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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Guyana

2020 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Guyana is one of those special countries that is never monotonous, never disappointing. With a small population and relatively undisturbed habitat, it feels like we’re really birding in the wilderness, and nature can go about its business around us. This tour certainly lived up to expectations, beginning with coastal specialties like Blood-colored Woodpecker and Rufous Crab Hawk, continuing into the heart of the Iwokrama forest with an incredible antswarm (Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoos! White-plumed Antbirds!) and plenty of cotingas including the sought-after Crimson Fruitcrow and Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, and finishing in the savannah where our eyes nearly melted from Sun Parakeets and Red Siskins. Guyana certainly deserves to be at the top of every birders must-visit list!

IN DETAIL: Our first day of birding started out as usual, about an hour east of Georgetown, at a little dirt track that runs along some mangroves and scrubby forest. During our leisurely stroll here, we had great views of a number of specialties including Rufous Crab Hawk, Blood-colored Woodpecker and White-bellied Piculet, along with some more widespread goodies like Little Cuckoo and Spotted Tody-Flycatcher. Perhaps most surprising was a pair of White Woodpeckers, the first I’ve seen in Guyana and one of only a couple records in eBird for the country!

Keeping with the theme of rare-birds-for-the-country, we then stumbled upon a Western Reef-Heron along the Mahaica River on our way back to Georgetown – a first for Guyana and apparently only the second record for the entire continent of South America! This unmistakable heron looked perfectly at home among the throngs of Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons. A few other coastal stops produced a hefty number of shockingly red Scarlet Ibis on the mudflats along with some shorebirds to pad our list. After lunch at the hotel, we rounded out our day with some more easy birding at the Botanical Gardens in town, with Festive Amazon, Zone-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Toco Toucan, Red-shouldered Macaw, Cinnamon Attila, and Wing-barred Seedeater to keep us company.

Our charter flight the next morning took us from Georgetown to the legendary Kaieteur Falls, the largest single-drop waterfall in the world (by volume) and spectacularly tall as well (741 feet). Dare I say that birding here is a secondary priority to simply enjoying the scenery, but we couldn’t ignore the bizarre orange birds bouncing around in the forest…Guianan Cock-of-the-rock! At least four males were present at the lek, not to be outshined by the stunning Rufous-crowned Elaenia nearby. And let’s not forget the adorable Golden Rocket Frogs hiding in the bromeliads at the edge of the plateau – a stunning little frog, endemic just to the Kaieteur area (a range less than twenty square kilometers!).

Continuing on after some delicious chicken curry for lunch, we landed again in the heart of the country and made our way to the Iwokrama River Lodge, our base for two nights. Here, we explored the various trails, tracks, and waterways nearby by foot and boat. One of the highlights came on our first afternoon, when we finally (after quite some stress!) all enjoyed scope views of Capuchinbirds displaying in the canopy – their bizarre chainsaw-meets-cow vocalization serenading us (if you can call it that). Smashing views of a Spotted Antpitta nearby was icing on the cake. Our other main activity at Iwokrama was a hike up Turtle Mountain, which was challenging and productive. Surely the highlight was a small antswarm with a very sneaky pair of Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoos in attendance (but more on these later…), and other highlights included White Hawk, Green-backed and Black-throated Trogons, Yellow-billed and Great Jacamars, quick views of Spot-tailed and Todd’s Antwrens in the subcanopy, a pair of Dusky Purpletuft at the summit, and a pair of Red-and-black Grosbeaks seen quite well along the trail. Not bad for our first full day of birding in the forest!

From Iwokrama (with Red-necked and Waved Woodpeckers as a parting gift!) we headed south to Surama, a community-run eco-lodge situated at the edge of the forest and savannah. Along the way we were sure to stop at a roost site for Rufous Potoo, a rare and local species that was found here only last year by some incredibly sharp local birders. We also did some birding in nearby white-sand forest, where Black Manakins played hard to get but we found a very friendly Bronzy Jacamar!

Our two days at Surama were split between savannah, forest, and a long boat ride on the Burro-Burro River. Although that excursion regrettably did not produce the immature Harpy Eagle (now ranging quite far from the nest and thus much less reliable!), we felt like we had to give it a shot. A consolation prize was a stunning view of an adult Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle along the river, plus Blue-throated Piping-Guan, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Guianan Trogon, lots of kingfishers including great views of Green-and-rufous, Green-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Caracara, and Purple-throated Fruitcrow among others. We stayed out until just past dusk and tried for Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl, which was amazingly cooperative, perching just over our heads in full view! Closer to the lodge, the savannah produced excellent studies of Lesser, Plain-crested, and Yellow-bellied Elaenias, a roosting Great Potoo, and Least and Lesser Nighthawks.

Our next port of call was Atta Lodge, situated within incredible forest and home to some spectacular birding. We stayed here for three nights, which seemed to be a good call given the richness of the surrounding trails and roadsides. Where to begin on the highlight reel? First, as we were driving to the lodge, a JAGUAR crossed the road in front of the van. It wasn’t close, but still…not too shabby! Then, within an hour of arriving, one of the most sought-after birds of Atta put in an appearance – Crimson Fruitcrow! But there was plenty more to come. A fruiting tree at the edge of the lodge clearing gave us a whole suite of cotingas over the coming days – Pompadour, Purple-breasted, and Spangled along with Purple-throated Fruitcrows and Screaming Pihas. Black Curassows fed at spitting distance just outside the dining room, while nearby trails produced Black-faced Hawk and mixed flocks with Paradise and Yellow-backed Tanagers, Guianan Woodcreeper, Ash-winged Antwren, Buff-cheeked Greenlet, Guianan Tyrannulet, and more! Roadside birding near the lodge produced a whole new suite of birds, including such highlights as Blue-cheeked Amazon, Black-headed and Red-fan Parrots, Crimson Topaz, Long-tailed Tyrant, Rose-breasted Chat, and even the rare and sought-after White-winged Potoo at dusk!

The undeniable highlight of our time at Atta, however, was a spectacular antswarm that Henning found during one of our post-lunch breaks. Antswarms seem to be getting harder to find across the Neotropics, and each one deserves to be savored – which we certainly did, as we were able to revisit the swarm over two days and enjoy the attendant birds! Finally, we all were able to see Gray-winged Trumpeters crashing around the understory. Black-banded, Plain-brown, and Amazonian Barred Woodcreepers foraged for larger invertebrates flushed by the ants, sometimes dropping right down to the ground! Strange and beautiful White-plumed Antbirds were in attendance, with their snazzy hairdos, along with the more understated (but more local!) Rufous-throated Antbirds. The real stars, however, were two amazing Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoos! They paraded around in front of us, giving full and prolonged views at all angles, allowing us to soak in the details of their iridescent plumage and red facial skin. Over and over again. For more than an hour. I can’t reiterate enough: this was not a typical ground-cuckoo experience…even at an antswarm! We were giving directions to other birds in relation to the ground-cuckoos…”the White-plumed is just two feet left of the ground-cuckoo…” and needless to say, it was very hard to pull ourselves away for lunch. What a staggering experience!

Atta marked the end of our forest birding; from there we headed south into the Rupununi savannah for several days of open-country birding. First up was the Caiman House, where our main targets fell quite easily: Crested Doradito gave stunning views just a few feet in front of us, Bearded Tachuri perched up in the scope, and Pinnated Bitterns flushed up from one of the few remaining wetlands. It was a very dry year in the savannah, so there weren’t a ton of waterbirds around, although we did enjoy some nice birding in scrubby forest with White-bellied Antbird and Blue-backed Manakin. We also enjoyed some time on the Rupununi River with the sleek Capped Heron and good studies of Band-tailed Nighthawk.

Our last couple days were a whirlwind of rare and local specialties. A very early departure from the Caiman House took us to the village of Karasabai, one of the last remaining strongholds of Sun Parakeet. Patience paid off, and eventually we enjoyed scope views of over twenty of these stunning birds feeding on a hillside. Awesome! The next day, we headed in the opposite direction, deeper into the savannah to look for Red Siskin. The long and bumpy ride took us to some hills near the village of Sand Creek, where our local guides instructed us to wait patiently and eventually the siskins would show up. This always causes some stress, but never fear: it didn’t take too long before a bright male Red Siskin perched atop a tree and sung his little heart out for ten minutes. Great scope views again. Phew! We then had the rest of the day to check out the sprawling savannah, where highlights included Laughing Falcon, White-barred Piculet, Sharp-tailed Ibis, Double-striped Thick-knee, Spotted Puffbird, White-fringed Antwren, and Gray and Plumbeous Seedeaters. Particularly delightful was our lunch spot at Wichabai Ranch – by far the best meal of the trip, plus a nice wetland to keep us occupied on the bird front. We topped off the day with White-naped Xenopsaris, more Bearded Tachuris, and a huge feeding aggregation of Jabiru, Wood Stork, and Maguari Stork. It was an exhausting day but very productive!

Our tour was almost over, but one last morning of birding near Manari Ranch gave us a few final specialties. We started with the attractive and range-restricted Hoary-throated Spinetail which gave remarkably good views in the thickets. We had to search a bit harder for Rio Branco Antbird, which had apparently been quite difficult of late, but we eventually connected with a male that came within just a few feet of us as we tried to follow it sneaking around. Satisfied with the main targets (and some bonus Giant River Otters!), we made a quick stop at a wetland which held the unpredictable Masked Duck along with lots of Least and Pied-billed Grebes, Snail Kites, and Purple Gallinules.

And suddenly it was time to pack up, enjoy a final lunch at Manari Ranch, and fly back to Georgetown. Guyana never fails to disappoint with its beautiful habitat, special birds, excellent local guides and lodge staff, and tasty food. This trip surely continued that trend and I’m sure we all parted ways full of memorable experiences. Until next time!

- Luke Seitz

Created: 18 April 2020