Least Nighthawk, White-tailed Nightjar and Stripe-tailed Yellow Finch along the way. This small village is inhabited by people of the Pemon tribe and lies to the west of Mount Roraima. From Paraitepuy we have arranged for the villagers to take us on the back of quad bikes to the Tek River, which saves around four hours of walking. After crossing the shallow Tek River on foot (quite easy) we have a nine kilometres (5.4 miles) hike to the Roraima Base Camp on the slopes of the tepui. We will gain around 820 metres (around 2700 feet) during the walk, which is steadily uphill, but we will take it slowly. We have to cross the Kukenan River en route, but if the water is high, as it often is in the dry season) we will be taken across by canoe.
The views of Mount Roraima and nearby Mount Kukenan along the route are totally awesome. Yes, we are on our way to the ‘Lost World’ for sure!
There are not many birds in the grasslands and shrubbery of the area but two notable species we have a very good chance of finding are the endemic Copper-throated Hummingbird and the more widespread but localized Bearded Tachuri. The endemic Tepui Goldenthroat is a tricky bird to find, but this area definitely offers extra chances. Red-shouldered Tanager and Finsch’s Euphonia are also possible.
Once we arrive at Base Camp we will settle into our camp, which will have its own dining tent, and then start to explore the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the Pemon have burned most of the forest that used to occur on the sloping flanks of Mount Roraima, but nonetheless, some habitat remains. In particular, we will be looking for the localized endemic Roraiman Nightjar and the impressive Giant Snipe this evening. If we have not already seen one, we will also try for ‘Roraiman’ Screech Owl (the roraimae form of Foothill Screech Owl).
Mount Roraima: Day 2 The Roraima Base Camp is situated at an altitude of around 1870 metres (around 6135ft). Today we will follow the well-used but in places steep path that climbs up the flanks of Mount Roraima. We will gain over 800 metres in total until we reach the plateau of Roraima (there is no birding need to go to the actual summit of Mount Roraima), but we have lots of time and will be going slowly and making many stops as we have plenty of birding to do. (‘Normal’ trekkers on Roraima usually cover the trail from the base camp to the plateau in around four hours.) As we know from our previous experience, the hike as far as the plateau on Roraima is not a particularly difficult one as long as you spend a full day over it.
Our prime targets in the mossy woodland on the flanks of Roraima are of course the endemic Tepui Wren and Great Elaenia, both of which are easy to find. We are also sure to encounter the endemic Greater Flowerpiuercer, a tricky bird on the Escalera, but easy here, especially higher up near the plateau. The endemic Tepui Parrotlet, a bird that is hard to find on the Escalera, is positively numerous in the plateau area on Mount Roraima and we are likely to see flocks of them passing by, but they are often absent lower down the tepui.
As we climb Roraima the views of its cliffs and the waterfalls that plunge into the abyss from the plateau of the tepui get more and more awe-inspiring. Just being here is an incredible experience that we are all going to remember for the rest of our lives.
Once we reach the plateau, which is undulating rather than ‘table flat’, a truly ‘lost world’ scene unfolds with bare rocky areas, small pools and in particular a landscape that is dominated by insectivorous plants, including vast numbers of pitcher plants and other carnivorous species. Here we should soon be able to find a day-roosting Tepui Nightjar, a distinctive endemic taxon that is already treated as a full species by Birdlife and others, but which is still treated as a race of Band-winged Nightjar by the IOC. We should also encounter the duncani form of the Paramo Seedeater which may well represent a distinct endemic species (Tepui Seedeater). The endemic macconnelli form of the Rufous-collared Sparrow is common on the plateau.
The highest point on Mount Roraima, quaintly named Maverick Peak, is situated at 2810m (9220ft), but going there is not part of our expedition (although you are welcome to take some time out of birding if summiting appeals).
Our experience on Roraima has taught us that spending two full days on the upper part of the mountain is less demanding on group members than going two-thirds of the way up to the plateau and then all the way back down to base camp in a single day. It not only omits the ‘lost world’ experience of reaching the plateau of this amazing mountain, but it also reduces the chances for some of the avian specialities. Consequently, we will camp tonight in one of the caves near the top of the trail, charmingly called ‘hotels’ by the cheerful Pemon mountain guides. Staying inside a cave is preferable to tent camping as it often rains all night on Roraima, even in the dry season. The mountain is so big that it creates its own weather!
Mount Roraima: Day 3 Today we will make our way down the mountain, birding as we go. We will overnight at the base camp. Early morning high on Roraima is often wonderful for the spectacular views of the cliff-girt mountain and the Gran Sabana far below.
As well as the major specialities already described, Roraima has plenty of other good birds. The widespread but rare and localized Orange-breasted Falcon can regularly be seen here, as can White-chinned Swift. The guianensis form of the Blue-fronted Lancebill is easy to find in this area and may well represent a distinct species.
Tepui endemics that we are likely to encounter again at Roraima include Tepui Swift, Rufous-breasted Sabrewing, Peacock Coquette, Tepui Spinetail, Roraiman Barbtail, Tepui Foliage-gleaner, Tepui Antpitta, Tepui Elaenia, Red-banded Fruiteater, Tepui Whitestart, Olive-backed Tanager and Tepui Brushfinch.
Mount Roraima: Day 4 After our extraordinary and remote ‘tepui adventure’ we will hike from the base camp back to the Tek River, continue to Paraitepuy by quadbike and then return to Las Claritas by road for an overnight stay.
Mount Roraima: Day 5 Drive back to Puerto Ordaz for an overnight stay, stopping for anything of interest along the way.
Mount Roraima: Day 6 The extension ends with a morning flight to Caracas.
(Most international departures from Caracas are in the afternoon or early evening.)