Friday, March 30, 2012

Good-bye Venezuela!

After an excellent first day at La Escalera in southeastern Venezuela, Henry planned a visit to some lowland forest close to Las Claritas, and then, to move higher up along La Escalera, so we decided to follow him without questions. Rafael Cortes and you blogger host were already impressed by the endemics and the landscapes of the day before, and we can't wait for our final full birding day in Venezuela.
We visited a lowland forest following Henry, opposite to the famous Guyana trail, near the town of San Miguel de Betania. We followed the border of this forest, along some power lines, watching the intense activity around. We saw Guianan Streaked-Antwren in the bushes, and a mixed flock with Palm, Blue-gray, Silver-beaked and Flame-crested Tanagers, Blue Dacnis and two Paradise Jacamars... they have a very distinctive profile.
We started to see larger birds, like both White-throated and Channel-billed Toucans, plus a flock of Black-necked Aracari. Some Cayenne Jays were also present, plus a Lineated and a Yellow-tufted Woodpecker with his clown-like face.
However, the were more lucky with the parrots. Both Orange-winged and Mealy Amazons were quite common, and we even found a pair of Dusky Parrots perched and a flock of Golden-winged Parakeets flying above us... but it was the Red-fan Parrot that offered the most sensational show, flying with his hawk-like style above us, and perching exposed above tall trees... simply great.
Reluctantly, we left the place in order to reach the foothills along La Escalera, stopping first at the lookout that we visited the day before. This time, we were able to locate a Blackish Nightjar on its day roost, and it allowed close approach... can you find it in the first photo of this post?
We saw also a mixed flock of swift flying over us while watching the nightjar... the first to be identified were the White-tipped Swifts; however, it soon was clear that actually most of the members of the flock were endemics Tepui Swifts! My poor photo barely shows the chestnut collar and throat that these birds exhibit.
We reached the foothills forest quite late, and the activity was considerably lower than the day before. At the km 124 the only birds seen where Black-billed Thrush (also a Pantepui endemic subspecies) and the familiar Rufous-collared Sparrow. We did saw a new endemic for our list: a flock of noisy Golden-tufted Mountain-Grackles offered great views.
Well, we spend a beautiful time in Venezuela, finding tons of new birds for us but, most importantly, making tons of new friends... we hope to return soon!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Holy Sarcopera !

Probably, my last post about birding La Escalera in southeastern Venezuela left you with the idea that I didn't photograph many birds... however, I reserved some of the birds' photos to show you that the local expertise is always of great help! Rafael Cortes and
me were guided by Henry Cleve, the owner of the Barquilla de Fresa Inn in Las Claritas, and we stopped in several sites along La Escalera road looking for mixed flocks... but then, Henry took us directly to a patch of a special plants of the genera Sarcopera, hoping that they were bloomed, because he perfectly knew that many Pantepui specialties and endemics would visit its flowers... and he was absolutely right! I was so entertained taking photos that I didn't realize when Rafael took my photo.
The Brown Violetears were the most common (and aggressive) visitors of these patches. They are pretty rare in Panama, so I was delighted in spite that Henry thought they were real bandits, scaring all the endemics!
A female Blue-fronted Lancebill visited the flowers, always keeping low in order to avoid the Violetears.
Two Pantepui endemics, the Velvet-browed Brilliant and, specially, the Rufous-breasted Sabrewing were more dared when feeding, probably because they were the same size or bigger than the Violetears. I have to said that brilliant is an appropriate name for this hummer... it glows!
Other two Pantepui endemics where in the same bushes: the colorful Tepui Brush-Finch allowed great views, while the huge Greater Flowerpiercer (for a flowerpiercer) was more shy... I only managed a blurry shot.
There where many honeyeaters as well, with many Bananaquits of the endemic subspecies, Purple and Green Honeycreepers.
More widespread species were easier to see at these patches, like Orange-bellied Euphonia (the distinctive female pictured here) and Red-shouldered Tanager (also a distinctive female... the male is essentially an all-black tanager with inconspicuous red shoulders).
The next two species are also quite widespread; however, both are represented here by endemic subspecies: The males of the whitelyi subspecies of Black-headed Tanager exhibit no blue edgings at all on its wings; while the phelpsi subspecies of Yellow-bellied Tanager differs mainly in habitat, larger size and an inconspicuous yellow eyering. Both could be good species in the future.
Great selection of birds at these natural feeders... and great to have someone like Henry to show it to us!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birding La Escalera

We finally were at the base of the Pantepui region in southeastern Venezuela, after birding three days in and around El Palmar, and after our traveling day to Las Claritas the day before. Rafael Cortes and your blogger host were now guests of Henry Cleve at his lovely Barquilla de Fresa Inn, and very early he was taking us to La Escalera, the windy road that ascends all the way to La Gran Sabana, delimiting, in part, the huge Canaima National Park!

The Plateu Theory indicates that once, only one HUGE tepui existed: the Pantepui. Over millions of years, the erosion gave place to the table-top mountains known as tepuis, a process that still continues... so, La Escalera takes you along the forested slope of this ancient Pantepui all the way to the grassy plateu named now La Gran Sabana, that is the actual level reached by erosion!

We stopped at several sites along the road, including al the km 102 where a nice black-rock lookout (mirador) offers an excellent, overwhelming view of the surrounding forests and towards the tepuis beyond. This black-rock formation of Precambric origin, one of the most ancient formations in the Americas!

That day we flushed a Blackish Nightjar, but the star of the show wasn't a bird, but an amphibian: Henry found for us a beautiful (and deadly) Yellow-banded Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates leucomelas) for our delight.

At km 111, a mixed flock with Tepui Greenlets, Bananaquits, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Slate-throated Whitestart, Sharpbill, Slate-crowned Shrike-Vireo and Golden-olive Woodpecker, amon others kept us entertaining... a group of Olive-backed Tanagers and a Orange-bellied Manakin where apart of the flock... I only managed this creepy photo... but at least you can see why this manakin is named this way. Pitifully, I have no photo of the impressive males Guianan Cock-of-the-Rocks that repeatedly crossed the street, with one individual perching briefly close to us allowing a great view! Those birds look like fire balls when flying!
We started to hear the White Bellbirds from the middle part of La Escalera, and soon we were seeing several males perched exposed on top of tall trees making their bizarre, very loud calls. Higher up we saw the Bearded Bellbird too, but that male didn't allow photos. According to Henry, the long wattle of the male bellbird are part of its sexual attractive to females... can you imagine what would think a White Bellbird female about our resident species of bellbird in Panama (the Three-wattled Bellbird)?

In the higher part of La Escalera (around km 135), Henry found for us several Pantepui endemics, including Tepui Antwren, Fiery-shouldered Parakeet, McConnells -"Lema"- Flycatcher, Rose-collared Piha (a female), and amazing males Scarlet-horned Manakins... what a beauty!

We lunched at the monument to the pioneering soldier, in La Gran Sabana, after watching Black-faced and Burnished-buff Tanagers, accompanied by a Yellow-headed Caracara and a strange-looking Turkey Vulture due to its partial albinism, because it was a leucistic bird (thanks J.C.)

It was an excellent day, full of lifers, pantepui endemics and astonishing landscapes... but it was only the first day, so stay tuned!
Rafael Cortes and Henry Cleve at km 124, La Escalera, Bolívar state.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

In our way to Las Claritas

We said good-bye to Blas and his family (in El Palmar) very early in the morning and took a bus to Upata, where we waited for another bus going to the

south... oh, don't you know what I'm talking about? Rafael Cortes and your blogger host were still in eastern Venezuela after three wonderful days at El Palmar with Blas Chacare and his family, and now we were heading to Las Claritas, the mining town that is the gate to the forests of La Escalera, La Gran Sabana and the Canaima National Park! The public transport was slow and quite uncomfortable because it was full, but we enjoyed anyway the 5 hours trip, adding to the list White-tailed Hawk, Swallow-tailed Kite, White-collared Swift and Brown-chested

Martin to our list. Eventually, we reached Las Claritas, and the bus dropped us just in front of what we called home the next two and a half days: the Barquilla de Fresa Inn. His owner, Henry Cleve, welcomed us and showed us our cabin, which was simply great, specially by the fact that it was surrounded by hummingbirds feeders, and the stars at the feeders were no less than four adult males Crimson Topaz!!! What a magnificent creature!

I tried to get some shots showing its spectacular glow, but it was not easy! (and trust me, it was truly out of this world!)

The feeder can give you an idea of the size of this hummingbird.

The female was very shy... I only got one creepy shot... notice its profile and the white thighs.

However, the Topaz were not the only hummingbirds attending the feeders, a Long-billed Starthroat, several Black-throated Mangos, a White-necked Jacobin, a Rufous-breasted Hermit and my life Gray-breasted Sabrewing also were regular around the cabins.

Henry proposed to take advantage of the last rays of sunlight visiting the famous Capuchinbird lek close to town. The pot-holed, dirt road (watch the last photo) was not a problem for Henry's powerful LandCruiser, and in the way we stopped at first at a mixed colony with hanging nest of both Crested Oropendola and Red-rumped Caciques.

At the Capuchinbird lek, it was clear that something was wrong... we heard no Capunchinbirds at all while approaching the site; instead, the constant noise of some sort of machinery filled the environment... we only hope that the bizarre Capunchinbirds have not left their lek due to human activities (however, as a consolation prize I can say that we did heard the Capunchinbird while seeing the Harpy Eagle nest near El Palmar).

We went to bed only imaging the surprises waiting for us at the forests of La Escalera the next day!