This trip focused on Venezuelan endemics and what we came to call "functional endemics" that only occur in Venezuela and in inaccessible (due to guerilla activity) parts of NE Colombia. Since the 2 segments of the trip were rather different, logistics will be mentioned separately.
Venezuela is a true pleasure to travel in, with a well-developed infrastructure and extremely friendly people. Local inns called "Posadas" are common in most areas, and provide generally inexpensive lodging, associated with good to excellent food. This was the rainy season, but we had clear days in xerophytic areas, with occasional mainly afternoon/night rain in the mountains. Birds were generally vocal and tape-responsive, and we did not miss any target birds due to weather conditions. I will generally only list target birds for the various sites, as well as species with notable subspecies.
1) Birding in Venezuela by Mary Lou Goodwin: The 5th edition (2003) is quite good and is an especially good resource for finding accommodations.
2) Trip reports: Several excellent trips reports cover most of the areas visited, especially Hornbuckle (19 Feb 2001), Klauber (7 Feb 2001), and Allen/Catsis (July/Aug 2002).
3) Chris Sharpe, who served as my guide on the second segment of the trip, provided invaluable assistance in planning the first part of the trip as well: email@example.com . His Birds and Birding in Venezuela web site provides information on the biology and conservation of Venezuelan birds and some suggestions for birdwatching in Venezuela as well as useful links.
4) Pepe Clavijo (firstname.lastname@example.org) from the University of Central Venezuela and I had birded together previously in Henri Pittier, and Pepe took care of all of the logistics on the first part of the trip. He is an excellent birder with some experience in banding at Henri Pittier, and has actually held Scallop-breasted Antpitta in-hand (as well as seeing it on our trip!)
Part 1: Falcon/Lara:
For this segment of the trip, I traveled to Maracay and joined up with Pepe Clavijo and is especially familiar with the birds of Henri Pittier NP. His sharp eyes spotted quite a few of our target species, and we used his 4X4 for transport. We hired a well-traveled Venezuelan friend as a driver, which freed us up to concentrate on birds and allowed us to leave our belongings in the vehicle when traveling between posadas/hotels.
5th August: Drive Maracay to Tucacas, staying at Posada La Arboleda for 2 nights - one of Mary Lou's excellent recommendations, with nice rooms and excellent food, catering to birders with early coffee, etc.
Rusty-flanked Crake: At 6pm, we elicited the calls of this bird at a small pond on the main road leading to the La Arboleda turnoff. We ultimately obtained scope views at 15 feet - the next afternoon, we stopped at a larger marshy area on the Agualinda Road (on the right, proceeding from La Arboleda) and scoped another bird walking around the base of some reeds.
Plain-flanked Rail: Found in coastal mangroves in Tucacas at a site discovered by Dave Willis several years ago, we had three birds respond to a tape and come quite close, with excellent views. This species is stated to be interspecifically territorial with Clapper Rail, but when we decided to follow-up our sightings with various Clapper Rail calls, these birds showed no interest. Perhaps they would have behaved differently if we had tried the Clapper Rail tapes first (that will have to wait for another trip!)
Striped Owl, Barn Owl, Great-horned Owl - all spotlighted and scoped on Agualinda road close to La Arboleda
7th August: Drive to Coro, staying one night at Hotel Miranda Cumberland - supposedly the best hotel in the charming city of Coro, the state capital of Falcon and a World Heritage Site. (The huge Medano sand dunes just north of the city are also quite impressive.) We must have had bad luck, as the elevators were broken and there was no water. This area of Falcon has many xerophytic specialties, many of which can be found at Jardin Xerophytica just before reaching Coro from Tucacas. The best birding, however, is the Acurigua Road leading south from Coro. As is well pointed out by Allen and Catsis trip report, the directions in Goodwin's book are misleading here: a few km south of town, a prominent fork in the paved road displays a bronze statue. It is important to take the right fork here, which leads to La Negrita and great birding. We birded the larger river washes as well as areas south of La Negrita:
Short-tailed Tody Tyrant - we saw 8 of these inquisitive birds, who responded well to Pygmy Owl calls as well as to their own vocalizations.
Slender-billed Tyrannulet - common and confiding
Black-crested Antshrike: This ssp. paraguanae (also called ssp. phainoleucus) is markedly different from more eastern forms and is a likely candidate for a future split.
Yellow-shouldered Parrot - viewed several times in flight in the early morning from the washes, we had close views of a perched pair in La Negrita, part of a group of 40 that was flying to roost.
Red-billed Emerald - scope views of a bird perched at the side of a wash.
Venezuelan Troupial - At the Jardín and in the washes.
8th August. Mid-day drive to San Luis, where we stayed at Finca El Monte for 2 nights. Also recommended by Mary Lou, the finca is quite birder friendly (early breakfasts, late dinners). Everything is organic and healthy, but no pesticides means close your bags (lots of spiders and a scorpion in my room), shake your shoes before putting them on, and, at least in the rainy season, consider bringing a mosquito net or coils or whatever. The Swiss owners are quite friendly and helpful in planning outings.
Red Siskin - Pepe spotted a nice male when we were in the San Luis area at a new locality discovered by Mark Sokol and Chris Sharpe in August 2002, and we digiscoped it. Mary Lou mentions that there are siskins in the area, but Hilty is careful not to give locations of recent sightings, since this species has been aggressively over-collected to the point of near extinction (though a population has recently been described in Guyana). Red Siskin is now critically endangered in Venezuela and known localities are being kept secret for obvious reasons.
Rosy-thrush Tanager - a very tape-responsive male gave good views in Finca El Monte's back yard (just after walking through a small patch of forest, where you come into a partially cleared area with a fence on your left).
Bearded Bellbird - several were calling at El Haiton, but did not respond to prerecorded tapes. I taped an individual at 8am, and the bird responded quickly to its own vocalization and hopped into view, where we were able to scope it from the paved road.
Lined Quail-dove - on the paved road at El Haiton at 8:30am
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird - these were common, as there were lots of Inga in bloom. We watched numerous Inga trees, hoping for Rufous-shafted Woodstar, but with no luck.
Rufous-breasted Wren - responded well to it's own song at 7am at El Haiton.
10th August. Drive from San Luis to Yacambu NP. In Usare, Lara State (close to the border with Falcon), we passed a large marshy area associated with a lake, where we had scope views of Southern Pochard. In the Barquisimeto area, Pepe spotted 2 Pale-headed Jacamars in classic dry arroyo habitat, which we later digiscoped. Upon arriving in Sanare, we obtained excellent rooms for 2 nights at Hotel Fumarola in the barrio of Palo Verde, much quieter and less busy than in Sanare itself. They gave us early breakfasts, but weren't open for dinners. We proceeded into Yacambu Nat. Park in mid-afternoon.
Helmeted Curassow - at 1700m, as we walked into forest with thoughts of Great Antpitta, we surprised a pair of these, who clambered about giving excellent views for 15 minutes before flying off. At 7pm, we had another one fly in and perch roadside over our heads, where we viewed it with our spotlights and took photos. A lucky day for seeing curassows!
Great Antpitta - in late afternoon, also at 1700m, we were playing the recording from Boesman's CD-ROM, and had 2 birds respond by calling intermittently not far up the bank from the paved road. We recorded one of them, and ended up with brief views on it hopping on the ground and in flight, but it soon became too dark to keep trying. At dawn the next day, we returned and had a very vocal response to the tape. Pepe and I alternated playing the CD-ROM recording and our own recording, and the antpitta gave views as it hopped around us in a semicircle and then flew and perched on a mossy branch that we had already focused the scope on! Pepe now has excellent recordings of Great Antpitta.
Merida Tapaculo - easily seen roadside, this (?sub)species at 1700m occurs quite a bit lower than the birds in the Merida area.
Caribbean Coot - on the lake where people try for Rusty-flanked Crake, which we heard call but didn't sweat since we had seen them in Tucacas.
Lined Quail-dove - 2 on the path at the research station, 11am.
Golden-wnged Manakin - Noontime flock at research station.
12th August. Drive from Sanare to Maracay via Barquisimeto: After driving down from Sanare to a quarry on the right side of the road (Arcilla Villa Rosa, with an associated town called Cabrera) as you head down the mountain at 800m, we asked permission to enter, and proceeded to bird the area, playing a tape of Tocuyo Sparrow at various intervals with absolutely no response. Chris Sharpe has reported success for this bird at a quarry on the left side of the road as you head down the mountain. It was too windy to try for Rufous Nightjar, so we retreated to Sanare for dinner. The next morning, we returned to the quarry, and had views of White-tailed Hawk, Ultramarine Grosbeak, and Crested Bobwhite, but no response to the sparrow tape. At 9:15 am, as we were getting frustrated with the situation with this localized endemic, Pepe spotted a pair of Tocuyo Sparrows foraging in shady leaf litter along the quarry road, beneath some medium height trees that included acacias. One gave a short 2-note song, but there was no response to playing the longer "typical" song.
For this part of the trip, Pepe Clavijo and I were joined by Chris Sharpe, a conservationist who guides professionally in Venezuela and is currently working on the Venezuelan portion of the Red Data Book. We did this part of the trip in Chris' Toyota.
7th September. We set out with 2 porters to camp above H. Pittier at a site where Mark Sokol and Chris had found the bird earlier in the year, a good walk below an area where a team of investigators lead by Prof. Carlos Verea of the UCV (amongst them Pepe Clavijo) had actually captured the bird several times in 2002. A permit is required from the park authorities, and must be obtained beforehand, which Pepe took care of before my arrival. After setting up camp, we walked back down the trail a short way and played a tape of Scallop-breasted Antpitta made in May. Chris saw it first, as it was perched 1 meter off the ground only 3 m off the trail. We proceeded to have excellent views of
Scallop-breasted Antpitta - as it flew short distances and perched calmly for several minutes on each perch, always roughly 1 meter or so above the ground. In the afternoon, the bird was completely silent, but when we returned early the next morning, the bird began vocalizing in response to playback. Pepe (email@example.com) and Chris (firstname.lastname@example.org) both have excellent recordings of this antpitta.
Other birds seen on the hike up were: Red-billed Scythebill, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Moustached Puffbird, Violet-chested Hummingbird, Venezuelan Bristle-tyrant. Heard on the way up were White-tipped Quetzal, Venezuelan Wood-Quail, and Guttulated Foliage-gleaner. Caracas Tapaculo was calling just below our campsite. These were all species that we had seen earlier in the year.
8th September. Hiking back down from our campsite, Plain-backed Antpittas were calling as we reached the research station and headed back to Maracay in the back of an open vehicle in a rainstorm - Chris and Pepe made sure that their Scallop-breasted Antpitta recordings didn't get wet! Night in Maracay.
9th September. Maracay to Mosquey, Trujillo, where we had excellent views of at least four Rufous-bellied Nighthawks and Mottled Owl. We also had a very early record, a bright male Golden-winged Warbler.
10th September. Drive to Mene Grande, Zulia, just east of Lake Maracaibo. At the village of Misoa, we had: Trinidad Euphonia - a nemesis bird for me on previous trips. Black-whiskered Vireo was a nice record.
11th September. Back to Misoa, where, at 250m elevation, we had been playing a tape, during intermittent rain, of: Chestnut Piculet - a major target bird of the trip, Pepe spotted one at 9:55am, sneaking in low, and we finally got really good looks at it as it stayed low to mid-story in medium-sized bushes/small trees. This site had been recommended by Chris' friend José Gustavo León, though Mark Sokol and Chris had dipped on the Piculet twice here in May 2003. Other birds included:
Lesson's Seedeater - singing in the rain, apparently on territory
Russet-throated Puffbird - ssp. ruficollis, one of the One-Banded forms that is split by some.
Pearly-vented Tody-tyrant - which sings differently to those south of the Orinoco and is thought to be a separate species.
Crimson-backed Tanager - always nice.
In the afternoon, we drove to Rio Frio, to stay one night at the Hotel Rasomar described in Mary Lou's book. Thank goodness for loud air conditioners to drown out the various noises. As we approached Rio Frio, we began to see Pygmy Swifts flying around, with several visible from the hotel parking lot.
12th September. Rio Frio valley, where Black-mandibled Toucans were found at their nest hole. Saffron-headed Parrots flew overhead, and we counted 34, and though scope views were obtained, it would have been nice to see them perched. itron-throated Toucans were calling deep in the valley, but our major dip of the trip was never seeing them. Black-faced Antthrush was seen well, of the ssp. griseoventris, at 600m. Compared to other Venezuelan subspecies, this taxon (thought to be a separate species) has distinctive voice, plumage and habitat. At least 14 Military Macaws flew by in the early morning.
After giving up on the Toucans (because it was dark), we headed to Centro Ecologico El Tao in the La Azulita area for a 2 night stay. We had 2 dinners here - one average, and one quite good. No birders breakfasts available. Accomodations were fine, though a bit pricey by Venzuelan standards. We had a winged termite eruption in one of the bedrooms the first night, but that can happen anywhere, right?
13th September. Early (4am) wake-up for drive to Puerto Concha on the SW corner of Lake Maracaibo. We knew the name of the boatman in Puerto Concha, and now Chris and Pepe have his phone number to pre-arrange things, and we managed to get the boat and set off at 9am for the Parque Nacional Cienega de Juan Manuel de Aguas Claras y Aguas Negras. After signing in at the park HQ on stilts, we soon passed Large-billed terns and Scarlet Ibis (no records here according to Hilty) on our way to grassy marshy areas, where 2 Northern Screamers flushed. A few minutes later we had 3 perched N. Screamers, and took some time to digiscope them from the boat. Waterbirds and raptors were abundant, with over 1000 Neotropic Cormorants in one flock We caught up with Pale-tipped Inezia, which was quite vocal and curious, and had another of the One-Banded forms of Rufous-throated Puffbird, this time of the ssp. coloratus. We kept our eyes open for Slender-billed Kites, but none were to be found this day. Five early Prothonotary Warblers were of note.
In the afternoon, we returned to Rio Frio, where at 300m, I spotted a Shining-green Hummingbird feeding at a small mimosa tree. Feeding on the same mimosa and on a nearby Inga was a female Spangled Coquette. PM at El Tao.
14th September. We began the morning birding above La Azulita for the localized endemic Gray-throated Warbler at a site found by Mark Sokol, Lanie Langlois and Chris Sharpe, which favors fairly dense undergrowth and was tape-responsive at 8:00am. A Scaled Antpitta was calling in the early am, as was Immaculate Antbird, but we ignored them in favor of Rusty-breasted Antpitta, which we saw well by climbing down into a brushy are, where Chris called it in. We had excellent scope views of a closeby perched flock of 60+ Barred Parakeets, usually only seen in flight. In the afternoon, we headed to Merida, where we had an excellent dinner at a restaurant called Entrepueblos before heading to our excellent Posada, the Posada Dona Rosa for a 2 night stay. En route, A Whistling Heron has become a resident in an artificial lake at 2245m.
15th September. This was to be our only day on the Humboldt trail, as the I ended the trip that afternoon with a knee injury. At the base of the trail, we had Moustached Brush-finch and Azara's Spinetail at 2100m. At 2250m, I spotted a couple of Black-collared Jays, and we had the first of several Merida Sunangels (all males) and White-fronted Whitestarts. We called in a very responsive Slate-crowned Antpitta, and as we ascended saw a couple of Collared Incas. At 2400m, Chris called in a very vocal endemic Gray-naped Antpitta, where we had excellent views in the bamboo understory. Understory/midstory flocks held the endemic Gray-capped Hemispingus along with less numerous Oleaginous Hemispingus and Superciliared Hemispingus. Black-crested Warblers and Slaty Brush-finches joined these same flocks. We had flocks of Rose-crowned Parakeets flying overhead, with views of one perched bird. One of our most fortunate sightings was a group of 2 adult and 2 juvenile Rusty-faced Parrots perched at close range, a bird that Chris had never seen perched before.
16th September. Our final travel day, heading back to Maracay from the Andes, as we crossed the pass heading towards Santo Domingo, we were treated to the spectacle of migrating swallows, mostly Cliff Swallows, but with Barn Swallows and Bank Swallows mixed in.