Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Rounding Off Guyana

It's been an age since I had time to finish off the Guyana trip, so here's the final part of the story...

From Kaieteur, we headed back towards the coast for an overnight stop at Baganara Island. This wasn't really my kind of place - more the sort of place people go to show off - but it was nice and peaceful and the different habitat gave us some new birds to look at. We headed out by boat on the evening to an amazing island of mangroves where several hundred Orange-winged Parrots came in to roost - quite a site, and quite a racket too! The following morning there was time to walk some open, scrubby grassland which proved to be good for Ash-throated Crakes and I found the only Bran-coloured Flycatcher of the trip. Spotted Sandpipers and South American Snipe really looked out of place feeding on the lawns, along with more-expected Collared Plovers and Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters.

Baganara Island - a little less lawn and a little more nice habitat could make this a real heaven-on-earth place to visit.

Collared Plovers graced the lawns at Baganara Island.

This Common Tody-flycatcher couldn't resist peering at me as I sheltered in the bushes from a passing rain shower.

From Baganara, we headed downriver, passing Eddie Grant's house on the way! We stopped close to the coast then transferred by road to Georgetown and had a couple of hours walking around the
Botanic Gardens. This was actually just a park, but it proved to be a nice place to finish off, with a good range of generalist species, a number of which were new for our lists. I hadn't realised that the final dinner included a full-on press conference with TV and newspaper coverage!! We were called upon to talk to a number of dignitaries about the future of tourism in Guyana, something which is a relatively new venture for them and something for which there is still time to get the balance right and not go down the route of so many other countries...

Not exactly the showiest of Guyana's birds, Pale-breasted Thrushes were common at the botanic gardens.

Social Flycatcher hanging out on its own!

Wattled Jacanas are common throughout much of the Neotropics and stomped around on floating vegetation at the botanic gardens.

Female Crimson-crested Woodpecker looks for lunch.

The Sacred Lotus grows abundantly in ditches around Georgetown, having been introduced from Asia. The species has a special place in the minds of many people and always makes for interesting photo opportunities. This is a ripe seed head.

Sacred Lotus flower

Yellow-bellied Elaenia was the last species to be added to our trip list.

Ruddy Ground-doves were very common around the coastal strip and often seen in sizeable feeding parties. These seven males and one female were part of a flock of over 40 in the botanic gardens.

We had seen the Amazonian Water-lilies in their white, first-night colours; now finally we saw some flushed pink and getting ready to open in the evening to release the beetles entrapped for the day within.

Time to reflect on an awesome trip (and think about the drive home from New York!!).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kaieteur Falls

Departing from Iwokrama Forest by plane, we had one major appointment which we had postponed on the way out due to bad weather. And what an appointment it was! Flying north-west from Iwokrama, the land gradually became more hilly, more rocky. Still the area was rainforest to the horizon, broken just occasionally by some very remote gold mines along some of the smaller waterways. Suddenly, we were turning sharply and there, out of the port windows was one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls - Kaieteur. The pilot did us proud, making two passes so that everyone got a chance to take a picture out of their window (though Muggins here had landed the seat with the wing strut in the way!) Information on Kaieteur Falls seems rather conflicting and confused; it is often called the world's highest single-drop waterfall, though it isn't. What it does have is an impressive combination of height and volume of waterflow which puts it well up into the spectacular bracket for most people. The long drop of the falls has been measured at 226 meters (741 feet); adding on the cascades at the bottom, the total drop becomes 251 meters (822 feet) which puts it almost five times the height of Niagara Falls and about twice the height of Victoria Falls. For me though, what makes Kaiteur Falls so special is not the statistics but the location.

Kaieteur Falls is probably the greatest tourist attraction in Guyana (depends on your interests of course, some people may prefer the rum distilleries!) and yet, when you visit, you may be the only group to go there that week! This makes it a very special place indeed in this overcrowded world of ours. There is no entrance gate (- no entrance fee!), no queue to get in, nobody walking in front of you just as you press the shutter on the camera. There's not even a road to it - yes that old chestnut "You can't get there from here" almost rings true for Kaieteur! Best of all, there is no litter from those hateful people who pop up everywhere and feel the need to ruin everything for everyone else. Just your group and the wildlife.

Tank bromeliad (Brocchinia micrantha) towering over its admirers!

We landed at the small airstrip and walked out to the first overlook - but our route was not without interest for the area has some spectacular tank bromeliads, massive plants that get most of their water needs by storing it in the leaf bases. Many bromeliads grow high up on the branches of rainforest trees but others are terrestrial (such as the Pineapple) and the Kaieteur bromeliads grow so large they would surely bring down any tree that they tried to grow on!

Looking into the heart of a bromeliad.

The bromeliads had a special treat for us in store too, for there is a wonderful little golden frog, about the same size as the top section of your thumb which lives in the bromeliads and I'm sure that their tadpoles do a good job feeding on mosquito larvae! This is Colostethus beebei, a species of frog related to the poison-dart frogs found throughout the Neotropics.

Another really special treat lies along the walk to Kaieteur Falls for those prepared to look. It's a species that we had seen several times already this trip but I had managed to get a photo - due to a combination of too many trees, poor light in the rainforest and the usual dice-roll in the unlucky stakes! Now was my turn though, for right in front of us was the most awesome pompom in dayglow orange, flaunting itself before us...

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock - one of the most stunning members of the cotinga family, a family which has more than its fair share of stunners!

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock males display themselves in arenas called leks. The leks are visited by females who pick their favourite, mate with them, then shy away to a large rock somewhere to raise a brood in a nest which is somewhat precariously stuck to the side of the rock face. When sunlight hits a male - you need your sunglasses on!

And so to the falls; the one tiny downside to the remoteness of Kaieteur is that you usually only get two hours there - so you have to get busy with the camera. Here's just a few of the ludicrously large number of pictures that I managed to cram into my time there!

First views, as the plane makes a photo pass of the falls.

View from the first overlook - we started from the furthest viewpoint and gradually worked closer. Note the tank bromeliad in the foreground.

Long-lens shot of the top of the falls.

Looking away from the falls over the tank bromeliads, the valley of the Potaro River cuts through the rocky plateau on its way to the coast. If you want to put a road in to the falls, this is what you're up against!

View from the second overlook.

Another view down the Potaro Valley. Coming to the falls by river is possible - but then you've got to find a way of climbing up through that lot if you want to visit the top of the falls!

Sunlight + mist from the falls = rainbow shots!

PLEASE DON'T DO THIS - WE DIDN'T!!!! OK, we're all very naughty children, but it was kind of special being somewhere without a ton of guard rails and barriers; it really is fun looking over the edge of an 800-foot drop!

Some of the USA's top bird tour guides and award-holding travel writers contemplate not coming back from Guyana! Not only is it 800 feet to the bottom, but this rock has a spectacular undercut!!

At the falls themselves - here's the view from the top of the falls - where the water just disappears over the edge!

Another view from the top, with the Potaro Valley and rising mist.

Standing on the very edge of the falls to get this shot looking straight down was something I might not do again in a hurry!

OK, I did do it again!

The parting shot; a farewell to Kaieteur Falls from the plane as we head to the coast and our last couple of days in Guyana...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Iwokrama Forest

Driving north from the Rupununi savanna, we were soon in a chain of low foothills. Passing through these, we entered the lowland rainforest again, this time entering the million or so acres of land that make up the Iwokrama Forest reserve. This is a spectacular reserve, crammed with everything you see on TV when they show you rainforest! Iwokrama is probably the best place in the world to see Jaguars in the wild - something we didn't manage on our whistle-stop familiarisation tour, but something I hope to see if I can get back there with a group. Our first stop was at the Atta Rainforest Lodge, a fabulous little place set in a forest clearing with Black Curassows wandering around on the lawn! Having checked into our rooms and got a few things sorted, we headed for the canopy walkway, a spectacular set of gantries and platforms that take you 90' up into the rainforest canopy for fabulous views and some good birding. It was dark by the time we got back to the lodge, but we'd all had plenty of rum and beers so no-one worried too much about what might be lurking out there as we found our way back along the trail!

Next morning saw us heading for the nearby main road to get a clear view of the trees and all the birds that were waking to a new dawn. Macaws, toucans and plenty of tanagers bustled everywhere we looked and an amazing purple and white Pompadour Cotinga added to the burgeoning list of cotingas we had been building. Guianan Toucanet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Black-eared Fairy, White-tailed Trogon, Black-necked Aracari, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Purple-throated Fruitcrow - the birds just kept coming. I took a short walk into the rainforest edge by the lodge at one point too and was soon greeted by a nice selection of antbirds, including Rufous-bellied and White-flanked Antwrens and a singing Guianan Warbling Antbird. We continued our journey north to the Iwokrama field station and a two-day stay at the river lodge. This was pretty luxurious we reckoned and a great place to feel like we were getting back to civilization (not necessarily a good thing!). The drive took us right through Iwokrama Forest and we made a good number of birding stops on the way. One of our best finds was a party of 11 Grey-winged Trumpeters feeding along the edge of the road. The river lodge gave us yet more spectacular birding in prime rainforest habitats, as well as some nice riverine habitats. Before heading back towards the coast, we visited the local butterfly farm. These farms are initiatives set up to provide employment for local people, whilst ensuring that the butterflies are not collected from the wild. Unfortunately, though intentions are good, certainly the latter objective is not met as it was clear from the guided tour we had that the butterflies are replenished regularly from the wild when disease or parasite problems cause the farm to fail. Given that the butterflies are only being farmed to supply similar facilities in the Western world (which are clearly themselves not sell-sustaining) it doesn't seem to me to be the best way to be treating these amazing creatures...

Anyway, here's some photos from Iwokrama..

Black Spider Monkeys are common in Iwokrama and we saw several troups during our stay. Like most wild monkeys, they're wary of Humans (can say I blame them!) so it's tough to get good, close pictures of them.

Another Black Spider Monkey gives us the eye - nice toupe!

The main route through Iwokrama Forest is the same dirt road to the coast that we had been travelling along on and off since we left Lethem.

Monkeys seem to be relatively common in Iwokrama and we were soon seeing several different species - this one is a Weeping Capuchin, which was busy having a light lunch of cecropia fruits.

Atta Rainforest Lodge proved to be a great place to see the impressive Black Currasow. These birds are about the size of a female Wild Turkey and, though they are truly wild birds, they seem to become habituated to humans fairly readily - as long as they're not shot for dinner!

Our main reason for visiting Atta Rainforest Lodge was to see the cleverly-designed canopy walkway that they have there. The walkway sits 90 feet up in the forest canopy and is designed such that not a single screw, bolt or nail is put into a tree to keep it in place. It relies entirely on cross-supports that pull against each other and hold it all in place. Apparently, the whole structure is checked every six months to allow for any growth in the tree girth and prevent it from cutting into the trunks. Oh and the incentive to go out there? That red cool box you can see on the platform has the beers in it!!

The ever-intrepid Megan strides out along the swaying walkway!

You can't have a good trip without a good guide and our main man on this trip was Wally Prince - a real gem, nice guy, great birder!

More of our group - yes, we all made it across to the cool box...

...and settled down to watch the sun set while the parrots flew off to their night roosts - awesome!

At Iwokrama River Lodge, the wide, open lawns beside the river have become favourite feeding sites for the wonderful little Pied Lapwings that breed on sandbars in the rivers throughout the country.

Another bird attracted to easy pickings around the lodge - Yellow-headed Caracara.

A boat trip to a bar across the river (yes, a bar with beers, not a sandbar!) gave us an opportunity to look for night wildlife on the way back. A Blackish Nightjar was our birding prize, but closer encounters were had of a number of reptiles and amphibians, including Schneider's Dwarf Caiman. Above is an eyeball to eyeball view of a Black Caiman that we found lurking at the edge of the river.

Most mornings started relatively cool, with whisps of mist drifting through the trees as the day slowly warmed after dawn.

If nothing else, the butterfly farm gave us a chance to photograph some of the flighty butterflies we had seen but not photographed in the murky depths of the rainforest. This is one of the Owl Butterflies - Caligo idomeneus.

Perhaps strangely from this shot, this blue, black and white butterfly is called a Red Cracker - but it is actually red underneath.

Our plane awaits! Having spent many years at the whim of international airline companies and international airports, it is pretty nice to be able to drive up to your plane, load your own bag on (knowing it hasn't been treated like a piece of junk by a couldn't-care-less baggage handler) and take off just as soon as your settled in and comfy!

Next post - the AWESOME Kaieteur Falls!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Rupununi & Rewa Lodge

From Yupukari, we continued our journey by boat along the Rupununi River, watching the world and its wildlife pass us by as a seemingly endless procession of Wood Storks, Cocoi Herons, Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, Ringed, Green and Amazon Kingfishers, Drab Water-tyrants (yes, there really is a bird called that!) and parties of Black Skimmers and Large-billed and Yellow-billed Terns entertained us. Eventually we arrived at Ginep Landing, from where we transfered to a very different form of transport - an ex-British Army Bedford truck! We bounced along a dirt track which is actually Guyana's only road that runs from the coast right into the interior as far as Lethem on the Brazilian border - some road! We rattled and shook, but still managed nice views of a range of good birds, a few monkeys and some fabulous scenery as we passed a range of low hills along the edge of the savanna. Eventually we made it to Annai, had a refreshing glass of home-made lemonade (well, a couple of Banks's Beer for some of us!) at Rock View Lodge then soon headed back to the river to resume our journey.

Another 50 miles on the river lay ahead of us and a little over two hours later we arrived at Rewa village. The villagers here had heard about these people called 'tourists' who would be interested in their rainforest and the wildlife that they lived amongst. So they took advice on building a 'lodge' (though they knew not what that was when they started!) and - so they told us - they waited for the tourists to arrive. For a year! No-one told them about advertising, they just were told that tourists would come. Luckily for them, we did come and the word about Rewa is getting out. It was a spectacular place to be. With breakfasts served overlooking the river, boat trips to look for Arapaima and Black Caiman and a whole host of great birds to be found, we certainly had as great time here. Highlights included more macaws than we could ever have hoped for, a Great Potoo found by our own Jim Danzenbaker at a daytime roost, masses of toucans, great flocks of antbirds and much more. We were sad to leave Rewa, but all itching to return and spend even more time here on a return visit.

From Rewa, it was back to something resembling civilization as we went by river back to Rockview Lodge for lunch, then by road into the truly wonderful Iwokrama Forest. Picture time now....

Typical river view on the boat trip from Yupukari to Ginpe Landing.

Guyana's major trunk road! The dusty trail that heads into the foothills from the Rupununi savanna is the only road to reach from the coast to the far interior. It may seem primitive, but it keeps everything in perspective and helps protect this wonderful land. One day, a surfaced road will replace it...

Savanna view with some low-key cattle ranching.

Getting ready to depart from Kwatamang Landing on the Rupununi River.

The World Wildlife Fund is helping to protect threatened populations of Arapaima. This is a spectacular fish - the largest species of scaled fish in the world - and (of course) its very size has been its downfall as so-called 'sportsmen' began to flood in and pose with a dead one. Fortunately this is now properly controlled with a government licensing system and Arapaima numbers are beginning to recover. We actually came surprisingly close to one on one of the many ox-bow lakes in the area and just managed to see a flash of fins as a monster rose from the depths right beside our canoe!

Every day should start like this! Breakfast beside the Rewa River - with parrots, toucans, and genuinely wild Muscovy Ducks for company!
At Rewa, one of the treats was going out to a nearby Ox-bow lake to see the football-sized flowers and six-foot across leaves of the superb Amazon Water-lily. The flowers open in the evening and are pollinated at night by beetles. On the first night, the flowers are white (like this one) to attract the beetles. As dawn creeps on, the petals close up and trap the beetles inside for the day, thus ensuring pollination. On the second night, the flowers turn pink and re-open, releasing the beetles, who fly off to find another white flower and ensure cross-pollination. (You'll have to wait until the end to see pink ones!)
Yellow-rumped Cacique with its amazing sky-blue eye.

Blue-and-yellow Macaws as they should be seen - paired for life, calling raucously and enjoying the freedom of their homeland...

If there's one thing I could really do without in the rainforests of Guyana, it's those Red Howler Monkeys sounding off at first light every morning - this male looks particularly guilty!

A special highlight of Rewa was being invited to the local primary school where I'm not sure that the kids knew what to make of us - but they all seemed to be having a good time!

"I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be...."

Written by Michael Masser & Linda Creed and originally sung by the great George Benson, the lyrics to The Greatest Love Of All are probably best known to most as sung by Whitney Houston. Whatever your take on it, the words are approriate more than ever today and it was wonderful to see the children of Rewa village being taught about their natural heritage so that they may respect and look after it and pass it on to their own children. In the picture here, some of them are up on the stage and singing a song that had been written especially for our visit. The song invited us to come to their village and see the Arapaima, Giant Otter and Harpy Eagle, which they had drawn for us.

When you're walking trails that are visited by so few people, you never quite know what you are going to find. This male Little Tinamou was sitting on eggs right beside the trail up Awarmie Mountain and sat nervously as we all took a peak then went on our way.

Awarmie Mountain is more a pimple really, but the surrounding land is so flat that you don't need to go very high before you get spectacular views of the rainforest and the Rupununi River.

Another great view to distant horizons.

The extrusions of rock in southern Guyana create some fascinating places to explore - and great places for bats and all manner of other beasties to hide.

As we came back down Awarmie Mountain, this Ludovica Tigerwing was nectaring beside the trail. This is one of an interesting group of butterflies in the Monarch family which resemble poisonous Heliconiid butterflies - but are, in fact, themselves poisonous too. This form of mimicry is known as Mullerian Mimicry, where potentially poisonous/dangerous species resemble each other so that all benefit from the same predator protection.

As the sun got ever lower in the sky, our visit to Awarmie Mountain took an unexpected turn as we watched parties of Red-and-green Macaws fly right past us and settle in nearby Cecropia trees for the most terrible conversational din, before heading off to roost. A fantastic bonus to the tour. Scarlet and Blue-and-yellow Macaws came with them too. The sight of such awesome birds living free is an increasingly rare thing these days, but hope springs eternal in this magical land.

More Red-and-greens pass by on their way to roost. Every macaw we saw was flying in tandem with its soul mate.

After the thrill of the macaw roost, the day could only finish with a spectacular sunset over the river - you can just see the moon to the right there too.

Back in the boats, back on the Rupununi and back to Rock View! Time for some photos of Black Skimmers and Large-billed Terns on the way though.

More Black Skimmers, settling on a sand-bar.

Christina, Jeff and Megan hurtle back along the Rupununi...

The view from Rock View Lodge, across the savanna to Mt. Makarapan. The dirt in the foreground is the local airstrip!

And finally for this post, one of the Rock View locals - a Tropidurus hispidus. This is one of the collared lizards which has so many different English names that I almost lost the will to live trying to decide which one to use. Time for another Banks's!!

Next Post - Iwokrama and beyond.