Trinidad Birding Trinidad Birding Trinidad Birding


Venezuela

October 21 - 27, 1995


Ever since I'd led my first trip to Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1980s, I'd led nearly 40 tours to that tropical locale but had never birded in adjacent South America, which at its closest point was only 7 miles from Trinidad. So it was with high excitement that I accepted an invitation from Margaret Schaeffer of Caligo Ventures, Inc., the international agent for the fabulous Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, to participate in a week-long familiarization ("fam") tour of Venezuela. Even if I'd visited Venezuela before, the all-inclusive cost of $175 from Miami would have made it an easy decision. I had a valid passport, a sufficient amount of vacation time, and the all-important okay from my wife. I had no other considerations except for working out the complicated Parkersburg-Columbus-Miami airline and motel arrangements, the dues I pay for living in West Virginia, far from a major airport.

A few remarks about my preparations are in order. I intentionally refrained from any pre-trip research on Venezuela. I didn't try to resurrect my grade-school grasp of the Spanish language. I did, however, contact the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta about tropical diseases. At their recommendation I began taking one tablet of Lariam, an antimalarial prophylaxis, once a week before departing, during the trip, and for the four weeks after my return.

PREPARATIONS.
Early on in my preparations I reviewed the plates in de Schauensee's Birds of Venezuela to some slight extent and was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of flycatchers, hummingbirds, and other look-alikes found in Venezuela. About 1,300 species can be found there, which is nearly half of all the bird species in the whole of South America. Fortunately, in the field almost all the look-alikes are separable by range (mountains, forests, swamps, beaches, north or south of the Orinoco River, etc.), but I planned to let the local guides teach me the id's. I perceived the purpose of the trip to be an opportunity to personally observe the experience (transportation, accommodations, food, and guides) that any of my participants on future trips would encounter, so I wanted to be a tabula rasa when I arrived. And so I was.

EQUIPMENT.
Equipment that I carried on the trip included my Leitz 8x40 binoculars, a paperback copy of de Schauensee's Birds of Venezuela carried in a belt pouch, and my 90mm (3-1/2") Questar spotting scope. I've carried this scope on its Linhof tripod in the field for about 15 years. It's immense light-gathering ability provides full-color views of backlighted or dimly illuminated birds, even those in deep shade that appear uniformly black through my binoculars. The Questar proved to be a valuable asset everywhere we went.

PARTICIPANTS. Our group of eleven included Barbara Clarke (Lower Columbia Basin Audubon, Pasco, WA), John Himmelman (New Haven Bird Club, Killingworth, CT), Nelda Hinckley (John A. Logan College, Carterville, IL), Maggie Honig (Houston Audubon Society), Margaret Macleod (Maine Audubon Society, Falmouth, ME), John Moyle (Scarsdale Audubon Society, Scarsdale, NY), Anne Swaim (Saw Mill River Audubon, Chappaqua, NY), Simon Thompson (Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, Tryon, NC), Robert Wolk (NC State Museum, Raleigh), Margaret Schaeffer (Caligo Ventures, Armonk, NY), and me (Peregrine Enterprises, Parkersburg, WV). As an added treat, Ricardo Barbato, a professional photographer in his early 40s from Caracas, joined us for the entire trip. He turned out to be a fascinating fellow who had spent most of his career as the staff photographer for the Venezuelan elite, including the President and his family.

GETTING THERE
Saturday, October 21.
We met at the American Airlines counter at Miami International Airport and departed Miami at 11:50am. Our flight took us down the chain of the Bahama islands, across the greenery of the Dominican Republic (we could see brown, barren Haiti to the west), high over the arid, windswept island of Curaçao, and then eastward along the Caribbean coast of Venezuela to the Caracas airport in the town of La Guaira, where we landed at 2:45pm.

The Caracas airport is located 23 land miles or 7 air miles north of the city of Caracas (population over 8 million) on a narrow, heavily populated apron of relatively flat coastal land. Behind that zone rises the forest-covered Coastal Range, a series of mountain ridges that rocket from sea level to over 8000 feet in elevation in about one horizontal mile. The impression I got of the living conditions in the airport vicinity was one of a typical tropical coastal city, with sparkling white hotels rising from an understory of mostly unpainted wooden houses and shacks.

At the airport we met one of two fellows who would be our native experts and local birding guides, Gustafus ("Gus"), whose surname I never caught, and our driver, Cecilio. To prepare for future purchases, while at the airport we exchanged some of our US dollars for Venezuelan bolivars ($1=175 bolivars), then boarded a clean, spacious maxi-taxi and began the drive to our destination of the day, the city of Maracay. In the immediate vicinity of the airport we identified our first birds of the trip, all common and widespread species: Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Pelican, Black Vulture, Great and Cattle Egrets, Great Kiskadee, Band-rumped Swift, Tropical Kingbird, Carib Grackle, and Saffron Finch.

ENROUTE TO MARACAY.
The four-lane divided highway that connects the airport with Caracas rises from sea level to more than 3,000 feet in elevation and passes through about six long tunnels that penetrate the many parallel ridges of the Coastal Range. Fastened to the ceilings of each tunnel, at intervals of about a tenth of a mile, are huge fans that resemble jet engines. These fans keep the air circulating so drivers aren't overcome by exhaust fumes. The highway looked exactly like any highway in the U.S., with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, and an assortment of cars, mostly more than five years old. Two things that I noticed about transportation in Venezuela were that Venezuelan stop signs say "PARE" rather than "ALTO" as they do in Mexico and that unleaded gasoline is something that has yet to arrive there.

As the maxi-taxi turned south from the coastal strip and began to climb into the mountains, we encountered heavy traffic made up of Caracans ("Caraquenos") returning from a Saturday picnic at the beach. As we moved in stop-and-go fashion, we spotted a Roadside Hawk perched atop a dead tree on, appropriately enough, the roadside. As we got closer to Caracas we began noticing that even though all of the mountain forests are protected as a national park, the forests had been cleared from most hillsides, and squatters were rapidly clearing the remaining forested areas on other nearly vertical hillsides. I learned from Gus that the local people need the wood to make charcoal for their own use and to sell. Charcoal heats a large percentage of the houses in Caracas and is commonly used as the fuel source for cooking.

Caracas, like New York City, spreads out over a vast area, except that Caracas is in a very mountainous region and is restricted to valleys and the lower reaches of mountainsides. We saw evidence of massive landslides and landslips, some of which had apparently taken out entire neighborhoods of impoverished-looking shacks. Almost all of the buildings were whitewashed stucco with red tile roofs, except for one conspicuous neighborhood that completely surrounded the entrance to a highway tunnel. Every building in that area had been painted the same shade of light blue. We decided among ourselves that it was the original home of the Blues and the Blues Brothers. We passed the rather amorphous center of Caracas and for a long time thereafter continued to pass through a myriad of heavily populated valleys, each with skyscrapers and a certain cosmopolitan look.

Beyond Caracas to the southwest, the precipitous mountains of the Coastal Range gradually gave way to the gentle hills bordering the flat-bottomed Aragua Valley, through which our excursion took us. Here, too, the hills were treeless, often cattle-grazed. The valley floor was planted in sugarcane, bananas, corn, and coconuts. Near one extensive sugarcane plantation loomed a large rum plant, which utilized the sugar grown on the adjacent plantation. We saw lots of Cattle Egrets, Black and Turkey Vultures, Tropical Kingbirds, Smooth-billed Anis, Tropical Mockingbirds, and other common and conspicuous tropical species.

After traveling essentially west from Caracas for about three hours, we arrived at 7:45pm in the attractive city of Maracay, gateway to one of Venezuela's natural gems, the huge Henri Pittier National Park. Maracay is a medium-sized city of Spanish-style, red-tile-roofed houses. It is situated on the northeastern side of Lake Victoria, Venezuela's second-largest lake (Lake Maracaibo is the largest), across from the city of Victoria. I was sad to learn that both lakes are heavily polluted by chemical plants because Venezuela has no teeth in its anti-pollution laws.

We arrived in Maracay well after dark. We checked into the swank Hotel Byblos, enjoyed a savory welcoming dinner of corn soup, chicken with wine sauce, stewed veggies, and freshly mashed potatoes topped off with a couple bottles of "Polar" beer. Gus presented an interesting orientation lecture covering all the areas of Venezuela that we were to visit. Room keys were handed out, and I got to meet John Moyle, my roommate for the trip. We were all in bed by 10:15pm. I found the rooms to be very nice and quiet, in contrast to the usual tropical hotel rooms where Latin music, barking dogs, and partying locals create an insomniac's hell.

THE COASTAL CORDILLERA AND RANCHO GRANDE
Sunday, October 22.
Today we were up at 5:15am, enjoyed a breakfast of fruit, bread, guava jelly, and coffee at 5:30am, and were already on the road by 6:00am. The most common birds along the sidewalks of Maracay at dawn were Scaled Doves, bluebird-sized with conspicuous white outer tail feathers and a contrasting wing pattern. As the sun rose we saw many Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts, which look like anorexic Chimney Swifts with long, forked tails. We left Maracay and headed northwest into the nearby mountains, the western reaches of the Coastal Range. The mountains are completely forested or at least are regenerating from formerly grazed land, returning to a shrub-and-sapling habitat. The entire area comprises Henri Pittier National Park, which encompasses 220,000 acres and stretches from the Maracay area north into cloud forest at 4,000 feet, all the way to the Caribbean and its mangrove forests. The list of birds seen in the park includes over 500 species, with 30 species of hummingbirds.

Upon leaving the city, we came upon the first of several checkpoints we were to encounter, all manned by machine-gun-wielding soldiers. They just wanted to inspect our passports. Gus told us that the guards are stationed there to protect the wildlife by barring poachers from the park. While we waited, I watched through the window of the maxi-taxi as a Venezuelan Flycatcher foraged lethargically in a roadside tree.

Once past the checkpoint, we found ourselves negotiating a narrow, tree-lined blacktop road, similar to Blanchisseuse Road in Trinidad in that each hairpin turn afforded a new, magnificent view of the mountains. Two roads lead like inverted wishbones from Maracay north through the park; we took the western one of the two. We made one stop at a middle elevation to observe a Wedge-capped Capuchin Monkey and a family group of Red Howler Monkeys in trees close to the road.

Our first destination was a bird-banding station near the summit. Here a low pass in the otherwise unbroken wall of mountain ridges affords migrating birds an easy way to gain entry into South America. We arrived shortly after dawn, so overnight migrants were still flying in from their trans-Caribbean flight, while the local species were just beginning to greet the day. We listened to a brief lecture given by the bander-in-charge and watched as his assistants banded a White-collared Swift, a Gray-throated Leaftosser, and a Purple-headed Hummingbird. Many species are endemic (found nowhere else) to that particular mountain range. An Osprey became entangled momentarily in the nets but escaped, as did a Rufous-breasted Hermit hummingbird. We learned that during the current season the banders had already banded more than 900 Connecticut Warblers, a Nearctic migrant I'd never seen despite 40 years of searching for it. The banders were also discussing an almost unbelievably large flock of Blackpoll Warblers, estimated to number more than 600, that the station's mist nets had intercepted. That lone flock had contained more Blackpolls than most North American birders see in a lifetime. Truly, this site is of critical importance to migrating birds.

At the banding station we were joined by our second native guide, David Ascanio. David was a 28-year-old biologist with terrific birding skills and a wonderful sense of humor. He introduced us to a visiting American woman who'd been working as a volunteer at the station for several weeks. She told us some of the exotic species that had been caught in the mist nets and about how the banders had grown familiar with schedule of the comings and goings of the local birds through repeatedly capturing and releasing them.

After leaving the banding station, we backtracked about a mile down the road to our second destination of the morning, a citadel-like three-story stone mansion called Rancho Grande. In the 1930s the last dictator of Venezuela, Juan Vicente Gomez, had selected this site, twelve miles inland from the Caribbean, and ordered that the edifice be constructed as a retreat. Upon his death the workers walked off the job, leaving what looks like a massive parking garage nestled into a steep jungle hillside. The forest reclaimed the area, and the following regime designated the huge tract of land around it as a national park. Since then, biologists have cleared away the vegetation and turned the building into a biological research station that has been visited by William Beebe, Kenn Kaufman, and other prominent ornithologists. Much of the building is still unfinished, with gaping windows and missing floors. It's surrounded by giant liana-covered cloudforest trees and provides a perfect observation station.

As I emerged from the maxi-taxi and stepped onto Rancho Grande turf, I glanced up and spotted a flock of Ruddy Pigeons perched on a cluster of dead branches high above the building. Even through the Questar, to me they looked remarkably monocolored, like large Mourning Doves.

The most common species helping themselves to the free food at the fruit-filled feeders were huge Russet-backed Oropendolas, olive-colored members of the blackbird family that weave a 6-foot stockinglike nests. The oropendolas were so large and powerful that they often made off with entire bananas from the feeders. Joining them at the feeders were dull green Groove-billed Toucanets with their absurdly large bills, brightly hued Golden Tanagers, looking like condensed sunlight against the jade-colored foliage.

Overhead, raptor migration was in full swing. Migrating through the gap above were many Peregrine Falcons, a few Merlins, a Bat Falcon, an adult Black Hawk-Eagle, numerous Broad-winged Hawks, a Pearl Kite, Short-tailed and Zone-tailed Hawks, and a White Hawk. As a raptor bum who's spent thousands of hours observing migrating hawks, this was a real treat for me.

Other birds flew lower, closer to the treetops, foraging on flying insects. In chittering flocks not far above the building flew White-tipped Swifts, which nest within the building itself. Red-billed Parrots fed quietly in the fruiting fig trees, and several flocks of Blood-eared Parakeets, endemic to that mountain range, flew screeching over. We also viewed White-winged Tanagers at the feeders, an aptly named Cinnamon Flycatcher, another little flycatcher called a Yellow-bellied Bristle-Tyrant, Crested Spinetail, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and many others. I particularly enjoyed birding from the flat rooftop, where I had the immense good fortune to obtain a long, leisurely look at a male Masked Tityra, a robin-sized white flycatcher that sports a black mask above bare red facial skin.

After about an hour of frantic birding and getting over the initial excitement of having so many glorious birds almost at arm's length, we were served a breakfast of fruit, eggs, ham, and coffee on the rooftop, not far from where the oropendolas and tanagers were enjoying their own breakfast at the feeders. Afterwards we split into two groups to explore some of the jungle trails. The first bird we saw was a fabulous White-tipped Quetzal, close and cooperative, next to another knockout, a Collared Trogon. It was nice to spend time among trees as big around as my car. The midday forest was very quiet except for the penetrating antiphonal songs of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens and an occasional Rufous-tailed Jacamar, an iridescent foot-long metallic green bird that looks like a huge hummingbird.

BACK TO THE BEACH
Shortly after noon we left Rancho Grande, passed the checkpoint again, and returned to Maracay to retrieve a jacket from the hotel and to enjoy, at 2:00pm, a tasty fried chicken lunch at a fast-food place called Arturo's. While in town we added Bananaquit to our list. After lunch we drove back through the Aragua Valley, past Caracas, and past the airport to La Guaira and our destination for the night, the Sheraton Macuto Beach Hotel. Gus conducted a birdwalk at the hotel and turned up Yellow-bellied Elaenia and a Gray Kingbird. The group enjoyed another fine dinner, went over the checklist, and got to bed at about 10:30pm.

Other notable birds seen during our first day of birding were White-tipped Dove; Chestnut-fronted Macaw; Scarlet-fronted and Brown-throated Parakeets; Lilac-tailed Parrotlet; Violet-fronted Brilliant hummingbird; Red-crowned (like a Red-bellied), Golden-olive, and Lineated (like a Pileated) Woodpeckers; Plain-brown, Olivaceous, and Spot-crowned Woodcreepers (like large Brown Creepers); Black-crested Antshrike; Slaty and White-fringed Antwrens (a very tough look-alike group); Black-faced Antthrush, which forages raillike in the cloudforest underbrush and which responded instantly to an imitation of its call; Pale-breasted and Yellow-chinned Spinetails in the brush; Plain Thornbird, a nothing-looking small gray bird that builds enormous multistory stick nests that would better suit a raptor; Olive-striped Flycatcher; Social Flycatcher, a Kiskadee look-alike; Pale-breasted and Bare-eyed Thrushes; Golden-fronted Greenlet, a relative of the vireos; Tropical Parula, Yellow, Cerulean, Black-and-white, Golden-crowned, and Three-striped Warblers; American and Slate-throated Redstarts; lots of small tanagers including Speckled, Bay-headed, White-lined, Fulvous-headed (very attractive with an orange head on a gray body), Palm, Summer, and Beryl-spangled; Common Bush-Tanager; Green Honeycreeper; Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager; Grayish Saltator; Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch; and Yellow Oriole.

As you might imagine from this partial list, it wasn't feasible for us to review the entire checklist every night as we do on most tours. Each go-through took us about an hour if we didn't discuss individual species or the occasion of the sighting. So we each kept track independently of what we saw and talked it over among ourselves as opportunities arose.

TO THE HIGH ANDES
Monday, October 23.
Up at 4:15am, left for the airport at 5:00am, and caught the 7:00am Avensa Airlines flight to the city of Merida in the State of Merida. Merida is in far western Venezuela, nestled at about 10,000 feet in elevation in a rift valley between two spectacular 16,000-foot, snow-covered ranges of the Andes mountains. The temperature was in the 50s, the sunshine was brilliant, and I felt wonderful. No oxygen to breathe, but so what? Anywhere I looked the scenery was like a postcard. The buildings of the University of the Andes were brilliant white with red tiled roofs. The college and the masses of students made me think of Boulder, Colorado.

In Merida we were met by another apparently new maxi-taxi and another professional driver. He took us on a brief motor tour of this charming, ultra-clean city, finally depositing us at the central market, a multi-story building that houses a spacious restaurant along with a plethora of tiny vendors' booths. As had been the case on my long ago visit to San Jose, Costa Rica, Rufous-collared Sparrows were the common species in Merida. At the market we had another exceptionally fine breakfast, complete with exotic local fruit drinks, then wandered on our own among the vendors. I was tempted by all the local chocolate, which was proffered in every form from raw beans to golfball-sized confections, but in the end all I purchased were two bags of ground coffee, one Venezuelan, the other Brazilian. I also used the opportunity to pick up the obligatory postcards and toys.

The Andean valley in which Merida lies runs southwest to northeast, with Merida roughly at the midpoint. A rivulet in Merida becomes the Santo Domingo River several miles to the northeast. It was in the unsullied, barely inhabited Santo Domingo Valley that we enjoyed the next two days.

After leaving the market, we made a brief stop for the convenience of the maxi-taxi driver. We couldn't be restrained from jumping out and flailing away with our binoculars. The towering trees in the quaint city square were festooned with what looked like Spanish moss, flowing ribbons of greenish gray that wafted about in the breeze. A flock of Andean Siskins, looking very much like black-capped American goldfinches, uttered their sizzling trills from the crowns of the trees.

Leaving Merida, we followed the only road north. We pulled up a few miles outside town at Sierra Nevada (=snowy mountain) National Park. The air was fresh and scented with pines, very reminiscent of the intermountain parks in the American Rockies. That wasn't surprising, seeing as how the Rockies are simply a northern extension of the Andes. The same cordillera actually extends from Tierra del Fuego all the way to northern Alaska. It forks, or bifurcates, in Columbia and sends out an eastern wrinkle all the way to Trinidad, where its last 40 miles is known as the Northern Range.

We spent a considerable amount of time in Sierra Nevada National Park. The trails were steep, but we hiked slowly and stopped frequently for breathers out of respect for the elevation. During our exploration we observed such species as Sparkling Violetear hummingbird, which was a brilliant emerald-green; Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, which we lured tantalizingly close to being in full view in the dense undergrowth by playing back a recording of its own song; Black-capped, White-throated, and Venezuelan Tyrannulets, little brown jobs with names longer than their bodies; Smoke-colored (formerly Greater) Pewee; entire families of Black Phoebes on powerlines; Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant; Mountain Wren; Andean Solitaire, a good songster but short on color; Chestnut-bellied Thrush, which I momentarily mistook for a Robin; Red-eyed Vireo; Blackburnian Warbler; White-fronted Redstart; Blue-and-black and Blue-capped Tanagers; had a quick view of a roving flock of chipping Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches in the dense ground cover; Shiny Cowbird; and Lesser Goldfinch.

As we drove beyond the park, the road became a ribbon of a thing that traced a path along the most precipitous cliffs I'd ever seen. In fact, the terrain was the most vertical I'd ever seen. At times I couldn't see the ground below without sticking my head out the window of the maxi-taxi. The valley was very sparsely populated, with a few tiny settlements at long intervals. We were far above the treeline, and the terrain was grass-covered for the most part. Long, ancient stone walls separated one field from another. Occasionally I'd see a farmer at work with two oxen and a wooden plow, but for the most part the mountains and valleys were pristine, with no trace of humans except for the road itself.

Hour after hour we drove through some of the most spectacular scenery I'd ever seen. Billowing clouds of white, gray, and black moved with fascinating speed over the mountaintops, then swept like snow down and across the valley. The cars that we passed were all vintage 1960 or 1970 models, looking showroom new. I felt very much like I'd stepped into a time machine.

Late in the afternoon we stopped at a narrow roadside town called Mucuchias and had another shopping opportunity at the local market. Some of the participants purchased handmade woolen blankets for about $12 each. The rest of us walked up the road, birding as best we could in the cold wind. The shock of swapping a 95-degree beachside ambience for midwinter temperatures was dizzying, and the elevation at which we were travelling added to the feeling of otherworldliness.

THE HOTEL PASO REAL
Just after dark, around 6:00pm, we arrived at an intimate hacienda called the Hotel Paso Real, which lies exposed in the center of a wide, glacially formed valley at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. It was humorous to see us all, standing not more than eight degrees north of the Equator yet all bundled up in sweaters, sweatshirts, down jackets, gloves, and hats. And for good reason -- the water in the river was edged with ice in the morning.

We were lodged in a two-story motel-looking building that I think dated back about 300 years. It was amazingly cozy and nice to have a room just large enough to accommodate a bed, table, and another bed in a loft, along with a teeny bathroom. All the exposed wood was natural; no 2x4s or other commercial lumber. The ladder to the loft bed was worn smooth by years of use. Altogether it was a wonderful, welcoming room.

The dining hall was separated from the lodge by about 100 yards, up the slight incline. A Band-winged Nightjar had taken a liking to a footpath light at the end of the porch. It was there from dusk till dawn, feeding of any insects attracted to the light. I flushed it by accident several times during my stay, but it only flew a few yards off, then returned after I'd moved away.

The dining hall, like the lodge, was very old, with exposed natural wood forming overhead rafters. We had a light dinner of steaming hot leek soup and homemade bread, along with some Polar beers and coffee. Our hosts were charming, friendly, and dressed for the Arctic in bright native woolens. Having lost about half of our IQ points because of the temperature and low oxygen, we tourists barely conversed during dinner and sort of fell into bed by about 9:00pm.

Other new bird species seen during our second day of birding were Common Black-Hawk; Eared Dove; Squirrel Cuckoo, the size of a Rock Dove with a streaming, white-spotted tail; Chestnut-collared Swift; Blue-and-white Swallow, for which I'd searched unsuccessfully in Trinidad for years; Shiny Cowbird; and Lesser Goldfinch.

MIDLEVEL RAINFOREST BIRDING
Tuesday, October 24.
On this morning we arose very early (so what's new?!), enjoyed a hot breakfast of eggs, fruit, cheese, bread, and coffee, and were on the road well before dawn. Our goal was to travel a considerable distance down the steep-sided valley to a display ground ("lek") of male Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks (or would it be Cocks-of-the-Rock?). These blaze-orange, crow-sized birds eat fruit, which is always easy to find in the jungle. Instead of having to spend 70% of their time foraging for food, as do insect-eating species, their diet of fruit is so easily obtained in the mountain cloudforests that they spend only 10% of their time feeding. The rest of the time they perform elaborate dances with other males on courts in the forest, hoping to be selected by a female, who visits the lucky male on his turf, copulates with him, and then flies off to attend to nest building and chick raising, alone. The male pays no part in raising the young and may not even leave the lek after his brief encounter with the female.

The most active and vocal portion of the dance takes place just after dawn, which explained our early departure from the hotel. We wanted to visit the lek in the cloudforest at La Mucuy while the greatest number of males were in attendance, before they dispersed after their daybreak display of dancing prowess.

We drove for about an hour and a half, downhill the entire way, weaving and swerving enough on the sinuous road to make both me and the photographer carsick. The temperature rose noticeably as we descended, and the increasing warmth, combined with our being bundled to the max, must have been what caused it, because after he and I had stripped down to our T-shirts, we were fine.

As the first glimmer of morning light pierced the darkness of the towering mountains overhead, we slowed and then pulled off onto a dirt road that led to a quarry. At the urging of Gus, we left the maxi-taxi behind and hiked at a very brisk pace for about a mile, passing through the quarry and continuing on a foot trail beyond. As the light level increased we could perceive that we were in an unbroken cloudforest on an isolated ridgeside. As the first rays of the sun began to illuminate the trees around us, we were impressed with the number of parasitic plants growing on the trees. There were bromeliads everywhere, looking like pineapples. Some of them were in bloom, sending up yard-long spikes of showy red flowers. Everywhere hung long, thin fig and liana vines. For the most part, the trees were shorter than those back home, a result of the elevation perhaps. At one point a large, iridescent green bird blasted across the trail not far ahead of us, showing a quick flash of crimson underparts -- a Crested Quetzal.

We reached a wide spot in the trail. Gus told us that the next phase of the hike would be to descend a nearly vertical trail that led to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek. He cautioned us that the first hundred yards or so would probably be traversed on our seats and that it was a very strenuous hike. Three of us decided to abstain, preferring instead to enjoy some leisurely birding along the secluded, promising trail.

It was an excellent decision. During the next hour I had some of the best birding of the entire trip. As the sun began to really flex its tropical muscles, screeching flocks of Rose-headed Parakeets and other psittacids (parrots, parakeets, and parrotlets) circled overhead and out over the valley, occasionally being outflown by rocketing flocks of giant White-collared Swifts. A group of Band-tailed Pigeons, the same species as is found in the Colorado Rockies, foraged in a tree high up the slope.

When birding in the tropics, one always hopes for a roving mixed-species flock of birds to descend into a nearby tree. That's what happened within minutes of our arrival. First there'd been the pregnant predawn stillness, then the cacophonous tumult with which the birds greeted the dawn, and now the decibel level suddenly increased dramatically as a flock of about 50 birds flowed into a nearby fruiting fig tree. Aiming binoculars at a moving wave of birds is difficult, as distraction piles upon distraction. An azure-colored bird is almost in view behind a tree trunk when a closer bird, perhaps golden in color, hops into view and steals your attention. Within minutes the three of us had identified a female Red-headed Barbet with her toucanlike bill, a drab Mountain Elaenia, a lone Golden-winged Manakin, a fantastically multicolored Blue-necked Tanager, and Purple Honeycreepers and Blue-naped and Chestnut-bellied Chlorophonias, smaller and fatter relatives of the tanagers.

As we watched, several Coal-black and White-sided Flower-Piercers acted out their names, using their curiously bent, needle-sharp beaks to poke holes in the bottom of tubular flowers, stealing nectar from the flowers without pollinating them. A lovely flutelike song burst from one of the drabber birds, which we identified as another Andean Solitaire. There were lots and lots of birds of about 20 species, apparently one or at most a pair of each species. All of them were engaged in a leapfrog motion that carried them directly past us as they moved from one fruiting tree to the next, branch by branch.

After the main body of the flock had passed out of sight and then out of earshot, we settled down to observing the "locals." The ridgeside next to us was clothed in ferns, flowers, and many species of plants belonging to the widespread tropical family Melastomaceae, most of which are ground-loving understory plants. As we admired a cluster of brilliant red tubelike flowers nearby, a hummingbird suddenly zipped in among them. It sported an amazing tail -- two twin bare feather shafts, with feathers only at the tips. This was a much sought-after species, the Booted Racket-tail. Within seconds another hummingbird appeared, also sporting a similarly long tail, but its tail was sapphire blue and fully feathered -- another choice species, the Long-tailed Sylph. Yet another colorful hummingbird that proved partial to these flowers was the Orange-throated Sunangel, with a rather short, straight bill, emerald green back, buffy underparts, and a mouth-watering orange gorget or throat patch.

We were anything but bored as we prowled along the trail, spotting and identifying all sorts of things. As luck had it, we even found our own Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, a male perched cooperatively about 50 feet above us, its lemon eye and day-glow orange body shining brightly against the dark green foliage.

Eventually the rest of the group appeared over the rim of the trailhead, having seen the lek and a number of male Cock-of-the-Rocks. As we walked slowly back to maxi-taxi we stopped to view a female Golden-headed Quetzal, lime-green and in good view but perfectly camouflaged against the foliage. While searching with binoculars for the quetzal, someone spotted another male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock higher in the canopy. Even though we'd all seen the species well, it still demanded our admiration.

We strolled along the trail, out of the forest, and crossed the expanse of freshly exposed limestone in the quarry. David pointed out a two similar-looking species high above us along the cliff -- a Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, which looked like a small thrush with a reddish eye-line and orange underparts, and a cinnamon-colored Cliff Flycatcher, which was very active catching flies along the face of a cliff (some tropical birds seem to have been named most appropriately). Swallows and swifts were flying around the cliff-face as well, with Blue-and-white Swallows affording excellent views as they rested very close to us atop sun-warmed boulders.

On our return drive up the mountains to the Hotel Paso Real, we stopped at a breathtaking overlook to view a huge reservoir far below us in the valley. The water was held back by what looked like a twin of our own Hoover Dam. Through the Questar I picked out a small flock of Blue-winged Teal swimming on the reservoir. We agreed that we had just identified birds at least a mile from us. Good old Questar!

THE PARAMO -- ABOVE THE TREELINE
Later, back at the ranch (I love being able to say that!), we had a light lunch, then prepared for our afternoon excursion by bundling up again in everything we'd packed. Leaving the hotel, we drove for about an hour back toward Merida, higher and higher up above the treeline, to the permanently wet meadows called "paramo". The paramo is a unique environment found only above 8,000 feet in elevation. It's dominated by a single kind of flower, a composite (like sunflowers and daisies) called Espeletia, although hundreds of different kinds of plants burst into flower coincident with the ending of the rains in late October. We left the main road and took a side road even higher, passing farmers plowing the thin, rocky soil with oxen and as had their forefathers. The terrain was so steep that tractors would have been useless. I watched a group of farmers digging in one field, harvesting potatoes. Around the fields were neat, geometrically precise stone fences made of rubble periodically cleared from the fields. The fences looked as if they could have been centuries old. As far as I could see down the valley, field followed field partway up the mountainsides, forming fantastic quiltlike patterns like the ones I'd seen in photos of the Inca lands in Peru.

With no reference points such as trees in the mountains by which to judge distance, what looked like acres of Espeletia stretching to the other side of the valley could just as easily have been miles of them. A pinnacle topped our vista, a small permanent glacier covering the side that never received direct sunlight. I estimated that it was probably a mile away; David corrected me, saying that he and some friends had climbed it once, that it was nearly 16,000 feet tall and was a good ten miles away. The air was so pure and crystalline that distance was impossible to judge accurately.

The maxi-taxi dropped us off at the top of a shallow side valley that dropped slowly down to the main valley. The driver then left us and parked the maxi-taxi at the foot of the valley so that all of our walking would be downhill. And that was a great idea, as any exertion was met with pounding hearts at this elevation in excess of 15,000 feet.

After grabbing my binoculars and the Questar and getting out of the maxi-taxi, the first thing I did was scan for hawks. I was rewarded right away by the sight of a gigantic raptor soaring directly overhead. In outline it had the very wide winged/very wide but very short tailed appearance of a White Hawk, but it was many times larger. This was a high-elevation specialty, the Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, found only in the paramo where it feeds mainly on rabbits.

Also soaring or beating past overhead during our paramo promenade (or perhaps masochism tango) were hawks that looked amazingly like our Sharp-shinned Hawk but which David later told me had recently been split into a separate species called the Pale-vented Hawk. The only difference I noticed was that the paramo species had rufous-colored feathering on the thighs. Merlins and American Kestrels passed over, too, and then a smallish broad-winged hawk, a member of the buteo group, which we easily identified from its prominent white rump as -- what else? -- a White-rumped Hawk.

The surface of the paramo was squishy and spongy, moistened by the almost daily precipitation that had fallen during the rainy season. It was drained by innumerable rivulets that, in the Santo Domingo Valley, coalesced into the Santo Domingo River. The Espeletia plants were furry and waist-high, with rosettes of fuzzy brownish-green leaves resembling Mullein at the base and with older leaves embracing and surrounding the stalk from base to tip. Each plant was topped by a small, flat, yellow, sunflower-looking flower, or a nearly ripe flower bud. Besides Espeletia, the only vegetation seemed to be short, sparse grasses and a few wiry bushes.

The consensus of the group was to fan out and walk slowly downhill, traversing the meadow and flushing whatever birds we could locate. Fan out we did, and within a few minutes we were so fanned out that most of us were birding independently. Birds were few and difficult to find, being well camouflaged in streaky brown plumages and flushing either far ahead or right at our feet and flying directly away in an undulating manner. In this fashion I jumped a number of sparrow-sized birds that I was later told were weirdly named species such as Bar-winged Cinclodes, Ochre-browed Thistletail, Streak-backed Canastero, and Paramo Pipit. The only species of which I was confident of my identifications were the Bearded Helmetcrest hummingbird and the Paramo Wren.

The Bearded Helmetcrest is a sparrow-sized, dark-brown hummingbird with a white throat and chest, a beard composed of about six downward-pointing white feathers, and a windswept-looking crown of white feathers. For a hummingbird, it has a remarkably short bill, which is adapted to catching the tiny insects found in the flowers of the Espeletia in the cold paramo. To conserve energy and oxygen, Bearded Helmetcrests don't hover at flowers; instead they cling to the flowerheads, hanging upsidedown like chickadees, probing for insects with their short, straight bills. The first helmetcrest I spotted was hopping across matted grass on the ground, and I mistook it for a sparrow. After all, who has ever seen a hummingbird foraging on the ground, and hopping? As I walked and rested and walked and rested I saw many other helmetcrests. Typically I'd stand very still, surveying the ground around me for birds. The helmetcrest that claimed that patch of Espeletia would zip up close, hover while examining me, then land nearby and scold me with a series of sharp chip notes.

At one point on my walk, a small thrush flew up and landed not far from another participant, who identified it as a Veery. I concurred with the identification, and it became the first substantiated Veery ever seen in the paramo. It's a species that breeds in moist eastern forests in North America and usually winters in rainforests in Central and northern South America, mostly at low elevations.

Finding the Paramo Wren required stealth birding. Something moved in a clump in Espeletia near the end of a thick stand of it, beyond which was an area of open grass. I knew that if I worked my way slowly forward, through the Espeletia, and maintained a position on the opposite side of a small creek from the bird, I'd be able to follow its movements as it walked and hopped through the cover of vegetation. I saw it well several times as it scurried quickly through Espeletia leaves just above the ground. It was tiny, about the size of a Winter Wren, but it was much lighter in color. One of the other participants joined me in a pincer movement, closing in on the bird from two sides. We finally pinned it down in the very last Espeletia plant, but we couldn't see it. As I stood still next to the plant, I looked straight down just as the wren ran across my left tennis shoe and disappeared into the fuzzy base of a more distant plant. That glimpse was the last we saw of the bird.

One of my favorite birds of the trip, another paramo specialist, was the Great Thrush. Imagine a dark brown crow-sized robin with yellowish-orange bill, legs, and feet and a narrow orange eye-ring. When I spotted my first Great Thrush performing huge hops over the soggy ground, I had to laugh. We all agreed that there's something inherently funny about this bird. We later found one that had died by flying into our hotel. With this opportunity to examine a Great Thrush in the hand, we were able to note its very thick, strong legs and the parasitic ear mites crowded around the perimeter of its ear openings. Our guides were interested in the pattern of molt shown by the feathers.

HIGH ELEVATION PARKLAND
The sun had come out full strength while we explored the paramo. It invited lingering and lounging. The temperature probably reached 60 degrees, but it felt warmer. Eventually we all gravitated downhill to the maxi-taxi. After reboarding, our driver took us on a side trip to a park headquarters that lies exactly on the junction of the Pacific and Caribbean tectonic plates. It was the geological action of these plates colliding that forced the Andes Mountains upwards; the summits of a few peaks soar nearly four miles above sea level. The fault line was perfectly visible on the ground and especially so in the satellite images that the park director showed to us. Several of us had our pictures taken straddling this furrow in the earth. It runs down the center of the twin, parallel ranges of mountains that form the valley in which lie Merida, Mucuchias, Santo Domingo, and the other cities and towns of the eastern Andes.

At the park, a low, gray fog blanketed the landscape, creating a twilight aspect. It had grown quite chilly and windy; images in my scope danced and quivered with each gust. We searched the surface of the high elevation lake outside the visitors' center and found a Great Egret. Nearby swam a family group of an endemic high-elevation waterfowl, the Speckled Teal, along with a few Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, and other sandpipers and shorebirds. Foraging in the gravel near the headquarters building was a female Plumbeous Sierra-Finch and several Rufous-collared Sparrows.

The real spectacle to me consisted of the endless flocks of migrating swallows that were constantly whizzing past our heads, flying sandwiched in a tight envelope of visibility between the ground and the fog. Individual birds appeared through a nearby gap, crossed the lake just inches above the surface, gained a few feet in altitude and were on us so quickly and passed so close to us in wave after wave that it was difficult to focus on any individual bird. Even so I picked out Barn, Bank, Cliff, and Brown-bellied Swallows along with a few Gray-breasted Martins and a single Purple Martin.

We were all pretty exhausted from our early morning rising and our day-long lack of oxygen and were satisfied to call it a day after another hour of so at the park headquarters. We returned to the Hotel Paso Real, where I walked around until I found the pair of Southern Lapwings I'd heard before sunrise. Even though this species of shorebird is large and has a striking, bold pattern, this pair blended in perfectly with the broken brown-and-green coloration of the terrain. Other common birds around the hotel were Rufous-collared Sparrows and a familiar species from home, the Eastern Meadowlark.

At dinner this evening we were warmed not only by the fireplace but by homemade wine as well. We also had icy Polar beer, which was becoming a nightly tradition, and sampled other liquors, some with a licorice taste, all quite satisfying in the warmth they produced. After dinner and a bird tally, we stumbled off to bed, bidding the Band-winged Nightjar good night as we passed it.

DESCENT FROM THE ANDES
Wednesday, October 25.
If one participates in fam trips on a regular basis, I suppose one gets used to inky-black early morning (or is it still nighttime?) departures. Today was no exception. The rising sun found us already packed, finished with breakfast and a short stint of predawn birding, and preparing to bid a sad farewell to the Hotel Paso Real. We set off again on the only road down the Santo Domingo Valley. Our destination for the day was the far distant interior region of Venezuela, the llanos, an area of extensive, flat, grassy plains. Our specific destination was the famous 106,000-acre ranch called Hato El Cedral and the Matiyure Wildlife Sanctuary, where we would spend the next day and a half.

As we entered the first altitudinal life zone that offered more than knee-high vegetation, we made a two-hour stop to observe the birds in a forest composed of dwarf species, including several kinds of bamboo. The air was still sparkling, crisp, and cold. We walked slowly along a mountain lane listening to the endless variety of songs of the Rufous-collared Sparrow and watching for some of the hummingbird specialties of the highlands. We found one, a beautiful gem called the Tyrian Metaltail. I was engaged during this walk in the process of getting the sliding window of my camera to come unjammed, at which I was finally successful at the cost of missing some good birding. Toward the end of our brief foray I had to run to catch up with the other participants. I'd forgotten about the thin air, and that endeavor helped me set what must have been a new heart rate for my body.

We continued our winding way down from the heights, encountering more and more woody vegetation and finally bursting into solid rainforest. Farther along we stopped at a high bridge overlooking the Santo Domingo River to scan the crashing whitewater for several special birds found only in this habitat: Torrent Duck, White-capped Dipper, and Torrent Flycatcher. Almost unbelievably, we found all three species within a few minutes. The pair of Torrent Ducks, very attractive merganserlike birds, seemed to defy the laws of physics as they floated in the fastest rushing water, casually foraging amid crashing, cascading splashes, dipping their bills underwater in search of aquatic insects and their nymphs. The male slid up and out of the river after awhile, onto a rock upon which had been sitting a White-capped Dipper. The dipper immediately vacated the spot out of respect for the duck, which was probably fifty times the dipper's weight. Soon the male duck slid smoothly back into the river and joined the foraging female. According to the laws of physics as I learned them, they should both have been propelled several miles downstream within a few seconds, but like an optical illusion they continued to paddle leisurely in the hectic water, maintaining a relatively stationary position. We were absolutely overjoyed at our good luck at having seen both species. Then a kingbird-like Torrent Flycatcher came rockhopping upstream into view to complete the picture. Thus we had a sensational one-stop clean sweep of the Andean torrent-loving birds.

Our descent continued mile after mile. Several thousand feet lower, in an area where the vegetation was strongly reminiscent of that in Trinidad's Arima Valley, the driver pulled the maxi-taxi off the road along a lush cliffside. We all got out to see what we could see while our guides appeared to be searching for something hidden in the tangle of vines that draped the face of the cliff. We found a few Silver-beaked Tanagers and were scanning for other species when the guides shouted for us to come quickly. At last they were able to show us their prize, almost hidden by vegetation but perfectly visible once we made it out -- a fantastic Lyre-tailed Nightjar, which looked like a tiny gray owl with a three-foot tail. We were so close that to view more than just the bird's face I had to position the Questar across the road. This was a species that none of us had even dreamed of seeing, and now we could even study its C-shaped nostrils if we cared to.

ENTERING THE LLANOS
We entered a range of foothills. The temperature had been rising, and when we left the hills behind and entered the forested plains of the State of Barinas, it was comfortably hot. Once again we could wear just a single layer of clothing. We stopped for lunch in the capital of the State of Barinas, which is called, appropriately enough, Barinas. Here we relaxed in the shade of an open-air restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely lunch while examining Saffron Finches and Orange-fronted Yellow-Finches in the nearby bushes. I thought that telling them apart wouldn't be easy because the field guide described the Saffron Finch as having orange-yellow on the face and the Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch as having burnt-orange, which really isn't much of a distinction. The field guide might have done better to mention that Saffron Finches are a third again larger than Orange-fronteds and are thus somewhat easy to tell apart.

The city of Barinas dozed quietly under the hot midday sun. Looking back to the west for the Andes, all I could make out to indicate that they existed were a few clouds very far off and almost on the horizon. A person living in Barinas might not even know that snow was falling only a few hours' drive westward. A strange thought indeed, but no stranger than the fact that thousands of schoolchildren in the capital of Trinidad don't know that the rainforest exists only a few miles east of them. I was suddenly even more grateful than usual to be travelling, learning, and experiencing another part of the world.

A few bottles of Polar beer helped ease a few of us into a long siesta during the drive to the llanos that followed. Hour after hour we drove at high speed along a perfectly straight brush-walled two-lane road, slowing almost to a stop now and then for washouts and stopping occasionally at checkpoints where soldiers would either examine the list of passport numbers or actually board the maxi-taxi to examine the passports closely. The reason for this, David told us, was to intercept stolen vehicles from Colombia.

The terrain, already nearly flat, grew even flatter and became wetter. David explained that we had entered the upper llanos, an area characterized by level land and an abundance of trees, in contrast to the lower llanos, which are also flat but nearly treeless. We saw little in the way of birdlife in the upper llanos compared with what we were to encounter in the lower llanos. Here and there soared a Black or Turkey Vulture. Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees perched on treetops. Scaled Doves flew up as the maxi-taxi passed. Mainly, sleep-deprived as we were, we dozed.

My father the linguist told me that Spanish words such as llanos that begin with "ll" are derived primarily from Latin words that began with "pl", which would make "llanos" "planos", or plains. That makes sense. I learned Spanish in grade school and learned to pronounce "ll" as a "y" sound, but our guides as well as many South Americans do not often encounter the "y" sound, instead substituting a "j" sound. It was thus with great mirth (and good humor) that we greeted David's announcement of Lesser Jello-headed Vultures cruising over the flooded fields alongside the road. We worked hard with David to get him to make the "y" sound until he was saying "yellow" instead of "jello."

The ecological turning point of the day came as we crossed a high bridge that spanned the mile-wide Apure River and entered the State of Apure. Beyond the Apure River, to the south, lies the land of the lower llanos. The landscape appeared as an inch-deep sheet of water, the soil having been saturated to capacity during the recently ended rainy season. By January the llanos would be a dusty, windblown grassland, but for now it was a paradise of waterbirds. Immediately we began shouting out the names of the birds we were passing -- Jabiru Stork, Little Blue Heron, Long-winged Harrier, Black-crowned and Yellow- ("Jello")-crowned Night-Herons. We stopped once for a point-blank look at a female Aplomado Falcon perched conveniently close to the road. This species has become extremely rare in the U.S. as a result of farming practices and pesticide use in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, not to mention throughout its range in Mexico.

The parklike wet prairie stretched in all directions as far as we could see. Often huge clouds of waterfowl rose into the air, flocks composed of White-faced and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and other species. The few large trees often were topped with a perched raptor, mostly caracaras but occasionally a Savanna Hawk. We were very frustrated at not being able to stop, but we understood that our guides wanted us to arrive at Hato El Cedral before dark. They swore that everything we were seeing and more awaited us at the ranch. That was decidedly an understatement.

Near the end of our journey that day we made a pit stop at a village that had facilities to meet our pressing needs, along with cold drinks and snacks. After our high-elevation days it felt tar-melting hot at this double-digit elevation. Still we found time and energy to bird, spotting a Blue-black Grassquit in the weeds behind a gas station and about 50 Fork-tailed Flycatchers foraging low over the surrounding grasslands. Then it was back on the road for more fabulous birding through the maxi-taxi windows. It was "Crane Hawk perched on that fencepost!" "Look at the Yellow-headed Caracara!" "Crested Caracara on our side!" "We have a Black-collared Hawk over here!" The birdlife was stupendous, and we hardly noticed the time that passed.

HATO EL CEDRAL
After midafternoon the air grew more temperate. We crossed another river, this one being the muddy, swiftly flowing Caicara. The driver surprised us by stopping the maxi-taxi at the only house for miles and miles, a place with nothing in particular of note save a dike road perpendicular to the highway, a road that looked as if it had been mud since the Year One.

This was the entrance road to Hato El Cedral.

The driver parked the maxi-taxi as far off the highway as he could so we could transfer our luggage from there to a waiting flatbed truck. The back of the truck had been modified to accommodate groups like ours. It was equipped with back-to-back benches with enough space between them for our luggage to be stored, a tarp overhead to provide protection from the rain and sun, and an observation platform over the cab on which we could stand if we so desired. The maxi-taxi would never have been able to negotiate all that mud, but the flatbed truck handled it with ease.

Without exception we were overwhelmed by the sight of what must be one of South America's greatest wildlife spectacles. To begin with, the lighting was absolutely perfect, that golden-yellow glow that sometimes follows a late afternoon downpour. Shafts of sunlight highlighted distant features of the landscape. Everything seemed very intimate and close by. Life teemed everywhere we looked. For a long time no one spoke except in hushed tones. Then the excitement burst through and we were pointing, laughing, and acting like kids.

We were surrounded by huge Jabiru, Maguari, and Wood Storks; Cocoi (formerly called White-necked), Whistling, and Striated Herons; endemic Orinoco Geese and Brazilian Ducks; Southern Lapwings; Yellow-chinned Spinetails; and Buff-necked, Glossy, Bare-faced, and Sharp-tailed Ibis. Grazing anywhere one looked were family groups of collie-sized, snub-nosed Capybara, the world's largest rodents, looking like guinea pigs on steroids. Along the roadside ran a narrow but deep stream. On its muddy margins, Spectacled Caiman sunned themselves and dreamed of catching succulent young Capybara.

Huge Ringed Kingfishers and their smaller cousins, Amazon Kingfishers, torpedoed past the truck only to pull up abruptly some distance ahead, perching on cane stalks that overhung the stream. Small groups of Collared Plovers ran like windup toys in the road, zipping past loafing Capybaras and tall, strange-looking shorebirds called Double-striped Thick-Knees.

Yellow-headed and Crested Caracaras were all over the place. After a very few minutes we stopped calling out "Caracara!" except once, when we passed a tree in which more than 50 Crested Caracaras were roosting -- that elicited excitement from our guides, who'd never before seen that large a congregation of them.

After years of searching in vain for a Rufescent Tiger-Heron in Trinidad, I was delighted to come upon one feeding close and in perfect view along the stream. I could see now where its name came from -- the thick, reddish-striped, manelike feathering on its neck. Later on the trip I was delighted to spot its stick-platform next in a tree above the headquarters building and watch it feed its downy young.

Judging from the fact that at one point we watched freshwater-river-inhabiting Pink Dolphins surface for air, the stream must have been quite deep. We drove parallel to the stream for about a mile on our trip from the highway to the headquarters, but it took us two hours because very frequently we pounded on the roof of the cab, signaling the driver to stop so we could view some new attraction. Who could resist doing so when a Vermilion Flycatcher landed next to the road or a Jabiru Stork flew low overhead carrying nesting material and looking like a C-5A cargo jet?

HEADQUARTERS
We finally reached the ranch headquarters, or compound, as some of us called it. This city-block-sized area consisted of about 15 small white buildings sheltered under a grove of very tall trees, many of them with buttressed roots for stability. The staff and some of the ranchers lived there. When visitors such as ourselves come to stay overnight, the are put up in comfortable bungalows. Vermilion Flycatchers glowed from the nearby fences while above us from the trees came the cheeps and hums of innumerable baby storks, ibises, tiger-herons, and other species.

Ready to greet us warmly upon our arrival at the headquarters area were the staff, who consisted of ranch hands, kitchen help, and a whole slough of genuine Venezuelans, including little Spanish-looking children, attractive and brown-skinned. Leather boots seemed to be the preferred footwear. The exception was with the younger residents, who were barefooted and seemed to derive pleasure from the mud squishing between their toes. The workers carted our luggage to the separate bungalows in which we'd stay. The rooms were very large and comfortable. In ours, besides cleanliness and comfort I found a number of Aedes mosquitoes resting on the walls where the light didn't fall; to inactivate them, I turned the air conditioner to "Full".

By the time we'd settled in, the sun had set. Like bugs to a light we headed for the beckoning yellow glow of the screened-in dining hall, where we were treated to a hearty dinner of meat and potatoes, green vegetables, homemade bread, and a caramel dessert. After dinner Gus lectured to us on the natural history of the llanos and on the history of the ranch. In its early years, Hato El Cedral (=ranch with cedars) functioned as a South American extension of the great King Ranch of South Texas, during which time it was called "Venezuela West." Today it's still a working cattle ranch, but instead of the Santa Gertrudis breed that was developed on the King Ranch to withstand the hot, dry climate of South Texas, the cattlemen of Hato El Cedral raise a variety called the zebu. Besides raising cattle, biological researchers at the site also study Anaconda, Capybara, Spectacled Caiman, and other wildlife.

In the isolation of the llanos, the locals must provide their own entertainment. That night we were entertained by a trio of ranch residents who called themselves "The Llaneros". The cuatro, a four-stringed little brother of the guitar, was an instrument new to most of the tour participants. The other two instruments were a harp and a set of maracas, which were played by a 10-year-old maraca expert who also sang. The songs were all in Spanish and must have been quite humorous because the singers occasionally broke into laughter between stanzas. We jokingly decided that the songs were about strange white-skinned people who paid to get sunburned, bugbitten, and sleep-deprived.

I was surprised at how few insects were apparent outside at night. Usually insects are abundant in the tropics. Here, however, very few insects of any kind were to be found except for those that were attracted to lights. As the insects rested on the white stucco they were easy to examine and identify. The vast majority of them were orthopterans -- grasshoppers, crickets, and their relatives -- with a few leafhoppers and planthoppers as well. Diligent searching turned up a few small beetles, all of them either grass-root feeders of the family Scarabaeidae or adults of water-loving species such as whirligig beetles. Considering that most of the surrounding area consisted of grassland, the abundance of such specialized species wasn't really that unusual.

The screen windows of the dining hall hosted at least one tree frog, which fed on the bountiful harvest of insects. Every once in a while during dinner we'd hear it's loud "bleeeep" call from somewhere out of sight. It took careful searching to find it, partly because it was somewhat concealed under a loose piece of wood and partly because it was mottled and blended in with its surroundings.

On both nights during our stay, a family of Crab-eating Raccoons paid us a visit, looking for hand-outs. They were noticeably rangier than our northern raccoons, with shorter hind limbs, darker and more uniform coloration, and a much less conspicuous mask. In every other respect they looked and acted just like the northern species, holding out their soft little fingers for kitchen scraps and ignoring those of us with nothing edible to offer them.

That evening after dinner I reviewed and updated my bird list for the trip. During the day I'd passed an old milestone by surpassing the 225 mark of species seen on any one trip anywhere. I'd set that record about 10 years before in Trinidad, when Benton Basham, Olga Clarke, and I had set out to see 225 species in nine days. Being seasoned tour leaders and lifelong birders, our pace on that trip had been extreme, with 4:30am risings and 11:30pm bedtimes. Even if I'd been struck deaf and blind at this point on the Venezuela trip, my current total had already made this trip the birdiest one of my life.

Other new bird species seen during our fourth day of birding were Neotropic Cormorant; Anhinga; Snowy Egret; Roseate Spoonbill; Black-shouldered and Snail Kites; Gray Hawk; Crested Bobwhite; Purple Gallinule; Limpkin; Black-necked Stilt; Wattled Jacana; Solitary, Least, and Pectoral Sandpipers; Large-billed, Yellow-billed, and Gull-billed Terns; Black Skimmer; Pale-vented Pigeon; Ruddy Ground-Dove; Orange-chinned Parakeet; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Greater Ani; American Pygmy-Kingfisher; Barred Antshrike; Forest Elaenia; Golden-faced Tyrannulet; Pied Water-Tyrant; White-headed Marsh-Tyrant; White-bearded Flycatcher; White-bearded Manakin; White-winged Swallow; Stripe-backed Wren; Lacrimose (=tears, pertaining to the yellow teardrop beneath the eye) Mountain-Tanager; Red-capped Cardinal; Ruddy-breasted Seedeater; Bluish Flower-Piercer; Yellow-browed Sparrow; Crested Oropendola; Yellow-rumped Cacique; and Red-breasted Blackbird.

ALONG THE CAICARA RIVER
Thursday, October 26.
Serving as our natural alarm clocks at Hato El Cedral were Buff-necked Ibises that roosted in the grove of trees that sheltered the headquarters compound. Their predawn strident calls could be heard a long way in that flat, still world.

The view out the back window of my bungalow at dawn could have been of the African plains -- extensive lush grasslands knee-high with new growth, through which were interspersed giant umbrella-shaped trees. Standing outside later on the concrete stoop of my bungalow, I was able to identify the vocalizations of about a dozen species of songbirds. Other morning sounds included the mingled clattering of stork bills and the grunts and growls of various species of herons and ibises.

For today's dawn excursion, for the first time on the trip we felt the need to don our rain gear and the calf-high rubber boots that the ranch provided. We boarded the flatbed truck. The driver proceeded slowly, through an intermittent fine mist, for about three miles, stopping for interesting sightings whenever we pounded on the roof of the cab.

As we were leaving the headquarters we identified a Harris' (Bay-winged) Hawk that perched on the headquarter's radio antenna. A pair of young Burrowing Owls, standing longlegged on the ground next to their roadside burrow, checked us out as carefully as we rolled slowly past them. Cattle Tyrants, yellowish flycatchers equivalent to Cattle Egrets in their close association with grazing animals, rode on the backs of many of the Capybara that stretched out in the roadway or browsed on hyacinths and other vegetation in roadside streams. As grasshoppers flushed ahead of the Capybaras, the tyrants would dash after them and pick up free meals. Several pairs of enormous Scarlet Macaws beat their way over us, screeching as they flew to distant feeding areas. We hardly thought to mention Crested or Yellow-headed Caracaras by now, since they were so common.

The watery habitat was filled with birds. Orinoco Geese, Brazilian Ducks, and two species of Whistling-Ducks were often seen in flight, forming loose Vs. But longlegged waders predominated on the flooded prairie. Almost anywhere one looked were Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, several species of ibis, and Cocoi Herons. I'd learned that species as "White-necked Heron", but that name turned out to be preempted by an Australian species. I was particularly impressed with the large numbers of Cocoi Herons, which resemble a very pale Great Blue Heron with an immaculate white chin, neck, breast, and thighs and a jet black face, crown, and belly. The bill is long, pointed, and bright yellow. In Trinidad I'd previously seen Cocoi Herons only twice, one bird each time, yet here were scores in sight simultaneously.

My favorite longlegged wader was the Whistling Heron. Although I never got to hear one vocalize, seeing them was still enough of a treat for me. These tall, muscular-looking birds appeared to be almost artificial because of their unique color scheme: nondescript gray body with a white rump and tail, bright buffy neck, bright bare blue facial skin, jet black cap, and heavy black-tipped yellow bill. When I'd first studied the color plate of the species in Hancock & Kushlan's The Heron Handbook, I'd assumed that the weird colors were a printer's error. I was mistaken. The living birds were even more brightly colored than were the plates in the book.

The morning's destination was a gallery forest along the Caicara River, over which we'd driven the day before on our approach to the ranch. The Caicara River serves as the northern boundary of Hato El Cedral. As had happened more than once already on the trip, we were suddenly deluged with new species -- brilliant yellow-and-black Oriole Blackbirds and Troupials, Blue-tailed and Glittering-throated Emeralds hovering at flowers, and clumsy-looking, "bad-hair-day" Hoatzins clambering through the branches. A troop of Red Howler Monkeys took careful note of us and continued munching their way through the riverside foliage as we studied a zebralike male Barred Antshrike and his more subdued mate.

We had a lot of fun with names on this trip, recalling past name-slaughters like that of a woman on one of my Trinidad tours whose corrupted name for Violaceous Euphonia was "Violated Euphoria". The Hoatzins accounted for a particularly memorable quip. When I later asked one of the participants to hand me a container of snacks, she asked, "Hoatzin it for me?"

BACK AT THE RANCH
Eventually the mist consolidated into rain, which began falling in earnest. We headed back to the headquarters for a tasty, hot breakfast. The sun broke through the clouds as we ate, and by the time breakfast was over the sky was clear and blue. With free time on our hands, each of us drifted off in a different direction, observing and photographing the cooperative wildlife and the exotic vegetation.

I was particularly interested in getting close to some of the smaller birds along the entrance road. Not far from the main gate to the headquarters, several finchlike birds attracted my attention. Finches of any sort are rare in Trinidad & Tobago, having been trapped out for the songbird trade, so my experience with tropical finches had been meager. The three individuals I identified along the entrance road turned out to be a beautiful little male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, a male Gray Seedeater, and by far the most difficult of the identifications, a Grassland Yellow-Finch. The latter allowed close views, during which I observed it to be a very pale, heavily streaked sparrow with conspicuous yellow lores, the area between the base of the bill and the eye. But it looked much paler than the illustration in de Schauensee's field guide, so I was unsure of my identification. I left it to David to clinch the i.d. for me later, when I met him at the dining hall and described it to him.

The bird feeder outside the dining hall consisted of a thick cross-section of a log suspended by ropes from a tree limb. Suspended by ropes below the slab was an old tire, the need for which I never determined, unless it was just to add enough weight to keep the slab above it stable in high winds. The feeder was piled high with leftover boiled rice and melon rinds. It attracted Red-capped Cardinals, which are nothing like our cardinals but instead are roundheaded members of the honeycreeper family with plush maroon heads, white bodies, and black wings; Carib Grackles; huge brown-and-white Bicolored Wrens; Blue-gray and Burnished-buff Tanagers; Vermilion Flycatchers; Great Kiskadees; and several species of lizards.

BIRDING BY BOAT
By midday, I think all of us had individually decided to catch up on some much-needed sleep, because as the day advanced I saw fewer and fewer birders milling around. I know for a fact that one of us certainly enjoyed a midday siesta. Then after another topnotch lunch, we again boarded the flatbed truck for a short drive to a boat-launching site. Bidding us bon voyage near the headquarters was a Lesser Kiskadee (but aspiring to become greater). We split into groups and boarded two aluminum 10-passenger boats, each powered by a 45-HP Mercury outboard motor. Our destination was the gallery forest that borders the Matiyure River for about 100 yards on either side. The Matiyure River springs from the Barretera Lagoon, located within Hato El Cedral about eight miles southwest of the headquarters.

The body of water on which we navigated was hundreds of acres in size and was largely covered by native purple-flowering hyacinths. A wide channel of open water led arrow-straight to a treeline on the far horizon; that was the gallery forest, our destination. Not long after getting underway, we slowed, then reversed and pushed a few feet into the hyacinths to watch a Yellow-breasted Crake try to become invisible by imitating a reed. Later we observed the same behavior from a Least Bittern. Azure Gallinules, smaller and grayer versions of the abundant Purple Gallinules, erupted from the vegetation ahead and flew off, long legs dangling, for a short distance before dropping back into the hyacinths. At one spot we stopped to toss raw chicken parts to a 12-foot-long crocodile that one of the ranch hands had raised and then released.

Upon reaching the tea-colored Matiyure River, we silenced the engine and waited, listening and watching. A group of Hoatzins foraged on leaves in riverside trees. They remained visible as we drew closer and closer, until we no longer needed binoculars to view their primitive characteristics such as their bare blue facial skin. A sleek, pheasantlike Sunbittern fed rail-fashion, skulking on the shadowy mudflats among the tree roots. Troops of Red Howler Monkeys watched us warily from the more distant trees.

At a bend in the river our boatman stopped to toss more chicken parts into the water. Two Yellow-headed Caracaras immediately materialized to swoop down and pluck them from the river after several aborted attempts. Within a few minutes a Black-collared Hawk joined them; that species outranked the caracaras and snagged the chicken whenever it wanted to. These raptors often flew within ten feet of us to pluck the chicken from the river. Several times they initiated their approaches from the top of a distant dead tree, and the image of them that I had through my binoculars as they streaked apparently dead on toward me is still fresh and startling.

While drifting at that bend we had a brief view of an accipiterlike Collared Forest-Falcon pumping briskly across the channel. As the light level decreased, the crepuscular and nocturnal species emerged. A lone Boat-billed Heron, closely resembling an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron, flapped heavily upstream. Vacuuming insects from the air were Lesser Nighthawks and Band-tailed Nighthawks, the only goatsucker in that area without white bands in the wings.

It was here that we added three species of ibis simultaneously -- Green, Scarlet, and White -- as a mixed flock burst into view over some nearby trees, passed directly overhead about 20 feet above us, and continued on their way. That sighting brought our ibis total at Hato El Cedral to seven species.

As dusk fell, the boatman distributed handlines equipped with seriously large fishhooks and solid wire leaders. We impaled chunks of raw chicken onto the hooks, tossed the lines overboard, and latched onto two different species of Piranha. We were amazed at the size of the teeth that these foot-long fiery-bellied carnivores pack. The local people eat them, but we threw ours back before heading home.

NOCTURNAL BIRDING
It was completely dark by the time we'd returned to the ranch, cleaned up, and eaten dinner. On this evening we participated in a nocturnal exploration of the ranch using powerful flashlights to illuminate the creatures of the night. David, Gus, and a few of us hardy souls occupied the over-the-cab platform as the guides probed the darkness with their beams. Uncountable numbers of Capybara sprawled in the road ahead and rambled aside as we approached. We encountered creches of rabbit-sized baby Capybaras; some nurseries contained as many as 30 pups. The eyeshine of a Crab-eating Fox glowed back at us from the darkness. Lesser Nighthawks flew up ahead of us, along with a few White-tailed Nightjars that afforded us only "oops--there it went" views.

As we approached one particular water-filled rut, David pounded on the cab roof to halt the truck, then leaped down and grabbed a very young and very surprised Spectacled Caiman and brought it back to us for an intimate examination. With specimen in hand, Gus delivered a thoroughly professional lecture on the life history and structure of the Spectacled Caiman. Gus, it turned out, had conducted extensive research on the species. What a wonderful experience it was to have a wild caiman two feet away to observe during such a lecture. After Gus had answered all of our questions, David returned it to the same rutpuddle from which he had temporarily removed it.

Minutes later, David performed another amazing feat for us. Spotting the reflected eyeshine of a nightjar resting on the dirt ahead of the truck, once more he scurried down from the cab roof, keeping the spotlight focused on the bird. Hunched over and quiet, he approached the bird, then grabbed it. Bird in hand, he returned to the truck so we could examine it. It turned out to be a male Pauraque in perfect plumage. Now it was David's turn to give us a fine lecture on nightjar morphology and the molt sequence of Pauraques. None of us had ever seen anyone simply approach and grab a bird the way David had, and we were very impressed. So was the Pauraque, which made a lot of hollow-sounding noises before David released it.

We saw many nightjars during the rest of the nocturnal prowl. Then the temperature dropped a bit, the wind kicked up, and distant lightning warned of approaching squalls. We headed back to the ranch. Before calling it a night, David birded in the headquarters area with us, spotlighting a Common Barn-Owl and lots of sleeping raptors, waders, and songbirds. I thoroughly enjoyed the sound later that night of torrential rain scrubbing the torrid nighttime air as I lay buried beneath bedcovers, staying warm in my otherwise frigid room (remember the mosquitoes?).

Other new bird species seen during our fifth day of birding were Gray-headed Kite; Great Black-Hawk; arboreal turkeylike Rufous-vented Chachalacas; Plain-breasted Ground-Dove; Yellow-headed Parrot; Pale-breasted Spinetail; White-fringed Antwren; Yellow-breasted and Olive-sided Flycatchers; Yellow-browed Tyrant; and Tropical Gnatcatcher.

On this night I went to sleep thinking, "It doesn't get any better than this!" All in all it had been one of the most magnificent and diverse birding days I'd ever experienced.

MATA DE CAÑA
Friday, October 27.
Today's itinerary was totally cosmic and indeed bizarre, encompassing in the morning a two-mile truck ride for birding followed in the afternoon by two jet flights on two different continents. Because this was our last day of the fam trip, we all arose early to finish packing our suitcases, a task we'd completed as much as possible the night before. We gathered in the dining room for a quick breakfast before embarking on our last field trip at the ranch. Outside, on the whitewashed wooden fence, perched a species new for the trip, a Rusty-margined Flycatcher. This was another Kiskadee wanna-be, stripe-headed and yellow underneath.

Boarding the dependable flatbed truck, we were transported back toward the paved highway on which we'd arrived two days before. Our destination was an isolated grove of trees, called a "mata" on the llanos; this one was Mata de Caña. The oasis of umbrella-canopied trees at Mata de Caña provided an intimate setting for our morning's explorations. The cana was only a few acres in size, so we were able to explore it thoroughly. A low-lying cloud bank provided perfect suffused light for photography, eliminating all of the glare while reducing the overall light level only slightly.

The bird species I'd most hoped to see before leaving Hato El Cedral was King Vulture, and this field trip was my last chance to see one. It turned out that they prefer the more wooded upper llanos, north of the Apure River, to the prairielike lower llanos, so I missed the species. Nevertheless, our quick foray into this cana reinforced my impression that wildlife on the llanos is clumpy, with some incredible concentrations. The cana was one of the concentration spots. Nesting sites were at a premium. Many trees held multiple huge stick nests of Jabiru, Maguari, and Wood Storks; Savanna, Black-collared, Harris', and White-tailed Hawks; Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras; and lots of songbirds. We wandered through the parklike undergrowth, gazing up into the somewhat sparse foliage and finding an amazing number of birds. A pair of solemn Great Horned Owls perched side-by-side on a midlevel branch, while only a few feet away a four-foot-long iguana stretched out flat along the same branch. We noted lots of iguanas in the trees of the cana, many even larger than the first one.

A roving group of black-capped Tropical Gnatcatchers caught our attention, as did a flock of sparrow-sized Green-rumped Parrotlets picking bits of gravel from the roadside. The guides were very interested in one of the parrotlets whose head was a different shade of green than those of its associates. They thought it might have belonged to a different subspecies than the others. One of my favorite birds, a tiny, long-billed, white-eyed Common Tody-Flycatcher, picked off insects from the undersides of leaves by leaping straight up from its perch and seizing its prey with an audible snap of its beak.

BACK HOME AGAIN
By late morning we had to face the fact that it was time for us to head back to the ranch headquarters, load up our belongings, reboard the flatbed truck, and meet our maxi-taxi at the highway. We bid farewell to the staff of Hato El Cedral and began a two-hour rifle-shot-straight drive due east to the city of San Fernando de Apure, where we caught an Avensa Airlines flight to Caracas and then an American Airlines flight to Miami. As Roger Tory Peterson reported in a 1992 article on birding in Venezuela, it took as long to get from remote Hato El Cedral to the Caracas Airport as it took to get from Caracas to Miami.

IMPRESSIONS.
One strong impression I'd picked up on Day One was that most of us on the trip hadn't had an opportunity to enjoy the comraderie of a group of naturalists for a long time. It was so refreshing to be able to talk shop with those around me and to be understood and encouraged. As a result, some of us bonded very strongly, which was obvious later that night in Miami, when the group of four with whom I was bonded finally had to be convinced by the management to call it a night. It was a high-tech moment as we exchanged e-mail addresses along with the more usual postal addresses.

Regarding diseases, traveler's distress, and altitude sickness, I'm happy to report that none of us were bothered by the environmental aspects of the trip to any great degree. A few of us seemed to have picked up a minor flu bug enroute to Venezuela, but that worked itself out soon after we arrived. We were careful to drink only bottled water or carbonated beverages throughout the trip and not to drink from glasses containing ice except when staying at major hotels or restaurants. None of us suffered from gastrointestinal problems. Even the high elevations posed no problem for us except for the expected shortness of breath and temporarily elevated heart rates.

Having visited Trinidad and experienced their spicy, gourmet-quality meals day after day, I'd been spoiled. In comparison I'd rate the meals on this trip as certainly above average at most of the places we stayed, but only adequate at others. In particular, the portions were on the slim side at the Hotel Paso Real, which might have been a result of its remoteness.

Regarding places we stayed, the service at all locations was excellent, and the accommodations were better than I'd expected. Even at the remote Hato El Cedral we enjoyed twin-bedded double rooms with individual baths with showers. In fact the shower enclosure in our bathroom at Hato El Cedral was almost absurdly large and could have served as an entrance foyer in a pinch. As seems to be the rule for travelers, we all overpacked for the trip and returned to the States with lots of still-unworn clothing. We'd overlooked the fact that in the chilly high elevations you can get away with wearing the same clothing for days on end. And we did just that. Next time I'll pack half as many shirts and fewer pairs of pants.

The final bird list for the group totaled 336 species. My personal list reached 271, of which 120 were new for my life-list. I only counted species I'd seen sufficiently well to recognize next time around. We had also seen numerous species of reptiles and amphibians and at least ten kinds of mammals: Red Howler Monkey, Wedge-capped Capuchin Monkey, Red-tailed Squirrel, Crab-eating Fox, Capybara, fruit bats and several sizes of insectivorous bats, White-tailed Deer, Pink Dolphin, and Crab-eating Raccoon.

Venezuela is a huge country. Even though we traveled extensively by maxi-taxi and jet during our visit, our itinerary never took us beyond the northwestern third of the country. There's plenty left to explore on subsequent visits. Farther to the east of our easternmost point, at San Fernando del Apure, extend thousands of square miles of llanos and lowland rainforest. Beyond that lies the delta of the Orinoco River, which itself occupies an area the size of Maine; the tepui region, where vertical spires of vegetation-covered rock form ecological islands that tower more than a mile above the surrounding plains and which abound with endemic species of all kinds; and the south, the Amazon drainage with its own unique flora and fauna. I loved what I saw, and I've already made arrangements for a return visit next year.

Bill Murphy