Birding in Venezuela: Birding Isla Margarita
Major Birding sites on Isla Margarita
- Dry desert scrub around Playa El Yaque
- Laguna Restinga (mangrove lagoon)
- Restinga Track
- Cerro el Copey NP
In terms of birding, shopping, and diversity of activities, Isla Margarita is the clear champion. The island can be accessed easily either via a regular ferry from the mainland town of Puerto La Cruz or through multiple daily flights from Caracas, Barcelona, or Maturín. Local culture is predominantly Venezuelan, but also has a heavy laid-back Caribbean vibe. As a consequence, Margarita is also significantly safer than most destinations in mainland Venezuela.
It does possess some lovely beaches, but frankly can't touch Los Roques or La Tortuga in terms of raw beauty. What it lacks in breathtaking remoteness and untouched charm of the other two island destinations, it makes up for with the appeal of a larger island with a vibrant culture, a wide array of shopping opportunities, and extensive activities for non-birders.
And of course, birding.
Birding on Isla Margarita is a sampler of many of the prevalent ecosystems in northern Venezuela and the Caribbean coast, with intact habitat from mangrove lagoons, sandy beach, rocky beach, desert scrub, thorn forest, dry forest, tropical deciduous forest, tropical evergreen forest, and moist montane forest. With such diversity of habitat, as well as the close proximity to the mainland (Margarita lies just 14 miles north of the coast), avian diversity is high. Some 209 species regularly occur, including one globally threatened species (Yellow-shouldered Parrot) and several other rare species who have strongholds in Margarita.
Should your travels take you to Isla Margarita, the site guide below should give you a starting point to work with.
El Yaque area
Playa El Yaque has quickly grown from a sleepy village to one of the premier beach destinations in Margarita, thanks to the discovery of consistently near-perfect conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Thankfully, this boom has not yet gotten out of control, and is largely restricted to the area immediately adjacent to the beach.
As one walks uphill away from the beach, paved roads begin to turn into dirt tracks, several of which wander away from town and into relatively intact thorn scrub and forest habitat. Some wander along the coast east of town and dead-end in some small pockets of sand that make for wonderfully secluded private beaches. Others head north towards the airport, and weave through stands of acacia, cacti, and desert washes. All are good for dry-country birding.
Birding these tracks in the early morning make for some of the most user-friendly birding to be had on the island. The open habitat allows a birder to search much deeper into the habitat than in other forest types, and the oppressive midday heat forces birds to be active very early. The action can be nonstop and fast-paced from a half-hour before sunrise until about 9am. As if it had been designed this way, 9-10am is a great time to head down to the beach to relax and snooze, so a morning of birding fits nicely with the rest of the day's plans.
Along these tracks, you can expect to find Vermillion Cardinal, Northern White-fringed Antwren, Yellow Oriole, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Scaled Dove, Tropical Mockingbird, Bare-eyed Pigeon, Black-faced Grassquit, Gray Kingbird, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, and Crested Caracara. Watch for White-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Harris's Hawk, and Pearl Kite perched atop cacti and tree tops, and spend some time around blooming trees and bushes searching for Buffy Hummingbird and Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird.
If you stroll these dirt roads before dawn and at dusk, you may be rewarded with views of Tropical Screech Owl and Burrowing Owl. The latter is active during the day as well, so you may see them near their burrows at any time. Lesser Nighthawk will often perch in the road, and can be detected by searching for the reflection of the flashlight off their eyes.
La Restinga Mangrove Lagoon
Laguna de la Restinga National Park is a large salt lagoon that ties together (or separates) the two halves of Isla Margarita. A maze of channels weaves through thick tangles and islets of mangroves, eventually emerging either in the ocean on the south side of the island or a beach on the north side.
The area is popular with tourists, and any cab driver knows where the entrance to the park is. Upon entering the national park, you pay a day fee (what they end up doing with this fee is beyond me) for park entry, and one of a variety of different tours through the park. A raft of boats sits at the dock waiting to take passengers on a number of well-worn routes through the mangroves.
If you let the guide know that you are especially interested in birds, he will hopefully take you to one of the many mangrove islets to see Bicolored Conebill, a specialist that is easy to see in this area. Possible but never a sure thing are Blue-crowned Parakeet, Scarlet Macaw, Muscovy Duck, Scarlet Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and Reddish Egret. More likely are Straited Heron, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Heron, Neotropic Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and Ringed Kingfisher.
Numerous other species use the mangroves for at least part of the year, and the trees can be alive with migrants during spring and summer. If you manage to get on the water very early, and with a good deal of luck, you can spot Clapper Rail and Sora working the exposed mud around the edges of the mangroves. Exposed mud banks can produce well throughout the day, including a wide variety of sandpipers, herons, ducks, and other waders, depending on season.
On a side note, make sure you pack the bug spray. Part of the reason that mangroves are so great for birding is their abundance of food (in other words, insects), and many of the insects which birds like to eat are very fond of eating birders!
La Restinga Track
This location is somewhat harder to locate, but well worth the effort. From the parking lot where you catch boats into the laguna at La Restinga, head back out the main road over a channel and through a police checkpoint. Just after this checkpoint the road forks three ways. Stay to the right, and follow the rapidly deteriorating (it gets better after about 8km) dirt track. After about 7km you should be seeing InParques signs (the Venezuelan national park service, their symbol is a white seal with a jumping silhouette of a deer and green leaves) welcoming you to Restinga.
All along this track is excellent scrub birding that passes through thorn forest and in and out of more thickly vegetated gullies which attract a slightly different suite of birds. The real claim to fame here is parrots, and several species roost here at night. Increase your odds by arriving around 3pm and birding until dusk to make sure you catch the parrots returning to roost.
As you follow the track, after approximately 12km a split takes the main track to the right. Follow right and after 3km or so you will begin to pass by several lagoons with substantial areas of exposed mud. These areas are a magnet for shorebirds and waders.
Birds of particular interest here are the parrots, specifically the globally-endangered Yellow-shouldered Parrot. The birds can be seen coming in to roost towards dusk in the more densely-vegetated gullies, and typically make a lot of noise, so finding them should hopefully be simple enough. Blue-crowned Parakeets can be found here as well, and the Restinga Track is one of the better places to find them. Again, the best times to be on the track are very early and very late in the day to catch the birds flying to or from their nighttime roost.
The scrub vegetation all along the track is excellent for birds similar to those at nearby Playa El Yaque. Check in the denser vegetation for Barred Antshrike and Little Cuckoo, and throughout the thorn woodland for Double-banded Puffbird (recently split from Russet-throated Puffbird), Glaucous Tanager, Venezuelan Flycatcher, and Pale-breasted Spinetail. At dawn and dusk look for White-tailed Nightjar and Lesser Nighthawk in the road and alongside in bare patches between vegetation.
At the shorebird location, depending on season, expect to see a variety of sandpipers, plovers, waders, and herons. This is one of the most likely places to see Scarlet Ibis, an unforgettable sight in full sun.
Cerro El Copey National Park
The mountains looming over Isla Margarita collect more moisture than the adjacent lowlands, and therefore host taller forests with more arboreal birds. The tallest point on the island is Cerro El Copey, and the paved road to the top is a popular weekend hiking path for locals and birders alike. From a guard station at the base where you will be asked (surprise!) to pay a small fee for entry, the road rises up the mountainside, ending at a cluster of radio towers and equipment.
Forests get taller and taller as you climb the mountain, ending in moist tropical forest that holds some surprising species, given the dryness of the surrounding lowlands. The views tend to get better and better as you climb too, giving a lovely panoramic backdrop to bird from.
It is interesting to watch the bird community change as you climb too. Possible sightings are Red-legged Honeycreeper, Bright-rumped Attila, Lance-tailed Manakin, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Gray-lined Hawk, and Yellow-legged Thrush. Being in a protected area, some larger gamebirds are also present in the mountain's forests, including Rufous-vented Chachalaca (you will undoubtedly hear their raucous calls long before you see them), Crested Guan, Crested Bobwhite, and Red-legged Tinamou. Flowering trees are good for hummingbirds, the higher elevations holding White-necked Jacobin, Blue-tailed Emerald, Copper-rumped Hummingbird, Golden-tailed Sapphire, and the Venezuelan endemic Green-tailed Emerald.
Given the popularity of the location as a local hiking spot, it pays to be the first ones on the mountain at opening time of 6am. Be aware that it can get surprisingly cool here, mostly a pleasant change from the fiery lowlands, but uncomfortable if you forget a light jacket.
Recommended Resources and Readings
Venezuela can be an intimidating place to plan a vacation, especially for birders. Approximately 1,400 species call Venezuela home, with more species being discovered all the time.
The books below are absolutely indispensable for anyone birding and traveling in Venezuela. Whether you are a seasoned tropical birder, a veteran South American traveler, or a first-timer for both, I have found the books below to be worth their weight in gold, time and time again. Don't plan your trip without these books in your library, and don't leave home without them either!
Also be sure to check the excellent Checklist for the Birds of Isla Margarita. The list is mostly complete, but as the island receives more attention from birders the list continues to grow. Since the Venezuelan mainland is so close, odd sightings to occur regularly for those lucky enough to catch them. Try birding right after a particularly strong storm on the mainland, or a period of northerly winds.