Kaieteur Falls, Guyana

2015 South American Mosaic Field Report

Rich Pagen|July 8, 2015|Field Report

Saturday, April 4, 2015 - Belém, Brazil: We converged on the city of Belém at the mouth of the Amazon River, to explore one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. This incredible river, which discharges more water than any other river in the world, accounts for nearly 1/5 of all river outflow on the planet! The Amazon basin represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests, and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world.

Those of us who arrived at the ship last night went off early in the morning to visit Parrot Island, a partially flooded river island that is a roost site for hundreds of parrots. It was a spectacular sight to be there at sunrise and to see the rainforest come alive with the most colorful of birds. We then headed out after breakfast to visit a village called Boa Vista, on a tributary of the Amazon outside of Belém. We walked through rainforest, snacked on regional foods and juices, and learned about the cultivation of priprioca, a type of grass with a fragrant root used by the cosmetics industry.

Others arrived early this morning to the ship, after an epic journey that included strolling the beautiful waterfront at Miami’s gorgeous Art Deco neighborhood of South Beach, and enjoying a midnight tour of the opera house in Manaus. Most of us opted for a bit of rest before heading out after lunch to join the others for an exploration of the city of Belém.

We strolled along the waterfront, passing a renovated building full of restaurants and cafes, arriving at the bustling Ver-o-peso Market. We wandered the stalls where the locals gathered for a seafood lunch, and passed vendors selling everything from fruits to salted pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world! We sampled Brazil nuts, and learned all about the different ways cassava is processed.

From there we went to the grounds of the Goeldi Museum, where we wandered through a beautiful botanical garden. We learned about rainforest plants from wild ginger to açai palms, as well as many magnificent rainforest animals on display. After seeing caimans, giant otters, and scarlet macaws up close, we headed back to the Sea Adventurer, our home for the next few weeks.

In the evening, we gathered for Captain Peter Gluschke’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. Expedition Leader Mike Moore introduced us to the staff and briefed us on Zodiac operations. The captain introduced us to some of his senior officers, and we headed off for a very festive dinner.

Sunday, April 5 - Amazon River Delta: Well rested from a good night’s sleep, we sipped coffee at the ship’s railing watching water the same color as our café au lait, stretching out in all directions around us. During the night, the captain maneuvered us among tributaries of the Amazon to reach the Rio Para. Following breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs to explore the waterways both for wildlife and to meet some of the locals who make their living here in the Amazon River delta. We fanned out in all directions, stopping at small settlements on stilts to say hello to the local people.

In the thick vegetation along the riverbanks, some of us encountered an unusual bird called the hoatzin, a rusty-colored chicken-like bird with a long tail. With no close relatives anywhere in the world, this bird is quite unique. We watched groups of parrots flying overhead, as well as a swallow-tailed kite circling as it searched for its favorite prey, snakes and frogs. Some of us came across dolphins, both pink river dolphins and another small river specialty, called tucuxi.

Back on the ship, we joined Annette Kuhlem for a fascinating talk about the people of the Amazon region. This was followed by a festive Easter brunch.

During the afternoon, sheets of rain fell on the forest around the ship. The patter of raindrops were audible during our afternoon recap and briefing, where we heard from many of the expedition staff about the birds, plants, and insects that make their home in the Amazon’s lowland rainforest. Rich Pagen also gave a hilarious rundown of our epic travel adventure to reach Belém, entitled Escape from Miami!

Just before sunset, we boarded Zodiacs for a dusk-to-dark Zodiac cruise of the rainforest. The rain let up, though big drops fell from the trees above, creating a very ethereal atmosphere. We came across an arboreal tarantula, and one of the most beautiful hummingbirds in the world, the crimson topaz.

Once nightfall came, the sounds of croaking frogs filled the air. Greater bulldog fishing bats cruised up and down the narrow tributaries, using echolocation to detect water ripples made by the fish upon which they prey. We watched them descend to the water surface, using the pouch of skin between their legs to scoop up unsuspecting fish.

Monday, April 6 - Amazon River Delta: Just after sunrise, we boarded Zodiacs to explore another remote region of the Amazon delta. We set out to meander through narrow channels into the forest, and were rewarded with views of chestnut-fronted macaws flying overhead. We listened intently as the calls of a distant red-billed toucan got closer and closer, until the bird finally flew across the river right in front of us. These magnificent birds are known for their large, colorful beaks, which help them reach fruits far out on the ends of branches that can’t support their weight.

Around a bend, we came across the now famous açai palm, whose fruit has become a big star in the health food world because of its antioxidant qualities. We also admired the abundance of epiphytes, plants that live exclusively on other plants, taking advantage of trees to get themselves closer to the light from the sun.

Back out on the main channel, some of us stopped at a small community to meet some of the locals. We visited the church and the local sawmill, while greater yellow-headed vultures soared over the river.

During lunch, we repositioned to a new channel, and shortly after the sky opened up. After donning every last bit of raingear we had, we boarded Zodiacs to explore the rainforest. Some of us encountered a small tributary with water a much darker brown than the main river channel. The outflow was strong, and we admired white-winged swallows perched on a snag at the entrance before heading in for a look.

Just upstream, we encountered an oropendula colony, where dozens of beautifully woven basket nests hung down from the canopy. These colonial nesters have a polygynous breeding system, with large males displaying for dominance and the opportunity to mate with as many females as possible. We also motored past a tree with patches of parasitic mistletoe stealing water and nutrients from its host tree.

While admiring the large brown nest of a termite in a tree, we heard the squeaks of squirrel monkeys in the canopy above us. Finally we spotted these tiny monkeys, and watched as they moved playfully through the tree branches, leaping spectacularly across gaps in the canopy.

Tuesday, April 7 - Amazon River Delta: The sound of kiskadees calling from tree branches along the river edge greeted us as we drifted along with the current. After a quick breakfast, we jumped in the Zodiacs to take advantage of every minute we could spend in this incredible place. Some of us stopped next to a small settlement, where black vultures roosted in a nearby tree to ensure they were in position should someone take out the food scraps from breakfast. Silver-beaked and palm tanagers feasted on small fruiting trees in a clearing next to the sawmill operation, while pigs wandered down to the muddy shoreline to crunch on the seeds that washed up.

Others headed into narrow tributaries, where four-eyed fish foraged in the shallows. These amazing fish have large, bulbous eyes that each actually have two retinas, one to see below water and one to see above. A white-tailed trogon sallied out from its perch, hovering for a second as it snatched up its insect prey. Meanwhile, groups of parrots came in to perch in the treetops, blending in completely the second they landed.

Once we all returned to the ship, we pulled the anchor up and brought the ship to just off of a village called Afuá. This bustling place stood in sharp contrast to our quiet early morning Zodiac cruise; boats were everywhere, and we could see bicycles going back and forth along the seaside road. Even though the town is built up above the usual high flood level, the small airstrip gets submerged during the highest tides.

Some of us jumped on four-person bicycles as our means to take in the town, pedaling our way past street vendors cooking chicken, colorful clothing shops, and high-energy pool halls. The town was painted bright colors, as were most of the bicycles, and the people were very friendly.

We convened at a beautiful, circular performance hall with a thatched roof, where a local folkloric group put on a wonderful dance performance. The beer flowed freely as the dancers rocked out on the dance floor.

Back on the ship, we joined Rich P. for his lecture, From Seed-Eating Fish to Ant-Following Birds: Rhythms and Relationships in the Rainforest. This was followed by a cocktail party to celebrate the ship’s crossing of the equator. As the sun went down, we arrived at the city of Macapa, where we dropped off our Brazilian pilots, and set a course for the Atlantic Ocean.

Wednesday, April 8 - At Sea: Most of us took advantage of this day at sea to sleep in. After time out on deck admiring the change in water color from silty brown to green, we headed into the lounge for Dennis Wille’s lecture, Frutopia: Fruits and Flowers of South America. Rich Cahill followed with a wonderful overview of exploration in the region entitled, Rude, Crude, Deceitful and Brutal: Explorers You Might Know, and Explorers You Ought to Know. After lunch, many of us snuck in a nap before gathering in the lounge for a showing of the movie, Papillon. While snacking on popcorn, we watched the incredible story of Henri Charriere, who successfully escaped from the notorious French penal colony known as Devil’s Island, which we will be visiting tomorrow. Following late afternoon tea, we joined Brent Stephenson in the lounge for his talk, Introduction to the Birds of Northern South America. Following recap, we enjoyed a delicious dinner and dessert served in the lounge.

Thursday, April 9 - Íles du Salut, French Guiana: We awoke to shallow green seas around us, with a scattering of terns feeding over the tropical waters. In the distance, we could make out the three small islands of Íles du Salut. After fueling up at breakfast, we boarded Zodiacs for the short ride ashore to Ile Royale.

The three islands were all part of a prison that operated from 1852 to 1953, and has been described as one of the most infamous prison systems in history. Inmates included political prisoners as well as the most hardened thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the over 80,000 prisoners sent to the Íles du Salut prison system never made it back to France. We wandered the ruins of the stone prison, visiting the old cells and a building that housed the solitary confinement prisoners.

Some of us joined Dennis for a botany walk. Others joined Brent to search for birds, encountering a spotted tody-flycatcher and blue-gray tanagers feasting on small orange fruits. Agoutis scampered along the forest floor, while troops of brown capuchin monkeys watched us with curiosity as they traveled through the trees. On our way back to the ship, we saw iguanas basking in the sun and green sea turtles surfacing for a breath.

We spent some time on deck before joining Rich P. in the lounge for his talk, The Tropical Marine Ecological Fringe: A Transect from the Coast to the Blue Water. Rich’s talk got us out on deck scanning for flying fish and floating sargassum before we reconvened in the lounge for Annette’s lecture, Small Tribes Living in Pristine Forests? The Lost Story of Amazon Kingdoms and Domesticated Landscapes.

Friday, April 10 - Paramaribo, Suriname: During the early morning hours, we maneuvered up the Suriname River to Paramaribo, the capital and largest city in Suriname. We watched a beautiful sunrise over breakfast before breaking into various groups to explore this unique place.

The birders headed out with an excellent local guide, exploring both forest and the coast, spotting such avian specialties as green-tailed jacamar and blood-colored woodpecker. While seeking out birding locales, the group stumbled upon a cremation ceremony, where several hundred people had gathered to pay their respects to the deceased.

Others headed inland to experience firsthand the unique community of people called the “Maroons.” They are descendants of escaped slaves from the Suriname plantation, who established their own very successful communities in the interior forest. We boarded motorized canoes to travel upriver to a Maroon community, coming back out for a visit to a woodcarver and to watch a dance performance.

The rest of us explored the city of Paramaribo, stopping at the beautiful wooden Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, a mosque, and a Jewish synagogue situated right next to one another, and the old Dutch fort established in the 17th century to defend the plantation. We walked past the presidential palace, as well as many other government buildings. We also spent time exploring the shops in the downtown, which sold everything from the latest fashions to gold jewelry. After lunch, we paid a visit to the former coffee and cacao plantation called Peperpot, now a nature reserve home to white-tailed trogons and squirrel monkeys.

We all returned to the ship in the late afternoon, mingling at afternoon tea before heading out on deck to watch the Sea Adventurer retrace her steps as she sailed back down the Suriname River to the sea. We passed sawmills and mosques while scanning the mudflats and mangroves for wildlife. Orange-winged parrots flew in pairs along with us, while yellow-crowned night-herons foraged for crabs along the shoreline. It was an amazing day in a very interesting country.

Saturday, April 11 - Georgetown, Guyana: We lingered over breakfast this morning before joining Jim Costa for his well anticipated lecture, Alfred Russel Wallace: Scientific and Social Radical. We were on the edge of our seats while Jim explained Wallace’s discovery of the two very different faunas in the Malay Archipelago, caused by a deep water channel (now described as Wallace’s Line) that kept certain landmasses separated from one another, even during much lower sea levels.

We grabbed a cookie and had a look outside before heading back into the lounge for Brent’s very informative talk, The World Through a Lens: An Introduction to Photography…. Something for Everyone. While we listened to Brent’s talk, we came alongside in Georgetown.

After lunch, we fanned out to explore the city of Georgetown, stopping first at St. George Cathedral, the second tallest wooden house of worship in the world after the Todaiji Temple in Japan. We saw the presidential residence, as well as many other important government buildings, many of them made of wood. We also visited two museums, including the National Museum, with its impressive collection of taxidermy birds and mammals, and a beautiful exhibit on the giant ground sloth fossils found in Guyana. We learned about the importance of Guyana’s beaches for nesting leatherback turtles, and that Guyana’s rainforest is some of the most undisturbed in all of South America!

The city of Georgetown is actually eight feet below sea level, and we went out to see the impressive sea wall built to protect the city from flooding, as well as the dike system set up to drain, should it flood. Finally, we stopped in for a stroll through the central market, located under an impressive clock tower. We met many local vendors and shop owners, selling everything from fish to clothing.

We returned to the ship for recap and briefing, and had a quiet night alongside the pier in Georgetown, resting up for our big day tomorrow along Guyana’s Essequibo River.

Sunday, April 12 - Georgetown / Essequibo River / Kaieteur Falls: We fueled up this morning with a big breakfast for what was to be an epic day, and an absolute highlight of the trip! Some of us went off for a nature walk in Georgetown’s botanical garden, where we saw an array of birds including a toco toucan peering out from its nesting cavity in a dead palm tree, and groups of palm tanagers foraging in a fruiting tree. Wattled jacanas, with their out-of-proportion enormous feet, walked effortlessly across floating marsh vegetation, while snail kites soared over the wetlands in search of their namesake prey.

Meanwhile, the rest of us explored the lower Essequibo River on the ship, watching for dolphins as we entered the river mouth. Captain Gluschke expertly maneuvered us around sandbars until reaching the furthest point upriver we could navigate. From there, we climbed aboard local covered motorboats and sped upstream to a lovely island resort. It was here that we ate lunch and explored the grounds where pied lapwings foraged in the grass and a three-toed sloth napped soundly in a cecropia tree.

From the lowlands, we boarded small propeller planes for a flight over Guyana’s pristine rainforest to Kaieteur Falls, one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. Twice the height of Victoria Falls, and four times that of Niagra Falls, Kaieteur is a sight to behold and often described as the highest single-drop waterfall in the world! After a few passes in the airplane, we landed and set off on foot to various viewpoints above the falls, exploring the forest along the way. Tiny golden frogs hid in little pools in tank bromeliads, while swifts flew back and forth across the face of the falls. A few of us stumbled upon a cock-of-the-rock, a bird whose pumpkin-orange plumage contrasted sharply with the greens and browns of the forest. The males of this species perform elaborate dances to attract females, all of this taking place at a central gathering place for the males called a lek.

We flew back down from the interior, admiring the unbroken forest along the way. We then retraced our steps, taking the motorized boats back to the Sea Adventurer around sunset. Many of us immediately jumped into Zodiacs, taking advantage of our night anchored in the river to go out for some nighttime spotlighting. Some spotted a sloth in a tree, while others admired the eye shine of spiders along the water’s edge, or the lightning bugs flashing deep in the forest.

Monday, April 13 - Essequibo River / At Sea: We were up before the sun this morning to search for wildlife in the huge swath of rainforest lining this magnificent river. As the Zodiacs were being lowered, pairs of orange-winged parrots flew high above us, silhouetted against a beautiful pink sunrise.

Some of us opted to explore the rainforest by Zodiac, fanning out to explore small islands and pristine river shorelines. We spotted a red-billed toucan perched high in a fruiting tree, its call echoing throughout the forest. A striated heron silently fished in the shallows, occasionally flushing to perch up on the prop roots of the mangrove trees lining the waterways. Some of the mangroves had long green propagules hanging from their branches, essentially young trees still attached to the parent plant.

Others sped off up river to a landing down a narrow channel, which gave us access to a walking track into the forest. We silently crept down the trail, listening to the varied birdsong around us. A white-tailed trogon called from one side of the trail, while the tiny rufous-breasted hermit called from the other. We finally spotted this tiny hummingbird, which expertly maneuvered through the dense understory vegetation.

Before heading back to the ship, we watched the action around the hanging nests of red-rumped caciques, and scanned the sky for groups of parrots flying overhead. Once onboard, the captain lifted the anchor and we headed towards the river mouth. Over lunch, we watched several species of vultures soaring over the treetops, before the ship exited the river on and headed out to sea.

During the afternoon, we joined Dennis for a showing of the film Simbiosis, a musical documentary highlighting the sights and sounds of the neotropical rainforest. Rich P. followed with his lecture, Warm-Blooded in a Tropical Sea: Marine Mammal Natural History Along the Equator.

After recap, we shared stories over dinner of experiences from our busy past few days in French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana.

Tuesday, April 14 - At Sea: After a leisurely breakfast, we gathered in the lounge for the first enrichment lecture of the day, How Not to Get Eaten: A Survival Guide for Insects. After a break for some fresh air, we returned to the lounge for Dennis’ interactive presentation entitled, Bird Brain: How Much Do You Know About Birds? This was followed by lunch and time to lounge on deck with a book, on what could only be described as a perfect tropical day at sea. The next lecture of the day was Birding 101: An Introduction to Tweety-Birds and the Weird People That Watch Them, presented by Brent. This was followed by a festive Ice Cream Social, and a hilarious round of Liar’s Club with the expedition team.

Wednesday, April 15 - Charlotteville, Trinidad & Tobago: Lush forested hillsides and the quaint hamlet of Charlotteville were visible from the ship as we awoke at anchor in a small bay off the Caribbean island of Tobago. Tobago was the setting for the 1960 Walt Disney film, Swiss Family Robinson, and hosts the oldest nature reserve in the western hemisphere. Those with an interest in bird life went ashore for a stroll in the forest where we spotted barred antshrikes and common potoos. Over lunch, we watched rufous-vented chachalacas picking through the sargassum seaweed on the beach. Then we took a small boat out to the island of Little Tobago, where red-billed tropicbirds were nesting just a few meters from our feet!

Others opted for a hike on the Gilpin Trace trail, some of us hiking all the way down to the coast at Bloody Bay. Along the trail we encountered a large hummingbird called white-tailed sabrewing, which was mobbing a blue-crowned motmot. We also found several trapdoor spider burrows along the way, with lids fashioned from silk and debris to provide a perfect hiding place for this ambush predator.

After lunch, we explored the town of Charlotteville, chatting with the locals about life here. Some of us took advantage of the beautiful beach at Pirate’s Cove for some lounging on the sand and a swim.

Back on the ship, we donned our finest wares for the captain’s farewell cocktail party out on deck and under the stars. We mingled over champagne and stories of our time here, before heading to the dining room for a superb dinner.

Thursday, April 16 - Port of Spain: Under beautiful morning light, we watched from the deck railings as the Sea Adventurer approached the harbor city of Port of Spain. This island melting pot of cultures, just under seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, has a diversified economy dominated by oil and natural gas production, and is also the birthplace of the steel pan drum, its national instrument.

Some of us headed out to the Yerette Hummingbird Sanctuary for a close-up look at these remarkable winged jewels. Situated in a garden at the home of a unique and knowledgeable local man named Leo, we relaxed in a peaceful tropical setting decorated with feeders that attracted nearly a dozen different species.

Others spent the morning visiting the world famous Angostura Bitters and Rum Distillery. The most popular bitters anywhere, few of us could say we’ve never had the bitters in a Manhattan or some other such cocktail. In addition to a rum tasting, we also visited a wonderful collection of butterflies.

The rest of us drove into the mountains of the Northern Range to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center, a former cacao and coffee plantation that became one of the first nature reserves in the Caribbean in 1967. We wandered the trail system listening to the booming calls of bellbirds, and stopping to admire a lek of white-bearded manakins. The highlight of Asa Wright was most certainly the wide terrace where we sipped coffee just inches from shining honeycreepers and bananaquits, while bird tables below attracted white-lined tanagers and a yellow oriole.

After lunch back on the ship, we headed out for what would turn out to be an absolute grand finale and highlight of our trip. We boarded boats for a tour of the Caroni Swamp, an immense wetland dominated by mangrove forest. We meandered through narrow channels, where little blue herons fed in the shallows next to mangrove prop roots covered in oysters and climbing crabs. We spotted a snoozing tropical screech owl, a tiny golden-colored mammal known as a silky anteater, and a large-eyed nocturnal insect-eater known as common potoo. But the highlight came around sunset, when we witnessed the arrival of hundreds of scarlet ibises to their roost on a small mangrove island. The color of this national bird of Trinidad & Tobago had to be seen to be believed, such a striking contrast to the green vegetation and the blue sky.

Back onboard, we listened to a local steel drum band play at our barbeque dinner, before watching a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Brent. The photos were amazing, and our experiences seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time. 

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