FW: Venezuela 2

To: birding-aus <>, "Sabirdnet ( " <>, "Birdchat " <>
Subject: FW: Venezuela 2
From: Vader Willem Jan Marinus <>
Date: Tue, 17 Feb 2015 10:43:13 +0000
Dear all

                   Here is a short report on my latest birding tour. This time 
it was a VENT-tour to Venezuela, billed as 'an easy and relaxed tour' and led 
by the Venezuelan David Ascanio. This was a short tour, only a little more than 
a week, with basically only two places, Casa Maria in 2 nights and Hato Piñero 
in 4, in addition we spent the first and last night in two different hotels in 
Caracas, and as almost always when there is jet lag involved, I arrived one day 
early in Caracas. The group consisted of 8 people, all exept me Americans, plus 
leader David Ascanio, and his 'samboer', young Desiree Starke.

                              David Ascanio, the guide (48 this week) was 
altogether excellent, both as a bird guide, as well as as guide to understand 
his country, which he clearly loved dearly and which is in considerable trouble 
nowadays. He told very openly and in detail about that; he disagreed with the 
present government (Maduro is a follower of the late Chavez, but without his 
charisma),but also thought that the present opposition had little to commend 
them. Chavez is still present in lots of billboards (hardly any of Madura), and 
everything is 'Bolivarian', from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela' to the 
'Bolivarian' police and buses. There are surprisingly many well-armed soldiers 
along the roads (usually two at a time), but not all that many checkpoints and 
our bus was in addition waved through at most of them. Venezuela has 26 million 
inhabitants, of which far more than half live in the five largest cities (all 
near the coast) and 7 million in Caracas alone. That city is considered very 
dangerous and crime-ridden, but we noticed that only indirectly: when we the 
first day walked from the hotel to a nearby park (with macaws) David collected 
all ur field glasses in his backpack until we were in the park proper. Caracas 
is also a place where the traffic is almost constantly gridlocked, while the 
drivers try to get on every which way, never mind rules or traffic lights. The 
reason for the vast amount of cars on the road (with hordes of light 
motorcycles weaving among all the cars) is that petrol is almost free: David 
told me that he could drive a whole year for a few dollars, and when I was with 
a guy who filled his tank, I saw he paid the equivalent of 4 or 5 cents for a 
whole tank! The government had decided 17 years ago to make the petrol cheap, 
in order to help the poor, and since then the price had remained constant, even 
though there had been heavy inflation of the bolivar, now ca 100 to a dollar. 
We traveled in a roomy bus, about 3 hours to Casa Maria, another 4 hours to 
Hato Piñero and ca 8 hrs back from there to Caracas.

                               I arrived in Caracas in the late afternoon, and 
was brought to a hotel in between many skyscrapers, a room on the 13th floor. 
When I looked out of the window, I was surprised to see many large macaws on a 
neighbouring roof. These were Blue-and-yellow Macaws, which I had first seen a 
few months ago in the Pantanal in Brazil. Here it turns out that they have been 
introduced. But  the next morning, from the roof  restaurant, we also saw some 
smaller macaws, Chestnut-fronted, fly over and these are indigenous and also 
life birds for me. David had offered an extra tour to me, and Richard and 
Regina, and this was up the steep sides of the Coastal cordillera, to about 
2500m a.s.l.; these hillsides are entirely forested and constitute El Avila NP. 
The area turned out quite birdy and we had a fruitful day. As usual here 
tanagers were much to the fore, as were N. American migrant warblers. there 
were thrushes and vireos, various tyrants, among them the Venezuelan Tyrant, 
and as more spectacular elements an antpitta, a fruiteater, and the colourful 
and impressive Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, all birds we did not see later on 
the trip, when we never were at the same height.

                                   That day the rest of the group arrived, and 
the next morning our roomy bus brought us to our next destination, Casa Maria, 
again in the Coastal Cordillera, but at 1500m. Here it was often foggy or even 
drizzly, and less hot that elsewhere in Venezuela. This turned out to be an 
extremely hospitable 'home away from home'. The owners, Germans Norbert and 
Gaby, with their adopted Yanomame Indian daughter, had made the place into a 
veritable little paradise (Norbert is very big on reforestation, among his many 
other passions). There were small chalets several places on the grounds (but I 
had a room high up in the main building), and there were various pets: Three 
frisky but friendly dogs, several Peacocks, a magnificent Yellow-knobbed 
Curassow, who whistled his 'falling-bomb' whistle all day (poor guy must have 
been lonely), and also a parrot. Also the wild chachalacas were so tame that 
they ate bananas from Norbert's hand. Gaby delighted in cooking and trying out 
new things (the hosts ate with us), and she i.a. had also concocted new jams 
from the local fruits. In the garden there was a.o. a gauze contraption with a 
very strong light inside, built to attract insects (Norbert is primarily an 
entomologist), but which also attracted birds in the early morning, feeding on 
these insects. Here we saw several woodcreepers and tanagers, as well as 
various flycatchers. Walks through the forest, here and a few hundred meters 
higher up, yielded many more birds, i.a. an impressive Ornate Hawk Eagle high 
up in the air, the brilliant jacamars, and the funny Groove-billed Toucanets, 
in addition to various foliage gleaners, spinetails and tyrannulets. At the 
house banana feeders attracted colourful tanagers and euphonias, as well as the 
raucous chachalacas. A very special occasion one day was the observation of a 
'rolling front' of army ants (animals that figured often in my boys' books, but 
which I had never seen so well). David demonstrated courageouly that by 
standing stock still the ants would just move around him, while all around 
spiders and insects tried in panic to flee, in many cases only to be gobbled up 
by the attending birds (woodcreepers, antbirds, Grey-headed Tanager).

 We were two nights at Casa Maria (including one evening a show of Norbert's 
most impressive 3D macrophotographs), but then reluctantly had to leave and 
drive into the llanos to our final and 4 nights destinaion, Hato Piñero. This 
is an enormous cattle ranch, started by a rich man, who wanted to keep it as 
much as possible in its original state (he earned his large amounts of money 
elesewhere), but which a few years after his death has been taken over by the 
government, in Venezuela a somewhat uncertain status. The area must be explored 
by vehicle, because jaguars and pumas do not make it advisable to go there on 
foot, and we did practically all of our birding from an open safari vehicle, 
usually with 3-4 hrs bouts both morning and afternoon, on two days till after 
dark. This is primarily a cattle ranch (Brahma cattle), so there are large 
amounts of grassland, but there is also much dry forest, and narrow fringes of 
woodland along the dirt roads connecting the patches of forest. Parts of all 
this is seasonally flooded in the wet, but now it was extra dry (El Niño year!) 
and there were only smaller and larger lagoons left. When these were in the 
forest, they invariably had numbers of the most peculiar Hoatzins, quite 
prehistoric-looking large lumbering birds. There also always were various 
herons and ibises, Grey-necked Wood Rails, and my particular favourite (and a 
main reason for coming on this trip), the super stylish Sun Bittern. This bird 
turned out to be quite common here (we saw at least ten in the end), but I am 
very happy to be able to report that I found the first one myself! This one 
even threatened a nearby dove with stretching out its sunburst-patterned wings 
suddenly (the dove flew away); the Sun Bitterns invariably walked on the banks 
of the lagoons and streamlets, but never in the water. Another constant feature 
of the lagoons were the large and dozy capybaras; one time we heard them bark 
shrilly in alarm---a sign a jaguar was nearby, said David---, and they all 
retreated to the middle of the lagoon, with only the heads sticking out.

A large lagoon in more open grassland was  framed by hundreds of Black-bellied 
Whistling Ducks (perusal of the flocks unearthed a few White-faced Whistling 
Ducks); here there were also Stilts and even two colourful Large-billed Terns, 
as well as a number of shorebirds and a pair of the queer Horned Screamers, one 
of my many life birds this trip. When we had our picnic dinner here at dusk, 
flocks of radiant Scarlet Ibises flew past, no doubt on their way to a roost, 
accompanied by a single White Ibis and a Roseate Spoonbill (There were many 
species of ibises her, with as the most impressive to me Green Ibises along a 
forest lagoon, glistening green in the sunlight). When dark fell, nightjars and 
nighthawks came out, and we also heard a Great Horned Owl hoot.

   The facilities at Hato Piñero were quite adequate, but with nothing of the  
special care we got at Casa Maria. The rooms had AC, but of an antiquated and 
very loud variety (Fortunately this is one of the few occasions where my 
hearing problems are of help). I had a large rooms with two beds, heavy 
mattresses on stone sockets. One night my bed was invaded by minuscule, but 
somewhat aggressive ants. I moved to the other bed, but was woken up a few 
hours later by being stung repeatedly---the ants had found me also there. In 
the end I took one of the mattresses and put it on the ground in the opposite 
corner, and amazingly , the ants stayed away for the rest of the night. They 
were somehow eradicated the next day by the hosts.

As I said, we were generally not to come down from the vehicle.  One day David 
asked us to come down, in order to try to find the diminutive, but cozy 
White-throated Spadebill. But no sooner had we found our places around him, or 
we heard an ominous growling, the Jaguar! David herded us as quickly as 
possible back onto the vehicle, and nobody got eaten.

After 4 nights here we returned to Caracas, an 8 hrs drive, and ended the tour 
at still another hotel in town. Many people left for the airport in the 
morning, but Barb, Mary Ellen and me had our flights in the afternoon, and 
David decided to take us birding for a last fling in the vicinity of the 
Ecological Gardens (built around the former house of William Phelps, the grand 
old man of Venezuelan ornithology). While we walked around there---and saw 
still another Brush Finch, the Ochre-breasted--, David happened to meet his old 
friend and mentor Leo, who, it turned out, had access to these gardens (which 
were closed until later in the day). This was a great stroke of luck, as this 
way we got to see a.o. some impressive and heavily visited hummingbird feeders 
and a beautifully reconstructed cloud forest. Later that day I was brought to 
the airport, where I was at first suspected of being one of those Dutch drug 
smugglers, before Desiree succeeded in convincing the Guardia of my innocence 
But it all ended well, and even my suitcase arrived in Odijk with only half a 
day delay.

                                                      Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum, 
9037 Tromsø, Norway


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