In an earlier TR, I described an August 2003 trip to Northwest Venezuela with guides Chris Sharpe and Pepe Clavijo of Birding Venezuela. That trip was very successful with a variety of species, including Chestnut Piculet, Gray-throated Warbler, Gray-naped Antpitta, and Rusty-faced Parrot, among many others, but a knee injury on the Humboldt trail forced me to postpone a visit to the paramo and its high elevation species. In an effort to target paramo species in the state of Mérida, I traveled west of Caracas to the Mërida Andes, utilzing the services of Venezuelan guide Pepe Clavijo (pepito1313ATyahoo.com ). Pepe, who is probably best known for his work with Scallop-breasted Antpitta (both banding as a part of scientific research as well as finding additional sites for it, digiscoping it, and showing it to numerous birdwatchers and birdwatching guides) works with a Venezuelan birdwatching company called: BIRDING VENEZUELA Chacao - Caracas Tel. +58-212-2665766 / 2667467 / 2662445 Fax. +58-212-2667944 email: birdingvenezuelaATgmail.com...... http://www.birdingvenezuela.com ...(coming soon!) For more information on birding in Venezuela, see:- http://www.birdvenezuela.com
Logistics: ground transport and accommodations were all arranged by Birding Venezuela.
2 Jan 2006: Late arrival into Caracas, with transfer to Maracay.
3 Jan 2006: Early departure for driving west to Barinitas, arriving at 10:30am. Driving along the llanos, we noted a flock of several hundred Dickcissels, forming a cloud, in the state of Portuguesa. Most of world's population of Dickcissels winters in this area, and flocks of up to a million birds have been reported. We next birded a locale in at 450m where Pepe had previously seen Andean Lanisoma. Although we didn't find the Lanisoma on this trip, birds of note included White-bearded Manakin, Gray-headed Tanager and a wintering Bay-breasted Warbler. As we ascended the Mérida Andes via the Santo Domingo highway, a stop at 2400m produced a Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush. An hour of birding at the Los Frailes Hotel area (2900m) was notable for male and female Orange-throated Sunangels (NEAR ENDEMIC), as well as a nice Sword-billed Hummingbird. We continued upward to our main target of the Merida paramo, where at 3700m we encountered several of my target birds, including Mérida ('Paramo') Wren (ENDEMIC), Ochre-browed Thistletail (ENDEMIC), and Streak-backed Canastero. Bar-winged Cincloides were common in all paramo elevation areas we visited, and we also had Andean Tit-Spinetail. We spent the night in Gavidia (3300m), at the comfortable Posada Michicaba, which is able to contract local Spanish-speaking guides and horses for the trek into Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada.
4 Jan 2006: After a nice cooked breakfast, we headed to the trailhead, where our local guides and horses awaited us. Pepe and I joined a group of entomologists, and from the trail head at 3400m, we headed up through Paramo along the Sendero Morritos trail, reaching 3600m before we descended to our campsite at 3000m. Though most of the group did this 5 hour trip on horseback, Pepe and I hiked in order to maximize our birding opportunities, and birds of note included: Plumbeous Sierra-finches, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Mérida/Paramo Wren, White-capped Dipper, Andean Siskin, and scope views of male and female Bearded Helmetcrests in areas where the Espeletia was still in bloom. Also found nearby was an Agile Tit-Tyrant, slightly above the usual elevation range for this species in Venezuela.
As we descended, flock activity at 3050m included our first Lacrimose Mountain-tanagers, flocks of White-banded Tyrannulets, numerous White-throated Tyrannulets and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants. We also had our first Mérida Flowerpiercers (ENDEMIC). During the night, both White-throated Screech-Owls and Rufous-banded Owls called, but stayed well hidden in the dense fog.
5 Jan 2006: Elated to be in the 2800m-3000m stunted Cloud Forest habitat for early morning birding, our first flocks at 7am included close views of a group of ten Black-collared Jays and a pair of handsome Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers. At 2900m, an incredible mixed flock included Blue and Black Tanagers, Citrine Warbler, Slaty Brush-Finches (common), Glossy Flowerpiercers, Pearled Treerunners and Gray-capped Hemispingus (ENDEMIC). Towards the end of the flock, Pepe exclaimed "I've got it!", and we had close eye-level looks at one of our main quarries, Slaty-backed Hemispingus (ENDEMIC). Three birds gave us good views, and fortunately they stayed around for several minutes, clambering around within bushes! The habitat was notable for having a moderate amount of bamboo interspersed with montane scrub and stunted trees.
One of the major attractions of birding at this altitude is of course the hummingbirds, and certainly the most common hummer was the rather widespread Tyrian Metaltail. Most of the other hummers we encountered, however, were very special ones, with my favorite being Coppery-bellied Puffleg (NEAR ENDEMIC). Over the course of 2 days, we saw several individuals, some of which were guarding territories of large tubular red flowers. A couple of them got into fights with Glowing Pufflegs, and Pepe managed to digiscope these birds extensively, obtaining still as well as video footage. Another special hummer was the Golden-tailed Starfrontlet (ENDEMIC, giving glory to its latin species name eos, for dawn), perched in the open at 2900m. Both male and female Purple-backed Thornbills gave good views, and one Mountain Velvetbreast was present. All in all, excellent high elevation hummingbird habitat.
6 Jan 2006: White-throated Screech-Owls continued to call through the rather cold night, but kept out of sight.
We arose early to descend to 2700m today. The stunted cloud forest in this pristine national park displays increasing concentrations of bamboo as one descends from 3000m, and by 7am, we were at 2700m in fairly dense bamboo, when Pepe decided to play a vocalization of Undulated Antpitta. After no more than 10 seconds of playback, an Antpitta flew in from behind us, tried its best to perch on some rather unsupportive bamboo, and then flew onto the trail, where it promptly hopped off in the well known antpitta-style. We decided to reascend a bit, and at 2800m, we had another mixed flock that had 5 Slaty-backed Hemispinguses and a couple of Gray-capped Hemispinguses mixed in. There are few good sites for dependably finding Slaty-backed Hemispingus, and the fact that we had 2 groups of them at slightly differing elevations (2800m, and 2900m) speaks well for their potential reliability at this site. Other birds of note included Blue-backed Conebills, several Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, Gray-naped Antpitta (heard only, not responding well to playback at 2850m), Mérida Tapaculo (seen at very close range, and very commonly calling), Pearled Treerunner, Barred Fruiteater (heard), and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager. A couple of cooperative Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonias were at 2900m, and among the numerous Glossy and Merida Flowerpiercers was a single Bluish Flowerpiercer.
7 Jan. After an early morning of more Puffleg encounters, we opted to all return via horseback, climbing back to 3600m before descending to 3400m and then spending the night at the posada in Gavidia at 3300m.
8 Jan. Stopping en route on the way back to Maracay, we had some nice birds at 2400m on the Santo Domingo Road, including White-sided Flowerpiercer, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Golden-rumped Euphonia, and a female Orange-throated Sunangel. After noting another Dickcissel cloud in Portuguesa state, we arrived in Maracay well after dark, and our very successful birding journey had come to an end.
9 Jan. Due to problems with the Caracas-La Guaira/airport bridge, I opted to fly to the international airport from Valencia, which proved to work well. An alternate road to the Caracas airport is scheduled to open by late Feb. 2006.
Joseph.C.Thompson AT kp.org
Los Angeles, California