The wildlife and birds of Guyana
Welcome to the jungle
Simon Papps from Birdwatch magazine (www.birdwatch.co.uk) reports on an up and coming destination in South America.
The forests and rivers of Guyana boast an amazing fauna that includes the likes of Giant Otter, Jaguar, Harpy Eagle and Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock. So it is surprising to say the least that this small country on the north coast of South America is not better known among wildlife-watchers. Representing Birdwatch magazine I was fortunate enough to visit Guyana as part of a ‘familiarisation tour’ for travel companies and the media and I was keen to explore this underwatched destination.
As we took a small aircraft into the interior there was pristine rainforest as far as the eye could see. It occurred to me that in England the word ‘wilderness’ is often applied to small islands of habitat that have been altered by humans, or even to a tangle of bushes at the bottom of a garden. In all my travels over the years I’ve come across few better examples of what I consider to be ‘proper’ wilderness than Guyana. And there’s a lot of habitat a country the size of Britain with a population of just 750,000 people that is concentrated on the coast.
Iwokrama Rainforest and research station
Guyana is a land of rivers and forests, and often boats were the best means of transport. Many of the country’s lodges are based on rivers. One such is Iwokrama Research Station which, as well as having a terrace with a superb vista of the river, also has a splendid network of trails that fans out into the forest. Here, with the help of our local guide Ron Allicock, some of us found superb birds such as Spotted Antpitta and White-plumed Antbird, although the Rufous-winged Ground-Cuckoo that called for a while managed to remain elusive. Nearby another of the guides, Justin de Freitas (Based at the fantastic Dadanawa Ranch), had a close encounter with a Jaguar, but he was the only person to actually set eyes on it even though others could see the vegetation moving as it sloped off.
The Iwokrama Rainforest is one of Guyana’s wildlife watching hot-spots as it is comparatively accessible. Iwokrama is slap-bang in the middle of the country and bisected by Guyana’s main north-south road, (in reality is little more than a dirt track). However, a little perseverance can be required in order to find some of the forest’s more sought-after wildlife treasures. Now and again we stopped at the side of the road and took a walk into the dark, humid forest interior, where a sound or glimpse of something potentially interesting often proved frustratingly difficult to locate, although this method worked well on a few occasions, such as when we had a neck-straining view of a dazzlingly bright Guianan Red-Cotinga.
Often, though, a more productive way of viewing proved to be from the road itself, (considered the best spot in South America to see Jaguars in the wild) where the ‘gallery’ of forest edge at the roadside enabled clear views of whole trees. With the deft use of a telescope we were able to watch a host of interesting species, including Scarlet and Red-and-green Macaws, Spangled Cotinga, Spotted Puffbird, Paradise Jacamar, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Red-billed and Channel-billed Toucans and many others. Often these could be spotted from the vehicles as we drove towards our destination, while at other times we stopped and walked along stretches of roads that traversed promising looking areas of habitat. But once we were out of the vehicles we usually found it extremely difficult to get back in again as usually there was a stream of fantastic birds to watch. Sometimes it was hard to know whether to look at the treetops or the road itself. Large but shy Black Currasows could occasionally be spotted on the verges and roadside mammals included Rufous-rumped Agoutis and a medium-sized cat that tore across in front of us and into the forest and was most likely an Ocelot.
Travel To Guyana
We stayed one night close to the canopy walkway in a line of hammocks strung along the length of a rudimentary shelter, with just a mosquito net between us and the forest. But before settling down to sleep we took a night-drive along the main road, principally in search of the rare and localised White-winged Potoo which is thought to occur in the area. We had no luck with that, but were generously compensated with close views of two Spectacled Owls, a Kinkaju (an arboreal relative of the raccoons) and a roosting Red-and-green Macaw. The drive ended close to camp when we chanced upon a Long-nosed Armadillo crossing the road and watched it well for a minute or two before it pottered off into the forest.
In a country full of colourful exotic birds, perhaps Guyana’s best-known avian inhabitant is the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock. Not far from Iwokrama we were taken to a lek – or communal display area – of this species. A conservation project near Wowetta involves the local community and we were shown around by a guide from the nearby village who had a trio of leks laid on for us, each of a different species. Firstly, we were shown the display ground of the Eastern Long-tailed Hermit hummingbirds, which were buzzing about defending their territories and delivering their trilling ‘song’ from a favoured perch. A long walk along a hot and humid trail was interrupted by a look at a lek of some smart Golden-headed Manakins, while a rare sighting of a Great Tinamou scuttling along in front of us was a welcome bonus.
Anticipation was building for the main event, though, and after walking for a couple of hours through the stifling heat of the forest suddenly the terrain changed from flat ground to hilly. Then, as we approached a rocky outcrop on top of a hill, came a series of raucous screeching calls not dissimilar to those made by a Jay back in England. And there in front of us, was a Jay-sized bird with unbelievably gaudy bright-orange plumage – the cock-of-the-rock. Bright like a flame in the dark forest, this bird was top of many peoples’ wanted lists. It exceeded every expectation in terms of its ridiculous brightness and of the outlandish adornments to its plumage, with an extravagant ‘crest’ extending all the way forward beyond its beak, weird hammer-shaped tail feathers and an cape of narrow orange plumes shrouding its back. We saw several males and females in the open forest as we were ushered to a vantage point next to the rocks. There, from a safe distance, we could see male cocks-of-the-rock preparing a lek-site close to their nesting cave – a magical experience.
Giant otters at Karanambu
Perhaps Guyana’s best-known wildlife spectacle is the Giant Otter project at Karanambu, where we spent a night in the lodge that also serves as the McTurk family home for the past 80 years and as a focus for tourists and a centre for the rehabilitation of otters since Diane set up the lodge in 1983. Now visitors are welcomed with a hospitality that makes them feel like part of the family. We reached the lodge by river on small boats, passing through habitat quite different from that at Iwokrama – a patchwork of grassland and forest that makes up the Rupununi Savanna. And the species we encountered were equally varied with flocks of Black Skimmers wheeling around above us and raptors and storks frequently seen. On a trip to some ponds we encountered 11 species of herons, many of which were nesting, including the remarkable Boat-billed Herons, striking Rufescent Tiger-Herons, smart creamy-white Capped Herons and the elusive multicoloured Agami Heron.
The wildlife here doesn’t do things by halves, and in addition to the world’s largest otters, the Rupununi River and other waterways around Karanambu boast the world’s largest freshwater fish – the Arapaima, which remained as elusive as the Harpy Eagle during this trip – and the world’s largest waterlily – Victoria amazonica. Karanambu is also at the centre of a Black Caiman reintroduction programme and again, with the recurring theme, this is the largest of South America’s caiman. So we were a little taken aback during a night-time boat trip when our guide, who was keen to show us the species, leapt from the boat upon seeing an eye-reflection. Half expecting him to start wrestling with a six-metre giant, I think that most people on the boat were quite relieved when he instead picked up a relative baby – perhaps less than half a metre long – for a closer look.
Further spotlighting alerted us to the presence of an Amazonian Tree Boa hanging from a branch not far above the water, along with a variety of bats that were engaged in a feeding frenzy, gorging themselves on the clouds of insects, and the odd Lesser and Band-tailed Nighthawks that joined in the feast.
At Arrowpoint, another of the river lodges but this time in the north of the country, we were treated to two species of primate on the boat journey in, with a Bearded Saki monkey watching over us and a large and active troop of Common Squirrel Monkeys making it hard to progress far before having to stop again. Indeed monkeys were a feature of the trip with seven species seen in total, including the remarkable golden-handed Midas Tamarin and the often heard but less often seen Guyanan Red Howler Monkeys, which provided a regular morning burst of noise that can only be described as being akin to a distant gale.
At Arrowpoint we were able to take the lodge’s kayaks down narrow creeks where we found Spectacled Caiman and all manner of birds, but the star prize was a pair of Crimson Topaz hummingbirds hawking insects above the water in the cool of the early morning. With a name like that they had a lot to live up to, but if anything they exceeded expectations with the male’s plumage in particular a riot of iridescent reds, yellows and greens, all topped off with a ludicrously over-the-top pair of scythe-shaped tail-streamers. What a bird.
No trip to Guyana would be complete without a visit to what must be the country’s best-known tourist attraction – Kaieteur Falls. Luckily this also happens to be an excellent place for wildlife, from more lurid orange Guianan Cocks-of-the-Rock in the forest on the walk down to the falls, to the tiny golden frogs that inhabit the pockets of water collected in the giant bromeliads that line the path and the Orange-breasted Falcon chasing swifts in front of the falls themselves. And the great thing about Guyana is that the wilderness seemingly extends even to places that would be thronged with tourists in most parts of the world – in a two-hour visit we had the 228-metre-high falls entirely to ourselves. We didn’t see another soul except for our guide. And that sums up Guyana really – a vast and spectacular wilderness filled with amazing wildlife.
Birdwatch magazine visited Guyana courtesy of the Guyana Tourism Authority/Guyana Trade and Investment Support Programme, with support from USAID and Wilderness Explorers. Special thanks to Judy Karwacki and Tony Thorne.