When we last saw our heroes, they were being bird-bedazzled during the long march into the grassland plains of the Llanos…
After a long, hot and bird-filled journey we rolled into the lodge in the late afternoon. Our options were: (a) have a well-deserved siesta, relax and await dinner, or (b) bird the local area. A difficult dilemma, one might imagine. So by dinnertime Pale-headed Jacamar, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet and Pale-eyed Pygmy-Tyrant among others had found their way onto the trip list.
During the next two days we followed the basic scheme of manoeuvre for Juan Solito Lodge: get up early, eat breakfast, jump into a bongo (a long, metal canoe), pole across the river (i.e. lounge about as the staff poles the bongo across the river), jump into an open-topped jeep, mask up against the dust, and then bomb around the Llanos plains scanning for targets. Much like we were in a certain TV show from our youth, except that we didn’t get to blow up any Nazi supply dumps.
Saturday, 8 February
The first day was particularly epic. We were scheduled to eat lunch at the family hacienda, which meant we could spend the entire day out in the field. It was dark when we left the lodge, and dark when we got back after 13 hours of off-road travelling. In all of my previous birding adventures I had never managed to hit the golden number of 100 species in a day, but we blew past that mark on the way to 114 (13 of which were life birds for me). And it was not a matter of one or two of each species. Totals for the day include 1800 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, 511 Wattled Jacanas, 195 Southern Lapwings and hordes of others.
Non-winged creatures also abounded. Capybaras were everywhere in large numbers, but we also managed to see wild pigs, agoutis, Orinoco Crocodiles, and a Southern Tamandua (a medium-sized anteater). The star beast of the day was one of those creatures that as a young boy reading Gerald Durrell books I always dreamed of seeing: the mighty Anaconda.
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How could you not be in awe of the world’s largest snake? Ours was a mere 5m long, so not up in the record books (the largest found was almost 10m long!) but still a mighty impressive snake. Fortunately it was still busy digesting some poor, unfortunate creature so we could approach it closely without being added to the menu.
We arrived back at the lodge tired, baked and dust-caked but rather pleased with our endeavours.
Sunday, 9 February
The next day was largely a repeat performance. The aim of the day was to pick up any of the local specialties that we were missing, so we spent a bit of time on the river at first light, scouting for the rare and skulking Crestless Curassow. Curassow luck was not with us, but we did manage to pick up a few highly desirable finds: Muscovy Duck, Crane Hawk and Orange-fronted Yellow Finch.
Then off we went in the Rat Patrol jeep for another cross-country jaunt. By now we had seen almost everything we came to see, so we were able to spend a bit more time on photography and on studying shorebirds. I did add a few life birds including a rather obliging Wire-tailed Manakin and a much less cooperative South American Snipe.
Hato la Aurora ranch is well-known as a spot to see Jaguars, so we spent a bit of time in the right spots looking for one. One of these spots was a long, narrow trail through dense forest which from a professional perspective I judged to be ideal for an ambush. The presence of fresh jaguar tracks in the mud did not seem to deter my compadres. I was less sanguine but then I recalled that I wouldn’t have to outrun a jaguar – I would just have to outrun Ken and Daniel. So on we went.
Alas, no jaguar was forthcoming, but we spent a very pleasant hour or so at the end of the day overlooking a wetland and just watching birds.
On our last day we again spent the wee hours looking for Crestless Curassows, again without success, and then picked up a few birds around the lodge before it was time to bid a reluctant farewell to the Llanos and head back down the bird-filled road to civilization.
Llanos Expedition by the Numbers (round trip from Paz de Ariporo)
Bird species seen – 179
Life birds for me – 40