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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Guyana

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Wow, where to begin? Considering Harpy Eagle and Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo (seen!!) didn’t even make our “top five” list shows just how high-quality our birds and experiences were on this tour.  In short, we enjoyed an exceptional two weeks in the rainforest and savannah of Guyana. More rain than usual lead to an increase in bird activity overall, and pushed our species total to over 380. Starting on the coast with an exact count of 100 Scarlet Ibis in view on the mudflats, and continuing inland for close views of Black-faced Hawk, a 10-month-old Harpy Eagle at a nest, no fewer than six sightings of Gray-winged Trumpeter, Ocellated Crake (seen!), a small flock of Red-fan Parrots feeding at eye-level just a few meters away, roosting Great and Long-tailed Potoos along with a the ultra-rare White-winged at night, Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo crossing the trail just a few yards away and seen by the whole group, Spotted Antpitta perched in the scope for 20 minutes (!), a hail-Mary save with a ridiculously cooperative Crimson Fruitcrow along the road, the bizarre Capuchinbird and shocking Pompadour Cotinga…the fun never ended, and that barely scratches the surface! Add the wonderful hospitality, delicious food, and pristine habitat of Guyana…suffice to say I cannot wait to return to this glorious country next year.

IN DETAIL: Our first day of birding saw us heading east along the coast from Georgetown, destined for the Abary River. This is an excellent start to the tour: an easy stroll along the mangroves, with several special birds to be found. Thankfully a breeze helped keep the bulk of the mosquitos at bay (but not all of them!). We started with an easy pair of Rufous Crab Hawks as we were eating breakfast, and as we continued to walk down the dirt track, the action continued with excellent views of a male White-bellied Piculet, a couple Blood-colored Woodpeckers, and Pale-tipped Inezia among the more common species. We made it all the way to the coast, where there was little activity on the mudflats, so we started heading back to Georgetown.

Our first few stops on the way back didn’t produce much, but we hit some nice activity at the Ogle seawall: we were treated to several close fly-bys of the unbelievably bright Scarlet Ibis among the hundreds of Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets, and picked up a few coastal birds to pad the trip list like Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican, and Magnificent Frigatebird.

After lunch at the hotel and a quick break, we headed back out in the afternoon for the Georgetown Botanical Gardens, which are always very birdy and provide an excellent introduction to the more common species of Guyana. Highlights here included scope studies of Wing-barred Seedeater and Festive Parrot, although we could not find the calling Great Horned Owl that seemed so close.

After a slightly later breakfast on our second day, we were off to the Ogle airport for our flight to the interior. On the way, we checked the Ogle seawall yet again, where the tide was perfect. A full scan produced exactly 100 (!) Scarlet Ibis dotting the mudflats – repeat views of this stunner are always appreciated. Our hour-and-a-half flight allowed us to appreciate just how unspoiled the rainforest is in Guyana; we passed over miles and miles of forest with no disturbance, and we landed at the Surama airstrip full of anticipation and excitement for the coming days. 

In the heat of the day, there wasn’t much to be seen along the drive to Iwokrama, but as we were getting close to our destination the shout went up for a Trumpeter scurrying off the side of the road! With some patience, we all enjoyed excellent views of a couple Gray-winged Trumpeters moving along the forest floor, a highly sought-after target species for Pat especially. Our accommodation at Iwokrama River Lodge is very comfortable, with 24-hour electricity, wifi, good food, and a lovely view over the Essequibo River. We headed out on the access road in the afternoon, and although activity was fairly slow, we enjoyed a taste of what the area has to offer: a fruiting tree held beautiful Green Aracaris, a pair of Blue-cheeked Parrots perched up in the scope, and a Barred Forest-Falcon flew over us as dusk fell.

After a delicious dinner, we headed out for a boat ride on the Essequibo River. Although we couldn’t find any potoos, we scored our only Capped Heron of the trip, along with Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Common Pauraque, and a White-tailed Nightjar on the lodge lawn. Non-bird sightings included Spectacled Caiman and a couple Amazonian Tree Boas

Anticipation was high for our first morning in the forest. Our plan was to bird along the Turtle Mountain trail, without a particular goal of reaching the top, but instead taking our time with all the new birds on the way. It was pleasantly cool, helped by an overcast sky and some occasional drizzle. This was our first chance to study mixed flocks in the understory: Dusky-throated and Cinereous Antshrikes plus Brown-bellied, Rufous-bellied, and White-flanked Antwrens performed well, and we were particularly entertained by some very oblivious Black-chinned Antbirds hopping around nearly at our feet. A pair of Yellow-billed Jacamars perched for scope views, and Fasciated and Amazonian Antshrikes came in for some decent glimpses. The undoubted highlight, however, was once we reached the small clearing along the trail: we heard some Red-fan Parrots calling, which soon flew up into a tall dead tree for scope views. You’d think that might be a nice enough treat, but the fun didn’t end there. A fruiting bush at the edge of the clearing, only a few meters tall, was the target of the parrots’ attention. At least five individuals flew down into the bush, not twenty feet away and nearly at eye level, intensely gobbling up berries and completely oblivious to the group of astonished birders nearby! It was a truly exceptional experience, allowing us to soak in the beautiful purple and blue scaling on the belly along with the flashy crest.

The afternoon saw us birding along the access road again, but this time we hit the main road and headed south in a pickup truck towards some white sand forest. Our target here was Red-billed Woodcreeper, a large and rare woodcreeper that can be quite difficult to find. Within a few minutes, one responded to our playback and flew in for lovely views. We also enjoyed some nice Red-and-green and Scarlet Macaws, and our only Grayish Mourners of the trip.

The next morning we set out for one of the star birds of the region, the bizarre and unique Capuchinbird. There is a lek of these strange creatures only a fifteen-minute hike from the lodge, along the unsettlingly-named Bushmaster Trail. So off we went, and we were quickly craning our necked into the canopy at displaying Capuchinbirds, complete with their orange puffs on the rump and alien-like mooing call. After soaking them in for a while, we walked a few minutes down the trail and I decided to try playing Spotted Antpitta in the area we saw one last year. Sure enough, one quickly started singing back, although it took some patience before it came into view. After quietly shuffling around and straining for some quick views, the unexpected happened: this normally shy denizen of the forest floor perched up only thirty feet away, about a meter off the ground, and started singing…over and over again…five minutes…ten…twenty minutes! An antpitta perched up, frame-filling in the scope, for twenty minutes. How often does that happen!?

We spent the rest of our pre-lunch time on the Woodcreeper Trail close to the lodge. Surely one of the most exciting aspects of birding the Neotropics is the antswarm phenomenon, with many species of antbirds and woodcreepers (among others) almost exclusively found at such events. So we were thrilled when we stopped on the trail and realized our feet were covered in ants – we backed up, brushed off the little devils, and waited. Quickly we were treated to close stunning views of a few White-plumed Antbirds, one of my favorites, along with Scale-backed and Guianan Warbling-Antbirds plus Plain-brown and Amazonian Barred Woodcreepers.

Now, anyone with an infallible sense of optimism and perhaps a touch of insanity might hope that a ground-cuckoo will pop out of the undergrowth at an antswarm. These mythical creatures are rare everywhere; they are stealthy, seldom-seen, and spectacular. With cautious optimism, I hit the tape for Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo, warning the group that the chances for this bird were very, very slim.

And then one sang back.

A wave of silence fell over our group, and we stood like statues on the trail, hoping against hope that we might catch a glimpse of this incredible bird. It kept singing, but wasn’t getting any closer. We peered harder into the tangles, and I happened to glance up the trail. THERE IT WAS. Must have been the other member of the pair; the first bird was still singing. She stood in the trail for a split second, and dashed away…before anyone else got on it. Leader-only birds are never fun, but this one made my heart sink like lead. I felt a little nauseous. We waited and waited, but the singing male fell silent and we caught nary a glimpse of movement on the forest floor.

I wouldn’t have told this whole story if it didn’t have a happy ending. We headed back to the lodge for lunch and a brief mid-day siesta, but I suggested we try again for the ground-cuckoo before our afternoon boat trip. Everyone agreed, of course, even though second chances for this bird are even slimmer than first chances. Back to the spot. Hit the tape. Maybe 30 seconds pass…and we hear bill snaps…this might work! Five minutes of waiting in silence, our eyes glued on the trail. Suddenly, just like before, in the exact same spot… THERE IT IS! RUFOUS-WINGED GROUND-CUCKOO! We all saw it this time, quickly moving across the trail, and then disappearing forever. Amazing.

The rest of the evening was spent on a boat, enjoying a pair of Sunbitterns and Cream-colored Woodpeckers at a spot called Stanley Lake. We had some serious rain on the way back to the lodge, but managed to stay relatively dry with our umbrella shields, and went to sleep with heads spinning from a remarkable day.
Day five was a transfer day, so after breakfast at Iwokrama, we loaded up our vehicle and headed south towards Atta Lodge. We stopped a few times on the roadside, with our first Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch and Reddish Hermit among others, but our main goal was to bird an area of white-sand forest called the Mori Scrub. There are some special birds here that we wouldn’t find elsewhere on the tour, and we did quite well, scoring most of our targets. Most cooperative was a Bronzy Jacamar which sat up for scope views, and we also had views of a few pairs of Red-shouldered Tanager and a flitty Rufous-crowned Elaenia. Arriving at Atta mid-morning, we staked out the clearing before lunch but the Crimson Fruitcrow didn’t pass through. Things were quiet, so we decided to do a quick forest walk just before lunch. This was a good decision: in just a few minutes, we were soaking up full-frame scope views of a Black-faced Hawk!

After an afternoon siesta, we headed out the access road to the main road for a few hours of birding. Our sightings included a Black-banded Woodcreeper, Ferruginous-backed Antbird parading in front of us on the forest floor, a cute female Rose-breasted Chat, Scarlet Macaw, and finally a pair of Pompadour Cotingas – one of my favorite birds on this tour! What a highlight reel. Our hopes for White-winged Potoo at dusk were thwarted by some heavy rain, which didn’t want to stop in time for dusk, so we were forced to wait for another day.

Our first full day at Atta saw us at the famous Canopy Walkway in the morning, and although we didn’t have any mega flocks pass by, we did score some new species for the trip like Black-eared Fairy, Guianan Puffbird, and Golden-collared and Ringed Woodpeckers. After a few hours in the canopy, we headed back down to the trails, where some rain forced us back to the lodge at a few points. Despite the rain, we hit a few good flocks, giving us Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleaner and Long-winged Antwren among others!

The rain kept coming, but we managed to squeeze in a couple hours of birding along the main road after lunch – but not before some more Gray-winged Trumpeters entertained us along the entrance track. We studied the multitudes of swifts coursing low over the road, allowing us to distinguish a couple Short-tailed and at least one Gray-rumped Swift among the dozens of Band-rumps. Green-tailed and Paradise Jacamars were both new for the trip, but we were eagerly awaiting dusk, crossing our fingers that the break in the rain would continue for just long enough to allow for some potoo-watching. And it sure did – it took a while, but finally a White-winged Potoo flew over the road and landed on a snag, allowing good (but brief) views before it took off again and melted into the forest.

The next morning felt a little more difficult. We staked out a small bridge near the lodge for Crimson Topaz, but road “improvements” (read: widening and clearing) meant that the hummingbird was nowhere around. A Riverbank Warbler sang from the dense thicket, but refused to show itself. A Red-and-black Grosbeak sang in the distance, but never came closer. Then the rain hit, and we waited it out at the lodge for a little while before heading towards a small patch of white-sand forest before lunch. We were hoping to clean up a few species we’d missed so far, and we scored 50/50: everyone saw Black Manakin quite well, but Olivaceous Schiffornis remained heard-only. However, the sun was really coming out for the first time in a few days, and it seemed like suddenly raptors were everywhere. Multiple King Vultures, a confusing young Double-toothed Kite, plenty of Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, a Black Caracara, and a stunning White Hawk were all enjoyed from the road – a nice pick-me-up before lunch!

Spending some time in the clearing after lunch was yet again unproductive for Crimson Fruitcrow, but Andrew spotted a snazzy Golden-green Woodpecker perched on a Cercropia – our only one for the trip. By now, our list of targets in this area was getting shorter and shorter, with one remaining bird standing out in particular: Black-throated Antshrike. This was a lifer for everybody in the group, but it’s quite difficult to see, so we put some effort in on the trails. We finally connected with a female of this hefty, large-billed antshrike – success! Our evening vigil at the Canopy Walkway was plagued by more rain and mist, not allowing for very good visibility, so we tucked into another delicious dinner at the lodge and looked forward to exploring some new areas tomorrow.

We only had a couple hours in the morning at Atta Lodge before our transfer to Surama, but we connected with a stunning Chestnut Woodpecker and another pair of stealthy Black-throated Antshrikes before we departed. We stopped along the way at the Cock-of-the-rock trail, surely one of the highlights of the tour. It’s a quick fifteen-minute walk to the lek, and as we approached a female Guianan Cock-of-the-rock flushed out from somewhere among the rocks and landed in full view – this was a good sign for us, because it caused the attendant male to go absolutely crazy! Squealing, flopping on the floor, hanging upside down from vines…we enjoyed his antics, and even after the female disappeared, he stuck around for prolonged views, filling the scope with exceptional color and some bizarre plumage.

Satisfied, we continued towards Surama without any more anticipated stops. As we were getting further and further from Atta Lodge, I assumed that Crimson Fruitcrow was no longer in the cards – Atta is by far the best spot for this wonderful species, but we just got unlucky and missed it during our three days there. So imagine my surprise when, along the roadside, we spotted a big and beautiful Crimson Fruitcrow perched in a Cercropia!! Even more surprising was once we stopped: the bird was incredibly friendly, flying from tree to tree, in full view, only a few meters away, sitting still for plenty of photos and exceptional looks. How many frame-filling scope views of rare birds can we get on this trip?!

After settling in at Surama, we enjoyed a simply lovely afternoon birding the nearby savannah. This was our first taste of this habitat, so many new birds abounded. We started with a roosting Great Potoo and continued to Streaked Flycatcher, Striped Woodcreeper, Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Gray Seedeater, Finsch’s Euphonia, and even a becard-like White-naped Xenopsaris! As dusk fell, we positioned ourselves at a good spot overlooking a patch of savannah, and we studied the differences between Least and Lesser Nighthawks as they flew around over our heads – an excellent way to end an exquisite day.

Our full day at Surama started on the Burro-Burro River trail, where a mix of savannah and forest gives a wide variety of species. We saw Gray-winged Trumpeter (again!!), finally caught up with a flock of Cayenne Jays after a couple frustrating heard-only encounters, and scoped a singing Black-tailed Trogon, a male Pompadour Cotinga, and a distant Golden-bellied Euphonias. The forest was fairly quiet, so we spent a bit of time in the savannah before lunch, where Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch and Grassland Sparrow cooperated nicely and we studied the differences between Yellow-bellied, Plain-crested, and Lesser Elaenias – mostly vocal differences, that is! Our last new bird for the morning was an Ocellated Crake that burst out of the grasses for a brief couple seconds, only seen by part of the group, but bringing our morning tally close to 100 species.

Our boat trip on the Burro-Burro River after lunch was strangely quiet; parrots were flying over including Blue-cheeked and Black-headed among the many Blue-headeds, and there were quite a few large woodpeckers around: several pairs of Lineated and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers gave us some nice views. Shockingly we saw no kingfishers and few other surprises, so we set our sights on a dusk vigil at the edge of the forest. As the light faded, the voices of tinamous started to rise from the gloom. We started with Red-legged, calling close and loud, and then a few Great Tinamous sounded off. A few minutes later: Variegated. A couple minutes after that? Cinereous, too! And once night truly fell, we heard a Little Tinamou. Five species in a half hour, all calling quite close and loud. This was truly an exceptional way to learn the tinamou voices, and especially appreciated by Pat, who had been studying these hard before the trip! We capped off the night with close views of Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl, a lifer for the whole group.

We said farewell to Surama the next morning, but before we arrived at our next lodge, we set our sights on another inconspicuous trail into the forest. This one leads to an active Harpy Eagle nest, where a 10-month-old juvenile was awaiting us. This iconic bird was surely worth every second of the hour we spent watching him; his massive feet were particularly impressive as he flew from limb to limb. And how could I forget the roosting Long-tailed Potoo along the trail?

After this exciting hike, we continued on to Rockview Lodge, our last destination on the tour. We were welcomed with a tasty lunch and comfortable hammocks to rest during the heat of the day; we then headed south to Ginep Landing for some afternoon birding. There wasn’t a ton of activity but a showy pair of Spotted Puffbirds were appreciated by everyone, as was a large and boldly patterned snake (which remains unidentified). As dusk fell, we scanned the river for nighthawks, spotting a couple Lesser Nighthawks first and then a pair of our target Band-tailed Nighthawks flew right past us! Another productive dusk, and we headed back to the lodge for dinner and some rest before our last full day of birding.

Our full day around Rockview gave us a new suite of savannah species, starting in the dry scrubby forest along the Panorama Trail. White-bellied Antbird was incredibly difficult to coax into view this year, but we managed a few glimpses. A female or young male Blue-backed Manakin paused overhead for a few seconds, and we came upon a flock with Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-olive and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. Brown-throated Parakeets flew overhead, Northern Slaty-Antshrikes hopped through the undergrowth, and we enjoyed some nice views of Buff-breasted and Bicolored Wrens. Back at the lodge, a few of us caught glimpses of Orange-backed Troupial and Burnished-buff Tanagers around the gardens before our late-morning drive through the savannah that produced Jabiru, Savannah Hawk, plenty of stunning Fork-tailed Flycatchers, and flocks of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters. After our afternoon siesta, we embarked on a longer walk past the airstrip behind the lodge. We had numerous great views of Fork-tailed Flycatcher (I never get tired of these!), Buff-necked Ibis, Plumbeous Seedeater, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. We tried yet another dusk vigil, this time for Double-striped Thick-knee and Nacunda Nighthawk, both of which gave great views, the latter among ample Lesser and Least Nighthawks – an excellent study!

Day twelve is mostly a transfer day; we left Rockview early and headed towards Lethem for our flight back to Georgetown, but not without a few stops first! A King Vulture on the ground was unusual, and we crossed paths with a few flocks of Crested Bobwhites scurrying across the road. A roadside wetland produced a single Capybara and our only two Maguari Storks of the trip, along with Yellow-billed Tern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Jabiru, and a distant White-tailed Kite. The rest of the drive was quick save for dozens of Grassland Yellow-Finches flushing off the road. Our flight back to Ogle airport was nice and smooth, and we made it back to the Cara Lodge in time for a delicious lunch. A few hours in the Georgetown Botanical Gardens in the afternoon let us clean up a few missing species: great views of Cinnamon Attila, Great Horned Owl, and Little Cuckoo were especially appreciated in this active city park. And with that, we headed back to the hotel for our farewell dinner, where we recounted the memories of a fabulous tour in a fabulous country. It was truly an exceptional trip with a great, easygoing group and too many amazing sightings to list! 

—Luke Seitz

Created: 08 February 2017