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Birding in Venezuela: Caño Colorado
Caño Colorado's Little-Known Birding Paradise
A birder visiting Venezuela has a lot of decisions to make.
One could focus on the Andes, with its swarms of hummingbirds and tanagers. Or the coast range, loaded with Venezuelan endemics. Or another obvious choice, the legendary Sierra de Lema, with its specialized endemics. Or Amazonas. Or Los Llanos. Or the Orinoco Delta. Or the Paria Peninsula. Or...
With such a lineup of locations, it's not surprising that a lot of great spots can get overlooked. One of the most-overlooked of these sites would be a world-class location in most other countries, where visiting birders can expect to see 60-100 species in a given day. This place is Caño Colorado State Forest, a place that deserves far more attention from visiting birders than it gets.
Caño Colorado is an hour's drive from Maturín, the capital city of the state of Monagas. It can be easily reached by following the road past Maturín's airport, passing the town of La Pica. Follow this road straight for long enough, and pavement turns to a clay and dirt track that, after several kilometers, dead ends at Caño Colorado itself.
On the way, it passes through open cleared land, palm plantations, wetland, regenerating forest, primary lowland forest, and seasonally flooded várzea forest. Each of these produces a different set of birds, adding to the total possible for a morning's birding. The ease of access along with the high species total for the area make Caño Colorado well deserving of a visit, whether en route to other sites in Venezuela or a destination in its own right.
The best time to visit is during the dry season (January through May). While it is difficult to get lost on the one major track in and out of Caño Colorado, the use of a birding guide is always a good choice to ensure safety, as well as to get the most out of your birding time.
On the approach to Caño Colorado, the road abruptly goes from pavement to dirt road. Shortly thereafter, there is a dirt road crossroads as you leave the palm plantations. Continue straight, and you will start to see cleared land on both sides of the road with scattered bushes and shrubs.
This habitat follows much of the road, and is due to poor squatters that come into the area and clear land for agriculture. Venezuela's government has largely given squatters free reign to settle where they like, to the serious detriment of the national park and state forest system. At this point, Caño Colorado's designation as a "State Forest" is completely meaningless, as there is no enforcement to keep it that way.
Nonetheless, the birding starts at these shrubby open areas. Where the vegetation has been allowed to grow, one can start seeing many birds that favor more open country. In this opening stretch, one can expect to see Striped Cuckoo, Little Cuckoo, Northern Crested Caracara, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Saffron Finch, Barred Antshrike, Brown-throated Parakeet, Blue-black Grassquit, and if you're here at dawn or dusk, Pauraque will be hunting from the road and the pastures. You may also find Double-striped Thick-knee in the pastures, but locating the cryptically-colored birds can be tough, especially with their habit of standing motionless for hours on end.
Beyond the cleared pastures, remnant forest fragments remain, and the trees at the forest's edge often hold Rufous-vented Chachalaca, Plumbeous Kite, Roadside Hawk, Swallow-wing, Grey-breasted Martin, and Orange-winged Parrot. Toucans call loudly from exposed canopy perches in the early morning, and Caño Colorado hosts 3 species, White-throated (formerly Red-billed) Toucan, Channel-billed Toucan, and Black-necked Araçari.
Roughly 2km from the crossroads, areas of regenerating shrubby forest begin to appear. This habitat hosts a set of birds that prefer lighter and disturbed woodlands. Green-backed Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Stripe-backed and Bicolored Wren, Orange-crowned Oriole, Yellow Oriole, Blue-gray, Silver-beaked, White-lined, and Palm Tanager, Buff-breasted Wren, and the endemic Black-dotted Piculet are all easy to find here.
Within this open section, several stands of out-of-place pines have been planted. These are a magnet for woodpeckers, including Crimson-crested, Lineated, and Red-crowned Woodpeckers. Raptors use the pines as lookouts for hunting in surrounding open areas, and a large assortment of flycatchers hunt for insect prey in and amongst their branches.
The pines have also become the site for colonies of Yellow-rumped Cacique and Crested Oropendola. These birds create intricate nests that look like grass pouches hanging from the tree's limbs, and are noisy, colorful, and overall just a lot of fun to watch. Hanging around in the area are always Giant Cowbird, hoping to pawn off an egg or two for the Oropendolas to raise.
The Bizzare Song of the Horned Screamer
...And The Animal Itself. Horned Screamer
Marsh & Wetlands
Where open country meets waterlogged soil, the set of resident birds changes once again. Since the whole area of Caño Colorado is very low-lying and flat, the amount of flooded land varies greatly between the rainy season and dry season. Birds tend to disperse more widely during the rainy season, and concentrate near water sources in the dry season as the amount of available wetland shrinks.
The shrubby vegetation around the edge of open ponds and lakes is a great place to start. Yellow-chinned Spinetail, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, and Yellow-hooded Blackbird commonly can be seen using the bushes as singing perches and lookouts.
In the marshy vegetation and grasses at water's edge, expect to find (or in some cases hear) Ash-throated Crake, Black-bellied and White-headed Whistling Duck, Purple Gallinule, and Northern Jacana. A wide variety of herons and waders can be found here as well, particularly in the early morning hours. Look for Cocoi Heron, Capped Heron, and if you're very lucky, Wood Stork and Green Ibis.
Dead trees overlooking the marsh are often productive as well. Snail Kites and other raptors, kingfishers, and flycatchers use these snags as a lookout for prey, while many other species use them as a safe roost during the night. One of the most unusual birds in the country (if not the world), the Horned Screamer, often can be seen perched in these snags, and are obvious even from a distance due to their huge size (almost the size of a turkey). You will almost certainly hear their loud and odd calls echoing across the water in the early morning.
In some places in Caño Colorado, the conditions are right for one of the most interesting and distinctive wetland habitats in Venezuela: Morichales. A Morichal is a special type of wetland dominated by Moriche (More-EECH-aey) palm trees, a species highly tolerant of waterlogged soils. These palms in turn give food and shelter to several birds adapted for flooded forest, and several that are so specialized that they live only in Morichales. These include Point-tailed Palm Creeper, Red-bellied and Red-shouldered Macaw, and Moriche Oriole. Laughing and Bat Falcons can be seen in the vicinity as well, and several species of parrots and raptors are fond of nesting in the broken stumps of dead palms.
Several kilometers from the crossroads at the entrance to the area, the forest becomes denser and taller, until, after passing one last stand of non-native pine trees, you enter true lowland rainforest. The canopy is tall, closed-in, and the undergrowth can be thick in places where sun peeks through the trees.
Throughout this stretch, from about 8km in from the crossroads until you reach a river slough on your left at around 12km, is great forest birding, and numerous side tracks lead off into the forest from the main road. Each of these warrant exploring as well. The further away from the main road you get, the less disturbed the forest is, and the better your chances of coming face-to-face with more skittish wildlife.
Tropical rainforest such as this can be roughly divided into three basic sections. The forest floor, the midstory, and the canopy all have completely different hosts of bird and animal life. Often, one of the best field marks for a confusing species can be the level in which you saw it.
The canopy is where most of the action is, home to many species of woodpecker, flycatcher, tanager, parrot, toucan, and birds of prey. Red-and-Green and Blue-and-Gold Macaws will be here, feeding on fruits high overhead. If you are exceedingly lucky, this is where you may also cross paths with a Collared Forest-Falcon as they call from high in the canopy in the early morning. Red Howler Monkeys and Brown Capuchin Monkeys also can be seen moving between the treetops.
The midstory (anything between the canopy and the forest floor) tends to attract a variety of birds, including birds from both the canopy and the understory at different times. The midstory is often fairly sparsely-vegetated, so spotting birds can be easier at times as well.
Birds to look for at this level are tyrannulets, flycatchers, hummingbirds, woodcreepers, trogons, thrushes, tanagers, and some furnariids like Plain Xenops. In Caño Colorado specifically, be on the lookout for puffbirds, including Two-banded and White-throated Puffbirds, Long-billed Gnatwren, Cinereous Mourner, Ringed and Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Black-tailed Tityra, White-winged Becard, and Cinnamon Attila.
In the understory and forest floor, the birdlife seems to be divided into two main behavioral categories. The first is birds with excessive energy and life that rarely sit still long enough for a clear look. The manakins fit this bill perfectly, and in addition to their fiery behavior, they are both adorably tiny and wildly colorful. Careful looking should get you glimpses of Golden-headed, Lance-tailed, and a local specialty, Crimson-hooded Manakins. Others that fit into this category that you should look for are Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Slaty-headed and Common Tody-Tyrants, Rufous-and-White Wren, and Long-billed Gnatwren.
The other category is the Slow and Sneaky. Birds in this group seem to be able to disappear into thin air, even while singing inches from your feet, a feat that truly has to be observed to be fully understood. Often the only sign that they are in your presence is when they sing, often with powerful, penetrating songs. Other times, you will get no more of an indication than a small rustle in the leaf litter. Simply put, they take stealth to a new level.
Seeing any of the birds in this category requires enormous patience, and often the ability to imitate the call of your target to lure them into revealing themselves. Birds that are present in Caño Colorado, and which you may see if you are lucky and persistent, are Red-legged Tinamou, Grey-winged Trumpeter, White-bellied Antbird, Blue-black and Ultramarine Grosbeaks, Ruddy Quail Dove, Gray-fronted Dove, and the ultra-sneaky Little Tinamou. You will certainly hear the Little Tinamou's haunting call, a mournful, wailing whistle that hangs in the air longer than it should. Actually laying eyes on its owner is another story entirely...
Cream-colored Woodpecker in Caño Colorado Várzea Forest
From your first glimpse of the side channel on your left until you reach the much larger Caño Colorado, the forest character shifts yet again. The change is abrupt, as if someone had simply drawn a line in the rainforest. Trees become more widely spaced, and the forest floor becomes nearly free of undergrowth, with just a thin scattering of fallen leaves covering the soil.
This forest type is known as várzea forest, or seasonally flooded forest. During the rainy season, much of this forest is inundated with water from the nearby channels and rivers. At this time, much of Caño Colorado is inaccessible, with water from 1-4m (3-12') covering the forest floor. As the dry season progresses and the forest dries out, the water retreats to low spots in the forest, such as pools and river channels.
Várzea is the habitat that holds the most surprises in Caño Colorado. Species that are rare or extremely local elsewhere have been recorded here, including the sought-after Black-chested Tyrant. Specialists found here are Jet Antbird, Silvered Antbird and the attractive Cream-colored Woodpecker, among others.
Some of the best birding, and some of the most interesting species, can be found in the dry season when the water drops low enough to cut the side channels off from the main caño. Fish and other aquatic animals get trapped and concentrated into increasingly small areas, making for easy fishing for several highly sought-after species. Two elusive kingfishers, the American Pygmy Kingfisher and Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher hunt from branches hanging over forested pools, and have reputations for their wariness.
Others prefer to hunt on foot, and two other shy denizens of forest pools, Sunbittern and Green Ibis can regularly be found stalking fish around their edge. The crown jewels of this habitat, however, are the almost mythical Agami and Zigzag Herons, both of which are occasionally spotted in Caño Colorado. Spotting one requires an enormous amount of patience, skill, stealth, and most of all, luck. Your best chance for these two species is late April, but again, this is by no means a sure thing.
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!