Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Venezuela: Paradise of Birds

With its distinctive geographic areas encompassing Caribbean beaches and Andean mountains, and its location on a major migration route, Venezuela has a growing reputation as one of the most spectacular countries in the world for birdwatching, or birding as it is known to practitioners.

International twitchers flock to the Llanos to see elegant White egrets, prehistoric Hoatzins and giant Jabirus. Others visit the cloud forests of the Henri Pitter National Park, on the roads to Cuyagua or Choroni, to see Rufous-cheeked Tanagers and White-tipped Quetzals, or trek through the jungles of Amazonas State to try and catch a glimpse of a rare Harpy Eagle, a magnificent predator that can snatch a monkey or a sloth from the high canopy without missing a wing beat.

Few visitors can fail to be impressed by the Guacharo Cave in Caripe and the nocturnal Oilbirds that fly out en masse to feed as the sun sets.

So what is about Venezuela's bird life that's so unique? We spoke to British bird expert Chris Sharpe, who has been working in conservation and as a birding guide in Venezuela since 1988.

Venezuela has been described as a "Paradise of Birds". Is this because of the numbers of birds you can see in the country or the unique species you find there?

Both. An average two week guided trip to northern Venezuela will encounter 500 plus bird species - not far off the total number ever recorded in the UK. Unique species might include anything from the skulking Merida Tapaculo to the showy Northern Screamer, or from the diminutive and - until recently - almost unknown Scallop-breasted Antpitta to the stunning White-tipped Quetzal. Showy birds like our two Cocks-of-the-Rock, Scarlet Ibis, the three Hawk-Eagles, Solitary Eagle, Harpy Eagle and Red Siskin are more easily and regularly seen in Venezuela than anywhere else.

In terms of endemic species what are the highlights and where can you see them?

The main areas of endemism are the uplands: the Tepuis, the Andes and the Coastal Cordilleras. Venezuela has dozens of endemic species and, in addition to some of those mentioned above, they include the Pygmy Palm-Swift of the Maracibo Basin, the woodpecker-like Chestnut Piculet of the arid northwest, Merida's Rose-crowned Parakeet, the colourful Venezuelan Troupial, the cryptic Guttulated Foliage-gleaner of the Coastal Cordillera, and the aptly-named Flutist Wren and Red-banded Fruiteater of the Tepui region.

How does Venezuela compare to other countries in the region such as Colombia, Brazil or Peru?

Brazil, Colombia and Peru vie for the status of top country for birds, with over 1,700 species recorded in each. Venezuela boasts 1,340 species, making it number six on a world ranking. However, Venezuela is relatively compact and has a better transport network than any of the others, so it is ideal for the birders who pursue these species.

How long typically do most birders spend in the country and what is a typical itinerary?

The birders we assist spend anything from a day (tacked onto a business visit, for example) to three months, but two weeks is the duration of a typical trip for the nature tour companies we supply. Our most popular itinerary is Henri Pittier National Park, the Merida Andes and one of the Hatos in the llanos with about five days in each region. After that, people usually return for a fortnight to bird the Paria Peninsula, Oilbird Cave and Tepuis.

Where would you take somebody just starting out as a birdwatcher?

The Avila National Park, adjoining Caracas is a wonderful place to start. Over the years, I've taken many beginners there and we have observed anything from White-tailed Nightjars to Lilac-tailed Parrotlets and Foothill Screech-Owls to Ornate Hawk-Eagles!

What should people be aware of before they come birding in Venezuela?

The main thing to remember is that Venezuela is more of a challenge to the independent birder than, say, Costa Rica, Belize or Mexico. Few people speak English, permits to access birding areas are tricky to obtain, car hire is a nightmare and security is a concern. For that reason, most people engage a reputable local guide or form part of an organised tour.

Is there a "bible" to birding in Venezuela or do tourists need to hunt around for information?

Venezuela is one of the best known countries for birding and there is a long and distinguished ornithological tradition with a wealth of published information. The twin Testaments are Mary Lou Goodwin's "Birding in Venezuela" which advises on where to go and Steve Hilty's "Birds of Venezuela" which helps you to identify what you see.

What is your favourite place for birdwatching?

My favourite place is the Tepui region, especially the Canaima National Park, with La Escalera being about as good as it gets for me - anywhere in the world. I first visited the Tepuis in the 1980s and have had the pleasure to return many times since that and even work there. Sierra de Perija and Junglaven are close seconds.

When did you first come to Venezuela and why?

Together with three fellow students, I organised a zoological expedition for the University of Cambridge. Based above the village of Macuro, we studied the threatened endemic birds of the Paria Peninsula for BirdLife International and Flora and Fauna International. I became involved with Provita and the Venezuelan Audubon Society and stayed to work on conservation projects.

Was it a shock coming from your hometown of Yorkshire in the north of England to the tropical wilds of Venezuela?

No. It was a wonderful experience, not in the least shocking. I was so warmly received by the Venezuelans that I decided to stay.

Are there any birds in Venezuela that you still haven't ticked on your list?

Oh yes, there are probably hundreds to go. However, I am not a "lister", so I can't tell you just how many. I like the idea that there is always something new and unknown for me out there!

Can you describe your most magical birding moment in Venezuela?
Probably rediscovering the Recurve-billed Bushbird, a bird that had not been seen since 1964, during an exploration of the Sierra de Perij√°. I had heard a song I did not recognise and knew it must be the Bushbird. I whistled an imitation and, after a short interval, a male and female dropped into the mist net. It was such a privilege to be the first ornithologist to set eyes on these birds for half a century.

Is there a single word that sums up the experience of birdwatching in Venezuela?

"Crippling" is a term that British birders often use - perhaps "astonishing" would be a fair translation.

For more information about birding in Venezuela visit Chris Sharpe's comprehensive website: Alternatively you can contact him direct by email at Chris owns and runs Venezuela's premier bird tour operator, Birding Venezuela, which organises Venezuela tours for the major British and American bird tour companies. In addition to his conservation work, he leads bird tours throughout America, from Alaska to Argentina.

Click here for report about the Guacharo Cave in Caripe

Video: The Sights and Sounds of the Guacharo Cave

To see Steven L. Hilty's field guide "Birds of Venezuela" click here:

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