Saturday, 18 August 2018

Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago: Part 8 (second complete day at Atta lodge)

Introduction
January 25-27, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Karanambu Lodge
January 27, 2018 - Karanambu Lodge, boat cruise on the Rupununi River
January 28, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Rock View Lodge
January 29, 2018 - Rock View Lodge and surroundings
January 30, 2018 - Rock View Lodge, drive to Atta Lodge
January 31, 2018 - First complete day at Atta Lodge
February 1, 2018 - Second complete day at Atta Lodge


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February 1, 2018

Before dawn we enjoyed coffee and tea in the main lodge while listening to the Guianan Red Howler Monkeys off in the distance. Following that, Delon took Laura and I by dirtbike to a patch of white-sand forest that John, one of the other guides at the lodge, and Delon had discovered several kilometers up the road. While "typical" rainforests in the area grow on soil that contains a high clay content, several bands of forest growing on quartz-rich, sandy substrates can also be found in the region. These forests growing in the nutrient-poor environments tend to be stunted when compared to nearby terra firme forests, but they also contain unique assemblages of species, many that are restricted to that environment. This patch that Delon took us to provided habitat for several unique birds, including Guianan Red-Cotinga, Black Manakin and Bronzy Jacamar, and we hoped to connect with those three this morning. 

Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana


Scoping for Jaguars on the highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana (photo by Laura Bond)

The dirtbike ride was quite enjoyable and the heavy cloud cover combined with a brief shower overnight had cooled the air. Delon dropped me off then returned for Laura. In the few minutes that I was alone I quickly picked up on the vocalizations of some Cayenne Jays and they soon appeared at the roadside. While this Guianan Shield endemic is not necessarily a white-sand specialist, Cayenne Jay does occur regularly in that habitat type. 

Laura and Delon soon came rumbling down the road, with a backdrop of untold layers of forest providing quite the setting. 

Laura and Delon on the highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Laura and Delon on the highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

We slowly picked our way through the white-sand forest, our ears attuned to the various birds and insects all around us. Bronzy Jacamar was the first target to fall when we heard one vocalize quite close to the road; unfortunately, it remained out of sight. Guianan Red-Cotinga was next, though it took some time to really have a good look at this range-restricted cotinga, an iconic species for the region. The light levels were low in the understorey so I had to really push the ISO on these photos. We watched up to six individuals in the hour we were in the forest, an experience I will not likely forget soon.

Guianan Red-Cotinga - white-sand forest near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Black Manakins also appeared, including several males displaying for unseen females. The more widespread Golden-headed Manakins were a little bit easier to stay on as they were less furtive than the Black Manakins. 

We lucked out by running into a little group of Gray-winged Trumpeters patrolling the forest floor for fruits or insects. Gray-winged Trumpeter is an interesting, chicken-like species found in northern Amazonia that is one of few species of birds that practice cooperative polyandry. Female birds will have multiple male partners, and each male will cooperatively assist with raising the young.

Soon it was time to leave, but one last  new bird flew overhead - a Black Caracara. 

Black Caracara - white-sand forest near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

While finishing up breakfast, Delon called me over - he had his scope set up, pointing at "the cotinga tree". This time he had a Tiny Hawk teed up! While widespread in Central and South America, Tiny Hawk is one of the least well known members of its genus (Accipiter) and is uncommonly encountered. Many aspects of its biology remain unknown. I watched the hawk for around five minutes as it perched in the tree, until it took flight and silently slipped into the forest. Tiny Hawks are adapted to hunting birds and have been known to prey specifically on hummingbirds. 

Tiny Hawk - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Following breakfast we took care of a few housekeeping items (putting the laundry in the sun, purchasing an hour of internet) then headed out with Delon and Kendrick for a late morning search for an Amazonian Pygmy-Owl that was reliably found in a certain location. 

Hiking in the forest near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Along the way we paused frequently - to scan nice looking locations for Fer-de-Lances, investigate every little rustle in the undergrowth, and pick up on whatever bird species were nearby. Soon the path began to climb around the side of a large hill and twenty minutes later we were in position. 

A little bit of playback was all that was needed to instigate a response from the owl, but that was only half the battle. He did not want to come in any closer so Delon and Kendrick set off on foot, while Laura and I stayed back to occasionally play the tape. Delon and Kendrick returned empty-handed but the owl began calling again. It was right above our heads! We struggled in vain to find the little fluff ball nestled somewhere above us but finally Delon found him!

Amazonian Pygmy-Owl - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We savored the views of the owl and watched him sing for a while, fully enjoying the moment. While it may seem like "cheating" to have a guide bring you to a stakeout spot and calling in the bird, I have to say in the moment it was pretty awesome.

Tiny Tyrant-Manakins frequently vocalized, even during the middle of the day. After some searching we were finally able to spot one low enough to train the scope on it. Yet another range-restricted species that we connected with!

Tiny Tyrant-Manakin - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We returned to the lodge as it was approaching lunch time, then relaxed for a few hours during the middle part of the day. I set up my scope for the mid-afternoon cotinga watch in the clearing around the lodge and soon Delon and John joined me as well. While the cotina tree remained barren for the hour that we searched we did pick up a few new species in a mixed flock that passed through - Guianan Tyrannulet, Pygmy Antwren and Yellow-crowned Elaenia. Once again I was relieved with my decision to bring my scope to Guyana, as none of those birds would have been identifiable without it. The canopy is just so impressively tall.

Around 4:00 PM we met up with Delon for our afternoon hike. Over the previous days we had expressed our interest in reptiles and amphibians and frequently inquired about the possibility of going out at night - the best of time the day to search for herps in the Neotropics. Delon had never done that before, since nearly everyone who visits Atta Lodge is primarily interested in birds. The creek we had passed the previous evening showed promise, especially since it was currently the dry season. Delon knew of a small trail that had been cut along part of the creek so we planned to investigate after dark. Until sunset we would explore the highway for birds and other wildlife. Kendrick also came along for the adventure, his first time looking for herps at night along the creek. 

We set off on a trail, heading towards the highway. Along the way I spotted this Bridled Forest Gecko (Gonatodes humeralis) on a trailside stump.

Bridled Forest Gecko - Atta Lodge, Guyana (photo by Laura Bond)

Bridled Forest Gecko - Atta Lodge, Guyana (photo by Laura Bond)

We also flushed a Spectacled Owl that happened to be roosting quite close to the footpath. Delon managed to spot it sitting quite far back in the forest. Awesome!

Spectacled Owl - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Laura watching the Spectacled Owl - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Along the highway we enjoyed seeing both pairs of Scarlet Macaws on their nests, a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, and many of the same birds from the previous afternoon. A nice surprise was finding a pair of Rose-breasted Chats, especially since we had dipped on them earlier in the day. 

Rose-breasted Chat - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Several Green Oropendolas were heard calling from the forest canopy and one flew over our heads, carrying a food item of some sort. 

Green Oropendola - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

We found a pair of Guianan Toucanets along the road as well, providing our first good looks at this diminutive species. 


We set up at the bridge twenty minutes before dusk. We hoped that the Crimson Topaz would return to its favorite perch along the creek like it had the previous evening, but we had no luck this time around. Several Proboscis Bats were roosting on an overhanging branch and a couple of Spectacled Caimans lurked in the murky water. A Coroya Wren sang, while two Whie-browed Antbirds skulked in the roadside vegetation.

Bridge along the highway west of Atta Lodge, Guyana

Once darkness settled in the real fun began. Several crabs were quickly found by the water's edge, including this macabre scene. 



The repetetive, deep croaking of various frogs drew our attention. We tracked down several Rusty Treefrogs (Boana boans), while the eyeshine of several others were illuminated on the other side of the watercourse with our flashlight beams. Any thoughts of crossing the creek were quickly stopped when one noticed all the eyeshine from the Spectacled Caimans. 

Rusty Treefrog (Boana boans) - Creek along highway west of Atta Lodge, Guyana

Laura made the find of the walk after we had been searching for nearly an hour. A baby South American Watersnake, drapped over a piece of concrete that was resting in the water under the bridge!

South American Watersnake (Helicops angulatus) - Creek along highway west of Atta Lodge, Guyana

Her sharp eyes had come in handy once again! We strategized how to catch the snake for a better look and were successful. I don't think Laura's smile could be any bigger in this photo. 

Laura with the South American Watersnake

Delon and Kendrick were pretty interested in the snake as well and I showed them how to tell it was a female. I even got them to hold the snake!

Kendrick, Josh and Delon with the South American Watersnake

We herped for a few more minutes but soon ventured back to the lodge. Our stomachs were grumbling plus it was already 7:30 PM, not giving us much time to hike back, eat and make our 9:00 PM bedtime. :)

Our time in Atta was drawing to a close - Thomas would be picking us up in the morning - but we maximized every hour and had a phenomenal time. I would love to return one day...

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February 1, 2018 - Second complete day at Atta Lodge

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago: Part 7 (First complete day at Atta Lodge)

Introduction
January 25-27, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Karanambu Lodge
January 27, 2018 - Karanambu Lodge, boat cruise on the Rupununi River
January 28, 2018 - Rupununi savannah, Rock View Lodge
January 29, 2018 - Rock View Lodge and surroundings
January 30, 2018 - Rock View Lodge, drive to Atta Lodge
January 31, 2018 - First complete day at Atta Lodge


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January 31, 2018

January 31 was a spectacular day on all accounts, and one of our favourite days of the entire trip. Much of the day was spent traipsing through the forest or along the highway, we found several awesome mammals and herps, and the birding was just incredible with many iconic species seen.

Laura and I were both up before dawn so that we could have tea/coffee/snacks prior to walking back to the Iwokrama Canopy Walkway. Two Black Currasows, regular patrons of Atta Lodge, emerged from the forest edge to the lawn, where they were fed on a daily basis. It was pretty crazy to see tame currasows, as these birds are generally quite scarce and shy. The population of Black Currasow in the Iwokrama Forest Reserve is quite high; we occasionally saw individuals roosting in trees or walking along the forest floor during our time at Atta. I took this photo with my cell phone from about two meters away.

Black Currasow - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We headed back into the forest in the direction of the canopy tower, taking our time along the way to scan for birds. It was still quite dark in the understorey at this early hour and few birds appeared but before long we were at the walkway.

Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, Guyana (photo by Laura Bond)

The birding was a little slower during our morning vigil when compared to the previous evening, but we still enjoyed ourselves and picked up a few new species. The biggest highlight for me was a Dusky Purpletuft, spotted by Delon as it perched at the top of the canopy. Formerly considered a cotinga, purpletufts are now placed in the family Tityridae. This particular species is not well known with many aspects of its biology yet to be discovered. This is partly because the species is found at the very upper levels of the forest, rarely coming any lower. Dusky Purpletufts are tiny (think goldfinch sized) and will often sit in one place for hours at a time. The only real way to observe them well is to get into the canopy, and even then it is no guarantee. We ended up seeing a total of five (!) individuals this day including a pair back at the lodge later in the morning (photographed below), and a pair along the highway in the late afternoon.

Dusky Purpletufts - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Other highlights from the canopy walkway included our first Guianan Toucanets, Black-faced Dacnis, and Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrants. Eventually it was time to return to the lodge for breakfast.

A few more new birds were seen in the understorey while we walked back to the lodge, including several lifers: Reddish Hermit and Mouse-coloured Antbird. While we walked Delon somehow managed to pick out a sloth, hanging from a branch in the mid-level of the forest. It was a Linnaeus's Two-toed Sloth, a lifer for me and the first sloth of any species for Laura.

Linneaus's Two-toed Sloth - Atta Lodge, Guyana

After breakfast we had a short break until we would reconvene for another walk with Delon at 10:00 AM. Laura found a nice spot to sit and journal, while I took my camera and went for a stroll around the perimeter of the lodge area. Two Black Curassows were busy chowing down on breakfast (leftover rice that the kitchen staff provides) and they tolerated me photographing them.

Black Currasows - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We joined up with Delon at 10 AM and set off on a different track through the forest. He had s stakeout location for a special bird that he wanted to take us to, and so we wandered off on a small sidetrail, barely distinguishable from the main path it veered off of. The Screaming Pihas provided the soundtrack and we paused frequently to take it all in. This video below provides an idea of what the forest was like.


While scanning the trees I noticed what appeared to be a massive moth clinging to a trunk, maybe 12 feet off the ground. Delon was particularly impressed with this find, only the second White Witch (Thysania agrippina) that he had ever seen, and Laura and I marveled at its wingspan.

Laura checking out the White Witch (Thysania agrippina) - Atta Lodge, Guyana

The White Witch is a species of moth that is widespread throughout Central and South America. Some individuals exhibit wingpans of nearly 30 cm, making it the moth with the largest wingspan in the world. In total wing area, it is edged out by the Hercules Moth of New Guinea and Australia, and the Atlas Moth of south and southeast Asia.

White Witch (Thysania agrippina) - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Further along the trail, Delon's keen eyes caught movement high above us, then excitedly proclaimed that he had a Capuchinbird and quickly called me over. Laura and I quickly got on the cotinga, about the size of a small, plump crow with a heavy beak and bald, blue head. Capuchinbird was one of my main targets prior to this trip, in part due to their bizarre looks but also the incredible lekking displays they perform. Males will gather in small groups and produce a bizarre sound that is likened to that of mooing cows, or perhaps the sound of a distant engine, while also leaning forward and fluffing out their plumage. This one remained in view for a few minutes before flying further up into the canopy. Photography was tough at this time of day so I only bothered with a couple of record shots.
Capuchinbird - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Soon we had arrived at the stakeout spot, located a few dozen meters off of the narrow sidetrail. The target species was a plump, ground-dwelling bird called a Spotted Antpitta, a rarely seen species known from northern Amazonia. Antpittas are shy, skulky birds that prefer to walk or dash on foot as opposed to fly, and many of the species stick to the darkest forests or deepest cover. Most encounters with antpittas are by hearing the unique whistles that males produce at dusk and dawn, and occasionally they can be drawn closer to the observer by whistling back.

We waited and Delon attempted to call the bird in, while Laura and I carefully scanned the undergrowth. Due to the time of day the antpitta was not easily drawn in, but after several minutes a small, brown bird with droopy wings and no evident tail hopped onto a branch deep in the undergrowth.

Spotted Antpitta - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We set up the scope on the bird, eventually managing a mostly un-obscured view of him through the tangle of leaves and twigs, and the antpitta was content to stand there on his branch while we watched. He then sang a few times of his own in response to the competitor singing in his territory.


We had our fill through the scope and made our way back to the lodge for lunch, thrilled with the success of our little walk. Along the way we detected a few more birds in the forest along with several Striped Forest Whiptails in the sunny patches.

Fulvous-crested Tanager - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Black-necked Aracari - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We returned to the lodge for lunch and were pleasantly surprised to see that Juha was back. We had enjoyed his company at Karanambu and he would be staying here at Atta for a night as well. We also met Ian and Siobhan, who were from California and traveling through Guyana and Suriname. We enjoyed chatting with them all at lunch; it was kind of nice not being the only ones at a lodge again!

After lunch, one of the other guides at the lodge named Kendrick found a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth near the forest edge, and called us over. Just like that we had seen five toes worth of sloth for the day!

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Laura watching the Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth - Atta Lodge, Guyana


Laura and I relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, taking time to do laundry, read, and hang out during the hottest part of the day. I scoped the forest edge with Delon in the mid-afternoon, our scopes positioned nicely in the shade, as occasionally birds passed through the gap in the forest. I added a few more life birds in Yellow-backed Tanager, Yellow-throated Woodpecker and a heard only Paradise Jacamar, while we also spotted two more Dusky Purpletufts (photo near the start of this blog post).

Around 4:00 PM Delon, Laura and I headed out on foot down the entrance road. Our plan was to walk alongside the highway for the rest of the afternoon, and stay out until dusk before walking back.

 Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

The highway linking the capital of Georgetown to the Brazilian city of Boa Vista consists of an infrequently traversed, gravel road that can be severely potholded and impassible during the rainy season. In this stretch of Guyana the road is an amazing location to watch for wildlife. Birds can be found along the forest edge or flying overhead, cotingas are frequently seen at the tops of the trees, and there is always the potential to see mammals crossing the road. During the course of the late afternoon and evening, only three vehicles passed by us.

The birding was incredible and new species began appearing - Gray Antbird, Silver-beaked Tanager, Guianan Streaked-Antwren and Golden-winged Parakeet.

Guianan Streaked-Antwren - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

We worked our way southwest along the highway, in the direction of Annai. The birding was awesome and as the afternoon wore on the activity increased. This Plumbeous Kite was courting a female, catching a dragonfly to bring to her. His attempts must have been successful, as we saw them mating a few minutes later.

Plumbeous Kite - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

Love was in the air. Continuing on we passed the first of two active Scarlet Macaw nests, with one of the adults announcing its presence and swooping in, landing on the tree containing the nest (and the other individual). The pair preceded to preen each other's plumage, sitting together on a branch for quite a while. This was my first time seeing Scarlet Macaws in the wild, satisfying a long-held dream of mine!
Scarlet Macaws - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

The macaws were not the only Psittaciformes represented, as we observed seven other species along the highway. It was a good way to practice their identification. Parrots and parakeets can sometimes be difficult to identify since many of them are largely green, and most are only commonly observed in flight. The majority of species are quite vocal but the calls are also relatively similar in a lot of cases. With all of the flyover parrots it became easier to identify individuals based off their calls or flight style. The Blue-headed Parrot (below) is one of the easier species, since individuals often travel in pairs or small groups in single file, usually separated by a large distance, and each bird calls singly at regularly spaced intervals. The blue head appears dark from a significant distance, making visual  identification in flight easy if the lighting is adequate.

Blue-headed Parrot - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

We were lucky to spot a pair of Blue-cheeked Parrots courting each other and mating as well. This species is restricted to the Guianan Shield where it occurs in low densities. It is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN due to its relatively small population that appears to be declining, and will continue to, based on projected deforestation rates in Amazonia.

Blue-cheeked Parrot - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

While the birds stole the show we did see a few other things here and there, such as this Banded Orange Heliconian (Dryadula phaetusa).
Banded Orange Heliconian (Dryadula phaetusa) - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

By 5:15 we had reached a moderately sized creek that the highway travels over via a bridge. The water was relatively low due to the time of year, but during the wet season the water levels would be up significantly. It is a frequent occurrence that the highway is impassible here during the wet season due to the amount of flooding that can take place.

Watercourses are excellent locations to visit when looking for wildlife (especially in the dry season) and we hung out here for around 40 minutes. Spectacled Caimans were lurking in the depths of the creek, a number of small Proboscis Bats were roosting on a low tree branch overhanging the water, and an Amazon Kingfisher patrolled the stream. The reason for our stakeout was that this stream provides great habitat for the Crimson Topaz. This spectacular hummingbird is found along shady, forest streams within northeast Amazonia, and due to its habits of patrolling these streams it can be a difficult species to observe. Apparently a male Crimson Topaz is often seen along this river around 5:45 PM each day, where it will sit on its favoured branch and call repeatedly. As we waited we kept watch for other species. A Red-rumped Agouti occasionally ventured onto the highway far to the southwest but the hoped-for Jaguar did not appear. This White-throated Toucan continued to sing until dusk.
White-throated Toucan - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

It was almost 6 PM when Delon spotted our quarry. "Crimson Topaz!" he whispered excitedly and we scrambled to get it in the scope. We all enjoyed a great look at the hummingbird with his fiery red plumage and long, criss-crossing tail feathers. Just as I was bringing my phone up to my scope to photograph the beaut, he vanished back into the dark of the forest, signalling the end of the show.

With light fading, we continued walking down the road to where there was a slight hill. Delon had yet another species cued up along the road that he wanted to try for - Black-banded Owl. A pair of birds is reliably found in the forest here and can often be called in after dark. While we waited for night to descend, we took a few photos of us standing in the middle of the "highway".

Exploring the highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

It was crazy to think that this was the main artery through Guyana, given how isolated we were and how few vehicles passed by  (less than one per hour). Apparently there are plans in the works for the Brazilian government to help finance the paving of the highway. It would enable them to save a lot of time and expense when moving goods, since they would be able to truck goods and materials directly to a port in Georgetown, which is a much shorter distance than by going through Venezuela. No doubt the paving of the highway will have significant impacts, both positive and negative, to the people in this part of the country, but I can't help but worry about the effects it will have on the environment. At the very least, experiences like what Laura and I were able to have with the help of Delon would no longer be possible with increased vehicle traffic.

Exploring the highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana

As darkness descended we succeeded in hearing a Black-banded Owl call from the north side of the road. We played the tape to try to entice it into view; a few minutes later a silent shape glided over us and landed deep in the foliage on the other side. A second owl than began calling and we had one on either side of us. We tried to gain a visual but without success, so we gave up and began the walk back to the lodge, all the while being accompanied by the calls of the owls behind us.
While we walked back in the dark we brought out our lights to scan for eyeshine. Several Blackish Nightjars could be seen on the edges of the road, their eyeshine super obvious from quite a distance. Delon also spotted a Great Potoo perched on the top of a dead snag! This was another species I was hoping to connect with on the trip so I was thrilled.

Great Potoo - Highway near Atta Lodge, Guyana
 
The only herp we were able to spot on the road was a single Cane Toad; no doubt the dry conditions had something to do with the lack of nocturnal herp activity. We took a side trail as a shortcut back to the lodge and here the forest closed in all around us. Try as me could, snakes remained out of sight. I did spot a single treefrog which I've identified as a Common Bromeliad Treefrog (Osteocephalus leprieurii).

Common Bromeliad Treefrog (Osteocephalus leprieurii) - Atta Lodge, Guyana

We returned to the lodge ready for dinner, but that was postponed a few additional minutes when Laura and I spotted this Turniptail Gecko on a log, and a Leptodactylus guianensis which is the local flavor of this widespread Neotropical genus of frogs.
Turniptail Gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) - Atta Lodge, Guyana

Leptodactylus guianensis - Atta Lodge, Guyana
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