Venezuela (Rancho Grande, Llanos, Andes), 28 Feb. to 11 March 1994 

John van der Woude   - 
Birding trip report in two parts. See also part 2

As part of a holiday based on Curacao, we made a private birdwatching trip to Venezuela from 28 February to 11 March 1994. The general outline of the trip was the following: first a few days at the Rancho Grande biological station in Henri Pittier National Park (in the northern coastal cordillera, photo below), then a few days at Hato El Frio in the Llanos (the river plains between the coastal cordillera and the Andes), then up through the Santo Domingo valley into the Andes, up to Tachira.

See sketchy map with places mentioned.    

The trip was planned on the basis of reports by others (see below), and with the help of the Audubon Society of Venezuela (mrs. Goodwin), who also made the reservations for the hotels and lodges. We valued her help very much, especially because she knew the latest information about where to go and where to stay.

We rented a car at Avis. Of all the companies, they offered the smallest car with airco (needed for the Llanos especially). Gaz is very cheap. We mostly refuelled when the tank was half empty (for security), and payed then about Bs 150 or 200 (about US$ 1.5).

As a matter of fact, we used the Guide to the birds of Venezuela by Meyer de Schauensee as field guide. We brought also the North American field guide of National Geographic with us, but never used it. In the Llanos it would have been useful however (for the herons mainly). We did not use a tape recorder.

We further consulted: the trip reports by Dirk de Moes (1990) and by Mark Colley (1990), and the booklet Birding in Venezuela (1990) by Mary Lou Goodwin as well as the supplementary Afterthoughts (1993).


We spent the early morning hours on the huge terrace of the upper floor of the station. There is a fine view on the tree tops of the garden, which attract many birds from the nearby forest. The first species was the omnipresent Blue-grey Tanager. Very attractive were the Blue-winged Tanagers*, visiting frequently the food laid out (photo). Further species were the Bay-headed Tanager, the Swallow Tanager* with their nice bending courtship display.


Soon we had there also the Groove-billed Toucanet* (photo), which later appeared to be rather common around here. Then the list started to fill with Palm Tanager, Blue and White Swallow, Cinnamon Flycatcher*, White-winged Tanager* (beautiful bird), Golden Tanager*, Blackburnian Warbler, Long-tailed Sylph*, Red-crowned Woodpecker*, Orange-bellied Euphonia*, Buff-throated Saltator, and Speckled Tanager*.

From 10.30 to 15.00 h we walked some miles along the 'long track', according to the map drawn for us by Juan. This runs far uphill to the right from the back of the field station.There we met species that don't generally come to the garden of the station, and that mostly take some time to locate. We saw Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Rufous-tailed Antthrush*, Band-tailed Guan*, Slate-throated Redstart, Groove-billed Toucanet again, Plumbeous Antshrike*, Little Tinamou*, Streak-headed or Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Golden-olive Woodpecker*, Cinnamon Flycatcher again, and four Venezuelan Wood-Quails*.

Later in the afternoon it became foggy, after our late lunch at the station we saw there a group of Russet-backed Oropendula*'s coming along, inspecting their play nests. After 17 h we birded a bit along the road at the entrance of the station, but didn't see more than Greater Pewee*, Slate-throated Redstart, Cinnamon Flycatcher and Black-headed Thrush* (male). There were more thrushes, but we had problems in identifying them, the field guide is not of much help for that.


Wednesday 2 March, Rancho Grande.

Again we spent the early morning hours (gets light from about 6.45 h) on the terrace of the station, and near the road. This is real easy birding, you just walk in and out of the kitchen of the station a few yards towards the birds. In addition to the species of yesterday, we saw Dusky-capped Flycatcher*, Golden-crowned Flycatcher*, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner*, Rufous-browed Peppershrike*, Blood-eared Parakeet* (a nice flock near to the terrace), White-tipped Swift (breeding in the building), White-lined Tanager, Pale-breasted Thrush*, Moustached Wren*, Yellow-bellied Seedeater*, Masked Tityra, Violet-headed Hummingbird*, Green Honeycreeper (male and female), and Purple Honeycreeper* with its remarkable yellow legs. The friendly president of the Henri Pittier Fund, who also stayed this night at the station, kindly pointed out some of these birds for us.

Late in the morning we made a short walk on the track of the pass on the other side of the road. Juan has the key for the entrance gate to this track. Apart from the pass, from where we spotted a pair of Black-tailed Tityra*, and through which a nice group of Black Vultures came sailing along, this track didn't produce anything. This is probably also due to the dense foliage all around - the track follows a narrow ridge, so light is coming from all sides.

In the early afternoon we strolled quietly along the 'level path', going to the right all the time, after having climbed the staircase at the righthand side of the building. After a short while you come in a sort of clearing with nice views around in the forest, and there, just when we rested on a log, an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle* landed on a branch some 20 m from us. In the same area we spotted a group of playing Plain-brown Woodcreepers*, together with a Squirrel Cuckoo and a Black-banded Woodcreeper*. Nearby, but still in the same clearing, were Venezuelan Bristle-Tyrant*, Golden Tanager, Blue-winged Tanager and Groove-billed Toucanet. On the way back we were happy to spot at last the often heard Black-faced Antthrush*, and also a Gray-breasted Wood-wren*.

Nearly back in the station, we heard a group of Howler Monkeys so close by on the circuit track (going round from the top of the staircase), that we decided to do that track also (from 15.30 h). We had heard the monkeys everywhere up till now, but not seen them well. Now we got them very close, and they are really much warmer brown than the ones we know from Costa Rica. Birds along this track were Grey-throated Leafscraper*, Slate-throated Redstart, Cinnamon Flycatcher and Dusky-capped Flycatcher.

Again the station become enveloped in fog at about 17.00 h, and today we decided to have a short look down the road, by car. To the North (seaside), the fog persisted up to several 100 m lower, so we drove back to try the south side, where we spotted Pale-vented Pigeon and Red-billed Parrot* gathering to roost. We decided to have a close look here the next morning, before heading for the Llanos.

Thursday 3 March, drive to Hato El Frio.

After a quick breakfast and saying goodbye to Juan, we departed from Rancho Grande at 6.40 h. After a few km. we birded for 40 minutes or so at a bend in the road where there are many red-blossoming trees. Here it was a real feast of singing and eating birds: Northern Waterthrush, White-tipped Dove, Scarlet-fronted Parakeet*, Blood-eared Parakeet, Purple Honeycreeper, Green Honeycreeper, Magpie Tanager*, Silverbeak Tanager*, Swallow Tanager (again in courtship display), Blue-grey Tanager (of course), White-tipped Swift, Yellow-backed Oriole*, Green Jay, Bananaquit, Palm Tanager. We heard the Rufous-vented Chachalaca* calling its name even more clearly than the Chachalaca in Texas and Costa Rica. (For a second visit to Henri Pittier NP see our short report of 1997; also for a warning about the area at the base of the Choroni road near Maracay.)

Then followed a long drive to the Llanos. But we knew that this would be the longest drive of the whole trip, so we were prepared for it (means: less time for birding), and we were happy to have airco. Driving back on the highway to Caracas for a short while, we had to take the exit called La Encrucijada. We missed it because this name was only mentioned right after the exit in stead of before, so we thought there would be a second exit right after that one. Alas, this was not the case, so we had to drive on to La Victoria (some 18 km), and back again, and this just on the day of the longest drive. We had a further delay of again half an hour at San Juan de los Morros, when we didn't trust the strange sound of the airco any longer. We were directed to an 'electro taller' who diagnosed that it was harmless ('no alarme'). Meanwhile, during this drive through the gradually drier hills south of the cordillera, we didn't see much but traffic: Yellow-headed Caracara*, American Kestrel, Scaled Dove*, White-tipped Dove.

Then from Calabozo down, there were a lot of herons to see at the ponds along the road, especilaly for the first 15 km or so: Scarlet Ibis*, Snowy Egret, Great White Egret, Jabiru (some 10 together, very near to the road; photo right), Maguari Stork*, Southern Lapwing*, Cattle Egret, Large-billed Tern*, Greater Kiskadee, Carib Grackle*, Shiny Cowbird, White Ibis, Barn Swallow, White-necked Heron* (Cocoi Heron), Capped Heron* and Great Blue Heron. Because we didn't know how long the remaining part of the long trip would take, we didn't really stop, but just drove slower when passing those ponds. This was a strange, tormenting experience, because we saw so many of the real Llanos birds in a hurry now already!

Driving towards San Fernando de Apure, the scenery became greener again, with large trees amidst narrow pastures. Also after San Fernando this went on for a while, but then the landscape became gradually more open. The greener parts with large trees were more like islands here. This is the setting where we easily found (28 km after El Saman de Apure, which is 148 km West of San Fernando) the entrance to the Hato El Frio, a huge ranch of 80.000 ha, where a biological station has been set up next to the farm (1 km from the road), with the help of a Spanish organisation. We arrived at 16.30 h at the station, where we had to wait a while before being welcomed by the Spanish warden.

After being installed by the Spanish lady in our room, we finally had a shower, and drank the first (free) beers while watching birds from the shaded terrace of our room: Greater Kiskadee, Scarlet Ibis, Black Skimmer, Bicolored Wren* (noisily on the roof of one of the houses), Green-rumped Parrotlet*, American Stilt, Barn Swallow, Troupial, Yellow Oriole, Crested Caracara, Red-capped Cardinal*, Blue-gray Tanager (again), Cattle Tyrant, Carib Grackle, Brown-throated Parakeet*, Tropical Mockingbird (that we know so well from Curacao), and Great White Egret. At dusk, some 5 Pauraques were showing the white of their throat and wings at the rim of the compound (just 30 m from our room). After a simple but good meal, we had a good rest. Although the Llanos is a hot place, the air is dry now, and the room is lofty.

Continue with part 2