Jungle Rivers Cruise 2006 Oct 12—24, 2006

Posted by Peter English


Peter English

Peter English became interested in birds while in the fourth grade. He graduated from Williams College in 1988 and received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texa...

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Share the experiences of 80 participants and 10 VENT leaders aboard the Clipper Adventurer through regular reports from co-leader Peter English. This fantastic exploration of three of the great rivers of South America—the Orinoco, Essequibo, and Suriname—will visit regions of untrammeled wilderness, filled with hundreds of tropical bird species and a superb variety of plants and other animals.

Cruise Log Entries

Oct 24, 2006

Today we got an early start for the two-hour drive to Suriname's interior and our visit to Brownsberg Nature Reserve. Upon arriving at the reserve we gathered in the clearing to divide into our groups and begin birding.

Guianan saki monkey preparing to jump

Guianan saki monkey preparing to jump — Photo: Peter English

Almost immediately we had wonderful scope views of Golden-collared Woodpecker and Tufted Coquette, and even a great look at a Guianan saki monkey. This white-faced monkey is very difficult to see well, and we all got wonderful looks as it walked out branches and made several leaps in full view-an omen of a good day ahead.

Guianan saki monkey in midair, leaping between branches

Guianan saki monkey in midair, leaping between branches — Photo: Peter English

As the different groups walked out on the trails, new birds were everywhere. When two groups would get near each other on the trails, leaders would work together to maximize everyone's chances of seeing a bird. For example, as one leader was showing a Waved Woodpecker to a group that had come together out on the road, the other leader was calling in a Ferruginous-backed Antbird for the group to see next. And so it went, on and on, for more and more species.

Back at the clearing, a group of 11 Gray-winged Trumpeters arrived and Victor radioed the other groups to return for a look at these incredible birds. Related to cranes, they are difficult to see well, and most often seen running away. We were lucky at Brownsberg to encounter a group that was accustomed to humans, so everyone got wonderful looks. Later in the day a second group of 10 Gray-winged Trumpeters joined the first group, and we were treated to very close looks at 21 trumpeters just yards away.

Gray-winged Trumpeters

Gray-winged Trumpeters — Photo: Peter English

The day was full of highlights, but several that stand out include:

— A White-throated Pewee was seen by everyone through the scopes. This is a very scarce and local species.

— A White-fronted Manakin male calling and sitting up just 30 feet away.

— Plumbeous Kites soaring in the wind in front of the overlook, catching insects and eating them on the wing.

— A group of three red howler monkeys in plain view-just relaxing and watching the birders pass below.

— Several mixed-species flocks with a large number of antshrikes, antwrens, foliage-gleaners, woodcreepers, and tanagers were encountered. In some cases leaders returned to the flocks with different assemblages of participants to find them again and share the experience of the most interesting social interaction found in the birds of the tropics. In at least one case, a participant saw over ten new species in just ten minutes!

We returned to the ship just in time for sunset over the Suriname River, and were then treated to a raffle of a painting of a Gray-winged Trumpeter to benefit continued research expeditions in Venezuela. We were able to sell 47 tickets at $100 each, making a substantial contribution. Other prizes donated to the raffle included a week at Victor's house on the Texas coast, a night at the Canopy Lodge in Panama donated by Raul Arias, a signed copy of a book on the Orca of New Zealand donated by Ingrid Visser (one of the staff biologists onboard the ship), and a signed copy of Birds of Venezuela donated by Steve Hilty. After the raffle, the ship's naturalists presented a slide show of incredible photos that they had taken during our weeks together. And finally, we celebrated Victor's birthday. Happy Birthday Victor!

Tomorrow we head home, so this is our final update from the field. We had an absolutely magnificent trip!

Oct 23, 2006

Yesterday was spent cruising from Guyana to Suriname, and so we again took advantage of the VENT leaders' knowledge by hearing talks from three more of them. The highlight was a talk by Victor entitled, "The Ten Best Birding Areas in the World." Victor took us around the world explaining why he loves different locations, and left some wondering if it was possible to hold the list to just 10. Later Andrew Farnsworth gave a talk on the "Phenomena of Migration," using the experience he gained doing his doctoral research to give us an appreciation of bird migration and get us up-to-date on what is known. Finally, Peter English gave a talk explaining leks and the mating system that creates them.

Photo of Kaieteur Falls taken a few days ago during the group's visit

Photo of Kaieteur Falls taken a few days ago during the group's visit — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

In the afternoon we went to the top deck and saw some large concentrations of terns in the distance. One of the benefits of chartering an entire ship is that we can ask the captain to follow the birds for a short while, which our captain was excited to do. Within about an hour we found Common, Black, Least, and Sandwich (Cayenne) terns, Brown Noddy, and Brown Booby. In addition some saw the spout of a humpback whale, and saw a manta ray jump out of the water.

A golden frog found at Kaieteur Falls

A golden frog found at Kaieteur Falls — Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Today we cleared Suriname entry procedures and went on a late morning visit to the botanical gardens in Paramaribo. Although we had only a few hours at the gardens we saw some wonderful birds including Blood-colored Woodpecker, Arrowhead (Guianan) Piculet, a Crimson-hooded Manakin lek, Spotted and Common tody-flycatchers, Green-tailed Jacamar, Plain-crowned Spinetail, Barred Antshrike, Hooded Tanager, Pale-breasted Thrush, and Red-breasted Blackbird.

Calling in the Blackish Antbird at Pepperpot

Calling in the Blackish Antbird at Pepperpot — Photo: Peter English

In the afternoon we went on our afternoon excursion to Pepperpot, an old plantation, and then to the New Amsterdam mangrove areas along the river. At Pepperpot we found the area full of birds including Blackish Antbird, Black-crested Antshrike, Gray Hawk, and Green-rumped Parrotlet. In the New Amsterdam area we found the Rufous Crab-Hawk, a species with a very restricted range and one that was new for most VENT leaders when we ran this cruise in 2004. As we did in 2004, we found a perched bird and everyone had wonderful scope views. In addition to the Rufous Crab-Hawk, we had numbers of Orange-winged Parrots going to roost, and found Wing-banded Seedeater, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and a host of other species.

Tomorrow we go on an all-day journey to Brownsberg Reserve about two hours south of Paramaribo. This is a beautiful forest that Steve Hilty has described as the tallest forest in South America, and we are all excited to see it.

Oct 22, 2006

Today started slowly as we realized that it had been raining all night. As we gathered for breakfast, we discovered that the early morning birding that we had planned would not be possible. By 11:00 am the skies had cleared and half of the participants left for their flight to Kaieteur Falls, while those remaining on the ship prepared for an afternoon zodiac cruise around some mangrove-dominated islands.

The Sunbittern we watched for so long yesterday

The Sunbittern we watched for so long yesterday — Photo: Jim Brown

The group that went to Kaieteur Falls had a wonderful, full day. First they traveled to an airstrip upriver from where the ship was anchored and then flew to the falls—one of the largest in the world. The hour-long flight to the falls passes over thousands of square miles of pristine rainforest—as far as you can see in all directions there is no sign of man. Aside from the magnificent falls themselves and the nice weather after the storm cleared, highlights included the extremely rare Orange-breasted Falcon, Red-and-green Macaws, and a number of swift species.

Adult Harpy Eagle

Adult Harpy Eagle — Photo: Jim Brown

While the group that went to the falls was on their trip, the ship was repositioned at the mouth of the Essequibo River to facilitate our evening departure for Suriname. This meant that the group flew back to Georgetown to meet the ship, and while passing through the town to get back to the ship they saw Rufous Crab-Hawk, numbers of Snail Kites, and Scarlet Ibis and Snowy Egrets returning to their roosts.

Black-crested Antshrike passing nearby. This is the male, and the female was nearby calling

Black-crested Antshrike passing nearby. This is the male, and the female was nearby calling — Photo: Peter English

The group that remained with the ship took advantage of the repositioning to see hawks sitting on perches along the banks as the ship cruised down the Essequibo River, and to take the zodiacs to nearby mangrove-dominated islands in the afternoon. Highlights from the afternoon trips included great looks at Rufous Crab-Hawk, Black-crested Antshrikes, Straight-billed Woodcreepers, Turquoise Tanagers, Glittering-throated Emerald, and a large troop of squirrel monkeys.

Glittering-throated Emerald feeding in the afternoon

Glittering-throated Emerald feeding in the afternoon — Photo: Peter English

Tomorrow will be a day at sea to rest up and to continue the series of lectures designed to take advantage of the amazing knowledge possessed by the group of leaders that VENT has assembled for this cruise.

Oct 20, 2006

This was one of the best days of birding on our trip. We departed the ship at first light in speedboats bound for Shanklands Lodge. Thirty minutes later we were birding the grounds of the lodge. They were alive with birds including Red-shouldered Macaws, Golden-winged and White-eyed parakeets, Orange-winged Parrots, Black-spotted Barbets, a Marail Guan, Channel-billed and White-throated toucans, Bat Falcons, and many more species. All these were seen perched and in good light with many scope views.

Later in the morning some groups took a zodiac cruise up a small river while others birded the forest. Folks on the zodiac cruise saw Pompadour Cotingas, Crimson Topaz Hummingbird, an Agami Heron, and an Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Groups birding the forest saw Golden-headed Manakins, Black-headed Antbirds, a Red-necked Woodpecker, a pair of Mouse-colored Antshrikes, and other forest birds. Around the clearing we had excellent studies of a troop of yellow-handed tamarin monkeys.

Black-headed Antbird moving through the forest floor

Black-headed Antbird moving through the forest floor — Photo: Peter English

At noon all groups returned to the lodge for a sumptuous buffet lunch. Our lunch was interrupted when one of our participants found a Sunbittern on a nearby stream. Everyone had excellent looks at this beautiful bird for almost an hour, including repeated scope studies.

After lunch some participants returned to the ship, while others relaxed at the lodge. Late in the afternoon several groups that remained at Shanklands went on a zodiac cruise to the same small river that other groups had visited in the morning. En route to the river, we enjoyed superb looks at a pair of Point-tailed Palmcreepers and six perched Red-bellied Macaws.

Point-tailed Palmcreeper high in a Moriche Palm frond

Point-tailed Palmcreeper high in a Moriche Palm frond — Photo: Peter English

Once we began cruising up the small river, we saw a zodiac stopped ahead of us motioning us to join them. They were looking at an adult Harpy Eagle that was perched on a dead snag only 200 feet away. We then radioed the other groups on the river, they passed the message back up to the lodge, and over the next 30 minutes all five of the groups remaining in the field joined us. All the while, the Harpy Eagle sat on its perch in regal splendor. Eventually almost 50 people enjoyed stunning views of the world's most powerful raptor.

Harpy Eagle on a snag. The eagle sat on this perch for over 30 minutes

Harpy Eagle on a snag. The eagle sat on this perch for over 30 minutes — Photo: Peter English

This was an incredible day which left all of us feeling that this was one of those days that we will remember forever. Great parrots, toucans, antbirds, and other tropical species, and then the bird that everyone has always wanted to see—a Harpy Eagle. It was truly phenomenal.

Oct 20, 2006

Although today did not involve birding off of the ship, it was a wonderful day of stories, lectures, and general relaxation that everyone enjoyed. The stories started with Steve Hilty's talk, "Stories of Travel and Research in Colombia." This was a rare opportunity to hear the inside stories on what it took to do all the field research that culminated in the publication of The Birds of Colombia, as well as the changes that have taken place in Colombia since then. Birding has recently soared in popularity in Colombia, and Steve has agreed to work with the Colombians to update his book in Spanish; together they have set up a charitable fund to finance the production of new plates and get the project moving. Given the current political situation in Colombia, VENT has no plans to offer tours there.

The second talk was by Robert Ridgely, and was entitled "Fundacion Jocotoco's Contribution to Bird Conservation in Ecuador, and hopefully, Beyond." Bob told us the exciting story of the discovery of the Jocotoco Antpitta, and how the issues surrounding the conservation status of this bird led to the development of the foundation. Bob explained the successes of the many Jocotoco preserves in Ecuador and the possibility of replicating this model of conservation in other countries in South America.

The third talk of the day, given by Mike Braun, was entitled "The Avian Tree of Life." Mike has been a research scientist at the Smithsonian for many years, and is one of the primary researchers focusing on defining bird family relationships by analyzing DNA sequences. Mike gave a rigorous introduction into the methodologies that the "Early Bird" project is using, and gave us some early results from their research. Among the preliminary findings are (a) swifts and hummingbirds are related to nightjars and apparently developed diurnal habits from nocturnal ones, (b) New World vultures are not related to storks, and © the ratites and tinamous did not descend from a single terrestrial ancestor, but rather the loss of flight evolved several times.

Mike Braun later gave us an introduction to the history and ecology of Guyana. It was first settled by the Dutch who set up a colony here. In the 1600s it became a British colony and then finally gained independence in 1967. For about 20 years after independence, Guyana was ruled by an isolationist dictator. Because of this isolationist government, the country was virtually frozen in time until the late 1980s. Since then it has opened, but involvement in the outer world has progressed slowly. The country has a population of less than one million people, mostly within 10 miles of the coast in the alluvial floodplain. Only two paved roads cross the country, and most transportation is by either boat or bush plane. VENT plans to offer our first Guyana tour in 2007.

Birding from the upper deck of the Clipper Adventurer

Birding from the upper deck of the Clipper Adventurer — Photo: Peter English

In the late afternoon we dropped anchor in the Essequibo River and were able to go on the top deck and watch parrots flying to their roosts. We are all very excited about our first day of birding Guyana tomorrow.

Oct 20, 2006

This morning held a number of wonderful surprises for us. The most gratifying was that the groups who had difficulty finding the new species of spinetail yesterday were treated to fantastic looks today. The photos of it taken by the clients today (one of which is included here), combined with the elusive nature of this species, attest to the quality of the views. It was also satisfying to have Victor get another lifer on this trip, as he was among those who had difficulty finding the spinetail yesterday.

New species of spinetail

New species of spinetail — Photo: Jim Brown

While some of the groups returned to the river islands, the other groups visited an area of forest that was not birded on our 2004 Jungle Rivers Cruise. This area was found yesterday and we decided to send everyone there. It turned out to be fantastic. The initial plan was for groups to spread out along a relatively wide trail and bird the forest that looked so promising. As it turned out, the clearing where we landed in our zodiacs was so full of birds and wildlife that some groups never got enough of a break in the constant string of new species to even leave the clearing! Species found here included Cinereous Becard, Golden-spangled and White-bellied piculets, Little Woodpecker, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Black-crested Antshrike, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Russet-throated Puffbird, and a whole host of other species.

At the back of the clearing was a wetland that was also very productive, with Sungrebe, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Festive Parrots, South American Snipe, Wattled Jacana, and several shorebird species.

Birders looking at Rufescent Tiger-Heron across the wetlands at the back of the clearing

Birders looking at Rufescent Tiger-Heron across the wetlands at the back of the clearing — Photo: Peter English

The all-aboard call was at 10:30 in the morning so that we could set sail for Guyana, so the afternoon was spent relaxing, finishing up trip lists, and listening to several very interesting talks. Paul Greenfield gave a wonderful overview of birding opportunities in Ecuador entitled "Ecuador: Epicenter of World Birding." Raul Arias, a conservationist from Panama and a participant with his wife Denise on this cruise, gave a talk on the birding opportunities in central Panama. This is a topic that Raul knows well, as he is the owner of the famous Panama Canopy Tower and its recently added sister facility, the Canopy Lodge. Finally, in the evening Peter English hosted a showing of the film Para Los Futuros: For Those to Come: The Napo Wildlife Center. This is a documentary on the community-based ecotourism lodge in Ecuador that was shown on PBS in the spring, and tells the story of the lodge from idea to successful community-owned lodge. VENT takes several groups to this lodge each year.

Highlights of the day included:

— Seeing the new species of spinetail (again!), and seeing it even better the second time.

— A pair of South American river otters swimming toward the group from the wetlands behind the clearing and then coming out of the water and running past the group into the forest.

— Several raptor sightings including a very low Peregrine Falcon, Long-winged Harrier, Snail and Slender-billed kites, and many Crested and Yellow-headed caracaras.

Long-winged Harrier soaring over the groups

Long-winged Harrier soaring over the groups — Photo: Peter English

— Just off the coast of Venezuela, we encountered several immature Red-footed Boobies—very likely a new species for this area of Venezuela. We also saw several Brown Boobies and a number of Magnificent Frigatebirds.

Tomorrow will be spent moving up the Essequibo River and into Guyana.

Oct 17, 2006

Last night we moved up the Orinoco to be near some of the few river islands found here and to get an early start this morning. We began leaving the ship at first light, and had a wonderful morning exploring the islands.

Looking back at our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, from a river island in the Orinoco

Looking back at our ship, the Clipper Adventurer, from a river island in the Orinoco — Photo: Peter English

River islands on the Amazon have been known for years to have a unique and specialized set of birds inhabiting them, but the river islands on the Orinoco were thought for many years not to have as many specialized bird species. This is because so few of the islands on the Orinoco were formed by sand deposition, a consequence of the very old soils found here. We are lucky to be in a region of the Orinoco that does have this type of sand deposition island, and so we were able to see yet another species that is new to science discovered by Steve Hilty while leading a VENT tour in 2000—a species of spinetail that was seen by seven of nine groups. Other highlights included Orange-headed Tanager, Yellow-chinned Spinetail, Yellow-browed Tyrant, Riverside Tyrant, River Tyrannulet, Yellow-hooded Oriole, several shorebird species, and many other river specialties.

Capped Heron in the late evening

Capped Heron in the late evening — Photo: Peter English

In the afternoon we returned downriver to the El Toro area where we birded yesterday. After hearing all the things that other groups found, we decided that it was just too productive and beautiful to miss. We all wanted another opportunity to go birding along the Rio Toro.

red howler monkey in the sun above the Rio Toro

red howler monkey in the sun above the Rio Toro — Photo: Peter English

Highlights from the afternoon included:

— Two Ornate Hawk-Eagles passing over the Rio Toro.

— Remarkable looks at Sungrebe, a bird that is a member of a unique family.

— Three Cream-colored Woodpeckers in a single tree, and seven Cream-colored Woodpeckers in just a few hours.

— Black-chested Tyrant and the new species of softtail again to reinforce the sightings from the day before.

— A small pool in the forest where birds came in the evening to bathe, including Crimson-hooded Manakin, Silver-beaked Tanager, Red-capped Cardinal, and others.

Tomorrow we will return up river to visit the islands again for those who were not able to find the new species of spinetail, while the other groups will investigate a nearby area of tall forest that has never been explored by birders.

Oct 16, 2006

We disembarked at dawn in nine groups, each with a maximum of nine participants and a VENT leader. Some groups spent the morning birding from a zodiac traveling up the Rio Toro, a small forest-lined tributary of the Orinoco. Other groups walked trails. After lunch back on the ship and a midday break, we disembarked and groups switched areas.

One of the many delightful aspects of a cruise such as this one is returning to the ship and hearing about everyone's sightings. Every group had a phenomenal day. Everyone saw two of the rarest birds in the world: a Softtail that is a new, undescribed species that was discovered new to science on our 2004 cruise, and a rare flycatcher, the Black-chested Tyrant, that is known only from a few locations. Each of these species has been seen by fewer than 200 birders, most of them on our 2004 Jungle Rivers Cruise and on this cruise.

Besides the rare and special birds, we saw a fantastic variety of other birds including tanagers, flycatchers, hummingbirds, manakins, woodcreepers, and puffbirds. Several groups enjoyed very special natural history sightings including:

Crane Hawk preparing to raid a flycatcher nest

Crane Hawk preparing to raid a flycatcher nest — Photo: Peter English

— Watching a Crane Hawk very close for 15 minutes as it raided a flycatcher nest and then proceeded to eat its quarry on an exposed branch.

Crane Hawk in flight

Crane Hawk in flight — Photo: Peter English

— A party of small birds of several species mobbing a large rusty brown moth that they mistook for an owl.

— A sleeping silky anteater, a rarely seen small mammal that was a lifer for several VENT leaders.

— Over 20 species of birds bathing in a sunlit forest pool including Crimson-hooded Manakins, a spectacularly-colored species.

Crimson-hooded Manakin male on the trail at Rio Toro

Crimson-hooded Manakin male on the trail at Rio Toro — Photo: Peter English

— A Zigzag Heron in the late morning, one of the smallest and most enigmatic herons in the world.

We could not have asked for a better first day. It was filled with the richness that makes the tropics so alluring to so many birders. We are all looking forward to the wonders that await us tomorrow as we spend another day birding the Orinoco Delta.

Oct 16, 2006

We woke up at sea and spent the better part of the day in transit from Trinidad to Venezuela. Steve Hilty and David Ascanio gave a fascinating lecture, "An Overview of the Natural History of the Orinoco Delta and the Guianas." As we approached Venezuela the water changed abruptly from blue-green to brown due to the sediment discharged by the Orinoco. Common, Royal, and Sandwich terns were seen following our ship. Magnificent Frigatebirds and a couple of Brown Boobies were spotted on buoys. Soon we could see the forested coastline and later we entered the Orinoco, the second largest river in South America.

In the late afternoon everyone gathered on the ship's highest deck to enjoy our first South American birding. Numerous Large-billed Terns were seen. Blue-and-yellow Macaws were sighted, at first in pairs, then a group of ten or more, and then more pairs. Seeing these magnificent birds in the late afternoon light was a perfect beginning for our voyage.

Just before sunset we saw flocks of Orange-winged Parrots flying to roost. At first we saw only a few, but soon we saw flocks of 50 or more in all directions. Many of the leaders said it was the largest number of parrots they had ever seen in an afternoon, numbering in the thousands. Such a sight was a reminder of what the tropics used to be everywhere a hundred or more years ago. We ended the day with a lovely sunset.

Oct 16, 2006

After arriving in Trinidad the night before, we had the morning to relax. Our hotel was located outside of Port of Spain, which afforded some the chance to get an early start on their birding, while others took the opportunity to meet other VENT travelers and share the excitement of the upcoming voyage.

After lunch, we all visited the famous Caroni Swamp to witness the evening roost of Scarlet Ibis and Snowy Egrets. The swamp is 40 square miles of protected land, and harbors a population of over 10,000 Scarlet Ibis. We took small boats through the mangroves to more open areas, and then positioned ourselves to watch the ibis fly to their roosts. Some came to the roost directly in front of our position, and, as time passed, the sunset grew more beautiful and the roost filled with the intense scarlet of the ibis punctuated with the pristine white of the egrets.

Our first sunset in Venezuela aboard the Adventurer

Our first sunset in Venezuela aboard the Adventurer — Photo: Peter English

Once it became dark, we returned to our buses and drove 30 minutes back to Port of Spain and boarded the Clipper Adventurer.

Oct 16, 2006

All participants arrive Port of Spain, Trinidad.