Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Pakaraimas and Surama

Unbroken forest as far as the eye can see above the Pakaraimas. With the Venezuelan Guayana, this forms the world's largest tropical wilderness. After an hour's flight we curl around ridges into the approach to the Makushi village of Surama, where the majestic Rupununi savannas begin.


Kaieteur: not the world's highest waterfall

Guyana Tourist Board has done a thorough job in convincing visitors that this is the highest falls in the world. No matter: this is a stunning place (even if the drop is some 700m short of Venezuela's Kerepakupai-vená).

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon): a new Atlantic Forest breeding endemic

Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon)
Rufous-thighed Kite Harpagus diodon. By Rick elis.simpson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Last month, I came across a neat little paper re-examining the migratory status of the enigmatic Rufous-thighed Kite Harpagus diodon, a species usually mapped over a large area of South America east of the Andes and, until fairly recently, assumed to be a thinly-spread resident. Using museum specimen data, and harnessing the power of increasingly popular collaborative avian datasets such as xeno-canto, eBird, the Internet Bird Collection, and especially WikiAves, the authors took a closer look at the facts (Lees & Martin 2014). Their detective work shows how much we often take for granted about South American bird distributions and highlights the enormous value of free data-sharing initiatives. I liked the research enough to write a short news bulletin at the start of the month. The authors do a much better job today on the BOU blog post A tale of two kites

These findings are not merely of academic importance. Given that Rufous-thighed Kite is now thought to be an Atlantic Forest breeding endemic and that only 11·7% of this biome remains (Ribeiro et al. 2009), the species could be in serious trouble. Populations at the end of 19th century are likely to have been at least ten times higher than at present (Lees & Martin 2014) and its current rarity may simply be explained as the result of catastrophic loss of habitat.


Bierregaard, R.O., Jr, Bonan, A., Marks, J.S. & Sharpe, C.J. (2014) Rufous-thighed Kite (Harpagus diodon). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 30 September 2014). 

BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Harpagus diodon. Downloaded from on 30/09/2014.

Lees, A.C. & Martin, R.W. (2014) Exposing hidden endemism in a Neotropical forest raptor using citizen science. Ibis doi: 10.1111/ibi.12207. PDF

Ribeiro, M.C., Metzger, J.P., Martensen, A.C., Ponzoni, F.J. & Hirota, M.M. (2009) The Brazilian Atlantic Forest: how much is left, and how is the remaining forest distributed? Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation 142(6): 1141-1153. PDF

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Curious Naturalist's library: Guyana

In a couple of weeks' time I will be returning to Guyana for a month of bird tours. If you have not considered Guyana as a birding destination, you might like whet your appetite with Chris Collins' 2007 article in Neotropical Birding, Guyana: South America's overlooked birding destination and An update on birding in Guyana, co-authored with Barry Walker. Interested? The one snag with birding Guyana is that there is currently no field guide to the birds of Guyana, so people always ask which identification guides to take. These are my recommendations.

A Field Checklist of the Birds of Guyana, 2nd edition by Mike Braun, Davis Finch, Mark Robbins & Brian Schmidt. PDF.
The definitive published checklist, listing the 814 species recorded as of 2007. Use in conjunction with the following book. An updated list can be found at the SACC website.

Birds of Venezuela by Steve Hilty.
If you can take only one bird guide, this is it. One of the best Neotropical field guides ever written (review), it covers the vast majority of Guyana's avifauna – and a whole lot more besides. Decades of field experience are compressed by this gifted author into descriptions that are at once precise, detailed and even poetic. Voice transcriptions are – to my ear at least –  unrivalled. Not the lightest of field guides, it will reduce that already tight luggage limit by 1.4 kg. It will come in handy for future trips to Venezuela. The same author's Birds of Tropical America is required pre-trip reading.

Birds of Northern South America: An Identification Guide, Volume 2: Plates and Maps by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner, & Miguel Lentino.
An encyclopaedic compilation on the birds of the region, with handy maps, reliable text and a huge number of plates covering almost every plumage. A labour of love, the plates are carefully painted direct from museum specimens and are at once painstakingly accurate yet sometimes not quite like the bird as encountered in the field. The only guide to depict everything you will encounter in-country. Many plumages – such as male Black-throated Antshrike Frederickena viridis – are illustrated nowhere else. An enormously valuable reference, and despite weight restrictions it is worth taking this into the field. Volume 1 provides a lot more text.

Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: The Passerines by Robert S. Ridgely & Guy Tudor.
Distilled from Ridgely and Tudor's groundbreaking (and backbreaking!) two-volume The Birds of South America, this portable edition comprises more than 1,500 illustrations covering nearly 2,000 species. The accompanying text is short, but wonderfully succinct. Ideal for grappling with those little brown jobs. A valuable reference, but perhaps weight restrictions will consign it to the office rather than the field.

Birds of South America: Non-Passerines: Rheas to Woodpeckers by Francisco Erize & Maurice Rumboll.
A much smaller, almost pocket-sized guide that complements Ridgely and Tudor in coverage. All the information on each species is presented opposite the illustration in a double-page spread. Rather uneven in quality, but can be useful.

Birds of Venezuela mp3 CD, version 2.0 by Peter Boesman. Available as a CD or for immediate download from
Peter has been recording Venezuelan bird sounds since the 1990s and has already published a CD-ROM (review), mp3 CD, DVD-ROM and now this mp3 DVD. Over the years I have acquired them all and used them constantly. This latest production contains 4,196 recordings of 1,270 species, many of which occur in Guyana. A small number of the featured recordings are my own.

Voices of the Brazilian Amazon / Vozes da Amazônia Brasileira, Vol. 1 by Luciano Naka, Phil Stouffer, Mario Cohn-Haft, Curtis Marantz, Andy Whittaker & Bob Bierregard.
The vocalisations of 350 species of birds on 4 CDs by the region's top bird song experts. This first volume covers Manaus area and the Guianas. I have not been able to acquire a copy, but this has to be good.

Bird voices from French Guiana / Chant d'Oiseaux de Guyane by Alexandre Renaudier & Frenand Deroussen. The songs and calls of 230 species illustrated by 583 recordings on 3 CDs. The cuts are of excellent quality and most of the species are found in Guyana.

Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, 2nd edition by Louise Emmons & François Feer. Slim enough to carry anywhere, this is still the best one-volume guide to our region's mammals.

Mammals of the Neotropics, Volume 1: The Northern Neotropics: Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana by John F. Eisenberg. Not a field guide, but still the only reference of its type. Hard to believe that this ground-breaking publication is 25 years old this year.

Guyana & Guianas Region 1:850,000 Travel Map by International Travel Maps
Don't get lost! Having helped supply their cartographer, Kevin Healey, with information on Latin America in the early 1990s, in my experience, the Canadian company ITMB always seems to publish the most helpful and accurate travel maps. No exception here: the Guyana & Guianas map integrates relief, roads and parks in a clear and practical format. Have a great trip!