Monday, March 29, 2010

Introduction to Birding in Guyana

Monday, March 29, 2010
A couple of years ago I was invited on a familiarization tour of Guyana. I was unable to go, but knew several of the people who DID go, including my wife Julie Zickefoose, and my British birding pal, and co-founder of The British Bird Fair, Tim Appleton. I'd heard plenty of stories about the birding, the climate, the vast expanses of rain forest, and the people of Guyana, so I eagerly agreed to be part of a trip in spring of 2010.

Guyana. Here in the United States the name Guyana does not generate immediate recognition. People ask where it is. "Is that in Africa or South America?" It's confused with its similarly named neighbors French Guiana and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). If Americans do recognize the name Guyana, it's probably the country's association with Jim Jones and his cult of followers who committed mass suicide in 1978 by drinking poison-laced juice.

Guyana is located along the northern edge of South America. Map © Wikipedia.

Guyana would like to change all that. It is home to some of the largest expanses of virgin rain forest in the world and it is using this natural wealth to its advantage. Rather than timber and mine its way to prosperity, Guyana and its government are hoping to take a different path. By preserving the forest and other natural resources intact, Guyana hopes to generate revenue from ecotourism. On a larger scale, Guyana is hoping to become a sort of "bank" of lush, green, oxygen-producing rain forest, where the country would be being paid by already developed nations to help offset the effects of industrialization which contribute to global climate change.

I'll get more deeply into this aspect of the Guyana story as I go along. Over the next two months I hope to share some of my experiences from the Guyana trip. In the July/August 2010 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest a "Far Afield" article by Julie Zickefoose will recount her experiences in Guyana on a trip similar to mine. I hope to have some additional images, videos, and perhaps a podcast from Guyana to share...

For now, let me share the very start of my trip with you.

Our flight left JFK Airport in New York City just after midnight and flew south-southeast to the northern rim of South America. The dark and orange image above is dawn's early light over the Atlantic Ocean not too long before we landed.

Once on the ground, as we walked across the tarmac to the Cheddi Jagan International Airport outside of Georgetown, the heat was palpable—even at 7:30 am. Inside, while waiting for the luggage to arrive, I noticed signs that Guyana was already aware of its status as a bird-watching destination.

An advertisement aimed at birders in the Jagan Airport baggage claim area.

An advert for a cellular phone company featured the harpy eagle! And identified it properly! Bonus points!

Moments later we met our leaders: Michael McCrystal from Wilderness Explorers and Kirk Smock from Carana Corporation, two companies that work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) to coordinate Guyana's tourism promotion. They whisked us onto the mini-bus and off to our hotel for breakfast and a welcome briefing.

Michael grabbed my camera and snapped a photo of our first morning's breakfast. It was the best we'd look for the next two weeks.

Since it had been a mostly sleepless night on the airplane, the bright sunshine, heavy heat and humid air made things seem quite dreamlike. As I dragged my far-too-heavy bags up to my room, the urge to collapse onto the bed was hard to resist. Instead, I grabbed my binocs and scanned the ocean from my window: black and turkey vulture, magnificent frigatebird, great egret, some sort of large raptor on the sandflats (later ID'd as a rufous crab hawk), osprey, great kiskadee, tropical mockingbird... not too bad for a three-minute scan.

Breakfast and buckets of coffee helped me shake the trance a bit. Little did I know that the sleep deprivation would only get worse over the next 12 days as we got up early morning after morning to beat the heat and get out birding. I think I'm still catching up on sleep a week later...

After breakfast we got back on the mini-bus and headed out for a boat ride on the Mahaica River. This trip, done in the late afternoon heat, had plenty of birds, but most of them we flushed as we drove along with the motors roaring. So the looks were a bit fleeting and the photography frustrating. Still, this was our first taste of Guyana's birds (second if you count the eggs we'd had for brekky) and it whetted our appetites.

Next post: Mahaica River highlights and Chinese Food.


On March 30, 2010 at 3:09 PM Anonymous said...

Wow! How cool! Can't wait to hear all about this unknown birding destination.

On March 31, 2010 at 11:16 AM Anonymous said...

I'm from Guyana, and it is a beautiful country. Thanks for introducing Guyana to the world.


On March 31, 2010 at 2:22 PM Anonymous said...

Just watched BBC's "Land of the Lost Jaguar" and can't wait to hear more about what you found while birding in Guyana. What an opportunity to educate all of us!
Keep up the good work.


On April 4, 2010 at 5:44 PM Rondeau Ric said...

you get to go to all the cool places, Lakeside, Fayettville Guyana, North Dakota.