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Birding in Venezuela: Angel Falls and Laguna Canaima
Angel Falls: Canaima's Best-Travelled Path
If you were to make a short list of the most incredible natural wonders of the world, Angel Falls in Venezuela’s Canaima National Park would easily make the top 5. It’s no surprise then that many tourists make a visit to Angel Falls their top priority in Venezuela.
For birders, the primary destination is also Canaima National Park. Sierra de Lema is widely considered to be the best birding in the country, and one of the best locations in South America.
Unfortunately, these two destinations are not easily reached from each other. For those travelling with family or on a limited timeframe, it often isn’t realistic to visit both.
This is an unimaginably painful dilemma for birders. Miss Sierra de Lema with its easy access to hundreds of fascinating species, or miss one of the most incredible sights the world has to offer.
After my first trip to Angel Falls, I met a birder who had made the very difficult choice to see Angel Falls over birding Sierra de Lema. He seemed much glummer than you would expect for someone about to have such an amazing life experience. Further conversation revealed that he was depressed the he wouldn’t be seeing any birds at all during his visit.
I nearly choked on my in-flight beverage. Once I could breathe again, I explained to him that I had nearly seen 100 species in my three-day visit, and that was without putting in any special effort. As I started listing off some of the highlights, his expression went from polite disbelief to astonishment.
The main issue facing birders on the Angel Falls circuit is a lack of information. Nobody particularly mentions the route as worthwhile, simply because it is overshadowed by its world-class neighbor. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t hold its own as a birding site.
So don’t despair if you’re a birder planning a trip to this awe-inspiring destination. Here’s what to expect based on my own trips.
Have you ever birded in Canaima National Park
Around Laguna Canaima
The base camp for all excursions to Angel Falls is Laguna Canaima. Several resort complexes lay along the shoreline of an immense pool at the base of a series of lesser waterfalls where the Río Carrao turns sharply north.
The first place you will likely encounter is the airstrip just behind the resorts. The surrounding habitat is a good introduction to the Gran Sabana (Grand Savannah) biome, and a host of open-country birds can be found here. Inparques (the Venezuelan National Park Service) is generally okay with you birding along the runway, though they might insist that you do it before or after any flights are scheduled.
Check the grasslands along the runway for Grassland Sparrow, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, seedeaters, Burrowing Owl, Glittering-throated Emerald, Brown-throated Parakeet, and Green-rumped Parrotlet. Search this area around dusk and at night for nightjars, especially White-tailed Nightjar.
Walking away from the airstrip towards the camps, you immediately enter scrubby forest. In this habitat, look for Bare-eyed Thrush, Yellow Warbler, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Burnished-buff Tanager, Brown Jacamar, and a host of flycatchers and elaenias.
As you near the river’s edge, the forest becomes taller and more mature. A great but short trail leads through a patch of forest between Hotel Venetur’s Camp and the airstrip. This trail sees a good deal of foot traffic, but nevertheless is a good spot to look for Reddish Hermit, Golden-spangled Piculet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Northern Slaty-Antshrike, Short-crested Flycatcher, Rufous-crested Elaenia, Helmeted Pygmy-Tyrant, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Blue Dacnis, and Scrub Greenlet. This area can also be good for woodcreepers and migrants such as Blackpoll Warbler.
The lagoon itself can offer up some surprises as well. Watch exposed branches and rocks in the middle of the river for Yellow-billed Tern, herons, shorebirds, and swallows.
A standard tour includes hiking to and behind some of the smaller waterfalls that empty into Laguna Canaima, and the hike up to Salto Sapo in particular is likely the most productive. Along this hike an observant birder might see Hooded Siskin, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, and Ruddy Ground-Dove. From the lookout on top of the falls, one can see a variety of soaring birds, including King Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and White-tailed Hawk. If you’re here in late afternoon this can be a great place to watch parrots returning to their roosts.
The Boat Ride In
Unless you’re only planning to see Angel Falls by flying over it in a helicopter or light aircraft, the only way to get there is a 3-7 hour boat ride (depending on water levels). The good news is that this offers some of the best birding en route, as long as you can identify on the fly.
The first leg of the trip lies between the launch above the falls and a section of rapids. This tends to be the least productive stretch in terms of birding, as the river is too wide to get good looks at anything perched in the trees on the banks. Nevertheless, keep your eyes peeled for Greater Yellow-headed Vulture overhead, and White-winged Swallow over the surface of the water.
Once the rapids are reached, the boat will drop you off for a short walk through the savannah, meeting you on the other side of the rapids. This savannah stretch can be very productive, and in the scattered trees and shrubby vegetation look for Pale-vented Pigeon, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Tepui Goldenthroat, Amazonian Scrub Flycatcher, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, and Tawny-headed Swallow.
As you meet up with the boat on the other side and continue up the river, you will pass an area on the left hand side that is recovering from a fairly recent fire. Many dead trees in and an open understory makes for relatively easy viewing. The area is popular with birds of prey and puffbirds; look especially for White-necked and Swallow-winged Puffbird, Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Kite, Bat Falcon, and Aplomado Falcon.
After this section, the river starts narrowing noticeably, bringing the riverbanks into easier viewing range. The birds also seem less reluctant to cross smaller rivers, so at this point you can expect to start seeing more birds flying overhead. Birds to look for in this section are Red-and-Green Macaw, Orange-winged, Black-headed, and Mealy Parrots, raptors, egrets, and kingfishers. In the morning there will be toucans singing from exposed perches in the very tops of trees as well. Listen and look for White-throated (Red-billed/Cuvier’s) Toucan, Channel-billed Toucan, and Black-necked Aracari.
Campamento Isla Orquídea
Just downstream from the mouth of the Río Curún there is a small camp where the tour will stop for a quick bite to eat. If you’re comfortable wolfing down a quick bite while you bird, you can find White-chinned Sapphire, Caica Parrot, White-throated Toucan, Eastern Long-tailed Hermit, Blue-tailed Emerald, Green-backed and Black-tailed Trogon, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, antbirds, and several species of the ever-present flycatchers.
Now you’re on the final approach to Angel Falls. Once you turn up the Río Curún, the scenery just gets more and more dramatic, and so do the birds. This is a classic blackwater river, the specialty habitat of the striking White-banded Swallow. Keep your eyes peeled and you will certainly see these attractive birds skimming the surface of the water. Kingfishers become much more apparent on this stretch as well, with Ringed, Amazon, and Green Kingfishers all very likely.
Just before Angel Falls looms impressively before you, you will come to a section where the river weaves through a jumble of enormous boulders, some the size of a small house. Here you should encounter Cliff Flycatcher, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and possibly Hook-billed Kite.
If you’re having a particularly lucky day, this rocky section is home to one of the world’s most spectacular birds, the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock. From their brilliant plumage to their Spartan war crest, they truly are an astonishing sight. The sight of a ball of neon-orange flame crossing the river with Angel Falls in the background is an image that is not easily forgotten.
Campamento Isla Ratón
For anyone staying overnight in the hammocks, Campamento Isla Ratón is your new home. The camp is across the river from the trailhead, and has a couple of cleared areas in which the buildings sit and one short access trail that leads downstream from the camp. If you’re so inclined and the water levels permit it, you can follow the riverbed as far as you feel like as well.
The vast majority of the birdlife here seems to be focused closely near the river and clearings in and around the camp. Naturally, this is where I recommend you focus your energy and birding time.
Along the trail leading in and out of camp, look for Sooty-capped Hermit, Grey-breasted Sabrewing, Pectoral Sparrow, Purple Honeycreeper, Fulvous-crested Tanager, Green Oropendola, and Boat-billed Flycatcher. From the riverbed, scan the skies for a bevy of swifts and parrots, including Chapman’s, Tepui, White-tipped, Lesser Swallow-tailed, and White-collared Swifts, Tepui Parrotlet, and Caica Parrot.
The hike up to Angel Falls goes through prime Tepui-slope forest, and your expectation is that the area should be bursting with birds. Eerily, this trail seems to have extremely low bird density, as does the trail to Salto Sapo near Laguna Canaima. In fact, one of the most common observations about Canaima National Park as a whole is it’s almost unnaturally low bird numbers, with the exception of a few key areas.
Nonetheless, there are birds along this hike, with your best birding by far being in the very early morning. You will need to arrange for your guide to ferry you across the river to access the trail, and possibly escort you if they insist on not letting you hike alone.
While the birds here are few and far between, there are some really phenomenal targets to be seen here. I have heard or seen Orange-bellied Manakin, Coraya Wren, Rufous-brown Solitaire, Tepui Antpitta, Thrushlike Antpitta, and Flutist Wren along this trail, but actually seeing these birds is a tall order, and requires lots of patience, timing, and luck. Once the herds of noisy tourists begin to fill the trail, the birds go from scarce to gone, so if you’re part of a larger group, resign yourself to hiking through almost deserted woods and hearing the occasional song in the distance.
The trip to Angel Falls may not be as dazzling as some birding locations in Canaima National Park, but the incomparable scenery of the hike distracts easily from a lack of easy birding. Lower numbers of potential species can actually be a blessing, keeping birders who are new to the tropics from being overwhelmed, as can easily happen in many other sites. The area is far from birdless, though, and there is certainly plenty of incredible species to keep a persistent birder busy.
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!