Venezuela: New Year in the Llanos Dec 27, 2011—Jan 04, 2012

Posted by Jeri Langham


Jeri Langham

Jeri M. Langham has a Ph.D. in plant ecology from Washington State University, and after 38 years as a professor of biological sciences at California State University ...

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For 23 years I led a New Year's tour to Hato Piñero, a 200,000-acre Venezuelan Llanos ranch, which was a world-class example of how cattle ranching and conservation can go hand-in-hand. No hunting had been permitted for over 65 years, thus there were lots of animals to see on night drives, and some of the larger birds like Yellow-knobbed Curassows, that make good eating, were easily seen…it was one of my favorite tours. Two years ago my co-leader David Ascanio's November pre-tour inspection found the safari trucks in disrepair, and ceilings in the dining room and several bedrooms were falling in. The government had taken over and had failed to maintain the ranch and thus we had to find a replacement quickly. David discovered Rancho Canagua, a five-ranch complex, and was already very familiar with the famous Hato El Cedral. The latter was taken over by the government years ago and is once again a popular destination. He arranged our stays and we became the first VENT tour to cover both the "upper" Llanos at Rancho Canagua and the "lower" Llanos at Hato El Cedral. We spent three nights at each of these locations. All rooms have A/C, the safari trucks are in good shape, and the food is quite good (the soups are excellent).

At our farewell dinner this year, I asked the participants what they thought was important to mention in our Tour Report in order to attract future participants. Here are their comments: Both ranches are incredibly rich in birds and wildlife (something evident when looking at the Trip List). The morning and afternoon boat trips at Hato El Cedral were especially fantastic, producing rarities like Agami Heron and Azure Gallinule. This is the only tour that offers exposure to both the dryer grasslands of the "upper" and vast grasslands and water of the "lower" Llanos. Both ranches are also good for mammals and reptiles like giant anteaters, tamandua anteaters, capybaras, Orinoco crocodiles, spectacled caimans, and red howler monkeys. There are some spectacular birds among the 225+ seen, many like tyrant flycatchers, with repeated encounters, providing a great learning opportunity to study and become familiar with them. Finally, the spotlighting adventures at each ranch were successful and fun.

On every tour I lead, I write a daily journal and send it to the participants after the tour. Here are a few passages from that journal to help whet your whistle for this exciting new tour:

On our first afternoon at Rancho Canagua, we climbed up on the safari truck and began an incredibly slow drive through the middle of a grassland pasture on a road that was more like a path. The truck moved slower than any I have been on in my 24 previous Llanos tours because we kept finding one bird after the other. You had great looks at capybaras (the largest rodent in the world) with a few of their young. Two "tame" tapirs were in a large enclosure, but not the dozen or more spectacled caimans. There were a number of great raptors like Savanna, Black-collared, and Roadside hawks. We also had good luck with shorebirds, especially dozens of Southern Lapwings. We probably drove less than a mile before our dirt road ended, picking up over 70 species of birds in only two hours of birding!

Picking out favorite birds this morning was very difficult. However, the White-tailed Hawks on a nest and fast-cruising Aplomado Falcons were great finds. We stopped at the main ranch headquarters and got wonderful looks at a Russet-throated Puffbird, Bicolored Wrens (the largest Venezuelan wren), and Stripe-backed Wrens, and learned about some fruits like the ones that produce cashews. Puerto Escondido is at the end of the road and there is a wonderful building next to the river where we sat in chairs to eat our cold, mixed fruit salad while having excellent views of a female Crimson-crested Woodpecker.

Before leaving Doña Bárbara for this afternoon's outing, we were treated to great views of two roosting Great Potoos and a pair of Tropical Screech-Owls, one a tan phase and one a gray phase, in the garden tree area beside our rooms. One of my favorite birds this afternoon was the Dwarf Cuckoo, which responded to my calls. We also saw Plumbeous Kites. My biggest surprise was finding TWO juvenile Agami Herons. We did not see that species here last year. A single Sunbittern flew, showing us its great wing pattern. The Hoatzins (the punk rocker of the bird world, or "flying cow"), Capped Herons, Black-capped Donacobius pair, and three White-throated Toucans we saw fly across the road were also big hits. Our first full day of birding produced 130 species seen plus 7 heard only.

A Great Potoo singing outside our rooms was an incredible way to start a morning that would bring us 94 species before noon. We had fantastic luck with raptors, my favorite being the Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. We also saw two Slender-billed Kites, a dark-phase Short-tailed Hawk, 2 vocalizing Laughing Falcons, Collared Forest-Falcon, Hook-billed Kite, Great Black-Hawk, and about a dozen Roadside Hawks. We were able to get decent photographs of one of the three White-throated Toucans (formerly Red-billed Toucan), a species that prior to last year neither David Ascanio nor I had ever seen in the Llanos gallery forest. Two adult King Vultures were perched near the top of one of the tallest trees in this secondary forest. I was amazed at the number of Capped Herons along this forest road, maybe as many as 7 this morning.

Tonight we had two spotlights so that all of you had a chance to use the second one. It was an incredible night for Barn Owls with at least 17 being seen along with one Burrowing Owl. My favorite night bird was the Nacunda Nighthawk we flushed off the road. I was also pleased to find the fox-like, crab-eating zorro, and we did pick up 7 common opossums.

At the entrance gate to Hato El Cedral, we saw a huge Jabiru and one young on a nest in the top of an electrical tower. It is 7.2 kilometers from the entrance gate to the ranch’s buildings and our rooms. We saw many kingfishers, capybaras, and even a pair of endangered Orinoco Geese before we arrived at the "resort."

After our siesta, we met up with Victor, our driver and local guide, and his helper, Angel, and headed to the boat, slowly winding our way through tons of water hyacinths and adding Large-billed Tern to our list. Once we reached the mangrove area things got interesting. Victor and his son have a trained Great Black-Hawk that will fly out over the boat and catch pieces of meat thrown up for him. As we continued, we came to one special little entranceway into a channel in the mangroves that is completely covered over by a canopy of vegetation, but big enough for our boat to glide through. In this very shady, quiet canal we picked up three species of kingfishers, a juvenile Agami Heron, and had several good looks at Sunbitterns.

Many of you were identifying the constellations since the sun was not yet up and it was a clear night. It was great to watch the sunrise over this vast grassland called the Llanos. We finally made it to the forest trail where we had two wonderful encounters with red howler monkey troops, some with young. My favorite bird was a Fuscous Flycatcher since it was a "zero bird" (meaning it had not been seen on any previous tour). We also enjoyed others like Red-billed Scythebill, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and many tiny flycatcher types we had not seen earlier. On the way back for lunch we stopped to see a tamandua anteater in a tree.

As we headed out the south dike road scanning the vast fields to the east with the sun at our backs, we had excellent looks at thousands of birds in the water areas, mud flats, and grassy fields. We saw stately Maguari Storks, a few huge Jabirus, several thousand White-faced and Black-bellied whistling-ducks, hundreds of Bare-faced Ibises, and Laurie spotted the first of two Muscovy Ducks and the first Glossy Ibis. We picked up three terns: Gull-billed, Large-billed, and Yellow-billed, and about 50 Black Skimmers. My favorite was the Hudsonian Godwit, a first for me in Venezuela and only the second ever for Hato El Cedral. I saw my first Stilt Sandpipers in Venezuela and really got excited about the dainty, beautiful Pied Lapwings. It was a superb afternoon with thousands of birds in a huge open area with lots of water, mudflats, and grasses. When we returned to the main ranch buildings, we were treated to a 7-foot anaconda that David Ascanio had captured.

We left at dawn for our second boat ride to the Matiyure River and forest area. Early morning on the boat is the best time to find Azure Gallinule, a species I have found only 3 previous times in Venezuela. An Amazonian Black-Tyrant was seen in the wonderful little canopied mangrove alleyway we visited a few days ago, and we also had superb looks at an American Pygmy Kingfisher. However, unlike the adult Agami Heron, both the tough Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and the almost mythical Zigzag Heron failed to cooperate. We did get to glimpse a Yellow-knobbed Curassow in two locations.

I continued to be totally mesmerized by the vast expanse of grasslands on both sides of the dike to Caracaro. Another of my wonderful surprises was a distant Pinnated Bittern that was easy to ID in the scope. In my 24 previous Llanos tours, I have seen only one other individual. Finally we reached the huge Jabiru nest that had one adult and three nearly grown juveniles. The nest covered the entire top of a 20-foot tree. As Roger mentioned, this was a perfect photo opportunity to show the character of the Venezuelan Llanos with the nest in the foreground and vast expanses of grassland with some Brahman cattle in the background. Soon after heading back, Victor stopped the safari truck and pointed way out into the grassland. Yes, even without a binocular, he had identified a very distant giant anteater. We were beside ourselves with glee. After long looks we continued on and then found an even closer one that I digiscoped in the dying light of day.

After dinner we boarded the safari truck for our first night of spotlighting at Hato El Cedral and headed out the Jobal road dike. Common Pauraques lived up to their name, but mammals did not cooperate. Victor said there was too much moonlight. My highlight of the evening was climbing down from the truck with my hand-held spotlight and managing to grab a nightjar that was in the road. I could not put a name to it from up on the truck.  When I got back to my room (with it in my coat pocket), I decided it was a Little Nightjar. The next morning, David Ascanio confirmed the identification and Roger took some photos that show the double white, parallel lines on each side of its throat. It was a great way to end a magical tour to the Venezuelan Llanos.